DEREK STRANGE GOT down in a three-point stance. He breathed evenly, as his father had instructed him to do, and took in the pleasant smell of April. Magnolias, dogwoods, and cherry trees were in bloom around the city. The scent of their flowers, and the heavy fragrance of a nearby lilac bush growing against a residential fence, filled the air.
"You keep your back straight," said Derek, "like you're gonna set a dinner up on it. You ain't want your butt up in the air, either. That way you're ready. You just blow right out, like, and hit the holes. Bust on through."
Derek and his Saturday companion, Billy Georgelakos, were in an alley that ran behind the Three-Star Diner on a single-number block of Kennedy Street, at the eastern edge of Northwest D.C. Both were twelve years old.
"Like your man," said Billy, sitting on a milk crate, an Our Army at War comic book rolled tightly in his meaty hand.
"Yeah," said Derek. "Here go Jim Brown right here."
Derek came up out of his stance and exploded forward, one palm hovering above the other, both close to his chest. He took an imaginary handoff as he ran a few steps, then cut, slowed down, turned, and walked back toward Billy.
Derek had a way of moving. It was confident but not cocky, shoulders squared, with a slight looseness to the hips. He had copied the walk from his older brother, Dennis. Derek was the right height for his age, but like all boys and most men, he wished to be taller. Lately, at night when he was in bed, he thought he could feel himself growing. The mirror over his mother's dresser told him he was filling out in the upper body, too.
Billy, despite his wide shoulders and unusually broad chest, was not an athlete. He kept up on the local sports teams, but he had other passions. Billy liked pinball machines, cap pistols, and comic books.
"That how Brown got his twelve yards in eleven carries against the 'Skins?" said Billy.
"Uh-uh, Billy, don't be talkin' about that."
"Don Bosseler gained more in that game than Brown did."
"In that game. Most of the time, Bosseler ain't fit to carry my man's cleats. Two weeks before that, at Griffith? Jim Brown ran for one hundred and fifty-two. The man set the all-time rushing record in that one, Billy. Don Bosseler? Shoot."
"Awright," said Billy, a smile forming on his wide face. "Your man can play."
Derek knew Billy was messing with him, but he couldn't help getting agitated just the same. Not that Derek wasn't a Redskins fan. He listened to every game on the radio. He read the Shirley Povich and Bob Addie columns in the Post whenever they saw print. He followed the stats of quarterback Eddie LeBaron, middle linebacker Chuck Drazenovich, halfback Eddie Sutton, and others. He even tracked Bosseler's yards-per-carry. In fact, he only rooted against the 'Skins twice a year, and then with a pang of guilt, when they played Cleveland.
Derek had a newspaper photo of Brown taped to the wall of the bedroom he shared with his brother. With the exception of his father, there was no one who was more of a hero to him than Brown. This was a strong individual who commanded respect, not just from his own but from people of all colors. The man could play.
"Don Bosseler," said Derek, chuckling. He put one big, long-fingered hand to the top of his head, shaved nearly to the scalp, and rubbed it. It was something his brother, Dennis, did in conversation when he was cracking on his friends. Derek had picked up the gesture, like his walk, from Dennis.
"I'm kiddin' you, Derek." Billy got up off the milk crate and put his comic book down on the diner's back stoop. "C'mon, let's go."
"My neighborhood. Maybe there's a game up at Fort Stevens."
Copyright © 2004 by George Pelecanos
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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