Not Even Close
Ali had no chance against Holmes, but I was still confident because he had rope-a-doped George Foreman only six years before, and because his face always looked like it had never been punched. He was Ali, and so I bet on Ali against my train buddy John as we rode home from another glorious day of college lectures.
“Six pack of beer,” he said to me as the conductor strolled past us.
“I don’t really drink,” I said. “How about a friendly bet?”
“A friendly bet like what?”
“Like nothing. Just a friendly bet, like one of those ‘ha, ha, I was right’ kind of bets.”
He thought for a while, then shrugged, and we shook on it.
Soon John wanted to bet me something else―that Jasmine, who had not shown up on the train for two days, was ducking me because I’d asked her out, and hadn’t been kidnapped like I’d suggested earlier.
“She said no to me, so what’s there for her to duck about?” I said to him.
“Exactly, she said no. Some people duck after they say no.”
“You’re supposed to duck before you say no, not after.”
“People can duck whenever they feel like it.”
We sat through the usual long delay at Smithtown, because the train full of New York City commuters had to pass us first. As it rolled by, I looked into the cars, packed as usual with three people to each seat, and none of them were looking at each other.
* * *
I lost the Ali bet. Heard the fight on the radio and Ali took a very bad beating. He could hardly lift his arms to defend himself, by the sound of it. I’d heard that Holmes was his friend and former sparring buddy. Some buddy.
Jasmine wasn’t on the train again that morning, but John was there.
“Ha, ha, I was right,” he said.
Besides missing Jasmine and mourning over a beaten Ali, the bright side of things was that maybe I’d be able to get a room for free over in St. James, one stop from campus and three stops from home. An old rich lady would meet me that afternoon and set me up.
“Why is the room for free?” John wanted to know.
“Because … I don’t know, maybe if someone lives in the house, then she wouldn’t be alone.”
“That makes too much sense,” John said.
* * *
I took an early afternoon train to St. James, missing out on the possible return of Jasmine. At the rich lady’s sprawling mansion, her son met me on the spacious property and brought me into the almost-as-spacious house to meet the old woman, who wasn’t that old, just rich. When I smiled and said hello, she said nothing and didn’t even move her face muscles.
She asked me what I liked to do, and I said I liked basketball. She asked me if there was anything else I liked to do, and I said I liked to write poems that rhyme, and her face sagged.
“But I write letters that rhyme too,” I added.
Later, on the manicured lawn, her dog, Alfred, a terrier or something, who’d seemed very nice at first, attacked a dachshund that walked by. Alfred grabbed the smaller dog by the back of the neck, and he shook it a little each time it tried to squirm free. The old lady’s son screamed at Alfred to let go, and he even grabbed a stick and whacked Alfred on the back, but Alfred held the dachshund in his mouth. Then I got into the act, screaming, “Alfred!” at the top of my lungs each time the stick came down on Alfred’s back. Alfred dropped the dachshund at last, and it scampered away. My throat was killing me from screaming “Alfred,” and I wondered what kind of name Alfred was for a dog, especially if it was the type of dog that had to be screamed at before it would drop a dachshund.
The son strode away to talk to the old lady, and when he returned he informed me, without shaking hands or looking at me, that the old lady had decided not to take me in because I was too quiet.
* * *
Between classes the next morning, I scanned the crowd in front of the humanities building. I didn’t see Jasmine, but her friend Carolyn hurried by, so I caught up to her and tapped her shoulder and she jumped.
“How’s Jasmine?” I said. “I haven’t seen her.”
She motioned me to follow her across the sidewalk to the well-cut grass, where she told me that Jasmine had a boyfriend.
“She tried to break up with him, you know, so he tried to run her over with his car.”
“She has a boyfriend?”
“And he tried to run her over with his car.” She looked into my eyes. “She likes you, she really does, but he tried to kill her, so … you know.” And she shrugged.
“She has a boyfriend? Really?” I stared at the thick hedges, and Carolyn breezed past me.
* * *
During September when John and Jasmine and I rode the train together, we often enjoyed watching Popeye make a fool of himself. Popeye was an older guy with tattoos on his arms and scraggly white whiskers. He often sat in the first seat that faced everyone else, and when the train started moving he’d get up and tap dance and sing a song, like “Just One of Those Things.” The other passengers looked away, but we watched him with interest and laughed. Once he told us stories about the war, and when we asked him which war he was talking about, he said, “Any war, kids. Any war,” and then he sang an old standard, imitating Bing Crosby or Rosemary Clooney, we couldn’t tell which.
After Carolyn dropped the bombshell that Jasmine’s boyfriend was a killer, I decided to cut the rest of my classes and take the train to the city to see the Knicks play the Spurs. Popeye got on at the Kings Park station and squeezed himself into a seat already occupied by two other people, who moved to another car when he tried to talk to them about the war. Then he got up and started to tap dance. The small group of passengers looked away from him, annoyed, and I gazed out the window at the trees speeding by. The faces of Carolyn and Jasmine and the rich lady and her son flashed through my mind—annoyed faces looking away from me.
Soon the conductor made his entrance to collect tickets, stopping Popeye mid-step and holding out his hand. Popeye fumbled through his pockets, and his ticket dropped to the floor. The conductor hurried to grab it, but Popeye bent over at the same time and they clunked heads. I winced as the conductor stomped away without collecting any other tickets, and Popeye sat down like nothing had happened and sang, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.”
* * *
It turned out that I had mixed up the days and that the Knicks would play the Spurs on Friday, not Thursday, so I had to take a lonely and embarrassing train ride home. But the next day, still determined to go to that game, I decided to cut my classes again. Before heading to the train station, though, I killed time in the center of the surrounding arts buildings, and I’d just pressed my foot against a tree to tie my sneaker when Jasmine walked past with some guy. They had their arms around each other. The guy had a ponytail and a thin scraggly red beard. I tried to imagine him driving an out-of-control car toward a desperately fleeing Jasmine, but he didn’t fit the profile. He looked more like the kind of guy who would poison people’s drinks on the sly.
I kept a safe distance and watched them stop to kiss behind a light pole. Minutes later they separated, Red Beard aggressively striding away, and Jasmine wandering toward the science buildings, her big hand-made bag bouncing against her thin body.
For a long time I couldn’t move, couldn’t lift my arms, and I wondered if Larry Holmes would saunter by and sucker punch me.
* * *
On my way to catch the train, I saw Carolyn heading in my direction in front of the engineering building, but instead of greeting me with the latest news about Jasmine’s impending murder and discussing a plan to save her, she raced by me. I imagined catching up to her and demanding to know what was happening, but then I figured I would get in trouble by making a scene, and that a gang of engineering professors would pour out of lecture halls and throw me down a long flight of stairs, so I gave up and ran for the train station.
* * *
I closed my eyes on the train, and in my mind Jasmine froze in front of a speeding car, and when I replayed the scene she tried to dive into the bushes, but the car hit her anyway. Soon the face of a hyena appeared, and I grabbed a baseball bat and nailed it on the snout, but the thing shook off the blow and came at my knees. I replayed the scene and tried a fresh wallop, but it only snuffled and continued after me, and another hyena came along and made a dash for my knees as well. I jumped awake.
“Sniveling little bastards,” I muttered to myself, and a lady sitting in front of me half-turned to glance at me.
* * *
After the Knicks made the first basket, I figured the game was pretty much over, but then the Spurs guard George Gervin answered with a finger roll, and a man sitting behind me called, “GER-VAAAN!”
By the second half, Gervin and the Spurs were dismantling my beloved Knicks.
“I’m sick of losing,” I muttered as the crowd groaned over a turnover, and I slumped in my seat, fuming. Every time Gervin touched the ball, the guy behind me whined, “GER-VAAAN!” and Gervin, as though on cue, made a smooth move to the basket. He finger-rolled, he softly banked shots, he swished long jumpers. He shot holding the ball near his ear so no one could lay a hand on it. He was smooth and graceful, and he was calm and deadly. He scored at will.
I sat up straight. Maybe the next day I would cut classes and visit the park and play ball. Maybe I’d try shooting from near my ear, like Gervin, and maybe no one would come by looking to beat me down. Maybe I could pretend to be my favorite players in a shooting contest, and it wouldn’t matter who won.
There was a timeout with two minutes left, and the Spurs, way out in front, finally took Gervin out. Some of the crowd applauded, and I turned at last to look for the guy who’d been chanting “GER-VAAAN!” all game. From only two rows back, he raised his eyebrows and nodded his head with appreciation. He was Red Beard’s opposite, with short dark hair and dark skin. He was at least 40, and he wore a Knicks shirt.
“He’s too good,” I said, and frowned.
“He just comes to play, man,” he said, and he winked like he knew me.
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