“Gambling”–Matthew Zanoni Müller

A big group of older boys came to play basketball at our neighbor’s hoop. I had never seen them before, and they looked tough, and talked loudly. They were much older than my brother and I, so we sat on the grass at the edge of our lawn and watched them play. We both wished that they hadn’t come and that we could just play with Mike, our neighbor, but they were there, and he seemed to be friends with them, though he was different, nicer than them.

They all had clean shiny sneakers, ones that looked like they had never been worn. They were wearing Bulls jerseys or Trailblazers jerseys, teams I knew about, and loved, but had never seen play because my parents didn’t like us watching TV. We sat on the lawn in our faded blue cotton shorts and leather shoes (“Your feet can’t breathe in these American tennis shoes,” my mother said). We tried to laugh with the boys when they made jokes so that we could be a part of what was going on, but they didn’t listen or look at us.

They started betting on things, like who could make a shot from where, or with what tricks, and money was coming out of the deep pockets of their shorts and going to the winners. They were yelling and trash-talking and laughing more and more. There was one boy who seemed like the leader, and he was wining the most bets. He would rise into the air, twist his hat backward, and dunk it. Then he’d come swooping up the driveway with his arms spread out like wings while the others yelled and clapped and whistled and the losers threw their money at the winners. His hat was brand new and it had the logo of the San Francisco Giants on it. They were my favorite baseball team, and I had no clothes at all with logos, and I knew the hat was expensive, and that my German mother wouldn’t know what to think if I walked in with it on.

“I can make a shot,” I said.

“Shh,” my brother said. But no one had heard me.

I got up to say it louder and heard my brother say, “Don’t!”

But I didn’t listen. I crossed from our lawn onto the edge of the driveway and said in my loudest voice, “I can win a bet too.”

All the boys turned to look at me and for a second I wanted to shrink back to our lawn. They started laughing when they saw how small I was. “Get out of here, little man,” they said. But the one with the Giants hat came up the driveway and gave me the ball. He said, “I bet you can’t make a shot from where you’re standing right now.”

I took the ball and said, “I bet I can.”

What the boy didn’t know was that I practiced my shooting on the hoop every day after school, and that I was good, and that it wasn’t at all a problem for me. I squared my feet up and got ready to prove myself. I stroked the ball lightly with my fingers and without looking at him, I said, “If I make it, you have to give me your hat.”

He whistled, and then said, “Okay, I’ll give you my hat,” before he turned back to the other boys and started laughing.

So I shot and I made it perfectly into the hoop before he had even finished walking away. His friends started yelling and he turned to look at me. “No way, no way, I didn’t even see it. You don’t think I’m actually going to give this to you, do you?” But his friends were already flicking at his hat. “Give it up, give it up!” they were saying. I grinned and stood at my spot waiting for my hat, afraid it might not come.

The boy pushed his friends away came up the drive, lifted the hat from his head and handed it to me. I held the straight brim between my fingers, felt the toughness of the weave, admired the newness and cleanliness of the hat, the deep, un-faded black and the thickness of the embroidered Giants logo, and then, crowning myself, I put it on. It fell past my ears but I didn’t care. I ran into our yard with it, the hat nicer than any of the others on the court, and I brought it as close to our front door as I could without going inside. I wanted them to see me in it, and I loved how my brother kept reaching, trying to take it from my head.

For the next few minutes that hat was all mine. I didn’t hear him the first time, but by the second time it got through.

“Double or nothing,” the leader boy said. He was standing on our lawn.

The group of boys on the court all started saying it was mean, “Don’t do it, little man, don’t take the bait.”

“Double or nothing,” the boy said. “You make that shot again, you get my Jersey too. You miss, you give back the hat.”

It was the Portland Trailblazers jersey, and it said Drexler on the back. It was big, and would smell like his strong cologne, and I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like, to cover myself in it, and to bring it into our house, and to have it with me in our room, and to wear it to sleep, looking at my basketball cards, or to bring it to school, where all my friends could see it.

I looked at my brother and the afternoon air suddenly seemed glassy and distant. He was shaking his head. “Don’t do it. Just keep your hat. It’s awesome. You don’t need the jersey too.” But I was so happy about my new hat and a little afraid to say no, and I felt so tricky and special that I thought I could win anything.

I was grinning when I took the ball from him. I ran to the end of the driveway, and I lifted the ball and shot, though really it felt more like I had thrown it, as though I didn’t even think I needed to shoot right, because everything would just go in for me, because I had bet against the leader boy and I had won. I thought it would just fly in, no matter what I did. But as it sailed down the driveway I could feel that something was wrong, that I hadn’t concentrated hard enough. It wasn’t until it hit the front of the rim, and bounced off sideways, the rim clanging, that I saw what I done.

I started yelling, “Double or nothing, double or nothing,” but the boy was already walking toward me and said, “No fucking way.”

Before he got to me I threw it at him, smiling and almost crying at the same time as he caught it at his chest, flicked it up, and placed it carefully on his head. I sat back down with my brother on our lawn, and when he didn’t say anything I went inside, past my mother standing at the sink. After a while I started watching them from my window convincing myself that I couldn’t ever have really had a hat like that.

MATTHEW ZANONI MÜLLER was born in Bochum, Germany, and grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and teaches at his local community college. His work has appeared in DecomP MagazinE, Prick of the Spindle, Halfway Down the Stairs, MiCrow, Used Furniture Review, RED OCHRE LiT, Literary Bohemian, Boston Literary Magazine and numerous other magazines and journals. To learn more about his writing,  visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com.

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