The Boys arrived at Three-Finger Freddie’s house, which was neatly tucked in the middle of a cul-de-sac. Freddie’s basketball hoop was regulation size, and the court, which was a rounded section of street, offered more space than the traditional driveway or curbside pickup game. That’s why they were there, why they hung with Freddie—to play ball on his court.
“You guys know I hate Freddie,” Chris barked as he lingered in the overcast of his shadow. They were still on their bikes and faced the basketball hoop. Freddie was practicing three-pointers. He’d shot and didn’t miss.
“Isaac made a sacrifice, so can we,” Gabe proclaimed in his preachy tone.
“Just one game.” TJ, who looked athletic, said with assurance, as if speaking directly to Chris. The rest of the boys, Shane, Gabe, and TJ got off their bikes and rested them neatly on the curb closest to Freddie’s house. Chris stayed straddled on his bike. He breathed heavily, though he wasn’t out of breath.
Three-Finger Freddie was the best basketball player in the ninth grade. On the court, it was as if that ball naturally suctioned into his undersized hand, like a glove form fitted to the rubber. Freddie had the cleanest crossovers, inside-the-leg dribbles, and fade-away jumpers; the kid was good. Freddie even used his left hand instead of his right to shoot—releasing the ball in perfect rotation. He could spin a Spalding between those eight digits faster and smoother than anyone. The ball was magic when it whirled like a globe on a mount. And even in school at the lunch table, he’d twirl textbooks, overstuffed binders, and sneakers on one of his long fingers as if a game of spinning plates. It always got a crowd going, and Freddie wasn’t a bit ashamed.
No one really knew how he lost those fingers. The speculation was wild: a bear’s maul, a car accident, frostbite. Just like in any school, kids spread rumors about Freddie, and those stories were gum to a shoe. Freddie was an oddity from their perspective, but he was outgoing, and everyone loved to laugh with him or at him. But it was The Boys who started the story about his dad, Chris in particular. He spread the rumor like a dirty cold—about how Freddie’s father, the butcher from the local grocery, was slicing a hump of ham while holding and burping Baby Freddie, and that little baby reached down to the slicer and swish—two little nubs caught in the meat-machine—plop and gone. Chris told that story because it seemed like a good story to tell. And even though all The Boys partook in Freddie’s mythmaking, they were still friends with him—in the way a suckerfish is friends with a shark.
On this day like many, three of them—Shane, TJ, and Gabe—were finishing a game of two-on-two with Freddie at his house. They grunted between passes, dribbles, break-aways, jumpers, and fast-breaks. Not much talking, just sounds. Their breathing was constant, like the never-exhausted breathing of teenage kids. They could play basketball all day but seemed to be in a rush.
Chris was still straddling his bike near the entrance of the cul-de-sac. Shane, TJ, and Gabe knew Chris hated Freddie, though Chris didn’t have much of a reason besides that Freddie was annoying. Chris swore it wasn’t Freddie’s fingers or the fingers Freddie did not have, but what he mostly disliked about Freddie was that he brought attention to himself before anyone else could, as if to say, I will make fun of myself before you do. Like when he always used his middle finger from the half-sized hand to “phone home,” though E.T. had one more finger than Freddie. And that was the nature of Freddie—funny, but still missing the mark, a joke that half-landed.
Freddie’s index fingertip was as smooth as a thimble; and to keep the ball in rotation, he used his right hand to push. “Another game?” Freddie impressed himself, glanced at Shane, TJ, and Gabe.
“Let’s go.” Chris sighed in frustration. He didn’t enjoy organized sports anymore and had been on a rant some days before about how parents cheered on their kids, even if they sucked—about how phony it was—that what was even the point in competition, “all for some dollar-store trophy?” He said this and other things, and the boys just nodded. Chris would rather pedal off into the woods, ascent on top of dirt jumps with two wheels in the air like a leaf lost in the wind. That’s what he wanted to do, and he was overlooking the pickup game in annoyance. Shoot, score, rebound, pass, shoot, miss, pass, an endless cycle. Chris huffed and puffed and blew frustration out his mouth like smoke. His face was turned up as if Freddie was a human onion. The other boys outvoted Chris by three to one every time, and that’s why they were there and that’s why Chris was pissed.
Chris had been on edge for weeks. The other boys knew something was coming; they saw it in his eyes—the blue circles fading like watching a turning sky, as if a storm was forming, as if something was changing inside this boy and there was nothing they could do to stop it. Shane, who fancied all things old, thought Chris now reminded him of that scene from The Wizard of Oz. Shane hadn’t said this, but he thought it. He was imagining it between passes, staring at Chris’s shadow looming on his bike. Shane didn’t have the words to explain it, but it played in his head like an old reel. Dorothy was replaced by Chris, and the cyclone was churning, loud and monstrous; debris was flying everywhere: bikes, cats, dogs, the old lady who was power-walking a little ways down the quiet neighborhood street. Chris, in the middle of all the imagined chaos, looked lost and angry and unable to grab hold of anything. Of course, they asked all week what was up, but getting close to Chris was hovering a hand over a lit stove.
Shane had brought his battery-powered CD-player boombox. It was previously stuffed in his backpack which held an assortment of things: Gatorades, candy bars, a mini disc wallet, and whatever else that was hidden at the bottom of the Jansport. In the disc tray was a mix he burned from his computer, “Hip-Hip Jamz” labeled with a black marker in graffiti-style letters. Coming from the speaker, the lyrics arrived at the chorus, “I am getting’ so hot, I wanna’ take my clothes off.” The four of them—Freddie, Shane, TJ, and Gabe—decided it was hot, and gawked at each other with childish mischief: a raise of the eyebrow, a flirty wink, a smack of the lips, and they ripped their shirts off and swung them around like wet flags. It was a little past noon, and the early September sun spread like an egg cracked, and the white of it was like the froth of the clouds. The sun fried their skin: peach-colored, translucent, ebony, and olive. It was a sight to see—these bodies composed of ribs, sternum, and clavicle. Cooling, they passed the time by passing the ball: under the legs, overhead, behind the back. Sweat that hadn’t learned to ferment between hairs and crevices yet glistened like an oily residue. They smelled, and they were proud of it, nose-checking their armpits to see how bad it really was.
The music died out. Shirts were back on. Freddie was trash-talking TJ in a quick one-on-one game to eleven. “Your jump-shot is weak,” a quick shuffle, and then Freddie swiped the ball out TJ’s hands. He spun his foot from his back heel, creating separation between TJ and him—squish, a scored basket. “My ball.” Freddie and TJ met at the half court line marked in faded white paint. “Check.” Freddie passed the ball hard, hitting TJ in the chest.
“Check,” and TJ sent it right back. This was their banter; playing ball meant talking trash.
“D me up,” Freddie said and demanded tougher defense. Dribbling with his left hand and using the right to push off TJ, “Come on, dude. Aren’t you Black? You should be better than me.” Freddie jumped, the ball crowned in his hands, released. The ball clanked and ricocheted off the rim, landing in a fetterbush outside the court. Freddie smirked and showed a glint of metal braces.
“Yeah, I got it.” TJ was Black, one of the only Black kids in school. He shrugged the comment off like he usually did. He stepped over the curb in a pair of Converse high-tops and shouted with a bit of justification, “I just play for fun!” He was in the brush now, the leaves of a maple tickling his neck. The sun didn’t reach far in the shade, and TJ began to blend in with the shallowness of color. People often assumed he was athletic. He could dribble and shoot like anybody else, but he wasn’t good, not how they wanted him to be. Though he looked the part, his muscles naturally defined. But he didn’t exercise more than any other adolescent boy; he mainly played basketball because his dad encouraged it, sometimes demanded it—telling him to get out of his room, to stop all that drawing and go shoot a ball.
TJ searched with his fingers, trying to touch what he couldn’t see. “Got it,” and he gripped the basketball. With a skip, he pounced back to the court. Freddie was waiting, pretending to tap at an imaginary wristwatch. Shane and Gabe sat crab-legged on the curb nearby Chris, who was stoically straddling his bike. The game began again.
Chris clenched the grip on the handlebars, “Freddie thinks he’s so f’in’ funny. He’s not. He’s annoying.”
“You’re right, but he’s got the court,” Shane countered.
“And he’s got no friends but us,” Gabe tried sympathize like always.
“But you guys don’t even like him.” Chris’s patience was worn.
They hustled back and forth, “Really, TJ, I thought Black people were supposed to be good at sports,” Freddie’s interrogation continued. He bounced the ball between his rail-thin legs, the white of his skin almost translucent in the sun. Some part of Freddie really believed all Black people should be good at sports. He honestly was perplexed. The basketball players he idolized in the NBA were Black: Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen. Freddie thought TJ should play like them, since he looked like them. However, ignorance does not pardon ignorance, and TJ’s façade that none of this bothered him was begging to crack. His brows furled, sweat in his eyes, a squint, another hustle.
Freddie and TJ’s bodies were chest on chest, slick, bones on bones; TJ’s defense on top of Freddie’s offense. TJ was holding something back, but really barely holding it, as if one more shove would result in retaliation. Freddie pressed into him. TJ pressed back. Freddie turned his shoulder, the blade facing TJ, and then with half-spin, struck an elbow into TJ’s face. “Shit!” TJ snarled, and covered his mouth. Freddie continued his pursuit to the basket, lay-up, score.
Shane and Gabe quickly stood, anticipating what would happen next, if they’d be separating Freddie and TJ because this just happened sometimes—sometimes boys fight.
“Sorry, dude!” Freddie laughed it off. He taunted, using all eight fingers, chuckled again, and erected three just from his left hand. “That’s eleven. Game.”
TJ dabbed his lip on his knuckles to check for blood, a smug of red contrasting with his dark skin. He sucked in his bottom lip as if nurturing it, and then spit blood on the pavement. “I’m good.”
“Shake?” Freddie joined TJ where he left him. He lined up his three fingers to TJ’s five.
“Shake.” They shook hands. The clasp felt odd, TJ thought.
“Who’s next?” Freddie slapped the ball loudly, his palm on the rubber, and a couple birds flew out the tops of the pine trees that enclosed the perimeter of the houses in the cul-de-sac. Freddie really hoped someone would say yes. He knew he’d be back to practicing alone. After a few games, The Boys always peddled off, and never said “thank you” or “we’ll come over again soon.” They’d ride away, tell some joke that Freddie knew was about him. His friendship with The Boys was contingent on playing basketball on his court. Freddie knew they didn’t really like him, no one did. But he tried his best to persuade them—hell, he never even played at hundred-percent skill-level, but elbowing TJ had crossed the line. TJ hadn’t said anything since the handshake. Freddie wasn’t sure about the Black joke.
TJ was sitting, throwing pebbles into the woods. Shane and Gabe were next to him, had flipped over their bikes and were spinning the rear tires. A playing card was fastened with a clothespin to tire spokes; it sounded like a motorcycle. Chris hadn’t gotten off his bike.
“I’m tired of his shit,” he barked between clenched teeth. “That thing about TJ being Black wasn’t cool.”
“But TJ really does suck at basketball,” Shane commented and laughed.
TJ spit more blood out. It was mostly saliva now. “Well, I bet you already have an F in History, so F you, Shane” TJ retorted.
“TJ, it’s not cool what he said, about you being Black. He’s not funny, guys.”
“Chill, Chris,” and another pebble tapped the bark of a tree. But TJ knew that was bullshit. Chris never defended TJ when people from school made Black jokes.
“I don’t care how good he is at basketball. The kid is such a freak.” Chris was on a roll and couldn’t stop.
Freddie heard what Chris said. He slapped the ball again. “Who’s next?” His voice carried the “o” antagonistically.
Chris dropped his bike. “I’ll play you.”
The Boys had given Chris a pass all week. He was on edge, and they knew why. In school, he stopped answering questions when called on by the teacher, just replying with I-don’t-knows. He played with his food at lunch, probing peas or piercing a hot dog. He earned three detentions. On Thursday, the day before this day, Chris was called down to the principal’s office first thing in the morning—how they saw Chris’s mom out the classroom window—how she looked disheveled: the straps of her top hanging off, her bright bra exposed, her purse perched but barely hanging to her fingers, how her walk was uneven and how she seemed unsure of the next step. Chris wasn’t back in class until third period. He was in trouble, and whatever was brewing inside of him couldn’t stop. So, he sure as hell didn’t want to go to Freddie’s today, but they’d begged him to come out—said they’d only play for an hour and then just bike the rest of the day.
Freddie was spinning the ball on his left hand, the third finger, which if included by two more, would have made it the middle. He knew what he was doing. “You sure you want next?” He switched hands, spun the ball on the right, lowered each finger but the middle.
The two boys squared up at the half-court line. Gabe, TJ, and Shane sat on the curb. They looked anxiously at each other, expecting something to happen.
Freddie’s father cracked the front door and yelled, “Anyone want a Gatorade?” They could only see his belly distended from out a dirty white butcher apron. The boys on the curb didn’t say anything. “How about sandwiches? I have some extra roast beef from the deli.” The basketball thudded. “I’ll get you guys sandwiches. They’ll be in the kitchen.” Freddie’s father’s voice was booming but in a warm and loving Santa Claus way. “Yo, Chris, want a Gatorade?”
“Fuck your Gatorade.”
“No, Dad.” The front door was already closed. Freddie wasn’t even thinking about it—about Chris’s father. Freddie just wanted to be better at basketball. He knew it was all he had.
“Loser gets ball.” Freddie bounce-passed the ball to Chris, but Chris didn’t catch it in time, and the ball smacked his nose.
“My bad, Chris,” and Freddie actually did feel bad, though he laughed some.
They might have been a yard away, but Chris moved faster than The Boys had ever seen him move. Running headfirst, the rest of him trying to catch up. Chris was yelling something that wasn’t an actual word. Before they knew it, Chris was on top of Freddie—his hands open, closed—knuckles, nails, anything. Freddie was swatting as if being attacked by bees. Freddie tried to say stop but his mouth was muffled by the hammering of a fist, a pop, like a ball suddenly deflated, and blood. It was all ugly, the way Chris’s body moved—full of a wild rage that he didn’t even understand. It took over him, guiding his strikes, as if saying, hit here, that’s where it’ll hurt. Another to the mouth, and this time, the bracket of Freddie’s braces tore the inside of his lip. Chris’s hands were wet and hot, pumping like pistons. In the background, The Boys yelled things that Chris couldn’t hear, but it took Chris’s attention, and he stopped swinging. And that’s when Freddie managed to prop his body up and flip Chris over. His retaliation of force was much stronger and more violent than Chris’s initiation. Freddie, a bigger kid, wasn’t even trying to hit Chris—he was just trying to hit anything that felt like a person. He struck with his smaller hand most. It moved quicker; it was angrier. That hand remembered every time a kid mocked Freddie; it remembered the story about the meat-machine; it remembered when Freddie was told he’d never be good at basketball. That hand remembered everything Freddie tried to forget, and it was Chris’s face that felt it. Something inside these boys snapped, whatever rage had been growing in there—that fire ignited. Blood covered them both, their shirts a color unrecognizable.
This was not like the fights from movies. This was messy. These boys were mangled, and the injuries were too new to gauge. But before it got worse, Gabe, TJ, and Shane finally broke it up, whatever that meant. TJ tackling Freddie to the ground. Shane and Gabe holding down Chris. The three of them shouting, “Stop!”
Between the struggle, Chris trying to catch his breath, “At least I have ten fingers!”
“At least I have a dad.” The last and final blow from Freddie.
It was quiet then. A couple birds returned to the trees. Cicadas were calling out the night now. The sun had sunk under the canopy. The colors in the sky were red and orange and passionate about not letting go of the light. Their breathing was heavy, all of the boys, sitting on the pavement. No one knew where the ball was. There were no more games to play. Chris’s dad died almost a year ago that day. They sat there, mourning, too afraid to move, their eyes all holding on to a collective pain that they really didn’t understand. And Chris, he knew it didn’t matter how many fingers more Freddie had or did not have; Freddie had a dad and he did not—that was simple enough. Chris couldn’t explain that, so he just said sorry, and so did Freddie, who still wanted two more fingers. But he knew, like his fingers knew, that he would never have them and he would never have The Boys as friends.
Rumpus original art by Mike Tré.