TRUE believer, that I am, I am blind, lead me on. This is his mother, whose name is Margaret, next to him at church, singing. His father, called the Chief by everyone as long as Bennett can remember, is there as well, but he doesn't sing. Never does. He only goes because Margaret insists, and he stands next to her and wipes his eyes, which always water in church, he says because of the dust, that it sure as hell isn't guilt or anything even close to penance. But his mother. She is a believer, and is the first to admit that she doesn't believe or act or love enough. She tells Bennett she knows she sins: she is prideful and rebellious and disobedient. But, she says, she has faith and she asks for forgiveness and thanks God for his grace, and she bends the knee of her heart.
Bennett is his mother's son. Although they do not look alike—she is fair and big-boned and sturdy, and he is dark and wiry and not yet as tall as she is—Bennett too knows that he sins. On Monday morning when church is long forgotten and Bennett gazes at Jeannie Burton during algebra and mentally walks his fingers up the backs of her smooth legs, past her knees and then right up into those shorts and underneath the underwear to the smooth skin of her rear end, and then between those legs and into that place he thinks about so much—well, that's sin, all right, only it isn't all right, and as Jeannie Burton stands at the board in the front of the room untangling the equation that Bird Man Kantor has written there, Bennett feels himself grow hard even before his fingers reach the cuff of Jeannie Burton's black shorts. He always sins with Jeannie from the back, though he isn't sure why; all he knows is that it is that imagined feeling of his hand moving between her legs from the back to the front that occupies his thoughts during algebra.
And he is like his mother in his desire for penance. When his hand has reached that spot and has lingered there as Jeannie finishes off the equation and Bird Man mopes in the corner, Bennett realizes he's doing it again, and he clasps his hands over his hardness and tells himself that this is the last time.
It is on the basketball court that Bennett feels furthest from sin. Bennett is a star—the coach has said that he can play varsity next year as a sophomore—and it is not only that he is tall; he is fast and he is an excellent shot, a miracle, his mother says, no reason for it. It's certainly not inherited from his father, who is no shot at all, not at anything, she says, and she laughs. On the court, Bennett's body knows where the hoop is at all times; it is an old friend, a twin brother, a lover, a soulmate, someone he will never forget, and Bennett moves up and down the court without trying. He is everywhere and the ball is only an extension of his body that occasionally, for brief periods of time, leaves him. But it always comes back. It finds its way back to Bennett, and then he and the ball find their way to the hoop, and the ball finds its way to the net below the rim and slides right through it, so smooth, in much the same way that Bennett imagines his fingers sliding into Jeannie Burton's very center.
It is a Saturday in April and basketball season is over, but for Bennett all that means is that there are no more official games. He will still be on the court every day, and he'll still play games with anyone he can talk into it. Today there is no one, it's just Bennett against himself, but no matter. He stands on the free throw line and shoots, holding his breath each time the ball drops directly through the net and makes that zip! sound he loves. When he has sunk ten in a row, he sits on the bench nearby and concentrates on the ball. Bennett is familiar with all basketballs, but he is intimate with this one, a Spalding Official NBA Indoor/Outdoor that he has had for two years. He knows its scrapes and imperfections exactly and his hands know the feel of the bumps on the surface better than they know each other. The silvery lettering of NBA is worn and not shiny anymore, and the word Spalding, black and authoritative when Bennett's mother gave him the basketball in seventh grade, has faded to a dull black. But the ball itself has as much authority as ever, maybe more.
There is a church down the street, and Bennett hears its bells and knows it is five. He looks up from the ball and sees a girl two blocks away, walking toward him. She is wearing a flowered dress and sandals and carries a straw purse. Easter was six days ago; she seems a holdover, because the day isn't that warm, while Easter Sunday was an unusual seventy, prematurely summer. Bennett watches her walk, and as she nears him he realizes it is Jeannie Burton. Her dark hair is loose and grazes her shoulders. Bennett tries to look back at the basketball but he cannot look away from the way Jeannie's hips move within the flowered dress. He is fifteen years old and he knows he is a sinner and he loves basketball more than anything in his life, including God, sometimes especially God, a big sin, he knows. But there is this girl; Bennett tucks his ball under his arm and follows her.
When he is perhaps twenty feet behind Jeannie, he smells her perfume, which seems to come from the dress itself, it is that heady and real-seeming, as though the flowers on the fabric manufacture the scent as she walks. She smells like an armful of roses, and Bennett thinks that she is what God should be like; if God were sweet and good and something you couldn't resist, no, something you didn't even want to try resisting, then he would believe. But God is mainly something to be gotten away from, slow and easy to lose in a crowd, a nagging little brother you want only to ditch and flee from as soon as you've got the chance.
The church is called St. Albert the Great and it is Catholic. Bennett has never been to Mass, but he hurries up the steps and then through the heavy doors without hesitating. He follows Jeannie inside, his basketball under his arm, a safeguard, then holds the door as it closes behind him and steps to the side, waiting for his eyes to adjust from April afternoon to Catholic church, which they do easily, as though this was expected. Then he sinks into a pew toward the back and lets go of the breath he has been holding, but not of his basketball. He is wearing shorts, and the wood of the pew is cool and hard against the backs of his legs.
The church is quiet and dark and almost empty. Jeannie sits in the third row. She kneels and bows her head. A priest emerges from a door Bennett had not noticed to the right of the altar and begins speaking and the few people listening answer him in low voices. Bennett leans forward, trying to hear Jeannie's voice, and she turns and although their eyes meet only for a second, Bennett feels shaken. He forces himself to look away from her, through a high window, and sees that there is just enough daylight left for maybe twenty free throws. Bennett tucks his basketball under his arm and walks toward the doors, only the basketball slips away from him like a girl who doesn't want to be touched, as though of its own accord. It bounces once, twice, three times before Bennett is able to reclaim it, which he does with shaking hands as he stumbles outside.
Bennett's mother is big and strong and fair and never without an answer. She has always been Margaret, never Meg or anything with fewer letters than her given name. When Bennett comes into the kitchen, she is at the stove whipping potatoes and Bennett winces for the potatoes. They don't stand a chance. Nobody does against his mother.
Bennett stands next to her, bouncing his basketball. She is still a couple of inches taller than he is, although he is five-ten. His mother is as close to six feet as you can get without being there. Margaret sings as she whips the potatoes, and Bennett knows that she is in a good mood because she's singing "One More for the Road," from a Fred Astaire movie. When there is trouble, she sings a hymn. When she is upset, she sings a college fight song. When there is just another day, "with only God's work to be done," she says in the morning, she sings songs from old movies.
"So make it one for my baby, and one more for the road," she sings, and she gives the exhausted potatoes three final whips, then taps the wire whip on the edge of the pan as a final warning. She glances at Bennett. "You're late," she says, not really surprised or displeased, just stating a fact.
Bennett shrugs and bounces the ball idly around the kitchen, as though searching for the hoop. Margaret gave up telling him not to bounce in the house years ago. "Free throws," he mutters.
"A bit dark for three throws, my dear," she says, and she laughs. Three throws: it is an old joke, Bennett's early name for free throws, but Bennett is out of the room, and Margaret hears him bounce the ball down the hallway and around the entry, then she hears him take the stairs two at a time, as though they are points, and she cannot imagine a son she would prefer.
Dinner is pork chops and potatoes and applesauce and the company of Bennett's father, a man most people are unable to hold a conversation with. The usual look on Bennett's father's face is, What is there to discuss?, and Bennett honors it.
Not that they don't converse; Bennett and his mother and father all have conversations going with themselves, and their bodies seem to have their own things to say. Bennett's mother hums through much of dinner, a concession; the Chief hates singing at the table. Bennett moves his legs under the table, always ready to scramble for the ball, which is never far; at dinner it sits in the fourth chair, a placeholder or adopted child. Bennett's father, whose name is Leonard but who has never been called anything but Chief by everyone who knows him, straightens things during the meal. He straightens his silverware when he places it on his plate between bites as he takes a drink of water (no ice). He straightens the salt and pepper after Bennett has used them, he straightens the serving dishes after Bennett and Margaret help themselves, and he straightens his errant tie repeatedly, as though it might bolt if not kept in check.
Tonight Margaret is humming "As Time Goes By." Bennett has both knees going under the table, but he stops suddenly and looks at his mother. "What's Mass?" he says.
"We discussed that last year," the Chief says before Margaret can answer. "Mass is a quantity or aggregate of matter, usually of considerable size. Further, it refers to the property of a body that is a measure of its inertia, that is—" "No," Bennett says, impatient, "the church kind. What's the difference between church and Mass?" He looks to his mother again.
"Mass is Catholic," she says simply, as though that says it all. Bennett looks at her blankly. "Fancier. No, wait: more official. There's a routine to it, and lots of things are the same each week. More things are the same at Mass than they are at church." She stares at her plate, which is close to clean. Margaret has a big appetite. "And Communion. Mass means Communion."
"Smells and bells," is all the Chief says, less to Bennett than to the ramrod straight salt and pepper, which he moves to the center of the table.
"Why do you ask?" Margaret says, but Bennett is already standing, escorting his plate to the sink. He returns to the table for his ball.
"Dunno," he calls as he dribbles to the back door. Last year the Chief put floodlights over the driveway; now Bennett can shoot for half an hour after dinner, more if he gets his homework done. The neighborhood listens for the sound of Bennett's basketball, a sound that all is well, and that their lives are, so far, just what they expected.
Bennett starts slowly, circling the driveway, dribbling as he sinks into the sound and feel and motion of the ball. Then he begins to shoot, but he is off tonight; he cannot seem to send the ball through the hoop. He stops once, after he misses again, and becomes aware of the Chief, leaning in the kitchen doorway, watching.
"You've missed the last fourteen out of twenty," the Chief says. Bennett glances at him as he dribbles around the perimeter of the driveway.
"Gotta do better than that," the Chief adds.
"I'm playing on the driveway," Bennett says. "This isn't any championship," and he sinks one from the free throw line that he painted on the driveway when he was ten.
"No matter," the Chief says. "Driveway or no, fourteen out of twenty stinks." Bennett shoots and misses again and the ball bounces toward the garage, a runaway. Margaret appears behind the Chief and brushes lint from his suit coat. "You," she says to him. "You've never believed in anything your whole life, you know that, Leonard? Not a thing. Your heart's barren." And then she turns back to the kitchen. The Chief shrugs at Bennett, then retreats into the house.
Bennett shoots ten free throws, and only the last misses. When he goes inside, Margaret, sitting at the cleared kitchen table fooling with the crossword, reaches out and squeezes his arm as he passes her. "You're a good boy, oh Bennett of mine," she says, and she does not look up, but she is smiling. When Bennett glances into the den on his way upstairs to his room, the Chief is asleep on the couch.
On Tuesday night, late, Margaret becomes ill. Bennett wakes to the sound of his mother crying, and it pins him to his bed. He hears his father moving around their room; the Chief is nothing if not good in a crisis. Bennett forces himself from his bed and goes to his parents' door. He knocks, then pushes the door open.
The Chief is standing by the bed, buttoning his shirt. He motions for Bennett to come in. The only light comes from the closet; but it is enough to illuminate the pain in his mother's face. He cannot look at her; he would like not to hear her crying, which seems to come from her very center.
"Appendicitis," the Chief says to Bennett. "Or food poisoning. We're headed for the emergency room."
Bennett slides his palms up and down his thighs. They are homeless without a basketball. "The hospital," he says.
The Chief nods toward his dresser. "Get my keys, Ben," he says, a name Bennett has never been called, not by his father or anyone else. "Start the car and turn on the heat. We'll be down in a minute."
"Yes, sir," Bennett says, then takes the keys from his father's dresser and goes to his room, where he doesn't bother changing out of the sweatpants and T-shirt he wore to bed. He takes his basketball shoes from his closet and pushes his feet into them, ignoring the laces, then goes downstairs, the keys clutched in his hand, his stomach tight as a fist.
The night is cool for April, and the inside of the car is cold. Bennett has to start the car several times before it will idle without dying. It is an old Chrysler, a car he is embarrassed to be seen in, and a car the Chief loves dearly. The inside is immaculate; the outside is scratched and scraped and dented from every angle. The Chief, an engineer, is precise in everything except his driving. On the fifth try the car idles and Bennett turns the heat on high.
The kitchen door opens and the Chief leads Margaret toward the car. Although Margaret has a good two or three inches on the Chief in height, she is leaning against him and looks smaller than he is. She is crying still, and clutching her stomach through her white robe. Bennett is astonished that the Chief is holding her up. He has never considered the possibility that his mother might need holding up.
The Chief opens the back door. "Oh, my dear," he says, words that do not sound like him. "Get in the backseat, Ben," he says, which Bennett does, then the Chief helps Margaret in after him. She leans heavily against Bennett and he does not know what to do with his hands. She rests her head on his shoulder, and he feels he should put his arm around her and try to comfort her in some way, but he cannot bring himself to do that. He can only put his hand on her arm.
At a red light, Margaret grips Bennett's hand, hard. "Oh, Bennett," she says softly, crying. Bennett meets the Chief's eyes in the rear view mirror, and the Chief does not seem to be able to look away, so that when the light turns, the car behind them has to honk to get the Chief going.
At the hospital, the Chief pulls up at the emergency room entrance and hurries inside for a wheelchair, leaving Bennett with his mother. He can smell her kitcheny smell as though it is his own, and what he wants to do is cry. He does not move, and finally the Chief returns and lifts Margaret into the wheelchair. He tells Bennett to take his mother inside and that he will be right there.
Bennett pushes the wheelchair toward the entrance, and then inside as the automatic doors open for them, but once there he has no idea what to do. He approaches the nurse at the desk. "My mother," he says, "she's sick." The nurse looks at him then at Margaret, then back at Bennett, and she hands him a clipboard and tells him to be seated and fill it out, that it will be a few minutes. There are several other people in the room, and Bennett thinks frantically that they will be here all night, with his mother crying and in pain, and he does not see how they will endure it. He starts to fill out the form, choosing the easy things: name, address, phone, the facts he shares with his mother. He is trying to figure out the year of her birth when the Chief simply takes the clipboard from him and Bennett excuses himself and finds the men's room and is sick as soon as he walks into the stall.
When he emerges from the restroom, there is no sign of his mother. The Chief sits on a green vinyl couch and looks at home here as he does anywhere life sets him down. Bennett sits next to him. His hands smooth his sweat pants, then rub together, then smooth the sweat pants again. The Chief, still as a statue, glances at Bennett's hands.
"Settle down. It's going to be a while." He straightens the stack of worn magazines on the table next to him. Bennett nods and wills his hands to stay still. It is not something his hands are used to doing.
They wait. Bennett glances through one magazine after another. The Chief reads Archaeology Today cover to cover. At four AM, the doctor appears and says that they need to keep Margaret at least overnight for observation. They have sedated her so that she can sleep, but the pain has remained intense. He says all they know is that it isn't appendicitis.
"How can you--" the Chief starts, but the doctor cuts him off.
"Had it taken out eighteen years ago," he says shortly. "It's in her file. We did it here."
"Ah," the Chief says, "I'd forgotten." "Could be food poisoning," the doctor continues. "Could be gallbladder. Won't know for a day or two."
"Could be anything else?" the Chief says, his voice tense.
"Time," the doctor says, waving the chart behind him, dismissing them. At the door, he turns. "She's asleep. Why don't you two get some shut-eye and come back in a few hours? We'll call if anything changes, which it won't." He disappears through the door without waiting for an answer. The Chief looks at Bennett until Bennett takes the keys from his pocket and leads his father to the car.
By Thursday nothing has changed. Margaret still hurts; the doctor says he is still waiting. Bennett goes to school on Wednesday and Thursday, but does not remember much of it by Thursday night, when he and the Chief find themselves sitting in front of the television together. There is a baseball game on. At the top of the seventh, Bennett goes to the kitchen for a bowl of cereal. When he comes back to the den, the crowd at the stadium is cheering loudly.
"Score?" Bennett says, settling on the couch with his cereal. The Chief looks at him, and Bennett nods at the TV. It is a close game.
"To what?" the Chief says.
"The game," Bennett says. "The baseball game we've been watching for the last hour only I missed two minutes of it because I went for a bowl of cereal because I forgot to eat all day." The Chief says nothing. "The game," Bennett says again.
"No idea," the Chief says, then he turns back to the TV. "They don't know," he says to the TV, and Bennett leans forward, waiting to hear his father talk about baseball, the only thing in the world he wants to think about at this moment. "That's not good when they don't know what the matter is. I think she may be quite sick."
The score appears on the screen then, and Bennett glares at the Chief. "The score, in case you're interested, is nine-seven, what many consider a good game," Bennett says, then he stands and picks up his basketball from the floor by the couch, where it has been waiting.
"It's insignificant," the Chief says. Bennett bounces the basketball as loud as he can as he heads outside.
It is dark out. Bennett hasn't played basketball since Tuesday afternoon, a rarity, and it feels like a long time. He starts to flip on the floods, but doesn't want the Chief watching him. He heads down the sidewalk, bouncing the ball as he walks.
It is almost nine o'clock, and the evening is cool and quiet and feels as though everything has stopped. At the school Bennett dribbles idly around the shadowed court. The only light comes from the streetlights, and is broken up by the trees that line the sidewalk. At first he cannot bring himself to shoot. For a while he just dribbles, around and around, and then he begins to dribble faster until he can stand it no longer, and he is sweating and shaking and he stands opposite from the hoop and finally he shoots. He feels sure that the ball is going right into the middle, only it doesn't. It rides the rim as if to mock Bennett, then it falls to the side and bounces away from him. When he recaptures it, he considers heaving it through the nearest classroom window, which is decorated with big pink construction paper flowers; he imagines the flowers ripping apart as the window breaks. But he doesn't; he drops the ball and does what he has been taught not to do since YMCA basketball when he was in the first grade. He kicks the basketball, as hard as he can, then leaves before he has seen where it has ended up.
When Bennett gets up on Friday morning, the Chief has already left for the hospital. There is no need for a note since that's the only place the Chief goes now; he has more or less lived there since Tuesday night. Bennett is amazed at how quickly their lives have changed.
Bennett does not consider going to school. He roams the downstairs of the house for a while, and finally goes to his parents' room, where he stands in the doorway and breathes in his mother's scent, a mixture of sweet perfume and something like bread, and he realizes with a start how much he misses her. He wants to know that his mother will be back soon and that things will be like they were. He wants Margaret his mother, not the faded and fragile Margaret who lies motionless in that hospital bed, but the one with dirty hands, spaghetti sauce splattered across her white Ship 'n Shore blouse with the Peter Pan collar. Bennett finds that shirt hanging in the closet and he takes it from its hanger and smooths a sleeve. The blouse is threadbare and softer than the manufacturer ever intended it to be, and Bennett holds it close. It smells clean and kitcheny and like that moment when Margaret calls him to dinner each night.
Bennett lies down on Margaret's side of the bed. He looks at the side of her dresser, which is pushed close to the bed, where she tapes up quotes that she likes: "Sin is telling God, Don't call me, I'll call you," says one, and Bennett remembers Margaret reading it out loud at breakfast a month ago. He had nodded absently as he was grabbing his books off the counter, already late for school before he'd even left home, thinking, Does she have to read these things to us? The Chief hadn't even pretended to hear; he was staring at his pocket calendar, which was what he always did in the morning, as though making a pact with it, that together they would hold the day to its word. But Bennett remembers seeing Margaret smile as he pulled the door closed; she seemed not to mind their inattention. Another quote makes him smile: "Quicken your faith," it says, the card dog-eared and worn, and he can hear his mother's voice: Hurry up and quicken your faith, Bennett.
It is then that Bennett prays. He hasn't prayed in a long time, except in church when you're supposed to, which never feels all that real, just official. Prayer makes Bennett nervous; he doesn't exactly believe in it, but he doesn't not believe in it either. But lying on his mother's bed, he thinks, Dear God, listen, dear God, make her better. Make her better, make her better, make her better. Please.
And then he gets dressed and takes the 86 city bus to the hospital. When he gets there he goes through the double doors and breathes in the cool air and finds his way through now-familiar corridors to his mother's hallway. The nurse at the desk smiles at him, but when Bennett sees the Chief walking down the hallway away from him he knows that there is nothing to smile about. The Chief is even more hunched over than usual; his back is to Bennett, and for an instant Bennett considers bolting, but he wants to see his mother.
"Chief," he calls, and the Chief turns. He looks tired and confused, as though something has been taken from him.
"Bennett," he says, and he smiles, barely, then shrugs. He continues walking toward the end of the hallway, and Bennett walks next to him, as though escorting him. "No change," he says, "except they X-rayed and the X-rays don't show any blockage."
"No blockage," Bennett repeats tentatively. "That's good, right?"
The Chief sighs, and there is somehow patience in that sigh. The Chief is not known for his patience, and its presence frightens Bennett. "Yes," the Chief says, "it's good. It means no tumor." They reach the end of the hallway and the Chief turns, heading back toward Margaret's room.
The word tumor has never occurred to Bennett, and when it leaves the Chief's lips, it takes up residence in Bennett's head. Tumor, there it is, and even though the Chief has just told him that there is no tumor, the idea that there could have been one makes Bennett more afraid. Make her better, he prays, no tumor, all right?
At Margaret's door, the Chief looks toward the windows at the opposite end of the hall. "You never know how things are going to happen," he says. "It's unorderly, all this."
Bennett nods and the Chief looks at him, hard, squinting as if to see him clearly. "You go in," he says. "I'm going to stand and look out the window for a while," and Bennett nods again and opens the door to his mother's room.
If the Chief has been worn down over these few days, Margaret has been transformed into someone Bennett cannot fathom. Each day there is less of her, and the sight of her stops him in his tracks, and he stands barely inside the doorway for a moment, trying to take her in. There are dark circles under her eyes, and the rest of her skin is pale. Her lips are dry and cracked, and her face and hands, which are at her sides, are swollen. She looks worn out; and she no longer looks like his mother. And then the smell hits him, and it is the exact opposite of how his mother is supposed to smell; where his mother smells real and solid and down-to-earth, this room smells sterile and closed-in, and it is the smell, even more than the sight of his mother, that makes Bennett want to cry.
But he doesn't. He sits next to her on the bed and forces himself to take her hand in his. Her hand is cool and soft and does not feel strong, and Bennett is afraid. "Hey, Mom?" he says, "hey, Mom?" No response. "It's okay," he says then, because that is what she has always said to him when he has been afraid.
"Everything will be okay," he says again, and he says it several times, so that it, too, begins to feel like a prayer.
That night Bennett and the Chief make a dinner of the leftovers from last week, whatever they can scavenge from the refrigerator, pizza and one pork chop and green beans with bacon and a small dish of potatoes, never mind that they don't go together. Bennett and the Chief polish off whatever they have laid in front of themselves, a chore more than a pleasure, something to be done before whatever is next.
The Chief has stopped his straightening at the table, and while the table still looks as orderly as ever—who is around, after all, to mess it up?—there is the feeling of something amiss. Bennett moves his legs under the table, but to a chaotic rhythm. And there is no basketball or mother. The dinner table is at a loss.
Bennett finishes what is on his plate and begins tapping his feet so loudly that the Chief looks up from the last few bites of the pork chop, which Bennett left for him after taking the potatoes. The pork chop is cut into small neat bites, the bone arched above them like a guardian, and the Chief eats each bite carefully, as though the act requires concentration.
Bennett taps more intensely and stares at the Chief. "Chief," he says, "I pray."
"Good God," the Chief says, "don't feel so bad about it. People do all manner of things. Pray if you have to."
But Bennett is not finished. "I want you to," he says. "I want you to pray for her. I'm not enough. He needs two of us, at least. You know: when two or three are gathered. That part." He watches the Chief, waiting, expectant. Hopeful.
But the Chief is shaking his head. "Can't do it," he says. "No believer over here, not in this aging body." He finishes his pork chop as if to seal what he has said.
"But maybe it would help."
"No can do," the Chief says, and the conversation is over. The Chief carries his plate to the sink and places it carefully on top of the other plates he has used the last week, his stack. Bennett washes his dishes; the Chief does not wash his. It is not something they discuss.
On Saturday afternoon Bennett walks to the school to look for his basketball. He has already been to the hospital, and told the Chief he'd come back in a while, but he cannot watch the Chief watching Margaret for very long. The school is quiet and familiar and feels like home, and Bennett searches up and down the court and in the bushes, but the basketball is nowhere to be found.
And then he spots Jeannie. She is at the end of the block, and Bennett recognizes her instantly. She is walking toward Bennett and he watches the way her body moves beneath her black T-shirt and jeans. He watches her hips and he stares at her small breasts and thinks about holding them, and he waits for her as though the two of them are intimate. Her hair is held back somehow and Bennett imagines undoing it, how soft it would feel in his hands.
He follows her to church again, and this time he sits closer to her, only a few rows away. The scent of roses is present again, and Bennett considers the possiblity that her body, not the dress, produces the scent. Perhaps it is the way Jeannie smells, even better. She kneels and rests her head on her clasped hands and Bennett stares openly at her. His mother believes—he has known that since he was small, it has been one of the givens of his childhood—but it seems to be a different thing for Jeannie. If his mother believes, this girl Believes.
And Bennett kneels.
He closes his eyes.
He rests his head on his hands and he tries to think of God and he tries to pray and to picture his mother well again, but all he can think about is how badly he wants Jeannie, and how it would feel to hold her against him, and he gets up and leaves the church, knowing that he is no believer.
Another three days and the Chief does not look like anyone Bennett knows, certainly not like his father. Now and then Bennett finds himself thinking Make her better, but the phrase seems useless, and it is only a phrase, nothing more.
On Tuesday night Bennett comes home early from the hospital. When he lets himself in, he looks around the kitchen, searching, then remembers, as he has done over and over this week, that he no longer owns a basketball. He cannot take the empty house, and he heads right back out the door and to the school.
At the school he plays hard without stopping, running up and down the court, toward and away from the basket, pretending to dribble, shoot, get the ball and start again. Never mind that he has no ball; it's still hoops. He is vaguely aware of people stopping to watch now and then, and he hears them laughing as though they are voices in the distance. He notices after a while that he is soaked in sweat, and he sits down and holds his head in his hands, and for just a moment he almost feels like the person he was a week ago. His head feels the same: his pulse pounds in his temples, and his head feels heavy and light at the same time after all the exertion, the way it always does when he has played hard.
He makes his breathing even and stares at his shoes because there is no basketball to stare at, to anchor him to this court. These, like the last six pairs of basketball shoes Bennett has had, are Converse, and each time he buys another pair the guy at the store tries to talk him into some Nikes or Reeboks, but Bennett cannot be budged from Converse. He is used to them, and the black letters are soothing to him. But he bought these shoes five months ago and they're just about shot. He guesses he has a few weeks left in them, maybe a month. If he asks his mom, she'll watch the sales for him. Basketball shoes add up, she tells him.
It is then that Bennett becomes aware of the Chief, standing at the fence, holding onto it the way little kids do when they watch Bennett shoot on a good day. Bennett has the feeling that the Chief is focused on him and nothing else, and he does not know what to do. Then he looks at the Chief's face and he walks off the court and follows the Chief home without saying anything, and he knows what there is to know, but cannot find the way to tell his father this.
When they get home, the kitchen clock says nine-fifteen, and every light in the house is on. Bennett does not ask why or turn any of them off. Once he is in bed, the Chief stands in the doorway and stares toward Bennett's window, where the streetlight in front of the house two doors down casts soft shadows of the sycamore tree outside.
"I don't want to hear it," Bennett says.
"I know that," the Chief says, "but I'm going to tell it to you anyway," and he does, about Margaret's gallbladder, and about it being gangrenous, and about something called sepsis shock. And Bennett understands that his mother has died.
It seems to Bennett that the next week is made up mostly of standing next to the Chief. They stand together at the funeral home; at the church during the funeral; and they walk side by side as they carry Margaret's casket from the funeral home into the church and then into the hearse and then to the gravesite, Bennett and the Chief and Margaret's two brothers and a distant cousin. Finally they are ready to leave the cemetery, and Bennett is following the Chief to their car—the Chief refused to ride in a limosine—when the Chief stops and turns back. The casket has already been lowered into the grave, and a piece of plywood has been placed across it like a cover, but the Chief lifts the plywood with one hand, and with the other drops a handful of dirt onto his wife's casket while Bennett watches.
The day after his mother is buried, Bennett sleeps for fourteen hours straight; when he wakes he gets up to go to the bathroom then goes back to bed for another six hours. While he sleeps, Bennett is vaguely aware of the Chief, somewhere in the house, moving around like someone who does not belong where he is. Bennett does not dream.
It has been twenty-nine days since Margaret's death. Bennett has not bought new basketball shoes and he has not visited his mother's grave since the funeral. He does not go to church. He does not pray. He has weekly appointments with the school psychologist, at which he says no more than is necessary. He answers her questions. Yes, he is eating enough. Yes, he sleeps. Yes, he misses her. No, he does not play basketball, not with a ball. The psychologist, an overweight woman named Michelle, does not like to hear that he plays basketball without a ball, but Bennett feels that it is pointless to lie to her.
The psychologist asks often about algebra because Bennett is failing and there does not seem to be any way around it; Bird Man is willing to be somewhat flexible—there is talk of summer school, or of make-up exams—but only to a point. The equations have become impenetrable to Bennett, and when Bird Man returns his homework and quizzes, red slashes and X's cover his papers like wounds.
It is nearing the end of the year and there is one more quiz before the final. Bennett comes into class assuming he'll fail both; he sinks into his chair and stares at his number two pencil with sadness. He does not like to fail, but he cannot seem to remember the language of algebra. It is a thing of the past. Bird Man passes out the quiz and when Jeannie Burton, sitting in front of Bennett, her brown hair in a neat braid down her back, turns to pass Bennett a paper, she stares at him hard and mouths the words, "Copy mine." He nods and as he carefully copies her answers, he feels a faint sign of hope at the sight of her neat equations only a couple of feet away. When he is finished, he makes what he knows is an error here and there for credibility.
Jeannie turns in her paper before Bennett and he watches her gather her things and head for the door, and he sees her look back at him just before she goes outside. He throws his pencils and notebook into his backpack, hands his quiz to Bird Man, and goes outside.
Jeannie is standing a few feet from the door. She smiles at him. "Hey," he says. "Thanks."
She shrugs. "I figured we could save Bird Man some red ink. He's used a lot of it up on you lately."
Bennett tries to laugh, but looks down, embarrassed. He is not used to failure. "Yeah," he says, "I—" he looks to Jeannie for help, but she just waits. "I don't concentrate well right now."
She nods and Bennett looks up and down the hallway frantically. Algebra is fourth period, just before lunch, and everyone's heading for the cafeteria.
"I've got food," he says suddenly, "at my house, I mean. Do you want to go to my house for lunch? It's close."
Jeannie Burton nods. "Sure," she says, and she smiles at him again. "Why not?"
They walk the few blocks to Bennett's house, where Bennett makes them grilled cheese sandwiches with Worcestershire Sauce, the first thing his mom ever taught him to cook. They eat at the kitchen table and Jeannie doesn't ask about his mom or look at him weird. She just talks to him, about her older sister who stays out all night and about how her mom yells at her too much, and all Bennett has to do is listen, which he does gratefully and attentively. He wants to hear everything this girl has to say, and feels that she is somehow scooping him up as she talks.
When they are back at school, Jeannie puts her hand on his arm. "Hey," she says, "thanks for lunch," and she squeezes it before she lets go. Bennett nods.
The next day he asks her if she'd like to go to a movie, and on Friday night they meet at the small theater downtown, and when the movie starts, Jeannie slips her hand into his, and when he turns to her, she is facing him, so that kissing her seems like the only next step.
After the movie, they stand outside the theater and Bennett slides his palms up and down his thighs to keep them from what they want to be doing, stalling them. "Do you want to do something?" he says finally, and Jeannie laughs.
"There's an offer," she says, "a real invitation," but she is smiling.
"We could," he says slowly, "we could go to my house or something." He says this last in a rush, as though it is all one word.
Jeannie is looking at her sandals; Bennett stares at her feet. "We could do that," she says, then she looks up at him.
"Okay," he says. "Good. Yeah," a done deal, and they walk to his house.
The Chief's car is in the driveway and Bennett tries to prepare himself for the coming conversation. The Chief has never met a girl, well, not a girl of Bennett's. Bennett's never met a girl, really, at least not known one like this. He's not sure the Chief is ready for it. He and Jeannie go in the kitchen door and Bennett closes it rather loudly, hoping to wake the Chief up if he is sleeping on the couch, something he does more and more often.
"Chief," he calls, then, an afterthought for Jeannie, "Dad."
There are footsteps and the Chief calls, "Close your eyes." Bennett looks at Jeannie as though she is responsible for this and might explain. She shrugs. Bennett doesn't know what else to do, so he closes his eyes.
"Got you something," the Chief calls, then Bennett hears him enter the kitchen. "Oh," he says.
Bennett opens his eyes. The Chief is holding a new basketball, the last thing in the world Bennett wants to see right now.
"Dad," he says, "this is Jeannie. Jeannie, my dad. The Chief."
"Hi," she says, and she holds out her hand. The Chief takes it, nodding and looking confused. He holds the basketball under his other arm.
"Nice to see you," he says carefully, then, to Bennett. "Here." He hands him the ball. "For you."
Bennett nods and takes the ball. "Thanks," he says. "It's great." The three of them stand there for a moment, all of them staring at the ball, as though giving the Chief a chance to figure out what's next.
"Guess I'll go to bed," he says. "I mean, to sleep. Or to read. I'm going upstairs to read," he says finally, and they all let their breath out.
"Sure," says Bennett. "We're going to watch TV."
"Sure," the Chief echoes, taking a lesson, and he heads upstairs.
In the den, Bennett and Jeannie sit on the couch and pretend to watch an old James Bond movie. Upstairs is quiet, and Bennett puts his hand on Jeannie's thigh, and a little after that Jeannie puts her hand on Bennett's knee. There is an old quilt on the couch that Margaret used to use when she watched TV, and Bennett asks Jeannie if she is cold and spreads the quilt over them before she can answer. And then they face each other and Bennett's hands pass over Jeannie's thin arms and shoulders as though introducing themselves, and he begins to learn the intricacies of her body, which she has, for reasons he doesn't completely understand, decided to make accessible to him. Then he touches her breast, just barely resting his hand on her T-shirt, and he holds his breath when she doesn't say no, not right away. And even when she does move his hand, she smiles at him, then kisses him as though to make it up to him.
And then there is a thump from the upstairs and Bennett and Jeannie look at each other as though caught. Bennett kisses her again, trying to pick up where they left off, but there is another thump. They kiss again, but there is a third thump, and then a fourth, and then the Chief calls that it is late and that Bennett should walk Jeannie home so as not to worry her mother. Bennett rests his head on Jeannie's shoulder for just a moment, readying himself for its absence, then he moves his hands across her body as though taking leave, and when he and Jeannie have untangled themselves, Bennett's hands feel empty without her.
In the dark, on his way home, Bennett thinks of his mother and finds himself talking to someone. He does not consider it prayer; it's just conversation, because he's not asking for anything, which seems to be the basis for any kind of prayer he's ever heard of. Mostly he just puzzles with God as he walks; she was one of your own, he thinks, how come? How come, God? My mom believed, he says to God. And then he hears himself say, Who are you anyway? He utters this out loud by mistake, and is surprised at the comfort in the sound of his own voice in the night.
On the last day of school, June ninth, there is a basketball game between teachers and students, a tradition, and Bennett is talked into playing by the coach at the end of P.E. It has been two months since Margaret's death, and Bennett has not played basketball with a ball in that time. He still wants nothing to do with a basketball and his shoes are coming apart and a few guys comment on them, but he cannot say no with everyone around.
At the game, which is right after school, inside the gym like a real game, Bennett is nervous. Jeannie sits right in the middle of the bleachers and stares at him hard; he can feel her gaze as he runs up and down the court. The game is loud and fast and Bennett is vaguely aware of a lot of noise, the crowd laughing and cheering and booing, but he is mostly trying to focus on the ball, which consistently escapes him. They have become strangers, he and a basketball. He hears the crowd sigh each time the ball eludes him, and he hears their disappointment with every shot he misses. He misses more than he makes and he tries not to think of his mother, who came to every game, always in her red sweater so that Bennett could spot her in the crowd, and always seated in the same place.
By the end of the first quarter the team suspects that Bennett is no longer a star, and they pass to him less, and certainly not near the basket. But finally they give him a chance, and Bennett makes it all the way down the court, and he is close and feels that a basket is possible, and he is excited, and he is called for travelling. He glances at the stands, wishing for the first time ever that he were a spectator, not a player, and he sees the Chief. He is wearing his suit pants and a red T-shirt that Bennett has never seen, and he waves to Bennett and gives him an awkward thumbs up.
The game ends; for the first time in fourteen years, the teachers win. Well, the teachers had a ringer this year: they talked Bird Man into playing, and who knew? He was pretty good, bony knees and all, even managed to sink a shot a mile away with four guys riding herd on him. It is Bird Man who pats Bennett's shoulder after the game and tells him he'll see him in a few weeks, at summer school, because even with Jeannie's help, Bennett still only managed a C, and Bird Man has talked him into retaking the class over the summer. The idea of algebra over the summer seems somehow hopeful to Bennett; perhaps the equations will become familiar again. He feels it's worth a shot.
The Chief is quiet on the way home. Bennett sees that his red T-shirt is brand new; the Chief's white button-down shirt is crumpled on the floor of the backseat, the plastic wrapper from the T-shirt next to it, and Bennett stares at the Chief with wonder.
"Hey, Chief," he says as they pull into the drive. "Thanks for coming to my game."
"Wouldn't have missed it," the Chief says, and he opens his door.
"Can I ask you something?" Bennett says. The Chief nods. "When Jeannie was over that first time and we were watching TV, there were these noises from upstairs. What were you doing?"
The Chief looks away, and Bennett cannot see his expression. "Throwing wing tips," he says matter-of-factly.
"Wing-tips?" The Chief smiles wryly and shrugs, and Bennett has the unsettling feeling of seeing himself in his father. "I didn't know if you should be alone or not be alone with that girl," he says, "so I figured you should just sort of know I was there."
Bennett nods. They go inside then, and the house is cool, a relief from the hot afternoon. Bennett cannot remember opening a window since his mother died, and it occurs to him that perhaps some of the air she breathed is still here. It seems possible.
That night after dinner Bennett goes outside with the ball the Chief gave him, still new. He starts to switch on the floodlights, but stops; the streetlights are enough tonight. Then Bennett begins to play, and he can feel the Chief watching him, but it doesn't bother him tonight. He just shoots, holding his breath each time the ball leaves his hands, until long after dark, when he can only guess at the whereabouts of the hoop, and the net is a mystery, and not what he thought at all.
Visit Bo Caldwell as Image Artist of the Month for December 2002