Our friends departed with smiles burning on their lips and alcohol burning in their chests. The evidence they left behind of the party sprawled throughout Herb’s entire place. As the organizer, it was only fair that I clean up his warzone of a kitchen as my final contribution to his birthday, but I’d lost my helper, Selena, to another party up north. She insisted we join her and her girlfriends, later; All the motivation I needed. If I could keep my energy up–and make sure Herb didn’t fall asleep–it wouldn’t be long before I met up with her and went into full cakin’ mode. Until then, I had to concentrate on not spilling booze and backwash on my Steve Maddens.
“This man should’ve been a mathematician.” My best friend–who had woken up officially in his mid-thirties that morning–sat at the table of his small, eat-in kitchen peering into his phone.
“What are you talking about, Herb?”
“Oh, Captain. My Captain. D. Rose done sat out more games than the Bulls have actually played. That’s some amazing math. I’m glad I dropped that ninety million dollar sack of bricks from my fantasy team.”
After a series of touchscreen finger-tapping, Herb sat his phone on the table and flicked it into a spin. It stopped, one end pointing directly at his chest, the other end pointing to the empty chair across from him. I thought back to our college version of Spin the Bottle where the winner was awarded a shot of Cuervo before the kiss. Janice Linden leaned into the circle to kiss me for the fourth time that night, intent on padding my college stats, as it were. She’d told me later of her intentions, and that it was all in the wrist. Janice’s lips and the strength of her wrists would eventually bring me back to thoughts of Selena so I refocused on Herb’s griping and the precariousness of the over-stretched garbage bag I was handling. I tied it closed and gingerly set it to the side for someone other than me to deal with.
“I hear you. The nine consecutive games he’s played so far–averaging seventeen points and a little over five assists overall–he’s the worst.” I shook my head and scanned the kitchen. Discerning party remnants from the general messiness of the apartment took skill. Picking out Harold’s Chicken bags from the party versus Harold’s Chicken bags from Herb’s dinner earlier that week proved a challenge worthy of a true master. Living together our last couple of years in college was training, it seemed, for the day he turned thirty five.
“You obviously didn’t see their home game against the Nets or the mega game he had battling Lillard in Portland. Thirty-one points, 5 assists, and a steal. Better than your best intramural numbers, Herbert.” I washed my hands and took out my phone. A few swipes and I was looking at my fantasy basketball roster. Sure enough, a little plus sign floated above Derrick Rose’s headshot, letting me know I could swap out one of my current point guards. I hadn’t had time to check any league changes with all the preparation for the party. I considered having Rondo pack his bags.
“Not before twisting his ankles, Captain. Plural. Then coming back and leaving a game early and sitting out the next one because of the Ghost of Hamstring Future. He wearing a promise ring around his neck or something? Who is he saving himself for? If he ain’t careful, Scarecrow will be playing for another team.” Herb stood up and wandered toward the back door. I thought he might take the trash out and winced in anticipation of the cheap plastic tearing free and spilling everything across the floor. But this is Herb; chores aren’t his thing. Instead, he pulled the door’s curtain back to peek out the window Malcolm style, minus the weaponry. He seemed dissatisfied with the darkness.
“This coming from the guy who preemptively took Monday off for birthday recupe time.” I turned to rinse only the dishes used for the party and load the washer. The amount of barbecue sauce and cake icing that swirled down the drain was enough for a second party.
“My one off day ain’t got nothing to do with Rose’s lack of heart out there. Besides, do you know how old I am? I’m goin’ in. I fully plan on being useless on Monday.” This dude is a supreme lightweight when it comes to libations. The night Janice Linden tried to call me up from the Minors, Herb was a heap of thick belches and phlegmy snores before the clock struck twelve. The next day he didn’t make it to the brunch event for newbie minority students, either. But Janice did. She sipped her cranberry juice with a wry smile as she played footsie with me under the table. Big Leagues.
“You’re sitting there questioning his commitment like he didn’t suffer two consecutive, season-ending injuries. Plural. Like he didn’t add several inches to his vertical, despite. That’s not heart, huh? You took a day off last week because you had a migraine. That’s two off days, homie. Driver’s license renewal, picking your nephew up from the airport, a spa day…” I ticked each excuse off on my fingers.
“How is that even the same? I ain’t getting paid ninety million dollars to sit on the sidelines and neither should he.” Herb was back in his chair thumbing his phone. “Curry is kicking ass now, anyway, so I’ll keep him as my primary and see what Conley can do to back him up.”
“Your job does pay, though, right? Plus, the Bulls organization will make his salary and endorsement monies back almost instantly. How much money have you made your employer in a week?”
I had done as much cleaning as I could without needing a union rep. The kitchen was mostly clean, except the scuff marks from the impromptu steppers set that erupted after we cut the cake. After wiping down all the counter and table tops, I needed to play a bit of refrigerator Tetris. I snapped a can of beer off of the remaining six-pack and handed it out to Herb before trying to make room for the aluminum trays of leftovers. He reached for the beer without even looking up.
“Look, Cap. Rose was supposed to come roaring back to take the East by storm after that first tendon snapped. His fragile, little body couldn’t last a good month before, boom, down again. Now he’s being too timid. Coach got him on a leash. I just can’t trust him.”
Smog from the party hung low in the air. A not-so-unusual 60 degree October night insulated the body heat generated from the 1990’s party mix. DJ Nostalgic had West siders challenging South siders to footwork battles. Someone pulled a muscle doing the butterfly… We done got old. I opened the back door and stepped into the night. From the fourth floor balcony, I looked out over the Bronzeville landscape of similar apartment courtyards and vacant plots. The Green Line train clacked and rattled some distance behind me as a teenager bopped on the sidewalk below, rapping his playlist for me, his only audience member.
A chill bit through my thin sweater as the temperature dropped another couple of degrees. Herb yelled something else through a yawn about Rose’s career being a sham. Something something pampered professionals something vagina, followed by more expletives then names of other players who have had success after horrific injuries. I let him argue with the back of my head.
D. Wade, Kobe, and even Adrian Petersen exist. I’ll give him that. But they’re freaks of nature. Mamba had to sleep with a harem of German vampires to get back right. I was convinced Wade was a cyborg after his post-surgery return, but now he can’t play in back-to-back games. And Adrian sounds an awul lot like alien, doesn’t it? The other side of the injury coin shows face-up much more often. And pampered? No one mentions weakness when Popovich has Parker and Duncan in street clothes, do they? Nah. D. Rose can take his time.
My phone buzzed in my pocket before I said: a reminder to call mom. I swiped to the next application and was looking at my fantasy line-up, again. I selected Rose for my starting guard just as the night turned its thermostat down another tick. I moved closer to the door but still looked out across the street. It appeared one of Herb’s neighbors was having a party, too. Had nerve to have a strobe light spinning. I blinked at the flashing lights as I finally responded.
“You may remember, Herbius Corpus, that Brandon Roy was cleared to play. Now that fella is playin’ in somebody’s fantasy basketball league just like us. It’s easy for you to say Rose is a punk for not doing what you want him to do because you have no stakes. Those aren’t your knees out there on that court.” I traced black streaks of burnt ash where courteous party guests stubbed out their cigarettes on brick. Herb probably doesn’t think I know he’s fallen off the Newport wagon, but I saw him sneak out to borrow a puff from someone. “By the way, earlier you said, Scarecrow, I imagine alluding to Diana Ross’s cowardly companion. Well, the Scarecrow needed a brain. It was the Lion who needed the heart, in which case you’re still wrong.
“I have no explanation why I feel so strongly about this kid. After he hit that last second shot where he beats his chest afterward, that showed me something. He was beginning to believe that he deserved his place in the arena. I bought in even more. Then after that comeback commercial when he kinda smiled at the end? Psh. Almost bought me a jersey. Still might. You seen that commercial with him and Duncan?” I flicked a filter over the edge of the balcony and into the grass below before heading back inside.
There was no telling when Herb fell asleep. The party across the way was at full steam, but Herb’s head rested on his outstretched arm on the table. The phlegmy snores had begun, low at first, but would no doubt crescendo before I made it to my car. I closed the door and locked it before surveying the land for any last-minute cleaning tasks. I decided against it and instead shot a text to Selena to let her know I was on my way. The last clean red Solo cup sat on the table in front of Herb next to his unopened can of beer. I filled it halfway with ice water and balanced it between his back and the back of his chair. When he woke up and leaned back in his chair to stretch, he would feel a freezing wet surprise that would count for about three of the thirty five birthday licks I still owed him. With my boobytrap firmly set, I left my friend behind, knowing the chill and the darkness were waiting and would ride with me as I made my way north.