“What did Coach want?” Erin asks.
“He thinks I should encourage Russ to play basketball,” I say.
“Cool,” Erin says as she climbs on top of me.
By morning almost all the snow has melted, so no snow day.
As we walk to school Erin says, “Russ, you interested in playing basketball?”
“Don’t know,” Russ says.
I glance at his face and he’s sucking his lips in between his teeth. He catches my eye and it’s almost like he’s asking for permission. I know I’m supposed to encourage him to play, but for some reason I don’t.
“Physicals are after school today in the nurse’s office,” Erin says. “Best get one just in case. You can go with Finley.”
I don’t say anything.
We both pass our physicals later that afternoon, but we don’t talk about basketball.
On the day of the preseason meeting, Mr. Allen calls to let us know that Russ will be out sick. This is the first day of school he has missed, and I wonder if it has anything to do with the meeting.
After school our team meets in the lunchroom and Coach quickly hands out permission forms and a practice schedule that begins the day after Thanksgiving. Just tucking the papers into my backpack gives me a rush, because this moment is the first official basketball experience of the year.
After the meeting, as my teammates hustle off to football practice, Coach says, “Finley, can we talk?”
I stay behind and, once we’re alone, Coach says, “What’s Russ been saying to you about basketball?”
This again? Why won’t Coach lay off it?
“We got our physicals,” I say.
“That’s good. But the boy refused to come to school today—the day of the basketball meeting. His grandparents told me he’s talking about outer space again, saying his parents are coming to get him in a spaceship.”
I watch the janitor empty the trash cans on the other side of the cafeteria.
“Did you tell him that he should play ball? Have you been encouraging him, Finley?”
“He doesn’t want to talk about basketball,” I say. “We don’t talk about much at all.”
Coach sighs and gets this disgusted look on his face. “Listen. Just make sure he’s at the first practice. Let’s just see how he reacts to being part of the team, running drills, getting back to normal for him. He needs the routine. Even if he never plays in a game. Just being part of something can help. You, of all people, should know that.”
I have to admit, I’m getting a little pissed at Coach. Why isn’t he hassling Terrell or Wes or any of the other starters, asking them to help Boy21? Why is this my mission alone? I just want to play basketball.
“I know you won’t let me down,” Coach says, and then lightly slaps my right cheek twice.
THANKSGIVING DAY has us wearing gloves, scarves, and hats.
Erin, Boy21, and I sip hot chocolate as we watch our football team lose their final game of the season on their home field.
People around here like football, but the atmosphere is underwhelming compared to the basketball games. It’s Thanksgiving, so it’s a little more lively than usual, but not much. Bellmont just isn’t a football town.
Our marching band’s halftime show’s pretty awesome, though. They do a Michael Jackson tribute that ends with an amazing rendition of “Thriller,” complete with zombie dance moves.
Boy21 sits with us in the smaller, mostly white section of the stadium, which makes him stick out a little, but no one says anything.
It’s not like our stadium is segregated intentionally, but Bellmont citizens generally sit with the people they look most like, and that’s the way it’s always been.
The three of us cheer when our team does something good, but we don’t say much else. The whole time I want to ask Boy21 if he’ll be trying out for the basketball team tomorrow, but I also don’t want to ask.
When Terrell throws a fourth-quarter interception, the Bellmont football team ends up finishing 2–6 for the season, so they don’t make the playoffs. None of my basketball teammates were injured, so I consider football season to be a complete success and I know that Coach agrees.
As we exit the stands, we run into Mrs. Patterson, Bellmont’s number one basketball fan and Terrell’s mother, who is wearing a leopard-print hat and a leather jacket that sort of looks like a bathrobe. She’s very stylish. When she sees me, she yells, “White Rabbit! Come on over here, boy.”
I walk over to Mrs. Patterson and she gives me a big hug and then kisses both my cheeks. To her friends—who are all wearing Bellmont football jerseys over their coats and are the moms of non–basketball players—Mrs. Patterson says, “Did you know this here Pat McManus’s boy? Time for the real season now. Basketball! This young man’s gon’ feed my son the rock all winter long and I’m gon’ cheer White Rabbit and my Terrell on to the state championship. Ain’t that right, White Rabbit?”
“Look how he quiet and respectful, just like his father was in high school,” a large woman with dark purple hair extensions says. All of the other women laugh and smile and say, “Mmm-hmm!”
“Okay, White Rabbit,” Terrell’s mom says, nodding a respectful but curt hello at Erin, who is standing with Boy21 ten feet away. “You run off with your girlfriend and your tall silent shadow. Go on now.”
We find Coach hanging out with the other Bellmont faculty members in the parking lot drinking beer from paper cups and pretending that we students don’t know what’s in the cups. He tells me that he’ll see me in the morning—which is when basketball season officially begins—wishes Erin luck, and then says he’ll drive Boy21 home, because that’s where he’s having his Thanksgiving dinner, with the Allens.
Finally alone, Erin and I walk back to our neighborhood holding hands.
The few trees left around here have shed their leaves, but because no one in our neighborhood bothers to rake, we crunch our way down the sidewalks.
“You know,” Erin says, “maybe we could stay together this basketball season. Maybe we don’t have to break up?”
I don’t say anything.
Erin and I have this conversation every year.
She argues that our schedules will keep us so busy that it won’t even matter if we are together or not, but I believe that during basketball season, a romantic relationship is a distraction, and there’s no way I can simply be friends with Erin. If I see her at lunch or before school or at my locker every day, I’ll get horny, and I won’t be able to focus one hundred percent on the season. I love Erin as much as I love basketball, which is a conflict of interest. And if we kiss on my roof or hold hands—these things will most definitely take my mind off my goals. With schoolwork and Pop to take care of already, I can’t mentally afford to have a girlfriend during basketball season.
I love making out with Erin, and holding her hand, and the peachy smell of her hair after she showers—almost as much as I love the sweaty leather smell of a gym in winter, being part of a team, and working out with the guys. And while having a girlfriend and being on a team aren’t mutually exclusive, both fill a need—maybe the same need. Basketball and Erin make the rest of the world go away—focus me, make me forget, and get the endorphins flowing. It’s best to be addicted to one or the other. This will be the fourth season Erin and I have taken a break, and we’ve always gotten back together in the past, so why do I have this strange dreadful feeling tonight?
When it’s clear that I’m not going to argue with her, Erin says, “Don’t you worry that I’ll start dating someone else?”
I laugh because I know she’s kidding.
Basketball will be her boyfriend for the winter, just like it’ll be my girlfriend.
“So?” she says.
“You need to focus on your season too.”
She knows this is true because, deep down, Erin also wants to concentrate solely on basketball. She just gets a little needy the night before the season begins.
“Can’t we at least walk to school together and talk? Sit together at lunch? Aren’t you being a little extreme?” Erin’s smile is playful. She’s messing with me. I know she gets why we break for basketball.
“I have to stay focused,” I say. I think about the possibility of Boy21 actually playing, and then add, “Especially this year.”
I shrug, because I’m not allowed to tell her the truth.
She gently elbows me in the ribs. “Tell me why you said this year!”
I don’t know what else to say.
“Why do you have to be so weird?” Erin says, but she squeezes my hand when she says it, so I know she isn’t mad at me.
I decide to kiss her on the lips, and, because it’s not officially basketball season yet, I do just that.
ERIN AND I EAT OUR THANKSGIVING MEAL at the Quinns’. The dining room is very narrow and it’s hard to pull the folding chairs out so that you can sit down. None of the chairs match and the table is an old wood job with lots of scratches on it. The silverware is mismatched and crappy. Erin’s parents are wearing depressing old sweat suits. Her mom’s in a pink Minnie Mouse number and her dad’s is plain navy blue.
Rod is there and I have to admit that he intimidates me, especially knowing what he allegedly did to Don Little.
During the meal, Rod says, “Anyone in the neighborhood bothering you?”
“Nah,” I say. Rod’s now got a tattoo on his neck. Something written in Irish, I think. I don’t know Irish.
“What about you, Erin?” he asks.
“No,” she says. “Do you ever play ball anymore, Rod?”
“Nope,” he says, which makes me sad because he played ball with us all the time when we were younger, and he was a great point guard. Dad used to take me to see him play back when Rod was at Bellmont High, playing for Coach. Rod was pretty awesome. I once saw him get a triple double against Pennsville—sixteen assists, eighteen points, ten rebounds.
“Your team going to be any good this year?” he asks me.
“I think so,” I say. “Erin’s team will be too.”
“Coach is pretty much the only good black man I’ve ever met,” Rod says, ignoring my comment about his sister. “And that’s really sayin’ something.”
Erin opens her mouth, no doubt to call Rod on his racist statement, but then she thinks better of it. She doesn’t want the family to fight on Thanksgiving, especially since Rod hardly visits anymore, which bothers Erin. She misses Rod—the old Rod who used to play ball with us when we were kids. He never used to say racist stuff.
I think about saying something too, like I know a lot of good black men, but I also know my place in the neighborhood. Truth is, I’m afraid of the new tattooed Irish mob Rod, just like everyone else.
We eat in silence for a few minutes.
Erin’s parents are older than my father and a little strange too. Her dad’s quiet like me and avoids eye contact during the meal. Her mother’s a nervous woman who makes so many trips to and from the kitchen that she never really sits down long enough to eat, let alone have a conversation.