July before I started 8th grade, Paul had this scare. A fuzzy blemish on an x-ray. After tests and hours of chain smoking—nothing serious, just an aberration. Paul chain smoked whenever he felt helpless. Paul chain smoked in celebration, steak on his plate, whiskey at his goblet’s brim.
“If I’m going to die,” Paul said. “I’m going down swinging, in style. Happy.”
The doctors wanted him to change. Paul thought change meant assimilation, thought assimilating meant melding into society, following, not leading. Grandma called him ridiculous. It was just steak, cigarettes, and hard liquor. Not the right to vote.
“If I’m going to die,” he said, cutting a bite-sized triangle out of a New York Strip. “I’m going to do it proud.”
Jonah moved up the street a month later.
Jonah’s dad was a cop. His mom decorated houses up North. Jonah dressed like he was a pro. He was over six feet. I hadn’t hit puberty yet. He dribbled up and down the block, between his legs, behind his back. I wanted his Nike sweatpants and Jordan tank tops. Paul only bought me Adidas. He thought kids got killed over nice gear. Jonah moved like liquid.
“So, Jonah,” Paul asked when Grandma invited the new neighbors over. “You ball like the devil?”
“Yes, sir,” Jonah said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jonah’s dad asked.
“Bad,” Paul said. “You know, bad as hell.”
“Oh,” Jonah’s mom said.
“What about you?” Jonah’s dad asked me.
“What?” I asked back.
“You ball?” Jonah’s dad asked me.
“Claude’s too angelic,” Paul said.
“That doesn’t sound bad,” Jonah’s mom said to me.
“What high school did you play for?” Jonah’s dad asked Paul.
“Paul can’t shoot a cherry into a black hole,” Grandma said from the kitchen.
“The game is more complex than shooting,” Paul said.
“Wait,” Jonah’s dad asked Paul. “You’re not from Chicago?”
“New York is basketball’s soul,” Paul said.
“New York,” Jonah’s dad said.
“Mecca,” Paul said.
“You’re asking my son about basketball,” Jonah’s dad said, “and you’re from New York?”
“You’re asking my son about basketball,” Jonah’s mom said, “and you didn’t even play?”
“Who do you think you are?” Jonah’s dad asked.
“Where do you get off?” Jonah’s mom asked.
“I played against Tim Hardaway,” Jonah’s dad said.
“Me too,” Jonah’s mom said.
“Doc Rivers, Cassie Russell gave me his shoes,” Jonah’s dad said.
“I drove Juwan Howard to school every morning,” Jonah’s mom said.
“Michael Jordan was born in Brooklyn,” Paul said.
“Nate Archibald!” Grandma yelled from the kitchen.
“Ben Wilson is a saint!” Jonah’s dad yelled.
“Isaiah Thomas!” Jonah’s mom yelled.
“Lincoln High School!” Grandma yelled.
“Simeon!” Jonah’s mom yelled.
And they yelled names and places at each other until Grandma served the pasta. They yelled with forks in their mouths. They spit marinara across the table. Jonah and I sat there, gave each other apologetic looks. When Grandma put down her apple pie, Jonah’s mom gave up.
“Jonah,” Jonah’s mom said, “we’re leaving and never coming back.”
“Jonah,” Jonah’s dad said, “people who think Patrick Ewing is better than Scottie Pippen can’t be trusted.”
“Rucker Park!” Grandma yelled as they drove away.
Under his breath, while we cleaned the dishes, Paul muttered.
“Willis Reed, Willis Reed, Willis Reed, Willis Reed.”
After midnight, someone threw rocks at my window. It was Jonah.
“Let’s hoop tomorrow,” Jonah said.
“I’m not very good,” I said.
“It’s just hooping,” Jonah said.
“Okay,” I said. “Cool.”
There weren’t many cages in Chicago. All the courts were open air and surrounded by trees. The high schoolers played on Lake Shore Drive, closer to the beach, where the girls hung out. Cages were a New York thing. Grandma thought cages made us look like animals. Jackson Park had a cage next to the golf course. We had the courts to ourselves. Jonah brought his five-year-old brother. Paul sat on the concrete with a beer. He patted the ground for Jonah’s little brother to take a seat.
The rims were soft and forgiving. Everything shot worth anything went in. His bad shots would spin, roll, and fall. His perfect shots would crack the net like a whip. I tried fancy lay-ups that didn’t come close. Paul told me to stop acting like some Rucker Park Disciple. Just feed The Devil the ball, he told me. Jonah’s little brother nodded in agreement. So I did. I passed the ball to Jonah. He cared for it. He never looked at it. His eyes showed concern the rare times he mishandled it, let it roll away, let it bounce above his waist. He was noble and righteous. He was spectacular.
As the sun went down, Jonah told his little brother to stand in front of the basket. He told me to throw the ball in the air.
“When?” I asked.
“You’ll know,” he said and walked to half court. He turned around and started running. When he got to the three-point line he looked at me.
“Now!” Paul yelled.
“Now!” Jonah’s little brother yelled.
“Now, Claude, Now!” Paul yelled again.
“Now!” I yelled and tossed it.
Jonah took off from the free throw line. He spread his legs and caught the ball with one hand. He cleared his little brother by a foot. It looked like he would fly out of the cage and land somewhere in Ohio. He was a low-flying jet in the dusk. He returned to earth like a breaching whale. My legs quivered. Paul ran over and hugged him. His little brother held onto his waist.
“See that, Claude,” Paul said. “That’s how sex feels.”
“My God, son,” Paul said to us all. “You are a religion.”
The sun went down. We walked back in reverie for the spectacular. I noticed beauty in everything: the warped chain-link fence, the tags on the bus stop advertisements, the glimmer from broken glass in the gutter, the breeze carrying sewer smells. We left the brothers on Jonah’s doorstep.
In our living room Paul went face first into the couch.
“You see, Claude,” Paul said into a cushion. “If that boy ever stops balling, the world will end.”
Grandma looked up from her book and asked what happened. I told her Paul had been converted.
In the kitchen, over breakfast, Paul vowed to quit smoking. Cigarettes were too expensive.
“And they’re poison,” Grandma said.
“And they turn us into zombies,” Paul agreed.
“And they cost too damn much,” Grandma said.
“And I can’t breath,” Paul agreed.
“A glass of wine,” Grandma said.
“That’s all I need,” Paul agreed.
“Quitting something is an important exercise in self discovery,” Grandma said.
“I will find myself,” Paul agreed.
“And Claude,” Grandma said.
“And Claude,” Paul agreed.
They wanted a response from me.
“Jonah knows who he is,” I said. “I want to know who I am.”
Jonah showed up while I was scraping eggs into the garbage can.
For the first time, he looked human. His eyes were glazed and baggy. His face was dull and unglowing. He was troubled, standing there in our kitchen with his Nike gear. Was his black hoodie always that dusty? Were his shoes always that scuffed? That wasn’t Jonah standing in our kitchen.
“I killed him,” Jonah said.
He wasn’t covered in blood. He wasn’t holding a weapon. He was still wearing his clothes from last night, crusted sweat around his collar and armpits.
“Jonah,” Grandma said. “What are you talking about?”
“He’s dead,” Jonah sat on the table, his feet touched the floor.
His little brother had collapsed at breakfast. His parents took him to the emergency room. They told Jonah to wait at our house for the phone call. We were the only option. They didn’t have any other friends.
“How could you be responsible?” Grandma asked.
“He told me I was his favorite big brother,” Jonah said. “Then he collapsed and died.”
“It’s okay, son,” Paul said. “These things happen.”
At that moment I wished I knew Jonah better. I wanted to know if he could kill his admirers.
“Your brother is not dead,” Grandma said.
Jonah’s parents showed up around lunch. His brother wasn’t dead. Just in a coma. Paul burned cheese sandwiches on the stove. Grandma stroked Jonah’s head.
I didn’t see Jonah for three weeks. I waited for him at the cage with Paul. I walked past his house. No one was there during the day. At night, the lights were out.
Then school started.
George Bones and the rest of the basketball team clapped their trays onto our table.
“I hear your dunks vaporize people,” George Bones said.
I stood up. Jonah pulled me down by my bicep.
“You’re a bitch,” George Bones said to me. George Bones could dribble two basketballs at a time blindfolded.
“I can’t dunk,” Jonah said. He stared at George Bones and didn’t blink.
“You should play with us after school,” George Bones said. “Coach lets us use the gym.”
He wouldn’t look at Jonah. Jonah looked right through him.
“Claude can’t come,” George Bones continued. “He has to go fuck his Grandma.”
I caressed my fork. They laughed and walked away.
When the team left, Coach Harper sat down.
“Don’t listen to them, Claude,” he said looking over Jonah. “You might make the team this year. We need someone to clean up after practice.”
Coach Harper chewed five pieces of gum at a time. Grandma thought this must mean he had jaw cancer until I told her that’s just his thing. Then she thought he was an asshole.
“So,” he smacked at Jonah. “You can dunk?”
“No,” Jonah said.
“Not what I hear,” Coach Harper said.
Jonah stood up. I did too.
“Wait, wait,” Coach Harper said. “You know who I am, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Shut up, Claude,” he said.
“Yes,” Jonah said.
“Then you know I can destroy you,” Coach Harper said.
I didn’t know what he was talking about. Jonah didn’t care. I cared. I was terrified.
“How will you destroy us?” I asked.
“No one cares about you, Claude,” he said to Jonah. His gum blob fell on the table. He picked it up, put it back in, and chewed like crazy.
“If Claude plays,” Jonah said. “I’ll play.”
“He can carry your shoes,” Coach Harper said to Jonah.
“I can do that,” I said.
“We have good chemistry,” Jonah said.
“We do?” I asked Jonah.
“Just come to the gym after school,” Coach Harper said
“Do we have a deal?” Jonah said.
“If I beat George Bones,” Coach Harper said. “Claude can start at point guard.”
“Really?” I asked Coach Harper.
“With you,” Coach Harper said to Jonah. “We only need four players anyway.”
“After school,” Jonah said.
“After school,” I said.
“After school,” Coach Harper said.
Coach Harper left.
“You shouldn’t be such a pussy,” Jonah said.
George Bones and the other guys were shooting around when Jonah and I walked in. They had on Jordans, Kobes, and LeBrons. Jonah wore jeans and boots. Coach Harper blew his whistle. He told everyone to sit in the bleachers except Jonah and George Bones. He rolled Jonah a ball.
“You need anything, Jonah?” Coach Harper asked. “A Gogurt? Some Gatorade? A pair of Nikes?”
“Maybe a doctor,” George Bones said.
“Alrighty then.” Coach Harper tried to blow his whistle but gum blocked it. The sound came out wet. “George you start. First to twenty-one. Two and Threes. Keeps. Let’s ball.”
George Bones had possession of the ball for two full dribbles. Then Jonah stole it and hit seven threes in a row and we left.
“Claude plays,” Jonah said from the doorway.
Paul saw Jonah’s hand in anything miraculous. Paul claimed Jonah was behind the winning lottery ticket for Ms. Dunewell, the young widow from 72th street. He led me into his room. He presented his corkboard. It was something from a movie about insanity. Thin slips of newspaper were thumbtacked in a chaotic array.
“Firemen Arrive Just in Time to Save Kittens”
“Mother of Three Barely Escapes Sinking Car”
“Deputy Mayor Indicted”
“Redbelters Stash House Raided”
“Crime Rates at Record Low”
“You see what this boy is doing,” Paul beamed.
It was almost Halloween. The start of the season was a month away. A story about five teenagers, former drug dealers, finding God and becoming altruistic was displayed in the middle of Paul’s madness.
“But I thought Jonah was The Devil?” I asked.
“The Devil works in mysterious ways.” Paul lay on his bed, facing the heavens.
“Leave Claude alone, Paul,” Grandma called as she walked past. “Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean he has to be.”
Paul was still lying there when I left for the cage.
Of course I already knew Jonah was a savior. I didn’t need Paul to tell me that. The world was kinder with Jonah in it, sweeter, benevolent, unfamiliar. Jonah awoke faith in me. His spirit guided mine.
George Bones was standing under the hoop when I showed up. No one else. He usually balled on Lake Shore Drive, putting on a show for the girls.
“I’ve been practicing,” he said. “Let’s play.”
“I’m just gonna wait for Jonah.” He could tell I wanted to run. I wanted to fly.
“Come on.” He took a step closer. I took a step back. He took a step closer. I bumped into the chain link. “Let’s practice.”
He threw the ball at my chest. I dropped it. It rolled back to him. He threw it like a football. It hit my head. I slid to the ground.
“Jonah’s gonna kick your ass,” I said to my feet.
I didn’t see him move. But then he was standing over me.
“What did you say?”
“I said ‘Jonah’s gonna vaporize you.’”
He took my head between his palms and drove his knee into my face.
I thought I saw a flash of light. I thought a beam took George Bones and lifted him off the ground. There was heat all around me. Heat and light pulsing down my spine. I knew Jonah would come. I thought I saw him lift George Bones over his head. I thought I saw him throw George Bones like a paper bag filled with quarters. I thought I heard George Bones explode against the concrete.
I woke up in the hospital. My eyes were swollen shut. I heard Coach Harper.
“Don’t you fucking scream, Claude,” he said.
“Why would I scream?” I asked. “Where am I?”
“You’re in hell,” he said close to my ear. “Don’t you say a fucking word.”
I smelled a pile of minty green.
“You say anything,” he sounded farther away. “And I’ll destroy you.”
“How will you destroy me?” I asked. But he was gone. I asked again.
“What the hell are you talking about,” Grandma’s voice was over me. “Did they give you drugs? Nurse. Did you give him drugs?”
“The voice,” I said. “The voice said it was going to destroy me.”
“Nurse!” Grandma yelled down the hall.
A nurse came in wiping chalky white smudges from her cheeks. Her mouth was full.
“Was someone in here with my grandson?” Grandma asked.
The nurse swallowed.
“It’s Raven’s birthday,” the nurse said. “We were eating cupcakes. She’s thirty. Her father came down from Waukegan.”
“Did you give him drugs?” Grandma asked.
“Now why would I do a thing like that?” The nurse walked out the door.
Grandma rubbed my forehead.
“Don’t worry,” Grandma said. “You’re just going a little crazy.”
I spent two days in the hospital with two broken ribs, a broken nose, concussion, and messed up face. Mothers screamed for their children to come on, that house doesn’t have any candy.
Little monsters banged on our windshield when Grandma pulled up.
“I’m going to kill Paul,” Grandma said as she led me up our porch.
Paul was dressed like a cross between Madonna and Diana Ross. He held empty bottles of vodka in each hand. He only drank vodka when he ran out of cigarettes and the world was closing in on him. He was supposed to go to a party up North. He was supposed to leave a bowl of candy on the porch.
“Hell has risen on our doorstep,” he clanked his bottles together. “The trumpet sounds and our chariot awaits.”
“Claude,” Grandma led Paul into the kitchen. “Go to your room.”
My vision was still blurry. I tripped four times going up the stairs. Jonah was on my bed.
He sat on the floor.
His brother woke up the day George Bones put me in the hospital. He heard I was coming home. He knocked on my front door and asked Paul if he could wait for me. Four people were shot when I was away.
“Paul begged me to kill him,” Jonah said.
“Your brother?” I asked.
“No. him. Paul,” he said. “He begged me to kill him.”
“Oh,” I said. “He’s not well.”
“Sorry I wasn’t there to help,” Jonah said.
He got up and left. I started to follow him. Then I got dizzy and had to lie back down.
I heard Grandma say hello and goodbye to him. I heard the front door slam. I heard Paul scream for mercy and forgiveness.
Paul swore off breakfast liquor. Grandma refused to cook any meal for him. He sopped up our bacon grease with stale bread.
“I’d rather die than live under that devil’s thumb,” he said, still drunk. “He’s the one that did that to you?” He pointed a trembling fist towards my face.
“Paul.” Grandma jabbed him with his fork. “That’s enough.”
“That devil might ball,” he continued. “He might ball like religion. But he’s still a devil. Always was and always will be.”
I smelled fear and booze.
“You scared Jonah, Paul,” Grandma said. “He couldn’t even speak when he left.”
She turned to me.
“Was it good seeing him, Claude?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said truthfully.
“Are you going to see him today?” she asked.
“Of course,” I lied.
Coach Harper and my principal came over around lunch. They wanted to know if I remembered who attacked me. When everybody wasn’t looking, Coach Harper ran his index finger across his throat.
“I’ll wait in here with little Claudey,” he said when the other adults went to grab sodas from the kitchen.
“This is all I have, Claude,” Coach Harper said.
He picked up a flower vase next to his chair. He put the vase down. He massaged the tulip bulbs. He studied the flower vase as he talked to me.
“If you tell them the truth,” Coach Harper said, “they’ll kick George Bones off the team.”
I didn’t know what to say to him. I didn’t want to say something wrong. There was something unmistakable and unstable in his eyes.
“I’m all alone in this world,” Coach Harper said. “If they kick George Bones off the team, I won’t have anything.”
“You’ll have Jonah,” I said. “We all have Jonah.”
“Michael needed Scottie,” Coach Harper said. “Jonah needs George if we’re going to win the city championship.”
He picked up the vase again. He put it down when the adults came back in.
“Now, Claude,” my principal said. “I hear George Bones might have had something to do with this.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He did it. He did all of it. It was all him.” Fuck George Bones, I thought. Fuck Coach Harper and his ruined world.
Coach Harper picked up the flower vase and threw it at my head. He missed. He lunged at me. Grandma stuck a foot into his knee and dropped him.
“Can I go back to bed?” I asked while the adults held Coach Harper on the floor. I went upstairs.
“You ruined me!” Coach Harper yelled.
“You ruined me,” Coach Harper cried.
George Bones was kicked out of school. Coach Harper was fired and ordered to counseling.
That Sunday, when Jonah and his parents came over for dinner, a bee landed on my neck. I didn’t feel it. One sting would’ve put me in intensive care. Jonah brushed it off and it stung his hand.
His parents were over to talk about moving. They wanted Jonah to say goodbye.
“This place is fucked up,” his mom said without hesitation.
“We’re moving down state,” his dad said. “Close to Missouri.”
Paul looked relieved. He lit a cigarette.
“That’s nice,” Grandma said. “That’s a good thing to do.”
“That’s nice,” I said.
“All this craziness,” Jonah’s mom said, “isn’t good for raising kids.”
Jonah stood over the sink, his back to us, soaking his bee sting in warm water. We looked at his back. We wanted him to say something. He didn’t. He stood in his Nike gear and considered his wound. Next morning, they were gone.
Jonah still lives Downstate. He doesn’t play basketball. His parents got divorced. Jonah won’t even visit South Shore.
A few years ago, his brother died in his sleep from an unknown disease.
I wonder if Jonah knows it wasn’t his fault.
I wonder if he sees benevolence in his shadow.
Gabe Bump is from South Shore, Chicago. His nonfiction and fiction has previously appeared in SLAM Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Huffington Post, Springhouse Journal, and Ren Quarterly. He won Summer Literary Seminar’s 2015 Flash Fiction prize and the 2016 Deborah Slosberg Memorial Award in Fiction. Gabe teaches at The Care Center, a home for teenage mothers in Holyoke, Massachusetts. For more information on The Care Center, including ways to donate, please visit http://www.carecenterholyoke.org/.