Sport 6: Autumn 1991
Nigel Cox — Home Sickness
He'd always felt most at home when he was reading. Wherever the words said, that's where you were. And then in 1961 a Maori kid had come running through the school. Pete Smith, funny how you remember a name, had been out buying the lunches and had heard it on the radio: Ernest Hemingway shot his head off!
He'd read The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway was the first author he'd imagined. He imagined him sitting at the typewriter. Pausing, his hands held over the keys as though he was playing the piano: listening for a word. Really pleased when he heard he'd won the Nobel Prize. But why would anyone who understood enough to write a whole book kill themselves? Who was sure to be remembered?
Perhaps he wouldn't be an author after all.
The next year, that same Pete Smith, running through the school again, this time for Marilyn Monroe: dead in the nude. It was strange, Americans were always either getting remarried or killing themselves. Perhaps they were like the Maoris?
But in his head it was clear: death meant that you remembered where you were when you heard.
He was the only Pakeha bouncing a basketball in America. Thirteen, and two days before JFK had lost his brain in Dallas. His mother had been buying clothes pegs in a Five-and-Ten when news of the assassination had come over the radio. The proprietor turned it up. His mother said that after a moment of increasing silence everyone in the shop had put what was in their hands back on the shelves and quietly filed out. Now all ofAmerica was closed, indoors, watchful to see what would come next: the star at the end of Jack Ruby's pistol.
He had seen Ruby shoot Oswald, live. His parents had been in the kitchen; he hadn't called them. At first he wasn't sure but it was replayed again and again. He couldn't believe that they were showing that on page 23television, slow motion reruns of a man's death; he kept waiting for his parents to tell him he couldn't watch. His parents didn't seem to know what to do. They talked in low voices, glancing at him and his sister. 'Everyone is in mourning but we aren't invited, best to lie low.' But there was only the TV, endless repeats of clips from PT109, LBJ's inauguration, JFK's funeral, Ruby's shot. Oswald's face collapsing inwards, sucked to a point, the sudden gasp of death looped for repetition, for detail—as though the whole nation was to look for clues. Their apartment was tiny and though they had only one small black-and-white TV set television seemed to be with them in every room: you won't want to miss any of this. His parents looked increasinglyworried—for example, the shops were all shut, would they have enough food? Finally he took his basketball and went outside.
Next door was a grade school: Little League diamond, sun-burned California grass, low modular classrooms like bunkers beyond the dark rectangles of the basketball courts. The posts and baskets, the painted court markings, they looked like just what he needed. But the air was grey and full of mist. Now he noticed, in the distance, the absence of traffic. When he arrived at the asphalt its grey surface was blotched with puddles that the ball would only splash in.
He warmed up, bouncing the ball watched by no one. Then, alone on the flat of the court, he set himself at the free-throw line and shot up at the waiting basket. When the ball struck the backboard, slap, the pole shuddered, the hoop flapped wildly. A miss; the ball dropped and bounded away, miles. No one stopped it or tossed it back. Such a heavy ball, brick-coloured, its surface divided by thick black lines that seemed to be its skeleton. An American ball, bought for him by his father so that he could join in, a Wilson, full-size, made for big cornfed American hands. The ball scared him, it was too bounty, he was afraid it would smack him in the mouth. But Americans wore gloves for playing what was really just rounders, and thought that to catch a hard leather cricket ball barehanded was moronically courageous: His father made him and his sister play cricket at the school on Saturday mornings. At Mahia, on holiday, when his father stuck the wickets in the sand, all the kids on the beach had come and lined up to be picked. But here the American kids stayed at the edge of earshot and shouted, 'A game that lasts five days? No way!'
They had come to America so that his father could study factory design. Factories were why they went everywhere, he couldn't remember all the page 24places. But now that Kennedy was shot he knew he would remember this basketball court.
It was strange to know he was living through a time he would remember.
As he returned to the free-throw line, he glanced round quickly at the houses that backed onto the school. Curtains were drawn, dogs did not bark. He realised that he was waiting for someone to shout at him, or for another gunshot. But surely no one could tell he wasn't American unless he opened his mouth? Defiantly he kept launching the ball at the basket: New Zealanders are good at sports. He tried a lay-up; it was stupid, trying to run in jeans.
He stuck it out till he'd made three decent hook shots, then turned and, ball on hip, started to walk home. After a moment he broke into a run.
Now as he sits at his desk he remembers that that time a kid had also come running through the school, wailing the news like a siren ...
It's dark all around him, just the light low over the white page of his notebook. For miles, everyone else is sleeping.
This time he is going to kill all his characters!
In the notebook he writes, The difference between the world and a book is that the world doesn't need you to remember it.
Back in New Zealand, sixteen, in another school, discovering that sex is also a sport and wanting to be good at it too. Finding out: this goes here, every action has its equal and opposite reaction. Afterwards you smoke cigarettes. In California there'd been a swimming pool attached to their complex and one morning as he'd climbed out the girl from the apartment next door had come up behind him, underwater. She was wearing a tight blue bikini; probably about thirteen too, anyway, old enough to have breasts big enough to thrust. A bit tarry, his mother had said. And she'd come across the width of the pool towards him, he'd half-glimpsed a wriggle of blue against the bottom, and then risen right behind, and as he'd pulled himself dripping up the chrome ladder she'd scratched the inside of his thighs with her fingernails.
Seven red scratches, one of them bleeding. Confused, he'd grabbed his towel and run up the stairs, followed by her laughter. Later he'd spied on her, and masturbated.
Then: sex proper as something to be begun on, something to have page 25achieved, something to be repeated so as to be sure of having got it right. Sex as a fantastic form of stamp collection. As a reason to tell stories. Lies. Fantasies. Fantasies to make real. As something, just, natural. Good sex. Regular sex. It's-possible-to-be-bored-by sex. Sex as very good television, starring yourself. I'm-okay-you're-okay sex. Oh, okay then, sex as pleasure.
But what is this sexual need? It was disturbing that desire existed beyond I want to score you. Need? He'd heard the expression but now to feel it—he'd thought it was only for those without, nerds, or in prison. But this, `I can't talk to you today!' Can't you tell that what we need is to feel the outsides of my thighs against the insides of yours? That particular arrangement, I need that. And what I need is for it not to be different, or better, or with someone else.
It's surprising ...
I need for it to be exactly the same.
This, he decides, is the need to feel at home.
And now he is going away again. On his own. And what he discovers is that he is not going to learn their language. He's been there before of course, has learned the greeting procedures and how to order. But he's going to forget all that. This time he's going to point in shops, and speak loudly in English. `May I have five ounces of sliced ham please. Back home I'm a private detective. I used to be goalie for our national side, got injured out just before the World Cup.' And decline invitations, and stay in his room for hours, watching television with the sound off, drinking Steinlagers in his underpants. Turn the sound right up during the commercials. Buy sixty tins of tuna, eat nothing else, fork it straight from the tin; leave the tins, unwashed, outside his door with his empties. Say loudly to anyone who approaches, `Our indigenous people have buried their placentas all over the country, you have to watch your step. Their oral culture is music to our ears, I'll do you a haka: taranaki, taranaki, to kuiti. Ngauruhoe ruapehu hey ranganui walker. Taumarunui taumarunui taumarunui, hey. Hey, talofa. Hey, ohakune! Vegemite pavlova! Now, could you please show me what you have by Vincent O'Sullivan. Really? And Allen Curnow? Oh, I see you've got Hugh Cook.' Take up shoplifting. No: get arrested for shoplifting. Don't wash for three weeks, wear the same shirt, but beneath your best jacket, with a nice tie. Yeah, and pinch a woman's bum.
Not write home. Change addresses and fail to notify everybody. Steal a page 26car, kids do it all the time. I'm so sick of everything, I think I'll start smoking again.
He wonders what brand Ernest Hemingway smoked. Reading up on this, he is reminded that in fact Hemingway wrote not sitting but standing up. And that mostly, instead of a typewriter he used pencils, a special kind. His fourth wife Mary Welsh had a tower built at the Finca for him to work in, with a wonderful view of the horizon. But Hemingway prefered to write in the bedroom, on a shelf in the corner. He thinks it must have been a nuisance for Mary if she had wanted to change the sheets. But probably Ernest needed to look inward more than to look out.
Of course he doesn't read Hemingway any more, he only reads about him. These days it's increasingly clear to him that the greatest writer of the century is not Ernest Hemingway but Arthur Miller. Oh, okay then, the greatest male writer. It goes without saying that Death of a Salesman and The Crucible are very great. Yes. But what gives Arthur his true place is his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. For it was she, goddess of the century, who, having been married to the greatest hitter in sport, then chose Arthur—balding, bespectacled—and though their marriage could not last, by this choice of hers established forever that within every writer there is that virile, that modest, that big-hearted staler of the human peak: that writers live, okay.
In a bar. Their president has just been assassinated. They are dancing in the streets, well, some of them are. The barman massages his chin, glances quickly right and left through the finger-marked windows—but surely the assassination was on television, many kilometres distant? Will it be alright if he orders another beer? He flicks his Zippo, lights his Camel. On his jacket is a sew-on sleeve patch: the Stars and Stripes. The assassins are sure to have been American.
When at last, on the way back to his room, he is thoroughly beaten up—forehead, nose rasped on the roughcast concrete—he knows he will return home a happy man.