Hoop Medicine

My youngest son splashes in the lake with his mother as I anxiously pan the beach for Miles. At last, I feel a momentary pang of love as I recognize him among the frolicking, half-clad children. He is bent over, digging a hole in the sand with a shovel. Wait. I take a step closer and squint. Something is not right. The boy is lanky and blonde with the same haircut. The aqua-blue swim-trunks had me fooled, but this is someone else’s child. His resemblance to my son is uncanny. I’m sure Miles is all right. My wife is there and he is a good swimmer.

I continue my stroll to a T-shaped dock where a child in a Twins baseball cap complains that the sunfish keep stealing his worm.  His mother laughs and rebaits his hook so he can plop his bobber back in the lake.  An amorous teenage couple embraces at the other end of the dock, the sun behind them a blinding orb.  Their youth embarrasses me, so I turn away.  I lean against the railing and stare instead into the clear water where dainty panfish glide through the spires of milfoil.  I’m sad for some reason.  I feel guilty, I suppose, because I just want to be by myself.  I had asked the boys to fish but they wanted to swim as well.  This didn’t sound to me like fishing.

“I’m not here to multitask,” I told my wife grumpily.

Now she’s thigh-deep in the lake in her in two-piece swimsuit.  Even from a distance, I can tell she’s happy.  I’ve never cared much for swimming except for the ocean.  My flyrod, meanwhile, leans against an oak tree at our campsite, rigged and ready with a bucktail streamer that’s a bit frayed from past success.  The shoreline near the campground is lined with bullrushes and I’m hopeful I’ll catch a pike or a bass at sunset.

I wander down the beach for one last word with my family before I go. Miles and his twin have found each other and are constructing a dam. Miles scoops sand onto the lip of the water-filled hole with his hands and the other boy packs it down with a metal shovel.

“Are you camping?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m from Wilmar,” the boy says.  “We come here all the time.”

“I’m from Minneapolis.”

“Whoa!  There’s crazy stuff happening right now in Minneapolis.”

I chuckle and resist the impulse to check my phone.  The kid may know something.  Years ago, if Miles told another child where he was from, they would always act impressed and mention the Mall of America.  Now we’re famous for riots and murder and defunding the police.

Absorbed in play, Miles doesn’t respond.

“I wish we could make this trench go all the way up the beach!” the small-town boy says.

“That would be a lot of work,” the big-city kid answers.  “But that would be cool.”

“I have to go.”

“Don’t you want your shovel?”

“I found it here.  Someone left it.”

They part ways and Miles continues to play by himself. He’s gotten very tan over the summer. I’m always touched by the temporary friendships formed on these trips and often think that it would be a better world if adults were as open with one another. A part of me wishes I lived in a place like Willmar. Minneapolis can’t seem to turn the corner on its traumas. Theo comes over with his towel wrapped around his shoulders.

“Where’s mom?” I ask.

“She went to get the beach toys.”

We wait together and I put my arm around him.

“You’re a good boy,” I tell him. “You’re the best son I could ever ask for.”

He nods the way he always does. It needs to be said because it will not be this way forever. We watch the sun sink low over the lake and listen in silence to the gentle rhythm of the waves lapping the shore. When Emily returns I say goodbye to them all and hurry off for the bullrushes.

Back home, after the children are showered and safe in bed, I go to the park and play basketball by myself in the dark. This is my therapy, my hoop medicine. The brick elementary school nearby offers just enough illumination. I take a shot. Nothing but net. The ball bounces back to me on the asphalt and I swish it again. My shadow is long on the grass. Something moves out there and stops. It must be a rabbit foraging for some clover. I cross the ball between my legs, dribble to my left and shoot. It’s all muscle memory. I hardly need to see the rim. My dunking days are long gone, but I still got game. This is a connection to my youth, a thing I’ve done forever.

Airplanes move steadily across the inky sky. The city is too bright for stars. There are no gunshots, no sirens. All I hear is a summer chorus of crickets and cicadas. If I only knew Minneapolis from news stories, I could never imagine this peaceful corner of the city. That boy from Wilmar only knows negative stereotypes.

Sometimes my wife suggests we move to the suburbs. A bigger house with an open floorplan would be nice, a mudroom that wasn’t our kitchen. We could definitely afford it. I’d especially like a backyard with some privacy. It’s a forever pandemic and everyone is getting sick of everyone else. The big impediment is my oldest son who says he would miss his friends. My life feels like I’m in some kind of holding pattern and I don’t quite know where to place my bets. I just wait, square up, and take another shot.

My legs are tired. I take a swig from my water bottle and start walking back to the house. The maze of playground equipment I used to guide the boys on when they were toddlers is shrouded in darkness. I feel like it watches me, a dormant presence that awaits the sunrise and the children’s return. Further along, the empty softball fields are lit up for no reason by klieg lights high overhead. The orange dirt of the ball diamond is groomed and perfect. I taught my sons to bat here and catch the ball in their gloves. It’s a memory that makes this place feel like home. I can’t leave because I’m a caretaker of my own ghosts.

I walk down the sidewalk with the ball at my hip, flanked by the dim bungalows of neighbors I’ve never met. In the street, a big tabby cat prowls toward me as if to charge, but I stand my ground.

At the house everyone is asleep. I tiptoe upstairs to retrieve the laptop because I feel like writing about the basketball court and the boy from Wilmar. My wife stirs but doesn’t awaken. I place the computer on our oak dining room table and turn it on. As the machine boots up, I check my Twitter app. I know I shouldn’t but I do it anyway. There’s been a report of 20 shots fired at a basketball court in Mathews Park which is just two miles to the north.

It’s late, I’m tired, and my story arc has been shot to hell. Literally. I’m back where I started, locked in an endless scroll. I turn the computer off and go to bed. My wife has the windows open and I fall asleep to the sound of crickets.

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