We are wearing our Sunday best because it is a Sunday afternoon and we’ve just come from church and my mother has invited home for lunch a one-armed man named Joe, not because he has one-arm, but because he is new in town and alone and this is what my mother does—she collects people and she feeds them and offers them a couch to sleep on and occasionally dislocates one of her children to that couch for a few weeks or months to give our guest a little privacy, but mostly she feeds them a tuna sandwich and offers them a winter mug of hot cocoa or a summer glass of lemonade, and then she drives them home, or to the bus stop or wherever they need to go, and we never see them again

but before we say good-bye to the one-armed man named Joe, we are sitting around our kitchen table, eating tuna sandwiches and making the small talk of Sunday afternoons and we find out that Joe is from California and that he’s in town for a few weeks, and then he volunteers an answer to the question we want to ask, but don’t—it was bone cancer that took his arm, but I don’t let it get me down he says,

and through the sliding glass door behind us he eyes the concrete patio, and the old basketball hoop tilting ever so slightly on its pole in the Oregon clay, and he asks if I play and I say yes, and he tells me how much he loves the game and Do you wanna? and of course I do so we loosen our ties and we step out onto the concrete and he teaches me how to play ball with a one-armed man: you get a point for every shot you make he tells me, and I get a point for every shot you miss, and he picks up the ball, tosses it to me, and squats down and holds out his arm in a defensive posture, and I know enough at sixteen to know I’m not supposed to be thinking about that arm, not supposed to pity him, or stare, but at first I imagine I’ll have to adjust my game, play down to him the way my father always let me win a few pieces in Chess, that this game will be a kindness and nothing more,

but then I dribble and cut to the basket; only he cuts too and stops me up, and then he cuts off my crossover and I turn and post him up, and he is right there again and pressed up hard against my back, and I turn my head and catch him smiling and he says whatcha gonna do? and clearly he is taunting me, and he smiles, and I pivot and shoot the ball and his one arm goes high in the air and blocks my shot, and then he retrieves the ball from the ground and tosses it back in my direction and says one-zero, and he squats again and I cut and move and I’m no longer thinking about his arm, or rather I’m still thinking about it, but it’s all incredulity and feeling foolish, and then its three-one him and there’s no longer any time to think at all, and our Sunday loafers turn and slide across the rough pavement and we’re nothing more than the sound of the court—the slap and twang of the ball, the shuffle of our shoes, the close breathing, the cord-drag of net, the crack of his hand as again he knocks away the ball, and he grins as I retrieve it and he says it once more—whatcha gonna do?

And it still sounds like a taunt, and also, maybe an invitation, and so I cut hard to what I still want to think of as his weak side and spin and jump and we’re both in the air, and that’s where we remain, suspended in memory these twenty-five odd years, and if this were a sermon, we might find together a lesson about confidence or positive thinking, or inclusivity, or ableism, but that would mean giving teenage me way too much credit, because the only lesson on my mind in the moment was the one I wanted to teach him, and the only person getting schooled, was me.

Joey Franklin is the author of The Writer’s Hustle (Bloomsbury, 2023), Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays (Nebraska, 2020) and My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married (Nebraska, 2015). His essays and articles have appeared in Poets & WritersGettysburg ReviewHunger Mountain, Ninth Letter, The Norton Reader, and elsewhere. He currently serves as co-editor of the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and teaches in the MFA program at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Find him online at joeyfranklin.com.

Artwork by Marvin Liberman