Photo Credit: Alexander Ljung
Look: a blacktop court framed by a tall chain-link fence that droops ominously between rusted posts. The posts are twisted inward like busted soda straws. Closer now, see: a metal backboard stenciled with marble-size holes. A chain net hangs from a steel rim by three hooks. The net is hopelessly knotted and serves no purpose other than providing a spatial reference for shooters who cannot gage the hoop’s curious elliptical tilt. Balls fly through the hoop but do not disturb the net. Balls bounce off the backboard and are tipped back up. Moist palms smack against leather and against damp flesh. Rubber soles squeak. Sweat runs everywhere, drips on skin and cloth, tints color. Everything looks faded, washed out. There is little talk, just the occasional, “Yes! … Three! … Shit! … My Bad!”
Center Court: two captains are choosing sides. They hammer the air with their fists, counting in unison: “one… two… three.”
Everyone stops. Looks. Waits.
“Yes! Odd!” shouts the smaller captain. He quickly retracts his arm. “I’ll take Kenny,” he says, and out shoots his arm again, this time pointing at a tall, lanky boy in a Lakers jersey.
Others move in closer but not so close as you’d notice. Desperation means weakness. Weakness means loser. Nobody here wants to lose.
Me? I stay right where I am. I do not move. The game is twenty-one, four on four, eight players in all. I look around and count heads. I know it’s hopeless. I know that if there are even nine warm bodies, I’m still out. But I count anyway… force of habit.
Mark’s turn now. He doesn’t glance around. Doesn’t move a muscle. He barely draws a breath. “Wannamaker,” he says, and slicks back his hair, subtly indicating his impatience.
Mark is the best player on the court. His choice of teammates is of little consequence. He knows he’s going to win regardless of who he picks. He knows the whole process is simply theater, an amusement. Wannamaker will not hog the ball, will not chuck it or make stupid mistakes. He won’t throw the game away. Why make it more complicated than it is?
Andy’s turn again. He studies the field, feigns consternation, lets a few seconds tick by. “Dunn.”
As he says this Kevin Dunn lets fly a short ten-footer. It bounces off the front of the rim and lands right back in his hands.
“Nice pick, Andy,” someone shouts.
“Kiss my ass,” he answers and cups his hands around his mouth like a megaphone: “You suck Dunn! Ya better not do that during the game.”
And the ritual continues, each captain choosing a player, then waiting for the other to do the same. Soon Mark is down to the last pick. There are two of us left. I’m at the far end of the court squatting on a ball, rolling it around under my ass—better than sitting on the sticky blacktop. I hear Mark make his pick; there is no name just, “…him.”
I see Dennis, who is standing off to my left and closer to the knot of chosen players, scoop up a ball with one hand and aim it in my direction. The ball blocks my view of his face but I know he’s laughing at me—the lone outcast in this tedious ritual.
The ball squirts out from under me and I flop onto the court banging my elbow. I hoist myself up and swat at the daisies of tar and dirt clinging to the seat of my shorts. The ball is rolling along the edge of the court and I start off after it.
Dribbling past me, Dennis snarls, “Where the hell you going?”
I stop and he tosses the ball over my head toward midcourt. I hear someone call out, “Let’s go Leslie, you asshole.”
“Dickwad,” another adds.
I head toward Mark who is at the top of the key bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet. His game face glares at me. “We playing or what?” He flips Dennis’s ball to me. “Let’s go!”
Andy is standing just outside the midcourt line with his arm raised over his head. “Our ball out,” he announces to no one in particular. He drops his arm, signaling his teammates. I bounce-pass the ball to him.
As I move into position, I steal a glance over at Dennis who sits sullenly against the fence. He nods when he spots me looking over at him and flips me his middle finger. I acknowledge this gesture by grabbing my crotch and giving a tug.
I’m in, I realize. I’m in the game. I’m as surprised as anyone.
Thirty minutes later, it’s over. We dominate. We slaughter them. Mark hits for thirteen. Incredibly, I hit for three, second only to Mark. I’m ecstatic. No one sneers when I offer a high five. They call me by my name: Leslie or just Les. Not ass-wipe or dipshit—two of the more innocuous labels reserved for the faceless, sorry-ass losers who never get picked. I am pumped. I’m psyched. I want to go another game but already some of the guys are leaving, heading home for supper.
I spot Mark near the foul line popping off shots that drop flawlessly through the hoop—nothing but net, as they say. When he stops to retrieve the balls I say to him, “Hey, good game.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Way to hustle out there.”
“Thanks. I thought those guys might make a run for it toward the end.”
He shrugs. “Ya gotta let ’em stay in the game. Keeps things interesting.”
I nod, unsure if I’m at all competent or not to agree. “Well… I better take off. After six the bus only runs every hour.”
Peeling off his sweatshirt, he says in a muffled voice, “You live by that new pizza place don’t you? Right off Springfield.”
“Yeah. On Conduit. The corner house with the big porch.”
“Right, the big porch.” He stuffs the sweat-soaked shirt into a gym bag and pulls on a clean white T-shirt. “Look, my sister’s picking me up in a couple of minutes. You want a lift?”
“Sure. That’d be great.”
He doesn’t say anything else, just flops down with his back against the fence. He stretches out a leg and probes his kneecap. It appears swollen and he pokes it with his index finger, examining it like a paleontologist might study a fossil. I stay on the court and dribble around. I say nothing more. Why tempt fate?
Five minutes later a powder blue Firebird convertible pulls up to the curb and honks twice.
“Here’s our ride,” he says, rising to his feet.
He tosses his ball and bag into the back and crams into the front seat. I push his stuff over and hop into the back. Before I can get comfortable, he reaches down, grabs a lever and gives a quick push. The seat slams against my shin. I groan and try to slide over a bit.
His sister turns and sees my knee jammed up against the center console. “Oh my God. Are you hurt?”
“It’s okay. My leg’s just cramping a little. I’m fine, really.”
“Are you sure?” Her fingertips press lightly on the concave edge of my quadriceps. I try to hold my leg still but her touch is like a tuning fork against my tired muscles.
“Un-huh.” I swallow hard. “It always does this after a game. Just a little sore.”
She lifts her hand and smiles at me. Her eyes are a warm, watery blue. Her lips are full and cinnamon-colored—just moist enough to reflect tiny specks of white light. The lipstick is just right. It goes well with her finely freckled cheeks, which are tinted with the pink and gold hues that filter through the front windshield, softening everything around us. “I’m Jenny,” she says. “Mark’s sister.”
“Hey Jenny. Leslie.” My voice sounds too high. I drop it down an octave. “Mark’s friend… we play ball together. You know, basketball.”
I brace for a rebuke from Mark. We’re not really friends. Before today I doubt he even knew my name. He either isn’t listening or just lets the comment slide.
“I told him we could drop him off on the way home,” Mark tells Jenny. “He lives near that new pizza place, on Concord.”
“Of course we can, Mark,” Jenny says, beaming. “I’m always happy to give one of your friends a lift.”
“You can let me off right where you get off the highway,” I tell her. “That way you can feed right back on without getting stuck in the traffic.”
She nudges the stick into first and we glide down the street and head for the highway. After fussing with the radio she settles on a soft rock oldies station: Mamas and Papas, James Taylor—that sort of thing.
Is this what she likes, I wonder. I try to guess her age. She’s got a license so she must be at least seventeen. I glance up at the rearview mirror, trying to catch a glimpse of her face again. I’m careful to avoid any eye contact but it’s not easy. My feet are straddling the center hump. It’s uncomfortable but I want to stay in the middle of the seat. I try to act like I’m interested in the song on the radio and crouch over the console. I think I can hear her singing along but maybe it’s just the wind. She downshifts and the back of her dress bows out exposing a pale blue bra strap that looks so lovely and delicate I feel a rush of excitement mixed with nervous guilt. I slide forward and see a thin, feathery line of gold-tipped hair that begins between her shoulder blades and ends at the base of her neck where it suddenly darkens to a soft ochre. She scrunches back in the seat and squares her shoulders. Her hair spills over the headrest and snaps like a pennant in the stiff breeze. I melt back into the seat and gaze straight ahead. Her scent, her cinnamon lips, her blue eyes, her cool touch: it all races past me as we speed down the highway. And I drink it in—all of it.
She’s twenty, I find out later. I’m fifteen—almost sixteen. She may as well be fifty.
As we exit onto the service road I catch her eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Hey, how we doing back there?”
“Fine,” I say.
“Gets kinda windy, doesn’t it?”
I grope for words but end up blurting out, “Feels good.”
We stop near my corner and I hop out.
“See ya,” Mark says tonelessly.
“Yeah, see ya.” I say back and turn to Jenny. “Thanks for the ride. I would have had to take the bus. I’d probably still be waiting for it.”
“You’re very welcome, Leslie.”
I feel a rush at the way she says my name: Lezzz-leeee. Like we share a secret or something. My face must betray what I’m thinking because she suddenly says, “You know, now that I think about it, you’re the first Leslie I’ve ever meet. So what do you prefer? Do you like—let’s see—Les or maybe Lee or—”
“Leslie,” I stammer. “Leslie is fine.”
“Good. That’s what I prefer too. Leslie. I like Leslie.”
“Well, bye,” I say.
She smiles. “Bye Leslie.”
I watch the convertible disappear. I head for home and the whole way I can hear her saying my name over and over: Lezzz-leeee. No has ever said it quite that way before. It sticks in my head all though supper and is the last thing I hear before finally falling asleep, forgetting all about, what was up to now, the single greatest game of my life.
Weeks later Mark and I are shooting baskets in his driveway. It’s July and we shoot baskets almost every day. Turns out we both have a lot in common even if we’ve existed in nearly separate universes since grade school. For some reason he keeps inviting me over to shoot hoops in his driveway. Soon we’re friends, horsing around, hanging out, chasing girls, and working out.
He spots me eighteen points in a game of twenty-one. I lose repeatedly. The sun is merciless. In three weeks I’ve sweat off almost ten pounds. My stomach flattens and my endurance increases dramatically. Mark, too, grows even stronger and more imposing. His arms and legs swell with new muscle. Veins ripple down his forearms and coil around his calves. Every morning before we shoot baskets he bench-presses two hundred pounds, thirty times. I can never catch up, but at least I’m not as out of shape and slow as before.
When I’m at Mark’s, I watch for Jenny all the time. I want her to notice me shooting baskets. See me playing ball. Mark’s best buddy.
One afternoon we play four games of twenty-one without a break. We collapse on the porch steps and watch rain clouds gather in the summer sky. Jenny makes Kool-Aid and serves it to us in plastic cups. She is wearing pink shorts and a yellow blouse that ties in the back. Her hair is pulled back and bound with a scrunchy. Her skin is a moist buttery tan that glistens in the refracted waves of the afternoon heat. When she leans over to refill our cups I catch a peek of the milky white half-moons at the top of her breasts. She is so beautiful it hurts and my heart gallops in my chest when I imagine touching her, kissing her.
While we chug down the Kool-Aid she tries teaching us Hearts—a game she’s picked up in college. We try to act interested but end up flicking our cards against the garage door, just like we do with baseball cards. Later, she brings out a big floppy beach hat and makes up a game of high card. She holds the hat out between us. When I reach in to pick a card she delicately slips an ace into my groping fingers. I leave my hand in the hat making it look like I’m still digging around. I feel her fingertips brush against my palm. I look up and catch her staring straight at me; it’s a brief, ephemeral connection but it makes my skin pebble and my face flush.
My circle of friends narrows. My circle of acquaintances expands. We’re back in school—sophomores now. Mark makes the varsity basketball team. He gets me into the big games for free. I hang out with some of the players. Some are juniors and seniors. I follow Mark and his teammates around like a slave. I run errands for them. Help out after practice, put equipment away—anything to be part of the group.
Mark is dating Heather. She’s a cheerleader, beautiful and stacked. They’re both popular. Just being around them makes you feel important. I date Callie. She lives across the street from me. Her real name is Catherine but I’ve been calling her Callie ever since I was five and had trouble pronouncing her name. Somehow the name stuck. Even her mother calls her Callie sometimes. She doesn’t seem to mind. She’s really thin and has mousy brown hair, which she wears in a sort of pageboy style. We make out a lot but that’s about it. Every time things start to heat up, the passion melts away. Maybe I’ve just known her too long. Maybe we can’t get past being friends. I don’t know. I’m confused all the time. I think about Jenny more and more—even when I’m making out with Callie. Something’s wrong. I can’t waste time. No one seems to understand this.
Jenny is in her third year at City College. She dates a lot and seems to spend hours getting ready. Sometimes her dates shoot the bull with me and Mark while they’re waiting. Mark goes out of his way to ignore them. Not me. I study them. I critique them. They’re all losers, if you ask me. Her current boyfriend, Lawrence, has a chopped-out Harley. Not Larry, you understand; Lawrence. How many Lawrences you know ride choppers? Jenny says he’s in advertising and works in Manhattan. He’s tall and thin and has long sideburns. He is very pale and always looks like he needs a shave. Jenny seems to enjoy riding with him. Once in a while he even gives me and Mark a ride. Mark tells him that he is saving for a bike, too. They talk about motorcycles. They talk about stuff like ape-hangers and sissy-bars. I’ve no interest. I sit and wait for Jenny just to see what she’s wearing or just to hear her say my name. Lawrence calls her ‘babe’. She calls Lawrence, Lawrence. I really don’t like this guy but what can I do?
The warm weather disappears. It’s windy and overcast all week. Jenny seems to be losing interest in Lawrence and his chopped-out Harley. By late November he’s history. So are the motorcycle rides. I kind of miss them now that Lawrence is gone. Life’s like that, but you gotta learn to move on. At least that’s what I’m told all the time. Jenny seems to take it all in stride. Maybe she just wanted to ride in a car once in a while. Who knows?
Jenny dates other guys. From what I’ve observed they’re even bigger losers than Lawrence. Some look much older. One guy is in an oldies band and is always singing doo-wop songs. You can imagine how annoying that can be. I practically live at Mark’s house. Sometimes I go straight to his house after school. We play ball or watch TV until dark. Sometimes he takes off right in the middle of a game or vanishes when I get up to take a leak. I don’t mind. He’s got lots of other friends. He doesn’t want me around one hundred percent of the time. Sometimes, to be honest, it’s a relief.
If Jenny is home we sit and talk. She tells me about books she’s read or movies she’s seen. It’s nice when Mark’s not there. It’s like we’re on a date or something. Sometimes we sit on the couch together, our legs or arms touching. Once, while we were watching TV, she fell asleep with her head resting on my shoulder. I didn’t move a muscle for nearly an hour. I could feel her heartbeat we were so still. I ended up missing the last bus home and had to walk to the train station. It’s only one stop but it costs two bucks just to ride for ten minutes—then you have to walk almost a half-mile just to get to my street. It was worth it, though—that one hour, alone with Jenny. I’d have walked a hundred miles.
When Mark and I get tired of basketball, we play stickball. We play it with a sawed-off broom handle and a pink rubber ball called a pinky. Mark can pitch incredibly fast. I’m a pretty good hitter. Mark always wins but at least he doesn’t have to spot me a million points.
We usually play on the handball courts near the community college. There are about a half-dozen strike zones painted on the tall concrete walls. Occasionally you’ll find a few people hitting tennis balls or playing roller-hockey inside the fence. I’ve never seen anyone playing handball. Not even Mark and I play handball.
It’s mid-afternoon and in the low fifties. I’ve got on a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. It’s one of those cloudless, clear days that make you feel completely alive and strong.
I’m hitting pretty consistently. I’m up two runs in the last hitting. Mark tells me his shoulder is sore but he’s burning them in pretty good. Like I say, it’s just one of those days; very little is getting past me.
I’ve got the bases loaded and can put the game away. Mark peers at me from beneath the beak of his Yankees cap. His face looks red. He mops his brow with his shirtsleeve and glares at the rectangle of black paint behind me. When he finally throws the ball I hear a sound escape from deep down in his gut. I’ve heard this sound before. It’s the sound you make when you get kicked in the balls.
I try to duck but the ball catches me on the left ear. A lightning bolt of pain rockets through my head and suddenly I’m on my back. I try to gather my thoughts but my ear is ringing like a one-note church bell. I see Mark’s face float into view. He’s grinning. He says, “Hey asshole, you all right?”
I nod and try to stand.
He grabs my hand and helps me up.
“Damn, that really fuckin’ hurt.”
“You shouldn’t crowd the plate like that.”
I nod again, not really listening.
“C’mon, let’s finish the game.” He puts the bat in my hand.
I take a couple of practice swings and feel my head spin. “I’m done,” I tell him.
“Whaddya mean? You quit now, you forfeit the game.”
“Fine, I forfeit then.”
He snatches the bat from my hand. “Pussy.”
Jenny is not home much anymore. She spends a lot of time in the city. Mark says she’s going out with some guy who owns a restaurant and she hardly ever makes it home for dinner. Sometimes she stays out all night. Occasionally I’ll spot her hurrying from her car with a small travel bag slung over her shoulder. She always looks tired.
It’s too cold outside to shoot baskets but I hang around at Mark’s house anyway. We watch football, play cards, work out in his basement.
Sunday afternoon we’re up in his room. A freezing rain is falling outside. They say it’s supposed to turn to snow before dark. We’re playing Monopoly, waiting for a four o’clock Jets playoff game to start. We’re just killing time but I’m enjoying the Monopoly game. I haven’t played it in years, but it’s not something you forget how to do.
Mark is buying like crazy: houses, hotels, utilities—anything he lands on. I, on the other hand, have only a single house on Baltic. When I pass GO I collect my two hundred and add it to my stash. I’m filthy with money. I shove it beneath the board in nice even stacks.
As the game progresses I begin landing on Mark’s properties. When I do he whips a card off his stack and taunts me. “Let’s see… with one hotel… that comes to… oh… three-and-a-quarter big ones. Pay up, asshole.”
I hand over the money and he counts it out while eyeing me like one of those card sharks you see in the movies. Soon I’m down to my last hundred. When I land on Marvin Gardens he howls with delight and says, “Yes, with two houses—hold on while I look this up…”
There is nothing I can do. I’m busted. He agrees to spot me a few bucks so we can continue the game, but I know I’ll never catch up. Just like with everything else, he’s better than I’ll ever be. I don’t want to take his money. Why delay the inevitable?
I hear footsteps on the stairs and look up.
“Hi guys,” Jenny peeks around the door, looks down at the board. “Who’s winning?”
“Who do you think?” Mark cracks wise.
“Leslie, Leslie…” She shakes her head, clicking her tongue.
She’s holding a fistful of hangers, trying not to let anything drag on the floor. The garments are wrapped in blue plastic. She hooks the hangers over the top of the bathroom door and disappears down the hallway.
Mark hops to his feet. “Hey man, ya thirsty?”
“I dunno. Whaddya got?”
“Dom fuckin’ Perignon. Whaddya think?”
“I can go for a Coke.”
After he leaves, I study the board with despair. I want to flip it over and end my misery. I survey my properties. At least I’ve got one railroad. He doesn’t own everything.
Mark’s houses and hotels are all neatly arranged at the top of each square. His stack of cash is now so thick he’s weighed it down with a first baseman’s mitt. I stand and stretch and try to walk off the pins-and-needles in my left foot. I brush past the bundle of clothes hanging on the bathroom door. It’s hard to make out what’s under the plastic so I flatten out the wrinkles with my palms. I see a wash of blue-tinted hues: pinks, whites, yellows—even blacks. I lift the plastic. My eyes sweep over the lingerie: bras, panties, teddies, slips. Other stuff I’ve only seen in catalogs: garters with pearl snaps and tiny bows, see-through tops, a corset laced with satin ribbons. I run a finger down the side of a black nightgown. The fabric is so sheer it looks like vapor. I lift a pair of flesh-colored stockings off a hanger; they’re nearly weightless and slide through my fingers, more liquid than solid. I smell perfume. My head feels light. My heart hammers in my chest.
“Gimme a break,” Mark barks. He is standing behind me, gripping two cans of Coke like he’s just drawn a pair of six-shooters. “Fuckin’ pervert. Don’t go touching that stuff.”
I let the plastic drop and try not to act startled. “I was just checking it out.”
“Yeah right.” He sets the sodas down next to the board. “Wait till I tell everyone about this. You practically jacking-off over my sister’s honeymoon stuff.”
“I wasn’t jack— What are you talking about, honeymoon stuff?”
“Jenny’s. All that Frederick’s of Hollywood crap she bought in the city.”
“She’s getting married?”
“That’s what usually comes before a honeymoon, isn’t it?”
I am shipwrecked.
“I didn’t know she was getting married. Who is it? Is it that restaurant guy?”
“You don’t know him,” he says, dismissing the question with a quick wave. “Hey, know what? Maybe I’ll call him up and let him know what you were doing. He’ll probably kick you ass just for looking at that stuff.”
“I was just—”
“Yeah, yeah. I know what I saw, slimeball.”
“Jeezzz, Mark. Just don’t say anything to Jenny. Okay?”
“Hey, Jenny,” he calls out, like I’d just given him an idea. “Come here for a minute, will ya.” He grins at me, his face frozen so there’s not so much as a twitch—like he’s looking at me from behind a mask.
“Come on, don’t,” I plead, and try to shove my hand over his mouth.
He knocks it away easily and calls her again.
Jenny calls back, “Stop screaming, I’m right down the hall.”
We hear a drawer slam shut.
“I’ll be there in a moment.”
“Wait till she hears about this,” he says salaciously. “She’ll probably want to get everything dry-cleaned or something. You should at least offer to pay for it.”
“Cut it out, will you. I didn’t do any—”
The door swings in and Jenny looks down at us. “Okay, you two, what’s all the commotion about?”
Mark has picked up a stack of bills and is meticulously counting them out. He is grinning and humming to himself. When he finishes counting he says, “Just thought you might be interested in knowing what Leslie was doing while I was getting some soda from—”
I react so quickly I forget to make a fist. I smash the heel of my palm into his nose with all my might. I hear cartilage crunch and immediately blood streams from his nose and shoots down his shirt.
“What the fuck!” he screams.
I jump to my feet and leap across the board.
Jenny’s hand is over her mouth and she’s shouting, “Oh my God, Mark you’re bleeding! Just sit still… Tilt your head back… Oh my God…”
I duck by Jenny and bound down the stairs. I fly by Mark’s mother who is already on her way up.
“Leslie,” she calls after me. “Are you all right? What’s going on up there?”
I’m out the front door and into the street. I can hear Mark’s mother shouting something as she climbs the stairs.
My shirttails flap wildly in the wind. The snow and frozen rain beat against my face and bare arms. If only I’d remembered to grab my jacket. From where I’m standing I can see Mark’s bedroom window. Shadows play against the small patch of wall visible beneath the half-drawn shades.
I stiffen as a shiver slides down my back. I glance down at my new Adidas cross-trainers. Sixty-five bucks. They are barely visible in the clumps of filthy slush. The salesman said they’d improve my vertical leap, make me faster, make me a better player. None of it was true, of course. I just wanted to believe it.
The icy water soaks through my socks and seeps in between my toes. I start running next to the curb, splashing through the half-frozen puddles lining the gutter. There is hardly any traffic so I move back into the center of the street. The wind hits me dead-on making it hard to breathe but I dig deep and suck in the cold air. I pass some old guy in a topcoat and gray hat. He’s leaning on a long-handled shovel. His back is bent and his arms and shoulders look liked they’ve been pinched together. At his feet is a low ridge of grimy snow. His chin retreats back into his collar when he spots me running by. It hadn’t occurred to me how crazy I must look. My limbs feel thick and weighted down, like gravity’s been torqued up a notch. I wonder: Is this what ‘old’ feels like?
And I’m running… running… running, away from my first real friend and my first true taste of love, lust, and loss.
Up ahead the gunmetal sky presses down on a delicately etched gray-and-white horizon—an attenuated, bleak crease of dying daylight. And I’ve no idea where I’m running to or really what I’m running from.
I push on anyway, my arms aching, my legs failing. I push on… not a winner and not a champion…
Content just to be in the game.