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And None

                 “Take a seat,” said Coach Verck.

               “There aren’t any chairs,” said Graham. He was a sophomore at Multioak High school and in the midst of his second year as the starting shooting guard for the Multioak Marionettes basketball team.

               Coach Verck stood behind his desk with his arms folded and looked around the room. “What the…? Where are my chairs? I used to have two chairs in here. You remember the chairs, don’t you?”

               “I remember that there were chairs,” said Graham.

               “Maybe they’re being cleaned,” said Coach Verck. “Anyway, we don’t need to sit down to talk. We can talk standing up, right?”

               “Yes,” said Graham. His hair was still damp from his post-practice shower. A backpack dangled from his right shoulder, heavy with items he would not be able to name without looking. He was six feet tall, but a few inches shorter than Coach Verck, who had been a power forward on his lower-division college team decades ago.

               “Your style of play disgusts me, Graham,” said Coach Verck. The gray at his temples crept upward toward his sweat-soaked sweatband. He wore his new goatee as if he might pull a razor from his shorts pocket and eliminate it at any moment. “You avoid contact. You hardly ever draw fouls.”

               “I’m averaging 16 points a game,” said Graham. “I’m shooting almost 50 percent.”

               “I didn’t say you’re bad,” said Coach Verck. “I said your style of play disgusts me.” Without looking, he pointed at a blank spot on the wall behind him. “What does this say?”

               “The poster’s gone,” said Graham.

               Coach Verck turned, narrowed his eyes, knocked his knuckle against what should have been the dead center of the poster. “They must be cleaning the poster too.” He looked around the room. “All the posters.”

               “I remember it said something about being physical,” said Graham.

               “Exactly right,” said Coach Verck.

               “I’ve been playing pretty well without being physical, though,” said Graham.

“And that’s what disgusts me,” said Coach Verck. “Whenever you encounter resistance, you just pull up for a jumper. Or if you’re anywhere near the rim, you do some of that up-and-under dipsy-doo garbage. Or you launch one of those mile-high floaters. Oh, how I hate those floaters, how high they float! You’ve never heard of finishing through contact? Absorbing the contact and still finding a way to score? You’ve got no interest in getting three points the old-fashioned way? You’ve got no interest in being able to shout ‘and one!’ after you score? Your teammates do it all the time! Every one of them! Some of them shout ‘and one’ even when they miss! It makes no sense, but that’s how committed they are to the concept.”

               “I think it’s annoying when they do that,” said Graham.

               “Of course it’s annoying,” said Coach Verck. “But it shows their hearts are in the right place.”

               “I might get injured,” said Graham. “Jake missed the last half of last year after that hard foul where he landed on his shoulder.”

               “Don’t bring up Jake,” said Coach Verck. “Jake’s the last person you want to compare yourself to. Jake draws fouls all the time.”

               “Yeah, and he shoots like 40 percent from the line,” said Graham.

               “But he gets the opposing bigs in foul trouble,” said Coach Verck. “Then they have to play their backup centers. Have you noticed how bad the backup centers are in our conference?”

               “Yeah,” said Graham. “I have. Like how bad Royce was for us after Jake got hurt from that hard foul.”

               “That’s how you want to be known?” asked Coach Verck. “That’s what you want your reputation to be around the conference? Someone who’s afraid of contact?”

               Graham shrugged. “Are you going to bench me?”

               “No,” said Coach Verck. “We need your scoring. I mostly just wanted you to know that your style of play disgusts me. And I want you to dwell on that tonight. And see if it changes your perspective.”

               “All right,” said Graham. “But it won’t, though.”

               “I’m going to write it down for you,” said Coach Verck. “So you don’t forget.” He opened his desk drawer. He narrowed his eyes.

               “Are your pens and note paper getting cleaned?” asked Graham.

               Coach Verck closed the desk drawer. “Apparently they are.”


               At home, Graham’s older sister Polly was upset. “I haven’t told anyone else,” she said.

               Graham, having just emerged from the upstairs bathroom with damp hands, got nervous. The only light in the hallway came from Polly’s open bedroom door. “Maybe you should tell Mom,” said Graham. “Whatever it is.”

               “Mom and Dad are out to dinner with the Piffings,” said Polly. “And Mom wouldn’t get it anyway.”

               “What makes you think I’ll get it?” asked Graham. He’d never felt he had much in common with his sister. They were separated by a year and a half, and also by many characteristics, traits, tastes, and opinions.

               “You’ll get it,” said Polly. Her earrings were so long they grazed her shoulders. Her hair hung to only mid-earring.

Graham’s eyes kept darting to a portrait of him as a kindergartner hanging on the wall over Polly’s shoulder.

“You remember Tuesday?” asked Polly.

“This Tuesday?” asked Graham. “Like, two days ago?”

“Yes,” said Polly. “So you remember it?”


“I didn’t age on Tuesday,” said Polly. “I was the same age at the end of Tuesday as I was at the beginning of Tuesday. But then I started aging normally again on Wednesday, which was a relief, but I’m still a day younger than I should be.”

Graham could not fathom why his sister thought he would “get” anything about this.

“And this is a big problem?” asked Graham, but he made the question mark at the end very subtle.

“Exactly!” said Polly. “I knew you’d get it.” She smiled in spite of her anxiety. “Uh, excuse me. Can I get into the bathroom?”

“Oh, sorry,” said Graham. He stepped out of the bathroom doorway and Polly slipped past him and closed the door. Graham was relieved that his sister hadn’t wanted him to offer solutions or advice. Back in his own bedroom, he tried to imagine why not aging over the course of a single day would be a big problem, but he came up empty.


At the end of the 3rd quarter, Graham already had 19 points, over his average with a whole quarter still to go. A career night was quite possible. Probable, even! Well within reach. Hard to imagine it not happening. And Multioak was up by 13 points on the Finefield High School Harvesters, benefitting repeatedly from careless Harvester turnovers. But Coach Verck was not happy, and he was not hesitant to explain why.

During the huddle between the 3rd and 4th quarters, Coach Verck thrust his clipboard at Graham and said, “I thought once I told you how I feel about your style of play – my true feelings, Graham – that you’d change. Or make an effort to change.”

“You didn’t tell me to change,” said Graham.

“But I made it clear that I wanted you to change,” said Coach Verck. “And I hoped that would make you want to change.”

“Well, it didn’t,” said Graham.

“Tell him to pass me the ball more,” said Jake. He rolled his broad shoulders, tossed his head like a horse does. “I’ll draw some fouls.”

“Yeah!” said Royce from the perimeter of the huddle. “Pass Jake the ball more! Let him draw fouls!” His shoulders were narrow, they sloped, and there were pimples upon them. The time Royce had spent as the replacement starter during Jake’s injury absence had been the pinnacle of his young existence, and his support for the plan to have Jake draw more fouls was a transparent wish for Jake to sustain another injury that would return Royce to the starting lineup.

Coach Verck scowled at Jake. “Graham passing you the ball more would just be another way for him to avoid contact.” He didn’t acknowledge Royce at all.

As the 4th quarter began, Graham was one point from tying his career high, two from setting a new one. One two-point field goal and he’d have it, that’s all it would take. With a 13-point lead, Multioak was ahead by enough that Graham could afford to be a little selfish. But he had a whole quarter to get one basket. Coach Verck rarely emptied the bench in blowout wins. So there was no reason for Graham to act desperate. In fact, maybe he could take a small detour on his quest for a new personal best to please Coach Verck. Even though there had been no mention of a reduced role or additional wind sprints at practice, Graham knew it was still best to stay on his coach’s good side, or at least slow his descent to his coach’s bad side.

So, sure, Graham would draw a foul. The Finefield center was spindly but earthbound, more lunger than leaper. He was skittish, too, always flailing his arms in the direction of the ball on defense and offense both. It wouldn’t take much to bait him into a foul, and he didn’t have enough mass or force to do any real damage. Maybe Graham could even get one of those precious “and-ones” his teammates were always hunting. Maybe he’d even shout “and one” after the foul, but only if he actually made the basket. He would not lower himself to shouting “and one” after a missed basket. But he thought he had a good chance of converting; he couldn’t imagine his target’s foul offering much resistance.

Graham’s opportunity came early in the 4th. With only one minute elapsed, he received the ball on the left wing, disposed of his primary defender with a hesitation crossover, and drove along the baseline for what, under normal circumstances, would have become a feathery floater, or maybe a scoop reverse layup, either of which would have left the Harvester center swiping at air, powerless, impotent, but not this time, that wasn’t what Coach Verck wanted, so as Graham approached the lane, he planted both feet, threw a head-fake to bring the center off-balance, and powered straight up through the flimsy tangle of limbs above him.

The point of a wrist-bone caught Graham on his left eyebrow. He fell to the hardwood clutching his face. He examined his hands through bleary eyes and saw blood. He looked around for the ball and noticed that the action had already moved to the other end of the floor. The game had continued without him, which meant there had been no stoppage of play, which meant the ref hadn’t even called the obvious foul, which meant Graham’s sacrificial stylistic alteration had been for nothing. As Graham got to his feet, he saw the Harvester center who had fouled him miss a layup at the far end of the court, miss a tip-in, miss another tip-in, miss yet another tip-in, and finally tip the ball in, running back on defense with an ungainly pump of his fist. “And one!” he shouted without justification.

Graham stood under the hoop and waved his arms at his teammate Nico to toss the ball ahead for an uncontested bucket. It was only then that the ref blew his whistle, pointing to the blood droplets Graham had sprinkled around his feet on the floor. So Graham had to come out of the game. And the hapless athletic trainers couldn’t keep the wound closed, couldn’t stop the bleeding, and Graham missed the rest of the game, failing to score a new career high, failing to even match his previous career high.

“But you showed me something,” said Coach Verck in the locker room after the game. “I’ve never been less disgusted with your style of play.”

“Never again,” said Graham, his features carved in ice.

“Why?” asked Coach Verck. “Because you didn’t get the call? You’re going to let one no-call send you right back to avoiding contact? That call gets made 99 percent of the time. I gave the ref an earful about it, Graham.”

“Some earful,” said Graham. “You didn’t even get ejected. You didn’t even get a technical.” He left without tying his shoes. The plastic-coated tips of his laces clicked on the tile in the silence that followed him out the locker room door.


Graham’s parents were out with the Piffings again so Polly came to the school to pick him up after the game. Graham threw his bag in the back seat of Polly’s car and slid into the front passenger seat, papers crinkling beneath him. Papers crinkled under his feet, too. Graham didn’t know what the papers were, but Polly didn’t seem concerned about them. Polly had the heat cranked against the cold that accompanied Graham into the car. She sat hunched toward the steering wheel like always, hands at, like, 11.5 and 12.5.

“Why are Mom and Dad so obsessed with the Piffings now?” asked Graham. “It seems like they’re always doing something with them.”

“I don’t know,” said Polly. “What happened to your head?”

“I got fouled,” said Graham.

“Did you make your free throws?” asked Polly. With this one question, Graham knew she was approaching the extent of her basketball knowledge. Soccer, though, she knew inside and out, though she’d never played.

“Yeah,” said Graham. “I made them both.” He didn’t feel like getting into the whole issue with Polly or anyone. Talking about a problem had never made him feel better, not even once. The best way to deal with a problem that he’d yet found was to avoid talking about it, even if that meant going to absurd lengths. But lying to his older sister was not going to absurd lengths. It was a sensible length to which to go.

“Good job,” said Polly. There was a tremor in her voice which Graham would not have acknowledged in exchange for one thousand dollars. “Sorry about that,” said Polly. The tremor was still present. “About my voice, I mean. I can’t control it. I’m scared, that’s why my voice keeps doing that. Doing this.”

“Ah,” said Graham. It was the least amount of interest he knew how to express. He looked out the window on his side of the car where he knew he would not see Polly in a fearful state.

“Because what if I’m not supposed to be doing this?” asked Polly. “What if I shouldn’t be here at all? What if I was supposed to die this morning, for example, but because I didn’t age on Tuesday, now I’m here until tomorrow morning, but I shouldn’t be, I shouldn’t be seeing or experiencing any of this, I shouldn’t be saying this?”

“Why would you die this morning?” asked Graham, as surprised as anyone to find himself taking the bait. “Or tomorrow morning?”

“Because it might have been my time,” said Polly. “My time to go. But my time got messed up, so now I’ll end up going 24 hours after my time.”

“But wouldn’t that be good?” asked Graham. “To get an extra 24 hours?”

“You think it would be good if I missed my time to go?” asked Polly, incredulous, offended. “I thought you understood what I’m going through with this, Graham. I thought you grasped the implications.”

“I did,” said Graham. “And I do.”

“I know you do,” said Polly with a deep, deep sigh. “I know you were just playing Devil’s advocate to get me to think critically about my presuppositions.”

“Yeah, exactly,” said Graham even though he had never played Devil’s advocate to get anyone to think critically about their presuppositions and he never would.

“But wait,” said Polly. “Hold on. Now you’ve got me thinking, Graham! Because wouldn’t me not aging for a day only cause me to miss my time to die if I were supposed to die of old age? Because if it was supposed to be an accident or something, I would still have died in the same way at the same place at the same time and everything, but I just would have been a day younger when it happened. Right? And why would I die of old age when I’m only 17? If I’m going to outlive my time by one day, it’s only going to happen if I’m supposed to die of old age, and it’ll happen a long time from now. Which, that might not even happen, because maybe I am supposed to die in a car accident or a mass shooting or something!” The steadily rising cheer in her voice had become unsettling. She released a long, contented sigh. “Wow, I’m going to sleep so much better tonight. Thank you, Graham, seriously, you’re the only person I can talk to about this kind of stuff. Anyway, I’m sorry, we were talking about your free throws. And you were saying you made all of them? Right?”

“Right,” said Graham.

“That’s so good,” said Polly. “Did the team carry you off the court on their shoulders? While chanting your name? Did Coach Verck give you a special medal or ribbon or trophy?”

“No,” said Graham.

“Well, I’m buying you dinner,” said Polly. “You made all your free throws and you helped me with my problem, so you’re the hero of the night!”

Graham figured he’d suffered enough to accept a free dinner from his sister on fraudulent grounds. By his own metrics, he deserved it, and if this was how fate saw fit to bring a free dinner to him, then he wasn’t going to resist.


At the next Multioak basketball practice, Coach Verck announced that the team would be henceforward integrating a series of finishing-through-contact drills into their regular rotation. Some of the players feigned excitement. Or maybe their excitement was genuine, maybe Graham just couldn’t fathom being excited about such a thing because it was so foreign to his perspective. Regardless, he was fully opposed to the idea, and he said so. “I’m not doing that.”

“Yes, you are,” said Coach Verck.

“We’re increasing the risk of injury in practice now?” asked Graham. “To prove a point to me, specifically?”

“I want everyone to get better at finishing through contact,” said Coach Verck. “And I want to make sure your bad attitude about finishing through contact doesn’t spread to anyone else. So we have to integrate these new drills to counteract your corrosive influence.”

“Bench him,” said Arch. He was Graham’s backup, a long-faced kid who was good at pressuring ball-handlers, good at long-distance shots from the left corner only, and nothing else. Graham doubted Arch was much more proficient at drawing fouls than he was, but it was in Arch’s interest to present himself as more willing, at least.

“I’m not going to bench Graham,” said Coach Verck. “Getting relegated to the bench is just yet another way for Graham to avoid contact. I can’t even imagine how disgusted I would be seeing my best scorer avoiding even the possibility of contact on the bench. The mere thought disgusts me. In fact, Arch, hit the showers. I’ve had enough of you for today.”

Startled, Arch looked around at his teammates – all but Graham – for a clue as to how his power grab had backfired so quickly. Getting nothing, he snorted back a near-sob and stalked across the practice gym to the locker room door, kicking it open rather than pushing it, a too-late attempt at insolence.

“So,” said Coach Verck, turning back to Graham. “Are you going to participate with the rest of the team? Or are you going to set yourself apart as the only member of this team who doesn't think he needs to try to finish through contact?”

“The second one,” said Graham. “The one where I don’t participate in the drill.”

Coach Verck’s look of disgust was starting to become his defining physical characteristic, at least while he was in Graham’s presence. “Forget it,” he said. “We’re not doing the finishing-through-contact drill.”

“So it was just for me,” said Graham.

“Yes,” said Coach Verck. “It was.”

“So it wasn’t to counteract my corrosive influence,” said Graham.

“No,” said Coach Verck. “It wasn’t. I’m not worried about the rest of the team. No one else finds your disgusting style of play even remotely tempting.”

For the remainder of practice, Graham’s teammates avoided him as if he had a flesh-devouring disease communicable primarily through skin-to-skin contact. It was the most physically comfortable he’d ever felt playing basketball. But considering how the rest of the team felt about him, how comfortable was Graham emotionally, mentally, spiritually?


Not bad!


Two nights later, the Mulitoak Marionettes went on the road to face the Widewater High School Bridgers. Cold rain rattled the roof of their rinky-dink gymnasium. The bleachers were two-thirds full, and this was an up year for the Bridger basketball team. But the town itself was too depressing for local enthusiasm for anything to rise higher than a rather low ceiling.

Four possessions into the game, and it was clear to Graham, and probably to any other interested observer, that he was locked in, he was on, he was cooking. He hit a top-of-the-break three off the opening tip, followed that up with a steal for an easy fast-break layup, and then hit back-to-back mid-range jumpers, so alike that the second looked like a replay of the first.

During the ensuing Widewater timeout, the Bridger coach, a young guy barely out of college who looked like he’d spent his own high school basketball career as an anonymous equipment manager, jabbed his finger in Graham’s direction as he berated his team. Considering he couldn’t count on positive reinforcement from Coach Verck, it was gratifying for Graham to see that he could still upset opposing coaches, too. It was gratifying to see that his style of play could still generate the good style of disgust: the disgust of his opponents at their own inability to stop him.

When play resumed, Graham noted that Widewater had already made a substitution. His primary defender was gone, replaced by a kid with a bleached-blond bowl-cut and acne that started at his jaw line and proceeded down his neck. He wore number 82. He was an inch shorter than Graham. A hole in the toe of his left high-top revealed pink flesh. Was this kid not wearing socks?

It didn’t take long for Graham to realize that the substitution had happened for one reason. This scrub’s mandate was to harass Graham on defense, and stay out of the way on offense. The infuriating part was that it worked. Well, it sort of worked. The Marionettes took a comfortable 15-point lead into halftime, but Graham’s scoring had dried up completely. Since the moment # 82 checked into the game, Graham hadn’t notched another point. # 82 had been all over Graham, crowding him, grabbing, pulling, elbowing, hip-checking, boxing Graham out even when they were 20 feet from the basket. Graham had tried his usual assortment of evasive maneuvers, his floaters, his up-and unders, but # 82 was always there to bump him, to jostle him, to outright foul him, yes, and some of those fouls were even called, but Graham had been knocked so far off his game that he couldn’t make free throws either. It was like # 82 was touching him even when he wasn’t touching him. Eventually, Graham’s teammates stopped passing him the ball. Graham expected, at that point, to be sent to the bench, but no, Coach Verck would not put him out of his misery. So he and # 82 spent the second half jogging back and forth watching the rest of their teammates play four-on-four. Graham knew that with # 82’s aggressive defense, he could probably bait him into fouling out of the game, even with off-ball fouls alone, but Graham couldn’t bring himself to take that step. Coach Verck would love it, he knew, but maybe that was reason enough not to do it. Maybe there was another game occurring on a higher level, now, and maybe Coach Verck was his opponent. Maybe it was a contest of wills more important to Graham than the outcomes of any quantity of high school basketball games.

With Graham neutralized, Widewater managed to claw their way back within striking distance, chipping away at Multioak’s advantage throughout the third quarter. Then, in the fourth, they were carried by a sudden bout of hot shooting from a guy with the most obtrusive mouth guard Graham had ever seen; it prevented him from closing his mouth and made his lips protrude like a puffin’s beak. Anyway, he got hot, and with 1 minute and 3 seconds remaining in the game, Multioak’s lead had been whittled down to two points, and they had been held scoreless over the last four minutes. Coach Verck, his mouth fixed in a grim line, used the final Marionette timeout. Things weren’t looking good, but better to be up two with the ball than down two without it.

Graham thought that, strategically speaking, the smarter move would be to stall, to burn clock, force the Bridgers to foul, and then seal the victory at the charity stripe. But that wasn’t what Coach Verck wanted. That wasn’t Coach Verck’s preferred style. His preferred style was bitter, vindictive, maybe even malicious. He drew up a play for Graham, something to force the ball into his hands moving toward the basket with the game hanging in the balance.

“Why are you doing this?” asked Graham.

“To give you a choice,” said Coach Verck. “Rise to the moment or let your team down.”

“Maybe you’re the one letting the team down by drawing up a play for me when I’m having an off game,” said Graham.

“Is that what you think this is?” asked Coach Verck. “You think you’re having an ‘off game?’ No, Graham, that’s not what’s happening.”

“Then what is happening?” asked Graham.

“You’re approaching a fork in your road,” said Coach Verck. “I’m forcing you to choose a direction.”

“Put me in, Coach,” said Arch. “I’ll choose a direction at a fork in my road!”

“Don’t come to practice tomorrow, Arch,” said Coach Verck. “You’re off the team.”

There wasn’t much to the play Coach Verck had drawn up. Just a screen from Jake at the top of the key so Graham could receive the pass from Nico, curl around Jake, and drive to the hoop.

Graham didn’t know what he was going to do. He couldn’t decide. There was a chance # 82 would go under the screen, which would mean a clean look for a jump shot. But whether because he was having an off game or because he was approaching a fork in his road, either way, Graham’s shots weren’t falling. Pulling up for a jumper would only wound Coach Verck if Graham made it. Otherwise, it would be a definitive victory for Coach Verck: Graham abandoning the called play in order to adhere to his disgusting contact-avoidant style, bricking the shot, and putting the game into jeopardy. It occurred to Graham that this was what Coach Verck expected to happen. Or maybe he expected Graham to reject the play entirely, passing the ball to someone else, openly declaring his cowardice. Or maybe he thought that Graham’s resolve would collapse and he would run the play as called, driving into the teeth of the defense, colliding with #82 on the other side of Jake’s screen and allowing whatever was going to happen next to happen. A make, a miss, made free throws, missed free throws, one of each, another non-call, a turnover, an and-one. But Coach Verck wouldn’t see that as a collapse of Graham’s resolve, he would view it as Graham rising to the occasion, choosing the nobler path, or at least the less disgusting path.

The Bridgers almost forced Nico into a turnover on the ensuing inbound, but he maintained his composure, fought through the press, and managed to get where he needed to be unscathed. And there was Jake, trotting into position, setting his stout pick. All of his picks were stout.

Graham stood near the sideline, feigning exclusion from his team’s plans. Was # 82 fooled? It was difficult to tell. He seemed to invade Graham’s personal space for reasons other than strategy, as if it were an end in itself, as if he would be just as happy to do so in a context far removed from a basketball game.

Graham head-faked a cut toward the near corner, then darted toward Jake, hands up for the pass from Nico. Fooled or not, # 82 was right on Graham, clutching, scratching, a pest. He swiped at the ball as Graham caught it, hacking Graham across both forearms. No whistle, but Graham maintained control, he planted his foot and veered as close to Jake’s shoulder as he could, hoping it would catch his pursuer right in the face, shatter his pimple-ridden jaw.

And he didn’t see what happened, but Graham heard Jake cry out, a sound identical to the one he had emitted at the moment of his previous season-ending injury. There was no whistle. The game continued, progressing in step with the regular passage of time.

In front of Graham, the Bridger bigs were out of position, there was nothing but space between him and his goal. But behind him, he could feel # 82 closing in. Somehow he had disposed of Jake without losing speed, and now he was gathering himself to leap and to strike, Graham sensed the coiling energy, the surging tension like a wave about to crest and carry him under the backboard, out of bounds, through the line of gawking cheerleaders, and splatter him against the gymnasium wall right beneath the amateurish mural of a man building a bridge across a body of water that did not look particularly wide.

But this sensation was immediately supplanted by something else, an assurance that all would be fine, that Graham would not be overcome, would not be fouled, would not even be touched. He jumped off of his left foot, extending the ball toward the hoop with his right hand.

A shadow loomed over and above him.

Graham felt the heat of # 82’s body, smelled the stink of his sweat, his panting breath.

What Graham did then did not feel like something he did, but rather something that his body did at his behest. It stretched, it contorted, it twisted in the air, but not along the usual lines, not in the standard orientations. Joints bent the wrong way or seemed to appear where joints had never before existed. Some parts expanded while others diminished, narrowed. There were perverse rotations.

And yes, it hurt.

But in spite of the pain, or perhaps spurred by it, Graham flicked his wrist, kissed the ball of the glass, and it fell through the net like a dream. And # 82 never so much as brushed against him, achieved not even the most minimal contact. He was stymied utterly by the abrupt misshaping of Graham’s form.

Beneath the basket, both players stood examining themselves with a combination of wonder and worry. Graham: checking to make sure everything was back in place, properly arranged, functional. # 82: trying to grasp where he had gone wrong, searching for fault in his own limbs.

And in the gym, there was silence but for the sound of Coach Verck retching into a paper bag.


Multioak won, but that seemed beside the point to everyone involved.

No one sat near Graham on the bus ride home. Based on the looks a few of his teammates had been shooting him in the locker room, Graham suspected that he may have gained an adherent or two, possible converts to his “disgusting” style of play. But they weren’t yet bold enough to make their interest known where Coach Verck could see. They would come to Graham in secret, later.

Polly picked Graham up in the Multioak High School parking lot again. Some snowflakes appeared out of the night piled above the street lights, but not many, an almost countable amount.

“Where’s Mom and Dad?” asked Graham as he slid into the passenger’s seat on top of the papers he’d crinkled last time, crinkling them further.

“Overseas, I think,” said Polly. She smiled, she drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. Her rhythm bore no resemblance to the rhythm of the song playing through her phone speaker.

“What?” said Graham. “Overseas? With the Piffings?”

“I guess?” said Polly. She didn’t seem concerned about an extended period of zero parental oversight. She didn’t seem concerned about anything. Her mood was lighter than Graham had seen it in years, maybe? Graham didn’t ask why, though. Avoiding contact had gotten him this far. He trusted his instincts like never before.

“So I have great news,” said Polly. “I’m so relieved. Everything is going to be all right.”

“OK,” said Graham.

“Exactly,” said Polly. “Everything is going to be OK.” The single oncoming headlight of a real junker illuminated her face, showcasing the depth of the peace displayed thereon. “I aged two days in one day yesterday, Graham! I’m right back on track.”

“Nice,” said Graham.

“That’s it!” said Polly. “That’s how it feels! ‘Nice’ describes it perfectly. Your insight helped me through the worst of it, Graham, but now I’m all set to die on time whether tragically early or of old age.”

“Yep,” said Graham. Could he say something so meaningless that Polly would not find it agreeable? He doubted it.

“Someday I hope I can be there for you like you’ve been there for me,” said Polly. Emotion made her eyes shimmer.

Graham suppressed a grin at the thought of his sister attempting support via noncommittal monosyllables. “That’d be great,” he said. He didn’t think she had it in her.


There was no morning practice the day after the game. During school, Graham was not approached by teammates seeking arcane playstyle pointers. But that made sense. Coach Verck had ears everywhere. Well, no, he didn’t, not really, but that was the kind of world in which Graham couldn’t help but feel he now lived.

Evening practices after game days usually began with a film session, but Coach Verck told everyone to dress out in their practice uniforms. This wasn’t out of the ordinary after bad losses, but Graham couldn’t ever remember skipping the film session after a win. It had something to do with him, he was sure of it, something to do with what he had done.

Also of note: Jake showed up with his arm in a sling. # 82 had knocked him out for at least a few weeks.

The mood in the locker room was subdued. No one spoke to Graham, but he felt his teammates thinking about him, wondering about him, grappling with what he represented. Their lack of eye contact was fraught with all of these things.

The Multioak Marionette basketball team gathered around Coach Verck where he stood in the practice court’s center circle. He was pale, damp; his eyes carried heavy bags: a man ravaged by disgust. He wiped his mouth with the back of a trembling hand. “Boys,” he said. “That should never have happened. You know what I’m talking about. And it can’t be allowed to happen again.”

Graham cast about for a sympathetic eye, but the sympathy of his teammates was all for Coach Verck.

“Foul him,” said Coach Verck.

A dim, teenage silence followed this demand.

“What, now?” asked Royce, perhaps emboldened by his inevitable return to the starting lineup.

“Yes, now,” said Coach Verck. “All of you at once.”

Graham was the first to react. He took off running, not for the locker room where he could be cornered, but for the exit that led directly to the back parking lot. But there were those on the team who were faster than him, those who had been standing closer to the exit door when he made his move, and he was soon cut off. He changed direction, heading for the double doors that led into the halls of the school, but he was cut off again. His teammates were surrounding him, closing in, hands raised to commit all kinds of fouls, up to and including the flagrant variety.

But they couldn’t. They swarmed him; they couldn’t initiate contact, not any. The maneuvers performed by Graham’s body parts to elude contact were obscene, an affront to all bodies everywhere. And the pain was excruciating. No quantity of fouls could match it. It made Graham long for the fouls, but he was not in command. What his body had done one time last night at Graham’s behest, it now did repeatedly at the behest of something beyond him, and whether or not the thing at the behest of which his body acted had originated within himself, he didn’t know.

The spectacle ceased only when Coach Verck passed out. An ambulance was called. He was loaded onto a stretcher and hustled away. Could one die of disgust?

Graham stood alone in a corner of the practice gym, hands on his hips, breathing heavily, waiting for the locker room to empty out so he could get dressed alone. He felt his knuckles, the base of his neck, each of his ribs. Checking and checking to make sure everything had come back together correctly.


Graham’s dad picked him up in his truck.

“You’re already back from overseas?” asked Graham.

“Yes,” said his dad. “We just got in. Your mom’s napping.”

Neither Graham nor his dad said anything else until they were almost home, at which point Graham’s dad said, “And never mention the Piffings to me or your mom. We never want to hear that name again.”

“All right,” said Graham.

At home, Graham took a second shower. He focused on moving normally as he soaped himself up, scrubbed his hair, rinsed, toweled, and got dressed. Leaving the bathroom, he ran into Polly emerging from her bedroom with an empty bowl in hand.

“Graham!” she said, her whisper intense. “Graham, I’m not doing so well. I have to tell you something. You’re the only one who can understand. Today, from 2:34 pm until 2:50 pm, I aged 19 minutes instead of 16 minutes! So now I’m three minutes older than I should –” She stopped mid-sentence, eyes widening with recognition. “Graham! You’re suffering! What’s wrong, Graham? You have to let me help you. I’m sure I’ll understand.”

“You won’t,” said Graham, straining ever muscle in his face to keep from crying.

“I will!” said Polly. “You just have to talk to me. You just have to open up.”

Graham shook his head. He just shook his head.

“What about a hug?” asked Polly.

Shocked, Graham discovered that a hug from his big sister was the only thing he wanted. He gave Polly a nod. When she appeared to disbelieve her own eyes, he gave her another, more firm, more distinctly affirmative.

So she tried. And it should have been impossible to miss, but she missed.

Didn’t even graze him.

Completely whiffed.

Discussion Questions

  • What’s the most meaningful thing you’ve ever said that resulted in no one changing in any way?

  • What’s the least meaningful thing you’ve ever said that resulted in someone else having a life-altering epiphany?

  • How would you react to the appearance in your life of a temporary personal nemesis dedicated to neutralizing your effectiveness?

  • In the sport of basketball, which of these styles of play is most disgusting: avoiding contact, egregious flopping, hogging the ball, or sweating too much and the sweat stinks really bad and gets everywhere and looks worse than normal sweat too?

  • How liberally do you scream “And one?”