The grass all grown over in front of the barn, tangles of four-foot tufts of green, yellow, and brown. At least the weeds’d gone and covered up all the scrap piles and old tractors and plows and balers and hay wagons and beater cars torn apart back behind the barn and the apple orchard. How much loose wire, boards, nails, baling twine, and everything else swamped over by the grass around the barn and the shed.
Rusty knowing deep down all this overgrowth reflected poorly on him. His pops being seventy-two now, all that arthritis wreaking havoc on his hands and hips. The man couldn’t barely walk anymore without that cane. That cane that the old man’d always be leaning on now, that might as well’ve been a big old guilt dagger jammed through Rusty’s chest every time his pops’d hobble from one side of the house to the other.
Rusty’s big brother Dickie living three hours south with his own farm and family to take care of. Dickie having lived up to their pops’s expectations, what with him growing up to become a decent respectable grownass man with a decent respectable job fixing up tractors and machinery for people and a decent respectable wife and a couple of perfectly well-adjusted sons who probably loved nothing more than to help their pops around the farm.
What’d kept Rusty from coming back to help out? His glamorous job mopping floors and scrubbing shitters? His going to the bars and getting drunk and sleeping it off every day off he got? His many many futile attempts to hook up with some fat or slutty or desperate or just plain drunk off her ass white trash chick who might take pity or just not know any better than to hook up with Rusty his pitiful miserable little-dicked existence?
This. All this.
Dust and mold and rot flooding the air the second Rusty’d climbed through the hay window. About eight different kinds of moldy old shit fragrances ingratiating themselves with the hair inside Rusty’s nose. Rusty’d be coughing and sneezing the shit out of his lungs for days just for stepping foot inside the place.
The floor covered with an inch of bird shit from where they’d perched atop the hay elevator for the fifteen years since Rusty’d last crawled up there. The whole damn
building ready to cave in any day now. Rusty’d bounced up and down a little on the balls of his feet in the middle of his court and thought that maybe it’d be today for all his goddamn luck and karma.
Down below the hayloft floor, nobody’d cleaned the manure out of the pens for at least a few years from the looks of it.
No cows down there to be seen. No fresh methane to cut through the stench of decomposition. Even the decomposition stunk like it’d gone on too long and gotten rotten and moldy. Probably rats and mice and garter snakes and whatever the hell else burrowed in the nooks and crannies. From the smell of things, they’d been dead and rotting long as everything else.
From under a little pile of hay near the basketball hoop, Rusty’d pulled out and dusted off an old backup ball that he’d stashed there for when he could sneak away from helping his pops. The old leather thing’d gone fuzzy after years of playing up in the barn and it’d been covered in cobwebs but still had pretty decent bounce to it considering.
First dribble Rusty’d taken and the thing’d caught the edge of a floorboard and caromed halfway across the hayloft.
Rusty’d almost broken his ankle clear off the bone any number of times. Getting caught up and forgetting to watch his landing or simply forgetting about any of the hundreds of other holes where boards’d been broken or come unnailed through the years.
One time, Rusty’d made fifteen straight threes and held his follow through high in the air as he’d strutted backwards, all the way back through the open hay window behind him. Only thing’d saved him from a doing a back flip and breaking his neck on his way down, that crooked chicken-wing elbow sticking out on his follow-through. Rusty catching his elbow on the side of the barn just before he’d stepped back into the open air and unforgiving gravity.
Rusty couldn’t help but shake his head as he took the rotten stink of it all. All the bullshit that he’d put himself through over the years in the name of basketball.
Three hours a night during the school year, five or six hours during the summer.
Sweating away up in that stuffy, moldy, rotten, oldassed goddamned hayloft. Hundred degrees out in mid-July, thirty below in January. One jumper after another. Fifteen feet from the side, twenty-feet from top of the key. Dribble pull-up from the elbow.
Part of what’d always messed with Rusty’s head, that loose backboard and rim.
They’d get to playing with Rusty’s hopes and dreams of becoming a real baller. Of overcoming all his shortcomings in every other category, as a son, a farmer, a half-decent human being. Get him thinking that basketball could be his big get-out-of-guilt-free card.
Whether it’d been the bolts on too loose or that the walls of barn had too much give to them, Rusty’d been damn near can’t-miss shooting up in that hayloft. Just get the ball up on that rim, put a little arc on your shot, and watch it drop. All that arc that Rusty’d put on his jumpers. Like a rainbow. Like one of those slowmotion closeups of a hand grenade cutting through the air toward its victim.
Just get ’er up there, Rusty’s pops used tell him.
This being back before the arthritis in his hips’d started kicking in. Rusty’s pops climbing up in the hayloft every once in a while to try and teach Rusty a thing or two.
Just let ’er fly, Rust, he d say. Get ’er nice and high, he’d say. Give ’er a chance to go in.
No, higher, he’d say. Swat Rusty’s shot back in his face. His big six-four frame towering four inches and fifty pounds over teenaged Rusty as he’d stand a foot away and put his hands up to force Rusty to shoot over the top of him.
Just shoot ’er. Swat.
Don’t think so much. Swat.
With Rusty and his old man, it’d always be one thing or the complete exact opposite other thing. Don’t think so much versus Don’t you ever think at all?
There’d be Rusty driving the tractor around and trying his ass off not to fuckup again, thinking, Just don’t fuckup, just don’t fuckup, just don’t fuckup, and then sooner or later he’d get so caught up on not fucking up that he’d start to think about all the things that he’d always, always, forever and again fucked up in front of his pops, his brothers, just about anybody. And that’s when he’d lose track of the particular thing that he was trying not to fuckup.
Which’d be the exact moment Rusty’s old man’d come running with his hands waving. Stop everything. Pull Rusty off the tractor and throw it in park. When he’d give Rusty the lecture about thinking too much or not thinking enough.
What were you thinking? he’d ask over and over while he’d try to fix Rusty’s latest fuckup.
Or he’d say: You’re always thinking too much.
Or: Don’t you ever think?
Or: Why can’t you ever stop thinking all those thoughts all the time and just pay attention for once?
Or: Can’t you ever just do something I tell you to without thinking about it?
But then with basketball, it’d always been: Just let ’er fly... And: Just put it up there... And: Just let ’er go...
Christ, as if it was just that easy for Rusty.
Rusty hadn’t touched a ball in years, but he’d found that he could still chuck it pretty decent. He’d had to rely on the rim and backboard a bit more than he’d had when he was back in high school, the hoop probably even more forgiving this many years later. But even with all that, it hadn’t taken long before he could regularly put together strings of five or six three-pointers in a row without trying too hard.
Rusty’s being old, out of shape, and not really giving a shit about basketball any more probably’d helped some too. Just put it up there, he’d told himself. Don’t think about it. No hesitation. Let gravity do the work. Just duck and chuck and let the ball come right through the net and bounce straight back to you for another one. Swish and swish and swish.
The danger of not having to think about how to shoot a basketball or worrying about whether your shot had enough arc or which way the laces were spinning or how much rim you were hitting on the way in, that all’d left plenty of room in Rusty’s brain to think about all the other shit that’d been on his mind.
For one thing, Rusty’s ma going and dying to think about. That being the biggie.
Ass cancer of all things. Which’d become quite a headfuck for Rusty. How he’d viewed himself a major pain in the ass for his old man all these years, only to have his ma die from it. From Rusty being a pain in her ass all this time and not fully understanding it.
Which’d kind of pissed Rusty off. A real kick to nuts when he hadn’t been expecting it. And how it’d pretty much ruined everything for Rusty as it’d related to him finally being able to kill himself. And just when everything’d started to align for Rusty being able to pull the trigger on it, so to speak.
And now Rusty’s old man to take care of. It wasn’t like Rusty’d have to wipe his pops’s ass yet. Give him sponge baths, scrub his franks and beans, none of that nastiness. But the man couldn’t barely walk across the house so how in the hell was he going to take care of the cows.
Which Rusty might’ve been worthless as a farmer, who else was gonna do it?
Dickie with his family and his farm and his business to take care of?
In the weeks since their ma’d passed, Dickie’d been trying to convince their pops to sell off everything. Retire to some old folks home. But Rusty’s ma’d been trying to get him to sell off the farm and move into a smaller place ever since Rusty’d gone away to college. Nobody but her there to make sure the old man didn’t go and get himself a heart attack feeding the cows or fixing the roof.
Rusty being pretty sure that that’d been exactly how his old man’d wanted to go in the first place—have himself a quick heart attack and go ride some tractor off into the old sunset.
That day draining jumpers up in the barn it’d become painfully clear, the true meaning of his ma dying of ass cancer. It’d been her way of guilting Rusty into moving back home finally. Take care of his old man. Get closer to Dickie. Do some atoning instead of avoiding for once in his life.
First thing Rusty’d do, he’d get the old lawn mower out and mow everything and make it look nice before the cold sat in. Mow every damn piece of grass in a one-mile radius and make it look like a putting green.
That is, if the mower’d even been in working order, which’d mean Rusty’d have to first thing first thing ask his old man for help. Rusty sure as hell not knowing how to get the lawnmower working if it wasn’t out gas. Which wouldn’t be ideal.
The first step on Rusty’s full-proof plan to change everything and prove to his old man that he could be a farmer, his having to ask for help. Considering how many lectures the old man’d given him over the years on how to fix things and Rusty never paying attention.
Are you even listening to me, Rusty? his pops’d always be asking. That and something like: Can’t you for once in your life stop thinking thinking thinking and just pay attention to what I’m trying to teach you?
That old thinking thinking, what are you even thinking? spiel coming back to bite Rusty in the butt before he could even start proving that he’d changed. That he’d learned his lesson. That he’d been a big pain in the ass his whole life and now his ma’d died from it, but at least she’d died in order to show Rusty the error in his ways.
No more thinking thinking thinking. From now on Rusty’d be doing doing doing.
And to prove this all to himself, Rusty’d grabbed the ball and let ’er fly. One right after another. No thinking, no worrying, no rehashing every way that he’d fucked up and ruined everything so that he could now wind up here, motherless and brotherless and a blight upon everyone who’d ever tried to help him.
And damn if there’d been any doubt in his mind about his new lease on life.
Rusty’d gone and made ten straight three-pointers in a row without touching the rim.
Called it good right there without waiting around to see how long it’d take before he’d start fucking up and missing again.
Benjamin Drevlow is the author of the book Bend With the Knees and Other Love Advice from My Father. He has published short fiction and nonfiction at Literary Orphans, Fiction Southeast, Split Lip, among other magazines. You can find these and other stories linked at thedrevlow-olsonshow.com.