One time when I lived in Chicago I was playing basketball in a playground on the north side of the city when a tall guy wearing a little kid around his neck like a scarf showed up and called winners. Calling winners is claiming the right to play against the team that wins the game in progress. You can call winners even if you show up by yourself; you just pick and choose among the guys who want to play. Usually you can claim most of the team that just lost, or pick from among guys on another court, or recruit from the local populace. I have seen all kinds of recruits: passersby, guys hanging around the park with their girlfriends, park employees, and one time a young priest (who was awful), and even once a kid on a swing, which sounds silly until I tell you the kid was terrific, a slippery little left-hander who knew how to survive among bigger players, and had the wit to pass the ball at every opportunity, which made his teammates like him, which led to him getting the ball back once in a while for shots of his own. Bright boy, that boy.
The tall guy with the kid wrapped around his neck watched our game closely, and he must have kept a sharp eye on the game on the adjacent court also, because when our game ended and he needed to pick three players, he quickly asked two guys from the other court and one from our court to play, and they said yes, and we all got ready to run. The tall guy very carefully unwrapped the kid from around his neck, and placed him gently on the bottom of the playground slide near the court, and then he took his jacket off, and wrapped the kid tightly in it, so that the kid looked like a hot dog in a bun, and then he hooked the sleeves of his jacket to the slide somehow, so the kid was sort of in the hammock of his jacket. And then we played ball. The tall guy was good, which was refreshing; often tall guys are just tall, and basketball is not their language, and half the time when you choose a tall guy as a sudden teammate, you regret the choice after a couple of plays, and think bitterly how often height is wasted on tall guys who are awful at basketball.
We were playing four-on-four full-court to 15, and by happy chance the teams were evenly matched, and when the game was tied at 13, we heard a high keening sound like a tiny siren. This was the kid, it turned out, who was making a plaintive whimper like a nestling bird calling for its parents. And the tall guy, hearing this, stopped right in his tracks and said sorry, guys, and walked off the court. We were a little annoyed; it’s bad form to just bag out on a game. But there were eager guys waiting right there, and we picked one, and finished the game, and took a break.
No one said anything to the tall guy, who was unwrapping the kid, and then I happened to notice something, as I sprawled in the grass; the kid had no hands and feet. His arms and legs ended halfway to where his hands and feet should have been. He looked to be about two years old, a freckled friendly looking little dude with hair that went seven ways at once. I would have laughed at the tumult of his hair, but I was startled at seeing someone without hands and feet. The tall guy leaned the kid back on the slide, and put his jacket back on, and then he wrapped the kid around his neck like a scarf, and off they went down Fremont Street. I was supposed to get back on the court for the next game, but I stood and watched them go for a while. The dad was walking in such a way that he deliberately jounced the kid up and down, and I could hear the kid laughing all the way down to Cornelia Avenue. Sometimes even now, when I hear a little kid laugh, I hear that little kid laughing again all the way down to Cornelia Avenue.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.