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#147

Picks



              The best place to play pick-up basketball wasn’t in Multioak, it was over in Dalcette at the outdoor courts by the old elementary school, right along Primary Street, preferably on a summer night underneath the lights, which were timed to stay on until 10:30. Anton had never actually played there before, but one time during the summer before 6th grade, he’d spent the night at a kid from church’s house who lived in Dalcette and they’d walked to the gas station to get fountain drinks, passing right by the basketball courts in the middle of an intense game. Anton had been captivated. The sun had set and the lights had come on, but the sky wasn’t dark yet. That morning’s rain still hung thick in the air. There were rickety, rusted bleachers between the courts and the road and a few girls sat there talking while a few little boys, not much younger than Anton, pretended to fire guns out from under the bleachers like soldiers in a bunker. The courts were comprised of three separate courts surrounded by a tall, chain-link fence. The 5-on-5, full-court game in progress was taking place on the court nearest the road while a handful of guys waiting to challenge the eventual winning team took lazy threes on the open hoops and inquired about the score during every break in the action.

                The atmosphere was intoxicating, but it had been the game itself that truly got its hooks into Anton. The guys who were playing cared so much. They argued constantly about fouls, insulted each other, bickered about the score, yelled at their own teammates, took strategically terrible shots, yelled at themselves; it was a brand of basketball Anton had never seen before, not even from the professionals on TV that his dad derided for their poor sportsmanship and lack of class. This was basketball freed from the fetters of responsibility to coaches, referees, fans, even teammates. Even then, though he wouldn’t have been able to articulate it, Anton felt as if this was how basketball should be played: to win, yes, but with each individual striving to do so on his own terms.

                After the game ended on a dramatic, called bank shot from a deceptively quick chubby guy with a deep tan and expensive shoes, there was brief break between games so the winning team could sip their sports drinks and check their phones for text messages and smoke cigarettes before the next game started. And then Anton’s church-friend - who wasn’t even really a friend, Anton’s parents just encouraged him to spend time with him ‘cause they liked that he was from church – insisted that they had to go home or else they’d get in trouble, which Anton doubted, but, not knowing the intricacies of this kid’s household’s rules, he couldn’t prove it wasn’t true, so they left.

 

                Anton drove to the courts in Dalcette on the evening of the day he got his driver’s license. It was the first place he ever drove by himself. He was nervous, but not about the driving. He was overconfident in his driving ability. He was nervous about actually playing ball at the courts. He had been practicing in his driveway for years. He had played intramural basketball at Multioak High School during his freshman year, assuming that the ragged style of play there would be a close approximation of the street ball played at the Dalcette courts, although he wasn’t sure if Dalcette was too small of a town for the basketball played at its courts to be considered “street ball,” maybe that was a term reserved for more urban settings. Anton had done jumping exercises to improve his vertical leap and he was now capable of touching the rim, although he couldn’t quite grab it, much to his frustration. He had also gleaned some information about the courts from a senior named Layton who was in Anton’s Algebra class because he had already failed it twice. Layton had told Anton that the games at the courts were always played to 11 by ones and twos unless no one was waiting to play or if it was the last game of the night, then maybe they’d play to 15, but always by ones and twos. Anton, like an idiot, had asked why there were no three-pointers and the senior had laughed and told him that the twos were the three-pointers and regular shots were ones and there were no free throws, everyone just called their own fouls and then you’d check it up top, plus you had to win by two, you couldn’t win 11-10, for example, you’d have to score again, if the other team had 10, you’d have to have 12 or more to win.

                It was a lot to keep track of. As Anton followed the highway into Dalcette, he resolved to not get bogged down in the details, he’d just let the other guys keep score, he wouldn’t worry about calling fouls, he’d just lay low and play hard and maybe he’d be tolerated, maybe he’d be accepted. Maybe he’d become a regular.

 

                Anton was the fifth person to arrive at the courts. He’d brought his own ball and he shot around with the other guys, acting casual. No one asked him his name but no one seemed to object to his presence either. Then a sixth guy showed up, his white t-shirt enormous, his shorts hanging down to mid-shin, and announced that he did not need to warm up and that he was ready to run threes.

                And so, for the first time in his life, Anton got in line to shoot for teams at the Dalcette courts. He was the fourth to shoot, and when he stepped to the free throw line, two guys had already made their shots, meaning the teams were one make from being complete. Anton did not expect to make his free throw, but he did, he made it, the teams were set and he was on the team of guys who had made their free throws, not the team of guys who had not, although he was not going to let himself get cocky, it was only a free throw, they were called “free” for a reason, although to hear Anton’s dad tell it you’d think there wasn’t a professional basketball player alive who could do what Anton had just done.

                A truck pulled into the parking lot and two older guys got out, the laces on their shoes so loose that they almost stepped out of their shoes as they walked. Anton recognized them from school. But they assured everyone that they didn’t want to play until there were enough guys for five-on-five and they sauntered over to an open hoop where one started shooting free throws while the other rebounded for him.

                Anton wondered if he should introduce himself to his teammates.

                “I’ll shoot for ball,” said one of the guys on the opposing team, a man in his early 30s with a haircut for everyone to hate. His basketball shoes appeared to be triple-knotted for security bordering on the absurd. He launched the ball from the three-point line with questionable form, but it went in, awarding his team the first possession of the game.

                “Guard Brock,” said one of Anton’s teammates, a guy who appeared to be in his mid-20s, but who also had the bearing of a recent high school dropout.

                “Which one’s Brock?” asked Anton.

                “Him,” said his teammate, pointing at the late arrival with the huge, low-hanging shorts.

                Brock dribbled the game ball at the top of the key, waiting for Anton to square up to him so the game could begin. “Check,” he said, bouncing the ball to Anton. Anton looked over his shoulder to make sure his teammates were ready. Then he bounced the ball back to Brock.

                “Hold up,” said Anton’s other teammate, a guy with long hair that looked like it smelled of cigarettes and was held out of his face with a bandana. “There’s Miller and Avery.”

                Anton looked across the court and saw two men walking toward them. One of them wore a shiny, fake basketball jersey and denim shorts that stopped just above his knees. He was finishing off a Newsworthy Burger ice cream sundae as he walked, dribbling a black basketball across the court with his feet like a soccer ball. The other guy was overweight and shirtless, his pale torso covered in an unholy mix of hair and tattoos.

                “Shoot ‘em up,” called the guy with the ice cream as he approached. “We’ve got fives, let’s go.” He took a final bite of melty ice cream and flung his garbage toward the fence.

                “We already started, Miller,” said Brock. “We’ll run fives next.”

                “Nah, nah,” said Anton’s teammate who looked like a recent dropout. “We’ve got fives, let’s run, we barely started anyway.”

                Brock grimaced. “Fine, but we’re not re-shooting, you guys take Miller.”

                Anton’s teammate and Brock looked at each other without expression for a few moments while Miller picked up his basketball and executed an uncontested, herky-jerky layup. Anton sensed tension. Then Anton’s teammate shrugged. “Fine, we’ll take him.”

                The game was fast-paced, exhilarating, and short. Anton’s team won 11-7. Miller scored 6 of their 11 points despite his and Anton’s teammates rarely passing to him. Anton, who had only scored on one put-back, but who had added a handful of rebounds, a steal, a block, and two assists, couldn’t understand why Brock had insisted on not having Miller on his team and why Anton’s teammates had seemed reluctant to take him. Miller was good. And Avery, on the other hand, was  bad. He was not deceptively quick, he was exactly as quick as he looked, and he didn’t seem very competitive.

                Anton stood by himself near the bleacher seats, waiting for the next game to start. He drank warm water from a bottle he’d brought with him from home. The other guys, except for Miller, drank their sports drinks, talked, laughed, and responded to the honks of passing cars with upraised middle fingers. Even Avery, who had arrived with Miller, appeared to prefer the company of the other guys. Miller stood apart from everyone at the opposite basket and stared into space, dribbling his basketball. Then he looked up, saw Anton standing by himself, and walked over to him, dribbling between his legs on every third step.

                “You’ve never played here before,” said Miller.

                “Yeah,” said Anton. “This is my first time playing up here.”

                “It’s good competition,” said Miller. “Well, some nights are better than others. Tonight is kind of weak. You’re not bad though, that was a sick block you had, I didn’t think you were gonna get to it.”

                “Thanks,” said Anton.

                “How tall are you?” asked Miller. “How much do you weigh?”

                “Uh, I’m like six foot, 170,” said Anton, adding ten pounds to his actual weight.

                Miller nodded. “Do you know how to set good picks?”

                “I don’t know,” said Anton. “Yeah, I think so.”

                “Not a lot of people set good picks in street ball,” said Miller. “If they set them at all. But I work best when I can get someone to set a good pick for me, all I need is that little bit of daylight and I’m automatic.”

                “You want me to set a few picks for you next game?” asked Anton.

                “Show me what you can do,” said Miller. “And if your picks show promise, I might have an offer for you.”

                “All right,” said Anton.

                Miller nodded and turned to the other guys. “Let’s run ‘em back,” he called. And, although the evening still provided ample light for basketball, the lights overhead came on with a shameless hum and the various flying insects in the vicinity found their lives abruptly filled with purpose.

 

                Anton had not wanted it to be like this. He had wanted to be a regular at the courts, an accepted member of the unofficial fraternity, greeted with head-nods, greeted with daps, an asset to whichever team or teams the shoot-for-teams process dictated he should belong to on a given night. Instead, here he was at Miller’s house on a Saturday afternoon, practicing setting picks on no one as Miller knocked down jumper after jumper on the hoop in his driveway.

                “Sometimes,” said Miller, panting happily, “you can fake like you’re gonna set a pick on the defender’s left side, but then switch it to the right side at the last second, take ‘em by surprise, that gives me an even better chance at a clean look. And you know what happens when I get a clean look.” He smiled and demonstrated with a jump shot that indeed went through the hoop.

                Anton glanced toward Miller’s house and saw Miller’s step-children watching through the front window. There were four of them and they all seemed to be the same size and five-ish years old.

                “Don’t pay attention to them,” said Miller, noting Anton’s distraction. “If they see you looking at them too much, they’ll start pounding on the window and begging for juice in little boxes.”

                “Juice boxes?” said Anton.

                “Alright,” said Miller. “Now come over here to the wing. Now, right here I want the pick on my right ‘cause that lets me get to the baseline where I can either pull up or drive and finish reverse, even if there’s a shot-blocker underneath. But on the other wing, I like the pick on my right there too, ‘cause then I can get to the middle of the lane and I’ve got lots of options then. But, OK, so show me what pick you’d do if I was right here in a game.”

                Anton dutifully set a pick on the empty air defending Miller so he could dribble to the baseline on his right-hand side, which he did.

                “See?” said Miller. “Pull up” – he pump-faked like he was going to shoot a jump shot – “Or baseline drive to reverse layup.” He dribbled along the baseline at a trot and attempted a reverse layup, which rimmed out. “OK, we have to try that again.”

                “Well, I got the concept, though,” said Anton. “You wouldn’t miss in a game.”

                “No, no,” said Miller. “We have to execute. It’s not fair to you if you go to all this trouble learning to set picks for me, and then we go to the trouble of manipulating the shooting-for-teams to make sure we end up on the same team, and then you set a perfect pick for me and I drive baseline and blow the reverse layup. You see how that’s a waste of your time?”

                Anton very much saw how all of this was a waste of his time, but he didn’t want to say so to Miller. It was a complicated situation. Although Miller was clearly disliked by the other guys at the courts, he was also an accepted regular. In fact, Anton wasn’t sure how old Miller was, but he thought he remembered him being one of the guys who had been playing on that summer night five years before when Anton’s desire to one day play ball at the courts had first awoken within him. So, despite the other guys’ distaste for Miller, Anton still got the impression that Miller’s acceptance of new players mattered on some level, maybe even on a level of which the other guys weren’t consciously aware. So accepting Miller’s invitation to come over to his house and “shoot around” a little bit had seemed like it had the potential to be a good idea. But now that he was here, Anton wished that he was not. Had any of the other guys gone through this when they first started showing up at the courts? Maybe this was just a rite of passage: first, you’re Miller’s official pick-setter who has to practice to be such with him in his driveway, then, after you’ve paid your dues, you break free and can afford to be openly disdainful of him at the courts without jeopardizing your place among the regulars. That was the best case scenario trajectory that Anton was imagining for himself. Worse possible trajectories, far worse possible trajectories, and nightmare trajectories that may or may not be possible all angled for position in Anton’s imagination, but he kept them at bay. He would put in his time with Miller and then, soon, he would leap from the nest and fly, setting picks or not setting picks whenever, wherever, and for whomever he wanted, finally achieving his dream of playing hedonistic, responsibility-free basketball.

                “You want a drink?” asked Miller.

                “Sure,” said Anton. “What do you have?”

                “Juice in little boxes,” said Miller. “But you can’t let the kids see you drinking it or they’ll go nuts, so we’ll have to lock ourselves in the garage.”

                “I actually think I should go home now,” said Anton. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

                “Yeah, tomorrow night,” said Miller. “Don’t forget about the stuff I told you about the picks.”

                “I won’t,” said Anton, and he glanced at the front window of the house. Only one child was there and it was hard to see him or her with the way the sunlight reflected off of the glass. Anton sneaked a wave at the child. If this gesture triggered within the child a desperate need for a juice box, he or she bore it with stoic dignity.

 

                But what actually happened was that the other guys at the courts started openly disliking Anton for his association with Miller. They made jokes at his expense. They scoffed whenever he set a pick for Miller, which was often, even when the picks resulted in points, which they often did. They implied that Anton and Miller were romantically attached, then stopped implying it and just started stating it outright. When Anton arrived at the courts before Miller, the other guys almost tripped over each other in their haste to be the first to ask him where his boyfriend was. And it was extra embarrassing the way Miller would always get in line right behind Anton when it was time to shoot for teams so that he could try to manipulate the process by missing when Anton missed and making it whenever Anton made it, which he could do with discouraging consistency. Sometimes Anton and Miller did end up on different teams, but Anton’s teammates froze him out, never passing him the ball, never congratulating him on a good defensive play, not even giving him dap when he set them up to score with a nice pass. They all knew whose team he was really on, temporary circumstances aside: the two-person team of Miller and Anton. The fact that he and Miller played so well together and often carried their team to victory actually made it worse for Anton. All the winning did nothing but vindicate the partnership in Miller’s eyes and make it that much more obnoxious in the eyes of everyone else.

                But Anton couldn’t just stop going to the courts. He’d been waiting for this for too long. As different as his experience at the courts had been from what he’d always imagined, he was there. He was a regular. He just needed something to change, something to happen. He couldn’t salvage the situation by not playing ball at the courts. If there was any hope at all to be had, it could only be found at the courts, and Anton had to be there in order to find it, had to be ready to pounce when the moment arose, had to be vigilant for any opportunity to change the dynamic, no matter how small.

                And, as much as Miller grated on him and was, let’s face it, the source of all of Anton’s problems at the courts, Anton couldn’t just turn on him. For one thing, Miller was the only one who liked him. If Anton turned on Miller, what assurance did he have that the other guys would welcome him over to their side of the divide? If a public rejection or denouncement of Miller wasn’t enough to endear Anton to the other guys, then he would have no one and he would be entirely unwelcome at the courts. And for another thing, well, Miller was overbearing and weird and bossy, but he was also nice to Anton. It made Anton feel guilty to imagine being mean to Miller based solely on the slim hope that it would make the other guys like him.

                So Anton drove from Multioak to the courts in Dalcette almost every night, and set picks for Miller, and won a lot, and lost a little, and waited for something to change. He didn’t know what that change would look like, how it could be accomplished, he had no plan, no short-term goal or long-term strategy beyond trying to not seem enthusiastic about his role. He had only the knowledge, born of 16 years of life experience, that things do not continue as they are forever.

 

               

                On a humid Thursday night, with the crescent moon presiding over a black sky speckled sparsely with stars operating well below peak effort and the courts in Dalcette awash in publicly-funded, artificial light, Anton and Miller played basketball with harmonious precision. Anton set joyless picks, screening Miller’s defenders, and Miller scored baskets, and their team won, again and again. Anton’s picks may have been joyless, but he could not deny a grim satisfaction in their effectiveness, even as each successive, successful pick widened the gulf between him and everyone else who wasn’t Miller.

                And then, just after beginning what they had agreed would be the last game of the night, fresh sweat trickling down over layers of stale sweat, Anton noticed a man leaning against the outside of the fence behind the hoop on the northern end of the court, watching the game. Anton hadn’t seen where the man had come from, but he’d probably just been out walking and stopped to take in the action for a little while before heading home. Anton stood with his hands on his knees under the south basket, waiting as the opposing team slowly advanced the ball past half court. The final games of the night were always ugly. Anton looked at the man under the north hoop again. The man seemed to be looking back at him in particular.

                “Don’t pay attention to him,” said Miller. Anton hadn’t noticed him standing next to him until he spoke. “Just ignore him.”

                “Who is he?” asked Anton.

                “He’ll go away,” said Miller. “It’ll be fine.”

                But then one of Anton and Miller’s teammates, a skinny, shirtless guy with band-aids on his stomach, noticed the man too and spoke up, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Uh oh, Miller, is there gonna be a fight? Rosie doesn’t look too happy to see your new boy.”

                The game stopped dead as everyone turned to look at the man watching them through the fence. Even with everyone looking at him, the man still didn’t say anything. He just watched.

                “Hey, Rosie,” called one of the guys. “Where have you been? We thought you moved away or died or something.”

                Rosie didn’t answer.

                “Who is that?” Anton asked again.

                “It’s no one,” said Miller.

                “That’s not no one,” said the guy with the band-aids on his stomach. “That’s Rosie, man.”

                “Yeah,” said Anton. “But who’s Rosie?”

                The guy grinned and the sweat-soaked adhesive strips on one of his band-aids gave out and the band-aid fell to the court, exposing a patch of skin that was not wounded, but was much cleaner and whiter than the rest of his torso. “Rosie,” he said, “is you in the future.”

                And then Rosie spat onto the court through the fence and walked away.

 

                Anton’s friend Mayzie found someone online selling some old video games that she wanted, so Anton agreed to ride along with her to pick up the games from the seller at Seraphim Park in Dalcette. The seller turned out to be Brock from the courts.

                “Watch,” Anton said to Mayzie as they wound their way through the many picnic tables – some might say too many – toward Brock. “He’s going to ask me where my-”

                “Where’s your boyfriend?” called Brock.

                The video game transaction was short. Mayzie handed Brock the money, he handed her a plastic bag with four video games in it.

                “You playing tonight?” asked Anton. This was the first time he’d encountered a courts regular other than Miller anywhere outside of the courts. He hoped that, boyfriend query aside, maybe this new context would change how Brock treated him.

                “Yeah, I’m playing,” said Brock, a sneer splashed across his face. “You and your man gonna be there?”

                “I’m playing,” said Anton. “I don’t know about Miller.” But, of course, Miller was always there. And also, Anton had gotten a text from Miller earlier in the day saying he’d be at the courts tonight, so he actually did know about Miller.

                “Your man?” asked Mayzie as she opened each video game case to make sure the discs were inside. “Who’s your man, Anton? Who’s Miller?”

                “He’s just a guy who plays ball with us at the courts,” said Anton. “He always wants me to be on his team so I can set picks for him. Everyone thinks it’s kind of weird. I mean, it is weird.”

                “Ah, don’t act like you don’t like it,” said Brock. “He chose you. You should enjoy it while it lasts.”

                Anton faked a chuckle. “Yeah, well, I don’t know about that, I’m actually looking forward to him losing interest.”

                Brock’s chuckle was probably real, but also sounded mean. “Yeah? You should ask Rosie how it goes when Miller loses interest. Might change your mind.”

                “Who’s Rosie?” asked Mayzie. She had sat down at one of the numerous picnic tables nearby and was examining one of the video game discs for scratches.

                “He’s the guy Miller trained to set picks for him last summer,” said Brock. “He was all about setting picks for a while, but I guess the magic wore off, just like it always does. I don’t think I ever learned the name of the guy before Rosie and I didn’t live around here the summer before that, but some of the other guys remember Miller’s early pick-setters. You still see ‘em around town sometimes.”

                “They don’t play ball anymore?” asked Anton. “None of them?”

                Brock snorted. “Man, they never played ball. They just set picks.”

                Miller looked surprised to see Anton on his doorstep. “I need to talk to you,” said Anton.

                “Not here,” said Miller. “My step kids will overhear and they’ll start begging us to teach them to ride bicycles. We should lock ourselves in the garage.”

                “Fine,” said Anton.

                Miller came out onto the front step and closed the door behind him, then trotted around to the garage door and punched in the code. Anton followed. The garage door began to open. Anton nodded to Mayzie, who was waiting in the car, and held up one finger to indicate that this would only take a minute.

                The interior of the garage was a shining example of how to make a mess using the least possible amount of stuff. There were no cars in the garage, but among the very few items that somehow seemed to be scattered everywhere were several children’s bicycles that appeared to be, for lack of a better term, terminally ill. On the work bench at the back of the garage were three stacks of small, brown, waxy boxes with their lids taped shut. Anton suspected there may be room-temperature juice inside.

                Miller pressed a button on the wall and the garage door lowered. “What’s going on?” asked Miller. “You wanting to talk strategy? I feel like things have been working well, but there’s always room for improvement. Maybe you’re right, maybe we should get some practice in before we head up to the courts tonight.”

                “It’s not that,” said Anton. “I ran into Brock today.”

                Miller furrowed his brow. “Who?”

                “Brock,” said Anton. “From the courts.”

                “I don’t really know those guys’ names,” said Miller.

                “Well, OK,” said Anton. “But he was telling me some stuff I wanted to ask you about. Like, about other guys you’ve, like, teamed up with before. Like Rosie. And he said there were guys before Rosie too. Who mostly just set picks for you. And now none of them play ball anymore and I was just wondering, I guess, well, what’s up with that?”

                “You’d have to ask them,” said Miller. “So you wanna get some practice in now? Did you bring basketball clothes? If not, you can borrow some of mine.”

                “So nothing happened to them?” asked Anton. “They just stopped showing up to play so you recruited someone else?”

                “Yeah, exactly,” said Miller. “‘Cause having someone set picks for me makes all the difference. You’ve seen it yourself. We’re almost unstoppable.”

                “Yeah, OK,” said Anton. “I guess, yeah, OK.”

                “It’s nothing strange or sinister,” said Miller. “The other guys just don’t like me ‘cause I found a way to game the system over there. I find a guy to set picks for me and the wins pile up. And then, after a while, some of those guys stop showing up over at the courts for any number of reasons and I keep my eye open for someone else who might be willing to set picks for me so we can start dominating again.”

                “Yeah, OK,” said Anton. “But is Rosie a first name or a last name or what?”

                Miller gave Anton a confused smile. “I don’t know what you mean.” Then he pressed the button on the wall, the garage door opened, and there, standing in the driveway in front of Anton’s car, facing Miller and Anton and clutching a battered basketball with both hands, was Rosie.

                Anton hadn’t gotten a good look at Rosie the night he briefly showed up at the courts, but he could see him clearly now: a thick man in an unbuttoned button-up and green cargo shorts, a man with a full head of brittle black hair, a man with despondent eyes.

                “You’re not supposed to be here,” said Miller. His voice was sharp.

                “I don’t know where else to go,” said Rosie.

                “You chose to stop,” said Miller. “You said you wanted ‘something else.’”

                “But there isn’t anything else,” said Rosie. “I looked everywhere.”

                “Well, this guy sets picks for me now,” said Miller, pointing at Anton.

                “I can set better picks than him,” said Rosie. “I saw you guys playing the other night. You know I can, Miller, I know you remember the picks I set for you. I could screen anyone and I still can.”

                “No,” said Miller. “I never go backward. No one goes backward. It’s impossible to go backward.”

                “Fine,” said Rosie. “Then think of me as someone new. I’m not the same person I was last summer anyway. I am new.”

                “I don’t want your needy, self-serving picks,” said Miller. “The picks are there to free me up for open looks as the basket. That’s it, Rosie! That’s all they are! They’re a means to an end and that end is made baskets, not your personal fulfillment. This always happens. You guys subvert your own desires to help me accomplish my goals, then you resent me but you persist anyway out of some kind of compulsion, then you convince yourself that setting picks holds some deeper meaning for you, then you get freaked out and tear yourself away and disappear.”

                “I’ve seen the other guys,” said Rosie. “The ones who came before me. I’ve met them. They’re empty, Miller, they’ve got nothing. But I’m not that far gone. I’m not empty, I still want to set picks for you.”

                “Do you remember the last time you played ball at the courts?” asked Miller.

                “Yes,” said Rosie. “I do. It was almost a year ago. Mid-August. A Monday night.”

                “Every other pick-setter I’ve ever had played through early September,” said Miller. “When they came to me around the same time of the summer that you did and said they felt like they needed to get away, I talked them into staying. But not you. I didn’t try to convince you to stay at all, Rosie. You know why?”

                “No,” said Rosie, taking two steps back from Miller. “No, don’t say it.”

                “Because you set mediocre picks,” said Miller. “Your picks were mediocre and I decided I was just as happy to let you walk. So if you’re wondering why you’re the only one in however many years to come crawling back begging me to let you set picks for me again, now you know. You’re the only one that walked before you were wrung dry. Even if I let you come set picks for me again, we’re talking three weeks at most before you’re just like all the other ones. Count yourself lucky. You got out while you could still piece together enough coherent sentences to articulate your misery.”

                Anton coughed. “Hey, Miller? I’m actually gonna go now.”

                Miller looked over at Anton for a few moments, then said, “Oh, yeah. I forgot you were there.”

                “Yeah, I figured,” said Anton.

                “Well, it’s only July, what, 18th? You might be OK, I dunno. Good luck.”

                “Thanks,” said Anton. He didn’t know what else to say. He nodded to Rosie as he walked past him to the car where Mayzie was dozing with her headphones on, oblivious to everything.

                “So this means you don’t have anyone to set picks for you now, right?” asked Rosie, a ruinous hope creeping into his voice. “And you’re playing tonight?”

                Anton got into the car and slammed the door, turning the key in the ignition, turning up the radio, not looking at Miller or Rosie as he backed out of Miller’s driveway, never knowing Miller’s response to Rosie, never knowing if Miller had gone back on his resolution to never go backward. And even if he had, Anton told himself that he would not envy Rosie.

He would not, not, not envy Rosie.




Discussion Questions

  • What was the best pick you ever set? If you’ve every played basketball, you may only recount the best literal pick you ever set, but if you’ve never played basketball, what was the best metaphorical pick you ever set?



  • What are some activities that you believe you would enjoy more if they were plucked clean of all responsibility? Paradoxical answers are acceptable. For example, “babysitting.”



  • Is it ever acceptable to play pick-up basketball outdoors by twos and threes? Is it ever acceptable to call a foul if you are not personally in possession of the ball? Are one-point victories gauche?



  • Have you ever tried to go back to something that used to make you happy but then it stopped making you happy but now you want to see if maybe it will make you happy again? Was it cigarettes? Was it giving birth? Was it a cartoon series?



  • Have you ever hitched your wagon to the wrong star? If so, say something truly profound about the experience that some of us, at least, will remember forever.



  • Whose acceptance do you most crave? What if I told you the correct answer was “your own?” Would you try to deduct points from MY grade? Impossible! I give the grades to you, not the other way around. I don’t even have grades, wiseguy/gal.