Owen Martell in Translation: Hoop Dreams
| Llangollen was sleeping the sleep of the just. It was early Sunday morning, the dead of night, and the bright suburb had yielded once again to unheeding dark.
The Saturday just passed had been the day of a little local fair. Some of the residents had set up foldaway trestle tables outside their houses, on their lawns and drives, and laid out the long-forgotten contents – the life clutter – of their garages and overflowing cupboards. They’d been joined by neighbours, who’d hung clothes from previous generations on the branches of manicured trees and in this way, over cups of weak orange drink served in paper cups, had they used up what little energy they had left over from the working week. Flicking through stacks of old records, thumbing yellowed books and chatting idly with more or less familiar faces. Only the children, who ran on different batteries to their parents, would be capable of greeting the coming Sunday with anything like enthusiasm – getting up to do it all again. For the rest of them, they’d be snoring by now, stirring occasionally, or otherwise lying like dead weights on their backs with only the involuntary flickering of their eyelids to suggest that they might yet be dreaming of resisting the low dread that would settle over them mid-afternoon and force them to contemplate anew the caravan of family saloons and people-carriers that would depart come the Monday morning – as if the weekend had never been – to workplaces near and far.
As far as we know, only one living soul was still awake – twenty nine-year-old Ellen. She hadn’t been able to sleep even though she was no more than a tired husk herself when she finally went off to bed, some ten minutes after her husband. A few barren hours later, she’d got up out of bed and was standing now in the big bedroom window.
She reached out her hand, undid the clasp on the right-hand pane, the one furthest from the bed, and opened it as wide as it would go. She crossed her arms and leaned forward onto them so that her head was completely outside the window. It was a bright and still moonlit night and she shut her eyes for a while to feel it. It seemed to be the calm itself caressing her cheeks and forehead, drying the sweat that had formed a salty crust between her skin and hair. The perspiration had got hold of a little tuft and stuck it tight to her cheek. She could feel it near her left eye, thick and plaited like rope.
Behind her, in the big bed, her husband was sleeping soundly, his chest moving to the steady and inimitable rhythm. Every so often, a breath stuck in his throat and his unconscious kicked in to dislodge the obstructing phlegm and push it through. He’d taken to his new bedroom, quite obviously, whereas Ellen was going to have to set about persuading her body that unfamiliar walls might also have their charms. In the meantime, she was to be at her body’s behest, responding to its urge now to consider things as though in terms of their fundamentals.
Her husband, for example, was an informatician by trade. ‘My husband is a communicator and he is sleeping,’ she said to herself before giving it a second’s-worth of serious consideration. The ‘and’ didn’t belong. The two things didn’t follow each other at all. She tried to imagine him on his way to work on weekdays, catching the train from Wilmington – a town a few miles down the road which still existed in her mind in name only despite the fact that she’d been there once or twice. He’d arrive in Philadelphia just another stranger now, no longer anointed with residency.
Ellen looked straight down beneath her at the front garden, all traces of sleep completely evaporated by now. By day, it was a neat and compact parcel of green and just the same as next door’s – just the same as all the houses around them, in fact. She remembered the impression the place had made on her when they came to see it for the first time, before they’d committed to buy but after they’d decided that they would definitely ‘quit the city’. She was well used to grid-lines as a means of laying out life and leisure but here the streets were so resolutely Euclidean that it was quite something else. It had been a gloriously sunny day, like today, the world a triumph in tricolour – green and blue and brilliant white. And even though she’d felt then as though she’d been parachuted down onto the landscape of an early video game or stylised dream, she had to admit too that it was genuinely striking and not a little amazing. The wilfully straight lines seemed to be intended specifically as a challenge to her; created to elicit this exact combination of repulsion, attraction and awed reverence.
She wasn’t, when it came to the crunch, fiercely opposed to moving there. The houses themselves were big and welcoming. The kitchen on its own was twice the size of the first flat they’d moved into together and everything had already been fitted as standard – various wondrous machines for washing and drying and folding clothes and dishes and kids – and everything besides was so convenient that the thought of buying somewhere they’d have to spend years and dollars doing up in their own time, alongside everything else, seemed to defeat her before it even got off the ground. But it was her husband’s influence, and their ever-developing circumstances, that tipped the balance. He was already a moderately successful man – that is to say, a spoke in somebody else’s wheel but valued and remunerated accordingly. He was keen to do his best for her and for the future they were already starting to have together. In the dark of the street, Ellen had a flash of understanding. Her husband was a good man. She knew that already, of course, but it seemed worth repeating here, as though with the force of revelation. He didn’t bring his work home with him because it wasn’t important. He didn’t make a fuss in the office, didn’t spend his time conspiring to set up on his own or to win promotion ahead of others because that wasn’t important either. But he’d won promotions nonetheless and would be able to work from home two days a week from now on. They were starting to see the fruits of his – their – labour. She loved him absolutely and had been quite willing for that to be the determining factor in the decision they made. It was the Monday before the weekend they were due to move when she heard for sure she was pregnant – fully a month ago by now – and suddenly it had all seemed much more acceptable, not to say desirable. They’d only be a short drive from her parents too.
Ellen leant out still further, holding the windowsill tight. To her left, she could see the street stretching out before her, seeming to reach the horizon even in shadow.
They hadn’t seen much of their neighbours since they’d moved in. They hadn’t been at the little fair that day, for example. They went back to Philadelphia rather, to pick up the last of their things – the couple of boxes that had ended up being left behind when they moved the main body of stuff. They were personal things for the most part, or fragile things they hadn’t wanted to chance in the big unsubtle van they’d hired or else things that weren’t absolutely essential in the first place. Decorations and pictures; some paintings by one of her uncles, her grandmother’s brother, who’d been reasonably renowned in certain circles without quite achieving star status and the odd boxful of books they’d simply forgotten. They’d been in a big self-storage depot since then, just off one of the main junctions that led into, or out of, the city. The name was entirely apt, of course. They’d been doing just that; storing little parts of themselves until they had room for them again. As they pulled up to the place in the car, the bold letters seemed to be calling out to be photographed.
She heard a dog bark, somewhere in the indeterminate middle-distance, and what sounded like lapping water even though they were too far away from the coast for the sound to have carried. She wasn’t used to her new aural environment yet either. It wasn’t that the sounds themselves were alien, just that there were so few of them. It was a good deal darker here as well.
In Philadelphia, when they got to the city proper through the interminable rabbit warren suburbs, the November sun was low in the sky but bright and welcoming – the kind of day she used to relish when she lived there. The light, despite making her squint and crease her forehead, seemed to compel her to look appreciatively up and around her when she walked back from work, finishing early, or on weekends when she could take her time and dawdle her way to somewhere interesting. She’d always see new things, previously unseen things: little architectural details, carvings on one or other of the older buildings, an unexpected reflection or a clock-face, perhaps. Or advertising hoardings and posters which even one story up, in a city that measured verticality in tens of storeys otherwise, were more thoroughly ineffective than even their owners might have feared. The experience was always a shot of good humour. She wasn’t one, she didn’t think, to crave novelty for its own sake but it was comforting to know that things could still happen; that they might even be there already, in the wings, waiting to be sprung.
Today, however, she’d felt the exact opposite, as though determined to see the place in such a way as to commend the decision they’d made to divorce themselves from it. For one thing, their old street felt dirty and shabby. That which had been the colour of life previously – shops that spilled out onto the pavement and into the road, the constant chorus of car horns and voices shouting either in languages unknown or too raucously to be decipherable – seemed underpinned now by an unspoken cruelty; the competition of lives with each other. The place was grimy grey and black, red and orange too occasionally but never green and never blue. She used to walk to museums and galleries and spend hours with the listings magazine and a red pen, circling concerts and other events that might be of interest. Today, however, even the thought of going to see an exhibition had struck her as folly of the first order. There were more important things.
They were impressions and reactions that might have been supposed to be normal enough ordinarily but she’d felt them particularly keenly today and turned them upon herself with a sort of masochistic glee. How could all that noise, the expending of such copious amounts of energy and worry on trivialities – life as restaurant criticism –, the fact that she’d spent so long in front of the mirror doing her make-up every morning have been so acceptable to her for so long? It wasn’t her being snobbish (she was keen to disprove that particular allegation even to herself) but an impression of having surrendered her precious self quite willingly; of having let it be taken over by things that were thoroughly unworthy of her. How unsatisfactory it all seemed, thinking about it now. How little it all had to do with the essences of eating or getting dressed, for example, or feeling one’s self come alive, all the way down to the toes, on a winter run to the sea. Everybody looked so tired.
Worst of all was the thought that her life had dragged there so terminally and how much the need to move had been in her before it was eventually brought to the surface, hooked on a decision not even her own. She might well have stayed there forever, hiding herself away in her flat, a little more with each passing day unseen.
But her previous life lived on just the same. Even standing in the window, feeling the cold dispersing the hitherto warm pockets of air between her skin and nightdress. It was a default condition in her, wasn’t it? Something that didn’t need to be brought specifically to mind for it to exist in her; the only way she might ever know things, the way she stood at windows.
The street was completely quiet now but she didn’t want to sleep. She closed the window carefully and turned back into the room. Her husband was facing away from her, his breathing still heavy and moist. She felt her way towards the door, arms outstretched in front of her even though she knew there wasn’t anything on the floor to trip her up. She felt for the handle and let herself out onto the landing, pulling the door gently after her but leaving it ajar so as not to wake sleeping beauty. She patted the wall gently to locate the light switch and made her way to the stairs. The light was particularly harsh and only as she reached the bottom did she feel her eyes acclimatising.
Downstairs, she could move about with more freedom and she walked first to the kitchen. It was big and clean. They’d put their dining table, which had seemed enormous in the flat, in the middle of the room. It looked considerably smaller now, as though it were having its own crisis of existence, rethinking its entire past being before settling into its new dimensions. She crossed the floor, the heavy grey slates cold on her bare feet, and opened the fridge. It was taller than she was and she felt vaguely inadequate when she saw how little there was inside. The jar of mustard and carton of milk seemed to shy away from her gaze. She opened the vegetable drawer at the bottom, took out a cucumber and carried it over to the worktop next to the sink. She got a little knife from the cutlery drawer and cut off a chunk a few inches long. She started to peel off the green skin. It came away in thick, wasteful slices. With only the pale green visible, she lifted the cucumber to her mouth and took a bite, feeling the seeds being thrust to the channel between her teeth and cheeks. The sound of her chewing was a crunchy resonance in her head.
She walked from the kitchen to the living room through the other door and flicked the lights on in there too. It was six whole strides to the nearest seat. They didn’t have enough furniture for such an expanse. She was chewing the last bite of her cucumber and already felt like more. She sat down and spent a few seconds staring at the bare wall opposite her before getting up and heading back to the kitchen. She cut another chunk of cucumber and some celery this time too. A bit of cheese as well, to go with the celery.
She walked back to the living room a little quicker this time, so that she might still have some nibbling left when she sat down. She sank back into the chair and stretched her feet out in front of her, trying to reach the coffee table. For all the newness of her surroundings, her thoughts were still in the old flat and in her old life. She leaned forward and pulled the table nearer. The circumstances and the hour were a precise reminder of similar evenings spent in Philadelphia. She’d have been out for the night then but wouldn’t much feel like sleeping just the same. She’d let Ryan go off to bed and sit there, sometimes in the dark, sometimes in the light of the little corner lamp. In summer, she’d throw the windows open and listen. Above and below and either side of her through various walls and windows, the sounds of Saturday night would unroll and unravel, seeming to inhabit fully the space available to them. Screaming arguments or the despairing howls of babies or dogs. The unfolding drama of filmic, gymnastic love.
The flat gave onto other flats rather than onto the street and the common area, between the various buildings which rose high into the night on all sides, was a ready made echo-chamber. She could spend hours just sitting and listening. She’d let the sounds gather in her head until they became roughly-harmonious abstractions. The orgasmically-gifted girl upstairs was a bird sometimes – a pee-wit riding the thermals or a seagull on a hot swell – at others the passage of time itself, in lapsing, shuddering jumps. Laughter would be crying, crying the moving of mountains.
At these times, Ellen felt – as she was beginning to feel now, its imminence in her the most fail-safe memory – a quiet excitement gathering her up. As the sounds continued to intertwine with and around each other, in the chamber outside the window and in her head, she became aware as if of a great and pressing need. There was so much to do. There'd be questions to answer when the time came and none of them would be prepared. They’d all be too tired, having been too lazy in the interim to be able to discern even what it was that was being asked of them never mind come up with meaningful answers. They needed to get serious.
She took her feet off the table and leaned forward. She listened to the silence in the room around her. It was total but somehow muted too, as if to say that there were times and places when it roared.
Behind the door leading into the kitchen were the now empty boxes they’d unpacked after getting back from the city, piled inside each other. Framed pictures, leaning against the wall, waiting to be hung; posters from various cultural events and concerts; the odd black and white print. She walked over and sat down cross-legged next to them. There was a picture of her first home too – a line drawing in dark brown Indian ink, made by a family friend. It wasn’t particularly inspired but was skilful enough all the same and Ellen loved it. The happily amateur lines, the two dimensions that didn’t even try to suggest a third, seemed to be derived wholly from her experience of the place. She’d lived it in three dimensions, of course, and without any thought for the mysterious fourth that had long since taken it into its care. Of the untold windows on the street, they’d had two of them, in another part of Philadelphia that had been “up and coming” for as long as they lived there, blooming finally, as it were, only after they moved out. The place had been her nest. She’d fly from it every morning to go to school and return a few hours later with little bits and bobs with which to dress it – pictures cut out of magazines, drawings she’d done in class, stickers and other various little colourful and curious adornments and decorations. She’d covered the wall behind her bed in no time and, as she got older, the collage grew with her, changing and adapting according to her changing tastes. She lifted the framed picture into her lap and studied it carefully. She remembered suddenly that there was half a fruitcake left over from when her parents had been over to help them with the unpacking. She went to get the tin from the kitchen and returned to the living room to sit on the floor. When she prized the lid off, the real and remembered smells of her mother’s cooking filled her nostrils.
The flat wasn't hers initially. It belonged to the people who'd become her parents only later, the first place they moved to after getting married. Ellen tried to imagine the ways – it was something like a threshold in her mind – in which a bare flat had been transformed into a cosy haven. It seemed to have something of the miraculous about it. She crumbled a corner of the cake between her thumb and forefinger and lifted it to her mouth almost unconsciously, lost in recollection. Her old house was modest and unassuming, she thought, except of its awesome duty; ready testament to her parents’ singular abilities. She was awfully proud suddenly of having been raised in such a place. She swallowed her mouthful of cake and broke off another piece. Little crumbs had stuck to her fingertips where they’d come into contact with the saliva on the insides of her lips. She started to chew again, slowly and deliberately this time. Ryan and her, they were having things far too easy weren’t they? There wouldn’t be any of that work to do here. It had already been somebody’s job to predict their every need, so that their child could be raised with comfort, even privilege, fitted as standard. And so that she might become accustomed to it herself and wake up one morning to find that she’d actually forgotten... There were cupboards and closets everywhere, specific spaces for an infinite number of implements both imaginable and not. Never again would anything have to be ‘strewn’ anywhere in full view or ‘piled’ lazily on the floor next to an armchair or ‘left around’. The walls didn’t seem to be the kind that would take kindly to being peppered and pricked with drawing pins and blu-tac.
From her low position Ellen looked along the immaculately-painted skirting board, letting herself fall in a little while into blank staring. Sleep might be starting to take hold of her at last. Her fingers were caressing the bottom of the tin with an interest all their own, as though to assert their independence from the larger absent-minded body. Eventually, she became aware of the niggling of a bone in her wrist and looked down into her lap. There was one little piece of cake left.
She looked along the skirting board again and her gaze fell now onto a sphere of dusky, earthy red behind the sofa. Ryan’s basketball. It must have rolled there when they were unpacking and stayed there out of sight – until now. The colour was one that belonged to the city. The thought struck her immediately and it occurred to her anew that there were things to be done.
Her husband had been a keen basketball player when they were in university. By any absolute standards he was never very good. He wasn’t tall enough for one thing, nor quick nor agile enough. But she used to enjoy going to watch him when he and his friends, a regular group of them, got together in the afternoon to play on one of the little courts under the shadow of the trees round at the back of the science block. They played as though they were well used to reading each other’s minds and moves. For whole minutes at a time they’d do nothing except circle each other warily, a few steps in this direction and that, a sort of mutually-decided stalemate, before one team attacked in a fury of squeaking sneakers and flailing limbs. But it had already been years since he’d last played and the ball had become something that existed like this at the periphery of one’s vision, between two chairs, or something to be held in one’s lap and passed between left hand and right while watching television, in imitation of previous energies.
Ellen felt a wave of comfort take hold of her. It lifted her to her feet instantaneously, in one fluid movement. They could put a basketball ring up outside the house.
She left the tin where it was on the floor. On her way out to the utility room behind the kitchen, where they’d put their few DIY bits, she let her mind fill itself up with the red-cheeked reverie. A father playing ball with his son some years in the future, on a pristine summer’s day. On the lawned green. Under the immaculate sky. They’d stop every so often to splash their faces, and each other, in the little stream out the back and carry on playing long into the evening. Other fathers wouldn’t last five minutes but it wasn’t too late for Ryan.
In the back room, she opened the cupboard on the wall above the dryer. On tiptoes, she worked the cardboard box free with one hand then held it with both hands above her head as gravity got hold of the weight. The drill her father had lent them, powerful and new. She put it on the floor by the door then went to the far wall and pulled a drawer open there. After turning its contents upside down, she found what she was looking for – a little packet of nails and screws. She went back to the drill, put the packet on top of the cardboard box then bent down to pick them both up. She took care to bend from the knees, heeding her mother’s long-standing advice. She straightened up again and carried them through to the living room.
The coffee table was cluttered with magazines and furniture catalogues so she put her load to rest on the chair while she cleared the table with a dramatic and cathartic sweep of her arm. She lifted the drill and the nails again and placed them in the middle of the table. She took great care to align the sides of the box as precisely as she could with the edges of the table.
She took a step back, as if to admire her handiwork. Then she smiled, turned briskly and headed for the other door, back out towards the hallway. She switched the lights off and hurried upstairs, flicking the landing lights off as she entered the bedroom.
Her husband’s breathing was shallower now, as though his body were preparing either to wake up or for the onset of the next dream. The cold had a firm hold on her and she was going to go straight to bed, to share in her husband’s warmth. Before doing so, however, she went back to the window. She didn’t open it this time but her impression of the street was just as clear as before. These suburbs were a pretty strange proposition, even compared to the city. There, it was completely reasonable that a flat might cost hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. The animals, big and small alike, came from far and wide to gorge themselves on it. Here, on the other hand, they were within easy reach of the countryside – the unending miles – where grass grew without chemicals, without needing to be cut every other weekend. There ought to be more than enough room for all of them, without the need for whitewashed fences parcelling it off into yours and mine. Still, they had their own particular patch of that green...
She climbed into bed and pulled the quilt over her. Her husband was still sleeping with his back towards her and she put her arm around his middle, letting her palm and fingers cup his stomach gently. He was lovely and warm of course and she remembered, as though it might have been forgettable previously, that she was pregnant. She thought about the love that had led them to that point. It was a deep secret. And it would manifest itself increasingly over the coming months in ways she might not recognise or understand any better than she did now, even though it would be she herself living those changes in their entirety. She mightn’t be so keen by then to think about things selfishly as she’d done tonight, or to compose her own winter notes on summer impressions. She thought again about their bright white suburb; wasn’t it, in fact, full of rebirthing promise, of selfless attraction? They’d be living for other things soon enough. She slid her fingers underneath the elastic waistband of Ryan’s pyjama bottoms and took one of his hairs between thumb and forefinger. She pulled at it gently to wake him.
‘Ryan,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘Ryan, you sleeping?’ She rubbed his belly with the palm of her hand and whispered his name again. She felt him react and her own body seemed to conjure an impression of movement inside her – her husband’s, her baby’s.
‘Ryan, I want you to put a basketball net up outside. Ryan, Ryan. You asleep? I want you to...’
Despite the brusque awakening, his reply was chirpy, as though it were already morning. ‘Now? OK. I’ll go and get the drill. I take it you’ve just been out to get the hoop?’
Ryan loved his wife’s little idiosyncrasies. She saw things in ways he was completely incapable of. She always gave them the thorough going-over of her individuality, which made her every bit as interesting to him as she was dear. He smiled his love into the dark around. If she was still as insistent in the morning he’d go to the out-of-town place near Wilmington – they sold everything there.
Translated by the Author
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