We’re going to jail for Christmas. Sing Sing in Ossining, New York. My brother Bobby and I ride in the back seat, both of us held captive by images of branch, stone, and sky going in the other direction. Our mother and father—both of them, together—ride up front, not talking. It’s supposed to snow.
“Kate, crack your window a little to get the smoke out,” my father says.
She does. It’s immediately freezing. Bobby, whose seat is behind her, looks at me as if it’s my fault. I got sick once in a car a million years ago, and nobody ever forgets it. He wouldn’t dare complain to them, though—not today. Not after getting thrown out of Bishops High School for the latest infraction. Smoking cigarettes, that’s what they told me. I know it was smoking, but it wasn’t cigarettes. I let them think I don’t know it was pot. They need me to be innocent.
“How’s the wind back there?” my mother asks as she rolls up the window. “Claire, don’t read. You’ll get sick.”
“Don’t get sick in this car,” my father says to nobody, everybody.
“She wasn’t reading, Jack. I was just reminding her in case she was thinking about it.” My mother looks back at me as if examining me for signs of future criminal behavior.
I open my lips, mouth, What? This gets a smirk from Bobby.
The sky looks puffy, with snow just behind it. Shapes seem to be pressing down, making the land feel closer to the sky than usual. Up ahead, a white blob meets the horizon, and I imagine it’s already snowing up there. It’s especially quiet outside, a combination of the mummy sound of almost-snow and the geography of upstate New York.
Since we left the city, there have been only a few cars on each side of the road. It’s a monotonous view. Row after row of trees jut out from woods held back by huge boulders and stones, surrounding us on either side. Every once in a while, ice clings to the branches, making them look sculptured and eerie. We’re the only people on this four-lane highway; it looks as if someone hacked it out last night, pouring white, broken lines over black, flattened silly-putty.
We’re doing so many unthinkable things in this car, on this Christmas Eve, for this family, that maybe it’s better if we all just roll along, stunned silent.
First, we’re going to jail for Christmas. No—first, my brother John is in jail. Christmas is just the after-effect. My father is driving us to the prison in one of his cab-driver friend’s cars. He’s been upbeat, almost in charge since we left. This is what he does—drive—and he really seems to know what he’s doing on the highway.
I hear him, but I can hardly see him over the back of the front seats. In the rear-view mirror I can see the top of his cap. The smoke of his cigarette drifts back in skinny, horizontal lines. Not like my mother’s smoke, which blasts through the car as if we’re in Vietnam and need to run for cover.
My mother and father will be in prison with John tomorrow—Christmas—while Bobby and I wait back at the motel. I imagine John in his cell, wearing gray clothes, looking like himself except that he can’t open the locked gate. When he first went away, I used to see cartoon bubbles in my head of him wearing black-and-white striped pajamas, with a ball and chain around his ankle. But that was a year and a half ago, and this is not a freaking cartoon. This is John.
We can’t ask direct questions about anything because that will make them nervous, and then they’ll just yell at us. But Bobby and I have pretty much figured out the way it’s going to work. We also know that, when the time comes, we’ll be given directions and that’s that. We figure we’ll stop by the prison on the way to the motel, for visiting hours. Me and Bobby’ll wait in the car. Hopefully there’ll be a window we can wave up to, so John can see us. We only got as far as that before it was time to go, but we’re pretty sure they’ll drive to the parking lot, tell us to be good, and then be back in probably an hour or so.
“Can you put the music on?” Bobby asks.
I whisk my head around to look at him: Are you crazy?
My father doesn’t make a big deal of it; he just says, “No.” But my mother’s shoulders wing back a little. She says nothing.
“Oh, man. Why not? Come on,” Bobby whines.
Then my mother starts. “Are you driving this car? Are you trying to find the exit, when it’s about to snow all over the place and the road is unfamiliar? Do you think we should stop this car and break out our dancing shoes because you feel like a little music in the backseat there? Do you—”
“All right, Kate, I said no. That’s all.” My father sounds as if he’s trying to be gentle, but he can’t because his voice has a rumpy, coughy rolling in it. Like he’s never been able to clear his throat.
Bobby shoves his hands inside his new pea coat and puts his head against the bumper next to the window. His eyes are slits.
I peek at him, now that my mother has been startled into one of her nervous machine-gun ravings. Bobby always messes up his timing with her. He doesn’t remember to gauge the level of whether it’s going to be immediate or take some time for her to become hysterical. I’m so much better at timing her than he is. But she is much, much more loving to him than to all of us. It used to work for him. But now he gets angry all the time, about nothing.
Here it is….here they come. We’re surrounded by little tiny flakes in hundreds and thousands of swirls. “Bobby!” I say, shaking his arm. “It’s snowing.”
“Cut it out!” Bobby swings and punches me, hard, in the shoulder.
I scream and lunge for him across the inches that divide us. I’m punching his head and neck; he grabs my right arm and twists it right up behind my back. It goes beyond regular pain. He keeps twisting, twisting. I’m begging: “God. God. Stop.”
Then my mother is halfway into the backseat along with us, her arms tearing at Bobby. He lets go, and I curl up against my side of the car, holding my shoulder and arm. My mother is chanting, “What is wrong with you? How can you hurt your sister like that? What is wrong with you?”
Bobby’s reason is that I woke him up; I startled him; I think I can do whatever I want; I’m a spoiled brat; he hates me.
My father opens the window, spits, and closes it. “I won’t have this goddamn behavior in this car, do you hear me?” he shouts. In the mirror I can see how red his face is, and we’re all stunned by his outburst. “You keep your hands to yourself, boy, and you stop with all the chatter, miss. Goddamn kids.”
I’ve made things worse by forgetting to think before I act. I forgot that Bobby can’t take sudden movements; I forgot that I can’t win a fistfight with him.
“I’m sorry,” I say, forcing myself, my head against the window.
Bobby is crazy, and I’m the only one in the car who knows it. But if I can bend my behavior around him, I’m safe.
The long quiet softens the pulsing inside the car. We drive forever.
After a while my father says, “I have to stop for gas. We’re almost there, but I don’t want to get caught on empty. Tell me when the next exit is, and we’ll stop there.”
“Yes. All right. Maybe we can stop at a restroom too. Claire, do you have to go to the bathroom?” my mother asks. And, as an afterthought, “Robert?”
“Okay,” Bobby murmurs. I don’t have to look at him to know he looks exhausted, sick. He always does, after he goes crazy.
“We’re stopping for gas and for a quick bathroom visit, period,” my father says. “No lollygagging around.”
I twist my head toward Bobby, who twists his head toward me. I do my lollygagging face—stick a pretend lollipop down my throat, choke, gag, panic—until I see Bobby’s face cave into a mime man’s laugh. We make no sound, but snort one at a time through our noses. I catch my father’s eyes in the rearview mirror; he winks at me.
It looks darker out than before as we drive through a turn that’s cut in the middle of two lines of giant trees. They’re so tall, and this road is so narrow, the tops of the trees seem to bend toward each other, like ladies talking over a clothes-line.
My father is hunched up right against the wheel, both hands on it, staring ahead at what’s coming. My mother looks as if she’s ready to shovel out the whole country if she has to; she’s sitting upright, one hand on the door and one gripping the console in front of her. If there’s a gas station anywhere, she’ll dig it out.
The main road is empty, and we make a right turn onto it. Slowly, slowly, we move through sheets of snow down this deserted road, surrounded by trees and quiet.
“Up ahead,” my mother points. “There’s a town. I see orange lights. Exxon is orange, isn’t it?”
We all strain forward.
“It’s on the right, after that church steeple—see it? Looks like that’s a post office or a government office across from it. Right up ahead.”
We can see the town now on the downward slope of the road; it appears out of nowhere. A bunch of dirty-white, two-story buildings in the clean snow. A frayed American flag pointing straight out, flying with its head down. Old cars half on the road, half on a rise. Crooked Christmas lights nailed over a broken screen door. Not even one person on the street.
My father rolls up to the orange sign with no words on it, and we enter the gas station as if we were a boat, rocking back and forth and finally settling into place in front of the only pump. It feels like the dead of night.
The fattest person I’ve ever seen comes out of the doorway to the office; the windows behind him are so dirty, it’s not possible to see inside. He moves toward the car in thundering steps. He wears no coat, only a plaid shirt over a big undershirt, inside the widest pair of jean overalls ever made. His hair is thin and wispy. His face is pink, stretched, wet-looking. He could be, but he’s definitely not, a fatter Santa Claus. He isn’t smiling.
“What do you need,” he demands.
“Fill ’er up, pal,” says my completely-at-home father. “Do you have a john we can use?”
I am not going in that john, no way. I am not getting out of the car.
Inside, the man indicates with his head. His eyes are so wide apart, they could be set in his temples, like a great sea animal. They have no color.
“All right, let’s get this show on the road,” my father says.
“Come on, kids, out of the car, let’s use the toilet,” my mother says. She opens her door and steps out.
Bobby is stepping out too. My father is already out. Snow slants down at them.
“It’s okay, I don’t have to go,” I say. I don’t, either, or at least not much. I can hold it; I don’t care how much farther it is to the prison.
My mother bends down toward the car. “Come on, now. Let’s go inside together and then come back out together.”
I know what she means, but I can’t move. “No, go ahead, I’ll just stay here.”
Bobby sticks his head in on the front-seat side. “What are you doing? Come on.”
“I’m staying here! Just go.”
My mother shuts the door, and she and Bobby straighten up. Her head reaches only to his shoulders. She starts inside.
Bobby follows, then turns around. He goes back to his side of the car and gets in next to me.
“What are you doing?” I demand.
“Staying here,” Bobby says, bunching his arms up under his shoulders and pushing himself against the seat, hunkering down.
I peek out at the gas-station guy. He’s capping off the hose, ready to replace the nozzle. His eyes are blank, his face closed.
I turn to Bobby, evil on my face. There’s a macaroni commercial that he and I always scream laughing at. This poor fat kid is playing on the street, and his mother starts yelling for him out the window. He doesn’t answer her until she tells him it’s spaghetti day. Then the fat kid drops what he’s doing, with a big moronic smile on his face, and runs home. I make that face now as Bobby turns to look at me.
“Hey, Anthony, it’s Prince spaghetti day! Come on, I got a barrel of macaroni for you! Open up those overalls, Tony, ’cause you’re gonna need more room. Anthony, wait, here’s a fork… Anthony, take your head out of that pot of macaroni…”
We’re both giggling as the doors open on either side, and my mother and father look at us accusingly before they settle back in.
There’s no big sign telling us that we’re nearing the prison. We just reach a corner of the town, turn left, and head toward it. Here the road slopes down to the Hudson River, a liquid neon sign in the snow, glinting at the end of the white road.
We ride down this sloping, quiet, empty street until the fortress of Sing Sing Prison rises up to stop us. It braces against the edge of the river, a hulking structure, all turrets and stone, with two tacked-on wings spreading from the center. It looks like an over-fed eagle, turned to stone just as it was about to crash into the water.
Inside the iron-gated entry, we’re directed to the parking lot. Another guard directs us to a parking space and points to a tiny door in the building. A paper sign taped to the door says, Visitors’ entrance.
My father puts the car in park, then turns to my mother for further instructions.
“Bobby, Claire, let’s go,” she says.
“We’re going inside?” I’m the first to get the words out.
“Did you think we were going to leave you in the car?” she asks.
We get out and walk together toward the door.
I feel as if I’m walking inside a bubble of gum. I blink to clear my eyes, to feel awake. My words come out slower than usual, whispery. “I thought you said we couldn’t visit.”
“No, you can’t, but there’s a waiting room for children. They told us it’s a nice room, where you can wait for us.” My mother looks at both of us as if she’s just told us someone died.
I’m still blinking and slow. “Is there a bathroom there?”
“I’m sure there is. And you’ll be together. There’s nothing to be frightened of.”
“Ma, we’ll be fine. We are fine,” Bobby says. To me he says, “I have to go to the bathroom too. I’ll find out where it is and take you there. Don’t worry.”
I want to tell them that I’m not worried. Words form in my head, but they get stuck in my throat.
My father is blowing his nose, turning his head away from us.
My mother seems smaller than her usual five feet, two inches. She stands there in her three-button winter coat, holding her pocketbook in the crook of her arm, her forearm stiffly pointed up as though she’s just donated blood. Her old white dress gloves, buttoned at the wrists, cover her clenched hands. She sewed a button on the left glove last night. She’s wearing her old navy-blue suit underneath that coat; it’s always the same skirt, but she changes the blouse and puts a sweater with it sometimes, to make it look like a whole new outfit. She’s clever like that.
She’s standing now the way she’s always telling us to: keeping her spine line-straight and squaring her shoulders. On her head is a small hat, really just a fabric-covered headband with a gathering of tiny glass beads on one side. She has short hair but a lot of it, dark black, dipped in white by the scalp. She doesn’t wear any makeup, ever, on her lined, dry face. I look deep into her strong brown eyes, which look back from between clumpy lashes that huddle together at the corners. Her eyes are bright, clear, sober.
My father shuffles behind her as we walk. Although he was a soldier, my mother is the General in this army.
Bobby and I are deposited in a room full of brown, white, black children. When the guard calls for visitors, my mother is the first to line up, head held high, for the walk to the visiting area. Everything about her says, It’s Christmas. I’m here to see my son.
Hoops is a novel about girls’ basketball, roughly at the outset of Title IX’s passage in 1972. Basketball is a central organizing feature of what is essentially a family story. Places like Attica, Sing Sing, and Vietnam will visit the consciousness and daily lives of the characters. The geographical setting is Brooklyn before it was cool, amid stately limestones, tenement walkups, the looming parish church.
Claire Joyce is the first-person narrator, who tells the story of her family and witnesses the chaotic spiral of a beloved older brother from gifted basketball-player to heroin-addict and prisoner. Claire uses the skills she’s picking up in basketball to help her navigate off the court. Deeply cut from the cloth of the Church, the working class, and the expectations for her sex, Claire strives to find a mirror to reflect a different, future self.
I started writing Hoops after watching a WNBA game on network television. Sometimes the novel has felt like a personal letter to a lost love, other times like a chronicle of a time when girls were shamed for being athletic, enduring sneering whispers about “dykes” or “lezzies.”
The opening of Hoops brings the reader into the suffocatingly close interior of a working-class family on Christmas eve. Although basketball doesn’t seem to play a part in the early narrative, the cadence of the sentences suggests the passing, shooting, and sneaker-squeaking dribbling downcourt of a girls’ basketball game. The main characters, like the most elegant set shots, will fall through a hole, soundlessly, before the very eyes of the spectators.
Maggie Hill lives in Rockaway Beach, New York. She has an MFA in Fiction and was a fellow in the BookEnds manuscript mentoring program. Her essays and nonfiction have been published in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, and Scholastic professional magazines. Current publications include Flatbush Review and Persimmon Tree. She teaches creative writing and literature at CUNY-Kingsborough. Hoops is her first novel.
Embark, Issue 16, April 2022