Everything That Dunks Must Converge, Act One
The 5th Sun
(Art by Daniel Rowell)
You Can’t Eat the Basketball is an independent press of sorts. We specialize in long form projects about the game we love, which happens to be basketball. What follows from here is an account of the real life events that inspired the christening of our platform, as well as the strange tale of how Naismith Mandeville’s Everything That Dunks Must Converge came into being.
These origin stories begin with a 2014 conversation between CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer and (then) NBA commissioner David Stern. In response to a question from Blitzer, Stern stated twice: “You can’t eat the basketball.”
This line summed up his position on Dennis Rodman leading a group of former NBA players into North Korea for an exhibition game. It should be noted that the NBA sanctioned neither the trip nor the game. Furthermore, this game became a matter of national importance when a weeping Dennis Rodman declared North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un his friend. Prior to this moment, Rodman’s claims to fame had included: being a five-time NBA champion, dating Madonna and Carmen Electra, and breaking his penis three times. Thus, it is difficult to imagine what exactly Rodman was doing in a country so impoverished and abused as North Korea, where 800,000 to two million people have been systematically starved by a militant regime. Then again, perhaps a man whose nickname is The Worm is the only conceivable candidate for such a fiasco in the making. Furthermore, it might even be worth pondering what sort of unfettered paranoia and hyperbolic reasoning might transform Rodman’s personal PR blunder into a potential dawning of the apocalypse.
The truth is we may never know what international secrets were exchanged at the dinner table between basketball’s most prominent creature of appetite and the world’s most attention-seeking dictator. And, even if we were privy to the details, it is difficult to imagine we would ever understand them. After all, regardless of Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un’s motives for braiding trans-Pacific friendship bracelets, the details of the story—even to this day—read like a poorly contrived script of the most burned out minds Hollywood has to offer.
Consider the James Franco and Seth Rogen vehicle The Interview (2014). Now imagine a situation calling for its cinematic DNA to be somehow spliced with an even more forgettable comedy, Celtic Pride (1996). In the former a tabloid journalist (Franco) travels to North Korea with orders to assassinate Kim Jong-un, but ends up befriending the dictator. And, in the latter, the characters played by Daniel Stern and Dan Aykroyd kidnap a star NBA player (Damon Wayans), so their beloved Boston Celtics might win another championship. These films are funny in parts, but never quite so serious to carry the weight of satire. And, much like Dennis Rodman’s errors in judgment, they are probably taken much too seriously by people with keyboards whose sole purpose is to feed the beast via click bait.
All this is to say that the orange sphere of the basketball world, even if not digestible, is a rather strange and unwieldy geography. Then again, a game that relies on the midair inventiveness of players like Dr. Julius Erving and Michael “Air” Jordan should be unsurprisingly border-less and therefore a bit difficult to fathom, by way of either science or magic.
Here at You Can’t Eat the Basketball we hope to embrace projects that exist on the fault lines of the game and its irrational spaces. It didn’t make sense for Dennis Rodman to visit North Korea, but neither did his manic passion for rebounding. So, while David Stern was right to suggest the basketball cannot be eaten, he was also right to begin that CNN conversation with a rather blunt observation: “Dennis will be Dennis.” Furthermore, these two images—the basketball and the serpent—if laid over top one another, are the essence of the textual project you are about to read.
Everything That Dunks Must Converge (in 3 Acts) was submitted by one Naismith Mandeville, and the book reads like a boa constrictor choking on a basketball, which is to imply that the book itself is a confusing marvel, as incomprehensible as a basketball-obsessed dictator and the star role player who cozied up next to him.
With his manuscript, Naismith Mandeville also submitted a letter that included a partial biography and a tale about how he came to love the sport of basketball in the first place. While never receiving a formal education, Mandeville studied English Literature under Diedrich Knickerbocker, a man he claims to be a bigger New York fan than either Woody Allen or Spike Lee.
According to Mandeville’s letter, Knickerbocker often referred to Madison Square Garden as “terra incognita,” and it was on some sullen afternoon, after his mentor and his mentor’s father had grown bored staring at Edward Hopper paintings in one of the city’s many museums, that the two wandered “in fine weather” to the Garden for a rather meaningless regular season game.
Mandeville goes on to quote his mentor about seeing those Edenic New York teams from the early ‘70s:
“With what longing eyes would I gaze after their athleticism, and waft myself in imagination to the ends of the court and back. Academia was rich in the accumulated treasures of age, but basketball was full of youthful promise and Willis Reed.”
It just so happens that Knickerbocker’s favorite player from those teams was a young man out of North Dakota named Phil Jackson. Apparently, Knickerbocker was drawn to Jackson’s creative intellect. After all, Jackson, while sidelined during the team’s 1970 championship run, authored his first book Take It All.
“I just found it so odd; here I was watching basketball because I was bored with the art world and my favorite player ends up creating something like art because, for him, basketball by itself wasn’t quite enough,” Mandeville remembers Knickerbocker saying. Of course, Mandeville adds about his own relationship to the mind and body of Phil Jackson:
“It’s strange—Knickerbocker knew Jackson as a duality, but, because of my age being younger, I would only know him as a basketball mind. I was still very much a kid when he replaced Doug Collins as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, to see him in a suit every day, as opposed to when he was recovering from a spinal fusion, is something very different.”
In his letter introducing his Everything That Dunks manuscript, Mandeville wrestles with his limited understanding of Phil Jackson the coach and his mentor’s understanding of the man’s journey from player to coach. Eventually, he arrives at the conclusion that more than one Phil Jackson must indeed exist.
This letter made its rounds in and out of the inboxes bearing the names of the You Can’t Eat the Basketball staff and many of us began to open up about how we first fell in love with the game or in what ways we knew Phil Jackson or the New York Knicks or the Chicago Bulls. And, while we told many anecdotes about attending basketball games with our fathers, practicing trick shots in driveways, seeing our names written above the cut line, not seeing our names at all, many of us simply arrived at the conclusion that the game is a great one regardless of the angle in which a person knows the game, whether it be analytical or imaginative or, in those moments of pivotal importance, experience itself.
Personally, I don’t think a person falls in love with something from reading about it. I think the words make sense because love exists as a preemptive force. The words echo the primordial tremors already moving through the heart and trembling into the fingertips. It is this way with all relationships, between people, and between people and things. The words recognize what was and what still is. From there, the world is blank.
And so it is with love and basketball. And such love is best articulated in George Gervin finger rolls, and other such things that riff their way from the arc to the rim, and back again.
I didn’t fall in love with Michael Jordan or his Chicago Bulls because I read Sam Smith’s Second Coming: The Strange Odyssey of Michael Jordan, from Courtside to Home Plate and Back Again. I read it because I already loved Michael and the Bulls that surrounded him.
I read it because it was a gift, and it shadowed what I already felt and thought while watching MJ triumph, walk away, suffer, return, and triumph again. It was in this vein, I suppose, that my love for Jordan existed because I already loved the game of basketball. Seeing him take flight on NBC seemed, at such a young age, like an extension of our driveway, the Gaines School blacktop, the Hilsman and Coile Middle School gyms.
Obviously, Jordan could do things with his human body that we other humans, especially we elementary and middle schoolers, could not. But we tried anyway. We tried to rock the cradle, to take off from the foul line. We mostly failed, but we did succeed at wagging our tongues, at wearing the shoes, at posing like we were something other than what we were. What we didn’t know in our youthful ignorance was that Michael Jordan mimicked others too, that is, until he became the prototype.
A person older than me, someone my dad’s age, would see flashes in Jordan’s game that were clearly facsimiles of what Julius Erving had done with either the 76ers or in his ABA days. And maybe someone older than my father might recall the movements of Elgin Baylor on the cave’s wall.
You see, my father gave me Smith’s book, The Second Coming. But, with it and his historical recitations, he also gave me the understanding that basketball is a game played on necro-geographies. To watch it—and I mean to really see the game in all its murky majesty—is to become an archaeologist; an interpreter of faded pictographs.
I would not truly understand what this passing of the torch looks like—how it is a ritual that destroys and rejuvenates—until I became a teacher and had to defend Jordan’s greatness to my students, who preferred both Kobe and LeBron’s flights of fancy; until I had to explain how Dwight Howard was not the first Superman and admit that I didn’t know if Shaq was either.
And that Superman moniker is interesting, just as Space Jam is interesting, for in both plot lines exists the contemplation of the alien other.
Basketball is a real game, played by real human beings, but so often the game shares boundaries not only with layers of history, but with layers of animation, comic books, myth, and good old American folklore. Moreover, the more we dip into these storied realms as a way of explaining human athleticism, the more we acknowledge just how extraordinarily alien such athleticism is to those of us who cannot jump so high, run so fast, shoot so pure, but do sit behind a keyboard all day, waiting for the transcendence delivered in a tomahawk slam.
Well, in his letter introducing Everything That Dunks Must Converge, he describes a period of numbness in his life that coincided with his turning a blind eye to the game of basketball. Sometime between Jordan’s second and third retirements, Mandeville describes himself watching basketball with the feeling of being lost in a swamp of familiarity, of swimming in circles without direction, that after having witnessed Michael Jordan’s stunning aura, there seemed to be nothing left to witness.
He writes of the experience:
“It must have been something like what Knickerbocker felt while staring at those Ed Hopper paintings, just the cold crushing of modernity and an embarrassing wealth of intimacy and a resulting loneliness. It was like being a basketball fan and Pablo Picasso--it was like I needed to go in search of other things and other forms.”
On November 20th, 2004, the night after the Malice at the Palace, and over three years after 9/11, Mandeville bought a plane ticket to Mexico and disappeared into the Yucatàn, as if he were some invisible meteorite, or a professor with a bullwhip.
Two experiences in Mexico impacted Mandeville enough for him to write about them in his letter introducing Everything That Dunks.
The first experience he mentions involved a pickup basketball game in the middle of a village’s town square. Upon arriving in the village, Mandeville noticed the children playing ball on the sun-baked concrete in the center of town. At each corner of the slab a tamarindo tree grew, and at each end of the slab stood a basketball goal. However, the children ignored the baskets, opting instead to play fùtbol. Moreover, they played barefoot. When Mandeville decided to teach and encourage them to play basketball, they would not do so until he removed his shoes and played on the hot surface just as they did. By the end of the day, his feet blistered and bled. Later that day, he left red footprints throughout the village on his way past the village meat cart and en route to his residence that night.
The latter of the two experiences involves bearing witness to one of the lone surviving codices of the ancient Maya. It was believed only four codices had survived into modern times. After all, the Conquistadors and Catholic priests looted and burned most of them as objects belonging to the devil. And it should be mentioned that the authenticity of that fourth Codex, known as the Grolier Codex, has long been up for debate.
Interestingly enough, Mandeville claims not only to have seen this new Codex, but to have been present at its moment of discovery. Long searched for, it was found in much the same way as the earlier Grolier artifact, in an underground cave, where it lay unread and untouched for centuries. Mandeville describes the surrounding cave and the images of the Codex in quite a bit of detail (from which I will spare you here). But it should be noted that Everything That Dunks essentially is a verbal translation of those colorful hieroglyphics first recorded on the bark of antiquity’s fig trees.
Considering this Fifth Codex has yet to be verified and its contents are still undisclosed to the public, Mandeville’s assertions raise a great deal of speculation. First, if taken at his word, is he really the author or is he simply a translator? I do not mean this latter label as an insult, except that even a translation of an ancient Codex would require verification. After all, the artifact was discovered in the Yucatàn, which is a word rooted in misunderstandings.
In 1588, Antonio de Ciudad Real described an encounter between the Spanish and the Indians. When the Spanish asked what the land was called, the Indians responded uic athan. The Spanish heard the word Yucatàn. Uic athan translates to “we do not understand you.”
Thus, it’s quite possible that even if Everything That Dunks is a translation, it could be an incorrect one. And, in some ways, this would account for some of the confusing holes in the narrative. For example, Mandeville can’t seem to decide, or even decipher, the nature of Pat Riley’s Miami organization. Are they a real estate firm? Are they a law firm? Are they somehow connected to the mob? Is Riley in league with Satan? In Mandeville’s translation, all of the above seem eternally possible, which, if you think about it for one second, is quite the opposite and, indeed, utterly absurd.
Such inquiries also lead down a path that questions every aspect of Mandeville’s story of discovery. How could the Maya even know terms such as “real estate firm,” “law firm,” “the mob,” and “Satan”? Moreover, Mandeville’s translation is full of allusions to pop culture, literature, and cinema that are entirely anachronistic to both the Mayan world and 16th century baroque Spain.
As a responsible press, the staff at You Can’t Eat the Basketball questioned Mandeville as directly as we could, to which he replied in a shoulder shrug that was equal parts brevity and nuance: it was written.
In other words, Mandeville only translated what was already written, which, if what he’s saying is true, places not only his translation in a strange sphere of the marvelous, but the Fifth Codex itself would then appear omnipotent in its Nostradamus-like predictions. And, blessed with such foresight, these books of folded bark cloth would actually know more about modern America than they do ancient Mèxico. In other words, the reading of Mandeville’s translation might tell us more about ourselves and the translator than about the ancients whose lives initially transcribed it.
Needless to say, we here at You Can’t Eat the Basketball had our doubts as to the text’s authenticity, as should you. And then suddenly I remembered not my Charlemagne, but my Phil Jackson.
In his book, Second Coming, Sam Smith writes about how one of the Bulls assistant coaches during the Jordan-era “spliced scenes from Vietnam-era war movies, like Full Metal Jacket, into his defensive tapes” (191), in order to inspire Horace Grant into becoming more of a warrior on the court. The man responsible for this motivational tactic was John Bach, but Bach had nothing on Phil Jackson, who Smith writes:
“had become well known among his players for his creative editing sessions with a message” (221).
When the Bulls were an up-and-coming team battling against the Bad Boy Pistons, Jackson would show his team footage of Piston highlights followed by snippets “from The Wizard of Oz.” In doing so, he drew comparisons between his players on the court failures to make the right and necessary play with the missing body parts of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion.
In 1994, he played the movie Slap Shot (starring Paul Newman), which is about hockey, in order to jump start his team's efforts on the basketball court. And, in the 1995 playoffs, when the Bulls met the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Orlando Magic, Jackson wove moments from Monty Python and the Holy Grail into the raw footage of Shaquille O’Neal destroying his opponents.
Jackson would continue these tactics throughout his career, doing everything from showing footage to his teams of Andy Dufresne crawling through shit in The Shawshank Redemption to passing out books on philosophy to individual players. From his stint in Chicago throughout his time in Los Angeles, Phil Jackson coached like a motivational plagiarist. Or, if you want to spin it positively: he coached like a post-modernist seeking avenues of intertextuality between literature, pop culture, and the basketball court, as if he and Spike Lee were two sides of the same coin, or two heads on the same Demogorgon.
Moreover, consider the final postgame interview of Phil Jackson’s last protégé to win an NBA title. After dropping 60 points on the Utah Jazz in the final game of his career, Kobe Bryant declared his intent to become a storyteller. While this goal appears to differ in kind with Michael Jordan’s foray into ownership, the two paths are not exactly diverging in a woods, with Robert Frost idling nearby.
MJ, the player, often battled with Jerry Krause and the rest of the Bulls front office over personnel decisions, and his moves in retirement have, for better or worse, revealed his own desire to write the script. On the other hand, Kobe’s drive to write stories may be all well and good, but it seems only fair to speculate that a great deal of his inspiration is to mythologize himself in the manner he deems fit.
And, to be honest, this doesn’t make Jordan or Bryant all that much different from anyone else in the 21st century, or any century for that matter, which brings me to Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions.
Greenblatt’s book ends with its author describing a staring contest between a Catholic figure of Jesus and “a stone carving of the Mixtec god of death” (151). I had not read the book in a long time, but this strange juxtaposition constructed in its conclusion kept haunting my readings of Mandeville’s own project and whether to frame it as a history, a mythology, or something purely imaginative. As I edited Everything That Dunks, I often felt like Naismith Mandeville was one of these faces in that last passage by Greenblatt and that the Codex being translated must be the older god carved in stone.
I wrote him a letter describing the sensation of seeing him transfixed with wonder, to which I received a rather startling reply:
I received those five words nearly five years ago. Moreover, those five words made me wonder if the entire project should be called off for being some sort of fraud. With whom exactly had I been corresponding?
Distraught, confused, I gave up. I mean, occasionally, I would pull out a passage and look it over, especially when events in the NBA unfolded with a semblance of machination. A certain player might be suspended for a key game. Another player might not be suspended at all for what appeared to be the same act committed by the previously suspended player. A certain trade might be recalled. A lottery ping pong ball might bounce in an all too convenient way. And then it struck me that perhaps if Mandeville was not who I thought he was, then neither was the manuscript.
Perhaps the story of the Fifth Codex was not a translation of an ancient Mayan text per se, but something else. Maybe it was a whistle blower’s guise. What if Everything That Dunks was some insider’s way of revealing the truth about a fixed league? I entertained this idea for some months, not knowing whether the idea was true or not. Had I solved some riddle? Or, had I simply obsessed over something for so long that I, too, was given to fabrication, spinning narrative threads out of what was obviously pure chaos? Was I projecting my need for a predictable plot onto David Stern and his minions? Who was Naismith Mandeville?
I decided to place Everything That Dunks on hold once more and to instead consider more traditional basketball writings for You Can’t Eat the Basketball’s first project, (among these was a Mark Madsen autobiography, titled Dancing at the End of the World.)
Then, one stormy night, while trying to make sense of it all, I sat alone in my apartment. Dirty dishes sat on the carpet beside stacks of books and paper--I didn’t have a coffee table at the time.
A regular season game murmured from the television sitting on an old wooden crate. I was grading eleventh grade research papers. I was losing interest. Eventually, I wasn’t reading about the legalization of pot or lowering the driving age, but I was starting, once again, from the beginning of Mandeville’s manuscript.
I was reading the story about Isiah Thomas, the former Bob Knight protege, the once glossy smile of the Detroit Bad Boys, and eventual reaper of Madison Square Garden. What had Mandeville done to him? I was just at the part when he was about to turn tail and run from the ghost of Walt Frazier when I heard a resounding knock at my apartment’s door, and I kid you not, the low rumble of thunder and a flickering of the lamplight.
I placed the manuscript down on one of the many papered columns in my basketball-watching sanctum. I looked out the sliding glass door at the sheets of whipping rain. I walked to the door, wearing nothing but socks, boxers, and a Boris Diaw t-shirt jersey. I opened it. I marveled at the man before me, like a Topps trading card come to life.
Soaked to the bone and weary as a marionette with no strings stood Penny Hardaway, still unassuming and deceptively aged.
Immediately, I knew who had sent me that last cryptic note about Naismith Mandeville: It was this living tragedy of a basketball player who now stood before me. He appeared as gaunt and frail as a man who had embarked, by foot, on a triangular journey from Memphis, to Orlando, to Phoenix, even to New York, and back again.
“May I come in?” he asked, and I stepped to the side, as if lazily rolling out after a half-assed pick. Blinking, I watched him pass through the doorway.
Act 1: The 5th Sun
Isiah Thomas, The Unrepentant
Dwight Howard, The Dog Walker
Rajon Rondo, The Astronaut
Blake Griffin, The Escape Artist
Hakeem, The Butcher
Bill & Kareem, The Chess Game
Danny Granger, The Hustler
Amar’e Stoudemire, The Cab Driver
Steve Nash, The Single Mom
Dirk’s sleeping: Should we wake him?
The knife fanged the envelope’s pale flesh in a single, deft blow, like the striking of a match . Two liver-spotted hands then removed the tumored letter from the gutted envelope, unfolding its childish number of folds with the procedural acumen of a surgeon who has performed this task before, many times, with a great deal of relished intensity. However, the man’s wolfish grin implied he was less interested in binding wounds than in tearing down houses. By huff, by puff, by steel, he read the letter. And, like all those letters preceding it, its scrawl curled and flipped and fell with all the emotion of a child squeezing his heart through the tip of a ballpoint pen; each sentence pulsing with blue ink. And, like all those letters before it, this one followed the exact same outline:
Dear dad/(sometimes) father,
How are you? Insert statement of love and/or longing. Follow statement of love and/or longing with a list of age-appropriate activities for a young boy with or without a dad, but that would be much better with a dad present. A concluding statement about what holidays might be good ones to show up at this year, and, finally, the heartbreaking coda of the boy’s clumsy signature (Kyrie Irving). And, then, because such letters from sons are never quite done, a postscript reading, I wrote this letter in case you didn’t receive letters 1 through 21. That makes this letter #22.
Patrick Sir Riley read every word, as he always did, and, as he always did, felt nothing. He allowed the nothingness to overtake him and then commenced to burning the twenty-second letter just as he had burned the previous twenty-one over a candle’s red flame, like an offering to the gods who hated the three little pigs and all fatherless children.
Ashes fell in an atomic rain on the dark, enchanted wood of his mahogany desk, and in the fallout, he removed a mirror from a loaded down drawer and sat it on the edge of his desk. He opened an unlabeled bottle and ground two Magic pills with a mortar and pestle, sprinkling the Laker gold dust onto the mirror’s surface. Then, using the edge of a black credit card, he swept the white-gray ash of the bastard’s burned letter onto the mirror, where he then sifted the ash into the dust and the dust into the ash. Finally, he positioned the mirror in the exact center of the desk’s midnight surface, eyeing all four corners of its cardinal horizons. No one else was in the room, but each deed, each act, was carried out with the dignity of ceremony, with the decay of sacrilege. In the mirror, as he leaned over it like a hollowed out palm tree on a deserted beach, no reflection of his came into existence. The room appeared, split by a thin line of powder, the line between happiness and unhappiness for some child named Kyrie. Patrick Sir Riley leaned his face in closer and closer to the mirror that either could not or would not reflect his skeletal features. His withered head was like the skull of Yorick staring eye to eye with a nonexistent Hamlet. He put an index finger to nostril, making a vacuum of his nose. And snorted his way to kingdom come.
“Oorah!” he shouted, blinking like a blind man who could now see, feeling very much like a Polonius who could never die, or, better yet, the Dean of Wittenburg. Holy shit! HE. FELT. GOOD.
Music filled the velvet chamber. A fire to match the candle’s lone flame erupted in the room’s great stone hearth, and the old man began to sashay first with the roped curtains and then across the roaring bear rug. Hips swaying and offering up maraca hand claps, he danced with the shadows, until the shadows transformed into women. He looked young. They looked young. He felt vibrant. They agreed. He believed he would never die, not one night from now, not two nights from now, not three nights from now, not four, not five, not six, not ever. He had a plan. He knew what he must do. He had always known what he must do. He could do it for eternity. The whole world was his. And he was ready to party at its destruction.
(Art by Daniel Rowell)
“This is not the place for the weak-minded guy, regardless of your talent.” — Isiah Thomas
The stars lined up like notes in a funeral hymn as the shroud of night sagged over everything, for even it knew the depths to which one of its favorite sons had fallen, and you could see him through the yellow square of his window, sitting at a desk, writing a letter, his lips peeled back, like curtains, to reveal the electric flicker of his smile. His hand moved deliberately, like some great boulder balanced on top of the ball point pen, and droplets of sweat beaded up on his forehead, like he was a stick of nitroglycerin, and still he smiled, to stop now would be an admission of defeat.
I remember when we first met. I gave you my name--Isiah--and you responded,“Call me Isiah,” thinking I was named after some great American protagonist, that I was some lone survivor of a whale attack. I’m not. I wasn’t. My name’s not Ishmael. I’m not even innocent.
I wanted to build something, and I would have done anything to do it. Maybe I did do anything. It’s true that I buried Allan Houston up to his knees in concrete and tossed him in a river. The water swallowed his screams. I still wake up with nightmares from the night when Patrick Ewing’s blood ran out of his throat like sweat. There were so many bodies: Penny Hardaway, Vin Baker, Antonio McDyess, young Trevor Ariza, Malik Rose, a tattooed Matt Barnes, Steve Francis, Eddy Curry’s heart, Jared Jeffries, Renaldo Balkman. . . there are so many names, Stephon.
The night we killed Jamal Crawford I ordered it done because his smile looked like mine. I’m not sure when I became so vain. Zach Randolph squeeled like a pig as he bled out. David Lee wasn’t even given a chance to speak. I have trouble sleeping at night--it’s like the whole city is poking me. I can feel their fingers stabbing me like ice.
Do you still want your ashes scattered on these New York streets? I sometimes feel like mine already are. It snowed the other day, and I swear it felt like my own flesh was falling out of the sky. Little kids stuck out their tongues and caught my mistakes on them. They didn’t even seem to care, too young to know what I even did to them. It’s the old ones, the fathers and the grandparents, that become difficult to face, to ever win over again.
Spike Lee came to see me the other day. Do you remember him? He always wore glasses. I think they’re magical, because the whole conversation I thought he was staring right at my heart--I could feel it shaking in my chest. He told me he dreamed of a day when Willis Reed would become young again and come walking out of a dark tunnel like some freight train and ran me over. He told me I ran this city like some African dictator, like Mugabe, who starved the peasantry and raped the women. He told me he was ashamed, that my actions washed this city in dirty oil. I told him he didn’t understand that I did everything out of love, that I am love.
Do you ever feel lonely, Stephon? I do. Now that my money’s running out--I don’t have shit. I had to pawn my rings. I’m down to one suit. Most of my friends are gone. Jimmy Dolan only calls sometimes, and I think Donnie’s put a bounty on my head. They’re coming for me, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know why I’m writing this to you. You were always such a horrible friend.
After signing his name, Isiah put the pen down and folded the letter into thirds, before sliding it into an envelope. Then he emptied out the contents of his wallet: a driver’s license; a few business cards, with bent edges; some string; and a grimy twenty dollar bill. He stood up and walked over to the bed, where he lifted the mattress and pulled out a roll of cash. He took the rubber band off it and started counting the amount on the desk. He had two thousand, plus the twenty from his wallet. Two thousand and twenty dollars. He owed twenty thousand, and he had owed it for quite some time. Donnie Walsh was not going to wait forever; at some point, he would come for blood and Isiah knew he didn’t have any friends left to defend him, or to borrow from. He was a dead man.
He looked around the room, but there was nothing left to pawn. The walls were bare. He had sold his silk jaguar printed linens. The bed and the desk were the only furniture left, and the few dishes that he owned were dirty and stacked in the sink. He paced back and forth, his heels clicking on the wood floorboards where a Chinese rug used to be. He went to the sink and lifted a fork out of it. Flakes of food were crusted to it, and he could see his reflection smiling back at him in the silver mettle. He wanted to know why he couldn’t stop smiling, even as men were probably driving across the city now--at this very moment—just to kill him. He hated his smile. It had always made him such a charmer, but he knew now, in the bottom of his heart, the only person left for him to charm was the devil. He was going to Hell. A man can’t be responsible for so much blood and not go to Hell, at least that’s what Isiah had learned in Catholic school.
He returned to the desk, and divided the money into two piles, one smaller than the other. He put the small one containing one hundred dollars in his wallet, and left the other stack in the middle of the desk, over a water stain. On a notepad, he wrote: “Here’s about two thousand. I hope this buys me some time. I know you need more.” He then went to the telephone and called a cab.
“Yeah, just have a driver pick me up on the Bridge,” he instructed, and an accented voice answered back, frustrated with the request.
“I know it’s a weird request, but just do it. And I want to be driven as far south as your cabs are allowed to go.” The accent argued that this wouldn’t be very far, but Isiah responded, “I don’t care how far it is. However far is far enough.” He slammed the phone down on the desk and collected himself. When he turned around, a man, in a black wide-brimmed hat and alligator shoes, was sitting in his chair, heavy as a rabbi.
“You think you can run, Isiah?” asked the stranger. “Where can you go that we can’t find you? Where can you go that we haven’t already been? We’re everywhere in this city. In fact, most people don’t think we ever left.”
“Who are you?” asked Isiah, his voice shaking with fright.
“C’mon, man, you know who I am,” said the man from under his black hat, while leaning the chair back on two legs. “’Cause there’s no one else I could be. I’m too cool to be anybody else.”
A chill came over Isiah, and he lashed out at the chair with his foot, hurtling it across the wood floor. When it came to rest against the wall, the man had vanished. Isiah froze, and then sprinted out of the apartment; whispers of familiar voices filling his head. And, as Isiah rushed out of the slum’s lobby and into the street, he thought he saw a black hat glide over the concrete, but he convinced himself it was only a cat and started sprinting towards the Brooklyn Bridge.
The cold night air jolted Isiah’s burgeoning paranoia into full throttle. In the reflections of shop windows and the windshields of cars, he saw his past shatter like stained glass. His idea of who he was—his reality—was breaking. As he ran by a liquor store, he thought he saw a pale mustached man, dressed in green, hurl a heavy brick at him, and he dove onto the hard sidewalk, to avoid the brick striking his skull. The end result: his knees bleeding onto his tattered pants. Then, in an oil slicked rainbow, he imagined a purple and gold kraken rising up from the curb to swallow him, causing him to trip, striking his jaw on the concrete. He pulled himself together and ran on, limping and staggering, huffing and puffing. A red car, charging like a bull, almost hit him at an intersection, and at first, Isiah believed it was a man in a red suit flying by him, on the road to only God knows where. But it was nothing other than what it was: a metallic frame sitting on top of black rubber tires and coated in red paint. Isiah faltered on, continuing to stumble, until he came to the bridge.
The world was full of ghosts and hallucinations that only he could see. He looked around him. Other people were smiling and holding hands. A woman was feeding dog biscuits to her pooch, letting it lick her hands and wag its tail. A kid rode by on his bike, trying to make it home, back to his parents safely, and Isiah stood with ripped clothes and a busted jaw, knees bleeding, his brain screaming at his lips to frown for once in his crazy, messed up life. He couldn’t see the world how they did. Life was not normal; it was upside down. He was a somebody, who had somehow done nobody things. He gathered himself and stepped out onto the bridge, with the sky pressing on his shoulders.
“Isiah, man, I can’t let you pass,” the man from his apartment was now standing in his way. “You know that, don’t you? That you can’t just leave.”
Isiah looked at the ground and the man’s alligator shoes, then back up at the man and his wide-brimmed hat. “I’m leaving this behind me. I’m more than this city. I did great things in Detroit and Indiana. I’m the best at what I do.”
“You’re shit at what you do, and you know it.”
“You’re not even real!” yelled Isiah. “I’m passing through.”
“You’re not doin’ shit,” said the hat.
“Get out of my way!” Isiah stepped forward, and the man took off his hat, revealing an Afro and thick sideburns. Isiah hesitated, and the man threw his hat at him. Isiah expected it to pass right through him, but it hit his chest and landed in his hands. He could feel its very real dimensions in his bare hands. Isiah dropped the hat and sprinted towards the side of the bridge, where he climbed up onto the railing and balanced himself.
“Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” asked the man on the bridge. “Die here and this city will never let you go in peace. Never.”
“Who else will have me?” Isiah was looking over his shoulder, away from the river.
“No one. You’re—”
The voice was overcome by the sound of a car’s engine and a honking horn. Isiah twisted his neck back towards the bridge to see it better. The man in the hat evaporated in the white of the car’s headlights, and while shuffling his feet on the cold metal rail, Isiah slipped. And, as he plummeted towards the dark, slippery ribbon of the Hudson, he heard nothing but the screeching of rubber tires and the crash of metal running into a stone barrier that wouldn’t budge. And then he felt nothing but the icy water as it engulfed his heartbeat and froze his veins. When they fished out his body and took it to the morgue, he was still smiling.
Dwight Howard, the Dog Walker
“But when he saw the reality of it, it made him uncomfortable.” –Kobe Bryant on Dwight Howard
(Image by Mike Langston)
To the Saturday morning coffee sipper, who happened to peak over the horizon of his or her newspaper, Dwight Howard’s body rose like a great wooden mast, and the leashes that ran out from his hands resembled the knots and grids of a ship’s rigging as he sailed through the crosswalk.
He was in full command of his fleet. He was the captain of his ship. He led the dogs from one sidewalk to another making the whole ordeal appear as orderly and artistic as a canine version of Abbey Road.
As Dwight and his betas reached the double yellow line, a bright red car with flames emblazoned on the side sped through the intersection, ignoring the red light, demonstrating a complete disregard for basic traffic laws, sending the dogs into disarray.
Barks flew out of their throats like flying fish flopping awkwardly in the air. They leapt like waves into the sides of Dwight’s legs, rocking his ship in choppy waters. Their eyes darted from side to side as if they were lost at sea and surrounded by jagged fins circling in the current. The dogs ran this way and that. Lines tangled, and Dwight found himself tied down in the road like Andromeda waiting for the Kraken to breach. He needed more balance, better footwork, quicker reflexes, a third arm, but he didn’t have any of those things that a captain needed. The ship’s wheel spun out of his control, and he feared going down with it. And, in that moment, he came to hate his responsibilities. He came to despise his own business plan. And, he asked for an out, if not to anyone in particular, then at least under his breath to an unseen god.
As the light turned green, Dwight scuttled over the curb like a wounded crab, his dogs clinging to him like the frail legs of a crustacean, their furs speckled in oily dirt. He wondered if he could get them back to their owners scrubbed clean, not barking, and on time. He began to undo the maze of leashes and noticed the grimy stain that now sat in the middle of his Bill Cosby sweater. Walking dogs was supposed to be easy, even fun. A ruined holiday sweater and grooming costs for a dozen dogs, however, were not Dwight’s idea of fun, at least not anymore. In fact, these things stressed him. He looked down the road and shook an angry fist at the red car that had brought him so much pain, whose license plate read CHSN-ONE, only, to the people around him, Dwight’s fist appeared comical—and they laughed from behind their newspapers, sipping coffee, critiquing things they themselves had never done.
After all, they had failed to hear his eloquent, even polite, prayers to an unseen god for deliverance from these daily labors. Moreover, they were unaware that not only was he suffering under a Gordian knot of dog leashes but from a sincere crisis in faith. And, while none of these witnesses could hear this rather large man’s small complaints, they did hear the man who offered to save him, which therefore altered how they would later retell the story to their friends and loved ones. They would never understand his side.
Kobe Bryant sat at an outdoor café reading a paper not called The Admiral-Constitution and sipping an iced coffee. While turning the front page of the business section, he noticed a large buffoon of a man snared by labyrinth of dog leashes. He firmly folded his paper in very straight creases and arose with all the confidence in the world before proceeding towards this large harlequin in an absurd sweater. When he reached the man, he undid the knots with a great deal of confident flare, and by the time he finished, Kobe and not the bozo held the fates of all the dogs in his hands and, to further shift the balance of power, he looked more comfortable holding the canines at bay than the large jester ever had. Then, he did the kindest and strangest of things: he offered the clown a job, despite seeing how flawed the rather large man was. The large man accepted, but his wide grin appeared lacking in gratitude. This detail would be relayed by everyone who witnessed the exchange—the man who needed rescuing should’ve been more grateful, don’t you think? After all, he was the one given the incredible opportunity.
Kobe noticed the grin as well and made note to himself that he would work to correct it. After all, he had dealt with such antics a long time ago and would no longer tolerate buffoonery from anyone—Horton or Who.
“What was your name, sir? I didn’t catch it.”
“What’s a mamba?”
Kobe pushed his lower jaw out beyond his upper lip, already wondering if he’d misjudged this sap’s venomous potential. “A fucking nightmare of a predator.
“Dwight gulped, “That sounds serious.”
“You tell me something that isn’t.”
“The guys with the jumpsuits and proton packs. There’s this green ghost—his name’s—”
“Do I look like a guy who fucks around with jumpsuits and green ghosts?”
Dwight’s chin descended towards his chest. “I—I guess not.”
That night after all the dogs were back with their owners, Dwight sat in his Ikea furnished apartment. Cartoons played on the television, and he stood in various poses, looking very much like a synthetic human being, copied and pasted from an online catalog. A Keurig bubbled and steamed from the otherwise pristine counter top, shining in all its granite glory. The futuristic machine hissed and drooled hot liquid into a mug with a Superman ‘S’ on its side.
Dwight’s large hand scooped up the mug containing hot chocolate and not coffee. He sprinkled marshmallows into the chocolate drink. Then he walked out onto the balcony of his apartment.
He stood there envisioning his future. He stood there like a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow man and thought about the man at the intersection. He felt his life moving in a bold and daring directions. All he needed to do was pack his bags and fly to Los Angeles. The setting sun veined pink through the phosphorescent sky.
A Turkoglu bird landed on the railing. It tweeted three times, and, for a second, Dwight believed the sound might be some sort of warning. But he sipped his hot cocoa and whispered, “Nah,” to the horizon. Some things were just so good they had to be true.
(Image by Mike Langston)
The night before his voyage to the moon was scheduled Rajon Rondo dreamed he was sharpening knives, outside a carnival tent. After he finished shaping each blade, he would polish it with a blue and white basketball jersey, as a dream catcher swayed over his head like a nylon net underneath an orange rim.
Blades of grass bent over in submission to the wind that whistled through the fairgrounds like the sharp shrill of sprints inside a gymnasium, reducing themselves in height to the call of an unseen coach. Rondo did not bend. He did not even hear the whistle. He did not lay down before it, or go sprinting towards the horizon to stay in front of it, but flicked the knife he was polishing into the ground, where it stood defiantly, against the wind, like a steel blade of grass, or a rocket returning from space, like a spear into the ocean’s womb. Everything for Rondo was about the sea. He was probably the first astronaut who planned on braving the dangers of outer space in order to fall into the ocean’s open arms.
Some people might find it strange that a young man about to venture out into the brink of human experience would spend the night before—his eyes twitching rapidly underneath their lids—dreaming of knives and oceans. Some might find it strange he even slept at all, knowing the next morning a bad wire here, or the wrong spark there, could transmute his pilot’s chair inside the shuttle into a kindling throne on top of a funeral pyre.
But there was a perfectly good explanation for how Rondo’s mind sharpened its unconscious thoughts. It wanted to kill the past that it heard in critical whispers of what Rondo could and could not do. Rondo could not think of the past without feeling a wave of sorrow crash over his head like he was nothing, and he was now determined to prove every voice that echoed in his memory wrong by stabbing it with a smile and a list of his accomplishments, that would soon include piloting a spacecraft to the moon.
When Rondo was young, one of his elementary school teachers showed his class a film strip made up of Jacques Cousteau’s deep sea photography. Most of the images were bright and colorful; barrier reefs exploding like underwater fireworks. The teacher asked the class to write a story about one of the pictures, so Rondo started brainstorming, because, as all elementary students learn, ideas are born out of thunder and lightning crashing inside one’s head. The clouds in Rondo’s head opened up a country, like Atlantis, that was submerged underwater but wasn’t supposed to be. According to Rondo’s imaginary storm, this city was supposed to be up in the sky for all to see, so the people gathered up all the fireworks they could find and strapped them to the buildings and then they sat on the rooftops and lit the fuses with sparks from the click of a crab’s claw, blasting the city towards the surface, into the light. The reefs and underwater plants are what’s left of those blast off explosions that Rondo believed painted the ocean floor.
When Rondo got his story back from his teacher, he read the following question, in red ink:
How can a spark happen underwater?
Rondo was crushed, but only two tears rolled down his cheek, leaving an ocean of salt water to submerge the city of his heart that rested beneath his eyelids, drowning. He hummed to himself the tune of his favorite song from Sesame Street.
When morning came, Rondo opened his eyes and found himself lying in the middle of his bedroom floor, and the dream catcher that usually hung above the headboard was in pieces on the hardwood. In his hand was a knife; strands of rainbow yarn clinging to it like eyelashes.
The last few months had been like this for Rondo: days full of what felt like last second preparations and restless nights wrestling with secret doubts. Rondo knew the respective resumes of the space shuttle’s crew, and he knew his. He knew his was shorter, more mysterious, and filled with less detail. Captain Kevin Garnett and Lieutenant Paul Pierce reminded him of it every day:
“Youngin’ you better not fuck this up. We’ve waited our whole lives for the moon, so you better not fuck this up. We don’t care if you were born yesterday. You better pilot that ship like it was on roller skates.”
Rondo understood the pressure he was under—it was these guys last chance at Neil Armstrong-like glory—but he cringed at the subtle jabs taking aim at his youth and inexperience. He was good enough, maybe better than good enough, and he just needed a chance to prove it. Plus, he hadn’t been skating in well over a year, at least not since being assigned as the shuttle’s pilot. He was focused and taking the job seriously. He was logging more hours in the simulator than any of them, leaving the highly secure confines of the training facility under the eyes of night shift janitors and empty parking lots. He was preparing himself for the ultimate success.
Rondo could feel his phone vibrating from the night stand. He put the knife down and read the text message he had just received from KG: “Get your scrotum out of its pj’s. It’s go time, Kid.”
Rondo went to the bathroom: pissed, scrubbed his face, and brushed his teeth. Then he put on a pair of dress pants, a button down shirt, and a pair of shoes. He felt like a kid getting ready for Sunday School. He wanted to look mature, impressive even. He turned sideways in the mirror: “They’re right, I am skinny as hell.”
As the crew’s doctors and scientists ran last second tests, the dressing area was silent. KG was getting his blood pressure taken; Rondo had often wondered if this man, who was carved like an Easter Island statue, even had a heartbeat or if his chest was a ticking time bomb. Pierce was gritting his teeth as his temperature was being taken. He looked like he was fuming, and Rondo wondered if the thermometer might explode. When the doctor pronounced that Pierce’s temperature was a cool ninety-five degrees, the veteran astronaut began pounding his chest with his fist. The lead doctor, Rivers, came over to him and put a hand on his rocky knuckles, “Calm down, Paul. Calm down.”
“Calm down? This is supposed to be exciting. Do you know how many people have failed to do this? If you can’t get amped about this, then what can you get excited about?”
Rondo agreed, but he wasn’t sure if he had Pierce’s confidence. He could feel himself sweating. The space suit was incredibly hot.
“Wipe your forehead, man,” Ray handed him a handkerchief. “You can’t let these guys see you sweating. We’re all nervous, but you can’t let us see it. Mask it. Bark, yell, pound your chest, but don’t look weak. You understand?”
“We’re gonna intimidate the moon into submission. That’s how this works.”
Rondo wiped his brow and tucked the handkerchief into his space suit. When he looked down at his fingertips, he could see threads of the dream catcher clinging to them. The prints spiraled inward like tiny galaxies. Who was he kidding? He was ready. He held entire universes in his hands.
“Alright, gentlemen, I’m getting the word from Mr. Ainge that it’s time. Out this door is the jeep that will take you to the launching pad. Good luck. God bless. And peace be with you.” Dr. Rivers nodded to them, and Rondo felt the man’s hand, even through the space suit, slap him on the back, in the spot where wings should grow.
The door to the outside opened, and Rondo’s eyes basked in a sea of light. He’d never seen anything like this.
Little Willy Simmons had never seen an earthquake, but what else would one feel and look like? The wooden boards of the stage didn’t just creak under the weight of the performance--they rattled and split--as the great hulking mass of Blake Griffin, the Magnificent, strained against the chains that held him curled to the stage like an armadillo.
His hair, although slicked back with pomade, was beginning to look gray and golden as the wind frosted it with dust from the California desert, and while his muscles bucked against the metal links that bound him, his breathing remained calm, even measured. Little Willy distinctly remembered years later, whenever he told the story, to always point out the measured breathing of Blake Griffin, the Great Emancipator.
Ever the showman, Griffin jerked and strained and grunted in order for the audience to see beyond a doubt that these chains were real and they were locked. In fact, Griffin’s assistant, who he called the Baron, had thrown away the key for good measure.
A board that was level with Little Willy’s eyes began to vibrate, slow at first, then quicker and louder, like a drum roll. Then Blake Griffin, the Dancing Bear, silenced it with his bare foot and the whole crowd followed suit.
“Baron! I do believe these people paid good money,” the mound of chained muscle bellowed.
“Indeed they did, Sir,” agreed the performer’s assistant, through a beard and mustache groomed in custom with the day’s fashions. “Indeed they did.”
“Well then, Baron, we should give them a real show, and leave any doubt behind that they have not gotten what they paid for.” He looked towards the Baron.
“That is indeed a fine idea, Mr. Griffin,” and Baron snapped to his feet and gave the pretense of hard thinking.
“Hurry, Baron! They will not wait forever.”
“Indeed they will not, sir! Indeed they will not!”
The Baron kicked over a barrel, sending it rolling to the edge of the stage. He cartwheeled after it, springing straight up into the air, and then rested his limber leg on top of it, his shiny leather boot just a few feet above Little Willy’s head. In fact, Little Willy could look up and see the bottom of the man’s sole peeking over the curve of the oak barrel, and from there, Little Willy made out the dark silhouette of the magician’s assistant, for the sun was now setting behind the stage, as he called out with oil on his voice, “Bring out the water tank!”
The curtains at the back of the stage were drawn back, and a huge tank of water was rolled out on a large flatbed cart. The boards of the stage moaned and creaked, as if Atlas carried the world on their backs. Then a makeshift set of stairs was brought out, and Blake Griffin, the Spectacle, mounted them one by one, forced by the chains to hop, like a tiny jack rabbit, up each step before reaching the top, where he stopped and turned to the crowd.
Blake Griffin, the Appreciative, bowed slowly and then lifted his head, “You have been a most wondrous audience,” and then he threw his weight sideways and plunged into the tank with the smallest of splashes.
Little Willy stood with his jaw dropped. In later years, when he would recount this tale to anyone and everyone, he would always include the detail of having to brush the dirt and grime off the bottom of his chin, as he watched a trail of tiny bubbles escape Blake Griffin’s nostrils. In fact, Little Willy would use this anecdote to deliver the discovery of his first facial hair. Seeing Blake Griffin, the Prized Catch, helped make Little Willy into a man.
The crowd gasped and awed. Women were torn apart with the decision of whether to hold tightly to the arms of their husbands or to shield the eyes of their trembling children. Some couldn’t decide and held a hand over their own eyes, peeking through their fingers, and faint voices everywhere cried out, “Surely we won’t let him drown! Won’t one of you men try and save him.” Some men even walked up to the stage and acted as if they were going to mount a rescue, but the Baron stared them off it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Blake Griffin, the Great Hero that he is, will not let you and your children witness the horrors of a human being drowning—he will escape for the good of the human race! He will triumph over his chains, and we will be the better for it,” he gave a rehearsed glance over at the tank before turning his back on the audience completely, revealing his left hand holding his right, with two of its fingers crossed, like a small child making promises it can’t keep. Then he turned back around and gulped before whispering, “I hope.”
Little Willy blinked and wiggled his feet in the dirt. In later tellings, however, he would omit his doubts and make himself out to be a true believer in the powers of Blake Griffin, the Miracle Worker.
Meanwhile, Blake Griffin, the Trapped, flipped and spun and twirled inside the tank, like some handsome dolphin, and one by one, the chains fell to the bottom of the tank. Blake Griffin was free, and as he pushed himself out of his glass cage, with his arms like knotted sledge hammers, the sun cast him in a golden light before the eyes of his audience; and they were blind to the key that slipped silently out of his mouth and sank to the bottom of the sea; a gold doubloon lost among the chains.
When Little Willy recited the story just moments later to his mom and dad, every chain link that lay rusting in that water tank was described as twisted and broken by Blake Griffin, the Converter, only to hear his own father respond, “Huh, critics in The Admiral-Constitution panned it. Said it was a shallow knock-off of guys like Charles and Dominique.” At that moment, Willy determined he should prove all those serious critics wrong by seriously out-critiquing them. He ran up to his room and started writing his first five thousand word magnum opus: “Blake Griffin, An Overrated, Underrated, or Properly Rated Escape Artist?” When he showed the article to his father, the man said, “Aren’t there more serious things you could be doing?” However, this question only motivated Simmons to write more. The next Griffin article Simmons wrote was over ten thousand words, some of them borrowed from a thesaurus and the rest from Chuck Klosterman.
(Image by Mike Langston)
Hakeem was up early. He was always up early. This country was new to him, and it was as if he needed to beat the sun rise in order to catch up with all those individuals who came across the continent before him, who were born here, and whose ancestors fertilized the soil like countless buffalo.
Hakeem had never seen a buffalo in real life, and, to him, the magical beast of the plain meant very little. However, he had seen a bison on the black and white television set, that stood on the small wooden table the other side of the cash register, with its aluminum rabbit ears rigid for the ceiling.
The beast stared awkwardly through the screen Hakeem thought, looking as though it wanted to stampede out of the past, through the glass, and into the present. Hakeem remembered looking into its obsydian eyes and saying, even though he knew it couldn’t hear him, “You do not want to come through here. If you do, I will have to kill you. It’s not personal, but it’s what I do. You come through that glass, and I will be quick to slaughter you just like the rest.”
The walls of his shop were comprised of red clay brick, and the floor was a concrete slab, flat enough to dribble a basketball on. A counter with a glass window cut the shop in half. On one side was the table with the television and a set of small chairs. On the other side was a series of stainless steel counters, a rack of knives and blades hanging above each one--catching the light--and there was also a metal door that led back to the freezer and a rust colored drain in the middle of the work area that allowed Hakeem to hose the area down of any blood and grease every day after work.
Hakeem was well aware that some people viewed his shop as archaic, that some people grew faint at the sight of all that blood and gore just inches away from their own flesh and faces, that they saw him less as a modern day miracle worker, who put food on the table, and more as a necessary evil, leftover from a bygone age of long dead hunters and gatherers. Hakeem recognized that in a world of microwaves and computers his reliance on cold steel made him a relic, leftover from the days when gladiators would stab and mutilate lions inside the Coliseum, but he also knew that his skills with cold steel made him deadly, which allowed Hakeem to laugh at these squeamish men and women, for he found them to be delusional and weak and lost in a world without a past.
They believed in ships that sailed without anchors or without even the need of water, like butterflies gliding on the wind. But Hakeem, feeling the weight of his own bones and how his own soul could not shake free of them, did not believe in such things, so he tossed stones of doubt into their paper sails.
Hakeem’s laughter fell like an avalanche on such foolish people, and such was the case with the lady who came into his shop one day and told him, “I just moved down here from Chicago, and I had a very fine butcher there, and I can say with the utmost certainty, sir, that he would not allow his customers to see so much blood on his hands and sweat on his brow. You’re standing hip to hip with these cows, and it’s just not kosher.”
Hakeem laughed and said, “I can assure you, mam, that this is kosher. I have killed no pigs, only the finest of the herd and birds of a feather, and the blood that so dissatisfies you I wash away with hard work,” and with that Hakeem tossed a raw slab of beef at her feet, which sent her running and screaming through the front door that was always propped open for people such as herself to make their exit, having failed to understand that not seeing the slaughter of the beast was like watching a person sleep and knowing only the colors of their eyelids and not their dreams, that behind every fold of skin is a God wrestling death.
“Kenny, bring me three chickens from the yard,” Hakeem bellowed at his employee who ran the cash register.
“Sure thing, Hakeem,” said Kenny, as he jetted out the door.
“What do you need three chickens for, Hakeem?” asked Clyde, who sat balding at the wooden table with the television set.
“You will see,” grinned Hakeem.
Kenny came in through the front door with three chickens. The first was tucked under his arm, its feathers soaked in sweat. The second was fully aware of all the sharp blades that filled the room and shivered hysterically under Kenny’s other arm. The third squawked fiercely and flapped its wings as it struggled to get loose of Kenny’s hands that held tight to its two legs.
“Give me the =one that shakes first.” Hakeem reached out his arms and took the bird from underneath Kenny’s arm and snapped its neck.
“Poor King David! He deserved better than that, Hakeem,” spoke Clyde.
“Why do you think I killed him first? I was merely giving him back his courage.”
Then Hakeem took the chicken that sweated underneath Kenny’s other arm, placing one hand under its beak and the other close to its body before violently wrenching the life out of it. The weird thing that both Clyde and Kenny would later discuss was that when Hakeem broke a chicken it never ran about the room. When he killed it, he killed it dead, and the bird never got back up, or even twitched, all the nerve endings in its little feathered body rendered numb by the deft touch of Hakeem’s hands.
“Well, I’ll be. Look at Mr. O’Neal. Seein’ them other two get they necks broke has hushed him right up,” observed Clyde, and it was true: the chicken that had come in squawking now sat quietly observing as Hakeem plucked the feathers off the other two birds one by one.
“His time will come, too, Clyde, but first, he must learn patience.” Hakeem never gave the birds names. To him, they were all examples of cowardice and evil that must be plucked from the world. He must show people through the slaughter of these birds and these cows that no matter how tall a man is, or how he lives life, a day before the butcher’s knife will come.
“Welcome, Timmy and Kobe, I have a very special job for you today. You see that bird--it is yours to do with as you wish.” He pointed at Mr. O’Neal pouting, like a white buffalo, on the counter next to the bare bodies of the other chickens.
The two boys looked sheepishly at each other and then at Hakeem before saying, “But we’ve never killed anything before.”
(Image by Mike Langston)
Bill Walton sat straight up in his chair, stretched out his arm, and moved his pawn from E2 to E4. He knew the center of the board was where the blood would be spilled, and he wanted to do the spilling. He wanted to be in control.
He let his hand linger on the head of the pawn, tweaked it like the nipple of some bare chested Hindu goddess and then used the same hand to push a button on the timer, handing possession of the game over to his adversary, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a man Bill had wanted to defeat ever since preschool, when Kareem’s elaborate block tower, that looked like the Taj Mahal, with the ABC’s splattered on its spires, garnered him the attention of the prettiest girl in class. When she planted a kiss on Kareem’s cheek, Bill’s measly block tower collapsed inward out of jealousy. This defeat was later followed by a Pinewood Derby debacle in which Bill’s car, while in the lead, witnessed its own front wheel spin away from the body of the car and his vehicle to victory sputtered and flipped right off the track. Needless to say, Kareem racked up several other victories as the two boys rocketed through puberty and into adulthood. There was the time Kareem broke Bill’s collarbone in backyard football, and the night when he stole Bill’s prom date and subsequently lost his virginity to her. Bill wouldn’t lose his virginity until college as a result, and now the two locked eyes again--or at least Bill tried to lock eyes with Kareem—but Kareem’s eyes slid back to the board like grains of sand, dismissing his opponent, like an hour glass does with moments of no significance.
Kareem’s handshake prior to the match beginning had the same effect; it was cold and limp, giving off the impression that Bill’s hand wasn’t worth shaking. Bill sat across from Kareem wondering how this spectacled rival could manage to use even a weak handshake as a means of intimidation. For the fishiness of Kareem’s skin did not make Bill feel stronger but had left him with the impression that he was much too eager for this encounter between the two one-time chess prodigies, that the match was much more important to him than it was to Kareem, and that in such a discrete testimony he had already given away some tactical advantage.
And now Kareem wouldn’t even look him in the eye. The timer ticked away and all Bill could do was stare into the light reflected off of Kareem’s bald head, as if the man were as heavenly and fickle as the moon.
Bill glared into his counterpart’s baldness, trying to concentrate his pupils into a laser beam that might leave a mark on this cold creature of the deep and his cool lunar surface skin.
Kareem moved his pawn from D7 to D5 and clicked the timer. Then he looked over at the stands and yawned.
While Bill thought about his next move, he also thought about the last time he had encountered Kareem.
It was on a tennis court, in late August. The two were younger then and the sun was bright and swollen overhead, and the two teenagers could feel the weight of its heat on the back of their necks. Kareem was serving. He tossed the neon yellow of the ball up into the air and swung his racket up and through it like a man fly fishing in some mountain stream. It was poetry, and the ball came over the net fast and furious.
Bill returned it with a grunting forehand that Kareem splashed back over the net with a flick of his wrist. Bill ran to the ball. He could feel the concrete shattering his shins, and he sweated out a backhand. Kareem moved like a ballerina to the ball and returned it again. Bill pounded after the ball and jerked a forehand back over the net. Bill could really feel the heat of the August sun; it was pounding in his chest.
Kareem effortlessly sent the ball back over the net.
Bill huffed after it, but he could feel his knee being shredded like strings popping on a tennis racket. He was cut loose from his foundation. He swung at the ball, hitting it dead into the net. His racket clattered against the concrete and clanged against the fence. He lay on his back, the heat of the court burning him through his white shirt and white shorts. Blood ran from his leg, but he knew this was more than a cut. He knew he would never play tennis again.
“Your turn, Mr. Walton.”
Bill looked at the chess board. It was not at all how he remembered it. How long had he been playing tennis in his mind? His pawns were strewn out across the board in disarray, and he had failed to give his rooks and bishops outlets of attack. His whole strategy had been about getting them across the board as quickly as possible, to have them swoop in like birds of prey for the easy kill, but now they were bogged down on his side of the board, entangled in a defense of his defenseless king, unable to run, unable to jump, helpless.
“Your turn, Mr. Walton.”
The timer ticked away, louder and louder, like a cacophony of feet pounding the floorboards of gym bleachers. Bill couldn’t think. Where should he go? What should he do? This was not the plan. No, this was not planned at all. He moved his rook laterally, not at all how he preferred to move the piece, but the only move he felt comfortable making. He clicked the timer back over to Kareem. He was still in the game. Not all was lost. He was sweating, and his heartbeat was racing. But that just meant he was into the game again.
Kareem slid his bishop diagonally across the board. “Check.”
He said it so calmly. The calmness infuriated Bill. Bill moved a pawn into the path of the bishop. Kareem glided his rook into position.
Check again! Who the hell says it that snidely?!? Bill didn’t know what to do. What should he do? He would move his queen. Wait, no, that would still leave him in check. He would have to move the king. He moved the king.
His heart burned in its cage.
Kareem casually moved a pawn. Bill grinned. The light was breaking through the clouds. This was his moment, and he would seize it. He took the pawn with his queen.
“Check.” That’s right. The bespectacled giant in front of him was on the ropes. The throne was his.
Kareem took Bill’s queen with nothing more than a pawn. A pawn that probably rose no higher than her royal majesty’s knee cap. A pawn.
Bill now felt like the timer itself was ticking inside his chest. He rose up to stand. He could feel the ache of all those hard years on the tennis courts in his legs. He lurched forward, catching himself on the table. The pieces shook. He raised his hand, “Can I get a glass of water?” And then he toppled over, landing on the table and then rolling over and falling to the floor, scattered around his body were the ruins of a royal court: knights and bishops and rooks and pawns. Inside his chest, it felt like a knee was bucking against his ribs, and all he could see was the August sun setting behind the bald peak of Kareem’s skull.
(Image by Mike Langston)
Danny always swore he could hear God whisper to him through the wood of a pool cue, or maybe it was money, or maybe the feeling of fresh bills in one’s pocket is the same as being touched with the spirit, speaking in tongues, and a choir full of angels. Whatever it was, Danny liked it, felt in tune with it, and went from pool hall to pool hall in search of it, cocky as all get out.
And today was no different.
Danny strutted into Larry’s Pool Hall, wearing a crisp white dress shirt and a gray suit: he knew he was going to be somebody’s rain cloud. He was going to roll in, get taken for a few, raise the stakes, and then crack those balls like thunder. That was the plan. That was the creed. That was Danny’s image of God, and he made it happen, bobbing his head like a rooster the whole time that he grinned and whistled his way into people’s pockets.
Danny eyed the tables, displaying his smile like pearls in a jewelry display. He saw one in the back right corner not being used, right next to a skinny old dude with ears like butterfly wings. He turned to the man behind the counter and said, “I’ll take that cue behind you and that back table,” and slapped a bill on the green felt of the counter. “And you can keep the change, big fella.” The man behind the counter had to have been over seven feet tall—a literal giant—and as Danny approached the back table he thought about the size of Big Roy’s hands and how they could break a man his size in half. Then he chalked the stick and shook his head, “Nah, tonight’s my night. I can feel it,” bent over, and sent the cue ball hurtling towards the Big Bang. Crack! And the balls split apart like atoms.
“Are you askin’ for a game, boy? ‘Cause I’ll give you one.”
“I ain’t askin’. I’m pleadin.’”
“Alright then. The name’s Mr. Miller, but you can call me Reggie. What’ll it be?”
Danny felt like a fisherman who didn’t even have to bait his hook. “Wanna go fifty a game for starters?”
“Fifty a game? Your shoes and suit ain’t even worth that much. Cloth looks cheap as the paper I use to wipe my ass.”
Danny laughed. “I don’t have to worry about it. I don’t plan on losing much.’”
“Fifty it is then ‘cause I know I’m good for it.”
Danny played well the first game, but he left two or three balls on the table. Then he lost a couple more, getting worse each game. By this time, the hall was emptying out, and he decided to raise the stakes and flash a little lightning. “If I’m gonna get to where I’m goin,’ maybe we ought to make it a hundred a game. I don’t have time to win my money back at fifty a break. Whattya say?”
“I’d say you’re a fool. You’ve been losin’ and you ain’t changed a thing, so you’re either gonna keep losin’. . . or you been playin’ me for a fool.” Reggie stared Danny right in the eyes, like a bull watching a matador, or an actor mocking his director. “So which is it?”
Danny thought about backing out or at least keeping the stakes the same, but there was no one here and money to be had, like kernels of corn sitting in a barn yard—he had to pick them up.
“Make it a hundred.” Danny lost two more games before he started to sink balls into pockets like he was putting the planets in orbit, and then he started to talk. “Whew! I ain’t playin’ like no boy now. When I leave y’all gonna be callin’ me man, maybe even daddy. I ain’t ever been this lucky.”
“Yeah, you’re on a real hot streak,” Reggie said. “The weather has definitely changed for you my son.”
“Oh, it’s sunshine alright. Nothin’ but sunshine and green fields of money.”
Danny bent over to eye up the next shot. All he had to do was sink the eight ball, and he’d win enough to walk out of Larry’s with a decent amount of cabbage tucked in his pockets, just one more game. He eyed up the eight ball and struck the cue ball dead in its center and watched it collide with the eight ball like a bullet through glass. The eight ball landed in the corner pocket and then rolled through the metal maze of the table’s rib cage. Danny threw down his stick and slapped the table, unable to see that Reggie was motioning for Big Roy and Tyler to come and pay the table a visit. Danny turned to face Reggie, “Well, I guess I should be goin’.” He reached out his hand for money.
“I guess this is yours.” Reggie handed him the money and walked away, exiting out the back door.
“Oh, don’t be sad, man. It’s just a game. Just a game and some money.” Danny laughed and then turned to walk out the front, but he found himself face to face with a wall of muscle, comprised of a seven foot black giant and a stocky, white mule of a man.
The one named Tyler spoke up, “You should have kept losing.”
Danny reached for the pool stick, but they were too quick. Tyler jerked it off the table and whacked it on the side of Danny’s head, causing him to stumble. One of them grabbed the back of his head and his shoulder and manhandled him onto the table. He then looked up into Tyler’s bulging eye balls as the man pressed down on his throat with a pool stick, causing Danny to whisper and hiss and plead, “Take the money. . . just take it. . . and I won’t ever come back.”
“Oh, we know you ain’t comin’ back, not after tonight.”
Big Roy pried open Danny’s jaws and pushed the egg white cue ball, chalked in faint blue veins, into his mouth. His cheeks felt like they were ripping at their seams, and Danny could feel the pool ball grind against his teeth as Big Roy wrenched it towards his throat, and out of desperation he prepared to swallow, hoping to God not to choke on it, while his legs flailed a path into the green lawn of the table.
“Kobe said that after the Lakers lost game six of the ’08 NBA Finals in Boston by 39 points, he was alone in the shower, just fuming. He heard somebody walk in and assumed it was one of his teammates, or maybe a staff member. Instead, he looked up and it was Ron Artest (to this day, Kobe has no idea how Artest got into the locker room). ‘I want to come help you,’ Artest said. ‘If I can, I’m going to find a way to come to LA and give you the help you need to win a title.’”
—Dashiell Bennett, Deadspin
A breeze rippled through the dry grass, made golden by a sunset that painted the entire yard in dreamlike hues. Phillis watched her nephew sit on the front stoop like a sad, little child, his white undershirt transparent with sweat, his forehead wrinkled from pouting. She crossed her arms and wondered how long he would sit outside waiting for his dog, Ron, to come home.
“He may not come back, Kobe. You need to realize that. ‘Cause if he don’t, then you still got things you gotta do. You can’t spend all your days waitin’ on some collie to come runnin’ back into your arms.”
Kobe didn’t look at her, rather he continued to watch the horizon, like an old, wise owl praying for a mouse to scurry into view. Kobe didn’t care about the dog, but he did feel responsible for it. He’d seen the creature almost starve to death when his cousin, Jermaine, abandoned it four years ago, having blamed it for the death of his daughter. She followed the dog into the woods and watched it attack a grizzly bear. This action was strange for a dog to take, but even stranger was her response to it: she got between the bear and the dog, at least that’s what she said before she died, and took a paw to the head. The incident prompted Jermaine to take up the bottle, and for all Kobe knew, Jermaine was stumbling around right now on some cold Toronto street, or some hot Miami beach, cursing the heavens for instilling primal urges and inexplicable instincts in both dogs and men alike. Kobe felt bad for Jermaine, but he disagreed with Jermaine’s assessment of the universe: getting between a wild bear and a crazy dog was not an instinct, not some cruel act of God, but a sign that the stupid in this world do not survive, and as hard as it may be to say it, Jermaine’s daughter deserved therefore to pass from here and into the hereafter. Kobe saw this assessment of the situation as fact, as he twirled a stick around in his fingers, waiting for the dumb dog to come running into the yard.
“Dog ain’t comin’ back, Kobe. It just ain’t.”
Kobe wanted to tell Phillis to shut up, that old age was making her slow and apt to repeat herself; after all, she’d been saying that Ron wouldn’t come back for two weeks now and that if he needed to, then he ought to just go and get another sheep dog. Kobe hadn’t responded once to her claims, and whether she voiced them in the morning over a cup of coffee or at night across the darkness that separates a man from his wife, he responded by putting his head in his hands and letting it stare blankly into the empty air of her words. The dog--he was certain--would come back.
The breeze picked itself up into a strong wind, rattling and jerking the screen door against the house, and in between the sound of wood banging against wood, Kobe caught the sounds of barking. Then he saw Ron running through the gilded grass like a shark through water. The dog kept barking as it approached, and Kobe stood up slowly, his knees stiff from sitting so long. He looked over at Phillis. Her mouth was open wide: “Well, I’ll be. . . .”
Ron ran up to Kobe’s leg and sat back on his hind quarters. Traces of blood could be seen around his mouth and teeth, and patches of fur were missing around his throat and on his legs. Kobe wondered if the dog had tussled with another dog, a fox, some chickens, or maybe even another bear. The thought concerned him, but he decided that as long as the dog was here and obedient then whatever it did out of sight and out of mind was its business. Kobe tossed the stick he’d been twirling out into the yard, and Ron retrieved it, wagging his tail the entire time. When Kobe took the stick back from Ron’s mouth and tossed it out into the yard once more, Ron sprinted out once again to fetch it. Kobe turned to Phillis and said, “I’ll be taking him out with me into the far pasture tomorrow.”
Kobe cast the stick out into the yard a few more times, proud that he was right about Ron’s return, and with each toss, he thought how light the stick felt in his fingers—an idea that stood the chance of making him smile, if not for the anchor of another: one day, responsibility will ask me to shoot this dog.
That moment when he pulled the trigger—and the thunderous hush that followed—was one of his oldest memories, if not the oldest, and he would live it again and again, seeking to make the bullet more and more deadly, if such a thing were even possible.
(Art by Todd Whitehead)
“Once I polish my game a little more, I’ll be able to take us to the promised land.” —Amar’e
Amar’e stood on the Brooklyn Bridge, suspended over one of America’s old waterways, by the stone and concrete and steel cables that once helped one of America’s great cities cross into modernity.
His yellow taxi was pulled up against the curb, smoking like a meteorite or a capsule from Krypton, the vapors rising from the yellow dented hood like steam off a desert lake. Are such scenes possible? They must be, for this is what the scene was. Are such scenes laden with irony? They must be, for here was a man, used to being hailed down by pedestrians, now standing on the side of the road with his own arm extended, waiting to be rescued.
Life does this to people: bouncing them back and forth, like a ping pong ball, between the stations of being what is needed and what does the needing, maybe there isn’t even a distinction, like how Superman needed a planet where capes weren’t in fashion in order to make his special.
Amar’e didn’t wear a cape; he came to work every day in a green button down shirt—like something from a vintage Scorsese vision— that made him look like a war veteran, which is exactly how he felt. Amar’e hadn’t always been a cab driver. He was raised in the desert—thirsty, abused, and chosen—and the scriptural readings that now adorned his skin were taught to him by his mother, Steve Nash. He took the readings to heart. He was her Black Jesus. He was a source of physical strength and spiritual knowledge. He was a candidate. He was a Tzaddik Ha-Dor. He was also fractured, incomplete, and in need of direction.
Why had he lit the schoolhouse on fire? Why had he crossed the tracks to meet up with Robert Horry?
These questions really had no acceptable answers. So a job as a cab driver gave him exactly what he needed. He could ask without having to answer. All he had to do was listen to what others had to say.
From the airport to the hotel, to downtown, and out to the suburbs, driving people where they wanted to go empowered him because it was easier than contemplation of self. Pretending not to have a mother was easier than having one. Yet, on slow nights, when he could not lose himself in the city’s traffic, he could still hear her lunatic prophecies. He could hear her telling him in that acoustic whisper of a voice, “You’re special, Amar’e. You’re the world’s Saviour.” On such lost nights as this one, the old promise burned from his chest, melting his efforts to hide from the past. He could see it shining through when he stared at himself in the rearview mirror.
Did it matter if others could no longer see it, if from the backseat of a New York taxi he resembled nothing more than a man with a job?
He hated the slow nights. He hated the questions. That strange mix of lightning and lullaby.
This night had not started out particularly slow, but wrecking on the bridge fossilized the hours into concrete and steel.
Moses never came out of the desert. Elijah lit it on fire and then rode a chariot into the sky. Jesus walked across the sand with the Devil as his guide. Amar’e may have done all three according to what his mother sang to him in those Breaking Bad hours between the real and the not so real. But, when passengers would ask him about his past, he would answer without delving too far into the realms of vaporized apocryphal, “Oh, I’m older than I look. I’ve had my share of agony, and I’ve seen my share of miracles.”
Yet, if they asked nicely and with persistence, he would slip into the story of how he was crippled and learned to fly again, or how he jumped from Arizona to San Antonio and filled the depleted Rio Grande with his very own tears, from having leapt so high that the face of God was revealed to him and how he had deemed himself unworthy to see it. He spoke like Huitzilopochtli raised on “Alphabet Street,” and he didn’t make a whole lot of sense to those who listened.
Once, a man named Willis had responded to one of Amar’e’s flights of fancy: “You’re full of it, kid, but you keep me entertained.”
Such sun half set compliments always depressed Amar’e, and he would grow quiet thinking of his locust eating mother—the one he had left behind. His move to New York surely left his cult status and carefree ways to rot on the desert floor of her imagination, like the rib cage of an overworked mule. He had lit the horizon on fire, shooting fireworks from out his fingertips, and he had danced with the Devil, if one is to believe that Satan can take human form and walk the earth as an Horry ghost or a Bowen ghoul. But the problem for Amar’e was that the Devil won, forcing him to retreat into the East and behind the holy walls of America’s Old Jerusalem. He was no longer remaking the world in his image, but pleading with it to accept him as part of its traditional tapestries. But, in many ways, doing so had left him without a part to play. Like Clark Kent without a story to follow, Amar’e was questioning his purpose and waiting on a Superman.
And yet, he had never felt so free of burden.
A cab driver is not much different than a personal savior. You wave him down, and he takes you from here to there. The only difference is that a savior takes you somewhere that is not of your choosing—a place that by its very nature redefines you, while a cab driver simply takes you where you tell him to go. Amar’e was no longer a savior, but he was a cab driver. He would go where he was told, except for a night like this one, when the sight of a man plunging into the river had caused him to smash the one tool of his trade into a stone wall.
It’s humbling to go from savior to taxi driver. But it’s humiliating to go from taxi driver to hitch hiker because no one will answer your company’s phone, stranding you on a bridge with the helpless romantics and suicide walkers. Even in a city as large as New York, there aren’t enough lights in the skyline or stars in the sky for everyone to get theirs. Moreover, Amar’e could never tell if the light on the tip of his tongue was a world being born or one already dead.
How the hell was he going to explain the wrecked heap in front of him?
On the ground, at his feet, Amar’e saw a black hat. He bent down to pick it up. He stared at it for a second and then placed it on his head. It fit, and he stared into the bottomless black pit that now churned underneath his feet, flowing out to an even deeper ocean. He squinted. But in the dark, he failed to see the body of the man whose life had flashed before him.
(Image by Mike Langston)
“La Llorona is a natural beauty with long flowing black hair. She is a natural beauty who is said to have drowned her children and now spends eternity searching for them in lakes and rivers.”
The content of the letter was nothing new. Steve had read several, filing each away in an old shoe box, left empty from the time she put on a pair of Mary Janes, with ankle straps, and walked all the way from Dallas to Phoenix, not noticing the dust beneath her steps, just the wide open spaces and the freedom of the Old West, Area 51, and Route 66. Now, even the wide open spaces felt heavy, and air pressed on Steve’s spine like a setting sun.
The letter read the same as all the ones before it:
It’s hard to find the words to describe what you did for me. I can breathe again, and I’m thankful for that. I wish you the best, but I just can’t stay. Sometimes, the gift of your heart is just too much.
Of course, Amar’e would leave too, albeit years later.
And only then would Stevie realize how the boy’s crying was never done out of a need for sustenance, but as a declaration of independence, that as a mother she should have realized the boy’s destiny was to roam forever further and farther away from the Eden of their Arizona home. When she had been pregnant with the boy, she often imagined her womb like a cave, to be used as a canvas for her child’s artistic instincts. But the only lines he’d ever drawn were tire prints in the sand and the dust, from Phoenix to New York. She tried filling his head with bedtime stories and speculative fantasies, but all he ever wanted was reality.
A mother’s love was supposed to be unending, but how does one love someone who chooses to be unknowable? And what was her role in the suffering?
Some time after the last of the Turkoglu birds flew north for the winter, Shawn Marion waited at the train station, under a gray sky, with a wooden water tower over his shoulder. In time, the rain formed a bridge between the land and the sky. He stood in it like a man tired of tropical heat and desert rays.
The black car, its sides slick and shiny with rain, stopped in the intersection of asphalt and steel. The door opened. More rain fell. Shawn looked one way down the boardwalk. Then the other. The rain continued to fall. He picked up his suitcase and turned his other palm towards the sky. He felt that magnetic sway of the planet. He saw the satellites. He felt the currents running through wires in the ground. He knew it all in glimpses. He knew it all wet with rain. He climbed in the car.
From the backseat, he stared at an opaque divide between his position and the driver’s seat. The car door closed. The rain pelted the roof. The car drove through the rain. The water tower grew smaller. The water tower disappeared behind the car, somewhere on the gray horizon.
The drive’s length could be measured in silence. Unbent and unending. Shawn listened to the rain, and the rain continued to fall. The Texas land lay flat and quiet. The dust and creosote soaked up the rain. The rain fell some more.
The black car turned down a dirt road. The dirt road soaked up the rain. Shawn wondered at what point the rain became a flood. What was the breaking point between weather and disaster? He tapped on the barrier. His driver did not respond. He listened to the rain.
The car stopped in front of a silo with a rusted roof. The barrier slid open. “We’re here,” said the driver. Marion and the driver climbed out into the rain. They made for the silo.
Both men ducked through the doorway. Inside, corn dust cloaked the concrete slab of a floor. The driver looked at Shawn through dark sunglasses: “You’re the Matrix.”
Shawn nodded. Why else would he be here?
A second man stepped into the silo: “Shawn.”
A moment passed, and Shawn recognized the man from an earlier time: “Jason.”
The man turned to Shawn’s driver. “This is as far as you go, Jerry.” He raised a gun in the driver’s direction. He pulled the trigger. A pop of air hissed in the chamber of the silo. The driver Jerry collapsed, with a dart protruding from his neck.
“Won’t he tell them how to get here?” asked Shawn.
“And what are they going to find, Shawn? A grain silo in the heart of Texas? Nothing strange about that.” The man holstered the gun. “Now help me move the body outside.”
They lifted the unconscious heap of Jerry Stackhouse and loaded him into the black car parked outside the silo. Before they shut the trunk door, Shawn noted the raindrops running down the cheeks of the man who delivered him from the train tracks.
The two men retreated back into the silo’s rusty confines. The man calibrated his watch (or what looked like a watch), and the floor descended. When it lurched to a stop, the man turned to Shawn with a look that explained the missing years: “How long’s it been since Phoenix?”
“Disappeared a while back.”
“Even from you?”
“Not everyone exists within the grid.”
“What about that Amar’e kid? Is he--”
“The future will tell. Can’t say I put much stock in superstitious myths.”
“In other words, you don’t know.”
“That’s true. I don’t.”
“You gonna know more in here?”
“I might. This much rain--I’m likely to see something.”
The other man laughed. “Cuban’s gonna need more than something. He’ll want particulars.”
“If I have them, I’ll give them.”
“I guess that will have to do.”
He led Shawn into a space much like an airplane hangar. A man wearing a Spanish war helmet approached them. He wore a too tight t-shirt. A feathered dream catcher dangled from his neck.
“And you must be the Matrix.” The man in the helmet, who Shawn’s driver had called Mr. Cuban, reached out his arm. When Shawn reached out his, the man pulled him in for an awkward hug. The helmet clanged against his skull.
“DeShawn! Jet! Everyone, I brought you the Matrix!” He turned back to Shawn and his driver. “Mr. Kidd, take him to the showroom. Who knows how long the satellites will be aligned.”
“Yessir. Follow me.” The man led Shawn past a lot of vehicles and machinery moving mostly just to move. The man Mr. Kidd had referred to as Mr. Cuban continued yelling and waving his hands as they walked further into the underground bunker.
“What’s with the helmet?” asked Shawn.
“Oh, that’s just Mr. Cuban being Mr. Cuban. He thinks he’s Hernàn Cortès. Of course, he also thinks he’s Montezuma, which is why he wears the feathers. The computer’s over here.”
The screen took up an entire wall.
“Well, what do you think?” asked Mr. Cuban. He had taken off the conquistador helmet, resting his hand over its metal as it sat on his hip.
“Is it still raining?”
“Affirmative, Big Shawn. Do you prefer I call you Big Shawn or the Matrix? What about Neo?”
Sean observed the man’s absurd helmet, his slant of a jaw. “Shawn’s fine.”
“Sure thing, Matrix.”
Shawn walked over to the computer’s hard drive, which sat like an air conditioning unit in front of the wall-sized screen. He needed no instructions. As long as he could remember, he had been able to plug into any machine, to meld his mind into the fabric of microchip and wire.
The sounds in the hangar fell silent. He peered at the opening in the computer--it was mounted stone. He reached into it as if it were the Mouth of Truth in Rome. He reached into it until he felt the exposed replica of a Perkincinerator. He locked his fist around it. His body glowed. He saw with all the world’s satellites. He saw with the rain. He watched a jaguar burn. He felt a feathered serpent awaken. He saw a parting in the clouds. He sensed the light. His eyes melted into light. He released himself from the computer’s wiring. He stumbled backwards onto the floor. Faces crowded around him.
“This is the moment,” he said. “I know the way. I’ve seen the missing codex.”
A voice in the crowd asked one final question: “Should we wake Dirk?”
They rode out on white steeds. Joining Shawn in the party were Mr. Kidd, DeShawn, the Jet, JJ Barea, and a man named Tyson, who joined them sometime in the night. Oh, and Mr. Cuban rode too. They took horses because stealth was necessary. Hail chased them across the plains, but they crossed the Rockies before the worst of the winter storms found them. They made for the Oracle.
When they arrived, they camped near the bay waters. They listened to the waters lap against the rocks. On the first night, an earthquake rumbled through the hills. One of the men told the story of Cipactli, which most of the party dismissed as nonsense. Mr. Cuban, however, mumbled to the low burning flames of the campfire, “Maybe we should get one of those.” He then turned to Shawn: “When we’re done here, Matrix, you think you could locate a Cipactli for us?”
“Anything’s possible, sir. That is, I do not rule out of existence what I myself have not seen.”
They climbed the tall hill at dawn, into a scarf of gray cloud. A mist gathered on their clothes and skin. The fur of the horses felt damp. At the wall of the Oracle, the shortest man, JJ, climbed on the shoulders of the tallest man, Tyson.
Tyson stood on the balls of his feet. He strained towards the jagged opening in the wall. JJ peered through the star-shaped hole in the Oracle. He fit his whole head and torso, like some white rabbit, into the opening. He peered into the old tomb. He saw nothing. Carved on the white stone were the words:
JJ withdrew from the wall. The hunting party stood on the ground.
“Well,” they said, craning their necks towards some hint of the earth’s truth.
“It’s . . . it’s empty. The tomb is empty.”
“Jesus Christ!” yelled DeShawn. And turning towards Mr. Cuban in his conquistador’s helmet: “I thought you said this fool was a seer.”
Mr. Cuban’s face twisted into some unnamed scowl. “Are you sure you read the map correctly, Matrix? It seems like we’ve taken a lot of unnecessary steps.”
“I did,” said Shawn. “The man’s already on the move. We should probably follow him.”
And so as they rode back into the rain. They rode back into the east. They rode in search of Dirk’s trail. They looked for it on all the old footpaths. They walked the map in a reversal of fortune.
The following scene is lifted from The Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (“The Descent of Hunahpu and Xbalanque into Xibalba”):
“Very well then. We will just go and play ball, boys,” the Xibalbans said to them.
“Fine,” they replied.
“Here is our rubber ball that we will use,” said the Xibalbans.
“No, we will use ours,” said the boys.
“Not so. We will use this one that is ours,” said again the Xibalbans.
“Very well,” said the boys.
“It appears to be a skull, but it is merely drawn on the ball,” said the Xibalbans.
“It is not. It is a skull we tell you,” said the boys.
“Not so,” replied the Xibalbans.
“Very well then,” said Hunahpu.
Thus the Xibalbans threw down their rubber ball, which landed before the yoke of Hunahpu. And when the Xibalbans saw this, the White Dagger came out of their rubber ball. It clashed about over the ground of the entire ballcourt, threatening the boys.
Bryan Harvey lives and teaches in Virginia. He has written for Fansided, ESPN TrueHoop’s The Baller Ball, Hardwood Paroxysm Quarterly, The Classical, and SI.com’s The Cauldron. He’s published some poetry, too, and holds a Master’s in Literature from George Mason University. You can follow him on Twitter @Bryan_S_Harvey.
Michael Langston founded The Lawn Chair Boys blog. He lives in the sinking city of Norfolk, VA. You can follow him on Twitter @LangstonLCB.
Daniel Rowell is an illustrator and writer for Hardwood Paroxysm and Fear the Sword. His fourth-grade basketball coach described him as a lounge lizard and he’s all right with that. You can follow him @DanielJRowell and ImSorryMarkJackson.com.
Todd Whitehead has contributed words, graphs, and art on the subject of basketball to Hardwood Paroxysm, Nylon Calculus, Fansided, and VICE Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @CrumpledPaperJumper.
Early drafts of Everything That Dunks Must Converge, Act One: The 5th Sun first appeared at Deckfight Press, the LCB blog, The Faster Times, and The Baller Ball. Therefore, a great deal of thanks is due to Sam Apple, Jason Gallagher, and Josh Spilker for their early edits and acts of encouragement. A huge thank you is also due Ian Levy’s way. His enthusiasm was a catalyst in bringing a ridiculous premise to life. And lastly, thanks, Gillian, for entertaining obnoxious questions like: “Do you think Kobe would say it like this . . . or like this?”