We gather in the gym of the old Lutheran Church
on New Year's Eve at noon. No shirts or skins, no colored jerseys. We
play twelve hours, or at least that's the idea, but we always run on
until dawn, taking a break at midnight to toast the New Year with champagne
and sweat. Everybody plays. Williston, the president of the Iron Mountain
Building and Loan, Plotter, the Fire Chief, Wilma Plotter, his wife,
and their children when they come back for the holidays. O'Brien and
Egatz, Wilson and Wesson, Myers and Stangle. Hertz, Busby, Grisom, Field.
Somebody we just call Elk. Johnson, Peace, Galler, Fuller, MacIver.
Sonny, Bucky, Rocky, and Sherry. Even Copper, South and Mercy played
one year when they visited, camping out in our living room like teenage
girls at a slumber party.
Seven hours in. Darkness is falling, always sooner
in these mountains than anywhere else, the horizon so high. This year
we've opened up the kitchen and spread out the long tables, everybody
bringing their specialty. Cate and I cooked together, both enjoying
the luxury of time, her vacation from the Environmental Preservation
Center and Save All Green Environments, and my reprieve from
Harper Lee and high school kids. We made bread pudding with a Jim Beam
sauce and salsa with flatbread, both hits last year. I've played several
rounds so far tonight, as has Cate, who is presently hot with her three-pointers.
Conner and I watch as she makes the fake, rolls around Bettie Jean,
shoots over Rusty, and gets nothing but net. The gathered crowd cheers
at her skill. Conner makes the sound that will become "Mama."
Still I worry. I have thought hard and worried
much the last few years about the outside world I know, the one away
from Iron Mountain. I scan the faces that come and go, waiting for him
to show up and challenge us, me, this time of freedom from points and
rules, wins and losses. Freedom from the score. He is different people.
He is my father, who my mother left because he saw the world only his
way. Men worked. Women stayed home. Men brought in the money. Women
raised the children. There were certain things that women did not do,
going to school being one of them. Before she died in '94, my mother
was a successful college professor, teaching English, specializing in
Keats, Shelley, Byron, the Romantics. Sometimes a face in the crowd
looks so much like my father's I shiver. Not that I wouldn't want to
see him. He is a decent man, and we've grown to care about each other,
as I've become older. But I am not afraid to admit my fear that my father's
capacity to understand what happens here in Iron Mountain on New Year's
Eve would be nonexistent.
I see a third face as well, in some of the men
herethe face of Copper before he met South and Mercy and became
a true father. You should see him tell about his adopted daughter Mercy,
South's from a first marriage, and how they celebrate Halloween. He
lights up like a Jack-O-Lantern. But before them, he seemed a little
lost, unsure of himself. He was under the massive hands of his brother
growing up, and he believed he was unwittingly complicit in some of
Marcus's crimes and destruction. He told me once of a breaking point,
a chance to change things between he and Marcus, a leap into violence
against the violence Marcus had wrought. Seven years ago, bailing his
brother out of jail, Copper had tried to take a police officer's pistol,
propelled by everything inside him to shoot Marcus in the face, but
he didn't do it. He told me how ashamed he was for not following his
instinct. It wasn't that Copper wanted to be violent, or that any person
wants to, but it was that he was controlled somehow, softened to a point
of inability to resist, good or bad. Inability to act. If it hadn't
been for South, Mercy, and Fileman Wirick, too, Copper would still be
drifting with the flow, drowning in a shallow river, where all he would
have to do to save himself was plant his feet on the murky bottom and
stand up. I see men and boys here tonight who may never find their South
and their Mercy in anyone, any place, time, or thing. They will know
love only thinly, experience passion only obliquely, often in its twisted
form of violence.
The lumberjacks play, showing off, stripping
down to the waist and posing. When they find out we don't keep score
they are less interested, and when they get outrun and outscored by
Cate and some of the other women, they mix back into the woodwork. It's
too bad. They could learn something from us, other than there are some
terrific basketball players in this crowd. We try to send them the message,
not only with this game, but with how we conduct our everyday lives.
But they find us a threat to their way of life, unable to see that their
livelihood self-destructs and leaves only ruin. They can't envision
that our pathequality and preservation, of land, animals, men
and women from all walksis the only passage to building people
who are truly human.
Outside, we begin the walk home. The air is cold
and crisp. Our breathing rises into the night air. The landscape is
light, and Cate points to the full moon. I marvel that over thirty years
ago three people landed on the face of that rock, in a place called
the Sea of Tranquility. A wonderful name. There Armstrong, Aldrin, and
Collins touched down, making an important step in the history of humankind.
That landing, shown on an old black and white television in the home
of my parents, is my first visual memory from childhood. I think of
that as we walk, not marveling at what Armstrong and Aldrin must have
felt as they first stepped foot and walked across the moon's surface,
but knowing that Collins was in the capsule, monitoring them, testing
the atmosphere, the soil, creating a baseline of what composed the moon
and the moment in time. That first mission, Collins didn't walk on the
moon, but made it possible for Aldrin and Armstrong to do so, taking
us to a new place, in peace.
"Hoops" is the epilogue to The Waterhouse, a book that chronicles the journeys of Jimmy Timberlake, Copper Gale, and Marcus Gale as they try to define their masculinity from the age of 15 to 35. The story itself came about as I was trying to find a way to tie up the book, finish (and begin) Jimmy's storyline. An older student in one of my classes, Greg Hignite, invited me to play basketball with he and some friends every Sunday night at the Lutheran Church in Richmond, IN. I never went, but the image of them playing grew inside my head, making space for Jimmy, Cate, and the people of Iron Mountain, where a portion of the novel is set, to create their vision of a better world. Conner, by the way, is the name of a boy who was born, around the time I was writing the story, to Scott and Kathy Rundell, good friends that still live on the plains of Kansas.