“Mystery Ball,” Friend, Oct. 1997, 2
“What’re you doing with my ball?” Rodney Sims growled at me as I stood under the huge sycamore tree at the park, admiring the new football I’d found on the grass. He stomped toward me, his face red and sweaty from playing ball in the sun.
I nodded at my friend Frank. “We were just riding past on our bikes and spotted it lying here. I figured somebody lost it.”
“Well, I left it here,” Rodney barked, snatching the ball from my hands and tucking it under his arm. “It isn’t lost, and I don’t need anybody ripping it off, either.”
“I wasn’t trying to steal it,” I said, climbing back onto my bike. “It sure is a nice ball, though. If it were mine, I’d write my name on it so I wouldn’t lose it.”
“Hey, kid, you want to buy it?” Rodney’s tone was suddenly friendly. Surprised, I turned to face him. “I have another one.” He nodded at the guys who were still playing football. “If you like this one, I’ll sell it to you.”
I laid my bike down again and took the ball, a red and gold San Francisco 49ers ball. It fit my hand perfectly. I had seen some just like it at the Sports Haven, a big sporting goods store downtown. The 49ers were my favorite pro football team, and I had wanted a ball like this one, but it cost ten dollars.
“I like it,” I said, gripping the ball tightly, cocking my arm and pretending to throw a pass. I shook my head and handed it back to Rodney. “But I don’t have ten dollars.”
Rodney studied the ball as he rolled it in his hands. “I’ll sell it to you for five.”
“I have my other ball, and I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan, anyway.”
My mind began to race. I had four dollars at home in my drawer, and I could borrow a dollar from my little sister, Stephanie. I licked my lips and grabbed the ball again, searching for flaws. There were none.
“I’d have to go home for the money,” I explained, picking up my bike. “It’ll take me fifteen or twenty minutes.”
“I’ll be here. But the price is five dollars. And no refunds or returns.”
I sped home so fast that Frank had a hard time keeping up with me. Stephanie agreed to lend me a dollar until my next allowance. I snatched the other four dollars from my drawer.
“You’d better think about this,” Frank warned as I crashed out the front door and leaped for my bike. He was still straddling his bike in the driveway.
“What do you mean, think about it? I’ll never get another deal like this! Five dollars, Frank, for a ten dollar ball! And if I bought it at the Sports Haven, I’d have to pay tax too. I can’t pass this up.”
“Something’s fishy, Joshua,” he cautioned me again. “Has Rodney ever been nice to you?” I thought a moment and shook my head. “So why’s he suddenly doing you this great big favor?”
“He has an extra football and he doesn’t like the 49ers. I’m just helping him out,” I answered defensively.
“Something has to be wrong with the ball. Maybe it has a slow leak. Have you thought of that?”
“I checked the ball out really well, Frank. It’s brand new. Nothing’s wrong with it.”
“I wouldn’t buy it if I were you, Joshua.”
I stared at my friend. “You’re just jealous because he’s not selling it to you. I’m getting that ball before Rodney changes his mind.”
Rodney was waiting for me under the sycamore tree with one of his buddies. The others had left. He had the new 49ers ball and another one that was a bit scuffed up. I held the money out, and Rodney snatched it. As soon as he was sure it was all there, he handed me the football. “You just bought yourself a ball, kid.” He laughed and slapped his friend on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s head out of here.”
Holding the ball, I watched the two run off. They were smirking as they glanced over their shoulders in my direction. An uneasiness stirred inside me. I thought of Frank’s warning. Maybe there was something wrong with the ball. I tossed it around a bit. It felt good. I squeezed it to see if it was losing air. It seemed firm enough. If there was anything wrong with the ball, I sure couldn’t tell what it was.
For the next two days, my friends and I played with my 49ers ball. It was everybody’s favorite. It didn’t have a slow leak, either. It was brand new, just like it looked. I kidded Frank about being worried and asked him if he wished he had come up with the five dollars. He shook his head, but I still figured he was jealous.
One afternoon as I sat on the front steps, tossing my ball in the air and catching it, he rode up on his bike, looking serious. “I found out something about your ball,” he said.
I grinned. “Are you still worried about this ball, Frank?”
Frank didn’t smile. “My brother Derek runs around with one of Rodney’s friends. According to him, Rodney ripped that ball off.”
“What do you mean ‘ripped it off’?”
“Rodney stole it from the Sports Haven. A couple of his friends covered for him, but he was the one who sneaked it out of the store. That’s why he wanted to sell it.”
It felt as if Frank had punched me in the stomach. I looked at the football. “Maybe this isn’t the same ball,” I argued, feeling myself get angry.
“Rodney stole a 49ers ball the same afternoon you bought it from him. This is the one, all right.”
“Well, I didn’t steal it,” I snapped at Frank. “I paid for it, so it isn’t my problem. And I didn’t know it was stolen when I bought it from Rodney. He’s the thief, not me.”
Frank shrugged and turned away. “I just figured you ought to know.”
I was angry at him for telling me about Rodney’s stealing, because I liked that ball and I wanted to keep it. “Are you going to tell anybody?” I shouted after him. He turned back and stared at me. Slowly he shook his head.
After he left, I put the ball away. When Stephanie asked me to play catch, I said no. I kept telling myself that the ball was mine, fair and square, and that I hadn’t done anything wrong. But I still didn’t feel good about having it. I didn’t even want to play with it anymore. And I sure didn’t want to tell Mom and Dad what Frank had said. They hadn’t been happy about my borrowing the dollar from Stephanie in the first place, but they’d only suggested I pray about it and left it up to me.
The next day I went looking for Rodney. He was riding his bike over in the school parking lot with a couple of his buddies. Walking up to him, I handed him the football. “I want my five dollars back!”
He looked at the ball and then at me. “I told you—no refunds and no returns. Besides, I’ve already spent most of the money. And,” he added, nodding down at the ball, “it doesn’t even look new, anymore.”
“You stole this ball,” I hissed.
The grin disappeared from his face. Jumping off his bike and letting it clatter to the pavement, he grabbed the front of my shirt and jerked me toward him. “Who told you that?”
“There are guys who know,” I rasped. “And I don’t want a stolen ball.”
“Don’t you go blabbing around that I stole that ball, kid, or you’re going to be in a bunch of trouble. Nobody can prove that I stole it. Besides, it’s your ball. You paid for it.”
“I don’t want it now.”
“That’s your problem. If you don’t want it, go throw it in the trash.” He gave me a hard shove, climbed onto his bike, and rode off with his friends.
My feet dragged as I left the parking lot, carrying the football that until yesterday had been such a prize. Now it was a cold, hard reminder of dishonesty. I saw the garbage dumpster in the corner of the parking lot. I considered throwing the ball away. But I couldn’t. I’d paid five dollars for it, and I still owed Stephanie a dollar. I couldn’t just get rid of it.
I tried telling myself that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t known the ball was stolen when I bought it. I hadn’t been the one to take it. I had tried to give it back to Rodney. What else was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to lose my five dollars because Rodney had done something wrong?
I shook my head. All my excuses wouldn’t make the sick, guilty feeling go away. I thought of the Sports Haven. I had always liked going there and looking around. Now every time I even passed by, I thought of the stolen football. And even though I hadn’t been the one to steal it, the Sports Haven was still missing a ball. And I had it. I knew what Dad and Mom would say, and I knew I wouldn’t feel good again until I did it.
I walked home, climbed onto my bike, and rode downtown. It was tough walking into the Sports Haven. I asked for the manager, Mr. Turley. One of the clerks took me to his office in the back of the store.
“Well, hello, Joshua,” Mr. Turley greeted me as I stepped into the office. “How can I help you?”
I set the football in the middle of his desk and stared at it. “This ball was stolen from the Sports Haven,” I announced quietly. “I didn’t steal it, though,” I quickly added. I told him the whole story.
“So it’s not my ball,” I finally ended. “You might not want it, either, because it’s been used and I wrote my name on it in black marker.”
Mr. Turley leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. For a long time he thought without saying anything. Finally he leaned forward and took the ball from his desk and rolled it around in his hands. “Joshua, first of all, I want you to know that I’m happy that you had the courage to come in. I don’t expect that that was very easy.” I shook my head without looking at him. “It’s not always easy to be completely honest. In this case, it cost you five dollars. And you weren’t even the one who stole the ball. But being honest is more important than this football or the money you spent to buy it.”
Mr. Turley smiled at me. “I’m going to try to make being honest this time a little easier for you. You’ve already paid five dollars. I have some work around here that you could do to earn the other five. Then the ball would be yours.”
“You mean I could keep it?”
Mr. Turley smiled. “You just be here tomorrow morning.” Grinning, I turned and started for the door, the sick, guilty feeling gone. “Hey, Joshua,” Mr. Turley called out. I turned. He laughed and tossed me the ball. “You’d better take that with you, or someone might walk off with it.”