“You never loved me!” Sammy pulled the screen door open.
“Boo fucking hoo. Get a job,” his mother called down the stairs.
He tried to block her shrill voice by slamming the front door, but it escaped past the flocked velvet wallpaper and cut through all the open windows on the block.
Old Lady Freeman didn’t even try to duck behind her dusty curtains when he walked past. She gave him the same nasty sniff she’d been greeting him with since the summer he and her son Ronnie turned twelve. That’s some talent, to preserve one clear liquid booger in and out of the same nostril for thirty-six years.
He returned her greeting with a smile and his raised left middle finger, strong, abbreviated, and gnarled from being jammed countless times on the basketball courts. Then he tripped over the goddamned tree root that had buckled and cracked the sidewalk open before he could even remember. When they were kids, they called it the nutcracker, flying over it on the banana seats of dented Shwinn bikes.
Sammy tugged his track pants back into place and pretended not to see Old Lady this time, ‘cause now she was smiling. Sort of. Her lips were stretched wide, and she was pointing at her third top tooth, the spot where he had a dark and occasionally smelly gap. His tongue found its way to the groove and worked at it, a little suction and a crumb from this morning’s frozen waffle popped out.
Freaking old bags, the both of them. He had a job. Part time, but that’s all he needed. And he was going to get his tooth fixed. Last week, he had an appointment with the clinic in the city, the one where they fix your teeth for cheap. Sammy looked down at his new kicks, black with blue trim. Lightweight for summer play, good traction. Yeah, it was worth putting off that implant. Besides, once he signed that contract, he’d probably get dental coverage. For a real dentist with degrees on the wall, not some student.
He dribbled his ball as he crossed the street on the diagonal. Chris drove past just then, in the dark blue Town Car Sammy’d be driving tonight. Now it was going to smell like weed, and the old ladies would complain when he picked them up for Bingo. Maybe he should quit the car service, sign up with that new company everyone is talking about, be his own boss. He’d have to buy a car, but that wouldn’t be so bad, get himself a sweet ride that didn’t smell of someone else’s onions. He dribbled and dreamed past the handball courts, past the screaming brats on the swings, to the blacktop. The day’s heat rose off the asphalt in waves, wrapped around his knees and gave a little squeeze. With claws.
“Hey, Stubbie!” Al called to him from the splintered bench furthest from the prime court. They used to call him Wave, because he’d knock you down and steal your breath along with the ball, but now he’s just Al, with a paunch and an oddly orange comb-over.
“Yo, man, I haven’t seen you on a Tuesday in a long time,” he said. These were his courts, and Sammy knew exactly when to expect which players to show.
“I switched days. The wife is driving me nuts, going through her changes, so I figure I’ll go ahead and work Sundays for a while, get one day off each week that’s peaceful, before we both retire. “ Al swiped a furry forearm across his neck to wipe away the sweat that was already streaming. The other reason they called him Wave.
“Retire? You must be tripping, you’re younger than me. “
The man laughed. “Yeah, by six months. Two more years ‘til I make my thirty. Time to go.” He laughed and took a sloppy pull from his water bottle. “I’m here for the old-timers game at 5, ain’t that what you’re here for?”
“Screw you, man, I ain’t no old-timer.” Sammy’s eyes narrowed, resentment shot through his gut and out through the gap in his bared teeth with a perfect loogie, landed right next to Al’s free-with-purchase gym bag and draped across two dandelions poking through the concrete that rimmed the bottom of the fence.
The background bass of basketballs thumping, shots taken and missed clanked against the steel hoops behind him. Then that one sound, ball hitting the backboard in the sweet spot, two points of metallic, netless swish echoed across the playground. This was all the warm-up Sammy needed. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and checked it. 2:15, this poor bastard does need to retire, can’t even tell time anymore.
“I got next,” he yelled out, to the next bench down, where three guys were sharing a joint, eyes locked on the active players. The skinny Asian kid turned to him, shook his head, and mimed a slow jerk-off with smooth, blunt-edged fingertips, a letter tattooed on each finger. The gods were with him, though, and a lit ember fell and burned a perfect hole into the kid’s red nylon shorts.
Sammy tucked his ball closer against his pit and pushed away from Al and the stank of the old-timers’ bench.
“Don’t forget, 5 o’clock.”
“I’ll be done by then.”
“Because you’re one of us. That’s why I’m resting up, hydrating before we start.” Al groped in his bag and brought out a beer, tipped it in Sam’s direction. Enviably large hands made the can seem like a toy.
“Everyone’s coming. Even Rick is gonna be here.”
“Isn’t he still in a wheelchair?”
“How’s that gonna work?”
Al shrugged and said, “I dunno, but he says it’ll be fine.”
Sammy thought about a chair rolling across the blacktop, pissbag hanging off a wheel, and felt the same testicle climbing sickness he got when he went to the bathroom in the middle of the night and found his mother’s teeth staring at him from a smudged highball glass.
Let that fat bastard keep his watery brew, prepare to retire his fuzzy, sweaty ass on a bocce ball court in Florida.
“Just let me know when it’s almost five. I got work at six, gotta go home and shower first or the rides complain.”
“Stub-bie,” Joker greeted him, “I got next.”
Now Sammy started to sweat while he dribbled. Freaking Joker, he doesn’t have to play now, he’ll be here until the cops toss them out under the moonlight. But he had to get a game in today, before work. This was his mother’s fault, if she’da left him alone when he got up, instead of ragging on him about the broken toilet downstairs, he’d have been here an hour ago. Maybe two. His nose itched and twitched from the fall weeds that grew around them as they strangled the last of summer.
“Why don’t you go back with your friend over there? The rest of the geezers are coming, I heard.” Moose spoke up, a power player when he got off the bench, but he looked too wrecked to stand today, much less dunk.
This brought Sammy’s blood pressure back down and cheered him.
“Go fuck yourself. The scouts are in town, I heard they’re on the go all week, looking for fresh talent. I gotta give ‘em someone to find. One of my fares told me they plucked Ramos right off the blacktop in Bergen Beach on Monday. Rode his rickety-ass bike to the courts and rode home in a limo.” He caught the hair on his knuckles between his teeth, pulling on them with pleasure.
Moose guffawed, a sound that should be banned on a streetball court. The kid with the tattoos joined in, his laugh a bray. Like a motherfucking donkey. Not that Sammy had ever actually heard a donkey, but obviously about the same brains, anyways.
“Stubbie, you moron, those are college scouts. You couldn’t even get next next next on the best courts.”
“So what? College coaches, pro coaches, they all know each other, pass along about the best players over cigars and hookers.”
“You’re too old to play pro. You’re too damn old to coach.”
“Didn’t anyone teach you bozos anything in school? This is America. Dreams come true, and if you’re good enough, none of that other shit matters. Good playing is everything. The rest,” Sammy shrugged, “the rest is gravy. And I’m the best player on this court. Fucking poetry in motion.”
“Yeah, if the poem is about a man from Nan-tuck-it. I think you’re getting that Altzsheimer’s Disease, Stub. Go see a doctor.”
They all laughed at this. Well, let them laugh, I’ll be laughing on my way to Madison Square Garden.
A crew of regulars was playing on the open half-court at the end, and he went to join them until it was his turn.
He was right, he had to be here today. These new kicks were power-shoes, gave him wings. Sammy drove the ball. He twisted, arms loose and wide, bouncing the ball low to the ground and between his legs, a game of Twister where no one could beat him. His knee popped and he used the pain to propel himself up and forward. Then that magic moment, cruising up until he slammed that mother right into the rim. And again, hollow metallic echo announcing his layups across the park. His prize the calls from the young guys, three talking shit and three more encouraging, no difference, all gathering here now with book-bags, calling next for a free afterschool class where you learn to take an elbow to the face, roll an ankle, and above all just keep playing.
Al’s voice above the rest, “Stubbie, it’s 5 o’clock!”
Niner rode up on him, tried to trashtalk him out of the game. “Yeah, Stub, time for your meds. Yo, Stub, you back on the crank? You’re too fast today, gonna bust a hip.”
Sammy let his tongue poke through the gap. “I’m leaving that to you, gotta be clean when they piss-test me before I sign my contract.”
“The only contract you’re signing is the one for your midget tailor, so you can get some pants your momma doesn’t have to hem with a stapler.”
Good playing, that’s all it takes.
Fuck the car service, one more quick game of 16, why give up the court if he didn’t have to? His fares would either be too ancient or too drunk to know whether he showered or not.
Street to pro, that’s a path of daisies right there. Until Moose joined in after all, slammed the ball right out of his hand. Stupid fucking court.
The second game was lost, and he grabbed his towel from under Joker’s foot. Blood was coming from a scrape along his shin, enough for the sting to let him know he had played hard. Sammy wished he had remembered to bring water with him, licked his upper lip and hoped the sweat he tasted was his own. He’d tried to throw his chest into Moose’s, but the man’s armpit had been just level with his face.
“Hey Stub, c’mon over here!”
Al and a bunch of the old crew were standing around, stretching seldom used muscles. At least he didn’t see a wheelchair, just a few taped knees and one wrist bandage. Good guys, with health insurance, retirement plans and decent intentions. He watched them, heard boring yik-yak about union dues. Nope, he wasn’t envious. Sammy was living the life he wanted, why should he give up on his dream for a five-dollar Viagra prescription? No high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or erectile dysfunction for this player. Benny pulled out an insulin needle. The sight of it made him queasy.
He stopped at the stone water fountain, bent down and slurped at the tepid, rusty water coming from the spout. At least it was still there and in reasonably working order. He splashed more of the water down the neck of his t-shirt, that should freshen him up a bit, and then bent for another drink. Colder this time, cleaner. It’s true, cream always does rise to the top, sometimes it takes a little time, that’s all.
When he reached Al and the others, Rick was pulling up. No fancy-made-for-sports wheels like in the TV commercial, the chair looked like it had been lifted straight from the emergency room lobby.
Benny thrust a finger into his gut and said, “Wow, I can’t believe it! Damn, Stubbie, you looked good out there, almost as fast as you used to be. He poked an extra finger with his last words, and Sammy controlled an urge to snap the digit backwards. On the court he could, and no one would think anything of it.
Sammie gave a tight grimace instead, suddenly self-conscious about the gap and re-tasting the bits of asphalt he had swallowed along with the splintered tooth.
Rick looked up at him and said, “Still skinny as ever, too. I’m glad you’re gonna play with us, I figured you’d back out.”
“Nah, man, I gotta get home. Work, you know, and my mom’s expecting to see me before I head out.”
“Your mom?” Benny gave him the hairy eyeball. “You still living with your mom?”
“Yeah sure, why not. I got my privacy, the rent’s about right, and I won’t have to figure out what to do with whatever place I’m living in when she gets cancer.” Sammy stopped and looked at Rick. Where did he have that piss bag? Bladder cancer, he had to have one. “Or, you know, a stroke, whatever it is she’ll get.”
Five guys stood there, staring at him with their maws open. Rick just shook his head. “Guess you aren’t up for the challenge, then. I’m faster than you on these wheels.”
“I told you man, I gotta work.” Sammy glanced over his shoulder and scanned outside the fence. He didn’t want any scouts in the area to associate him with the early-bird special team. And he wasn’t too crazy about the guys he played with daily lumping him in with them, either.
“Pussy.” Rick offered the insult with a smile, then tipped his ball cap towards the other guys. “He’s afraid I’ll pop a wheelie on him, even Stubbie can’t guard me.”
Before he could so much as readjust his towel, Rick demonstrated. He popped the ball out from Sammy’s lazy dribble, and reared the chair back. Instinct honed by years on the blacktop moved Sammy forward, towards the ball, instead of back and away from the wheels.
The chair came down on top of him, and he felt a crack in his shin unlike any he’d ever experienced.
From the other end of the courts, there was a moment of silence, and then a chorus of “oooh shit!” and “snap” while a curious squeal came out of his own chest.
Sammy opened his eyes and saw “Property of Bergen Beach Medical Center” stamped above him. A trickle of wet fluid on his head made him wonder if the manual brake had gashed his head, too, but then he saw a slight bulge between the layers of vinyl that made up the chair back, and a slim tube that wound its way down to somewhere under Rick’s loose clothing.
Then the clang-thud of a clean dunk, and he wondered who had stolen the shot while he contemplated how long it would take to get him back on the courts, once his shinbone was back under his skin. The scouts would come again next year.