HOOPS THESE DAYS by John Pinto

HOOPS THESE DAYS by John Pinto

Shindig on Valentine’s. Velma threw the thing, a part-housewarming, part-celebration of love at her new apartment complex’s indoor pool, but then snow came down from Canada and all our friends stayed home. I went anyway. I thought it would be just me and Velma braving the storm and the holiday together. I arrived and found out the party was me and Velma and a half-dozen strangers. 

We ate heart-shaped goodies, drank canned red wine. There were these cheap-o delicious heart sugar cookies that dropped red and pink sprinkles all over when you bit them. For entertainment, a karaoke machine no one would look at. I swam around with Velma in red and pink sprinkled water and pretended not to stare at the strangers, who kept dry and to themselves by the low dive. Almost none of them brought swim clothes. Every now and then they’d send an emissary, their lone swimmer, over to our side. The emissary was this NBA-tall guy called Treat. He moved from the shallow end to the deep end and back without wetting his chin. He’d whisper something to Velma, then return to his people.

“He says they’re all having fun,” Velma told me. All of Treat’s messages were anodyne: “He says February is his third-favorite month” was one of them; “He wants to know what the pool temperature is set at so he can request it at other pools he visits in the future” was another.

“You’re lying to make him sound harmless,” I said. “He’s really saying he and his buddies are curious about group sex. He’s saying you’re an exotic devourable thing in that swimsuit, like if peaches came violin-shaped, and will you please be his Valentine?” 

Velma usually likes a joke, like when she’ll bust her cheek out with her tongue and say to a friend (never me), “Suck my LUMP!” And there was the time we passed the pro-life morons picketing the clinic. Velma fell to her knees before them and cried out, “Oh Lord, I’ll keep it! It’s what You want!” The morons crowded around her to lay on hands while a blue hair in a nightgown kept false-starting a hymn. “I’ll keep it even though it’s his,” Velma said, pointing at me, “and we’re brother and sister!” 

But Velma wouldn’t laugh this time, wouldn’t even smile when she said, “I think Treat needs help deflating that floaty.” 

I looked over and saw Treat stomping the air out of a purple heart with Little Orphan Annie eyes and a cheery grin. The party was barely an hour old.

“Go stomp around with Treat,” Velma said. “Find out what you both have in common.”

I downed my canned wine, went over to the karaoke machine instead, tore the head off a Bruce song—can’t start a fire, this gun’s for hire, etc. No one sang along and only Treat clapped.

*

Our karaoke machine had FREESTYLE MODE—a few bars of muzak played on loop, so partygoers too drunk to get the words right could sing or say whatever they felt. I set it to CLUB, ROCKABILLY, LATIN. The strangers would not dance.

“Maybe you just need to meet them officially,” Velma said, and she introduced me to the strangers via Treat’s messages. “He says that’s Joe Ibiza,” she told me, “and that’s Carolyn and Thrasher. That’s Marlene Fiat. That crew cut guy, looks a little like an otter? He’s Otter Boy.”

I waved, and got no waves back.

All the strangers were cute in a sitcom cast sort of way, but when Treat was nearby they became people you’d buy posters of. They would stand below him and glow like astronauts.

“Which one of them is up next on karaoke?” I asked.

Treat waded there and back with my answer: none of them. They were busy. Otter Boy was busy whispering in Carolyn’s ear. Marlene was busy resting her head on Thrasher’s shoulder while she rooted around in Joe Ibiza’s back pocket for a lighter. I watched the strangers do these things and couldn’t even feel satisfied with hating them because I knew my hate was slimy with envy.

*

This old guy in math teacher glasses and a black and yellow battleship-embroidered veteran’s hat, he heard LATIN and came down to fuss.

“Ms. 26B,” he said to Velma, “your music is excessive. Cut it in half or I’ll have to involve the police.”

I thought involving the police was a pretty good idea—they’d be the common enemy needed to unite and save Velma’s party—so I called out to the veteran, “What war’d you get that hat in?”

“It’s from Vietnam, young man,” the veteran said.

I booed, sure that others would join in. They didn’t, and then the veteran killed the karaoke machine, just yanked the plug out the back and shoved the whole unit over, which was outrageous and way better than calling the cops. For three whole seconds, I felt like a winner. Then I turned around and saw Velma’s face.

“My third day here,” she said, “you made my neighbors hate me.”

*

Velma’s new bathroom had cozy, old-school seafoam green tiling and the novelty nightlight I’d bought her, a little shirtless cherub with inkdot nipples. Her toothbrush was translucent plastic and the same pink as the pool water. Her tub was not comfy.

I lay back and heard strangers enter the apartment and giggle their way from whispering at the door to fucking on Velma’s creaky twin bed. What sounded like two voices became three, four, five, all trampling each other. This voice cried for milk and a mother. This voice scat sang. This voice said that those present would become like Sonic Youth if they had all married each other and stayed that way for good. I turned on the tub faucet to drown out the noise. Right away the talk died and the bed stopped creaking. Then the bathroom door opened and I had to see everything.

“I thought you went home,” Velma said. The strangers were on the bed behind her, all heaped naked.

I had nothing to say, so I said, “I’ll take you out for pancakes in the morning.”

“Flapjacks,” Velma said. “Sounds like a killer tomorrow activity.”

I nodded and smiled and said, “Uninvited from the orgy,” and didn’t actually move. Treat had to extricate himself from the bed mess and usher me out while I said, “There’ll be other holidays!” to nobody particular. “St. Patrick’s is a handful of Thursdays away!”

*

Out by the pool it was the veteran again. He was going around with trash bags and collecting our wine cans with a claw-handled grabber. I started to pick up as well. We worked together in silence. I swept away crumbs, and folded the purple heart, and considered all the red and pink sprinkles in the water.

“Sorry about the pool,” I told the veteran.

He shrugged. “Can’t swim.”

“Sorry, also,” I said, “about booing you for being in a war.”

“I never served,” the veteran said. “Did my hat give you that impression? I thrifted this two weeks ago. Sorry to mislead you.”

He left the trash bags tied off and full in the corner and went away with the last of our unopened wine cans under his arms.

*

I sat poolside, watched the snow fall on the skylight. Treat came out a while later wearing a gray shirt I recognized, a shirt of Velma’s. I had been there when Velma bought it. The shirt said “I’M A UNIONIZED FORKLIFT OPERATOR WITH CERTIFICATION FOR THE TRI-COUNTIES AND I VOTE,” and she’d been trying to win it at a state fair booth. Velma is dogshit at darts. With her taking aim, no balloon in that booth was ever in danger. The carny said he felt bad and sold Velma the shirt she wanted for $20, straight up, and then we rounded a corner and saw the same shirt on sale at a merchandise booth for $10. The shirt was cute on Velma and ridiculous on enormous Treat, the sleeves ending inside his armpits and the bottom hem slashing across his chest at nipple-height. 

“Hey guy,” he said to me. “Sorry, but I never caught your name.”

“My name is also Treat,” I said. “Nice shirt.”

Treat sat down beside me. He was bedazzled with red and pink sprinkles and blessed with freckles and eyes unfair with kindness. “I got cold,” he said.

“Velma’s got a very nice bathrobe,” I said. “You’d be way cozier in that.”

Treat pinched the front of his new shirt and stretched the fabric out. He let go and the shirt snapped back to his chest. “Fine wearing this.” 

“I touched that robe on the sleeve once,” I said, a lie, “and it was soooo soft.”

“It really is,” Treat said. “She put it on when we were done upstairs.”

“So is she your Valentine?” I asked. “Or in a situation like this, do you have to share? I’m just curious because I actually received multiple offers today.”

“You’re a handsome guy,” Treat said.

“So many offers that I had to pick and choose,” I said, “which let a lot of people down and almost ruined my holiday. Do you think I could dunk?”

“No,” Treat said.

“Would you even know? Have you played?”

“All through high school and college and then for a little while after, yes.”

“That was a rhetorical question,” I said, though on the inside I was smarting. I had never done anything for that long. “It was nice of you to pimp out your friends on Velma’s behalf tonight.”

Treat looked down at his massive hands. He tugged on his fingers and pulled at his knuckle skin. I had to assume his hands interested him—he was not desensitized to his own strangeness. Size was a toy he never had to put down. 

“I’m no pimp,” he said. “I work at Kum & Go.”

I didn’t want to believe it. “From the NBA to Kum & Go?” I said.

“I was never NBA,” Treat said. “The highest I got after college was a league in Ukraine.”

I imagined forests, power plants, assault rifles, and free throws, and I asked, “Why’d you leave?”

“Serious?” Treat laughed. “I had the embassy outside my place, 2 a.m. on invasion night. MPs were shaking me awake.”

“I wouldn’t have left,” I said, and I meant this.

“Sure, pal,” Treat said. He stood up, so I stood up too.

“What about your Ukrainian teammates?” I asked.

“You talk a lot.”

“You left them, man. You had every right to, and I understand why you did.” 

“Not sure you do,” Treat said. He was winding up to hit me. I saw the fairness in this.

“So explain,” I said, “because in my eyes? No money in Ukrainian hoops these days. No games on TV. Teammates you left behind are clocking in at Ukrainian Kum & Go right now, time zones permitting.” I thought this was pretty wise. I was also tensing up in preparation for the fistfight to come and how Treat could simply get me into the pool, palm my skull, and push down to drown me.

“They’re probably all pimps, too,” I said.

But instead of swinging, Treat picked me up. He lifted me ballerina-style, by my hips. Then he swung me parallel to the ground and held me high above his head like I was nothing, and he did not put me down.

“Treat,” I said, “buddy.”

“You’re not the know-everything guy,” Treat said. His voice was free from strain. He wasn’t breathing heavy at all.

“You’re not planning to rip me in half,” I said, “are you?”

“I wasn’t considering it before.”

“Well I hope you don’t,” I said, “and the only other thing I ask is that you let me know when you plan to throw me into the pool so I can hold my breath in advance.”

“We’re not throwing anybody.”

I didn’t try to squirm—if Treat dropped me, it would be a long fall to the concrete and tile surrounding the pool. “So what are we doing?” I asked.

Treat thought a moment before saying, “We’re waiting.”

“Fine,” I said. “View’s great, grip’s comfy. I can do this forever.” 

“Me too,” Treat said, though I could already see faint ticking in the muscles lining his shoulders. Velma’s forklift t-shirt covered very little. I got mesmerized watching Treat’s body whir along in silence.

“I guess you still train loads,” I said. “You ever ambush a Y pickup game and make or ruin someone’s night?”

“A few times a month.” Treat cleared his throat, spat in the pool. “The trick is to circulate through several Y’s instead of sticking to one home base.”

“Because you don’t want to be known,” I said.

“You want to be known a little,” Treat said, “but abstractly, and by name only. You want to be a myth. And I’m still mad at you.”

We stayed that way awhile. The snow came down all ghostly on the pool skylights. Treat started flexing his hips back and forth to stay loose and limber, which should have made me nervous, but instead it calmed me down like the sway of a cradle.

“And that’s how you dunk,” Treat was saying.

“What?” I said. I’d been lulled to sleep.

“Were you not paying attention?” Treat asked.

“Must have dozed off.”

“Unbelievable. You slept through the secret to dunking.”

“You could tell it a second time.”

“Don’t think I will.” Treat’s words came out whispery and forced. The whole time I’d slept, he’d been talking instead of saving his breath, and now his arms were all chunked out like a statue’s and beginning to shake. Velma’s gray t-shirt was soaked black.

“I can see you sweating down there,” I told Treat. 

“Nothing but pool water,” he said.

“I can feel it on your palms.”

“Pool,” Treat insisted, “water.” He was really breathing now. Tendons were jumping out of his neck, and his eyes were cherry red.

“Can’t be too often,” I said, “that you have to look up at someone.”

At a different party later on—Memorial Day or Fourth of July—I found myself in a dark room where box fans whirred in every window and distant house music rumbled like furniture being moved, and I tried and failed to fool around with Velma on a fold-out couch. Afterwards she was curled up in my lap all upset, like she was the problem. The real problem was that the room, while dark, still had enough light for us to see each other’s faces. If we had been hidden from view and free to be anybody, it might have gone different. 

Like how Treat, when I looked down at him, had the blurred face of someone coming up from very deep water. “Careful,” I said, “or you’ll collapse us both.”

“No,” Treat said. “I’m going to do this forever.” 


John Pinto is a film lab tech living in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in HAD, Rejection Letters, Back Patio Press, and The Second Bullshit Anthology.

Art by Levi Abadilla

Read Next: THE PRODIGAL DAUGHTER by Gabrielle McAree