My older cousin Larry and I sit on the hood of his rust-bitten Caddy, overlooking The Park. We eat greasy burgers as the summer sun slowly melts into the horizon. One day closer to another school year.
Everyone in the neighborhood calls this place “The Park,” but it’s really just a slab of pocked concrete puking weeds through its wounds — the moon’s surface with two arthritic basketball goals stuck into either end. The rest of the place is dead pine needles and their hundred-foot-tall ancestors.
My fondest memories were forged on this scorched and sorry patch of pavement. Burying untold game-winners as the clock expired in my imagination, carried off the court a hero. Epic one-on-one bouts with my best friends. The pain and glory of summer basketball tournaments. And those punishing but near-magical training “camps” with Larry and our dads — cone drills, lay-up drills, shooting drills. When it was too dark to see the rims, we did ball handling and speed work in the yellow funnel of our block’s only functioning streetlamp. Went full-tilt until our fed-up mothers shouted us indoors, chastising their husbands and threatening us with no dinner — or worse, no TV.
Looking back, it seems Larry and I’s greatest family heirloom — maybe the only one we had — was a sacred devotion to hoops. An obsession with stout defense and silky offense coursing through generations. An unslakable thirst for good-versus-evil competition seated somewhere deep and ancient in our bones.
Larry’s love for the game fractured last summer. Working construction, his dad was unceremoniously capsized by a ticker no one knew was bad till the autopsy. Larry’s few weeks away from school and the team turned into a few months. Then a whole year.
“So, what’s up with next year?” I ask Larry, trying to be cool even as nerves rattle my voice. I’m afraid my question will annoy him — everyone’s asking this summer — but I’m too desperate to hold it in any longer. It’s been my dream to play high school ball with Larry pretty much forever. And as my freshman year finally approaches, I can feel it crumbling away like a dried-out sandcastle.
Larry doesn’t respond immediately; just stares at someplace a million miles away. Even right next to him, I’m alone. Not physically. Our distance is broader, more permanent.
It scares the fuck out of me.
Apprehension kneads up my throat like dregs from a used-up tube of toothpaste. I have to constrict my jaw and constrain my guts to keep it from morphing into tears. Just. Say. Something.
His answer says no more than his eyes — lifeless and transfixed by that faraway point: “I dunno, Pat. Shit I’m doin’ right now, money is right.” He lightly pats his hooptie as evidence.
Everyone around knows how Larry makes his money, but no one speaks about it. It’s the first time I’ve heard him hint at the topic.
“I mean…” He drifts off for another couple of beats, then turns his palms up. “I can take care of my mom like this, y’know?” His arms crumple at his sides.
I nod somberly.
People don’t talk about Larry’s mom, my Aunt Julia. When Larry’s dad died, she kind of did, too. Wouldn’t get out of bed. Wouldn’t take food. Lost her job at the old folks’ home. An apparition of warm flesh, listlessly pumping blood.
For a few months, she fed her son and tended to him in the most rudimentary ways. When that subsided — and Larry was truly taking care of himself — my dad got her on psychiatric disability, and the sharp turn inward was complete. One of the few dual-income households in the neighborhood reduced to scraping by on government subsidy and haunted by a living phantom.
Aunt Julia mostly sleeps during the day and chain-smokes off-brands at night, blankly watching infomercials. She works her way through a bargain twelve-pack while dark shadows dance on the wall behind her like beckoning ghosts.
So, when Larry mentions her, it pretty much puts a cork in the conversation.
He hasn’t touched his food since I asked, and his gaze remains trained on a place where I can’t go with him. Don’t think I want to go with him.
I’d forgotten about our burgers, too. I’m no longer hungry, but unsure what else to do, I force myself to eat.
Overhead, the sky bruises a deep purple, narrows to an impossible pink, then suddenly ignites to a magnificent gold where the sun slinks below the earth’s bent edge, lowering the curtain on another day. This used to be the time for speed work under the streetlamp. The light still works, but everything else is broken. Larry will never again hear that holler calling him home.
Tears press heavy on my lids, but I manage to stifle the whimpers.
Larry doesn’t notice.
He isn’t even here.
Justin Cox is an Algebra teacher, former newspaper reporter, and lives with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury). He lives in NYC with his fiancée.