The Ballad of Busy Hands

The Ballad of Busy Hands

Busy Hands Redux

At the height of his powers, Busy Hands is crowned king in each new town they perform in. When he plays the Generals five-on-one and tomahawk jams in Red Klotz’s face they are delighted. When he runs up into the crowd to perform “Basketball Jones” with a dowdy housewife they are charmed. He is master and they are his people. And when the game is over, when the Washington Generals are dispatched, there is always one woman, occasionally even two, brave enough to approach him coming out of the locker room, gutsy and eager to invite him for a drink. In Detroit, he meets one such woman who goes by the obvious alias Sweet Honey. Busy Hands is a warrior king. Busy Hands is a Viking. Busy Hands is Michelangelo with a basketball. He’s coming to your town for your love and admiration. He’s coming to your town to steal away your women. Via buses and planes and trains, Busy Hands travels this nation and remakes it in his own image, turns this land of mountains and grass and dust into his own personal amusement park. He takes Sweet Honey’s hands and whispers into her ear.

“Let us vamos.”

During sex, he tells each and every one of these women that he loves them over and over again. It’s his own personal quirk. A constant incantation, “I love you. I love you. I love you,” for however long it takes. Some of them like to hear this, some of them do not. Sweet Honey is indifferent, too experienced to take it one way or another. But what Busy Hands is sure of is that he enjoys saying it, enjoys believing it. That he has too much love for any one human to absorb, so much love that he has to travel from town to town to disseminate it, otherwise he might explode.

What troubles Busy Hands, what always gives him pause, is how these sexual encounters end. When he and Sweet Honey are finished, when they hold each other in the comfort of the Steelworkers United Motel bed, their bodies slick and superhuman, he finds himself thinking about his father. He wishes that somehow his father could have seen this, how good he is in bed, how able he is to sense his lover’s needs and respond, how much joy he is deriving from this precious little life. His father, his father, his father. He rolls onto his side and touches Sweet Honey’s sweet locks.

“I have an early practice tomorrow,” he says. “I’ll let myself out.”

Busy Hands, Run

Busy Hands’ father is an English teacher at the high school. But Busy Hands isn’t Busy Hands just yet; he’s only Randal. He walks from the elementary after class and meets his father in the locker room, home of the Fighting Grizzlies. He sneaks peeks at his father’s body as he changes out of his blazer and slacks into shorts and an old Jayhawks t-shirt. How tall his father is. How powerful. Neither of them have any clue about the cancer already taking refuge in his lungs, already gnawing its way deep into his bones. But even if they did, they wouldn’t believe it, that a man this powerful-looking could be so ill, so very close to the end.

His father tosses Randal a basketball. “Let’s go, son.”

They do this for two hours three times a week. They practice free throws, lay up drills, noodle around during one-on-one. Randal tries so hard to absorb his father’s perfect form, the flick of his wrist, the perfect shot with the perfect rotation. Together, they have a lot of fun.

But what Randal really loves, what Randal will adore his entire life, is the buzz of the gymnasium. The way the lights and scoreboard hum, hum, hum. How its music reminds him of forever lost cicada summers spent with his father. Now, bending his knees for a free throw, he looks around the gym and is awed by its blue and gold banners. Scoring Leaders. Division Champions. State Champions. Randal closes his eyes before taking the shot and imagines himself here in the future, as a high schooler, as a member of the varsity team, his father watching from the stands prouder than he’s ever been. It will be glorious, Randal thinks. It will be glorious.

The ball hangs in the air, a thing of geometric beauty.

“Good form,” his father says. “Good form, son.”

Busy Hands is Rich

Busy Hands is not what he once was. He has always felt it in the knees, the premonition of what was to come, the calcification of his talents, promises of their slow demise. But now, alone in an Albuquerque locker room following a game in which the Washington Generals actually made a run and kept things close, Busy Hands feels the end of his career in his wrists, brittle and beaten, his shot shot. He massages those bones with calamine lotion, occasionally wincing while remembering his career, his two decades of service rendered in honor of the Harlem Globetrobbers, of giving a little light to all those colorless troglodytes sulking through this dull American life.

He hears shoes slapping across the linoleum before he sees gargantuan Commander Kernel, perennially chewing an unlit cigar in his snakeskin suit. Kernel sits across from him on the other bench, his eyes never straying from Busy Hands’ wrists. He sets a black vinyl duffle bag at his feet.

“You’ve been missing a lot of your four pointers.”

“Yeah, well, I hate those things anyway. Nothing inherently basketball about a 30-foot jumper, you know?”

Kernel nods. “The Walker Gambit. In the third quarter? With that frizzy haired woman in the audience? You barely looked interested in her. You didn’t seem to have your heart in it.”

Busy Hands sets down the lotion and begins wrapping his left wrist. He tries not to show any pain. “Heard about a lot of women’s families over the years, Commander. It gets old.”

“You got all the money you need now, huh?”

Busy Hands grunts. He doesn’t like talking about it, how four tours back he took his earnings and put them all in tech stock, how he receives paper dividends worth more money than he’d known existed during his childhood in Westport, Kansas City. He knows the young gun Globetrotters are aware of his riches, but he’d rather they weren’t. He’s already separated from them by age, accomplishments, gas left in the tank. A question of funds only divides them even more.

“You have a longer tenure than any Globetrotter in history, BH. And you know, I’ve always thought of you like a son.”

Commander Kernel unzips the duffle bag. But before it’s even halfway opened Busy Hands knows what’s inside and hopes against hope that he can take it without showing emotion, without betraying how he really feels.

The red, white and blue game ball. The ceremonial gift bestowed upon any forcibly retired Globetrotter. Busy Hands refuses to cry. He’d always hoped his final game would be in Kansas City in front of a home crowd, the ghosts of his family, but this will do. In a high school locker room with a man who might as well have been his father. Busy Hands takes the ball but finds he cannot speak.

“What will you do now, Busy Hands?”

The question echoes in the locker room. The question echoes in the locker room.

Busy Hands at Rest

Busy Hands spends the final day of his life at an amusement park in Elysburg, Pennsylvania. It is nothing special, nothing like the hidden gems he remembers from the American Midwest. The ground is dirt and there is no entrance fee. But he is trying to get to know his young grandson better. He is trying to make up for all his children whose lives he has missed.

Christopher is five. He rides the merry go round and the log flume, and Busy Hands even accompanies him on the bumper cars. He has been in and out of the boy’s life but is pleased to discover they have an easy camaraderie. Christopher is lighthearted and trusting and tells Busy Hands all about the other children in his pre-school, paying special attention to a girl named Mary with pig tails who is just really terrific at dodge ball.

“Got yourself a crush, boy?”

Christopher sticks out his tongue, so Busy Hands pinches his little boy shoulder blade. He has always felt that a good ribbing was necessary for a developing boy. He used to make fun of them in the audience all the time during his Globetrotter days.

But then, after lunches of fried pierogies and cotton candy, things start to sour. The haunted house is closed for repairs and this makes Christopher cry. Busy Hands has no idea how to respond and stands there with this crying child, the occasional parent looking in his direction with commiseration, and wishes that someone, anyone would come over and just solve this problem. Busy Hands tells a joke. Busy Hands stands on his head. Busy Hands buys him a stuffed grizzly bear. But it is not until he gives the boy a chocolate ice cream that he finally stops his wailing.

And that’s when it suddenly becomes hard to breathe. Busy Hands’ breaths turn shallow. He finds it difficult to swallow. He has to sit down on a bench while Christopher stands in front of him pawing at his ice cream, already a mess and dribbling down his hand and onto his Jayhawks t-shirt. By the time Christopher is done with his ice cream, Busy Hands can no longer move. He looks toward the general direction where he remembers parking and cannot even imagine walking that now Herculean distance. He holds fast to the bench and closes his eyes.

Christopher sits next to him. He sets the bear in his lap and grabs Busy Hands’ not so busy hands. “It’s ok, Grandpa,” he says. “It’s ok.”

Busy Hands Remembered

Tom visits his father’s grave every year on the anniversary of his death. Busy Hands never knew about him, never knew about the vast majority of sons and daughters he fathered across this great country of ours, so it is only Tom, a traveling insurance salesman from Detroit, who makes this pilgrimage to Kansas City once a year, to stand in front of his father’s grave in the humid summertime and reminisce over what might have been. Tom only knows his father from a half-remembered ball game from his youth, when Busy Hands and his Globetrotters descended upon Detroit to deliver a terrible whopping to those much maligned Washington Generals. What Tom remembers most is his father chasing his teammate Dizzy Dee into the stands with a full bucket, how Busy Hands heaved it as hard as he could in Tom’s direction. But it was only confetti. Just red, white and blue confetti. And in that moment, in that rain of shimmering Americana, Tom and Busy Hands locked eyes. The traveling salesman could never afterward be sure, but that day he was sure there was recognition, that old Busy Hands gleamed the truth about the boy’s origins.

This year at his father’s grave is unlike the others. In the distance Tom sees a man approach. A hulk of a man in a neon velour suit and eye patch, an unlit cigar clenched between yellow teeth. The man introduces himself as Commander Kernel, Coach of the Harlem Globetrotters from ‘62 to ‘89, his father’s coach.

“Can you tell me about him?” Tom asks. “About Busy Hands?”

Commander Kernel touches the grave, then adjusts his eye patch. “Busy Hands was a good basketball player and a great performer. But he wasn’t a peaceful man. What I mean by that is he was never at peace. Maybe for a few weeks at a time, maybe a month, maybe even a year much later in life. But there was a chaos inside him. A deep stirring of the soul if he stayed in one place too long.” Commander Kernel closes his good eye. “His chaos. Is it in you?”

“No,” Tom says too quickly. “No, it’s not.”

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