Hello. I am an Earth Ball, also known as a cage ball. I am a large inflatable ball in a junior-high-school locker room outside of Baltimore. When it rains, kids stay inside and play with me.
This summer, there’s been plenty of rain but no play; the school decided to replace the showers in the boys’ locker room. Most days, a single workman shows up, sits in a chair for hours, and then leaves. His name is either Phil or Paul. He always smokes a cigarette, and I’m afraid he’s going to stub it out on me.
The construction has completely changed the locker room. The first workmen, before Phil or Paul, brought several items with them: boots to wear when they tore away the tile walls in the shower, yellow tape to mark off the torn-away area, a pair of orange cones to set by the locker room entrance. I hoped we’d all be friends, but it hasn’t worked out that way. You can’t talk to boots—or rather you need to understand that if you ask a boot a question, his answer will go on forever. And yellow tape sings constantly, and not in tune.
That brings me to the cones. Cones are… well, I can’t generalize about cones. I can only tell you about these two. The one on the left, Richard Albert, is always making fun of me for my shape: he says, “Shut up, Roundy!” and “You have no point, Cornerless!” and plenty else mean. The cone on the right is the opposite. The first day we met, I asked him a few questions. He didn’t answer. He just stared down at the floor. Uh oh, I thought: this one’s just like the other one. But then he cleared his throat and spoke to me. “I am very old,” he said. “I have had decades of experience. You are young. And yet, your experience is equal to mine. I can’t pretend to know exactly how you think, just as you do not know how I think. That is why we must make ourselves known to each other. My name is Nate.” He made a throat-clearing noise to indicate that he was finished speaking. His voice was deep. His tone was warm. Nate.
Right away, Nate did what he said he’d do. He started telling me everything he knew about parking lots and asked me what it was like to roll. He told me about the summer he spent in a hospital and I told him about pi. I explained how earth balls are transported before they are fully inflated, and he reminisced about his years on construction sites. “I always pay special attention to the bottom of a wall,” he said.
“Is that why you look down all the time?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “If a foundation is poor, the wall above it cannot be rich.” He made a throat-clearing noise. We moved on to another topic.
That was June. That was July. This past week has been different. It started when the radio went on. I did not expect that this would be a summer of radio. Coach Parker, my closest friend, listened to radio constantly, mostly to Sean Hannity. Sean Hannity, of course, is a man who hosts a daily radio show on which he criticizes all Democrats, especially President Barack Obama. When Coach Parker went off to Italy with Coach Ortega, I thought I wouldn’t have to hear Sean Hannity. I felt a mix of relief and some other things that also felt like relief. But then the workman, Phil or Paul, started coming around, and one day he turned on the show while he sat in the chair and smoked.
This was a bad situation. I had the displeasure of listening to Sean Hannity without the pleasure of sharing the experience with my old friend Coach Parker. Plus, I noticed that my new friend, Nate, was unable to speak while Sean Hannity was on the radio. He seemed lost in thought. I wanted to hear his voice, and my own, and instead I heard only Sean Hannity’s. “Maybe we should turn the radio off,” I said.
“Maybe we should turn you off, Sphere-boy,” Richard Albert said.
It was August, which meant that Sean Hannity was talking about a proposed Islamic center in downtown Manhattan. Sean Hannity said that the building was a mosque at Ground Zero, but I soon realized that this was not quite true, as result of a trick I learned from Coach Parker. Every hour, on the hour, Sean Hannity stopped talking so his radio station could break for the news. It was like a sea of sewage parting. I did not think of that on my own. It was something Coach Parker liked to say, except that he said “shit” instead of “sewage.” What he meant was that the news reported the same events as Sean Hannity, but without the a-hole rhetoric and jackass distortions (again, Coach Parker). The first time I heard about the Ground Zero mosque, I waited for the news, which explained that the building was not a mosque, but rather a community center that included a mosque, and it was not located at Ground Zero, but rather a few blocks away.
“I knew it,” I said. “A sea of sewage.”
Nate spoke. “I can’t say I like this man,” he said. “But…”
I brightened at the sound of his voice. “A-hole rhetoric,” I said. “Jackass distortions.”
“Don’t interrupt me,” Nate said. His tone was cold.
“Yeah,” Richard Albert said. “Put a sock in it, Rolltard.”
Nate went on. “I think this issue is complicated.”
“You’re an idiot, Circle Jerk,” Richard Albert said. “It’s complicated.”
“We have an obligation to respect the rights of any builder who buys land lawfully,” Nate said. “But I see how the people who lost relatives in the attacks feel the plan is insensitive.” I started to talk, but Nate made the throat-clearing noise as if to dismiss me.
“Did you hear that, Big Zero?” Richard Albert said. “Insensitive.”
Sean Hannity went on. He asserted that the man spearheading the plan, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, was a radical whose secret desire was to destroy the United States and “shred our constitution.” He played bits of old interviews where Imam Rauf said that the United States had more innocent Muslim blood on its hands than the 9/11 terrorists had American blood on theirs. Nate did not seem pleased. “Those remarks are not likely to earn him many friends in a country whose freedoms he depends upon,” he said.
“Do you mean Sean Hannity or Imam Rauf?” I said.
“Shut your pi-hole,” Richard Albert said. Nate cleared his throat. Neither cone spoke to me for the rest of the day, or the day after that. Every word Sean Hannity spoke was like two swords going into me: one for the things he was saying, the other for the things that Nate was not saying. I missed Coach Parker terribly. I wanted someone to deflate me and bear me away, or even for Phil or Paul to stub out his cigarette on me. I began to cry, and Richard Albert mocked me with a high-pitched sobbing noise. The yellow tape was singing—yellow tape, remember, is always singing—and I rolled toward it slightly. At length the sound of singing went over me like a kind of blanket, and I drifted off to sleep.
When I woke up, I did not know how long I had been sleeping, whether a minute or a day. The yellow tape was still singing, and Sean Hannity was still talking. Now, he was moderating a debate between another conservative commentator, a man named David Horowitz, and an Egyptian-American named Jehan Harney, who he identified as “a personal friend of Imam Rauf and his wife.” Sean Hannity asked Jehan Harney if she agreed with the Imam that America should be more compliant with Shariah, the sacred law of Islam. Sean Hannity had been saying for days that the Imam wanted to push America closer to a fundamentalist Islamic world in which women would be stripped of all rights. When Jehan Harney objected to Sean Hannity’s characterization of the Imam’s comments—he did not say that America should be more Shariah-compliant, she said, but rather that America, because of its dedication to religious freedom, permitted private observance of any religious law—David Horowitz interrupted. “You are part of a global Jihadist movement!” he said.
“Let me stop you both,” Sean Hannity said. But he only stopped Jehan Harney. David Horowitz continued to shout that Islam was “a religion of liars” and that Jehan Harney was “a Jew-hater.”
I looked at Nate. “Isn’t Sean Hannity just spreading fear by letting this rhetoric spiral out of control?” I said. He stared levelly at me but would not answer, and so I went back under the blanket of the yellow tape’s singing. When I woke the next time, it was to the sound of Nate’s voice. “The country will never repeal Roe v. Wade,” he said. His tone was neither warm nor cold, but somewhere in the middle: moderate.
“Roe v. Wade?” I didn’t understand.
“The Federal law that permits abortion,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“I doubt you know much, Blimp-o,” Richard Albert said.
Nate continued. “Sean Hannity says that the Imam wants Shariah law in America,” he said. “But look: if the thirty-five percent of the country that doesn’t support abortion can’t overturn Federal law, it is irresponsible to suggest that a tiny minority of Islamic extremists, even if that is what these people are, can push the country toward Shariah.”
“They are not extremists,” I said.
“You are probably right,” Nate said. “But I no longer believe that it matters. The answer to your earlier question is yes. Sean Hannity is stirring up fear. Whether or not the Imam is correct, Sean Hannity is wrong. The wall above him cannot be rich.” He cleared his throat, which usually meant that he was done talking, but he went on. “You know,” he said, “I was used to mark off a driving lane once.” His tone was warm again. I closed my eyes in gratitude. I could hear the yellow tape singing, and Richard Albert shouting insults at me, but I didn’t care.