A Father's Small Hope
Credit: Photograph by Susan Meiselas / Magnum

On the red brick patio of the house I've moved out of, my soon-to-be ex-wife dribbles a ball, counting down the time. "Five seconds, four, Ewing passes to Starks...!" Elaine sets her feet and heaves a shot that bows the plastic rim before rattling off. "Ohh!" she cries, clutching her ribs, "and New York goes down to defeat again." I rebound her miss off the Little Tikes backboard and do a Hollywood rewrite of history. "But wait, there's a whistle! Starks fouled on the play! He'll go to the line with one second left to try and win the title!" Luke, our seven-year-old only child, stares at me, befuddled. He isn't used to seeing me in his mother's yard, almost two years after our separation, and is still less used to seeing us horse around as if those years, and the last few of our 11-year marriage, hadn't been deadly. But it's the first mild evening of a belated spring, and Elaine and I are gamely making an effort. Not merely to get on better, but to draw him out of the house, where he is more and more the hostage of his disorder.

I bounce the dead ball and bend my knees, draining the first of two free throws. After decades of street ball I've lost a couple of steps, and when I lower my shoulder now to drive the lane, I look as if I'm carrying a carcass to a ditch. But if you wake me at 3 am I can still reliably sink six of 10 foul shots. Elbow in, hips square, wrist cocked before forehead: phhhtt, the hiss of backspin on a ball.

Sizing the second free throw, I glanced at Luke, who has begun to point with both hands to the door. We've been out here five minutes and already the uh-oh moment, his balky signal that he's had it with novelty. What he wants, with a tireless monomania, is the same thing he's wanted for the last four years: to be alone with his combo TV/VCR. There, he will swap Elmo tapes in and out of the slot while hopping up and down, flapping his arms. Left alone for any time, he'll strip off his clothes, then alternate between flapping his arms and fondling himself.

With my stress level spiking – I am always clenched now, conditioned by his history of seizures and meltdowns to anticipate the worst – I hit upon a thought. Tossing a flat shot off the chest-high rim, I grab the carom and hand it to him. "Starks misses the second, but Lukey's there for the board!A half-second left, he can dunk for the win and..."

Luke stares at the ball, turning it this way and that, as if trying to recall this Spalding fellow whose name appears between the seams. "Jam it!" says his mother. "Throw it down!" For encouragement, she pelts him with kisses.

He reflects a while longer, looks at both of us, and tosses the ball behind him in the weeds. "Bye," he says, and starts up the stairs, unbuttoning himself as he goes. He stops and waves, my receding son. "Bye," he says. "Buh-bye."