Hello. I am an Earth Ball, a giant inflatable ball also known as a cage ball. I live in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, in the boys’ locker room of a sizable public junior high school.

I have been away for a while, hibernating. There are three reasons for that. I will now list them, one, two, three. Please pardon me if I am too dependent upon lists and counting. I have recently awoken from my slumber and feel more foggy than clear.

The first reason for my hibernation is that Earth Balls are extremely sensitive to changes in the national mood, which fluctuates drastically each time Americans consider human candidates for president. To be fair, they do not even have to be human: the mood fluctuated plenty when Al Gore was running. Ha ha: that is just a little joke because Al Gore is stiff like a board or a baseball bat. (In fact, he is stiff exactly like a baseball bat. I know several, and everything they do seems staged.) In the weeks leading up to this last election, my entire surface was furrowed with tension. When Barack Obama became president, I found that I was relieved but exhausted and could not sleep. So I turned to the usual remedy, which involves counting tennis balls: one, two, three, and so on until sleep. In point of fact, it was just one tennis ball, an elderly but sprightly ball named Max Masterson, who obligingly bounced up and down until I dozed off. “This will be the best rest yet,” he said as he hopped me to sleep. “And when you wake up it will be the best day!” I have had closer friends than Max Masterson—Sally, who was a vending machine; Amelia and Professor Lamarque, who were medicine balls; Fregosi, a baseball—but I have never met anyone who was as tirelessly devoted to the idea of lifting my spirits. Coach Parker says that a true optimist is a man who can look in a toilet bowl and see only corn. This perfectly describes Max Masterson. His buoyant nature is all the more amazing considering that he lost his wife, Minnie, not too long ago. She was lounging near the tennis courts, sunbathing, and a dog trotted off with her. Gone forever. Tragic. But Max doesn’t see it that way. “She’s on vacation,” he said. “A wonderful vacation! I’m sure she’s having the time of her life! I will be thrilled to see her when she returns!”

This idea of vacation is probably intended to cheer me up, but it does the opposite, because of Coach Parker. He is my closest human friend. He was here when I was brought to Baltimore and had been here ever since. He is not here now, and this is the second reason for my hibernation. After the election, Coach Parker decided to take a four-week vacation to Australia. “America is OK for now,” he said. “I’m going to see the rest of the world.” At the same time, Coach Ortega took a month off to care for her sister in New Mexico. Coach Ortega is Coach Parker’s on-and-off girlfriend, sometimes even in times when he has another girlfriend or she has another boyfriend. I am pretty sure that he is not in Australia and that she is not in New Mexico but that the two of them are elsewhere, the same elsewhere, putting first her back and then his back against the mattress of a hotel bed. I am basing this belief partly on my interpretation of his tone before he left. He spoke of everything Australian as if the words had quotes around them. “Maybe I will see some ‘kangaroos,’ mate,” he’d say, and laugh, or “I will be sure to look out for ‘boomerangs’ while I’m Down Under.” I do not think he really meant kangaroos or boomerangs, but he may have meant Down Under.

The third reason for my hibernation is that I am not as needed as I once was. When Coach Parker went to “Australia,” his responsibilities were assumed by Coach Arthur, who has been with us for three weeks now. One, two, three. Coach Arthur is either a man named Arthur or a man whose last name is Arthur. I’m not sure. He is a harder kind of man than Coach Parker—he is always telling the students that there are no trophies for effort, only for winning—and his ideas about bad-weather indoor recess time do not involve Earth Balls. It snowed last week, five inches, and I wasn’t moved from the corner. I wasn’t even touched! I sensed this from within my hibernation and then woke with a strong sense that I had been wasted in some essential way. My surface felt alien to me; I had to roll a bit back and forth along the floor just to remind myself of my own existence. Max Masterson saw me rolling and bounded over. “So good to have you back,” he said. “You look great and the weather is great, too! Your long sleep really agreed with you!” Coach Arthur came and picked up Max Masterson and put him back in the tennis-ball bin. Coach Arthur is not an optimist, especially not when it comes to things that are similar to him. Here is one example: he is as bald as I am but scowls whenever he looks my way. Here is a second example: he is stupid but is always disparaging other people for being stupid. Here is a third example: his skin is as dark as President Obama’s, but he believes that President Obama is undermining the basic principles upon which the nation was founded. This is also the view of the radio and television host Sean Hannity, whom Coach Arthur likes despite their similarity.

I feel that the ground has shifted beneath me in recent weeks—from Coach Parker to Coach Arthur, from Fregosi to Max Masterson. The radio and television host Sean Hannity must feel this way as well. Just a few months ago, he had a president who agreed with him on most things, and he was considered a voice of the establishment. Then the nation rejected his way of thinking, somewhat decisively. Now he claims to be leading the conservative movement in exile, and he talks frequently about being forced off the airwaves by Democrats. He sounds paranoid sometimes, depressed other times. For a little while after the election, Coach Parker and I would listen to his radio show, and Coach Parker would say, “I’m proud of him for being ready to accept the Obama administration.” But the words “proud” and “ready” and “accept” hung there in the air like they were in quotes. Pretty quickly, Sean Hannity went from saying that he hoped Barack Obama succeeded, for the good of the country, to blaming Barack Obama and his brand-new administration for the economic ills of the nation. Coach Arthur endorses this theory. He is always pounding the desk and saying “Yes!” and “Yeah!” Once, he even called in to the show to agree with Sean Hannity that the stock market is “rejecting” the “demented” Obama spending plan that will “cripple” our children and grandchildren. I am not putting these words in quotes to make them ironic. I am putting them in quotes to protect myself from them.

Yesterday, Coach Arthur turned on the television. I thought Sean Hannity would come onscreen. Instead, there was a ball. Foggy from hibernation, I concentrated, and saw that it was not a ball but, rather, a man shaped like a ball. Underneath this man, it said “Rush Limbaugh.” He disappeared from the screen and a man with skin darker than President Obama’s and Coach Arthur’s came on the screen. It was Michael Steele, whom I recognized—he had been a guest on Sean Hannity’s television show several times before he became the head of the Republican National Committee. The television showed Rush Limbaugh again and then Michael Steele again. Then it showed both men a third time. One, two, three. Evidently, Rush Limbaugh had given a speech where he referred to himself as the leader of the Republican Party. During an interview on CNN, Michael Steele had argued that he, not Rush Limbaugh, was the leader of the party, and added that Rush Limbaugh’s show was “incendiary,” a word I didn’t know, and “ugly,” a word I did know. Rush Limbaugh retaliated by calling Michael Steele “gutless.” Being angry, or pretending to be, seemed to give Rush Limbaugh tremendous energy. Coach Parker used to say that this was the sign of a bad person. “A good person is tired out by anger, except the most righteous kind,” he said. I don’t think any words were in quotes. After reviewing Rush Limbaugh’s angry remarks about Michael Steele’s angry remarks, the television speculated whether or not this would become a major rift in the Republican Party.

Coach Arthur pounded the desk, but he didn’t say “Yes!” or “Yeah!” He said, “They’re going to make that boy bow down.” I didn’t know what he meant. Michael Steele was not a boy.

I was sure that Sean Hannity would talk about the situation the next day, and I was interested to see whom he would side with: Michael Steele, whom he has always treated like a friend, or Rush Limbaugh, whom he acknowledges as a professional inspiration. “Maybe he will say he likes them both,” Max Masterson said. “You can like everyone! It’s the great thing about life! Tomorrow will be the brightest day!” He sees only corn. After criticizing Barack Obama for being a disconnected elitist who didn’t care about the stock market, Sean Hannity turned to the argument between Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh. There was no argument anymore, he said, since Michael Steele had called Rush Limbaugh the previous evening to apologize for speaking out of turn. Soon after that, Michael Steele came on Sean Hannity’s show and said a number of nice things about Rush Limbaugh as a leader and a committed conservative. Michael Steele seemed to believe not a single word of what Michael Steele had said just a few days earlier. Maybe all those earlier words had been in quotes. Coach Arthur pounded the desk and said, “Yeah!”

Even though I have just finished hibernating, this series of events has exhausted me. I feel lonely without Coach Parker. I need someone to help me understand why a radio host and propagandist seemed to dominate the head of a national political party in hand-to-hand combat, and Max Masterson is not up to the job. “There are so many reasons to be happy,” he said. “Sunlight! Love! Flowers! Incendiary!” I guess he doesn’t know what it means, either. And I know he is trying to cheer me up, but there are no trophies for effort. “I love the radio!” he said. “I love the voices on it! Sean Hannity sounds wonderful, don’t you think?” It occurred to me, not for the first time, that maybe his wife leapt into the mouth of the dog intentionally. Coach Parker is due back in four days. I’m sure he’s having the time of his life! But what if he doesn’t come back? What if I am alone forever with Coach Arthur and Max Masterson? Max Masterson is bouncing now, but I am too tired to sleep. Maybe I am still hibernating. Maybe this is all a dream. I’m going to count him backward and see if I wake up. Three, two, one.

Earth Ball