“Earnest . . . Compelling . . . successfully captures the anger, frustration, and freedom of kids on the brink of adulthood.” -Kirkus Reviews, Recommended Review
A group of troubled but charismatic boys in a tough Buffalo, NY neighborhood play basketball at a local park and dream of winning a state high school championship. Driven by raw talent and killer instinct, they dominate the court, but everywhere else, they feel like losers.
Hammond is told through the eyes of James Lombardi, a precocious but mentally ill boy who believes winning a championship will ease his “Evil Thoughts” and save his family, long haunted by generations of substance abuse, uncontrollable rage, and suicide.
A dark but humorous coming-of-age novel, Hammond offers a poetic and disturbing look inside the complex mind of an adolescent boy as he slowly learns that having the heart of a champion can sometimes be more burden than blessing.
*Hammond is the first novel in a loosely-linked series with The Summer of Crud, Understanding the Alacrán, and Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story as books two, three, and four, respectively.
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About the Author
LaPoma has written four novels, twelve screenplays, and hundreds of songs and poems. His screenplays have won over 150 awards/honors at various international screenwriting competitions, and his black comedy script HARM FOR THE HOLIDAYS was optioned by Warren Zide along with Wexlfish Pictures (AMERICAN PIE, FINAL DESTINATION, THE BIG HIT) in July 2017.
LaPoma's novels have been recommended by Kirkus Reviews and Barnes and Noble (B&N Press Presents list), have hit the #1 Amazon Bestseller lists in the "Satire," "Urban Life," "Metaphysical," "Metaphysical & Visionary," and "Religious & Inspirational" Kindle categories (USA, Canada, and Australia), and have won awards/honors in the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award, the 2016 and 2017 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President's Awards, and the 2015 Stargazer Literary Prizes. He lives in San Diego, CA and teaches at a public secondary school.
Read an Excerpt
Keep shoveling. Clear the court of snow. You'll feel better after taking some jump shots — at least, that's always helped before.
When I cleared up to the foul line, I took another sip from my flask, then got back to work. But I slipped on a patch of ice and landed on my back under the rim. God, that rim had once been so red, I could see it in a blizzard. So red, I could hit threes all night. But now it was so gray, fading into the sky above it, I could hardly distinguish it from the clouds. No one was around. Even in winter, you used to be able to catch a game, usually just runnin' twos or threes, but now it was just me — just me and all the gray. Everyone else had been stamped out. Buried under an avalanche. And the ones who weren't buried were moving on. One was heading to Amherst College soon. Another to Yale.
My hands were icicles. Remember how they used to split open? How the blood would freeze on my palms? It'd been months since I'd practiced. I mean, really practiced.
Take another sip. Close your eyes. Go to sleep. You'll be warm soon. It'll all be over soon ...
* * *
"C'mon, Ray, lemme out," Gerry said from inside the classroom's back closet.
"Fuck you, you little Nazi," Ray said. "You're my prisoner."
Tony and I both laughed. His seemed genuine, but mine hurt my face.
Julia Cartucci raised her hand. "Sister Verona."
"What?" Sister clearly didn't like kids — or life all that much — and had no business teaching them.
"So," Julia said, "you mean that missing Sunday Mass, even once, is equal in the eyes of God to blowing up a school full of children?"
"Yes! For the hundredth time, both are mortal sins, and if you die with a mortal sin on your soul, you'll spend all of eternity burning in Hell."
Tony leaned forward and whispered in my ear. "Can't be any worse than this class."
Now my smile was real. For some reason, Sister had let us choose our seats at the beginning of the year, and Ray, Gerry, Tony, and I all made a mad dash for the far back corner. Ray took the corner seat, which was in front of the closet, and he'd often push Gerry inside at the beginning of class, then barricade the door with his desk. Ray was a big motherfucker and easily passed for a high schooler; no one was shoving him out of the way. He was the first of us to shave. The first to get drunk. The first to smoke, to drive a car. First to kiss a girl. And he was definitely the leader of our group and the toughest kid in school, even though we were only in the sixth grade, and St. Anthony's Elementary went up to grade eight.
"But what if you pray for your —" Julia said.
"It doesn't matter how much you pray!" Sister's eyes seemed to glow red. "If you don't go to confession, your soul will belong to Satan!"
I knew she had her vows and duties and all that, but Sister was in dire need of a hot sausage between the legs.
Rachel Crawford raised her hand, but when Sister called on her, Rachel addressed Julia instead. "It's really easy: just don't miss Mass."
"Easy for you, maybe," Julia said. "Some of us got lives to live."
"You just need to have faith, and all your problems will go away," Rachel said.
"Exactly! Why is that so hard?" Sister said.
"Well, Rachel," Julia said, "if you've got so much faith, then why do you have those Clearasil pads in your backpack? Shouldn't God be taking care of that acne? You look like the goalie for the school dart team."
I laughed out loud. Damn, Julia was a badass.
"C'mon, Ray, it's dark in here," Gerry said. As much as he whined about being shoved in that closet, I think Gerry liked the attention.
"Don't make me come in there," Ray said.
Gerry made up a song and sang in an intentionally whiny voice: "If I say I'm sorry, will you say you're sorry ..."
Tony laughed again and this time couldn't stop.
"Is there something funny about the word of the Lord, Mr. Da Luca?" Sister gave Tony the Medusa stare.
"I think there's a spider in here," Gerry said.
Ray, Tony, and I burst out laughing.
Sister sighed and mumbled some shit about young boys being forged by Satan himself, then sat behind her desk to wait out the end-of-day bell. When it rang a moment later, Ray freed Gerry. Ray checked to make sure Sister wasn't looking, then punched Gerry in the arm as he stepped into the classroom.
"That's for what you did to the Jews, you fucking Nazi," Ray said.
It looked as if Gerry was going to scream, but he held it in, and then made a noise that sounded almost like a dolphin. "I already told you I'm only half German." Gerry was the runt of the group, the perpetual voice from the closet. His best shot at fighting back was with humor, and he was well equipped. Dude could crack me up at any time, which is why I always made a point not to sit next to him at church. I made that mistake one day, and Monsignor Joseph actually stopped Mass to tell me to step outside "Until the Devil passes through you." That was a low point for me, and Mom was none too forgiving.
Rachel came over to our corner. "You should be nicer to him, Ray."
"And you should be less of an ugly bitch, Rachel," Ray said.
"God is watching you," Rachel said.
"I'm going to pray for your soul tonight."
"Where would you like it sent?" Ray said.
We all laughed as Rachel walked away pouting.
The four of us said goodbye to Sister, and as soon as we stepped into the hall, a group of seventh graders approached us. Though a year older, they were about the same size as us, except for Ray, who could've stomped any two of 'em together. Normally, they wouldn't press us when Ray was around, but they'd been getting ballsier since the start of the new school year. I think because they were only a grade away from being the oldest in the school, they thought they ran the show. They'd been picking on Gerry and Tony for years, so I would always give them shit whenever they passed in the halls, but it seemed they weren't going to let me do that unchecked anymore.
"Hey, Jimmy, what was that you said to me at lunch today?" their leader, Shane Walsh, said. "That you wanted me to beat your ass like your dad does?" Earlier that day, I'd told Shane, a scrawny Irish prick from a Central Park mansion, to "stroke my shillelagh."
"No, I said kiss my ass, you leprechaun fuck," I said, stepping right up in his face.
"Why do you want a guy to kiss your ass? You a fag or something?" he said.
Ray stepped forward. "Fuck off, Shane."
I could see the fear in Shane's eyes, but he got lucky as Sister Carol, the principal, came up the back stairs and approached us.
"We'll deal with this later," Shane said, and he and the other idiots left.
Sister Carol was a large, towering woman whose voice could stop a speeding tank. Gerry liked to joke that she played offensive line for the Bills in the sixties but got kicked out of the league when she ripped another player in half — but he'd never say that to her face. Sister Carol didn't mess around, and when she said, "School's over, boys," we walked our asses out of there with a quickness.
We met up with my older brother, Dan, and Tony's older brother, Alonzo, by the bike rack. They were both starting seventh grade. My younger siblings, Diane, Rebecca, and Jeremy, went to St. Anthony's as well, but K–5 started and ended an hour earlier than 6–8, so they were always gone by the time Dan and I got out. Mom would drive them to and from school, but, "Middle schoolers have to walk," so Dan and I were on our own.
Alonzo was small like Tony, but unlike Tony, he was arrogant as hell and had a hot temper. Alonzo loved gangster rap and would talk down to anyone who didn't know all the obscure rap facts he did. I once called Dr. Dre "Dr. J" and he never let me live it down. Dan was a little smaller than I was, and unlike me, he rarely spoke.
"So, how're you guys likin' Sister Ver-gina so far?" Alonzo said.
"That lady scares me," I said.
"Yeah, she's already yelled at me, like, twenty times, and it's only the second week of school," Tony said.
"Get used to it," Alonzo said. "Dan and I had to deal with that bitch for a year, and now it's your turn to hear all about the different ways your soul will roast in Hell if you so much as take your eyes off her for a second while she's speaking."
"I used to see a dark line around her body after staring at her for so long," Dan said.
"She turns every subject into a lecture about religion," I said. "In math today, she went on and on about how God created variables to test our devotion to Him."
"Yeah, it's better in the closet," Gerry said.
Ray slapped Gerry hard on the back. "I didn't tell you to speak."
"Ah, fuck, Ray!" Gerry said.
Ray stuck his finger in Gerry's face, and Gerry shut the hell up.
"Can we come over to play basketball today?" I asked Alonzo.
"I got shit to do. Why don't you just man up and go to Hammond Park?" Alonzo said.
"No way," I said.
"Don't be a pussy," Alonzo said.
"I'm not a pussy!"
Sister Verona exited a back door and started walking toward the convent.
"Tell you what," Alonzo said. "You walk over there and slap Sister Vag on the ass, and you can come play basketball."
The others laughed.
"Fuck that," I said.
Just then, Sister Carol walked out and gave us an evil look.
"Yo, let's get the fuck outta here," Alonzo said.
We unlocked our bikes from the rack, walked them to the edge of the parking lot, hopped on, and took off, Dan and Alonzo leading the way. We all lived a few blocks from one another in a mostly Italian, working-class section of North Buffalo. The neighborhood had its share of problems, but it was relatively safe, and had that All-American, small-town feel to it. Most of the homes had been built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and had front porches where people grilled hot dogs and drank beers and laughed as American flags waved above the front steps in the cool summer breeze. Summers in Buffalo were green, gorgeous, and well earned after months of harsh, gray winter, and people were out everywhere, celebrating the sun. They smiled while cutting their lawns and washing their cars and having friends over to eat pizza and wings and play bocce in the backyard. Though we rode our bikes past drunks and crack-heads and wife beaters, most people here would agree that the real problems existed out there, not among us. The real threats were in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods on the West Side and especially in the Black neighborhoods on the East Side, and as long as we stuck to our little slice of Heaven, we'd be all right.
No, nothing bad here. Here, if a man beat his kid into a cast, that was just discipline. If he slapped his wife around, she deserved it. But where in small-town America are you gonna get away from that shit? Our little section of North Buffalo was as good as any other, and we were all doing our best. The sunshine and hot dogs helped.
A few blocks south was Central Park, one of the richest neighborhoods in the city. The houses there were gorgeous, and Dan and I would ride our bikes down Starin Ave. sometimes to check them out. A lot of St. Anthony's kids lived in that area, but most were from ours.
We all stayed together until we got to my and Dan's street, where the others went their separate ways. Dan and I stopped at the large, blue, plastic box with the words The Buffalo Times written in white letters on the side, which sat at the curb of our small, two-story house, and we looked inside. Bob had already dropped off the day's delivery.
"Let's get a snack first," I said. I laid my bike on the driveway and headed for the house.
"GOD-FUCKING-DAMN IT! I TOLD THOSE FUCKERS THIS WAS THE WRONG SIZE SCREW!" On a quiet day, you could hear Dad screaming from all the way down the block, even if the windows were closed. They weren't closed that afternoon. Fuck him.
"Eh, forget the snack." I turned around and went back to the box, and we opened it and tossed our bookbags inside. We each filled a delivery bag and got started.
Dan and I had the biggest route in our neighborhood — the entire block, about ninety customers. Before handing it over to us, our boss, Bob, grilled us to make sure we wouldn't fuck it up, and I think the fact that we already had a successful business cutting lawns and shoveling driveways for elderly neighbors, as well as the fact that we were both dedicated altar servers, convinced him, and after a month, he told us we were the best carriers he'd ever had. Maybe he used that positive reinforcement shit with all his carriers, but it worked on me. I wanted to do my best, and not just for him, but for the whole neighborhood. People relied on Dan and me for their news, and I took that seriously. Some of our customers were seniors who never left the house. We were their link to the world.
We each had our own section of the route. I delivered to the section west of our house, then north at the corner, and east at the end of the block. My section was a little easier than Dan's. I had a series of mailboxes at the ends of driveways, so I didn't have to get off my bike and drop the papers inside of screen doors, which was the worst. I also had a few apartment complexes with multiple customers, where I could just drop the papers on welcome mats. In the summer, the apartments were great, but in the winter, going from the cold to the heat and back caused me to sweat pretty badly. Though my route was a little cushier, I did have some of the crazier customers, and I stopped delivering to one guy after he refused to pay up. Some days, he'd chase me down, demanding a paper. He never caught me. The one time he almost did, I sped across the street without even looking and got away. Luckily, no cars were passing, but even if they were, fuck him.
I also had St. Anthony's rectory, which was my last delivery, and I'd usually wait there for Dan so we could ride home together. The priests were some of my weirdest customers, but they had a mailbox that I could pull my bike up to, so it was all good. While waiting for Dan, I'd often hear Father Mike singing along to Elvis or Neil Diamond tunes blasting from the kitchen window. Father Mike was a great guy, and sometimes he'd tell us dirty jokes before serving Mass. My favorite was, "Why'd the woman slap the midget? Because he said, 'Gee your hair smells nice.'" The rectory was attached to the church, which was also attached to the school, and each of those was surrounded by blacktop. Across the blacktop and behind the school was the convent, and behind the convent was a small garden where students would hang out during recess. The school, church, and rectory had high, steep roofs and beautiful stone walls, and the convent was a large, rectangular building with a flat roof and brick walls. As much as I hated St. Anthony's, I felt safer there than probably any other place in the world. And I don't think I even hated it all that much ...
That afternoon, instead of hearing Father Mike singing "Don't Be Cruel" off-key, I heard kids shouting. There, in the parking lot behind the rectory, a couple of White kids on bikes were talkin' shit to a big Black kid. One of the White kids got off his bike and said something to the Black kid, and the Black kid bitch-slapped his ass to the ground.
"Don't you ever call Silas Macker a liar, motherfucker," the Black guy said.
A window opened on the second floor of the rectory, and Monsignor Joseph, wearing nothing but a towel, stuck his wet, wrinkled head outside. "Hey, you boys cut the shit or I'm gonna call the cops."
"Sorry, Monsignor," one of the White boys said. He picked his friend up off the ground, and they took off on their bikes. Silas told Monsignor to fuck off, then walked in my direction. I hopped off my bike and hid behind a bush. Monsignor hawked a loogie, spat on the pavement, and stuck his head back inside, muttering, "These god-damned kids ..."
I didn't know any of the White boys, but I'd definitely heard the name Silas Macker before, and the stories about him always involved broken noses, lost teeth, and shattered egos. He was a sixth grader at Kirkland Middle, a public school about eight blocks from St. Anthony's — just far enough outside of my safe bubble to give me some mild comfort. But worlds had a tendency to collide.
I could feel my whole body tighten as Silas approached, but he didn't even look in my direction and just kept walking down the street. I could see Dan coming from the opposite direction, and Dan passed him without even the slightest hint of fear.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hammond"
Copyright © 2018 Jonathan LaPoma.
Excerpted by permission of Almendro Arts.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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