We come to the end of our month curated by Shann Ray, with a wonderful piece written by Shann Ray himself. Be sure to also explore the works of Vanessa Kay, Mary Jane Nealon and Alan Heathcock. All of these works have dealt with the theme of Light and Darkness from the perspective of Isaiah 61:3:
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
FOURTEEN TYPES OF HUNGER
by Shann Ray
THE HALLS are set with grey-white tile that shines a dull light, the walls built of hard red brick tall and straight. As the boy walks, the other students look at him funny. Everett Highwalker is a freshman in high school. Shock of black hair. Slender, he holds his head down. He carries his basketball wherever he goes, places the ball under the chair during class, cups it like a loved one everywhere else.
He is five feet seven inches tall and weighs just over one-hundred pounds.
From sorrow over the loss of his father, he does not thrive but he gets taller, and as he does he works and the school seems to grow smaller as he grows larger. Sophomore. Junior. He studies, plays, puts time in the gym, runs, shoots, lifts weights, gains strength. He grows to six feet four inches tall, weighs one-hundred ninety-five pounds, and starts for one of the top teams in the state. A velocity breathes in him and he sees how the other athletes seem to look at him as they might a lion that paces and peers. He lives in Portland, Oregon where the mouth of the Columbia opens wide and wounds the body of the ocean.
HIS SENIOR year he walks more upright but still he keeps his head down. When teachers ask him about last night’s game he says how well his teammates played. When they ask him about his vertical, his jumper, his defense, how he won the game on a last second shot, he replies, “Still working. Gotta work hard.”
“Where did you learn to work like that?” asks the Vice Principle who overhears the boy in the hall, and always loves to talk hoops. Sandy haired older man of slight build, he played shooting guard at Duquesne in the late 60s. The boy holds the ball in his hands, shuffles his feet.
“My father,” the boy answers, and the VP says, “How about getting some lunch?” and the boy says, “Sure,” and they walk together to the cafeteria.
They find a place near the far wall.
The boy’s father was half-Cheyenne, and big. He loved basketball like he loved family.
“He taught you what it takes to be great, didn’t he,” says the VP who looks the boy in the face. The boy stares back and says, “He did,” and puts his head down quickly and clenches his jaw to keep the tears out of his eyes. They sit at a table folded flat on benches attached by metal to the under works of the table frame. The boy cups the ball, turns it, rolls it, considers the curve and the channels, the leather, the feel of heat in his hands and despair and loss and love.
HIS FATHER had cupped his face and said, “When you shoot you focus on a target within a target. Got that? If your shot slips in and out, it’s always the eyes. Lock your eyes in and that won’t happen.”
“Yes sir,” the boy said. “Got it.”
“And I got you,” his father had replied pulling him hard to his chest and holding him tight.
This, a month before his father’s death.
He is gone, the boy thinks. And the thought eats at the edges of his mind and only stops when he is working on his game. Ball fake, drive left, pull up, nothing but net. Shot fake, drive right, pull up, bank off the glass. The movements and the rhythm provide a sense of calm.
The VP knows the boy’s dad worked at the mill. Worked heavy machinery and died when the boom of a crane broke loose and crushed the man’s chest.
A giant of a man, bold in the world.
THE VP reaches, touches the boy’s shoulder. “Your father could shoot the J,” he said, “and defend like no one else.”
“Serious baller,” the boy says, and looks down.
“A thing of beauty, watching him play,” says the VP as he holds his own follow through in the air and smiles. “Meet me for lunch again?”
“Sure thing,” the boy replies.
THEY EAT lunch every Wednesday. They talk hoops, life, family. The boy gets offers from a few small colleges. He dreams Division 1 and decides he will walk on at the University of Oregon in the storied Pacific Athletic Conference, the PAC 12, where the Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden, guided UCLA to 10 national titles and four undefeated seasons. That summer, the VP invites him to travel on a tour team of all-stars from the Pacific Northwest, an international travel team to Great Britain, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The VP is the coach. The boy averages 37 a game. He feels unstoppable. The team goes 9 and 2 beating Wales, Liverpool and Manchester. They lose to the London Knights and the Torches of Edinburgh.
In the US, at the D1 level, no one knows his name.
He walks on at Oregon and makes the team.
The coaches dog him. Run him. Yell at him. Curse him.
Though he thinks he has no chance at earning playing time he works hard and sacrifices himself, and his hunger grows harder and his love for the game grows stronger.
HIS FRESHMAN year, he plays a total of 22 minutes in four games. He shoots 0 for 3, gathers 2 rebounds, fouls twice, and garners 1 steal. His sophomore year, three guys get injured. He weighs 210 pounds and gets 14 minutes per game, averages 4 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals. He takes care of the ball. The team improves and breaks .500. Midway through the season he sweeps in from the wing for a rebound in the half court offense. Untouched, the players seem to part before him and he plants, launches into the sky and catches an errant shot that has caromed wide off the rim. Everyone is far below him as he tip jams over two defenders, the force of the dunk like the barrel-swing of a sledge hammer. He lands off kilter in the middle of the pack and bounces to his feet as the crowd erupts and the sound is deafening and the air seems to compress and expand and roar. He looks at his hands, sees a red mark high on his wrist, like a blood wound from the rim, and his teammates mob him and holler and pound his chest.
The team talks about the high wire smash for weeks.
From this single event he gains the nickname: Tomahawk.
The play is the first of many more to come.
Twenty games in, the coaches tell him what a huge contribution he has made to the team and that they will scholarship him next year. After the season, the coaching staff confirms their promise. At home for the summer, he holds his head high and walks into the gym and tells his friends from high school. They give him 5 and hug him and laugh and look at him almost as if he is from another, brighter world.
In the dark at night, he sits beside his father’s grave and tells him about the scholarship and weeps. “I miss you,” he says, “I need you,” and as he walks from the cemetery he remembers how the sorrow takes a long time going, and perhaps is never completely gone. In his dreams, his father walks with him.
Everett has lunch with the VP and tells him about the scholarship too, and the VP slaps him on the back and looks him in the eyes and says, “Congratulations! You’ve worked hard for this. Keep working.”
“I will,” he says, and before he leaves, he looks up at the VP and pauses. “I wouldn’t be where I am without you,” he says. The skin on the VP’s neck turns red. The man looks down at his feet and taps the boy on the shoulder a few times.
“Count on me every home game,” he says.
MID-SUMMER before Everett returns to campus, an assistant coach calls. “Couldn’t give you the scholarship,” he says. “We have to take it back because we need it for other positions.”
“THAT’S NOT right,” the boy says softly. “You lied to me. You broke your promise.”
“Happens,” the assistant retorts, “get over it.”
The boy does, but a fire burns in the chambers of his heart, burns at the dishonesty of men, men unlike his father, unlike the VP. He burns and he works. He runs and jumps and increases in power. He weighs 220 pounds now and benches 260. His vertical tops 40 inches. He dribbles all over town, the ball an extension of his body, the jumper, the follow-through, the release, the backspin like a gift from his father, the net on fire, the sound of the swish roaring inside him like a blaze to consume the world. “He plays defense like an army of men,” his old teachers say. “He rebounds like a wrecking ball.”
He knows what they say is true because when he defends he feels alive, alive for his father. And when he crashes the boards, the other players fall away from him like trees felled in a forest. He remembers when his father took him to the Beartooth Mountains and the boy shot his first bull elk on the pass north of Two Oceans Plateau, the animal huge and ominous in the early light, a rack of tines hung back from the head, the horns thick and pointed skyward even in death. He’d used his father’s Remington .243, the stock warm against his cheek, a deep breath blown smooth from his lungs as the report rang over the valley and the animal fell before the echo died. He held the legs as his father made the cut from neck to base and drew the skin away from the rib cage with clean swipes of the hunting knife so that the white inner lining shown in the half-light. His father pulled out the entrails, his arms drenched in blood to the elbows. He looked to the boy then and said, “My father’s people went hungry.” He shook his head. “Don’t forget that, son. Ever.”
“I won’t, Papa,” he’d said, and he watched as his father boned out the animal, cutting through the joints with the bone saw, quartering the elk and removing the hooves. In the end his father caped it out, bagged the meat, tied the head and horns to his pack and the boy and his father walked the land in tandem as something angelic and ethereal, the horns above his father’s back heavy and arched like wings.
BEFORE SUMMER’S end the boy and the VP travel to Alaska to put on an assembly for a school in Seldovia where the VP’s good friend is the principal. Seldovia, a harbor on the edge of the ocean, a town of blue water in a bowl of forest and rock surrounded by small well-built homes, smoke adrift from tight round chimneys. Every kid in town shows, and their parents with them, and the box gym is filled to the rafters as the VP speaks to the kids about school, and leadership, and grades, and dreams. The boy comes to the microphone in a baggy sweat suit and clean white Nike Air’s and speaks about life. The kids are a mix of Indian and white, native, and northern, and the people who gave them breath fill his field of vision, mothers and fathers, and they are strong and good, he thinks, and he feels thankful for them, for his own family, for the VP, and for basketball. He tells the kids he believes in them, and he places his hand over his chest and tells them God resides in the strength of their fathers, in the joy of their mothers, and in the end he says, “Don’t stop dreaming your dreams.”
He removes his sweats and walks onto the court in a white t-shirt and baggy silk shorts bordered green and gold. He lines up the kids under the basket on one end and the dunk show begins. He throws himself alley oop lob passes from half-court. He tosses the ball high and it bounces off the hardwood and lofts itself to a point far above the rim. He runs and flies and meets the ball in the sky. He rises up and hammers home one-handed tomahawks and two-handed shoulder blades, a flurry of reverses, windmills, and 360s. “Clap out the beat!” he says and the people clap in unison to a deep drum rhythm as he puts backspin on the ball and watches it return to him before he lofts another lob from half court, rounds the turn, launches, and soars on a sideways lean with his back to the rim. In mid-air he snatches the ball in his hands, touches it to his heels, and when he smashes it behind his head he hears a bang louder than a gunshot. A sound like a shout from the barrel of a cannon.
The rim breaks free and the backboard shatters.
He lands in a rain of glass, and everyone goes silent.
Shards of glass fan at his feet, and out from him in an arc that reaches to the top of the key, and wider still and more dispersed passed the half court line. He sees the rim on the hardwood floor, displaced like the shed horn of an animal. He turns to the kids packed along the baseline, their eyes wide and mouths open. Finally, one of the kids stands and starts clapping, then the kid shouts and lifts his hands and the others stand then and applaud loudly and the whole gym gives an unforeseen but extended cheer as the kids gather around Everett. They touch his hands and his arms. They pick up pieces of shattered glass to take home. He shows them the bruises the rim has made on his wrists, and he smiles directly into their eyes.
IN SEPTEMBER he returns to the team. He gets 22 minutes a game his junior year. He weighs in at 225 and hauls rebounds like a freight train. He runs faster, jumps higher, and grows stronger. He gets time, goes after every loose ball, turns the momentum of the game. “He’s a beast,” the head coach whispers, secretly in awe, and the boy’s numbers ascend. The coaching staff again promises him a full ride. The team takes another step, battles for a top four position in the league and ends up third. They lose their first two games in the league tournament but win two games in the National Invitational Tournament, the NIT, losing to Seton Hall one game before the semis and Madison Square Garden.
He meets with the coaches post season. “No scholarship,” they tell him again. He puts his head in his hands. The words pierce him like bullets; they circle his head like barbed wire. “We don’t have any scholarships left,” the head man says, “we gave the last one to the big man from Germany. You know how much we need a big man.”
That weekend the young man goes home. Face flushed and heart pounding he tells the VP.
They return together to meet with the coaches.
THE HEAD coach begins and his words are smooth but they sound brittle and foolish in the air. “We’ve been more than fair here,” he says but already the VP has had enough. The VP stands. “Shut your mouth,” he orders the coach, “I’ll do the talking here.” He slams his hands on the table and leans across the open span until they are eye to eye. “You are a liar,” he says, “and a two faced liar at that. This boy is like a son to me, and to the whole town he comes from. You need to treat him right.” The VP’s face is red, the tendons in his neck like taut wire. He turns and looks at Everett and his face softens and returns to itself. He draws himself back and sits down again. He stares at the coach. “You need to be a better man than this,” he says. “This is beneath you and your program. Treat him right. He’ll give his all for you.”
The coach’s head is down now.
He looks up into the face of the boy.
The boy stares hard back and does not waver.
“We will treat him right,” the coach says.
AND THE COACH treats the boy right.
The boy signs a scholarship and enters his senior year ready.
He is elected team captain. He starts every game, averages 11.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 2.1 steals. He is named conference Defensive Player of the year and the team advances to the championship game of the league tournament winning 92-87 in double overtime as the fans swarm the court and the players and coaches dance. The VP meets him near the center circle, and they embrace and cry together as the streamers rain down on their heads. After the nets are cut down, the team gathers in the locker room, where the head coach holds one of the nets out to Everett and says, “To our captain,” and he places it around his neck and the team shouts, and the point guard punches Everett’s chest and says “For playing die-hard ball,” and the first assistant yells out, “For leading us here!” Everett bows his head and the team bumps his shoulders and he embraces his teammates and they go all the way to March Madness where they ride a wave of momentum to the Sweet 16 before they are finally knocked off in Indianapolis by eventual champion North Carolina.
WHEN THE BOY returns home, he goes to the high school early and asks the VP to breakfast. The VP gladly accepts and they walk in the dark to a bright-windowed diner two blocks north. Midway through the meal the boy takes the net out of his backpack, reaches out his hands and places the net like a necklace over the older man’s head.
“For all you’ve given me,” he says.
“It was nothing,” the VP says, and his voice cracks, “and thank you.”
WHEN BREAKFAST is done they stand and the VP grips Everett’s arms.
“Let’s go show your father,” he says, and in the dim light they go to the grave where the boy listens as the VP tells the story and thanks Everett’s father, and tells the father his strength runs like mighty horses in the boy. When they walk together from that place the ground is soft beneath their feet. Down a slight slope the grass rolls, deep green and glistening. A remnant of darkness still holds the land as they walk among granite forms uplifted from the earth, crosses over apexes of stone, marble angels whose arched wings and raised swords beckon dawn. In the distance the trunks of great trees pattern the land, their limbs reaching steadily upward, and when Everett Highwalker looks he finds the trees alive with light, the sun a bloom of fire in the sky.
From the Artist:
In this story I’ve tried to speak to the inner life that accompanies both desolation and consolation. The overwhelming fact that all people experience pain and joy, and that sometimes we have no idea of the great sorrow the person next to us carries, is one of the central inspirations for the art that informs my experience of our shared humanity. In my own inner life “the garment of praise instead of the spirit of despair” is both a leap of faith in this world of violence, and a deep and enduring hope in the intimacy that exists here and now. When we love others and we are loved, I believe we are given the grace to
see the Divine in them and in ourselves.
Shann Ray’s collection of stories American Masculine (Graywolf Press), named by Esquire as one of Three Books Every Man Should Read and selected by Kirkus Reviews as a Best Book of the Year, won the Bakeless Prize, the High Plains Book Award, and the American Book Award. Sherman Alexie called it “tough, poetic, and beautiful” and Dave Eggers said Ray’s work is “lyrical, prophetic, and brutal, yet ultimately hopeful.”
Shann’s creative nonfiction book of leadership and political theory Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity (Rowman &Littlefield) explores the nature of categorical human transgressions and engages the question of ultimate forgiveness in the context of ultimate violence. His book of poems, Balefire, is forthcoming with Lost Horse Press.
Shann lives with his wife and three daughters in Spokane, Washington where he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University.
This story is copyrighted by the artist and used here by permission.