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Growing Up New

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"Mississippi."

"Missipay."

"No, no, Mississippi."

"MissISSipay."

Monta cracks a big, goofy grin. "Man, it ain't that hard, I heard you talk all that crazy Russian a'fore."

"Latvian."

"Whassa difference?"

Andris blinks, kind of taken aback, smiling uncertainly. "Not big one," he admits.

"Man, Russian, Latvian, fuckin Siberian, whatever. I know it got some crazy ass sounds I couldn't never make. Way harder'n 'Mississippi'. I ain't even askin you to spell it."

Andris nods along. He taught himself English six months before the NBA draft, but he doesn't understand half of what Monta says most of the time, their combatting accents and the way Ellis spits out words rapid-fire like they're burning the roof of his mouth. Fortunately, he's started to realize that most of the other guys can't understand Monta, either. Maybe that's why Monta likes talking to Andris: they both speak their own special kind of English, and that makes them patient with each other. Or maybe Andris is just the only guy who will (has to) listen.

*

They get mugged on their way back from a bar to Biedrins' apartment, the only guy dumb enough to actually live in Oakland cause, hey, that's where the team plays, right? Or at least, they get attempted-mugged. It's a mugging gone seriously wrong, really, and it's kind of comedic and it kind of scares Monta to death.

It's just a skinny teenager with a .38 special and a runny nose that he keeps wiping on his pulled-down sleeve, and it's kind of funny how even Monta has a couple inches on the kid, Monta who is used to feeling like a kid himself surrounded by giants. They're falling-down drunk and laughing too loud, easy targets even if they're sort of halfway famous, maybe, or at least on the road to it. Andris is talking more quickly and less understandably than usual, using his huge, freakishly graceful hands to explain, and he almost walks right into the kid before the quick flash of the revolver draws him up short. And then everyone gets real quiet.

Monta's been mugged before by bigger and meaner and crazier than this kid, this red-eyed little tweaker shaking in the sharp November wind that sweeps down off the hills. It doesn't mean that he isn't scared, but more than that he's resigned, so when the kid snaps out an impatient, "Chains, wallets, c'mon," he just sighs and pulls the thick gold rope over his head and starts patting down his pockets.

He sneaks a glance at Andris, worried about him, young and drunk and from practically another planet, an enormous thin insect of a white man getting held up on a nice night in California. Andris isn't moving, and Monta wonders if he's in shock, too scared to move, if Biedrins' lack of experience with American muggings is gonna get him shot.

"The fuck," the kid says, "you retarded? C'mon motherfucker," jerking his head impatiently at Monta, like, talk to your fuckin' boy.

"Andris," Monta says, real slow and clear, "it's cool, man. Just give him your watch." Biedrins has this incredibly sweet Tag Heuer that he bought himself for his 19th birthday, big and flashy and grossly expensive, everything Monta approves of.

Andris doesn't look at Monta, doesn't ever take his eyes off the kid--not the gun, but the kid himself, looking down into his face from so close and from such a height that the kid has to bend his neck back a little to meet his gaze.

"No," Andris says.

Monta groans; the kid bares his teeth in a sneer, getting twitchier and more pissed off with each passing moment. "Whatchu at white boy? You finna get yourself in some serious fuckin' trouble." He makes his eyes real big and knocks Biedrins' in the ribs with the barrel of the gun.

"Go ahead," Andris says, dispassionate, just a hint of a slur. "You going to shoot me? No, I do not think. I think you are not want that trouble tonight."

The kid jerks back a little, caught off-guard, then leans back in, smacking the gun into Biedrins' ribs again and turning an amazed face to Monta. "Yo, blood, you better talk to your boy 'fore he really start to---"

And that's when everything speeds up for a minute and gets quiet and confusing, and when Monta knows what's going on again Andris has the gun trained on their would-be mugger.

"Motherfuck---" the kid says, desperate, but Andris talks calmly over him.

"I think you are too far from home for this trouble," Andris says. "I think you want go home now before there is any more." He pauses. "And give my friend his necklace back."

*

They're throwing their coats on hooks in the hallway of Biedrins' 20th-story condo, and Monta can't stop staring at him, missing the coat hook three times before he has to look away. Andris is drunker than he's been letting on, falling hard into the wall as he kicks his shoes off, stagger-stumbling past piles of folded clothes and beat-in boxes spilling their contents to collapse face-down on the long red slide of the leather coach.

Monta sits down on the floor next to him, skinny knees drawn up into a loop of skinny arms. He stares at Biedrins in open, wordless wonder, waiting for an explanation, until the prickle of his gaze finally rouses the big man, the angled gawky length of him rolling to one side so he can look at Ellis.

"Stop stare at me," Andris intones in his deep sleepy voice. He quirks the pointed arch of an eyebrow at Monta. "You think that is first time anyone points gun at me?"

"Uh," Monta says intelligently. "I guess, yeah, s'what I thought. I mean, cause you ain't grew up over here and all..."

"No," Andris says. "I grow up in Riga. Much bigger than Oakland, so many more people. So many poor people." He smiles, a quick, tense expression. "When I am little, 5, 6, Latvia is still soviet country. You think soviets do not have guns?"

"I never thought about it."

"No," Andris agrees. "No reason to. Even now, soviets are gone, but Latvia has many guns. Guns, knives, those things--" he mimics the turning of a screwdriver and Monta's sluggish brain digs up the word-- "I have been mugged with all of them. Most lot more scary than that."

Ellis grins, tipping his head back against the couch. The world lurches briefly beneath him, and when it steadies again he's looking at Biedrins upside down, broad inverted smile and big eyes, a scratchy scattering of stubble on his chin.

"True," Ellis jokes. "I prolly been stung by bees hurt more than a .38 special," and Biedrins giggles little boy-like and flicks Ellis in the forehead, wrestles him to the floor and tires himself out launching pillow assaults and dodging them, until they're both weak with adrenaline and exhaustion. They pass out right there together on the messy floor of Biedrins' California apartment--two very different boys far from their homes, but on the heels of some shared greatness that is ready to arrive.