The truth was that Jude shouldn't even have been there in the apartment. He was never home that time of day. It was all because of his shoe.
Normally Jude stayed after school to shoot hoops, but that morning the rubber sole of his sneaker had torn away from the toe. Throughout the day he kept catching it as he walked, the rubber doubling under his foot and making him stumble. By the end of the day the sole smacked the pavement like a reverse flipflop, and there was no playing ball with it like that.
He lingered for a few minutes, watching the others shouting and jostling out on the court. One of the kids spotted him standing there. "Come on, Jude. We need you," the kid called, pausing in his jog down court. "We're getting killed out here."
Jude was always first choice for center because he was bigger than the othersthough the other guys teased him, saying white boys can't jump. It was true, he had no legs, but he was tall and strong and quick tooan all around good player. He wasn't the flashiest out there, but his team tended to win.
"I can't today," he said.
"Ah, come on," the kid coaxed.
From down the court, someone else yelled, "Get your butt out here, man."
"Can't," Jude said again.
"That's it. We're toast." The kid shook his head and turned, and a second later he was yelling for the ball, "Yoyoyo, over here."
All the others pounded up and down the concrete in Nikes and Adidas. Jude remembered when he had arrived at the court last spring with his "new" pair. His father had bought them, and he was so proud of his purchase. Jude had been talking about wanting a pair of Nikes and here was this pair of Nikes, and, his father announced, they'd only cost four dollars at the thrift store. Unfortunately, Jude could see why. They didn't look like they'd been worn, but they were old. Instead of laces, they had Velcro with a fluorescent stripe down the side. When he'd worn them to the court, everyone had pointed and laughed and tried to tease him. He just shrugged as if he didn't care, and the guys soon gave up on the jokes. He noticed that in the next few weeks, several other kids showed up with old sneakers like his. Jude assumed they were making fun of him. He didn't even begin to suspect that they'd bought shoes like his because they admired him, and that they mistook his silence for confidence. They thought he was different. They didn't know that all he wanted was to be like everyone else.
In everything, Jude did his best to blend in. Like most of the other kids, he dressed in long baggy shorts and a basketball jersey with a white Tshirt underneath. The only difference was that he usually wore long sleeves, even in the surge of Indian summer heat. The long sleeves covered the fading bruises, dark and mottled on the pale skin of his arms.
He hung on the fence a few more minutes, scuffing his good sneaker in the high grass. But, just when he was about to leave, he spotted his best friend, RJ, jogging across the parking lot toward the court. Jude raised a hand, and RJ swerved toward him.
Two years agowhen Jude had moved to Hartford with his fatherRJ had jumped him on his first day of school. Jude had been the "new kid" too many times to be surprised by it; he and his father had moved at least a dozen times over the last fifteen years. They usually moved into rough neighborhoodsusually because of lack of money, now because, though his father had money from the dealing, he had to stay in central Hartford to be close to the business. Jude didn't mind. It was what he was used to. He knew what to expectand part of what he expected was a fight on the first day of school. It was as certain as a handshake after an introduction.
The new kid was usually an easy target, but Jude had the advantage of experience. He had ducked RJ's wild punch and had started his swing from the knees like his father had taught him. He loosened RJ's front tooth so that afterward he could wiggle it a little with his tongueand they had been friends ever since.
"Yo man, why aren't you out there?" RJ called as he approached.
"Why the hell not?"
He lifted his foot and showed RJ his sneaker.
"Man, didn't I tell you that you got to get you some new kicks? Your old man will have to spring for them now."
"I was gonna get me some last week, but they didn't have the ones I wanted in my size," Jude said.
"Yeah, whatever. You might be able to lay that shit on the guidance counselor, but it don't work with me." He grinned and Jude smiled back. That was why RJ was the only person who he confided inhe was the only one that saw through Jude's bluff and cared enough to call him on it. "So what's the problem? Your dad's got cashI mean, he's gotta if he's skimming. What the hell is he doing with all of it?"
Jude made a face. "I think he's just cheap. But he says he's saving it for my college education."
"You're kidding me, right?"
Jude shook his head.
"Oh shit." RJ burst out laughing. "You getter hope he's just cheap, 'cause he'll be lucky if you graduate high school."
"It's not funny," Jude said, but he couldn't help laughing too.
"Hey, listen, if he won't spring for them, or you don't wanna even go there, I can try my brother. If I catch him at the right time, I could score a hundred easy."
"Nah, man, you don't need to do that," Jude said. He knew how much RJ hated asking his big brother. A year ago his brother had gotten heavy into the junk and had started dealing to support his habit, and most of the time RJ stayed as far away from him as he could.
"That reminds me, I didn't forget your birthday's comin' up. I got something for you," RJ said.
"What is it?"
"I'm not gonna tell you, stupid. Then it wouldn't be a surprise. But hey, did you go to Miss Perez's class today?"
"I cut," Jude said. "I didn't do the homework."
"Me neither, but I heard there's a test tomorrow."
"Shit, I forgot about that."
"Listen, Frankie told me that Perez uses the same tests every year. So I'm gonna go through my brother's old shit. My mom kept all that stuff. She thought he was a regular scholarnot that it does him any damn good now. Meet me at my locker the period before and if I find it, we can memorize the answers. You up for it?"
"Definitely," Jude said.
"Catch you then." RJ raised his fist and Jude hit it lightly with his own.
But he wouldn't be there tomorrow, or the next day, and the gift RJ had for Jude would sit on the shelf in his locker for weeks.
When Jude let himself into the apartment and flapped down the narrow hallway into the kitchen, he found his father at the table, emptying a plastic bag of white powder into a metal mixing bowl.
Jude stopped in the doorway.
"What?" his father demanded.
"Nothin'," he said quickly, crossing to the fridge.
His father grunted.
Jude retrieved a jug of orange juice and, standing with the door of the fridge propped open, tipped back the container and took a swig.
"That is a disgusting habit," his father said.
He swallowed, wiped his mouth. "You do it all the time," he pointed out.
"That doesn't mean you should. Pour yourself a goddamned glass and go get me the baby powder from the bathroom."
Jude pinched up a corner of his shirt and carefully wiped the mouth of the jug. "You think it's a good idea to pull this again so soon, Pops?" Jude tried to speak casually to cover the sickening lurch he felt at his father's request. His father had cut the last four shipments. This would make the fifth in a row. You could get away with it once in a while, but each supplier had the name of his product stamped on the dime bags, and if quality was bad, the word spread. The packets his father filled were stamped with the words "First Class", and it usually was. On the street it had the reputation for being the purest cut you could buy, and it was always in demand. Or rather, it used to be. The junkies, who didn't notice if you stumbled over them on the street, noticed if you messed with their high. You couldn't cut five shipments in a row and keep your customers. Five in a row was stupid. Even worse, five in a row showed disrespect.
"I think you should keep your mouth shut about things you don't know anything about," his father snapped.
But the fact was that Jude knew all about it. Not from his father, but from the neighborhood where deals went down on most street corners, and the favorite topics of conversation routinely involved who was dealing, who was snitching, who was dipping, who was dead. RJ had actually been the first to pass along the warning. Because of his brother, RJ was usually the first to hear the rumors.
"You're telling me you think the other guys aren't doing it?"
"Sure they are," Jude admitted. "But not like this, and if they're doing it this much, they're not getting away with it."
"But I am," his father said. "We are. Now go get me the damn baby powder."
"Pops, I don't think...." He started.
It was his own fault. He should have known better.
His father was up in a moment. It took only two steps for him to reach Jude, and then he was grabbing Jude's shirt. His father's fist cocked back and then Jude's head exploded with light and he was knocked back against the counter. The juice carton flew from his hand and landed on its side, liquid pumping out its mouth.
Jude felt the hard edge of the counter against his back, and the first pulse of his heart brought the flower of pain beating in his cheek. His father dropped his hand and turned away, and Jude felt the urge to hurl himself at that silent, disdainful back. It took all of his will to hold himself still, then after a second, Jude pushed himself upright and, leaving the juice to spill itself on the floor, he walked out of the kitchen and down the hall to the bathroom.
The baby powder was in the cabinet above the sink. He retrieved it, shut the cabinet, and caught his reflection in the mirror through the glasscloudy and splattered with sprays of toothpaste. There was already a red welt rising on his cheek and his father had nicked open the skin with the plain gold band he wore on the ring finger of his right handbut that didn't interest Jude as much as the eerie expression of calm the mirror reflected back at him. From his expression someone might assume he didn't care. He remembered when he had practiced for hours just this blank look. He thought that maybe if he didn't show the fear and shame and anger, then maybe he wouldn't feel it either. It hadn't worked.
When he returned to the kitchen, his father was mopping up the juice with a wad of paper towels. Jude set the container down hard on the table; it must have been open because a cloud huffed from the top.
Jude was about to exit the room again when his father called to him in a very different tone, "Hold on a second there."
He stopped but didn't turn. He heard his father open the door to the freezer.
"Better put this on your face." His father circled around him and held out an ice pack.
"It's not that bad," Jude said, but he took the ice pack anyway.
"You know, you should just slug me back. You're as tall as I am now, and when you put on a little muscle you'll be bigger than me." His father draped a casual arm over his shoulders and gave him a little squeeze.
Jude felt sick with disgust both for the way his father tried to make it up to him and with himself for putting up with it. It was all so predictable and so pathetic, but he forced a smile and said, "I couldn't hit an old man."
"Who're you calling old man?" His father released his shoulders and playfully jabbed him on the arm. "You're a tough guy, you know that?"
It was his father's highest compliment. "I'm gonna go watch some TV," Jude said, starting down the hall.He followed the narrow corridor to the living room and settled down in the corner of the brown couch. They had rented the apartment furnished, and they got the brown couch and a green armchair in the living room, a metal folding table and four mismatched chairs in the kitchen, and a narrow twin bed and dresser in each bedroom. They had been living there two years and had added nothing but a TV, which rested on the seat of the armchair.
Jude didn't even notice the bareness of his surroundings. It was what he was used to. Before moving to this apartment they hadn't lived anywhere much longer than a year; they had moved from one city to another with the speed of the guilty, and, since they never stayed they never accumulated anything. Once Jude had put up a poster in his roomof Michael Jordan in midair, stretching toward the basket, but his father tore it down during a fight, and Jude didn't try to hang another.
Jude flicked on the TV and sat there surfing through the channels and holding the ice pack to his face until it lost its chill and turned to a soft gel. By then his stomach was rumbling, and he decided to brave the kitchen to get something to eat.
His father must have already added the baby powder because when Jude returned he was bent over the mixing bowl, filling one of the tiny wax paper envelopes. Even though Jude's flapping shoe announced his arrival, his father didn't look up. That meant the spurt of regret had passed. Everything was back to normal.
Jude opened the freezer and inspected the contents. "You want something to eat?" he asked.
His father placed the dime bag in a small pile with the others he had filled and picked up an empty. "Not hungry."
Jude removed a Salisbury Steak TV dinner, stuck it in the oven, and set the timer. He found a roll of duct tape in a drawer and wound it around the toe of his shoe. Then he sat back down at the kitchen table to wait for the buzzer. Since there was nothing else to do, he watched his father fill the glassine bags. His father's fingers were short and thick and clumsy. The clumsiness came from the knucklesswollen and lumpy with arthritis from the fighting he had done as a young man. Jude knew that not only was it difficult for his father to cut the shipments, it was also painful. Normally he would have offered to help as he was almost twice as fast, but his cheek still throbbed in a painful reminder so he just sat.
And that's exactly where they were when the two men arrived.