Things really pick up after Ukezie transfers to West Boylston. Suddenly Coach is like RUN, and instead of half-assing around the bleachers, we RUN RUN RUN. Then Coach goes JUMP, and instead of hands-in-sweatpants, we JUMP JUMP JUMP, still a good ten feet behind Ukezie, who goes through every drill like buttering toast.
The first day, first practice, Ukezie skies for a rebound and leaves me sniffing his laces, some African sneaker that doesn’t even have a name. No swoosh, no nothing. Then he spins around Washington, in three giant lopes at the other end dunking.
“Holy fuck,” says Poltroni, our point guard, a chubby little Italian with hair on his neck.
“Exactly,” says Xavier, thin and springy and accurate within twelve feet.
Washington still hasn’t moved, duct-taped to the floor.
We all look at Coach Grout, chewing his whistle. He’s got six days of gray stubble and a belly like someone trying to smuggle hams.
He doesn’t answer, so I trot over and inbounds to Washington. But Washington isn’t there. Ukezie is. He steals it and then dunks off my head. Everyone on the bench laughs. All six people in the bleachers laugh. My brother J.T., standing in the doorway, laughs.
Ukezie hands me the ball, “Sorry.”
“Hey, no problem,” I say, and then wing a pass to Xavier. It bounces off his chest and rolls away. Ukezie scoops it up, nails a jumper, then hustles back on D.
Coach finally blows his whistle.
“HUDDLE!” he yells, stabbing the air with chalk. He draws an elaborate play, X defeating O. Ukezie points out that really, in this case, we want 0 to win. Coach erases furiously. He re-draws, and O comes out on top.
“SEE?” he yells.
We pant and nod. I look over and J.T.’s gone. Coach blows his whistle and then there’s another hour or so of Ukezie highlights, a whistle on his face like a row of dominos.
That was two months ago. Now we’re 14-0, The West Boylston Bolts in first place, Ukezie averaging 38 a game. We crush Warren G. Harding by 20. We beat Hamilton Poly and Winthorp and Marcus Garvey Remedial with ease. The Fitchburg game, Coach has the scrubs in halfway through the second quarter. “SCRUBS!” he yells, and even their parents laugh. Then someone starts a change; WE SHOUT FOR GROUT! A dozen fans join in, their yells echoing around the gym, OUT OUT OUT. It sounds feral. The Fitchburg kids are scared. Their coach is sweating and their parents are silent and Ukezie keeps flashing his dominoes at the end of the bench. Our scrubs score maybe twice in the second half and we still win by 28.
The next day my brother is waiting after school.
“You want a ride?”
He’s got cool shades and dangly hair and one enormous arm resting against the side of the truck. I sling my duffel into the flatbed, where it clonks against tools and scrap metal. People watch with envy as I jump in.
“Belt up,” J.T. says.
I smile and put my foot on the dash.
“Foot off the dash,” J.T. says. I smile and leave it there.
J.T. punches the gas, the truck backfiring like a cannon. We squeal by a line of kids waiting for the bus. They stare and point.
“They’re staring and pointing,” I say.
“I’m ignoring them,” J.T. says. He’s still a legend at West Boylston, and not for sports. Or anything else, really, except being big and not rubbing it everyone’s faces all the time. People never forget that kind of sacrifice.
The dry cleaner’s is at the top of a hill that overlooks the school. J.T. eases around back, packing behind a dumpster, facing oncoming traffic. It hides the truck while giving us a perfect view of The Show.
“We haven’t done this in like, forever,” I say, rolling a number.
J.T. holds a finger to his lips, diverting a plume of smoke, “Shhh…It’s starting.”
Every car leaving the school lot has to come down Route 4, which winds under an ancient trestle bridge. The cars grind up the hill, one at a time under the span before emerging into bright sun. It’s like taking Polaroids, a parade of faces, each one of my classmates revealed, SNAP.
No idea they’re being watched, SNAP.
Completely without pose, SNAP.
Some kids are shoving it to the third knuckle, excavating sinus. Others sing or play with their hair or just look straight ahead. There are chubby girls and balding teachers, mathletes and athletes, all unwitting and framed, SNAP!
When the last car goes by, J.T starts up the truck.
“I keep seeing you at practice,” I say, “all of a sudden.”
He pulled onto Route 4, leaving a patch.
“You’re standing there and I’m thinking like, uh-oh, Mom’s in jail.”
J.T. laughs. He fiddles with the radio, which doesn’t work. “So who’s the new guy?”
“Some transfer,” I say. “Seriously, though, how come?”
“At the light, J.T. reaches over with his Popeye arm and puts me in a headlock. “What?” he asks, running a knuckle across my scalp, but not so hard it really hurts, “There some law says I can’t watch my little bro play butt-ball with his pals?”
That Friday, like a miracle, the stands are packed. The parking lot’s full and there’s a big line waiting for the john. Girls stand around in circles, squealing. Boys stand around in leather jackets, punching each other’s arms. Everyone wants Ukezie’s autograph, sign my math book! Sign my purse! Scouts wait in the hall with stopwatches and hot dogs and pads full of little calculations.
Under the basket there’s six photographers, FLASH FLASH FLASH, color pictures of Ukezie running, dribbling, swooping down on the ball like a condor. West Boylston hasn’t had a winning season in eighteen years. The Bolts are a standing joke, Hey Bolts, Go Screw!
Not any more. Now we’re on top.
And we play like it.
Ukezie goes behind the back to a wide open Xavier, Coach is wearing a suit with no visible egg-stains. Potroni rives and kicks, setting me up for easy jumpers. Even Washington seems to have a pulse. There’s love in the air and we win by 36. It could have been 60.
On Monday, before practice, we stand around talking about out next game, a tough one. Winslow Homer Tech, the state powerhouse. They’re 17-2 and hot. That’s what the paper says, big capital letters, HOT!
“We haven’t beaten them since the seventies,” says Poltroni, ink on his thumbs.
“They’re the state powerhouse,” says Xavier, sniffing the lingerie ads.
Washington just rubs his neck and whistles part of Sussudio.
“TEAM!” Coach yells, and we huddle up at mid-court, getting ready for double practice.
On Tuesdsay, we pull a triple practice, plus a quick run-through at lunch.
Wednesday, Coach installs our game-plan: “WIN!”
Thursday morning we show up extra early, volunteer workout, 5 a.m.
Even the lowliest scrub is there, alying on the floor and stretching, until Coach yells, “SPRINTS!”
And so we run. Breakneck. Up and down. Touch the yellow line, fly back the other way, touch the white line. Do it again. SPRINT SPRINT SPRINT. Ukezie laps us. Washington begins to drag. Then Xavier. Poor Poltroni, his little sausage legs. I’m the only one even close, but n o one gives up.
“NO GIVING UP!”
We work on our press. We work on our set plays and our 2-3 zone and our backdoor screens. Guys are pushing and shoving under the boards, practically beginning to do the dirty work. Xavier gets into it with a scrub and they have to be separated.
“INTENSITY,” Coach yells.
Xavier and the scrub shake hands.
There’s no way we aren’t going to win. In fact, we have such a good workout, Coach gives us Late Practice off.
We meet in the parking lot and pile into Washington’s Nova. It’s a ’73 with a stock .351. A very fast car. At least it would be, if Washington didn’t drive like a grandma.
“Open it up!” Poltroni says.
“Punch it!” Xavier says.
Mmm-hmmph you,” Washington says, scratching the afro above his saddog face. Then he signals early for a left, easing around a corner, careful not to go over 300 rpm’s in third.
“Where’s my seatbelt?” Poltroni cries, leaning in mock horror. “Oh, the G-forces!”
We laugh, rowdy in our varsity jackets, everywhere the smell of a winner. Xavier pounds the seat, “TEAM!”
Poltroni pounds the seat, “BOLTS!”
“Watch the mmm-hmmphing upholstery,” Washington says.
The care finally creeps into the lot of West Boyston Rim and Radial, where J.T. works. Their mottos is Done in Under An Hour, Or It’s Free, which isn’t true. They haven’t handed out a Michelin since the place opened. Still, no one ever argues. People get one look at J.T. then swallow hard and take it. Rim and Radial’s not worried about losing business. Everyone needs a new tire.
Washington finds a spot, a good two feet of space on each side. He pulls out, re-adjusts, back in again.
“Will you park already?” Xavier snaps.
Washington turns up the radio. Phil Collins croons some of his smooth horseshit.
“There’s your brother,” says Poltroni, pointing into the shop. He leans over and toots the horn, nice and respectful, bip bip. J.T. rolls out from under a Lexus. He’s got a jumpsuit on, no sleeves. The wrestler-biceps. Grease on chin. He looks like an ad for canned beer, the kind secretaries tape above their computers. It’s hard to believe we’re related.
“It’s hard to believe you’re related,” Xavier says.
J.T. leans into the sun, shading his eyes, and gives us the hang-on-a-minute finger. We watch him walk over to his boss, a big crew-cut who’s sopping Maxwell House with a donut. The boss says something, pointing to his watch. Then J.T. says something. They stare at each other until the boss finally nods, giving it a weak smile.
“You see that?” Poltroni says.
“Like Fonzie,” I say. “Except real.”
Xavier laughs. “Better hair, too.”
“You sure you related?” Washington asks.
J.T. liked working at West Boylston Rim and Radial so much he dropped out of school two years ago.
“Enough’s enough,” he told mom, “from now on I’m a working man.”
Mom pulled her robe tighter, “Fine. Now you’re a rent-paying man, too.”
J.T. fished in his pocket, then sprinkled the counter with twenties. “Just let me know when that runs out.”
Mom looked at me, “How about you?”
I bus tables. At Ribeye Bob’s. Most of my tips are quarters.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m on the team.”
She gave me a look, flattening bills on the stove. “What team?”
Mom doesn’t come to games. Mom doesn’t leave the house for anything she doesn’t have a prescription for.
“Team Fag,” J.T. explained, opening a beer. At the time, I didn’t think it was that funny. But now I do. Especially since this morning, when I opened the door to his room, late for practice and out of socks.
I could hear coach’s voice in my head, “SPRINT!”
At least not until Ukezie woke up. He saw me and winked. He smiled and closed his eyes and snuggled a little closer under my brother’s arm.
Then I did sprint.
All the way to school, no breakfast, nothing.
I sat in my jock and hyperventilated for about an hour. Then I destroyed some scrub’s locker with a piece of pipe from the boiler room. After a while, Coach came out of his office and looked at the mangled door, confused. He put a hand on my shoulder.
“No, Coach,” I said.
He scratched his ass and then scratched his neck and then scratched his nose, which looked like a veiny onion.
Coach went back into his office. After a while the guys showed up. They yelled and threw stuff and grab-assed all around me, but I didn’t say a word. The scrub stared at his locker and didn’t say a word. So, really, it was just like any other day.
“Hey, bro.” J.T. says, walking over to the Nova. He holds out his hand to slap five. Washington and Poltroni and Xavier stand behind me, hands in pockets, silent with the usual awe.
“I think just an eighth,” I say.
J.T. nods. “That it? None of you sports homos got a job?”
I can hardly believe it.
Poltroni lets out a fat little laugh, then stops when he realizes he’s the only one J.T. walks over to the truck and pulls a ziploc from under the seat. I give him two twenties.
“You ladies drive careful,” he says, and then slow-jumpsuits back to work. Crewcut doesn’t even look up.
In the car, Xavier assesses the baggie with his thumbs, “Nice.”
Poltroni eyeballs it, holding it up to the light, “Nice.”
On the way home Washington slows for every yellow, the cares behind us taking turns laying on their horns.
On Friday, we’re down six at halftime. Windlsow Homer Tech has a guy 6’11” and plays a tight zone and I’ve missed my first three shots. Ukezie has his usual twenty-eight, but their big man is scoring over Washington at will.
In the locker room, Coach tears us a new ass.
We all nod. “HARDER!” We all nod.
In the hallway, a scout’s leaning against the wall, wearing a stopwatch around his neck and a forties-newsman hat and expensive sneakers.
“Hey, kid,” he says, waving me over. I figure he wants to ask about Ukezie, but instead he says, “You’re a good little player, kid. You thinking about college?”
“You heard of Southern Community?”
“We’re a small program,” he says, opening a snack cake and dropping the wrapper on the floor, “downstate. I think maybe we could use a smart player like you.”
No frickin’ way. “Scholarship?”
He clicks his stopwatch. On. Off. On. He licks his fingers. “Nah. You pay your own end the first year, see what happens. You stick, maybe we have something to talk about over the summer”
He chews the Ring Ding with his mouth open. His tongue is black.
“And if I don’t stick?”
It’s his turn to shrug. “Worse comes to worse, you got a year’s worth of Algebra One under your belt.”
I could bus a million ribs. I could wipe every table in China. There was no way I could swing tuition.
“You’ll think of a way,” he says, reading my mind, “smart kid like you.”
When I get back to the bench, Washington pulls me aside, “What that mmm-hummpher want?”
“Guy thinks I got skills,” I say.
Washington laughs. “No, really…what he want?”
Ukezie goes nuts in the third quarter, dropping bombs from the wing, floating toward the rim, lefty, righty, backpedal, fade-away. He’s unbelievable. The crowd is in a frenzy, stomping feet, punching air. It’s like being inside a snare drum. Ukezie steals the ball, goes between the legs. Ukezie takes a pass, sinks a rainbow jumper. Ukezie beats his man, two-handed facial.
Then the crowd starts a chant; WHY POUT? WE”VE GOT GROUT!
BOLTS! BOLTS! BOLTS! BOLTS! BOLTS!
They go ahead, we go ahead.
Then, with four minutes left, on a bad call that practically starts a riot, Washington fouls out. We’re forced to put Xavier and a scrub on their big man. It’s like handing out free points. Windslow Homer gets cute and triple-teams Ukezie. I make them pay with a runner in the lane. Their guy rams me down Xavier’s throat. I swish a twelve-footer.
It’s a jab, hook, jab, hook. Neither team can land the big punch. “SCORE!” Coach yells.
There’s thirty seconds left and we’re only down one. The crowd’s too hoarse to scream anymore. They switch to a strangle low-rumble moan. I dribble right, dribble left, holding for the last shot. “HOLD FOR THE LAST SHOT!” Coach yells.
I’m waiting for Ukezie to break open, toss over the ball and watch him throw it in. Everyone in the place knows that’s in the script. Even the Winslow Homer guys seem resigned. The freckly kid guarding me confirms it with his dull eyes.
I spin around Freckle, out in the open, top of the key. Ukezie runs off Xavier’s screen.
I’m about to execute the perfect chest-pass, when, for some reason, I spot J.T. in the crowd. The place is packed, standing, sweating, one amoebic groan of want. But J.T.’s not standing. He’s just sitting there, the only one, leaning back, a weird little smile on his face.
He’s staring at Ukezie’s ass.
So now we’re 16-1 and everybody’s pissed. Coach makes me do extra push-ups and Washington takes off after school, not even asking do I want a ride. I have to hitch-hike to Ribeye Bob’s, half an hour late.
“You’re late,” says the manager, checking at his rated-for-300 meters dive watch.
“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry doesn’t bus tables,” he says, wearing a tie-pin shaped like a diamond spatula. It winks at me. “Now go police your area.” I put on my bus-apron and hit the floor. There’s a half-dozen tables need set-ups. The salad bar needs a refill of everything but sprouts. There’s a waterless party of eight and a slick of spilled prawns by the register. It takes about an hour, but I’m almost back even when some old guy leans over from his chair and whispers “Way to go.”
“Excuse me?” I say, handful of forks.
“A thirty footer?” he scoffs, “You?”
So, yeah, I didn’t pass the ball.
What I did instead was launch a thirty-two footer.
Man, it felt good. High arc, perfect follow through. Spinning so slow I could see the air-hole every time around.
Coach screamed “NO!”
The crowd screamed “NO!”
Even Ukezie shelved the dominoes, his face blank, astonished. The entire gym inhaled as the ball nubbed off back iron, rolling around the rim, then let out a collective Wuff as it dropped to the floor. At midnight I toss bags into the dumpster and empty rib bones into the grinder and scrape grease off my boots with a paring knife. Georgie the cook is smoking a cigarette on the loading dock, all tattoos and grill-burns, a big silver cross hanging around his neck. Georgie played some high school ball himself. I know that because about two or three times a shift he says; “You know, I played some high school ball myself.”
“You fucked up, Dude,” he tells me.
“Due from Thirty Feet!” he says, in excited announcer voice,
“Dude think he Gail fucking Goodrich! Dude miss!”
He cups his enormous hands and approximates the booing of the crowd. I sit on a milk crate and put my head in my hands.
“Aww, now…” Georgie says, and then gives me a cigarette. We puff together for a while. You can hear crickets and birds and other things trying to live in the tall grass between the median. You can hear trucks brakes whining and AM radios and the long satisfying whoosh of cares careening off the exit. It’s hot and the asphalt is slightly melted and the whole world smells like dirty ketchup.
“Don’t sweat it, Dude,” he finally says, “maybe basketball just ain’t your thing.”
I laugh. It’s funny.
“’Sides,” he says, laughing with me, “a top-notch bus-dude like yourself always got a future, right?”
I take a second to admit his belt-buckle, which is about ten pounds of silver, shaped like fist.
“Yeah, Georgie, you’re right.”
“Good,” he says, and then points. A line of ants are carrying chunks of rib-fat through a crack in the wall.
“Teamwork,” he says.
So we win our next two games, nothing special, ahead by twenty and the scrubs in at halftime. The ship rights itself. Coach starts letting me off with only a hundred push-ups and Washington’s giving me rides again, but something feels different. Like going through the motions. Like going through the motions backwards. I swear, I’m almost not surprised when Ukezie doesn’t show up for practice.
“That’s weird,” says Poltroni.
“Yeah,” says Xavier.
Then Ukezie misses another. And another. His locker’s still there and his no-name sneakers are still there and his jocks are still there, but he isn’t.
You seen Ukezie?
No one’s seen him. Phones ring ring ring and knuckles knock knock knock, but there’s never any answer. All week Coach stands around, looking confused, until even he finally gets it. Ukezie isn’t coming back.
Someone starts a rumor Fitchburg had him kidnapped and that night their library’s vandalized. Someone claims they spotted Ukezie at All American Dog, and that night there’s a hundred people milling around the parking lot, eating foot-longs and waiting for a sign.
There’s an article in the school paper how Ukezie had to go home to Republic of Whereverthefuck because of tribal infighting. Turns out he’s a prince. Royalty. He’s wearing a gourd for jockstrap and a feather through his nose and enjoys a daily breakfast of raw water-buffalo. But it’s all bullshit. The only truth is that the West Boylston Bolts are nothing without him. Hey Bolts! Go Screw! We lose six in a row. Blown out by Temporal Catholic. Crushed by Rockwell Math and Science. Even lost a squeaker to Ulysses S. Grant, 114-26. The crowds disappear, the papers disappear, all the good feeling disappears. I call up Southern Community and Ring Ding keeps going, “Don’t worry, kid, you’re still on my radar,” like that means anything.
So we go back to squeezing our tools and joking around under the bleachers during practice. Coach stops bothering to hide his flask. “Jump!” he says, a couple of times, but no one listens, so he gives up. After a while he stops even coming out of his office. Xavier and Washington and Poltroni and I take over, sitting on plastic chairs and yelling at the scrubs, BOX OUT! or CHEST P ASS!, which is kind of fun.
Our last game of the season, there’s six people in the stands and five of them are Xavier’s cousins. Coach has to prop himself against a scrub to keep from falling off the bench. We lose by 3 to Hammerchin Academy, the worst team in the state, a bunch of pasty jar-heads grunting and shouting and trying really hard. I’m scoring from everywhere and have us in the right until the end. I spin and whirl, in a groove, hitting from outside, taking it to the rim, for the first time all year the best player on the floor.
It isn’t enough. With ten seconds left Washington dribbles off his foot, out of bounds, and Hammerchin runs out the clock.
“Sorry,” Washington says, while the jarheads prong around him, laughing and hugging.
“Don’t worry about it W,” I say, shaking the hand of the guy I dropped thirty-six on. “Really.”
A week later I get an envelope in the mail, the big manila kind. The return address just says Downstate, and for a second I think Ring Ding must have heard about the Hammerchin game and come to his senses. Instead of a scholarship, though, the envelope is filled with newspaper articles, most a couple years old. They’re from all over the country, local sports sections. The first is a story about some kid named Frankie Gaither, local hoops phenom, who’s single-handedly resurrecting Small Time High. There’s even a picture of Frankie Gaither, a headshot, smiling.
Except it’s Ukezie.
The next is about Mustapha Shabazz, local hoops phenom, who has single handedly resurrected Somewhere Else High. There’s a picture of Shabazz dunking. Except it’s Ukezie. There’s more articles and more pictures. Troy Tipton. It’s Ukezie. Christian Pleasant. It’s Ukezie. There’s dozens of them. He’s been doing it for years. Ukezie with glasses, Ukezie with sideburns, Ukezie with a jeri-curl and his name is Billie Dee Haskell. At the bottom of the envelope is a post-it note with a chocolately thumb-print in the corner: Just thought you’d want to know, Kid. Don’t take it too hard. Fucker had us all fooled. That night I wake up to some kind of mewling noise downstairs. At first I figure mom forgot her refill, but then I realize it’s J.T. 1 open his door and wait. There’s Zeppelin posters and titty-girl cut outs and neon beer-clocks on the wall. There’s torn rubber foils scattered under the bed like tulips.
“I dunno,” J.T. says, voice think with tears and snot, “he just made me feel right, you know?”
I really did know. “Yeah.”
J.T. sniffs, wrapping tighter in a nubby blanket. “So you can hate me now,” he offers. “No problem.”
“Shut up,” I say, and then put my arm around him. He puts his head on my shoulder. I pat his hair and he cries some more.
“He ever tell you his real name?”
J.T. sits up and wipes his nose on my shirt, “hmmm?” His eyes are red and creaky and wet. His face is puffy, oblivious, SNAP!
“Nevermind,” I say, and then go and get us two of mom’s beers.
So Washington gets accepted to Stanford and sells me his car, twelve hundred and an ounce of pot. Poltroni gets married and moves to the city to manage his dad’s meat warehouse. Xavier joins the airforce and gets stationed in the North Pole or somewhere. For a while I keep it up with the doggie bags and the bus-pans, smart kid like me. Then a year later I put in for prep. Georgie The Cook clears it with Diamond Spatula and eventually takes me on as an apprentice. He says I’ve got perfect hands, big and soft.
Also, I work at night, which means I never miss A Show.
Actually, I’m parked there right now. You should hear the rumble of the.351, idling on the overpass. You should see the parade, fresh and scrubbed and oblivious as ever, each face centered in a silver frame.
“It’s beautiful,” J.T. says, handing me a cigarette. “Exactly,” I say, and it is.