It was hot as an Alabama outhouse when I got off the plane from Barcelona. LAX was busy like the mug as I stood in line for customs. Time was, people would have been sweating me to sign something cute for their granny, or some boob-job chick would have been asking me to write my number on the top side of the tit poking out of her halter. Now all I got was them sideways looks, that frown that said, ‘You look like you used to be somebody.’
‘What was your business in Barcelona, Mr Raines?’
The bureaucratic dude gave me the once-over like I was any other square. ’Cept white boys were always a little curious about brothers who traveled overseas, thinking we were all hooked up with Farrakhan on a trip to pick up the bombs in Iraq or some shit.
‘I was playing ball with the Dragons. You know, NFL Europe League.’ I said it as if he, or any other of the hundreds of people running around, had actually taken the time to watch one of the games. Hardly.
He looked at my passport again, which he’d placed on top of his computer terminal. ‘Zelmont Raines.’ There it was in his watery blues. A few seconds ticked by, then he said, ‘You used to play for the Falcons.’
He didn’t finish it. Didn’t go on about the Super Bowl where I blew off two defenders and caught the game-winning pass while doing a spin in mid-air. The Atlanta Falcons had only been to the Super Bowl twice since the club was founded. The first time they’d been skinned by Denver. They were on their way to losing a second time against the Jets but for me.
Yet here I was coming back from Spain, after playing six games in a league even the guys at Fox who broadcast us didn’t watch. The games had been moved later into the summer to try and catch the excitement that always built up for the NFL pre-season – the real NFL, I mean. But still no one tuned us in.
‘Yeah,’ was all I could give it.
He tapped my passport against his cocked thumb. If it had been a slower time of day, he might have gone on. Asking me about all them stories of girls in Day-Glo vinyl mini-skirts with no underpants leaping off my roof into a pool full of whipped cream and café au lait. And, if the conversing went on long enough, it always wound around to how I pissed it all away like a sailor on a three-day drunk.
Instead, he just asked his routine questions. ‘Have a good day, Mr Raines,’ he said, handing me my passport. I nodded at him as I picked up my equipment bag. The one that was the signature brand I’d endorsed in my last year in the league. I went down to baggage claim and waited another hour before I got the rest of my gear.
Time was there’d be a limo waiting for me, Courvoisier on a rack in the back, and maybe some mama with pouty red lips warming up the leather seat. Now, standing outside in the steaming night air, I had my choice of which airport van to catch. I flashed on rolling by the pad of my girl, Davida Orlean, but nixed it ’cause I was beat and wanted some solitude.
I got in a shuttle driven by some Middle Eastern dude with a dead tooth. First he tooled a fare – two firm sorority babes – to Westchester. I made eye contact with one of ’em, but her friend cock blocked. What you gonna do? Then he took this old girl smelling minty over to the Roosevelt on Hollywood Boulevard. ’Course I had to help her ass out of the ride. Finally, he got me to my crib in the Hollywood Hills.
‘That’ll be $25, sir.’ He was gazing at the pad, trying to figure out who I was. ‘You work in the music business?’
‘Head ringer, baby.’ I was inclined not to tip, but wanted to show I was still the man.
The cat didn’t look at the Jackson and Lincoln and a couple of Washingtons as he hefted my bags out of the back of the van. ‘I see you in the papers, right?’
‘Not so much now, man.’
‘Oh yes,’ he said, shaking a finger at me. ‘You’ve been in movies too, I know.’
‘TV Sports commentary.’ I was in a few flicks. B efforts where I was fifth billed or more likely a cameo. Build-up roles, my agent – well, the agent I had then – called ’em. Even shot a show for the WB. Me and this Asian actor were supposed to be trouble shooters. I was the burned-out alcoholic ex-cop and he was the idealistic software designer. The setup was that even though we disliked each other, we naturally have to work together to solve the case. We did three episodes. The WB aired two and canceled us. Didn’t even get enough ratings on a network that keeps shows ranking in the 70s.
‘Take it slow, champ.’ I picked up my stuff and made my way up the slope of the walkway past the iron gargoyles planted on either side of the dried lawn. One had a 12-inch tongue poking out of its evilly smiling snout. The other had claws and wings raised like it was swooping down on a fat, juicy cow. I loved those beasts. Called them Dandy and Candy. Don’t know why, just liked the way it sounded.
Inside, the mail had been stacked on the coffeetable by Adrianna, the cleaning lady. I used to pay her to come twice a week without thinking about it, but not these days. I was pretty sure there weren’t no offers or a letter from the 49ers requesting my services. Later for the pile.
I poured some V.S.O.P. from the bar, punched in 92.3 The Beat on the stereo, and laid on the couch. As a Ras Kas number bumped from my JVCs, I stared at my mantle of honor over the fireplace. It was lined with trophies from Pop Warner on through the pros. One of my girlfriends said she thought I was being juvenile. Said I ought to have put them in the study, a back room, or something. Shit. Any motherfuckah who comes into my house has gotta go with the flow. I ain’t never asked nobody to light candles in front of them statues. But those are things I’ve earned, makes something solid of what I’ve done.
Anyway, that girl always acted like she had her nose up. Correcting my use – she’d say improper use – of words in public. The mantle of trophies is still here, and she’s long gone.
I shifted and felt a twinge in my fibula. My upper leg had been throbbing something fierce since halfway through the long flight from Barcelona. I’d gotten up to stretch it so many times, people must have thought I had some sorry-ass bladder infection. It was like grinding gears in the upper part of the leg just to slip off my docksiders.
The phone rang and I had a good idea who it was. The machine picked up the call on the third ring. ‘I know you left Spain on Friday, Zelmont. I bet you layin’ up there now with some blonde heifer when you should be sending some money down here for your son. I know you must have been making more than $100,000 for each game you played. You better do right or I might have to mention it to Daddy. Call me.’ The machine clicked off, then the red light started blinking, taunting me.
I took a long sip. Who’d have figured some big-legged 19-year-old high school dropout sports groupie would have a bourzee lawyer for a father? Let alone that I would be the pathetic motherfuckah among a platoon of cats who banged her – and I only did her twice – who had the DNA that matched the baby’s? It had been four years of steady bullshit from Terri. I felt sorry for the little kid she’s supposed to be raising.
A Dragons game was on Fox Sports West, but it wasn’t like I had any reason to watch them fools. The brandy and jet lag crept up on me and I dozed off, not dreaming of a goddamn thing.
The next day I was running after Kelrue Cummings on 56th Street, just east of Avalon. I’d been driving around for a while looking for him that morning. I tackled his fat ass and shoved his over-large ears and head into a cyclone fence above one of those little signs wired to the links’ advertising braiding.
‘Fuck, Zee. You ain’t got to clown me on my own block.’
‘Get up, Kelrue.’ I had my fists balled as I stood over him, up on the pads of my feet. Mad not ’cause he owed me plenty – he was just one of a bunch who were into me for some serious green. I was mad ’cause he assumed his overweight, waddling self could outrun me with my gimpy hip.
He sat against the fence, his flabby chest straining the buttons on his Karl Kani shirt. ‘I’ll get your money.’ He held up a protesting hand with a gold ring on each fat finger.
‘Gimme those for collateral.’
‘Aw, home, Moms gave me these as family keepsakes.’ He rubbed the rings with his other hand like he was gonna transport somewhere else.
‘Look here, Kelrue. I put up 40K for your rap record label thing and ain’t had nothing to show for it ’cept reachin’ a disconnected number when I try callin’ you these last few months.’
He finally stood up, squawking. ‘Shit, Zee, used to be you wouldn’t blink about no chump change thousand dollars or so.’
He was right, which just got me madder. On my last go-round on a crack binge, I’d signed a check to Kelrue while I was more focused on getting my pipe lit. He used to be one of my go-boys – go get this, go get that – and hell, it had seemed like a good plan. Then.
‘It’s been two years. You played me, man.’ I backed off some in case the chump tried to book again.
‘Aw, brah, you was handin’ out cash to them hang-on punks on the regular. Me, I had a for-real business plan for In the Cut Records. We had talent lined up, fine-ass girls for the videos. We even put together a couple of CDs.’
Kelrue’s features were tiny, swimming in the round baby fat of his overstuffed head. There was something about the way he screwed up his face that always made me want to believe him. ‘Yeah, I remember goin’ to a release party or some such.’
‘Yeah,’ Kelrue shook his big head, doing the sad act. ‘But you wasn’t the only one to put money in, man. Napoleon, Scottie, DeJesus, they all ponied up the ducats. Hell, I put my own bank in too.’ He tapped his chest over and over like Mighty Joe Young to show me how sincere he was.
‘So what, man? I have to hear from the streets you was back in Philly a few months ago.’ I leaned against the fence, my mad-on cooling down. ‘You should have told someone.’
‘What could I do, Zee? Them sharks in the record business buttfucked me with no Vaseline. Studio costs, engineer costs, processing the videos, plus putting Gs on the mike who was one day slangin’ and the next thinking jus’ ’cause they made one record, they was all that. What did I know about running a business?’
‘But the business plan was tight on paper.’
‘You didn’t think I did that, did you?’
‘You showed it off like you did.’ A cop car rolled past, the uniforms mad-doggin’ us. They made the corner and went on.
‘Man, you know you got to front. Got a cousin in the MBA program at ’SC. She helped me write it up. But I thought I had the contacts to make it happen. Pretty soon, I was in deep. What could I do but keep tryin’ to get something out that would bring the rest of the company up?’
‘Yeah, keep goin’ forward.’ I’d actually forgotten for a while about the money I’d loaned Kelrue. I was so doped up, a lot of what happened then is buried in brain fog. Three years ago I’d been bounced from the Falcons for failing my random drug test. The following year, I’d gotten a month-to-month with the Ravens, but then blew out my hip in a game against Pittsburgh. And I was shoveling out buckets of money to lawyers fighting a charge of statutory sodomy rape. ‘But now’s different, man.’
‘I thought you was still overseas.’ He scratched at his head.
‘Just got back yesterday.’ He looked like he was expecting me to go on, but why in hell did I have to explain anything to him?
‘Oh, I see,’ he said, as if he did. ‘Look here, Zee. I ain’t got your funds no more than I can make a toad go meow. Why you think I been layin’ low for all these months?’
‘The point is, I invested in you, Kelrue. You supposed to be responsible.’
‘Why just me?’ he squawked. ‘Shit, you lent money to Choo Choo, Lemon, Big Pockets…’
‘Nigga, I know who the fuck’s got my money,’ I shouted. ‘Don’t you think I’m gonna collect on all them punks? You just been the easiest to find.’
‘Aw,’ he did a turn on his heel, grabbing the top of his head. ‘That motherfuckah Danny finked me out, didn’t he? He’s still upset ’cause I messed with Tori, that fine Filipina Baronette he’s been tryin’ to get next to.’
Danny Deuce had left a message on my machine. Two weeks ago he’d actually seen the cable broadcast of the game against the Rhine Fire where my hip had been knocked out of place again. Now I knew why he’d dropped a dime. ‘About my money, man.’
‘Zelmont, I ain’t got it. And it don’t seem like I’m gonna get it anytime quick. Why the fuck would I be livin’ here back in the ’hood if I was still a player? You can see I ain’t got shit.’
‘What about what you owe me? How do I recover?’
‘Zee, all I can say is you need to see your partner, Napoleon. He opened a club called the Locker Room downtown near the Staples Center where the Lakers, them sorry-ass Kings, and the pathetic Clippers play. The place is jumpin’, homes.’
I hadn’t seen Napoleon Graham since last year. At the time, he’d been talking about maybe opening a night spot. ‘What’s that do for me?’
‘You and he is boys,’ Kelrue snapped.
‘Gimme two of them rings.’
He stamped on the ground. ‘Damn, Zee.’
‘Damn nothing. You signed a contract, boy. You gonna honor that paper. We gonna work out a payment plan, and this is the first installment.’ I stuck out a hand and gave him my game face.
He was deciding whether to swing and see where it got him. But I knew he wouldn’t. Kelrue started to twist off the ring on his little finger.
‘Not that gangrene-turnin’ bullshit,’ I said. ‘Gimme the one with the diamond shaped like a triangle in it and that rope gold, baby.’
That fight look came back and I grinned at him to say bring it on. Kelrue grumbled but forked over the two rings. ‘Next month, let’s have some cash,’ I said. I put the items in my pocket and started to walk away.
‘You used to be the one, Zelmont. You used to have me lookin’ up to you,’ Kelrue whined.
I used to have a $7 million deal and get a signing bonus worth more than my entire Barcelona Dragons salary. I used to not have to settle for $17,000 a game like I did playing for the third-rate Dragons. I used to be a lot of things.
I drove past the rear of the Coliseum on Vermont, the home of the Barons. Last season they were 9-6, and word was they’d take division this season. The retracting dome with the hole in the top they’d put over the joint was sparkling chrome-gray in the daylight. Soon there’d be large crowds in there to see the third season of the expansion football team that had been formed in LA. A homegrown team more loyal than the Raiders, who, like the scrubs they were, had left town. I could almost hear people cheering and high-fivin’ as a dude makes a spectacular catch and cakewalks into the end zone.
There were some black and Mexican kids playing touch football on the grass on the Exposition Park side of the stadium. I pulled to the curb and watched them for a while. Then I went over to the Four Stars pawn shop on Western and got money for the rings.