Fall 2018, Volume 25

Fiction by Mark Ali


When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay Area, Warren was running a pick and roll during basketball practice, trying to create a collision to avoid one, ignorant to the foreshock that occurred in August. The gym doors were closed. The air-conditioning shut off; the lighting just beyond natural. Although the air was stale, it was a live moment. The team was scrimmaging. The coaches played referees, swallowing the whistles instead of blowing them, reinforcing the mantra: no blood, no foul. The silver-plated metal instruments holding pea pods were largely for show. Most players’ practice gear was dark with sweat, sticking to their skin, not Warren though; he was cucumber cool, skin misted. The freshman tugged his mesh jersey by the numbers to bring a big man up to lay wood on the defender crouching in front of him. The screen was solid, but less effective than it would have been if the fifth-year senior checking Warren hadn’t cheated over the top, knowing what the pulled shirt meant; he bet right on the help’s hard hedge. Warren’s man overplayed the right side of the court in an attempt to pick the pocket of his mark. Warren was even-handed, but his direct opposition was too eager to shut down the young boy who had been showing up the old head.

Man up, Warren thought.

The freshman not only had a grown man’s body, he had a grown man’s game.

The last player to join the squad pushed his right-hand dribble wide, hard, and low, extending his primary opposition into no-man’s land. Warren spun around like a lazy Susan, a puff of air escaping his pursed lips as he exchanged the ball from his right hand to his left, leaving the veteran stranded.

“Help,” shouted the gravel-voiced player.

Warren was stealing his starting spot.

In his head the freshman could hear his brother say take a picture as Warren took center floor. He sized up defenders coming his way as he faced them: the screeners’ man’s man, the player left behind on his right, those off ball shifting into rotating positions. They hooted and hollered. Players on Warren’s side wooted and whooped; one dove to the basket. Sneakers squeaked. The ball-handler, momentarily, paused, cradling the ball in his left hand as he feinted with a head wiggle and shoulder shimmy. He had mastered his oldest brother’s hesitation move, taking it for his own. Warren was playing chess with folks trying to double jump to get crowned.

“Too easy,” Warren said under his breath.

He wasn’t playing checkers, but looking for checkmate. The coaches, who had no one running the scoreboard, though the game clock ran, yelled next point wins before the possession began. Warren was ready for practice to be over, done with. He wanted to be the one to put it to rest, leave his mark. Warren welcomed the pressure of point game.

Ground was giving way.

The first game-winner he attempted was in a summer league his big brother was in with other local legends, ex-college players, and coulda-shoulda-woulda-been-pros-only-if, a game Warren got in because others fouled out. Bomani told Warren he let him run with the big dogs so the pup could cop a reversible jersey with his last name on it, make fantasy a dream. Synthetic fabric never felt so good. Warren front-rimmed that shot. Big brother side-eyed the little one who ignored the double-covered senior’s clapping call for the ball.

“Man, you something else,” Bomani said.

He placed his hand on Warren’s head.

“You had two on you,” Warren said.

“Baby bro, you the one that got a pair.”

He playfully mushed the then thirteen-year-old’s crown.

“Always shoot long,” Bomani said. “You’ll never come up short.”

On the basketball court Bomani was incandescent. A six-six lefty, all arms and legs, smooth as reeled silk, a showboat every coach treated like cashmere. Bomani had ten years on Warren, who was now seventeen, was also two shades lighter than his little brother, golden to his reddish brown. The older brother played the leading man role stereotypically. When he wasn’t drilling thirty-feet bombs, flipping no-look passes, or drawing spectators’ oohs and ahhs, Bomani wore diamond-flecked pinky rings. Warren, four inches shy of Bomani’s height, was a natural lefty too, but his dominant shooting hand was his right one. He perfected his form in his brother’s absences. Warren, cut from a different cloth, wasn’t the long, lanky prototype Bomani was, but learned to play with his body, developing a sturdiness his older brother didn’t have. Warren was a grinder; he added squats, lunges, and weighted jump ropes to Bomani’s prescribed regimen of push-ups and calf-raises, pull-ups and hill runs. Bomani’s understudy finally found himself in the foreground, taking the lead with an opportunity his brother couldn’t secure because he was allowed to shirk scholarship.

Warren hit the books as hard as he hit the gym; no one pampered him.

The younger brother staunchly believed if the older one was fair-skinned, he’d be able to transfer his charisma from one court to another arena, but Bomani wasn’t, his life confined by painted lines. The big brother barnstormed, trying to keep a fluttering dream flickering, playing semi-pro basketball, hoping for an opportunity to hoop overseas; this year Bomani’s return address was in Fort Kent, Maine. Even when he couldn’t make it back to California for the holidays, he always made an annual trip to come see Warren. Usually, this schooling took place uninterrupted in the summer, but this year was different; it was fall when Bomani returned to the Golden State. Today was the day they were to reconnect.

“Sun gon’ shine, ’cause that’s what it do,” Bomani told Warren on the phone earlier in the day the October 17th practice was taking place. “So sun, go shine.”

Warren, taking the advice to heart, whipped the ball through his legs, passing the pill from left hand back to right, scissoring from one side to next, lickety-split. Warren brushed shoulders with the pick-setting teammate at the top of the key, leaving his primary cover stranded on an island. The hoarse-voiced senior could only swipe at the freshman, reaching out at what he couldn’t touch. The left-side help defender was on Warren’s back, the screeners’ man on his hip, but the freshman had a step on each of them.

Time was running out.

Warren loved the liberation he felt with the ball in his hands, a freedom he had been fighting for since arriving on campus, because these coaches, like most coaches, played favorites, and these coaches, like most coaches he’d dealt with, were conflicted with a skill set they couldn’t reduce in order to control it; Warren was no one’s pawn.

A great reckoning was about to happen.

The freshman was a dead-eye shooter. Warren’s self-possession was magnified through his piercing eyes. He didn’t laugh at jokes that weren’t funny, and didn’t talk just to speak, aesthetics leaving authority figures and upperclassmen off-kilter. Warren’s genuine nature almost cost him this full ride he was on, but his game was thorough; the late-offered scholarship recipient was cream rising.

“Sun gon’ shine,” Warren said under his breath, repeating Bomani’s last words.

With a single stride, Warren’s one step on scrambling defenders became two. With the endgame in mind, the freshman pulled up at the free throw line, toeing the black paint like it was the edge of a flattened earth. The waxed lacquer gleamed underneath the gym’s muted lighting. At 5:04 Warren rose up to shoot his shot. The key opened up. Warren’s mouth creased. He was now living the dream his brother lost control of, the one Warren hoped Bomani could touch through him. He couldn’t wait to give his brother an official university practice jersey. The hoarded team gear would crystallize the shared inner vision. It was reversible, with Warren’s last name on it, something the brothers didn’t share, a division never dividing the two.

Tectonic plates shifted.

Warren’s arms were bent at the elbows. His left hand was his guide, the fingers on his right hand spread wide, the ball rested on his fingertips. He was locked, loaded, ready to fire away. At 5:04 the San Andreas Fault had an oblique-slip. Whistles blew. Arms waved. Teammates tore off the floor, the fifth-year senior leading the scatter, his harrow-voice reverberating in the gym’s kettledrum. Everyone scurried, looking for areas of rehearsed safety, doorways and tabletops; it was one of the few lessons public education cemented in them all. Warren, shoulders squared to the basket, eyes firmly on back iron of the rim, saw the backboard swaying like a leaf blown by a spring breeze. The sure shot was no more.

The rafters rocked, and the walls shook.

Warren held on to the ball as he came back to earth. He may’ve been the king on the court today, but Warren understood the game was different now. Mother Nature was nothing to play with. The world was shifting around him. Through no fault of his own, he lost his grace. Without a square to stand on, he crumpled to the trembling gym floor. Without anything solid to duck under or hold onto, Warren clutched the ball in his hands.

It was his lifeline.

Warren gripped the ball’s black seams. He and Bomani planned to catch up over soft-serve ice cream dipped in chocolate at a walk-up burger joint. The confection a lost thought for Warren, no longer in the foreground of his mind. It would be hard to imagine the indulgence was on Bomani’s brain. It could not have been. In ten seconds Warren’s world changed irrevocably. The freshman’s constitution was being shook to its core. His foundation compromised. The Bay Bridge World Series captured the earthquake on television in real time. It registered 6.9 on the Richter. Hit maximum intensity on the Mercalli. The most extreme seismic shifting Northern California felt since that 7.8 home-wrecker in 1906.

In the aftermath of Loma Prieta, Warren received a call as dawn cracked the next day’s sky. Bomani’s body was discovered underneath the rubble of the collapsed Cypress Freeway’s upper deck in West Oakland. The car he was crushed in, pointed Warren’s way. The aftershock of the news a weight Warren did not know how to bear. His second oldest brother was lost to the military, absent and not missed, but Bomani was gone.

Warren sat on the edge of his twin bed.

The sky was rose pink, getting brighter by the moment. Light began breaking through the sheets acting as drapes. The room was stuffy, but Warren did not want to go to the window, did not want to see outside; he did not want to take a picture. Warren, trying to keep his cool, put his head in his hands, rubbed his hair; he had to figure out what his next move would be. The now only brother muttered “sun gon’ shine, so sun, go shine” over and over and over and over and over again and again and again and again and again.




BIO: Mark Ali is an English teacher, program coordinator, and Bay Area Writing Project teacher. His work has appeared in several literary journals, including Digital Paper, Forge Journal, Lalitamba Magazine, Superstition Review, and The Penmen Review. He has attended the writing workshops A Thousand Words, Room to Write, and Gather, and has studied with Stephen D. Gutierrez and Marty Williams. In his spare time, Mark likes to cook, listen to music, and is an amateur cartoonist. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife and two sons.