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Ball by Siamak Vossoughi


Siamak Vossoughi’s short story “Ball” shows how a deceptively simple game of playing catch is much more than a monotonous linearity; there’s a poignant rhythm to the game that connects people, momentarily narrowing any existing distance. With very little dialogue, the narrative places emphasis on the ball’s movements and the narrator’s thoughts as he plays catch with his niece, each intently concentrating on the game. Both communication and connection extend far beyond words. For the narrator, the ball represents a quiet universal language of reciprocity, one that has “the same back and forth with words as they do with a ball.”

The prose carries a worldly yet ingenuous tone, effectively capturing how adulthood and childhood often converge. Vossoughi shares in his author’s note that “the game opens them up to more than a game, and they both want to extend that sameness out to the nephew, whose world is very far from anything that involves a ball.” Here, the ball as object creates a conduit between characters, a language of its own.  —CRAFT


 

This shape, he said to his niece as he tossed her the ball on the grass. This roundness, this perfection of throwing and catching, this can be the thing for a good long while. He did not tell her out loud but he told her in the throws of the ball and the girl heard it.

She was eight years old and she had it. That ease, that natural extension of her body’s function in throwing and catching a ball, that understanding of a ball as a friend. It’s a friend all right, he said. There’ll be a few people you’ll meet in your life and talking with them will be as natural as throwing and catching a ball. It doesn’t matter if they care about a ball or not, although that might help. Some of my best conversations have been in throwing and catching a ball. Perhaps that has been my male inarticulateness. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll be able to do both—conversations that have the same back and forth with words as they do with a ball.

Me, I needed an example. I needed an example first in understanding what a friend could be.

The rest of the family were talking and laughing on the grass, nobody realizing what a casually momentous thing was happening nearby, as the man was telling his whole life to his niece in the throws, and the girl was hearing something, she sensed something in his form that went back to his boyhood and youth, like he was telling her­—This is the best part of me. At the very least it is connected to the best part of me. Give and receive. There was a language of give and receive that I spoke when we first came here, before I even learned the language of this country. You’re going to grow up here and know the language of give and receive in your own tongue. It is a special thing. It is a special thing to know it on your own and it is a special thing to let it bring you to the language.

He did not need to tell the girl her hand was a thing meant to fit around a ball. She knew. Knowing that, and agreeing on it, meant there were a million other things they knew and agreed on together. Day and night, earth and moon, somewhere distantly, life and death even. If there is one thing that goes where it should, the ball in your hand as you throw it or catch it, there is the possibility then from there of everything going where it should, and there is even the chance—too wonderful to begin to talk about—that you fit in the world. There is the chance that more than the ball is round, that your placement in life is round, and you can move amongst people in a way that is round, and there are no sharp corners anywhere, not really. The throwing and catching is definitely round. It is being conducted by round people with hearts that are round. Who aren’t asking anything of the world but that it be as round as it can be.

Somewhere there is a life this round, the man was saying to the girl. There’ll be a time when it’ll seem like the sharp corners are everywhere. It’ll seem like everybody has forgotten how to be as round as a ball, if they ever remembered. You might have to be the one to remind them. That’s what each throw and catch is doing—it’s building up your capacity to remind them they are round, that they want to be round, even as it might feel too open to the world to be round, to carry no sharp corners. You’ll see people suddenly find their roundness when you greet them with yours. It’s new every time. The corners are old and weary-making, but roundness is new every time.

The rest of the family might think he was trying to make the girl into something like himself as they glanced at the game of catch. They could think he was trying to bring her into a realm he was just past. That wasn’t it at all. They were very nice people, the family, but none of them loved a ball. They cared about science, about what took place under microscopes and inside test tubes. All of it was a noble pursuit. He even felt certain there was a roundness to it for them. It just happened that none of it was a ball. And seeing that the girl understood a ball, that she understood all it was and all it could do, it was necessary she be reassured that if she began to suspect there was a moral dimension to the whole thing, that the throwing and catching were on the side of a decent world, she was correct.

It was funny, because the family could all look at them and think, what good was a ball when it was the world that loved a ball more than it loved science which was responsible for a lot of the foolishness they had each known growing up. It was especially responsible for the foolishness the girl’s older brother—the man’s nephew—had faced, as a boy who loved science and did not care for a ball, which the other boys found so preposterous that he became a target of the mockery they used to assert who they were.

The man knew that one day the boy had come from school and said in a deep rage, Who are these boys who think a ball is the most important thing in the world? Why do they think that? How could they possibly look at the same world I see every day and come to that conclusion? The girl listened to her brother and felt very sorry for him. Had she wondered if she was on the side of those boys in the way she loved a ball? Had she wondered if she should hide that love away?

The man threw her the ball to say, well, you certainly can’t do that. Which she caught in a way to say that she already knew. She knew she couldn’t hide her love away, and that knowledge was effortless. There had been effort in the thing at school, the boys in his class teasing him and the girl defending him. Her standing as the girl who was best with a ball at school quieted them down.

There was something in it which had made them both love the boy very much­: it hadn’t occurred to him to be embarrassed that his little sister was defending him. Maybe someday it would. He didn’t know about being embarrassed about things like that. But maybe he would.

What would happen then? She wouldn’t see it coming. She loved a ball and she loved her brother and she hated anything that would run down either of those. Would she have to choose? The boy wasn’t going to stay unembarrassed forever.

It felt like the game of catch was putting off that day.

The man glanced at his nephew and thought of the boy’s rage at his classmates.

You know this isn’t that, right? he tried to say.

He wanted to throw the ball to the boy, as a way to say, you’re in this too, this roundness, at least as far as we’re concerned. This shape of the ball is yours, and the important thing isn’t that you find your particular roundness in life in a ball, the important thing is that you find it in something, which you already have, which is wonderful. Let the ball be a celebration of that. I know it’s not how the other boys have tried to impress the value of a ball upon you. Let them do all that. They may know about a ball, but they don’t know about its roundness.

What was a ten-year-old boy thinking as he watched the athletic genius in his little sister? The man was not sure if the boy saw it, but he felt sure that he must see how comfortable the girl was with a ball. Anybody could see this. She played catch like she knew it was what grass was for. She did the thing that people who cared about a ball did when they played catch, where they looked at the world around them a little more sharply between their throw and the next catch. It could look like it was arrogance to a boy who had been mocked for not caring about a ball, but the man didn’t think the boy thought that of his sister. It wasn’t arrogance; it was certainty, a certainty of who she was in relation to a ball. The man knew it wasn’t right for the girl to hold back in this to spare her brother’s feelings. The boy wouldn’t want that anyway, not really. She deserved to go as far as she would with a ball, today and for her whole life. Her brother had to figure out what he was going to do about that on his own.

Anyway, the man thought, the boy has the family. He has the family to have something like this with. The girl doesn’t have that. She has him. She has the two of them speaking the language of a ball, speaking the language with their bodies and hearts at once, and letting it be something much purer and cleaner than the language used against the boy at school.

They played and they hoped the boy had something like this. They hoped the whole family did. It was hard to imagine there was something with this much mutuality, this much balance between give and receive. I’m trying to be this way with life, the man said to the girl. I’m trying to tell life that we can have just as much of a give and receive. I don’t have to do all the effort of it, and life doesn’t have to do all the effort of it either. We’re playing catch too. Sometimes I don’t know if I could have gotten there without a ball. I hope it can be something that helps you too.

“Throw it so I have to jump for it,” the girl said.

“All right.”

Let her jump for it like this is all hers for now. Let her jump like the moment is all hers. Like she and life don’t need to be anything different from one another. Like she does not need to worry about the give and receive because she is such a natural giver and natural receiver that they blend into one. That’s what you’re trying to do after all. Trying to lose track of which is which. He threw it so that she had to jump for it, and he thought of his years when life did not seem like a giver or a receiver, when it seemed like life was only a taker, and it seemed like the only way to reconcile himself to that fact was to be a taker in return. He had decided, as a last stab, to give wildly, to give recklessly and with abandon, without any discernible proof before his eyes that what he had to give would be received in any way resembling what he intended. It had been the wildest and most reckless time in his life, and it was still wild and reckless, just appearing to be less so through force of habit. It was nice to think some of that could be brought into a game of catch. The girl jumped for every throw, believing there was nothing thrown near her that she couldn’t catch. You’re right, he told her. You’re right to feel it, whether or not you make each catch.

Every ball could be caught. He remembered that feeling and it was true. A ball was life and before the ball was even thrown, a feeling ran through your body telling you that you would catch the ball no matter where it went, and the essence of the feeling was, Well, I’m alive too aren’t I? It was a question of legs and eyes and hands working to arrive at the right place together, but only secondarily. The first feeling was a belief in the catch. Because what else could you possibly do with the magnificent circumstance of a ball in the air? You owed it to catch it. As humbly as you might repay anything else you were given. At the end of the game, the accounts would be squared.

The girl had it all right. You could see it in her slight frown as she waited for the next catch. It was a frown of doing, of the discovery and the confirmation that life is for doing, just as she’d always suspected. You needed one thing like that. You only needed one thing in life that told you life is for doing, and what could come out of that down the road was anything.

He threw the ball to her as she stood frowning. She caught it, and she turned toward her brother, in a way that showed she’d been aware of him the whole time.

The boy looked at them, nervously. Even just to be watched by someone holding a ball made him unsure of who he was. The man softened his stance and his expression so the boy would not think there was something hard and masculine about a ball. Because there wasn’t. The ball was love. Those boys at school didn’t know what to do with that love, so they ended up being hard and masculine about it. They didn’t know how to love something, so they used it to not love something, thinking that was close. But the ball was above all that.

“Milo,” she called.

The boy looked at her, stunned. Even to have his name called on the grass in connection with a ball was a new world. It gave some order to think that it was a world he was not a part of, but his sister was the one who could interrupt that.

She held the ball above her head and stepped forward, the way an athlete would signal they were about to throw a ball, and the boy scrambled to find the part of himself that could receive it. He tried several things with his hands before settling on one, his sister waiting patiently till he was ready. You’re a part of this, Milo, she was saying. You’re a part of this as the person you are, not having to be anything other than the person you are. The ball doesn’t care. The ball loves you. She smiled as she looked at him. Don’t let those boys make you think for a second that the ball doesn’t love you.

It was miraculous. Even before the throw. She made a perfect throw, right to the spot where he could use his hands and his stomach together to catch it, but by then the man couldn’t even be surprised by the throw. Milo dropped it, and they loved him for dropping it, hoping that he knew that the ball still loved him if he dropped it, that it was still a clue towards the bigger love that was out there for each of them. The man looked at his niece, watching the way the frown and the smile could sit together on her face, and he saw she understood the fundamental truth of a ball: that it taught you how to throw it to someone who did not care for a ball. This was the deepest meaning of athleticism. It was the exact opposite of what those boys thought it was. They used a ball to look at Milo and say, Not you. She knew that everything the ball was saying, in its perfect roundness, its round-heartedness, its unwillingness to acknowledge any sharp corners, was, You too, you too.

 


SIAMAK VOSSOUGHI is an Iranian-American writer living in Seattle. He has had stories published in Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, Bennington Review, and Columbia Journal. His first collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and his second collection, A Sense of the Whole, received the 2019 Orison Fiction Prize.

 

Featured image by stanbalik courtesy of Pixabay

 

Author’s Note

It’s easy to shake off the suspicion that there’s a story contained in something as ordinary as a game of catch. Working (and playing catch) with kids has taught me how wrong it is to be so dismissive. There’s a story in ordinary things because who’s doing those things is people. Children themselves just seem to already know that.

Being around kids can key you in to the story that’s happening around you all the time. And it teaches you to be decisive, which I think is an important trait for writing (and most things). I’ve had to decide if the thing that feels like a story when I’m around kids is a story or not. For a long time, when I first worked at a school, the decision was a terrifying one because I was afraid of the fall. The fall is the feeling of leaving a world with children and wondering if what happens there may be cute and nice and even beautiful, but that somehow it isn’t life. I think this suspicion arose for me because the distance between the world with children and the world without them at one time seemed so vast.

It still is vast, but I decided, around the time that I decided to commit to a certain kind of writing, that it wasn’t too vast. Somehow I’ve come to believe that it’s part of my job as a writer to say that those worlds are the same world. It took an incredible amount of decisiveness, and it is still very much a process rather than a finished effort, but I knew that I liked what I wrote a lot more when boys and girls and men and women all occupied the same world.

In “Ball,” the uncle and the niece assert that they’re in the same world through their love of playing catch. But the game opens them up to more than a game, and they both want to extend that sameness out to the nephew, whose world is very far from anything that involves a ball. That’s really how the whole world of being with kids has been for me: take what you find there and extend it out to the world beyond children. It’s crazy, but it’s the particular kind of craziness that I love, and that makes me love what is possible with writing.

 


SIAMAK VOSSOUGHI is an Iranian-American writer living in Seattle. He has had stories published in Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, Bennington Review, and Columbia Journal. His first collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and his second collection, A Sense of the Whole, received the 2019 Orison Fiction Prize.