They ran his card again.
Results were the same.
Nervous laughter and he shook his head and sighed silently and glanced over at the short line of shoppers building up behind him. Unsure of what to do. The cashier eyed him patiently and blinked and forced a thin plastic smile. “Is there any other card you could use?”
Cairo nodded quickly and fished through his empty wallet. Looking for a miracle. His fingers stopped rummaging and he looked up at the cashier. “Do you think you could hold these for me? While I go grab some cash?”
He never was a good liar.
Long walk home.
He’d count his steps and dribble between his legs counting how many steps he could take without losing his handle. After a while he lost count. Getting late and most of the retail district was already darkening beneath the lean skyscrapers backlit by a bleached out sky and long slivered shadows dividing the hushed streets in unbroken slants.
There was an old church on Second with coral colored walls and ivory trim lining the tall palladian windows and up on the pavillion was a Spanish man in dark pants and a shortsleeve shirt and a messy tie kneeling with his arms out praying for salvation at the foot of a copper statue stripped emerald from oxidation and half-framed by potted plants and withering brown palm fronds.
Old Cuban women with stern faces leaned crossarmed against the doorjambs of their boutiques with skinny cigars sticking out from the corner of their teeth. Eyeing him contemptuously.
He dribbled on. Shaking his head.
Beneath the descending crimson sun balding Middle Eastern men yanked at heavy gates like private steel curtains shielding unlit window displays of used electronics and across the avenue from behind a darkened sheet of glass tiny floral dresses with frilled hips on tiny hangers hung grimly in muted colors from within their dim confinement.
Spinning the ball on his finger. Nodding politely to strangers.
Black cats crouching curiously from within manicured folds of rolling green hills surrounding the sandy beige pillars of the federal buildings. He stopped and stood in the windless heat. Pushing away a thin layer of sweat from his forehead before dribbling on, continuing up Miami Ave.
* * *
The stairs that led up to the court were tall unwashed slabs of blue concrete ascending four stories over the spiraled parking garage leading all the way up to the roof. The lights still hadn’t come on yet over the dimming playground and the court was empty and the night air was thick and sticky and smelled .
From this vantage point he could see into the tall brick columns of open windows to the apartments surrounding the court and he could hear all the overlapping conversations. Dribbling the ball and looking into the different windows and thinking of all the different people. All the different lives. The court lights awoke flooding the rooftop with a warm glow and he lobbed a shot from just inside halfcourt.
For good luck.
He missed. The rebound went long and the ball was fielded by the black chainlink fence caging the roof and the court. He caught the ball and arced a long corner three that splashed through the net with a satisfying swish. He absorbed the rebound in stride and went in for a tomahawk dunk but at the last second he decided to gently roll the ball over the rim instead.
Overlapping songs from all the dueling stereos competing for attention at street level and together the snippets of noise creating their own contorted symphony. Just for him. He banked in a short shot from the wing and checked his watch. The late summer sun slipping beneath a valley of metallic skyscrapers and falling out of focus far along the deep horizon.
He dribbled behind his back absently and peered over the edge of the rooftop where the ground seemed empty save for a few tiny cars lurching patiently up the ave and some miniature winos hollering and crooning outside the cornerstore.
Snapping his gum he turned away and fired a shot from way out of bounds that barely grazed the rim, the ball punching the net and rolltrotting back to him. All in one motion he scooped up the ball and jacked up a flat linedrive from his waist that clanged rudely against the backboard and scattered out of bounds and the entire hoop remained trembling from the collision and he snagged the ball up and waited at the freethrow line for the shaking to stop.
The rooftop fell silent and he could once again hear the soundtrack of the streets. With a full head of steam he underhand pitched the ball off the backboard and caught it with the same hand and threw down a vicious windmill that boomed and echoed off the tall buildings. His side of paradise. Looking around to see if anyone was watching but nobody was watching. Only stacks of square windows lit by televisions and houselamps each framing up a single snapshot of every individual life.
“Yo yo yo,” and the heavy door swung open and Pharoah Rivers emerged from the shadows like some goldstudded apparition rapping into the cell phone cradled between his neck and shoulder quickly counting cash without looking up. “What’s crack-a-lackin, son?”
Cairo shrugged and kept dribbling in place. Gazing into the night. “Tryna get this game going,” he said softly.
“Hold on hold on,” Pharoah said into his phone but also to Cairo. Cutting him off with an index finger. “Yeah? Oh yeah? Oh it’s like that huh?” He looked at his younger brother and made a face then said into his phone, “Yeah, what’s the number? Okay hold on.”
Cairo sighed loudly and turned away and asked himself “Where are these fools?” Still dribbling. A blinking airplane ripping apart the dark grayblue sky. Salsa music. He turned back toward the hoop and shuffled to the arc and launched a long three that spun a few times around the rim before rolling out and he shook his head groaning and rolled his eyes.
“Can’t buy a bucket,” Pharoah said. Grinning. Holding his hands out. Motioning for the ball. “C’mon. Cough it up.”
Cairo sighed again but louder this time and he passed the ball to his older brother and Pharaoh dribbled twice with an open palm and heaved a hideouslooking shot that spiraled clumsily through the warm night air before clanging loudly against the back of the rim. Bouncing out of bounds. Cairo chased down the rebound and turned toward the baseline.
“Lemme get my change,” Pharaoh said. Still holding out his hands.
“Change?” Cairo snickered. Shaking his head. “Your jumper broke as shit.”
Still shaking his head he sized up a three and released. The ball sailed through the dark humidity in a highflying arc and fell soundlessly through the net. Pharaoh was beneath the rim and he caught the ball and passed it back to his brother. Cairo squared up again and shot again and the results were the same.
“He’s heating up,” Pharaoh broadcasted and delivered a crisp chest pass that stung Cairo’s hands when he caught it and he took one dribble forward then stepped back behind the threepoint line and lifted and released in one fluid motion and landed back on the gritty asphalt as the shot went in.
“He’s on fiiiiire,” Pharaoh announced in his videogame voice and he pumpfaked a pass and said, “Take it in.”
Cairo cut to the hoop and received a strong bounce pass and catching it in stride he threw up a sweet little reverse layup that kissed the high backboard and dropped neatly into the net.
“Not bad, not bad,” Pharaoh admitted. Nodding. “You been workin on your footwork I see.”
Cairo scoffed. “Been workin on a buncha shit.” Holding his hands out for a pass that never arrives. “Lemme get my change.”
The heavy door groaned again and both heads turned.
A ropethin man slinking through the shadows without coordination holding a glass bottle by the throat half-concealed in a wrinkled paperbag. He stopped. Peering over the edge of the roof. Wobbling in the shadows, just a silent silhouette. Slurring his words he asked, “Y’all knowin which way’s the bus stop at?” His low voice was thick and drowsy.
Pharaoh scoffed and smirked and dribbled one time and looked over at his younger brother shaking his head then looked back at the drunk and said, “Well, it aint the fuck up here now is it?”
* * *
It was raining again and each squad shot around on opposite ends of the court without saying a word until it was time for tipoff. Cairo stole glimpses of the other team from the freethrow line and looked back down the court, unimpressed.
He recognized one of the ballhanders chuckling near the top of the key as a former fivestar recruit named Zeke who displayed parallel rows of polished white teeth as he spoke with someone while absently dribbling between his thin legs.
Beneath the rim standing flatfooted with lank spiderlike fingers intertwined in the laced weave of the net was a massive creature of a man with deep sunken eyes shaded by dark circles and at the free throw line another hideous behemoth practiced free throws and each time the ball released from his clawed grip the creature planted beneath the rim removed his knuckles from the netting allowing the ball to either sail through the pale nylon or clank off the rim.
“So we doin this or what?” Cradling his phone in his neck Pharoah stood on the sidelines with his palms inverted and a wrinkled brow looking about impatiently. The short guy talking with Zeke lifted his head halting his conversation and sauntered across the court stepping in and out of the dull lamplight.
He wore a blank expression and multiple gold chains braided around his neck like costly metal ropes jostling on his chest and he opened his narrow eyes with an unamused glint just wide enough to adjust to his surroundings. Gesturing to the players behind him he said, “You remember Zeke, right. Yeah? You remember. And here’s… this here’s, um, Mayhorn and that’s Lamb.” Zeke smiled salutations with an artificial grin and the two behemoths grunted slovenly, nodding from the shadows.
Pharoah cleared his throat mockingly and turned toward his team and said, “Yall know these guys right? My lil bro Cai’. Hawkins. And Lafayette.” They all nodded and shrugged and Cairo sighed and turned to launch a three but the shot never left his fingers.
Instead he turned back to the group huddled near halfcourt and someone said, “Shoot for it,” and Cairo shrugged again shaking his head and heaved a deep three that teetered through the night and the soft rain and fell through the hoop lashing the net with a convincing splash.
“Our ball,” Cairo said. Then, to his team: “Check up.”
The game started unceremoniously and neither team gained an advantage edgewise. Loud cracks of thunder roared from the deep emerald sky and the colorless clay court slowly developed shallow pockets of black rainwater. Pharoah barked directions from the sidelines and when he rudely reminded his team to boxout Cairo glared at him coldly and scoffed and said, “You aint no coach nigga,” and Pharoah scowled and rolled his eyes shaking his head but said nothing.
The score remained even for long periods of time and whenever one team would score the other retaliated with a basket of their own. At the top of the key Mayhorn devoured Lafayette with a snarling pick and palmed a sweet pocket pass from Zeke without taking his eyes from the rim spinning in traffic and delivering a devastating twohander.
Cairo caught a body on the wing when that tall white boy named Lamb switched out on him and Cairo shuffled his feet like a prizefighter and hit his defender with a vicious crossover that chopped down the giant young man at the knees causing him to crumble grumpily onto the clay court into a puddle of his own sweat. From the drenched floor Lamb watched helplessly as Cairo hopped behind the corner arc and buried a three.
“Tiiiiiimmberrrrrr,” Cairo boomed from a cupped hand as he returned back on defense bumping fists with his howling teammates. “Nine, eight.”
Mayhorn stood under the rim and held the ball, chest heaving. “What’s game to?”
“Twelve,” both hustlers said in concert.
Zeke stepped into a three and released a high arching shot that plopped weightlessly into the net. On the other end Lafayette had his sweeping hook shot denied by Mayhorn triggering a lopsided fast break with Zeke pushing the pace and delivering a perfect lob pass for an alleyoop to the kid Lamb who redeemed himself by hammering home a nasty onehanded tomahawk that garnered loud whoops and howls and low shouts and whistles. Zeke turned to his teammates collectively struggling to conceal their excitement. “Point, nine. Point, nine.” Cairo watched all of this with harsh eyes doubled over with his hands on his thighs clutching the hemlines of his shorts. “Point, nine.”
Hawkins took the ball out of bounds and dropped it in to Cairo who dribbled deliberately for a few steps never averting his gaze from the stilted action unfolding before him like some hapless gambler reflecting poorly on a lifelong binge of misfortune. His teammates stood about flatfooted waiting for the ballhandler to initiate the offense and Cairo continued dribbling then did just that.
He lowered his head and barreled to his right before stopping sharply and bringing the ball back between his outstretched legs bending his knees and elevating for a midrange jump shot. Zeke intended to cut off Cairo’s right but forced his hand too strongly forfeiting the first step causing just enough body contact for Cairo to shove off and stepback and create the open shot. Zeke scrambled to regain his footing and charged towards the shooter with his palms up and waving.
Heads turned toward Cairo as he lifted from the court without effort to release the shot and at the very last second he instead dropped the ball off to Lafayette who was wide open for an easy layup. The defense shifted clumsily and Lafayette sensed this and pumpfaked with conviction sending the tall whiteboy Lamb into the blackiron fencing swinging the ball lastly to the left wing where Hawkins stood silently by his lonesome and caught the ball in full motion with both hands extended and exhaling steadily and he calmly sank the wide open three. “Point game.”
The court fell silent save for a heavy dripping noise and the sound of soft labored breaths. “Point all,” somebody repeated and Cairo lowered himself into a defensive stance. “Win by two,” a different voice added and Cairo didn’t shift his attention from the ballhandler to determine who the speaker was.
Mayhorn ambled up toward the top of the key to set a pick for Zeke and was waved away quickly. Zeke hesitated and caught Cairo offbalance with a brilliant stutterstep move that created enough space necessary to make a play. He turned the corner on Cairo with a high dribble and Cairo wrapped his long arms around the dribbler and punched the ball away clean, no contact. Zeke lunged forward on his own momentum and flailed his arms. “Got one,” he announced to a chorus of groans.
“Bullshit,” Cairo said. Rolling his eyes. “Got all ball.”
“My arm aint part of no ball nigga,” Zeke scoffed.
“Yeah, no shit.” Shaking his head. “Cause I got all ball.”
“Shoot for it,” Pharoah suggested and the idea was parroted by others.
“Yeah,” Zeke bounced the ball to Cairo. “Shoot for it.”
Cairo knuckled the ball back to Zeke within the same bounce. “You called the foul,” he said. “You shoot.”
All eyes landed on Zeke. He opened his mouth to challenge the verdict yet no words escaped his lips. The court once again fell silent and the sounds of the city could be heard from the lonely streets in vivid detail. Tires sloshing blindly along the empty avenues etched into the earth beneath a cold descending sun. Zeke spun the ball and dribbled once and spun the ball again and looked up at the rim with unbridled optimism as the last pebbles slowly released from his grip and his eyes widened and narrowed.
The ball struck the back iron and ricocheted lamely into the air. Cairo inhaled sharply through his teeth and snickered shaking his head and said simply, “Ball dont lie.”
And on the next possession Cairo went for the kill.
He checked the ball then passed it inbounds and snuck behind a back screen set by Lafayette then retrieved the ball back from Hawkins.
The kid Lamb was caught out in no man’s land and he switched warily onto Cairo and affected an awkward defensive stance with his long skinny arms outstretched and trembling and his clunky white shoes dragging laterally across the court like the scuttering of a very large very white crab. Cairo smirked and put the kid on skates with a tightly controlled dribble behind his back that he let go errant before scooping the ball back just as the long defender lunged for it without realizing his mistake.
Cairo brought the ball back to his left and sized up an unchallenged three. Mayhorn charged at him with his arms raised leaving Lafayette unguarded. Cairo faked the three and swung the ball to Lafayette and before Zeke could challenge Lafayette the ball kicked one more time to the corner where Hawkins again stood all alone and he took a tiny dribble to the right and squared up and calmly canned the three.
* * *
They rode the Omni Loop on the Metromover all the way out to Brickell for cheap beer and tiny Spanish sandwiches at a place off Fourteenth in the Financial District. They transferred at Third onto the Brickell Loop slipping between the sliding doors leaving behind only a shirtless Caribbean man with the posture of a turkey vulture watching the train’s departure with low red eyes and a big rusted machete and a dirty shopping cart filled with furry coconuts.
Cairo collapsed against the long window and watched the cityscape unravel before him like the unlocking of some secret terrain in a nocturne adventure. The pale crescent moon hanging high over the Miami River was a thin rind of soft gold glowing bashfully behind a short skirt of gray clouds.
Without saying a word Pharoah got the attention of Hawkins and Lafayette and Cairo and motioned for them to join him near the rear of the empty boxcar. Pharaoh unzipped his little bag and glanced both ways for prying eyes but there was no one else on the train.
He peeled off a thicket of bills and counted them out and handed a rolled wad to Lafayette and one to Hawkins and he looked at his brother and shrugged sarcastically and handed him a folded knot of twenties.
Cairo looked down at the bills then looked up at his brother. “You shoulda told me you had money on the game.”
“Why?” Pharoah scoffed. “You wouldve played harder?”
“No, I…” Cairo faltered. “But–” He could feel the blood rushing to his face. “That’s not the point, it’s just…” Blood rushing to his ears. “I just… wish you wouldve told me.”
“I’m tellin you now.”
Cairo’s face clouded and Hawkins and Lafayette turned away. The train rumbled on with its naked white headlight illuminating the narrow path forged through the valley of dark skyscrapers carved into the concrete canyons.
Cairo didn’t know what to say. “I dont like you bettin on my games,” he said finally. “And you know that. It aint right.”
Pharoah snorted and shook his head. “You just made six hundred bucks for puttin a ball in the hoop, young brotha. This as right as it gets.”