Fiction by Parker Wilson

March Madness

They stand below the rim in a group and reach their fingertips to bump the ball toward the rim or away from it, toward another rim. Gispelli dribbles the ball short but back and forth. He bounces it on the zeniths of an ovacular orbit. Toward Carlton; away from Carlton. Teasing toward the hoop; feigning away from it. His sweat, by inertia, gives away his direction, falling slanted toward the backboard, like it was blown by a wind.

The sweat on the backboard is only cleaned after the game. Sasson, lean and lithe, blocks a close jumper. He wraps his arm around Gispelli to knock the ball out and draws a foul. Gispelli’s crotch, knocked in the foul, aches as he bounces the ball at the free throw line and crouches, coiling his body like a spring, before releasing the ball at the top of his extension. The ball floats and the stadium is suspended while the ball’s destination is calculated and recalculated every second by every watching mind. Gispelli misses the knee-length basketball shorts that went out of style not long ago that compressed less but also revealed less. As the ball passes precisely within the orange metal circle, Gispelli watches a bead of sweat drip from the backboard onto the court. The ball caresses the soft net, enveloped, and follows the drip to the floor.

He bricks the second free throw and notices a flashed look of disappointment from Sasson. Why would an enemy root for an opponent? Moore, his teammate, rebounds a gift and kicks it back outside the three-point line in front court territory. Gispelli rubs the ball’s bumps seductively while holding it off to the side at his hip, with eye contact. Sasson is distracted. Gispelli bluffs left, then slides right around Sasson, straight to the basket through an open avenue and launches off his right foot with the ball perched high above his head on his fingertips. The ball kisses the backboard, knocks loose a few drops of sweat, and batters the rim before falling through. Was Michael Jordan the first to hold his palms up in disbelief?

Gispelli knows how to distract Sasson. He hikes his shorts up to reveal more thigh, bunching the polyester. He bends over, wide-stanced, hands out and at the ready at the top of the three-line. As Sasson catches a pass from the corner, holding five fingers up high, Gispelli mirrors him, holding out five to the right, then five to the left, before Sasson decides on a drive or a pass, or just to waver, take his time, and play in the mirror.

The sweat on Gispelli’s quads shines. They all stand under the basket and raise their hands as if in deep reverence. Will the holy hoop deliver? The net jangles and snaps up as the ball passes through. Half the crowd boils over and sprays up. Three for Sasson. He holds his follow-through arm in the air as he skips backward down the court. Gispelli looks away after noticing Sasson’s carpeted armpit.

Moore, at the top of the paint, dribbles, looks up, dribbles again. Sasson readies for the rebound by resting a hand on Gispelli’s thigh. Gispelli doesn’t look down. Instead, he hovers his left hand in front of Sasson’s crotch. As the shot goes up they collapse together, shuffling jerseys and sweat.

Wrighte punches the air. The sweat stains start to show. Gispelli’s family cheers him on; cheers led by his father thick in proportions, making it difficult to decipher how the pedigree could turn out such athleticism. Their all star plays hard enough to make his father forget. Great game, he’ll say, and later, where’s the girl? Sometimes, alone in the garage, he wonders if his line is ending.

With Sasson on his heels, Gispelli receives a bounce-pass as if it were a thumb in the soft the way it shocks him, then springs and dunks, and hangs from the rim, swinging his legs. Sasson jumps to block, stuck between giving up and showing effort, and ends up with a mouthful of crotch to the face — points he doesn’t mind losing. But the game? Give a team the advantage in atmospheric energy and the momentum shifts on a cosmic scale.

Sasson comes in rough at Gispelli. What professional future did either of them have, beyond this moment? They’d decide it for one another, tonight. Sasson would have to win a championship, or at least make it there, to have a chance. Gispelli might only have to beat him. As he nears the rim, Sasson calculates his chances of a basket at 50/50, and kicks it back out to Chavey.

Chavey shoots, mid-range, and it ricochets out to Sasson who double-palms the ball and sends it home. He swings from the orange, just as Gispelli had, but Gispelli, instead of eating it, stands by the side and snaps his own waistband. Sasson strikes a power pose when he drops, grabs his crotch, and wags it in Gispelli’s face. Gispelli turns as if he hadn’t seen it. Sasson’s coach pulls him off.

The decibels coming from Gispelli’s family are drowned out only by the double pair of powerhouse lungs owned by Sasson’s mom and sister standing, and often jumping, on the side opposite the Gispelli’s. Mamma Sasson treats the boys as her own. She knows her son finds his own place among them. Is it an adjacent place? She knows he protects himself. Sasson doesn’t remember his handiness in the junior league, as a toddler. Kids play. His mother remembers.

Sasson, against his best efforts, follows only Gispelli with his eyes as he watches from the bench: Gispelli for a deep three; Gispelli with a quick spin into a layup. Fouled. And one. Nails it. He won’t miss another.

Sasson looks for the pendulum in the pants, the slow circles. The male metronome that comes from a rhythmic dribble between the legs: a gambling club for members only, tossing their dicks on a roulette wheel.

Houston is down by eight with a minute-thirty left. Sasson goes back in while Moore lines up for a pair of free throws. The hole is next to Gispelli where Sasson steps in. Their forearms press together. Sasson says, bet you like that. Moore gets both points and backpedals after the second, trying to speed up the game. Gispelli won’t fall for it. He walks down the court. Sasson throws his arms up to get a reaction from the crowd. They answer. A steady foot stomp, faster than Gispelli’s dribble, builds from the very foundation.

The crowd — Gispelli can’t tell which, doesn’t think about it — begins counting down the shot clock. Sasson’s mother and sister are shouting, five, four, three… Gispelli fakes a pass right which opens a small window for him to drive left — not his favored side — to the hoop. He’s stopped by a tall wall so he pulls up for a jumper and misses. Sasson whispers as he brushes by Gispelli, you still had three seconds, beautiful. Wrighte yells at him from the side: What are you listening to the crowd for? You still had three seconds.

Gispelli’s father shouts at his son to put the spell on em.” His wife is screaming her face red. Her wish is for him to have a family one day. The Sasson family celebrates their clock trick — their jewelry and clothes flail around in a cyclone. Sasson’s sister’s hat is knocked off. They laugh and almost miss their kid on the court driving it down. Gispelli is in his way. Sasson is putting it home. His stride becomes a long hop, a declaration of pace, a ritual, a dance. A setup knock before breaking the punchline door down. Gispelli can’t get his feet set, so can’t draw a foul. Sasson springs up and slams mid air into Gispelli. Gispelli is thrown on his back and slides into a cheerleader. Sasson hammers the ball through the hoop — a pop and a swish. The crowd explodes. His hand bounces off the rim. Both ring. As he lands, his momentum carries him forward to stand above Gispelli. Gispelli is between his legs, looking up. Sasson looks down into Gispelli’s face, and pounds his own chest. His teammates pull him away. The crowd is still exploding. Gispelli is helped up and ignores the taunting.

Houston’s fans make sound physical. They’re leading for the first time all game. Gispelli receives a pass like a hail mary halfway down the court. Sasson catches up. Gispelli takes Sasson to the basket. They are stride for stride. The stadium is dribbled by feet. Each synchronized step is an imitation of scale’s derangement, a dubious and yet exponential trajectory toward the unavoidable: the extramundane. Eternity resets, and resets again. The stadium, for the most part, quiets. Sasson feels Gispelli. They jump at the same time. Both arms outstretched, one with a ball. They are aligned at the fingertip if they are a foot apart. Sasson, his ego boosted by getting the out on Gispelli moments ago, instead of carrying this marriage to a draw, which would work to his favor, slaps the ball out of Gispelli’s hand. Foul. Gispelli to shoot for two.

Gispelli’s father bites his nails. Sasson’s sister and mother hold their hands pressed flat together in front of their mouths. Gispelli breaths out. Sasson is standing beside him on the lane line. Houston’s fans drown out jumbo jets — not a decibel from Nova’s. Gispelli misses the first. He only needs one to tie the game. He low fives his teammates and heaves his shoulders with a big breath to settle the nerves. He sees the hoop in his mind’s eye.

Gispelli remembers only himself and the simplicity of that circle. The one that comes back around. The circle he finds in his teammates — then why wasn’t that circle complete? Gispelli lets it go. The ball seems to be going in, then jounces directly off the back of the rim to shoot out into the court again. Sasson grabs it and protects it. Gispelli rolls on him and bear hugs him for a foul. If Sasson makes both, Nova can still answer with a three. Two and a half seconds on the clock.

Sasson turns Gispelli’s trick back on him and looks him in the eye as he shoots. It’s a swish. Houston’s crowd howls. Sasson smiles as he hammers the ball into the hardwood. He won’t play around on this one. But he considers whether Gispelli will go for the three no matter what. Why go for a tie when the win is right there? He bends down, hovers there, then stands as if going to water a hanging plant, and, just, nudges the ball toward the hoop. It hits low on the backboard and bounces off the far edge of the rim which sends it straight up into the air, where it revolves. Its black lines shutter. It comes down heavy on the front of the rim and the sound of a diving board reverberates. It drops back to the court — without falling through the net — and is sent out of bounds by Chavey.

Two seconds is enough. Who else but Gispelli? No one even near the stadium speaks. Sasson, Gispelli’s magnet, follows him skirting about the court. The inbound pass, one-handed and thrown by Moore, leads Gispelli by a long way. Gispelli runs into the pass, grabs it, and turns. The clock starts. He steps deep with his left, testing the joints — which Sasson falls for, desperate as he is — then crosses Sasson over, and circles the ball back over his front-facing hip to turn it in the opposite direction. Sasson slides away onto the hardwood and dies.

Gispelli is wide open at the three-point line. Eternity rests. He feels the shot through his toes and his bones through his skull. He feels Sasson’s touch again as he remits the ball to the authority of the hoop. The buzzer, louder than ever, yells operatic chills. Gispelli, in this moment, wonders if his throw determines anything. Does it matter how he does it? The ball sails according to the wind, the wind that blows his sweat. It’s off, he tells himself. He lost the tournament. Is it the nerves? Or is his best done?

The ball catches the edge of the rim to Gispelli’s surprise. It rolls from there. It rolls a circle around the rim and falls in, pushes through the netting, a portal to the extramundane, and returns to its love, the shiny floor, and the love it cannot have. The ping of rubber on wood, for once in the game, becomes the signal. Ballistic, the announcer says, ballistic.

Gispelli stands still, muscles gone lame, eyes fixed to the hoop. His teammates swarm him, handle him, push him around, rub his skin, punch him, wiggle him, tickle him, grip him. Pillars of people bounce around him. He rocks around but one piece in his field of vision stays still. Sasson is there, standing, stealing one last good look at Gispelli. Their eyes lock. Sasson turns, shoulders above his surroundings. Gispelli breaks from the admiration gripping him like a stone rolling upriver. He pushes people aside to get to Sasson and puts an arm to his shoulder to turn him around. They hug, then hug again. Gispelli whispers into Sasson’s ear: Sheridan’s.

Then Sasson’s gone. Gispelli falls into his victory. He interviews, hugs his family, his teammates, and Coach Wrighte. He laughs at Moore and Chavey doing a little dance for a camera. Someone puts a final-four cap on his head — he adjusts it and pulls it down then stands tall. All the lights and graffiti belong to him. How can someone just disappear? The peace and praise disorients him. He wants disrespect. Not accolades. His smile widens.

The lights and the excitement fade. Fans, after taking in one last look, turn to leave. Gispelli rides the bus back to the hotel with his teammates, singing their fight song over, and over, and over.

Sasson walks down a dark tunnel. He hears his teammates sob around him, sees their silhouettes consoling each other. What is the other chance at a late night win? He’ll take the proximity. The locker room is all tears and the coach’s echoed voice mumbles from the grave. Sasson is busy on his phone looking up Sheridan’s. He showers alone and hides an erection against the wall. Outside the stadium, a small cohort of diehard fans pity clap. Sasson nods to them, hugs his mother and sister, and outlines a midnight therapy. No one speaks on the bus.

At the hotel, Coach Wrighte tells the boys to get some sleep for the long drive back tomorrow, and not to forget about a week of school ahead. He’s used to dealing with the fallout, the occasional arrest, and the rare pregnancy.

What about numbing the pain with a vice? Was it worth the risk of toxic renegade? Chavey says he’ll go out when Sasson tells his roommates he’s going out anyway. Atlanta’s air opens its legs to an improved mood. Sasson says he just wants to drink. On their way to Sheridan’s, out of a ride share and onto the street, Chavey asks Sasson what’s up with him and chicks. Sasson stares at the little world of lights ahead. He says he has a girl back home. Chavey says, man, we all have a girl back home. Sassoon says, yea, but you don’t have my girl back home.

Gispelli orders a water. The bar’s frequency suggests tuning out. He sees Moore at the far end of the bar eyeing a shot glass in front of him as if it were a cobra poised to strike. Sasson walks in with Chavey by his side. Moore takes the shot, grimaces, coughs, hacks, and moans in pain. Sasson, walking by at that moment, stops to help. Moore is letting out long grunts that rattle his throat. What was he doing, smoking a vodka-soaked blunt? Gispelli explains this is how Moore takes all his shots.

He’s fine,” Gispelli says. He hates the taste.”

Then why does he drink?”

For the payoff.” Gispelli pats a recovering Moore on the back.

Did you really beat that buzzer?” Chavey says.

Gispelli shrugs. I got lucky.”

Of course he beat it, Chavey,” Sasson says. We don’t lose to punks.” He and Gispelli share a glance.

A drink for the winner, then,” Chavey says, wedging himself to a place at the bar.

Gispelli leans into Sasson’s ear.

My dick still hurts,” he says.

Sasson doesn’t lean. He just says loudly, Then you’re in the right place.”

For what?”

Now he does lean. For your dick not to hurt.”

Chavey turns with three shot glasses. You better beat Kansas’ ass,” he says.

I’ll drink to that.”

They cheers and drink. Sasson wipes his mouth. Gispelli woofs. Chavey turns back to the bar, grabs a gin and tonic, just one, and says, I’m broke. Dancefloor.”

Warm it up for me,” Sasson says.

He and Gispelli step away from the bar to a less crowded spot.

You played great,” Gispelli says.

I just wish I had longer shorts. Those short shorts beat me up.”

I’ve been saying that ever since they went out of style,” Gispelli says. Sasson twists a pinch of Gispelli’s shirt near his waist. My dick looks better in them,” he says.

Hard to imagine.”

Sasson is choked.

Gispelli says, You see that dark alley outside?”

Gispelli leads Sasson to a side door hidden in a shadow of the club and slips out into the alley next to dumpsters and puddles. The court can be so bright. The line to the club is not far off at the end of the alley. Moonlight from the alley forms a silhouette around Gispelli as Sasson follows him that reminds Sasson — no, creates new reason for — why he came out. What he’d been touching all day, all his life, finally coming to him. Gispelli’s outline is complete. A circle.

As Gispelli steps into the alley and turns, Sasson grabs him and, instead of pinning him against a wall, holds him gently and their lips meet. A warmth of release from a lifetime of agonizing restraint passes between them. Their bodies come tight together. Sasson wants to fall into the alley’s puddles.

They hear a whistle directed at them from the end of the alley. Gispelli cuts off the kiss and turns his head. Sasson doesn’t. He grabs Gispelli and forces his face back.

What are you listening to the crowd for?” Sasson says.

They return to the circle.

Parker Wilson

IG: @parkerreviewsbooks

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