Lower Hutt’s High Street had been killed by the mall. It wasn’t quite dead yet, but it was irreversible now. Dennis felt no sympathy. Things changed. Balance shifted. That was the way it worked.
At one end of the mall was a five-way intersection. The crowd bumped patiently around Dennis as the traffic lights cycled and streams of cars pulled through like ribbons. Lots of bodies, all much older or much younger, and Dennis was glad they avoided his eyes.
Lights changed and the cross signal flashed up yellow, pedestrians launching into the road. The edges of the box Dennis carried caught his thigh through the plastic bag, bumping off him with each step. All around him the cars waited like predators, engines purring. He didn’t consider the eyes on him, and after lunch he would sit next to Richard in economics.
He passed through the glass doors into the mall. A central vault rose through three stories of balconies and escalators, the white plastic mediated by leafy plants. Voices swarmed against him like insects. He blinked behind his sunglasses and stepped on an escalator. He was stuck behind a woman in a heaving red dress. On the ground floor kids ditching school shifted through the music shop, young women selected clothes to try on, wives examined stainless steel kitchenware. The metal steps lifted him up, their teeth meshing and disappearing under the lip of the new floor and Dennis used the momentum. He stepped around seats and pushchairs and patrons to the bench chair with the view and the girl and he said, ‘You weren’t waiting too long?’
‘No, no,’ the girl replied. She was wearing the same cargoes as the night outside the takeaway, but the new dark hair gave quite a different impression. Dennis led them over to a food counter, deftly stepping past the line and catching the attendant’s eye. She ordered a bagel so he made it two and added some juice. Café style lunch, he noted absently as they waited in the bustle for the order to be filled. He let his elbow brush against her breast, just once.
They took a window seat. She’d been unconvinced they’d find one in the lunch rush, but Dennis knew he could trust his luck. He hitched his sunglasses up, pouring himself into her eyes as she tried to array herself. Caught off-guard she smiled at him, and he reflected the smile right back. Textbook.
She bit her lower lip, just for a second. ‘Look, I been wondering, how did you remember me?’
Her eyes were the kind of blue that looks just right with flaxen blond hair. Dennis cast his eyes down, showing he was pleased, seeing her fight the urge to bite her lip again. ‘I don’t know how to answer that,’ he said after playing out the wait. He almost let her speak then, timed it so she was just about to ask for more when he continued, breaking up her rhythm to throw her off and open. ‘You’re just memorable. The black hair looks good, by the way.’
‘You think it’s okay?’
Dennis nodded. Truth was, Dennis had no idea how he clicked that the girl at the party was the girl from the takeaway. He just had a knack for faces.
She shook her head. ‘So if I’m so memorable, how come you never called?’
Dennis looked into her eyes, just for a moment, then dipped his gaze to her neck. It was thin, maybe too thin. Getting towards fragile. ‘Like it’s an easy thing for a guy to just ring up a beautiful girl he doesn’t know.’ He spotted the edge of a blush in response, felt a little disappointed. Way too easy.
‘Whatcha got?’ she asked, pointing at the bag. She was changing the subject to something easier, a conversation you could eat to. He hauled the bag up to the table and on cue she started on the bagel.
‘New basketball boots,’ Dennis said, showing her.
‘They’re nice,’ the girl said.
‘They’re okay.’ Dennis closed up the bag and put it back down. ‘Long as they stop me from sliding.’
‘You know. Polished wooden floors.’
‘Oh. Yeah! Oh god, that was dumb.’ She laughed, embarrassed, indicating her hair. ‘Guess this hasn’t taken yet.’
Dennis smiled, he’d seen this play from blonde girls before and he had a professional respect for the move. ‘Don’t even say that.’
She gave him a generous grin. ‘So, did you have a good time at that party? I had to leave kind of early.’
‘Your friend didn’t look too well.’
‘Yeah, she doesn’t know when to stop I guess… she’s normally such the do-gooder, too. Always so perfect, y’know?’
He nodded his sympathy, not even faking it. What was he doing, living by Richard’s good graces? What debt could he possibly owe? He was going. It was about time. A shake up would do everyone good.
Conversation had stopped. She was giving him the chance to run things, and he had to find his groove. Make her laugh, get things going, make her think he gave a damn...
He couldn’t remember her name.
Dennis leaned in a little closer. ‘How’s your bagel?’
‘It’s nice,’ she said plainly, pleasantly. ‘I like that counter.’
‘Yeah,’ Dennis said, searching lines of conversation. It wasn’t feeling right. How could he be losing her? This cheap slut from a takeaway store? He could ease it back, no problem. Easy moves, easy moves. ‘Do you like going to cafés, then?’
‘Yeah, me and Trish go sometimes. It’s pretty cool, some of the places.’
‘You’ll have to give me a guided tour sometime,’ Dennis said, thinking about the name Trish.
‘Yeah. ‘Course, I like to go dancing too.’
‘Ah! I had you figured for the dancing type.’
She grinned, dubious. ‘Oh, really?’
‘Something about the way you walk.’ Easy moves. He ate some of his bagel. Bagels and cafés, a guided tour from… from her, don’t worry, it’ll come back…
She dabbed her lips with a napkin and caught his eye. ‘You did call, though, didn’t you?’
What kind of question was that? ‘I’m sorry?’
‘You did call me, though, didn’t you? A couple days after I gave you my number. You didn’t leave a name or anything. I was pretending to be my sister, you know, to screen my calls. That was you, wasn’t it?’
Dennis couldn’t find the right face. ‘Why do you reckon?’
‘Beause I didn’t give anyone else my number, that’s why. So it was you! God! I can’t wait to tell Trish that the mystery’s solved.’
‘You’re sharp. I confess, it was me.’
She furrowed her brow and toyed with her bagel. ‘So why didn’t you call back later, like you said?’
Smile was offbeam but he couldn’t fix it. He wanted to hit her. Or kiss her, hard and sharp. Both, maybe.
‘Are you okay?’
He put the knuckle of his forefinger against his chin and looked out at her from under his brow. ‘No. No, it’s not anything wrong, but I just remembered something. You know what? I have to go.’
‘Oh,’ she said.
‘Sorry.’ He blinked and stood. Turned his back to her.
The impudent bitch. Tables and people on all sides and her eyes on his back. She was seeing a person standing still, a person with nowhere better to go, with no way to move. The crowded walls, the faces, and he didn’t know what part he was supposed to be playing any more, and he couldn’t make it happen.
That was exactly the problem. She had no name, and neither did he.
The gym at Pomare High was faded but the floor was shiny. Dennis could almost make out his reflection below, staring up at him. He reached the front of the line and jogged forward on his new shoes to receive the ball and lay it in. Lio clapped. The team was tense – was last week’s victory a fluke? Would they cope, make Damon proud? Dennis was relaxed. He looked at the other end of the court where Pomare were running through a passing drill. They had more height than the Francis squad and several of their players were wide and solid, but they moved like it weighed them down. Each pass was crisp. They knew what they were doing. If Dennis had his way every game would be against a team like this.
Damon was talking to one of the refs, laughing, ostentatious and utterly at home. Dennis watched him patting the ref’s arm as he disengaged, watched him shake his head a little still smiling, watched him pick up a clipboard.
He ran, rebounded, passed. The Pomare team ran a drill up their end, the ball criss-crossing. Richard leaped high for his lay-up. Scott, rebounding, slamming the ball between his hands to make a noise like a gunshot. The referees conferring, Damon studying his clipboard.
He ran, jumped, layed in the ball. Adam was there to rebound, looking up at the hoop, waiting for the net to release. Dennis kept on and Damon waved him over. ‘Dennis. Hey, new shoes, huh?’
‘Yeah,’ Dennis said.
‘I’m trying a different starting line this week. I want to see what combinations of people are going to work best, right? You’ll be coming off the bench this time out, but don’t think it’s because you played bad last week, you didn’t.’
Dennis frowned. ‘Okay.’
‘Aright. Get the team doing free-throws, it’s nearly time.’
Dennis went over to Richard. ‘Rich, Damon says free throws.’
Richard clapped attention. ‘Free throws guys! Free throw drill!’ They lined up, one clap for a miss, two if it went in. Dennis was right after Richard. Two claps, then two again. He made room for the next person and listened to his heartbeat.
Hands in, stacked high. ‘All right, guys,’ Damon was saying, ‘FC on three…’
The starters took the court, Ray Viane Richard Adam James. James cast Dennis a glance and he nodded briskly, his fringe flopping down. The team gave Dennis room to sit next to Scott. ‘Not starting this week?’ Scott asked.
Dennis shrugged. ‘Trying something new.’
Adam was in the centre circle with the referee. The Pomare centre was there too, also number thirteen, tall with narrow eyes. Dennis had been watching him before the game and knew he could jump. Pomare thirteen reached out his hand and Adam shook it. The narrow eyes snarled as they measured Adam’s reach. Adam fell into his stance. The ref looked around, checked the bench, the other ref, the players, then turned and readied himself. Dennis noticed Scott tense up.
Adam set and jumped as the ball rose into the air, but Pomare thirteen reached higher and tipped it over to a lead guard who was instantly away down the court. James cut him off but another Pomare player was trailing them, picking up the pass and the shooting the game’s first points.
‘Concentrate!’ Damon called out angrily. ‘And pick up men!’
Francis possession. Ray called the play and Adam took up a position down low. Pomare thirteen leaned against him, playing close defence. Dennis watched closely, saw thirteen speak. The ball cycled around and went in to Adam who tried a jumpshot with thirteen all over him. Arms collided and the ball went wild, Damon on his feet, fifteen seconds into the game and fired up. The refs made no call. Pomare got the rebound, another fast break up the court. Adam pushed hard to make up for his miss, and when the small forward lifted his shot he went to block it. A slap on the arm, the shot wild, a whistle for a foul.
‘Damn,’ Scott said.
Dennis watched as thirteen went over to Adam and leaned in and spoke to him.
‘Pick up your men!’ Damon was yelling.
‘You getting that?’ Scott asked. ‘That guy on Adam?’
‘I see him,’ Dennis said.
‘Shit, he picks his targets.’
Richard scored on the next possession, getting Francis on the board. Pomare’s return was faster than expected, that crisp passing, and Adam was in the lane as the ball came to thirteen and the shot went up. He stumbled into the guy, making contact, and another shrill whistle as the ball popped through the net. Another foul, already. He only had three more to give and the game had just begun.
Thirteen was saying something as Adam turned to trudge towards the bench, but Damon stood and waved him back on. Adam looked confused. Damon clapped his hands, encouraging, ordering. ‘Stay on, Adam. Get in your game!’
Dennis and Scott glanced at each other. The game resumed, Adam being watched. Ray got the ball in to him but his shot bounced out of the hoop. He fell into a bad run of plays, a travelling violation, a pass picked off, a rebound and missed putback, a three-second call. Every time, thirteen whispering in Adam’s ear and Adam’s eyes getting lower and lower.
‘Adam’s way off,’ Scott murmured. ‘That guy’s in his head.’
‘Despite all your hard work,’ Dennis replied.
The ball cycled through to Adam again and he pivoted and put up a shot but thirteen leapt up too – long, long arm up – and connected, fingers tensing and flinging the ball out of bounds. The eyes were roaring and Adam backed away.
Damon signalled a time out and ushered in the team. ‘Come on, guys! Where’s your execution? Cut off the passing lane, move the ball around, basics!’
Dennis nudged Adam. ‘What was he saying?’ he whispered.
‘Nothing,’ Adam said, not meeting Dennis’ eyes.
Damon changed the lineup and Adam hit the bench with Ray and James. Kelvin, Lio and Dennis were up. Dennis stalked on to the court, his new shoes sticking pleasingly on the slick floor. He went straight towards thirteen. Richard crowded in but Dennis shook his head, in charge. ‘I’ll go low. Take the weak side.’
Thirteen met Dennis with a sneer. ‘I hope you got more game than that other guy. He’s suck.’
He didn’t react. The referee gave Lio the ball and he passed in to Kelvin, who immediately flicked it down to him. Mismatch on the post – Dennis wasn’t really short, but he seemed it next to thirteen. He shifted his head, a small fake but thirteen ate it right up and moved the wrong way. Dennis reversed on him and dribbled the ball to the baseline. Thirteen chased him, scrambling to cut him off, but Dennis had already passed the ball in to Richard right under the hoop. Basket. The bench cheered, Adam included, but Dennis tuned that out. He wanted to hear nothing but thirteen.
Intensity lifted. FC started to make connections, the Pomare side rattled by the sudden precision. Kelvin nabbed a steal from a careless pass down low and drove forward, both teams shifting back down court, thirteen pounding ahead to reach the keyhole as Kelvin slipped the ball through to Dennis. He took it straight at thirteen, flying up and towards him and extending his arm over the top, thirteen adjusting his stance and realising too late that Dennis wasn’t backing down. He stretched right over his head and the ball dropped through the hoop as the whistle went.
Thirteen pushed Dennis off him, put an elbow out for space and it caught him on the head. Dennis took the hit and looked at thirteen and laughed right in his face.
And thirteen took a swing. Dennis was expecting it, he ducked and punched the guy right in the balls. Then there were arms around him, the whistle was going and everyone was there, pulling them apart, and Dennis let himself be separated, smiling, watching thirteen’s fury, a stream of abuse and obscenity and Dennis just smiled, holding himself very still in the grip of his teammates. ‘Cool it, Den,’ said Scott. ‘Cool it!’
Coaches were shouting and the referee assessed technical fouls against both players. As Dennis returned to the bench Damon rounded on him, ‘What the hell was that? What do you think you’re playing at?’
Dennis just stood there looking down at his new shoes. Damon couldn’t spend any more time on him, turned his attention back to the game.
Adam leaned over, worried. ‘Damon doesn’t look happy.’
‘Fuck him,’ Dennis said. ‘It isn’t just a game.’ He didn’t sit down, and walked past the bench and into the changing rooms.
Scott followed him, catching up with him in the bathroom. ‘You okay?’
‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘You did that deliberately. Pressed that guy’s buttons.’
‘It was easy.’ He leaned over the basin and splashed water into his face, letting it run down his chin and on to his chest. ‘Julian’s having a party tomorrow. You hear about that?’
‘Now you have. I’m going. You should come.’ Dennis opened his bag and started to take out his normal clothes.
Scott shook his head. ‘What are you doing? You’re not out of the game, man. You’re allowed two technical fouls.’
‘No,’ Dennis said, water dripping from his brow. ‘I’m out of the game.’