LJ Alonge Frank #3 (Blacktop)

ISBN 13: 9780451533593

Frank #3 (Blacktop)

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9780451533593: Frank #3 (Blacktop)

An action-packed basketball series from author LJ Alonge set on the courts of Oakland, CA.

Frank’s not great at staying out of trouble. He’s also not great at driving cars. After his joyride ends in a crash, he’s stuck with a court-appointed Community Mentor for the summer. 

But it’s not too bad. Officer Appleby’s all right. And if anyone can handle a basketball team, a police officer, and a new girl on the horizon, it’s Frank Torres.
From the Paperback edition.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

LJ Alonge has played pick-up basketball in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, Kenya, South Africa and Australia. Basketball's always helped him learn about his community, settle conflicts, and make friends from all walks of life. He's never intimidated by the guy wearing a headband and arm sleeve; those guys usually aren't very good. As a kid, he dreamed of dunking from the free throw line. Now, his favorite thing to do is make bank shots. Don't forget to call "bank!"
From the Paperback edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1: PARADISE

I’m sprinting up the sideline when I catch an outlet pass from Janae. Homegirl likes to throw passes that make your palms sting, the kind that leave a mark. I stop at the top of the key to look around the court. Life Lesson #553: When you’re vertically challenged, you’ve got to think your way to the rim. In front of me is a Foot Locker All-Star, a guy with a neon headband and neon arm-sleeve and a pair of shoes that would take me a whole summer of hustling to cop. He spits in his hands and slaps the dusty concrete. He swipes angrily at the ball. Sure thing, buddy. The funny thing is, a different me would’ve paid him a visit after the game and “borrowed” his sneakers.
 
I set my feet, twisting my shoes until I can hear the gravel crunch. I flip some stray hair out of my eyes. I jab step left and crossover right and he’s toast, instantly in my rearview, nothing left of him but a whiff of Old Spice. The crowd starts spazzing, each ooh and ahhh and órale like a piece of Pop Secret. Later I might feel a little bad for the kid, getting embarrassed like that. But right now it’s all business. I’m at home close to the rim, with all the trees, so when some big guy starts waving his branches, I squeeze an underhand pass to Justin, who’s waiting in his sweet spot under the rim.
 
Justin lays it in off the backboard baby-soft. Ball game.
 
We win so much it’s no big deal anymore. Forget the sweaty hugs, the jumping up and down, the yelling. That’s amateur stuff you do when you think
you’re going to lose. That was the beginning of the summer, when we were just happy to lose by less than thirty, when we didn’t even have jerseys. It ain’t like that anymore. Now we show up and kick ass. Now we scare teams into staying home. Last week we had two games canceled because every kid on the other team conveniently had a sick abuela to take care of. “Some weird
flu going around,” they all lied. We haven’t lost in forever, and after every game we shake hands, real cool, like we knew we were going to win all along.
 
Justin and I got a special handshake. It’s hard to explain but it takes a full minute to finish and includes a part where we pretend to turn Super Saiyan.
 
“I couldn’t even see you when I made that pass,” I tell him.
 
“That’s crazy,” he says, smirking. “How do you pat yourself on the back with such short arms?”
 
I try to surprise him with a punch in the shoulder, but he shrugs it off and puts me in a headlock. I’m pinned against his chest, inhaling armpit fumes. Part of his jersey ends up in my mouth and I swallow a bunch of vinegary sweat. His biceps press against my throat. He’s got a little meat on his bones now, I’ll give him that. There was a time when he wouldn’t even have dreamed of putting his hands on me. But now that he’s got a girlfriend he’s all grown up, real tough. I’m happy for him, I really am, but that doesn’t stop me from winding up for a couple of kidney shots.
 
“Just say, ‘Justin Shaw is better than me at everything and he gets more girls than I do’ and I’ll let go.”
 
“Okay, okay,” I say. “Justin Shaw is—” and as soon as he relaxes I elbow him in the gut. He bends over and groans like a tied-up dog.
 
Everybody’s laughing. Sometimes it’s scary to feel this good. I mean, we just won and the crowd’s still buzzing and the sky’s Crayola blue and there’s an older girl in the crowd eyeing me and I got money in my pocket and I got no issues with nobody. The problem is that these moments never last. A fun fact about my life is that there’s always some bullshit right around the corner. Always a fly in the soup. Life Lesson #508: If one thing is going really well, that just means something else is about to go really, really wrong. So I’m not even surprised when I see Officer Appleby, my court-appointed Community Mentor, politely squeezing his way through the crowd.
 
“All I can say,” he says, shaking his head, “is wow. My goodness, what a game! What. A. Game! The way you passed! The way you dribbled!”
 
I can feel a bunch of eyes suddenly on us. A dark ring of sweat lines the collar of Officer Appleby’s polo. The whole thing is starched cardboard-stiff. Officer Appleby’s the least police-officer-looking police officer I’ve ever seen. Just looking at his wide-legged khakis makes me cringe.
 
He shakes everyone’s hand. Officer Appleby doesn’t take shaking hands lightly. The first time he came to see us play, he gave us all a lesson on it. Extra-firm grip, bold eye contact, confident nod. Let the other guy release first. A good handshake, he said, will open “many a door.” He never did say which doors or where they went. Now, Justin and I have an “Appleby” part of our handshake routine where we squeeze each other’s hand until we can feel our bones rubbing together and one of us quits.
 
As my Community Mentor, Officer Appleby’s responsible for keeping tabs on me between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. Every morning I have to text him and tell him about my daily plans. A couple of times a week we’ll spend a few minutes talking about my feelings, about where my “disruptive behaviors” come from. If he’s got a call in our neighborhood, he drops by to see what I’m up to. But it’s not as bad as it seems. He never yells, not even when I lie and throw him off with a b.s. schedule. And sometimes he’ll stop by for dinner and tell us about the funny calls he gets during the day: the guys trapped in the bathroom by their angry cats, the neighbors mad at each other for leaving their Christmas lights up too long. When we’re done, he’ll take everyone’s plates to the sink, roll his sleeves up, and start scrubbing, even if Mamá protests.
 
“What?” Officer Appleby will say. “I can’t hear you over the water. Let me finish these dishes first and then we’ll talk.”
 
Mamá will pout but stay seated. When you’ve been in the kind of trouble I’ve been in, the Officer Applebys of the world ain’t too bad.
 
 
 
As I walk up my block I see; Mamá standing barefoot on the lawn, trying to smooth out the wrinkles in her pajamas. Her hair is all crazy-looking, a frizzy brown bun, a bird’s nest. My spidey senses are tingling. Mamá can be a little weird—you should see her when she’s painting—but she never steps out in nothing but the flyest. She’d die before she let the neighbors catch her without lipstick on. Wrapped around her leg is my kid brother, Tomás, also in his pajamas, his thumb stuck deep in his mouth. I’m still a couple of houses down when she waves me over.
 
“A bird’s in the house!” she yells. Tomás buries his face in her leg. “Papi’s trying to kill it!”
 
“Why don’t he just open the windows?” I ask.
 
She tries to tuck a couple of stray strands into her bun but they fall right out. “Please, Frankie, just go help him. I can’t work with no bird in the house.”
 
When I get inside, curtains are blowing in the breeze like little ghosts. Papá is watching a baseball game.
 
“You need my help?” I ask.
 
“Oh,” Papá laughs. “The bird? That was forty-five minutes ago.”
 
“You want me to tell her?”
 
Instead, he pats a seat on the couch. Most of the time Papá and I are butting heads. He wants me to stay at home and live slow, get in my books. He hates that I like being out doing my thing. But nowadays I’m trying to be better. Last time I was in youth court I could see the lines in Papá’s face get deeper and deeper. And every time the judge spoke Papá looked like he was getting smaller and smaller. That surprised the hell out of me. I’ve seen Papá drop a cinder block on his foot and sing boleros on the way to the hospital. I never thought I was hurting him.
 
Now I sit to the left of him, just far enough away to give him some space. The right side is Papá’s side; the seat is a smooth crater made by Papá’s meteoric butt. The orange fabric smells like his cologne, Le Something of Something, stuff I sometimes sneak a few sprays of when I go out. The left side smells like fruity expensive lotion—that’s Mamá’s side. When I was a kid I only sat on Papá’s side and would pretend that my forearms were as hairy as his, that my armpits sprouted hair like his, that my butt could make craters like his.
 
“You smell,” Papá says. “You play some ball today?”
 
“Yeah,” I say. “When you coming to a game?”
 
“I’m coming, I’m coming. Gotta find time.”
 
“You ain’t doing nothing right now.”
 
He snorts. “You don’t see me watching this game?”
 
The A’s are losing so Papá’s moody. That’s one way we’re alike—we’re both poor sports. Blake strikes out Timmons and the TV shows the yellow-and-gold crowd clapping half-heartedly, roasting in the sun. Then they go to commercial. Papá pumps his fist and looks up, and it’s like he’s just noticing I’m there.
 
“So,” he says. “You win or what?”
 
“We never lose.”
 
One of Papá’s eyebrows shoots up his forehead. “Is that right?”
 
“Never.”
 
“Well, if I come, I might mess up your groove.”
 
“Groove don’t have nothing to do with it. We’re just good.”
 
He keeps his eyes on me. I know he’s searching my face for a lie. “Okay, that’s what I like to hear. I’m proud of you, Francisco. You’ve been good this summer. No messing up or nothing. You gotta keep that up.”
 
I nod and start pulling at a thread in the cushion. Why am I suddenly embarrassed? Papá isn’t known to be generous with the compliments. I want to tell him about the day I just had, how my assist led to the game-winner, but I don’t—maybe the compliment well has run dry for the day. I stop pulling on the thread before he gets mad. We’re watching the A’s take their at-bats when Mamá storms back in.
 
“Culero,” she says, dusting her feet off. “So I’m a joke to you? Do I look like a big joke?”
 
“I was just having a moment with my oldest son,” Papá says, laughing. He hasn’t taken his eyes off the TV. “Mira, Frank, tell her!”
 
Mamá stares at me. Behind her, Tomás is shaking his head, his eyes wide with fear. “Francisco,” she says, “do not lie to me.”
 
“It’s true,” I say, holding my hands up. “We were just talking.”
 
“See?” Papá says, laughing even harder. I get all of my smoothness from him. He stands up, sweeps the hair off of Mamá’s damp forehead, and kisses her between the eyebrows. He takes her by the hand and leads her to the couch. Before he sits her down, he sweeps the cushion off carefully, even though there’s nothing there. He puts his arm around her and pulls her close, lets her smell him. When he turns and winks at me, I know it’s my cue to exit.
 
“Okay,” she says to me, sinking into Papá’s shoulder. “Have your little fun. Be like your Papi. Make a joke of your poor mother.”
 
Soon, I can hear them laughing from my bedroom.
 
Like I said, smooth.
 
 
 
Tomás and I sleep in the same back bedroom, in the same bed. At night our room glows: stickers of dinosaurs and hot air balloons turn the walls a pale green. We sleep on Sesame Street–themed covers that Mamá is too sappy to get rid of. Tomás is five and doesn’t know he’s spoiled rotten. Back in the day, when I was five, we didn’t even have a microwave. I had three shirts I wore to school and barely any toys: I had to make forts for my toy soldiers out of old cereal boxes. Tomás gets everything he wants because my parents don’t want him to turn out like me. Even though he’s advanced enough to not wet the bed, he’s nowhere close to becoming a man. That’s what happens when you’re spoiled—you don’t know how to hustle. So I try to give him a little game each night before we go to bed, let him know what he’s in for once he hits adulthood.
 
“When you get to be a man,” I whisper, “you gotta show females you don’t really care if they like you or not. That way they like you more.”
 
Tomás makes a face and the green light makes him look sick. “I like everybody,” he shouts, forgetting how to whisper. I pinch him and he remembers.
 
“Like, like,” I say. “Like you wanna kiss them and hang out and stuff.”
 
“That’s gross.”
 
“And you want to make sure that if you got a girlfriend, you always have a girl or two on the side. That way the girlfriend gets jealous and likes you even more.”
 
Tomás yawns and pulls the sheets under his chin. “Tell me a story.”
 
He’s hopeless, but I don’t have a choice. Without a story he won’t go to sleep, meaning I’ll have to listen to him recite animal facts all night. I worked in the library at a YA camp once, so I’ve got a million stories in my back pocket. If I’m in a bad mood, I’ll frighten Tomás with a good one about
flesh-eating ghosts, and when he falls asleep I pinch his shoulders until he runs to our parents’ room and tries to sleep in their bed. But today’s been a good day, and I’m feeling generous.
 
“Which one?” I ask.
 
“The one about how you stole the Batmobile.”
 
I sigh. “You always want that one.”
 
He pulls the covers over his head, but I know he’s smiling. “It’s my favorite.”
 
“Everybody knows Batman,” I say, “was just some dude lucky enough to be born rich. He ain’t like us, Tomás. He ain’t had to work for nothing. Don’t even know the meaning of hard work. Probably got somebody to wipe his ass for him. So one day he tries to get at my lady, all slick—”
 
“And you told him to stop it.”
 
“Right. ’Cause I ain’t afraid of nobody. Life Lesson #367: Never be afraid of nobody. So I asked what Catwoman would think about all this. But Batman just keeps going. He says maybe your girl wants something a little different, something a little nicer. Big old stupid smile on his face. So I sock him in the nose right there, because you can’t let nobody disrespect you, especially not in front of your girl—”
 
“And he starts crying!”
 
“Nobody ever thought to punch him in the nose. You do that with sharks, too: If you ever see a shark, you punch it in the nose. Now he’s crying, holding his bloody nose, so I rip off his utility belt and stomp on it. All cheap stuff, because Batman gets his stuff made discount, in China. Look it up. Now it’s just me and him, man to man, and of course he starts backing away, because he’s nothing without his gadgets—”
 
Tomás squeals. “Is that when you stole the Batmobile?”
 
“I mean, what was I supposed to do? He left it running, open for the taking. Of course I hopped in. In my book, it would’ve been a crime not to hop in. I rode it around on the freeway for a while.”
 
Right outside our window two cats start going at it, hissing until one runs through the bushes into the neighbor’s yard. Then there’s a long silence. “That really happened, Frankie?” Tomás asks.
 
I cross my arms behind my head and close my eyes. “Every word.”

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