首页    期刊浏览 2022年01月20日 星期四


  • 标题:Ballgame.
  • 作者:Frajman, Eduardo
  • 期刊名称:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
  • 印刷版ISSN:1048-3756
  • 出版年度:2014
  • 期号:March
  • 语种:English
  • 出版社:Sports Literature Association
  • 摘要:I don't know his name but we've faced each other before. Tight muscles, bony frame, kind of a looker, like an emaciated Chris Tucker, not a hair out of place on his head or face. His team won the last run. He made the last two jumpers to ice it, followed by his stomping around, swinging like a bell, hands under his crotch in the Sam Cassell "I have gigantic cojones" pose, while we took the court, replacing the losers. Good for him. I doubt this cat gets to play the hero that often. I see minimum wage work, fast food or big box store, some manager hungry for power putting him down every hour, has a girl who once couldn't resist him, was all over him, now demanding everything, a femme fatale, on the prowl, foul and ferocious like Nadal. When you do get your moment you have to enjoy it, be both hot and cool, your fingers in sizzle, your blood pumping subzero. He's ready to go now. Globs of sweat slide down his face and arms forming shiny wet cracks.


Frajman, Eduardo

I'm on the perimeter, top of the key, back to the goal. My man lobs me the rock. "Check ball."

I don't know his name but we've faced each other before. Tight muscles, bony frame, kind of a looker, like an emaciated Chris Tucker, not a hair out of place on his head or face. His team won the last run. He made the last two jumpers to ice it, followed by his stomping around, swinging like a bell, hands under his crotch in the Sam Cassell "I have gigantic cojones" pose, while we took the court, replacing the losers. Good for him. I doubt this cat gets to play the hero that often. I see minimum wage work, fast food or big box store, some manager hungry for power putting him down every hour, has a girl who once couldn't resist him, was all over him, now demanding everything, a femme fatale, on the prowl, foul and ferocious like Nadal. When you do get your moment you have to enjoy it, be both hot and cool, your fingers in sizzle, your blood pumping subzero. He's ready to go now. Globs of sweat slide down his face and arms forming shiny wet cracks.

I came in after the first two four-on-four runs were already going. I'm not warmed up. I'm tight, hurting. Paula called me on my way from work. The buzz of doom loud in my pocket. I was already visualizing buckets when she opted to bring up her benefits packet. Not like she had anything new to say. Just taking me to town, see if I'd come around. Her voice was somber and raspy, like it gets when she's pretending to be down. Her real upset voice is different, clogged and gasping, like she's drowning and needs me to pull her out. I see her sitting at her desk, legs up, shoe twirling on her toe, snickering at my whipped-ass whimpers on the speakerphone with "the cute guy from the office." Ben, I think. I let her go off on me for twenty minutes, her voice staticky on the car speaker, reminding me how little I give her and how I've never really committed and how dare I not jump with joy at the chance to pick up and move cross country to San Diego when all I have here is my worthless DMV counter job and ball three afternoons a week, which she detests most of all (not like she would admit it).

I raise the rock over my head to see where everyone's at. Dwight's settling down on the right block, a wrestler on his mat, slamming his upper back against Muffin's face. Mad jostling. Muffin's left forearm is up, elbow pointed to deflect the blows, cause some pain of his own. There's bad blood between the two. About Big Boy. Back when Moe was around, everyone used to be tight. Moe and Big Boy can boast, no fault of their own, to have ruined my runs and now I have no option but to saddle up and ride to the West Coast.

The other four bailers are to my left, Jesse on Jeanine, Carlo on Mr. Stevens, shuffling their feet, facing each other like couples at prom waiting for the next anthem, will it be a ballad or a head banger? I call "ball's in" and bounce it back to Tiny Chris Tucker. Game's to ten. Win by two. No threes.

TCT can drive and finish. He has a decent midrange J but can't hit the long ball. Most days he'll shoot his team right out of it. He resists the draw for now, looks to pass or penetrate. I bend my knees and raise my arms, stand on the balls of my feet. Textbook defensive stance like Coach Barry showed me. "Sweet slide, side to side." My muscles sandpaper each other, signs of insufficient stretching and sitting in a car being bitchslapped. I see Paula on her way to one of the fancy martini bars she enjoys with her pals. He'll be there too, her favorite guy, the two of them recapping our conversation just now. Ben. Or maybe it's Ken, or Sven.

Dwight's got Muffin on the retreat, demanding the rock. He gets it and goes to work, swinging his elbows like a chopper blade. He doesn't really have a back-to-the-cup game. He's more effective on the high post, finding cutters and flying in for offensive boards, but he's got Muffin on him and it has to be a showdown. He glows under the fluorescents, his shaved dome, the gold chain around his neck, the massive gold front tooth. His tank is soaked through. I can hear it flap against his six-pack abs, like a flag cracks in the wind. He fakes but Muffin doesn't bite. Slap. Steal. Jesse calls for the ball. So do I. Muffin waves us away, already riled. He wants to be up top, play conductor, keep Dwight away from the paint, give us room to dominate. With the big man outside, they got speed, we got size.

Our shoes screech the floor, an earful of static, as we switch from D to O. The court is puke-yellow synthetic, a rubbery substance that supposedly minimizes joint soreness. It doesn't look or feel like a real court. Too rigid. Too unforgiving. A basketball court should be honey-brown maple hardwood and have secret creaky nooks and fold under your weight like your girl on a good date. The floor is crowded with colored lines, yellow for volleyball, green for soccer, black for basketball, NBA-three line, college-three line. There are six hoops, two for a full-size, two on each side for smaller courts, ideal for four-on-four, which is what the Tuesday/Thursday crew likes to run. This means four extra painted areas, three-point zones, and so on. Hundreds of straight and curved line segments. They meet and crash and crisscross each other forming trippy patterns: scratches on the pavement, an abstract painting, a crowd of ET faces, angular or wavy, serious and impatient. A giant white barrier hangs from the ceiling, waiting to be called down to break the gym in two with an earthquake rumble, in case one side is needed for kids' karate or Zumba.

Everyone jogs but Muffin, who's walking it up, and Dwight, who likes to backpedal when the pace slacks to loosen his calves. They're jabbering. "You ain't gonna call that?" "Call what?" "You got my hand!" "Shut the hell up! The hand's part of the ball!" Talk is frequent, conflict all but certain. Play is usually clean but both Dwight and Muffin have been known to cease the peace, though never with each other. When things escalate it's useless to deliberate. The run is called, the most tragic outcome of all.

The rule is the defensive player has to call the foul. This avoids hotshot punks calling one every time they drive to the hole. I learned this during my very first run, almost two years ago. I was matched up with Mr. Stevens. He's some sort of big shot in the neighborhood. I see his headquarters, maybe a furniture depot on Lawrence or a travel agency for tourists, and lots of real estate around the town. He's at least forty, lean and ripped, hair clipped military style, and can run circles around my hide. On that first run he rose up for a J and 1 got his wrist so hard the weightlifters downstairs heard the smack. Clear foul, easy call. He didn't. Play resumed. "So?" "So what?" "You know what you did," like he'd been molested. "Call the foul," I suggested. "You know what you did!" he spat.

Jesse lays it in off a Muffin dime. Dwight reaches for the rock to slam it down hard. "Help out on D!" he commands to nobody in particular. "What's up with him today?" I ask Jesse, the only one who treats me nice since Moe's been gone. A golden cross dances on his armored chest as he jogs. He shakes his pumpkin-shaped head sadly. "Bad times, baby."

I press TCT. I get a piece. The pill deflects off his foot out of bounds. I get a "that'a boy!" and a palm from Muffin. I see Paula off on the plane to San Diego. I see us hugging and saying goodbye. Peace out, have a nice life, too bad it didn't work out.

Muffin signals where he wants each of us to find position with hurried head gestures and mutters. "Get over there!" He wants me up top, moving without the ball so he can find me for pick-and-pops. I obey. When Muffin's on my team I'm the second option, even though my production is subtle, no great wave of destruction. Carlo sets a pick, 1 curl around him. Muffin no-looks it and it's off my fingers before Mr. S can get anywhere near. My shooting form's off. I still swish it. "Call picks!" barks Mr. S. "Good shot, baby!" from Jesse. A pointed digit and a nod from Muffin the conductor.

I only know his real name is Oscar Carpenter from the time he and Stuckey were banned for pulling their guns out. Harold from the desk wanted to cut the cord, posted a sign on the bulletin board by the door. Everyone calls him McMuffin or Studmuffin or just plain Muffin. I don't know why but it's hard to miss the beer gut that pokes out from under his jersey, the general doughiness of his frame, which all the lifting he does can't hide, proof that it's matter over mind, mug fleshy and round and so often contorted by a frown. If there's a story behind the nickname, I'm never hearing it. He doesn't talk to me much. None of them do, really, even when we're sitting on the sideline waiting for next. He sure as hell doesn't know my name, calls me "white boy" instead. Most people think he's a jerk. For my money, he puts in the work and deserves some respect even if he does tend to go berserk. Only Moe could handle Muffin, squeeze out reason, manage his temper, channel his energy.

One time early on, me and Moe and Muffin ran together. It took Muffin nine seconds to start bitching about me missing a couple of shots, getting my ankles broke on D. Moe kept looking for me. He was a big pear-shaped man, his face loose like a bulldog's. We connected on a couple of fast breaks, including a behind-the-back beauty he giftwrapped for me and is on my lifetime highlight reel. We crushed that run, a team of all-stars abusing some scrubs. Get open, keep your head up, find the breach. "He can ball," Moe said after to Muffin, who grunted or chuckled. I couldn't tell which.

After that night I felt a connection with the Fab Five, as I came to call them in my mind. Muffin, Jesse, Stuckey, Moe, Dwight. They became major cast members in my inner life. Every run an epic meat, every high-five the peak of my week. Nothing I could get working the desk at the West Side DMV. I run the vision test machine, the one with the blinking lights, give out the form sheets. It's boring as soccer and the pay is absurd but it's union benefits. "You can quit," says Paula, "get on my plan, look for something you love, if ..." If we get married, if I take the leap, if I dare, if I grow up. I chose the Five, then the Four. Maybe courage and bravado can be taught.

They would come in, owning the gym, still wearing their mall-cop blues, wide brimmed hats, utility belts and badges. They worked security at Sacred Charity hospital. The Five were not loser punks like TCT or Big Boy. They were not big shots like Mr. S or my girl. They were clock punching, weapon carrying, hard drinking (their work-out sweat reeked of booze). Real men. Obviously they had schooling, credentials. You can't work security without a criminal justice degree. They were respectable, presentable, but also boasted a halo of violence, a science of defiance, a toughness that comes from the satisfaction of having seen real action, of having handled the speed of the street, the sphere reserved for black and brown men, not suburban white boys who dream of being them. I coveted their colossal arms and chests, shaped through years of lifting and sparring and life tests, decorated by faded ink teeming with stories and meaning, the arms of gladiators, jaegers, titans. They played smart, unselfish ball too, a joy to be a part of, not like the Friday crew, full of hotshots who'll try to impersonate the Answer and proclaim "I'm taking over" and then brick four threes in a row. The Five looked for the open man and rarely heaved bad shots. The Five understood the game, loved the game.

I had an English professor in college who went on about white privilege and institutionalized racism and the patriarchy. No matter what we talked about, white men were the villains who bullied everyone else with hegemony. My buddies laughed it off and questioned our teacher's sexuality and I with them, of course. But in secret I thought that stuff was intriguing. I thought about it a lot in the years after, when Paula and I moved in together after graduation, my parents cut me off, I had to work for a living. 1 see it every day out in the real world, all the things I have to deal with but also the ones I don't because I look like the boss' son. Around the Five, though, I had only the power and privilege they gave me. I was tiny, weak, an inferior bacteria, who got to run with the grownups and walk away alive, not because they deemed me worthy but because it amused them to see me try. Because of them, though they didn't see it and wouldn't have cared, I became stronger, braver, better.

Once I was matched up with Stuckey, who's short and square like a safe and hard like one too. Jesse got a steal and we took off on a two-on-one break. It took us three seconds to run that court but it felt much longer. I saw what was about to go down. Jesse didn't realize he had me on his wing. He would roll to the cup. Stuckey would reach for it, leave the lane open. Jesse would throw up a wild shot. I would be waiting on the other side of the rim for the putback. And I got it right. It came to pass exactly like that. Jesse tossed a prayer that didn't even scrape iron, bounced off the backboard. I timed it perfectly, jumped for it, caught it in the palm of my right hand, hovered in the air, brought my ankles up MJ style, put it in one-handed in one smooth action. The men roared. Stuckey belted out an appreciative howl and sought me out to give me due props on my masterpiece.

Four months or so of sweaty runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, four, five hours. My game improved, so did my confidence. I hit my peak on those courts. Paula went from being the center of my universe to an afterthought, but she never relented her hold. My phone lighting up on the sideline signaled that her patience was done and she wanted me home. The buzz of doom, like a broom, sweeping me into my tomb.

Towards the end of a Tuesday session, when several guys had left and those of us remaining were steaming exhaust, our hunger lost, our tanks empty at last, Moe lay his head down on the court and passed. Heart attack. We had slouched toward the sideline. He had found me by the water cooler before hunkering down. "Way to go after those rees." He punched my arm. He called boards "rees." He was forty-three, Harold from the desk told me later. Someone rang nine one one and we stayed until the paramedics blew the whistle. Paula texted me five times during, as they were rhythmically pushing down on Moe's chest. "Where the f are you?" "WHERE ARE YOU?" She felt bad when I called her and told her what happened. At least I hope she did. She saw I took Moe's death hard, but couldn't grasp why. "You barely knew him." Some guys were spooked by the whole thing, never came back. I was afraid Muffin and the others would look for a new place, clean of memories of Moe. But they returned after a spell, the Four.

Jeanine has the rock, jogs up the court. Her teammates spread the floor. Jeanine has a solid helmet of curls. On the floor she's quick and smart and backdoors like a squirrel. When she handles she herks and jerks like Earl the Pearl. She shoots like a girl, so she's no threat from a distance. Entry pass to Dwight, who has momentum and catches Muffin off balance, causing him to trip and fall. Dwight lays it in and takes a moment to glare at the downed man. "Where's your friends now?" "Man, shut up!" spits Muffin from below. "Two-one, we up," announces Jesse. On the next trip Muffin again dimes me the rock. This time I miss. "Keep shooting, baby," from Jesse. A growl from Muffin.

He's tough on me. When I'm on a hot shooting streak, or beat Dwight or some other big man for an offensive grab, Muffin shrugs it off like I did crap. You'd think he's a bully but that's not it. He's a hardass, a drill sergeant. He knows the hard part is finding your heart. Paula once threw me a party because I made employee of the month at an outlet retail store, my first real job. She makes a big deal out of everything I do, like it's a surprise that I accomplished a task, bought food, cleaned house. Her friends are all married and brag about all the shopping they do with their husbands' money. My girl can't keep up so she deals by cheering me on. "He has so much potential. He's a diamond in the rough."

TCT unwisely tries a three right in my face. The rock clangs off the backboard and is snagged by Carlo. He takes off coast-to-coast, scores. He's shirtless, as always. He likes to show off his six-pack and pecs to distract from his ugly mug and gigantic, black-rimmed specs. He has a solid frame, though not in the Four's range. He's a Ken doll. They're like those old school He-Man action figures. 1 see Carlo working in a factory, hauling the neat bundles the packing machine spits out, breathing the fumes, dreaming of going to school and making something of himself, working his body at the gym in the meantime, rough, tough, decent. "Good run, Carlo!" from Muffin. Carlo has a name. He's not "white boy" for some reason.

A quick curl and swish from Mr. S. "Score?" he asks the air. "Three two us!" I holler. Everyone pauses, checks their recollection of play so far, making sure my call is right. Why do we care so much? The score doesn't matter as such. The run's done and the score is gone. This is pickup ball after all. Nobody's keeping a record for posterity. It's the magic of ball, I guess, to create a place where the only stress is who gets the win and with how much grace.

Dwight is running, his big-man handle uncertain, Muffin in pursuit. Closer and closer. Collision course. Their shoulders smash together and they both lose their legs, go down. Dwight is up first. "Get out off my way!" "Man, what's wrong with you?" "I don't want to hurt you." "Is that right? Maybe I want to hurt you!" "You gonna need your crew! * Jesse steps between them. Arms raised beseeching peace. "We running or what?" Jeanine pulls Dwight by the elbow. The players on the other court stop to check out the fuss. They get back to their run when they don't see any real mess.

The rest of us have reflexively walked to the sideline to rest our bones, get a drink, check our phones. There's a text from Paula. "I'm sorry if I was harsh. I know it's tough for you. Let's talk tonight. I love you." 1 see her snickering as she types the words at her bar, martini in hand, not too far apart from Sven. If she leaves me what will I do? What will I do if I leave her? I know what I want right now but will I follow up tomorrow?

We're back on the floor. Dwight scores an easy bucket. Muffin fumes and glares at him. This is more than ball. I shoot a look at Jesse. He puts one hand up high above his head, the other one in front, forming a large imaginary belly. Big Boy.

He might have been just another kid from the neighborhood. They come and go, the high school seniors, fresh and serious, the college boys and girls, pimply faces of all creeds and races. There was Raheem, the dreadlocked tornado who tore through the land, smashed everyone's ego, then left to look for worthier foes. Jennifer was tiny, shiny blond hair, tough as old bread, all elbows, the star point guard of her varsity squad. She ran with us to keep sharp until she got her college ride. Big Boy had a high-pitched voice and some sad patches of facial hair. I couldn't reach the ball if he held it to his chest, his stomach a mattress between us, his face a mile away. He was easily six seven, at most nineteen or twenty. He would come two, three times then no show for a month. He couldn't handle more than a couple of runs. Right away he would be wheezing and huffing and coughing, never even pretending to jog. He looked and felt different from the other kids, lumpish, broken. Half the time he was on something, the other half he had the shakes.

One Thursday evening Big Boy showed up without gym gear, looking for the Four. They all had a hushed conversation in a corner. From a distance I could see him raise his head above the huddle, towering over everyone but Dwight, and look one way, then turn another, his face pale, eyes wide open like a pigeon's. Jesse had a hand on his shoulder. Stuckey and Muffin were conferring in agitated, hissing whispers. Two men entered the gym. One sported cornrows and a long black trench coat. The other wore loose-fitting jeans pulled down below his butt, and a throwback Charles Oakley Bulls jersey, number thirty-four. They were both beanpoles, shriveled, walking in the hunched, placid way of the junkies I see so often at the DMV. I couldn't tell if they were carrying. They didn't raise their voices (I never heard their voices at all). I saw they were dangerous, every gesture and movement announcing with a megaphone "don't mess with us." I stayed in a corner, head hunched, avoiding eye contact with the gangbangers. I didn't move, a mouse waiting out a storm.

Then I realized that the Four were cowering too, as quiet as me, their bravado nowhere to be seen, maybe in the recycle bin. All but Muffin, who kept his head up, his nostrils flaring. The two men strode straight toward Big Boy, who looked down in shame and terror. Had he stolen drugs from them? Had he snitched on someone? They walked him out of the gym, each holding one of his arms, but gently, like he was a hospital patient getting back his legs. Ten minutes passed. Big Boy came back, pale as a ghost, his eyes red, his lip trembling. They all left together, asking the kid questions and snapping and shushing each other. I never learned the details. I never asked. And that was the last time I saw Big Boy. Now Jesse is trying to placate Muffin and Dwight, who circle each other like Silva and Lutter. Is Big Boy dead? I'm sure he is. I see Muffin trying to protect him. He wanted to do something, confront the thugs, stand up for the kid. Be a man, like Moe had been, like I wish I could be. Stuckey had been against it, protested, and Dwight had said nothing, stood stricken, the chicken. Now it's all over, too late to help, Dwight. Too late to be a man.

Carlo's cutting. I thread a dime to him through the defense. Bucket. "That'a boy," he slaps my hand. "Keep your head. We got this one." He nods toward Muffin, behind us, and twists his face in a mock-Muffin grimace, eyes rolling like a crazy goat. It jerks a cackle out of my throat. "Score!," Muffin roars. "Six four," replies Dwight. "Hell no! Six five." "Six four," Dwight growls again. Muffin takes a step toward him, but I happen to be between them. "It's six four," I say. Before Muffin can tell me where to stick my scorekeeping, Jesse backs me up. "Six four. Let's play, dog. Deal with your crap on your own time." Both Muffin and Dwight grumble at this, but nobody's messing with Jesse.

Muffin decides to go back at Dwight, show him off. He's as skilled as anybody on the court. He crosses Dwight, who reaches in, slaps the rock away. Another fast break. Again Muffin pursues. By the time they get to our basket Muffin has turned, backpedaling, trying to take a charge. Dwight bowls in with his elbow raised, aiming straight for Muffin's face. "Charge!" demands Muffin. "That's a charge, bitch!" "Your feet weren't set," Dwight flashes his gold tooth. He's right too. Muffin fumes. "What you gonna do," whittles Dwight, "get your gun?"

I missed the gun incident. I see Stuckey and Muffin get rough on the court, things getting out of hand, stomping to their gym bags to retrieve their pieces. Muffin just couldn't forgive Stuckey for letting Big Boy down. The cops showed up and escorted them off the premises. For this they called the cops, not for the assassins who intimidated Big Boy. Oscar Carpenter and Arthur Stuckey got their names posted on the bulletin board. Stuckey's stuck to it, sheathed his sword, hasn't sent word. Muffin promised to turn the page and show his age.

Seven all. Official time-out. We're all winded, except for Carlo, who has the lungs of a Kenyan runner. Dwight's talking trash, trying to get a rise out of Muffin. My back is to them. There's hard breathing, the air changes as if a tanker truck came into the gym. The court shakes. I turn. Muffin and Dwight stand nose to nose. "I told you I don't want to hurt you," taunts Dwight. Muffin's face is twisted with fury. He wants to rush Dwight. He wants to kill him. I try to imagine the sight of the two gladiators actually going at it in battle, make Superman versus Doomsday seem like a pillow fight. Muffin walks away, picks up the rock, and chucks it against the wall with such power that I feel the floor vibrate. A dry, deafening smack, followed by the springy twang of rubber recovering its shape. I feel my heart pounding in my chest. I feel the color leaving my face. I'm sure Muffin is going to kill Dwight right now. I am terrified. Jesse and Mr. S are speechless. A beat. Another. "If you can't control yourselves I'm out of here," Jeanine's steely schoolteacher voice breaks the spell. The tension descends to an acceptable level. Muffin looks around for a way to save face. He comes to me and shoves me hard toward Dwight. "Switch up, boy. I ain't going down no more." My arm drips as the sweat from Muffin's hand puddles with my own.

I got Dwight now. Muffin has TCT, who won't dare make a move. Jesse offers to take Dwight himself, but Muffin shakes his head and blocks his way. "White boy's got him." Jesse looks about to object, refrains. Dwight has the rock, mismatch, roughly backs me down. My face is between his shoulder blades. "You better get out of the way, little man." He's talking smack. He's pushing me back. I can't hold him. He takes a two-foot bunny that misses. Grabs his own board, misses again. I jump up and down uselessly around him, a flea trying to tackle a bear. Third time does it. Score. "Good switch," Dwight tickles Muffin.

In response, Muffin does his thing down low. Poor TCT doesn't even try to stop him. Eights. We're finishing this run. At this moment Muffin and Dwight care more about the score than about killing each other. The magic of ball keeps them on course. Paula and her promotion fade away also. All there is is the score, the W. Anybody's game. We all want it, it's everything. Crunch time means Muffin and Dwight get the rock each trip up and down the court. Only Mr. S could possibly challenge their dominance. He won't. Not today.

Dwight to Jeanine for a J. Brick. Carlo outlets to Jesse. Turnover. Mr. S from the free throw line. Brick. Tussle for the board. Muffin's got it. It's his time. He drives hard. TCT whacks his arm, doesn't call it. Muffin and his man stay behind, yelling at each other. Dwight heads downcourt. I'm the only thing between him and the cup. He accelerates, elbow up like a harpoon. I duck to avoid it but stand my ground, get him on the wrist before the full force of his rampage has me flat on the court. "Let's go," says Muffin. "I got him," I say. I take the foul. I know what I did. Give them back the rock. Jesse pulls me up. Muffin stares at me in disbelief. "You switching sides?" "Foul's been called," declares Mr. S, impatient. He gives me a nod. Is it respect? He checks it in himself, pulls up from the top, scores. "Point game." Our turn. Carlo shoots. I know it's a miss. I know where it's going. Dwight guesses the wrong side, doesn't even think of boxing me out. I grab the board, bounce back up and put in a righty hook. I pump my fist. "Nines," calls Jeanine. "Win by two."

TCT takes another dumb three. It's a long board that falls into Dwight's hands. He rises for a shot but Muffin bear-hugs him, pushes him down. He starts jogging to the other side, as if Dwight slipped. Dwight roars. "No call," says Muffin, playing it cool. He wants to force Dwight to call the foul, make him look like a whining child. It's a dirty move, a cowardly move. It stings me. What is he doing? I got to go home and face Paula. I have to take some of her power. One call can make or break the run. You have to play it right, with grace. Any win is not a win. Muffin's standing all the way at the other end, waiting for the rest of us to join him and restart play. He knows what he did. "Our ball, that's a foul," says Mr. S in a reasonable tone. "No call," from Muffin. "You want to call it?" to Dwight, loud so everyone can hear. "Nah, man," says the big man. "If I do you'll call your crew."

We all walk to join Muffin. We take our time. I look for Jesse. "What crew is Dwight talking about?" He seems amused, like it's a stupid question. "You know those two cats that came to scare the big kid the other day?" I nod. Jesse looks downcourt at Muffin. "Let's just say he introduced them." He jogs away. I see Big Boy, leaving the gym with the gangbangers, Muffin looking up defiantly, Stuckey beside himself, Dwight silent, disbelieving. He introduced them? I never make it to the other end. No need. Muffin checks ball, steps back, drills a three. "Point game us, baby!" Nobody slaps his hand as we run back to D. "Get open!" he hisses at me.

First I have to deal with Dwight. He's bulldozing me with his butt. Muffin comes in to double. Pass to Mr. S, who steps back, shoots. The pill rolls around as if going down a drain, pops out. Jesse captures, looks for Muffin. Both Carlo and Jesse come to me. Jeanine calls to Dwight, "Pick, right, left!" I use Jesse to get open. I'm off to my spot. The yellow baseline and sideline of the volleyball court frame my feet. Muffin finds me, dimes me. Chest pass. My skin is burning, my blood is ice. My right hand cups the ball, my left on its side, for balance and control. I flick my wrist, feel it sliding off my fingertips, follow through, backward rotating motion. Bucket. "Ballgame!" I don't celebrate.

Carlo gives me a sweaty bear hug, Jesse pats my back. "Good game," from Mr. S, Jeanine. Dwight flashes me a gold-toothed grin. "Next!" calls Muffin. "Nah, I'm out," I say. "What's up, white boy?" "I got stuff to take care of, man." Muffin eyes Dwight. "Me too, man." I offer him my hand. He slaps it hard. "Good game," I call. He chuckles or grunts. I'm not sure which.