Trey would have to steal the money. There was no other possible way to participate.
“So you in, man? You gotta bring the shoes to our first official practice next week.” Clay stood with his hands on his hips.
“It’s an expensive hobby.” Trey said the words while already knowing they were of no consequence to someone like Clay, who probably already had a closet full of cast-off Jordans and Lebrons.
“Oh, yeah. But the glory of having the best shoes on the court. Nothing like it.”
There were two options: Mama’s tip money or Mama’s work. But the first didn’t really feel like an option at all. And Mama needed that money, not a thieving son stealing from her for some shoes.
It was bad enough they had to live with Trey’s sour uncle who looked perpetually pained to see him and Mama at the table in the kitchen every morning. Bad enough Trey had to start a new school just because of an insignificant line someone had drawn on the districting map.
So Mama’s work it was.
On Friday night, Trey took the short walk to Salvador’s, the restaurant bar where Mama slaved away when she wasn’t at home slaving away. It was closing time, had to be closing time for his plan to work, and it would just be Mama and Gina, who Mama called Godzilla behind her back. Godzilla hated Mama because Mama had that easy way with people and enough looks still to go with it. Gina, though, even when she tried to speak softly, still sounded and looked as if she were breathing fire.
Mama smiled when Trey walked in. “Hey, baby, what you doin’ here?”
Trey shrugged. Casual was key. “Just thought I’d check in on you. See if you needed any help so you could get home a little earlier.” The lie burned his throat.
Mama stopped sweeping for a minute and leaned on the broom. “Tonight’s sure been killer, hon. Gina’s back there tryin’ her best to clean up where some drunk dude thought the sink was the urinal. Or maybe he did it on purpose. Who knows? Who cares?” She wiped her bangs from her eyes and went back to sweeping, the motion taking her farther away from Trey.
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Want me to clear out the register, Mama? Might be good for my math skills.”
“That’d sure save me some time. You count first, write down what you get, and I’ll do a quick check after I finish up here.” Mama flashed Trey a tired smile.
Trey sauntered over to the register, his palms sweating profusely. He took a quick glance around. Mama had her back to him; Gina was nowhere he could see.
While counting the money, Trey slipped two bills, slick as ribbons, into his back pocket. He knew what he took would not even make the smallest dent in Sal’s finances. It was like tapping a car with a toothpick. He subtracted the amount he took from what he wrote down.
By noon on Saturday, he had the shoes. He’d only wear them for practices and games, and if Mama was able to make it to a game and asked about them, then he’d pluck a lie from those spouting in his head and offer it to her, like a sweet-smelling flower.
Mama was supposed to work late Saturday night, but she was home by five. She threw her purse on the couch and plunked herself down beside Trey.
“What’s up, Mama?” Trey shifted to make more room on the loveseat and turned the TV down.
Mama pursed her lips and popped her knuckles. That’s how Trey knew somebody done made her mad.
“I quit Sal’s this morning, baby boy. Godzilla tried to say that you, my Trey, my baby, who ain’t never told a lie in his life, stole money from the register. Said she was coming out of the back bathrooms and saw you slide money into your back pocket. ‘Slick and easy’ she said. I think that’s what made me maddest. As if you some criminal that steals from people all the time.”
Mama slapped her hands on her knees. “So Sal, when he calls me in, says he can’t prove what happened, but it might be best if you don’t come in after hours anymore. And I said, ‘If my son ain’t welcome here, then I ain’t either.’ I gave him the stink eye til he squirmed, and then I left.”
Trey struggled to find his breath as the truth gurgled up his throat and lodged there. “I could have stayed away, Mama. You didn’t have to quit.”
Mama stood up. “Nope. I’m not gonna stay nowhere that slurs you, baby. Now, I’m gonna go walk this frustration off a bit. Then I’ll fix us some dinner.”
Trey wasn’t sure he could have continued the lie if she’d asked him straight out, but Mama’s trust in him was so great the question never even left her mouth.
As he walked to the first official practice the next day, Trey felt the uncomfortable thump of the shoes in his backpack. It matched the uncomfortable thumping of his heart.
But Mama would find another job. Yeah, she had that easy way with people.
When Trey showed up at practice in these shoes, he still believed it would be worth it.
He stopped outside of the gym and sat, pulling the shoes out to admire once more. Electric blue and pure white knitposite, superb traction pattern, gigantic air pockets, but all oh-so-light at the same time. I’m gonna fly.
Clay and a few other boys were already in the gym, passing the ball back and forth, warming up, jostling into each other in the way boys often do.
“Hey, ya’ll! Our next contestant’s here!” Clay summoned the group, which quickly surrounded Trey.
“Nice kicks. . .”
“Love that blue, man. . .”
“Probably the nicest ones so far. . .”
The gym door slammed, and Clay’s face broke into a smile, the rapture of the blue shoes seemingly forgotten. “Taz! What’s up, bro? We been missing you around here.”
“Who’s Taz?” Trey asked the boy standing closest to him.
“Star player, man. He and his family stayed gone a little extra on Winter Break, so he’s just getting back.”
Trey’s eyes flew to Taz’s feet to see what competition he provided.
None. Just basic black sneakers with red laces. They didn’t even look new. Trey felt his chest swell a bit.
Clay closed in on the newest arrival. “Hey, Taz, you still didn’t get no new kicks, man? Not even for Christmas?”
Trey felt a little sorry for Taz, with Clay calling him out like that in front of everybody.
But Taz just gave an easy smile and chuckled softly. “Bro, I done told you a million times, my mama ain’t gonna pay two weeks’ worth of grocery money for shoes. Ain’t no shoes make a man, anyway.”
“You know some of us need a little extra to even try to match you, Big T.” Clay shuffled his feet.
Taz lazily threw his arm around Clay’s shoulder. “We a flock of geese, baby. We fly together. Championship season this year, boys. Who’s ready?”
The others hooted and hollered, ignited by Taz’’s announcement and the confidence with which he spoke.
The group had begun to amble forward together when Taz noticed Trey, standing a bit off to the side. His eyes took in the electric blue shoes, and he shook his head. “I see ol’ Clay got to you, man. Hope you still got some money left in your piggy bank.” He smiled to soften his words, but Trey still felt a sting.
Coach Blanford’s whistle pierced the air, signaling a start to the new season, blowing away any further mention of whose shoes were best.