26 September 2005

Paper Tiger

Troy Dent returned to Goodwater one cold Sunday night while everybody was at church. The shiny red Eldorado cruised up the hill into town, the top down, Dent’s blond pompadour firm against the chilly breeze flopping the upturned collar of his suede jacket. He parked slantwise in front of the movie-house, got out and leaned back against the door of the car like James Dean against a brick wall, one boot crossed over the other. Rolling a tight cigarette, he licked it and chinked open a lighter, spit out a few flakes and pinched the tip, then squinted up through the fog of breath and tobacco at the clear night sky, the sharp stars and the waning moon.

Everything was just as he had left it. Woodsmoke permeated the crisp night air. Main Street was empty. Running along either side of the wide road, the rows of businesses, each sharing walls with its neighbors, had been closed since five o’clock the day before. The flat brick storefronts lay darkened beneath the shadowy covered sidewalk. Dent drew a comb out of his back jeans pocket. It was a habit he was still struggling to give up now that his elbow tingled and ached any time he lifted his pitching arm above his chest. Bending to the side, he leaned his head over till his ear rested on his shoulder, but it required an effort to reach across the top of his head to comb the other side. He looked across Main Street at Mr. Haywood’s Barber Shop and saw the same sign hanging in the window, the writing nearly illegible in the soft glow of the streetlight: “Trims and Flat-Tops ONLY,” it said, and under that, “NO COLORED.”

Dent knew the cause of that second part well. It was a story Mr. Haywood told often, how a couple years after the war, when Dent was still in diapers, the black boy had come in wearing his uniform, the loose empty sleeve tucked into his coat pocket, asking for a haircut and Mr. Haywood hadn’t known the first thing about what to do with a nappy head and more than that he was worried he’d foul up his clippers and since he was too proud to ask the boy how to do his job (the job his father, and his father before him had trained him to do), Mr. Haywood told the boy to leave. Once the boy was gone, he wrote up the sign and taped it to the window then joined his wife in the beauty shop next door for an early lunch break. Mr. Haywood had told that story more than a few times. “He just turned right around and left,” Mr. Haywood used to say, his voice tinged with regret. “Never said a word.”

The dull thudding pain in his elbow sharpened as Dent slid the comb into his back pocket. His arm had been made of rubber once. The humid summers and mild winters of his youth had kept it elastic, loose, and warm. It was supposed to be his livelihood, his ticket out. Besides a suitcase and his glove, it was all he took with him when he rode the Greyhound north four years earlier. That arm had taken him to Portland and Syracuse, then to Denver and--for a moment, at least--to Detroit, where it had dried up in the frosty winds that blew in off Lake Michigan, where the arm turned brittle and snapped like a stick of gum in an ancient pack of cards.

He dropped the cigarette and toed it out. One more for the negro street sweeper. How many had he dropped in this same spot? Back in high school, on the weekend nights, the kids got together right here in front of the movie-house, staying out late after the last show, wishing there was nothing to go home to. He’d probably smoked enough cigarettes on this street to kill a man.

He lit another. Back then, a few of the kids would occasionally drive over to Starkville, usually fellas and gals who knew somebody at the college, an older brother or sister or cousin, somebody who could get them free liquor and a place to wake up. But Dent had always preferred to stay close to Goodwater. His folks only had the one vehicle at home and it was tied to the Cleaners. Any drinking he did had to be done within walking distance.

Reaching inside his jacket, he felt the cold metal flask, lifted it halfway out of the pocket then jammed it back inside. He couldn’t drink it now, not like this. On the road trips, it had been different. Especially the last one, after Denver joined the PCL. Picking up and moving to a new city every five days, the country stranger in a big town, it had been easy and preferable to drink alone. But he was home now and it just wouldn’t do, not with all the stories he could tell and all the questions everybody would surely have about what all he’d seen and what all he’d done, the kind of thing Nita Harpole would want to know, if some square hick hadn’t snatched her up yet.

He had never gone out with Nita back in high school. Other girls had offered themselves, and he had obliged for a while before dropping them, but Nita had always held back. Maybe that was why her dimpled smile had been the mask worn by the few women he had known since, most of them ex-wives of career minor leaguers, with sloppy titties and savings accounts they were hoping to take to Vegas. He leaned back, crossed his arms over his chest and stared down the hill past City Hall and the fire station at the rows of old familiar trucks and sedans parked in front of First Baptist. He could tell who went to church by which vehicles were parked out front. Nita was probably down there now. Her father’s ‘56 Buick Special was nosed in under a streetlight just down the steps from the sanctuary. She was probably sitting on the front row with the children’s choir, or in the back with a worthless husband (Hugh Moss or Ralph Newberry, one of those bums who wasted whatever talent he had so he could milk his Papa’s cows for the rest of his life). Dent had almost driven home on Friday just to save Nita from anything she might get into with the local johnnies on Saturday night. It had crossed his mind to drive right up to the Harpole’s house and walk inside and shake hands with Mr. Harpole like he was doing him a favor, go in and give her the ring, pick her up and carry her out. But he had been in the car an hour or two, winding down out of the Rockies when he noticed a yellowed newspaper article in the floorboard that changed his mind.

After the blowout in Detroit, a brief rehab stint returned him to Denver, but the brutal road stretch from Indianapolis to Hawaii and back to Denver again had shut him out for good. Some bush-league reporter in the Post had admired him for bowing out gracefully, for retiring on his own terms, but nothing could’ve been farther from the truth. He’d bet it all and lost, and the brief moment of his greatness flickered.

That was the truth of what had happened and it had changed his mind about driving down on Friday. Anyway, it wouldn’t do to drive through town and be seen by all the kids. They’d all want autographs and he was still practicing his penmanship in his new hand. His cursive was big and loopy like a third-grader’s. And besides, none of them knew the truth. His parents didn’t even know. He had spoken with them on the telephone the day he was called up. After signing the bonus papers at the club office that morning, he’d taken a taxi to the plant. It was September 20, 1962, and he paid the $6, 608 in cash and drove the first ‘63 off the ramp and out of the plant toward Minneapolis and right up to Metropolitan Stadium where he found a payphone and called home with the good news. By the end of that day, though, his arm iced up in the back of the ambulance, he had the feeling, though he didn’t know how to express it, that a once-possible future had passed, that he had become who he would be for the rest of his life.

The Cadillac rolled down the hill through the stop sign and parked a hundred yards from the church’s front door in the nearest available space. Dent sat in the car and smoked another cigarette. He could get out and go through with it, go on up and put the smoke out on the sidewalk before ascending the steps. Once inside, he’d put his ear to the swivel door that led into the sanctuary. Brother Cross would be praying, his unamplified voice booming up into the vaulted ceiling.

Dent would crack the door, peek inside. The congregation would be seated, their heads bowed. The back pew on the left side near the wall half-empty, so he’d step in, guiding the door closed behind him. He’d look for Nita, maybe send her a note in the offering plate. He’d leave during the invitation.

The Cadillac’s idling murmur reverberated off the exterior of the fellowship hall. What was he thinking? He couldn’t go in. Not now and not ever. The stuff of dreams never worked out in real life. He knew what would happen if he tried it. Intent on getting to that corner seat before the preacher said Amen, he wouldn’t even notice until he’d taken a few steps that Brother Cross had quit praying and was staring at him from the front of the church, his arms outstretched.

“Praise the Lord,” Brother Cross would say in the same surprised, alerting voice he’d used when the Aparicios returned unexpected from their mission trip to Costa Rica. Brother Cross was a short man with a receding flat-top, probably nearly bald now or at least whitened. He’d look up with a ruddy face and a proud smile and make up some excuse for cancelling the evening service. He’d say something like, “I knew there was a reason I didn’t get much preparation done on my sermons this week. Here I was thinking it was the devil distracting me, but lo and behold, if Goodwater’s only begotten hasn’t returned.”

And almost at once, the congregation would snap awake and turn quickly as if expecting to see the Lord himself riding a white horse down the aisle toward Brother Cross. A few people in the back would stand up to shake Dent’s hand. Others would look back and forth from him to the preacher, awaiting instruction or permission to rise from their seats and welcome Dent’s arrival.

“Come on, folks,” Brother Cross would say. “This beats anything the Lord’s laid on my heart in some time.”

And as the crowd stood and slowly filed out of the pews toward him, Dent would back up against the back wall of the church.

Brother Cross would slow them down, though. “Wait a minute, now. Let’s do this one at a time. Son, why don’t you come on down front and we’ll greet you like we do the new members. We’ll start the line over here to the left and it can wrap around the back there.”

The ladies would be all smiles, the men winks and nods as they parted, making a clear path toward Brother Cross and the altar.

“I don’t know,” Dent said aloud, as if speaking to the windshield. “I didn’t mean to interrupt the service.”

“Oh come on, don’t be bashful, son.” Brother Cross would wave him forward, reeling him in. “Folks would sure like to speak to you. Heck, some of them haven’t even met you yet, they’ve just heard talk. How in the world is the North treating you, anyway? I imagine its mighty cold up in Detroit.”

Deetroit, Dent thought, mocking the stubby preacher’s accent. Better than it was before I left. He had a sudden desire to tell everything, to confess, to jump out of the car, run up the steps, and burst in through the back doors and down the aisle, to step up to the pulpit and swing away at all their expectations. But even then, he would probably end up turning around in front of the altar to face the congregation, who would be staring at him as if he were a wax dummy in Cooperstown, and he’d catch a glimpse of his mother and father, who wouldn’t be looking at him at all, though their faces would be proud and grateful and rejoicing. They’d be standing up from their pew halfway back shaking hands and receiving hugs from the people around them, as if some unanswered prayer had finally gotten through. The old widows would already be lining up at the front of the church and they’d inch forward, Brother Cross greeting each of them before stepping back to announce, “Y’all just tell Brother Troy how much he means to you and this church. Let him know how much we miss him, and how proud we are that he’s making good on all that God-given talent the Lord’s blessed him with.” He’d point at Troy’s parents. “I know Mr. George and Miss Martha are mighty proud of this youngun.”

Then Brother Cross would usher the nearest widow over and he’d pat Dent’s back and say, “Good to see you, son,” and Dent would watch him slip past the crowd, behind the piano, and out the side door.
Dent would look down at the woman who had grabbed his hand, patting it between her own. He’d recognize the face, the painted eyebrows, the false white teeth, but he wouldn’t be sure he’d ever known her name. She wore heavy brass rings on two of her fingers, and the skin on the back of her hands was nearly transparent, the thin veins running along pencil-thin carpals. She’d stand on her tiptoes, speaking loudly into his ear.

“Now you know I’m not going to stop following the Redbirds,” she’d say. “But I want you to know my grandson just goes on and on about keeping up with the Tigers. They gave y’all some vacation time this off-season, huh?”

Dent would nod and open his mouth to speak, but the lady would continue.

“Well, I’m so glad you came home. I know your Mama’s glad to see you.” She’d pat his hand one last time and step away. Looking back at Dent, she’d point to his chest. “And your Daddy, too.”

One by one, the entire congregation would file past, the elderly shambling by half-awake, young mothers burping infants on their shoulders, young fathers recounting to their sons the preserved statistics of ancient victories. These were farmers and their wives, laborers from the local glove plant or shirt factory, electricians, hardware store owners, butchers and grocers and contractors. Mr. Haywood, the barber; Mr. Wicker, the principal; Ms. Flora, the librarian. Nearly everyone he’d ever known in Goodwater would come by to shake his hand.

And at the end of the line would be Nita. And she wouldn’t speak until the last members had left the church. Until Mr. Wise, the grocer who took care of the custodial duties, flicked off the baptistry lights and said they could stay as long as they liked as long as they locked the door before they left. And near the altar he’d kneel and hug her waist and she’d smooth his hair and tell him without words that everything was okay now and that the worst was over and it was time to get up and move on and she’d lift his arm and kiss the elbow and touch the numb fingers to her lips and she would eat of the broken bread of his body and he would drink of the pressed grape of hers.

Which meant, now that he’d dreamed it, that it would never happen, not that way or any other. So he was out of the parking space and jerking to a halt in the road, throwing the transmission into drive and two-wheeling around a stop sign up the hill toward the school before he realized where he was headed. At the top of the hill, beyond the buses parked in the grass, stretching behind them in the darkness lay Toefield Stadium, which was not a stadium at all but a field of unmown weeds, an infield of dirt, all of it enclosed by a rusty fence and flanked on either side by two cinderblock dugouts. He drove along the street past the Ag building and turned onto the access road, two dirt ruts worn smooth and deep. The tall-weeded median between them scraped the Cadillac’s undercarriage as he passed.

The stands were eight tiered rows of sagging planks weathered gray and bolted onto a rusted frame. He walked past them, and thumped the tin sign hanging on the gate near the third base dugout that read, “School Use Only: No Trespassing.”

He raised the cold metal latch and entered. The moon had shifted now. It was almost directly overhead as he took the mound. He kicked at the rubber without much effort and the dirty white strip of plastic flew off into the grass toward third base. For a moment he looked around as if some minor tragedy had occurred, but he left it and walked through the dirt toward home plate. A few balls were caught in the backstop so he pulled them free and rolled them out to the mound then picked up the rubber and stomped it back into place. He picked up the balls with his pitching hand and using his other, tossed two weak lobs that bounced once on the cold packed dirt and returned rolling to the backstop.

Overhead, the lights behind home plate and above each foul-pole clicked and buzzed, shining down dimly for a few seconds before brightening. Dent looked around, wondering who had turned them on. He hadn’t seen any cars on the way in. The woods beyond the access road were dark, thick and tangled. The small press box was empty. He felt silly enough, standing alone on an old ragged ball field, but now that someone was watching him, he knew it was time to go. This was probably their signal, a warning from some distant spectator who understood the need of a retired hero to return to the place of his greatest achievements and consult the earth and sky as one would a map or a landmark, to know where to go from there. He balled his fists and stuck them in his pockets as he walked toward the gate.

“Hey, I'm not trying to get you to leave,” a voice called from the deep outfield behind him.

Walking in from right-centerfield was a tall thin man wearing khakis, a gray sweater, and a blue cap with Goodwater’s white G stitched on the front. The man strode toward him quickly, blowing warmth into his hands. Behind him, parked on the slight rise between the outfield fence and the Ag building was a black ‘54 Chevy with a white hard-top. It was Coach Norris’ car, but this wasn’t Coach Norris walking toward him.

“How you doing?” the man called as he stepped over second base.

Dent leaned against the fence now, smoking another cigarette. “Fair.”

“I didn’t mean to bug you. I saw you drive up. Plus, we’ve got spring practice starting tomorrow. Thought I’d cut on the lights, make sure everything’s in working order.” The man looked up at the lights and spat an arc of tobacco juice. He had thin gray eyes, thin lips. He looked familiar, but Dent couldn’t place him. The man chuckled. “I’d say they’re working.”

“Yeah,” Dent nodded. “Are you helping out Coach Norris this year?”

The man pulled his hand over his mouth, smoothing his weekend beard. “Oh, you didn’t hear? Coach Norris passed away last year.”

“What happened?”

“Heart attack.” The man snapped his fingers. “Doctor made it sound like he didn’t suffer too bad, though, it happened so quick.”

In the silence Dent looked down at the dirt then dropped his cigarette.

“I’m Wayne Bridge,” the man said, stepping forward. Dent shook hands and the man stepped back a few feet and crossed his arms over his chest. He eyed Dent with a sideways grin. “I remember you,” he said. “Where’d you go to school? Here?”

Dent nodded.

“What year’d you graduate?”

“Sixty-one.”

“Me, too. Duck Hill. I thought I recognized you. We beat y’all a couple of times, but we never did much when you were out there. What’d you end up doing with yourself? We heard you got a couple of pretty decent scholarships.”

“Not much.” Dent opened the gate. “The arm didn’t hold up.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Bridge said. “I don’t know if you’re looking for work or anything. I imagine you’re probably pretty busy, but if any time you want to come to practice or anything, you just come on.”

“I wouldn’t want to get in the way.”

“No, you wouldn’t be in the way. I could use the help, to be honest with you. I just wanted you to know you’re welcome down here any time.”

“Well, I’m only in town for a few days.”

“Seeing the folks, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“I know how that is. Boy, that’s a pretty machine right there. That one’ll last you a while and look good too.”

Dent pointed up the hill at the black Chevy. “What’s the story on Coach Norris’ old car?”

Bridge swivelled from his hips as if he had a medicine ball hung around his neck, then turned back to face Dent. “You know that thing was here when I interviewed for the job. I asked Mr. Wicker about it, and he said that car’s been there ever since Coach Norris came back from Oxford. His guard unit got called up there to help that boy go to school. He figured one of them fools up there must’ve messed with his engine.”

“Somebody ought to fix it up,” Dent said. “That was a pretty good year. Who owns it, do you know?”

Bridge turned to face the car now. “I reckon his wife does. I don’t imagine he’d leave it to his sisters.”

“So Coach Norris did end up getting married, huh? There was always a rumor going around about which girl he was after.”

“Yeah, I heard he waited about a year after she graduated just so folks wouldn’t talk.”

“Really?” Dent’s voice rose an octave in surprise. “Who was it? It wasn’t Bonnie Cotton, was it?”

As Bridge hooked his index finger inside his cheek and flung out the dried wad of tobacco, Dent knew instantly that he was wrong and that he should’ve known the answer because Nita was the last girl anybody would’ve guessed Coach Norris would go after. Nearly everybody in town thought he was obnoxious. He was a rough-edged cajun known for throwing tantrums if a call didn’t go his way. The men at the barbershop were always saying if he hadn’t won as many games as he did, he would’ve been gone along time ago.

“Do you know if she remarried?”

Bridge nodded. “I heard it was a doctor from down on the coast, but, now that’s just what I heard.” He clapped his hands together as if he’d just thought of something. “Listen, I’ve got to run, but you’re more than welcome to stay down here as long as you like. I’ll leave the lights on till you’re done. And I mean it, now, you come see a game if you’re back in town once the season starts. I could use a good bench coach.”

“I’d better go,” Dent said. “I don’t even know why I came down here, now.” He exited through the gate, walked around the front of the car, and got in.

“You know it’s funny,” Wayne Bridge said. “Sometimes I look at these boys and think ‘Who the hell do they think they are,’ but then I get to thinking about it and realize ‘Who the hell did I think I was when I was their age?’. I mean, I didn’t do much either--I didn’t even get a scholarship--but at least for a few years there, I had the chance to really be good at something. Some folks don’t ever get that. Ever.”

“Right.”

Dent started the engine. He waved and slowly backed down the access road. It was after eight. On the radio, Roy Orbison was yearning for bayous and fishing boats. So Coach Norris and Nita Harpole had gotten married. They’d probably been dating right under everybody’s noses and none of them ever guessed it. He felt cheated, robbed of the secret facts and details that should’ve been his, and everybody else’s. It all made sense now, Nita’s disinterest with the high school boys, even Coach Norris’ story about the red-haired girl he left behind in Metarie.

The air was cooler, but nowhere near as cold as that evil chinook up north. Dent drove through the school parking lot, down past the Methodist church and turned onto Webster Street. Old Cemetery Road was up ahead and he turned onto it, riding the brake, firming his grip on the steering wheel to keep a steady path as the tires plowed through the thick surface of rocks. Pulling over onto the grass, he stood out of the car and walked onto his family’s plot. The grass was scratchy and dry where he lay looking up at the night. Flattening his palms onto the ground, between the grass and soil, he felt the world turning beneath him as the stars wheeled on, and there was nothing he could do about either of them.

He hated himself for thinking he could come back and start something. The plan had been to drive around and go back to Second Avenue, back to the movie-house, where he’d wait for church to let out. He’d had it all figured out: the Harpoles lived on the north side of town, so they’d be driving past on the way home and Nita would see him from the back window, the car would stop, she’d get out, come over, and they’d talk awhile as they drove around town, down to the drive-in and back, and he’d tell her he came into town just to see her, that nobody else knew, that he didn’t want anybody else to know, that he wished he could stay but he had to get back to Detroit before Spring Training. He’d wow her so much she’d beg him to stay and he would. He’d convince her he was walking away from the game just to be with her. Because Goodwater deserved him in flesh and blood.

He knew nothing of the heavenly lights and their positions, but overhead a constellation appeared in the shape of the cup of Christ. From far away, a star shot into it and the cup lit on fire, the blood running over. He rose to his knees, sat back on his ankles and bowed to the earth, his forehead in the grass. He lifted his head and found the cup as it spilled a shower of stars over the West. He loosened his belt. The desert waited for him as it did for all men broken by the cold, and so he knew what he must do.
***
It was still dark when he woke. Up on Second Avenue, he waited at the stop sign, listening to the radio, watching the funny way the black man swept up the torn tickets and cigarette butts littering the sidewalk in front of the Western Auto. The man emerged from the darkness, his elbow pinning the broom handle to his ribs, the straw fan swinging back and forth near his leg as his profile advanced in a rhythmic sidestep out of the shadows.

The Eldorado crept forward and parked across three spaces alongside the sidewalk. Dent cut the engine. The man stopped sweeping for a moment and looked at Dent, then he continued.

“Hey boy,” Dent said. The man looked at him, expressionless, then returned to his sweeping. “Do you know who I am?” Dent asked.

“Yes, sir,” the man said, and he kept sweeping. “I been knowing you.”

“Who am I?”

“Jonah.”

“Jonah?”

“Yes, sir. You been in the belly of the whale. But he didn’t like the taste of you, so he spit you out.”

“What’s that supposed mean?”

The man stopped speaking and looked at him. “Oh, I’m mistaken,” he said. “You’re not Jonah, neither.”

“So you do recognize me. Right?” asked Dent, almost pleading. “You’ve seen me in the paper, probably.”

“Oh, yes sir,” said the man. “You’re all over the paper. You’re all over everything.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty famous around here.” Dent lifted the flask from his jacket pocket. He unscrewed the lid and took a swig. He offered the man a drink, but the man refused.

“No thank you.”

“I’ve got a bad arm, too,” Dent said. “What happened to yours?”

“War took it.” The man twirled the broom away from his side and leaned it against the brick. He stepped over to the car.

“You were in the war?”

“I was stationed right outside of--”

“I lost mine playing ball.”

The man stepped back into the shadows, picked up the broom and started sweeping again as Dent continued.

“I made it to the majors, but you probably heard. Career stats: one inning pitched, two hits, one walk, zero strikeouts, one wild pitch. Hey, I tied the record for lowest ERA of all time. Zero-point-zero-zero.”

Dent paused to roll a cigarette, then continued. He could no longer see the streetsweeper, but he could hear the faint wisp of the broom beneath the resonance of his own voice.

“The wild pitch came first, the last pitch to Harmon Killebrew. I’d started him out on high hard stuff inside and fell behind, two balls and no strikes. So Dickie—Dick Brown—runs out and points out the Jayne Mansfield look-alike in the stands, and it worked, because I battled back with a couple of curves that rolled off the table right over the outside black. So it’s 2-2 and I go back inside, belt high, a tailing fastball. And it handcuffs him but he gets the bat on it, shoots it foul into the first base dugout. I had him set up now. My fastball had sped up his bat so I knew he’d be looking for the off-speed away but protecting the plate inside. So I go back in. But not with a fastball. I backdoor him. With a 12-to-6-er that starts out at his chin and breaks across his knees.” Dent laughed, proud, nostalgic. “Killer wavered in the batter’s box like a flag in a crosswind. The ump flinched. I’d caught him off-guard too, which was kind of neat. I’ve never seen an ump not know what to do. But the hesitation cost me a strike, and the count moved full. Now Killer didn’t know what to look for, or where. Dickie flicked his pinkie away, pounded his glove and checked Killer to make sure he wasn’t peeking. I shook him off though. See, I knew Killer would be looking for something at his knees, a pitcher’s pitch. I knew he knew I’d be trying to get the ground ball to the left side but he would try to take it the other way between first and second. It was a risk to go after him with a curve in the dirt, but Dickie had pretty good technique. His knees were bad, but he still had good feet. So I knew he’d slide over and lean into the ball, take it off his chest and keep it in front of him so he could tag Killer–before he got up the line—or he’d throw him out at first on the strikeout.

So Dickie puts two fingers down and lowers his glove as if he’s patting a little dog on the head, then he sets up in the middle of the plate, grabs some dirt in his free hand, and braces himself for the bruise. I step back into my wind-up, kick high and whirl forward, shielding the ball from the hitter till it’s out of his hand and on the way (I got that from Warren Spahn), spinning in a tight rotation that Killer recognized but had already committed to. The ball comes in level with his hips till it’s ten feet away then it dives and takes a splinter off the end of his bat less than a foot above the inside chalk of the other batter’s box. Dickie snags it out of the dirt, stands up and tags the hitter, but the ump calls it a foul-tip.

Dickie throws his mask back on his head. He’s spitting, red-faced, and he’s still complaining when he gets back in his crouch and calls for the fastball. I shake him off again though. Because the curve’s working and Killer wouldn’t expect three in a row, not after getting a piece of the last one.

But that wasn’t it exactly, Dent thought as he blew smoke over the Caddy’s dashboard. He hadn’t explained it to himself in that way until later. At the time, all he could think of was the previous pitch, how he wanted it back, how the beautiful thing about the game was that it had second chances built in, how his first major league strikeout was one pitch away if he could just make his pitch exactly like the one before, only a half-inch lower.

He still heard the broom sweeping faintly. He raised his voice and spoke over his shoulder. “So even though Dickie was calling for the hard one, I crossed him up. I went back to the well. And it was dry as the bone cracking in my elbow. When I broke off the curve, it sailed high up and over Killer’s head, over the on-deck circle and into the stands.

Dickie kicked the dirt as he walked out the new ball. He was cussing like I never heard before. He apologized though, said to trust him next time, then asked if me if I was okay. I nodded, turned away, and stepped off the mound, massaging the new ball, trying to loosen the laces. My fingertips were numbing. I was dizzy, nauseated. It felt like a hinge-pin had been hammered half-way out of my elbow and broken off.

I could’ve thrown in the towel right then, the doctor said later, and I might’ve pitched again. I didn’t know it, though. I managed to stay out there. Gave up back-to-back first-pitch singles to Vic Power and Bob Allison, then gloved a weak come-backer off Lenny Green and started the double-play with a force at home. The third out was Bernie Allen’s foul pop-up. Dickie made the out in front of home plate and flipped the souvenir to me. The fellows patted me on the back on their way in from the field. I’ll never forget Al Kaline. He said, ‘You fought hard, kid. You got heart.’ I was the last one in. Tipped my hat to the standing crowd and sank into the dugout.

The doctor said if I kept playing, I wouldn’t be able to sign my own checks when it came time to pay the hospital bill, so that’s how it was decided. No microphone in the middle of home plate. No ceremonies. No goodbyes. Pretty sad case, huh?”

The darkness made no reply.

7 Comments:

Blogger The Damned said...

Here's my post, finally. Sorry it took so long. My questions about this draft are these:

Does the imagined scene in the church work? To me, it's awkward grammatically (all those "would"s).
Is that awkward to you?

Does the story have momentum, or is it wandering and aimless--and if the latter, is that appropriate or shoddy? Does it move forward?

Adam

9:52 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

"Rolling a tight cigarette, he licked it and chinked open a lighter, spit out a few flakes and pinched the tip, then squinted up through the fog of breath and tobacco at the clear night sky, the sharp stars and the waning moon."—not to be picky, but wouldn’t he take the lighter out after he spit and pinched?

"he leaned his head over till his ear rested on his shoulder"—okay here’s something I’ve been wondering about: is it until or can we get away with saying till?

Awkward moment: “Besides a suitcase and his glove, it was all he took with him when he rode the Greyhound north four years earlier.”—how could he leave his arm behind…and isn’t this cliché? I suggest cutting the line altogether and just getting to the next one about the towns

"...where the arm turned brittle and snapped like a stick of gum in an ancient pack of cards"—go ahead and say “baseball cards”?

huh?: “…staying out late after the last show, wishing there was nothing to go home to.”

The paragraph that begins, “He lit another…” I wonder if we need it at all? It doesn’t say much about the people of Goodwater, or Dent himself. At least nothing that the story doesn’t illustrate.

Instead of, “That was the truth of what had happened and it had changed his mind about driving down on Friday.” Could we not have something not so forced, something like, “So he’d changed his mind about Friday and driven to Goodwater on Sunday”?

There’s something fishy about these sentences. Almost like they’re out of order: “After signing the bonus papers at the club office that morning, he’d taken a taxi to the plant. It was September 20, 1962, and he paid the $6, 608 in cash and drove the first ‘63 off the ramp and out of the plant toward Minneapolis and right up to Metropolitan Stadium…” I wonder, what plant? And it isn’t until the next sentence when I get that information. Maybe I’m just dense, but I need a smoother transition between the signed contract, the car, driving from “the plant” and to the stadium.

Speaking of that paragraph, is there white space between in and the next one?

To answer the “are there too many would’s”?: Dent would crack the door and peek inside at the seated congregation, their heads bowed. The back pew on the left side near the wall would be half-empty, so he’d step in, guiding the door closed behind him, looking for Nita. Maybe he’d send her a note in the offering plate and leave during the invitation.—does this work for you?

Get rid of “What was he thinking?” in the next paragraph

“Dent said aloud, as if speaking to the windshield”—why not just Dent said to the windshield?
At this moment you can drop the woulds because Dent’s so into it it’s as if it’s happening: “Oh come on, don’t be bashful, son.” Brother Cross waved him forward, reeling him in.

I’d leave the woulds in the next long paragraph, but when you get to “Then Brother Cross would usher the nearest widow over and he’d pat Dent’s back…” I’d let them go again: “Brother Cross ushered the nearest widown and patted Den’ts back…”—I hope this makes sense. What I’m suggesting is that Dent is so into the fantasy that he’s seeing this all happen, as if he’s the narrator of his own story, and he’s talking to the windshield as if this were all going on…later: “Dent nodded and opened his mouth, but…” and “One by one, the entire congregation filed past…” etc. etc. etc.

Okay, I love you, but this is corny: “and he would drink of the pressed grape of hers”

“…stretching behind them in the darkness lay Toefield Stadium…” who is the “them”? Dent and his car???

I notice you like to do this a lot: “He felt cheated, robbed” and I want to say, just pick ONE already…we don’t need two choices when they mean the same thing

Okay, I know I’m being a bitch but do we need this long paragraph when we’ve basically gotten this already?: “The plan had been to drive around and go back to Second Avenue, back to the movie-house, where he’d wait for church to let out. He’d had it all figured out: the Harpoles lived on the north side of town, so they’d be driving past on the way home and Nita would see him from the back window, the car would stop, she’d get out, come over, and they’d talk awhile as they drove around town, down to the drive-in and back, and he’d tell her he came into town just to see her, that nobody else knew, that he didn’t want anybody else to know, that he wished he could stay but he had to get back to Detroit before Spring Training. He’d wow her so much she’d beg him to stay and he would. He’d convince her he was walking away from the game just to be with her. Because Goodwater deserved him in flesh and blood.” Isn’t the first line—“He hated himself…” enough?

Okay, now I’m an even bigger bitch, but CUT ALL 7 PARAGRAPHS after “The man stepped back into the shadows, picked up the broom and started sweeping again” and pick up with Dent saying, “Even though Dickie was calling for the hard one, I crossed him up. I went back to the well. And it was dry as the bone cracking in my elbow. When I broke off the curve, it sailed high up and over Killer’s head, over the on-deck circle and into the stands.” We can guess all the rest, except what he’s broken, which can be summed up in 1 sentence…we can fill in the rest for ourselves and frankly it’s boring and the story loses momentum…I’d rather Dent pick up the dialogue with the sweeper like he’s had it on his mind and is just trying to get back the last moment, not the entire experience…that would make the ending, this moment when he realizes he’s talking to himself, ominous

So “He knew what he had to do” means he needs to go off talking to himself? Hmmmm…

I don’t know how I feel about the end…there’s a stop to the story after he goes to the graveyard that’s poetic and beautiful…I wonder if you’ve gotten bits of the story out of order? Maybe he needs to talk out loud to the graves? I don’t know why, but to me him talking to the dead (how he feels inside) is more interesting than talking to the living (the sweeper).

Good things: the description of how and why his arm used to be elastic; “who understood the need of a retired hero to return to the place of his greatest achievements and consult the earth and sky as one would a map or a landmark, to know where to go from there”; I’m envious of how well you write dialogue

I think I now reign supreme for the longest comments post
--joy

12:40 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

adam
i just reread your story and i've come to the conclusion that it is two stories...one about the arm blow-out, the other about Dent coming home...i think the story should end in the graveyard--essentially his life is "over" (at least the life he wanted for himself is over) so why not have it end where all life ends...that way i'm not hit over the head with the old cliche "boy who lost something meets man whose really lost something and learns powerful message about the meaning of life"

i think it would be more interesting to see Dent talking to the tombstones in his family plot, or not talking just laying down and going to sleep...the sleep of the dead, i think is what's called a deep restful sleep, right?

i still think the "he knew what he needed to do" line needs to take a permanent vacation

andy, am i crazy to think this stuff? you and adam write so similarly, maybe what you have to say would be more helpful
--joy

7:47 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Adam,

If you had to apologize to yourself for late comments, well, then I'd really like to apologize. But no more dilly-dallying. Down to brass tacks.

Some minor revisions:

1. "...leaned back against the car like James Dean, one boot crossed over the other."

2. The fourth sentence of the second paragraph is awkward. It's almost as if the subject is hiding in the middle of all those commas.

3. The top paragraph of page three--and this may be an issue throughout--seems very...phrasey. Lots of prepositions, long sentences. I think, every now and then, we just need a short one to break the rhythm up a bit.

4. "I don't know," Dent said aloud, speaking to the windshield.

5. "Dent would look down at the woman who had grabbed his hand, patting it between her own...." Is "between" the right word here? I know you mean both her hands, but since you have "hand" and not "hands" preceding this, it feels as if "her own" should refer to one hand, not two, and with only one you can't use "between." Make sense?

6. "Yeah," Dent nodded. "You helping out Coach Norris this year?"

Lastly, two big, interconnected things:

The dialogue at the end, between Dent and Bridge, loses my interest. For one thing, they both seem to talk alike, or at least Bridge talks like everyone in a small town should and it's a little too "real." Compare that conversation to the one Dent has with the old black street-sweeper and you'll see what I mean (I realize, of course, that there needs to be a distinction between the two...but...). THAT's an interesting conversation, all that stuff about Jonah and the whale. It has an almost unreal, magical quality to it that could only be encountered late at night drinking in a small town, I think. Not so with Bridge, who's a pretty dull conversationalist.

As to your question about the story wandering and aimless, I think that works. I don't know if it moves forward, but the idea I got here was that Dent's returned home and found that he can't find what's he looking for in his small town. As such, I think the wandering is an excellent way of dealing with the character.

And:

"Which meant, now that he'd dreamed it, it would never happen, not that way or any other."

That's an awesome liine.

Andy

10:10 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Joy,

Nah, I don't think you're crazy. But I wouldn't put him to sleep in a cemetery. That's "morbid", as my informed students would say. But seriously, it is a very defeated image...maybe TOO defeated?

Don't know.

Andy

10:12 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

I think andy's right about the "morbid" placement of dent in the garveyard...but unlike andy, i'm looking for a not so aimless wandering of the story...it's okay for dent to wander, but not the narration...i want to see some arch, and so far it ain't happening (for me)...while the conversation at the ballpark is dull, i think some of it is nec. for dent to see that life doesn't end after you get "called up"...so maybe a combination of the janitor and Bridge? but where to place them setting-wise i have no clue except to say i'd like to see some arch (am i repeating myself...bueller?)

8:37 AM  
Blogger spantalk said...

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10:25 AM  

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