Read an Excerpt
“Hey Lonnie, what you doing round here? Thought you was supposed to be going off to some college?” Sister Boone, from the church my mother went to, was fanning herself as she sat on a wooden chair in front of one of the brownstones down the block from where I lived. She was fat, and she leaned her head back so the breeze from the fan would get at the fold in her neck.
“I got about an hour before I leave for the airport,” I said.
“Well, you take care of yourself and keep your mind on Jesus,” she said. “You hear me?”
“What you doing, takin’ you a last look around this old raggedy neighborhood?”
“Be a long time before I see it again,” I said.
“You ain’t missing much,” she said, pulling her dress away from where the sweat made it stick to her leg. “Where ’bout you going?”
“Montclare State,” I said, “that’s in Indiana. It’s a pretty small school.”
“I don’t care how small it is,” she said, looking up the street. “Jesus out there same as he’s here. You keep your mind on him and don’t be doing nothing to shame yourself. Go on, now.”
A junkie was nodding out on the corner. He saw me coming and tried to pull his manhood together until I passed, but couldn’t quite get it together. Some guys were sitting in front of the bodega playing dominoes. A dog curled in a little knot under the table, with only his tail moving when the domino players slammed a piece down on the table. Everything had it’s place. I never figured mine to be in no Indiana, though.
I had been playing ball most of my life, mostly because it was a thing I could do. Then a dude named Cal Jones had got me and some other guys from around the way in this tournament where a coach from Montclare saw me. He said I had a nice game even though I was a little rough around the edges. A week later I got a letter saying that if I graduated high school I could get a full scholarship. Everybody was running down how wonderful it was, and I guess it was, because it was what I had been hoping for. I was a little uptight about it, though, because I didn’t know how I’d do in Indiana.
By the time I said my last good-byes to the people in my mother’s apartment building and started for the airport I chilled out a little, but not much. My moms went with me to the airport and we went through one of them things about not knowing what to say to each other. She was boohooing and whatnot and it almost got to me but I caught myself.
“You go out there and play good and do what they tell you,” she said.
Moms was okay. She didn’t know boo about no basketball, but she was okay.
I had to change planes in Indianapolis and the plane I switched to was one of them little numbers that bounce around something terrible. I thought I was going to throw up a couple of times but the chick that sat next to me was so cool she calmed me down. Hitting the ground was on the money, just the same.
The letter from the school had said that someone would meet me at the airport. Time I got out of the bathroom and found my bags a short, stocky guy had come up to me and asked if I was Lonnie Jackson.
“Yeah,” I said.
He shook my hand like maybe he didn’t want to or something, told me his name was Clayton Leeds, and then told me to follow him to his car.
I wanted to talk to the guy, to start off on a friendly basis, but he acted as if he didn’t want to talk so I didn’t say much.
We got to the college and I was surprised. I had thought it would look something like City College in New York, just another building in a regular neighborhood, but it wasn’t. It looked like one of those schools you see in the movies with lots of grass and ivy on the walls of the buildings. We passed some students, all white, before we stopped in front of a red brick building.
“This is Orly Hall, where you’ll be staying,” Leeds said. “It’s the second floor, room two twenty. There’s practice tomorrow morning at nine. You need anything tonight?”
I heard myself saying no and a moment later I was struggling up the stairs with my bags.
I found room two twenty and knocked on the door. I heard a voice, a loud noise as if someone had banged into something, then the door opened. The guy that opened it was blond and blue-eyed and about an inch or so taller than me. He was thin with wide shoulders and a broad neck that made you think he was bigger than he was.
“I’m Lonnie Jackson,” I said. “I’m supposed to be staying in here.”
“Oh, come in,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Colin Young.”
I shook his hand and then brought my bags in. It was a large room with four beds, two on one wall and two on the other. I could see a bathroom in one comer and, on the far wall, a small refrigerator. There were pennants all over the wall. Most of them were old and faded from years ago.
“You alone?” Colin asked. He had a funny accent, one I hadn’t heard before.
“Yeah, a guy picked me up at the station-what’s his name-”
“Leeds?” Colin asked.
“Leeds, yeah, that’s it. He just dropped me off at the front steps.”
“That’s like him,” Colin said. “He’s the assistant coach. Where you from?”
“I’m from a little town in Illinois called Cisne,” Colin said. “I’ve got some Cokes in the fridge, why don’t you grab a seat and relax.”
“How long you been here?” I asked as Colin went to the refrigerator to get the Cokes. The refrigerator was so small he had to get on his knees to find them. He handed me one.
“Almost a week,” he answered, popping his can. “I got here first, then Juice and Sly.”
“Juice is from Gary, Indiana,” Colin said. “Sly’s from Detroit. They seem to be pretty nice guys. We’re the only new guys here. Everybody else either played last year or they were redshirting.”
“Redshirting?” Colin sat on the bed and crossed his legs at the ankle. “Say they have four good guards, right?”
“And they’re all in the same year. That means they all can’t play on the first team and they’ll all leave together and you won’t have any new guards because you can’t recruit a good new guard and sit him on the bench for three years. So they make one or two guys sit out the year so they have another year of eligibility left when the other guards graduate. They practice with the team and everything but they have to wear different uniforms because they’re not officially with the team. They say most schools have them.”
“That’s new to me,” I said.
“There are a lot of things here I never heard of,” Colin said, shaking his head. “You eat anything?”
“Not since the airplane.”
“We can go down later and get something from the coffee shop,” Colin said. “It’s open most of the night.”
“You smell something burning?” I asked.
A thin wisp of smoke was coming up from the wastepaper basket. Colin ran over to it and dumped it on the floor. The paper went up in a blaze.
“What happened, man?” I took a step backwards. “Oh, sweat, I got a fire started.”
“I can see that.”
Colin started trying to stamp out the fire, and I helped him. It took about two or three minutes to get the last of the smoldering paper extinguished.
“What you do-put a cigarette or something in there?” I asked.
“When I heard you knock on the door I thought that maybe Leeds was with you,” Colin said. “I heard he was going to pick up another player today and, you know, we’re not supposed to smoke during the school year.”
I watched Colin try to get all the charred paper back into the basket. He went into the bathroom, wet a washcloth, and started wiping it up. I got another washcloth and gave the guy a hand.
“Appreciate it,” Colin said. “I really do. You just breathe hard around here and Leeds is all over you.”
“Oh, yeah? What kind of ball do they play?” I asked. “I don’t know.” Colin said. He opened the window to let the room air out. “Leeds has this calculator and he adds up everything you do. You get a rebound, Leeds puts that down. You shoot, he puts that down, then he gives all the numbers to Coach Teufel and he figures them out on his calculator.”
“Yeah, yeah, but how do they play ball?” I asked again. “They go for one on one, they go for outside shooting? You know what I mean?”
“Hey, I know what you mean, but I swear I don’t know what kind of ball they play,” Colin said. “All they talk about is, you have to have so many of each thing according to your position. Me, I’m playing forward, so I got to have six rebounds, five assists, two blocks, and ten points, every game. That’s what the coach says.”
“Well, that don’t make much sense to me, man. We played a lot of one on one where I came from, but this guy I knew, he was saying that this kind of school don’t play a lot of one on one.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Colin said. “I played on this high school team over in Cisne and we just went out and did the best we could. Didn’t do a whole lot of talking about how we were playing or anything. The ones that could shoot did that and everybody else did what they could do.”
“I guess I’ll find out,” I said. “You seen any of these ... what you call these cats? What kind of shirts they wear?”
“Yeah, you see any of them play?”
“Uh-huh. They’re okay,” Colin said. “I mean, they’re not special or anything, but that’s not what gets you when you’re practicing.”
“What you mean?”
“Everybody knows them and they don’t know us,”
Colin said. “They know the plays and everything. The way I figure, they’re checking us out the same way we’re checking them out.”
“You like it here?”
“Sure,” Colin grinned. “It beats hanging around Cisne waiting for somebody to come along with a job. I’ll tell you one thing, though. If I were looking for a place to play ball for fun, this place sure wouldn’t be on the top of my list.”
“That’s the way it seems,” I said. “Where do you put your clothes?”
“Juice and Sly share that dresser over there,” Colin said, “and you and me can take this one. I have my stuff in the top two drawers.”
“That closet over there is for all of us, it’s big enough to walk around in. They take the right side-”
“And we got the left,” I said.
“Most of the stuff ends up on the floor,” Colin said. “Or we kick it under the bed to make the room look neater.”
“Looks like Sly and juice don’t kick hard enough,” I said. There had to be a half-dozen shirts lying between their beds.
“Hey, can I ask you a question?”
“Yeah, go ahead, man,” I said. I opened my suitcase and started taking my things out.
“You said you were from New York, right?”
“Uh-huh.” I hung up my suit.
“You from Harlem?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Hey, I thought you said you put your clothes on the left side.”
“Well, that’s all I got,” Colin said. “I got more, but they’re just about the same thing. You don’t need a whole lot of clothes living on a farm.”
“What’s it like living in... where did you say you come from?”
“Illinois. Cisne, Illinois.”
“Yeah, what’s it like living there?”
“I don’t know, really,” Colin said. “It’s the only place I’ve ever lived. It’s okay, I guess.”
“Like Harlem,” I said.
“How you figure like Harlem?” Colin asked me. “You ever been to Cisne?”
“No. But Harlem is the only place I’ve ever lived.”
“Well, what we have is ten acres of played-out land,” Colin said. “We tried to make a go of it, but it never did work out.”
“What you mean played-out?” I asked.
“Can’t grow anything on it,” Colin said.
“What’s it made of, rock?”
“Might as well be. You know anything about farming?”
“Well, you can’t grow things in just any kind of dirt. You take sand, for example. You can’t grow a thing in sand because it doesn’t have anything to give to the plants. You keep growing crop after crop on a piece of land and after a while it just doesn’t have anything left.”
“Couldn’t you put something on it?” I sat down on the bed. The dude was kind of interesting. “You know, like some vitamins or something?”
“That’s like giving aspirin to a dead man,” Colin said. “The funny thing was that we knew it wasn’t going to work out, you know what I mean? But we kept working the land and working it until the bank came and told us that if we had anything worth taking, they would have taken it. We didn’t have a damn thing worth taking. Almost killed Dad. That farm was the only thing he had in this world to give me.”
I looked at Colin for a long moment and then went back putting my clothes in the closet. I had never seen a white cat this poor before.
“You think living in Harlem was about the same as living in Illinois?” Colin asked after a while.
“I don’t know, man. You’re white. There’s no excuse for you being that poor.”
“Oh, no?” Colin shook his head and laughed. “You know I told God that once.”