Shooting from the Top of the Key

Douglas Cole

I drove around the neighborhood.  I don’t know what I was hoping for.  To undo the disaster? I’d learned that hard lesson that you can’t redo your past.  So I drove around, circling my old home like a trout nosing up a river, some mechanism going off in my brain with a homing blip I couldn’t resist even though I knew I had no home. How much had I ever really known home? And what that means? I don’t think I ever knew. I could only remember being alone. A big empty house alone, paralyzed, transfixed by television serial stories, characters, alternate realities, as outside the rain fell eternally.  Is that possible? Is that true? It seemed like a watery world I lived in back then, a kind of fluid boundless dream of a child who’s like a flower, head just floating in the breeze, looking through a cracked window at that trapper's shack outside with its iron snap-traps and rope and chains and tinctures of noxious, poisonous fluids in murky brown label-less bottles, a little hut out of the long ago past. So which house is ever home? It’s like that old mystery: Odysseus’ ship, replaced board by board over time, is it still the same ship? The past is rolling away faster than you can remember it, then it’s right there in a whiff of some soap ingredient or the fall earth scent, an uncle’s pipe smoke—I am travelling through the morphic field of home then and home later in the ocean time of now only now only-

And out of the layers of the evening shadows deep in the trees, I saw him there, alone this time, stepping back from a mid-range shot.

I pulled up and stopped. How would this go? Unannounced as I was? I sat there a moment, watching him. He had a graceful shooting style, an economy of motion.  Arms up, ball light on the fingertips, throw, release, the hands flicking forward at the wrist giving the ball a smooth backspin as it swept net-clean through the hoop. It was a beautiful shot.

I got out and walked slowly up the driveway, careful, quiet in my energy as though I was approaching a wild animal. Something alert and ready to bolt. I didn’t want to scare him off. And then he saw me. I stopped. I brought a hand up to shade the sunlight from my eyes so that I could see him more clearly.

“Nice shooting,” I said.

“Yeah? Thanks,” he said. He dribbled the ball a few times, looking over at the house, then looking at me, then looking out at the street, like he was trying to make up his mind about something. His mind seemed to be working hard. Or maybe it was just mine.

“What are you?” I said.  “Forward? Guard?”

“I play forward mostly,” he said.

“You any good?”

“I’m okay.”

“I bet you’re fast.  Good ball-handling. You good at driving to the hoop?”

“There’re guys better than me.  I like shooting from the top of the key, the post, rebounding.  Not so much long shots on the outside.”

“Sounds like your good on the drive, though. Top of the key’s a good distance, too.”

“Yeah, pretty good.”

“I’ve played some,” I said.

“Yeah?” he said. “You any good?”

“Hey—” I laughed. “I’m okay. There’re guys better.”

And he passed the ball to me. I dribbled and took a step forward. I had been invited into his space. And I stepped into that time of timeless being on the court when the light is fading, and I dribbled a few more times, stopped, pulled the ball back and shot a solid brick dead against the front of the rim.

“You a good driver to the hoop?” he said, smiling. And he picked up the ball and dribbled back to the top of the key and stopped and looked straight at me as he threw the ball up and sent it, swish, no contact but the net, a perfect shot.

“Ah, ha!” I said, and got the ball and dribbled back to the top of the key. “Clear after a point?


“And change of possession?”

“Whatever you want.”

And I moved forward. His arms twitched slightly. He didn’t come any closer. He was giving me some distance, daring me to shoot. So I did, and the shot went in.

“Not bad,” he said.

I stepped forward and turned as he went past me to the top of the key to clear for the next play.  

“But it’s kind of like what they say about stopped clocks,” he said, and he did some fancy footwork and dribbled the ball between his legs and put his chin out.

“And what’s that?” I said.

He lunged forward, and I jumped back a step. He stopped and shot—the shot went right in. He stood there with his hands on his hips and said, “It’s right twice a day.” And he smiled that beautiful, confident, taunting kid smile, strolling past me toward the hoop and getting the ball and quick-passing it to me. His eyebrows went up, and he stood there, mid-key, arms at his sides, half-smile on his face, shifting from foot to foot.

“I’m not sure that means what you think it means,” I said.

I put the ball in motion.

“Think about it,” he said.

And I drove forward on the right because I can really only dribble with my right hand, my left feels about as coordinated as a chicken wing, and he moved in arms up to block me, and I stopped and was stuck. He had his hands in my face, and I jumped back and shot at the same time and the ball went nowhere, didn’t even hit the rim, and he went for it and got it and back stepped to the top of the key again, turning as I came forward, and then he ducked down and ran right past me and threw up an easy graceful layup.

“Very nice, very nice,” I said.

He passed the ball to me, and I went out and cleared it and came back in, my side to him, protecting the ball and working arc-like side to side inside the key and head-faked and drove quick under his arm and made my own half-way decent layup.

“Nice,” he said. And he took the ball and now we were down to business.  

He drove forward, faked to the right, switched hands, jumped fading back on the left, shot, made it.  I cleared, lunged left, stopped, stepped back and shot—it was good. He took the ball back and again rolled right, and I stayed in close to him this time and reached in and knocked the ball loose and we both chased it down and he got it and stood there and I was there and hand-swatted as he lifted the ball and knocked it clear and got it this time and cleared it at the top of the key and turned and smiled and shuffled back and sent up a nice floating bomb shot from two steps off the top of the key and sank it clean.

“What are we playing to?” I said.

And I saw the shadow of the evening fall, and something in his stance shifted slightly. Not many people would be able to notice such a thing, but I saw it, and I knew what it was. And time began again.

“It’s getting dark,” he said. “I think I’m gonna go in.”

I stood there, nodded.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Thanks for shooting with me.”

“Yeah,” he said, and he turned and went up the steps. Then he stopped. He turned slightly, about half-way, not quite facing me. “I was disrespectful,” he said. A beat. I don’t know if his mother had told him he would have to apologize or if this was his own idea. Did it matter? “I was wrong,” he said.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I probably would have said the same thing.”

He nodded three times then went into the house. I went down the slope of the driveway, then I stopped and looked back a moment at the house, a one-time home. The time between my living there and the moment now rushed by in a quick wind that rose and set the tree limbs swaying. The game I’d just played was fading, too. Was it real? I had just played basketball with my son.


about the writer


Douglas Cole has published four collections of poetry and a novella. His work appears in anthologies such as Best New Writing, Bully Anthology, and Coming Off The Line as well as journals such as The Chicago Quarterly Review, Chiron, The Galway Review, Red Rock Review, Midwest Quarterly, and Slipstream. He has been nominated twice for a Pushcart and Best of the Net, and has received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry, judged by T.R. Hummer; the Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House; First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” from Tattoo Highway. His website is