You really haven’t been gone so long. Sidling
past the varsity’s two-line layups, you’ll find
your same seat—thirteenth row, toward the stage,
behind the guy whose specialty is “Traveling!”, who
warms up his rolling forearms all through the JV’s
prelim loss. You’ll settle right in, anchor your jacket
under your leg, safe from the sticky grid-work
beneath the bleachers. And after the toupee at the PA
announces the lineups and the pastel show choir
leads the national anthem (some eighth graders
adding that obnoxious slide on “land of the free”),
you’ll see the ensemble go into its rituals: the coaches
in faded team sports coats striking signature poses,
protests like mean prayers; the players, stretched versions
of goofy kids you’ve always known, wiping the bottoms
of impossible feet, bored with the butterflies making them
nauseous; the refs, their official, inflexible hair, their
striped shirts that seem to be strapped around their groins;
and the cheerleaders chanting those lackluster cheers,
forever straightening their pleated skirts and pony tails
and tossing flagrant looks toward friends, oblivious
to the clandestine glances of upstanding men.

You’ll remember right after tip-off all that’s
only half the show. For all around you everyone,
like a supporting cast, is taking and giving the cues;
all these years everyone’s been rehearsing it
perfectly: the fathers, who cross meaty arms over
sagging chests, no fun in them, all concern and outrage
and pride; their hair-done wives who look away or
look shocked at all the other women’s livid husbands,
the whole while missing the action on the court;
that clown with the cowbell you still can’t find;
the young kids who bring back sodas, shoestrings
of licorice, and change, then squat in squawking packs
in the front row, admiring the shirtless senior painted
for the team; and the most recent teens in tight T-shirts
and tight jeans, still mincing in tight twos and threes,
back and forth for the water boys and managers,
for the underclassmen in their designated stands
who remain unashamed to point and whoop and
stare at what wasn’t there just last year.

Meanwhile, the game itself will become
pathetic, a frustrating flow of false fouls called,
obvious fouls missed, since our boys, as always,
are always innocent, and since the refs are
blind, already bums “missing a good game” and
already dumbly dead set on not calling it
both ways. And the coach, of course, comes up with
the worst substitutions, benches his hot shooter,
puts in his favored freshman who can’t find his guy,
can’t run our one transition or maintain the same
game plan we know will never work. This same chance
to defeat our feckless crosstown rival is slipping
foreseeably from our fragile grasp.

At halftime, though the outcome will again
not look too good, you can still count on the janitor
and his mop, intent on his floor, that knot of keys
bouncing at his hip. Tonight he’s pushing wide
around a fat math teacher, who is free-throw,
top-of-the-key, then half-court shooting for a
year of free groceries and any shred of stingy
student-body admiration. You might also notice
Cindy come and go again across the way, sit
back down, only now with her handsome husband,
corralling their two youngest sons.

Ushering in the second half and still stringing
handsprings and roundoffs like flopping fish, the skinniest
cheerleader’s pessimistic. She knows that before long,
despite the pep band’s best renditions of “Tequila,”
“Louie, Louie,” and the school’s same sappy fight song,
she’ll only for a moment steer the crowd from
the scoreboard, from the four-corner stall and our taunts
of “Boh-ring! You are boh-ring!” that prompt the scripted
counter by their cleverest kid, who will stand and shrug,
big and dopey, helpless and grinning about their
traditional control over our traditional doom.

When the final buzzer sounds, only the starters
and their dads will care we lost. Everyone else
flows onto the court or shuffles toward the doors,
content to watch that rowdy team of squirrelly boys
who still shoot souvenirs at the ascending hoops
(one, they notice, could one day be the city’s
hope). And as you make your way outside,
through the blue engulfing grateful smokers,
past the clumps of mothers waiting by the curb,
you feel that same, though now fleeting, vague
and distant thrill you used to feel in high school
toward the rites ahead . . . then aim yourself instead
for your frigid car, a fattening snack, just one beer,
and Channel 7’s predictable ten o’clock news.