One Perfect Shot (a short story)
Recently, I completed a short story that I submitted for consideration to a competition. Sad to say it wasn't selected. However, because it was related to a theme and I don't foresee submitting this story anywhere in the foreseeable future, I wanted to share it here. Thanks for reading!
ONE PERFECT SHOT
The dust-covered basketball passed through the frayed nylon net, a melodious echo bringing joy to the ears. A familiar sound, a known sound and, to Brennan, one he savors and absorbs.
Landing on the edge of a cracked cement pad, the ball careened away, rolling down the gravel driveway. Buoyed by youthful exuberance, Brennan chased after the ball, returning in due time with nary a drop of sweat to be seen.
“1-0,” mumbled Brennan, tossing the ball to his father, Jed.
“Your jump shot is looking good,” replied Jed.
He held the ball, eyeing the hoop. Nearing 50 and with a stomach protruding over the waistband of his shorts meant quickness was not going to be an option. Pushing around his scrawny son would be his best bet. At 21, Brennan had not yet filled out, though his long arms provided ample defense. Years of practice and coaching had Jed holding the ball protectively in a triple-threat stance. He jab-stepped right, but Brennan did not take the bait. Jed did the same to the left and yet his son stood firm. One quick dribble and spin and Brennan was helpless to stop his father’s force. A shoulder dip to the right, a step to the left and the ball was released, flying off the fingertips of the sky hook Jed had learned long ago. The ball fell in without a hitch, tying the score at one.
Games like these had been on hiatus since Brennan had left home for college at age 18. Once a norm – games that were family lore and discussed around the dinner table – opportunities had rarely presented themselves since Brennan’s high school days. Summer jobs took precedence and winter break meant piles of snow and sub-freezing temperatures, rarely conducive for a game of one-on-one. Brennan offered these as excuses as why not to play, born more from laziness than anything else. Shooters can shoot anywhere, day or night, inside a gym or in 100-degree heat and Brennan had a knack for knocking down the deep ball. The old man pressed for games – a ritual passed on by his father by him – to no avail, until now.
A cotton candy colored dream when the net responds to the perfectly placed shot, nary a rim to be touched.
A four to three lead now for Brennan, who relied on his jump shot in this game to 11. Happy with the lead, but high hopes had been shattered in the past as leads were bricked away when the shots stopped falling. Jed was also able to use his six-foot, three-inch frame to distinct advantage, making it nearly impossible for Brennan to go to work in the key. In the intervening years, the height gap had closed to two inches in Jed’s favor and Brennan knew he’d have to start looking for closer shots.
Pre-occupied with his next move on offense, Brennan lost focus on defense and allowed an easy bucket to his pops in the post. Jed was brilliant, relying on moves he’s learned by watching Mikan, Kareem, and Bill Russell. Moves Jed employed and emulated in each and every game between he and his son. Moves that Brennan rarely stopped and never mastered himself.
“All day, son.”
This was the extent of trash talk used by Jed. Words on the court – and off – were used sparingly but were always effective. “I’m taking it easy on you, old man. I’m just warming up.”
Youth begat cockiness, a mistake that soon haunted Brennan. Confidence was swatted away after a hasty move inside, an error multiplied by the ball bouncing off his head and out of bounds, rolling away. Disappointed, anger swirling, Brennan jogged after the ball, a trip he’d done thousands of times in his lifetime. Each trip held importance in his soul, whether it was the memories of this game or simply shooting baskets alone. Or memories of practicing under the sun’s glare or at night by porch light, Jed secretly watching from the bedroom window’s slightly parted blue curtains.
Fractured memories blurred in a cornucopia of emotions, the swoosh sound providing a calming reinforcement every single time.
The bucket closed the gap to 9-6 in favor of Jed, who had put together a string of points by running wild, grabbing offensive rebounds and proving to Brennan the jump shot he madly loved had been inherited from his own father. Jed had done so with a high-arcing prayer heaved with a gusto that eventually rattled around the rim and in.
A steal by Brennan and he held the ball, his hands covered in the dust of history. Jed was an advanced and formidable opponent, strong as an ox and clever, too. The sharks were circling and a missed shot would set the beasts loose. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Pump fake. The series of steps worked to perfection. Jed leaped and Brennan ducked under, leaning forward as he hoisted the ball, which banked off the weathered backward and dropped into the net.
9-7 now, the sharks staved off.
Slowed by age and exertion, many movements from point A to point B by Jed were off balance and indirect. There was much more care and purpose with every action, a sweat-soaked gray t-shirt clinging to wrinkled skin. This was the same t-shirt Jed always wore, whether it be when watering trees, mowing the lawn, or for a quick visit to the gym. A constant presence throughout the years, with a familiarity to Brennan meaning one thing: he was home.
Twinkling the twine. One step closer to victory now, the third of three straight points for Brennan falling with ease. Tread showed on Jed’s tires and Brennan took full advantage, now leading 10-9.
“How much do you have left?” posed Brennan to Jed.
“More than enough,” replied Jed, quickly tossing up a shot that passed the net with barely a whisper, tying the ball game at ten. “And I’m going to keep living up here,” he said, lightly pressing an index finger to Brennan’s temple.
“Win by two?” son asked father.
“Have we ever played that way?”
“No,” replied Brennan, laughing as he retrieved the ball.
Brennan returned, ball in hands, and in his stance. He tossed the ball to Jed. “Check.”
Jed tossed the ball back and was on top of Brennan in a flash. There would be no jump shot to seal the victory. The sudden flurry of hand movements by Jed made Brennan briefly smile as he recollected his dad yelling after a bad pass in practices back in high school. “You can’t throw through hands!” There was no one to pass to here, but the advice had stuck with Brennan in every pick-up game since, the phrase repeating now as he dribbled.
Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Ball thwacking against cement as Brennan pursued a lane left. Stopped. He pursued a lane right. Stopped. He dribbled the ball and searched for an angle to create the perfect shot. Jed continued to swipe at the ball, knocking it loose twice, each time recovered by Brennan. A quick crossover from right to left and back again freed Brennan. One more dribble and a burst of speed and Brennan took flight, nothing but air between him and the ground. The ball rolled off his fingertips and onto the backboard as gravity pulled Brennan downward, eyes up as he landed.
Pain sensors delivered a wallop to Brennan’s ankle. He screamed, releasing frustration into the void as he landed onto his back, and reality. Skyward he looked, tears pouring from his eyes. Brennan’s ankle throbbed, compounded by the burden of a shattered heart that had plagued him for days.
He was alone on this ancient and worn cement pad. The once proud net hung listlessly from the orange rim, torn after his first made basket thanks to years of idleness. Memory of this game was his solace to having one man ripped unexpectedly from life. A few minutes of knocking down jump shots turned into hours as he unpacked years of grief and the happiness of times gone by, one colossus second at a time. Daylight faded and still Brennan marched on, eventually snapped back to the present with a thud that was followed by a flood. Images from his past held firm in a static fog.
Brennan screamed and wailed, a fury and aching that eventually gave way to peace and calm as he surrendered to the natural flow of what had been torn from him. The days of these games were out of reach and it was sad realization to know this is where they parted.
“I am proud of you,” whispered Jed, a voice that was distant yet serene in Brennan’s mind.
“I miss you,” muttered Brennan aloud. There was no response, not even one created for himself. Only emptiness, release, and the soothing sound of the ball traveling through the net, echoing with a perfect snap, forever on the verge of game point.