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Our Us (Three Syllables)

Issue 115, Winter 2021

Untitled (People Playing Basketball), 2017, acrylic on canvas, by Zhou Yilun. Courtesy the artist and Beijing Commune


Madison, WI: 1981

I’m fourteen. It’s a quarter mile along Dwight Drive from our rented duplex to the basketball court at Reindahl Park. When it’s warm maybe I’m there more than at home. The court sits at the crest of the first hill just up from Rocky Rococo on East Washington, the neighborhood sprawls up the bluff beyond that to the north. Double rims and chain nets. We play at whichever end has less broken glass and sweep shards into the grass with our feet. The wind brings the tangy pizza smell up to the park. Darryl comes down to the court. Marlon too. 

We play a game to twenty-one at one hoop. The game’s called hustle. Live shots are worth two points and free throws from the top of the key are worth one. We play three and out. That means if you make three free throws in a row then you get the ball back and the other players play defense. At school we play whenever we can. At lunch there might be like fifteen kids in the game. There’s only one ball so you might touch the ball once maybe twice. Plus you keep track of everyone’s score, especially who’s highest. At school, games can last two or three lunch periods. Scrubs cheat. 

One ball with all those kids means our bodies cross up and maybe don’t uncross, maybe don’t come back all the way apart after lunch. Like how I felt the slap from Walker punching Toby’s layup over the fence and across Spaight Street all through sixth period and into science with Mr. Zeigler. When you get the ball make it count. The S.O.S. Band on the radio said take your time, do it right. Like Yarbrough and Peoples: everything we do is right on time. Sometimes Darryl’s big brother Carrie and his friends come to the court at Reindahl Park, or his sister Yvette. They usually don’t stay. They live further up the hill. Yvette stands behind the hoop and talks. She says, “I’d play but I’m not trying to sweat.” When she says that she looks down and to the side and touches, slowly, three fingers on her left hand to the back of her neck. I feel that slowness on my neck. Last Thursday Yvette left and came back twice; she had on different clothes and shoes each time. Yvette talks a lot. 

If Carrie and them come to the park after dinner they usually on their way across the field to the west of the court and over the hill. They go there at night and watch the drive-in movies without paying. We play past sunset until someone gets hit in the face because we can’t see the ball. Sometimes we go over there too. At first we just watch the mouths and guess at what is going on. Carrie’s friends come up with all kind of wild shit to say that isn’t really what the movies are saying. No matter what the movie is they make it sound like all the characters are Black except if they really white and then they say stupid shit with squeaky voices like if you hold your nose shut. Carrie and them drink out of dark bottles they pass around and smoke dope that smells like burning pine cones. Carrie always wears that Montreal Expos helmet and in the summer he pulls his shirt up over his head with his arms still in the sleeves so the neck hole stays on his back like a big open mouth between his shoulders. I think he likes to show off his muscles that disappear into the string waist of his sweats. Carrie and them are all grown they almost out of high school.  

They always asking us in too-high voices if we want some of what’s in the bottle but I don’t and I don’t think they really mean it. I say I’m an athlete. Everyone laughs. Someone’s hand on my head out of the dark and a voice says, “I heard that, Lil Rock.” Carrie and them might be nice one night and fake-ask if we want some of what’s in their dark bottle and the next time we see them they might chase us. Sometimes, like on the bus, if we see them coming we pretend we don’t. Or we hide. We hold our breath till they pass by. Then one week behind the drive-in someone figures out how to tune Carrie’s friend’s boom box to the drive-in signal and we start to listen to the real movie. The characters Carrie and them played were better. 

Real late one night it looks like it might rain but it doesn’t. And then it’s: “This movie foul.” They turn off the movie sound and play song after song and pass around that pine-cone joint and it’s “livingitup-livingitup-ohyeah, Friday night, livingitup-livingitup-atlast” and then it isn’t “Friday night” it’s “Ladies Night” and then it’s “Nights Over Egypt” and “I Don’t Know If It’s Right.” The radio calls it the “Universal Soul Explosion.” 89.9 WORT-FM. Someone says “this here our shit.” Our: two syllables. Someone’s someone laid back with her legs crossed and looking like that “queen under the moonlight” in the song just before says, “ooh this my song!” And a song slows way down and a voice sings up all high talking about “I do love you, and it’s all right.” A chorus comes in like clouds clear out the sky with “I do love you—Iloveyou Iloveyou” and then everything moving like scenes move underwater and it seem like there are way more people here than just the us that was here a minute ago. 

That song goes on until Carrie starts talking about he GQ down with that blue Expos helmet on backward and holding a dark green bottle instead of a mic. He act like he singing about “like the little things when your lady treat you so so good” in the blue glow flickering from the movie like a fire dying all off in the distance. Meantime some dark nearby flame come to blaze; the song floats over an easy beat talking ’bout “shoo-be-doo-wop” and “remembering the things we used to do, the places we used to go, and everythang was so so mello-o-o.” I didn’t really get that thing about so so good little things and your lady or whatever but I could feel that so so mello-o-o everythang. Sure as shit. I look around and it seem like Carrie and them sure feel it too. 

Now this was close again. I’d sought it since I was too little to know. Another kind of close, a whole ’nother level. Another kind of way life moves that moved and you move with it. A kind of crossed up that don’t cross back out like in those big games of hustle at lunch but different.  

’Cause this was also another kind of you that moved. I guessed this was our you like Carrie’s boy said the music was “our shit.” Three syllables. Maybe it was in the music. Maybe not. Maybe it was in us. Our us. So that means there’s a Our me? That’s where I first remember feeling the space between all of us fill up with something we couldn’t see. And like suddenly there were way more of us than just before. I close my eyes and something pulls me into it and feels almost like I’m disappeared but also like there’s way more of me. Like we were all moving. But we were all right there the whole time. Maybe that was it: we were right there. Maybe that was it: the whole time. Time come to blaze—darkly and whole. 

If I think about it, that felt like the moved way the world moves now, like the waves and echoes I carried home from the beach in L.A. last summer and the cars, suddenly, with round hips and smooth shoulders on Wilshire. Me and my mom went there to be with my dad who had a job at the Budweiser Brewery in Van Nuys. But we lived by the beach. Eleventh and Idaho. And then that thing that happened when I started to rub on myself in the bathroom like out of nowhere all of a sudden like I was somebody else who’d been living inside me the whole time. Like he was right there. 

This new moving invisible fluid thing between us all felt like it came from some long warm way far away. But also like it came from someplace close, a place too close to feel, too close to know anything about. Close to what? And how could something be too close to feel too close to know anything about? So when this moved moving moves like it moves it felt like close was far and far was close and they both move toward each other. And it felt like that “each other” they was moving toward was me. Moving. Right there. Our me. Three syllables. The whole time. And that me was somebody else—like pieces of songs broke off and repeated—inside me and breaks of me living inside somebody else was all of us, our us, and everythang so so mello-o-o. And no I don’t know if it’s right. But it’s true. 

So our me was happening between each other, a moved way of moving. And close.  

And somehow there’s way more of our us than just us. 

That’s where I first remember feeling the space between all of us fill up with something we couldn’t see.

When we play ball at the park the wind’s a problem but it is what it is. Wind or not I ride down there on my bike spinning the ball on my finger. I pedal no-handed and sit straight up. I flick the ball with quick motions of my left hand. I can feel myself doing this for everyone looking. No one’s looking. But I can still feel it like someone is looking. Let ’em look and even if it’s no one still let ’em look. I wonder do the waves at the beach know when you’re watching? Or do they
really rise, curl and foam and echo all the time even if you’re not there? The whole time. The quick tips of my fingers graze the brown skin of the ball just enough to make it spin faster but not enough to knock it off. Something in its spinning keeps it there. Right there. Like that other “this here our shit” song said, just a touch, just a little bit—it’s in my mind, just a little bit. 

I’d always played all the sports. Especially football. We played in the field, even on gravel if there was enough snow. We played baseball: two-on-two, no right field and supply your own pitcher; or one-on-one, strike out, against the dumpster in the Holiday Inn parking lot right behind the duplex on Dwight Drive. But, last year, when I got back from California for eighth grade carrying that moved way of moving it turned out the way sports moves had moved too. And football was just a big-ass fight. So, soon, it was all about basketball. Like in them big all-crossed-up-that-won’t-cross-back-out games of hustle at lunch. Everything connected. You step out and guard someone with the ball and they score in your eye and don’t let it be point game and everybody got something to say about what happened to your face. All day. And don’t step out and let it be Odelle’s shooting-and-he-don’t-even-look-at-the-hoop ass and he scores all in your eye and then everyone talking about that—yeah it was like that before. 

But it wasn’t like this before. I mean before this our us warm fluid thing between everyone. The crossed-up thing in our arms and legs that don’t uncross. That so close thing that’s so close it’s too far away to feel by yourself so you gonna need somebody else. That more of us than you can see thing. Boom box and basketball: “it’s up my back it’s around my neck.” Sugar Hill Sugar Hill. A thousand beats and rhythms. Jocko and them looking like the Time leaning against the wall of the gym talking about they GQ down with they wet curls and Jazzman suits and racing bikes: Yellow Jersey; Campagnolo. S-curl. Smooth with a vee. Jocko’s big box banging: “Spread it with some jel-ly. Peanut butter, can’t be beat!” A thousand ways to almost touch somebody. “Share, share with me.” Someone says “play that Twennynine again!” And then Junior quits the game and goes all fluid-boned and locking robot moves right there on the court. Man that boy can float. 

Or even just the ball itself. The slip-sound of nylon in the gym. Thwap. The tight catch of the chain net at the park. Or get the rim. Or even just hold the ball still and watch it. Like you care, or “worse.” Flick it with your wrist and just watch. The whole time, ablaze, and the right way to touch is mostly something soft in the tips of your fingers, perfect backspin on the ball. The whole time that’s what it was. Take it to the bridge: “Can I have the peanut butter? Of course you can.” Like something with no name moved along with you, like something you almost touched could touch you almost soft enough to backspin you back and everythang so so mello-o-o—Master Gee: “a touch of lightning a taste of fire.” 

And now, in the game, the voices got waves like at the beach curling into foam with low echoes. Like our voices are also made of hips, shoulders, the way Gene’s calves got shark fins, and maybe “worse.” In a way it feels deep to step out—like there’s danger in it. Danger inside it. Like something else in everyone else is watching. Like all of us—our us—isn’t just what it was and now each other is maybe everything but me; or it’s like we’re all scrambled pieces of each other just as much as we even really ourselves like “one for the trouble two for the time” like songs cut together by Flash on the wheels of steel. Or almost. The whole time. “Flash two times: ‘goodgood.’” Or like in the bathroom by myself and like what’s gonna happen next!? And don’t stop the music ok but why can’t I stop? Till it’s over and then when it’s over it’s almost like it’s already started again. Like wet waves of S-curls at the beach if you’re there and probably even if you’re not. And I don’t know if it’s right. But it’s true. 

I know the truth by waves and echoes and that invisible fluid between us. 

Don’t tell me. Tell Junior ’cause you know Junior will tell me. Our me. 

I remember last year thinking all these was games. And I mean they still games but something’s moved, the way they—the way we—move has moved. And now something’s driving the moves from inside. From way far off inside whatever that means. And inside what? Inside us I guess. Our us. Three syllables: yeah it’s wrong on the test. Wrong or not it’s right there. The whole time. And all of a sudden there’s way more of us than there were. Our us. There’s some electrical-feeling thing going on between us. That space I’d felt filling up and everythang so so mello-o-o at the park with Carrie and them is always there between us now. And always was but then how far back does always was go? I don’t know how far but wherever it goes back to you could say that’s where this our me is from. It’s wrong on the test but so is the test; always was. 

Naw you still can’t see our moved way of moving move but it feels thick till you could almost swim up off the ground and float—all off up into it. Or drown in it. Or fight about it. 

Or lose it and be lost forever. 

You mean lost like them?


Like if all of a sudden you were someone lost living inside a stranger who lost and lives inside a stranger who lost. They out there. You can feel them ’cause you can’t feel them. No one says anything about this. But I know it’s not just me. Not even just our me. Or maybe everything everyone says is about this. Because it’s like everything our everyone says is suddenly thick or smooth (with a vee) or salty or sweet with this. With this—us. Our us, and something from way far away inside is watching. And something else—maybe something lost forever—inside something else watches that. Yeah, watches but can’t see it. Like the song about the queen under the Egyptian moonlight sang: “Your eyes won’t believe what your mind can’t conceive.” Can’t see that to watch any one of our us is to see all of us. And that means, forever, each of us smuggles our us into doorways labeled: admit one. So if you see me it’s not me. It’s our me. And if you can’t see that you don’t know me and then I wonder about you.  

Our us. The whole time, ablaze, right here. And all them lost ones they can’t see it not even with a telescope. 

Ed Pavlić

Ed Pavlić is author of a dozen books written across and between genres, the most recent of which are Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes (2021), Let It Be Broke: Poems (2020), and Another Kind of Madness: A Novel (2019). He lives in Athens, Georgia, where he is Distinguished Research Professor of English, African American Studies, and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.