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There were twelve seconds left. This was the game. The Kingsessing
Playground Summer League Finals. The best high school players gathered
at this Philly hoops venue to determine bragging rights for the entire
regular school season. In 'the Pub,' as the public high school league
was called, bragging rights lasted through children and grandchildren.
For bad and for worse. In sickness and in health. Here, bragging rights
often counted for everything.

Samson's team called a timeout to plan for their final possession. They
were down one point, and Samson was dejected. Morose, he thought. His
moms had taught him the word a few summers back. He had shot the ball
eleven times over the course of this game. This game, in which he saw
two spectators, including a younger cousin, arrested. Police in their
silly hats were sprinkled through every summer league game. Crowd
control. Because the playground and Samson's bordering neighborhood were
designated 'safer streets zones.' Samson often wondered if this
designation was due to the amount of crime, or the number of bodies
chosen for capture. He had missed all eleven shots.

The 0-for-11 was particularly troubling because Samson
was the man on his team. Being the man means you've garnered the
majority of available bragging rights. Being the man often counted for
everything. To Samson, it counted for more than that.

He needed recognition these days. Props as they were
called. Property. For Samson was devoid, alone. His mother, Jacquelyn,
had passed that winter, walking home from the Free Library, through this
very playground. Dropped dead on the grass. Her face hitting first.
Coronary. "Watch the salt," he had warned her. "Why don't you bake the
chicken this time?" he had asked. She had been getting older. It was
just the two of them.

"Sonny boy, I've been eating just fine since before you
were even thought of," Jacquelyn, Jackie, would answer. "Instead of
worrying about how I'm eating, you need to be worrying about those books
I got you at the library. Your test is next week." She tested Samson
every two weeks in the summer. Reading comprehension. Vocabulary. She
died on the way home from returning overdue library books. That was
seven months ago yesterday.

Samson hunched over in the huddle, hands on his knees.
Fatigue had him pulling on his shorts. Sucking wind. The sun was
broiling his back. He thought of his mother. He thought of how many
lives had been lost in this playground. While the typical manner of play
that took place on this ground made his mother an unlikely victim,
Samson took no solace. The wrath of this lot had claimed her just the
same.

Coach called for Samson to take the final shot. "Joe, you set a pick for
Samson out high," he instructed. Beads of sweat were dancing a jig on
Coach's brow, his forearms. "Sonny boy," he said, "you curl off the pick
tight. Then Joe, clear out fast. Sonny, you can go either one-on-one to
the hole, or pull up for the jumper. But pay attention to the clock."

Samson was barely paying attention to Coach, let alone
the clock. He was still bent over, heaving in the huddle. Although he
hadn't scored, defense was always his source of pride and, on this day,
like all others, Samson had defended with his essence.

He decided he would pass instead of shoot. Samson's head
was too heavy with memories of his mother. His heart. His usual
confidence was sapped. And ninety-nine percent of making any shot was
believing that it would find its way through the rim. But Samson's
consciousness was in too bleak a place: the playground.

The timeout in its waning moments, Samson gazed over
Coach's shoulder. His eyes spanned the dismal landscape. The tennis
courts without nets, covered in broken forty bottles. Graffiti was
scrawled over the base and service lines. Samson wondered why anyone
would spray paint the ground, where no one would see it, but walk over
it. "At least use a wall," he said to himself.

Samson continued to look left. He found the spot where
he once saw Ms. Carol, his neighbor, shooting up. She was against a
corner of the handball wall, which was equidistant between the tennis
courts and the baseball diamond. Ms. Carol had looked up at Samson and
merely said, "Hey Sonny," as if he had approached her taking a drink at
the nearby water fountain. "How's Ms. Jackie doin'?" she had asked. This
was six months before Jackie died.

"She's fine," Samson said. And she was fine. But the water fountain had
been inoperable for years.


Samson's head kept swiveling. His eyes eventually
reached the baseball diamond. The backstop was porous. There were no
foul lines. No discerning where dirt ended and grass began. Dilapidated,
he thought. This whole plot of land is dilapidated. Jackie had tested
him on the word, making him use it in a sentence, three summers ago.

Thinking of that test, Samson smiled. He saw the arching monkey bars
just beyond the baseball field. There he saw his mother. Jackie was
wearing blue jeans and a white tee shirt. Dressing down for the
playground.

Samson saw her standing under the center of the iron half-circle, her
gaze skyward, beckoning him to finish a climb over. He was at the center
of the bars, the apex of the arch. In the daydream, Samson was four
years old.

"Come on Sonny boy, you can do it. Don't be afraid to fall. I'll catch
you."

Every Saturday, Samson and his mother would play out this scene. They
would arrive at the playground, before the first cartoon of the morning,
to cure his crippling fear of heights. "Come on boy, we don't have all
day. You're my son. You can get to the other side," she would prod.
"Just keep climbing."

Samson would get to the top, realize how high he was, and become
paralyzed. Then he would begin to weep. Sob. Mostly because of the
height. His mother would support. She would plead. Some Saturdays, she
would yell. But she could never get Samson over the bars. Jackie would
let him get down. Four year old Samson was always thankful.

This remembrance was now seared into the mind's eye of seventeen year
old Samson. "You can do it," she had said. "You can make it over."


The referee blew the whistle, signaling the timeout's
end, breaking Samson out of his reverie. His team inbounded the ball.
The point guard held his dribble just above the top of the key. The
defender went for a strip to end the game. The point guard spun away,
hitting Samson with a chin high pass. Samson caught it, and his
teammates cleared out the right side. Samson stood on an island with his
defender.

He jab stepped, then started to dribble. His mind raced.
He thought of the 0-for-11. He still felt that if he shot, he'd end up
0-for-12. He thought that this time next year he would be at college. He
remembered the call, seven months ago, running to this playground,
trying to wake his mother from her death. That was on the brown grass
less than fifty feet from where he now dribbled on blacktop. Samson
thought of those Saturdays. Of her standing under the arch, looking
through the bars at him, telling him what he could do. She had never
seen him clear the monkey bars.

Samson threw a head fake but his defender didn't flinch.
He now decided to shoot over him. "It's going down," Samson said to
himself. He pulled back his dribble, ascended to release his jump shot.
His defender jumped with him, putting both hands in Samson's face. No
longer afraid of heights, Samson hung in the air, hovering for enough
time to descend after his defender. He felt charged, grand, like he
could reach his whole hand into the basket. At the zenith of his jump,
he released the ball. He followed through, flicking his wrist. The
twelfth second expired. The makeshift buzzer on the sideline weakly
sounded. To Samson, the ball's backspin flight lasted just under a
millennia, until the ball sweetly kissed the white square painted in the
middle of the backboard. It caressed the rim, and then, the bottom of
the net.

The playground erupted. Spectators ran to Samson, to hug
him, to lift him up. To exult him. He was the man. But Samson ran from
them, his legs taking no resistance from the ground. He made a beeline
to the bars.

Arriving, he closed his eyes, took a full breath, and
started climbing. And this looked rather strange because Samson was now
a lanky six-foot-three. Unfazed, he reached the top then sprung to the
ground on the opposite side. Samson raised his arms. He threw back his
head. He yelled, "Thank you!" at the previously oppressive sun.

Samson then ran the three blocks to the house where he
had lived with Jackie, and where he still lived, alone. He was unaware
of the baking, fractured ground beneath his feet. When he entered the
house, he locked the door behind him. He went up to the bathroom,
drawing the hottest tub. The steam smelled like misted roses. He went
into his bedroom and stripped, wire hanging his uniform behind the door.
On his dresser was the latest novel he had picked up at the library. He
took it into the bath. As the water reprieved, soaking his long, dark,
achy legs, Samson read.




Eric McKinley is a Philadelphian. He is soon to finish an MFA in Fiction at Rosemont College. He writes a
story every now and again. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online journals.
Samplings can be found at www.ericmckinleyfiction.com





This story was written close to eight years ago. Kingsessing Playground is a real site where I once hit a game winning shot in a summer league playoff game. That said, I was never as good a player as Samson.

  


Copyright 2009