Sitting there on the grass, looking at her beautiful stomach, I start to think about making out with Erin, running my hands up and down her abs. So I have to think about where my pop’s legs end just below the thigh—his stumps, because that always wipes the sexy thoughts from my mind—and, just like that, my head’s right by the time the custodian opens the gym door and says we can come in.
Inside the gym, we run all sorts of sprints and shooting drills and practice free throws.
And then we go out to the stadium and run up and down the steps for twenty minutes of chest-pounding, muscle-screaming, lung-burning action.
Back in the gym we’re shooting more patterns when the football team comes in for a bathroom and water break.
Terrell Patterson—chief carrot dumper, starting quarterback, and star shooting guard—yells out from the pack of football players, “Yo, White Rabbit, why you practicin’ your jump shot, boy? You ain’t never gonna shoot in a game. You know this! Your job is to get me the ball. Period.”
In between shots, I point to Terrell and smile.
I’m the point guard so it’s my job to get the ball to the scorers. Terrell averaged twenty-three points a game last year, and I racked up many assists by feeding him. He probably wouldn’t say I’m his friend, but he’s my teammate and so I consider him a brother.
I’ve been the starting point guard for two years now.
Terrell smiles, pounds his fist against his chest two times, and then flashes me the peace sign.
“How you doin’, White Rabbit’s lil baby?” Terrell yells to Erin, which makes all the football players laugh.
Erin gives Terrell a dirty look and yells, “I’m not anyone’s lil baby, Terrell!”
“Damn! The girl mad at me! Shoot!” Terrell says, making everyone laugh again, and then they all follow their coaches into the locker room.
Erin’s passes are harder and crisper after Terrell leaves, which lets me know she’s upset.
When I finish the pattern, she strides out of the gym even though we still have more shooting patterns to do.
I follow her into the shade underneath the stadium and give her a look that says, What’s wrong?
“You know I don’t like to be called lil baby,” she says.
Her face is tomato red and her forehead is all angry wrinkles.
She looks like she might start punching walls.
“You really have no idea why I’m upset, do you?” she says.
I open my mouth, but—like usual—no words will come.
I don’t know what to say.
“There are times when you need to open your mouth more, Finley.”
It’s true. Erin isn’t saying I need to change my personality, but just stick up for her when it is necessary.
I say I’m sorry with my eyes—blinking a lot.
Erin sighs. Then she smiles and there are no more wrinkles in her forehead. Sometimes I’m amazed by how easily she seems to accept me.
“Come on,” she says. “Let’s finish the patterns.”
So we finish our routine and hit the weights before the football team enters the weight room and starts grunting and trying to see who can bench-press the most L-B-S-es.
DOWN AT THE PLAYGROUND EVERYONE FOULS and shoots too much and never allows plays to develop, but Erin and I make sure we’re always on the same team so we can work on the things that serious players need to work on, like playing help defense and executing set plays on offense too.
Even though most of the playground players are grown-ups who play ball every day instead of working a job, Erin and I usually beat these men easily, which they hate, mostly because I’m a weird minimal speaker and Erin’s a girl.
Only seven or so blocks from our homes, drug dealers hang out by the town courts and old men sit around drinking from brown paper bags. There are crack vials and used syringes strewn about the concrete that surrounds the playground. It’s not the safest place in the world, but we are under the protection of Erin’s brother, Rod.
Rod is in his late twenties, plays drums in a Pogues-type, Irish-trad-punk band, and, if the rumors are true, deals a little himself, only not on the streets. But the important part is that his reputation proclaims him to be the most unpredictable and violent Irishman ever to live in Bellmont. Neighborhood people are scared of him, and rightly so.
Once when we were freshmen there was this upperclassman named Don Little who had a thing for Erin. He followed her around school and talked sexy to her. I’m not even going to repeat some of the things he used to say because they are so horrifically base. Whenever I would hear Don Little say something lewd to Erin, my chest would get tight and my hands would ball up into fists, but, of course, my tongue wouldn’t work at all.
Don Little was a nineteen-year-old senior who had been in juvie for dealing cocaine and Erin was a fourteen-year-old kid.
One day Erin and I were walking home, and Don Little followed us and when we were far enough away from the high school he grabbed Erin’s butt and said some really lewd things.
It was like I wasn’t even there—or I didn’t matter. I was so mad that I tried to say something, but all that came out was “Heyahhhh!”
Don Little laughed and said, “Why don’t you ditch the retard and get with a real man?”
That’s when I charged him. But before I could land any punches, he dropped me with one punch to the jaw.
I remember my legs flying up in the air, seeing clouds above, and then blacking out.
When I came around, Erin was stroking my cheek, saying, “Wake up! Come on, Finley, wake up!”
Her nose was bleeding. Warm heavy drops were hitting my neck.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I beat Don Little’s ass.”
“I punched him in the face after he hit you. I was so pissed!”
“Yeah, he got in a good shot before he ran away.”
“Are you okay?”
“I think so.”
“Well, then, me too.”
She helped me up and walked me home and I asked her not to tell anyone about her defending me from Don Little, which made her laugh.
“You mean you’re not proud of your girlfriend’s ability to kick ass?” she asked.
I puked on the sidewalk in response, and immediately felt less woozy.
Erin’s brother, Rod, visited me later that night.
I hadn’t seen him in a long time, because he no longer lived with the Quinns.
He had been lifting weights and looked like a professional bodybuilder. He was wearing a tight T-shirt with skulls on it and black jeans rolled up so that you could see the white laces of his black Doc Martens boots. His head was shaved and his arms were covered with Celtic tattoos.
“Mr. McManus, you mind if I speak to your boy alone?” Rod asked.
“Why alone?” Dad asked. “We’re family.”
“I think you know why,” Rod said.
Dad and Rod stared at each other for a few seconds until Rod said, “I put in good words for you and your family, but people don’t forget.”
Dad’s face turned white and I started to feel sick when I saw that the gray hair around his temples was slick with sweat.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Dad said.
“Then leave us alone for a few minutes. Your boy’s a good kid. We know that. We’re only trying to help.”
I was surprised that my father actually left and shut the door behind him.
Rod asked me what had transpired, so I told him what I remembered.
He grabbed the back of my head and carefully pulled my forehead closer to his, so that our eyebrows were touching. His eyelashes brushed up against mine whenever he blinked. The liquor on his breath was dank and smelled sharp as a razor blade. “After tonight, brother, no one in this neighborhood will touch you or my sister ever again. I promise you that.”
The next morning they found Don Little unconscious on the town basketball court. His entire body was swollen and bruised.
His braids had been cut and his head shaved.
I heard there was a sign around his neck that read I HIT GIRLS.
The cops investigated, but neither Don Little nor anyone else ever said a word about what everyone assumed to be true.
Most people don’t snitch to the police around here.
Don Little dropped out of school and left town shortly after, and no one in Bellmont has ever laid a finger on Erin or me since.
This is why we can play pickup basketball at the town courts without being harassed by the criminals who hang around there. We know that if Rod were not around, we’d be treated differently, which makes me sort of sad.
IN FRONT OF HER HOUSE—a brick row home under a faded and ripped yellow awning—Erin says that she’ll be over just as soon as she’s showered, and then she kisses me once on the lips before disappearing behind the front screen door.
I jog the one block home down O’Shea Street.
The neighborhood is gray and dingy and littered with trash, but all the row homes are occupied and therefore not condemned, so our blocks look pretty healthy compared to most around here.
When I cross the street to my block, I notice Coach Wilkins’s old Ford pickup truck parked in front of our house.
Coach has come to pay me a visit and he’s now alone inside my house with Pop, who sometimes gets drunk during the day and starts dancing with family skeletons—talking freely about stuff I don’t want anyone to know, especially Coach.
I sprint into my house and yell, “Coach?”
“Finley, I’m right here. No need to yell.” He’s wearing a summer suit with no tie and fancy shoes. Why’s he dressed up?
He’s on the sofa in the living room. My pop’s wheelchair is parked next to the couch and thankfully Pop looks relatively sober.
“Coach Wilkins would like to take you out to dinner,” Pop says. He’s in a wife-beater undershirt and his tan pants are pinned under his stumps. Pop’s white hair is tucked behind his ears and falls to his shoulders. He’s not trying to look cool with the long hair; he just doesn’t care enough to make the trip to the barber. Grandmom’s green rosary beads make a V on Pop’s chest and Jesus hangs on a black cross right around Pop’s outie bellybutton.
“To a friend’s house, actually,” Coach says. And then, noticing how sweaty I am, he adds, “Looks like you’ve been working out pretty hard today.”
“With Erin Quinn,” Pop says. “That’s his lady friend.”
“She’s a fine ball player and a fine young woman,” Coach says. “So, Finley.”
I like the fact that Coach doesn’t call me White Rabbit, especially since my teammates are always trying to get him to use the nickname.
Coach says, “You want to dine with me tonight?”
I do whatever Coach asks of me. He’s my coach.
“Why don’t you shower up and we’ll talk about it on the way. And wear something nice,” Coach says.
“I’ll be needing your assistance before you go,” Pop says.
I push Pop’s wheelchair into the bathroom, where I quickly help him change his soiled diaper.