The Backstreet

A ball soared across two courts and bounced off Lawrence’s head. The courts were packed for a Tuesday. “What the fuck?” screamed Lawrence in his thick Jamaican accent. The basketball game stopped. Defenders broke their athletic position. Two jaded men, barely recognizable to Lawrence, walked toward center court in the flying ball’s direction. The stale fog that had settled over the court opened up as a man dressed in a black turtle neck with a tan colored leather jacket appeared. His large Afro barely fit under his brown top hat and park lights sparkled in his gold necklace. The other man had a black trench coat with a cigar tucked between his fingers and a walking cane clenched in his other hand. The last bouncing ball echoed to a stop. Bystanders sitting on bleachers close by scattered. Lawrence’s teammates and opponents followed soon after. Lawrence walked toward the direction of both men. The man, two or three years older than Lawrence, created a good tempo with each slam of his walking cane. “Tell Jaxson he owes us. $4,000 to be exact. We need that by Thursday.” The words slid from under his thinly trimmed mustache. A ball rolled over from a different court. “Over here” yelled a distant voice. Lawrence picked up the ball and stared at it. The man pointed his green, plastic-looking walking cane at Lawrence, “…and when the money is absent, when we can’t find him, we will know where to find you, Mr. Basketball.” The man’s partner stayed quiet, almost seemed uninterested, while he talked. Veins in Lawrence’s lengthy arms hardened as he squeezed the ball once more. “I will let him know,” Lawrence stifled. “We know you’re a good kid, but your brother needs to be more careful with our money” the walking cane swung closer to Lawrence’s face. “he’s not my brother” Lawrence replied. “$4,000 bones, and hey, good luck on your game Friday.” The cane lowered as the other man pulled out his zippo lighter and lit his partner’s cigar. “We’ll be back” the silent man snuck in a few words before the figures dropped back to the fog. A distant voice yelled again “Over here. Over here.” Lawrence rolled the ball back.

The streets of Harlem reminded Lawrence of his home back in Jamaica. The deteriorating apartment buildings in New York resembled better versions of old Jamaican shacks. Each building looked like an old leather-bound book. Lawrence’s apartment was on the 14th floor of a brownstone building in Lower-East side, New York. The apartment building looked sad. Because Lawrence’s building did not have a fire escape in front of it like others on the street did, chips in the brown brick covering the outside became more noticeable after Winter. Snow buried bikes and barbecues scattered on the building’s shared lawn. Lawrence hated the cold. Drug dealers and street dwellers challenged the cold weather, never missing an opportunity to make more money. They all left Lawrence alone though. They Respected him. Arleen, the migrant woman who took Lawrence in, kept Lawrence away from Harlem’s drug empire.

A resident, three doors down, smoked crack four times a day. Neighbors knew because harsh smells from the smoke maneuvered through the building’s air ducts. Another resident, all the way down the hall, sold cocaine to apartment residents at the Big n’ Tall store down the street. Lawrence’s immediate neighbor, the room to his left, preached at the church near Lower Manhattan for thirty years. No matter what Harlem residents did as a job, they always ended up in the same project. Lawrence wanted out.

Lawrence always knelt down to avoid hitting his head on the door frame when he entered the apartment. When he bent down, his face nearly grazed a carved wooden jar, the size of a milk jug, nestled in the corner of the room. The jar, among a few changes of clothes, a picture, and a basketball, somehow made it over to New York. Fleeing Jamaican residents healthy enough to make the trip to the United States left with a basket full of items light enough for travel. Lawrence survived two raids Somali pirates planned on his neighborhood in Trench town. Word quickly spread of the a third raid. Political tension between the two countries became worse. The struggle to survive Somalia’s five-year feud with Jamaica fueled Lawrence’s desire to be successful in the states. Hoping for the best, elderly residents and small children stayed in Jamaica while those healthy fled. A framed picture of a Lawrence’s mom knitting in front of her Jamaican home sat next to the jar. A red bandanna dress covered the woman. A leaning stool propelled the relics in the air. Green, yellow, and black acrylics bleed in the wood’s deep cuts.  Each time he left the apartment to go to school or Rucker Park’s basketball courts, he ran his fingers along the letters engraved deep in the wood and whispered a few words to it.

The apartment, about half the size of a classroom, was better fitted for two people than three. When Jaxson graduated from Harlem High School, Lawrence moved from the living room couch. Jaxson’s old room did not properly scale to Lawrence’s large body. Jaxson slept on a queen size bed, so Lawrence’s feet hung off of it. Jaxson barely went up to Lawrence’s shoulders but Jaxson weighed at least twenty pound more. During the night a breeze broke in the window and hit Lawrence’s exposed feet. Lawrence pressed his back against his bed and launched a ball into the air. Whether laying on the dirt back in Jamaica or on laying a bed in an apartment room in Harlem, Lawrence perfected his craft: basketball. Lawrence stapled up Dr.J,  Magic Johnson, and Wilt Chamberlain posters over most of the magazine centerfolds of East Coast Hip-Hop rappers that Jaxson had up. The apartment felt safe.

The small television hissed. Lawrence searched endlessly for a public stations broadcasting NBA games when in the apartment. Wednesdays were the best day to catch a double-header on the television’s lower channels. If channel one, two, or three did not broadcast games, sometimes the higher channels intercepted live game feed intended for the ESPN New York network. He heard announcers counting down a game’s tip-off as he skimmed up to channel 40. He adjusted the television’s mangled coat hanger from the couch to fix the screaming fuzz on the screen.

A corn flake dropped and splashed up milk. The Lakers-Celtics game caused Lawrence to miss his mouth almost every time he ate dinner with a spoon. Basketball dominated screen time entirely now that Jaxson was not there to challenge with VCR copies of Slick Rick’s rap battle or the Beastie Boy’s music video collection.

The way Magic Johnson bounced that ball was memorizing. He would go behind his back and then throw a no-look pass to Kareem for a baby hook shot. Magic Johnson was 6’9, only one inch taller than Lawrence. Time spent away from Rucker Park or basketball practice was spent watching NBA games. Coach Millsap, Harlem’s basketball coach, gave Lawrence film of the opponents before each game. Besides watching professional games or opponent’s game film, Lawrence’s life outside the apartment revolved around basketball. He always had a ball with him.

The game went to halftime and Magic Johnson talked about his life as a child growing up in the projects. He talked about not always having food or clothes. His story showed Lawrence that someone with similar circumstances could be successful.  Lawrence envisioned becoming someone like Magic. “I have something for you” Arleen delightfully said as she opened the door. A smiled carved her face. “From who?” Lawrence said while another spoonful entered his mouth. “The NCAA, they are  coming to your game Friday ” Lawrence set down his bowl and twisted his body towards Arleen. “Man, I cannot wait, been waiting forever for this chance to show everyone what I got.” Lawrence said running his hands across each other. Arleen has not seen Lawrence this happen since the first time he walked in her classroom. Arleen taught young adults grammar when she lived in Trench Town. “Magic for three to win! No one saw this coming!” the ecstatic announcer on the television declared. Lawrence snapped back to catch the replay.

Lawrence snarled and shifted positions. His eyes opened slowly when Jaxson finished tapping his chest. Lawrence made sense of Jaxson’s figure hovering over him after a few blinks. Jaxson flung sweat from off his head on the couch. He back peddled to the front of the living room blocking Lawrence’s view of the second game of the back-to-back. Lawrence sat upright rubbing his eyes. The television shook from Jaxson stomping back and forth. Jaxson’s unzipped red Gucci jacket nearly looked brown with scuffs and tears along the sleeves. A gold chain rested on the outside of Jaxson’s cotton-covered black t-shirt.  Jaxson only visited when he needed money from Arleen or clothes that he left in Lawrence’s closet. “Yo, move, I’m watching the game.” Lawrence said. The television shook even harder as Jaxson’s pace increased. “I can’t believe he’s gone” Jaxson blurted. He took a blue bandana from his back pocket and dabbed away sweat from his forehead. “They just took him, pulled up to the curb and snatched him”. Jaxson nervously patted his hair, his expression of nervous habit. “Chill man, took who?” Lawrence’s struggle to pronounce certain vowels made him sound direct and stern. “You don’t understand, you have it good here, my mom loves you, you don’t know what’s on these stre—.” Lawrence interrupted Jaxson. “These streets? You know we grew up in the same conditions, now move.” He avoided bringing up his run-in with the two men earlier that week. An arm extended from the couch and a hand waved from side to side. “Fuck you, and forget your stupid ass basketball” Jaxson threw his hair pick across the room and kicked over a lamp on his way out. Jaxson picked up on curse words faster than Lawrence.

Arleen had been sitting in the apartment’s hallway the entire conversation. A tear ran down her face as her head rested against the wall. Her thought process remained the same each time Jaxson had an outburst. Shut mouth. Look Down. Close door. Jaxson received high honors in the Jamaican school system but changed when he moved to America. His senior year at Harlem High, he started hanging with the Heavy Loaders. Everyone called them heavy loaders because they brought guns and stacks of money to school weighing down their pants. He wished for the life they lived: the nice jackets and nice shoes they all wore motivated Jaxson to start selling drugs and making money. Lawrence experienced success during Jaxson’s senior year. The Harlem Hurricane’s basketball team made it to the semi-finals at state but lost in the finals. Lawrence’s sweet jump shot or late-game buzzer-beaters became material for barber shop talk. Lawrence’s senior year came around and his scoring total, assist total, and block total doubled in numbers. Members of the community showed their support and an influx of basketball fans packed the gym every Friday. Lawrence kept to himself until basketball practice. Receiving good grades came second to basketball for Lawrence, but he gave an effort to succeed in both.

Frost covered the outside of the windows. A fog immersed the school. The flag pole popped its round top through the fog. The school’s pipes hissed. They could be heard after students cleared the hallway. A single light illuminated the dank gym. The court looked dead until fans packed the bleachers. Dribbling balls or practicing free throws in dark gym made its way into Lawrence’s post practice routine. The big game could not come sooner. Arleen never game. She insisted sitting baseline every time. She loved watching Lawrence perform. Scouts from Clemson, Syracuse, Yale, Georgetown, showed interest in Lawrence’s outstanding senior season. Lawrence’s hard-working mindset never left him.  Every practice, games, and countless hours examining game film came down to Friday. Bringing a championship trophy home showed the community which part of New York represented the best ball players. Another swish snapped the net. The whipping sound echoed the empty gym. Jaxson rebounded for Lawrence most days but stopped after he moved to a different project in Harlem. A shot sprung off the front of the rim and rolled down the court to the side doors. Lawrence walked over and reached down to grabbed the ball. When he looked up, he saw a police officer holding a few papers.

Lawrence hated surprises, big or small, especially ones that came from strangers. An arm extended out and embraced Lawrence’s back. The cop sported a buzzed haircut with a hat so tight a vein appeared on his temple. He looked like a marine. Before a word left the officer’s mouth, he never stopped shaking his head. He was holding a crinkled paper. The paper never stopped rattling. Murmurs escaped the shaken man’s lips. “I hate to tell you this now, but Jaxson was reported missing last night”. The cop’s mustache absorbed snot running out his nose before he sniffled. Lawrence fell to his knees and pressed both palms against the locker in front of him. “Witnesses say that two men followed Jaxson from an apartment in Lower-East side Harlem at around 7:30,” the officer concluded as his eyes dropped below the paper. Rivers of dirt on Lawrence’s shoe ran down when tears dropped several feet from his face. “This can’t happen, not today” Lawrence struggled getting the words out.

Tears fell for minutes; each tear a different reason. Lawrence rose and up and slammed his fist into the classroom door. Crumpling into himself, he fell once more. The officer walked over to where Lawrence landed “Well, we got 48 hours to find Jaxson. The perps could flee New York by Saturday.” The officer extended his arm and helped Lawrence up. Lawrence found his balance rolled the ball back in the gym that he left by the side doors. He left the school with the officer. Arleen looked at Lawrence from the passenger seat of the cop car. The exhaust pipe created a grey cloud around the car. Snowflakes running down the window reflected tears dropping off Arleen’s face. Lawrence opened up the door and slid onto the plastic backseat.  “Your game is going to have to wait, Lawrence. We need to find Jaxson. He needs us more than ever.” Arleen pleaded. “Let’s go get my brother,” Lawrence said after minutes of silence. The car slid out of the parking lot and the single light in the gym stayed on the rest of the night.