Chapter 1On this court, I rule.
Coach Hakeem Kasili divided the basketball team into two squads for today’s scrimmage, black against orange. No way will I let black lose. I race for the far end of the court and the expected pass. The moment the ball reaches my hands, I rush the orange-shirted defender positioned between me and my goal. Muscles tighten as I power my way past him and then into the air for the one-handed slam dunk.
The shrink who doubles as a coach blows his whistle and crosses the court toward me. “Don’t go crazy out there, Kaplan, this is a game, not war.”
He’s wrong. Basketball has never been a game. My life is all about war and I’m done losing. People expect Malik Kaplan to deliver. I expect me to be the best. Reaching the top in a school filled with wannabes out to take what belongs to me was damned hard. Fighting my way back to the top again is a full-time job.
I wipe the sweat from my face with the bottom of my black jersey. “Practice makes victorious. Isn’t that why we’re here?”
“Finesse and intelligence beats brute strength.”
“And nearly injured your teammate doing so.”
“My bad, Coach,” says Cesare Russo, the forward I barreled through. He and I are the only seniors on our team. He’s also one of only two white guys on the squad, if you don’t count the light-skinned Hispanics who snarl if you try calling them white. He plays like he’s part of the ball even though he’s skinny and twitchy. His orange shirt and the red hair falling in his face makes him look like he’s on fire.
“You had position, Russo,” Coach tells him without turning away from me. If Kasili were a little shorter I could exchange him and his dark stare for my dad; I never get a “good job” from either of them. “Today’s practice is about improving teamwork. I need you to be an example, Kaplan.”
“You need me, period.”
“The team needs you, but most of all they need unity. Start working together, or we’ll work without you.”
“I do my share. More than my share.”
Kasili starts to say something and then sighs. When he does speak, I know the words are not what he originally intended. “No one manages solo all the time. These guys are your friends, not your enemies.”
He leaves me and goes to talk to his favorite, Julian the showboat Morales, a dumb sophomore who does everything except lick the coach’s shoes trying to get my spot as starting center. Mr. Morales sits up in the stands with a bunch of other parents who like to come and watch practice. Julian is tall, not as tall as me, but then few guys are over six and a half feet. Plus, my shoulders are broader, thanks to three years on varsity and forever in the weight room. The coach pats him on the back as they talk. Julian stares at me over the coach’s head. He pushes back his long hair, trying to hide the way he gloats.
I wipe sweaty palms on my shorts and move closer to Cesare. He’s bent over with his hands on his thighs, breathing heavily.
“Don’t apologize for me,” I say. “I charged.”
He lifts his head and shrugs. “It’s not like this is a real game.”
“You should have held the block and stopped me. Don’t go around and end up flaking off when it counts. Do your job or I swear I’ll hurt you.”
Cesare stares as if he sees some creature that doesn’t belong on Earth, not the guy who kept him from being pounded on in third grade, helped him bury his cat in seventh grade and taught him the fine art of landing girls in high school. “Play the asshole with others, Malik, not with me.”
“I’m not playing, and you know exactly what I am.”
Someone has to be.
After practice, Cesare comes out of his shower fingering the beginner moustache he’s grown proud of ’cause his girlfriend calls it cute. He tosses his towel, pulls on a sweater and grins like a crazy monkey. “What say we go cruising down State Street, maybe do a little babe shopping. You game?”
“Giselle won’t be happy to hear about your adventures in babe-shopping.”
Cesare’s head jerks around, like he’s scared his girlfriend will be standing inside the varsity locker room. “Just a joke, man. You know how I feel about my girl.”
“I know she’s got you whipped. Running with a guy this whipped hurts my image, maybe I need a new best friend.”
“You find someone you like better than me, just trade me in.”
I pull on my camouflage pants and olive-gray shirt, then grab the M65 field jacket that settles over my shoulders like a suit of armor. Julian comes into the locker room late after another talk with the coach. He eyes me as he strips off his orange jersey and flexes the muscles under his skin. He’s careful not to stare too long or let himself bump me as he brushes past to enter the showers.
The street lights are on when Cesare and I leave school. He says nothing when I put on my wraparound Ray-Bans. A bus spews black exhaust fumes as it rumbles down the street. The sound of the wind-whipped flags fills the frigid air as we head for my car. She’s a black and silver, personally customized Mustang Boss that I saved from the junkyard after some crazy slammed her into a tree last spring. My dad declared her unsalvageable. It took me three months, but I showed him and all the high-class mechanics and body men he has working for Kaplan Auto Parts and Body Shops – “Six Chicagoland locations to serve ALL your automotive needs.”
Cesare settles into the passenger seat and turns on my radio as I pull out of the parking lot. Bubbly Christmas music pours from the speakers.
“Turn it, I’m not listening to that crap,” I say.
“I like it,” Cesare says, but he flips past stations until he finds one of those call in shows where people complain about how the mayor and the new Urban Management Committee he’s putting together won’t fix their problems: lost homes and jobs, gangs, rotten kids, and even the sorry state of the Chicago Bulls.
“At least they can’t talk about the Farrington Flyers.” He laughs as he names our team. “Not after two wins in a row. What’s with coach anyway? A double-practice just when I need all my energy. And you, you just kept going and going, what’s with that?”
“I like pushing myself.” The ranting voices fade from the radio and one of Dad’s commercials begins playing. I change from the radio to the MP3 player and start up the new release from Enemies of Blood and Flesh. Those guys don’t do the happy music thing.
“How do you listen to all this death and destruction and how the world’s about to end?” Cesare wiggles his eyebrows as he looks at me. “We’re not emos, at least I’m not. Anything you’re not telling me?”
“My car, my music.”
December in Chicago is always crappy. We drive through the shopping district where sale signs beg window shoppers to enter and spend big so their kids will love them. Darkened stores with boarded up windows or covered with security bars warn what will happen if they don’t. Foreclosure signs in front of houses and apartment buildings explain why they can’t. Snow drifts down, not heavy, but enough to make the street slick and people drive like cripples.
A drunk in a dirty jacket with a heavy sack over one shoulder stumbles into the street and I have to slam on the brakes.
“Watch it, wino,” I yell.
He throws a finger and moves even slower.
“Do you think he’s full of alcohol or weed?” I ask Cesare.
“Maybe just tired.”
Tired of life, if he’s going to just shuffle into traffic without looking. “He’s a stoner,” I say. “You know the look, the I-want-more stare.”
A fake Santa stands in front of a store ringing his bell. A girl walks in the slush-filled crosswalk in front of our car. A big girl, dressed in a heavy brown coat, with her head bent and hands thrust in her pockets.
She’s big and curved, awkward and smart, a freshman with no place inside my circle. She is not now, and never has been—well, almost never—one of my ladies. But she’s the one that got away, and even though her bulky coat hides her curvy body, my nads still tighten with regret.
BEING GOD - Copyright © 2012 by B. A. Binns
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