My friend James and I played basketball every Thursday afternoon when we lived together in Madrid. He was always exceedingly happy to play, although he would bitch, ad nauseum, about the Spaniards’ “bullshit” game.

“They can’t fucking dribble, T. And the fouls, fuck! This isn’t soccer, you hookers…I’m legitimately mad. Aren’t you? They hack you to pieces. You need to stop taking charges if you’re not going to call a foul.“ Hearing these tirades made me relax sometimes. He still had conviction.

On one particular afternoon, there was no Spanish bullshit. On this afternoon, four Americans ran court—a beleaguered cement court in Parque Oeste, a little west of the Arco de la Victoria, Generalissimo Franco’s pretty little door. James and I were engaged in a warm-up game of M-I-E-R-D-A, when we heard the thud of a basketball on the cement behind us. Mormons.

You can spot a Mormon on a mission from a mile away: Athletic, suspiciously Teutonic, clad in white starched, button-down short sleeves and a tie. Mormons especially stick out in Spain, so they’re usually easy to dodge. But sometimes the Latter-Day Saints come marching in from nowhere.

 

“Oh, hell no. It’s the tie guys,” James said, a little too loudly. I couldn’t help but snort. It was curious: James was raised a Baptist, but had for the most part abandoned whatever faith people had pumped through him during his youth. However, and I’ve found this to be the case with most people who have ostensibly forsaken their religion, he had a kind of “Hey, you can’t beat up my asshole little brother—only I can beat up my asshole little brother” mentality about the Church.

The two strapping LDSers came strolling up.

“Soy Moylen,” said Moylen, jamming his hand out. “Muchos gustos a conocerty.”

“I speak English,” said James.

“Hey, how about that!” said Moylen. “Where are you from? “

“Texas.”

“Cool!”

“Hi, I’m Xarek,” said Xarek, pumping his hand into mine.

“Hi, there.”

Proselytizers are like pistachios—intriguing, but seldom worth the trouble after it’s all said and done. I had a perfunctory talk with Xarek about my relationship with Jesus Christ, giving him just enough of a carrot to hunger after, while James practiced layups to avoid talking with Moylen. The two men, boys really, changed out of their “work” gear and into shorts and basketball shoes, but they left their shirts off.

“I guess we’ll be skins,” announced Moylen. Of course they would.

“You can shoot for outs,” said Xarek. I shot for James and me, missing. Xarek drained it. Mormon ball. Aside from being sculpted and in shape, these Mormons were good at basketball, executing passes with surgical accuracy between our legs, around our defending arms, above our overzealous heads. Have you ever seen two members of a religious sect execute a perfect alley-oop? I have.

“Cover him, Smith!” James roared. He called me by my last name when I frustrated him.

“Smith, get big.” James always used that expression when we’d be in line at some hallowed European tourist sight. James hated that nobody had any sense of decorum in the queue. “Getting big” entails swinging your arms out like a marionette on amphetamines and spreading your legs as wide as they’ll go to ensure nobody cuts around you in line. So, when James told me to “get big” against these mammoth lambs of God, I assumed it was a metaphor for defense. The only problem with playing defense at this moment was that Xarek and I were both covered in blood.

“Whoa, whoa. Somebody’s cut,” I said. I had blood smeared all across my shirt. I could taste the acrid syrup. Maybe I’d been hit in the lip. I felt nothing. “Hey, you okay?” I asked Xarek.

“Oh, yes. I’m fine.” Xarek had apparently taken the brunt of this mysterious injury. His face was covered in blood. The crown of thorns. “I feel nothing. Maybe I’m just sweating blood,” he giggled. I’m sure I fouled the shit out of him. I always do.

“Luke 22:43-44. Christ’s agony at Gethsemane,“ said Moylen.

“That’s right, Moylen,” Xarek grinned with smug approval.

“What the fuck?,” James whispered to me in passing. “These dudes aren’t right.” In an effort to reverse the throttling, James ordered me to switch up, so now I’d be covering Moylen who wasn’t covered in blood (yet), and who, James assured me, “wasn’t respecting my outside bombs.” “Tyler,” James went on, “I’m going to mix it up with that bitch-ass gory motherfucker down low and you drain threes on the other hooker. Word?”

“Word,” I said, with feigned confidence.

Down low soon began to look like a hematic sprinkler. A number of Spaniards descended onto the blacktop to watch this peculiar spectacle. In the paint, James and Xarek elbowed, shoved, shin-kicked, crab-blocked and generally banged away at each other like two deities in combat—a modern day Titanomachia. The Mormons continued to dominate and won the first game 21-6. My allegedly devastating three-point shot would not fall. “The fucking ball is covered in blood, James!”

“Don’t you make fucking excuses, T. FIGHT!” he screamed in my face, his teeth covered with a gruesome patina. “Do you understand, T?”

“Best two out of three?” asked Moylen. Any communication from the Mormons was now directed to me, as James refused to acknowledge them as anything but objects to beat the mortal shit out of. James had killing in him today. You don’t want to have killing in you too much of the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever had killing in me.

Game two became increasingly violent. Moylen threw an elbow that splashed into my nose, an extra avenue of blood flow, this time unattributable to divine magic on the Mount of Olives. I recoiled, but managed to drive the slick ball around him, and found James under the basket for a layup. I raced back to the outs line, received the ball back from James, checked and passed it back to him on the perimeter.

James intoned, “But with the precious blood of Christ…you cocksuckers. Bucket.” Ball in. James and Xarek, battling low for a rebound, slipped on the court, making obscene blood angels on the concrete. James roared up from the mess and lay the ball in. “Son of man coming with power and great glory….Bucket.” The Mormons kept silent during the second game, which we won, 21-12, James quoting scripture throughout.

I’ve always been impressed by people who can recite scripture, or poetry, or anything. I can barely remember “Fire and Ice,” the Frost poem that everybody learns in “Reciting Things 101.”

Game three began in heightened reality and ended in gauzy fog. We, the aging camels, the yellow camels, the angry, moving divine camels, started with too much intensity. I shot three errant bloodballs in a row, throwing James into a rage.

“Focus, T. Focus. Focus. Hit me low if it’s not falling. Fuck, Smith.” It wasn’t falling. But how can you stop? It feels right coming out of the hand, but when the shots don’t fall, the shots don’t fall. It would have to be James down low, outmatched, bloodied beyond recognition and snarling like the rat-faced man in the corner of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Christ Carrying the Cross.”

The basketball court was a ghastly sight. The backboard looked like a wall behind which executions took place. Blast radii of mammoth blobs of coagulating bloodsputum littered the court. Xarek and Moylen screamed at each other to play defense, to get open, to focus. They invoked scripture. They seemed rattled. Their ball.

Moylen drove to James’s left. I moved over a little to try and cut off his lane, but was waylaid by Xarek with a crushing pick. As I lay in a heap, Xarek stepped on my head and popped to the outside, behind the two-point line. James made a valiant effort to get a hand on Moylen’s outlet pass, but slipped and collapsed next to me on the wet concrete.

Xarek spoke before he shot: “Behold, I will give you the victory.” Bucket.

Final score:

Latter Day Saints: 21
Heretics: 19

Xarek and Moylen high-fived, their bloodstained bodies glistening in the Madrid sunlight. James began to weep. I’d only seen him cry once, when he talked about his mother. He was just a boy and thought she’d written the note after she’d done it. The poor kid. From that day on, his eyes were too wise for a child. They still were.

The crowd swarmed all over the Mormons, cheering, clapping, and slapping them on the back. Everyone was given a Book of Mormon and Moylen and Xarek went about their mission, their church, their victory.

I did my best to console James. “Let’s get a drink,” I suggested.

“We should have won that game, T,” he said, then went supervoid.

I, along with five other friends served as pallbearers for James. Outside the church, there was a long discussion about carrying the casket. We all naturally thought pallbearers had to carry the thing.

“Don’t worry, it rolls,” said some church official. Then there we were in a line, taking communion. Everything in a line. The priest had to get more wine. We raided the church stash—the blood of Christ was much more appealing than his body. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Nice try, Revelations. But we’re thirsty.

I walked around during James’s wake, carrying his basketball for three hours like a goddamned fool. What else do you do? You play basketball. So the pallbearers played a game of three-on-three with James’ basketball at his parent’s house while people looked sad, the way you’re supposed to look at these functions. Strange glances were thrown. It wasn’t the same. We should have won that game.

But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate…

TAGS: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Described as an "up-and-coming humorist" by Esquire, TYLER STODDARD SMITH's works have been featured in: The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes, The Best American Fantasy, Esquire, Meridian, Pindeldyboz, The Big Jewel, Yankee Pot Roast, Word Riot, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, and McSweeney's, among others. Visit his website at: http://tylerstoddardsmith.wordpress.com

34 responses to “The Missionary Positions”

  1. Wow, Tyler, this is good stuff. I typically dislike any story, fiction or non-, related to sports, but this was so well-written and funny that I couldn’t stop reading. And the ending, with all that came before it, was pretty powerful stuff. Nicely done.

  2. Hey, thanks Justin! I’m enjoying your work, too.

  3. Ahh, another club-banger, sun. I think more was on the line in that game than words can express.
    Maybe you lost, maybe you bled, but well, they bled too. Hmm, that was kind of fucked up of me; let me try again. You were there for your friend.

    P.S. These are my intials.

    P.I.S.S. I meant to mention: your command of the english language and just stuff in general is god-danged amazing. Stay BIG, young gun.

  4. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    “Proselytizers are like pistachios…” — I am going to quote this line whenever I can. Even when it doesn’t apply. Just because it’s that awesome.

    I was a bit blind-sided by the ending … but in good ways, in ways that made me reread this piece and find new layers to it.

  5. Ash Parker says:

    You are brilliantly creative and this was quite enjoyable.

  6. When I came to the line “Proselytizers are like pistachios….” I knew my comment was going to be something like “Proselytizers are like RED pistachios, they taste ok, but leave your hands looking like the stigmata.”

    And then, you know, came all the stuff about blood.

    I see this as more than a coincidence. Almost like a sign from Moroni.

  7. A sign from the Nephites indeed, Sean! I knew there was a reason I stepped in kitty litter this morning. Vengeance is thine.

  8. Dana says:

    Wow Tyler — I didn’t see that coming.

    You got big.

  9. Paul Querro says:

    I’m a big fan of your Texas Observer stuff, and this sort of autobiographical material is great too; your work always makes me think–in this case, about friendship, loss (of several kinds) and unique forms of redemption.

  10. Joe Daly says:

    Tyler, absolutely gutted by that sneak attack at the end. It had the unique effect of reaching back and shining a whole new light on the preceding paragraphs. Had to stop and rewind a couple times before proceeding, not because I was confused, but because I just didn’t want to go there. Pathos evoked.

    “But with the precious blood of Christ…you cocksuckers. Bucket.”

    Have to say this made me laugh out loud…

    It was at this point that I remember playing a game of soccer at 1 a.m. in a brightly lit field in the Swedish countryside. It was midsummer, so it was as bright at 1 a.m. as it was at noon. It had more cheap shots, elbows, and fists as any hockey or rugby game I ever played, and to this day rates as one of my most fun pick up games in history. There’s something exhilarating in using cheap shots to compensate for skill.

    • Joe, I couldn’t agree more. What I fail to mention in the above piece is how frequently my defense involves slapping my opponent in the testicles, then running. I thought it added to the pathos, but one doesn’t want to go on for too long, at least not about testicles.

  11. Zara Potts says:

    Shit.

    This is truly great.

    All those lovely little phrases tucked away in your prose:

    “But sometimes the Latter-Day Saints come marching in from nowhere..”

    ““Proselytizers are like pistachios…”

    And the piece about seeing James weep because he thought his mother wrote the note after she did it – sent a shiver down my spine. Seriously, I felt all the skin on my arms rise up at that. I had to stop then and take a long swig of my early coffee. Jesus wept.

    And the end. The blindsiding end. Damn. I’m sorry, Tyler. Stunning.

  12. I just came home from work and Greg started going on and on about your latest piece up on TNB and how I had to read it. I sighed. Read. Wasn’t disappointed. Not at all. Good stuff, Smith.

  13. Chris Harrod says:

    Thanks Tyler.

  14. Curtis says:

    Haunting and wonderfully raw. Vivid memories flushing back at me being by your side at the church. I miss our friend James.

  15. @Curtis and Chris. Thanks you guys. I miss our boy, too. Hope to see y’all soon. Do I hear an Orient Express road trip? (is that even a railroad anymore?)

  16. Sarah Sharp says:

    Wow Tyler…

    My brother sent me this. I so enjoyed it. Now I’m going to see what else I can find of yours to read 🙂

    Some day, we’ll have to talk about James. My mom was his mom’s best friend when she died. I have vivid memories of my mom sobbing out loud in church and the things she told me about Eugenia losing her mind. Poor James. The part about him weeping made me burst into tears.

  17. Brad Listi says:

    “Have you ever seen two members of a religious sect execute a perfect alley-oop? I have.”

    I’m fascinated by the Mormons.

    I’ve never met one that wasn’t among the nicest people I’ve ever met.

    And yet I find the tenets of the religion to be completely absurd.

    Joseph Smith and Moroni and the tablets and the polygamy and the…..

    **

    Fastest growing religion in the world, if I remember correctly.

  18. Mikey says:

    Having grown up in Utah County, I was rooting for you all the way through this. (church basketball there is indeed pretty hard core) Third game was a crushing defeat. Great writing, the story gave me a rush lol. I plan to share with friends. I also enjoyed the pistachio line : ).

  19. Kyle Weaver says:

    Tyler – you are awesome, bud. Awesome writer, awesome friend – basketball skills notwithstanding. Thanks for these stories. They help keep it all alive.

  20. Irene Zion says:

    Tyler,

    Were those your shoes covered in blood?
    Didn’t it worry you that there was so much blood in this game that it covered the ball and your shoes and various shirts and people’s faces?
    I don’t understand the sports thing, but this was funny, so I’ll grant you that I liked it in spite of it being about sports.

  21. Irene Zion says:

    Oh, and Tyler?

    Really good title.

  22. Simon Smithson says:

    “Down low soon began to look like a hematic sprinkler.”

    Something about this totally caught me.

    And, to sound off with the rest of the chorus, the sudden u-turn at the end of this piece caught me, too.

    Nice write, sir.

  23. Michele Bell says:

    Bravo Tyler. What a great story and a wonderful tribute to James. Love reading your witty and clever words.

  24. Marni Grossman says:

    This was terrifically funny. Until it wasn’t. Such power in the unexpected. Brilliant.

  25. Peter says:

    Love it, T… I had nearly forgotten how James loved to call people hookers…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *