imageJennifer Peters Kepka
Smoothed Over

They moved to the Vineland Apartments after James returned from the Army. They had less money, now, even though there were more adults around. Keith's mom said it would take James a while to readjust to being home. James spent hours watching television. He liked game shows and repeats of "Law and Order" best. "I didn't see this when I was gone," he told Keith. Keith figured when James was caught up, everything would get back to normal.

The couch folded out into a bed, where James slept. Sometimes he left the couch unfolded for days, and Keith had to dodge around it to reach his room or the small bathroom they all shared. On nights when his mother worked late he walked over the bed, not around it, and it was like walking on the moon. James said he'd had worse things than Keith's shoes on his bed while he'd been away.

They lived on the second floor. Keith could hear the people upstairs when they walked or flushed the toilet. That was different than their old duplex. The new place was in a complex: three tall buildings sat on their side. Their building had a yellow face and a big tree out front, and there was a paved basketball court just to the south.

Keith came home from school and often found James sitting on the curb. Before he'd gone to war, he'd spent most of his time indoors, reading his books for high school. He came back with a tan and thicker arms. Today, James had a black basketball next to him. It had been a present from their mother's last boyfriend and had Michael Jordan's name in silver across the center.

"Want to play?" James asked.

They had never done this before. The duplex, had a basketball hoop in the driveway, but the landlady had often parked her Buick there. Even when she wasn't there, the noise of the basketball had bothered James when he was studying.

Keith pushed his sleeves up and followed James onto the court, and he watched James dribble the ball once, twice, a nervous third time. He liked the twang of the ball against the hot, smooth asphalt. He couldn't understand how this had ever been a bothersome noise.

They played HORSE. James made it to R before Keith had his H, but Keith caught up when he figured out James couldn't shoot close up. They were tied on S when their mother walked up, carrying her canvas purse

"My boys," she said, striding right out into the court, and James walked to her. He left the spot from which he'd shot the ball, which had gone in. Keith tried to stare down the exact spot James had been standing in, because he still needed to take his shot, but his mother put her arms around them and said "My boys," again and it was hard to separate just another dark inch in the middle of so much smooth pavement.