Sweet Badass Dude

Miriam Toews

Originally published in Geist 41 and now in the 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition

It’s fall now. Liam has a new pair of And One basketball shoes that are half baby blue suede, half white leather. And one size bigger than his last ones. He’s reading The Diary of Anne Frank in L.A. (language arts) and studying integers in math. He and his friends are trying to plan a trip to Minneapolis in October to see the Vikings. It would be his birthday present—he’s turning fourteen at the end of October.

This summer we went to L.A. (Los Angeles) and while we were there, Liam insisted that we go to Venice Beach: specifically to the Venice Beach basketball courts. They’re famous, he told us; movies are shot there, some of the Lakers play there once in a while, we have to go there. We’d be fools not to go there. We can’t not go there. Plus, he said, Jonathan Richman sings about Venice Beach. This summer he started loving the music of Jonathan Richman.

We drove all day through the sequoias to see the big one, General Sherman, the biggest living thing in the world, but he said he didn’t care, he’d rather sit in the van and sing along to “I, Jonathan” one more time. So we went to Venice Beach. At first we strolled along the boardwalk looking at different stuff, eating ice cream, talking, laughing, the usual. Then, suddenly, there were the courts right in front of us. And you could feel this tension come over Liam, the way a dog gets when it sees a cat or a squirrel and just stops and stares and you know something’s going to happen. The happy, easy feeling of strolling along a boardwalk in the sunshine was gone; it was as if we’d entered another zone or something. And Liam says, Oh man, oh man, there they are. His voice gets lower and his body kind of slumps around the shoulders to indicate that he’s one badass killer dude, unfortunately with an ice cream cone in his hand and with his mom and little sister standing next to him, and he says, in this low voice, Uh, I’ll be over there, and jerks his head toward the courts, and starts walking away using the new L.A. killer dude walk that he’s been practising. Can I have your ice cream? Jess yells after him, which at this moment is for him like being shot in the back with an AK-47, but because he’s such a sweet badass dude, he slowly turns around and holds out his cone to her, then heads for the courts.

Naturally the rest of us can’t follow him. We know this. So we go and sit far away from the courts, on a wooden bench, and we watch. We can barely see him, he’s about an inch tall, but we can see enough to know, sort of, what’s going on. He goes and sits on some bleachers between the main court and one of the three other lesser courts. He’s smart enough to know that he’s not going to get to play on the main court. There’s a full game happening there already and these guys are really fucking good, and much older than Liam. But on the court beside the main one there are some other guys playing three on three. These are the guys Liam’s watching. Maybe he thinks he will get to sub in one of these games. But he just sits there, he doesn’t make a move. He’s waiting. And it’s really hot outside, and finally Jess says she wants to go to the beach, so Calvin takes her and I stay on the bench reading and watching Liam from time to time. He’s still not moving, not playing, not doing anything but watching from the sidelines. Then Calvin and Jess come back from the beach and Calvin sits down on the bench to watch, and Jess and I go back to the beach. We’re there for a while, splashing around, digging in the sand, collecting seashells. Eventually we go back to the bench to find out what’s going on. Nothing, says Calvin. He’s still sitting there. And I think to myself, he’s not going to do it. Liam gets up and walks over to one of the guys playing three on three. He says something and the other guy says something, and then Liam goes back and sits down. Shit! I say, they’re not going to let him play. But Liam doesn’t leave the bleachers. He sits there. The only difference is that now he’s taken off his baseball cap.

Behind us is the spot where those guys lift weights and swing from metal hoops and stuff, Muscle Beach, and Calvin and Jess and I turn to watch them for a few minutes. Then we turn back to look at Liam, and right then he makes his move. He gets up off the bleachers, walks over to the same guy as before, they say a few things, and then the guy sits back down where Liam was and Liam starts to play! He’s playing. He’s playing basketball at the Venice Beach Basketball Courts in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. His dream has come true. He plays for what seems like forever, he plays for at least three hours, while the rest of us watch him in between doing beach things, totally in awe of the kid’s nerve and patience. He looks good out there on the court too, he’s younger but he’s just as good as some of the guys he’s playing with, and better than a few. He’s the only white guy and he’s so white, and with his shirt off and his long, skinny torso darting in and out, moving around, he looks like a ghost, or a flash of lightning.

Afterwards I offered to take a picture of him in front of the Venice Beach Courts sign and he said Oh God, Mom, no. Then Jess asked him why he had waited so long to ask the guy if he could play, what was he waiting for, Christmas? I don’t know, he said, smiling through all his sweat and whacking her over the head with his T-shirt, yeah, whatever. We kept walking, all of us silent as though we had just witnessed a miracle, and then Liam, forgetting that he was the top shit brother of the Boyz of Venice Beach, arched his back, put his arms up in the air, sank to his knees right there on the asphalt and said, Oh man, this is the best day of my life!

This story appears in the Geist 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition. Reserve your copy now. Subscribe today.

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Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is a writer living in Toronto. She is the author of A Complicated Kindness (Doubleday), winner of the 2004 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, The Flying Troutmans (Knopf Canada), winner of the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and All My Puny Sorrows (Knopf Canada), shortlisted for the 2014 Giller Prize.


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