In which Oso’s worst nightmare comes true: balls are outlawed!
Oso’s chest was filled with certain doom as he and his mother drove through the Socorro fall evening, the windows down on the minivan, the inky air filtering in. They drew up to the school, and then they walked through the empty hallways, his mother shouting, “Hello, hello!” until they discovered that the PTA meeting was in the library.
Of course it was. And it should have been called the MTA—that is, the Mother Teacher Association—as it was almost entirely composed of mothers, with one token friendly father. This sordid group was busy discussing whether to outlaw the use of balls in intramural sports when Oso and his mom swept in and settled in some seats around a long table scattered with middle school library books. The room went silent for a few beats before the woman who’d been speaking continued.
A boy in Albuquerque had suffered a spinal injury playing soccer the year before; that was what had inspired the discussion. And so, that ought to be the end of balls, the speaker argued. Balls wouldn’t disappear without a fight, according to another mom, who called herself a conservative. Balls hadn’t harmed them—look, did anybody see any harm done? They had their spines intact, as in their childhoods, spines were made of sturdier stuff. They were rigid, in those days. Made of steel.
But, as another mom put it, “If even one child is harmed, it’s not worth it. Not even one child.” Her words, being profound, received a hearty clap from the other red-faced women in the room.
It was incredibly hot. The heat had been cranked up for unknown reasons, and Oso wondered why these crazy adults didn’t hold their meeting in the much larger and cooler gym, where there was a net filled with basketballs. The debate had got him thinking about balls. And it made him squirm. He didn’t like the topic. Or libraries. Or mothers.
His mother wasn’t a conservative, nor was she one of the moms who cared about each and every child. As she crossed one leg over the other, her silk robe fell open so that the barest edge of her flowery silk shorts were exposed. “You want to outlaw balls like you banned dangerous playground equipment?” she asked—for clarification, it seemed.
“It’s not as if we’re trying to outlaw balls altogether,” one mom quite rightly spat with a fair amount of frustration in her tone. “You conservatives are always worried about your precious rights being taken away, but you misrepresent fact.”
It was funny to hear his mom labeled a conservative. Conservatives lived…a little differently from his family. Well, as it turned out, and Oso should have guessed it, his mom was against anyone who tried to destroy what she considered fun at any given moment. And balls were fun. She herself liked tennis. She had played a lot of tennis as a younger woman, before she’d taken up free-form dancing with scarves.
“Childhood is all about balls,” his mom shouted with conviction. “Don’t you remember dodge-ball? It was one of the few ways you could smash the popular girls in the face without being sent to the principal’s office.”
There was a brief pause in the proceedings as this bit of wisdom was digested by the other adults in the room. “You do see what I mean,” the mother of not-one-child said. “Competition is harmful.”
“You’re never going to rid the world of competition,” Oso’s mom said.
Oso nodded emphatically. For once, he agreed with his mom.
Another mother, unsurprisingly, didn’t. “That’s like saying poverty shouldn’t be dealt with because there’s no way to get rid of it. It’s a cop out. It’s why imbalances still exist in the world today. We tolerate them.”
“And balls represent all the injustices in the world,” Oso’s mom laughed. “Well, I’m a juggler, baby.”
“So am I,” Oso piped up. He was, literally. His mom had taught him to juggle. His mom could be fun, when drugs or alcohol were involved. And Oso could have fond thoughts of the fun, if he forgot temporarily that his mom would let them all starve in order to have it.
The protestations were no good, though. Balls were outlawed just as all the fun play equipment had been. Some girl had hit her head on the parallel bars, and so one of each was removed. Oso’s old elementary school playground still had odd single bars that nobody knew what to do with, as anytime a boy or girl tried to do spins on them, the playground assistant would blow her whistle. And every time somebody tried to climb the pole that used to have a rope and ball hanging off it, the assistant would blow her whistle. In fact, she would blow her whistle anytime any of them moved too much.
Apparently, his vision of the future had been a bleak one for Oso and his sports career. After precisely one minute of PE class, he was tired of throwing, catching, and kicking invisible balls. The world of invisible play and shrill whistles was dull. The referees, or umpires, depending on the game, suddenly had a new set of complex rules whereby they determined whether an invisible ball had actually found its way into the hoop or been caught in the outfield or found its way past the goalie.
As soccer was his chosen after-school sport, his boredom inspired him to kick other boys’ shins instead of the invisible balls, and pretend that the kicks were accidental, based off momentum. When an object, such as a foot, was set into motion, it couldn’t be stopped until it collided with another object. It was pure physics, really, and the coaches and umps and refs had to know this. But they didn’t seem to have minds made for science, and Oso was often benched for breaking the rules.
There had to be another way. Oso’s mind was always planning another way. One afternoon, while running around on a field, ostensibly playing the game that had once been known as soccer and then became known as football, as that was European, until somebody thought that even a European term should be changed due to the potential for the word “ball” to trigger bad behavior in susceptible boys, and was henceforth called “airfoot,” Oso spotted the booger-eater Gillilander bend down to tie his shoelaces near the goal line. With a deft kick to the seat of Gillilander’s pants, he propelled the boy across the goal line, which inspired the goalie to step clean out of the way.
The boys on Oso’s team went wild. They whooped and screamed, “Goal! Goal! Goal!”
It took a while for the complacently pudgy coach and umpire to respond. Nothing like this had happened under the new system of ball-less sports. The coach scratched his belly and adjusted his hat. Then he called the police, who booked Oso on charges of child terrorism. That is, not on charges of being a child who was a terrorist, but a person who struck terror into the hearts of captive children, for which there was a no-tolerance policy. The generalized whoop-whooping being mistaken for panic, Oso was dutifully locked up until his cash-free parents could pay the fines.
Oso Beñat fell into silence, and the immediate world of glaring waitresses and unruly Minäs seeped back into his consciousness. As a boy, he’d hated reading because it was a waste of time, just as fantasizing was a waste of time. Existing in the present was the only way to live. But the telling of history was also important, and wasn’t this history?
“Why did you call Beñat a pseudo surname?” his granddaughter broke in.
“Because it was one of my ancestors’ first names, used as a last name because it was easier to spell and sounded more Spanish than the crazy Basque surname we had.”
“Oh. I guess I should take note of that. How do you spell it?”
He wrote it out for her. “Your mother taught you nothing, I guess.”
“Thankfully, I have you, Granddad.” She typed out the name. “So, basically, both your names are false. Instead of Oso Beñat, you could have been Tomi Intxausti.”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“I can’t imagine,” she said and shook her head. “It’s almost as bad as poor Uncle Gilly.”
“Speaking of, I’ll go ahead and send him a request for you.”
“Yes, please do. I want his side of the story. If you called him a booger-eater, I wonder what he called you.”
“Oh, I’m sure it was something ingenious.”
“You don’t know?” Stephanie asked.
“No. He wouldn’t have dared call me anything to my face.”