My dad carries a trophy over the threshold and into our living room—a glinting gold whirly bug gleaming between two pillars. It shines the way I want to shine in his arms. My older sister and I inspect the inscription on the little plaque: 1985 Las Vegas Whirlyball Champion.

Mom holds her wooden spoon in the air, half-soaked with marinara and congratulates him from the kitchen.

Dad’s electric. He’s grinning volts past the television, the trophy polishing the whole house with light. Whirly bugs, I know, are powered by alternating conducting plates. I fall asleep imagining Dad scoring the winning goal beneath a Moonwalk grid in a gymnasium ceiling.


The next day the tetherball kids question the sport’s legitimacy.

see, you take a lacrosse stick and hurl a Wiffle ball across an indoor court, but you’re in a bumper car, isn’t that wild?

One kid scrunches her face into disbelief, another flat out calls me a liar. I pull open the Velcro on my Trapper Keeper and rip out a blank piece of paper, attempting to draw the sport. My stringy hair keeps coming loose from behind my ears.


I want a sporty Dad. I want to sit on the sidelines eating nachos and lukewarm space cheese cheering for his team, a group of middle-aged coworkers, swing-shift poker dealers from the Golden Nugget Casino. They have matching satin jackets: The Bad Beat Boys. They play Monday nights at the Rec center next to the Miller’s Outpost where my sister gets her Levis.

Whirlyball is a hybrid sport. My dad is a hybrid man, a fusion of engineering and sweat.


The sight of Dad’s leg brace is as familiar as milk, sky, tears. It’s been there the way Mom’s cigarette case has always sat on the glass end table, the way Dad’s garage work bench is backdropped by a pegged wall of hanging tools that looks like a growth chart for screwdrivers. The leg brace means he is part machine—the part that works long hours, the part that oils steel ligaments and a bolt-and-socket-knee with a soft cloth. It’s the part we tend with denial. This is what I learn when I’m five, after mom scolds me for mimicking his limp at Disneyland.

Dad’s already a shuffle master, conquering and commanding poker games; he’s already shifted focus to his illuminating hands, two seagulls diving and skimming the casino floor with suited magic. Poker is a game where being guarded wins the prize.


There’s a story that will be assembled over the course of decades through fragments of conversations and later from my grandmother’s diary, my uncle’s emails, photographs I’ll inherit, which will feel like a plea from the afterlife to give the little boy in the pictures a voice. He caught polio in the St. John’s River. That was the hunch, he got it where the alligators in his hometown sulk beneath canoes.

Some of those gators still live in him. After enough whiskey he goes tough and reptilian. The gators sleep in his jaw, and they wake whenever he punishes his left leg for being shorter, hairless, atrophied, emasculated from its counterpart.


He calls me Kiddo when he comes in with that trophy. I believe this is the sport that can transform him into one of those soft-bellied, grass-stained dads in the park on Sunday mornings. It’s why I turn my mouth into a batting cage, flinging questions faster than the liquor can turn the machine part to monster. Whirly bug questions, questions about physics, scoreboards. This reminds him of playing twenty questions with his dad and brothers on road trips. Even then he knew that the way to win the game of dichotomy was to be both, by being a leather belt: animal, mineral, vegetable. Make your insufficiency a multitude.


A tetherball kid gains momentum on the yellow ball.

I keep sketching, then erasing a sad excuse for a whirly bug, but nobody knows about Whirlyball, nobody believes me. The school bell rings. The tetherball, cracked with sun-stripped rubber, orbits a lonely shame while I dust pink flecks of eraser into the asphalt. The rope thickens on the pole until the ball chokes, signaling game over.

Jennifer Battisti is a lifelong Nevadan. Her work has been anthologized in Legs of Tumbleweed, Wings of Lace, Sagebrush and Sandstone, and Where We Live, an anthology of writing and art in response to the October 1st Las Vegas tragedy. Her worked has also appeared in The Desert Companion, Witness, The Citron Review, Slant, Western Humanities Review, Iron Horse, Thin Air, Briar Cliff Review, 300 Days of Sun and elsewhere. In 2016 Nevada Public Radio interviewed her about her poetry. She is the coordinator and a participating Teaching Artist for the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project in Clark County. She was voted best local poet by the Desert Companion in 2018 and 2021. Her work has been on display in exhibits for Nevada Humanities. Her first chapbook, Echo Bay was released in 2018 and her full-length manuscript, Off Boulder Highway was released in 2021 (Tolsun Books). You can find her at:

Photo by Amy Selwyn