Shishir (Winter) 2021 Stories - Nicole Cifani


By Nicole Cifani


I shot hoops at the YMCA most summer nights. Swiped my card at the snacks machine. I pretended not to notice that my hair was falling out by then — tight white chunks like lint from the dryer trap. I saw one real big piece float down the court and lost my shit, because parts of me shouldn’t’t be taken out with the trash despite what ‘Rico says. I wrapped my hair in a scarf, put on a cap and double checked my fingernails to make sure they were clean.

Some nights at the Y I got into a pick up game — that was the prime time, baby. Those guys were no joke. There were kids from the block for sure, and you also had these dudes who play for school, I’m talking scholarship-level shit. Their bodies were gawky but they had these long, mus-cular calves tight as coiled metal springs. They shot with the cold, smooth precision that comes with intuition and discipline. But there were all kinds of players in that gym —big guys who played fast and loose; small guys so quick you’d hardly notice them until the ball was gone from your hands and there they were, speeding halfway down the court in the other direction. And then there was Q.

It was late July when I first met him. I got the sense that his father dropped him off at the gym because he had no other place to take him. Me and ‘Rico were in the middle of a drill when we saw him just sitting there, staring up at the bleachers with his ankles knocking together.

Look, we know what it’s like to be on the outside. We’ve been friends since the sixth grade when Mr. Roberts called me a “freak” and ‘Rico was the only one to defend me. The next day it was his birthday so I sent him a song I wrote on my phone. We’ve been friends ever since, and I still send him that song on his birthday.

As he waved Q over I knew what he was thinking — see what he’s got, you know? Also, (and we didn’t’t say this but) it was our belief that having more people in our corner of the court would finally give us some cred. I was going through a phase where I felt shifty about people get-ting to know me — boundaries and shit — so I was sensitive about the rules of social acceptance and preferred to spend my time in the shadows of exemption. But ‘Rico was always friendly, and so he bounced him the ball.

I should say here that this olive branch was unnecessary, because Q would’ve worked him-self in eventually. It was seven pm and golden light cut through the gym skylight, forming a pool on the gymnasium floor. Everyone’s sneakers squeaked agreeably and in concert.

Q was wearing a Black Flag tee that day. Every day it was a different riff on a similar genre —Bad Religion, NOFX, Ramones, Social D, Fugazi. He always came and left in a hoodie with the drawstrings pulled real tight around his face so the cotton shaped his forehead into a half- moon and wrapped the squishy flesh of his cheeks like a present. He was a scrawny sort of dude with a long, deliberate step and it was only me at first who noticed the glimmer in his shoes. Eve-ryone else noticed the more obvious things like how his hands flopped a little bit right after he shot, like a hinge, and how he always looked a little hungry.

In any case he took the ball and sunk a deep three pointer. He took a step back, all like and that’s how you do it. If you ask me I thought he looked surprised, like maybe luck had something to do with it, but that’s not how other people begin the story.

The next day was Friday, which meant I had to go to work. My grandma, who I lived with, was always up at sunrise — it’s like the woman didn’t’t sleep. There was always a pot of coffee going and when I got home late night it was still there but burnt, and the smell permeated the kitchen like hey I shouldn’t’t be here and you shouldn’t’t, either.

We lived fifteen miles from a mining town that produces molybdenum. It’s an element used in alloy steel, and has the second highest melting point after tantalum and tungsten. The symbol on the periodic table is Mo, which always made me laugh which made it easy to remember. Mo is used in missiles, drills, saw blades, engines — war supplies, basically. The backs of the mountains in this town are one of the biggest sources for molybdenum in the country, and this is why my hair is white. This also why grandma spent her Fridays picketing. It was a regular thing for her, and looking back I can remember that we always had neighbors in the living room marking up signs or sending letters. I was always like this, she said—meaning a generally pissed off human—but when you saw her later on sunk so comfortably into the couch knitting a scarf or some shit you just didn’t’t buy it.

I worked at a paint store that summer. Whenever it was slow I stayed in the back room and mixed samples. I scraped the paint down the sides of the tin with a wood scraper and it made a soft, affirmative sound that people on the Internet seemed to like. I was trying to mix the right shade of red, because I had this idea to paint giant horizontal flames across the sides of my sneakers. I was posting this idea to social but my manager Bix saw and said cut it out, you’re going to get the store in trouble were his words. He would know — he’s a coin collector and all his friends are on Instagram. I was jealous cuz I wish I could be that conversational with people, his thumbs always flew like it was nobody’s business.

It was raining outside which made a big releasing sound, an enormous yawn. Bix the Big Man was gone and because of the weather business was slow.
The basketball team tryouts were in two weeks. Ok, maybe it was more like a month—I fig-ured if I shortened the timeline in my head I’d hustle harder. I put on my favorite podcast about basketball, HYPE. There’s also Dunk’d and Deep Game, but those are for newbs. I held my right hand down with my left as I mixed, pressing flesh onto flesh onto bone. Sometimes my hands shook — unnecessary evils, grandma called the drugs and the side effects like my shakes. I also have peripheral neuropathy, which causes my legs and feet to jump around without me telling them to. I don’t mind, but sometimes I have a hard time keeping still.
I added more orange to the pail and right when I was getting somewhere the front door dinged. I leaned back, stuck my head out, and saw Q standing there. He looked so out of place it was though he had entered the store from some other dimension.

Hey man, I said — what’s up, what are you doing here? I jumped up from the overturned bucket I was sitting on. He was also surprised, eyes wide like an owl on speed. I didn’t’t know you worked here, he said, I was grabbing a burrito across the street. You go to Fairview right? He went on to tell me that his dad moved to Fairview after they were both in an accident. What hap-pened, I asked. He pushed his hoodie back to reveal a long pink scar that ran across his forehead and twisted down the sides of his face in both directions.

I tried not to react when he showed me his scars; besides, I’ve been told I have a good poker face. I said: so both you and your dad got struck by lightning, huh? Which sounded idiotic, but what I was trying to understand was how the hell this happened to two people at the same time. And why would they have to move to a new town? But people are messed up, that’s one thing I did understand— behind every smile is a question and behind that some pre-baked opinion. I knew this in the way that people looked at me. So Q and I had a lot in common, and I like to think that’s why we became friends.

The next day, there he was again before close. I held my metal tin of tools and let him into the back room where I worked. He surveyed the scene of my paint experiment; whorls of purple, yellow and blue with separated colors that glided together in a concentric swirl. On my work-bench was an almost-empty bottle of orange Gatorade, packets of ketchup and mayo, and a neon stuffed cat toy with enormous dilated glitter eyes that some customer’s kid left behind.

He asked me where I lived, and without realizing what I was doing I started concocting an answer —a big house built for a dysfunctional but loving family—that would sound normal, and the story flowed so freely and with such righteousness that the details and various shades came naturally, as though I had a right to tell this story: there was a swimming pool, a three car garage and even a vegetable garden that boasted sweet strawberries in summertime. It was though as if by saying it, it were true.

I was in the midst of my ridiculous lie when I noticed crimson paint splattering onto the floor. I always put down drop cloths before painting, because Bix would flip the fuck out — what was I supposed to do, sit in the front of the store like a mannequin, staring at the door invoking new customers to come through? But how were the drops making such a big splatter, so far down onto my sneakers and onto the floor—not the white sneakers! I looked down at my hand cradling the tin, and realized that the metal edge had sliced open a finger.

I grabbed some napkins and jammed them against my hand to stop the bleeding. I ripped through the cabinets looking for band aids. I remembered that in the bottom drawer, in a wooden box that opened on a hinge like a treasure chest, we kept a first aid kit. I opened it and instead of the kit there were rolls of hundred dollar bills piled all the way to the top. I looked at Q, who had a look of awe and (what I interpreted to be) assent on his face, so I took a wad and stuffed it into my pocket. I took another wad and tossed it to him. He stared at the money in his hands for a moment before it disappeared into his body.

He had been silent until that point. Give me your hand, he said. You have to swear not to tell anyone. Tell anyone what? I asked. It was 6 P.M. and time to clock out. I’ll never forget the sound of the second hand on the plastic dollar store clock as he grabbed my hand, blood squish-ing between us. His hand felt warm and soft, like one of those sand weights that kept balloons in a bouquet from floating away. Just close your eyes for a second, he said. You didn’t’t do any-thing wrong—you deserve more, anyway.

I obediently closed my eyes, and from behind my eyelids saw a flash of orange and yellow. I felt a shiver down my spine, the hair on my arms stood up, and I went cold all over. A copper taste flooded my mouth. I’m going to be sick, I said.

Q laughed. You’re going to be okay. Now look, open your eyes. I looked down at my hand and the gash was gone. Holy shit. He shrugged his shoulders like sure, whatever. If anyone found out he would deny everything—that he was never in the store to begin with. He told me about some girl on a bike who was hit by a car and had apparently told the cops that he healed her. He never did it again after that.

Dude you’re going to be rich, I said. You’re entrepreneurial man I respect that, was his reply. He then went on to say that he doesn’t’t want anyone to know because everyone already thought he was a freak of nature.

Now, when I was eleven I vowed that I would always keep secrets. After my mom died, both our things went to grandmas. Mom didn’t’t keep much, so everything that came through the door was deliberate. She wasn’t’t sentimental either, so the few cards we got in the mail stayed on the refrigerator briefly before going right into the trash. To tell you the truth, I was surprised there were so many boxes. Grandma snappily ordered the man in the grey jumpsuit to stack mom’s things into the back of the kitchen closet, while my stuff went to the living room. She covered mom’s boxes with a checkered plastic tablecloth and never went back there again. I was the one who crept in one night and discovered the ancient box with mom’s notebooks. The more I read of her journals, the more I learned about her and our situation, really—it would be best for those things to die with me.

I closed the paint store and we walked to the gym. Q said that it was nice to have a buddy, and I said likewise. ‘Sides Rico, who worked at the drug store and always stayed late flirting with girls. They weren’t’t cute girls either—I mean they were fine, of course he thought they were—but what I’m trying to say is that the girls were trying too hard to look like grown ass women. It made me wonder if we were all rushing through this thing.

Q said he understood. He told me a story about when he was five or six and his father for-warded him to boarding school in England of all places. Didn’t’t you feel alone? I asked. I hated that shit, familiar as it was. Well that’s just it, I just fended for myself, he said. The trip to Eng-land was bad—freezing flight, strange place—but on the first day of school I knew I had a choice: I could either cry like a baby, or I could keep moving and find my groove. So that’s what I did. I nodded. I got that.

That night, I dreamt about toy animal stuffing floating through the sky like coarse plastic clouds. The empty fabric shells sat in a heap on the sidewalk, like the time I saw a dead mouse with his mouth hanging open and flies buzzing around his ears. I woke myself up and ran to the bathroom. I fell right back asleep and slept hard, then woke the next morning feeling guilty.

I regretted taking the money. I mean, it wasn’t’t like I had anything to spend it on. I’ve never held that much cash before and I wasn’t’t like the guys on the court who knew all about cars and crypto. I thought about putting it back. I could buy sneakers or some vanity shit but that felt too easy. I unzipped a couch cushion, stuffed the cash deep inside the corner, and tried to put it out of my mind.

That night at the gym ‘Rico brought two girls to watch us practice. Do they play, asked Q, because we could use a couple more. Probably not in those shoes I said, trying not to sound like a dick but it came out like that anyways. ‘Rico tossed me the ball, hard. It’s not like that man, they’re cool. I shrugged and made a shot, watching the ball bounce off the rim then moved in quick for the rebound. Something about the girls’ presence made us all move quicker.

It was Friday night near closing time, but the court was jam packed. Last year it rained all summer, and the gym was closed for roof repair. The weather was cool and clear and everyone was feeling all right. What’s up—we all said to each other—you good?

One of ‘Rico’s girls looked across the court, sighed, and occasionally when she watched us play our eyes met, briefly, then flicked quickly away. She had orange skin and blue eyes, and when she smiled her exposed teeth looked razor-like like a velociraptor or more specifically Ba-raka from Mortal Combat II.

The energy of her friend, which only intensified the longer she sat, was not attracting any at-tention—which to me seemed like the opposite of what she was going for. Her shrill voice, full of bursting highs and braking pauses, distorted as it echoed across the gym, and her eyes burned into us when she looked ‘Rico squarely in the face and said bluntly, “I’m really high.”

‘Rico said, SHHH. I found out later the three of them ate some ‘shrooms on the walk over. As for me I felt wheezy, like my lungs were suddenly half their size. A rattle started in my throat and weaved down into my chest as my lungs began heaving for more air. Right when I was won-dering if I might also be on ‘shrooms I started coughing like crazy; so hard I ran out of the gym to the hallway water fountain.

I didn’t’t hear the footsteps, but I did hear the metal chunk of the door slam and the three gunshots that fired directly after that. They went off plainly and consecutively like pop-pop-pop, some fucked up drumbeat. I remember the millisecond of silence before the screams and the thud of a body being rushed to the ground; the door opening again and people spilling out hollering, James the clutch point guard shouting for help.

In the drop of silence where time stood still, all of us were suspended from the ceiling look-ing down at ourselves moving around the Y in slo-mo; scuffling, shimmying, shooting and high-fiving, grinning and grimacing through beads of sweat at the gritty making of ourselves.

I was alone in the hallway but knew what had happened. I peered through the window and saw a skinny guy in cammo held down by three guys with five more at the ready, right on the giant Chase Bank logo. He reminded me of a fish flopping on the ground like that.

I pushed my way back in to find my friends, and nearly passed out at the sight of Q. He was curled on his side like a roly-poly, blood pouring from his chest onto the laminate floor. His face looked dull and clammy like a light had burned out. ‘Rico was feeling for his pulse and shaking his shoulder. The girls were sobbing, shaking. I threw up onto my shoes. I’m going to try some-thing, I said, too faintly for anyone to hear. Everything felt faint and fuzzy with various sounds patched together like a dream.

Close your eyes, I said to ‘Rico. What man—shut the fuck up, don’t act crazy right now, he said and hit redial on his phone. No, I whispered, crouching with my hands crunching my knee-caps. I closed my eyes and waited until a flash of white and orange appeared. My ears popped as sounds moved from left to right. The taste of copper again filled my mouth.

I tried to explain it to the EMTs but they couldn’t’t understand. But he was shot, everyone said. We saw it with our own eyes. We heard it. Look, over there—bullet holes in the wall. May-be it passed through him, shrugged one of the guys. Fucking idiot, said ‘Rico. Do your job. I put my hand on his shoulder as in, back down dude. That could have been us tonight and we wouldn’t have been so lucky. Q was on a stretcher. I saw his shoulders rise with breath and his foot twitch. He didn’t’t look alive but then again he wasn’t’t dead. I thought about making a Goth joke but decided to let it be. It was like he read my mind, because he actually opened his eyes and smiled.

When the tryouts rolled around I was ready. I was quick and already had the drills memo-rized, I could do them in my sleep. My shots were smooth, and the gloss on my sneakers shone with fresh yellow-gold lightning bolts. Q was sitting on the first bleacher all taped up in a wheel-chair, which he loved because he could roll around popping wheelies and was getting pretty good at it, too. We gave the chair lightning bolts with spray paint, and I used some of the cash we took to help re-paint the gym. I looked at him, and he nodded once.


From there I jumped, so high that I could feel the wind whip under my feet and my feet themselves on fire—and I sunk the perfect three-point shot. Nothing but ‘net, man. Swish. .


Nicole Cifani lives in San Francisco and is a student at the Writers Studio NYC. She is currently at work on a novel.


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