We’re old enough to be uncles to Vin, who’s playing point guard and talking shit to some teenager in our afternoon pickup game. We wait on the sideline for our turn to play the winners and talk about the many things of which Vin seems unaware: that he’s not good, that no one here is good, that this is a fitness center pickup game, and that being the king of this court means little in the larger scheme.

Then, as play continues, we hypothesize why Vin is such an asshole: his penis is small, his penis won’t get erect, his penis ___, and the conversation continues along those lines and is enjoyable.

But a new guy, some gentle-hearted eavesdropper, pipes in from the bench, says maybe Vin’s an asshole because his childhood was genuinely difficult, or maybe because he recently lost his job, or perhaps as a result of his mother dying.

Nice job Gentle Heart, we think. Way to shame everyone. Can’t take a joke. Who is this guy, anyway? We all move a little further away, leaving him to enjoy lacing up his sneakers alone.

Back on the court, someone passes the ball to the teenager, who is sporting an old Sonics replica jersey and looks to have what will probably become, a few years from now, the jawline of a quarterback. He’s probably the tallest kid in his class and we’d guess he’s accustomed to playing center or power forward with his friends, but with us old guys he’s the height of an average guard, so he has to play wing.

We watch him attempt a no-look pass. One of the opposing players steals it and dribbles it up the length of the court then lays it up, uncontested.

“Substitution,” yells Vin, even though the kid is playing against him. You’d think he’d want the kid to stay in – it would only help his team – but sometimes Vin cares more about the quality of play than winning, which is strange, seeing as the quality of play is so low, and the court is three-quarters the size of the normal court, and in half-an-hour the Step Aerobics class will kick us all out.

“Chin up,” hollers one of us to the teenager.

“Got to pay your dues,” another of us yells.

“This is what they call tough love.”

We like the kid, not because of anything he has done to earn it, but because it’s either him or Vin, and Vin is an asshole. For a few moments anyway, we wish the youngster all the success in the world. To ourselves we talk of his prospects and wonder if he’s tried out for the local rec-league football team as well. There are reasons to believe he might become a large man.

A few plays later, someone sets a pick for Vin just inside mid-court, forcing the kid to guard him. They face each other at the top of the key, both looking fierce. In his defense, the kid knows most of his fundamentals – knees bent, one hand down guarding the ball, the other up in the passing lane – but he’s focused on the ball, not Vin.

So Vin bounces it right off the middle of the kid’s forehead. The kid falls back on his heels and Vin catches the deflection, drives the lane, and lays it in.

The highlight is nothing spectacular, but it’s as good as it gets here.

Vin points at the kid as he runs past him back down the court then he sticks his tongue out like Michael Jordan.

The kid’s eyes burn.

As play continues, we talk about whether Vin had a right to use Michael Jordan’s signature tongue move. In the end, we’re undecided.

The kid keeps calling for the ball, but no one will pass to him, because it’s clear he isn’t very good. We talk of how coordination takes time to develop, and how he still might have a future. Again we say he is a large kid. Again we say he should play football.

Finally, someone passes to him, and from the top of the key, he lofts a high, arcing three-pointer that flubs wide off the backboard. Brick.

“Okay, time out, time out,” says Vin. He isn’t smiling. “I’m serious. Someone needs to substitute for this joker. ”

We look around at each other. One of us says, “We already have our team.”

Gentle Heart in the corner gets up and nods that he’s willing to take the kid’s spot on the floor.

What a prick, we think. Gentle Heart is an asshole, too.

“This is bullshit!” says the kid, chest on display.

“Bullshit?” says Vin. Then he acts out the kid’s ugly three-point shot, hurling the ball off the side of the backboard. “That was bullshit.”

“I’m in, I’m playing, I don’t care what you say,” says the kid, back straight, chin in the air.

“Come back in a few years,” says Vin. He inbounds the ball to No Heart and jogs up court.

The kid stands there for a moment, then walks over to the corner and grabs his backpack.

“Poor kid. He’s just a cub,” says one of us quietly.

“Vin must be the man at all times.”

“He keeps forgetting this is the fitness center.”

But none of us really stand up for the kid. We don’t encourage him, either. When he passes by us, backpack slung over his shoulder, face torch red, we turn our shoulders away and pretend to be occupied with the game, which has already continued on without him. It’s too bad, we think, but in the end, this is what’s best for him. And this is what’s best for us. Surely his time will come, and until then, our names will be called and we will play, and we will do what we need to do to keep playing until our time is up.

Ross McMeekin’s fiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Pank, Prime Number Magazine, Emprise Review, FRiGG, Dark Sky Magazine, Storyglossia, Necessary Fiction, Monkeybicycle, and other fine literary journals. His essays have appeared in Hunger Mountain, The Rumpus and Cezanne’s Carrot. He is the assistant fiction editor at Hunger Mountain and founding editor of the new literary journal, Spartan. He received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He teaches occasionally at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle, where he previously served as an intern, as well as at Edmonds Community College through their ArtsNow program. He was born, raised, and now lives in Seattle, WA with his wife and daughter. You can find more information at rossmcmeekin.com.

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