Nonfiction: Honey Man by John Julius Reel

Stewey, buck-toothed, pigeon-toed, all arms and legs, like a scorched grasshopper, worked evenings and weekends refereeing St. Peter’s Summer League games. I wondered if his appearance made his actions creepy, or the other way around. When not giving pointers, like telling me to maintain my dribble longer, that it would keep the defenders guessing, or to slow down on the fast break, that it wasn’t always a foot race, he’d usually be hovering goofily around the locker room urinals during breaks between games, sidling up close when we were alone, as if hard of hearing, although it was his eyes that gave him problems, he claimed.

“Cataracts,” he’d say, to explain why he wore shades indoors, although he never wore them when reffing.

“Stewey Cat Racks,” the older, wise-cracking kids would call him, right to his face.

But he had taken an interest in me, sensing my drive and hunger to get better, and I needed all the advice and encouragement I could get. After one game in which I’d warmed the bench in an antsy, brooding funk, he offered to coach me in his spare time on weekends.

“Give you lessons in the nitty gritty,” he said.

Needy greedy, was how he said it.

Needy greedy for the nitty gritty, that was me.

So we agreed to meet in the park on Saturday at noon.

“Going to Clove Lakes to shoot around with Stewey from the summer league,” I told Mom over my shoulder, as I pushed through the back screen door.

I knew she’d think he was a kid my age.

“Careful on the roads!” she called out after me.

I backed my bike out of the garage. A while back, I’d stripped down and souped up my old banana-seated Ross, part by part, using savings and birthday gifts. I had wanted a brand new Chromoly Mongoose, but Mom refused, saying I’d grow out of it before we got our money’s worth. My self-restored Ross with yellow mag wheels and black BMX handle bars ended up earning me the neighborhood accolades I was after however. And Mom was right, I’d grown out of it. Nowadays I just used it to get around. Still, it was a cool set of wheels and easy to ride with a ball under my arm.

The day’s heat hadn’t kicked in yet, at least not under the canopy of sycamores that lined the way to Clove Lakes Park. My once knobby tires, worn flat in the center from skidding, bumped over itchy balls mashed into fluff. Up Maine Avenue, across Manor Road, down Martling, then into the winding and hilly paths of the park, which flattened out next to the ballfields.

I arrived at the fenced-in asphalt oval of basketball courts to see Stewey sitting alone on a red and white cooler, drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

“I don’t drink,” I told him, leaning my bike up against the fence.

“The beer’s for me,” he said. “But you wouldn’t do wrong drinkin’ one. Ballplayers gotta be loose, and you play like you’re all wound up.”

We shot around for a while. Stewey had an ugly outside shot. He put one foot in front of the other, took too long to aim, then chucked more than released the ball, falling forward on his follow-through.

“What’s that, a set shot or a heave-ho?” I said.

“Can’t always go by the book,” he said. “Like George Gervin, I make my own rules.”

“C’mon, Iceman. Let’s play one-on-one.”

“Why you wanna go to school so soon?” he said.

“You take out first. Shit before the broom,” I said, passing him the ball at the top of the key, then crouched low in my defensive stance.

It was true that he played a bit like Gervin, but his main offensive strategy was to back me into the basket, again and again, grinding his butt into my groin, and wiggling it back and forth, until he could spin left or right and try to scoop or bank the ball in.

When it was my possession, he said I should play with my back to the basket, too.

“I’m a guard, not a forward,” I said.

“Gotta learn every position,” he said. “Basketball’s a physical game. Can’t be afraid.”

So I obeyed, and he never took his hand off my rear end. Hand-checking, it was called, which he knew was against the rules. When I maneuvered him under the basket, he bodied up with his pelvis, not his hip. I felt the bulge between his legs, pushing through his blue-black chinos, the same ones he used for reffing.

All the while, he kept the banter up, seeming to enjoy himself more and more. The beer, which he sipped between plays, probably had something to do with it.

“Here come the honey man,” he said, when he got on a hot streak.

But soon I began picking him apart.

“White boy beating up on a black man,” he lamented. “When things gonna change?”

I went back to the triple-threat position, and began to beat him running away.

“I make my own rules,” I razzed.

“What you gonna gimme for lettin’ you win?” he said, after I trounced him three times in a row.

By then he was down to his last beer. He pointed to his car parked in the street, a gray Ford Granada—the same model as my dad’s, although Stewey’s had no hubcaps.

“Got some uniforms back home,” he said. “Don’t know if they’re your size, but you can keep whichever ones fit.”

I nodded, and walked over to lock my bike to the fence. Something told me not to go with him, but then he might take it wrong. I had nothing to lose except a few hours out of my day. Besides, I was curious to know where a guy like Stewey lived. So I finished double-wrapping the chain, clicked the lock shut and hustled over to where he was waiting with my ball in hand, like a piece of collateral. He gave me his cooler to carry.

“White boy as the black man’s lackey,” he said. “The new order.”

I pointed at his car.

“If you let me drive, then I can be your chauffeur.”

“Don’t get uppity now, boy.”

The inside of his Granada smelled like Lemon Pledge. I could make out the marks where he’d recently run a dust rag over the black, fake leather upholstery. I put the beer cooler between us on the front seat. He popped open the dashboard ashtray, which dropped down like a dumbstruck mouth, and wedged his open beer can into it. From a pocket in the driver’s side door, he removed some yellow-tinted, reflector-like sunglasses and propped them on his pointed, chinless face. A pair of furry dice, black with white spots instead of white with black spots, bumped against his wrist as he adjusted the rearview mirror. Then he inserted the key in the ignition. As the car pulled away, a Mr. Met head dangled down from Stewey’s key chain to bounce against his knee.

I kept up a constant stream of talk, which, in my case, meant an endless succession of questions. Who was better, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird? Who had more potential, Isiah Thomas or James Worthy? Was Bill Cartwright tough enough to be the Knicks’ center? Would Sugar Ray Richardson reach his full potential, or was he just a showboat who thought only about himself?

“Who was the best player in C.Y.O. last season, besides Troy McCoy?” I asked Stewey.

“Best white player, you mean?” he said. “Troy don’t count, right? Why you asking dumb questions for?”

So I shut up, and looked out the window, which was wide open, staring at the people looking in at us. Did they wonder what I was doing alone with a black man in this jalopy and where we might be off to? What would Mom think? Hell, I could handle myself. I was about to enter high school. I held up my ball, rotating it in my hands, as though reeling something in.

As we turned left off Hylan Boulevard, Stewey took the last sip of his beer and, with a movement far more deft than his ball-handling, uncovered the cooler backhanded and deposited the empty inside without ever taking his eyes off the road. I peered into the still open ashtray, spotlessly clean, like the rest of the car, and did him the favor of shutting it.

“You don’t smoke?” I said.

He turned and looked at me with those ridiculous shades, yellow and bulbous like compound eyes, his buck teeth dropping down like a proboscis.

“Why? You got somethin’ long and white you wanna slip between my lips?”

We were coming up fast on a red light, so I pointed. He turned his eyes back to the road and hit the brakes.

“What do you mean?” I said. “You think I smoke?”

“Smoke, no. Suck.”

“Suck?” I said. “You’re the one who lost in one-on-one to a 12-year-old.”

We were idling now, waiting for the light to change. He lifted his shades to size me up.

I held the ball out between us, snatching it away when he tried to smack it out of my hands.

“They broke the mold when they made you, boy,” he said.

He lived in the South Beach Houses, which, despite being known as “projects,” seemed like a safe and pleasant enough place to live, with a flower-festooned circle of garden around the sign that announced its entrance. The first-floor windows were covered in thick wire mesh, like at I.S. 51, my former school. The worn and waxed linoleum of the lobby seemed like an open invitation to dribble, but, when I put the ball to the floor and leaned into Stewey, he stripped me clean with an aptitude he hadn’t shown before.

“Your mama let you dribble in your house?” he said, voice low, as if we were trying to sneak by someone.

“In the basement,” I said.

“Can’t you see this ain’t no place for rakes and sacks of sand?” he said, still whispering, and keeping hold of the ball.

We saw no one. The elevator and the doors between halls were painted the same gunmetal gray as public school stairwells and swinging doors. Dicks and balls had been scratched into them. Finally we got to his apartment door. He needed three keys to open it.

The vacuum cleaner marks on the living room carpet looked as painstakingly applied as the streaks of Lemon Pledge on his car seats. As he went off to find the uniforms, I stared at the framed family photos, spread out as though in regiments on a couple of low tables, a bookcase and the top of a TV encased in a block of furniture as big as a bank safe. The photos, all taken during what looked like formal occasions, were the room’s only decoration. In every single one, he looked like the runt of the litter, as debonairly dressed as the rest of the clan, although they, unlike him, were big-boned and open-faced, with milk chocolate skin, rather than eggplant-black like his. I thought of a weasel or a skunk, wide-eyed with fright, in among a family of smug, honey-fed bears.

“Try them on,” I heard from behind me.

I turned to see him in a sofa-like recliner, leaning back as though settling in for the show. A half-filled black garbage bag sat between us on the carpet.

I picked it up and pointed down the hall. “The bathroom’s down there?”

He shook his head.

“Try them on here.”

I squatted in front of the bag, buying time by sifting through its contents. Meanwhile Stewey turned on the stereo:

Hey, mister, ya gotta dime? Hey, mister, wanna spend some time?” The line, “Toot toot hey beep beep,” sounded like something from Sesame Street.

Most of the uniforms were too small, with the plastic numbers peeling away from the thick, synthetic material, wrinkled and raspy to the touch. Only one, white with black and red piping, looked about my size and was perhaps salvageable if Mom gave it an overnight soak and applied a few tricks of her iron.

I considered asking Stewey if I could call her and tell her where I was, but then what would he think of me? There he sat, Mr. Needy Greedy, kicking back in his recliner, beer in hand, a bottle this time, unbuttoning his pants.

“Too much beer got me bloated,” he said.

I pointed to the photos around us.

“Where were they taken? At your church? What church do you go to?”

He removed his sunglasses then and kept his eyes shut. He lifted his beer, Miller High Life – what Mom drank when the family went out for pizza – as though toasting the heavens. Both the beer bottle and his forehead were beaded with sweat. He lowered the bottle to his knee and kept his eyes shut for so long that I thought he’d dozed off.

I walked to the door and picked my basketball up off the floor. I tried to open the bolt locks, but didn’t know how they worked. I heard Stewey get up and carry the bag of uniforms down the back corridor. I tried to think if I knew my way home. Once I got to Hylan, I’d be okay. Dr. Imperio, our family physician, had his office at the corner of Hylan and Clove. His secretary would let me call home. I would avoid the main roads, in case Stewey came looking for me. I didn’t want any more awkward scenes.

I’d managed to undo the first bolt, and was working on the second, when he appeared next to me. I stopped fiddling with the lock and hung my head, as though he’d caught me pilching some family heirloom.

“Here,” he said, handing me a brown paper grocery bag, tied up in string.

Then he leaned hard against the door, hitting the heel of his hand against the levers of the bolts to release them. In silence, we walked to his car. The whole drive back to Clove Lakes Park, he had the radio on, and knew the words to every song.

Touch meeeee… and I feel on fire. Ain’t nuuuthiiin… like a love desire,” Stewey sang along.

When we got to the park and I was getting out of the car, he turned those creepy shaded eyes on me one last time.

“If your mama asks where you got that uniform, you tell her at Honey Man’s, and leave it at that.”

“Thanks,” I said, and shut the door.

After he drove off, I stuffed his gift into a garbage can, then I unlocked my bike and rode it home one-handed, spinning the ball on my finger when the traffic was light and the road was straight.

John Julius Reel was born and raised in Staten Island, NY, and has lived for the last 14 years in Seville, Spain. He’s the author of a memoir in Spanish, ¿Qué pinto yo aquí?, and has collaborated as both writer and editor in El derbi final, an award-winning book about the Seville soccer derby. “Honey Man” is part of a memoir, another piece of which came out in the fall 2019 issue of Sport Literate and will be recognized as “notable” in Best American Sports Writing 2020. In his free time, Reel teaches English and Spanish on his YouTube channel and Facebook page, Spanglish in a Minute.

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