Standing near the top of the key, Gary asks for the ball and Manny Man gives it up, strangely polite. Gary grips the orb tightly, then backspins it off the blacktop in front of him so that it bounces into his hands. DeAndre is half-watching from beneath the basket, showing a vague embarrassment.
“You play, Mr. McCullough?”
“Well,” says Gary, “back in the day.”
“He ain’t got nuthin’,” says DeAndre.
Gary smiles, then cocks and shoots, catching only the front edge of the rim on a near airball. His son grabs the rebound and clucks derisively.
“One more,” says Gary.
DeAndre fires him the ball. Gary backspins twice, cocks and puts a gentle fifteen-footer to bed. All net, my brothers. R.C. and Manny Man hoot and holler, giving the man his due.
“He got a little somethin’,” says DeAndre, with sudden pride.
“But not with me on the case.”
“Oh, ho,” says Gary, laughing. “Gracious.”
DeAndre hikes his too-large denims back up over his rump and squares off against his father at the key. Gary lowers one shoulder, guarding the ball with his body, then dribbles awkwardly toward the baseline, struggling in a pair of worn dress shoes, unable to negotiate the ball against DeAndre’s manic defense. In obvious desperation, he lets go with an off-balance hook that goes harmlessly off the back of the rim.
“Can’t bring no old-school shot to me,” says DeAndre proudly. “Ball up.”
R.C. tosses the ball to DeAndre, who can’t wait to give his father a lesson. But Gary is gazing across the blacktop and the vacant lot to Mount Street. Not Tony this time, but the Gaunt One, has his attention. Ronnie is waving her arm, giving him the come-right-now. DeAndre melts into the scenery.
“I’ll be back ’round,” says Gary, pulling up his hood. He catches up to Ronnie in front of the carryout.
“Charlene been put out,” she tells him. “Her shit is just sittin’ on the street.”
“Huh,” says Gary.
“Best money is the sofa,” says Ronnie. “Cushions don’t match, but the wood is like new. Still, you got to get it down Baltimore Street.”
No problem with that. Gary looks around for Tony, but his partner is long gone, bounding off on another adventure. He walks up Fayette toward Monroe, where he finds Scalio lounging on the sofa in question, sitting out there like Fayette Street is the den of his summer cottage, a lit Newport burning down between his fingers. The sofa is halfway into the street.
Scalio sees Ronnie coming and lifts the cigarette to his lips. He leans his head back to expel the smoke upward as traffic in the slow lane struggles to move around him.
“I gave him two smokes to guard the couch for me,” Ronnie explains.
Scalio crosses his legs at the ankles and stretches his arms upward. “Only in the ghetto,” he says dryly. “Only in America, in the ghetto, can life be so fine.”
A Federal Express truck blares its horn directly behind him, but the old fiend remains theatrically indifferent. Gary has to smile at the performance.
“See here,” says Scalio, waxing philosophical. “This . . . this is why they hate us . . .”
Gary laughs and Ronnie smirks. Scalio takes one last, luxurious drag off the Newport as the cars back up behind him. Gary can see the tortured faces of the motorists as they squeeze past the unlikely obstacle. White faces, black faces—all of them with that working-folk impatience, all of them wanting to ram their cars into this absurd tableau and none of them with heart enough to do it.
“Goddam niggers lazin’ ’round in the street,” says Scalio, getting up slowly. “Yes, Lawd, this is why they hate us.”
The sofa brings twenty-five down on Baltimore Street. Gary and Ronnie adjourn to Pops’ shooting gallery on Fulton, a third-floor walk-up where the ancient, rasping pincushion that is Pops welcomes all visitors for twenty on the hype. Gary is generally unwilling to use Annie’s, it being next to his parents’ house.
“You feelin’ it?” Gary asks after they leave.
“Hmmm,” says Ronnie, nodding.
“Mine’s doo-doo,” he tells her.
Maybe the Spider Bag package is weak today, or maybe Ronnie watered him. He tried to pay close attention when she was cooking; he didn’t see her make any kind of switch. But Pops kept making conversation, and Ronnie is so damn quick.
“Man,” says Gary, frustrated. “I don’t feel too much.”
He leaves Ronnie and heads back up the hill, hoping for a loan from his mother, something to get him out of the gate until he can hook back up with Tony. He finds her in the basement at St. James, working in the kitchen with the other ladies, mixing up potato salad for some church outing.
“Ma . . .”
But she’s shaking her head before he can get the words out. Maybe when Cardy gets paid down at the crabhouse, she tells him. She might be able to spare something then.
Gary nods and from somewhere deep down, the snake gives a quiet little hiss. He’s drifting out of the kitchen, into the adjacent meeting room and toward the side door of the church, nodding politely to one of the elderly church deacons, who at that moment is talking to some other folks and pulling papers out of his back pants pocket. Gary watches as two bills—a five and a one—come up after the papers and float silently to the linoleum floor. The deacon is oblivious.
Gary doesn’t hesitate.
“Ho,” he says, reaching down, “you dropped your money.”
“Oh . . . I . . . goodness,” says the old man. “I . . . thanks, son, thank you for it.”
Gary goes out the church door onto Monroe Street, wondering where Tony might be hiding himself
The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood, by David Simon & Ed Burns, Canongate, £12.99. www.meetatthegate.com