The Best of the J. Blythes by Chandler Cowart
2008. Hurricane season. It was the beginning of fall in the Deep South. Granted, the
leaves didn’t change all that much, beyond the transformation from green to brown, alive to
dead, and the difference between the summer prior and the current weather was hardly
discernable. But it was the beginning of fall, and that meant abundantly more than temperature.
Amid the trepidation of what might or might not happen and how it could possibly compare with
the scenes in their heads, youngsters were beginning to merge their illusions with their realities.
God knows it’s scary as hell in every beginning for certain kids. Regardless, the school year was
finding its rhythm. Parents, feeling as if a cinderblock just heavy enough to be annoying was
lifted off their chests, were taking this season in with a tad too much excitement and enthusiasm.
Of course, they wanted the best for their kids and were, to some degree, genuinely happy for the
progression of their lives, but self-interest is impossible to totally eradicate. This leads to some
acting, but don’t exhaust yourselves with pointing out everything that’s fake. You’ll die long
before you’re done. Anyway, this was fall. As the weather would slowly but surely become
colder, everyone, no matter where they were, would get a little bit older.
As for the Blythe family, this fall was just the present. They were hardly conscious of
anything more than the expectant feeling of the newness that was forthcoming. There was no
concern for whether the year would be positive or negative, but just the fact that things would
change and develop was enough to get excited about. That’s the way it works with people. They
crave the routine until it gets lost on them. Then, even the notion of an advancement entices their
spirits regardless of consequences. However, this advancement cannot be outside the realm of
approval. If people can comfortably get on with a circumstance, they can manage their situations.
But, if they are thrown something that destructs the comprehension of what their standard of life
should resemble, that is when sanity collapses. The conditioned society says: a bad thing that is
expected is accepted, but even a good thing that is unfathomed is rejected. For James and Jackie
Blythe, these ideas didn’t exist yet. As fourteen and ten-year-old boys, life was far too
immediate. It was the football game. It was the pretty girl at school. It was the friends who were
true. It was the imperfect family that loved them the most. And, it was the brother who was
always there to fight with.
The greater part of the day had retired, and the sun was almost fully descended. It was the
mark of just-finished work-days, before people would assemble for dinner. For James and Jackie,
this in-between period was primetime and the setting for many forms of competition. It would
later be referred to in memoriam as “The Best of the J. Blythes.” Athletics certainly played the
prominent role in these championship events, but perhaps the most intense, most magnificent,
and absorbing spectacles manifested themselves from the brothers’ imaginations. James and
Jackie had an uncanny ability for manufacturing oxymoronic entertainment. Instead of drowning
in the extinction of boredom through fatal, mind-numbing intake, they enlivened the mundane
and so painted their world with infectious enthusiasm for exactly the sort of things others didn’t
think to recognize. A house became a battleground and the lawn became the stadium. Sports and
games with their specific rules were only loose suggestions. Traditionalism, plainly, had become
uninspiring, leaving a crucial void. Thus, The Best of the J. Blythes delivered to serve and
encourage their creativity for something that would be more. Nevertheless, under the mirage of
the made-up, certain things did remain sacred. One-on-one basketball was one of these. There
may have been characters and backstories. There may have been stipulations. There may have
been façades. But nothing ever masked what this was all really about: the brothers’ craving to
best the other in every possible way.
On this particular evening, James and Jackie Blythe went mano-a-mano. As the sun
merged itself with the fence-line of their backyard, hues of pink and blue set the stage on their
mediocre driveway, a make-shift court that deserved championship use in the eyes of its
beholders. The pavement was certainly cracked and weedy in more than a few places, and the
steel poled, grounded basketball goal was disproportioned to the undulated cement spotlight so
that there was far more room on the left than the right side. James and Jackie played no games as
great as the ones played in that measly driveway of their childhood home.
“8-5,” Jackie said. His voice was monotone and hardly heard as he intentionally didn’t
look his brother in the eye. But his face spoke much louder. In his attempt to seem controlled and
composed, pressure-induced stiffness colored his intensity and James could see it. Ole Jackie
actually saw his opportunity to win this time. It had suddenly become real to achieve this first.
But, as any thing that has never been done before, it never quite seems possible or attainable in
reality. James, on the other hand, relished this sort of psychological warfare with his brother. He
took pleasure in giving way to the visual appearance of hope in his competitor only to then steal
it away through superior performance. He would get more glory this way and winning would
simply taste sweeter.
Jackie checked the ball, and James passed it back to him with a smirk. His little brother
didn’t respond. Jackie, too focused and under too much self-inflicted pressure, recognized that he
was only three points from winning the game, which was played to eleven. This meant that he
only needed one one-point bucket and one two-point bucket. And with ripple of belief, Jackie
fancied himself a worthy adversary for his brother. Thus, he had to prove it to himself more than
anything, which is something he didn’t really understand.
Jackie took the ball and made a few dribbles as he sized up his opponent. He seemed to
look at James’s waist, while James demeaned down to his brother’s face excitedly. With a
sudden twitch, Jackie went right, attempting to drive to the goal for a layup or at least a foul.
However, James was all too aware that his brother hardly had a left hand. He blocked off the
right lane with the angle of his defensive stance, forcing Jackie to either bring the ball back out
or to drive left. Jackie, being predictable as he was when his first option didn’t work according to
plan, resorted to his default: a fadeaway two-point shot. Even before the shot was completely
released from his brother’s hands, James displayed his pleasure at winning the exchange. The
basketball clanked off the rim and bounced out of bounds into the yard. Jackie retrieved it and
checked it to James. Extremely quick and with apparent ease, James rattled off two layups. 8-7.
He was enjoying it with trademark James expressions, which were partly for amusement and
partly to solidify his presence in Jackie’s head. Regardless, the two were one and the same. On
his next offensive possession, however, James opted to try and take the lead, but the ball
simultaneously bounced off the rim and backboard and went flouncing into Jackie’s eager hands.
Being the eternal optimist, Jackie knew he would get the ball back before it was said and done.
Nobody knows about irrationally expecting success like that of a competitive younger brother.
He unsurprisingly got the rebound and took it back behind the 2-point line. The pressure had
slightly subsided in the last few minutes. Jackie now felt as if he had tasted some failure, yet he
was still in it, and in fact still had the lead. He could relax a little. Feeling the sustain of belief,
his confidence became established. Jackie dribbled around for far too long in apparent
rumination, but in an instant, he stepped back and shot up a two-point shot. Now, it must be said
that this was one of his lucky shots for which he was infamous, though he always adamantly
claimed it was skill and felt misunderstood at his core when someone thought otherwise. At any
rate, in this game or any other game in which he drained the unlikely, pivotal shot, the
calculation and calibration, in terms of how his intentions were translated mentally to physically,
didn’t matter. It turns out the basketball as it submits to the laws of physics doesn’t give a shit
about intentions. It simply goes where it’s told. Nothing else. And in this game, to make the
score 10-7, Jackie told that damn ball, in quite miraculous fashion, to force itself in the hoop. But
of course, it was just as he expected. Still, it was humorous to hear ole Jackie’s logic collapse
when he complained about unfortunate bounces or the ball not following his instruction. He was
classic human nature, trying to manipulate truth to fit his everchanging terms. Infinite
rationalization-bias. James just laughed in disbelief. The feeling of unjust defeat so close to him,
it could only seem somewhat bizarre.
“Lucky.” James said with enjoyment as he checked the ball.
Jackie restrained the excitement on his face and took the ball. “It’s not luck. It’s skill.”
Being 1 point away from winning the game, Jackie prepared to score the epic bucket.
But, James didn’t give him any room to breathe this time. His defense was a controlled
desperation, as he spared no physical advantage. Jackie was being smothered by his brother, and
in his overzealous attempt to use tricks, the ball was quickly stolen and taken for a layup. 10-8,
but not the end of the world. Jackie wasn’t surprised, but a faint expectation of the worst snuck
across his mind. Now, his optimism was a choice. It had to become voluntary, but no less strong.
In a moment, Jackie slowly trotted over to pick up the ball, which was resting solemnly
against the steel pole attached to the goal. He bent down gingerly and tossed it to his brother.
“I have to poo.” He said.
The words had hardly left Jackie’s mouth before James was exasperated. “Gah Lee!” He
said floundering dramatically.
“Well hurry the hell up!” he ordered.
Jackie didn’t respond. He just ungracefully tottered his way into the bathroom and onto
The process was longer than usual, and though it was relieving in the sense of being rid
of a burden, there was no enjoyment or comfort involved. In fact, it was more hassle than
anything. To wipe and see the same result time after time is maddening, and for Jackie, it led to
anger and haste. Fortunately, the anguish ceased as he eventually finished.
Flushing the toilet, Jackie hurriedly pulled up his pants and fidgeted until everything was
agreeable. He turned around and faced the mirror. His state of rush was suddenly gone, and his
face soberly reflected back at him. It stared. Jackie began to analyze his countenance, moving it
back and forth from left to right. Baby fat informed his cheeks as the identifiable quality in his
face. They were especially prominent given his relatively thin figure, and the girls he knew
always commented on them. Jackie never knew how to take this, but he didn’t think he liked it.
He had his mother’s face, typified by the high cheek bones and the way their face creased when
smiling. But like his father, his hair was dark brown, almost black, and he had a cow-lick in the
front right of his hair line and an unintentional duck-tail in the back. When he was younger,
Jackie had the same hair cut as his dad and they had looked just alike. Today, his hair was long
and thick, as it began to protrude up on the top and out on the sides. It was a mop, but he pushed
it to the side and he liked the way it flowed. More hair suited his face. It was still warm outside,
so Jackie’s Scandinavian skin, from his mother’s side, was still tan and vibrant, which
accentuated the glint in his eyes. Being the genetic union between his mother and father, his eyes
were the culmination. Taking the identifiable trait in each of them, Jackie’s eyes became his
own. The striking turquoise-blue from his father and the thorough green from his mother each
colored his own iris, independently. Turquoise on the outside, and green on the inside.
Jackie stood there, peering, and thought about himself. He thought about who he was,
and more specifically how his appearance reflected that identity. After some time, he felt the blur
and confusion that comes with scratching the surface of something you aren’t quite able to or
ready to grasp, so he put it out of mind and ran outside to resume the basketball game with
James. He did not wash his hands.
James was entertaining himself just fine. Imagining and envisioning, he was working on
his craft, honing specific moves and shots as if there was a defender guarding him. However, as
soon as Jackie came back into the picture, James exclaimed. “Finally!”
“It was not an enjoyable shit.” Jackie replied as he trotted over to pick up the ball James
had just shot. They laughed.
“It’s 10-8 me, though. I’m about to win.”
“Guarantee you don’t, ya ignoramus fool”
“That makes no fricking sense. You realize that, right?”
James just laughed. “Check the ball, ya ignoramus fool”
The ball was checked, and James began to dribble between his legs tauntingly. He was
practically baiting Jackie into being stupid and reaching. The little brother tried to pull a fast one
and steal a possession, but James quickly brought the ball behind his back to the left and finished
with a smooth finger roll. Jackie didn’t even waste his time trying to get back and contest it. 10-
9. The very next possession, James attempted this trick again. He stood there behind the two-
point line slowly dribbling right in front of Jackie’s face, but this time he had learned. Instead of
getting greedy, Jackie just stood there hoping to contain his brother’s drive to the basket. James,
all of a sudden, took the ball up, preparing to shoot a go-ahead two-point shot. It was a pump
fake, but Jackie didn’t fall for it. James had lost his dribble and now he had no choice but to
throw up a two-point shot. Jackie realized this and quickly crowded him, and he put his right arm
up and in James’s face to obstruct his vision. James stood there and used his right pivot foot to
create space, but Jackie’s hand was right in front of his eyes.
“Bro, there’s shit on your hand!” James stepped back and dribbled the ball away from
immediate exposure to Jackie.
This transition happened so suddenly that Jackie was utterly confused. “What?” But as he
said this, he had just then realized what happened. He looked at his right hand and became aware
that a brown smudge of poo had stained a sliver of his palm. Not knowing any other way to
respond, he just immediately laughed in surprise.
“That’s disgusting, dude.” James scowled.
Jackie just continued smiling with a puzzled expression, as he ran back inside.
He went back to the same bathroom that fortunately didn’t smell so bad at all. He hardly
looked in the mirror this time. He just washed his hands until the smudge was gone, and he felt
slightly embarrassed. It was only his brother, but he didn’t want to disappoint him, and this
somehow felt like that. Surely he was better than this, he thought.
Jackie, yet again, ran outside to resume this basketball game, not forgetting that so much
was on the line.
“I’m about to kick your ass, James!” He was laughing.
James halfway smiled, but he still looked grossed out by Jackie. “Make sure to wipe your
“Very funny. Just play the game. And you know what! You can’t have your dribble. We
need to get back in the same—”
“No way. That’s your own fault. Gotta’ learn how to wipe one way or another. Check the
ball.” James was suddenly delighted for two reasons. He had a new possession and he had a new
easy way of making fun of his little brother. Jackie just shook his head, noticeably frustrated, and
checked the ball. “10-9,” He said.
Above the brothers, the once warm sky had cooled over. The color had faded to varying
degrees of gray, pregnant with looming clouds. The two of them made no mention of the
changed setting. James, in relishing his brother’s youth, was admittingly allowing himself to
have fun in this game. However, as sure as the storm began to interrupt, he had resolved to wrap
it up. He faked right and quickly drove left for an easy layup. Now, the introductory drizzle had
reached its crescendo, and the boys looked at each other expectantly. “Come on! We have to
finish!” Jackie belted. James just laughed and proceeded, albeit hastily. He immediately shot the
two-point shot, which raddled in, much to his pleasure. He celebrated ostentatiously, as he ran
into the house. Ballgame. 12-10, James. And that’s the way it is: moments that feel so
momentous often conclude with abrupt letdown and nobody’s questions are answered.
Meanwhile, Jackie just stood there in the rain, conscious of his very real disappointment
at blowing his one opportunity, motionless. He appeared dejected, and was, to a degree. But this
passed rather quickly and lapsed into another state altogether. He became more sentient to a
peculiar feeling. That perhaps it didn’t matter as much as he thought. This of course couldn’t be
true. Beating his brother was everything. This was proving himself. This was pronouncing his
existence, that he was capable. Yet he just stood there staring at the basketball, as it
progressively waterlogged. He was getting drenched as well, but he and the basketball were
stationary, and he was unfeeling. The basketball continued to swell.
James must have taken notice that his brother never came in, because Jackie’s reverie
was interrupted. “Jackie! What are you doing?”
“I don’t know! Nothing.” Jackie ran and got the ball, which would certainly never be the
same after the downpour and followed James into the house for the night.
Mr. Blythe was stationed in his burgundy recliner. This was very usual, so as to be fairly
understood as “Dad’s spot,” but it was not a rule empowered by slothful patterns. It was the sign
that the man had finished his work for the day, and his preferred method for exhausting the
evening was in place. Mr. Blythe stayed prudently up-to-date on current affairs and watched the
news every day. This trickled-down to little Jackie and James every once in a while, though they
often just found it to be more depressing than anything. “There’s always something to be upset
about, Dad. When will the news ever tell us, ‘Well folks, today it’s all good reports. Nothing to
complain about, today!’” they would lament. To their remarks, he would always concede with a
chuckle and nod that they were correct, but that we’ve got to keep moving forward, anyway.
Most of the time, this required perseverance amidst hopelessness.
It was still storming outside, and the four members of the Blythe family were gathered in
their living room. Mrs. Blythe was seated in the plaid love-seat, along with Jackie, and James
was laying on the leather couch. Their living room had large windows all across one side of the
room looking out into the backyard. It was somewhat mesmerizing to watch as the rain fell hard,
and this distracted their attention from the TV. This was until the news became relevant to the
boys. A hurricane named Gustav was approaching. In fact, it had already started in on their
backyard, on their basketball game. From this Jackie and James heard only one thing, that school
the following day was cancelled. Mr. and Mrs. Blythe didn’t reprimand them for this, but they
did address it.
“Why are you two so happy?”