What follows is an excerpt from my novel, The Prelude to Dickens, which is currently on submission.
Ali possessed hopes and dreams, but somewhere along the way those dreams merged with Will’s and the whole thing became part of the same stream. There was no use trying to pull water from water, separate her dreams for particular inspection, perhaps hold them in front of Will and say: Here, this one is mine. And that one over there is yours.
Because Will’s dream had been so clearly defined, and because Will was already walking the path forward, his was the dream they followed. It would have made little sense for the two of them to dismiss the thought of professional basketball when it was right there in front of them, so close Will could actually lift the phone and connect himself to it.
If she hadn’t met him, if they hadn’t started a family, Ali might have become a writer or worked as a TV reporter – both things she’d dreamed of as a child – but when they left Lehigh for Europe very little could be done in pursuit of her own profession and when they finally returned from Europe, they had not one, but two children.
So instead, Ali helped Will live his dream.
During Will’s fourth season in Ajaccio, baby Lauren was independent in the way all pre-school kids are: acting like miniature adults. She was already an adorably eloquent conversationalist – and conversing in French, no less – and carrying herself with posture befit of an aristocrat. Will and Ali had no qualms about giving Lauren freedom, whereas they felt compelled to watch Liz like she was an escaped convict.
It was the middle of the season, early winter, which was the time of year when Will felt his skills were dulled from too many games and too few practices. The four of them had fallen asleep on the couch while watching re-runs of “The Mask of Zorro.” Since that first season in Ajaccio, they’d grown into their apartment, each year making it increasingly homey until now – three years later – pots and pans filled the cabinets and the living room actually had a rug and hanging posters.
Lauren was asleep on one end of the couch, Liz on the other, and Will and Ali were squeezed between, gradually waking as the black-and-white television show continued flickering across the screen.
It was Sunday, Will’s day off. He opened his eyes fully and moved Liz’s legs from off his lap. He nudged Ali, who was dozing in and out, prodding her to fully awaken.
When he was sure she could hear him, he leaned into her and whispered, “You want to shag?”
“Now?” She mumbled, refusing to open her eyes.
“Yeah, just for like an hour, please?”
“Of course,” she said, opening her eyes and scooting away from Lauren. “Let’s drop off the girls downstairs and go right now.”
Will’s eyes showed gratefulness, relief, and he pushed himself off the couch.
Ali followed him into the bedroom and they each put on sneakers and a t-shirt, careful not to wake their daughters.
Will lifted Liz from the couch and she groaned, but did not wake, and her head slumped onto Will’s shoulder. Ali kneeled next to Lauren and softly shook her awake. She explained that mommy and daddy were going out for a little while and that she and her sister would watch TV downstairs.
Lauren rubbed her eyes and shook her head.
“Can I go with you, mommy?”
Ali looked at Will, who shrugged.
“Sure, why not?”
Ali took Lauren’s hand and they walked down the marble staircase to the door of the apartment below theirs. Will knocked softly and waited.
The couple that lived there, Anna and Henry, was the age of Will’s parents. With their own grandchildren living in Paris, they’d extended an open invitation for Will and Ali to drop off Lauren and Liz whenever they needed a few moments to themselves.
Anna opened the door and her eyes sparkled when she saw the present Will and Ali were delivering. They rarely took Anna and Henry up on their offer – for some strange reason they enjoyed the company of their own children – but when they did, it was not difficult to see the happiness in Anna’s eyes.
Will smiled at Anna and carried Liz to the couch. He made sure to wake his daughter before leaving, so she wouldn’t startle awake in a foreign place, but Liz seemed to have very little interest in Will’s words, she just shook him off and went back to sleep.
“We won’t be more than an hour or so,” Will said to Anna in French as he reached the front door. “Merci beaucoup.”
Anna nodded and placed a hand on Will’s shoulder to show him it mattered little how long they’d be gone.
The team’s gymnasium was around the corner and down a side street. Because it was within walking distance, a beautiful walk on a nice night, Will and Ali tugged at Lauren’s hand and told her they’d be skipping the car ride. Lauren nodded, as if she’d been consulted on the decision.
Will unlocked the back gymnasium door with the key the team’s owner had given him. There were so few basketball courts on the island – the country and island being mainly obsessed with soccer – that the owner wanted unlimited access to training for his paid American. He’d never before possessed the key to a gym that he knew would always be empty. He’d grown up playing at the local YMCA and after school those courts became so crowded that if you lost a game, sometimes you’d never get back on. He’d spent countless afternoons as a kid bouncing his ball on the sidelines, hoping he’d get picked for a team, but often returning home without having taken even one shot at the hoop.
Ali walked through the dark hallway toward the light box, which is what she always did when the two of them came after hours to shoot. In pure darkness, she felt along the sidewall until her hand touched the metal electrical box. She pulled it open and flipped the upper right switch. She waited to hear Will’s call from the court – They’re on! – then she joined him around the corner.
Ali loved seeing him on the hardwood; the lights still pulsing towards their full brightness, the sound of the bouncing ball echoing off the empty wooden bleachers. He was standing near half-court dribbling, keeping the ball away from Lauren, who was squealing with delight and racing around his legs in pursuit.
Ali would never refuse an opportunity to shag balls for her husband.
“Time to get to work,” she heard Will say to Lauren.
Lauren pouted for a second, an overtly childish gesture with her nose crumpled and her bottom lip protruding, and then she darted off into the stands.
Will had a distinct routine when he worked out. He would slowly warm up by shooting near the basket and gradually step farther and farther away. He would shoot a certain number from each spot, usually 20, and then move to the next spot. At the end, he’d shoot as many free throws as time permitted, sweat dripping from his brow and forming a puddle near the painted black line.
Ali knew Will’s routine better than he. She would catch the ball as it dropped through the hoop – Will was an excellent shooter – and quickly return the ball. If he missed, she would race after it and get it back to him as quickly as possible. She knew without being told that rhythm and pace was paramount and, although she had never played much basketball growing up, she took pride in her ability to contribute to Will’s greatness.
They never talked much during the first part of this routine. Will was concentrating on his movements and his release and Ali was concentrating on following the ball’s flight and anticipating where it might land. Once Will moved to the free throw line, the session’s cool down portion, his intensity lessened. He could make 95 out of 100 free throws while flirting and laughing.
Every few minutes, Ali would call to Lauren, who was usually counting the rows in each section or racing up and down the stairs, which she deemed “so much fun, mommy!”
Will was shooting the final few of his 100 free throws when he looked at Ali and said, “How about a friendly competition?” He lifted his eyes to the rim and flicked the ball smoothly through. Ali caught the ball after it fell through the net and eyed her husband. She spun the ball in her hands, feeling the dried leather, while Will held out his palms for the pass.
“What did you have in mind?” Ali lobbed the ball back to him.
“Best of 10, but I shoot with my eyes closed.” He caught the ball and put it on his hip – a posture that seemed like a dare.
“You think you’re better then me even with your eyes closed?” Ali pretended to be incredulous, but it wasn’t very convincing since they both knew it was very likely he was better even with his eyes closed.
Will took the ball off his hip and rolled it towards her. “Come on, professional shagger, what do you say?”
“What are the stakes?” Ali stopped the ball with her foot and bent down to collect it. Sometime during this motion – and Ali remembers this distinctly because she was not looking at Will when she heard the sound of their daughter’s scream – a piercing cry lifted through the gymnasium, but this noise was worse than just a traditional child’s scream because the sound was in motion, starting from a perch and descending rapidly.
Ali’s knees folded under her and she placed her palm on the ball to keep from losing her balance. Her eyes flew to the rafters as she searched for Lauren, hoping that maybe the old building’s structure was playing tricks on the acoustics, hoping she’d spot her daughter waving from the top of an aisle.
Every mother has moments like these, sharp intakes of breath where they realize the independence they’ve extended their child might supersede the independence deserved.
Lauren’s arm was broken, crushed awkwardly underneath her small body after tumbling from the backside of the bleachers. She bounced off the concrete with a thud, which was a fortuitous landing considering the stairwell to her left and a concrete pillar to her right. The injury left no scar, mental or otherwise.
Years later, as Will and Ali recounted the moment with something bordering on nostalgia – time had drained the horror – younger parents always gasped in astonishment.
“You let her run around bleachers unattended?”
Will and Ali would look at each other, no trace of apology on either of their faces, and say: “Those were different times.”