short story 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. We’ll 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 the playoffs.

It was crazy. Scraper’s 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. That’s 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 that’s 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 game’s 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.

There was no way he could protect his hands when he played basketball; opposing players were always slashing away at them. That’s 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, a mercenary.

“It ain’t 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 wouldn’t 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 ain’t that old and you don’t have that much mileage on you.”

“That’s ‘cauz I look after myself, play as little basketball as possible.”

“It’s 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. I’d be a basket-case, no pun intended.”

“I don’t understand you. You were built to play basketball.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to like the damn game.”

“What’s with you? If you had gone the normal route, you’d be one of the richest players in the league.”

“Money ain’t everything, Donny.”

“Get 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, here’s the deal I’ve been authorized to offer you.” He named a large sum of money which would come Scraper’s way if he signed with the Knicks.

“This is exactly what the team paid me last year,” Scraper pointed out.

“You should feel good about that. You’re a year older, man.”

“But my arms haven’t got any shorter.”

“It’s a good deal, dammit!” Lonny cried. “You should take it. We’ve got a better team this year. You actually might enjoy playing on it.”

“I doubt it. But I’ll talk it over with Marli and get back to you.”

“You ain’t playing hard to get, are you?”

“Hard to get? Six other teams have contacted me. They’re all offering me lucrative short-time deals.”

“But we’ve got something the others don’t have: home-court advantage. That’s got to count for something, seeing’s how much you hate to travel.”

“I don’t 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 you’ll have all the leg room you need.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Then how about showing a little gratitude? How about signing this goddamn piece of paper?”

“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 I’ve been in analysis for the past ten years.”

“Ten years? Are you jiving me?”

“Don’t I wish.”

Lonny eyed Scraper balefully and said, “You know what I think?”


“You better find yourself another shrink, because this one ain’t 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 patches.

And there 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 guy’s gorilla arms, will ya?” Or, “How’s 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 month’s 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 out here!)

As Scraper 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 wasn’t sure which.

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 for her.

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).

“You have ideals and a conscience, and that’s why I adore you and am fine with you turning down that bloated contract. We’ll 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 Scraper’s 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 wasn’t 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?

Although the Crips were also keen on buying a little respectability for themselves, they weren’t above playing hardball when it became necessary. “Although we now wear ties and shit, we ain’t 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’ Scraper’s 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 they’d hired to neutralize Scraper’s 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. He’d 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 opponent’s 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!”

Next time out, Vlad got even more physical. When he wasn’t pinching or punching Scraper, he was putting his foot out and trying to trip him and send him sprawling.

“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 Vlad’s 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, foul.

It was a class thing, of course: working-class kids, kids who’d 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.

This was another reason why Scraper hated the pro game; it wasn’t 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 he’d 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 Vlad’s 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 Scraper’s 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 shouldn’t 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 he’d 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.”

This occurred 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 arm.

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 center.

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 should be.

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. “I’d 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.