The Ball Spun
I arrived at the playground with Armin. It was a late afternoon in June; the rays of sunshine broke through the thick white clouds in places, illuminating patches of the tramped grass. Armin’s parents had sent him another package, a brand-new soccer ball in it. It was yellow with blue spots. He held it close to his chest as we sauntered down the street to the playground.
Armin and I hung out regularly. He lived in my neighborhood with his grandma. Armin’s parents worked in Austria as guest workers. Most of his life he spent with his grandma, seeing his parents once a year. Armin had toys I’d never seen before: remote-operated cars built of high-quality steel, model planes, and handheld video games. He brought to school all sorts of foreign candy, neatly wrapped, colorful, with pictures of cartoon characters.
Armin talked a lot, while I was a quiet type. He talked so much on our way to school that we often ended up being late. When I stopped by his place before school, I’d find him in the bathroom in front of the mirror, looking at himself and combing his blond curls. “What do you think, Edi?” he’d say. “Looking good, man. That schmuck, Sinan, is a goner. Selma is my girl. Hey, let me show you a new thing I got.” He was never ready on time, and the school was three kilometers away—a long walk.
The playground was deserted. We started kicking the ball from one rusted goal post to another. A few minutes later, we noticed a group of boys walking towards us. They were in their late teens. As soon as we saw them we knew we were in trouble. After all, two eleven-year-olds stood no chance against a gang of high-schoolers. Their ring leaders were two brothers. The older brother, Kasim, was as dark as the asphalt on the road he’d just crossed. He was skinny and long—all limbs. His round head bobbed on top of his body like a ball with two black eyes perched above a bulbous nose. Kasim’s brother, Vedad, was a year younger. He had long, brown hair he’d always tie into a ponytail. Vedad was notorious for his vicious smile that revealed two long canines. He was short and sturdy, his legs sinewy and fast. He was the best soccer player in town.
Kasim intercepted our pass and took the ball. Vedad shouted, “Come on, man! Be nice and share.” Kasim kicked the ball hard to the other three boys trudging behind him.
“Give the ball back, assholes!” Armin blurted out, and before finishing the sentence he looked at me, surprised by his own words.
“Whoa, man! The kid’s got a foul mouth.” Kasim sniggered. “Isn’t that Aunt Zinka’s grandson?”
“Time to teach him a lesson,” Vedad said. He picked up the ball like a pro, bouncing it on his knees, his ponytail prancing up and down. “Tell me, little punk!” he said. “Whose ball is this? It’s damn good. Real leather. Made in Germany.”
“It’s mine,” Armin said.
“Of course, little chicken shit.” Vedad said. “Did your mama send it from Germany?”
“From Austria,” Armin shot back.
“Would you, please, give us the ball back?” I interjected.
“This one here is a nice boy.” Vedad nodded towards me and balanced the ball between his foot and his shin.
“Listen, nice boy,” he said. “I have an idea. You get the ball and we let you play if you two show us your kung fu skills.”
“No way,” Armin cried. “You guys will mow the lawn with us.”
“Who said we’d do anything?” Kasim said. “We don’t fight little pussycats. We want you to fight each other.”
“Why would we do that?” I said.
“Because that’s the only way you get the ball back. And if you beat this mama’s boy, the ball is yours. Isn’t that so, mama’s boy?”
Armin looked at me, then at Vedad and Kasim. “The ball is mine,” he said.
I held my gaze on Kasim and nodded hesitantly. As long as I could remember, the only soccer ball I ever had was a bubamara, which meant ladybug. The bubamaras were often the only choice for the working-class kids in Yugoslavia. They were made of cheap rubber and lasted only for a few weeks. After a couple of good games, bubamaras turned into sad-looking, egg-shaped spheres, their innards dangling through the ripped outer layer.
I was bigger than Armin and stronger. Armin was all mouth, that cocky fool. We both knew I could take him out easily. I walked over to where he stood and looked at him up close.
“Let’s do this,” Armin said and jumped on me, climbing on my shoulder. He got me in a choke hold and held me down with all his might. Everybody lined up around us, grunting, yelling, and laughing—Kasim and Vedad in the opposite corners. I steadied myself, not letting him push me down on my knees.
I wiggled out of Armin’s hold and was about to strike him, but Vedad and Kasim grabbed us and pulled us apart. I felt Kasim’s firm grip on my elbows.
“Listen,” he shouted over my head. “You two start when we say.” He shook my whole body as if to reset me and said, “Now you go.”
I was fast this time. I tackled Armin to the ground and shoved his face into the grass. Kneeling on his back, I bent one of his arms backwards and held it tight, twisting and bending it towards his shoulder blades. After a few minutes he stopped wriggling.
The brothers pulled us apart again. Vedad laughed and said, “Man, that was ugly. But fun.”
Gasping for air, I gaped at his wolf teeth. He’d drawn his lips up to his ears.
Armin was in tears. “Asshole!” he screamed at me. “You’ll pay for this.” He ran towards home.
Kasim took the ball in his hands and spun it on his forefinger. “Get lost, nice boy,” he said.
Three years later, Armin and I were on the playground again when eight-year-old twins, Mirza and Kenan, saw us from across the field and ran over to our side. They were both dark and so skinny that they looked like two roosters—their noses stuck out like two beaks, their small eyes peered from creased, dry skin. The boys looked like two old men trapped in children’s bodies. They were Roma kids. Their mother worked at the textile mill; their father was rarely around, but when he was home he’d wave at me and smile if he saw me walk by their house. We could never tell the twins apart, but this time one of them had scabs all over his head. His brother had only a few on his neck and elbows. The scabby one was Mirza.
“We want to play too,” Mirza croaked.
“Really, you little toad?” Armin raised his blond brows and smiled. “You want to play with the big boys?”
“Yes, of course,” Mirza said. His brother stood by him quietly.
“What can you give us for it?” I asked. I knew they had nothing to offer, but I liked to joke with them. The twins were dear to me.
“How about you put on a nice show for us?” said Armin. “You just have to fight a little, like in the movies.”
“You’re too big for us.”
“No, you chicken shit, you fight each other. The winner gets this ball.”
I looked at Armin askance. I couldn’t believe he’d give them the ball.
“Brothers fight,” I said.” You sometimes fight, don’t you?”
“Yes, we do. But Mama says if she sees us fighting again, she’ll break our arms.”
“Your mother is getting off work in an hour,” Armin said. “The ball is yours if you win.”
By now, Armin had six soccer balls and counting. His parents had brought him a ball every time they came to visit from Austria. Three years earlier, he had told his grandma about our fight. The day after he told her, I got a whipping from my father. A few months later, after we got over our fight, I asked Armin if he’d gotten his ball back. He shrugged and said he couldn’t care less. He was quiet all the way to school that day.
Mirza looked at his brother. Kenan was still silent. “Let’s do this,” Kenan said and
leaped onto Mirza.
They alternately held each other in chokeholds at first, squirming around like two hungry worms. We pulled them apart. “We’re taking a break,” I said, restraining Mirza from jumping on his brother again. I held him tight in my arms, his scabs close to my face.
“Let them go,” Armin said and pushed his twin into the middle of our circle. I released mine and he lunged ahead. We stepped back and watched them. I glanced at Armin. His lips were stretched into a smile, his foot resting on the ball.
The twins battered each other with their bony fists. Their knuckles found their heads and faces. Soon they both were bleeding. Kenan’s lip was cut open. Mirza’s nose was oozing blood. I ran over to Mirza and yanked him away. The scabs on his head were cut open and bloody too. He left red streaks on his brother’s shirt. They both were crying now. “I’ll kill him! I’ll kill the bastard,” Mirza hissed through tears and blood.
I pulled up the hem of Mirza’s shirt to his face, took his hand, and pressed it on his nose to stop the bleeding. In a calm but threatening tone, I said, “Go home, right away, before I beat the shit out of you.” His brother held his lip and mumbled something about cracking Mirza’s scabby head open. Mirza started running. Kenan scrammed after him. They both ran towards their home, their shirts torn and bloody.
I turned to Armin. His mouth was agape, his lips moving, but there was no sound. I looked down at the ball in front of him. It was unblemished, sparkly white with black spots and a large Adidas sign on it. An intense burn welled up from the pit of my stomach. I sprinted towards the ball and kicked it with all my might. The ball soared high into the broad blue sky.