Day Sixty-Seven: Full Excerpt
by Tom Noonan
We were headed to Florida, thirty-one of us on a coach bus, when I heard about Mr. Grant. He’d been on dialysis for a while, waiting on a transplant. The last time I’d seen him, around Christmas, his skin was becoming transparent. He had raised a hand to wave at me, and I could see the veins rushing up his arms like rivers working under unimaginable duress, like they suffered a drought. Everything in the room seemed to be working hard just to keep him sitting there, breathing. The machines, with all their noises, the bleeps and blips, calls of warning, didn’t act like I thought they would, they didn’t become part of him. Instead he looked like the parasite, feeding off them, reposing while they worked tirelessly, doing the only thing they knew.
When my mom called, her voice quiet, succumbing to the power of her own knowledge, we were at a rest stop, and I knew someone had died. My head went right to Mr. Grant. I wanted it to be him, being separated from the scene so long, the visits, the smell of vomit, shit, crusted blood, I wanted it to all be gone whenever I returned home. I never wanted to be in that room again, not the way it had been.
It was Mr. Grant that had died, and I just pictured him, buried shallow beneath the sheets, machines coming to rest, exhausted. I wondered if he’d said anything before it happened, if he knew what dying in that room would do, if he understood that he’d always be in there. Even when his wife died and their kids sold it, that room was his. I pictured his family burning his body right there, on the hospital bed that had violated the asylum of their home, building a funeral pyre that just might take the whole house with it.
“They told him that he couldn’t,” my mom was saying in the distance, beyond the Grant’s living room that I’d returned to. “It’s the only thing he couldn’t do when he was on that list, and he didn’t listen. So they had no choice.”
“What was that?”
“Drink, have a beer. To be on that list, for a transplant, you know, you can’t drink. Not even a beer.”
“So he drank?”
“Yeah, and that’s when they knew.”
“How’d he get it?”
“How’d he get what?”
“The drink? How’d he get it? Even if he stood up, those machines would’ve kept him in their living room.”
“I don’t know, someone must’ve given it to him. One of his buddies, you know how they are, probably had no idea he couldn’t drink.”
“But how’d they find out?”
“The doctors, his doctor, if it was just one drink, how’d he find out. Did he catch him with it?”
“He told them.”
“He was honest. The doctors asked him if he’d had a drink, and he said yes, probably he had one with a game, the Cocks were playing on TV or something, and he had one with the game. I’m not sure, does it matter, B.? He drank when they told him not to.”
The news wasn’t as numbing as I assumed it would be. I’d already lost sight of Mr. Grant as someone who could really die. Dying was something kids did in high school, when they were changing a flat and got erased by a tractor-trailer or fucked around with lined coke and overdosed. It was something that destroyed dispositions, that made you slouch, that humbled you. Death meant something was taken; something still owned had been stolen away during the night, evaporating somewhere beyond the touch of your streetlights. By the time he died, Mr. Grant didn’t own his life anymore, those machines did, his doctors did, his family, his nurse, his last case of beer did. There was nothing left to be taken. Back when he used to dress up in a patched-up Santa suit and pop by the houses along our street on Christmas Eve, his beer gut doing most of the acting, it would have been different. But, when I finally hung up the phone and took my seat back on the bus, focusing on the trails left behind on the windows some time before by scurries of acid rain, I began to think he never even had that drink, that he knew what I knew, that he had chosen to redeem his life by actively deciding not to prolong it. I fell asleep listening to music, imagining the lyrics were someone else’s dreams, “Now the way we hold each other so tight, would look more like a noose if held up to the light.”
Our motel was saturated with the imposing smell of chlorine. The pool at its center was an original shade of green, fenced in with rusted links, and bookended by two palm trees that looked as if they’d been fashioned from stockpiles of infected driftwood. The fumes that sat above the water were carried across the parking lot, sneaking into our rooms through the small spaces between door and frame, sticking to everything in their reach. We kept all of our clothes sealed in numbered travel bags, making sure they wouldn’t reek when we were finally able to travel off site.
The rooming assignments were based on experience, for the most part, freshman paired of with freshman, captains given their own singles. I was the only exception, being paired off with a Drew Starks, a senior who, by his own admission, was only on the traveling roster because he had survived cuts for four years and left the coaches little choice. Drew hadn’t logged an inning or a single stat, and he drank more than he worked out, but there was always a reason to keep him around. His freshman year it had been injuries, so they kept him as a practice player, putting him out in the field to plug up holes for controlled scrimmages. The next two years, he said, they’d tried to get him to quit, relegating him to the 5 am individuals schedule every week, making him do extra conditioning, telling him straight up he was never going to get a fair shake, but they never cut him. “They don’t even look me in the eye anymore,” Drew told me in our room. “They send me texts and e-mails, but I can’t remember the last time I talked to any of the coaches directly, actually looked them in the eye like a human. But I’ll always be there, and that’s the best thing I can do. Just be there, making them ignore me, knowing they’re actively doing it, that they think about it. It gets to them, I’m pretty sure, you know? Having to bring me down here, that I made it this far. I fucking love that.”
Other than the smell, the room felt blank enough to be comfortable. Motel rooms that have a design to them, some sort of theme, always bother me, and won’t let me sleep. It’s like sleeping in someone else’s house, the restlessness of all that, wondering if you can sleep in, what you should be helping with. The bland rooms are always easier, transitory, capable of handling your projections, becoming what you want. Give me a TV, a bed, and a linoleum-drenched bathroom, and I’ll do the rest.
For the first hour in the room, we searched for the remote before calling the front desk. “Can you bring up a remote to room 211?”
“Sorry, sir,” the other end hummed, “we don’t have any.”
“Are there any empty rooms? We could just get another”
“No, there are no remotes at the motel. They’ve all been stolen. There are controls on the TV.”
“I’m sorry sir.”
“All of them, like, at once?”
“Sir, there are controls on the TV. Can I help you with anything else, or will that be all?”
The games were all played at the same complex, four fields splayed out like a compass, each plate facing in opposing directions. Chatter, a gathering gust of slurred, dip-hazed speech, occupied the sprawling mess, only broken-up by the cracks of focused velocity on wood. If you could’ve seen it from above, taking in all the fields at once, there might’ve been a fantastic quality to it, with groups of distinctively assembled creatures, moving efficiently, little separating mind from body, instincts torn down and re-built, none of them seeming particularly human. But up close, from the dugout, the smallness of it all, the tiny mistakes, the hanging curves, the strange bounces, was all there.
In our third game on the first day, five lips and two spitters deep, I was thrown in to pinch run, Coach Walsh calling my number, “Two-four, get a helmet.” You didn’t get a name until you earned it. “Just follow the signs, this kid’s got a quick move, don’t get caught wandering.”
I took the spot at first, both feet on the bag, waiting for the pitcher to get set. When his foot touched rubber, I took a step, his eyes on the catcher’s fingers. Another step, and I gave him something to think about, a lean that might just get him to throw over. He didn’t bite, and made his move to the plate, snapping the ball into the glove. I had a read on him.
There was a hitch in his delivery. It’d been there all day, all game. I must’ve been the only guy in the country that could see it. As soon as he dropped his elbow a little, a small tick, this kid was going to the plate. There was no way he could catch me, if I went right then, when his elbow dropped. Not a fucking chance.
He worked fast and never really came to a complete stop. I’d caught that in the dugout. Even when he had runners on, his feet stuttered below him, begging them to take an extra step. If you went too early, you were his. His move was fast, but that’s it, only fast. He didn’t play poker. He played Russian roulette.
I let another pitch go, not even looking over to get signs, and there it was again, the elbow dropped out. He wasn’t giving me any respect, glancing over with a smirk, hoping I might have gone a half-step too far. This time, when he got set, I moved my right foot on an angle, ready to anchor and get that first step. Then his elbow dropped, and I was gone.
Those 90 feet are always the same, the oxygen coming in through the ears, the full extension of every muscle, pulling and planting, tearing through the loosened dirt, waiting to hear, if faintly, the laces halting on leather, knowing you’ve got it, that there’s no fucking way he’ll gun you down, not a fucking chance, launching yourself at the bag, head up, fingers waiting for contact, the small spheres of that manicured dirt rolling along your jersey, outlining your number, rising up in a light cloud around you, till you finally feel the bag, and you’re there, eyes open, safe and signaling for time.
But on that day, in Florida, stuck between first and second, something went wrong, and when I met the bag, it felt like everything, all that I could touch, that could be touched, that could be weighed, converged on one spot, my right thumb catching the corner of the base and tearing from its socket. My eyes were closed, hand pulled quickly to my chest, my muscles bulging, tightened in pain. I kept breathing in the unsettled dirt that rose around me, the setting Florida sun stinging the left side of my face. I couldn’t see a thing.