Fathom Mag

Game Time

Published on:
December 1, 2022
Read time:
2 min.
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My first time stepping
onto the floor of a teen treatment center,
I re-enter high school gym class
with its circle of schoolyard toughs
stoned on testosterone,
flicking forked-tongued taunts at me.
Only this time,
one of the toughs hears voices

and though he tries
to swipe aside their suicidal insinuations
of loser, loser, loser, he’s pacing
like the best player taken out of the game.
He sees snakes
coiling out through the locks on the doors
into his pores. He holds
his head in his hands,
trying not to lose it. He’s telling me
the only thing that will help is a game. Something
that he can win.

I hated basketball—that thunderous dance rudely
reminding my muscles
of a crouched and writhing failure
still wincing, waiting for someone to pick me
or at least teach me how to play.
But I’ve come back to the gym to work
on my shot at night
while everything sleeps except my squeaky sneakers,
the ball, my snickering co-workers, the hope
that practice will pay off come game time,
and the fear that it won’t. 

As he paces, the boy starts screaming,
if he doesn’t do something, he’s going
to silence the hissing in his head once and for all
by bashing his brains out upon the wall
and I hear a voice—maybe mine—telling him,
Better hustle then, because if we play,
you got to keep up with me.

No half-ass dribble down the line to quit
when you miss your first lay-up.
You got to bust out or go bust. Pound the ball harder
than the pounding in your brain. Drive it down the court.
Hang onto it and don’t lose
your head. Don’t look at the devils

boa-constricting around the sturdy branches
of your legs and neck.
Look out for me. I am real and I’m going to try
to take it from you.
It’s going to seem
like I want you to lose, but look up
and you might just see
that you’re winning
and that the voices,
like a fading echo,
have less
and less
to say. 

Shaun Anthony McMichael
Shaun Anthony McMichael is the editor of two collections of poetry by youth affected by trauma, mental illness, and instability: The Shadow Beside Me (2020) and The Story of My Heart (2021). Since 2007, he has taught writing to students from around the world, in classrooms, juvenile detention halls, mental health treatment centers, and homeless youth drop-ins throughout the Seattle area. Over sixty of his short stories, poems, essays, author interviews, and book reviews have appeared in literary magazines, online, and in print. He lives with his wife and son in West Seattle. Follow him on Instagram (@samcmichael), LinkedIn (@shaunmcmichael), and Twitter (@McmichaelShaun).

 Cover image by Kylie Osullivan.

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