AN INTRODUCTION BY LUCIE SHELLY
Kawai Strong Washburn’s “On the Swish and Roar” is a story of fraternal rivalry, of two brothers jockeying to be good sons, and of Dean, a high school basketball star, struggling to get a read on his fiercest opponent: himself. The comparison between sport and storytelling is not a new one in literary commentary: a game is a narrative unfolding in real time, there are loyalties and disappointments, a host of characters, villains and heroes. This particular story unfolds during a high school basketball season, a context seemingly ripe for such melodrama, but the comparison is insufficient. And in that way, this piece does what great stories should do. It captures more than a battle; it expresses a whole life wherein the ideas of “winner” and “loser,” “start” and “finish,” “fair” and “cheating,” fall short.
Set in Kalihi, Hawai’i, “On the Swish and Roar” follows Dean as the biggest game of his season approaches. His team will play against Kahena Academy, the school his younger — and academically superior — brother attends, and that has rejected Dean time and again, to his mother’s despair. An altercation between the three-person family sends Dean reeling, on and off the court, and the question of how he will right himself in time for the big game grows as his headspace darkens: “I get benched while still get five minutes left. I drop a towel over my head and let everything be dark and stink and muffled.” In competitive sport, athletes are told to keep their personal lives out of the game, to focus on a singular, magnified conflict. Literature is more permissive: in one story, a writer is tasked with holding all the turbulence of life, internal and external, at once. In “On the Swish and Roar,” Kawai captures the mutual jealousies of two brothers, and each layer of Dean’s turmoil — the need to be understood for who he is, and still be the son his mother loves.
It captures more than a battle; it expresses a whole life wherein the ideas of “winner” and “loser,” “start” and “finish,” “fair” and “cheating,” fall short
In the day-to-day island life of Hawai’i, “where the roof’s all bust with rust and the floorboards creak and got the sour of old beer and spam musubi pushing in from our neighbor’s kitchen,” Kawai gives us a family story that is at once familiar and a world away. The metaphorical value of sport is undoubtedly captivating. But as I think back to Dean fighting to find his rhythm, to please his mother, and to be himself, I’m reminded of one important difference between great writing and great sport: a game starts and ends, succeeded by another. A great story like “On the Swish and Roar” stays with you even after you put down the pages, and changes you for having gone there.
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading
On the Swish and Roar by Kawai Strong Washburn
It’s Wednesday night and I’m about to break hearts again even though we’ve been down forever and the clock is under twenty now. The crowd can’t stop watching because I’m And 1 Mixtape, my shoes is chirping off the stutter-step and the sick crossover and I’m breaking ankles, mongoosing between two suckers as I spin to the rim and when I finger roll for two the net goes swish like an air kiss to the crowd, and now they know who’s coming, and it’s me and it’s Lincoln High. We’re still losing but sometimes I swear we’re always losing until the end and for real it’s nothing now. It’s nothing and I’m unstoppable.
I could do this all night, I could do this every night. Obie rifles the ball to Jaycee and Jaycee draws the double inside the key and sends the ball to me. And I get five points, ten points, twenty from the floor. We all watch the ball rainbow down and the buzzer goes off and my shot’s through the net like swish.
You never heard a crowd so loud, yelling for me, but that was two weeks ago. I took that night and put it inside me somewhere I can still get at, even now, all the way back home in Kalihi, where the roof’s all bust with rust and the floorboards creak and got the sour of old beer and spam musubi pushing in from our neighbor’s kitchen. Every night Mom busting her bones at J. Yamamoto, while I’m on our couch, living that night at Hauloa over and over. Because after that game I had plenty college scouts talking about me, and my picture in the paper, and my name in the news, but maybe that’s all gone now. Because of what I did.
It was like this: the day after that Hauloa game I came home early on a rest day and there was my brother Nainoa at the counter going through Mom’s purse. It was maybe the fourth or fifth time I seen him doing it, but might as well it was four hundred.
And it was weird, because for real I still couldn’t look at him without thinking about how Mom and all our family was always bragging on him over the phone, at family get-togethers, to strangers at the bank or wherever, no matter how hard I balled. He even got into Kahena Academy his first try. Best school in the state and him the best student, and all of it like he doesn’t even have to work. No doubt there’s doctor-lawyer-president in his future, everyone can feel ’um.
Yet still, there’s him going through Mom’s purse.
From by the door I asked what he was doing and he said he wasn’t doing nothing and so I was all, Don’t you start with this shit again. He was all, What do you mean? And I’m like, I seen you do this before. That’s Mom’s money. He was all, You do it all the time.
That wasn’t fully true. Because yeah, sometimes I’d take from Mom’s purse but it was only when I needed small-kine for important things — a little more for some new Jordans or extra for the stash Kam hooks me up with — and I could always make it back four or five times over in a day, as long as I still had buds for sell. So that’s nothing like taking money just to take it. I think Noa was like, grades is good, awards is good, even a ukulele player now, so why not see what it’s like on the flip side. Bad like me.
So I said, “It’s not like you need it.”
“And what, you do?” he said.
“Stealing ain’t gonna make you any more popular,” I said.
He snorted — I hate when he does that, basically just saying I’m better I’m better I’m better — and was like, “I guess I’ll just have to try for your C-average and study hall, right?”
“It’s been working just fine for me.” If I grinned it still felt like hate. Before Noa ever tried Kahena’s entrance test I’d already been rejected choke times.
“Maybe I was putting money back in, you ever think of that?” he said.
“Bullshit you were putting money back in.”
“Whatever,” he said. We were close and he’d dropped his hand from Mom’s purse, then tried to push past me for our room. But I put a hand on his chest.
“Stay straight,” I said. “You don’t want this.”
“Hey,” he said. But that wasn’t what set me off. It was his face. It was his face. His eyes was louder than his mouth, and I could see he was fully thinking everything about me I was scared of.
If family was a tree, he knew which one of us was the rot.
So I hit him. Full-on false crack — my knuckles, his nose. When he went down I put my knee on his chest bone and got ready for lump him more. But Mom was there, out from the shower I guess. We’d fully forgot about her. Towel-wrapped and her dark Hawaiian skin all slick and still soaped, long hair part-kinked and shiny. She tried for hold her towel up with her armpits but also tried for get me off Noa.
The more she pulled at me and hollered to stop, the more her hands said who her favorite was — just like always — so I turned and hit her, too. Hard. I’d maybe been in a couple scraps at school and then mostly in like seventh grade or something so even hitting Noa with real heat was something new. But no one in our family ever hit each other like I hit Mom right then. I mean, when I touched her, like when I felt the meaty spark of bone hitting skin, I knew I was falling off into something new. The way I figure there was me before, then the fist, and what I am now.
Mom’s strong, though. Way stronger than me. She stood up straight-backed, didn’t even touch her cheek, and asked, “What are you doing?”
I started for say, I’m saving him, but then Mom’s towel coasted off her body. I didn’t want to, but still I saw the stretch marks, the wooly fan of her urumut, and when she bent to get her towel, her tits drooping down like goat udders. My stomach was fully spinning with shame. I was still straddling Noa’s chest.
“Get off me,” he said.
“Never,” I said. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Like you do?” he asked.
Before when me and Noa argued, Mom’d be like I don’t need to keep you boys, I know just where to hide a few dead bodies and I can always make more kids, only this time they’ll be girls and that’s all I ever wanted. But she didn’t say none of that this time. She was staring at me like I was a car accident. I don’t know. She was still naked.
I let Noa push me off, and he made it to the door of our room. There was a scratchy tearing sound and then something flapped out and cracked the white hall wall and spread on the ground. I turned and seen it was my calendar.
“Your big game against the Academy is in two weeks, in case you forgot,” he called from our room. “You’re gonna lose, trust me.” He came back out of the room — dumbshit must have figured out there was nowhere to go and I would just walk in there after him — and he pushed out the front door and let the screen crack close behind him. The old wood bounced twice and stayed wobbled.
Mom was behind me pulling on her towel, not saying nothing. I just watched that screen door, listened to the hinges and figured, one more thing in this house that’s all bust up.
There was the rest of that night, then the morning after I hid away, hopped the bus to school without breakfast, then the day after I dipped in for a sandwich dinner while Mom was working a double and when night came again, I was out on an away game. Me all suited up on Waihe’e High’s home court. I think I felt good, but whatever, I played like ass: passing out of bounds, air balls from inside and outside the arc, crossover bouncing off my knees, turnovers turnovers turnovers. I couldn’t feel nothing of my flow. When the team rode back to Lincoln after, I tried not for look at my hands, but there they were. There was noise all around in that school bus, girls and boys both hollering at each other and usually I’d get Nic up on my lap, let her put her ass on my legs, crack her mynah bird laugh. Instead this time it was me just thinking, over and over, anyone can have one bad game. But even then I knew it wasn’t just one.
When I got home it was only Mom sitting on the couch. I figured I’d see the same bruise on her face that had been growing the night before, but her face was brown and unswollen. No light in the room except for the small side lamp by the couch and she was sitting with that, trying for read a J. C. Penney catalog.
I put my bags down just inside the door, took off my shoes, sat on the side couch. Whole time she snapped through page after page after page. Kept sounding like they’d tear but they didn’t.
“Shopping for new curtains?”
Snap-turn of another page.
“Maybe some of those Christmas-kine socks?” I said.
She lifted another page but didn’t finish turning it. “Let’s not bullshit around it all night, Dean,” she said. She was still looking down at the catalog. “Talk.”
“I’m sorry,” I said to Mom.
She shrugged. “You hit like a flight attendant,” she said. “I was in tougher scraps at Walmart Black Friday.”
“I don’t know why I did it,” I said.
“I don’t believe that,” she said. “Maybe I was one of the girls you’ve been hanging around with,” Mom says. “Or pretend Nainoa was your son. And then do what you did.”
“He’s getting stupid,” I said. “I was trying for fix it.”
“Trying to fix it,” she said. “Dean, seriously. Speak the way you were raised.”
“The hell is this? Why won’t you let me say I’m sorry?”
“Because you’re not,” she said, and we stayed there, staring at each other until I stopped.
Now. Monday night, a game against Saint Christopher and I go three for fifteen and brick four from the foul line. Might as well I’m a pregnant whale, how I handle the ball. It’s a home game but not feeling like home with our crowd quiet as a pop quiz. While we’re playing I can hear our shoes cheep over the hardwood and the other guys snort and gasp when I drive or cut and they try for stop me. I know my family’s watching me, most times the game moves too fast for me to find them in the stands, but almost always they’re here. I try for picture them clapping and standing in their seats but then I’m on Noa’s chest, arm cocked, Mom naked, and she’s got that look in her eyes again.
I flinch and come back to now, and it’s the court and I don’t got the ball.
Saint Christopher stomps us bad and I get benched while still get five minutes left. I drop a towel over my head and let everything be dark and stink and muffled. Just before the towel shades my eyes, I see two scouts up near the rafters, packing up their cameras and laptops and heading for the door.
Maybe they weren’t here for see me.
We get rest the day after the Saint Christopher game, ten days left to the Kahena Academy game, and I’m home after study hall watching SportsCenter. There’s the Top Ten with windmill dunks and over-the-wall catches, holes in one and right hooks for the knockout, all of it giving crowds that roar. And when I hear it I feel it, and when I feel it I go back to that Hauloa game and taste the roar I still got.
Then someone enters the room from behind and a sandwich bag of my buds comes plopping into my lap. Noa’s voice says, “Saw this in one of your shoeboxes.”
I roll my head back since he’s behind the couch, so now I’m looking at him upside down, and I say, “What, you’re going through my stuff now?”
“You need to be more original than a shoebox. Plus,” Noa says, “I thought you were done with this.”
I roll my head forward and look at the fat sack of joints sitting there, the lumps of sweet pakalolo inside the Zig Zag papers.
“Don’t you got some cancer to cure?” I say. “Ukulele masterpieces to write?”
“I thought you said you’d quit,” he says again.
“I did,” I say, which is true. I haven’t sold nothing since I hit him and Mom, since I gone cold on the court.
“If that’s quitting, then my farts don’t stink.”
“Might as well they don’t, the way you act,” I say. “You think you can do whatevers, yeah? Like you can just go through my stuff like Inspector Gadget.”
“I wouldn’t do it if you weren’t a criminal.”
I stand from the couch and turn. “What?”
“You don’t have to study, you can sell drugs, you can hit Mom just because.” He was fully counting with his fingers, popping each one from his fist as he went.
“Last time I checked you was the one going through her purse.”
He shakes his head, look on his face like he thinks I’m stupid. “That was only one time.”
“More like five,” I say. “Feels good, yeah? Slumming it? Just a minute of being like me, right?”
He laughs. Mom’s right, I’m not sorry. I figure if I hit his teeth hard enough he’d swallow ’um. “You see that? It always ends up being about you,” Noa says. “You’ve had your picture in the paper one too many times. Thank God you’re finally in a slump.”
“Slump nothing,” I say. “I’m fine.”
“You play us what, next week?” Noa asks.
“Ten days,” I say.
“Another chance to visit the Academy,” Noa says, like it’s a dream come true or some shit. “I know which stand I’ll be sitting in.”
How many times I tried for get into Kahena Academy, where they got scholarships for us Native Hawaiians but you gotta prove you’re worth it with a fully juice test, all haole words and useless math. Like, just because you can define ‘catalyst,’ you get in, and Noa did, and I didn’t.
“Just shut up,” I say. “I oughtta knock you out.” My muscles is all heat, and the only thing that keeps me from hitting him again is how it felt before. I turn and go back to the couch.
“Dean,” he says. He repeats my name but I just turn up the SportsCenter volume.
“I didn’t mean it,” he says.
“Whatever,” I say, but I know what’s in his voice. It wasn’t like this before — before Kahena, before him taking off like a rocket, before basketball — used to be we was just brothers.
We’re both quiet for a while and it’s nothing but SportsCenter and I don’t know if my brother’s left the room or not but still I say, “And I’m not selling anymore. I’m not.”
The whole next week practice hurts, Coach pulling two trash cans from the bathrooms and making us run suicides until someone palus and someone does every time. Never me, but it don’t matter I don’t puke because each day of practice I’m so off might as well I’m playing on the JV team. That Thursday, after Coach works us hard another practice, I stop by J. Yamamoto on my bus ride home even though I got the drunk head of too much workout and not enough water. I’m off the bus and walking through the mist from the hot rain that just finished sizzling on the blacktop, and the shopping carts is all hissing and crashing across the lot while the workers line ’um up. I stand at the huge J. Yamamoto front windows and watch my Mom. She’s in full work mode: green apron, fingers pecking at the keys, easy wrist flicks to close the register drawer every time after she gives change.
Her eyes go down and up when she looks from the groceries to the customer. It makes me think of my Kahena application days. That first letter, how when it came Mom started with a bright voice, all, Here’s one from Kahena Academy! And if the letter was lighter than we thought no one said nothing and then we were all ripping it open and Mom’s eyes swooped low with reading and then her eyes came back up wet heavy and she said, Okay. Okay.
Might as well I was falling through myself.
We regret to inform you. Our applicant pool is three to one and growing. We encourage you. Try again.
Seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth, me applying and the letters coming, one every year. And then the try for the next year would start: fat flexy prep books and Mom packing me J. Yamamoto Whole Wheat Crackers and I was all, No Ritz? And Mom was all, They’re twice the price and you’re only paying for the commercials, and so J. Yamamoto crackers with old peanut butter and me in the cafeteria as soon as school was out, sweating the prep books until practice. All those mornings on the bus to Lincoln, Jaycee guys would be talking about The Bernie Mac Show or Temptation Island, and I was all, FOIL method and quadratic equation, and they were all, The hell does that mean, and I was all, I don’t know but I feel like I’m having its baby.
And Mom some mornings and some nights — and if she’s lucky both — at J. Yamamoto, her going after extra shifts the way a crackhead goes after batu. And at the end of the night her coming home with work still banging around in her bones, might as well she’s saying Dean, can’t you see what we are? And every time, all the way back from the first time I tried for the test, felt like her punching me. Then Noa aces it like it isn’t nothing. Me wanting for say it don’t matter if I can’t get what they want on some stupid test, guess whose name everyone knows after Friday night? Guess who can tell you how the girls smell naked at almost every school in our division? I wanted for tell Mom I’d make us all something we never been before.
But maybe not, anymore.
I go into J. Yamamoto. I don’t let Mom see me. There’s all the aisles, long and sharp and bright-colored order, and I walk them from the back where I cannot get seen until I’m at an aisle right next to Mom’s checkout. Cleaning supplies. I grab a plastic mop bucket and flip it and sit down against the icy press of a shelf, and Mom’s on the other side, saying, “But you know how men are,” and then she laughs.
“For real,” the other woman says. “I tell you about Ikaika coming by yesterday?”
Mom says, “Oh God. What happened this time?”
“He had these two or three limp flowers in one hand, and some sorry little card in the other.”
“You’d think he’d have learned something by now.”
And Mom’s friend says, “He did learn something, he learned how to use the microwave for three meals a day.”
“You didn’t feel sorry for him?” Mom asks. “Not even a little?”
“The card was from a gas station. It still had the price tag on it. He didn’t even write anything inside but his name,” Mom’s friend says.
They go back and forth like this for maybe two or three minutes and then, “Hey ladies,” a man’s voice says, hard to tell the age. “Get a spill on five, over by the shoyu.” It’s like someone turns the lights on at the party, they shut up that quick.
“Okay,” Mom’s friend says.
“Can one of you take it? Remember, people come to J. Yamamoto because they want to feel like they’re at home. Nobody likes a messy home, yeah?”
“I like a messy home,” she says.
There’s a sigh, I’m guessing from the man.
“Trish,” the man says, “I thought we were all in this together, yeah?”
“And yet Darren guys are back there hanging out in the stock room, same as they do everyday.” Mom’s voice this time.
“Malia…” the man says.
“Room full of boys back there,” Mom says. “And yet here we are.”
“Are you saying — ”
“We just worked a mob of customers,” Mom’s friend says. “And the hospital shift change is about to happen.”
“Trish,” the man says, and even I can hear the warning in his voice.
“Never mind,” Mom says. “I’ll take care of it.” I can hear her shoes squinch away towards the spill.
I get up off the bucket when her steps are gone, don’t want her to see me. I just coast from aisle to aisle, all the way in back by the meats and cheese, the white milk, and cold air that gives me chicken skin. I find all the hemojang parts of the store before she can get to them, like where someone put a can of soup they didn’t want in the baking aisle, or where a kid maybe ran their hand across all the boxes of cereal and spun ’um sideways. Some weak-ass piano music is tinkling out of the speakers and everything smells lavender-vanilla-laundry something and I clean up. I put everything back. I take the soup where it belongs, I line up all the boxes, I check every aisle and I check ’um again, each aisle I can find when I know Mom’s not in it. I think about each thing as I put it back, how someday it’s gonna pass through her hands, how her fingers thick and strong but still soft is gonna grip whatever someone else is buying, and she’ll carry it over the laser and glass and into the crackling bag, paper or plastic. And all I got now is the stomach-burn feeling of I’m sorry.
Five days left to Kahena. Last one before, it’s a Saturday night home game and Ryan Lee from Palace — Palace! — crosses over on me nasty and I’m broke ankle as he drops it through for two. Later I get an open layup and the ball over-bounces the rim, might as well it’s my first time seeing a basketball. I’m benched by the end of the first half and in the locker room Coach is all Biblical-kine angry and paces, swinging his fists in the air at whatever he thinks he’s fighting, and he’s saying words like men and valor. We mob out the locker room to the court and then we lose by twelve and that’s only after Palace puts in their second string for the last five minutes. I’m all of that time with my ass on the bench.
On the way out after the game, Coach stops me at the door. He’s still jawing his gum and every word blows a soft mint smell over my face.
“Kahena Academy,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “Five days.”
“That’s our playoff ticket right there,” he says.
“I know,” I say.
He stops chewing. I can hear the operations people all clanging and rolling and squeaking back up the bleachers behind us, clearing the arena up for whatever comes next.
“I want you to come back from wherever you gone,” Coach says. He raises his eyebrows. “Lot of people worked hard to get you where you were. We need you back. You hear me?”
I hear him. I do. And there’s a million words inside my mouth but I don’t think he’s the right one for say any of them to, so instead I’m saying Yes I hear you, Yes I’m coming back.
Two days left and it keeps on: My flow is gone and I can’t get it back and the Kahena Academy game is closer, closer. Most times when it’s quiet and there’s space in my head it fills up with that punch and how much I wanted for hurt Noa and Mom both, like really wanted to break some part of them, how it had been there for maybe two years in my heart, and the way afterwards my knuckles felt like bee hives, full of all this small pain that’s still stinging me from the inside, trying to get out.
And it’s been a while but I still got that shoebox and I figure, Why not? I text Jaycee I’m too sick to practice and catch the bus to Ala Moana Park and hang out past the Hibachis to sell. The ocean sags against the rocks with a bubbling sound and there’s a dying-fish stink of old bathrooms behind me and past the sidewalk the grass is starting for die in a yellow way. There’s a few joggers, and some Asian power-walker grandmas, and a homeless guy in shredded jeans and a puffy jacket gimping his shopping cart up the sidewalk. I sit there for a little while before customers start rolling up, no one knows me or even sees me and I swear to God I’m thankful for it.
Some of the same customers from the last time I was here come through. Korean college kid with his baggy breaker jeans and braced-up teeth who’s always talking about choke pussy he’s getting at UH-Manoa, a twitchy hapa couple looking all pecked with bloody scabs and got that yellow batu tan on their blunted faces from all the ice they been smoking, two Japanese dudes off from the office with their fine creased aloha-wear and glossed hair that looks like it was parted with an axe blade. I move a lot of what I got way fast, shifting sacks from my backpack to my pocket in between sells. At least I still got my flow for this if nothing else. Inside the backpack, get one of my textbooks with a square cut out in the middle part of the pages where I keep the serious buds, and for the first fifty pages can’t no one even tell there’s anything but words in that book. I cut the stash pocket out when I was in the back of biology class one day, and I still feel cherry when I got it, like I’m carrying around something for James Bond.
The ocean’s going pink with the last of the sun when I hear their creaky voices to my right and feel stupid for letting anyone sneak up on me, “So what, you still got a little something, or it’s all gone?”
I turn to look. There’s no one but the two Asian power-walking grandmas I saw earlier, maybe in their sixties, their bright plastic visors and runner’s shorts, pink socks and soap-white shoes. I can smell what’s gotta be some crazy Chinatown lotion blowing off their skin.
“The bathrooms is right over there,” I say, flapping my hand at the dying-fish-stink building of low grey concrete.
“Don’t get smart. You heard us,” one of them says, the one that looks older.
“You need directions or something?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “We need buds.”
I open my mouth but nothing comes out. The one who first spoke keeps going.
“We walk this road every day this time. Every day. And we seen you and hear all the plastic crackles and the dollar dollar handshakes. So don’t play stupid. You still got something, or it’s all gone?” The one lady that’s maybe just a little bit younger — she’s got more makeup, less loose skin — squints her eyes and puts a hand on her hip.
There’s no way. Do cops use old ladies for this kind of stuff? I look around for a minute, check all the places stupid cops might be standing in plain sight, or patrol cars in the parking lot. Finally I ask, “You’re serious?”
“Fifty dollars,” the older one says.
“One hundred,” the younger one says.
“But you’re like sixty years old,” is all I got.
They just stare at me, slow smiles pulling across their teeth. I figure why not, let me get cashed out, so I whip out my James Bond and give them all of what’s left, and after I get paid one of them takes a joint from the bag and a lighter flares, and soon enough they’re passing the dutch and dropping clouds of that Kona Gold stink all over me. The older one lets the smoke curl out her nose while she eyes me with a frown.
“You’re just gonna smoke out right here? Right where you bought it?” I say. “Auntie, thanks for the cash, but you’re crazy.”
The younger one straight up cackles when she hears it. They both sit down next to me on the bench, either side. She says, “You get to our age, you get tired of waiting.”
“Waiting, waiting, waiting,” the older one agrees, “for whatever you want.”
The younger one says, “You know?”
I turn and look at the older one. Then I turn the other way and look at the younger one. They don’t know me and I don’t know them but I just start talking. “I don’t wait for nothing,” I say. “You never get anything, you do that.”
“He’s all business, Sharon, yeah?” the younger one says.
“All business,” the older one, Sharon, agrees. “He’s like one of those, how’s it called? Hip-hop.”
“One of those hip-hops,” the younger one says. “With the bandannas.”
“Guns,” the older one says. “Tupac, yeah?” She shakes her head and clucks her tongue. “Those boys don’t know nothing.”
“Right,” I say.
“Everyone ends up waiting,” the older one says. Smoke’s all ribboning from the joint in her hand. She passes it back. “Even hip-hop boys.”
She offers the joint.
I hit it once. Been a long time since I smoked. I don’t like thinking of all that blackness getting into my lungs. Better there’s nothing but pure oxygen torching through me while I run the court.
“Listen,” I say. I start to go about how used to be I could cut and mongoose and float and I got nothing of it now, and that I think we got screwed, me and the whole family, like we were all guaranteed something that’s fully getting taken back at the last minute, and that something was me, who I was supposed to be. But I stop talking pretty much as soon as I start — I can’t believe why I’m even talking to these ladies, like are you kidding me, it’s just customers, crazy old ones anyway — and they’re all passing the roach back and forth and watching me from under falling lids.
“Ah, calm down,” the younger one says. “I wish I was more that way when I was your age. Don’t be so sad, maybe you’re not a hip-hop.” She raises the last scraps of the roach, all burned out. She laughs. “You seem pretty good.”
“Yeah,” Sharon agrees. “Sure helped us a lot. Like a doctor.”
Doctor. If I’m nothing, I’m definitely not a doctor, not in my family. I get up off the bench.
“Awww,” the younger one says. They’re way stoned now, everything sharp about them blunted. “Stay a little bit longer.”
But I just sling my backpack over my shoulder, I’m looking up at the sky: there’s black clouds coasting in off the Ko’olaus, heading straight for us.
“It’s not going to rain,” Sharon says, following my look.
“Yeah it is,” I say. I nod towards the baggie slouched between them, their calf socks and visors. “You all let me know next time you need a hook-up.”
“Sure, sure, sure,” Sharon says, all syrup. “See you soon.”
“Yeah,” I say. I don’t think I’m ever coming back here. I hope it rains all night. I hope it rains tomorrow, too, and then the sidewalks and buses and the roofs like ours can get that clean soak and shine.
When I get to the front door at our house, I hear the popping rips of meat hitting oil in a pan and from the half-burned, golden smell of breadcrumbs frying. I know it’s chicken katsu and Mom’s in the kitchen. I stand at the door for a minute and think maybe I can go out again and walk one more time around the streets, or maybe I can get through my room from the window, but then Mom’s at the door and smiling a tired smile.
“I thought that was you,” she says.
I look over my shoulder. Not like there’s anyone or anything back there at the end of the cul-de-sac, but it gives me a second to think about what to do.
“I’m not feeling too good,” I say.
“Nainoa told me about the new study group you’re in after school. Must be hard to do that after practice?”
It takes me a minute to figure out what Noa did for me, and then I nod and say, “Yeah, it’s hard.” I step inside the door and put my ball on the ground. It starts rolling across the slanted-ass floor, towards the hall to our bedrooms. I take off my shoes.
“How was basketball?”
“No problem,” I say. “Short slump. It’s over now. Just one of those things.” My lips is all dry and sticky and I lick them and Mom turns the chicken and her eyes go down and come back up.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I thought we talked about this,” she said. “It isn’t about just sorry.”
But I want to hold out everything that’s around us, like, No, Mom, I’m sorry. The Linoleum that’s got all these moles of black and yellow from years of smokers and slackers that had the house before us; or that we’re eating the chicken ’cause I bet it went on sale at J. Yamamoto with the sell-by date way past and already Mom’s gotta bread the hell outta it for keep the real taste out. And here I am with easy one hundred dollars in my back pocket after just a few hours. I don’t got nothing like the right words for even start that thought, so I say, “So how was your day?”
Right after I say it I see it’s not something I ever ask. I don’t know why. She must know it, too, because I see her brighten and fully think. She takes a while before she answers.
“My day,” she finally says. She taps the tongs on the pan. “My day sucked dick.”
“Right, I get you,” I say. “What kind of dick, though? There’s all kinds, you’ve got your long horse dick, your furry goat dick, your hot bull dick…
“But,” I make like I’m thinking, even rub my chin, “that’s really more of a balls thing, with the bull.”
Mom laughs. It’s a good one, too, one of those ones where even she seems surprised, like it just firecrackers out from a place she didn’t even know was there. “God, boys. You’re all so sick. I should know better than trying to compete.”
“I’m a perfect gentleman,” I say, “once you get to know me.”
“A perfect gentleman can help set the table, then,” Mom says. After I set down my bag she asks, “How was your day?”
I shrug. “Another day another dollar.”
“Hm,” Mom says. “If only they paid you at study hall.”
God, I’m stupid, to say what I just did. I don’t look at her but I figure she really knows where I was this afternoon.
“This family needs you. Just remember that.”
“What’d I say? Slump’s over,” I say, get my best grin out. “Soon Harvard’s gonna make me president, just so I can ball for ’um.”
“Okay,” Mom says. She licks katsu sauce from the tips of her thumb and index finger. “You don’t need basketball to be president.”
“That’s Noa you’re talking about,” I say. “It’s basketball for me.”
“You know,” she says, turned back to the katsu. “I see the way you think about this.” She spins her finger in the air to be like, this whole house. “You know what I mean?”
I tell her I do.
“It’s more than you think it is,” she says. “Whatever else basketball might be.”
“You don’t think I can do it,” I say.
“I think you don’t know what it really is,” she says. “We love you. But nothing’s easy. So you better open your eyes.”
She asks me to go tell my brother that dinner’s almost ready, and that I should take my backpack to my room, and then she’s with the plates and the katsu, and her eyes is grocery-down again, and I sling on my backpack and feel the James Bond in there like it’s burning a hole in my back.
We have dinner and there’s some talking, but nothing real between me and Noa, we just throw words past each other’s shoulders and then listen to Mom. It’s not long before dinner is done and we all peel off and Noa’s in the garage with his ukulele, making these runs of notes and clucking chords and it’s nothing like the way most of us play, it’s way beyond. And I try for work on my econ homework but in the end all I can do is write The market clearing price is I’m fucked, and then I’m on the couch, watching SportsCenter, and everyone else is asleep.
I slip into our bedroom and there’s Noa’s sleep-weight in the darkness, I can feel him all heavy and gone in his breathing. Without the lights the wall is just something for push against but I know I got the calendar pinned back up and marked down to all but the last two days, then KAHENA ACADEMY written from border to border.
Okay then. I open the closet and suit up with my Jordans and Allen Iverson ‘Sixer away jersey and grab my basketball and feel all the places the texture bumps is wearing down. It’s after midnight. So for real, I got one day now until Kahena. I slip the money I made today out of my backpack and carry it with the ball back into the front room and there, on the counter, is Mom’s purse.
The refrigerator kicks on and grumbles. Ice clatters in the tray. I can see where Mom’s wallet is, right in front and the clasp is gold that’s rubbing itself out. I reach out with the cash I got in my hand. I can remember the first time I got caught selling and figured Mom would cry when she had to come pick me up from the station, but she didn’t cry at all, just had this hard flex to her jaw and torqued her hands around the steering wheel, and shot air from her nose, over and over, each thing stacking on the other until I felt my head drop and I stared at the floor mat all the way home.
The bills I’m holding now could be from the old ladies. Or the scratched-up addicts. Or the college kid with all his stories. But now it’s mine, maybe the only thing that is. That’s the thing about money, once it’s in your pocket it doesn’t matter where it came from, only where it’s going. I imagine saying that to Mom and I know it wouldn’t fly.
I pull the money back and put it in my pocket. I’m out the door and down the street.
I walk through Kalihi in the dark. There’s almost no houses awake. I’m across the long line of lamps leaking weak light down onto the sidewalk and I can hear the small pieces of the street sticking to my Jordans. The park is closed I guess this late but that don’t mean nothing, and there’s the backboard all mossy on the edges and streaked with mud from other people balling in the rain that finally came earlier tonight. The net is broke in one or two places that sag and hang into holes in themselves.
I bounce the ball a few times, listen to the ringy pound. The wind comes on and the trees clatter like applause. I close my eyes for the first shot, I don’t know why. I let the shot loose from my ankles, jumping clean, but when the ball comes off my fingers I know it’s all wrong, and then the clang of the rim and the bounce of the ball. It rocks against the chain link fence by the playground. I watch it till it stops moving. Forget it all. All of this.
I shag the ball and take another shot, eyes open, and it swoops in and out of the rim and bounces, bounces, right to the edge of the court. I quick-step and scoop the basketball. I cut to the corner and then crossover, turn, bent with my back to the rim like I got D on me, it’s Kahena Academy, or whoever else thinks they can try for defend me. And here’s the corner I’m pinned in, you gotta shake ’um off you, you gotta get free, and I do, I’m fadeaway spinning for the hoop, and I let my shot go high and right at it. I watch it rainbow down. I’m remembering that Hauloa game again, the one I keep in my belly, just grinding on the swish and roar. I know this shot is going in, I can see it drop through the chains already, it has to, it has to, it’s just like I was saying. I’m unstoppable.