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#123

Heathen Ringers



              On the same Sunday that registration opened for Multioak Church League Basketball, Pastor Nickult’s 24-year-old son Elijah and two of his friends showed up for the morning service at First Bible Bible Church out of the blue. They sat in the back pew and slouched, slept, and played with their cell phones. As soon as the service ended, they left without talking to anyone.

                Pierce had assumed he would be the first to sign up for the First Bible basketball team, but when he got to the bulletin board in the foyer where the sign-up sheet was posted, he saw that there were three names already scribbled on it. The first signature was Elijah Nickult’s. The other two were illegible but Pierce guessed that they belonged to the guys he’d seen sitting with Elijah during the service.

                “Wow,” said Andrey, walking up behind Pierce and looking over his shoulder. “Three guys already? Maybe we won’t have to play in the co-ed league this year.” First Bible Bible Church had a small congregation and in previous years they hadn’t been able to get enough guys to sign up for the basketball team to play in the men’s league so they’d had to open up registration to women and move to the co-ed league.

                “Good point,” said Pierce, adding his name extra-legibly to the sign-up sheet. “Me and you already make five. We could enter the men’s league right now if we ran with no subs.”

                “Not sure I’m in that kind of shape,” said Andrey with a laugh, taking the pen from Pierce and signing his name. Andrey was tall and bony. His shiny silver necktie hung slightly askew. He held his battered leather-bound Bible in his left hand.

                Pierce shrugged. “We’d play ourselves into shape. Plus, no subs means more shots for everyone.”

                “You’re the shooter,” said Andrey. “For me it’d be more, I don’t know, screens to set? Rebounding opportunities? You young bucks can run all day, but old guys like me need a breather every now and then.”

                Pierce was pleased that Andrey grouped him in with the young bucks along with Elijah and his friends. Pierce was 33, almost a decade older than Elijah, but Andrey was getting close to 50, so anyone under 40 seemed young to him. In reality, Andrey was in much better shape than Pierce, who was really only physically active during Church League Basketball season. Pierce had never been very athletic and he’d started gaining weight shortly after he turned thirty. He wasn’t fat so much as just kind of soft and easily winded.

                “Hey guys,” said Pastor Nickult, walking up and clapping Pierce and Andrey on their shoulders. “You gonna represent FBBC well this year?” He was shorter than his son and wore a neatly-trimmed white beard and a dark blue suit with an unimposing tie.

                “I’ll let the young bucks worry about that,” said Andrey. “I’ll just try to stay out of their way.”

                Pastor Nickult laughed.

                “I see Elijah and his friends are going to be joining us,” said Pierce.

“I was glad to see him back in church,” said Andrey. “It’s been, what, three or four years?”

                Pastor Nickult sighed. “Well, he and his friends told me they wanted to play basketball in the Church League, so I told him they could play but only as long as they’re actually attending church here. I’d prefer that he attend because he wants to, of course, but as long as I’ve got basketball to use as leverage, well, maybe something’ll get through to him, right?”

                “That’s right,” said Andrey.

                “Are they good?” asked Pierce.

                “How do you mean?” asked Pastor Nickult.

                “Are they good at basketball? Elijah and his friends?”

                “I don’t know,” said Pastor Nickult. “I think so. To be honest, I don’t know much about Elijah’s life these days. I’m not exactly sure where he’s living. I don’t even have his current cell phone number. I was shocked when he showed up at the house last night wanting to sign up for the basketball team.”

                “That’s rough,” said Andrey. “I’m sorry to hear that, Pastor.”

                “Well, all I can do is just keep loving him and praying for him,” said Pastor Nickult. “Maybe this basketball team will be the thing that re-opens that door.”

                “Do you know if Elijah likes to get the ball down low?” asked Pierce. “Does he like to post up at all? If he could draw the occasional double-team in the post, that’d really free me up on the perimeter.”

                “I really don’t know, Pierce,” said Pastor Nickult.

                “That’s the kind of thing it’d be helpful to know,” said Pierce. “Could you give me Elijah’s phone number?”

                “I don’t have it,” said Pastor Nickult. He and Andrey exchanged a brief look that Pierce couldn’t interpret.

                “All right, guys,” said Pastor Nickult, re-clapping Pierce and Andrey’s shoulders. “Have a good week.”

                “You too, Pastor,” said Andrey. “I’ll be praying.”

                “If Elijah and I can get a good inside-out game going,” said Pierce, turning to Andrey, “then that’ll free you up to just crash the boards, get some offensive rebounds, and just mix it up down there. That’ll be perfect.”

 

                The next Sunday, Elijah and his friends were back at church, but they showed up late, so Pierce didn’t have a chance to talk to them before the service started. After Pastor Nickult dismissed the congregation, Elijah and his friends left so quickly that Pierce almost had to run to catch up to them before they could drive away.

                “Hey, Elijah,” called Pierce, waving his hand as he hurried across the black asphalt parking lot. “Hold up.” He’d worn a short-sleeved polo shirt because it was always uncomfortably warm in the church sanctuary. Now, outside without his jacket because he hadn’t had time to grab it out of the coat room in his rush to talk to Elijah, Pierce was freezing.

                Elijah’s friends were already inside of his huge, black extended-cab pickup truck. Elijah only heard Pierce calling out to him because he’d delayed getting into the truck for a few seconds to inspect a mark he’d noticed on the driver’s side door.

                At the sound of his name, Elijah turned to look at Pierce but his face gave no indication that he was in any way interested as to why Pierce might be jogging towards him across the parking lot without a coat and shouting his name.

                “Elijah,” said Pierce, coming to a halt and sliding his cold hands down into the pockets of his slacks. “Good to see you again.” He was doing everything in his power to keep from appearing winded from his short run.

                Elijah didn’t say anything. He wore a bulky ash-colored coat and a matching stocking cap pulled down to his eyebrows. He had a strong jaw and a blunt nose.

                “So I saw you and your friends are going to be playing ball with us,” said Pierce, bouncing on his toes. “I just wanted to be the first to welcome you to the team.”

                “Yeah,” said Elijah.

                “Other than you guys, it’s just me, Andrey, and Mike, so assuming everyone can make it to all the games, that’s just one sub, so everyone should get plenty of run, which is good.”

                “Yeah,” Elijah said again. “See you.” He turned to get into his truck.

                “Oh, one quick thing,” said Pierce. “You think we should try to play with each other at least once before our first game? Just so we can get some chemistry going, figure out each others’ styles, you know? We could meet up some evening this week at the Community Center, get in on some pick-up games. Any night works for me.”

                “Nah,” said Elijah. “Bye.” He got into his truck, started the engine, and drove away with the bass from his stereo rattling the windows of every other car in the parking lot.

                Pierce realized too late that he still hadn’t gotten the names of Elijah’s friends. But there would be plenty of time for that later. They were going to be teammates, after all.

 

                The next Sunday, Elijah and his friends were even later to church and then they left during the closing prayer so that when Pierce tried to find them after the service to talk strategy for the game on Tuesday night, they were already gone. Instead, he had to settle for talking strategy with Mike.

                Mike was in his late twenties, painfully thin, and only casually interested in basketball. He’d signed up for the team because he wanted an excuse to get out of the home that he and his wife had already managed to fill with children after just five years of marriage.

                “I’m thinking you’ll be our defensive stopper,” said Pierce. “We’ll throw you on the other team’s best guy and just let you wear him out.”  

                “Sure,” said Mike. He had a squirming little girl in each arm. Pierce assumed they were both his. One of the little girls finally broke free from Mike’s grasp, slid down his leg, and bolted down the hall toward the Sunday School rooms. “Just second,” said Mike. “I’ve gotta catch that one.” He hurried after the escaped girl while the other girl tried to crawl over his shoulder. Pierce didn’t see the point of this maneuver. Even if she succeeded, she’d just fall straight down onto her head. And Pierce didn’t know the little girl, but he was fairly certain she was not the kind to take a fall onto her head stoically.

 

                This was the first year in which all of the Multioak Church League basketball games were to be held in New Pinnacle Church’s Gymnasium Complex. New Pinnacle had gone way, way into debt to build the complex and it showed. Everything sparkled and shone and the complex was big enough for three full-court basketball games to run simultaneously. First Bible Bible Church’s game was scheduled for 8:30 so Pierce showed up at 7:00, a full hour ahead of Andrey, who was the next of his teammates to arrive.

                Before the early games started, during their five minute half time breaks, and after they concluded, Pierce warmed up by shooting free throws, turn-around jumpers along the baseline, and three-pointers from the right and left wings, which he considered to be his “hot spots.” Nothing was falling yet, but this was the first time he’d shot a basketball in months. Also, Pierce knew there were times where you couldn’t buy a bucket before the game, but as soon as the whistle blew, you couldn’t miss. Hopefully tonight was one of those nights. While the early games were in progress, Pierce passed the time by dribbling his basketball between his legs, which he could only do going from right to left, and scouting the teams.

                Mike showed up shortly after Andrey looking thrilled to be anywhere but home and wearing khaki shorts, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and running shoes. Pierce started to say something snide about Mike’s outfit but stopped himself. After all, he’d almost worn his old orange sweatband, but he’d thought better of it at the last minute when he’d had a premonition that Elijah and his friends might find it comical in some way.

                The game on Court 1 ended first. While the sweaty, disheveled teams clapped hands and laughingly recapped the highlights and lowlights of their just-completed game, some of the guys playing in the late games started shooting around on the open baskets. Andrey rebounded for Pierce as he launched shot after shot from his hot spots. Mike did runner’s stretches against the wall.

                “It’s 8:15,” said Pierce after banking in a shot without acknowledging that the bank was unintentional. “I wonder where Elijah and his friends are. They aren’t going to have much time to warm up.”

First Bible Bible Church was scheduled to play New Pinnacle Team 5. New Pinnacle was so big that they had 6 teams in the men’s league plus several more in the co-ed league. At the other end of the court, the guys from New Pinnacle Team 5 were running an organized layup line.

“They’ve got nine guys,” said Andrey. “I hope you young bucks are feeling good ‘cause they’re just gonna be rotating in fresh legs all game.”

“We’ll be fine,” said Pierce. “You can’t get any kind of rhythm or chemistry going when you’ve gotta give that many guys minutes.” He dribbled to the left wing, pump-faked an imaginary defender out of his jockstrap, and clanged a line drive shot off the back iron. “Everything’s long tonight,” he said. While it was true that many of his misses had been long, many of them had also missed short, to the right, to the left, and in all non-contradictory combinations of those possibilities.

Elijah and his friends showed up less than ten minutes before the game was scheduled to start.  They all wore expensive shoes, baggy shorts that hung well past their knees, and sleeveless t-shirts advertising summer basketball tournaments. They walked across the gym in a loose cluster, ambling along with strides that didn’t look athletic in themselves, but that seemed designed to poorly conceal a surplus of athleticism. Elijah and his friends looked like they were very good at basketball.

“Oh yeah,” said Mike. “We’re gonna win.”

“Yo,” said Pierce as Elijah and his friends sauntered onto the court as if they just happened to be passing through.

Pierce bounced the ball to Elijah who caught it against his hip with one hand, looked down at it with the mildest form of incredulity, and asked, “Is this an outdoor ball?”

“Yeah,” said Pierce. “It is.” He hadn’t really known his basketball was an outdoor ball, but now that Elijah mentioned it, the ball was a lot brighter orange than most of the other basketballs in use in the gym. “This was the only one I had in my car.” He opted against confessing that it was also the only ball he owned.

Elijah flipped the ball back to Pierce, who caught it and turned to shoot in one smooth motion. Then he stopped, the ball cocked back just above his ear. What if he missed while Elijah and his friends were watching? What if he missed badly? He took the shot. He nailed it. He turned to his teammates, grinning.

“Nice one,” said Andrey.

“I liked the follow-through,” said Mike. “Follow-through? Is that the right term?”

Elijah and his friends didn’t react, nor did they seem to be consciously suppressing some kind of reaction. There seemed to be among them a very genuine overall lack of reaction to Pierce’s made three-pointer. One of Elijah’s friends – the one with the yellow remains of a black eye on the left side of his face – knelt to tighten the neon orange laces on his shoes. Elijah’s other friend – the one with acne scars on his forehead and a tattoo of a topless, upside down mermaid on his left calf – grabbed his head with both hands and twisted it, causing his neck to make alarming popping noises.

Pierce walked over to Elijah’s friends and extended his hand. “I actually don’t think we’ve formally met yet. I’m Pierce.”

The handshakes Pierce received from Elijah’s friends were two of the top three most dismissive handshakes Pierce had ever received. Neither guy offered a name.

“Sorry,” said Pierce. “Didn’t get your names. Can you repeat them?”

“So we’ll just run,” said Elijah. “You get a rebound, you get a steal, you hit one of us with the outlet. Even after a made basket, push it.”

“Oh, OK,” said Pierce. “Wait, are we talking strategy?”

“Run,” said Elijah. “Up and down.”

“‘Cause I was thinking of something a little different,” said Pierce. “I’m more effective in, like, the half-court. Like, spotting up on the wings. Like, work it inside, then I’m spotting up, so you kick it out. Like, inside out.”

“Nah,” said Elijah.

“Well, Andrey and I already discussed this,” said Pierce, starting to feel a little panicky. “Right, Andrey?”

Andrey shrugged. “If the young bucks wanna run, I say let ‘em run.”

Elijah nodded at Mike, one corner of his mouth drifting upward. “Look. This dude’s got his running shoes on. Dude wants to run.”

Everyone laughed except for Pierce, who couldn’t help but notice that he had already been removed from Andrey’s “young bucks” category and they hadn’t even played one game yet. This realization only stung until the game started, after which it was blotted out by pain and humiliation much more severe.

 

When Pierce got home from the game, his roommate Grover was in the kitchen compulsively stirring a crock pot full of homemade chili. Grover didn’t like church or basketball, but he liked to talk about anyone except himself.

“How was the game?”

Pierce lowered himself stiffly into a chair made of an uncomfortable assemblage of vinyl and metal. “Terrible,” he said. His sweaty arms stuck to the slick material inside the sleeves of his coat. He drank the last swallow of water from the plastic sport bottle he’d just purchased that morning.

“How bad did you lose?” asked Grover, switching the spoon from his right hand to his left hand and slowing the pace of his stirring.

“We didn’t lose,” said Pierce. “We won by, like, 20 or 30. I don’t know. We won by a lot.”

“Ah,” said Grover. “A hollow victory, then. Something happened.”

“I’m a volume shooter,” said Pierce. “You know what that is, right Grover?”

“I believe you’ve explained it to me before, yes.”

“I’ve gotta get shots up,” said Pierce. “Otherwise, why am I playing? I’m not tall, I’m not strong. I’m definitely not fast. So on a given night, I might miss three, four, five shots in a row, but I’m a volume shooter, Grover, I’ve gotta keep firing. I’ve gotta keep thinking the next one’s going in. That’s what makes me an asset. Not second-guessing and hesitating. Not worrying that a few misses are going to mean that no one passes me the ball for the rest of the night. I know that if I get enough shots up, enough of them’ll go in to make me effective.”

“I’m starting to understand,” said Grover. “The new guys, right? The pastor’s son and his friends? They wouldn’t pass you the ball?”

Pierce looked at his hands, limp and clammy on the table. They trembled. “All they want to do is run, run, run. Just fast breaks, all night. They never stopped running and none of them ever came out of the game. I don’t know how they do it. They just ran, all 40 minutes. That’s not basketball. That’s street ball. No strategy, no tactics, no screens or backdoor cuts or give-and-gos or post-ups. Just a track meet. Which, you know, it was fun for them ‘cause they got about a hundred layups between the three of them, but I was gassed after five minutes and had to have Mike spell me. Even when I was in the game, I just spent the whole time sprinting from three-point line to three-point line, trailing the action. I mean, Grover, I’m not an athlete, but I know basketball. But that style of play doesn’t reward knowing basketball. If you’re not an athlete, you’re useless. And the worst part is that Andrey and Mike were all about it. To them, just getting some exercise is enough. To get a win too, well, they were thrilled. But they don’t know basketball and they don’t care about basketball. And they’re not shooters.”

“So what’d you shoot?” asked Grover, sprinkling more spices into the chili, which, knowing Grover, was already almost certainly over-spiced.

“O for four,” said Pierce. “And that was literally every opportunity I had.”

“You took a shot every time you touched the ball?” asked Grover.

“Yep,” said Pierce. “Four times. Four touches. Four. Well, I had a couple of turnovers when I was trying to dribble to one of my hot spots, but yeah. Four shots. And yes, I missed all four, but they were all contested. If I’d waited for an open shot, I might not have gotten any. By the second half, not even Andrey and Mike were passing to me. I think Elijah told them not to. One game into the season and he’s already totally hijacked the team.”

“So let me see if I understand,” said Grover, taking the spoon with which he’d been stirring the chili over to the sink and running it under cold water. “You’re upset because, despite the victory for the team, you find the style of play used to accomplish this victory unfulfilling on a personal level because it renders your particular skill set irrelevant to the outcome and thus leads you to feel irrelevant and unappreciated.”

“No,” said Pierce. “No, you don’t get it, Grover. I’m a volume shooter. Didn’t I explain this?”

“I believe you did,” said Grover.

“I’ve gotta get shots up,” said Pierce. “Otherwise, why am I there?”

As Pierce launched back into his analysis of the specific needs of a church league volume shooter such as himself, Grover went back over to the crock pot, stared down into it for several tense moments, and then plunged the just-rinsed spoon back into the chili and began to stir.

 

At church on Sunday, Pierce anticipated Elijah and his friends’ early exit, so he slipped out of the sanctuary before the closing prayer in order to catch them on the way out. All three of them were visibly annoyed to see him waiting for them by the door in the foyer.

“Listen, guys,” said Pierce. “Mike’s whole family is sick. That’s why he’s not here today. So I’m guessing he’s not going to be able to make it to the game this week either. Which means we won’t have any subs. So I’m thinking we’ll probably need to slow it down a little bit, maybe be a little more deliberate with our offense. Otherwise we’re just gonna wear ourselves down.”

“Nah,” said Elijah. “We’ll be fine.”

“All right,” said Pierce. “I’ll admit it. You guys will be fine. But me and Andrey, we’re not cut out for this up and down stuff.”

“The old guy likes it,” said Elijah. “Do some wind sprints.” He and his friends walked past Pierce and out the door.

When Pastor Nickult dismissed the congregation, Pierce found Andrey by the coat room talking about memorable flu seasons of the past with two elderly women.

“You’re my last hope,” said Pierce, after his awkward, hovering presence had finally driven the old ladies away from Andrey.

“I think maybe basketball’s become too important to you,” said Andrey. “You need to be careful it doesn’t become an idol.”

“They’re hijacking the team,” said Pierce. “They’re making it all about them and their agenda.”

“We won,” said Andrey. “And I know you don’t want to hear this, but I had fun. And besides that, Elijah and his friends’ involvement with the team has them back in church and I don’t know about you, but I think that’s what’s most important.”

“Sure, they’re in church,” said Pierce. “But they don’t really believe. They’re just using us for basketball. They’re representing First Bible Bible Church out there on the court, but they’re not believers. Is that how we want to be represented? By a bunch of street-balling non-believers?”

                “Pierce,” said Andrey. “Is this about protecting the reputation of the First Bible Bible Church name? Or is this about you being a volume shooter? Because if it’s about you being a volume shooter, I just want to point out that no one likes playing with volume shooters. Volume shooters are scorers who put up good numbers only because they take so many shots. They’re inherently inefficient.”

                “You know,” said Pierce. “I remember when you were principled, Andrey. I remember when you cared about more than just winning. I remember when you cared about more than being liked by the cool, new, young guys. They’re leading you astray, Andrey, and they’re leading Mike astray and if we’re not careful, they might lead this whole church astray. See you at the game.” Pierce got his coat and left without talking to anyone else. He would give the First Bible Bible Church Multioak Church Basketball League team one more chance.

 

                The second game was worse than the first. With no subs available, Pierce had to play the entire game. He didn’t know what was more humiliating: the fact that he spent the entire game wheezing and stumbling ineffectually around the court, barely able to remain upright, or the fact that his uselessness did nothing to hinder the success of the team and First Bible Bible Church beat Sunrise Church of The Lamb by 18 points.

                On First Bible’s fourth possession of the game, a deflected pass from Andrey to Elijah was tipped out to Pierce at the top of the key and he bricked a line-drive jumper off the front of the rim. Everyone else on the team was visibly exasperated. One of Elijah’s friends shouted, “Come on!” and even Andrey said, “Ball movement, buddy,” as he jogged back on defense. Pierce didn’t shoot for the rest of the game. On the very few occasions when the ball found its way into his hands, he immediately swung it to the nearest open teammate. Other than that, he played increasingly indifferent defense, tried to not faint and keep his mounting nausea in check, and spoke to no one.

                When the game was over, he did not shake hands with the defeated Sunrise Church of the Lamb players and say “good game” to them. Nor did he say “good game” to his own teammates. They were all clearly annoyed with him, even Andrey, and none of them made an effort to include him in the post-game discussion. Pierce sat slumped against the wall of the gym, pouring water down his throat and blinking slowly. He felt dizzy. His sweat dried on his skin and made him feel filthy. As his teammates walked past him on the way out of the gym, not even looking down at him, Pierce said, “Hey, Elijah.”

Elijah and his friends and Andrey all stopped and looked back at Pierce, their eyes hard and cold. Andrey, at least, tried to conceal his disdain. “What?” asked Elijah.

“Do you believe in God?” asked Pierce.

“I dunno,” said Elijah. “I’m not really into all that.”

Pierce said nothing. He just turned his gaze back to the basketball court where two small boys were taking turns heaving a basketball at the rim at the far end of the gym. Neither of the boys was strong enough to get the ball above the rim. Neither of them realized that they were not somehow going to get miraculously stronger between shot attempts. Their misses fell shorter and shorter. Pierce didn’t see his teammates leave.

 

Pierce called Pastor Nickult at his office number the following afternoon.

“Hey, Pierce, what can I do for you?” Pastor Nickult sounded distracted.

Pierce sat on the couch in his living room, one leg crossed over the other, bouncing his foot. A bowl of uneaten chili sat on the coffee table in front of him. It didn’t look like Grover had taken even one bite. A fly sat on the handle of the spoon protruding from the chili. The fly didn’t move.

“Good afternoon, Pastor,” said Pierce. “I just wanted to call about the basketball team. If you’ve got a few minutes.”

“Oh sure,” said Pastor Nickult. “You guys have been great. I’m really impressed. I’m always happy to beat those snobs at New Pinnacle at anything. I know that’s not a very Christ-like thing to say, but their fundraising tactics really irk me.”

“Yeah, winning’s nice,” said Pierce. “But it’s not the most important thing. I don’t think so, anyway.”

“That’s true,” said Pastor Nickult, sounding guilty. “Winning isn’t the most important thing.”

“Honoring God,” said Pierce. “That’s what’s important.”

“Yes,” said Pastor Nickult.

“Kind of hard to honor God if you’re not even sure if you believe in Him, wouldn’t you say, pastor?”

“Didn’t you say this was about the basketball team?” asked Pastor Nickult.

“The basketball team is a representative of our church,” said Pierce. “And our church is a representative of God. And your son and his friends are making the team, the church, and God look bad. Well, maybe not the team, but they’re making the church and God look bad.”

“I don’t understand,” said Pastor Nickult. “Are they getting in fights? Cursing at the referees?”

“They don’t believe in God,” said Pierce. “I asked them point blank.”

Pastor Nickult sighed right into his phone’s receiver making an unpleasant staticky sound in Pierce’s ear. “The basketball team isn’t really the place for theological debate or drawing lines in the sand, Pierce. I told Elijah and his friends they could play if they attended church. They’ve done that. If they’re not causing problems, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to play. We can’t expect everyone who attends our church to be at the same point on their spiritual journey.”

“Wow,” said Pierce. “I never thought you’d compromise so easily, Pastor.”

“They’re not teaching Sunday School, Pierce. They’re just playing basketball.”

“I’m so sad to hear you say that,” said Pierce. “I’m afraid I’ve got some serious decisions to make. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t see me at church on Sunday. Or ever again.” He hung up for dramatic effect and to ensure that he would have the last word.

Then he picked up his laptop, logged on to the Multioak Church League Basketball website, and began searching for teams in the men’s league with the least amount of players. And if they were low-scoring teams, that was all the better. That meant they needed a shooter.

 

The Multioak Church of the Eternal Loaf Sunday morning service was a lot different than what Pierce had grown up with. The sanctuary wasn’t too different than First Bible’s, but there were just over forty people in the congregation. That explained why they only had five guys on their basketball team, although Pierce reflected that First Bible was now down to five guys on their team and attendance there was usually over 100. And three of those guys were false witnesses, open non-believers using the name of First Bible and the name of Christ to their own selfish, fast-breaking, stat-padding ends. And that was why Pierce was here at Church of the Eternal Loaf, sitting in the back row, and trying to convince himself that there was nothing inherently wrong with the fat-bodied, small-headed pastor standing sideways in the pulpit and repeating the question, “Who knows sin?” over and over with a rotating emphasis on each word, like, “Who knows sin? Who knows sin? Who knows sin?” This had been going on for at least ten minutes. No one else in the congregation seemed confused, so Pierce tried not to look confused either.

The pastor paused, then turned and faced the other direction and started in again. “Who knows sin? Who knows sin? Who knows sin?”

A man sitting in the front row finally stood up and said, “I know sin.” He wore the cleanest pair of overalls Pierce had ever seen and he had a gray crew cut.

The pastor walked around to the front of the pulpit and faced the congregation. “Everyone,” he said. “Approach and confess.”

Everyone in the church stood up and walked down the center aisle towards the pulpit. Pierce, not sure what else to do, followed. At the front of the church, the people crowded around the pastor while he handed out pens and little scraps of paper. Everyone started writing on their scraps.

“What are we supposed to write?” Pierce whispered to a young mother standing next to him.

“Your sin.”

“All of it?”

“Your sin,” said the young mother. “Your sin?”

Pierce said, “Ohhh,” like he understood, but he didn’t. He jotted down a few sins and when everyone started passing their scraps of paper back to the pastor, Pierce did too.

Once the pastor had collected all of the scraps, everyone returned to their seats and the pastor went back behind the pulpit. Then he began to read the scraps in a deep, sonorous voice. “Vanity. Vanity. Vanity.” He paused. “Vanity. Vanity.” He paused again, furrowing his brow. “Anger? Lust? What does this say? Stinginess? Who wrote this?”

Pierce raised his hand. “Sorry, I’m new. I didn’t know we were only supposed to write ‘vanity.’”

Everyone turned to look at him, their faces stern but understanding.

“It’s fine,” said the pastor. “But just, next time, write ‘vanity,’ OK?”

“I will,” said Pierce. Satisfied, everyone turned to face forward again and the pastor read the rest of the scraps. They all said “vanity.” Then the pastor took all of the scraps except for one and dropped them in a fishbowl that was already three quarters full of scraps. Pierce suspected he knew whose scrap had been withheld from the fishbowl. “We’re getting close,” said the pastor. “The drawing will probably be two or three Sundays from now.”

After that, everyone got up again and stood in a line down the center aisle of the church. Pierce was at the very end. He resolved to pay close attention to what everyone was doing this time so he wouldn’t screw up. The pastor again came around from behind the pulpit, but this time he had a large brown loaf of bread in his hands. The loaf was around six inches tall, six inches wide, and two feet long. One end of it was sort of ragged looking.

Pierce couldn’t see what was going on until he got closer to the front of the line. The pastor held the loaf of bread in his right hand and a pair of tweezers in his left hand. As each member of the congregation approached, the pastor used the tweezers to break off a single tiny crumb from the ragged end of the loaf and drop it into the person’s open mouth. When it was Pierce’s turn, he opened his mouth and waited. He couldn’t even see the crumb held in the tweezers as the pastor positioned them over his mouth. Then the pastor opened the tweezers and Pierce maybe felt something miniscule hit the back of his tongue. He returned to his seat, wondering if the members of this church really knew the meaning of the word “eternal.”

The rest of the sermon was a series of baffling transparencies projected onto a pull-down screen at the front of the church. The pastor wrote all over the transparencies with a red marker while he explained them, but Pierce couldn’t follow, although the pastor mentioned The Eternal Loaf quite a bit. Pierce wondered if the loaf of which he’d eaten a crumb was a symbol of The Eternal Loaf or if that was The Eternal Loaf itself. The pastor never clarified that point.

After the service, Pierce asked around about the basketball team. “Oh, sure,” said a young man with different colored eyes and a 50s style haircut. “We’d be glad to have you. But I should warn you, we’re not very good. Great at defense, you know, ‘cause that’s all effort, but we have a trouble scoring.”

“Oh,” said Pierce. “Really?”

“The thing is,” said the young man, “You’ve got to be a member to play.”

“How do I become a member?”

“You sign an extensive doctrinal statement and swear a blood oath to the tenets of the Church of the Eternal Loaf.”

“Great,” said Pierce. “Can we do that now?”

 

And then everything came together. Pierce joined the Multioak Church of the Eternal Loaf Multioak Church League Basketball team and three days later he was warming up in the New Pinnacle Church Gymnasium Complex for his first game with his new team. Their opponent was First Bible Bible Church. It was perfect. Almost like it was meant to be. It had to mean something. It did mean something. Pierce knew it did.

Andrey came over to him right away. He looked shocked. “Pierce, what’s going on? You don’t answer any of my calls, and then you show up on a different team? On this team? What’s going on? Did you switch churches?”

“Yep,” said Pierce, taking a shot from the free throw line. It was a brick, but that didn’t bother him. “I switched. First Bible’s on the decline, Andrey. It’s compromised.”

“Pierce,” said Andrey. “I know you’re mad about Elijah and his friends. But that’s no reason to leave the church you grew up in. And this is the church you end up in? The Eternal Loaf? I’ve heard some weird things about this church, Pierce. Troubling things. They’re like a cult.”

Pierce lowered his voice and said, “Yeah, they are weird, Andrey, but I don’t believe any of it. I’m just here to play good basketball. Real basketball.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Pierce.” Andrey was angry. “Pastor Nickult told me why you quit the team. Now you’re doing the exact same thing Elijah’s doing. You’re pretending to believe something you don’t so you can play basketball. Except you’re worse, because at least Elijah’s honest about what he believes.”

“My issue isn’t even with Elijah,” said Pierce, getting heated. “I expect nothing more from him. But you, and Mike, and Pastor Nickult, you all let me down, Andrey, and you let God down by looking the other way and letting a non-believer represent the church just because he and his friends help you win basketball games. You guys’ souls have been compromised. I may seem compromised on the outside, but my soul has not been compromised!”

Andrey scoffed, pointing a finger at Pierce’s face from a foot away. “You can play whatever logic games you want, Pierce, but you and I both know this is about you being too out of shape to play fast break basketball and not getting the shots you think you deserve.”

“Nope,” said Pierce, adopting a pious expression and shaking his head. “This is about right and wrong.” Then one of his Church of the Eternal Loaf teammates passed him a ball and he fired up another brick. He wasn’t worried.

 

Pierce missed his first four shots from the field. Then he hit two of his next four. And then every shot thereafter was high-arching, beautiful, and pure and he stopped missing altogether.  It didn’t matter who tried to guard him, and all of his former teammates tried. First Andrey, then Mike, then Elijah’s friend, then Elijah’s other friend, then Elijah. It didn’t matter. It did not matter. Pierce made everything. Runners, fade-aways, floaters, set shots, bank shots, three pointers, hook shots. None of the shots even so much as grazed the rim as they passed through the hoop in the course of their perfect trajectories. Pierce’s Church of the Eternal Loaf teammates, though he didn’t know any of their names, set excellent screens. None of them could shoot, but every one of them knew how to spring Pierce so he could shoot, and shoot he did. From everywhere. Wherever he happened to catch the ball, that spot became his hot spot by virtue of his being on that spot and unbelievably, incredibly, scorching hot. He couldn’t miss. Or even if he could, he didn’t.

Pierce didn’t know the score. He didn’t even glance at the scoreboard. He curled off of screens and shot the ball and ran back on defense. He felt neither exhausted nor energetic. He was in the zone, yes, but he was adrift in the zone with no land in sight and with nothing to do but keep shooting. First Bible Bible Church tried ball denial, they tried double-teaming Pierce, they tried fouling Pierce. But there was no shot clock, Pierce’s teammates’ screens were brutally effective, and Pierce was automatic from the line.

First Bible scored points, but there was no way they could keep up with Pierce’s torrid pace. By halftime, they were broken men, haggard, haunted, hunted, huddled together at mid court but saying nothing, only watching Pierce in silence as he dabbed the sweat from his brow with a hand towel he’d brought with him from home.

Pierce’s teammates didn’t speak to him either. One of them did, however, open up a yellow duffel bag and extract a long loaf of bread that looked similar to the loaf used in the service Pierce had attended. The teammate handed Pierce the loaf and offered him a pair of tweezers. Pierce waved the tweezers away and took a healthy bite from the ragged end of the loaf. His teammates looked at him with fear but said nothing. Pierce handed the loaf back to the teammate who had offered it to him. Then he closed his eyes and chewed the stale bread.

Word of what was happening in the game, of what Pierce was doing, spread throughout the complex, and those people who weren’t actively involved in the other games began to straggle over to watch Pierce in action, standing in clusters of two and three along both baselines and waiting for the second half to begin. The atmosphere was not festive. A spirit of unease had descended upon the New Pinnacle Church Gymnasium Complex and Pierce couldn’t tell if he was a cause, the cause, an effect, or the effect, or if he just happened to be on fire at the exact same time that a spirit of unease had descended upon the New Pinnacle Church Gymnasium Complex.

The second half began and Pierce had not cooled off. The shots left his hand but remained his captives, doing only as he wished. They fell from his fingertips and piled up points. They were all alike in the most important way. Each shot was propelled to its destination by all the shots that had come before it. Pierce’s shooting hand sang.

The spectators wrestled with what they saw. Where was the decision, the conclusion, the summation? What would all this shot-making tell them in the end? Pierce’s shooting seemed like an answer to a question they would have needed to have been much wiser to think to ask.

A Multioak Church League Basketball official appeared among the spectators and told them that the game would not count because Pierce and the Church of the Eternal Loaf had not filled out the necessary paperwork to allow Pierce to switch teams in the middle of a season.

Having seen the game broken down and ruined, reduced to one man doing one thing repeatedly, Elijah Nickult decided to never play basketball again. His friends felt the tether snap and watched as the game and basketball as a whole and church and Elijah receded into a chilly, swirling fog.

Andrey continued to box out every time Pierce shot the ball. And he ached for he knew not what. One miss to help him sleep at night, perhaps.

Mike wondered why his ankles hurt.

Pierce’s team mates sacrificed themselves willingly, but weren’t sure if they were the martyrs, their opponents were the martyrs, or if Pierce was the martyr. When Pierce curled around their picks, they could smell the Eternal Loaf on his breath. Would he be exalted for his boldness or stricken down for his presumption? And if so, when? Was this it?

And Pierce shot the basketball. Volume and efficiency, wound so tightly together as to be indistinguishable from one another. Pierce knew, though, that his streak would come to an end, that shooting statistics tend to even out, and that there was an increasingly likely chance that he would never make another shot in his life.

The buzzer sounded signaling the end of the game and no one noticed.

Pierce kept shooting.

Swish, swish, swish.




Discussion Questions

  • I probably should have asked this about a hundred stories ago, but have you ever heard of basketball? It’s pretty fun. And endlessly fascinating.



  • Based on what you know of the Church of the Eternal Loaf, how willing would you be to tithe ten percent of your earnings to them each week? Why would you be that amount of willing?



  • Is “volume shooter” just a nicer way of saying “chucker?” Or is there an important distinction to be made between the two kinds of player? If so, make that distinction in the space provided: ____. (Write microscopically if necessary)



  • How would every character’s life after the final game of the story be different if Pierce had just shot poorly again?



  • Who is the most compromised person in the story? Who is the most compromised person you know? Who is the most compromised person of all time (living or dead, fictional characters included)? Who is the most compromised person of which Man can conceive? What lies beyond Compromise? I’m just asking for opinions here, people.



  • What, if anything, can be gleaned? No words have been omitted from this question.