Between Practice


1. Afternoons in Florida while my favorite jocular jockish cousin suffered summer school, I climbed the tall hot fence of the elementary school behind his house to practice layups and dream of dunks. 2. I was 13, my mother was on a Caribbean cruise ship in a state of longing, her husband was on a German army base in a state of longing; they left me with relatives in a distant state. 3. Sometimes I talked with the posters on my cousin’s walls: robed Moses Malone dividing a sea of basketballs, Chocolate Thunder aka Darryl Dawkins, whose name I now recall better than the poster, and George “Iceman” Gervin, sitting with his long legs crossed on an ice throne as he palmed two silver basketball spheres with a cool I tried carrying with me out to the basketball court where the heat softened and pulled my bones. 4. I would like to suggest it was a sexual sweat: cleansing, baptismal, mystical, burning as it ran into my eyes, but instead I will say the sweat was simply the byproduct of labor and temperature. 5. Sometimes my cousin Noonpie would stand at the fence and after a moment or two call me in to the terrible boredom of a house packed with her four other sisters. Once the two oldest girls pinned me to the floor and covered my panic in lipstick. 6. I have said so little about poetry because I knew so little about poetry then. 7. Mute, fluid, confused, determined, sometimes Noonpie and I dry humped in a large walk-in closet. She was my age. Sometimes she leafed through my drawing book. Once my jocular jockish cousin, aka her older brother, found us and yanked me by my ankles into the air, upside down and flailing like a fish pulled from a bucket of water. 8. I may have known by way of intuition the silences that come before poetry, which are like the silences that cover photographs, the silences that accompany imagery: a relative named Henpeck appearing on the doorsteps one night with a knife wound’s evidence staining his shirt; a neighbor named Fat Nasty confined no matter the heat or drama to the bed Noonpie and I spied through his window; the silence of a black boy covered suddenly permanently by the lake near their home; the mute, fluid, confused, determined practice of silence, the silent practitioners of silence. 9. Noonpie and her siblings, knew they were not my blood cousins because their parents told them, but I did not know and because I was loved with the severity and kindness any cousin receives. I spent some afternoons studying old photos of the man of the house: a tall very black black man. In them he wore a basketball uniform and looked more like one of his daughters than his son. I took him as proof basketball was in my blood, because I did not know we were not blood. 10. It was his wife that was my stepfather’s aunt. Her quick and scything tongue kept the weeds from her beautiful heart. 11. My mother was afraid of her. 12. Once when my jockish jocular cousin took me to play basketball, we stood first with his friends beneath a few trees and smoked weed. Though I only got one puff, it ruined me for the game.  I would have been ruinous even without the dope, to be honest. “Man, if I had that nigga height,” laughed my cousin’s friends. I was wasted, I was a waste. 13. Because it was a small mostly black beach town at the edge of a big mostly white beach town, the teenaged black boys tried harder to be hard. Some of them jumped tourists, taking their money, beach gear and sunglasses. Some of them vanished quickly into jails or shotgun houses full of drugs and broken women. My cousin survived on charm and luck. His sisters survived because they remained locked in their father’s house. 14. “Do you want to be a basketball player,” the man of the house asked me when he found me holding his son’s basketball in my lap. “Do you want to be an artist,” he asked me when I showed him my notebook drawings. “Do you want to be a man,” the man of the house asked me when he found me weeping because my mother had not returned. 15. He’s going to be seven foot tall, my jocular jockish cousin bragged when his friends asked my age. I was thirteen and already more than six feet high. 16. I’d look at the man of the house looking at the photos of himself as a young basketball player. I’d listen to the way he talked to his son at dinner. I was there when his wife smoked cigarettes lacing profanity though the affections she shared with him. Her death, years later, would be the reason for his death shortly thereafter. 17. You must be a foot taller my mother said when she finally returned, but to me, it was she who seemed smaller. 18. After my cousin told me strong calf muscles were the secret to jumping power, I set the balls of my feet at the edge of the stairs in the house, lowering my heels as far as I could toward the floor, then pressing my heels up as high as I could for as many times as I could as often as I could. 19. “My mother’s relatives are tall,” I told the boys in Florida when they asked where I’d gotten my height. “My father’s relatives are tall,” I told the boys back home when they asked where I’d gotten my height. 20. I used to think practice was preparation for the game, but now I believe the game is what happens between practice. 21. What I remember is the way the man of the house looked over my drawings. Snoopy’s nose needed to be longer, he said. Why did the people only have three fingers, he asked. Then he’d push the pages back to me and say he wanted to see improvements tomorrow. 22. Again and again the ball jammed against the front of the rim, jolting my whole body backwards and back to the tarmac. Or the ball ricocheted from the rim arcing overhead. Sometimes I’d glance toward the fence relieved Noonpie was not there watching when I jogged to retrieve the basketball. Rejected object, rejected subject. 23. I failed so often I came to accept it was failure I was practicing. In poetry I have failed so often I have come to accept it is failure I am practicing. 24. My stepfather’s mother had him when she was fourteen. She was barely around those summers. My stepfather knew almost nothing about his father and did not care to ask. He was raised by a man named “Stick,” but if you ask him he will say he raised himself. 25. I never know when a poem is finished. It is like a series of wrong and half right endeavors before I discover the unforeseeable approaching. 26. First the mother died and shortly thereafter the man of the house died. And later my stepfather’s mother died. My stepfather wept. 26. First the mother died and shortly thereafter the man of the house died. And later my father’s mother died. My father wept and I was angry to see him weeping. Though Florida was his home, he was rarely there those summers. 27. What moves between us has always moved as metaphor. We have never discussed our fathers or mothers, though the space between our fathers and mothers is what makes us like one another. 28. The first time I dunked that summer no one was there to see it. Not even I was witness. The ball passed suddenly through the rim, and though I had been trying for weeks, I did not know how it happened when it happened. I tried again and again to do it again.