I was vaguely aware of an increased anxiety, as though he might not stick around to watch me play or might be less focused than I wanted. In fact, his condition seemed to make him and my mom more relaxed; she could express an easy sympathy and he could accept it. It also meant they wouldn't have to spend too much time in conversation.
With him on hand, I had merely to worry about the arrival of my nine reluctant friends. They had me sweating it down to the last minute, but they eventually straggled in, every last one, and they seemed genuinely enthusiastic, too (except for the money).
At last we proceeded downstairs to the basketball court, a gloomy cavern with overhead lights in protective metal cages. My mother and father sat up on a balcony walkway, 15 feet above court level, while down below we began to warm up, all 10 of us at one basket because we had only one ball.
At last the game began, and I could scarcely soak up the richness of its elements. While everyone ran up and down the floor, I was thinking, "Oh, God, this is just like a real game." There were the glossy wooden floor and the twine nets and the Official NBA Game Ball. Sneakers squeaked and the ball pounded the boards with a hollow ring. Then it was passed to me, as if from a different dimension, and I found it slick, hard to hold. My legs felt clunky and spastic. I took a wild shot that hit the backboard like a brick.
After a couple more times up and down the court, however, I had worked up a sweat. My stomach had calmed, my legs worked. The ball came to me again. I bulled to the baseline, put a head and shoulders fake on my man and, as he left his feet, curled around him to lay the ball in off the backboard with English.
Backpedaling down the court on defense, I looked up to the balcony for my parents' reaction. My father's expression was unfathomable behind his swollen cheek, and my mother's head was bent to her task as she scribbled away intently in the scorebook.
Several more such furtive glances failed to satisfy me, and at the half (marked by my mother's faint cry of "Time!") I made a trip up to their perch, ostensibly to check on my stats, but really so I could accept whatever compliments they might send my way.
The two of them were engaged in a conversation about Demerol, of which my father had taken plenty for his pain. It had evidently turned him slightly dopey. He talked in thick, slagging tones, his left cheek a bumpy balloon.
I stood there, my shirt matted to my hollow chest, the Magic Marker ink from my homemade number blurring at the edges. "What did I shoot?" I asked.
They broke off talking, and my mother studied the notebook on her lap. "Your side is leading by three baskets, and you've made five baskets."