“18. I win. And why you gotta bring my mom in to this?” It’s my first day at this school. She’s standing over there watching us play just to be supportive. You know how moms are,” Adrian told Michael.
“I get here early to get away from the naggin’.” Michael shivered with disgust, turning to greet Paul and Brian. “I’m about to beat him in front of his mom. It’s 21 to win.” The game ensued and Paul and Brian heckled Adrian.
“Look at them crusty shoes. He got the nerve to wear ‘em on his first day. Them shoes ugly. They look like the ones Raul tried selling me at the convenience store.”
Paul chimed in, “Don’t get beat by a dude wearing convenience store high tops.”
Adrian needed one more basket to win, a three-pointer. He dribbled to three-point range picking up his dribble. Michael guarded him tightly, giving him little space. With Adrian’s back to the basket, one quick step sideways, to his right, created about a foot of distance between him and Michael. Michael reacted by trying to close in and approached with one arm outstretched, fingers spread. He anticipated Adrian would launch the ball. He figured he still had a great chance to disrupt the shot. He roughly calculated it would take one more half step to be in arms reach of blocking the ball. Just when Michael felt good about regaining the dominant position with his smothering defense, Adrian took his last step, which he used to spin around and get a quick look at the basket, before releasing the shot, just over Michael’s fingertips.
It was a shot that pros would get excited about. Adrian didn’t think he had thrown the ball hard enough. The wind became still just as the ball was beginning its descent toward the basket. Less than a second after the ball left his fingers, Adrian knew it had a chance. The boys’ eyes all pointed upward, following the ball, neither of them blinking. About a 45-degree angle from the middle of the rim, on the ball’s descent, it caught a slither of the backboard and went through the goal. The two spectators jumped around and laughed. Michael covered his face with both hands.
“Okay. You win. But it was pure luck!”
Paul and Brian high-fived Adrian while Michael grabbed his ball and headed for the door, held by a teacher. The bell sounded. The lady at the door yelled for them to come in, as a defeated Michael moved past her. Adrian waved to his mom, still standing over yonder now cheering his big shot. She waved goodbye to him and got back into her car. Adrian walked inside with Brian and Paul, still talking about the amazing shot.
“You gotta tryout for the team. You could bring us that championship,” Brian told him.
“I just play for fun.” Adrian turned and noticed his mother at the end of the block, waiting at a stoplight.
“I’m sure your dad wants you to play.”
“I’ve never met him. My helicopter mom never introduced us.”
“Does she know who he is? She doesn’t look like the type to—”
“She knows who he is. She’s just never told me much about him. She’s not like that. She barely dates. She’s a school teacher and that’s her entire life. That and following me around everywhere. But she’s been like that forever. I’m used to it.”
“Yeah? Not getting’ in your business…. But you need to play ball. And if you do, lose the ugly sneakers.”
Adrian laughed, “There’s a story behind these.”
“A story behind those?”
“Before I was born, my mom was engaged to this guy. They had some differences and eventually broke up.”
“Yeah, yeah. What about the shoes?”
“Oh, these. He left these and never came back for them. They were brand new, still in the box. At the time they were the it sneakers. Everybody wanted a pair. They’ve been at our house for years. I can finally fit ‘em.”
“You got small feet, dude. The guy who left those sneakers has small feet. He’s probably your dad. You and your dad have small feet.” Brian laughed. “Or…your mom cheated on the small feet dude with your dad so the small feet dude split and now you happen to have small feet too?”
“I have average-size feet and I’m still growing. She’s not like that. You saw that outfit she was wearing.”
“Yeah, the church-lady look. Anyway, join the team, man.”
“I came here for the engineering program. I’m gonna learn how to fix AND fly planes.”
“You’re an engineering geek?”
“I’ve loved planes ever since I was three. One trip to visit some folks in my mom’s hometown we arrived really early for our flight. They let us on. The pilot saw how excited I was and let me sit in the pilot’s seat awhile, looking at all the controls. I knew then I’d be working with planes one day.”
“That’s cool. You a cool dude, sophomore. I won’t speculate about your mom’s sketchy past anymore,” he laughed. “And those may have been back in the day, not now. later.”
At 3 pm, Adrian’s mom was waiting for him after school in the same spot she had waited earlier. He quickly got into the car.
“How’d it go?”
He had been thinking about what Brian said the whole day. “You ever gonna tell me about my father?”
“You haven’t asked in a while.”
“If there is some kind of embarrassing reason why you wouldn’t tell me about him, I understand that. But it makes me wonder why he wouldn’t know about me. I have to press you on this. I deserve to know. Did you cheat on the guy who used to own these shoes… with my dad? Was it a fling or something? I won’t judge.”
“A fling?” She laughed. “Heavens no. And what about those shoes?”
“You said some guy named Derek left them. The guy you were engaged to.”
“Oh, yeah. I wanted to throw those out years ago, or give them to the second-hand store. But you wouldn’t let me.”
“I found these in the closet when I was 7. I always imagined them belonging to my dad or someone’s dad. They were men’s sneakers in a size much bigger than my feet were. I thought they were cool. You wanted to get rid of them so I hid them. Now, I can actually fit them.”
“And you made one hell of a basket wearing them this morning. I think you should try out for the team?”
“That’s what Brian said.”
“He invited me to a birthday party. He wants me to meet some of the guys from the varsity team. He’s the water boy— the manager, according to him.”
“Where’s this party and with whom? I’ll think about it.”
“I’ll give you the details. No one else’s parents interrogate them as much. Don’t change the subject. Tell me about my father.”
“Well how can I talk about your father and drive all at once?”
“You run a class of 8-year-olds. I know you’re great at multitasking.”
“Okay. I didn’t know how to tell you this. I was waiting for the right time. Maybe I was just hoping that someone else would accidentally spill the beans and all I’d have to do is comfort you.”
“You’ve never been afraid to talk about difficult things, except this. That’s one of the things I admire about you. Why is this so hard? Is it Derek? Am I wearing my dad’s shoes.” The thought intrigued him but he knew there was more to it.
“Derek is not your father. Great guy, though. I didn’t consult him on a very important decision. That’s why he left. The split wasn’t amicable.”
“A great guy wouldn’t leave because you didn’t consult with him once. Did you cheat?”
“What kind of a…no. I didn’t. This is so hard to talk to you about. When I was with Derek he couldn’t have kids and I wanted kids. He said he didn’t want any. I was in my early thirties. I wanted kids before it would be too late for me to have any.”
“So, you broke up with him?”
“Worse. I went to a fertility clinic and got hooked up.”
“A sperm bank?”
“That was a major decision that I made just because I desperately wanted something. I should have been upfront about it. I don’t regret it. I’ve been happy and very proud of what became of it. You.”
Adrian started laughing and he just couldn’t seem to stop. “Wow. This was what was so hard to tell me all these years?”
“Yes. I thought you’d be disappointed. I didn’t want you to feel different.”
“Well, I know those clinics give you basic information about each donor. What do you know about him?”
“You want to talk about this now?”
“Yes. It doesn’t bother me. I’m happy I know now.”
“Do you feel like you missed out on anything growing up? I mean, I made sure you had positive male role models in your life.”
“Mom, you did great. Mr. Stephens next door, Uncle Pete, Uncle Dontae, all of them were like fathers to me. I don’t feel like I missed anything, except knowing the truth.”
“You sure you’re not mad?” she asked, as she parallel parked in front of their house.
“No. Only if you don’t tell me everything you know about him.”
She told him that his father was handsome, about 6ft 3incs tall, loved writing and sports, he was educated, he enjoyed watching movies and he loved airplanes. Adrian couldn’t believe that he had that in common with his father.
In two weeks, he was getting dressed for the first party he’d been invited to since grade school. His mom had told him that he couldn’t go the first six times he asked. She had found out that Carla’s birthday party would be unsupervised. Her parents were out of town. But in church, a week before, Pastor Glen said, “If you don’t trust God to protect your children in their lives then it was almost as if you were committing a cardinal sin.”
On his seventh time asking her, she said yes. On the day of the party he scrambled to leave before she could change her mind. He looked for shoes to wear but he had destroyed most of his shoes mowing the lawn Sundays. At the foot of the bed were the black and white high tops. They were his last resort. This was a big moment for him. And he sat on the edge of the bed and pulled them onto his feet. At that moment it hit him. To him, the shoes were the essence of dad. His first big party, dad was supposed to be there to calm his mother’s nerves and wish him good luck, wearing a proud grin. He imagined a fictitious dad standing in the living room in front of the door, his arm across his mother’s shoulders. He held that image as long as he could. He closed his eyes and squeezed his lids together tightly, so tight that the image faded and all he could see was the pink behind his eyelids. Somehow tears made their way out. He wiped them away and ran downstairs, through the living room and straight out of the door. He was afraid he’d see his mom and she’d realize he’d been crying. She knew him well. She was in the back working in the garden.
The door slammed. She rushed inside to wish him good luck. He was well on his way down the street. She started to cry. He didn’t even hug her goodbye. He always did. She knew the day would come when he’d fly the coop but she felt as if it was coming too soon. She wrapped up her work for the day then locked the French doors. She made herself a big bowl of fresh popcorn and sat and watched T.V.
As the evening became night, the shadows moved in through the windows and she shut the curtains. The small home felt so cold without him and the miscellaneous noises in the background he’d make. The sound of his feet walking upstairs, the music blaring from his headphones, or the patter of some rubber ball he’d bounce against the wall when he was bored, were absent. She called him. He didn’t answer his cellphone so she called him again, and again. There was no answer. After a couple of hours, she had fallen asleep on the sofa, worried.
The party wasn’t much of a party. A few girls, Brian, Paul, Michael, and some guys from the team, who complimented his retro sneakers, sat around doing nothing. Things were pretty uneventful. Adrian felt a since of belonging though. He checked his phone, there were missed calls from Mom. He knew it had gotten late and he had to get going. He said bye to everyone and in spite of their protests, he left.
At 10 pm he returned home. He thought his mom would be up, pretending as if she didn’t miss him. She was asleep on the couch, a bowl of popcorn sat on the table. He tossed a blanket over her and headed to his room. He’d ran a block to catch the bus home, which almost left him. He was exhausted. He lie across his bed, planning to get his pajamas on but sleep took over.
She awakened from a nightmare, where something had happened to Adrian. Frantic, she called his number and heard his phone ringing upstairs, a sound she hadn’t heard when she called before. She noticed the blanket that covered her. He was home. She went to his room to ask about the party. He was asleep, sideways across the bed. His feet dangled over the side. She tiptoed in and pulled his shoes off, Derek’s shoes. They were all beat up. She saw the perfect opportunity to toss them out. Shutting the door softly, she headed to the backdoor.
In front of the back door was a red plastic plane. It was one of the planes Adrian used to love when he was a child. She turned around and headed to his room again. Cracking the door and reaching inside, she placed it on his dresser, near the door. Then she watched him sleep awhile. She felt as if she’d cry but she didn’t. All she could do was be proud of the son that she had raised, the one trusted to return.
Later, she cleaned them up. In the mornings he insisted on taking the bus, another milestone for them. She began wearing the sneakers. Her third graders thought they were pretty cool. A bit too big but she didn’t care about that. Wearing them she felt joy. She was accompanied by the spirit of her sonand nothing could make her a prouder mother.