It is Saturday and he is sitting in the backseat of the car while his dad drives him to school. His mother is sitting beside Jack. Paula is a short woman with broad shoulders and a head blooming with thick, curling brown hair extending to her shoulders. She is overweight, her stomach bulging against her blouses and sweaters, but she is never plodding. When Alex watches her walk through a room, she seems like she is gliding, never stepping. She wears makeup, even when she is home, but paints her dark eye shadow, dabs the rouge, and rolls the lipstick slowly, never straying outside the lines. Even when she talks and Alex hears her deep, warm voice, she speaks slowly, her brow furrowing as if she were weighing each word.
She turns in her seat, looks back at Alex, and frowns. "You should have had your things ready, Alex. We're going to be a few minutes late. I hope they let you dress out and participate."
Alex looks down at the car floorboard. "I'm sorry, mom."
Her eyes widen and she smiles. "It's okay, I'm not mad at you. I just want you to be able to take part is all."
Jack shrugs. "Don't worry so much, Paula. We won't be really late, just a few minutes," he says.
"Yeah, but he has to sign in, then get dressed, before he can even get out there with the other kids. I'm just worried is all. I just want this to go right for Alex, that's all." Her voice strains on the final words, almost whining.
Jack sighs, reaches across the seat, and pats Paula's leg twice. "It's going to be alright. Alex is gonna be okay," he says. He looks at Alex in the rearview mirror. "Is that right, Alex? You're okay, right?"
Alex raises his head and sees his dad's narrow eyes. His stomach flutters and he rubs his legs. They will be at the school soon and it makes him nervous. He nods at Jack. "Yeah, dad, I'm okay."
There are fifty kids in the school gym when Alex walks in with his parents. There are boys and girls alike, split up according to age, wearing red t-shirts promoting the sponsors and red shorts. The school pulls out rows of bleachers for the crowd, lowers each of the gym's six basketball goals where Alex sees groups of kids and adults gathering around each basket. Between the harsh clanging of balls bouncing off the steel basketball rims and the shouting, laughter, and voices rising and falling behind the steel rattling, the gym sounds like an industrial plant. After Alex signs in, Jack pats him on the shoulder. Paula stands smiling behind Jack, but the corners of her mouth are tight and her cheekbones are high.
"Good luck, son," Jack says. "We'll be watching."
Alex gazes around him and takes a deep breath. He looks at Jack and nods. "Thanks, dad."
Alex changes clothes alone in the gym locker room. When he steps back out into the gym, he looks around for Heidi and sees her sitting on the front row of a bleacher section. There are four kids at the goal to the right of her bleacher section and an older man holding a clipboard. His pounding heart makes him a little dizzy, but he shakes his head and regains his balance. He sighs and walks over to the basketball goal.
They are taking turns shooting the basketball, each shot they make worth one point and the first kid to reach twenty points wins. The older man looks in his early forties, but has the slim, muscular frame of a former athlete. When Alex asks if he can use his skyhook shot, the man smirks and says he can use any shot he wants as long as he stays inbounds. Alex scans the gym for his parents and sees them on the other side standing at a hot dog stand. When he turns his head and looks at Heidi, she is looking at him and smirking. Alex clinches his fists and looks away.
His nerves cause him to shake and miss shots. He is not timing his steps right and the ball is rolling off the side of his hand instead of his fingers. When he looks at Heidi, she is giggling and whispering to the redheaded friend sitting next to her. The other kids are missing shots too, but for every basket Alex makes, they are making two or three more. He finishes last in game after game and when the older man suggests that he try a different shot, Alex shakes his head and says no. Kids come and go, moving from game to game, but Alex stays at the goal near Heidi. By the end of the fourth game, he is missing every shot and pushing down tears.
A tall boy with small eyes, muscular arms, and large hands joins the fifth game. Alex knows him. Jerry rides the same school bus and shoots spitballs at the back of his head every morning and afternoon. He is the same age, but not in the same class, and tries to trip Alex anytime he spots him in the hallway or cafeteria. When Jerry sees Alex, he walks over to him, smiling when he sees Alex flinching at his approach.
"Hey fat ass. Why don't you go home with your mommy and daddy? Ain't there something you should be eating right now, like a house?" he says. Jerry lowers his voice so the older man will not hear him.
Alex frowns and closes his eyes. "Leave me alone," he says.
When he turns and walks away, he hears Jerry chuckling behind him. He looks at Heidi and she is pointing at a group of boys playing a two-on-two basketball game across the gym. He looks for his parents and sees them sitting five rows behind Heidi. Jack waves and Alex waves back. Alex wants to go home, he wants to get away from Jerry, but he wants to make one last shot. He wants to plant his feet straight, feel the ball roll off his fingers, and watch it float through the air before swishing through the net. If he can do that, Heidi will see it, and he can go home. The misses and chuckling will no longer matter.
It does not work. Alex cannot clear his head or stop shaking, and each time he looks at Heidi and Jerry alike, their wide smiles cut away at his dwindling self-confidence. As his confidence disappears, despair floods his thoughts. She will never love him. He will never have any friends. He will spend his whole life at home with mom and dad, reading books, watching basketball games, watching dirty movies, and being sad. He is fat, slow, and will never be cool.
The older man walks up to his side. "The event's almost over, Alex. You want to take your last shot or are you done?" He closes his eyes halfway when he speaks and a faint smile creases his face.
Alex looks at Heidi and their eyes meet. When she snorts and looks away, something snaps inside of him. A wave of heat sweeps across his skin and his despair turns into anger. Her snort and short flick of the head digs deep into his heart and unleashes a blast of rage that clears away his tension, steadies his hands, and sharpens his focus.
He nods fast. "Yeah, I want to take my last shot."
"Okay, go ahead then, it's your turn."
The older man hands Alex the ball and moves out of the way. Alex dribbles the ball a few times. He keeps the ball at waist level while walking over to the left side of the baseline. He stares at the basketball goal and tries picturing the shot in his mind. Take two steps across the baseline, stop, and shoot. Alex sees Jerry standing on the other side of the baseline. He mouths the words "go home fatty" and smiles. Alex wants to throw the ball at his face, but puts his head down and dribbles the ball. He swings his left foot backwards and starts moving. He dribbles without looking at the ball and feels each step landing at the right time. He stops, arches his arm into the air, and feels the ball roll off his fingers. The net snaps when the ball passes through the basket. The ball bounces off the gym floor and rolls over to the older man. He scoops it up, walks over to Alex, pats him once on the back, and smiles.
"Good shot, Alex. Nice job."
Alex is smiling and staring at the basketball goal. "Thanks," he says. He looks over to his parents and sees them smiling. However, when he lowers his gaze to look at Heidi, she is no longer there and his swelling pride deflates. It is his best shot of the day and she never sees it. He hopes someone will tell her about it. When he looks up at his parents and sees them smiling, his pride swells again, smaller before, but spilling through his body and lightening his mind.
When the program is over and the boys are walking back to the locker rooms to change, Jerry bumps into Alex and starts walking beside him. Alex tries to move away and Jerry follows him.
"You got lucky, fat boy. You can't play basketball. You're a loser and everyone knows it," Jerry says. Some boys that Alex does not know snicker behind them.
Once they are in the locker room, Alex tries to find a private corner, but Jerry still follows him and starts undressing next to him. Alex's heart races and his hands are shaking again. If anybody, especially Jerry, sees how small his penis is, his life is over. They will tease him even more, shoot more spitballs, and throw dodge balls at his crotch. They will tell every girl and no one will ever love him. Alex freezes while Jerry takes his shirt off. Jerry laughs.
"Why aren't you taking your clothes off? Afraid everyone will find out you have a small dick? Huh? Or are you just watchin' me cause you're a homo?" he says.
The words jolt him. He cannot win. He has to return the uniform he wears for the event, so he cannot keep his clothes on. If he does anyway, Jerry will tell everyone he is scared or that he is gay. Alex pushes back the urge to cry and pulls his shirt over his head.
"Look at your stomach! You're huge!" Jerry says.
His laughter makes Alex's head ache, but when Alex pulls his shorts down, Jerry abruptly stops laughing. Alex looks up and sees Jerry is naked. He is staring at Alex's crotch, his mouth hanging open a half-inch, and his head leaning forward. When Alex looks at Jerry's crouch, he gasps. Jerry has thin, random patches of pubic hair on his torso and his penis is the size and width of a small earthworm. Alex looks at his own penis and gasps again. The pubic hair spreading across his torso is darker and thicker. His penis is much larger. When he looks up, Jerry is staring at him. He opens his mouth to speak, but closes it and looks down. He shuffles his bare feet on the floor, turns, picks up his belongings, and walks away.
Alex stares into space and does not move. The shock wears off after a few seconds and Alex smiles. One day he will have a penis like that guy in the movie. Things will not always be like this. One day no one will call him fat anymore, he will have friends, and some girl will love him. He laughs and finishes dressing.
His parents are waiting for him outside the locker room. When Jack sees him, he spins around and gives Alex a short hug. Paula leans down and kisses the top of his head.
"You did great, son. Ready to go?" Jack says.
Alex smiles and nods. "Yeah, I want to go home."