Appalachian Vanity Fair by A.J. Kandathil

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basketball hoop in gym

The scene: a varsity basketball game held in some old, small gym in some old, small town, one where fans waited in line to get their hands stamped in exchange for flimsy red ticket stubs.

The scene: a varsity basketball game held in some old, small gym in some old, small town, one where fans waited in line to get their hands stamped in exchange for flimsy red ticket stubs. A concession stand set up camp in the hallway where members of the basketball boosters club filed dollar bills in envelopes and kept the change in a canning jar. Everyone in town attended; no one dared miss such an affair. It happened this Friday, or last Friday, or three weeks from Friday. This was one night of many, many nights of one.

7:48 p.m. Like a league of marionettes, the pep band hopped to attention when the band director flicked his wrist. The pre-game entertainment, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” had remained the same as far back as I could remember. A cheerleading cohort, of which I was the first, flooded the court and formed a double line along the center.

Just before the song began, the basketball team gathered in the wings, ready for their cue. While waiting for the show to begin, the crowd swapped titillated murmurs..

“One two three o’clock, four o’clock rock—“

Shaking our pompoms, the cheerleaders popped their hips to the side.

“Five six seven o’clock, eight o’clock Rock—“

We kept shaking, bopping as the music swelled.

“Nine ten eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock—“

Here it came—

“We’re gonna ROCK” (pause) “AROUND” (pause) “the clock TONIGHT!”

At that moment, the fresh-faced basketball boys tore through a sign hung in front of the locker room door and burst onto the court. The line of athletes swarmed around the girls, dazzling the crowd with their practice lay-ups, jump shots, and rebounds. Each player had his moment of presentation to the adoring audience; whipping off warm-up pants and tossing them on the bleachers, some of the snaps left undone to assist with the theatrics. The boys shot and scored as the girls primped and pranced. This, a film reel of young dukes and duchesses performing at high court.

7:56 p.m. The pep band slogged through “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Up in the balcony, Yutes—the waifish school nurse—perched on a metal throne, primed to scold any ruffian who forgot to remove his hat for the anthem. Heads bowed and children fidgeted until the final notes resolved.

8:00 p.m. The two opposing centers met in the middle of the court. These were my favorite moments, the athletes itching to go like racehorses on a track. They crouched; the whistle blew. The referee threw the ball in the air, and for a moment it suspended, a dirty orange orb that drew every eye to itself. Someone from one team or the other snatched the ball and the point guard signaled the first play of the game.

For quarters one and two, the eager cheerleaders were relegated to the bleachers. I sat wherever there was a spot, never on the end next to the players. The time clock wound down as we offered a few cheers (RED HOT our team is RED HOT), while someone banged a megaphone against the floor. A few of us performed a rather stout and underwhelming mount in the corner, one girl (a flyer, she was called) balanced on the bent thighs of two girls acting as the base. The flyer’s arms shot out at 45-degree angles as we shouted, “GO ‘STANGS!”

During practice earlier in the season, I had declined the opportunity to grace the top of the Mustang cheerleader mounts. I was afraid of heights. “Come on,” one of the veteran cheerleaders had urged me. “Don’t you wanna fly?”

At half time, the girls rose to take center stage. The pep band started to play “Centerfold,” and the cheerleaders performed a local favorite coined the “s” dance. Each year, the older girls taught it to the younger. The pep band popped out the loud notes as young, feminine hips gyrated to the tempo. Executed at every home game, everyone knew this was the “s” dance, and everyone knew the “s” was short for slut.

Fans stood and stretched, kibitzed and milled. The girls began an eight-count step that started with hair tousling, as if washing soapsuds from our wet manes. We completed it by bending over at the waist, parading our backsides to the visitors’ section. Picture me in the shower, the choreography demanded. Picture me bending over.

But such seduction was never for the basketball boys, the boys who loved their mothers, met their curfews, and always put on wool caps before going outside. The boys who—at this very moment—sat one floor below in a damp locker room and listened to their coach. “This is your moment,” he told them. “You better go out there and take it.”

Instead, the girls danced for a town made of ghosts. Fathers, who used to sit in the locker room, years ago. Mothers, who once performed the same “s” dance in the same uniforms. On every bleacher, there was at least one little girl who would grow up and fall in line. She was one girl of many, many girls of one.

aj kandathilA.J. Kandathil received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and her MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College. Her work has appeared in Burner Magazine, US 1, Precipitate, Ruminate, and The Quotable, where her piece “Covenant Breath” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A.J. teaches creative writing at the Arts Council of Princeton, and you can check out her book reviews on Twitter @BitesizeBookRev or read more at She is currently at work on a memoir entitled Cinderland.

  10 comments for “Appalachian Vanity Fair by A.J. Kandathil

  1. Stellar control of pace and rhythm during cheerleader dance graf. Executed in perfect time with the song you placed in my mind. I could hear the reverb. against the gym’s walls, see the skirts’ pleats twirling in the air. Cheers.

  2. Your writing takes me into that gym, into that moment where we live and relive layers of a past and present that push toward a longing for something more. Wonderful!

  3. love, LOVE LOVED IT!!! I THink you just described the town I grew up in and totally got
    the excitement of the first basketball game of the season! I could actually smell the gym!

  4. I never went to a single high school basketball game, but our football rituals in Ohio felt VERY similar. Great job!

  5. wow. you put words to American high school culture that I imagine many can relate to. can’t wait to read the memoir!

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