Conversations from the blacktop


When I first moved to Boston I lived in an apartment along the Charles River, so close that you could bounce a basketball from the window of the apartment across the road to the basketball court on the river, which I tried once, for sheer entertainment, which it was, until a truck drove over the ball and the driver yelled and gave me the finger and we had to borrow another ball from the guy who ran a neighborhood gang called the River Rats.

Pix was this guy’s name, and he was a terrific basketball player, a classic gym rat except I do not think he had ever actually been in a gym; one time we were talking about his spotty high school years—I went and then didn’t, he said, which seems like a small novel to me—and I asked about his grade-school years: Had he never been in a school gym when he was small, for dodge-ball and layup drills and such? No, he tersely said, avoiding further discussion, and I wondered if he had been to grade school at all; but I didn’t pursue the matter. Pix was not the kind of guy you could interview at length. After a few questions he would say, What are you, a cop? and then we would play ball.

He wasn’t that big a guy, maybe six feet max, but he was quick as a cat and sinewy strong—he was the kind of guy who seems made out of steel wire and never gets tired. We would play hard for two hours without a break sometimes, and he would be ready to play another two, while my friend Pete and I, for all our youth and strength and fitness, were ready to lie in the grass and idly contemplate sparrows and beer.

The first few times we met Pix he didn’t say anything before or during or after playing ball, which is a good sign in a ballplayer, he just let his game speak for him, but I was an inquisitive guy then and now, and eventually he and I got to talking, initially about my friend Pete, who was a large guy, six four and broad, and looked like a massive cherub. He wore spectacles, and turned bright pink when he played, and could jump about half an inch on a good day, but he was an excellent and relentless ballplayer, with the great virtue of knowing what not to do, and doing what he could do very well indeed. He had a deft lefty hook that he never missed, and he worked the boards hard, and he actually liked to pass, a rare and lovely gift. Pix and his friends could never get over Pete—as Pix said, that guy looks like the world’s largest altar boy, but he sure can play, another pithy line that made me smile, then and now.

Several times I worked my conversations with Pix around to his occupation and pastimes while off the court, but each time he deftly bent the chatter back around to my work and Pete’s—I worked for a newspaper and Pete for an insurance company—and I never did elicit any details from him about his entrepreneurial adventures with the River Rats. He did say that he did not work a salary job, as he phrased it, and he did occasionally refer to his friends as colleagues, an interesting phrase, when you think about it. The closest I could get him to talking about what he did when he wasn’t on the court was asking him about crimes as reported luridly in the papers; Boston then and now was fascinated with crime, and on this particular subject Pix was beyond knowledgeable. He knew the details, context, and probable resolution of every single arrest or plot or bust I ever mentioned to him, so much so that I once suggested that he go to law school. What, work the other side? he said, and laughed, and called to his colleagues, and we chose up sides for another game.

The last time I saw Pix, we were playing ball on the river court and I told him that Pete was going off to grad school and I was moving to another neighborhood, and he said that was a serious bummer, because he and his colleagues liked playing ball with us, the newspaper guy who could jump and the world’s largest altar boy with that evil lefty hook, and if ever Pete and I needed a favor we should just come down to the court and shoot around for a while and soon he and his colleagues would know we were there and we could, as he said, work something out. I said thanks and we shook hands and I dribbled back across the street and the last I saw of him he was working on a lefty hook, laughing.

Sometimes I wonder what happened to Pix, what he became or didn’t, if he’s in jail or what, and then I cheer up thinking that the way this world works, he is very probably a judge, or detective, or a state senator. Here and there when I am in Boston I have the sudden urge to go down to the court and shoot around a little to see if he and his colleagues will suddenly appear out of the trees by the river but then I think no, it’s best to leave him where he was, where he always is, shooting lefty hooks, laughing.

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Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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