Author's Note: This is a sequel to 'Just Because'. I'm pretty much beating a dead angst horse with this one, and if it's over the top, just drop me a note telling me.
My dad and I played basketball today.
I can see the look on your face now, as you read those words. You're probably wondering why the hell I'd start a letter off like this, and what it could possibly mean. It wasn't the actual playing of the game that jolted me enough to write that down, because I know that you never had any interest in the game. The one time I tried to get you to play it with me left a lasting impression.
But basketball was something that my dad loved to play with us. It was pretty unbelievable. It would always be Dad vs. The Kids, and my mom would sit on the sidelines and watch. She said that it was a male ritual that she had no desire to get involved with. Funny thing, she was probably right.
You saw my dad once, though I tried to make sure that you never would. If I'd known that you were going to drop by the house, I would've made sure that I was the one to answer the door. I remember the expression on your face when you said that he had let you in. That look of mild disgust mixed with pity, the look that you were trying to hide from me. Still dressed in his pajamas at 2 in the afternoon, a three day stubble, wide glassy eyes, thin gray hair, and thin as a rake. Well, that guy who answered the door that day was a pretty far cry from the dad I remember.
Dad never lifted a weight in his life, but down at the docks the hard work had left him with pretty much zero fat and some pretty impressive muscles. His dark eyes were intelligent, and I always remember how much he used to smile. When I was young and had nightmares, he was the one who would sit by my bed and rock me back to sleep. His hands were rough and scarred from work, and my hand always seemed tiny and pale in his.
You're probably wondering what the hell this has to do with the basketball.
Sunday was the only day my dad had off from work. In the morning, we would all head off to church, then go have lunch at my grandfather's house. A pretty boring morning, mostly. By the time we left Grandpa's, my brothers and I would be nearly bouncing with all that pent-up energy.
On the way back to our house, there was an old playground. It had a total of one swing, but right next to it was a rundown basketball court. There were long cracks in the asphalt that you had to be careful of when running, but it had two hoops, which is really all that you need.
Every Sunday, Dad would pull the car over and pull a battered basketball out of the trunk. Keep in mind that we were all still in our church clothes. Ties and collared shirts would be quickly stripped off and tossed into the backseat, and the game would begin. Mom was never really fond of these games. For one thing, she usually spent Sunday evening sewing a tear in someone's church pants. For another, our nice church shoes got all scuffed.
But that's what we always did on Sundays. I remember how proud my dad was when one of us made a basket, or just how much he loved it when all four of us would be jumping all around him to try and block his shot. We always played best two out of three, and for a long time Dad was undefeated. But then we finally beat him.
Aaron was 15, and had finally gotten big enough to get the ball away from Dad. As soon as he got it, he would throw it to either me or Andrew, and we would go tearing down the court, passing it back and forth between us. Anthony was only six, but his job was to help Aaron keep Dad from catching up to us. It was a close game, but we won. I'm not sure who was prouder, us or Dad. He took us all out for ice cream, and told us that the four of us that we could accomplish anything as long as we stuck together.
Yeah, I know it's corny. But that was something Dad was always saying. And looking back, he might've been right. Dad got a basketball scholarship to Stanford when he graduated high school, but he had given that up to marry my mom. I remember how he used to play, and it's a real wonder that the four of us could beat him. Dad always said that he couldn't wait for the day when we had all hit our teens.
Of course, we never got a chance to see the day when we would wipe the court with him. After Aaron died, Dad would just keep driving after church with no pull-overs. I guess we all needed time before we could try playing with three-on-one. But you know what happened next.
Mom can't go to church anymore, so Uncle Rory usually comes over to sit with her. The reason I go is that I just can't bear the thought of my dad sitting there alone, when he used to be surrounded by family. The years of drinking have really done a number on him, so another reason I go is that I don't want him driving. His hands start shaking at odd moments, and he just isn't alert to how the traffic is moving. And because he's my dad, and I love him.
I drive his car, and he sits in the passenger seat, looking out at the familiar path with empty eyes. In church, he stands and kneels when I do, but nothing in the service ever seems to make an impression. Dad used to sing loudly, but now he doesn't even open the hymn book. Often I have to nudge him to remind him to follow me up to get the eucharist. It's been like this for the three years since Andrew died. While I was gone over the summer, Uncle Rory drove him while a neighbor sat with Mom. He says that there was never any change.
But today Dad seemed to wake up a little when I was driving home. We usually just listen to the radio, so I was surprised when he tapped me on the shoulder and told me to pull over at the park.
I haven't been back there in ten years, but apart from a few more cracks in the asphalt on the court, it's the same. For a while we just stood there, neither of us speaking or moving. I wasn't sure what he had wanted to come back there for, since all that there could be were painful memories.
Or so I thought.
Dad went around to the back of the car, and popped the trunk. Pulling an object out, he threw it to me. Catching it instinctively, I didn't even have to look down to know that it was a basketball. It was pretty dusty, but it was just as I remembered it. Dad looked at me with a question in his eyes, and in answer I pulled off my collared shirt and tie.
Basketball has never been my sport of choice, but my father's natural talent was easily offset by my youth. We played the game like we always had, best two out of three. After I'd made my winning shot, Dad patted me on the back while grinning. As he rumpled my hair in an old, affectionate gesture, he said, "Great game, Alex. You really wiped the court with me, I'm proud of you."
We went home, and things were still the same. I have no doubts that Dad is going to drink himself into an early grave, and that's probably what he's hoping for. Losing my brothers just broke something in him, though not as badly as it did to my mom. I don't even know how I feel about that game. I wish it would've resolved something about how I feel about my brothers, but it didn't. I still feel their shadows, and wonder how everything would've been different if they hadn't died. I like to think that the round of basketball was Dad's way of saying that he loves me, but I already knew that. Both my mom and my dad love me, but they can't help me, because they can't even help themselves.
Nothing is ever simple. The movies would like you to think that love is, but it certainly isn't. My life would be a lot easier if I could just feel nothing about my parents, not really care, go on with my life. But I can't.
Because they love me.
The hardest shackle of all to break, sometimes.
I love you, but it's best that you left. There isn't anything here for you anymore. If you'd stayed for me, than you would've hated me in the end.
But I still love you. I guess that's why I keep writing these letters. Addressed and stamped, but I don't think I'll ever mail them. Because then you might pity me, and that's just a risk I can't take.