by Willard Manus
It was that
time of year again: late spring, trees in bloom, shrimp-people waving
checkbooks at him.
Come join us, they said. Seven, eight weeks of work is all we want from
you. Well give you five hundred thou-okay, make it seven hundred
and fifty, then-if you will agree to sign with us and help us win
It was crazy. Scrapers father, Stosh, who had toiled in construction
all his life, had to work something like half a century to amass that
kind of dough. Scraper felt guilty at the injustice of it all. He was
unworthy of such a large payday and did not deserve to reap any benefits
from it. Forgive me, papa, for I have sinned.
But the old
Trotskyite was dead and could not hear his apology. And even if he were
alive, Stosh would not have shown any resentment over the disparity in
their incomes. On the contrary, he would have been delighted to know his
that his son was ripping off the capitalists for every cent he could.
It was Stosh who had encouraged Scraper to take up basketball. A tall
man himself, he realized early on that his son was a bean-pole who was
just going to keep spurting. Today Scraper topped out at seven foot three,
with an eight-and-a-half-foot wingspan. Thats right: his arms were
so long that his knuckles ricocheted off the pavement as he made his way
through the city. Hence his nickname: Scraper.
Yes, Scraper was a freak of nature and thats why just about every
team in the NBA tried to sign him when playoff time came round. With those
octopus-like arms of his, he could dominate the action by blocking passes,
deflecting shots, capturing rebounds. All this without running very hard,
leaving his feet, or playing the game with much emotion.
Flawed as he was as a player, Scraper could still alter a games
outcome, turn a loser into a winner. Not that he took much pleasure in
that. He was secretly ashamed of those long appendages of his and tried
to hide them from view whenever he was off the court, jamming his mitts
into his jacket pockets, not just to deflect attention from them but also
to protect them from further damage. Even so, his cracked and bloody fingers
resembled the claws of a boiled lobster.
no way he could protect his hands when he played basketball; opposing
players were always slashing away at them. Thats why he disliked
the game: the beating he took on the court was painful and severe. But
what troubled him even more was the mindlessness of the sport, the sheer
stupidity of it.
Yet he had to admit that playing pro basketball was an easy way to make
a living. He could live quite nicely on his earnings as a part-time player,
It aint really fair to your teammates, said the scout
from the New York Knicks who had come to sign him up. His name was Donny
Johnson and he was an ex-NBA player whose chewed-up knees had forced him
to retire early and become a functionary. He was a dark-skinned African-American
with a surly, hostile expression. If you had played the whole season
with us we wouldnt be so damn desperate for help right now.
If I had played the whole season my knees would have exploded the
way yours did, Scraper replied.
Come on, bro. You aint that old and you dont have that
much mileage on you.
Thats cauz I look after myself, play as little basketball
Its a selfish way to behave, leavin it to your teammates
to do the long, hard labor it takes to win a championship.
I could never survive eight months of basketball. Id be a
basket-case, no pun intended.
I dont understand you. You were built to play basketball.
That doesnt mean I have to like the damn game.
Whats with you? If you had gone the normal route, youd
be one of the richest players in the league.
Money aint everything, Donny.
off it. You came from a poor family, just like me. How can you turn your
nose up at success?
I guess we define success differently.
Lonny made a disapproving face. That much is obvious. Anyway, heres
the deal Ive been authorized to offer you. He named a large
sum of money which would come Scrapers way if he signed with the
This is exactly what the team paid me last year, Scraper pointed
You should feel good about that. Youre a year older, man.
But my arms havent got any shorter.
Its a good deal, dammit! Lonny cried. You should
take it. Weve got a better team this year. You actually might enjoy
playing on it.
I doubt it. But Ill talk it over with Marli and get back to
You aint playing hard to get, are you?
Hard to get? Six other teams have contacted me. Theyre all
offering me lucrative short-time deals.
But weve got something the others dont have: home-court
advantage. Thats got to count for something, seeings how much
you hate to travel.
I dont hate travel, I just hate being squeezed into a corner
by the goddamn airlines.
The Knicks are leasing a private jet this year. That means youll
have all the leg room you need.
Glad to hear it.
how about showing a little gratitude? How about signing this goddamn piece
If you wanna have sex with me, you gotta romance me a bit more.
Lonny just shook his head and muttered darkly, There is something
seriously wrong with you! You should see a shrink, man.
Sorry to disappoint you, but Ive been in analysis for the
past ten years.
Ten years? Are you jiving me?
Dont I wish.
Lonny eyed Scraper balefully and said, You know what I think?
You better find yourself another shrink, because this one aint
doin you a motherfuckin bit of good!
* * *
Scraper picked his way through the crowded streets of mid-town Manhattan,
on his way to meet Marli. He moved along slowly, deliberately, keeping
his hands in his pockets as he shuffled through the swarms of shrimp-people,
the little folk who were everywhere in the city, rushing this way and
that. Scraper did not dislike his fellow-citizens; he just felt uncomfortable
among them; they were just so damn small. It obliged him to look down
at the tops of their heads, never a pretty sight.
Most women showed pink and grey at the roots of their dyed hair. The men
were equally pathetic with their desperate attempts to hide their bald
was always a wise-ass in the crowd, the kind who liked nothing better
than to point him out and yell, Hey, look at this guys gorilla
arms, will ya? Or, Hows the weather up there, pal?
It was a relief to enter uncrowded Central Park and cross to the boat-house,
freeing his hands from their hiding place, letting them dangle and caress
the cool, crisp grass, the clumps of snow left over from last months
storm. Even better was to climb into a rowboat with Marli and take up
his usual place in the prow. They headed to the shallowest part of the
lake, where Scraper then dropped one of his arms over the side and began
to troll for treasures.
Scraper almost always discovered something of interest in the cold dark
waters of the lake: an i-Pad. A purse or wallet. Jewelry. Even a pistol.
There were a few drawbacks to his favorite pastime, though. The water
was often icy and his hand would begin to freeze up (though Marli would
gladly warm it up between her thighs). Occasionally something down in
the marshes would bite him on the finger, an eel or a weird fish.
No predators today, though. No valuable discoveries either: just an old
galosha. A hand-mirror. Then a shaving brush (what kind of man shaved
while rowing around the lake?). Then a used condom (somebody had got lucky
kept hunting for valuables, Marli worked the oars and chatted about her
work. She was getting a doctorate in particle physics and was part of
a government-sponsored team working on a project that studied the collisions
of high-energy cosmic rays. It was a high-level, hush-hush experiment
which could either help save the world or blow it up, he wasnt sure
No matter, he still loved this girl to pieces. Marli was one of the shrimp-people,
but he had made allowances in her case, mostly because of her dense, thick
red hair (the result of her flaming intelligence) and her green eyes and
calm, loving ways. Even though they often made people laugh as they walked
side by side, he refused to allow such negative acts to affect his love
Marli was everything he wanted in a wife and he let her know it as often
as possible. She reciprocated, of course, and was equally generous with
her affection, which never seemed to waver in intensity, not even when
he turned down that lucrative contract with the Detroit Pistons: a five-year
eighty-million-dollar package, with half of the money guaranteed.
Most women would have salivated at the thought of being married to that
kind of money. It meant houses, servants, shopping sprees, sumptuous dinner
parties, and invitations to join the Junior League. Not Marli, though.
Not his one-in-a-million, experimental-physicist wife. She knew how much
he disliked basketball and had done all he could to avoid playing the
game. This went back to the third grade (when he was already well over
six feet) and continued through high school (six foot nine) and college
(seven feet and still growing).
have ideals and a conscience, and thats why I adore you and am fine
with you turning down that bloated contract. Well have to make do
on a measly seventy-hundred-and fifty thou a year, until such time as
I get my degree and land some kind of well-paying job, she said,
between pulls on the oars. Then you can quit basketball and spend
your time trolling for goodies in this lovely lake.
* * *
In the tween-time, though, the playoffs took over Scrapers
life and he had to start competing against the other seven-footers in
the league, guys with equally hyper-active pituitary glands. Each team
had at least one such goliath, but none of them could boast of an 8 1/2-foot
wingspan. So Scraper was still able to play his kind of game: take up
a position under the basket, stick his arms into the passing lane and
deflect just about every ball that came his way. He could also dominate
on offense: snatch a rebound out of the air and with ferocious speed slam
it down into the basket.
Thanks to his contributions, the Knicks kept winning games and advancing
through the playoffs. It looked as if they were going to win it all-until
the owners of the team they were facing in the finals decided to take
action against him.
The L.A. Crips were the first team in NBA history to be owned by a street
gang. This wasnt such a surprise, as the Crips were sitting on a
ton of cash accrued after decades of successful drug dealing. What better
way to launder the loot than by purchasing an NBA franchise?
the Crips were also keen on buying a little respectability for themselves,
they werent above playing hardball when it became necessary. Although
we now wear ties and shit, we aint about to become a bunch of pussycats,
not on your mutha-fuckin life, said the Crips CEO on
a Fox-TV sports talk show (before being bleeped out).
We have put together a plan aimed at takin Scrapers
game away from him, he added. He be sorry he ever thought
of goin up against us homies.
A few days later the Crips introduced the new player theyd hired
to neutralize Scrapers game: Vlad the Impaler.
Vlad was a Serbian-born basketball player who came of good stock: his
grand-father had been one of the heroes of the Yugoslav civil war, a general
who had been tried and executed by a U.N. court for ethnic cleansing and
genocide. Hed killed an estimated 10,000 people, mostly women and
children, his favorite targets.
At seven-feet-one Vlad was a bit smaller than Scraper, but he outweighed
his adversary, clocking in at just under three hundred pounds. When you
took into account his bald head, hook nose, weight-lifter build and psychotic
tendencies, it was clear that he was a man to be reckoned with.
The first time Scraper faced off against Vlad was in the opening game
of the finals. The latter, while guarding Scraper in the post, grabbed
hold of his baggy shorts. When Scraper stretched for a ball, Vlad gave
a hard yank, exposing his opponents hairy and pimply ass.
The photo of this humiliating act went viral, subjecting Scraper to country-wide
scorn and derision. His ass is mine! crowed Vlad in an interview
the next day (also over Fox-TV). I learn him goot what basketball
is all about!
out, Vlad got even more physical. When he wasnt pinching or punching
Scraper, he was putting his foot out and trying to trip him and send him
Cut that shit out, Scraper told Vlad, or I will put
my arm down your throat and pull your Serbian balls up through your throat!
I no scare easy, was Vlads response (it was hard to
believe, but he had a BA in English from Stanford University). In
case nobody told you, I am Vlad the Impaler-and I haff been paid
goot money to knock you out of this tournament!
Scraper was used to going up against bullies and psychotics like Vlad.
Basketball had begun as a finesse game featuring clever passes, skillful
shooting and almost no body contact. But then, after the pros took over,
it had evolved into a ghetto game which typically went like this: dribble,
foul; another dribble, another foul; then a shot followed by foul, foul,
It was a class thing, of course: working-class kids, kids whod grown
up in the hood, now found themselves playing for the edification of the
rich, fat cats who thought nothing of paying three thousand bucks for
a court-side seat. And who liked their basketball violent and bloody.
another reason why Scraper hated the pro game; it wasnt really a
game but a slugfest, a mockery of the real thing. But he was being paid
sizable bucks to swallow his feelings and perform for his masters, and
so he did as bidden, kept chugging up and down the length of the court,
fighting to establish himself under the basket. Then hed extend
a long, snake-like arm and hold it aloft, ready to do damage with it.
All this while fighting a brutal personal duel with Vlad the Impaler.
The two big men went to war every night, with Vlad managing to win most
of the skirmishes. After all, he had spent his youth in a Belgrade home
for the criminally insane, where he had learned many of the dirty tricks
that served him so well on the basketball court: such as hacking, spitting,
pinching, kicking, gouging and sucker-punching.
As the finals went on-first team to win seven games would walk away
with the cup-Scraper began to feel the effects of Vlads attacks
on him. His arms and legs were black and blue, his kidneys ached, his
balls throbbed from the time Vlad had kicked them. But Scraper still managed
to keep soldiering on.
Donny Johnson thought he should complain to the refs about the way Vlad
was playing him, but Scrapers shrink felt otherwise. Violence
is not only part of the modern game but part of modern life itself,
the psychiatrist, a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, told him. People
love violence. Violence sells movies, TV, music and video games. So why
shouldnt it sell basketball?
So even though he had begun to piss blood and needed pain-killers to sleep,
Scraper hung in there and kept taking blow after blow. Finally, though,
he decided that hed taken everything he could from Vlad the Impaler;
this came when the Serbian war criminal muttered a warning, I now
begeen to break your fokking wrists.
while the sold-out crowd in the Garden was howling DEE-FENSE in response
to a computerized command on the video monitors. Vlad demonstrated how
he would do it, by raising his massive fist and walloping Scraper on the
It was like being hit with a sledge-hammer. Scraper nearly passed out
from the pain. A few more blows like that and Vlad the Impaler would have
achieved his goal: the total elimination of the Knicks starting
What to do? After the game, with his hands jammed into ice-buckets, Scraper
sat and struggled to come up with a plan. Meanwhile, his teammates moved
grimly around the locker room, peeling off their sweat-soaked uniforms
and cursing the close game they had just lost to the Crips, who were celebrating
next door by singing a victory song:
One more muthafuckin game and we win the muthafuckin
And we tell the muthafuckin world to fuck its muthafuckin
As the clever lyrics rang out-the rap song would soon go to number
one on the pop charts-Scraper suddenly realized what his next move
He picked up his cell-phone and called Marli, even though he knew she
was studying diligently for her final exams.
Sorry for the interruption, sweetheart, he told her, but
I need your advice on something important. Can you give me twenty minutes
when I get home?
He got his
twenty minutes-and more. Marli listened to him dutifully, made a
few notes, then went back into her room to finish her studies. A day later
she came home with something hidden in bubble wrap. She did not show this
object to Scraper, just told him that she had borrowed it
from her laboratory-and that was the prototype for a giant accelerator
designed to smash protons together at very high energies. Think
of it as a kind of experimental ray gun, she said. Id
like to try out on Vlad the Impaler.
That night, she did just that. She followed the Serb as he strolled along
the East River, accompanied by his beloved German shepherd, a dog that
required two muzzles to prevent him from savaging people.
When Vlad paused to watch his mutt take a humongous shit, Marli went up
to him, pulled out her secret weapon, and zapped him with it. It was all
over in a few seconds. Snap, crackle, pop-and Vlad the Impaler disappeared,
having been transported to another realm.
That night the conspirators ate Chinese and watched a movie in bed. It
was hard to tell who was more pleased that the invention had worked: Scraper
or his mad-scientist wife, Marli.