Featured Prose | February 13, 2019
“Balls” by Ed Falco
In the spirit of Valentine’s Week (and romance in general) we bring you Ed Falco’s story “Balls,” from TMR 41:4, an utterly winning fiction that reminds us of how, even in the worst times, the allure of love can’t be suppressed.
by Ed Falco
At twenty years old I was living on my own in a sixth-floor walkup in Chicago. Tamara Grigoryan lived in the apartment across the hall. She was twenty-one and worked as a cashier in a nearby pharmacy. The dingy hallway between us was dimly lit during the day by whatever light came through a frosted glass window at the top of the landing and at night by a forty-watt bulb screwed into a white ceramic fixture on the wall with a silvery beaded pull chain. I can tell you the date exactly—April 5, 1968—because Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the day before, and there were fires and riots on the west side of the city, which was close enough that no one in our neighborhood was venturing out onto the street. I was in my underwear, in bed, on my back, a book held up to the light from a night-table lamp, reading a novel about a fictional Chicago airport in a snowstorm. That night I was so deep into this story that for a long time I ignored the repetitive thumping on the wall above my head. It sounded like Tamara was playing handball against her bedroom wall. Eventually, I laid the book down beside me and listened long enough to decide she was definitely bouncing a ball against the thin layers of drywall that separated her bedroom from mine. I knew it was her bedroom because most mornings I’d wake up to a short crescendo of groans that built to a remarkably similar orgasmic moan, followed a few moments later by the sound of footsteps and the dim watery hiss of a shower. Often, I would join Tamara, masturbating quickly to the sound of her moaning, and then shower and head off to work myself. Occasionally we met on the stairs, where she would offer me a coy smile—as if she knew I must have heard her through the thin walls. Beyond that we had never said anything to each other more extensive than “Good morning” or “Hi.” I had always been shy around women, and Tamara’s boldness apparently didn’t extend beyond the isolation of her bedroom.
That night I lay in bed a good long while waiting for the thumping to quit. I’d been in my apartment for several months, and she had been across the hall when I moved in—and nothing like this had happened before. Granted, it was no ordinary night. There were fires burning out of control and rioting and looting going on outside, and now and then the cackle of gunfire somewhere snapped the peace of our usually quiet streets. Later I’d learn that some forty people were shot and killed before the rioting was over, but I didn’t know that then. Then, that night, all I wanted was to stay in my apartment with my door securely locked and bolted.
I had come to Chicago from New York, where I’d left home a few months after graduating from high school. The youngest of seven children, I was the boy in a set of fraternal twins, and by the time we came along, my forty-year-old father was already constantly outraged by the burden of raising a family. The addition of two more children turned him into a raging tyrant. For many years I thought he hated me, and I hated him in return. Over time, as the children left home one by one, he mellowed. I figured out that he was a man overwhelmed by his life and that he didn’t really hate me and I didn’t really hate him. Still, he was relieved to see me go, and I was relieved to move out. I did miss my mother, who was a loving if ineffectual woman, and I had a picture of her and my father and my brothers and sisters on the wall over my bed. When the glass rattled and the frame canted to one side, threatening to fall, I finally got out of bed. I put the picture on the night table and went to my closet, where I found the black cotton robe with a red flower pattern that my mother had sent me. I never wore it because it looked too much like a kimono, but I didn’t feel like getting dressed, and I figured the hallway was dark and Tamara might not even open her door. I intended only to ask her to please stop doing whatever she was doing before she knocked the pictures off my wall.
I hesitated before gathering the courage to slide back the dead bolt and unlock my apartment door. When I stepped out into the hallway in my robe and slippers, the little forty-watt bulb flickered, as if the slight vibration of the door opening had disturbed the wiring. I watched and waited until it settled back to a constant dim glow and then knocked on Tamara’s door. It opened immediately.
“Hi,” she said. “What a crazy night this is, right?” She looked me over and gestured with an outstretched finger moving back and forth between us, pointing out that we were both dressed in robes and slippers, though my robe reached down to my ankles and hers only reached midthigh. “Were you in bed?” she asked.
I nodded. Whatever words I might have prepared got stuck in my throat at the sight of her. I’d never considered my neighbor especially attractive. She was stocky and full-figured with a broad face that was a touch too wide to be considered pretty, and she looked to be almost exactly the same height as me, which was a little under five nine, and I was generally attracted to shorter women. That night, though, backlit by the bright light of her living room, in a short red robe that appeared to shine a spotlight on her bare legs, she seemed to me as though I had never really seen her before. I coughed and tried to pull some words together, but I think in that moment I had truly forgotten why I knocked on her door in the first place.
“Come on in!” she said, and she grabbed my hand, pulled me into the living room, and locked and bolted her door behind us—and then there we were, the two of us in our robes, facing each other, both apparently stuck for what to say.
After a while, when the silence had grown unbearably awkward (which might have really been only a few seconds) she pulled a pink rubber Spaldeen out of her robe pocket and held it in the palm of her hand. “Don’t ask me!” she said. “All of a sudden I’m playing catch with my bedroom wall! Come here! Look at this!”
She took me by the hand again and led me into her bedroom. “Look at that!” She pointed to the wall over her bed, where scores of small round marks marred the white paint wherever the ball had hit. “I’m going to have to paint over,” she said and put her hands on her hips.
“Ah . . . ,” I said. “What made you . . . I mean, why . . .”
“Really can’t say.” She grinned and added, “though I do have a thing for balls. Do you want to see?”
She said, “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
I started to say “No, I won’t,” but stopped. She was standing on the other side of her bed facing me, with a closed closet door to her left and a tall window behind her. The blinds on the window were pulled halfway down, leaving exposed a black pane of glass in which I could see our reflections, and in the distance beyond, out there in the city, a red glow from fires in the otherwise black night sky. I wasn’t paying attention to the fires. What I could see in that particular arrangement of light was that she wasn’t wearing anything under her robe. I said, “Why would I think you’re crazy because you have a thing for balls? Seems pretty natural to me.”
She smiled at that and then opened the closet door beside her and began pulling balls out and tossing them onto the bed, naming each kind in the process. “Soccer balls,” she said, and threw down a pair of black-and-white leather balls patterned with pentagons and hexagons; “Basketball,” she continued and threw an orange Wilson basketball onto the bed between the soccer balls. And so on, adding a volleyball, golf balls, a pair of red cricket balls, a yellow tennis ball and a white one, followed by a set of fourteen numbered billiard balls and a white cue ball; and then a pair of baseballs: a softball and a hardball. I thought she was finished when she added a dozen table-tennis balls to the mess. Then she said, “Can’t forget this” and added the pink Spaldeen to pile.
I looked over the pile of balls. “No football?” I asked.
“Uh-uh,” she said. “I like my balls round.” She folded her hands at her waist and waited.
“Is that it?” I asked. “No more balls?”
“Do you want more balls?” she asked.
I said, “Do you have more balls?”
She stooped down, reached into a hidden corner of the closet, and came back up with a heavy leather ball as wide as her chest, shoulder to shoulder. She heaved it up and plunked it down at the foot of the bed.
“Medicine ball,” I said.
“Weighs a ton,” she added.
“And is that it?”
“One more.” She disappeared into the closet and came out with a glittering red bowling ball. She put it down next to the medicine ball.
Together we stared awhile at the clutter of balls covering the bed. Eventually I said, “I guess you really do have a thing for balls.”
“My father was the high school baseball coach,” she said. “I grew up around guys and balls. I guess I kind of fell in love with them.”
“Guys or balls?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. She only smiled her coy smile and looked at me across the scattered balls on her mattress.
I knew it was my move, that I was supposed to say or do something. I saw myself where I stood, across the bed from a girl who was playing with me, telling me how much she loved balls, and still I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I said, as if I were interviewing her, “So, how come you love balls?”
“I find them comforting.” She picked up the pair of soccer balls and held one in each hand as if she were weighing them. “I like the feel of balls in my hand.”
“Oh,” I said, and that was it. Not another word or possibility for action came into my head.
Tamara watched me, and her expression shifted from coyness to contemplation, as if she were trying to figure me out. Outside, a siren went screaming past, and I could see that it frightened her by the way she stiffened and her face paled as she turned to glance out the window.
“It’s crazy out there,” I said.
“Nuts,” she agreed, and then she gathered herself and returned her attention to me and to us, standing as we were in our robes on either side of her bed, which was cluttered with balls. She said, “Let’s play a game,” and tossed me a soccer ball. “We throw the ball back and forth, and each time we catch it, we have to tell a secret.”
“What kind of a secret?” I asked.
“A good one,” she answered. “Something revealing.”
“Oh,” I said, “okay,” and I tossed her the ball.
When she caught it, she held it a second, and a blush came up through her cheeks until her whole face reddened. “I know you listen to me in the mornings,” she said. “I know you’re right there, on the other side of the wall, listening.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
She shook her head and further explained the rules. “No questions or commentary allowed in this game. You tell your secret and the other person has to listen and can’t say anything.”
“Ah,” I said, “Okay,” and she tossed me the ball. I caught it and stared at one of the six-sided figures that covered its surface. After a while, I said, “Sometimes I do it, too. The same thing you’re doing, while I’m listening to you.”
Her eyes widened at that, and I could see that I’d surprised her. I tossed her the ball. She held it to her forehead and closed her eyes, as if she were thinking hard, trying to come up with a good secret. After a while she seemed to give up and let the ball drop to her stomach. “I get scared a lot,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m walking around scared to death half the time.” The expression on her face shifted again, and suddenly I felt that she was pleading with me—though I had no idea what she might be pleading for.
When she tossed me the ball, I said, “I grew up with a father who hated me.” I had no idea why I would say such a thing. It was true, but I didn’t know why I’d said it. I tossed her the ball.
“I also didn’t love my childhood,” she said quickly and tossed the ball back to me.
“Once,” I said, as soon as I caught the ball, “when I was really little, my father strapped me to a chair and whipped me with the stalk of a plant I had trampled in our yard. He didn’t quit until I was bleeding and my mother came in screaming and made him stop.” I had no idea why I was telling her this, and as soon as the words were spoken, I blushed with embarrassment.
I threw the ball back to her, and she hugged it to her chest.
“When I was a teenager,” she said, “My older brother, who I adored, stole a significant amount of money from me. I’d been working summers and saving for years, and I kept the money in a cubbyhole only he knew about.” She tapped the soccer ball against her head gently. “It kind of ruined my trust in people.”
Instead of tossing the ball back to me then, she put it down on the bed, cleared a space, and stretched out with her head on a pillow. When she moved her feet, the pool balls spilled off the mattress and hit the floor like gunshots, which scared us first and then made us laugh. I stretched out alongside her and a few more pool balls hit the floor. With the soccer balls between us and the medicine ball at our feet, and all the other balls scattered about the bed, we continued talking about our families and our childhoods and our histories, such as they were, given that we were both so young. Tamara was Armenian, and she told me one of her grandfather’s terrible stories, how his young brothers and sisters had been rounded up by the Turks, taken out to the sea on boats, and thrown overboard.
After a while we both got under the covers as we went on talking. Our heads on separate pillows, face to face, we told ours and our family’s stories. Her grandfather had lost his brothers and sisters, along with his father and uncles, in the First World War, and my family all had stories of friends and relatives lost to the camps in the Second World War. We talked about these things, about our history and the history of our bloody century; and we talked about ourselves, the screwed-up things from our childhoods and the good things too; and the hours passed till we were deep into the night, the two of us, one on each side of the bed, snuggled up against the soccer balls and tennis balls and baseballs between us, with more balls at our feet. At some point, Tamara got up to turn off the lights, and when she got back into bed in the darkened room, we saw that the flames from the fires still burning outside cast a flickering red light on the walls—and we watched the dancing patterns for a while as we fell into an easy silence.
We didn’t make love that night. We did many times after, far far into the future, but that night we had talked ourselves to exhaustion. When we were both more asleep than awake, Tamara reached under the covers to hold my balls in the palm of her hand, and I pulled back her robe and encircled her breast with my thumb and fingers. We slept that way, holding on to to each other, with the red light of the fires casting figures on the walls. Out there, beyond the window, people were being beaten and murdered; out there, people were dying; but that was happening somewhere else, in another part of the city. In Tamara’s bedroom that night, we slept peacefully, side by side, touching, with a medicine ball at our feet and a pair of soccer balls between us, in a sixth-floor walkup behind bolted doors.
Ed Falco’s two most recent books are the poetry collection Wolf Moon Blood Moon (LSU, 2017) and the novel Toughs (Unbridled Books, 2014). He has published four short-story collections, including Acid, which won the Richard Sullivan Prize from the University of Notre Dame and was a finalist for the Patterson Prize; and Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha: New and Selected Stories, which was a finalist for the Library of Virginia Award. His short stories have been published widely in journals and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, Atlantic Monthly, and Playboy.
SEE THE ISSUE
Sep 07 2022
“The Cadence of Waves” by Trent Hudley
Each year, the Missouri Review honors one fiction writer from the previous volume year by awarding them the William Peden Prize in fiction, named in honor of the late William
Jul 08 2022
“Snow” by Kermit Frazier
If the weather is too warm for you right now, remember that cooler weather will eventually be here. In that spirit, we bring you Kermit Frazier’s “Snow.” The essay was
Apr 25 2022
“Facing It” by Sally Crossley
“Facing It,” a vivid, wise, and moving account of living with Bell’s palsy, was the inaugural nonfiction winner in our annual Perkoff Prize competition for writing about health and medicine.