Sportin’ Men
by Gary Phillips
Illustrated by Rosalind Helfand

“Be careful, Junie, you ain’t old enough to handle that yet.”

“Don’t sell the boy short, Brim, remember how you were at his age.” Mercer Cooke and the other men at the table laughed. The teenaged Glen Murray, called Junie, had been caught gawking by his uncle at one of Miss Zenobia’s party girls.

Cooke held out a couple of dollar bills to the teenager. “Mix me a Jack and Coke, would you, youngster? And fetch me a ham hock sandwich too, son. Slap some hogshead cheese on it too.” He saw and upped the raise by ten dollars.

“Okay, Mr. Cooke,” Junie said, his cheeks still warm. The liquor and such was on a sideboard and he took care of the drink order. Then he went off toward the kitchen in the antebellum restored colonial mansion. This meant leaving the parlor where the game was going, dealer’s choice. This also meant having to pass by the girl he’d tried to peek at on the sly when she walked past. Well, she must be at least four years older than him, he figured, which made her 20 and, he supposed, a woman. For she was certainly more experienced than he was.

“How come they calls you Junie?” The girl he’d been transfixed by asked when he entered the area off the parlor that Miss Zenobia called the foyer. A fancy ballroom chandelier hung from its ceiling. And this space was bigger than what Junie had for sleeping at his uncle’s place.

She and the other one, whose name was Tanya, were sitting on a couch in the room containing the two pool tables and the plasma TV. They were playing the AlienQuake II video game on the set.  Tanya blew a megadroid’s head off, earning her bonus points. Both of them were dressed in silky undergarments and short, untied satiny robes. They looked like honeys fresh from a BET rap video.  How could he not peep that when she’d walked into the parlor to whisper something to Valentine Lewis, one of the players?

“’Cause you was called junebug when you were small?” the girl-woman asked, invading Junie’s reverie.

“My mother and older brother were both born in June,” the smitten teen answered.

“And so were you?”

He got lost in her eyes. “No. September.”

She frowned and chewed a little on her lower lip, and a rainbow of lights popped inside his head.

“This is Missa, she just started this week,” Tanya said, her thumbs furiously working the control’s toggles.

“Glad to meet you,” he managed without stammering. “I’ve got to get something,” and he scooted away. He could hear them whispering as he went, and they laughed that laugh that fine females do when they know they’re messing with a dude’s mind. At least his cheeks weren’t warm again.

In the kitchen he deftly separated the meat from the shank to make Mr. Cooke’s sandwich. Miss Zenobia entered as he started out. She’d just come back from some business she had to attend to and was wearing one of her crowns, one of her flamboyant hats, the kind that black women of a certain age wore to church. This one was a volcanic eruption of peacock feathers and rhinestones. Junie was sure Miss Zenobia hadn’t been to church in many years. But he’d seen a deacon or two in the poker game, who headed upstairs afterward with one of the heavenly honeys, as Uncle Brim would crack.

Behind Miss Zenobia was her driver and number one of two bodyguards, the crosstown bus-sized Peteypeet. He was trying to be cool while eyeing the prize Junie was carrying on a saucer.

“How are things, young man?” Miss Zenobia asked.

“Fine, ma’am, just fine.” He wanted to get out of there, but there was no way to simply ease past them. The madam was of some size around, and Peteypeet was like an anchored battleship at the open swing door.

“Aren’t you already a junior?”

“Yes, that’s right. I turn seventeen in about a month.”

She smiled and removed some folded bills from her protruding bosom. “Put that toward your college fund.” She handed him the money. “Brim is alright for who he is, but you’ve got imagination, Junie.  You can go somewhere and not wind up here.”

“Thank you,” he said, getting by the two of them. Junie looked at the money; it was two one-hundred- dollar bills. Oh, man. Now he was not only nervous, but also feeling even worse about what he and Uncle Brim were about to do. He was sure glad he hadn’t checked the wireless remote he’d previously plugged in behind the refrigerator.

“I guess I’ll have to throw my gat on them,” Uncle Brim had said when he told Junie what he intended to do.
“There’s a better way,” the young man advised. They went to the public library, and online he showed his devious uncle a site about remote control homes. At Circuit City, they bought a radio frequency device that controls lights.

“If it goes black at the right moment, then getting away shouldn’t be that hard while everybody runs into each other.”

“Good to see you get something out of school, nephew,” he’d said, shaking his head appreciatively.  “Damn sure more than just filling a seat like I did.”

And tonight was the night. Uncle Brim owed some serious money to some impatient types. Junie didn’t know what all for, but what else could he do? His mother, a crack addict, had sunk into the netherworld. His father had died years before in a prison fight, and Brimfeld Lee, his mother’s brother, was the only family to take him in. He was going to do the robbery regardless, Brim had told Junie, so he had to help and hope that nobody got hurt. Junie knew if he did nothing, Miss Zenobia wouldn’t believe he wasn’t in on it. And he couldn’t snitch on his uncle, so he was stuck.

The two hundred weighed like iron in his pocket. He placed the snack at Mr. Cooke’s elbow. Miss Zenobia had been good and fair with him. His uncle had gotten him this job of keeping the players supplied with their refreshments, and running the occasional errand to the store. He worked Thursdays and Fridays after school and on weekends. If it came to rough stuff involving a drunk or a “belligerent second-floor patron,” as Miss Zenobia would say, Peteypeet or Hiram took care of that.

And now he was going to not only spit on her kindness, but also do this crime that would change his life forever. His Uncle had to leave town. Junie wasn’t stupid. He knew his uncle wasn’t about to pay these others he owed—others he was even more scared of than Miss Zenobia. What would he do about school? And where would he live? His uncle only mumbled incomplete sentences to these questions. The robbery was the only thing commanding his attention.

The game wound down and it got to be time for the last hand.

“Omaha, hi-lo, eight or better for low,” stated the dealer Valentine Lewis, who owned a used-car lot.

“I can only play two from my hand?” Morris King asked. With his sister he ran the family’s funeral parlor and was considered an expert embalmer. Uncle Brim picked up stiffs for him now and then for extra money.

“Right, the cards speak,” Elliot Harris said. He was a small-boned, light-skinned black man who managed a popular seafood restaurant and had taught mathematics at the university level. It was rumored that he was a silent partner with Miss Zenobia in her establishment.

The four down cards to each were dealt, Junie watching the faces and bodies of the players for their tells, the unconscious giveaways that indicated good, bad or so-so cards. As usual, his uncle, Mr. Cooke and Mr. Lewis’ faces were like ancient masks on display in a museum. Sometimes just to get in the heads of the others, his uncle would smile broadly when he had no chance of making anything.  The embalmer sniffed and that meant he had something decent, a pair or an ace. And Mr. Harris might as well show his cards given his sour look. He folded on the first round of betting.

On the flop, turning over the first three cards, Mr. Lewis gripped the back of his neck and cracked it.  The action wasn’t a tell, an unconscious giveaway as to whether he had good or bad cards. He did that routinely, the stiffness a byproduct of getting T-boned a few years ago in his Caddy by a cheerleader in a Trans Am paying more attention to her cell phone than to driving.

His uncle raised and raised again when the bet came back around to him. The others knew that didn’t indicate he was holding anything of value, as Brim liked to bluff, often recklessly. “You better know they hang low on me, baby,” he was fond of bragging to Junie and anyone else he could regale. “I ain’t scared of no motherlover in this world or the next.”

The turn, the fourth card over, was a ten of clubs. There was a nine of clubs, a jack of hearts and a three of diamonds already exposed.

“No low possible,” Mercer Cooke announced.

Betting resumed. Junie’s uncle bet strong, putting twelve dollars in the pot. What did it matter to him?  He was going to take it all anyway. The fifth card, fifth street, the river, was a jack of clubs. Mr. Cooke bet the maximum. Uncle Brim and Valentine called. The undertaker threw his cards in.

“Pot’s right,” Mr. Cooke declared. There was three hundred and forty on the table. The players showed. Valentine Lewis had a king high flush with the clubs.

“That’s beats me,” Mercer Cooke said, showing his two jacks to give him three of a kind.

“But not me,” Uncle Brim said, beaming. He showed an ace of clubs, giving him the highest flush. “That’s a good sign,” he breathed as he raked in the chips, winking at Junie standing nearby.

“Well,” Mr. King sighed, looking toward the doorway where Missa waited. “I’m tapped out.” She retreated, snickering. “For cards that is.”

As was the procedure, the bank, which was Miss Zenobia, cashed out the players after taking her customary cut. She’d been away when the game started, and Hiram had initially gathered the buy-in monies. He reappeared. Hiram was tall, long-limbed to Peteypeet’s stocky width. He’d been a jailer in the past and was known to favor knives as his choice of inflicting discipline.

Everybody stood and stretched. Junie moved toward the archway. Miss Zenobia was probably upstairs but he didn’t know where the hulking Peteypeet might be. If he was in the kitchen fixing himself food, that would cut off their escape route and access to the stash. Once, when the water heater had busted, Junie had spied Miss Zenobia lifting a loose board out of the kitchen floor to take out a healthy stack of bills. This was underneath the standing cutting board. That was the real goal of Uncle Brim.  Why had Junie been such a big mouth and told him about that?

“Sweet dreams, gents, till next week,” Uncle Brim said after getting his money and goodbyes were said all around. “I’ve got to squeeze the lizard.” He headed for the bathroom that was situated at the end of the foyer and, thus, closer to the kitchen and his goal.

Junie began cleaning up the parlor and counting in his head. Hiram drifted away. Mr. Cooke and Mr. Lewis were hanging around, chatting with Tanya and Missa. They were married men and never journeyed upstairs. “They’re window shopping,” Uncle Brim would say. “Old whiskers like the attention of young things, but their hearts couldn’t take the strain if they really tried to do anything,” he’d laugh roughly.

Junie counted to a slow forty and pushed the button on the electronic tab in his pocket. The lights went out, a bulb popped and the shouting began.

“Pay your electric bill, Zenobia,” Mercer Cooke joked.

Junie called out, “I’ll check the circuit breaker.”

“I’ll go with you,” the gruff voice of Peteypeet said.

“Sure,” he said to throw off suspicion. “Where are you?”

“Over here,” the bodyguard said, flicking on his lighter.

Junie came over to him. They headed toward the kitchen then there was a crash of a body and cursing. Junie had carried with him one of the chairs, placing it in the way of where he remembered the men had been talking with the females. At various times during the last two weeks, he’d practiced going from the parlor to the back of the house with his eyes closed to memorize the layout.

“You better see about that,” Junie suggested to the large man.

Peteypeet’s pissed look was illuminated by the tiny flame of his plastic liquor store lighter. But he knew if he didn’t go back and one of the customers was hurt, he’d get chewed out by Miss Zenobia. “Stay put,” he ordered and turned around. The little light bounced from side to side with the bruiser’s gait and disappeared into the archway. Junie was already at the back door off the rear stairs once used by the maid.

“What’s up,” a voice called and he almost fainted. Missa came close, and he could hear her satiny robe fluttering open.

“I’ve got to go.”

She put a hand on his arm. A current shot through him. She smelled wonderful. “What are you two up to? I know Brim just lit out of here. I couldn’t tell directly, but by the light of the moon it looked to me like he was carrying something.”

“I don’t—”

Missa put a finger to his lips. “I get a share or I yell.”

“If I’m caught, you won’t get anything,” Junie whispered urgently. He could hear Peteypeet rumbling closer.
Her head down, Missa smiled crookedly up at him and said, “How can I trust you?” And then she kissed him. Kissed him like he’d seen in the movies and so much better than the couple of girls he’d kissed in school.

“The Eden Motel,” he breathed and jumped over the back steps. He dived into the open back window of his uncle’s old school ’74 Pontiac Catalina with the panties hanging from the rearview mirror. Uncle Brim righted the boat of a car, and they tore off toward the highway in the humid night.

Looking back, Junie saw Peteypeet bang the rear screen door so hard it busted loose from the top hinge. He just stood there staring, a sweet little ugly smile of determination on his sweating face.

After two hours of the road, the two thieves arrived at the Castle Rock Motel off Route 40 across the county line. Junie had been thunderstruck but not so naïve he would tell Missa where they were really headed.

“Not as much as I hoped,” Uncle Brim complained, after recounting the nine thousand seven hundred dollars, a thousand two hundred of which came from the poker game. “Zenobia must have had to make some payoffs lately. I know the new District Attorney has been making noise about cracking down.” He paced, hands on his hips. “I can’t get far enough on this fast enough.” He looked around and then pawed through the equipment bag he’d previously packed with clothes.

Uncle Brim threw a pair of his boxers at the bed in frustration. Fuming, he looked at Junie’s bag. The teenager was lying face up on his bed trying to imagine his future.

“What you got?” Uncle Brim demanded.


The older man was already going through the young man’s bag. He took out a box like the kind used for jewelry, felt covered, only larger. “You got this. I can get something for this.”

Junie snatched the box back. “No.”

“This ain’t no time for sentimentality, Junie. We’re on the run, don’t you understand?”

“Who’s fault is that?”

”Junie.” His uncle held his arms wide in an embracing gesture. “We’re the only family each other has.  We have to stick up for each other.”

Junie was sitting up now. “Then how come I don’t get half the money?”

Brim’s eyes went agate and he reached back into his bag. The one item he wasn’t considering pawning was the Glock pistol Junie knew his uncle had packed. But was he about to put it upside his nephew’s head?

What he pulled out instead was a deck of cards.

“We’re sportin’ men, let’s play for it.”

If he said no, would his uncle go crazy off? “Okay.”

“None of that TV jive. Just straight-up five-card stud. You and me, youngster. Let’s see who has the biggest ones.”

Junie stood and his uncle handed him the deck. There was no desk, so the two marched into the small bathroom and Junie put the lid down on the toilet for a surface to shuffle the cards. Then they returned to the other room and stood at one of the twin beds.

The nephew dealt one down to each then back and forth, four to each player face up. There were no bets, no bluffing, no tells. This was pure luck of the draw. His uncle had two queens and he had two deuces showing. They hesitated. A truck on the highway rattled the walls and blues singer Etta James’ splendidly tortured voice seeped in from one of the nearby rooms. Each turned over his hole card.

“I’ll be damned,” Brim hissed. “Trip twos beats my pair of ladies.” He glared hard at his nephew.

“That’s ‘cause you rely on women too much,” a female voice suddenly said.

An open-mouthed Junie watched Missa walk in the unlocked door. She was dressed in hip huggers, a black T-shirt and some fresh Air Jordans. She kissed Brim. “I drove mama’s car like you said,” she told him.

“Good.” Brim put the cards and his boxers away and zipped up his bag. He threw the keys to this Pontiac right on top of Junie’s winning hand. “You rollin’ with us?”

Junie considered what that meant. The next town, the next con or take down. Always on the make, always one step ahead. “I’m straight.”

“Go on with your bad self.” Brim put an arm around Missa’s waist and they started out. She stopped him.

“Give him his due, Brim. He didn’t panic and didn’t give up where you’d be. He did right.”

Even though her kiss was just a test, Junie liked her.

“We gonna need this money to stake us in our next action,” Brim complained.

“Sign the pink to your car so he can at least sell that.”

“I don’t have it with me. And anyway, it ain’t exactly legally in my name.”

“He did right,” she insisted.

Uncle Brim blew air through his puckered lips and counted out five hundred but made it a thousand after the withering glare she laid on him. He handed it to Junie. “I’ll see you around, huh?”


On their way out, Missa blew the teenager a kiss.

Junie sat on the bed and opened the box. In it was the bronze-colored medal his brother had been awarded in Iraq—posthumously, they’d called it. His name and rank were inscribed on the back of the thing. The white van with the two marines had pulled up to their apartment, and his mother had collapsed, right there on the porch. After that, though having been clean some five years, she got back on the pipe and, as far as Junie knew, was still riding it hard. He shut the lid, tucked it in his bag and, with that in tow, left the motel room, buttoning up his jean jacket against the wind and cold.