Justin has a list of goals stashed under his mattress. Number 1 is "figure out life plans." Number 5 is "earn Zen Master rating in WoW." Nowhere on that list is "play the crew from Ghosttown," but that's the type of trouble that always seems to finds him.
The debut title from LJ Alonge's new basketball series pulses with action on and off the court. With wit, humor, and honesty, Justin unfolds over one hot summer.
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Chapter 1: All-American Beef
When Frank’s raging like he is right now, you just have to let him get it out of his system. If you tell him to cool it, you’ll only make things worse. We’re walking down Telegraph, and every time we stop at a corner, he tries to knock over a trash can. They’re the old steel ones that sound like a car wreck when they hit the sidewalk. Frank’s still waiting on his growth spurt; he needs a running start and hard kick to get the cans over. The one he knocks over now rolls halfway into the street, emptying its Styrofoam guts in the bike lane before settling in the gutter.
“Nice one,” I say, hoping it’s the last.
“Shut up,” he says. “You ain’t helping.”
“Trash can didn’t do nothing to me.”
He wipes his hands, the way people do when they’re proud of their work.
“Feel better?” I ask.
“Like a champ,” he says.
The problem is money. We have none, we never have any, but today’s the last straw. We’ve been to a pizza place and a wing place and a sub place. They looked at both of my wrinkled dollars like they were covered in slime and pointed their snooty fingers over our heads, to the door. We left as Frank insulted their food, his stomach growling noisily the whole time. We justtried to eat and run at this Korean place, but they threw us out after the salads. I’ve still got the taste of ranch dressing stuck in my mouth.
“You know what I’m gonna do with my first million?” Frank says, trying to work another can into the street.
“Invest in the stock market.”
“No. That’s some nerdy shit you would do. You’d probably throw it all away on books. No—what I would do is buy a restaurant. That way, I could have them deliver food to my house for free every day. Grilled cheese every day. Free.”
A million dollars and he’d eat grilled cheese every day. That’s Frank in a nutshell.
“Sounds good,” I tell him. “But what are we doing in the meantime?”
He sighs. “Don’t know.”
After some thought I say, “I’d probably build a couple schools,” thinking it’s the right thing to say, but by then Frank’s lost interest. So we’re standing on the corner, sulking, when a group of kids walks past us, laughing, pushing, their hands stuffed into the bottom of a greasy paper bag.
“Where’d y’all get that?” Frank asks.
“Up the street,” one of the kids says. There’s a mush of fries in the back of his mouth. “Want some?”
My mom says nobody but con artists and churchfolk give you things for no reason. This kid looks tricky. He’s a heavyweight whose lips shine with grease. Just watching him chew makes me uneasy.
“Yeah,” Frank says, reaching out his hand. “Lemme grab a couple.”
“No problem,” the kid says, pouring the fries onto the sidewalk. “Eat up.”
A soggy knot of fries goes spilling out between us. A dark puddle of oil forms around the edges. It’s not that funny, but the kids are laughing so hard, they keep falling over each other.
“Eat!” Grease Lips repeats.
Instead, Frank steps on the pile. Potato mush covers his shoes. He’s got his jaw clenched and his fists balled up. The guys keep laughing. Frank’s not afraid of a fight, but with his size, it’s hard to take him seriously. Plus there’s six of them. They keep talking. They can’t believe we fell for it. They want to know if we enjoy being such huge pussies. They’re gasping for air.
I’m six feet four inches, but you can tell right away I’m no fighter. I breathe a secret sigh of relief when Frank eventually turns and stomps off.
“I woulda fought them,” Frank says. Now he’s kicking random things—a fire hydrant, a newspaper stand, bikes. “But I got probation.”
“I know,” I say.
“Remember when I used to carry a pocket knife?”
He makes a couple of showy stabbing motions. “It had a switch so you could just flip it open fast.” The truth is, Frank’s never seriously hurt anyone. He just really likes to hear himself talk.
I slow down as we pass Benny’s Taco Truck, this being one of the few times there’s no line. Frank says he knows people who’ve worked there, and from the stories they tell, it’s a one-way ticket to the ER. It’s a terrible day to be out wandering—it must be a thousand degrees out. Even the dealers and junkies are sticking to the shade, but here we are, about to be burned alive on a two-dollar lunch mission. I’m feeling dizzy, so I say we should stop in the donut shop, the one with air-conditioning.
“Sure,” Frank says, rolling his eyes, “maybe they’ll sell us some bread crusts.”
By the time we pass McDonald’s, I’ve had it. Two bucks there goes about as far as it’ll get you anywhere. I start walking between the cars in the parking lot, careful not to touch their burning doors.
“Gross,” Frank says, but then he remembers the money’s in my pocket and follows.
Inside, I close my eyes and wait for the air-conditioning to close in around me. I lift my shirt up a little so the air hits my stomach. To my surprise, it’s warm. There must be forty, fifty people in here, whole families crowded into a single booth. Ms. Mayfair has her wheelchair stationed right over an air vent. Mr. Chalmers is sitting near the window, playing chess with his buddies, all of them stripped down to tank tops, fanning themselves with old newspapers. Little Chucky Jackson is going from table to table, doing a little jig as he asks for ice.
In a booth in the far corner is Pop.
“Shit,” I say.
When I was a kid, when he was still living with us, people used to say we looked alike: same skinny face and high cheekbones and bug eyes. Same dark skin. Even now I know the resemblance is still there. When people look at us, they can tell he’s my dad. But right now he’s looking worse than ever. He’s in a dirty wifebeater and these ratty black jeans that he obviously skimmed off a much bigger guy. Bits of twig are stuck in his Afro. When he runs his hand through his hair, it just stays in place like it’s glued in. It’s almost a miracle that I don’t die of embarrassment on the spot.
“We gotta leave,” I tell Frank.
“No can do,” Frank says. “Already put in my order.”
“Then cancel the freaking order.”
“You just can’t go around making and canceling orders, Justin.” He winks at the cashier, a cutie with tiny beads of sweat above her lip. “It’s a bad look. And unclassy.”
Frank almost never goes to school, but when he gets around a girl, he starts laying the SAT words on thick. “Unclassy? Frank, unclassy ain’t a word.”
“Maybe it is, maybe it ain’t. What I do know is that this young lady is waiting for you to acquire some nutrition.”
The cashier’s giving me a look. Every girl has that look, the one that tells you they’ll bite your head off if you say anything remotely smart-ass. One eyebrow cocked up, mouth in a pinch. It always gets me all tight in the chest.
“Chicken sandwich,” I say. I pull out my couple of crumpled dollars and carefully smooth them out. “And some waters. But hurry up, please.”
She’s repeating our order when a kind of grumbling sound starts up behind me. Like someone’s clearing his throat.
“Justin,” Frank says, looking behind us.
“Don’t look,” I hiss.
But the throat clearing’s getting louder, and now the cashier is giving me the look again. Like it’s me making the sound. What does she want me to do? I’ve got no control over Pop. Whenever he sees me in public, he goes out of his way to talk to me or challenge me to a game of one-on-one like the old days. And whenever I see him, I hide or walk the other way or pretend I don’t hear him calling.
I close my eyes and wait a few seconds to see if he’ll get the hint that I don’t want to talk to him. But of course he just gets louder. I turn around, and there he is, with a wide, satisfied smile on his face, one hand helping to prop him up against the ketchup dispenser. A hearty stream of ketchup squirts out onto the counter.
“Where I’m from,” he says, swaying, “a boy says hello when he sees his father.”
“Hi,” I say.
“Wassup, Mr. Shaw,” Frank says.
“Good,” Pop says. “Very good.”
Pop’s two buddies frown at each other to show how impressed they are with him, the type of man who commands respect from his son. They’re winos, like him. A part of me is happy that Pop is at least in better shape than them, with their plaid shorts and combat boots and wild beards. Their teeth like candy corn. They look at us, tipping their imaginary caps.
“He’s embarrassed by me,” Pop says to them. “That’s why he’s acting all shy.”
“I ain’t embarrassed,” I say.
“You look it.”
“Then gimme a hug.”
He looks shrunken and skinny, like my arms might wrap around him a few times. He opens his arms wide. Hair sprouts thickly from his armpits. Pop sleeps on the streets now. I couldn’t tell you exactly where. When Mom kicked him out, she said he’d be staying at a Motel 6 down the street, but I knew better. I used to imagine him foraging behind churches or the Dunkin’ Donuts, up to his neck in trash. I’d imagine him waiting outside of drive-thrus, asking people to add a taco or burger to their order. For a while every hobo I saw started to look like him.
“No,” I say.
“Too good for a hug?”
“You’re drunk,” I say.
“I’m a man,” Pop says. “I can have a drink whenever and wherever I please, thankyouverymuch.”
No one’s making a sound, not even loud-ass Frank. It’s the heavy kind of silence that comes right before a fight. Everyone’s stopped eating, their hands frozen in midair. Even the dude on the frier comes out to watch. I’m wishing I was just about anywhere else in the world, somewhere far away, out in Middle Earth maybe.
“How about a little game of one-on-one?” Pop says. He does a crossover with an imaginary ball. “Like we used to.”
“How about you stink!” I say, pushing past him. It’s the meanest thing I can think of.