So we went to Tall’s basketball game yesterday, like we do every Saturday. I flashed back to a situation from last year when Tall first joined the team. There was this one kid, I’ll call him Marv, who was really, really bad. Picture the worst player ever in the history of elementary school basketball made-for-television movies, and Marv made that child-actor look like an NBA All-Star. Imagine a boy who does not understand in the least the bare fundamentals of basketball (dribbling, shooting, that there are two teams involved, where the basket is located) and exhibits zero interest and even less talent … and that would be Marv after practicing five hours daily with a professional coach for the next several years. To say Marv was bad at sports would be like saying the ocean is wet or the surface of the sun is hot. An indisputable fact.
Marv’s family moved away to Guam last summer, and I often wonder about them now. I wonder if, to avoid further sports-related humiliation and failure, his mother threw all the balls they owned into the trash and then lied to her family about it, saying, “The balls? What balls? They must’ve gotten lost in the move. Too bad they don’t sell balls in Guam.”
I never really became friends with Marv’s mom when I had the chance, but we would sort of wave at each other or tilt our heads in that gesture of recognition that other parents do at sporting events, as if to say, “We’re all in this together,” or “Our kids are friends,” or “You look vaguely familiar.” This one particular day, Marv’s mom happened to be sitting right next to me.
“I’m Marv’s mom,” she said sweetly, extending her hand to shake as if we hadn’t met before, “and I guess you know who Marv is.”
I squelched a laugh. I knew exactly who Marv was. If ever a foreign exchange student was learning new English slang and was not sure what the word “spaz” meant, he need only watch Marv for five minutes to have a crystal clear definition. Marv would fall down for no reason. He would lay there for an extended period of time, and then finally get up. He would run the wrong way toward the other team’s basket when all the remaining players were on the other side of the court. He would unintentionally block his own teammates. He would haphazardly pitch the ball up in the sky hoping for a basket, only to have it knock over the water station on the side of the court.
His arms darted up and out periodically, as if set to their own internal alarm clock. His shoes were constantly untied.
The very ball, new and pumped full of air, seemed somehow defective in his grasp. If you put a fuzzy blue costume with a lopsided chicken head on Marv, he could easily pass for a comical team mascot. Marv was not surprisingly the last one picked for mini-teams during practices, and the only one his teammates silently cheered for when he was stuck at home sick in bed.
I tried to focus on my own son playing basketball, but Marv kept distracting me with his goofiness, like a very effective John Hughes movie extracting the highest level of sympathy. I would shake my head and think, Good God, poor Marv, I feel soooooo sorry for him!
There was a simple reason I felt so bad for Marv, and it had nothing to do with gloating about Tall’s prowess at basketball: I reluctantly recalled my own ill-fated and short-lived elementary-school sporting career—I was eerily familiar with Marv’s bumpy world because I myself had been a girl version of Marv. Marv with pink hair ribbons and matching socks.
Yep, swap out the word “basketball” for “softball” and change “fell down for no reason” to “tripped on her own feet repeatedly” and then trade “run the wrong way” for “accidentally threw bat and knocked out teammate,” and you can understand why witnessing Marv’s moves was like watching a long, painful video clip disaster of myself as a gangly, awkward child attempting to play sports. It was Titanic set to hard round softballs, regulation metal bats, and overweight yet well-meaning umpires.
As much as I hated to admit that I had absolutely anything in common with kooky Marv, I knew we shared this childhood trait of a contemptible lack of athleticism. God had frowned on us and made us trip. Over and over again.
Tall had informed me that Marv and his family would be moving to Guam in June; why could they not go sooner so I wouldn’t be subjected to this form of relentless sentimental abuse reliving my own childhood Sports Hell, week after week after week? Why had they not put Marv’s antics on You-Tube already and made a million dollars?
The irony was that Marv’s parents were extremely proud of Marv. And vocal. “Go, Marv! Go! You can do it, buddy!” his dad would shout for the 100th time when Marv had the ball stolen away from him. Toward the end of one specific game where Marv played even more pathetically than he ever had, Marv’s mom leaned over and mumbled something shockingly dismal to me: “We had him tested.”
Tested? I did not know what to do with this information. Tested for what?
She started rattling off a bunch of scientific mumbo-jumbo of all kinds of nerve diseases and degenerative bone disorders, and I could feel my stomach clenching up. Had she taken a page out of my transparent brain, a page with the headline of “That Kid Is Not A Good Player,” and read it and now felt she had to respond and address my busybody concerns? I instantly felt remorse for ever having had an opinion on Marv one way or another.
I bobbed my head up and down, then offered compassionate yet sporadic eye contact, bracing stoically for the inevitable. Marv was going to have Polio or Parkinson’s or heart cancer, or all three. I just knew it. Why had I not suspected this very thing? Obviously there was a problem, a big problem. I should be sympathetic. I should feel guilty. My own kids were healthy. What was wrong with me, internally judging sad little Marv and comparing him to the rest of the children playing basketball when he was born with something so dramatically wrong with him, something no doctor, no matter how talented, could ever dream of fixing?
How were Marv’s parents going to cope with this new development on a day-to-day basis? How many parts of their lives would they have to adjust to accommodate his blatant (and most likely life-threatening) disabilities? How was I going to respond to Marv’s mom when she finally revealed the bad news to me, a random mom of one of her son’s classmates, who had never before faced this type of adversity?
“… and that is when the doctors said Marv is 100% normal.” She shrugged. “Normal,” she repeated, as if I hadn’t heard her the first time, “All five specialists said Marv is completely normal.”
Marv’s mom delivered this analysis the way one might say, “They were out of Windex so I had to buy the generic brand,” or “I thought my favorite TV show was on at 9, but I missed it because it came on at 8.” Just fact-of-life-no-big-deal.
“That’s great,” I heard myself say, “normal is always great.” I nodded emphatically as Tall sank another three-point shot and Marv ran into a wall.
“I used to worry,” said Marv’s mom, “but I tell you, Marv is super-smart. Genius level IQ. He is so good in school! If sports are not his thing—so what? There are plenty of other things he’s good at. He loves history, he loves reading, and he comes up with these wild stories. He has a vivid imagination.”
“Yay!” I cheered, as Tall rebounded and scored and Marv did a clumsy version of a backwards somersault in the middle of the court for no apparent reason.
“And besides, we can’t all grow up to be Olympic athletes, and anyway …” her voice trailed off.
I turned back and faced her again, she seemed like she wanted to confide something.
“Marv doesn’t want to be a pro-athlete when he grows up,” she lowered her voice and leaned in, as if she was about to divulge an important secret. “He. Wants. To. Write.”
I wanted to give Marv’s mom a conciliatory hug. She had no idea yet—how could she know?—what was in store for her and her family and people they knew or had met or would meet in the future. Relatives, neighbors, friends, acquaintances, teachers, coaches, potential employers—no one would be immune from the pen of Marv because writers write about everyone they know, every experience they have, no matter how dull and mundane … and then they twist it until it is unrecognizable. They twist broken chunks of rusted scrap metal into shiny magical pieces of literary gold.
Good luck, Marv’s mom: Writers lie.