August 1913; half past noon on Sunday. An ice truck rattles down Railroad Avenue, its last delivery made. A church, recently emptied of worshipers, is quiet inside, except for the echoing footsteps of a stocky man, a custodian, and the occasional breeze wafting faintly through the windows. The breeze bends but does not extinguish the flame of the lone altar candle that the custodian has neglected to put out.
The custodian takes off his uniform and changes quickly into a pair of black trousers and a white shirt with navy stripes, long sleeves despite the heat. Upon exiting the church he spies a streetcar on the opposite corner. He races over the cobblestones and leaps on board, just in time. In ten minutes he arrives at the new stadium on Orchard Avenue, where he becomes part of a crowd of thirty thousand attending the afternoon ballgame.
The spectators sit next to each other in the shiny, painted wooden seats, fanning themselves with scorecards, sipping cold drinks, and taking refuge from the sun beneath straw hats. Collectively, they buzz in anticipation of the first pitch, ready to cheer for the home team and jeer the visitors. They reserve their harshest abuse for Jack Harmon, the right-handed pitcher scheduled to start for the opposition.
None of them notices Harmon right now. He stands alone at the bottom of the steps inside the dugout, covered in shadow, his gray flannel visitor’s uniform camouflaging him so that his outline can barely be traced in the concrete wall behind him. He looks down at his pitching elbow and flexes it slowly, then again a little faster, over and over, willing the elbow to loosen up, to throw off the pain that has lodged itself there, like a squatter stubbornly occupying someone else’s home. He knows so much more about pitching now, at the age of thirty-six, than he did as a rookie fourteen years earlier.
On the sixth flex, a fragment of the elbow seems to come loose. It moves haphazardly below the elbow joint like a piece of glass. He lowers the arm slowly to his side and massages the elbow with the fingertips of his left hand.
This can’t be my last start, he tells himself. He needs about fifty more, a half dozen this season and the rest next year.
Next year. That is the subject he expects to discuss with Wallhausen, the team owner, who has taken the unusual step of inviting him – ordering him, really – to meet with him in his office on Tuesday. Next year’s contract, he thinks. That must be what Wallhausen wants to talk about. One more season, one more contract, and he will be set. Set for life. Beyond the power of anyone or anything.
He climbs the dugout steps, pauses at the top, and savors the shade, wishing for a breeze. Before him, the playing field bakes in the sun. A ball field in a city, he knows, is a tribute to the countryside, but the field’s patchy, browning grass and pebble-studded dirt hold no romance for him. To the contrary: he considers the double-decked stadium to be an ungainly amalgam of brick, concrete, and steel.
His walk to the bullpen mound is long and gives the crowd ample opportunity to let him know how they feel about him. But he takes his time.
“Throw it clean, you bum!” a stocky man in a striped shirt, the church custodian, shouts from the front row. “Pitch clean and see if you can get anyone out!” Others add their own taunts, all referring to the freak pitches in Harmon’s repertoire. Like many other pitchers in the league, he sometimes adds something to the ball, like spit, dirt, or resin. Or he takes something away from it, scraping horsehide with sandpaper.
He pretends to ignore the heckling, except at the moment before he enters the pen, when he stops, turns to the nearby left field seats, and slowly strokes his thick, dark mustache with his right forefinger and thumb. Everyone knows he keeps Vaseline in his bristly whiskers. He smiles as an angry roar erupts from every part of the stadium, descending on him like a storm that gathers force as it rains down from the top of the upper deck to the closest box seats.
“What do you suppose is eating Harmon today?” A United Press International reporter poses this question to Bill Beimel, the sports columnist for the Free News. Beimel is the beat reporter for Harmon’s team and also has his own column. He and the UPI man sit together with other members of the press in a section near first base.
Beimel turns his gaze from the field to his notepad, where he has begun a sketch of the scoreboard in left field. He scratches his pencil on his pad, drawing the section of the ballpark fence that parallels the scoreboard. “Nothing’s eating him,” he says finally. “Jack’s just being himself.”
“He looks plenty mad to me,” says the UPI man. “More than usual. But even if you agreed with that, you wouldn’t let me in on why he was upset, would you?”
“I don’t suppose I would,” Beimel confirms. “But if Jack has anything to say —”
“I know. I can read about it in your column.”
Beimel returns to his drawing.
“Tell me,” the UPI man says. “After all these years in the league, what’s the logic behind a guy like Harmon refusing to talk to a single goddamn reporter besides the one who comes from his home town? The rest of us aren’t so bad, are we?”
“It wasn’t a town,” says Beimel, still working at his drawing. “Just a place. If you were from there, you’d understand.”
“What it’s like to be Jack.” Beimel flips to the next page of his notebook and the UPI reporter shakes his head.
Harmon studies the field further between warmup pitches. It hasn’t rained here for a while. The light brown trail of dirt between the mound and the plate merges with the dead and dying infield grass on either side of it. The trail resembles a desolate forest path in miniature; its boundaries fade and reappear arbitrarily. The scrapes and scuffs of the players’ spikes have nearly obliterated the sharp separation of dirt from turf that was there in April, and the clumps of dirt kicked off of the trail have increased the damage, starving the grass by blocking the sun.
The dry dirt reminds him of where he comes from, and these unhappy memories always fortify his resolve to pitch well, even today, almost twenty years after he has left home.
July 1894. “Jack, you’ve just got to do it.” Beimel dashes ahead a few feet, picks a brittle tree limb off the ground and tosses an acorn in the air. “My uncle can set it up. Like that.” Beimel swings the limb at the acorn and strikes it. The acorn spins forward only a few feet while the limb snaps into two pieces, severed by the impact.
“Just like your idea,” says Harmon. “Rotten from the inside out.” They are walking through the thin, scrubby woods that begin a mile south of the Harmon family’s barren land, passing trees whose leaves have been burned off by the sun that beats down on them.
“Wrong,” says Beimel. “That was a good sign about my idea. It shows how much luck the hitters are going to have off you.” He grabs Harmon’s left shoulder roughly and looks up at him in his urgent way, as if trying to wake a sleepwalker. “Come on, Jack. Picture them. Their bats are going to disintegrate if they’re even lucky enough to make contact!”
Harmon laughs in spite of himself.
“You go up to Clarksburg,” says Beimel, “and you’re on the team. You know Ben’s already sold on you.” Ben is Beimel’s uncle, the manager of the baseball team in the town fifteen miles north.
“Big deal,” says Harmon. “He puts me on his semi-pro team. Semi-pro. How long is it going to take before they make me one of the guys they pay?”
“Two weeks, tops,” says Beimel. “Once everyone sees your fastball, you’ll be getting meals plus money to send home.”
“Rose hasn’t got two weeks,” says Harmon. “I don’t even know if she’s got today.” About twenty yards ahead of them, Harmon sees something jostle the leaves. Beimel starts to talk again but Harmon tells him to be quiet. He focuses on a clearing just to the right of where the leaves moved.
A brown and white rabbit emerges from a pile of debris in the center of the clearing. It holds itself perfectly still.
Harmon reaches back and fires the heavy, round rock he has been carrying, aiming for the front edge of the rabbit’s profile. The animal either sees the stone or hears it cut the air, but too late to move more than an inch. A crack echoes through the woods as the stone strikes the rabbit on the side of the head.
“Supper,” Harmon says. He smiles broadly and puts his hand on Beimel’s shoulder. “Let’s go clean it at my house and you can take home half.”
“You see?” Beimel shouts after Harmon as the two of them run toward the clearing. “That arm of yours is going to feed you and your family! That is one live, arm, Jack! You hear me? One live arm!”
But now Harmon’s arm is dying; the only question is how long he can keep using it. He stands on the bullpen mound, throwing a longer pre-game session than usual, trying to gain command of his curveball. He throws one that bounces on the plate. The next one hits the dirt, skipping into the right shin of Helms, the bullpen catcher. Helms stands from his crouch and starts trotting over. “It’s your elbow, Jack,” he says from about fifteen feet away, loud enough to be overheard by two young pitchers watching Harmon warm up. Helms is a year younger than Harmon but retired from playing after the previous season, when his bat slowed down too much. He makes a little money by warming up pitchers in the pen, running errands for the manager, Frank McCord, and doing other odd jobs, everything from oiling gloves to cleaning tobacco juice off the dugout bench.
“You’re not getting your elbow up as high as you normally do,” Helms says, handing the ball back to Harmon.
“Just get back there,” Harmon says, glowering. He can’t risk word getting out that his elbow isn’t right. Especially now, just two days before his meeting with Wallhausen. “If you knew anything about pitching,” he tells Helms, “you’d have been able to hit it.” He squeezes the ball tightly.
After the top of the first, the crowd watches Harmon leave the bullpen for the center of the diamond. He walks through foul territory under shadows cast by a raft of clouds. He steps over crumpled old scorecards that record the hits, runs, and errors of other games.
The clouds slip away just as he reaches the mound, but Harmon seems to have brought something of their darkness with him. His pronounced brow shades his dark eyes. His bushy eyebrows match his mustache. He stands six feet four inches tall and weighs two hundred fifteen pounds, towering over other players. Everyone knows he doesn’t throw as hard as he used to, but on a good day he can still put his fastball on the corner of the plate.
He labors through the game’s early innings. His fastball is all right but he struggles with his curve. He gets it over only about one out of every four times, and when he does it usually hangs over the plate, waiting to be hit as if resting on a tee. And they are hitting him pretty well. His infielders have stabbed several line drives in the air, balls that would have gone for extra bases had they been hit a few feet further left or right. He needs to start throwing strikes with the fastball and curve and get ahead of the hitters, to put them on the defensive. Then he can finish them off with a freak pitch.
He walks a man in the third and surrenders a home run to the next batter, the rookie second baseman Bill Taylor. The ballpark rumbles with the crowd’s cheers. McCord, over in the dugout, shakes his head and swears. Taylor jogs around the bases, a bit too slowly for Harmon’s liking. He looks at Taylor approaching third base and sees a smile playing on the kid’s lips. Next time up, he thinks. We’ll see how much you smile then.
The score is tied when Taylor comes to bat again. Just as Harmon is getting set to pitch to him, McCord plods out of the dugout. The crowd boos.
“You all right?” McCord asks when he reaches the mound.
“It’s only the sixth inning,” Harmon says. “Why wouldn’t I be?” He looks down and kicks his toe into the dirt next to the pitching rubber five times.
“You’re not pitching like yourself.” McCord stands close to him, the brim of his cap almost touching Harmon’s chin. Harmon turns and spits on the ground. The old man’s face is covered in as much sweat as his.
“I’m having trouble with the curve today.” Harmon finally looks straight at McCord. “It’s not my out pitch anyway. You know that.” He wants to tell the manager to get back in the dugout. For the fourteen years the two of them have been on the club together, that’s what he’s wanted to do on every mound visit.
“This guy took you out of the park last time up.”
“No fooling,” Harmon says. “I’d forgot.”
“Maybe I need to take you out. Maybe you’re preoccupied. Big meeting with the boss Tuesday and all.”
“I never get preoccupied,” Harmon says. He looks away from McCord. “And I never come out this early.” He imagines pushing McCord off the mound, back to the dugout.
“Things change.” McCord looks at Harmon’s right elbow.
“Rookies don’t get hits off me two at-bats in a row,” says Harmon. “That hasn’t changed.”
“If you’re wrong,” says McCord, “Taylor is the last batter you’re facing today.” The manager spits on the mound and turns away.
Harmon refocuses on Taylor. The pitch the rookie slammed over the left field fence was a fastball on the outer half of the plate. Taylor digs into the inside part of the batter’s box. He looks comfortable.
This fastball buzzes inside off the plate, up near Taylor’s eyes. The kid ducks and stumbles backwards, almost falling down. The crowd rises to its feet and boos lustily. Harmon’s face is stone. The pitch went exactly where he wanted it to.
The pain in his elbow flares. During McCord’s interruption, it tightened up, and the fastball to Taylor did it no favors. He throws two changeups in a row. Taylor hits the second one hard, but foul, just past third base. The rookie is too anxious, looking for the fastball. Harmon smiles through his pain.
The left fielder throws the fouled ball back to the shortstop, who throws it to Harmon. It is filthy and battered, having been in play since the bottom of the second inning. Harmon removes his glove, jams it under his right armpit, and rubs the ball with both hands. He stalks a few paces off the mound and turns his back on the plate. Then he squats to tie a shoelace, which he deliberately loosened before the inning began. After he ties the lace, he slides a small piece of sandpaper out from under the tongue of the shoe. He tucks the sandpaper into a slot he’s cut into his glove. The edge of it sticks out.
He steps back on the rubber and begins his windup. But Taylor calls time and steps out of the box, waving a hand as if to shoo a mosquito. Harmon glares at him.
When the rookie stands back in, the tips of his toes cross the chalk of the batter’s box, putting them only about three inches from the edge of the plate. He takes two practice swings. On the second, he suspends his bat for a couple of seconds, pointing the end of the barrel at Harmon. He meets Harmon’s stare and brings the bat back over his shoulder.
Harmon rubs the ball hard, scarring it deeply with the paper. He thinks he feels the ball’s cover move as he grips it across the steams. As he finishes his delivery, he drives forward on his left leg with extra vigor, throwing the pitch harder than he’d planned: not hard enough to be a fastball, but too fast for a freak pitch. He curses his mistake. The untethered shard inside his elbow jabs him and his eyes water.
The sun has dipped below the edge of the upper deck on the first base side of the stadium and shadow now engulfs the batter’s box and part of the infield. The pitch starts in sunlight and moves into darkness. It approaches the plate like a high fastball that will end up near the outside corner. Taylor lifts his front leg forward and to his right. His arms are short, so he can’t extend them to hit an outside strike. He starts to swing.
The pitch suddenly breaks inside. Taylor tries to take a step back, but the spikes on his front foot catch themselves in a hole in the batter’s box. The ball crashes into his left temple, bouncing off with a smacking sound that echoes off the stadium’s brick walls like a gunshot fired in an alley. Taylor crumples to one knee and falls onto his right side as he drops his bat. The ball travels about a dozen feet in the air, landing in fair territory just off the third base line. Harmon jogs over and picks it up.
And then he sees the jostling cluster of Taylor’s teammates and coaches encircling him, shouting, calling for a doctor. The spectators murmur quietly and seem far away, like a swarm of bees in the distance.
Harmon approaches the thickening crowd at home plate and catches a glimpse of Taylor on the ground. Blood pours out of his left ear. McCord intercepts him as he tries to get closer. “You better hit the clubhouse,” he says. His voice trembles.
“It was an accident, Mac,” Harmon says. He stares down at the ball in his hand. All he’d wanted was a swing and a miss.
“Give me the ball.”
Harmon complies, dropping the ball gently into McCord’s palm. As it falls, he notices a section of the red stitching dangling in the air, like a piece of skin freshly torn from the flesh that had hosted it.
There are no seats to spare on the train ride back. Helms, the bullpen catcher, sits next to Harmon, who keeps his eyes closed almost the entire time. No one else approaches him. No one speaks to him or pats him on the shoulder. And no one says a word about the outcome of the game, which they had won. A few can be heard whispering about Taylor. In the darkness behind his eyelids, Harmon tries to ignore the stiffening of his long legs, crammed into the row of seats designed for smaller men. His senses center on the rhythmic movement of the train’s wheels and the quiet of the car. From the dining car behind him, a warm, steamy smell enters his nostrils. He tries to identify the food being prepared before falling asleep.
Harmon’s mother boiled the rabbit. It is young and tender but Rose can’t eat it except for a few small pieces shredded into some pale broth. Their mother and father try to cheer her but only make her feel worse. The sight of their fourteen-year-old daughter trapped in an emaciated body makes it impossible for them to conceal their own melancholy. They retreat to the kitchen table while Harmon sits by Rose’s bedside, holding her bowl, feeding her the soup.
“You should’ve seen this guy jump out of the leaves,” he says. “I knew I only had one shot at him.”
“He’s delicious,” says Rose, her voice barely a whisper. “You’ll have to go get another one tomorrow.”
Harmon laughs. “This may have been the last rabbit in the county,” he says. “I’d like to find whatever he was eating.”
“That’s a great idea,” says Rose. She swallows a spoonful of the soup. “Bring another rock with you, just in case he’s got any cousins.”
“All right,” Harmon says. “I’ll do that. Just help us finish this one first.”
“I’m trying.” She looks away from him, through the cracked window pane, squinting at the light streaming in. “It’s just that my stomach feels so small, like it doesn’t have room for anything.”
Harmon stirs the soup around, intensifying the savory scent rising from the bowl.
“You need to go to Clarksburg,” says Rose. “Use that arm for something other than hunting rabbits.”
“They’ve got grown men playing in that league,” says Harmon.
“Those grown men aren’t anything,” says Rose. “Just farmers picking up a bat and ball on the weekends. If they were any good, they’d be in the majors.”
Harmon laughs again. “What makes you know so much?”
“I know to listen to Bill’s uncle. He says you’ll strike them all out.”
“Right,” Harmon says. “Guess they haven’t got any chance.”
“No more than he did.” Rose points at the soup and smiles.
“Before I go anywhere,” Harmon says, “I want you up and on your feet. There are a couple of off-speed pitches I haven’t shown you yet.” Before the drought, before she’d gotten sick, Harmon had tutored Rose about pitching. She was a natural, able to smack the side of the barn with a fastball almost as hard as he could. They had played some memorable games, he and Rose, along with Beimel and his two brothers.
“Never mind about that,” Rose says. “Don’t make me think I’m holding you back.”
Every morning for the next forty-eight days, Harmon looks for the garden that had been nourishing the rabbit. He doesn’t find it. On the first of September, on an afternoon when the sun feels as if it will burn through every scrap of earth for miles around, Rose passes away. Harmon’s mother and father join her in the church graveyard within weeks, succumbing more to grief and sorrow than hunger.
The morning after his parents are buried, Harmon walks uphill along the dirt road to Clarksburg, his belongings stuffed in a sack. In the town, everything happens the way Rose, and Beimel, said it would. The strapping men from the farms can only shake their heads as Harmon’s fastball flies past them, arriving at the plate before they can blink, tinier than a pea. Catchers last only five innings before the throbbing in their palms makes them throw down their cracked mitts and beg for relief. Before his seventeenth birthday, major league scouts are taking Harmon out for bacon and eggs, and then they take him out of Clarksburg. Beimel catches up to him a few years later, landing a job at the Free News, working the printing presses and doing sports reporting here and there when they let him.
After the team disembarks the train, McCord checks the station office for news. He speaks to the man at the window and then turns back. One of the platform lamps casts its light on the manager’s face, long enough for Harmon to see the wet sheen in McCord’s blue eyes. Taylor is dead.
“That’s a shame,” Harmon says after McCord confirms the news. He shakes his head slowly. “A goddamn shame.” He holds his suitcase with his left hand. His teammates pull their bags out of the train’s luggage compartment and glance over at him and the manager.
“Twenty-four years old,” McCord says. On the opposite side of the platform, another train pulls away, its high-pitched whistle mournful in the darkness of the station.
“Goddamn shame,” Harmon repeats. He wonders about Taylor’s family, about whether his parents are still around, or whether the kid has brothers or sisters. Had them, he corrects himself. He looks at McCord impassively, then turns away and begins his ten-block walk home from the station.
“Stupid kid,” Harmon mutters as he climbs out of the tub that night in his one-room apartment. He pulls the plug from the drain as bath water drips down his legs onto the warped oak floors. He has bathed with extra vigor, trying to scrub off the memory of the garbage the fans pelted him with as he left the field. Frankfurters, pretzels, coins, and packs of cigarettes had struck him, along with a wad of chewing tobacco. “For your next game,” he heard someone yell when the chaw hit him. He can still see the bottle of gin, not completely empty, coming toward his head, just missing him as he ducked.
So now I’m a killer, Harmon thinks as he picks up the towel draped over the radiator. I’m a killer because Taylor was fool enough to lean into the plate. Leaned into it when anyone would know that a freak pitch was coming and that it would break in some crazy way.
“So goddamn stupid,” Harmon says aloud as he dries off.
He imagines the next day’s headlines and articles calling him a head-hunter. He shakes his head, smoothes his mustache in the cracked mirror that hangs on the wall from a string draped over a nail, and puts on the boxers and armless undershirt he sleeps in, then pulls the cord that controls the room’s single bulb. No sense letting this keep me awake, he tells himself. He lies down and jerks the thin, worn top sheet until it covers him from ankles to armpits.
After a few minutes he opens his eyes and stares up into the darkness. If Taylor’s parents are alive, he thinks, they may be less than a decade older than he is. They may have lived through the hard times his own parents didn’t survive. They would never see their son play major league baseball again. Just as his own parents, and Rose, never saw Harmon throw a pitch in front of a big crowd. Harmon’s throat constricts. Goddamn all of this, he thinks.
He doesn’t sleep but doesn’t stay fully awake, either. Like a patient delirious with fever, he drifts restlessly, his eyes shut. He sees a room, big and brightly lit, filled with prone men. They are lying flat in beds, or stretchers, or gurneys, or slabs; he can’t say for sure. One of them is surrounded by ballplayers in uniform. They are shouting and waving their arms. McCord is among them but he is calm and is the only one who looks at Harmon. As Harmon comes closer, McCord spits on the floor and turns his back on him. Harmon pushes through the crowd and finds Taylor at its center, laid out on a table. His face is clean and smooth, like that of a boy not old enough to shave yet, and is as white as the sheet that covers him up to his chest. Blood pours out of his left ear.
Harmon sits up with a start. He pulls the light cord and grabs the bottom of his bed sheet, using it to wipe the sweat off his forehead and face. I killed him, he thinks. By accident, but I killed him. He wonders what Rose would think about the pitch that struck Taylor. For a moment, he feels almost relieved that his sister did not live to see him pitch.
His elbow still hurts and his head throbs. He rises and walks into his tiny kitchen. He has no ice so he fills a canvas bag with tap water. He closes the bag with a piece of twine and sits down at the wooden kitchen table. It wobbles as he leans forward onto it, holding the bag in his left hand and pressing it down on the ache. He releases the bag for a moment, long enough to take a swig from the bottle of whiskey he keeps on the table. Then he rests his head on his left arm, pressing his ear down to muffle his headache and looking sideways at the skinny strand of moonlight that shines through the kitchen window, the only window in the apartment. The moon hangs low over the city and its light sparkles against the spot where it strikes his rusting stove. He adjusts his chair so that the glow falls on the canvas bag instead. He imagines the moonlight cooling the water, helping it heal his elbow, and he closes his eyes.
The next morning, he blinks and sits up slowly in the chair. His lower back hurts because of the way he slept, but the elbow feels better, just a little stiff. He empties the canvas bag in the sink and dresses. It would be another hot day, judging by the strength of the early morning sunlight.
The thick, heavy air in the apartment house’s windowless back stairwell surrounds him like a blanket of dirty gauze as he descends the six flights. He breathes only with his mouth to avoid smelling the mold and other odors, but the mixture is so strong he can taste it. He thinks of the flavor as city swamp, with rotting trash from the alley below standing in for stagnant water and decaying vegetation. At the same time, it is the taste of thrift and privacy. The rent is the cheapest in the city and no one on the team or in the press, except Beimel, knows where he lives.
At the end of the alley he turns onto the street, only for a second. That is how long it takes to reach the entrance of Sal’s delicatessen. He sits down at a table across from Beimel, as he does at this hour on every off-day at home. The restaurant smells pleasantly of coffee, bacon, and eggs.
“So,” Beimel says.
“So I suppose they’re ready to hang me.” Harmon points to Beimel’s newspaper, resting on the adjacent table. It is open to the sports pages, and Harmon’s name figures prominently in a headline. He averts his eyes. Beimel folds the paper and slips it into his attaché case. The waitress pours Harmon coffee and says that his breakfast will be out shortly.
“I can see you’re feeling pretty low,” Beimel says. He removes his glasses and rubs them with his already-used napkin, taking care to avoid smearing ketchup on the lenses.
“I would suppose that’s right,” says Harmon. “It’s not every day you wake up having just killed a man.”
“Jack,” says Beimel, pausing while his own coffee cup is refilled. “I can help with this. I can write about it. I can give your side of it.”
Harmon shrugs. “I don’t have a side. Taylor’s dead because I hit him with a pitch. Nothing you write can help.”
“The truth can help,” says Beimel. He puts his glasses back on. “The papers today are full of speculation.”
“Like every day,” says Harmon.
“But today it’s about you. And it’s serious.”
“Right.” Harmon shakes his head. “Speculation, you call it. How serious can speculation be?”
“Serious enough to end your career right now. Serious enough to make people who’ve never met you hate your guts.”
The waitress puts a plate in front of Harmon: two eggs over hard, two slices of toast, and three wide strips of bacon. “The papers are just telling people what they want to hear,” he says. He digs into his breakfast.
“Go ahead and be tough about it if you want,” says Beimel. “But I know you don’t want to just sit there while some writers who’ve never met you are carving you up.” Beimel takes a sip of his coffee. “Another thing I know,” he says, “is how bad you feel about Taylor.”
“And you want to write about that?”
Beimel begins to answer, but stops. Something behind Harmon has caught his attention. Harmon looks over his shoulder toward the delicatessen’s door. A man as big as him, but a few years younger, strides to their table. He has a healthy head of light brown hair and is wearing a tan suit.
The man places his palms on the table and leans forward, putting his face a few inches from Harmon’s. His smile reveals a gold front tooth. “My name,” he says, “is Herb Marcus.” He keeps his palms on the table. “I am here,” he continued, “on behalf of James Wallhausen. Mr. Wallhausen has rescheduled your meeting with him. He wants to you in his office at two o’clock. Today.”
“Mr. Wallhausen will explain it to you. Please make sure to be on time.” Herb Marcus stands. He flashes his tooth again and begins whistling a tune. He turns away crisply. He walks out the door with a briskness surprising for his size, still whistling.
“Cheerful guy,” says Harmon.
“Quick, too. What do you suppose Wallhausen wants?”
“Maybe to congratulate me for yesterday’s game. We won, you know.”
Beimel clears his throat. “What about the article?”
“The one where you tell everyone your side about the pitch to Taylor. Where you explain that you didn’t mean to hit him.”
“Suppose I did mean to.” Harmon takes a long drink from his coffee cup.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Jack.”
“Suppose I meant to hit him right on the head. Suppose McCord ordered me to when he came to the mound.”
“Frank, order you to do it? That’s even more ridiculous.”
“If I told you that’s what happened and asked you to write it, would you?” Harmon pushes his plate forward and puts his forearms on the table in front of him, grasping each of his elbows with his long fingers.
Beimel pushes a piece of his cold omelet around with his fork. He looks back at Harmon. Neither of them speaks for a minute.
“I suppose,” says Beimel. He pushes his own plate forward. “If that was your side of what happened, then I’d write it.” He wipes his mouth with his napkin. “That doesn’t mean I’d believe it. But I’d report it as your side.”
“Your editors might not like it,” Harmon says. “Maybe they wouldn’t print it. Especially if someone told them not to.”
“My editors publish what I write,” says Beimel. “They don’t get bullied by the likes of Wallhausen.”
Harmon picks up a slice of bacon with his forefinger and thumb and examines it, its lean and fat stripes, its wavy ridges. “Remember how good this tasted, back in the day?”
“Sure I do,” says Beimel. “When the corn and wheat harvests were strong, we ate bacon twice a week.”
“Now it’s every day,” says Harmon. “But it tasted better then.”
“It tastes just as good to me,” says Beimel. “And I like having it every day.”
“You’re spoiled,” Harmon says, shaking his head in mock disappointment.
“Not like you, I guess.”
“That’s right.” Harmon bites a piece of the bacon. “I don’t let myself be spoiled by things.”
Beimel lifts a slice of bacon from his own plate. They both chew without speaking.
“Listen,” Harmon says. “If anything happens to me, I want you to print what I told you about the pitch to Taylor.”
“All right,” says Beimel. “Are you expecting anything to happen to you?”
“You never know.”
Back in his apartment, Harmon changes into his only suit and tie. He brushes dust off the jacket sleeves and tugs at the waist of the trousers, which squeezes him tightly. He takes the stairs down again and begins the twenty-block walk to the stadium, where Wallhausen’s office is located. A few blocks into the journey, the street narrows and takes him through canyons of dilapidated apartment buildings, all the same shade of gray. The steel workers and their families live here. Another kind of life he has avoided so far, where you do the same thing every day all day long, six days a week, surrounded by factory walls for twelve hours, then by the four walls of your apartment after you return home.
He starts to sweat and smells the resulting musty odor from his damp wool suit. He takes off the jacket and doesn’t put it back on until he gets to the ballpark.
McCord is already in the owner’s office, wearing his own ill-fitting suit and seated on a brown leather sofa across from Wallhausen’s desk, his back straight, none of it touching the couch. Wallhausen sits behind the desk, and Herb Marcus stands a few paces behind him, to his left. Marcus holds his arms together at the wrists, behind his back. He unclasps them to slide Wallhausen’s chair back after the owner begins to stand.
Wallhausen stands about as tall as Harmon and is old enough to be his father, like McCord. But he comes from a different world than either of them. He walks over to Harmon. His gray hair is combed neatly in place and his mustache retains some of its original brown. Harmon’s grip swallows the owner’s fingers and palm as the two men shake hands. He takes care not to squeeze too hard and sits next to McCord after Wallhausen instructs him to. His eyes scan the oil paintings hanging from one of the mahogany walls, portraits of Wallhausen’s deceased male ancestors. Photos of horses and the jockeys who ride them populate another wall. Horse breeding and racing are among Wallhausen’s other businesses.
“It’s very unfortunate about yesterday,” Wallhausen says, folding his fingers together as his elbows rest on the blotter in front of him. Two small golden statues of cowboys on leaping horses stand at one end of the desk and a box of cigars occupies part of the other.
“Yes, Mr. Wallhausen,” says McCord.
“It is,” Harmon echoes. He inclines his head to the left in an effort to pick up the faint breeze from one of the electric fans plugged into the outlets in each corner of the office.
“I’m sure you’ve both seen the papers.” Wallhausen shakes his head, as if weary. “They’re saying my ball club’s longest-tenured pitcher tried to hit Taylor in the head. And they’re raising questions about whether my manager ordered it.”
“There’s nothing to that, Mr. Wallhausen,” says McCord.
“There’s nothing to any of it,” Harmon says emphatically, leaning forward on the sofa.
Wallhausen doesn’t respond to these denials right away. A provocative silence fills the air, one that he may think Harmon or McCord will replace by saying something more, something different. The owner removes his eyeglasses and wipes them with a handkerchief. He looks searchingly at Harmon, as if he can see him better without the glasses. “Tell me, Mr. Harmon,” he says. “Have you ever hit a man with a pitch on purpose?”
“Of course I have,” Harmon says. “Every pitcher in this league has. But I never try to hit anyone in the head.”
“You never try,” Wallhausen says flatly. “But you certainly risk it. Your control isn’t what it used to be.” He breathes onto one of the eyeglass lenses and rubs it harder.
“It is when I throw a fastball.” Harmon checks his anger. “If I try to hit a man, it’s with a fastball. I want it to sting and I want to know that it’s going to hit him. The pitch I threw Taylor wasn’t a fastball. It was one I’d scuffed up.”
“Indeed,” says Wallhausen, putting his glasses back on. “The ball was taken out of play and examined. It looked as if it had been run over by one of my trains.”
“It was the right pitch, Mr. Wallhausen,” says McCord. “I didn’t tell Jack to throw it, but it was the right time to throw a freak pitch. Taylor misjudged it. He leaned into it.” Harmon raises an eyebrow, surprised to see McCord sticking up for him.
“Be all this as it may,” Wallhausen says, sighing and placing both palms on his desk, “the three of us have to consider what to do. Regardless of what type of pitch you threw, Mr. Harmon, it struck Taylor hard enough that a section of the boy’s skull collapsed into his brain. You hit him just above his left temple. You are aware of this, I assume?”
“I don’t know the particulars,” Harmon answers. He wishes for a glass of water. “I was trying to strike him out.”
“But you risked hitting him,” Wallhausen says. “You threw a so-called freak pitch, and you threw it hard. You didn’t know where it would go.”
“Taylor leaned over the plate,” McCord says again. “The kid was careless. He’s to blame.”
Wallhausen smacks his right fist on his desk, making the statues shake. “That,” he says, “is not what the papers are saying. And it is not the position my ball club is going to take.”
The three men sit silently for a few moments. Harmon’s sweat makes him itch underneath his suit jacket. The electric fans hum away, but they don’t help. A ray of sunlight breaking through the window blinds bounces off of Herb Marcus’s tooth, illuminating his broad smile with an unearthly glow.
“What would you like to do, Mr. Wallhausen?” McCord finally asks.
“I’ve already sent my condolences to the boy’s parents,” says Wallhausen. “And Mr. Harmon, there’s going to be a letter of apology from you.”
Harmon trains his eyes on the owner. “I’m sorry about what happened,” he says. “But I’m not apologizing to anyone.”
“Saying you’re sorry and apologizing are one and the same,” Wallhausen says with a wave of the hand. “I’ll write it up for you.”
“Is that it?” McCord asks. “Jack just apologizes?”
“No,” Wallhausen says. “That won’t be enough to remove the stain from this organization.”
Harmon and McCord look blankly at Wallhausen, waiting for him to resume speaking. It has become clear to them that they are here to listen, not to help Wallhausen “consider” what to do.
“I’m thinking of a bold gesture,” Wallhausen says. “More than a gesture. An initiative.” He leans forward in his chair. “I am going to appear before the press tomorrow after the game and announce that, from this day forward, no pitcher on my team will ever place a foreign substance on a baseball again, nor will they ever damage a ball. I will announce that we will play this game cleanly and with the finest sportsmanship, as it should be played.”
Harmon’s cheeks burn. He squeezes his kneecaps in his hands. McCord sits silently. Wallhausen smiles at them, apparently satisfied from their expressions that his initiative is as bold as he believed it to be.
“Mr. Wallhausen,” says McCord, gathering himself. “This would put us at a terrible disadvantage. Every pitching staff in the league uses freak pitches. We have two pitchers besides Jack who use them.”
“Not any more,” says Wallhausen. “We’ll set an example for the rest of the league.”
“An example of stupidity,” says Harmon.
Marcus, still standing behind Wallhausen, clears his throat and folds his arms in front of his chest. “You would do well to watch your mouth, Mr. Harmon,” says Wallhausen.
“If you want to do this, just trade me,” Harmon says. “Just wait for things to die down. Some club will take me.”
“You don’t understand.” Wallhausen clasps his fingers together. “Even if I could trade you, I wouldn’t. Whatever I’d get in return — another player, money — would mean I’d be profiting from you. And this organization will never again profit from you.” Wallhausen smiles and affects a benevolent tone. “Except under one set of circumstances,” he says. “I’ll give you this chance: Pitch cleanly and get hitters out, and you’re still on the team.”
Herb Marcus laughs, his gold tooth shining merrily.
“He can’t do that any more, Mr. Wallhausen,” McCord says, almost pleading. “You know that. You take away his freak pitches, you may as well release him.”
Harmon feels the blood rise in his cheeks. He wants to dispute what McCord has just said, but can’t form the words.
Wallhausen speaks instead. “If I release Mr. Harmon,” he says, “I risk making him into some kind of martyr. The newspapers and the fans might like it at first, but over time, a new impression might be formed. You know — one tragedy, two victims. And then everyone would begin to point the finger of blame at me. Me, an honest businessman, like my father and his father. That wouldn’t do.”
He looks at Harmon. “I’d rather give you a chance,” he says, reassuming the benevolent tone. “You may, of course, resign if you wish. But I’d rather you redeem yourself and pitch honestly for my team. Perhaps Mr. McCord is underestimating you.”
Harmon nods grimly, as if agreeing with a catcher’s sign in a tight situation. “Somebody’s doing some underestimating,” he says. He stares hard at Wallhausen, the way he looks at an umpire who’s made a bad call against him. “The reporters are going to want to talk to me about Taylor, you know. And I can make bigger headlines than you.”
“Oh really,” says Wallhausen, leaning back. “Just how?”
Harmon shrugs. “Who knows what I might say?” He picks up one of the bronze statues from Wallhausen’s desk. “That it was official club policy to throw at hitters’ heads? That Mac did tell me to knock Taylor’s block off?” He holds the cowboy’s head between his thumb and forefinger.
“Jack!” McCord shouts.
“Mr. Harmon,” says Wallhausen. He almost clenches his teeth. “Do you really think you can threaten me?” He smiles, but wanly.
“I really think,” says Harmon, “that I just did.”
Wallhausen shakes his head. “Your threat isn’t credible, Mr. Harmon,” he says. “You say you’ll talk to reporters, but I’m sure you have only one particular reporter in mind.”
“Your friend,” says Marcus. “Your friend from breakfast.”
“It would be a shame,” Wallhausen says, “if something happened to him before you had the chance to tell him your story.”
“How do you know I haven’t told him already?”
Wallhausen’s face reddens. “Then perhaps his accident will happen very soon. Before tomorrow’s papers go to press.”
“Too late,” Harmon says. “The story is already written. His editors have approved it.” Harmon puts the cowboy statue back on Wallhausen’s desk. It clicks loudly against the surface, like a cue stick hitting a billiard ball. “You going to arrange an accident for the editor-in-chief of the Free Press, too?”
Wallhausen opens his mouth, but nothing comes out.
“Of course, I can ask for the story to be pulled back.”
“Let me take care of this, sir,” says Herb Marcus, bending forward and speaking into Wallhausen’s ear. “Let me — ”
“Quiet!” Wallhausen says. He breathes in deeply. “What is it you want?” he asks Harmon.
“You’re the one with the bold initiatives,” Harmon says. “Make me an offer.”
“I already have,” says Wallhausen. “You are free to remain on my team so long as you pitch cleanly and effectively. I will even guarantee you a fair raise to return next season, under those same conditions.”
“Do better,” says Harmon.
Wallhausen lets out a theatrical sigh. “Mr. Harmon,” he says. “Be realistic. You know that you’re nearing the end of your career on the field. Baseball is a young, healthy man’s game. Your time is running out.”
“Everyone’s time runs out eventually.”
“True enough. But I understand that time has already run out on your right elbow.” Wallhausen points toward Harmon’s pitching arm. “Your time would appear to be expiring even if I were to allow you to keep using freak pitches.”
Blood rushes to Harmon’s cheeks and Wallhausen laughs again, a genuine one this time. Harmon stands and takes a step toward the desk. He points at Wallhausen. “We’ll see how much you laugh after tomorrow’s paper is out.”
“Please, Mr. Harmon,” says Wallhausen, his left arm extended in front of Herb Marcus like a railroad gate. “Please sit back down. Let’s try to work this out.”
Harmon pauses and slowly bends his knees, settling back into the sofa.
“The deal I’ve already offered you,” Wallhausen says, “is still on the table. Except that the money is guaranteed. You may pitch well or poorly, without freak pitches. Or you may resign. No matter which, you may still collect your salary this year and next.” Wallhausen pauses. “And I’ll pay you a thousand dollars on top of it.”
Wallhausen folds his hands together on his desk and breathes in for a long moment. “I’ll set you up with a nice position at the railroad after you stop pitching,” he says finally, his voice low. “You simply apologize in writing about Taylor, taking full responsibility. And of course you say nothing to the press.”
McCord stands. “I don’t think I need to be here for any more of this,” he says. The manager heads for the door and wipes his face with a rumpled handkerchief.
“Jack,” he says, turning and lingering near the doorway, “let me ask you a question. When was the last time you enjoyed playing the game?”
Harmon turns his head so he can see McCord. He searches his manager’s face and finds the usual wrinkles and gray, glistening stubble.
“When was the last time? Did you ever enjoy it?”
Harmon recalls blurry images of baseball games he played at fourteen, games with kids from other farms, Rose playing along with them. Her pitching delivery was so fluid and compact.
Wallhausen’s voice breaks the silence. “I believe you were on your way out,” he says to McCord.
“Right,” the manager says. He leaves, shutting the door quietly behind him.
“All right,” Harmon says. “I suppose I can accept your offer.”
“Now there’s a reasonable fellow.” Wallhausen stands and extends his hand. “There’s just one thing,” Harmon says as he rises from the sofa, his hands at his sides. “Before I make the apology and announce my retirement, I’ll need next year’s salary. In cash. Along with what’s owed me for the rest of this year. And don’t forget the extra two thousand.”
“You mean the one thousand.”
“I mean,” Harmon tells him, “what I said.” He shakes Wallhausen’s delicate hand firmly this time.
Herb Marcus appears at the door of Harmon’s apartment about two hours before sunset. His gold tooth is covered by a tight-lipped frown. Harmon gestures him in and takes the large, tan envelope Marcus has brought with him. He points Marcus toward one of the two wooden chairs at the end of the apartment opposite the kitchen.
“You ever play ball?” Harmon asks, turning away before Marcus can answer.
“I’m supposed to wait until you sign the paper in there,” Marcus says, staying on his feet by the front door. “There’s an extra one for you to keep.”
Harmon opens the envelope and turns it upside down, shaking it over the kitchen table.
The cash tumbles out, twenties tied together in small stacks. The two copies of the typed-up apology fall out last, one single sheet, then another. Harmon sets them aside and unties the string encircling one stack of bills. He counts them slowly and ties them back together. He counts the other stacks the same way, quickening his pace only slightly as he moves along. The money is all there.
Still standing, he reads the document to be issued under his name. It sounds nothing like him (“It is with the most profound regret and sincerity that I apologize from the bottom of my heart to the mother and father of William Taylor,” it begins). But he decides that Wallhausen had a point when he said that the wording wasn’t important. The essence of the document is true: He is sorry. He signs the apology and returns it to Marcus, who leaves without a word.
Harmon sits down at the kitchen table and puts the cash back into the envelope slowly, one stack at a time. He runs his fingers along the envelope’s exterior, from one end to the other and back again. The edges of the stacks feel like the ridges of a flagstone path. My pension, he thinks, with a mixture of pleasure and irony. He knows the money in the envelope, together with what he has already saved, will be enough for him to get by. That and the fact that he won’t take the railroad job are all he knows. He walks over to the sink in the kitchen, fills his shaving basin, and sets it on the wooden stand he keeps below the mirror.
It takes him longer to shave his mustache than he expected: the thick whiskers resist the strokes of his razor. When he finishes, the result is as deceptive as any pitch he has ever thrown. He looks ten years younger, transformed enough to fool just about anyone from a distance. He’ll leave town tonight, he decides, on a late train, bringing whatever he can fit into his battered road-trip suitcase.
He needs air. He bangs his fist on the kitchen window frame to loosen up the gluey bond formed by the summer humidity; still, he has to pull hard to get it open, hard enough to provoke a protest from his elbow. An odor of city swamp infiltrates the apartment, slowly sneaking in on the back of a faint breeze. Harmon smiles as he tells himself that he will go to a place where the breeze doesn’t carry the unnatural scent resulting from people living jammed closely together or the ghosts that inhabit farms and fields. In the small vacant lot below, he sees two dogs pounce and bark at each other, apparently at war over something edible that has fallen out of a metal trash can tipped onto its side.
His smile fades as he asks himself where tonight’s train should take him. There ought to be many possibilities. He pictures a map identifying the places he has lived in or visited. Black dots and hollow circles mark each one and thick, solid lines designate the routes he has traveled. The map includes a large dot at the location of his childhood home in the countryside and another one to mark this city, where he has spent so many years as a big league pitcher. The map’s lines criss-cross each other like the strands of a cobweb, connecting all eight cities in the league, ranging from the eastern seaboard to St. Louis. Another set of lines, dashed and faint, connects the small towns where he pitched in the minors, each represented by its own tiny circle. So many train and bus rides, so many stations and depots, so much coming and going. Yet it seems he has never really been anywhere.
He watches the dogs bark and circle each other faster and faster. They melt into a blur of fury that resembles a cyclone or the spinning of an alternator. The larger, gray one sinks its teeth into the flesh of the other just below the neck. They howl, as if collaborating to raise one unified sound.
Harmon closes the window and sits down again at the kitchen table. The dogs finish and quiet returns. He rests his head on the envelope, determined to think of a destination where quiet will be the general condition, general enough to be thought of as peace. Where? he wonders. Where do I go now? He again conjures the map of his life, so complicated on the surface. He zeroes in on one of the map’s dots, and then on another, trying to summon up the image of the city or town it signifies. But whenever he peels away a piece of the map, he finds another, identical layer underneath, a dot beneath a dot, a line beneath a line.
He sits at his kitchen table the rest of the afternoon and into the night, his eyes wide open, his mind working. He is still there, awake in the dark, well past the hour when the last train leaves town.