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First Light (TGWP 7)

May 15, 2017

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From the novel This Game We Play, by Greg Blake Miller, continued from “Madness” (TGWP 6)This is the beginning of the novel’s second section, “The Basketball Boy,” which returns to Tucker’s childhood. Photo by Svetlana Larionova Miller.

I am periodically and not unpleasantly haunted by a childhood image that I can neither place in time nor dismiss as a dream. In this vision, I am sitting atop Mud Pony Mountain, arm’s length from a cloud, a collection of just-gathered rocks spread before me on a rust and tan plaid blanket. An uneaten drumstick from a red-striped chicken bucket bastes in its own grease on a paper plate. My dog, a brindle boxer named Brassy, looks up at me as if to say I’m not gonna eat it either. A few feet away my mother and father and brother are eating and talking and laughing. The noontime sky hangs like a great cracked eggshell over the valley. The mountains look silvery and gaseous, as if one could walk through them to a different room beneath a different shell. I look straight up at the sun and then close my eyes to see how long its ghost lingers. I prop my feet on patient Brassy’s back. I sleep—or, rather, I brush the edge of sleep but stay awake, just enough awake and just enough asleep that the world appears to be a dream but is still the world. I have mentioned this vision to my mother, and she has assured me that we took neither Brassy the boxer nor a red-striped bucket of chicken to the top of Mud Pony Mountain, which, in any case, as far as she knows, is accessible only by helicopter.

This much is true: The oldest memories I have are of my keen pursuit of a waking dream-state, where there was only a slim and dimly understood barrier between physical sensation and magic. I was three years old and full of desire and I did what it took to feel what I wanted to feel. In the evenings, just before bedtime, my mother would put a wet load in the dryer and shut off the laundry room light and from across the house I could hear the room begin to hum. I’d finish brushing my teeth, stroll down the hallway in my pajamas, slip into the laundry room and lie down on the cool blue linoleum. The dryer had a single fluorescent tube up top and it bathed the room in a ghostly gray glow. The place was irresistible.

I was always on the ground somewhere, like a puppy, or an ant; my world was defined by the textures of floor coverings. In the kitchen we had lumpy tan tile that was always cold, and I liked to sprawl there in the path of the warm wind that blew from beneath the refrigerator. Carpets, too, I liked. The hallway semi-shag was thick and soft and the color of avocado, but if I brushed my hand across I could change the shade to something like lime. I could amuse myself for a good while with such tricks. If I followed the hallway far enough, I’d get to my parents’ room, then to their bed, where the brown bedskirt had a sharp edge that tickled my palm in a way I rather liked.

I don’t know how I got away with spending so much time lying around. My brother got used to stepping over me on his way from one room to the next. My mother would do entire loads of laundry in the dark while I lay at the foot of the dryer. Once she turned on the light, and I stood with a start like an awakened cat, and stretched, and left. I think it made her sad to see my peace disturbed so, and she didn’t turn the light on anymore after that.

 

By the time I turned six, my brother Simon had become a basketball star. When he wasn’t playing down the street or in a league, he’d go out to our backyard hoop and shoot 15-footers from around-the-world stations, testing the comfortable old two-handed from-the-chest set shot against a grown-up one-handed jumper. He set me up under the basket to rebound for him and tell him what I thought. He’d shoot a set shot from the left side and say “chest,” then a jumper from the same spot and say “overhead.” And I’d say either “overhead” or “chest” depending on which shot looked better to me. This was an issue of today’s comfort versus tomorrow’s hard-earned success. It was a foregone conclusion that overhead would win. Still, I was flattered to be consulted. And I understood what it was he wanted: I wasn’t to base my judgment on which shot went in, but on which motion looked better. When the overhead shot looked as fluid as the chest shot, Simon would know he was in business. My brother didn’t expect things to come naturally; he knew he had to make them become natural. As a fifth-grader he sat on the couch for hours each night with his feet on the coffee table and a full, forgotten glass of milk in his hand, memorizing Spanish verbs. Here, too, he included me. Peinarse-to comb one’s hair; peinarse–to comb one’s hair; peinarse–to comb one’s hair. To comb one’s hair? And here, of course, I was to say peinarse.

At the time, I hadn’t fully quit the sensual habits of my younger years—I suppose I maintained the lifestyle a little longer than most kids—but next to Simon’s laborious learning, all my lounging around seemed terribly unproductive. The feelings worth having were to be had through work. Soon enough, I decided to want the same things Simon did. I still wanted to feel the kind of feelings I felt at the feet of clothing dryers and refrigerators, but I stopped seeking the feelings out, stopped cruising the carpets and floors and appliance air vents. By the end of kindergarten I was sitting on the couch with my feet on the table and a glass of milk in my hand, spelling friend over and over with the help of my teacher’s mnemonic trick, “FRIday is the END of the week.” I also went out to the backyard and set myself up with perfect grown-up Simon form (overhead!) and pushed the ball at the basket, which was much, much too far away. As for the old desires, they sank into the creases of my life like pennies you lose in the car seat. Desire, which demands to be fulfilled, turned into longing, which is content to remain exactly what it is. Desire never forgets what it wants; longing, in time, becomes inchoate, a thing in itself, the reason for which can be utterly forgotten. It’s safer that way, anyway. You scare yourself less when you decide you’re unlikely to get what you’re hoping for, when you consign it to an impossible dreamland, a paradise lost, a childhood moment of green grass and shameless sunshine that flared and faded and you don’t know why. You can feel your longing, wonder what it’s all about, then shrug your shoulders and get on to the business of wanting the things that matter.

– Greg Blake Miller

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