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“A Ball Rolls Down a Hill" by Gary Duehr

Don't write a story about a ball rolling down a hill. —Workshop adage

A ball that is my life is rolling down a hill. The hill, I suppose, is made up of sedimentary layers of years—in my case, decades. That the ball will slow and wobble to a stop is not in question. It is totally expected and utterly, irrevocably predictable. Still, there remains a haze of drama on where it will land.

I think of it as being red rubber, the kind we used to hurl in dodge ball, thumping against the gym wall as kids shrieked. This ball is pudgy, a little deflated. There are mars and scrapes on its tacky surface.

Will the ball dribble across the busy street at the foot of the hill, only to lodge against a chain-link fence? Will it splash into a puddle by the curb, muddied with leaves from last night's rain? Or will the ball keep miraculously angling down a sloping street lined by ranch houses, like a pinball, going impossibly far? The streetlights will blink on, and it will finally be scooped up by two boys chasing fireflies in the front yard. The taller one will kick it clear over the roof of the house.

I wonder if the ball retains some sense memory of teetering on top of the hill, buffeted by a strong wind or soaking up sun. Up there the whole town can be seen, its toy cars and clutches of houses, in the distance gleaming corn silos and a splindly water tower. But the ball that is my life is wary of too much metaphysical blather. There is a hill to be rolled down, with a rutted ravine and stubby tree stumps, more or less against its will. Along the way, there are bumps from roots and stones sticking out. They're not symbolic, they're real— threatening to puncture the ball or knock it off course.

Those two skinny boys are me and my older brother, Don, our chests pale in the summer heat, hands clasping mason jars as we pounce on flickering insects in the grass. Ruby, my dad's mom, is watching us from a lawn chair on the front porch flanked by spirea bushes. Later we'll join her to count car lights sweeping past. From the basement, we we'll be able to hear the squealing frequencies of my dad's ham radio.

I imagine I can see my mom, a nurse, across the street at St. Joes where she works, in the big yellow-lit window on the top floor I'm convinced is the operating room, like in a Frankenstein movie. Somehow the ball that is my life thuds onto the OR's steel table. I'm dying, but I don't know it yet. There's a sharp scent of ammonia. Through an incision in my skull, the surgeon has slid in a clip to seal off the blood vessel that's feeding an aneurysm, but the tool has accidentally ruptured a smaller, hidden vessel too.

The whole world is going bright red, the color of a flashlight haloing through closed eyelids, and I'm cramped inside that orb that's lurching down a steep hill, like a dirty snowball gathering up smudged letters and torn-out, frilled sheets from notebooks, as well as movie stubs, gold-sealed diplomas and wadded-up tissues from old calamities, plus broken eyeglasses, pulled teeth, the smell of hot asphalt, and the sound at night of a train chugging through a crossing three blocks away—all getting swept up into a gummy, awkward, ridiculous clump that hobbles along before it comes to a halt of its own weight on a dark street where the houses have all gone quiet. A few neighborhood kids whiz by on bikes, shusshing through leaves by the curb, and a mother's voice can be heard playfully calling out the back door, Olly olly oxen free!

Gary Duehr has taught creative writing for institutions including Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. His MFA is from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 2001 he received an NEA Fellowship, and he has also received grants and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the LEF Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Journals in which his writing has appeared include Agni, American Literary Review, Chiron Review, Cottonwood, Hawaii Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, North American Review, and Southern Poetry Review.

His books include Winter Light (Four Way Books) and Where Everyone Is Going To (St. Andrews College Press).

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