J. R. Beeman and his little brothers always look like a school of sharks when they come at you on their bikes. They charge at whoever is around, and they back you into a corner if they can.
Todd and Aaron and I were shooting hoops late last Tuesday afternoon when they showed up and bumped their bikes onto the gravelly asphalt of the school yard. They kept rearing up their front wheels, making the dust go all over the place.
“I’m not afraid of those guys,” Todd muttered, looking quickly over his shoulder. I knew he was checking to see if any of the men at the gas station on Ohio Street were around, just in case.
Aaron didn’t say anything, but he got even quieter than usual. He had the ball and began bouncing it slowly and evenly. As the bikes raced closer, I saw him swallow—just one long swallow.
Then we all three automatically moved farther into the middle of the basketball court, away from the chain-link fence behind the hoop. Nobody wanted to be backed up against a fence by J.R.
“Hello, infants,” J. R. yelled, chewing open-mouthed on what looked like a whole pack of greenish-colored gum. His two little brothers laughed real loud at J.R.’s big, hilarious joke.
“Infants!” Tommy, the one in second grade, echoed.
Of course, there really wasn’t anything funny about it, since J. R. is ten-going-on-eleven, just like Todd and Aaron and me. I guess because his mom’s been sick for so long and he has to take care of his brothers and the house and everything while his dad’s away, he seems to think that being mean to everybody makes his brothers look up to him.
With his brothers following him, J. R. veered left and began making circles around us. Just like sharks, they kept circling us tighter, tighter. J. R. spit a mouthful of gum juice onto the court.
Right then Brother and Sister Damore and their four little kids walked by on the way to the park. They were singing silly songs and giggling and carrying a blanket and a big picnic basket. J. R. turned so fast and stared so hard at them that he nearly lost control of his bike. He stopped chewing, and his face got kind of … ordinary … even kind of sad.
His brothers looked where he was looking. “Do we get to eat dinner tonight?” his littlest brother asked in a kind of puny-sounding voice.
“Hey, I’ll take care of it, like I always do!” J. R. barked at him. He jumped up on the bike’s pegs to make his front tire rear, then came down hard on its left pedal and nosed his bike to the right, toward his own neighborhood.
I could almost feel Todd go limp with relief.
“See you, infants!” J. R. called back to us.
His little brothers followed like pets, pumping hard to keep up. Todd, Aaron, and I headed home.
“Hi, sweetie. How did your game go?” Mom asked when I dragged into our kitchen. “There’s juice, an apple, and some cheese in the fridge, but don’t spoil your supper.”
I opened the refrigerator door and hung there, looking things over, checking out the fruit. “What’re we having?”
“Fried chicken.” She turned to smile at me. “I bought extra legs.”
“Is that hard to cook?” I asked. “I mean, could a kid cook it for his family?”
I noticed then that she was dunking pieces of chicken into a big bowl of buttermilk and then into flour. Her hands had globs of wet flour sticking to them. She pushed her bangs back with her arm and gave me one of her smile-frowns, shaking her head. “What questions you come up with, Josh! Chicken? Depends on the kid, I guess. Older ones, maybe. Chicken’s pretty hard. As you can see, it’s messy, and the grease can splatter.”
“And burn you?”
She nodded. “It’s possible. Too big a chance to take.”
I shuffled things around in the meat bin. “Why? I mean, why wouldn’t you want to take the chance?”
She took the flour bowl over to the sink and turned the water on with her arm. A pan on the stove was making a popping sort of sound, and another pan was beginning to send steam spurting into the air. She washed the gunk off her hands, hastily dried them on the towel she had stuck into her jeans pocket, then hustled toward me.
I braced myself, but she didn’t sneak a hug. She just put her damp hands on my shoulders and maneuvered me out of the refrigerator, handing me a pear and shutting the door of the fridge. “Josh, I kind of need my concentration while I get this going. And you should get a little homework started—OK?”
We didn’t play basketball after school the next day, or the next. Our science projects for Mr. Fosnow were almost due, and I spent my time organizing the fossil collection I was putting together. On that second gameless afternoon, Thursday, I walked to Quigley’s Store to get some more rubber cement for my project. You go right past the school on the way. I heard the thunk of a basketball for half a block before I actually saw J. R. shooting really hopeless-looking shots at the basket in the school yard. He was by himself. Who would play with him?
He didn’t see me. I quickly turned to hurry back the way I’d come. I didn’t need the rubber cement that badly—I could use some of my little sister’s paste.
Then I heard laughter coming from the park. It was the Damores again. I turned back and watched J. R. He was listening, too, holding that ball perfectly still at chest level. When they started singing “We Are a Happy Family,” he suddenly jerked into motion and violently threw the ball more at the basket than toward it. It missed by so much that it even cleared the fence and rolled into the street.
J. R. kicked the loose gravel of the court. He whirled around under the net there by himself, kicking and hitting the tops of his own legs with his fists, and whisper-yelling something over and over while sweat ran down his neck and his face got red.
Meanwhile, the ball rolled clear across Ohio Street and jumped the curb. It rolled, slightly bouncing, toward me.
I went over and got it. When I straightened up, J. R. was looking directly at me, open-mouthed. My heart lurched like a fish inside my chest. I meant to throw the ball back to him, then run home. But I didn’t.
Instead I dribbled it across the street, around the fence, and onto the court. I could have shot an easy basket. But I bounced it to J.R., instead, threw up my arms, and jumped around like guarding in a real game.
For maybe half a second he looked confused, but I was right on him, so he ran, dribbling, then took a shot himself. He missed, but not by too much. With practice, he would get it.
I lunged to get possession of the ball. Above me, the orange hoop made a circle in the sky.