Siamak Vossoughi is a writer living in Seattle. He has had stories published in Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Columbia Journal, Chattahoochee Review, West Branch, and Gulf Coast. He is the recipient of the 2015-2016 COG Page to Screen Award. He has published two short story collections, Better Than War and A Sense of the Whole.
The rules of fountainball were as follows: The two players stood in the big fountain between the DeYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. This is when the square was being redone and the water was turned off. They stood back to back, each of them holding a tennis ball. The curve of the inner rim of the fountain was such that a ball rolled along it with some speed would stay on the banked wall for, at best, halfway around the circular fountain. Which meant that if the two players both did their best rolls at the same time, the two tennis balls would just touch on the opposite end.
The object of the game, Maher explained to me, was fame.
"All these tourists going to the museums, they're going to remember us. They're going to remember they saw us playing fountainball, probably longer than they remember anything else."
Maher was nineteen and he had been to Europe and seen the great cities. He explained to me how traveling was.
"When you actually go to the famous places, you remember the little things you saw there. At the Eiffel Tower, I saw an old woman teaching her grandson how to whistle. I'm never going to forget them as long as I live."
Some Chinese tourists got off their bus and came closer to watch our game. I heard them speaking happily in Chinese.
We weren't getting the tennis balls to touch, but we were getting closer. They cheered us on.
"We're San Francisco," Maher said.
He was right. You couldn't look more San Francisco than we did. You had to know when the water was off, which we did, and you had to know to bring tennis balls, which we did. It was nice to act like we didn't know the tourists were watching us, which was partly true because we were trying hard to get two good rolls.
"The point is," Maher said, "Any time an old woman is teaching her grandson to whistle, it's always at the Eiffel Tower."
I didn't understand that because my grandmothers were both in Portland, so if either of them was going to teach me to whistle, which probably wasn't going to happen since I was already pretty good, it was either going to be there or in San Francisco.
We both rolled our balls and Maher's went past halfway, but mine only went a little past a quarter of the way and they didn't touch. He was so happy that I didn't feel bad for spoiling it.
"What if we never get it?" I said.
"We'll still be famous. We might even be more famous. They'll all go home and wonder if we're still out here trying."
That sounded so nice that I didn't mind if we never got it.
"Do you want a try?" Maher said. He held up the ball to one of the tourists.
The man smiled and came down the steps to the fountain.
"Always let the tourists have a try, Tariq."
"Someday you'll be in China and he'll give you a try."
The tourist stood back to back with me and we both rolled our balls. Mine went a little farther, probably because I was more experienced.
His friend said something to him, and I thought Maher was right. They were going to remember us forever.
"Hard, isn't it?" Maher said.
The man laughed. He went back to his friend. His friend tried to show him how he should have rolled it.
They joined their group and went into the museum.
"It's nice of the DeYoung to be a background for fountainball," Maher said. "It was nice of the Eiffel Tower to be a background for that old woman."
"Are you going to go back to college, Maher?" I said.
I knew his father - my Uncle Haroun - expected him to go back to college.
"It's a good question, Tariq," Maher said. "I didn't see how I could be expected to learn anything at college when I hadn't seen London and Paris and Rome. Now I don't see how I can learn anything when London and Paris and Rome are all around me. It's a spurious argument, I admit."
"But you're in San Francisco now."
"Sure. I'm back in the home of fountainball. I saw a lot of fountains in Europe, but no one else was playing fountainball."
Suddenly I didn't feel like I cared about fountainball.
"We're never going to get it."
"The point isn't to get it," Maher said. "The point is to try. Don't you want all these people to go home and tell their friends they saw some trying in San Francisco?"
"People don't say things like that."
"No. They go home and tell their friends that they went to the DeYoung Museum and the Academy of Sciences. That's what people do."
"You don't think they'll tell them about fountainball?"
"No," I said. I threw my ball to the other end of the fountain.
"Well," Maher said. "I have to say I'm disappointed. I expected better of them. I thought that if they came all this way to San Francisco, they would have a better sense of what was important about this place."
"You can't just call yourself important all the time."
"Not me," Maher said. "I don't care about me. I just want them to remember the game. I want them to remember that this was the first place they ever saw fountainball. They could have gone to any city in the world, and they would have seen some good things there, but they wouldn't have seen fountainball."
I stood there for a while, and then I walked over and picked up my ball.
"Everybody said that when you came back, you'd go back to college."
"Do you think I should go back to college?"
"I don't know," I said. "You said it's always the Eiffel Tower. Maybe it's the Eiffel Tower at college too."
"That's the hardest place for it to be the Eiffel Tower. Nobody else believed me that it was the Eiffel Tower there."
"Well," I said, "nobody believes you here either."
Maher laughed. "You make a good point, Tariq. You make a pretty good point."
I rolled my ball down my side of the fountain. It went almost halfway.
"Good one," Maher said.
We never got it that day. We played until all the tourists went inside and then we played some more.
We left the park and walked home.
"If you think I should go back to college," Maher said, "then I'll go."
"Me?" I said.
"I'm just starting sixth grade."
"Doesn't matter. We're fountainball buddies. Do you know what that means?"
"It means the things we say to each other are very important. What do you think all that playing was for?"
I thought it was for the tourists in China to remember us, but I didn't say it.
"Well," I said, "I think you should go back."
“Okay," Maher said. He had a funny look. He looked happy and a little sad.
"Are you going to tell your father?"
"Yes, I'll tell him tonight. He doesn’t know about fountainball, but that’s okay. You and I will know the reason. Anybody at college asks me why I came back, I’ll tell them. I’ll tell them about fountainball.”
"Are you going to tell your father it's because I said it?"
"I can if you want."
I took a deep breath. I felt very old and I knew how it was when there was something very exciting but you felt it might be good to not show how excited you were about it.
"No," I said.
I felt like it was the right choice.
"I hope it takes them a long time to re-do the square," Maher said. "It's going to be sad when the water comes back on."
"Everybody else is going to be happy to see the water come back on in the fountain. But they don't know about fountainball."
I tossed my ball in the air and caught it. I felt very happy and I couldn't wait to be sad with my cousin.