Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 8 / Gym Rat

Previously in Calvin’s Ghost7 / Brokenness Breaking

Eli was a gym rat, a fixture of student pickup games in the bowels of Princeton’s resplendent, gothic fortress-gymnasium. Eli played at the gym Wednesday evenings, when the basketball court opened exclusively to local high school students.

Even from the early days it had been so, on those ginger autumn afternoons, with his father strolling around the tulip poplar at the corner of the driveway and ascending toward the house, knowing he could locate Eli reliably stationed near the basket by the detached garage. Eli, spinning, twisting, leaping, shooting, reliving every moment of every Princeton basketball game. Only in his mind Eli was himself the stalwart pillar in the post, setting picks, tossing back-door passes over his shoulder for easy layups, juking his brother Lawrence out of his sneakers, stepping back to bank in 12-foot jumpers. Dave Moss on the mic at WHWH, trilling, Automatic Elllliiiii! The Truncheon Tigeeerrr!

Sometimes, if the day had not fully worn down his resistance to the iced tumbler filled with bourbon that Martha had waiting for him next to a shot glass of salted peanuts in the sitting room, Tobias would set down his briefcase, slip off his suit jacket, roll up his shirt sleeves, loosen his tie, and claim the ball from Eli and Lawrence. While the boys welcomed attention from their father, these moments were often painful, as Tobias, although nominally a fan of the “sporting life,” possessed none of the muscle memory athletes acquire from a childhood spent in dense, unselfconscious, sandlot and pavement competition with their mates.

Tobias meant well, tossing up set shots, hook shots, and bounce passes, lecturing his sons on proper mechanics and strategy a basketball player would need as the fundament of success. But his shots rarely struck the backboard, his passes skittered into the brush, and the boys almost immediately lost interest, wishing their father would tire of the charade, and re-tire to his own fundament in the sitting room, to which he invariably did repair after these few minutes of high-spirited, didactic play with his children.

Because Eli had acquired a threshold amount of this precious muscle memory in his own younger years, well before, even, his plunge to earth at the age of nine, he was rapidly able to recoup not just his native speed during his years of rehabilitation, but enough quickness, flexibility, and strength that he could hold his own against his peers on the basketball court. Moreover, in the previous year, track and cross-country success had instilled within Eli new and exciting confidence in his physical abilities and competitive instincts, bordering on arrogance, which transferred moderately well to the basketball court.

So on that autumn evening of his 16th year, when Eli finally freed himself from Tobias’s unfortunate campus mugging regarding Lawrence, he broke into a brisk run through the heart of the campus, leaping from slate to slate on the mottled walkway, skittering down broad steps toward the gymnasium’s gothic apertures, flinging open the heavy medieval wood and iron doorways filigreed with leaded pane windows and, half-imagining himself entering an Arthurian legend, strode into the sweaty, humid pathways of the building, flush with anticipation of hardwood heroics awaiting his arrival on the basketball court.

Five basketball courts, in fact, because the arena was enormous, if not in crowd capacity, which topped out at only 2,400 fans, then certainly in sheer court acreage. Eli almost instantly forgot about his father as he walked alongside the bleachers, scanning the courts for his mates.

His mates. His father. Never the twain meeting in the mind of Eli.

* * *

“Yo, Wheeler. Over here.” Bobby Princess hunched by the bench, lacing his blue suede high-top Jabbars, Eli so coveting a pair but making do with his canvas Chucks. He jogged over to Bobby, one of Eli’s more athletic friends, tall enough to assert himself near the basket, but handy off the dribble, and deadly with the long-range jumper. In other words, Bobby Princess could hang with black kids on the basketball court and not embarrass himself. For this reason, he had crossover appeal, the rare and valued capacity for friendship irrespective of race.

Bobby Princess stood, placed hands on hips, twisted his torso, and then leaned over to grab a basketball, which he tossed to Eli as he jogged up. Eli nonchalantly received the pass, looked off an imagined defender, dribbled between his legs, pumped once, then lifted an inch or two in the air, levitating, and casually tossed up a jump shot, as if he didn’t much care whether he twined the basket or not.

Bobby Princess laughed and pushed Eli, almost toppling him, although not before Eli noted appreciatively that he had indeed twined the shot. “Dickhead,” Bobby Princess said. “You’re just trying to impress Cecilia.”

Which of course was true. Eli had imagined Cecilia would be at the gym. She told him in class, with her sloe-eyed, syruped gaze, she wanted to see him play. She had leaned toward his desk from hers, entirely aware of the effect she had on boys, tenderly grazing his thigh with the back of her hand, smoothing her tartan skirt (fastened with a large safety pin), squirming in her white cotton turtleneck. Speaking slowly, moving slowly. “I want to watch you sweating in shorts.” she said.

And now here she was, Cecilia, seated atop the bleachers with her girlfriends, hair pulled back in a ponytail, smiling at something she’d seen, Eli hoping it was not another boy, hoping she’d noticed his athletic virtuosity, that he was a sharpshooter. A sweaty sharpshooter in shorts.

“We got winners,” said Bobby Princess.

“Who’s we?”

“Well, you, me, Stevie, and Mick.”

Mick Miller smiled at Eli, if one could call smiles the shapes formed by a prairie dog mouth, with its unremittingly growing incisors, and the rage boiled inside his stomach.

“Great,” Eli said to Bobby, his eyes widening. Bobby Princess shrugged.

Whistles blew on the court. “We got Shawn’s team,” said Bobby.

Shawn was on varsity. The other three on his team were RayRay, Lester, and Chester. RayRay was quick. Lester and Chester could bang. Eli thought back to the previous spring when he’d met up with Lester and Chester and the Trenton boys at the creek. He doubted they would remember him and wasn’t sure he wanted them to.

Lester humped by Eli, sweat dripping from his face. He stopped momentarily and laughed. “Wheeler! How’s it hanging, bro?” He cuffed Eli on the shoulder. “You playing us next, man? You better not bring your white boy game. I’ll swat you. This ain’t no White House. This the Black House!”

They played to eleven. These games were horse races that sometimes ended almost before they started, and while Eli knew his team would rely on Bobby Princess and Mick to carry the load if they were to have a prayer, he quickly surmised as they shot for first possession that he could play a decisive role in the outcome, one that Cecilia – hot, sultry, languorous Cecilia – at that moment pointing in their direction and giggling with her friends, might appreciate.

Interlopers, pretenders, Eli’s team stripped their shirts, Eli petulantly mindful of his still-unformed boyish frame alongside the cross-bow arms and tungsten chest of Mick Miller, blasting any small chance remaining to claim the divine Cecilia’s lusty heart. Mick glanced with sly intent into the further reaches of the bleacher, Eli following his gaze, the girls taking in the moist, masculine tableau beneath with evident pleasure. Mick swiped his drenched t-shirt across his belly. He tossed the shirt at Eli. “Whoops!” Mick laughed. “I thought you were the towel boy, man.”

Eli flushed, the shirt tousled at his feet. Lawrence’s humiliation at the hands of Mick Miller still fresh in his mind. Lawrence prostrate and blind on the pitiless pavement of the high school parking lot. Eli carefully stepped on Mick’s shirt, his Chucks doing a slow shuffle back and forth on the damp, grey-stained fabric. Bobby Princess grabbed Eli by the arm and guided him to the free throw line. Offering up the eternal male refrain. “Let’s play, guys.” Mick and Stevie joined them, as did Shawn’s team, Mick high-fiving the twins while insouciantly slamming his hip into Eli.

Shawn lofted a shot from the top of the key. He was 6-6 (rising perhaps closer to 7 feet at the peak of his magnificent Afro), and the player on varsity with the best chance at a basketball scholarship. However, he was no Pistol Pete, and the shot clanked the rim. Bobby Princess twined his shot, and Eli’s team took the ball first. Eli passed across the inbounds line to Bobby Princess, who fed Mick Miller, and Mick dribbled up the court, his sharp features and dark, stringy hair reminding Eli of a brawling crow or raven.

Eli galloped the far side of the court. He looped behind the players on Shawn’s team, who paid him no mind. He reached high with his right hand as he neared the foul line, expecting Mick to loft him the ball for an easy basket. But Mick also paid Eli no mind, instead passing back to Bobby Princess as they crossed half-court. Bobby took the pass in stride, accelerated, swung by Eli (who unwittingly served as the post into which Bobby ran Chester, who happily shoved Eli to the floor on impact), cut to the basket and tossed up a teardrop that Shawn (closing on Bobby as if he were wearing seven-league boots) casually punched into the bleachers.

The teams sprinted up and down the court and before long Shawn’s team had gained a 5-0 advantage. After Shawn glided toward the basket, flipped the ball over his shoulder to Chester, who immediately passed cross-court to RayRay, who stopped, elevated, shot, and twined a 25-foot jumper, Bobby Princess summoned his mates to the corner. They circled him, drained and defeated.

Eli didn’t wait for the others to speak. “This is crazy, man,” he said. “None of you guys can run with Shawn. But I can. Let me bring the ball up court. I can throw off their rhythm, you guys can get open more easily, and I can hit you for shots you guys can make.” Eli assumed his offer to selflessly feed his mates would neutralize any reluctance to hand over so much control to him. “If we can score baskets, we can avoid this transition bullshit. Force them to slow their game.”

Bobby Princess nodded, wiping his brow, still breathing heavily. “Works for me, Eli. Let’s give it a try.” Stevie nodded, happy simply to have a plan.

Eli could see Mick hadn’t been listening. He was staring up into the bleachers where Cecilia and her friends sat. “What do you say, Mick?” It pained Eli to acknowledge Mick at all, but he really wanted to win this game.

“You can run point one time, Wheeler. If we don’t score, me or Bobby should take the ball.”

Eli swallowed. “Give me the ball,” he said to Bobby Princess, slipping back on to the court under the basket and motioning his teammates to drop back toward half-court. Bobby tossed the ball to Eli, who sprinted down the right side of the court, mindful that he probably now had the full attention of Cecilia. As at the beginning of the game, Shawn and his teammates paid little heed to Eli, who, from their point of view, was just a crazy white boy randomly running to no effect, a headless chicken.

Indeed, Lester and Chester, who now definitely remembered Eli, had been chortling at his antic movements (He gonna light up some niggers! Lester howled, bent over at the memory. Not in those shoes! Chester roared.). Although now, with the ball in his hands (and he kept the ball on a string, even running full-tilt), Eli had become the axis around which the game suddenly spun, and because Shawn and his mates were slow to clue in, they paid the price.

Eli angled toward the basket at the far end of the court, with RayRay closing fast from behind. As he approached the basket he slowed, allowing RayRay to position himself for the reach-over block. Eli then accelerated under and past the basket.

Eli had anticipated Bobby Princess and Mick running the lanes on the left side of the court. Sure enough, as he cut back up the court, Mick hurtled toward him, with Chester inches behind, hanging on to Mick’s shirt, laughing, as if these simple motherfuckers were just making life too easy. Eli stopped, set his feet, tossed the ball underhand to Mick as he sprinted past, angled his body into Chester, took the blow (again), collapsed to the hardwood, but experienced the satisfaction of peering up from underneath Chester to see Mick, near the rim, deftly releasing the ball with his left hand. The orange orb puckered against the backboard and settled neatly into the basket.

The game proceeded, and with Eli anteloping the court, his team found its own rhythm. With Bobby twining from outside the key and Mick knifing and spinning through the lane for off-balance scores, Eli’s team also removed transition opportunities from Shawn’s team, forcing them to run a more deliberate offense, where the freelancing that will carry an exceptionally athletic team to victory no longer provided an advantage. The teams were thus tied 8-8, Shawn’s team visibly frustrated and annoyed, Lester and Chester no longer chortling at Eli and preoccupied with simply humping up and down the court without collapsing from exhaustion.

Bobby Princess launched a jump shot from the corner, a touch long. The ball clanging high off the rear rim beyond the reach of RayRay and Shawn, directly toward Eli, who positioned himself to grab the ball and pass it back to Bobby for a second chance at a wide-open shot. He leaped and stretched, exposing the full length of his torso, unaware that anyone could possibly contest the rebound, and so unprepared for the crushing blow to his side that swept his legs from under him. Eli tumbled hard to the floor, and when he looked up he saw Mick with the ball dribbling wildly toward the basket. Mick stumbled, Shawn swiped the ball, and jogged down the court for an easy dunk.

As Eli and Mick retreated to the far end of the court for the inbounds, Mick pushed Eli. “Next time, keep your punk ass out of my rebound lane.” He pushed Eli again, with more intent, Eli literally stumbling backwards halfway across the court, before collapsing on his own fundament into a row of folding chairs, Mick Miller and the twins enjoying a mirthy laugh at Eli’s expense.

Eli eyed the bleachers, his focus on Cecilia, who fingered the pin on her skirt, peering down upon him quizzically. Eli, still prone, was in no position to interpret Cecilia’s response to this debacle. But the simultaneous series of movements that, like the receding tide, lifted Cecilia and her friends to their feet and swept them regally toward the exit doors at the top of the bleachers, hurt even more than the blows he’d suffered at the hands of Mick Miller.

“Get up Wheeler,” Mick Miller shouted. “Game ain’t over.”

Eli hauled himself to his feet, his back slick with sweat. He walked toward Mick and the twins, who stood near the free throw line. Bobby Princess, a young man of peace, stood placidly under the basket, the incident already in the past in his mind, ready to toss the ball inbounds. Eli slowed as he neared Mick Miller, who was preparing to receive the ball from Bobby Princess.

“Hey man,” Eli said softly. “Can I tell you something?”

Mick Miller, annoyed, glanced at Eli. “What is it, man? Come on, let’s play.”

“That’s right Wheeler,” said Lester. “Ain’t no big deal. Let’s play, man.”

“I’m done playing,” Eli said. “This one’s for my brother.” Eli planted his left foot, pivoted his shoulder, and drove his fist into Mick Miller’s mouth, his goal to savage, once and forever, the smirk from Mick Miller’s face.

Next in Calvin’s Ghost9 / Ripped Balloon

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