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Authors: Jay Neugeboren

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Sam's Legacy

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Sam's Legacy

Jay Neugeboren

Dzanc Books
5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
www.dzancbooks.org

Copyright © 1973, 1974 by Jay Neugeboren

All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher.

A portion of this book previously appeared in
The Massachusetts Review

Published 2014 by Dzanc Books
A Dzanc Books r
E
print Series Selection

eBooks ISBN-13: 978-1-941088-47-0
eBook Cover Designed by Awarding Book Covers

Published in the United States of America

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author
.

 

For Martha Winston and William E. Wilson and to the memory of Arthur and Doris Bendorf

Contents

  I   The Rummage Shop

 II   Birds

III   Farewell! Farewell!

IV   Sam the Gambler

And Containing

M
Y
L
IFE AND
D
EATH IN THE
N
EGRO
A
MERICAN
B
ASEBALL
L
EAGUE
: A S
LAVE
N
ARRATIVE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

 

“The Omnipresent,” said a Rabbi, “is occupied in making marriages.” The levity of the saying lies in the ear of him who hears it; for by marriages the speaker meant all the wondrous combinations of the universe whose issue makes our good and evil.

—George Eliot,
Daniel Deronda

I

The Rummage Shop

 

 

These are they that are ineligible to bear witness: diceplayers, pigeon-flyers, usurers, traffickers in Seventh Year produce, and slaves.

—The Mishnah
(“Feast of the New Year,” 1:8)

1

Sam Berman was taller than his father Ben by at least half a foot, and his father had been—he remembered this clearly—taller than
his
father; and yet—it was crazy—when he thought of them, things were always reversed: he saw his grandfather as tallest of all, with Ben next, and himself last—like the painted wooden dolls he'd seen in souvenir shops (from Russia, he thought, or Poland), in which, when you opened the largest one, there was one smaller, and when you opened the smaller one, there was one even smaller.

Sam looked down at his stomach—he was standing, applauding as the players were being introduced—and he wondered if he contained anything in the hollow of his body; if not, did that mean that he was empty…or solid? It wasn't a question he would let Ben have a chance at. He knew, of course, where questions like that could lead. Religion, he thought—they could use that to mix you up too.

“See the way he fingers his medallion,” the man to his left was saying. “That's what did it. He prayed. I read it in the papers.”

“Sure,” Sam said. “Maybe.”

They were talking about one of the players on the New York Knicks, Dave Stallworth, who was sitting on a bench far below, ready to be introduced to the crowd. Everyone in Madison Square Garden was waiting to hear his name: Stallworth, a six-foot-seven-and-a-half-inch black basketball player, had been sidelined for more than two years by what had been diagnosed as a heart attack. He had been twenty-five years old at the time, in his second season with the Knicks, averaging thirteen points a game. Sam had, of course, followed the comeback story in the papers. “It was like somebody was sitting on my chest,” Stallworth had told a reporter. Sam knew the feeling, he knew it well. He watched Stallworth finger the medallion.

“I wish the guy well,” the man said.

“Sure. Me too,” Sam said, and he meant it. “You got to give him credit. He has…” He paused, aware that he was embarrassed at the feelings welling within him, at the words that were out before he could check himself. “…a lot of heart.”

The man smiled. “He said he prayed a lot, and I believe him. A guy doesn't lie about a thing like that.”

Sam thought of his father, who still prayed every morning in his bedroom, and Sam could see himself, just before his thirteenth birthday, when Ben had taught him how to wind the black
tephillin
straps around his arm, seven times, and how to pull them through the spaces between his fingers in order to make the letter
shin
, for the name of God, on the back of his hand.

An enormous sound rose around Sam's ears, engulfing him. Over sixteen thousand fans were on their feet, their roar swelling, cresting—and Sam realized that he had, a moment before, heard Stallworth's name. Stallworth trotted out onto the court, took his place at the foul line, shuffled his feet, and let his head drop to his chest. Willis Reed, the Knick captain—six-foot-ten, a black man with a barrel chest—leaned over and slapped Stallworth on the rear-end. Stallworth stood at ease, his hands clasped behind him, and Sam pounded his hands together as hard as he could.
Wasn't this what it was all about?
he thought to himself, not caring that the guy next to him might notice that there were tears brimming in his eyes. He glanced right and left and saw that he wasn't the only one: they called New Yorkers tough, did they? Maybe. But he saw a lot of glassy-eyed guys around him, their mouths pressed tight, their heads held high, clapping their hearts out.

They knew what it must have taken, Sam told himself; they'd followed the story in the papers too: how Stallworth had lain on his back in a hospital bed for twenty-seven straight days without moving, had been told he'd never be able to play again, washed up, a cripple at twenty-five—and they knew what it must have meant to him tonight, to be back in the Garden, slipping his white silk uniform over his long body, trotting out onto the hardwood, warming up with his teammates, hearing his name over the public address system, hearing the hush that had preceded the applause, and then this. The guy next to him—he came to Sam's shoulder, about five-foot-five, Ben's height, only stocky—was banging his hands as hard as Sam was, and the man's eyes were shining. He noticed Sam looking his way, glanced up at him, and the two men grunted at each other.

Why didn't they leave it at that, though, Sam thought. Why did they have to bring religion into it? It gave him the willies. Dave Stallworth looked up now, fingered his medallion nervously, and the applause continued—deafening, swelling. Dave the Rave! The guy was an ace, that was all. Sam's fingers tingled—the papers would exaggerate the next morning, but the applause had lasted for a solid three, three and a half minutes. The noise began to subside, Stallworth's head bobbed up and down—the announcer broke in finally, calling the rest of the team out, some of the Knick rookies making their way to the foul line for the first time in their pro careers—and again, despite himself, Sam saw his grandfather and his father, in the living room on Linden Boulevard, when his grandfather had been living with them. Sam had been nine when his grandfather had died, over twenty years before: it was very early, before Ben left for work, and the two men shuckled back and forth, the black straps fell down his grandfather's collar, from the knot at the nape of his neck. The venetian blinds were drawn, the room dark, warm, and as the two men paced back and forth, murmuring their prayers, their eyes closed, Sam would wonder how it was that they never bumped into each other. He saw his father's jacket, dropped from his left shoulder, the shirt-sleeves rolled up, the straps making ridges on the hairy skin of the forearm; he saw straps emerging from under his grandfather's dark beard, the beard knotted, wild, spreading in crazy curls across the man's chest. Their heads bobbed, as if synchronized.

Sam stuck his first and third fingers into his mouth, to each side of his tongue, and gave a whistle, shrill—Johnny Warren, a Knick rookie from St. John's, ran onto the court, sporting an Afro hairdo. The organ played the Star Spangled Banner, and then Sam applauded again, quickly, and sat down.

This could be the Knicks' year, he thought. After the way they'd handled themselves in the play-offs the previous year, with Bradley finally coming along, and Frazier showing he had real class in the backcourt. Sure. Think about that, he told himself, and forget the other stuff: seeing his grandfather hulking over his father, the three of them inside each other like mummies. He was heading for deep waters if he let his mind dwell on things like that.

The game was good and Sam never had to worry—the Knicks won by twenty-five, going away, which meant that Sam was up by two hundred and fifty for the week. He'd been shaving it pretty close lately, the roughest stretch for him in over ten years. He'd had the Knicks by six and he felt better now, relieved. They told you never to bet opening games, that there were still too many unknowns, but the guys who made the odds were as much in the dark as Sam was. This week Mr. Sabatini would pay him.

He hurried down when the final buzzer sounded, two steps at a time, and reached the first landing before the players had gone through to the underpass and the locker rooms. The cops were there, their arms spread out, keeping the fans away. Everybody was giving Stallworth congratulations. “Way to go, Dave baby—” he heard himself call out, and nobody even looked at him for saying it. Stallworth, a half foot or so taller than Sam, smiled from fat lips. Sam was close enough to see what he'd seen in close-up photos in sports magazines: the five-pointed gold star in the cap on one of Stallworth's front teeth. The light flashed into Sam's face, making him blink. He wanted to reach out, to put his hand on Stallworth's brown arm, to tell him how happy he was for him, that he understood; and he had a feeling that, if they could get together for a few drinks, a few hands of poker—Sam would go easy on him there if Stallworth would go easy on him in some one-on-one in the schoolyard—they would get on together. Stallworth ducked his head, disappearing down the runway; Sam zipped up his jacket and looked for the nearest exit.

On the escalator, descending, Sam listened to three high school kids, wearing their team jackets, tell one another how great the Knicks would be if Willis Reed stayed healthy for the whole season. Sam smiled, stepped from the escalator, then followed the signs, down and through arcades, to the Seventh Avenue IRT Subway. “Brother, may I have a word with you?”

It was the guy who'd sat next to him at the game. Sam stopped, his right hand slipping automatically into his sidepocket, where his knife was. “Some other time, yeah?” Sam said. “I got an appointment to see somebody.”

Sam moved to his left, but the man moved with him and touched his sleeve. The passageway leading through the Long Island Railroad waiting room was jammed, but Sam wasn't comforted by crowds. “This won't take very long,” the man said. “I mean, I saw something in your eyes, brother, when we both—”

Sam stopped, jerked his sleeve from the man's hand. “Look, if you need a hand-out, I'm not the guy.” The man's eyes shifted, unsure. Sam relaxed. The city was full of strange birds, but you never knew. He flipped the question out, fast: “You work for Sabatini?”

Then the man's eyes fixed him. “I work for the Lord.” The voice was hollow. The man's hand held him again, above the wrist, but Sam didn't move.

“Sure,” Sam said. “But I don't got the time.”

The man seemed to be an inch or two taller than he'd been at the game; his back was straight, he stared directly into Sam's face. “I was like you once, brother—fearful and alone.” The voice was mellow, soothing. “But now I have Christ in my bosom. ‘He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.' Would you be kind enough to read a pamphlet I have prepared, if I were to offer it to you?”

BOOK: Sam's Legacy
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