Introduction to December 2015 Issue
Gooma say, "Everyone learns, eventually."
Practice makes almost perfect, cause ain't nobody perfect but God.
I'm working on left-handed lay-ups to keep my game tight for the scouts when I see dude at the courts schooling these two skeletons in a slow motion, instant-replay kind of way. And them white boys jaws all open like "duh… which way did he go?" They panting like a big dog in August and it's only June. Guess they used to playing at the indoor courts. The ones where them white-collars skip around and toss up a few bricks without ever breaking a sweat. And if they forehead do get wet, I bet some lame Tom in a tuxedo'll come waltzing out with a fresh white towel on a silver platter. And he’ll be like: "You perspire, sir…" And they'll dab they head and place a crisp, dry dollar on the platter with the towel. Then they'll start hoofing down the court again, brand new sneakers just squeaking up and down them shiny hardwoods.
Today the sun done turned the asphalt two shades darker and them white boys look like a couple of Boston baked beans. Flapping they arms all pathetic like they drowning or trying to fly. Guess they trying to give dude a little D. But ain't no defending this man. He got crazy offense, ball just rolling off his fingers all pretty. Every time the ball fall through the net, I swear things stand still for that second. Don't be no sirens wailing, no trains rumbling, no kids screaming, no moms yelling—nothing but whoosh. Them white boy shots just add to the noise, banging up against the backboard, rattling inside the rim.
Somebody need to take a picture and put my dude on a postcard or something. The background beyond the black fence is the sky so blue it look fake. Look like the sky in one of them commercials for Jamaica. Dude got the ball about to come down court. He fake left and come back with the crossover dribble that must be making them clowns dizzy cause they just standing in the middle of the court with they blue eyes swirling in they heads. And the sounds stop again. Everything except that ping, ping, ping, ping, ping… Then dude take off from the foul line, his right hand holding the ball like an orange.
And this is when I wish I had kept that camera I found. One of them uptown boys slept and left it at the courts up against the fence, still in the case and everything. Me and Gooma tried to take some pictures with it, but when we looked at the screen they was all blurs. Brown faces all fuzzed up on glossy paper. The stupid thing had a computer on it and we ain't know nothing about no cameras so we took it to the pawn shop. Got three hundred dollars. Gooma said she was gone use it to buy her a new wig and me some school clothes.
Dude is floating with the ball like he trying to put a new sun in the sky. His empty hand is open, fingers stretched out like he tickling God. Look like an angel with wings only babies and old folks like Gooma can see. Like some crazy dream where impossible things be happening and so you wake up actually thinking you can fly like that. Shh-clack! The palm of his hand smack the rim. I don't even hear dude feet hit the ground.
But the noise come back again.
"Goddamn it's hot!" One of the white boys wipe his face with the back of his hand.
"How ‘bout we get a couple of cold ones? We're way out of our league here," say the other one who tries to palm the ball like dude, but it slip and bounce high and slow then fast and low before it roll against the fence.
My dude is shining with sweat and the way the sunlight is hitting him, I swear I see little rainbows around his body. He pull the bottom of his tank top to his face. The pause is like a commercial break. And I'm wishing I had a cold drink to put in his hand so he can look at me and say, "Thanks, kid." And then we walk off into the sunset with the projects, all brown and ugly, just over the hill to remind us that this ain't no commercial and that we will be returning to the regularly scheduled program any minute now.
Never hold your bladder, your great-grandmother died on the dialysis machine.
I get home and my mother in the bathroom again. I peek under the door and all I see is white smoke. She cough and sniff. I knock on the door cause I just got home and I gotta pee just like any normal person do first thing when they get home.
"Who that?" she whisper all guilty.
"Me Ma, I gotta go," I say and grab my joint cause it seem like the feeling getting worse since I'm close to the bathroom now.
"Wait a minute, shit."
I can hear her shuffling around, but she taking too long cause every second feel like an hour. And I'm hating how she make me wait while she toking. Like that high more important than her son kidneys. How I'm gonna be a NBA starter if I'm running off the court every five minutes to take a piss?
I can see my mother. Straight through the door. She don't know I see her, but I do. It's like I be having x-ray vision. I see her sitting on the toilet or the edge of the tub with the stem in her hand, smoke coming out the top. The glass all brown and yellow and burnt. My mother sucking the smoke up like it's her first taste of air. Window closed so she can take in all of the fumes coming off that little yellow rock. Gooma in the bedroom with her bible, praying for the devil to release her child.
"Ma if you don't hurry up I'm a—"
"Go use Miss Peaches bathroom then!"
I been in Miss Peaches house a couple times when my mother sent me over there to borrow a cup of flour or a pack of kool-aid. She got four kids and her house nasty. When you get to her door, you can smell that something ain't right. I mean it ain't like we got it going on or nothing, but at least the house stay decent. Gooma say, "We may be poor, but it don't cost nothing to keep a clean house."
Plus I see all kinds of dudes running in and out of Miss Peaches house. Ain't no telling where they been or what they got. They can't be too clean if they fooling around with Miss Peaches. Use her bathroom and next thing you know I can't stop scratching down there or my joint just fall off into the toilet. How that's gonna look when all them fine-ass girls be waiting outside the locker room after my breakout performance?
My mother still in the bathroom and I guess she ain't coming out now since she done told me to go to Miss Peaches house. I feel like a big country fool tap dancing around try'na hold it. I'm so mad I feel like kicking the door down, but instead I just bang my palm flat against it.
In the kitchen I pull one of the raggedy chairs in front of the sink. I stand on it, unzip myself, pull out my jammie and unload. The pee comes out hard, splashing on the greasy flower wallpaper and wetting the sponge. It might be nasty, but I don't even care no more. All I know is that it feel good. Real good. I member one of my boys said that if you hold your pee for a long time and then let it out that that's what coming feels like. Only thing I ever did with a girl is grind with clothes on. She was in the eleventh grade and I'm only in the ninth. So my boys gave me points for that. Plus she was mixed. Her skin was pink and juicy like watermelon meat. I'm as black as the seeds so I got points for that too. We was humping in her house, in her room—that was like a three pointer. It felt okay but I ain't never bust no nut from it, but I guess this how it must feel. I pee in one of the glasses just so my mother'll know what I did. Piss her off for real.
Mind the company you keep, that's why your Uncle Harris in jail now.
Gooma call them corner niggers. They all outside like they always is. Especially in the summer, they be outside like flies in Africa. Black and buzzing around looking for some shit to land on. Supreme Everlasting is sucking on a Black and Mild outside the bodega. He just stand outside and make sure nobody try to take the fruit. The fruit look like it been in a Tyson fight, all bruised and soft. Smell so ripe it's almost rotten. Even the flies is dizzy from the sweet stank.
Mr. Luis, who own the store, sitting on a milk crate inside watching everybody. Every time I go in there he start sweating me like I'm gonna cop a bag of chips or something. That's baby food. If I'm gonna steal something, I'm gonna smash his head into the counter and clean out the register. Check his clothes for a stash. And even that won't be nothing but a piece a change. No major dough. No get the hell out the rat hole kind of dollars. Just some sneaker money. Maybe a fresh pair of Timbs and some jeans if it was a good day. But nothing to change your life with. I guess Luis be hawking so hard cause it's his shit. It's his store and Gooma say, "God bless the child that's got his own." One day I'm gonna get mines, with or without God's blessings.
“Peace God,” I say to Supreme Everlasting and bump fists with him.
He blow smoke at me, “What up, sun?”
“Everything is everything,” I say. Try’na sound deep cause I know that’s how Supreme is.
“Word life, sun. That’s what I be try’na tell these ignorant applehead motherfuckers.” He points at Sticky, Shade Tree and Fat Mike who are standing around the store looking like they try'na look innocent.
Sticky, whose mother named him Bernard, got gold rings on every finger from all the people he done robbed. Sticky will stick up a crack house, he don't care. He stay strapped. Got a piece in his boxers, flat against his stomach, that he always flashing if things get rowdy and cats start talking smack. He raise his shirt a little bit and tell Supreme, " I got your motherfucker." His shirt fall back down over the handle of his nine. I don't move cause like I said Sticky always fronting like he got heart.
Fat Mike and Shade Tree start laughing. They teeth sparkling in the sun like the sequins on Gooma’s church hats.
Supreme face get tight. "You ain't got shit but a dick-shaped piece of steel. Take that away and you impotent. I am God. Lord and Master. A part of the five percent chosen to lead the weary and the meek. Supreme Everlasting: the manifestation of knowledge, wisdom and understanding. You better recognize your Godliness. Word life, sun."
Sticky shaking his head and pushing his thumbs down like that fat old man on TV who be dissing all the movies. He too dumb to even try to answer cause Supreme is way too deep for that brother. He ain't river deep, he ocean deep.
After what Supreme said, Shade Tree stop laughing and now he just look confused, "Yo sun, what is you saying yo? Kill that noise sun cause ain't but one God and that's the Lord Jesus Christ." He snatch the gold link chain out of his shirt and hold up a diamond studded Jesus on a cross. I wonder what Gooma would think if I had a chain like that. She always singing: I'd rather have Jesus, than silver and gold. Man, forget Jesus and give me the gold any day. But I would never let Gooma catch me saying that.
Supreme take one last pull on the Black and Mild before tossing it. He pick up an apple and bite into it. He smack, "Is you coming at me with some lame-ass white Jesus bullshit? When the last time you been to church to praise this God?" Supreme don't even wait for an answer cause he know last time Shade was in church was when his grandmother passed and we clowned him cause of the ugly brown suit he was wearing with some bitch-ass patent leather shoes.
Supreme keep going. "But you steady covering Sticky. Didn't you cover him while he robbed your Aunt? And had the nerve to come and brag about that shit. How many times that Jesus gotta die for your fucking sins?" He point hard at the diamond Jesus.
"Yo, sun, I just provide the shade, that's all. I ain't never killed nobody or even robbed nobody. I just cover. I just cover." Said it twice like he try'na convince himself he ain't guilty. Shade Tree put his hand over the Jesus that is laying against his heart.
Supreme don't say nothing. He just lean up against the wall chewing on his apple. Fat Mike shakes his hand like he jacking off and three white dice shoot out and hit the ground like sperm. Luis yells, "Hey! Cut that shit out in front of my store."
Fat Mike, who really about the size of a parking meter, snatches up the dice with his long, skinny hands. "Yo, chill, Luis man. Nobody told you to sell the fucking dice, yo."
Sticky join in, "That nigga act like he own the sidewalk, sun."
Then this dude walk up to Fat Mike. They grab hands, pull each other into a kind of hug and pat each other back with they other hand. When they go in for the hug, dude whisper something to Fat Mike. Fat Mike nod and dig in his pocket, quick and cool. They grab hands again. Dude pimp off. Fat Mike shove his hand back in his jeans. And I'm peeping everything cause Fat Mike always be sporting the newest sneakers and the flyest gear. He got three girlfriends who all know each other but don't care cause Fat Mike got enough of everything to go around.
I'm taking notes. Gotta get Gooma out the projects. She too old to be dodging bullets and planting roses in patch of grass that the concrete try'na take over. Then my mother can have the bathroom all to herself cause me and Gooma, we'll be outta here.
Shade Tree say, "Blue bird flying through."
Cop car roll slow past the corner store. Way too slow. Fat Mike go into the store. Sticky smiling real cool and patting his stomach like he daring the cops to start something. Shade Tree pick up a mango and smell it, still looking at the cops sideways. Supreme raise his apple at the cops and smile. The cruiser stop for like a split second. I'm stuck on scared. I can't breathe. I just picture Gooma bringing sweet potato pies to me behind bars. Then the lights start flashing and the cops is outta here. Maybe somewhere a skinny model-looking white girl was found in a back staircase with her ribcage broke and blood between her legs. Or maybe some brother done took a bullet in the back of the head for dropping dime on a dealer. Never know.
Fat Mike come out the store ripping open a bag of barbecue corn chips. "Good looking out, sun," he say to Shade Tree.
Shade Tree throw a dollar across the oranges at Supreme and bite into his mango. He peel back the skin with his teeth and look up the street. "Ay Man, ain't that your grandmother?"
I squint and see Gooma with her head down, scratching off a lotto ticket in front Mr. Kim's fruit stand a block away. "No doubt, sun." I say to Shade Tree. "Peace God," I nod at Supreme and cut the corner.
Trying to be too fast now will slow you down later.
Ain't nothing gonna break my stride, ain't nobody gonna hold me back, oh no, I got to keep on moving. That's what that rapper say in his song. In the video he look ridiculously plushed-out. Fur coats which I thought was only for girls and pimps 'til I saw him rocking one and looking kinda right. And his rings and chains be nothing but platinum, not even gold. And platinum cost more even though it look like silver. Cars galore: Benzos, Double R's, Hum-V's. I gots to have it all.
But I must be the only brother in the projects who can't rap. Can't bust one rhyme. Supreme, Shade Tree, Sticky and Fat Mike all be on the corner in spitting flows. All I do is stand around and nod my head. Hold the radio and play the beats. Give dap to whoever got the illest skills.
Can't rhyme. So what I gotta do? Keep balling. Setting fires on the perimeter. Taking it to them hard on the inside. Getting in they head like Supreme. Robbing them in broad daylight like Sticky. Providing coverage like Shade Tree. Moving quick and sneaky like Fat Mike. They may be corner niggers but I gotta use what they do good to do what I do good. Who else I'm a learn from? Everybody be studying them cats that be on TV. The major heads who blowing up the spot. But that gets old fast. So I gotta bring the real deal and constantly keep them off guard. That's where most of them players get they skills from anyway. From around the way where brothers will break your stride fast with an ashy elbow to the dome or a kneecap to the nuts. You try to lay one up on these courts and you got four or five jumpers in your face with 3-D hands like: "Get that shit outta here!"
You may leave the court with tears mixing in with your sweat and if you lucky no one will notice and start clowning. And if you lucky you learned a lesson or two. And if you still lucky, you might be let back on the court some other day. Just like that punk-ass white dude be singing: You gotta have faith. Gooma been saying that line for years. And I guess I been lucky. Cause I know I got faith. Now I just got to keep on moving. Not too too fast, just steady.
You keep living on Gonna Street and you gonna end up dead or worse—nowhere.
It's hotter inside the house than it is out. So hot, even the roaches is lined up in the window waiting for a breeze. We got fans wedged in the windows but all that do is move the warm air around like a oven. And it's that wet type of heat like when you just get out the shower. The shower water is running in the bathroom. Probably my mother taking one of the umpteen cold showers she take when it's hot like this.
Gooma say this type of heat take her appetite. All she do is drink water with lemon. But I stay hungry. Open up the fridge and we got milk, peanut butter, about three slices of wonder bread, a box of cheese, some mustard and potatoes. I pull out the bread and cheese and cut me off a couple of chunks and squirt some mustard on it. We got fifty packs of kool-aid but no sugar so I get a glass of water and sit on the raggedy-ass couch with my sandwich. Can barely get comfortable cause the springs is poking my butt.
My mother come out the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her and a scarf on her head smoking a cigarette. "Where you been?" she ask. Sometime she like to play responsible when Gooma ain't around.
"Outside," I say, smacking on my cheese sandwich, not looking at her.
"Outside, where?" I can hear the smoke leaving her mouth.
"The courts," I lie, knowing I been on the corner with the rest of them niggers.
"You need to find a damn job. That basketball ain't paying no bills round here."
She ain't either, but Gooma be holding it down anyway. I look at her standing in the bathroom doorway puffing. Her bones poking out her brown skin. I roll my eyes and chew hard on that thick-ass cheese like it's a piece of steak or something.
"Much as you eat, you need to be bringing some money in here."
"I'm gonna, ma, dag!" She can’t even let a brother eat in peace.
"Gonna? Gonna? What ya grandmother tell you bout gonna? You fifteen and able bodied and it's summer so you ain't got no excuse about basketball practice."
"But what about summer leagues? Scouts be out there all the time."
She suck her teeth and laugh a little. "Nigger you bony and hardly tall, ain't no goddamn scouts looking at your black ass."
Now I ain't hungry no more. I guess the heat done took my appetite. Really my stomach just tied itself up in a knot so can't nothing else go down. I get up to throw the rest of my sandwich away. I look at my mother with eyes that feel like rocks and say, "I'm gonna get a job." In my mind I also know, I'm gonna get a scholarship to a school with a hot program, and I'm gonna go pro and I'm gonna be a star.
And where my mother gonna be?
t’ai freedom ford is a New York City high school English teacher who received her MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College. She is a 2015 Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellow. Her fiction has appeared in Drunken Boat, Black Ivy, The Brooklyn Review, and the Bronx Biannual. t’ai lives and loves in Brooklyn, but hangs out digitally at: shesaidword.com.