41 / 365 – Choosing

JOHN CROSS

I was in a strange town, with people I didn’t know. Kids stared at me when I came to the school. Nobody said much of anything that I remember. There wasn’t the bullying, the racism you sometimes here in other places. But people don’t always need to open their mouths to let you know what’s in their soul. People stared when I walked back to town to our apartment. My aunt and me, we were in a little apartment just in back of the main street. Nobody ever said it, but you could tell it was a place where the people lived who weren’t the favorite people in town. One day it was snowing and someone from school saw me walking home and they stopped and offered to give me a ride. I could see on his mother’s face when I told her where we lived. Oh, that building.

My aunt did two jobs then so she wasn’t usually home but there was food there, always, usually something on the stove that she left. I used to get up early so I could see her before she left for the motel — there was still a motel in town then. And at night she worked at Sullivan’s, washing dishes. They were terrible to her there, trying to pretend she was dumb and cheating her out of the tip pool, but she hung in there because we needed the money. She gave so much so I could come here. I still don’t know how to thank her.

Finn was the first guy I talked to. I think he just said hello. I thought, That’s all you got? Chris Haraldsen was there too, and he said, “Hey, do you play basketball? We need more tall guys on our team.” So as usual, Chris talked, but it was because Finn came over. That fall, before we started practicing with the team, we used to play two on two games on the outdoor courts. Mark Ziegler was the only one who would play with us. He was a small guy and he couldn’t shoot to save his life but he was willing. It was always Finn and Chris against me and Ziegler. They must have been playing together for years. They always knew where the other one was going, the shot he wanted to take. I’d say, “How about I pair up with Finn this time?” and Chris would say, “You want me to play with Ziegler?” I don’t know if Ziegler was too stupid to care or just wanted to play anyway. He never complained. And after awhile, just before the team started practicing a few times, Ziegler and I beat them a few times. I was taller. Ziegler got so he could do some sneaky passes, right under those guys. It was hard competition but OK. They were OK guys, the first guys I had ever played with a lot.

Growing up I was mostly around women, my aunt, my mother. I didn’t see my father more than a few times, but he had been there the summer before that, before we had come to Jericho, before I even knew what was going on. He said, “Someday you will have to go out and live in the world outside the rez, the white man’s world. It is different and it is strong. It will try to take you away from who you are. It will tell you you are someone else. You have to be strong. You have to keep remembering who you are. This is the strength of a man, toughness. Not winning basketball games. Not being the boy the other kids look up to because they are afraid of him.” When he said this, I didn’t understand why he was telling me this. I didn’t know my father. I had only seen him a few times. I didn’t know why he had left, why he wasn’t around. I think people in the family, my aunt, my mother, my grandfather and grandmother, they probably told stories about him but not when I could hear. I thought maybe he was crazy, maybe that’s why he’s gone. Maybe I shouldn’t have been sorry that he was not there. I shouldn’t have wondered if I was the cause of that.

When I was alone, a lot of the time when I was growing up, I used to ask myself: when I came to this world, why did I choose this body, this life? I think I got this question from my grandfather when I was young. He didn’t like to talk and joke much, but he liked to ask questions like that. I heard him say that to someone when something terrible had happened, I think when one of my cousins went missing when I was young and then they found her killed. She was only about fifteen or sixteen. My grandfather asked that question to my aunt, her mother. Why did you choose this body, to have this sorrow? I think my aunt thought he was crazy and yelled at him, but I liked that question. I took it away and turned it over in my mind. Why did I choose this?

I had a lot of time alone growing up, and that meant time to think a lot of stupid things. But that question was a good one. It helped me stay who I am and not get lost. Even when I was playing those games with Finn and Chris, or on the team, and I wanted people to stop staring at me. After awhile I thought, “What if I chose this?” And I would stop wanting that.

That first season, the team did OK, but not so well as later. After it was over, Chris and Finn and Ziegler and I went back to playing two on two. Sometimes Finn wanted to play at his house. He had a court in his driveway and it meant there was food nearby, but Chris never wanted to go over there. I never went over there until Finn came back. It was always at the school. Ziegler and I won a lot. But they never switched those teams. It wasn’t until the last two years of high school before we started dominating and winning it all. People said it was because we had played together since middle school. But I think it was those afternoons on the outdoor courts, playing two on two. We used to grind it out. And I would walk home after and after awhile I didn’t notice if people were still staring. Because maybe I chose this.

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