The Magic Ball Ali Massa
I remember when I was a little girl, at the age when I would crave to put on lipstick and redden my cheeks with rouge and my mother wouldn't let me, Paolo and his little brother would come to the park and play in the sand, packing it together to build roads, bridges and squat rectangular houses. They would labour many hours till the sun went down and the park emptied of people. I would watch them from a distance while playing with other girls and showing off how well I could bounce my ball on the ground. The concentration and imagination of the two boys, forgetful of the world around them, intrigued me. Every time they came to the park the scope of their work grew ever larger. I knew Paolo by name because that's what I always heard his brother call him. Paolo barely spoke while his little brother mimicked the sound of cars roaring up and down sandy roads.
One evening, at dusk, when most people had left the park, I pranced around the two brothers, showing off the large green, yellow, and red ball that I had just got as a present. For some reason that evening Paolo seemed very irritable; he rushed towards me, grabbed the ball from me and threw sand in my eyes. What a hateful thing to do! I felt hot tears swell in my eyes, I ran home and cried and cried, bitter with the whole world.
"What happened to you? Why are you crying? Where is your ball?" asked my mother.
I wept without replying.
"Cry little girl, cry when there is still time to cry about little things," said my mother. She herself had cried much when her husband, my father, had died in a disastrous accident several years earlier.
My mother had dotted on me and sheltered me from the meanness and the brutality of other people. Paolo's behaviour was the first that I could remember involving spite and violence. Till that time I had never imagined that other people, boys and girls, could be so brutish and mean.
The next day I went back to the park with shaky steps and waited for Paolo and his brother to show up. They did not, and I played with some other girls in the park. I never saw the two brothers again, and I was both relieved and saddened at the same time.
I grew up, forgetting the two brothers, but still with the sting of a first hurt lodged somewhere deep in my mind, like a stuffed hole in my brain. By nature I was trusting with people, until such time that I saw their spite and they managed to enlarge the first hurt that Paolo had lodged in my mind. There was Harry, who when I was sixteen showered me with attention, invited me out to a dance party and spat at me when I refused to kiss him. I grew hateful of adolescent boys and young men.
I developed in school the reputation of being an arrogant girl full of biting sarcasm. In truth, I had become cynical of a world that had too many dark sides to it, too many cracks where one expected a smooth surface. Harry had seemed so nice, and handsome. I was in near love with him. His full lips, his laugh, and his sense of humour thrilled me, but then he became forceful and spat at me. I dare say if he had been more gentle and persuasive I would have let him kiss me despite myself. I cried after he left, the way I had cried after Paolo had thrown sand in my eyes, though this time my feelings were less bitter and I was more angry.
I distanced myself from all that was male. I was not only angry with clumsy men, but also with women who put up with such men. They said that I was arrogant, and that I would suffer for it. Growing up those years in school was a difficult business. It was difficult to escape the swarm of boys and girls in school and out of school who constantly compared and tested each other, who were trying to find a foothold outside the stale sanctity of their parental homes. They judged and taunted each other. They thought me arrogant because I was contemptuous of the male gender while I had a nice body and face. They thought Camilla was a dish because, though she too vilified males, she had a flat face and curly hair. Everyone envied Fiona because she was beautiful and all the boys talked about her. She was a cunning animal who smiled at the boys, kept some happy, and tormented the others.
After school I found a job in the accounting department of a large company. The work was dull, but I enjoyed it at first. It felt a relief to leave behind the taunt and chatter of girls and boys. It felt good to be grown up, working and earning. It was easier to buy the clothes I liked, and I had my own apartment, high up overlooking stretches of the city and the lake. I met many people in the office and once or twice I went out with them for a few drinks after a long day at work. I met Nick. He helped me with my work. He often felt hot, flushed and nervous near me. He would pass his hand through his hair, thinning at the top of his head, and speak with a dry mouth. At one busy time of the year we spent many hours together attacking piles of papers. We talked mainly about office matters as we worked, about the function of the different departments and the lives of the different people who worked in them. He told the story of one senior manager who was a transvestite and was almost picked up by another senior manager at a bar one night. He crackled with laughter as he told the story. He always seemed quietly charged with energy and excitement when he was near me. Other people remarked. Many days later, he came up to me near the photocopying machine and confessed that he really liked me and would like to marry me. I was not surprised and said in a matter of fact way that I'd think about it. A week later while taking coffee together he asked me if I'd thought about it.
"About what?" I asked.
"You know about that," he said nervously.
"You're not serious, are you?" I asked.
"Yes, I am," he said solemnly.
"Okay... then let's do it," I said in a matter of fact way and turned away to go back to my office.
Soon after Nick became my husband he was transferred to an African country and I went with him in great expectation of an adventurous life. We lived in a dusty little town in a large bungalow. We kept a large docile dog and several stray cats attached themselves to us. We lived in a community with other foreigners who had descended on this little town all to do with oil and mining. We entertained and mixed with each other, living a separate world from the native countrymen. We went on a safari once or twice.
Nick headed the company's local branch operation and very quickly he busied himself with work at the office so that I would rarely see him. Initially, I spent time socializing with the wives of the other foreigners there, and then I decided to take up photography. I found I could easily forget Nick and engross myself with taking pictures of people and the landscape. I enlarged and framed many of them. Nick, who had now lost even more of his hair, would say "Ah , another pretty picture... yes, yes, I like it". He could never define what he liked about them. He would just try to be nice and look forward to the work awaiting him the next day at the office.
One afternoon I wandered to the edge of town in search of some unusual scenery to photograph. I found a group of raggedly dressed boys raking up dust while playing with a ball below a large forlorn tree. The sky above them was pristine blue, while the earth behind them stretched to the horizon with a uniform yellow-brown flatness. I raised my camera to capture the sense of futility that I saw in the action of the boys kicking away at a ball on the face of a barren landscape. Before I could take my shot the boys saw me and came running towards me.
"Hello, Miss! Yes, Miss take photo, Miss! Miss!" they all cried together, fouling the composition of the scene I had in mind. I made to retreat.
"Take me photo, Miss! Take photo!" they yelled as I tried to ignore them.
"Like ball Miss?" asked one of the boys and he playfully threw the dusty ball at my feet. I picked it up, and a faint trace of recognition swept my mind. It looked exactly like the green, yellow and red ball that Paolo had snatched from me eons ago. Indeed it was, I was sure of it! My heart leapt and I asked one of the boys in an urgent voice:
"Where did you get this ball?"
The boys were puzzled by my sudden interest in the ball.
"Mister Pellini gave us," said the largest one of the boys.
"Gave you? Which Mr. Pellini? Where does he live?" I asked. The boys probably stole it from the man, I thought to myself.
"He gone last year," replied the same boy.
"Here take this, and I'll take the ball," I said, and delving into my pocket I pulled out a large handful of change and doled out several coins to each one of the boys.
"Okay?" I asked.
They were awestruck from the sudden luck that seemed to have fallen on them. They smiled at me timidly.
I carried the ball home, the boys chasing me a good length of the way. I washed it and examined it carefully. It was an unusual ball, garishly spotted with green, yellow and red shapes. Yes, it was quite definitely the very same ball that I had lost to Paolo. So not only had Paolo -- Paolo Pellini no doubt (I had never known the his last name) -- been living in this very town in the middle of nowhere until recently, but he had also kept as a souvenir the ball he had grabbed from me so many years earlier (that is until such time that he had lost it to the boys). I fell into wonderful daydreaming.
The next few days I made discreet inquiries about Mr. Pellini. Nobody seemed to remember him. I was a little disappointed.
Life continued for me taking pictures, until I got tired of it, and I got tired of Nick, with his shiny scalp, his anodyne comments about my work, and his lack of interest in me. I decided to leave him. We separated amicably and I flew back home alone.
I arrived in Chicago on a grey December day. My heart sank as the aircraft flew over a morass of roadways and dull concrete buildings and landed below an uneventful monotone grey sky. I took a taxi to a friend's place. Within a few days I found a job in the accounting department of another large company, moved to an apartment on the north side of the city, and renewed a dull life.
Spring followed the cold dreary months of Winter. Trees and flowers began to blossom again, and I took long walks across the city to forget the day's fret and deliberate about myself and the alienation I felt in my life. I remembered the ball that I had carried with me from Africa.
It passed several times through my mind to look up Paolo, now that I knew his surname, to give him a call, to find out how he'd grown up. He was bound to be listed in the phone book, if indeed he had returned to Chicago. But then, what would I tell him, that I had found a ball in Africa that belonged to him -- that really belonged to me?
One evening I happened to be walking along a street far from home, passing and gazing at shops. A large sign above a glass-fronted shop made me stop. It read: "Pellini's Magic Toy Shop".
"Pellini?" I inevitably thought to myself, "Does Paolo run a toy shop?"
I passed the shop and walked several blocks down. However, I could not stop from wondering if it was indeed Paolo's shop that I had passed. I traced back my steps and once again faced the shop, and after agonizing and deliberating, I sheepishly made to enter it. A bell rang as I opened the narrow entrance door and I saw a large man shuffle behind the cash register. There was nobody else in the shop.
"Hallo," said the man, "can I help you?"
"No-o," I said rather nervously, "I'm just looking around."
"Please do," the man said in a gruff but pleasant voice, and returned to occupy himself with a stack of papers.
I walked around the shop for a long time looking at the toys on the shelves without seeing them. I finally resolved to speak to the man:
"Are you Paolo?"
"Yes, why? Do we know each other?"
"Y-no, no... weren't you in Africa?"
"Ye-es. How do you know?"
"Oh, because you left a ball there."
"A ball? What ball?" Paolo looked puzzled.
"Didn't you leave behind a ball speckled with green, yellow and red colours?"
Paolo smiled, "Ah yes, now I know what you mean."
I smiled at him with pleasure. So he remembered the ball!
"You mean this kind of a ball?" he said, bending below the counter and producing that exact same type of ball.
"A-ah, ye-ess," I said my jaws dropping.
"They are called Magic balls. I have them made specially."
"O-oh," I said, thinking of the silly thoughts that had passed through my mind.
"Here take it. I always offer it to friends."
"T-Thank you, thank you," I said while uneasily shuffling my feet.
"It has a beautiful story behind it," he continued, "I will tell you."
"Do, please do," I said.
"Long ago, when I was a boy, a beautiful girl gave me the same kind of ball out of friendship. I fell in love with the ball, and when I grew up and started my own toy business I had them specially made for me. I sometimes give them to the friends I make, like those boys whom I met while I travelled in Africa. They were a fine bunch..."
"Li-ar!" I involuntarily cried out.
"Liar? What do you mean?" he asked quite placidly.
"Uh, nothing, " I said, stopping myself.
"I am about to close shop now. Can I invite you for a drink? We can talk about our experiences in Africa."
"Sure," I said looking at his large face with dark shiny eyes, bristling eyebrows and a long angular nose.
He closed the shop and we walked to a nearby caf. We crossed a park on the way. There was loose sand lying alongside the pathway. I took a fistful and threw it in Paolo's eyes.
"Liar!" I said half-mocking, half-laughing.
Paolo dusted his face and cleared his eyes, and looking at me abashedly said, "So you're that girl!"
We laughed, remembering that moment of a long ago.
I asked him why he had been so mean to me.
He said, " I did it impulsively. Maybe I was jealous. I liked you and I thought I would never see you again because my father was being transferred and we were leaving the country."
"Leaving the country? Where did you all go?"
"We left for an African country, my father worked for a mining company there."
"That must have been quite an experience."
"It was... It was sad also..."
"Sad? I am sorry to hear that. Why?"
"We lost my bother there."
"You mean your brother -- your brother who used to play in the sand with you?" A picture of his hunched form packing sand to build the four walls of a house while making odd noises passed through my mind. It was a hazy and distant picture, and yet close, and now sad.
"A gunman shot him in the back of his head and he did not survive. Nino," -- so that was his name -- "he was the one who took and kept your ball after I grabbed it from you."
"How dreadful! Who was the gunman, why did he do that?"
"Just a man from the village who was drunk."
We had stopped to talk in the park. We made to walk again, very slowly. The world seemed such a bitter place.
A soft breeze blew our way, reminded us that it was Spring, and renewed us.
"I have learnt to forget," Paolo said, "not necessarily to forgive, but to forget. In this sometimes chaotic and random world, it is the best remedy for the mind," and having said that he laughed softly and clutched my arm. I let him, with the mixed feelings of a horrid world, human rancour and the softness of Spring melded as one large cloud inside me.
We reached the cafe to which we had headed, entered it, found a table in the back, and sat down, almost mechanically. It was rather dark inside while the paling sun splashed the sky with orange outside. The stems of trees, swollen with the young buds of leaves, swayed with the occasional sweep of the wind and seemed to scratch the thickening blue and orange surface of the sky.
We sat in the cafe and continued to talk. He had never married because life had led him different ways. He had studied to become a lawyer, but finding it too dull to his liking never took up the profession. He travelled in different parts of the world. He enjoyed meeting the different people he came across and liked the itinerant lifestyle that was carefree. He came back to Chicago to take up different jobs, and then decided to start his own business. Since he liked children he opened the toy store. It was fun and he could do other things on the side. He travelled once in a while to buy toys from different parts of the world or to have toys made to his liking, like the Magic balls.
He offered to show me the very original ball that started this story of mine. I accepted to see it. At length, we took a taxi to his apartment. By now it was dark and the sky overcast. A light rainfall began as the taxi wound its way through the streets. When we arrived and got out of the taxi we felt the feeble drops of rain drizzle on us. We ran across the sidewalk to the entrance of the apartment and took the elevator to the top floor. Paolo lived in a pleasant modern apartment, spacious and well-furnished, with a wide view of the lake.
"What a nice view," I said looking out to the dark waters of the lake shimmering below the orange and white lights of the city.
"Yes, isn't it?" Paolo replied while putting away our coats, "Would you like a drink? I have beer, wine... I can fix you a cocktail..."
"Wine will be fine, thanks."
"Red or white?"
"Oh, whatever... whatever you have that is nice -- I'll let you decide," I said unable to decide with my eyes stuck to watching the unmoving flat dark surface of the lake far down below.
"Well then, why don't we pop open this bottle of champagne?" and he retrieved a bottle of Dom Perignon.
"Oh," I said, "I love good champagne." And it passed through my mind that he must do good business at his shop.
"The toy shop is just a hobby, you know, I make my money trading in the exchange," he said of his own accord as though reading my mind.
The cork popped out of the bottle and white froth poured down its sides. He filled two tall glasses and we drank standing up looking out of the window. He nudged near me.
"Where is the ball?" I asked moving away and sitting down on a large florid sofa. I also turned on the lamplight beside it. I noticed the room was painted a pale pink.
"The ball? Ooh, the ball!" he exclaimed, "Let me go fetch it!" He left the room to rummage somewhere in the back of the apartment. I could hear him dragging and opening boxes. After a short while, he came out dusting and brushing his hair with his hand.
"Here it is," he said, holding out a round beaten up ball. I took it from him and examined it. The ball was scratched all over and the colours had faded.
"Take it -- it is yours," Paolo said at length.
"I'll take -- it always was mine, " I replied laughing dryly.
His eyes twinkled. I got up to leave.
"Must you leave so soon?" he asked with a frown lining his face.
"Yes, I must," I replied with a firm voice with no intention of giving a reason.
He accompanied me to the door, helped me put on my coat, and tried to kiss me. I slid away from him and ran down the steps to gain the street. It had stopped raining and the night had cooled.
"Taxi!" I yelled, and as I got into it I gave the driver directions to go to the lake, to stop somewhere, anywhere, where I could reach the waters.
When the taxi stopped, I got out of it and walked to the water's edge with slow deliberate steps. I listened to the water run on to the shore. I took the ball in my hands and punctured it with my fingers. It was easy for it had gone soft with age. I filled with rocks and pebbles lying on the shore and threw it into the dark water. It made a low splashing sound and I lost it from sight. I got back into the taxi and went home.
I had cast away the ball into the sinister waters of the lake quite instinctively. Perhaps, because it had carried so much pain. The pain of Nino's death. The pain of the first hurt in my life. Paolo had been a brute in that moment of childhood though he had not meant to be. Though it was all explained now, he had been like all men, causing pain whether they meant it or not. With the ball busted and floundering beneath the dark waters of the lake, I hoped to exorcise that part of the pain which had stuck to me. It was not my pain. It was a pain that someone else had caused through obtrusion and rejection. I had let it grow and envelope me. Now I wanted it outside of me. I reclined on my bed below the darkness of the night and felt like the ball at the bottom of the lake, dull and immobile.
When, several days later, Paolo asked me what I had done with the ball, I told him:
"I have placed it at the bottom of the lake, so that it does not hurt me anymore."
He looked at me with a quizzical look, and a rabid urge came over him to kiss me. This time I let him.
"I don't understand you," he said after a while.
"Then don't," I said.
"It's a magic ball, you know," he said with a smile.
"A magic ball..." I wondered to myself. It now lay deflated deep below water having magically brought us together.
Copyright (c) 1995 Ali Massa Published on the World Wide Web by "www.storymania.com"