Change by Nicholas T. Brown

What about a train-hopping kid who lands in cities with a duffel bag and a basketball, schools kids on playgrounds, hustles his way to a meal and a bed.
Bet me I can’t make a hundred in a row.
Bet you what?
Five bucks. A Happy Meal. A spot to lay in your hallway for two nights.
I ain’t bettin you shit. You ain’t even got five bucks.
The kid pulls from his pocket a crinkled fiver, one of the old ones, back when money was still green, printed during the Nixon administration, thin as tissue paper. He holds onto this five forever, no matter how hungry he gets, because this five is the key to more fives, forever and ever to eternity, and if he spent it now he could fill his belly for a few hours but then he would be hungry again and have no way to get more. You got to have money to make money.
Someone says, Take his money, E.
Come on, the kid says. A hundred in a row.
E. holds out the ball. Go, he says.
*
This is how he lives. He learns the freight schedules, knows how to dodge the bulls. Sure he’s caught his share of beatings, but the worst thing they can do is puncture his basketball. This cripples his ability to make money, to live. One early summer morning before dawn, somewhere in the south, a bull grabbed his shirt collar from behind, took him totally by surprise, yanked him off his feet and sent his ball—a slippery worn-gray Spalding he’d nicknamed “Newtie”—rolling down the gravel. A savage fist crunched into his face. Blood erupted from his nose. He lay face down, shuddering, for a long time, and when his vision cleared he saw that the bull had chased the basketball down the hill and was working a knife into it. The air hissed out into the August morning. Even thirty feet away, with a busted nose and bells ringing in his ears, he could smell that stale basketball air, sealed for months inside that leather shell, into which it had been placed by a needle, the needle attached to a pump that had kidnapped innocent air and imprisoned it, made it foul. The kid at least felt happy for the air. It could now rejoin the greater collective air of the planet. It was like transporting an insect in your car and letting it out someplace new.
How do you like that, the bull said, throwing the ball at the kid’s face. The kid caught it and held it to his chest as the last of its life trickled out.
I know you, the bull said, and spat. He was a burly silhouette behind his blinding flashlight. I know your kind, he said. Always on the run. Making a living with your ball. Taking a free ride on someone else’s dime. Let’s see how far your little hustle gets you now.
For good measure, the bull gave him a hard kick, and the kid ran away from the train station, across a field, through some trees, and onto a highway he recognized as part of north Houston. Goodbye Newtie. As the kid walked, he tried to remember how long he’d had Newtie. He got her in Atlanta, he thought, but wasn’t sure. Now he had to find a new one. He’d done this before.
He walked south into the morning sun, up and down streets, looking for a playground or a park. Nothing. He’d been to Houston before, had even hooped here, but didn’t know the city like he did New York and L.A. Easy to find good runs in those places. Here, he wasn’t sure where the good spots were. He slipped into the bathroom of a CVS and splashed cold water on his nose, wiped the crusted blood away. He looked terrible. On the way out, he lifted a bag of powdered donuts and a chocolate milk.
By mid-afternoon he’d made his way to the south side of the city. He found a court with a bunch of Mexican boys, teenagers, not much younger than him, shirtless and cocky. He stood and watched them play for a while before one of them called out: You want to play?
Only for money, the kid said.
Several of the boys laughed. Shit, I’ll take your money, pendejo. They strutted around. They were personally offended.
How much money you got? they asked.
The kid held up his ancient five.
That’s it?
That’s it.
The Mexican boy threw the ball at him. The kid gripped it: cheap, rubber, bright orange, with a hard, high bounce—the type of ball that is unforgiving at the rim, but easy to manipulate with the fingers. Good enough. What’s the game? the kid said.
One on one.
Do I get the ball first?
The kid won easily, fifteen to zero, the last shot a running left-handed hook. The other boys shouted on the sidelines. They couldn’t believe it. Everyone wanted a piece of him now.
Here’s your money, the ringleader said, suddenly sheepish.
How bout I get your ball instead?
Fuck you. That’s a twenty dollar ball.
The kid looked around. Who else wants to play me? he said.
By evening he’d earned the rubber ball—Herman, he decided to call it, a name that just popped into his head—plus an extra three dollars, which he used to buy his dinner. He found a dry spot outside a restaurant, behind some dumpsters, and spread out his flannel shirts on the pavement and ate his french fries in the dark.
Two days later he was on another train.
*
In Philadelphia he met a dark-haired girl at a court downtown. He never approached females at playgrounds—they were always there to watch a man. Talking to them was like asking for an ass-whipping. But this girl, sitting behind him in the metal bleachers, spoke to him first.
I saw you shooting over there, she said.
Me? The kid’s nose had healed but was swollen around the bridge, possibly forever.
Yeah you.
The kid said nothing. He’d won a few bucks earlier, enough to get him through tomorrow, and was just hanging out now, watching the games.
You don’t miss, the girl said.
The kid looked back at her. She had said it like she’d made some secret discovery, like she knew he was a mutant, an X-Man. She had a white face and freckles around her eyes. A notebook sat across her lap. You didn’t miss, she said. Not even once. I watched. It’s like you can’t miss. She cocked her eyebrow. Can you miss?
I can miss, the kid said.
Prove it.
He ran to the other court and bricked a lay-up hard off the rim. But something inside him felt nasty for doing it. He jogged back to the girl. Which one is your boyfriend? he asked.
Excuse me?
Which of these guys playing.
The girl smiled. None of them. She gestured to her notebook. I’m writing a paper, she said. For an Anthropology class.
I see, the kid said. These negroes are just a science project to you. He turned away.
It’s not like that, the girl said. It’s about basketball, not race. Basketball as social phenomenon. Grown men gathering together to play a game, and to play with intensity. There’s nothing else quite like it. It’s fascinating.
The kid looked at her again. Want to bet I can’t make a hundred in a row?
No, the girl said.
Two hundred.
No.
Five hundred.
You can’t, the girl said.
Want to bet.
She hesitated. What are we betting?
You know.
A thousand, she said.
A thousand, he said. Come on. He ran back to the other basket. Come on, he said. We don’t have much daylight left.
*
That was how he met the girl. She gave him a warm bed and food, and the gift of her body, late at night, only with the lights out, under the covers, groping and twisting in darkness, always with a condom. She asked nothing of him save peace and solitude during the days so she could write her paper. The kid walked the streets of Philly and rode the train continually from one end of the city to the other. He always carried Herman with him, in case he decided not to come back that night. In the meantime he collected money at different playgrounds, never more than a few dollars a day—he often took bets of one or two dollars against his five, or even loose change, when nothing else was around. He spent it on groceries, Ramen noodles and cans of tuna. Being in the grocery store without shoplifting unnerved him. He fought the urge to lift candy in the checkout lane. Throughout the fall he and the girl fell into a routine. The kid had never known anything like this. When they sat down to eat together, the girl insisted on holding his hand for a moment in silence, like a prayer, though no words were said. At night she rubbed his shoulders. She rambled about basketball for hours.
The idea of moving without the ball, she said. The object of the game is to put the ball in the hoop—so imagine moving without the ball. Moving with a purpose other than putting the ball in the basket. Moving to set a screen, or fill a lane, or rotating to create space, or as a decoy. The idea that five people become one single unit with a common goal—to put the ball in the basket—but working extemporaneously, spontaneously, on offense and defense—oh, but you don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? All you do is shoot.
She stopped rubbing his shoulders, leaned over him, and dangled her wet hair in his face. He closed his eyes. I can dribble okay, he said.
No you can’t, she said. And you can’t play any D either. Only thing you can do is shoot.
The kid said nothing.
You don’t need to play D, she said. If you get the ball first, you’ll never be on defense. That’s your hustle, isn’t it?
Everybody uses that word hustle, the kid says. I don’t know what it means. Everybody does something to get by. You write anthropology papers.
Maybe you’re my next experiment, she said.
The kid didn’t like that. The next day he was gone on a westbound train. He had thought their relationship would end when the holidays arrived, when she announced she was going home for a length of time and he could not stay here in the apartment alone, nor could she bring him home with her, not a hobo like him. Or else she would invite him there, which would be even worse. Either way, it would’ve been the end, and that’s what he had anticipated. Not some small event like this, not something she merely said—she talked constantly, after all. But so it happened. He didn’t leave a note and he blocked out all thoughts of the girl.
*
In San Francisco he met a group of Asian boys who played on a court covered in fog, so thick that you couldn’t see one basket while standing under the other one. These boys played with a strange kind of lackadaisical intensity: one moment they hustled and strained, the next they laughed and didn’t try. These fluctuations went back and forth, from moment to moment. The boys all seemed to know when to shift, like a flock of birds changing direction. The kid couldn’t figure it out.
Eventually he got in on a game of H-O-R-S-E with a long-haired boy in tube socks. His shiny black hair flopped when he jumped, and he had an unorthodox, left-handed push shot that for a moment alarmed the kid. This other boy was better than he’d anticipated.
The kid started off with lay-ups, just as a lark, backwards, sideways, from behind the backboard. When the other boy matched all these, the kid stepped out to fifteen feet and popped a bunch of jumpers around the horn. The other boy matched all these too. His friends cheered on the sidelines, barely visible in the fog. Sometimes the Asian kid put a high arc on his shot so that it disappeared into the mist, only to fall through the net as though out of the sky like a meteor. He laughed when this happened. His shot was a knuckleball, no rotation, just a rock floating through the air like a primitive beast. It should not have gone in, and it frustrated the kid, whose own jumper was a work of fundamental elbow-point backspin wrist-flick beauty. Finally, he stepped beyond the three-point line—the rim faded a little at this distance. In twenty or so attempts, he managed to saddle the other boy with H, O, R, and S. The sideline friends seemed to realize that this stranger was not going to miss. And yet their boy somehow had a chance. David and Goliath situation. For the final letter, the E, the kid swished a one-hander from half court. The rim was a ghost shrouded in cotton. It had been a fun experience, toying with these San Franciscans, but now the kid wanted his winnings and a hot meal and a shelter. But the other boy made the half court shot. His friends howled. The kid sank it again, and again the other boy matched it. That was when the kid felt true fear—not that he might miss, but that they might go on forever, that this was his purgatory: forced to shoot for eternity, never missing but never winning.
But then finally, on a shot from the opposite free throw line, the other basket almost invisible, the other boy missed. He gave the kid his money and they shook hands. The kid took the cash across town and bought a sandwich in a café, and sat there thinking about that other kid, a boy he’d barely spoken to and yet with whom he shared an almost mystical experience. The kid barely tasted his sandwich, so unsettled did he feel. It was as though he’d corrupted something innocent, taken advantage of something he ought not have. That boy’s knuckleball had been a thing of beauty, in its own way. And the kid had broken it.
*
He spent the winter in L.A., which was, for him, one of the easiest places to exist. Things always happened there. Creeping away from the rail yard, entering the city, he felt as though he was entering some kind of churning stew. He might be thrown any which way. One day he found a great boon, a twenty-dollar bill in the street, and almost didn’t pick it up—somehow he felt guilty. He hadn’t earned this money, neither by skill nor by theft. He stared at the bill for a while, until other pedestrians approached and this notion seemed suddenly silly, and he snatched it up and rationed it carefully, and in this way lived for a few weeks. The possibility of exhausting his resources—his courts—was a problem. He might need those courts later, and if everyone recognized him then no one would bet. Some neighborhoods also frightened him—Watts, Compton. Still he ventured there, often the only white person at the playground.
One evening in Venice Beach, at a seaside court with a cool ocean breeze, the kid found a bet for five bucks, fifty free throws in a row. He sank them all quickly, and people gathered around to watch. Some people shouted and yelped and waved to distract him. He wanted to laugh. As long as they weren’t allowed to touch him, he could go all night. The rims were of the hard, notoriously unforgiving double-banded type, which made his feat all the more incredible: no rim shots, he had to swish every one.
But when he made his fifty, they wouldn’t pay up. (This happened only rarely. Athletes have a certain kind of honor.) Usually, in this situation, the kid just left. Never before had anyone tried to rob him of his wrinkled fiver, but as all the sweaty black men surrounded him, he feared it might happen now. He stood there, deciding what to do, when someone said, Fifty more. So he kept shooting. He did another fifty. After that, some of the men grew bored and went back to their game. But the man who’d made the bet, middle-aged with a hard belly and hard eyes, stayed there with the kid. Keep going until you miss, the man said. Then I’ll give you your money.
The bet was for fifty, the kid said.
I want to see how many you can do.
I can do as many as you want.
Let me see it.
The kid shrugged and kept shooting, let the son of a bitch stand there all night and watch. The kid didn’t count, but the betting man did. For a long time he rebounded the ball and kept the tally under his breath. The kid took no dribbles, just catch-and-shoot, an old-fashioned knee-bending set shot. Finally the man caught the ball and held it. That’s five hundred, he said.
Is that enough? the kid said.
What’s the world record?
I don’t know.
Can you shoot threes too?
I shoot from anywhere. Can I have my five dollars now? I need to get some food.
The man narrowed his eyes. Keep shooting.
Of course the kid could have missed on purpose, brick one off the backboard, or spin it out, make it look like a heartbreaker. But he’d be sick with himself if he did. He couldn’t stand that nasty bile-throat feeling again. So he kept shooting, and eventually the other men’s game ended and they gathered around again, but this time there was no mocking or waving—only a revered silence. Once they understood that he had made over nine hundred in a row, that it was not a joke, a kind of fear crept into them. The kid sensed it. A few of them left and he was sure that was why. They distrusted him now, didn’t want to get too close. The kid kept shooting as the sun set. When the moon rose and the streetlights came on, the kid stopped and held the ball and said, How many is that?
Five thousand two hundred and twenty-one, the man said. His eyes were red and tired.
I have to sleep, the kid said. It’s too late to eat anyway. Looks like I go hungry tonight. He rolled the ball to the man and walked away. The man caught up with him from behind and gave him the five dollars, and this time in his eyes there was a kindness, a certain knowledge. You should be in the pros, he said.
We all should be something, the kid said. He got a burger and fries at an all-night joint and then found a vacant lot to bed down in.
*
In the early spring he hopped a train to the Midwest and jumped off somewhere in Indiana. Besides Herman, he carried only his backpack, stuffed with his personal items. He didn’t grow much facial hair and so didn’t need a razor. He wore layers and layers of flannel shirts, six or seven deep, and a knit cap with his hair sticking out the sides. The Indiana rail yard was freezing, low grey sky over slushy snow, and the kid had to outrun an overweight red-faced bull who cursed as the kid slipped away into the woods. In March the woods were covered with snow and the kid stomped through them silently with Herman cradled under one arm.
Eventually they gave way to a lonely interstate road and the kid considered trying to hitch a ride in one of the eighteen-wheelers. But he had always been a train kid. He preferred the bulls to the truck drivers. At least you knew which side the bulls were on. Drivers were more like snakes.
So he crossed the interstate and came into a little town. It wasn’t much—only three stoplights. The kid walked down the main drag, past the barbershop, feed store, diner. He didn’t see a single basketball hoop, which he found odd, particularly in Indiana. But when he saw a dirt road, he immediately caught the scent. He went down the road and found, standing alone in a snow-deep field, a simple wooden church house with a court out back.
The kid went straight to the court. He warmed up with a few fifteen-footers, then jogged around the perimeter launching threes. When his hands got too numb to shoot, he tried the church door. Locked. He went around back, tried another door. Locked. He couldn’t bring himself to break one of the stained-glass panels. Instead he broke a small window in the back and crawled into what looked like a laundry room, a small dark space with a washer and dryer on a concrete floor. From there he found his way to the altar, a podium with a cross on the wall behind it, overlooking rows and rows of pews. The kid had never been onstage, had never seen anything from this angle. It was warm here. He pulled an old flannel from his bag and made a little pallet before the altar, and fell asleep.
He woke to a man in a white collar looking down at him. The kid scrambled back, ready to bolt, but the priest reached out an assuring hand and smiled.
I don’t care who you are, the priest said. You can stay here as long as you need.
The priest and his wife fixed a bed for the kid in a room beside the laundry room. They didn’t say anything about the broken window. They fed him and he felt guilty about it as he had about that twenty dollar bill, but just as then, his hunger won out. He sat through the church services too, but the priest only wanted to watch him shoot. Every day he asked the kid to shoot for a while, never any specified amount of time, never a certain number of shots—just ‘for a while.’ The priest was a former player himself who had also coached his son’s youth league. He spoke as though his son was already old and the kid wondered how old the priest was. Look at that elbow, he said as the kid shot. Perfect.
The congregation’s kids, teenagers mostly, some of whom played for the local school team, came to watch on Sundays after the service. The older boys scoffed: He could never play on our team, he can’t even dribble, betcha he doesn’t know how to box out, or what a screen is—hey kid, do you know what a screen is? The kid didn’t answer, just kept shooting. He understood that he was shooting for his daily bread and that made him feel less guilty. He sensed the envy in the other boys. The priest made them watch as an example of perfect form. That’s why God sent him here, he said. To teach you boys how to shoot.
*
He stayed with the priest until everything started to thaw out. Then he moved on. Same as before, no goodbye, no note. Just left one morning. On the California/Oregon border, somewhere near the coast, he found a bunch of Indian kids playing on a court across the street from a gas station. Black hills surrounded the place, big loud windy sky. The kid walked two miles to get there from the rail yard. He didn’t know where he was going. He was depressed. Ever since that bull in Houston destroyed his old ball, Newtie, things had been going downhill. First the girl, then that Asian prodigy in San Francisco, then the man who made him shoot, then the preacher. The kid felt as though he was stealing from life, but he didn’t know how. He denied himself everything. He lived on the road, ate scraps. How could he be stealing from life. How.
The kids on this court tried to play him ten-on-one, all of them against him, like swarms of bugs against his knees, and he let them steal the ball, but sometimes, to remind them who was boss, he drilled a bunch of shots in a row over their outstretched little hands, and this only delighted them more. They asked if he played for the pros, or in college, or in high school, and the kid had to answer no to all three, he didn’t play anywhere, he just did it… for fun. That’s what he said, for fun. He couldn’t believe the words when they came out of his mouth. The little ones didn’t notice and kept running around, dribbling the ball and squealing. The kid didn’t want to take these children’s money, but then some of the older ones got boastful—this court was their turf, they ruled it, and this foreigner had usurped them. So the kid didn’t mind taking a few dollars from them, especially when they started trash-talking. The boys accumulated enough change between them to match the kid’s fiver, but this bet was different. They didn’t want him to make five hundred in a row, or to shoot left-handed, or to play H-O-R-S-E. They only wanted one shot: top of the key, a three-pointer. That was it. At first the kid was confused—what’s the catch? He’d been nailing those shots all day. Why would they think he couldn’t make another one?
Because this time it counts, the boys said. This time it’s for money.
The kid looked at them incredulously. They had no way of knowing who he was, what he could do. They stared right back at him, these Indian kids with their thick, unknowable features and their dark brown eyes. Some of them had long hair in ponytails. They would play for their high school team someday. They were cocky.
The kid stepped to the line.
That night barreling east through the darkness, he played the shot over and over in his head. It had felt good. (He didn’t really know what “bad” felt like, in terms of shooting.) Herman had rolled off his fingertips like always, his elbow had been pointed, his wrist flicked. His legs were under him. It just—missed. It bounced off the back of the iron, right on target but just a little too long, and landed in the hands of the pony-tailed ringleader, a kid who couldn’t have been more than thirteen but who had the face of an eighty-year-old. This boy did not laugh or taunt, did not rub in the fact of his victory. He merely tossed Herman back to the kid and approached with his hand outstretched for the fiver. The old, wrinkled, tissue-thin, Nixon administration fiver. The kid handed it over silently, the most agonizing thing he’d ever done, and now here he was, back on the train, with nowhere to go and nothing to eat and nothing to bet with, and summer coming on, when people everywhere would descend to the courts, and now the kid had no collateral, no way to earn. He’d been betrayed. He didn’t know if it was by Herman, if Herman had, at the last moment, decided it liked the clang of iron better than the caress of net. Or if it was only himself.
Either way, he left Herman behind in the empty train car when he exited. The train, after several days, had arrived in Philly, and the kid went straight to the girl’s apartment. A whole semester had come and gone—she might have moved. But when he knocked, the door swung open and there she was: skinnier, her face more gaunt, but with the same dark hair and freckles. She gasped when she saw him.
When’s the last time you’ve eaten? she said.
Not sure.
Where’s your ball?
Lost it.
No wonder you haven’t been eating. Come here. She reached out to him, and when he stepped forward, she gave him a stinging slap across the face. Asshole, she said, and led him inside. He didn’t know what to make of this. The apartment had been rearranged.
I figured you would have a new boyfriend.
I did. He’s gone.
Did you write your anthropology paper?
Yes. And three more since then. I graduate next month.
Then what?
I’m moving.
Where to?
I don’t know. What are you going to do without your ball?
I don’t know, he said. Hey, I never asked—how old are you?
Twenty-two.
God, he said. I’m only nineteen. I feel like my life has rushed by before I could notice, and I’m still only nineteen.
You’re a kid, she said, and laughed. Listen, the Sixers game is on tonight. Let’s have a beer and watch it.
I’m not even old enough to drink, he said.
I won’t tell anyone.
I’m not even a basketball fan.
Now that, she said, I don’t believe for a second.
*
Two years later, at a pro game in Orlando, the kid and the girl take their seats, loaded down with popcorn, hot dogs, soda. They’re both fatter now, and better dressed.
Just when the kid gets settled, the loudspeakers announce tonight’s contest: at halftime, one lucky fan will get a half-court shot for a million dollars. Seat number 521. The kid checks his seat number and then looks at the girl.
That’s you, she says.

 

About the Author:

Nicholas T. Brown lives and writes in Orlando, FL. He has a dog named Seven and a cat named Mrs. Mia Wallace.