The Ballad of the Lonely Man in an Empty Gym

basketball gym

He wears an And 1 shirt. On the back it says “I’m the bus driver. I’m taking you to school.” He has no-show ankle socks on and a pair of all white mid top Nikes. His Adidas shorts fall at a weird middle ground between his thighs and his knees. He wears a Reebok headband. He wears Strength Shoes to and from the gym. He has a big, lime green Gatorade sweating on the scorers’ table. He constantly licks his fingers then wipes the bottoms his shoes. He’s upset the coach didn’t just give him a chance when he was younger. He’s 32 now, but he could’ve been something. Something special.

This is his sanctuary. He says that to himself when he walks in the door of the gym. He tries to say it like Denzel said it about the football field in Remember The Titans. What is pain? It is French bread. That’s what it is. That girl the other night didn’t get it. He’s glad she didn’t want to see him again. She was a loser, anyways. Probably turn out to be crazy. Whatever.

He swears, he JUST dunked right before you walked in. He hurt his left calf, though, so he probably won’t be able to do it again. Alright, I mean, if you insist. He’s telling you, though, probably not gonna happen. You know, because of the injury. He stands at the left wing and takes a few stand-still dribbles. Then he picks the ball up. He starts toward the goal. He stutters his feet two or four times to get his steps right. He gets inside the block and takes off. As soon as he jumps he starts falling again. The ball hits the lower half of the net. It falls out of his hand because he can’t palm it because he sucks. He comes up limping and hops around, favoring his right leg. He waddles over to the chair on the sideline and sits down and squints his eyes and blows out a couple breaths.

He comes here, to the gymnasium, every Thursday after work to get up some shots and get a sweat going. This is his preparation for the Saturday pickup game at the courts behind the old Albertson’s on Foster Street. Troy will be there this week. Troy will try to show him up. He will not let that happen. Not this week. Not again. He sits his iPhone on the baseline and flicks it over to Evanescence and hits shuffle.

Wake me up. 

He tosses the ball off the backboard and jumps low for the rebound, letting gravity grab onto the ball and do most of the work for him. He chins it and pivots and imagines he has no one to pass to so he shotguns it up the court. He’s leading the break.

Wake me up inside. 

He eases up at the three point line to set up the offense that is only him. Psyche. Hesitation and blow by to the rim. He imagines a defender on the left side of the rim. He goes up and under. He hurls the ball at the rim. It misses it completely. Somehow he managed to shoot it backwards and it lands in the middle of the lane. He gets his own board. He pump fakes nobody. He goes up with it again. It bangs off the bottom of the rim and hits his left shoe and rolls toward the sideline.

I can’t wake up. 

He gives chase. He dives for the ball and saves it barely. His knee is now skinned. He starts to dribble as he lays on the ground. He stands up slowly as he continues dribbling. He gathers himself. The defender that isn’t actually there does not respect his wet jumper and has backed off of him. Big mistake. He pulls it. Deep three. Ball lands on the other side of the lane. He runs after it. He’s on the right block now. He’s got an imaginary, fake someone guarding him in the post now. He’s backing him down. Slowly. Like, real slowly. He’s watching the ball as he dribbles it. He fakes a spin into the middle of the lane and turns to his left shoulder. Hook shot. He says “Kareem” below his breath. The ball hits the side of the rim, then the back of the rim, then falls through the nut. Bucket.

Wake me up inside. 

He is proud. He lets the ball lose steam and come to a stop at his feet. He puts his right foot on the ball because he has a little captain in him, and he places his hands on top of his head. He interlocks his fingers and breathes deeply. Then he stumbles and the ball slides from underneath him. He starts to fall.

Save me. 

He can’t catch himself. He hits the hardwood and lays there for a minutes. Then his left calf starts to cramp. He’s shouting because it hurts. He’s trying to stretch it out. It won’t stretch. He’s shouting louder now.

Call my name and save me from the dark. 

He lifts his left leg. Crap, he says. Ow. Ow. Crap. He keeps alternating between those two words. Ow and crap. Finally he gets the cramp to ease up. He is breathing heavily. Sweat is rolling off him onto the gym floor. He lays there, defeated by his own body. The Evanescence sits heavy in the air, still being released from his iPhone’s speaker.

Save me from the nothing I’ve become. 

My Immortal comes on and he stands. Back to work, he says to nobody. He checks his calf. Feeling good. He walks over to the corner of the gym where the ball rolled. He picks it up. He dribbles it twice. He walks back to the court. He stretches the calf once more. He shakes his head and looks out on the court. He takes off. Then he dribbles the ball off his foot.

These wounds won’t seem to heal
This pain is just too real
There’s just too much that time cannot erase. 

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