Home > Long Shot (Hoops #1)(3)

Long Shot (Hoops #1)(3)
Kennedy Ryan

Her question echoes something I haven’t articulated to many people but often felt. I sometimes felt displaced in my mother’s new family. I may not look a lot like my African–American father, but I look nothing like anyone in the family I have left. Most kids were one thing or the other and clumped together based on that. It left me sometimes feeling adrift. Basketball—that rim, that rock—became the thing I clung to.

“I think I know what you mean.” I clear my throat before going on. “My father died when I was really young, and my mom remarried not too long after. It took me a while to adjust to everything, especially being different when all I wanted was to fit in.”

“I get that,” she says.

I shrug and turn down the corners of my mouth.

“Thanks to basketball, I started worrying less about fitting in and more about standing out.” I roll the glass between my palms. “But even then, yeah, I sometimes felt . . . I don’t know. Displaced.”

“Me, too. My skin was lighter than just about everyone’s in my neighborhood. My hair was different.” She shakes her head, the movement stirring the air around us with the scent of her shampoo, some mix of citrus and sweet. “Most girls there assumed I thought I was better than they were, when I would have given anything to look like everyone else. To fit in. I had my cousin Lo for a few years, but besides her, I kind of just had myself.”

What was that like for her? A beautiful anomaly in the Ninth Ward. Maybe I don’t have to wonder. Maybe I know firsthand.

“It got kinda lonely, huh?” I ask.

“Yeah, it did.” She circles the rim of her glass with an index finger. Her lashes lower like that might hide her memories from me, hide her pain, but it’s in her voice. I recognize it.

“Sometimes, even when we had a full house,” I say, dropping my voice for just our ears, “I’d end up in the backyard shooting hoops by myself until it got dark.”

Like there’s some magnetic center, our bodies have turned in toward each other. Our confidences enshroud us, blocking out the ribald conversation, the impromptu karaoke across the room, the wild response to the games on the flat screens. It’s just us two misfits. A few minutes with a complete stranger, and I suddenly feel understood in a way that’s always been hard to find.

“You get used to being alone,” she finally says.

“What about your mom? You guys close?”

“Close?” She squints one eye and tips her head back. “Not really. She’s made a lot of sacrifices for me, and it’s never been easy. She’s strong, a survivor, and I respect that, but I haven’t always agreed with her choices. I can’t remember my mother ever holding down a job for more than a few weeks.”

“How’d you guys get by?”

“She’s a beautiful woman.” She raises cautious eyes, like she expects me to judge. “She used to say there’s always some man willing to take care of a beautiful woman.”

I don’t know what to say to that. My mom is a beautiful woman, too, but I can’t imagine her living that way—relying on just the physical—because she started teaching when my dad died and has worked hard ever since.

“You’re a beautiful woman.” I nudge her knee lightly with mine. “And I bet you can take care of yourself.”

A smile starts in her eyes and eventually spreads to her lips. “Thank you.”

I don’t have to ask which compliment she’s thanking me for.

“My aunt is older than my mom by two years,” she continues. “It’s what my mom saw her do. It’s what they saw their mother do. They used what they had to get what they needed.”

She sighs before sipping her drink and going on. “My aunt relocated with us to Atlanta after Katrina, and they might have changed zip codes, but they didn’t change tactics. Apparently, men all over will take care of beautiful women.”

“Besides your cousin, were you close to anyone else in your family?”

“Just Lotus.” A frown shadows her expression. “She went to live with my great-grandmother south of the city and I stayed in New Orleans, but when she moved to Atlanta for college a few years ago, we got close again.”

She shakes her head like she’s dislodging thoughts, memories. “Enough about my family dysfunction. What about you? Perry West was your dad, right?”

“You know about my dad?” I ask.

“Yeah, sure.” Sympathy fills her eyes when they meet mine over our drinks. “Losing him that way—it had to be tough.”

“Yeah.” I shrug, a casual rise and fall of my shoulders that doesn’t hint at how tough it was. “He was a great player.”

“He had an incredible long-range shot.” She smiles ruefully. “How long was he in the league?”

“The car crash happened in the middle of his second season.” I was young, but I still remember his funeral. His teammates were all there, tall as skyscrapers to my six-year-old eyes. “Tomorrow’s his birthday.”

“No way.” Her eyes go wide. “You’re playing in the freaking National Championship on your dad’s birthday?”

I nod, allowing myself to smile for the first time over this monumental twist of fate. It’s a long time since my mom was married to my dad, but she probably remembers that tomorrow’s his birthday. We haven’t talked about it, though. It feels like I’m the only one who knows it, and now this beautiful gumbo girl knows, too.

“Is tomorrow for him?” Her eyes never leave my face, her intent focus drawing me into her.

“It feels like it. You know? Like what are the odds? I keep wondering if he knows how far I’ve come. If he can see.” I let out a soft laugh, watching her face for signs that she thinks I’m an idiot. “Does that sound stupid?”

“Not at all. I don’t know what happens after we’re gone, but I hope he can see. He’d be proud of you, no matter how the game goes tomorrow.”

“I hope so.” I lean in a little closer, giving her the same attention she afforded me. “What about your father? The German and Irish in your gumbo?”

She smiles, but it’s a tight curve of her lips.

“He was German and Irish. That’s about all I know.” Her harsh laugh ripples through the pool of quiet we’ve made here in our corner of the bar. “Well, I also know he had a wife and kids. My mother was just . . . a side chick, I guess. He paid her rent while they were together, but right after I was born he moved on. So did she. He never came around asking about me. She never offered much explanation for his absence.”

“And now? Nothing?”

“We left everything in the Ninth when we moved to Atlanta.” Her shoulders lift and fall with a carelessness I don’t buy. “He could still be in New Orleans. He may have died when the levees broke. Who knows? It’s never made me much difference.”

She flashes me another tight smile, signaling that she’s done with the topic.

“How’d we get into all that stuff?” She points her finger at me in mock accusation. “You, sir, are a good listener. Sneaky way to distract a girl from the fact that her team’s losing.”

I glance up at the game, grabbing her segue out of deeper waters like a lifeline. “You a Lakers fan?”

“Die hard purple and gold.” She folds her arms on the bar and leans forward, her eyes back on the screen. “New Orleans didn’t have a team when I was growing up.”

“Well they’re getting crushed tonight,” I offer unnecessarily, hoping to get a rise out of her. Of course, it works, and she goes on a diatribe defending the storied Lakers legacy, though it’s taken such a beating lately.

Through halftime and the last two quarters, we squeeze in a lot of conversation between plays. She wants to work in sports marketing and has several internship opportunities that might pan out after graduation. It seems like most of her stories eventually circle back to her cousin Lotus, the ambitious badass fashion student who always has her back. For my part, I avoid rehashing all the things she already knows about me: the numbers on stat sheets and the stories that have been looping on all the sports shows. Instead, I tell her about my mom, about Coach, about the philosophy class that’s kicking my ass. We cover everything from minutiae to monumental in the time it takes the Lakers to get blown out.

“What did get you so into basketball?” I ask her during a fourth-quarter commercial break.

“I dunno.” She studies her beer, probably long gone flat. “One of my mom’s guys, Telly, lived with us for a while when I was around ten.” She leans one elbow on the bar, giving me a frank look. “He was one of the few good ones who stuck around for a little bit. He loved basketball. Loved the Lakers and we’d watch the games together.” She chuckles, making track marks with her fingertips in the condensation coating her glass. “On game nights, we’d order pineapple pepperoni pizza and drink root beer floats.”

“What happened?” I sip on my third ginger ale. “To Telly, I mean?”

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