CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE
3.00pm, Tuesday, 5 September, 2017

Dee’s uniform stood out from what the other girls had on, the school blues and golds inverted one team to the other, drawing questions from some of the two dozen other basketball hopefuls prepping for tryouts, she answering without emphasis, “Boys’ team,” those words spreading instantly around the girls’ locker room, drawing looks, of admiration mostly, and a titter that included “river,” “bullies,” and “hospital.” She exchanged hugs and well-wishes with Stella and Lori-Baby and left for the boys' practice, most of the other girls wishing her, Good luck!

Dee noted that except for the big muscular guy, square-jawed, high cheek-boned, profuse blond curly locks falling carelessly like a Raphael cherub, he leaning against the near basketball post watching the disarray of the dozen wannabees gamely warming up, they making inane small talk that mirrored the diffident way they bounced and shot the practice balls, he, out of Marlon Brando's The Wild Ones, the corner hoodlum but sans toothpick and leather jacket, and without jeans or white t-shirt, and without pack of ciggies rolled up in his sleeve, but yes, darn, with heavenly-blue eyes, they slowly moving to her, indifferently holding her a brief moment and, unmoved, moving on, he pushing off from the post, walking to the opposite end of the court to take a seat in the stands, this so-superior meddling classmate. Yet Dee noted that without the single-exception of cherub-locks, her entry into the gym totally unnoticed. She took a seat of her own in the near stands, diagonally across the gym from Mr. Arrogant.

On the intermeddler’s end of the court, a second, practiced group warmed up, some passing from under the basket to the shooters, afterwards themselves drifting to the perimeter to shoot, bantering, laughing, occasionally directing any new kids who thought to join their clique to the basket at the other end of the court: varsity squad practice an earned privilege.

Dee’s fingertips tingled – evil present. She turned, shaking her head at the adrenaline rush when the latest arrival confidently jogged to the varsity squad’s three-point line where he caught a pass and drained the shot, acknowledging his teammates bursts of encouragement.

“Hey, Jer! What’s up my man,” the new arrival stepping into the veteran group, high-fiving his closest mate. “Hey Glen! The man himself – Mister All-League Point!” The other varsity teammates gathered, joining the exuberant greetings with variations of The man! 

Dee thinking, "Glen, the starting point guard? A star? This afternoon’s bully must think the rough part of his day behind him," Dee shaking her head, chuckling aloud.

But she respected that this returning nucleus of last year’s team made it to the Independent School League semi-finals, two wins away from the New England Division One Finals; that the eight on the floor lost only their center to graduation, the team justifiably entertaining high hopes for the coming season. And, to replace that graduated center? The mountainous student of the Chinese language, the wrist-twisting hulk looked a pretty formidable replacement by size alone, even if he had little talent – and Dee suspected from his carriage he had talent to spare.

“Hey, Glen, did you hear? We’re supposed to be getting some hotshot junior from the boonies trying out for the team. None of those guys look like anything much,” nodding in the direction of the hopefuls down the other end.

“So what?”

“So he’s supposed to be a point guard.”

“Yeah. Good luck to him,” Glen, “Unless he likes playing second squad backup,” quick-glancing down court to the newbies, “Right, Tim?” winking at one of the deferential veterans.

Tom Meagher, the assistant coach, took two steps into the gym and blew his whistle, yelling, “Center court,” a few "Hey, coach!" from the veterans, eliciting a save-it wave and a second whistle, “Let’s go,” followed immediately by the appearance of head coach Mike Bevilacqua, striding directly to the gathering team. After an exchange of greetings, Coach Tom read the roll, pausing at the last name, scanning the players, and raising his voice for the unseen last name, then, “The last, Dee Mirabile.” From outside the perimeter of the players gathered round the coaches, she responded, “Here.”

“Hey, sweetie, the cheerleaders aren’t meeting yet,” Glen loudly, turning for a better look, his expression suddenly changing to incredulity, stepping to the coach-occupied center of the circle, pointing, snarling, “You! You bitch! What the fuck are you doing here? You’re lucky I don’t smash your face. Geoff had to go to the hospital because of you.”

“Hey, Glen, what are you doing? Watch your mouth and step back or you’ll be out of here in a heartbeat,” Coach Mike, stepping to him, right-hand pushing against Glen’s chest forcing him backwards into the players’ circle, mountain man, having himself pushed into the center, also backing up, eyes fixed on Glen.

“Coach,” Glen, not taking his eyes from Dee, “She threw our sneakers in the river, no reason. We don’t even know the bitch. And then she almost broke Geoff’s hand. Not her, this friend of hers,” stepping away, finger-accusing the mountain. “No way Geoff’s going to play football for a while; maybe he’s lost for the season. Because of her, and him,” extending his arm, again pointing at Dee, her attention drawn to the structural elements in the gym’s roof.

“Glen, I don’t want any crap from you this year,” Coach. “Be quiet. When I hear a complaint from the football coach or the AD, I’ll respond. Knowing you and your friends, they’ll probably pin a medal on her.” Some nervous chuckles, coach turning to Dee, “Miss, can I help you?”

“We can help each other,” she approaching until facing the coach at arm’s length.

 “This is basketball practice. Boys.”

 “And I’m the boys’ point – Dee Mirabile. You wrote a letter supporting my school application.”

“Dee? Right. You’re a girl?” the coach. “That part of your record escaped me.”

“What did she say, Coach? She’s the point? Are you fuc…Sorry, coach,” Glen’s chin jutting out at her. “Are you sick? What’ve you been smoking? You stick around here and you’re gonna get hurt,” Dee waiting on the coach.

“Glen, shut up. I don’t want to tell you again. Miss, Dee, I’ve got to tell you, I know you come from a great basketball program, and I know you did well there…on the boys’ team?”

Dee, “The starting point on a regional Division One final four.”

Glen forced a breath through pursed lips and shook his head saying, “Then you lost, asshole.”

“I was out that game,” Dee flashing for an instant to her bedside vigil of her recovered baby brother.

“Why? You had your period?”

“Shut up! Glen,” and to Dee, “Yes, and I respect your record. But I need to warn you that this is a pretty rough league – the referees tend to let the players play.”

Dee, “Coach, why don’t we just play a bit. Doing will answer all of your questions, except what you’re going to do with him,” thumbing Glen, he biting his tongue under the coach’s glare. “I’m the point and I’m here to stay.”

“Like hell you are, and if you say that one more time I’m gonna point your head, girl or no,” again pointing at her, quick glancing at the big guy, wondering if he a bodyguard.

“Glen, I’m warning you for the last time. But you too, Dee. Can the taunting, please. Okay, you want to try out? Your record and my letter give you that right. Let’s play.”

"That’s the list, Coach,” Coach Tom, “But he’s not on it,” indicating the big new boy stepping into Dee’s place, she withdrawn to the outer perimeter again.

“I’m Michael Aingeal. A late admission. No time to fill out forms but I’d like to play center,” Aingeal’s bulk, dwarfing everyone else on the court, its own rationale for a tryout.

“Experience?”

“A lot. For city teams, never for a high school.”

“Well, you’ve got the size we need,” Coach.

“Desperately,” Coach Tom.

Coach Mike, “What towns?”

“None around here. Texas, Alabama – my family moved around a lot. But I won’t disappoint, Coach.”

“All right. The proof’s in the pudding, for both of you. We’ll see what we see. Dee and Michael, stay here with the varsity, Michael, first team center, Dee, second team point, at these baskets,” indicating which with his arm. “Everyone else go with Coach Tom,” and to a slumping Tim Slater, “Tim, if Dee doesn’t work out you’ll be back here tomorrow.” To the other newbies, “Listen up, gang. By the end of this day, three of you will be cut; so make your time count,” Coach Tom leading his crew to the other end of the gym.

“Coach, this is bogus. Speaking as the team captain, for the other kids on the team, Tim is backup point. He should lead the second squad. She’s the one should try out with the new kids.”

“You don’t speak for me, today or ever,” Aingeal taking a single step to him, Glen’s tail curling under.

“Calm down, everyone,” Coach stepping between them, saying to Glen, “She‘s got a terrific record from Tyngsboro, a team I think is stronger than we are, and I mean to take a good look at her right away so we can right away tell what she’s got. If she doesn’t have it, Tim will be back here tomorrow. Hang in and show some leadership.” Tim, hoping for a reprieve, dropped his head and filed after the junior varsity.

Glen weakly, “Hey, Tim. You’ll be back tomorrow afternoon. Don’t worry buddy,” quick-glancing at the new center.

After drills and warm ups, with an hour left until the end of practice, Coach called, “Let’s scrimmage. First team, shirts…No, first team, skins. Glen, stop smirking and take it out. Okay everyone, show me what you’ve got,”

Stefan, a gangly six-foot-three, lingering, “Coach, will I get a chance at center?”

“Yeah, Stefan. Second team.”

“But…”

“Move it.”

The first team pulled off their jerseys while the second team trotted past the half-court marker, clarifying who would be guarding whom, taking their defensive positions. Glen flicked the ball to the shooting guard, Jerry, who handed it back to Glen as he trotted by, dribbling past half-court, smiling, the new season under way, and he the man.

Scanning for an open man, he smiled derisively when Dee wandered into his lane, he barely recording her flash until she hammered his dribble to the floor, skying it, easily out-jumping him to retrieve the ball on its descent, landing on one foot and streaking down-court, dribbling five times before slowing, long-striding to the basket, on the last step elevating and spinning one hundred and eighty degrees, sailing backwards to the basket for a no-look reverse dunk – two-zip, Dee.

Silence in the gym, no movement except for the ball that dropped from the net, bouncing once, twice, and ending in a series of progressively smaller bounces until rolling to a stop at the back wall. No shouts of encouragement, no congratulations, no coach directions, no one looking at Glen, no one noticing Dee hanging back.

Again Glen snapped the inbounds pass to Jerry, again taking the pass-back to start a dribble that only happened in his head. Dee startled Glen as he turned upcourt, she securing a two-hand hold on the ball that matched his. Briefly pausing, staring through his eyes into his corrupt soul, telesaying, You’re all mine, she yanked the ball from his hands, resisting the opportunity to elbow his mouth, instead, sprint-dribbling back to the three-point line, turning to face the basket, jumping three feet off the floor and shooting a backwards-spinning, butterfly-floating eighteen-footer that arced over the hoop, dropped unhurriedly through the rim, and ghostlike fell through an unmoving net. Five zip, Dee, twelve seconds into the scrimmage.

Glen in Dee’s face, “What are you doing? This is just a warm up,” he two-hands pushing Dee’s shoulders, her arms rocketing pinwheels slamming under his, throwing them behind his back, off-balancing him, he taking several steps back to gather himself, yelling to her back, “I’m gonna teach you teamwork,” Dee already across center court, turning, waiting for the next play.

Coach, “Glen, you’re sleepwalking. Nice play, Dee. First team, no one’s moving. Give your point a target! Let’s go,” clapping his hands.

In the next few plays her lightning-quick feet and all-over hands stole the ball off the dribble, again, deflected a pass causing a turnover, stole the ball off the dribble, yet again, and forced a double-dribble. Glen complained of uncalled fouls, the foot she bruised when she stepped on it earlier in the day, his teammates, this being only practice, and only the first…

Coach in Glen’s face, “Hey Glen! Shut up and play basketball. If you’re not ready, take the afternoon off and Tim can play point for the second squad.” Coach turned his back and as Dee trotted past, Glen stepped behind her and two-hand squeezed Dee’s rear end, quick-releasing and quick-stepping away. Coach turned back too late to catch Glen in the act but in time to catch his unpleasant Cheshire cat smile. Without reacting, Dee took her place on defense and turned to face Glen.

Still reveling in his own audacity Glen took the ball over the half court marker and, adrenaline surging, dribbled past Dee, she uncharacteristically leaving him a clear path to the basket. He elevated as high as in his short life he ever had, releasing the ball at near dunk height, too fixated, too elated to notice Dee taking four long rapid strides, or Dee launching herself into the air, but, yes, noticing her left hand smashing down on the rising ball just as it cleared Glen’s fingers.

A basketball when it left his hand, a skin-abrading, cartilage-crushing, eyes-crossing, star-seeing, body-croaking rock when it returned to smash into Glen’s nose and face, whiplashing him to the ground, coach gasping, freezing and unfreezing, uttering "Dee!" rushing to his prostrate player.

Dee caught up with the ball before it went out of bounds, dribbled up court, and scored unhindered, everyone else gathered around Glen. Game. Set. Match. Point.

Dee bounced the ball up court to the coach, he on one knee, the profusion of nose-blood marking this a serious event, coach saying, “He’s bleeding all over the court. Get him to the stands and I’ll stop the bleeding.” Two of the veteran players helped Glen to his feet and guided him to a seat, the other players circling around.

Coach, pushing Glen’s head down between his knees, told him to pinch both nostrils tightly. “Breath through your mouth. Two minutes. It’ll stop. We’ll get you to the hospital. They might have to reset your nose.”

Glen moaned, “She blindsided me.”

Her teammates separated allowing their new point guard access, Dee bent to spraying distance of Glen’s bloody face, saying, “What a wuss! But the good thing for you, Glen? You were right,” he looking up, through the bloodied hand covering his nose, at danger close enough to bite his nose off. “Tomorrow afternoon Tim will be playing starting point, second squad.”