Read the first chapter below.
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Ruth’s daughter fell, as children do, in slow motion. The baby had climbed up on her father’s weight bench and was pumping her legs back and forth as if to propel a swing at the playground. Ruth was supervising. She was also searching the garage for a particular set of eight-pound free weights, intent on working out during Ariana’s morning nap. Ruth threw a glance over her shoulder just as the baby leaned forward to admire her pink sneakers in action. Perched closer to the edge of the bench than Ruth had realized, the baby wobbled. Ruth lunged, expecting Ariana to regain her balance and underestimating her daughter’s commitment to the sippy cup clenched in her hands. Ari toppled. Her head hit the concrete first, the rest of her somersaulted with a sickening series of thuds.
It was the ensuing silence, the absence of cries, that took Ruth’s breath away.
In the days, weeks, and years that followed, she replayed the incident in her mind until she lost the memory to the murky currents of guilt and anxiety and fear for how long was Ariana quiet? Was she crying by the time Ruth scooped her into her arms, or did she release her first scream as Ruth, with a new mother’s panic, lurched into the kitchen and dialed 911? The baby’s blood, Ruth could have sworn, was a more vibrant red than her own had ever been – and there was so much of it! She couldn’t tell if the origin was Ariana’s mouth, nose, or a gash near the goose egg swelling fast on her forehead. Did the blood really mat the baby’s eyelashes, coat her teeth, and soak through Ruth’s shirt to the beige panels of the nursing bra she was still wearing, months after weaning? Did Ruth press an ice pack to the bump? Did she call Lester and ask him to meet her at the hospital – or did she stand in place, hold her child, and sob?
The minutes before the fall are what Ruth remembers clearly. She can still conjure the desperation with which she worked to uncover the free weights from the tidal wave of sporting equipment that had swallowed the garage in the late nineties. They were hoarding the evidence of their pre-parenthood pastimes: golf clubs, tennis rackets, baseball mitts, ice skates, and balls for six or seven different sports, any of which could reduce her and Lester to hot-cheeked rivals. She hadn’t laid a finger on any of it in sixteen months, and now that Ariana was sleeping through the night Ruth was eager to get back into shape. She still believed in her shape. That her adolescent frame was waiting, unscathed, beneath a shed-able layer of maternal flab. All she needed was forty-five minutes, preferably an hour, long enough to get her heart pounding on the treadmill. TO curl the weights toward her chest, to reacquaint her body with the sensation of resistance.
Ariana’s head hit a crack in the cement, which tore open the flesh near her fuzzy hairline. She needed three stitches. She needed a hit of nitrous oxide to endure the suturing and another to tolerate the invasions of the pediatric dentist, who admitted there was nothing to do but wait for her adult teeth to fill in the gaps. Ruth wept when she realized her daughter’s top incisors were missing and again, later, when she could not find them among the blood on the garage floor. If the baby’s teeth were not in her mouth, Ruth wanted to secret them in a drawer as her own mother had done.
At home they set Ariana up with a tape of Dumbo. Too young to say elephant, she was old enough to wave her arm in front of her face like a trunk. She fell asleep on the couch still holding a half-drunk bottle of milk to her lips, the nipple resting against her traumatized gums.
Ruth’s fingertips hovered over the bandage. She said to Lester, “That’s going to scar.”
Lester shrugged. “So she won’t be a model.” It was a safe bet that, against all odds, they lost.
The phone rang in the kitchen. The phone was attached to the wall by the kind of corkscrew cord teenage girls used to twirl between their fingers. Lester got up to answer it. His casual “Hey, man” could have been addressed to anyone.
In the doorway, Ruth’s husband turns and locked eyes with her. In her memory his face blanches, as if he comprehends the call’s full significance – the life about to unfurl from it. Hers.
“Just a sec. Let me talk to her.” He cupped a hand over the receiver. His contrived neutrality made Ruth’s hair follicles tense. “It’s Benny Hoss. One of the announcers dropped out. Family emergency.”
Hoss was the athletic director at Georgetown.
“I can tell him we’re in the middle of one ourselves,” Lester said.
“In the middle of what?”
“A family emergency”.
Ruth’s hand was buried in Ariana’s curls. On the screen, Dumbo’s mother was in shackles, locked inside the trunk for mad elephants. Thank God Ariana was already asleep; the film was darker than either Ruth or Lester had remembered.
“Don’t tell him that,” Ruth said.
By most measures, the game was not important; Georgetown versus Oklahoma, the first round of an early season tournament that would be largely forgotten by Selection Sunday. But it was Georgetown, Ruth’s alma mater. The game would be broadcast on a cable channel. If Ruth wanted the job she had ninety minutes to get herself to DC and to the new MCI Center. A goal that 1-66 could easily grant or deny.
Lester had been Ruth’s coach in college. Now, as they stared impassively at each other, she willed him to become her coach again. Tell me I can do this, she thought. Tell me I have to. That I won’t choke. But Lester remained her husband. A father worried about his daughter – or else worried about putting the baby to bed by himself. Where were the extra absorbent diapers for sleepy time? Where was the beloved board book about hippos throwing a house party? What would he do if she cried out in the night?
For the first quarter of Ariana’s first year, Ruth had never slept more than two hours at a time. The baby’s cries woke her constantly, and before her bran could assign a source to the sound it conjured another kind of chaos. The infant stirred, and Ruth heard Nikes squeaking against a waxed floor; she wailed, and Ruth heard the buzzer as the ball left her hands.
“Tell him I’ll do it,” she said, scrambling from the couch, letting Ariana flop to her side on the cushions.
As a player, Ruth’s career had ended in college. It was her senior season, a tough luck-landing that exploded her knee and left her writing on the floor. (Even now, if an urge to laugh threatens an interview, she need only think of that pop, the sobering sound of her ligament rupturing.) The formation of the WNBA was still a few years off. Had Ruth known it was coming, she might have let them operate. The thing was, no surgeon could promise a full reconstruction would restore her talent. The other thing was, at least half her heart was already devoted to Lester and the brown-eyed, bow-legged babies they would cook up together.
Throughout the Big East, Ruth had been known as “that bitch from the District”. On the court she gave herself over to a delicious, guiltless aggression. She scratched and she clawed. She tripped and she hip-checked. When the refs weren’t looking she grabbed freely at jerseys and, once, at a rival’s preposterous pigtails. If a shorter girl dared defend her in the post, Ruth did nothing to prevent a sharp elbow from colliding with flimsy cartilage. Was the violence incongruous with her desire to be a stay-at-home mom? Ruth didn’t think so; Dumbo’s mother beat the shit out of those circus-going bullies teasing her baby for his oversized ears. Basketball and motherhood had something in common: each required your animal self.
Young enough to believe she had made a choice, Ruth graduated and married Lester. The scandal of their marriage was mitigated by Lester receiving a well-timed offer: that same summer, he left Georgetown to become the assistant coach of the men’s team at American University. Eight minutes by car, yet worlds removed from Ruth and her reputation. Few of her husband’s new colleagues sustained any interest in the girls’ half of the NCAA. Ruth got pregnant and gave birth – precipitous labor, cinematic, she could take it – and sank into ruinous, mammalian love. She did her best to confine her basketball addiction to her alma mater’s radio station, whose producers let her call women’s games from the nosebleeds. Her audience was notional. Ruth liked to imagine former teammates swaying with colicky infants, listening for the score. For those games she did both play-by-play and color; she told you when a girl got a shot up, as well as the girl’s major, hometown, skillset, and career aspirations.
Television had not been Ruth’s goal. The red light of the camera held no appeal. Though the consensus was that she signed up for a certain amount of scrutiny, Ruth never anticipated the mob of men analyzing her hair, legs, glasses, voice the shadows beneath her eyes, the way she stood, the way she gripped the microphone. What she wanted was to be there. On the floor, close enough to see the sweat beading, to feel the reverberations of the rim. Georgetown’s team that year included sophomore Jeremy Baines, a kid whose ability to dunk after a single dribble from half-court left announcers braying in shock. He would be drafted in June, maybe first overall. Ruth needed to be there. She was twenty-five – already someone’s wife and someone’s mom – and desperate for permission to care about the game as much as she did.
She owned a single wine-colored blazer that she pulled over a vaguely catholic blouse. (Lester said, “Don’t wear that,” and Ruth vowed never to take it off.) These choices would come back to haunt her ten years later, in a video uploaded to YouTube by a Ruth Devon fan account, the audio and picture slightly out of sync. Ruth’s middle school-age daughter would watch the opener muttering no-no-no beneath her breath and, from that day forward, forbid her mother from appearing on camera in any outfit she had not personally approved. For now, Ariana remained a toddler passed out on the couch. Ruth remained green enough to assume men would take a woman announcer more seriously if she looked plain, unattractive. She should have asked a man.
Or a woman.
Smooth sailing on 66. Ruth’s palms slipped against the steering wheel. How could she call a game when she’d never watched the team practice, never interviewed its coaches? Georgetown’s record last year was twenty-four and six – or it was twenty-six and four. Baines was a pre-season all-American, but who were the less-heralded freshmen? Ruth had once known, and since forgotten. And now she was paying to pack in a lot near the stadium, having received no other instructions. She was filming the opener on the sideline, spooked in the glare of the red light. Her co-announcer elbowed her; she was looking in the wrong direction. Finally, Ruth was pulled into the analyst’s chair. Pep band. Tip off. Engrossed in the action between the lines, Ruth resumed knowing everything. She would never remember what she said, only that her commentary filled the gaps in the play-by-play. She could have been watching at home, chattering to Lester through a mouthful of popcorn. It was that effortless.
Late in the first half, Jeremy Baines came down hard on his ankle, his foot sideways underneath. For the second time that day, Ruth drew a sharp blast of air into her lungs. Jeremy recovered; he came back after halftime, and GU trimmed a nine-point deficit to one. With twenty seconds on the clock Baines was alone with the ball at the top of the key, waiting to be reborn. It was November; the madness was scheduled for March. But when Jeremy Baines hit a fadeaway at the buzzer, fifteen thousand people in Washington, DC forgot the month, the year, and their mothers’ maiden names.
“My goodness,” was all Ruth needed to say.
Jeremy Baines prostrated himself on the court like he’d won a national championship. His teammates piled on top of him. The Oklahoma players stood with hands on hips; and was their point guard crying? Something Ruth still misses about college basketball is how volatile, how prone to tears they all are.
At home, well past midnight, she pulled the minivan into the garage and heard something plastic crunch beneath her tires. Instantly she remembered Ariana’s sippy cup flying from her hands, the startled O of her lips as she fell forward, frightened but certain her mother would catch her. Ruth would throw herself between the concrete floor and her daughter’s soft, new body. She would absorb the contact, cushion the blow, known her own teeth out if she had to.
What choice did she have?
Excerpted with the permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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