J. Alicia Shank has a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, where she won the Richard T. Sullivan award for fiction writing. "Hurts" is based on characters from her novel in progress. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Michigan Quarterly Review and Sport Literate. She is currently a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Colorado, a rock critic for two newspapers, and a teacher of creative writing.
The night I finally got in the game, my father took me to the emergency room with a crescent-shaped cut in the white of my eye. I rode the bus back down from the mountains to Denver pressing my cold fingers to my burning eye. When my father asked how the game went, I just pulled down my eyelid and looked at the ceiling.
"We'd better get that checked out, Nico," he said.
A father's fears: a child losing one of her senses, the unknowable calamities sheltered beneath a stranger's fingernail. Mine: getting benched again, and that was all.
"Let me see your eyeball," Junebug said the next day in chemistry.
I pushed up my lab goggles and pulled down my lower eyelid.
"Damn," she said, shaking her head. "At least we didn't just let her do you like that."
A crowd started to gather, pretending to empty their beakers into the hazardous chemical bucket nearby.
"Mountain girl jacked Nico's eyeball," Junebug announced.
"What the hell is everyone doing without their goggles on?" Mr. Crowley shouted. Mr. Crowley was an old man who didn't want much more out of life than he'd already received, but he did want us to keep on our goggles. He wanted it so passionately that some of us even wore them during his lectures, out of fear. I was the only one who had my goggles pushed up just then, but to him it looked like mutiny. Everyone readjusted their goggles and scuttled back to their stations.
"In the eyeball," Junebug said periodically, chuckling half to herself, throughout the rest of the class.
Junebug was a person with a real name that everyone forgot shortly after the teacher pronounced it on the first day of school, who didn't like the people she hung with to know she took chemistry with the smart kids. She held her goggles away from her face when she wasn't using her hands so she wouldn't get the cheek marks that would brand her as one of us as we emerged from the lab. I mixed most of the chemicals, as Junebug only had one free hand. She kept the lab notebook and I kept her secrets.
"My face got dents?" she asked, that day as always, before we parted.
"No dents," I said, "no dents."
At the beginning of our sophomore season, Junebug, Isabel, and I made the varsity basketball team, and we thought we would be playing side by side, every once in a while at least, when the starters needed to rest.
I was tall enough to be of use, quick enough to be in the right place at some of the right times, and accurate as any girl who played H.O.R.S.E. with her father on Saturday afternoons. Isabel was steady, a methodical dribbler, a careful passer, a reluctant shooter, meant to play the quiet position: off-guard. Izzy had long dark hair that trailed out when she ran in a way that reminded me why it was called a pony tail. Junebug had sauntered into the gym as a freshman point guard with a rep built in middle school. In a public district without organized ball until high school, this was not an easy thing to do. She was loud, always letting out sounds with no meaning that she couldn't keep inside her. She passed with her mouth open, shot with her tongue out. She was a tiny, tawny lion, with baggy shorts down to her knees, striped socks raised to meet them, and an attitude that nimbused her like the sullied aura of a fallen angel.
We were all taken in by her at first. She passed without looking and twisted, improbably, in mid-air. Junebug's moves were jazz made visible, until the ball, inevitably, clanged off the rim with a discrepant chord, or one of her wild but beautiful passes sent the ball flying to an unoccupied sideline, causing the loneliest sound in our world: a ball untouched, left to bounce itself out.
"Can you make a lay-up?" Coach Sasser asked one day, when she had blinked the hopeful stars from her eyes.
Junebug stood near the basket, and bricked one stationary lay-up after another. We had to run a suicide for every one she missed. The next day, we were sore. Before kids are of a certain age, they don't have enough force to make a basket anyway. Junebug had just looked good while trying, and that was enough for word to spread.
On J.V. we were golden, us three, thundering up and down the court with little form but much life. We threw up impossible shots and swatted away the attempts of pathetically shorter people and won games with scores like twenty to twelve. We hadn't met a play we didn't forget. We didn't know a foul we wouldn't commit. We couldn't learn a scam we wouldn't run. Izzy took off down the court before the other team had even thought about shooting a basket, and when they bricked it, I'd grab the rebound and launch the ball. Izzy waited across the court, jumped to meet my pass, and had two or three chances to sink her lay-up before the other team, panting, caught up with her. Cherry pickin', girls on other teams said disdainfully, but we didn't care. A basket was a basket. But that was J.V.
On Varsity, we sat the bench. That was how we said itówe didn't sit on the bench, we sat the bench, as if it were a part of us, as if we had mutated to meld with this new, cumbrous burden. We hadn't expected it to be that way. Our J.V. record was immaculate, though the games themselves were a stain. We were happy enough at first, just to wear matching uniforms that didn't encase us like sausages the way the J.V. ones had, happy enough to run out with the team and see our names in the program, even if they were misspelled. But as the first game passed without us touching the court, then another, and another, we found that we wanted more, and thought we knew how to get it.
We made the mistake of the over-ardent, too caught up in our own desires to notice that the position we longed for was already filled. Charmaine Grand, the senior starting point guard, grew up playing street ball with the boys and now she dazzled with her skills. Charm's game was a wish you made, never having the audacity to hope it would come true. She was surrounded by girls who couldn't match her sparkle, but served to set it off. If we had been put in, bringing our rowdy ostentation, we would have looked like fools next to Charm's quiet grace.
We slogged through school days, listless with deprivation, turning on our energy only for the afternoon practices that could earn us a chance to play. Classes were a haze of day dreams in which I was invited on a court that opened up before me, a streak of sunlight cutting the way to the basket. If Coach Sasser were to put me in on Varsity, who's to say I wouldn't just dunk that ball? Who knows why we let it touch us so deeply. We were young and our worlds were accordingly small, circumscribed, and centering them on basketball got us through the day.
At practice, we tried to make ourselves feel a part of the team, participating in the sideline gossip sessions while waiting for our turns in drills.
"What's our non-district game this year?" Junebug asked Reggie, a second-stringer who actually got to play.
"Summit," Reggie said. She paused, put her hands on her hips, and assessed the progress of the drilling starters. "I heard they're racist," she added.
"Who said?" I asked.
"My cousinóshe plays for `bello." Reggie answered slowly, stretching it out for effect. "She said the Summit folks used some ugly words when they played them."
"Who doesn't use ugly words when they play Montbello?" I said, but no one laughed.
Junebug gave me one of her it's a black thang, you wouldn't understand looks. She didn't use them often, but kept them on reserve for when I needed to be reminded that living across town from her in a different colored world meant there were lines I couldn't cross. "Mountain girls never seen anything but white people their whole lives," Junebug said.
"Something like that," Reggie said, shrugging her shoulders.
Junebug puffed herself up, spanked the basketball she held in her hands, and shouted, too loud, "We've got to beat that ass."
Coach Sasser blew the whistle. "Since you can't pay attention, you might as well get on the line."
We swore, collectively, under our breath as we approached the baseline that was our sprinting starting mark. During the rest of the practice, the story passed in fragments, and was embellished, falsified. At the end of it, I didn't know whose cousin was its subject anymore. Maybe she was a cousin to all of us, after that.
Charm took no part in gossip. While we talked, our voices and gestures becoming animated with anger, she worked on her dribbling. She directed the ball between her legs and around in a fluid motion, keeping her eyes on the back wall. She closed her senses to us.
It was the same way every season, when the same old rumors washed down from the mountains to the city. In Denver, we played each of the other nine teams in the district twice and one or two out-of-conference games each season. We always played one across-state team, and always someone on our team had a cousin or a niece or an aunt on another who had played them already and had brought away a dark report. It motivated us, to be sure, that we could cast our opponent in that evil light, that we could make whatever we accomplished on the court into a crusade against small-town backwardness. Who knows if these mysterious, informative cousins existed or not, in the flesh. What mattered is that they existed in our consciousness.
That was when the games became more about honor than basketball, and life on the bench grew more agitated. The first big game that season was in Montbello, the desolate tract in northernmost Denver where the mountain view is blocked by industry and HUD houses spring up in birthday cake colors: lavender trimmed with violet, baby blue with Pepto Bismol pink, bubblegum with magenta. In Montbello, keeping the color of house paint within reason is the least of people's worries. There, no one is going to say there goes the neighborhood. The neighborhood has gone, already, everywhere it could possibly go. No trees, but fields of weeds, baseball diamonds of hard, parched dirt that rip the knees that slide across them and choke the throats that breathe near them with their billowing dust. Montbello was an enemy that we understood, a high school like ours where it was possible to graduate without being taught how to read, filled with kids who were the reasons other parents sent their own to private school. We hated them like sisters, and our violence towards each other was of the hair-pulling and name-calling variety. "Montghetto," we called them, and wondered what it was that they called us. But we never feared them, never feared what we felt towards them. We just wanted to meet them on the court, and win.
The game was fierce and sloppy. The teams played with a degree of intensity usually reserved for when the stands were at least a quarter full. But as usual, the game took place before the company of an odd assortment of loafing janitors and the strange old man who came to every afternoon girls' game wearing the same pair of gray pants and watched us while he did the crossword puzzle and drank canned tea. Junebug, Izzy, and I fought to position ourselves on either side of Coach Sasser, hoping that her eyes would stray on us and that would give her an idea. Next to her, we could smell her weak perfume, and out of the corner of our eyes catch a glimpse of the scarf that was always at her throat, the scarf always of a color that a woman couldn't wear until she was of a certain age: mustard, taupe, tangerine. We monitored our periphery for any signs of the scarf's movement that might indicate she was about to make a change. We sat on the edges of our seats, leaned our elbows on our knees, and clasped our hands together in an attitude of prayer. The game was close, the lead seesawing back and forth. When Coach met our eyes, she looked away quickly, uncomfortable with our hunger. By the end of the game, we had been pushed out to the edges, as Coach Sasser squeezed replacements next to her for quick instructions. On the bench, we parched ourselves with longing, drinking dry the water bottles that were meant for those who played.
We won, and when we went out to center court to slap the starters' hands, Junebug and I struggled to keep up smiles that were something like sincere. We didn't speak during the long bus ride home, and didn't sleep that night. I never slept on after-game nights. Having had no practice to wear me out, my body was stretched and primed in warm-up but my heart was never allowed to pump quick and my sweat was not permitted to flow. The sheets fretted me all night. I kicked at them. I cocooned myself in them. I squeezed my eyes tight to keep out invasive beams of moonlight that seemed to enter through the window with intent to taunt.
I greeted Junebug in chemistry on day-after-game mornings, her expression a sullen mirror of my own, and we sat like two grim zombies, surly under our goggles, thinking about the next game in which we'd wait and wait for a call to play that would never come.
A person made to wait too long goes one of two ways. Some of them get mean, like they've been beaten at random so long that they see each new day as a stick raised to strike. The others develop the patience of saints, their eyes always lit, wounded and bright, answering each blow with evermore shine. Junebug got mean. She kicked things. I saw her kick a locker so hard she broke a toe. But she was so mean, she didn't quit practicing and she didn't quit running. She told no one, but I guessed at her winces and secretive limps. At practice, she turned her pain to such rage as to wither grape to raisin at a glance. Izzy was the saintly one, her brown irises complicating with shards of luminance as she offered cool bottles of water and new towels to the starters as they came off the court. "You deserve to play," she told me and Junebug after every game that passed without a chance to break a sweat.
The three of us benchies practiced harder than the complacent starters. We practiced so hard, we snapped things and pulled things and sprained things and tore things. And we never said a word, because any injury put us further from getting in the game. Even when healed, the residue of past injury imprinted on Coach Sasser's brain could lead her to ration our playing time. We didn't even compare aches with each other, as we used to on J.V. We just let out furtive little moans, now and then, to keep each other informed. We didn't go out on weekends. We spent them alternately icing and heating parts of our bodies, and our bedclothes smelled of Ben Gay and Flex-All. The fumes made us irritable.
"Damn this stuff is funky," Junebug would say when we gathered fragrantly at someone's house to catch a movie. Then she'd always threaten: "I'm switching to Red Hot." But Red Hot, the subtle-scented wonder, seemed to be available only on the coaches' black market. In an unmarked jar, it glowered crimson and indomitable in Coach Sasser's training bag, and if we used it, she would know.
It was Charmaine Grand who sneaked us an extra jar of Red Hot one day. We didn't ask, but she knew. "You ladies keep on," she said, as Junebug snatched it from her. Izzy and I were too awed to approach. Charm's nose was a gentle work of classic angles, her neck regal and her hands clever. With her sleeves rolled up, you could see the partnership in the movements of the muscles beneath her dark skin. It was she who had rechristened Junebug, nonchalantly, at a preseason pickup game, before she learned her proper name. Who knew what it meant. The word had left Charm's mouth and we abided by it. Junebug wore her nickname like a medal, grinned to hear it called. Until the want and waiting made her mean, and you never saw her teeth at practice. Izzy smiled bright enough for both of them. And I was at the crossroads between consuming anger and self-sacrifice, wondering where my hurt would take me, when the Summit game approached.
The week before the Summit game, practices were solemn affairs where Coach Sasser, nervous, tried to teach us new plays. We'd learn seven or eight variations on each play, but we never used a one of them. The best the starters did was set up in the play formation and pass the ball around a bit before succumbing to their impulses towards chaos and throwing up whatever would go. It was different before district games, when we'd talk about the girls we were going to play, giving them names if we didn't know them and calling out who we would handle.
"I can take Broccoli Head," I always claimed before we played Kennedy. Broccoli Head wore a wide, tight headband and her thick hair puffed out of it like the top of her vegetable namesake. "I know I can take Broccoli Head."
But Summit preparation practices were silent. We didn't know the girls and we didn't name them. We didn't need a label to understand what they were to us.
Before it was time to warm up, we observed them like anthropologists. Their faces were a value study in degrees of unadorned Anglo-Saxon beauty. They were big and blond, as the mountain teams were every year. They all seemed to be between five-nine and six-one, with the exception of the one requisite, feisty little point guard.
This year, it was Izzy's turn to say: "They grow `em big in the mountains."
We were calm at first. It was the warm-up music that did us in. Over the tinny loudspeaker, they piped an uneasy mixture of early-eighties Kool and the Gang and Run DMC.
"Oh Lord," Junebug said. "Just because we've got some black people on our team, they have to go and dig out the old school rap music. And they can't find anything newer than this? How long's it take for stuff to reach the mountains?"
"Hey," Reggie shouted at them across the court. "You ladies still watching the Dukes of Hazzard?"
They laughed cheerily, as if it were a joke to be shared. We're all friends, right? Spunky Little Point Guard smiled.
We clowned through "Cool it Now," missing our lay-ups from lack of care until Coach Sasser came and yelled at us. At home games, we warmed up to Marvin Gaye, at Coach's insistence. If you could sink free throws while listening to "Sexual Healing," the theory ran, you could sink them under any conditions.
I looked over at them during warm-up, trying to hide my glances. It was their free throws that began to frighten me. Toe the line. Dribble three times. Crouch. Breathe. Extend. Release. Swish. It was clear they practiced with their eyes closed. In the DPS, any free throw you happened to make was considered a bonus. They dribbled like they had practiced their precision around orange cones for years and moved in their plays like studying their play book came before homework. They looked like they had searched themselves over for spots of weakness and honed. When the coach called them, they ran towards him as a unit, their golden pony tails swinging together like bright bells on Christmas morning. It was more than just basketball, though. In the way they walked, you could see that they knew what a gerund was and how to use it, and how to diagram a sentence and conjugate a verb in French and ride a horse and play the piano. Their extended families filled the stands, wearing their school colors and buttons with pictures of them that said "My All Star."
At the tip-off I was so scared I was glad for once that I wasn't in. But as the game wore on, I wanted to play again, worse than ever. They ran plays that had names and numbers, all a boring variation on their school colors. The point would bring the ball up the court, pause while they organized themselves, shout "Crimson" or "Gold" or "White," hold up a quantity of fingers, and set the play in motion. When our team got the ball, we acted like half-starved guests at a banquet who didn't have the sense to take the turkey slow so not to choke. Joli launched the ball to Charm at mid-court, who dribbled down and passed it to Reggie at post. By this time the
Summit girls had already set up their careful zone defense, and our team would pass the ball back and forth to each other helplessly until one of them got anxious and tried to drive to the hoop, where they were inevitably rejected by one of Summit's huge baseline guardians. The only glimmer of dignity in these pathetic attempts was their hint of kamikaze grandeur.
It wasn't long before our team began to play thug ball. We entered that gym thinking they looked down on us, and we soon began to behave so that they did. You can only put up with a snotty zone defense and time-wasting plays for so long until the need to foul rises up within you and moves your limbs to action. With slaps and steals and scrappy defense, our team tried to claw their way back. And half of them fouled out doing it.
In the fourth quarter, Joli lost control of herself and smacked the point guard right across her cheeky little face.
A whistle blew. "We don't play that way here, young lady," the ref informed her.
Joli rolled her eyes, curled her lip. She had five anyway. Joli had been our lone representative of the blonde kingdom, though most of hers came from a bottle. When someone fouled out, for some reason, the refs gave the coach a little time. Joli walked under the basket and Coach Sasser stood up to talk to her. Coach turned around and surveyed us leftovers on the bench. She had the look of a person who wanted to close the refrigerator door, pray a little, and try again. If we had been any further on the edge of our seats, we would have fallen off.
"Uhh," Coach said. Somewhere in the stands, a child cried out. A cheer leader rustled her pom pom. The old man sneezed. "Nico," Coach decided.
Izzy turned her bright eyes towards me and smiled. Junebug kept her hard look trained forward. I felt like a traitor to them, but I leapt up like I'd sat on something sharp.
Coach put her hand on my shoulder. "Go in there, and guard 52. If you get the ball, take your time. Wait for your shot. Or pass it. Okay?"
I nodded like a giddy puppy. I trotted out on the court and tried to get my bearings. Charm gestured to me. "Remember, that basket is ours," she said, pointing. I nodded.
The whistle blew. I was a rusty spring wound up for too many weeks, and I sprung out madly. My five minutes of play was a fiasco of missed and misdirected passes, overeager and sloppy and shameful. My inability to control myself frustrated me, so I did the only thing I could do. When I got a rebound, I swung my elbows like a scythe.
In the larger world, violence may solve nothing, but on the basketball court, it at least relieves.
I went up for a rebound with malicious intent, and came down with a Summit girl's fingernail in my eye. The ref called a foul. The girl had ripped my contact out, so I approached the free throw line with the half-blurred vision of a boxer after a blow. I made the first one, which was something I couldn't do with regular sight. I guess shooting at the basket in the middle of the three made more sense, somehow. I didn't tell anyone that she had cut me. I didn't want to leave. But I bricked the second one and Coach set me down, she replaced me, she returned me, hurting, to the bench. On my way out, Junebug, who was subbing in for me, saw that my eyes were watering, and it fueled her rage. She conferenced with the more thuggish individuals on our team surreptitiously, while Charm tried to reign, tried to maintain dignity. There was no dignity left to be had.
If you closed your eyes and listened to the last few minutes of that game, you would hear cheap slaps and nail scrapes and the dull thuds of elbows driving into unprepared flesh. If you closed them tight so you could listen with the intensity of the blind, you could hear the bruises forming, the platelets gathering under sweat-beaded skin, you could hear the welts beginning to rise.
The score was an albatross, a rotting weight to wear all season, a loss of fifty to twenty-three. The whole maddening carnival of Summit relatives jeered at us as we headed out the gym. This time no one mistook it for racism, but saw it for what it was: color-blind hate. Coach Sasser didn't say but one thing to us as we walked to the bus: "Don't hang your heads, ladies, but keep them lifted." We all knew the next day she would run us until we puked.
On the bus, we grabbed solitary seats. I pressed my cheek to the cool, dirty window pane, put my hand to my throbbing eye, and swallowed my hurts. We wouldn't talk about them, that night or ever. Some say if you choke your hurts down they transfigure into a kind of grace others can see.