Harry was on his way to visit his friend Leonard when he stopped at a playground to rest his back and watch a pick-up basketball game. Leonard, who lived alone, had taken a bad fall in the basement of the ancient townhouse in which he rented a room. He had broken some ribs, suffered a concussion, and messed up his knees. After a week at Beth Israel, Leonard had been transferred to a nursing home. Frankly, Harry was in no rush to see his friend. At his best, Leonard had not been a joy to behold. Harry could just about imagine the shape he was in after the fall.
The action on the court was serious business. High intensity. High quality. It was dominated by a tall sliver of a kid who wore a polka-dot do-rag and white satin shorts. Almost lackadaisical in his movements, he would suddenly shift gears, knife his way through two or three defenders, and make his shots no matter what his position on the court. He made the game seem so simple. Throw it up. Two points. Shoot again. Deuce. Wrap a defender around his neck—are you kidding me. Flick him off. Trey. He played as if he were alone on the court.
A redheaded man in a topcoat watched Harry watch the boy.
“He’s a player,” Harry said.
“He’s my kid. I got him a try-out with the Nets.”
“He should go far.”
“You ever seen anyone like him?”
Harry thought for a minute, then said: “I do know someone.”
“Is that right. Who might that be?’
“An old friend. I’m on my way to see him now.”
“And he can shoot like my kid.”
“I don’t know about now. He’s not feeling too well. But in his day? No contest.”
“How old is this friend of yours?
“Forty-nine, 50…about like me,” Harry said.
“That’s not too bad. And you say he can still shoot.”
“That doesn’t go away.”
“It’s the running around that betrays you.”
“Tell me about it.”
They watched the boy disappear in a crowd, then materialize and throw one down. The red-headed man stroked his chin as if to simulate deep thought.
“Maybe you should bring your friend around. Cheer him up. The fresh air.”
“I don’t know if he’d be up for it.”
“See what you can do. We’ll have some fun. You a betting man?”
“Now and then,” said Harry. “Nothing serious.”
“We’ll keep it small. My kid against your guy. Say four or five hundred…How does Saturday sound? Same time. Same station.”
“It’s a long shot,” said Harry.
“Give it a try. I got to see this world-beater of yours.”
Leonard looked awful. He was propped up in bed, all swathed in sheets and towels as if he were a dying Roman senator. One of the sheets had slipped away from a pale and discolored shoulder, which was not fun to look at. Leonard was a small, dumpy-looking man with a sprinkling of hair and a mouthful of teeth that needed a lot of work. To give him his due, he had the strong, nicely shaped legs of an athlete. From time to time, when they were at college together, Leonard would ask for “an appearance check” and Harry would say, “You look great.”
“It was nice of you to come,” said Leonard. “Tony was here twice already.”
Tony was a mutual friend. He was a well-positioned executive in municipal government and a slavish admirer of Leonard, arranging cushy no-show jobs for him at City Hall. Tony was overly jovial when he was around Leonard. Harry sensed that Leonard had something on him.
Leonard had set up a competition between Harry and Tony as to who had done more for him. And Harry always went for the bait.
“I tried to get over here, but I had a full plate. And don’t forget,” he said, defensively, “I’m the one who called 911 in the first place. I called the precinct, too. You could still be laying there in the dark.”
Leonard ignored this. He refused to give Harry points for calling 911. “They got old people with prosthetics here,” Leonard said. “And they got a broad across the hall keeps screaming all night. I don’t think I’m a candidate for a place like this.”
“No way,” said Harry.
“If I need some money, Tony told me not to worry about it.”
“He’s a good friend.”
“I’m worried about him, though. He works too hard.”
“At least he gets work,” said Harry. “Not too many people his age get work these days.”
“You could always hop on a plane and go somewhere.”
“I don’t hop on too many planes anymore.”
“At least you got a support system,” Leonard said. “What have I got?”
“Some good friends.”
“There’s a Russian woman who comes over and gives me a haircut and a rub. She started out as a cleaning lady and I’m beginning to like her as a person.”
“It’s nice to have that in your life.”
“I gave her my credit card and she only takes out what I tell her.”
A faint alarm went off in Harry’s head, but he didn’t mention it.
“Maybe I’ll meet her some time,” Harry said.
“You’d like her. She’s coming over later to give me a rub.”
fter the playground game, Harry had stopped to buy his friend a hot pretzel and some magazines. Leonard took a bite out of the pretzel, started to gag, and flung it in the receptacle. He didn’t say anything about the magazines.
“You’d give me some money, too,” said Leonard, “if you were still rolling. You’d always pick up a tab.”
“I still pick up a tab,” said Harry, defensive again. “But you’re right, I’m not rolling.”
“They got me in rehab already,” said Leonard, who never lingered on a subject. “I took twenty steps today. I can go up, but I can’t go down.”
“At least you can go somewhere.”
Leonard hesitated for a second, as if to decide whether the remark was amusing. Then he said: “Jesus Christ, the way you put things. Tony thinks you’re brilliant. ‘Through Harry’s eyes’ is the way he puts it. He’d like to get closer to you if you’d let him.”
“We’re close enough,” said Harry, who was fond of Tony. “Maybe one of these days.”
“You were always a loner,” said Leonard, his voice trailing off. Some of his medication must have kicked in. “How many years have we known each other?”
“A lot of years.”
Leonard gestured around the spare room. “And this is the way we go out.”
“We’re not going out so fast.”
Harry figured this was as good a time as any to tell Leonard about the kid at the playground and the redheaded man in the topcoat.
“Jesus Christ,” said Leonard, fighting off the medication. “I don’t believe this. You just gave me a charge.”
“It’s just a fantasy.”
“Yeah…But I know those fantasies of yours, Harry. You got a way of turning them into something. It’s just like Tony always says: ‘Through Harry’s eyes…’”
arry had known Leonard for thirty years and referred to him as “my college roommate,” although strictly speaking, they had never shared a room. They had lived in the same boarding house at Louisiana State. Harry shared a space in the attic with a boy from Chicago and Leonard never did find a roommate. Simply put, nobody wanted to room with him, and that included Harry. One reason was that Leonard had no particular interest in studying. No one had ever seen him open a book. All he would do is wander around, smoke cigars, and talk about how great Philadelphia was and the irony of his getting stuck in a hick town in the middle of nowhere.
Nobody knew where he slept. Maybe in an alcove somewhere.
Harry and Leonard had met on a railroad platform in Shreveport, two boys from the Northeast who hadn’t managed to get admitted to a good school there. Harry had decent grades, but lacked the patience to fill out applications. So he took the first school that came along. Leonard wasn’t much of a student, but one thing he could do was shoot a basketball.
Harry had seen him play a few times in Philadelphia, although once was all it took. Leonard was a legend back then. In fact, that was what they called him: “The Legend.” He wore bottle-cap glasses at the time and practically had to be led onto the court. The high school team used him in special situations—especially when they had fallen behind and needed instant offense. Leonard might miss his first shot. But then he would start draining them from way out near the mid-court line. The crowd would start to roar and he would keep pouring them in until the opposing team sent in a linebacker from the football team to foul him, and not too gently. Leonard was no star at the foul line. All he could do was score from way out in what seemed like the next county. So after he threw in a quick eight or ten and started to get roughed up, the coach would yank him and he would sit out the rest of the game.
Harry had never seen anyone like him. And nobody else had, either.
Leonard’s reputation followed him to Louisiana. The players were aware of what he could do and the close games they could win with Leonard coming off the bench. But the coach didn’t much like the looks of him—a short, stocky kid who was half-blind and had a big mouth. Leonard didn’t care too much for the coach either and, as a result, he never got to play at the college level.
And even though Harry didn’t room with Leonard, somehow he got stuck with him. His main responsibility was arranging dates for his friend, none of whom met with Leonard’s approval. (“What’s wrong with your head, Harry? You expect me to be seen in public with a mom?”)
After four years, Harry got his degree and Leonard may have gotten one, too. Harry wasn’t sure. They headed back north and remained friends. Both went off to fight in Korea. After they were discharged, Leonard moved into a rent-controlled flat in Chelsea and never left. He had the no-show jobs and a friend in the mayor’s office and took an early retirement. Where did he get the money to live on? Nobody knew. Tony called him “America’s guest”—when Leonard wasn’t listening. He never married, never came close.
Harry had had a bad marriage and a good one. There were some strong years as an episode writer in network television, and then his career bottomed out. The two men stayed in touch, had dinner once in a while—Harry always paid the check. And then Leonard started falling down, in his building and on the street.
HARRY AND THE REDHEADED man decided on a gentleman’s bet of $400. Actually, it was a little steep for Harry, who was living on a pension and squeezing pennies. But he was self-conscious about his situation, so he found an ATM in the neighborhood, got the cash, and headed back to the court. His back ached and his knees were a little shaky. A doctor had told him that much of it was tension, but you could have fooled Harry. He had no idea if Leonard would show up.
The sleepy-looking kid shot around for twenty minutes or so, seemed to get bored with all that perfection of his, and retired to a bench with a towel over his head. The redheaded man looked at his watch. “So what’s the story?” he asked Harry.
“Like I said, it was iffy.”
They sat in silence for ten minutes. Harry did not have much experience in street betting and wondered if he would be asked to forfeit the four hundred. And then, what appeared to be a small caravan showed up down the street. Leonard was in a wheelchair, wearing a bathrobe and sneakers and reading the New York Post. A woman with short blonde hair pushed him along. Harry took her to be the new Russian friend. She came off as being in her mid-forties and she was carrying twenty pounds more than she needed to. But she was awfully attractive. Somehow, this upset Harry. He had always counted on Leonard to be in worse shape than he was. And now Leonard had himself a borderline knockout. Was it possible he wanted to keep Leonard down?
There was a red flag tied to the wheelchair. It may have had something to do with traffic.
The woman extended her hand.
“I’m charming to meet you,” she said.
Harry shook her hand and said: “My pleasure.”
She tickled Leonard’s ribs.
“He’s cute, no?” she said to Harry.
“Yes, he is,” said Harry. “I have to agree with you there.”
“Her name’s Amushka,” said Leonard.
“There a nickname?”
“I call her ‘Mushy.'”
“That works. Has a ring to it.”
“I teach her a little English every day.”
He leaned in close to Harry and said: “Check her out for me.”
“Nice-looking woman,” said Harry.
He didn’t want her—not with the name. He just didn’t want Leonard to have her.
“We gonna get started or what?” asked the redheaded man.
“Who the fuck is he?” asked Leonard.
“The boy’s manager,” said Harry.
“Tell him not to get too smart.”
Still in the wheelchair, Leonard shot the man a look, which seemed to frighten him.
They agreed to keep it simple. The sleepy-looking kid and Leonard would each take fifteen shots from the forty-foot line. Whoever made more of them would be declared the winner. Harry agreed to let the kid go first. He took a few warm-up shots, while Leonard read his newspaper and the Russian woman rubbed his neck. The kid signaled that he was ready. He made his first two shots and missed the next three. Something was bothering him.
“I got to do this in traffic,” he told the redheaded man.
Harry recognized the term. It was used by announcers who covered NBA games.
“That all right?” asked the redheaded man.
Harry said: “Sure.”
The redheaded man signaled to a behemoth on the bench. The oversized boy, grinning as he did so, skipped out on the court, put a hand in the shooter’s face, and kept his body close to him. He was built like a truck and a half and he was surprisingly scrappy. But the sleepy-looking kid easily juked him aside and put a forty-footer in the hole. He threw up nine more. Same story.
The redheaded man said to Harry: “Your guy’s move.”
Leonard stood up unsteadily.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” he said. “That last fall affected my balance. That ever happen to you?”
“Probably,” said Harry, wondering if it ever had. “It’s not unusual.”
The woman tried to help Leonard off with his bathrobe. He brushed her aside.
“See, that’s what I don’t like,” he said to Harry. “When she tries to do too much for me.”
“Cut her some slack,” said Harry.
It was a phrase used by his son, who lived in Tennessee. Harry had vowed he would never use that phrase.
Leonard struggled out of the bathrobe and called for the basketball. He was wearing slippers and a hospital gown. Regrettably, his hairy ass was exposed. The woman tried to close up the gown. Leonard brushed her aside again.
“Explain it to her, Harry. I don’t like it when she’s all over me.”
The woman, clearly upset, made an effort to compose herself.
“You’re allowed to warm up,” the redheaded man said to Leonard, who gave him another look.
“Tell this guy not to bother me,” he said to Harry.
Leonard stood at the forty-foot line and held the ball close to one ear, as if he was listening to a ticking bomb. Then, as graceful as a dancer, he did a small stutter-step backward and released his first shot. When it caromed off the rim of the basket, Harry’s stomach tightened up—as it had when he first saw Leonard in action. How he needed that four hundred. Then he remembered: The first shot had always been Leonard’s “range-finder.” Leonard called for the ball again and “listened” to it. Then he began to drain them, one after another, in a style that had long gone out of vogue—a high-arching two-handed set shot that seemed to hang in the air forever and then drop cleanly through the hoop, as if it were being welcomed home.
And as each shot hit its inevitable mark, the years fell away for Harry. He forgot about his back and the bad knees and he was at Louisiana State again, a skinny rudderless boy from the East who didn’t fit in any more than Leonard did. He was alternately brazen and scared out of his wits. He threw back cheap milkshakes to put on weight and plucked random courses from the syllabus—19th-century Balkan diplomacy and British naval maneuvers. He needed glasses and didn’t know it. He couldn’t see the blackboard and talked to girls in a strangled voice. As an athlete, he wasn’t in Leonard’s league—but he could run. And for the most part, that’s what he did. He ran this way and that, and had no idea of where he was going. But he also felt a kind of shaky confidence. He knew that he was going to be all right. All he had to do was learn to express himself. Which he did. He had the good long run in network television until he got complacent and maybe a little cocky and let it get away from him. He had more or less given up. But as Leonard launched those towering bombs, Harry thought, who knows, maybe he, too, had something left in the tank.
Leonard’s last three shots were way off the mark. Harry lost the bet.
“That last fall,” said Leonard, sitting down in the wheelchair. “I was down for the count for eleven hours.”
“That’s all right,” said Harry. “You did fine.”
He handed the money to the redheaded man, who counted the bills and put them in his pocket. Harry started to think of ways he could cut down on his expenses. Maybe stop going to the diner in the morning and make his breakfast at home. But all in all, he felt he had come out ahead.
The sleepy-eyed kid continued to shoot around, keeping an eye on Leonard who watched from the sidelines and then wheeled over to him.
“You have a nice fluid move,” Leonard told him. “But your release is too quick and you got to get more arc on the ball.”
The boy nodded and continued to throw up shots, making no alteration in his style. But Harry knew that at some point he would.
“Your guy ever play professional?” asked the redheaded man.
“No,” said Harry. “He didn’t have to.”
“He must have been something.”
A sheet of anger came down on Harry.
“Must have been?” he said, “What do you mean must have been?”
Harry had once punched out a network executive and flattened out four knuckles on his right hand—the incident that had started his decline. But he had one left. He advanced on the man.
“You’re right,” said the redhead, backing away. “I don’t know what got into me. And I have no idea why I said that. He’s still something. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
“One of the best?” said Harry.
“The best. I thought I made that clear. He is without question the best I’ve ever seen.”
Leonard gave a hard look to the redheaded man. “That guy bothering you?”
“You want me to go over and speak to him?”
“What do you think of the broad?”
“That face,” said Leonard, extending his hands as if he were holding a pumpkin. “But ever since the fall, I’ve been shooting blanks. That ever happen to you, Harry?”
“Not that I can recall.”
“You want to come over and give her a hock?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Because it would be all right with me.”
“I know that.”
“Aaaahhh, I love you, Harry,” he said, leaning out of the wheelchair and holding his head against Harry’s leg. “You know that, don’t you?”
“I do,” said Harry, rubbing his friend’s bald and freckled head. “I love you, too.”