Oct/Nov 2003  •   Fiction

Bounce the Ball

by Michael Cocchiarale

Photo-Art by Tara Gilbert-Brever

Photo-Art by Tara Gilbert-Brever

This kid Bill we can never get rid of, this kid when no one's home walks back and forth on the tree lawn, some dumb tennis game of his own, and when we pull in the drive last night, he bounds across the street, a pudgy boy in a crew cut, his dad back at the mental hospital, his mom whoring and neither too jazzed about having brought him into the world, since surprise surprise he's not a toy but a human being you actually have to give a shit about and tonight, Bill's got this great green Martian head of a ball, which he must have found because his parents aren't givers, Christ, for supper they usually hand him hotdogs right from the fridge, processed cheese food fresh from the wrapper.

He's excited, he's just a water balloon of excitement this Bill, calling out "Ray, Ray, Ray..." and we're not even out of the minivan, tired from the trip to see my family, which has gone as well as a funeral on a sunny summer day, and all the way home Ray's whining about his Game Boy on the fritz and, almost home, he starts in about how we should pick up Toggle at the kennel now instead of in the morning, and I want to say why so he can piddle on the carpet and bare his teeth cause he's pissed they put him in a cage all day, no thanks, and, let's see, Joanna's angry because we didn't stop on the turnpike for supper, even though the food's all crap and she'll be complaining later about heartburn or gas, and I'm thinking this is what we'll have until Ray grows up—this bothersome Bill bouncing a ball in our drive—until Ray grows up, meets the wrong kids, gets his tattoo and develops his serial killer swagger, grabs Bill by his fuzzy head, and tells him to go to hell, and, speaking of hell, there's work, bet my email account's about ready to explode, so much to catch up on it will be Friday until I breathe, unless Jerri's already got that next project on my desk and then I'm screwed like a bachelor party whore, damn these ambitious women who have to climb out of their hole by stuffing you back in yours, and how long will it be until Ray has his nude girl etched into his arm? Eight years? Ten? A dull ache moves to the center of my head and screams.

"Ray, Ray, Ray..." Bill's like a goddamn broken toy, and I should know because Joanna buys enough of them, the junk in that boy's room, he plays with something five minutes maybe ten—the best thing in the world—and then it's on to yammering about what else he wants, and now my head's nearly splitting, I see both halves dropping to the asphalt like cantaloupe.

"Ray, Ray, Ray..."

Either I adopt him or I want him out of the yard, is what I've told Joanna from the beginning. I'm not callous, I just would rather establish a clear, definitive relation, better than this barnacling to us every time we come home or Christ go outside. We can't even enjoy a little peaceful backyard BBQ time on Sunday without Bill's fat head dropping over the fence like a tear that won't fall. And what are we going to do. I mean, I'd be happy to say not today, but Joanna's up opening the gate, letting the boy in. Goddamn it, what's with women? They have this thing with children, just accept them one the same as another, zero ability for discernment.

"How bout we play bounce the ball?"

Bounce the Ball is the game he wants to play, the thing that can't even wait until we're out of the van and unpacked and enjoying a breath or two in the house we haven't seen these last two weeks, and he wants to play bounce the fucking ball, Christ, if I had suggested such a thing when I was young and shit my head it hurts, I know it's just exhaustion and hunger and maybe we should have stopped for food, why was I in such a hurry to get home, to enjoy a few moments of peace in the place where I'm said to live even though everyone knows I really live in a ten by ten cubicle with a computer and cold cups of Styrofoam coffee, and bagel crumbs, and this is my life, my real life, and man I'm just tired of running and thinking and meeting and living life like an unending sentence, I mean my brain, sometimes I imagine it with a tongue out, panting, out of breath, and that's probably why when the kid says bounce the ball I want to laugh and that's probably why, actually I don't know why, but it hits me like a Christmas bonus when Joanna's dragging the suitcases up the stairs, maybe something about adults turning away from the tragedy of youth or some such crap, but that boy's whole life spreads out in front of me like the soft carpet in our TV room, where evenings I lay in the cool pool of air conditioning and watch baseball games while Ray drives Matchbox cars all over me, and what I'm thinking is there's something good about "How bout we play Bounce the Ball," while Joanna's in the house already and Ray is on the stairs, eyes back in his video game, ears deaf to Bill's idea, which is something so good and simple and stunning, it makes me think I could love, yes, I could love this kid. I could just slow down. I could play his goddamn game. I could be a better person. There still is time.