Cap loved the game of basketball. His earliest memories recalled climbing up to his father’s lap to watch games together on the television. He always remembered the warmth of that perch and its sure sense of safety. His father would grunt his approval when he saw an especially good pass or nifty work on defense, and Cap would look up to see him smile.
He bounced a basketball everywhere; in front of the house, up and down the street, or to the playground, several blocks away. He took a ball with him to his aunt Bonnie’s house, in the Latin Quarter, and bounced it in her driveway. Wonderful to think he could push the ball away from his hand, allow it to strike the ground, and it would carom right back to his hand, all without guiding it back with his eyes. Who needed the moon when you could bend gravity to your will, right here on earth, with a simple ball?
He learned to dribble the ball between his legs and around his back, slowly at first, then at a trot, and then while moving at a full sprint. He dribbled a ball while riding his bicycle. When he was strong enough to hit the bent rim with his shot, he was chosen to play in the pickup games at the playground. The older kids taught him toughness, with their elbows to the nose and the blind-side moving picks. He picked himself up off the asphalt quickly.
As a sophomore at the high school the varsity coach asked him to play-up, an honor, he said, to join the varsity team. Soon he earned the starting point position. A couple seniors lost precious playing time to Cap and he found that senior elbows could be especially sharp. He left several practices bloodied.
It was a mixed-race school in uptown and Cap believed the rough treatment was nothing more than a ritual, a welcome of sorts; his father allowed that there might be some frustration or jealousy, or perhaps another sort of ugliness, but he counseled his son not to back down—didn’t matter if the kids were seniors, or whether they were black or white. Listen to the coach and play your game.
So Cap played his game. It was a smooth game, efficient and smart; his motion on the court seemed effortless. His coach built a new, quick-strike offense that favored Cap’s athleticism and ball-handling finesse, and the team played a relentless pressing defense. The victories piled up.
He was named to the all-conference team in his second year of varsity play when he carried his team to the state quarter-finals. Many believed he would lead next year’s squad to the school’s first state championship.
George and Luella Mays met on the stoop of their apartment building. She welcomed his offer of a walk to the newsstand on a late afternoon in fall; he bought his paper and folded it into his back pocket and they continued walking, down to the river and along its winding bank, and they didn’t return till after the sun had set. He called her on the phone to invite her to dinner, and he made his jambalaya and served her on a linen tablecloth with a lone candle for light. He played a favorite recording of Mahalia Jackson with Percy Faith, and she was enchanted. They both sensed their good fortune in meeting each other and they married the following May.
They pooled their savings and bought the old pharmacy on Magazine Street and converted it to a breakfast restaurant that offered the locals a strong cup of coffee and an unfussy menu of Creole crepes and omelets. George Mays named the restaurant Luella’s, in honor of his bride. In those early years they lived upstairs of the restaurant and devoted themselves to their infant son and the fledgling business. These were the good years, the years of great common purpose.
Luella’s courted the blue-collar crowd but in time won chic ordination from the white-collar set and the cognoscenti. Business flourished. They widened the menu to include a lunch that featured a po-boy sandwich of fried shrimp with sliced onion and tomato, slathered with George’s own remoulade, and served on an onion roll. They felt financially secure enough to buy their modest home, a five-minute walk from the restaurant. Cap was six years old and George and Luella prayed for a second child.
It was around this time that George received a call at the restaurant—his wife had collapsed and she was being rushed to the hospital. The neighbor who called, the Irish woman next door, was vague, but certainly it couldn’t be anything too serious, George told her, just last night they had walked a mile and back for an ice cream with their son. Together, the chaplain and the doctor met him at the emergency room and then he knew. He shook his head and sobbed. Aneurysm was the meanest word he had ever heard.
He railed at his Lord, and the minister suggested a close reading of Job. George smiled through his tears at the thoroughness of Job’s trial and he came to see once again how blessed his own life was. He had known love, wasn’t that enough? And what about Cap? Could anyone be so favored with as beautiful a boy? George saw Luella’s golden-brown skin and her open, innocent eyes in their son, a constant reminder of her beauty.
His lament metamorphosed into a prayer of thanksgiving: he gave thanks for his sister, who loved Cap as one of her own, and he gave thanks for the restaurant, a good and prosperous business; he gave thanks for his beloved New Orleans and he gave thanks for the music. He offered up a prayer for the musicians, the street buskers and the marching bands, the women who sang gospel and the men who played jazz, and especially for Louis and Mahalia, whose music Luella loved the most. He accepted that he wouldn’t have her to share his bounty with—he would share it all with Cap, as long as he would allow it.
Many evenings, after he had finished his day at the restaurant, George would change into a tee-shirt and Converse All-Stars and take his son to the playground. Though he loved to watch basketball and understood its artistry, George was not skilled at the game, and early on he lost their games of HORSE without even trying. So he rebounded Cap’s shots and shouted encouragement. Some evenings, after dusk, he would turn on the car with its headlights beamed on the basket so Cap could continue shooting his jump-shot into nightfall.
When Cap played on the high school team, his father never missed a game. On game days he carried that extra bounce in his step, there was nothing he enjoyed more than watching his son play ball. And it lifted his heart to see that Cap knew the beauty of the game—when Cap was moving the ball, with his teammates in motion, it looked like a ballet being played on the court.
Weekends, when possible, Cap and his father saw the college games at Tulane or Loyola. Later, when Pete Maravich played at LSU they would ride the eighty miles to Baton Rouge to see him play. George treasured these outings for the time alone with his son. After the game they would search out a great local sandwich and an ice cream cone.
As a special treat, and to mark Cap’s all-conference season, George bought tickets to a Hawks-Lakers Sunday matinee; it was Cap’s first professional game and it afforded them the chance to see Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain on the heels of their thirty-three consecutive game win streak. Walt Bellamy, Lou Hudson, Pistol Pete and the Hawks put up an animated fight but failed in the final seconds when Maravich lost an inbounds pass to West, who fired ahead to Chamberlain, for the game-ending dunk. Most of the Atlanta fans seemed to be rooting for the Lakers.
They had made the long trip on Saturday and overnighted at the old Fulbright Hotel, close to the Coliseum. They rose early Sunday to attend a nearby service and filled up at the hotel’s opulent breakfast buffet. They hustled through the drizzle to the game and cheered for anyone who scored. As they followed the crowd out after the game, George was hoarse from shouting and Cap was radiant—miraculous to think he had just seen his heroes, those mythic beings from his sports magazines and television, play a game he understood better than he understood himself, right there in front of him, in their glory, their hustle and their sweat.
There was much to talk about on the distant ride home; the game they had shared and Cap’s upcoming season, and his father’s thoughts on players he had watched over the years—George told Cap he thought Oscar Robertson was a greater all-around player than Jerry West because of his superior court vision, and he explained why Bill Russell was the prince of them all. Cap finally nodded off out on the county road, eighty or so miles from home. Night had gathered and the rain kept falling and the wipers whisked back-and-forth across the windshield.
George might’ve nodded off, or maybe he was dreaming, but his attention wavered, and the outside wheels of his Ford Fairlane slipped off the pavement and got caught in a rut on the edge of the road. He snapped back to attention and steered the car away from the furrow and turned the wheels hard, back toward the road, hoping to jump the small ridge and right the course. But the rut had only deepened. The wheels, unable to climb the ridge, bounced away from the pavement and the car veered toward a stand of hickory trees. The brakes locked and the Fairlane skidded over the wet grass at a good speed; it was only a short distance from the road to the tree.
The car hit the tree over the passenger-side headlights and Cap hit the windshield with great force. He shattered the windshield with his forehead, and a metal plate was inserted to protect that area of his skull that had been crushed. Other bones were broken, but he eventually recovered. George Mays, though unhurt in the accident, never recovered. He sold the restaurant and he and Cap moved in with his brother, the former Marine, who lived out west, in Oceanside, California. It was Cap’s uncle who saw the notice in the local paper about the Rehabilitation Restaurant, and he thought it opportune for Cap at this time in his life. His father rocked in the rocker and cried the day Cap left.
It was an immaculate white building, as white as a fleeting cloud, against the blue California sky. The roofline, with its gables and twin turrets lent an almost fortress-like bearing, though this impression was softened as the eye engaged the entire structure and noted the imbricated fish-scale shingles, delicate cornices and gingerbread trim. Cap likened the Restaurant to a castle, though he knew that castles were made of stone. There was a deep and green field of grass behind the Restaurant and a gazebo, all white-washed and lonely at the back of the yard, near the railroad tracks. Cap walked barefoot across the yard and sat at a bench in its shade and waited for the freight train, just as he waited for the great ships to steam into port back home.
In his first few weeks at the Restaurant he often thought about home, and he worried about his father. Uncle Clyde had told him his dad would come around again, though it sounded more like he was trying to convince himself. Cap weighed the idea of writing his aunt Bonnie to ask if he could come and live with her, but he feared she might have to say no; Cap knew she wouldn’t want to say no, but he couldn’t take that risk.
He knew it was right to give the Restaurant a fair chance. He liked his room at the Restaurant; it was the middle floor of the original Tree-House, a vertical clapboard cottage with thick plaster walls, oak floorboards and three windows. A staircase zigzagged up the front of the building and a small porch was formed on each landing. A tree branch grew through the porch of the top floor.
Cheryl lived on the first floor of the Tree-House and Jude lived on the third floor, and he liked them both. Cheryl always smiled and waved when she saw him and Jude became his first friend at the Restaurant. The other busboys told him he was lucky to have Jude as his waiter, but he already knew this. Jude explained things clearly and kept an even keel, and he tipped him out generously at the end of each shift. Cap thought they made a good team.
The bell began clanging and the crossing gates staggered down and the red lights flashed. The freighter was led by three gleaming yellow locomotives and Cap counted the cars as the train rolled past. Car number ninety-one was the caboose, and Cap waved as it came into sight. The caboose-man, from his cupola window, saw the boy in the gazebo and waved back. Cap smiled because he knew getting the conductor’s wave was a blessing, a sign of good luck.
He crossed the yard to the Tree-House and as he started up the stairs Cheryl called to him from her open door. “Neighbor! Stop in and say hi.” Cap hesitated at the doorway; he saw that she had not yet changed out of her work clothes, though her blouse was untucked from the skirt. She was in her chair, turned away from the desk, and had one bare foot propped on an upturned trash can; a baggie of ice rested on that knee. The folds of her skirt fell between her legs and her stockings lay rolled-up and rumpled across her shoes.
She waved him in, but Cap was unsure. He tried not to look at her leg. He realized too late he could’ve pretended he hadn’t heard her and continued up the stairs.
“You’re quiet as a church mouse up there,” Cheryl said.
“Just glad I’m not a disturbance to you, ma’am.”
“Ma’am?” She glanced from side to side in feigned surprise she didn’t see an older woman in the room with them. “Can’t call me ma’am,” she said. “You’ll make me feel ancient.”
Her room smelled of soap and shampoo and it made Cap think of lilacs. “Did you hurt your knee?” he asked.
“Murdered it,” she said. “Gets pretty sore once I’m on it for six hours.” Drips of water slid off the baggie and fell to the floor. “Sit down and talk to me while I ice it.”
There was no place to sit, but Cheryl insisted. She pointed to her bed and Cap fretted he shouldn’t be here, he should be up in his room showering, getting ready for his shift. He lowered himself to the edge of the bed, careful not to disturb the guitar that covered half the bedspread. When he sat, the pressure of his weight lifted the thin mattress, and the guitar with it. The guitar did one full rotation in the air, glanced off the side of the bed and tumbled to the floor. Cap dove to the floor and tried to catch it, but the instrument landed clumsily and its fretboard snapped in half.
They both regarded the injured guitar on the floor. Finally, Cap picked up the pieces and the tangled web of strings, and set it on the bed. “I am very, very sorry,” he said. He felt miserable that he had caused the guitar to fall, and hurt that he was unable to catch it.
Cheryl did her best to mask her sorrow. “Not your fault, Cap,” she said. “I told you to sit there. It was just an old piece of junk, anyway. I bought it for twenty dollars.” She wouldn’t mention Derek or her attachment to her dowdy guitar; she brightened and tried a smile. “Besides. Now I won’t have to ruin my fingers practicing.”
“I’ll save my money and buy you a new one.”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind.” Cheryl lifted the dripping ice bag from her reddened knee and stood. She leaned into Cap and gave him a light kiss on the cheek. “You’re sweet,” she said. “Don’t give it another moment’s thought.”
But it was all he thought about as he showered and dressed for his shift. He replayed the scene many times in his head and each time the guitar landed on the floor, fractured, splintered, ruined. He upbraided himself for not anticipating what had happened and he feared he had reacted too slowly. Given another chance, he knew he would have saved it.
He met Jude at their station, it was a slow start for the Friday dinner crowd, and Jude asked him what was wrong. Cap told his story and Jude told him he couldn’t beat himself up too badly for an accident. “It’s not like feeling bad about it is gonna fix the guitar,” he said.
Their station filled and they shifted gears with the rush; they turned their tables over several times and at the end of the night they sat at the long-table in front of the unused auxiliary bar and folded napkins while their last parties finished their coffee. Jude asked about New Orleans and they talked about their childhood neighborhoods; Cap said he was born with a basketball in his hand and Jude said he was delivered with a Louisville Slugger in his hands. He told Cap he would ride to the park with his mitt looped over the bicycle handlebars and a baseball in his pocket, and wait till enough guys showed up to get a game going.
Jude made a final check on his tables and moved to the side-station to count the night’s tips. He tipped-out Emma, the hostess, and Elise, who served cocktails, and he wound his way back to the long-table. He reached into his pocket and pulled out all the bills, the singles, the fives and the tens, and set them down in front of his busboy. “You’re free to go, Cap,” he said. “I’ll finish it up.”
Cap looked at the pile of money in front of him. “What’s this for?” he asked.
“It’s for you, ya dumbshit. You get tonight’s tips—we had a good night, it’s about a hundred bucks. Should be almost enough for that new guitar for Cheryl.”
“I can’t take it,” Cap said.
“You don’t have any choice—it’s not going back in my pocket. Besides, you gave me a great idea tonight. I’m gonna get us a basketball hoop.”
Cap stood and collected the pile of bills in his hand and proffered it to Jude. “What are you doing?” Jude asked.
“I’m giving you back the money—you’ll need it for your hoop.”
“Bullshit. The County’ll pay for the hoop.”
It was early Saturday morning and Cap was at his desk, battling the empty sheet of stationery in front of him. He wasn’t able to get much beyond the salutation and he’d already crumpled three pages of his good writing paper; he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, and each time an idea narrowed into focus he couldn’t find the words to express it. It was a relief to hear the knocking on his door.
The door cracked open and Jude poked his head in. “Lace up those shoes, Captain,” he said. “We’re out on a mission—the van rolls in two minutes.”
Jude jumped behind the steering wheel of the long County van, and Tawkee stretched out in the front passenger seat; Cap sat in the middle of the bench behind them. Jude pulled out into traffic on the Coast Highway and Tawkee lit a Marlboro. He looked over his shoulder. “Hey, kid” he said, “you wanna heater?”
Cap didn’t understand the question, or at least it made little sense. The morning was warming with the rising sun and he thought that only someone very sick might need a blanket or a heater. Or was heater a code word for some kind of drug? He worried that maybe he’d made a mistake getting in the van; the word mission suddenly seemed ominous.
Jude looked up in the rearview mirror and saw the confusion in Cap’s eyes. He glanced across at Tawkee and shook his head in disgust. “What the hell’s wrong with you? He’s a young, healthy kid—he don’t need no pimp-stick.”
“Pimp-stick?” Tawkee glared at Jude. “We don’t need no stinking pimp-sticks!”
“Better not mess with Cap,” Jude said. He turned to Cap with a wink. “He’s dangerous behind that mild manner. Just yesterday he smashed Cheryl’s guitar to pieces. No provocation, no warning, no nothin’.” Jude warmed to his story. “‘Oh, sorry,’ he told her. ‘Looks like I’ve broken your nice guitar.’ Left the poor girl in tears.”
“Serves her right,” Tawkee said.
“Outstanding. Your empathy is outstanding,” Jude said. “Absolutely boundless.” He turned into a restaurant off El Camino Real.
“Sambo’s? Are you kidding me? You got me out of bed for breakfast at Sambo’s?”
“It’s pretty hard to screw up toast and eggs,” Jude said. “Hey, I was on a roll this morning. Got Mr. Kessler’s okay to put up a hoop in the woodshed. Then I called Miss Maggie and got the County to cover the cost of it all—matter of fact, we’ll include the receipts for our breakfast and lunch.” Jude set aside his menu and tapped a cigarette on the table-top. “It was almost too easy. Is Miss Maggie a pushover, or am I that good?”
“Oh, you’re good alright.” Tawkee drummed his thumbs against the edge of the table. “But not that good. My guess is she’s more shrewd than you think.”
“Miss Maggie?” Cap asked. “I really liked her.”
Tawkee peered over the top of his menu. “Who asked you, ya little shit?” He tried to suppress his smile, but Cap saw the softening at the corners of his mouth and his tone carried none of the severity he used in the kitchen. Jude lit his cigarette and Tawkee ducked back behind his menu.
Next stop was the Sears at the El Camino mall; Tawkee and Jude inspected the poles, backboards and rims, and Cap went down the aisle to find a ball. He moved past the red, white and blue ABA balls and found the same dimpled leather Spaulding his father had given him some years ago for a birthday. It felt good in his hands.
Tawkee and Jude ran into the hardware store for Sakrete and mixing buckets, and Cap hung back in the van, spinning the new Spaulding on a fingertip. Jude took the long way home and stopped at Roberto’s in Leucadia for tacos and a soda. Cap carried the ball with him and bounced it a couple times in the parking lot. He cradled the ball while he ate his tacos.
They returned to the Restaurant and set about their tasks. Jude scavenged in the tool-house and found a sledgehammer, a shovel and a busted mop handle; he paced off an area at the south end of the woodshed and circled it in chalk. Tawkee took the maul and first cracked, then crushed the targeted concrete with a series of great blows. Cap filled one of the buckets with water and mixed the Sakrete with the mop handle while Jude dug the hole. Tawkee bolted the rim to the backboard and Cap looped the net through the hooks on the rim. They set the pole and Jude poured the Sakrete, and, for good measure, dumped the balance down the mouth of the pole. Tawkee climbed the ladder and crowned the pole with its backboard. “Height okay?” he asked.
“Just right,” Cap said.
Jude and Cap held the pole in place and Tawkee stepped off the ladder. He folded his arms and admired the hoop from several angles. “Not bad for a bunch of hackers,” he said.
Cap beamed, happy to be one of the hackers. Jude pushed against the pole. “Seventy-two hours to set,” he said. “The kingdom will come—but our hoop’ll still be standing.”
The Rehabilitation Restaurant kept the tradition of closing on Tuesday, the day the horses at Del Mar did not run. The pace at the Restaurant slowed on Tuesday, the rhythm of the routine workday was broken. Most slept in, and then around noon, Cid, the lunch cook, would come over to the kitchen and make hamburgers for all who wanted one.
Tawkee, Jude and Cap finished their plates and headed for the woodshed to break in their new hoop. They gave Cap the ceremonial first shot; he took a soft twelve-foot set shot and the ball bounced off the back of the rim, spun forward and hit the front of the rim, arced high in the air where it seemed to stall for a moment, and dropped straight through the net. Tawkee and Jude gave him a silent cheer and Cap took a bow.
Seth, Olin and Billy Reno joined the shoot-around, and they challenged their counterparts to a game. As in any pickup game, the skill level of the players varied. Tawkee was the biggest and strongest, but he banged a couple shots off the backboard and settled into his role as team rebounder. Seth held the advantage in this matchup; he’d position himself in front of Tawkee and call for the ball and patiently back Tawkee toward the basket, then pivot and take a little hook shot. When he found his range and scored a couple consecutive baskets, Tawkee lifted him in a bear-hug and carried him out-of-bounds. “That’s enough out of you,” he said. “Do that again and I’ll dunk you through the basket.” Seth scored most of his team’s points.
Jude and Olin were evenly matched. Olin played a tight, scrappy defense on Jude and Jude returned the favor. They spent their energy chasing after each other.
Cap held the advantage in his matchup, and this didn’t sit well with Billy Reno. Cap recalled his coach’s two principles of offense; always think layup, and you beat defense with your feet. The first time he touched the ball he shifted his right foot to the outside of Billy’s right foot and swept the ball from right to left and burst toward the basket with a left-handed dribble. Billy stumbled backward, he could only turn and watch as Cap laid the ball in with his left hand.
The next time Cap held the ball he feigned a drive to the basket and Billy backtracked hard with him, he wouldn’t be beat to the basket again. Cap stopped and lifted up and released the ball at the top of his jump; the ball left his hands in an easy arc and rustled only the net. Billy stood, hands on hips, and shot a look at Tawkee and Jude. “Gimme a break, man—you guys bring a ringer?”
“What’s the matter, Billy?” Jude asked. “Can’t you keep up with your man?”
The lead swayed back and forth. A group of the women from the lunch crew came in and sat at the benches under the west-facing windows to watch, and the game grew more intense. Tawkee rebounded one of Seth’s rare misses and overhanded a pass to Cap. He faked left and cut right, saw daylight, and made a dash for the basket; Billy stuck his foot between Cap’s moving feet and Cap spilled to the concrete. The ball spurted away.
Jude reached a hand to Cap and helped him up. He looked at Billy. “Did you just trip him?” he asked.
Billy returned Jude’s cold stare. “Why would I do that?” he asked. Maybe he’s a little clumsy, that’s all.”
The lead volleyed several times more and Olin tied the game at twenty with an off-balance shot that found the basket. Several of the players stood bent at the waist, hands on knees, breathing hard. Olin bounced the ball to Cap and called, “game point.”
Billy got into his defensive crouch and waved a hand in Cap’s face. “C’mon, hotshot,” he said. “I’m ready—let’s go.”
Cap thought about it. He knew he could beat Billy to the basket any time he chose. He dribbled toward Tawkee, at the baseline in the far left corner, and passed him the ball. Cap continued toward Tawkee and set a pick for him; Tawkee dribbled once and faked a cross-court pass to Jude, in the opposite corner. Cap had looped back to the free-throw line, the vertex of their triangle. Tawkee chose the shorter pass, back to Cap.
Billy shadowed him closely, he knew all about defense. There was no way another goddamn busboy was gonna beat him for the game-winner, not with all the girls watching. Get into his head a little, he told himself. “What’s wrong, punk,” he taunted, “afraid to take the shot?”
Cap made up his mind. He rocked back and drew Billy closer to him; Billy was right on top of him now. Cap made a jab step to his right that Billy bit on and when he crossed the ball over to his left hand, Billy lunged at the ball. Cap was gone.
Billy charged after him and as Cap went up for the score, he shoved him from behind. Cap hit the pole and fell back, stunned. Billy stood over him, wild-eyed, panting and jabbing a finger. “Don’t need no goddamn spook to show me up,” he said.
Olin laughed, this was funny, right? He cut his laugh short when he sensed no one was laughing with him. Billy’s words hung in the air, they seemed to bounce off the woodshed walls and reverberate. Jude butted his palms into Billy’s chest, pushed him away from Cap.
Jude led Cap out of the woodshed, back out into the sunshine. They all filed out and Billy trailed behind, alone. Jude told Cap that Billy’s head was in an ugly place, and that he was a lousy sport, to boot. Cap said that it was alright, he had been called worse. “I’ll knock on your door in half an hour,” Jude said. “We’ll head into town after a shower.”
“I have to finish a letter,” Cap said. “Let’s stop at the post office, too.”
He sat at his desk and did not hesitate. It was very clear to him what he wanted to say. He wrote:
Please don’t worry about me because I’m doing really well here at the restaurant. I’ve already made two good friends and I know there will be more. We put up a hoop, and today we played our first game. I played my game and didn’t back down, just like you always told me. Thank you again for everything.
Michael J. Martin is a Chicago-area writer stitching together his first novel, one word at a time.