Loony Bin Basketball

For Phil Jackson

The gym opened out
before us like a vast arena, the bleached floorboards
yawned toward a vanishing point, staggered seats high
as the Mayan temple I once saw devoured by vines.
Each of us was eaten up inside — all citizens of   lost
             and unmapped cities.

Frank hugged the pimply ball
over his belly like an unborn child. Claire
dressed for daycare in daffodil yellow and jelly shoes.
David’s gaze was an emperor’s surveying a desiccated
battlefield. Since he viewed everything that way, we all
            saw him the same.

The psych techs in Cloroxed white
were giant angels who set us running drills, at which
we sucked. The zones we set out to defend were watery
at every edge. We missed close chest passes, easy combos.
Our metronomes run different tempos,
            John proclaimed.

Then Claire started seeing
dashes stutter through the air behind the ball.
Then speed lines on our backs, and then her own head
went wobbly as a spinning egg. She’d once tracked
planetary orbits for NASA and now sat sidelined
            by her eyes’ projections.

Only Bill had game.
Catatonic Bill whose normal talent was to schlub
days in a tub chair — his pudding face scarred
with chicken pox — using his hand for an ashtray,
belly for an armrest. Now all that peeled away, and he
            emerged, clean as an egg.

He was a lithe
and licorice boy, eeling past all comers, each shot
sheer net. He faked both ways, went left. Beneath the orange
rim his midair pirouettes defied the gravity that I
could barely sludge through. He scored beyond what even
             Claire could count,

then he bent panting,
hands on knees as the orderlies held out water cups,
and the rest of us reached to pat his back or slap
his sweaty hand, no one minding about the stench or his
breath like old pennies. Then as quick as that
             he went.

Inside his head
some inner winch did reel him back from the front
of   his face bones where he’d been ablaze. He went back and
back into that shadowed stare. Lucky we were to breathe
his air. Breath is God’s intent to keep us living. He was
             the self   I’d come in

wanting to kill, and I left him there.

More Poems by Mary Karr