The guys who made the basketball team are listed on a piece of paper on the dense wire-webbed glass of the gymnasium door. You crowd around the door with the other guys who tried out for the varsity. You glance real quick hoping your name will leap out but it doesn’t and you have a little wriggle of awful in your belly and you press closer on the excuse that you have thick spectacles and you run your finger down the twelve names and you see names you expected and names you didn’t and Not You. The names are all typed on the coach’s old typewriter which screws up the letter y so it looks more like w so you check again from the top looking for Dowle, Brian and then you check again reading up from the bottom this time just in case some weird thing happened because you wear thick spectacles and the gym door has this thick old shimmery glass and maybe the two densities of glass cancel each other out or something. By now other kids are shoving you because you have inarguably been camped by the door for slightly too long and you allow yourself to get shoved to the edge of the pack and you assume an airy casual I-don’t-care face and you get ready to say man I didn’t really want to be on the team anyway, it would cut into my social life if anyone asks but the other kids are either finding their names or turning away rattled and trying to get their masks back on like you are.
It’s hard to get your mask on while you are walking so you duck into the men’s room but there’s another kid in there who is having a terrible time with his mask. This kid’s name is Fred and you once had to share a jersey with him when you both were the twelfth guy on a twelve-man team when you were twelve years old and his family was poor or sick or something and after he wore your jersey he never washed it and he smelled like dog barf so when it was your turn for the jersey your mom washed it before and after so during the season the jersey got noticeably lighter in color from all the washing and you were always afraid someone would notice but no one did.
By now you absolutely know you are going to cry and this is a disaster because it means you are a baby and not a man and you don’t want to cry in front of Fred so you slip away from the bathroom and seek refuge wherever it presents itself which turns out to be the stage door of the school theater. You duck in this door and hear the mumble of some awful incomprehensible French crap like Molière onstage but amazingly right in front of you now is the low door that leads under the stage which looks at this moment like the most alluring place in the world.
You close the low door behind you carefully and kneel down in the dark and cry like hell and then you run through all the possible reasons for being cut like the coach hates Catholic guys or hates guys with glasses or hates guys with Irish names or he was too drunk to see at tryouts or he was paid off by a dad to choose another guy or possibly there are twelve better players. You run through each of the twelve guys and consider, trying to be honest, if they are better and no way they are all better but you can actually see how someone uninformed and careless might think they are all better except God help you the guy missing a part of his pinkie he lost in a boating accident. How a guy missing part of a finger could make the team and not you is a mystery, but there it is.
By now your crying is shuddering to a stop and you are amazed that crying is an autopilot thing and you cannot stop crying by telling yourself to stop crying; you only stop when the crying is finished with itself. You remember learning this when you were twelve and your grandmother died but that was long ago when you were twelve.
Suddenly the low door opens and you crouch down into a corner of the understage where there are some things that look like couches where virgins get deflowered in Molière plays and for an instant before the door closes again you see to your amazement it is Fred, who must have had the same idea to duck into a place where he could cry like hell. You notice he still smells like dog barf. You notice this more and more as the minutes slog past and he finishes his crying. You think about maybe saying something to the poor guy, after all he just got cut too, although he damn well should have been cut, he couldn’t score if you locked him in the gym alone for a week, but you don’t speak, because that would be weird, and also because you are frightened by kindness, thinking it weakness, and only later in life will you realize how wrong you were, and still occasionally are.
After a while Fred leaves and you wait a sufficient number of minutes to let him escape, and then you escape also, noting idly as you creep away that the same French drivel is still being committed above your head, and when you get back out in the hallway it is empty and the afternoon is turning to dusk. You walk back toward the gym for a moment until you hear a thunder of basketballs as the team trickles out onto the floor for its first official practice and then you turn and walk the other way, toward the south door of the school. For a moment you think you are screwed and you will have to walk the mile home, all buses having left long ago, but then amazingly Fred comes by in his car and says hey you need a lift? and you say sure, thanks man and all the way home you both lie about why you were still at school. Years later you realize this was another jersey you shared with Fred, the way both of you lied like hell all the way home. Even his car smelled like dog barf, but when a guy gives you a ride when you really need a ride you don’t say anything about that.