Before making his next round of deliveries, my father stopped the truck on a side street. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, he took a fistful of bills from his front pocket and counted out fifty dollars. He rolled the bills into a tight wad and secured them with a rubber band.
He said, “Hand me that roll of duct tape from the glove compartment, will you, Charlie.”
I gave him the tape and he tore off a strip. Leaning forward, he reached down and taped the bills to the underside of the dashboard. I knew he stashed money in the truck because he didn’t want to carry too much on his person, but this was the first time I had seen one of his hiding places. He smoothed the duct tape with his fingertips. From where I was sitting, you couldn’t see a thing.
He winked at me and said, “Never put your eggs all in one basket, son.”
We made stops at a half dozen houses then parked in front of a four-story apartment building, an imposing structure of yellow brick with stone steps and vaulted entryways, heavy oak doors with most of the glass panels replaced with plywood. Music drifted from the open windows out into the street.
“I got to make three or four trips in here,” my father said. “Probably take me about an hour or so, then we’ll be in the home stretch.”
He went to the back of the truck and got a load of clothes and carried them into the building.
The truck was parked in the shade. Daisy’s barbeque had left me feeling sated and drowsy. I turned sideways and stretched my legs out, my feet propped up on the driver’s seat, my head resting on the open window frame. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. In a dream I was being stalked by a stranger, some menace without face or form. I heard the sharp click of footsteps coming up behind me, felt a hand reach out to grab my neck. In an effort to escape, I lunged sideways and startled myself awake.
“I’m sorry,” said a woman on the sidewalk next to the truck. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.” She was wearing a black dress and high-heeled shoes; she had a purse over one shoulder and a Bible under her arm.
I blushed and didn’t say anything.
“You go on back to sleep, sugar,” she said, smiling, and walked away.
My legs were starting to cramp and I got out of the truck. A group of teenage boys came down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. One of them was dribbling a basketball while he talked to his friends, the ball returning to his hand like a yo-yo on a string. Some of the boys glanced my way.
A strange-looking kid with pinkish-white patches on his skin said, “Hey, man, you wanna play? Make the sides even.”
I shook my head. Another boy grinned at me and booted the patchy-skinned boy in the butt. Near the end of the block the group of boys went through a gate in a chainlink fence.
My father came out of the apartment building with an armful of dirty clothes. Without a word he got another load of deliveries and went back into the building. From the angle where I was standing I could not see the boys beyond the fence, but I could hear the rhythmic plunk of the ball on concrete, the clatter of rebounds on the metal backboard. I rolled up the windows of the truck, pushing down the buttons to lock the doors, then I walked down the sidewalk and leaned against a telephone pole where I could watch the game from the opposite side of the street. The boys were playing full court, three-on-three, shirts against the skins. The patchy-skinned boy stood on the sidelines, berating the players on both teams. I kept looking back to check the truck. It was no more than fifty yards away. I figured I could run back in seconds at the first sign of anything suspicious.
The boy on the sidelines noticed me and called across the street. “Hey, man, come on and play.”
“Aw, man, come on. You and me, one on each side.”
“I’m sorry.” I motioned toward the truck. “I can’t.”
“Just one game. Mister Spotless ain’t gonna leave without you.”
I looked down at my feet. I wasn’t wearing sneakers but my shoes had rubber soles. In junior high I had considered myself a pretty good basketball player, my advantage coming from my height and a reliable two-handed set shot. But I had trouble holding onto passes, and despite hours of practice in the basement, I could never learn to dribble with my left hand. After sitting on the bench of the J.V. basketball team as a freshman the previous winter, I went out for track in the spring and ran the mile faster than anyone else in the school – at which point I abandoned my visions of becoming the next Jerry West and set my sights on running in the Olympics.
The boy at the fence kept after me. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had been excluded from the game because of his looks. He had bug-eyes and a bullet-shaped head; his mottled skin made him look like he had a contagious disease.
“Come on, man,” he said. “Ain’t nobody here gonna bite you.”
I took one more glance back at the truck and crossed the street.
* * *
The boy who called me over grabbed the ball as it careened out of bounds. “Okay, we even now,” he said. “You know the team that take me gonna win.”
One of the players said, “Get outta here, Pinto. We’re in the middle of a game.” Another boy seconded him.
Pinto turned to the tallest boy and appealed to him.
“Don’t matter to me,” the tall boy said. “Score’s tied anyway.” He looked at a boy in red sneakers. “You want Pinto or the grayboy?”
The kid in red sneakers nodded at me. “We’re skins,” he said.
I peeled off my T-shirt and tossed it by the fence.
The guys on my team rarely passed me the ball, but I managed to grab a few rebounds. When I finally got up the nerve to take a shot, it clanged off the front of the rim. I learned the players’ names by listening to them call out to one another. The boy on my team in red sneakers was Derek; he had a great jump shot. Cecil, the tall boy on the other team, could dribble and spin and hang in the air. Pinto was a ferocious defender but often tripped over his own feet.