The old director had always kept a basketball underneath the desk in the empty office. On a day when no one would sit still we ventured back into the old hiding spot and found the ball, still inflated and ready, and Nadia held it out and smiled at it as though it were the director’s final message to her.
We walked to the park over on 153rd, the houses crumbling and leaning into one another like the bereaved. Some women sat on the deck outside a church subtitled in a loopy Southeast Asian language. They peered at our group over a fortress of low bronze gates and railings adorned with rusted elephants. Walking as slow as I could I could not keep pace with my students. Every block I checked behind me and paused so they could catch up. They sustained a trail of cigarette smoke while they dribbled the basketball through each other’s legs, around backs, pretending to humiliate each other with competing deftness. We turned onto the Ave.
Jamaica Avenue was approaching its midday funk, after a morning crowded with bus lines, men pushing halal carts like rickshaws to secure their usual spots, armies of suited men and women outside the subway station yelling about work available. Part-time or full-time. Do you know someone who needs health insurance? He died for your sins. Now it was quieter here. We passed an empty jewelry store whose automated voice implored us to come check out their gold watches, their silver watches, their gold and silver watches. For a brief moment as we passed an alleyway four police stared out at us with their hands at their belts—then we were in front of McDonald’s, camouflaged by the sea of truant middle schoolers following each other in and out of the arches. A caravan of unmarked cabs proceeded past, braying their inexorable horns at the world. The Ave was a wild amalgam of business, solicitation, rootlessness, the law. I still felt self-conscious and alert there, waiting to encounter layered lines of smug, shaded policemen blocking public view of a hand- and ankle-cuffed fiend writhing on the cement; waiting to be approached by the man who liked to say to me, Can I ask you a question? Do you believe in God? It was my impulse to walk across the street when the light changed in my favor, but my students and the rest of the pedestrians held back to wait politely for the cars despairing through the red light. A happily scarf- and pajama-bedecked family of five watched us with permanent two-dimensionality from the glass windows of an Old Navy; these ethereal faces were the only white people around, besides me.
At the far end of the court, underneath the basket that had been torn down, an old man played scales on a trumpet. Most of my students claimed spots on the two benches; on the court the players waited for the ball, their bare chests soft with the swales of old pectoral diligence lately neglected. The hotshots took it to the hoop one-on-one with unlucky foes who found themselves in the way; the ones with errant shots, with poor form, like me, upon securing the ball found a spot as close to the hoop as possible without drawing a defender, then lofted it up. I felt my students’ interest grow keen when I took my shots, the way the boys of my childhood would in one glance assess my skill, then seek to strip me of the ball every time thereafter. I had learned not to look anywhere but straight ahead when I put it up, and to never act apologetic when I missed.
My son got a shot, Tashaun called from the bench.
We played Twenty-one. When I went up for rebounds in my nice black shoes I tried to focus on landing flat so as not to roll my ankles. Gil, six-foot-six, drove inside if he wanted, fired it from outside otherwise. He brought it back in slow motion, looking around plaintively, as though asking one last time if this was the shot we really wanted to give him. Showboat, my dad would have called him. “Allan Houston,” Gil said after draining a shot, comparing himself to the smoothest of recent New York Knick sharpshooters, though his shot’s arc was higher, I thought, and his release more spastic.
Come on, he roared to the people scattered along the sideline when he scored.
Roman gathered the loose ball up and restarted it up at the top of the key. Joe met him there. I stood with the other players down in the scrum below the rim, waiting for the shot to go off, while Gil went to the bench for a puff of his brother’s cigarette. Roman stared his opponent down, his eyes curious brooches of pearl embedded above diving cheekbones. He dribbled the ball high with his right hand, then started right and crossed left when Joe followed the feint. I stepped in his way, my hands up, and received Roman’s full momentum square on my right shoulder. I staggered backward, feeling that sudden, acidic gush of loathing for him as he finished the drive.
As he came back to the foul line Roman gave me a pound on my shoulder. I smiled at him, shaking off the embarrassment of being taken to the basket, and looked to the sideline where Tashaun rested in his jeans and Timberlands glancing up from the concrete and Gil and Antoine watched to see what I would do or say. Nobody said anything. All right, I’ll guard him, said Gil, giving the cigarette back to his brother.