By Candle Beck
Zito drove out to the ballpark through the oilfields, the sides of his truck covered in dust, the frame clattering. It was late May and starting to get sincerely hot. Outside, it smelled like scorched rubber and metal, and the road shimmered where it funneled into the horizon. It was flat for weeks, out here.
Zito knew this whole town, cruddy and inconsequential though it was. All the guys at the Kwik-Stop across the street from the park called him by name. He didn’t think once the whole ride there; he could do this in his sleep.
The Midland Rockhounds played at a park named for a bank, a low spread in West Texas with the stadium lights on single poles, the same general shape as palm trees. Twenty miles from Odessa and the dead center of nowhere.
Zito had to get out of his car to unlock the parking lot’s chain-link gate, so he knew he was the first to arrive, which was the case twice a week, between his starts.
Free weights first, and then the stationary bike for a half-hour. Legs, arms, rowing machine. Then he went down to the ‘pen and tacked four white squares of paper to the backstop, in on the hands, throat-high and rising, outside corner, three inches above the dirt.
He threw until he’d hit the targets ten times each, and then he took a shower, got halfway dressed in his uniform.
By then some of the other guys had come in.
Zito talked shit with the boys and played cards for a while, his hair wet against his neck, and eventually went to talk to his manager.
They got along, the two of them. They’d known each other for a half a decade. His manager liked to lean back in his chair and bitch with Zito about the fucking wrench of a life spent in Double-A. They shared a black sense of humor and a weary respect for each other.
His manager lit a cigarette, and told Zito, “New blood in today.”
“Oh yeah?” Zito said without interest, because guys came and went down there like moths.
“Big club made a move, and we got us a player to be named later. A shortstop.”
“They don’t exactly need a shortstop, up there,” Zito commented. Miguel Tejada had signed a long-term contract over a year ago, for close to what he was actually worth, and now Oakland was broke, but whole.
“Don’t think they plan on keeping him that long.” His manager tapped ash into the ashtray that was shaped like a cowboy hat.
“So what’s the word?” Zito asked, tugging at a loose thread on his sock.
“Good hands, good eye. Pretty swing but doesn’t leave the yard too often. He’s been around for awhile, different teams.”
“Nobody’s got any loyalty anymore, you notice that?”
His manager grinned sharply at him. “’Cept you.” Zito’d been with the Oakland organization for seven years, but he didn’t often like to think about that.
“Why’s he down here?” he asked.
“I’m told he’s fragile.”
Zito lifted his eyebrows.
“Breaks a lot of bones,” his manager elaborated. “Wrists and fingers especially. You can count on him to miss, oh, six-eight weeks a season.”
“Well.” Zito exhaled, his morning’s workout beginning to register with his muscles, thinking about taking a nap before they had to go up for fielding practice. “Sounds like he’ll fit right in.”
He yawned, and his manager’s head cocked slightly, his expression indecipherable. “You come in early today?”
Zito wasn’t really supposed to, they said it fucked with the trainer’s routine for him, but he didn’t bother to play innocent, shrugging and nodding in one motion.
His manager sighed, looking disappointed. “When are you gonna give up on that, kid?”
Zito shrugged again, and bent his fingers backwards to crack them. He wasn’t going anywhere, everybody knew that, so what was the problem if he wanted to pretend? He thought about how this shortstop was going to be seeing everything here for the first time, and realized absently that he wasn’t at all jealous.
Bobby Crosby was twenty-five years old, fresh from the National League, where he’d never played higher than Double-A. He showed up for batting practice with his gear in a Long Beach State gym bag, a fading bruise on his cheek. He changed with his back to everyone and loitered near the dugout steps until one of the outfielders said, “hey new guy, warm up, okay?” and they started tossing a ball back and forth.
Crosby threw almost sidearm, a neat little whip, and he squinted against the glare of the sun off the land. The word got around the field, where the others were throwing and stretching on the grass:
Kid’s name is Bobby. Kid comes from California. Kid’s played mostly back East. Kid’s not sure of the name of the guy he got traded for. Kid says he needs to find a place to live.
They’d take him drinking tonight, and more than one person would tell him, “Welcome to Texas,” and then start laughing. They were already talking about what bar they should go to.
Halfway through the game, a rumor trickled down to them that Crosby’s dad had played in the bigs. They went and asked the third base coach, who knew every ballplayer there’d ever been, and it was confirmed. Being an infielder ran in the blood.
They paid more attention to Crosby. A father late of the Cardinals, Reds, and Indians was closer than many of them would ever get.
Just watching, Zito could tell that Crosby was good. Very good, even, but when the runner came in hard at second to break up the double play, Crosby’s body curved in and he leapt fearfully away from the base, jerking his arm to get off a poor throw to first. They didn’t get the second out.
Fragile, Zito remembered. Gun-shy. It wasn’t going to do them much good to have a shortstop who was afraid of getting taken out.
Down in the clubhouse after the game, one of the first basemen/DHs caught Zito’s arm as he was walking past. Crosby was sitting on the other end of the couch, one leg bent on the cushion, studying Zito carefully with the place between his eyebrows slightly pinched.
“Z, you met the new guy?” the first baseman asked, tugging at Zito’s sleeve.
Zito shook his head and manufactured a grin. “Hiya. Barry Zito.” He reached out and Crosby sat up to shake his hand.
“Zito’s, like, dude who knows everything,” the first baseman told Crosby. “Been around forever, basically.”
Zito let it brush off him, no point in getting irritated. “Yeah.”
The first baseman grinned. “Tell him that you’re a pitcher.”
“I’m a pitcher,” Zito said dutifully. Crosby nodded, his face unreadable. He had silvery quiet eyes, lines already forming around his mouth.
“And you’re from California too.”
Crosby’s eyes flickered with vague interest. Zito nodded. “San Diego.”
Crosby tipped his chin up. “Long Beach,” he said, and Zito squinted at him, because he’d played against some Long Beach teams growing up, high school and the Babe Ruth League, and maybe Crosby was a little familiar.
“Well,” Zito said, pushing his hands into his pockets. “Good to meet you.”
Right then, the lights went out.
There was a moment of silence, and then someone said conversationally, “Fuse blew again.” The team murmured in agreement. It was black as a crow, and the scent of the room was suddenly much stronger, grass and sweat and coffee.
Something crashed into something else, and the third baseman swore, “Fuck, Dez, lay off, will you?” Socks rasped across the carpet; someone coughed.
“Does this, um. Happen often?” Somehow, Zito recognized Crosby’s voice.
“Now and then,” somebody answered.
“So what do we do?”
Zito felt for the couch, fumbling with the first baseman’s shoulder before sinking safely between the two of them. His hand crawled up Crosby’s leg, Crosby flinching, and clapped him on the knee. “We wait. Usually doesn’t take too long for somebody to go down and get the thing flipped.”
Zito let his head drop back, sighing. He noticed that Crosby had shifted slightly nearer to him, his foot nudging against Zito’s leg. He wondered if Crosby was as afraid of the dark as he was of a dirty slide, and thought, with a little more bitterness than usual, that this team was getting worse every day.
Every night that he could, Zito watched the end of the A’s game when he got home after his own game. He paid the cable company more than he could afford to get every major league baseball game, and wished intently for tie scores, extra innings, hours of the California night sky stretching high and clean above the stadium lights.
He lived in a one-bedroom house on the wrong side of town, splintered gray paint outside and worn red carpet inside. All the furniture was secondhand, most of it stolen. The blinkered gold lights of the oil derricks hung up like ornaments against the black of his window.
The power went out here a lot, too, and Zito didn’t keep anything in the refrigerator, put his beers in a plastic bucket filled with ice. He’d lost his bottle opener at some point, and cracked off the caps with his lighter.
The A’s were winning. The A’s were almost always winning, these days. Everyone had said they were doomed, having lost Eric Chavez in the off-season as a free agent to Boston, and Jermaine Dye to the White Sox, but they still had their Pair of Aces, which was all they really needed.
Mark Mulder was, in fact, pitching that night. It was eleven o’clock in Texas and the game was almost over in Oakland, because Mulder had every pitch working and games didn’t take very long when that was the case.
Zito drank steadily, and watched dispassionately, not moved by Tim Hudson laughing with Aaron Boone in the dugout, nor Tejada and Marco Scutaro slapping each other upside the head every few minutes, nor the garishly pink Bazooka Joe bubble carefully stuck to the top of Noah Lowry’s cap when his back was turned.
They said the Oakland clubhouse was as much fun as you could have with your clothes on. Zito knew that was true, though he’d only ever been there once, almost two years ago.
Mark Mulder went the distance. Zito’s eyes were full of green and white, the wide uncomplicated smile on every face that emerged from the dugout. The outfielders jumped on each other’s backs, whapping their gloves against backs and arms. Hudson got Mulder to bend down so that Hudson could scrub a hand through his hair. The flags swept back and forth in the bleachers, the signs taken off the rail and carefully rolled up.
Most nights, Zito passed out in his chair, alone for miles and wishing he could talk to his mom. Most nights, he dreamed of California.
On the field, the infielders moved as if they were connected by strings, shifting forward and falling back in perfect rhythm, and Crosby looked like he’d been playing with these guys for years.
Off the field, he hardly ever said anything. He showered and dressed and left right after the game, driving away in his beat-up blue hatchback that huddled low to the ground and went faster than seemed possible.
Zito took to watching him sometimes, letting his gaze find its way over there of its own volition. It was soothing, static on the radio. Crosby was a cipher, and Zito was tired of things being complicated.
Crosby was always polite and always answered when spoken to, but he quickly developed a reputation of arrogance among the other guys, something in the way he held his head, the way he never laughed or smiled. He wore his socks high and ironed his jersey in the clubhouse, running his fingers over the warm stitching of the 7 and his last name. He never joined in when they were talking about changes in the big league roster that could affect them by osmosis, never once watched the A’s play on the clubhouse television with a longing expression on his face and an outfielder at either shoulder.
There were girls who started showing up at the ballpark and calling his name, stretching out the eeee at the end and twinkling prettily when he waved. Zito guessed they thought Crosby was cute, which he supposed he could see, with Crosby’s clear shiny eyes and hopeful features. Nobody ever saw him talking with them, though, or writing down his number on their hands, and Crosby always left alone.
Zito could respect voluntary isolation, though celibacy seemed to be taking it a bit far. Crosby seemed intent on doing his job and nothing else, and Zito got to kinda appreciate the stability of Crosby’s silence, his intractable face drawn with concentration as he read car magazines in the clubhouse, absently chewing on the corner of his lip.
Sometimes Zito couldn’t sleep, and he found that picturing Crosby immobile and quiet on the outfield grass with his legs crossed, his hands resting on his knees, was enough to still things in his mind, send him off into a perfect dreamless place.
They went on the road, Corpus Christi and then San Antonio, and Zito got the best seat on the bus, second from the back over the wheel, six inches more leg room than the rest, and a window that opened. It was a perk of being the veteran.
He had his headphones on and he was messing around with his phone, casting pale blue light over his hands and knees. It was the middle of the night and most of the others were asleep. Zito had never been able to sleep on buses. He needed to be lying down, fully stretched out.
Bored, he snapped his phone shut and kicked the seat in front of him to hear one of the relief pitchers snarl in his sleep. He looked over and Crosby was across the aisle from him, staring out at the black.
“New guy,” Zito whispered, pulling his headphones off to rest around his neck. Crosby didn’t look over, entranced by something out there on the highway. Zito shifted to the aisle seat and reached across, poking him. “Hey.”
Crosby turned, his eyes looking eerily big in the low light. “What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Zito shrugged. “Bored. You wanna play tic-tac-toe or something?”
Crosby gave him a skeptical look, and then he let his shoulders fall, shaking his head. “You always end up tied, playing tic-tac-toe.”
Zito nodded, because that was true. “Okay. Hangman?”
Crosby looked back out the window for a second, and then sighed. “Yeah, all right.”
Zito slid back into the window seat and Crosby moved next to him, pushing Zito’s backpack farther under the seat. Zito drew a little gallows on the back of an envelope, and for a while the only sound in the world was Crosby whispering letters, and the scratch of Zito’s pencil drawing a head, a body, stick arms and legs, dead-man crosses for eyes.
Zito held the envelope between them, using his knee as a table, and their shoulders were pressed together, their heads close and hunched over the paper. Crosby smelled faintly of the green gel soap they had in every visitors’ locker room of the Texas League.
“You’re pretty quiet, huh,” Zito said eventually, keeping a close eye on Crosby, trying to think of words with few vowels. It was good of Crosby to be so steady all the time, but on a bus in the middle of the night, it could also be pretty fucking creepy.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, like. You’re quiet. You don’t say much.”
Crosby moved his shoulders, scowling at the paper and popping his thumb against the armrest. “I don’t know you guys very well.”
“Well, how do you expect to get to know us, if you never talk?”
Crosby answered, “Is there a T?”
Zito exhaled, and filled in the T. He gave up on trying to draw the kid out, and was surprised when Crosby asked him a half a minute later, “How long have you been in the minors?”
Zito glanced at him, but Crosby was just gnawing on his lip and studying the diagram on the envelope.
“This is my seventh year,” Zito said, not even registering the dull chime of pain in his chest anymore. “Year and a half in Visalia. About a year in Trip-A, but not all at once. The rest of it here. Haven’t played anywhere else since ’03.”
Still looking at the envelope, Crosby said casually, “I heard you got to the Show once.”
Zito flinched, and shook his head. “No. That’s not right.”
Crosby looked up at him, his face wash-lit by the occasional headlights coming in the opposite direction. “No?”
Zito clutched the pencil and stared at Crosby’s hand, resting easily on his knee, the tell-tale crooks in his fingers, his trim nails. In 2003, Mark Mulder had broken his hip. Zito had been in Sacramento, living out the good moments of his life only through the grace of injury to others, and they’d handed him a bus ticket.
“I. I got called up,” he said, keeping his voice as even as possible. “For a month. Two years ago.”
“So you did make it.”
Zito broke the pencil in a half, the small crack startling them both. He looked down at the two shards with confusion, and swallowed.
“It doesn’t count,” Zito told him. “I didn’t play.”
Noah Lowry had been called up to the A’s in the mid-summer of that year, twenty-two years old and protected by nothing more than a disappearing change-up and a face made for October. He’d rolled down the stretch, effortlessly took over Mulder’s place in the rotation by September, building more faith for himself with every start, and he made Barry Zito redundant. Zito never threw a single pitch in a major league baseball game.
Crosby was watching him carefully, but Zito’d had a lot of experience not letting things show. “Okay,” Crosby said. “Is there a K?”
Zito shook his head and gave the guy a second cross for an eye, said quietly, “You’re dead.”
Texas flooded past.
The Comfort Inn in Corpus Christi had been experiencing a rash of petty thefts and vandalism, and there were new bronze deadbolts on all the doors, a private security guard walking up and down the length of the complex.
Zito had pitched badly in the series opener, his mind fractured with pictures of blue sky, concrete walls, shiny white baseballs, the twenty-nine days he’d spent in Oakland, once upon a time. When he got to thinking about stuff like that, everything else fell away.
He told his roommate, the left fielder, to get lost, and it wasn’t a big deal because the left fielder spent most of his nights with the back-up catcher anyway. Zito drank whiskey straight from the bottle until his arm stopped hurting. He wasn’t too happy with himself.
Zito thought that somebody should kidnap him, clock him with the butt of a pistol and leave him bleeding at the temple. They should untie his hands, his bruised wrists, and shove him onto a field, wiping the blood out of his eyes. Hold the gun to his head and tell him, pitch.
Then he would know what pressure really was. And if he survived, he’d be able to do anything.
It was possible that he’d drank too much. Certainly, the knock on his door past midnight almost gave him a heart attack.
He considered ignoring it, breathing shallowly through the diminishing panic, his hand on his chest. He blinked and noticed that the skateboarding competition he’d been watching had ended, and now there was poker on the TV, guys with mirrored sunglasses and their lips pressed into threads.
Zito got up and stumbled over to the door. It wouldn’t open, though, it was stuck, and he kept jerking at it, rattling the door in its frame, a red haze sinking down low over his eyes. He was so confused, he felt like crying.
“The deadbolt, man,” Crosby’s voice said through the wood.
Zito rested his forehead for a minute against the door, hard and strangely lifelike. He flipped the bolt and pulled the door open. Crosby was standing there in sweats and a T-shirt, barefoot.
They just looked at each other for a long minute, and then Crosby cleared his throat and said, “My roommate picked up a girl.”
Zito half-smiled. “You’re with Tate?” Crosby nodded. “Get used to that.”
Crosby scuffed his foot on the carpet. “They said I could stay, but. Um. They were gonna be . . . doing stuff.”
“What, you don’t like to watch?” Crosby glared at him, and Zito laughed, feeling light-headed.
“You’re drunk?” Crosby asked, as if it wasn’t obvious.
“Oh yes. Did you see me pitch? ‘Course you did. So you know about how I’m drunk.”
Zito found himself kind of fascinated by the movement of Crosby’s shoulders under his shirt, and his buzzed hair all rusty-brown, and his mildly jugged ears. He stepped back. “Come in.”
Crosby hesitated. “It’s cool if you’re busy or whatever-”
“I’m drunk, new guy. And I’m the only one you know on the team, right? So come sleep on my floor.”
Crosby came in, his hands pushing at the sides of his sweatpants, looking for pockets. Zito poured him a plastic cup of Jack and another of water, and sat down on the floor next to him, watching him carefully pour half the water into the whiskey, taking measured sips like it hurt to swallow too much at once.
They didn’t talk much, finishing the bottle off, and Crosby relaxed by increments, his back curving, his head rolling back against the bed. With his head tilted back like that, his neck moved palely, charcoal-shaded.
Zito was about ten minutes shy of passing out. He had the timing on this down real well.
“Impressions, dude,” he said, and one of Crosby’s eyes came sleepily open. “You’re brand new. Nobody’s seeing nothing the way you are.”
“’s that right?”
Zito nodded, his spine feeling jiggered and loose. “Yeah. You gotta remember what it’s like now, because later it won’t be. Trust me. I watch you sometimes, you know, so I can tell.”
Crosby’s eyebrows twitched upwards. “You watch me?”
“Only sometimes. You’re real easy to watch.”
Crosby looked at him with something subtle and dark in his eyes, and Zito’s stomach curled uncomfortably. “Not to freak you out or anything,” Zito said, waving his hand around indistinctly. “Just, like. You don’t talk, so you must see a lot. Heightened senses, right?”
“Sure,” Crosby said, still looking at him indefinably, making Zito nervous, his dad in his mind telling him that anyone you couldn’t read was probably reading you.
Zito rasped his hands on the carpet and drank the last of his cup, his equilibrium nose-diving. “And I know what it’s like when you don’t want anybody to say anything,” he said. “You get easily broken. Me too.”
“Somebody told me you’ve never missed a start,” Crosby said, getting up to make himself another drink. From where Zito was on the floor, Crosby looked so tall, like a statue, something high up on a pedestal.
“I haven’t.” Zito flapped his hand open and closed. “Make me another, okay? Listen. I’ve never missed a start, but what good has that done me? Nothing. At least, with you, they can say, this is why.”
Crosby shook his head, handing Zito a cup and sitting back down. “Actually, no. They can say what I’ve broken, but they don’t know why. They thought it might be, like, a disease, with the weak bones or whatever?”
“Like in that movie.”
“Yeah. But I did all the tests and they say I’m fine. Strong as anybody.”
Zito rolled his head and scrutinized Crosby. He looked strong, true enough, with those shoulders and his arms stretching the sleeves of his T-shirt, the flats of his wrists, his wide palms.
“Weird, man.” He paused, thinking about the fatal care Crosby took on the field, the split-second hesitation that kept him out of collisions, kept him down here in Double-A. “Wrists and fingers, right?”
Crosby put his cup on the floor and gave him the rundown: “This wrist, broke it four times. Not just from baseball, from when I was a kid too. This one, broke it twice. Every finger on this hand, see how this one is kinda crooked still? Pinky finger, thumb. Hairline fracture in my left ankle. Stress fracture in my femur when I was in college.” He tapped his collarbone. “Broke this sliding headfirst into third. See, you can still feel it.”
He pulled his collar out and Zito reached over, ran his fingers clumsily over the hook of bone. There was a rift, a small asymmetry. Zito found that he could tuck his thumb perfectly against it, his fingers folded over Crosby’s throat.
“Lost count of how many times I’ve cracked my ribs,” Crosby continued, his Adam’s apple bobbing under Zito’s hand. His face was very close, the scent of whiskey and peppermint. “Punctured my lung once, that’s the worst I can remember.”
Zito took his hand down, touched Crosby’s chest. Crosby inhaled sharply through his nose. Zito trickled his fingers down Crosby’s ribs, searching for the evidence, liking the warm skittered feel of Crosby’s body through his shirt.
“I can’t feel it,” he said, his forehead lining.
Crosby looked at him for awhile, his face revealing nothing. Then he pulled his shirt up to his neck and lay back on the carpet, laid himself out. The skin drew tight across his chest and Zito could see it now, the bump in his lowest rib. He slid his hand over it, and Crosby was breathing just a little too fast, his face flushing, his skin heating up.
“Yeah,” Zito breathed out. “Yeah, you’re right. Right here.”
He stared at his hand on Crosby’s chest, his fingers keyed in the healed ridges of Crosby’s ribs, the heel of his hand steady on Crosby’s stomach. Zito’s head spun, a world of untanned skin and quick heartbeats. He curled his fingers and set his nails, dragged his hand onto Crosby’s stomach, leaving thin white lines behind, and Crosby sucked air in through his teeth.
Zito’s hand tripped up against Crosby’s sweats, and he hooked his thumb under the waist, wonderfully soft and stretching, a sparse trail of dark hair and his eyesight was going, Crosby was shivering, blurring, taut and smooth under Zito’s knuckles.
“Hey,” Zito whispered in amazement.
Crosby’s flickering eyes caught his. “Hey,” he whispered back, and smiled, for the first time since they’d met, clearing away the lines around his mouth and the tiredness in the set of his jaw, the faded shadow in his eyes, until he finally looked as young as he was.
Crosby smiled, and Zito lost consciousness.
Crosby was gone when Zito woke up, only a folded blanket on the floor showing that he hadn’t been a hallucination. Zito’s head hurt, and his shoulder too, a throb that started in his marrow and radiated out.
He’d ended up in bed, somehow. Maybe Crosby had lifted him up, fireman-carried him over and let him flop down. But Zito doubted Crosby was that strong.
Zito took a shower and four aspirin, and tried to figure out what had happened. He’d never touched another guy like that, never wanted to. And maybe it was temporary insanity, explained away by the better part of a bottle of Jack, but he was hungover and thinking clearly again and he still kinda wanted to put his hand under Crosby’s shirt. He was too tired to get very worked up about it, though.
The team milled around in the parking lot, waiting for the bus to pull up. Zito looked for Crosby, wanting to pull him aside and ask, what the fuck was that, but Crosby wasn’t there. The asphalt was newly laid, pure black with the painted lines whiter than foul lines.
Zito hesitated before climbing on the bus, looking back over his shoulder.
“Care to join us, kid?” his manager asked, standing at the front in a dress shirt yellowing with age, a loosely knotted gray tie hanging around his neck.
“We’re, um,” Zito said, and then stopped. “Yeah.” He took his seat in the back.
They were almost out of the parking lot when Crosby ran up, banging on the side of the bus with the flat of his hand, out of breath and yelling, “Wait, wait.”
Zito curled his hand around the top of the seat in front of him, straightening to watch Crosby board with an apologetic look on his face. Their manager stood to smack Crosby on the back of the head, and Crosby shoved his bag into the overhead, collapsed into the nearest seat, disappearing from Zito’s view.
Zito sat back. He felt as if there was a shade pulled low over his mind, blocking out all the important stuff. His ears crackled with static, the ache in his arm crawling through his chest. It was so bright outside he feared he was going blind.
He thought kind of sadly that at least this was different from being bored all the time.
He caught Crosby’s arm in the ballpark tunnel, and held on when Crosby tried to pull away. The other guys glanced at them sidelong, but they’d long since stopped paying attention to Zito being weird, and nobody cared about Crosby yet.
“Dude,” Zito said, the chatter and laughter of their teammates receding into the clubhouse. Crosby was turned away from him, his shoulders held tightly. “What’s wrong?”
Crosby looked back at him, a painfully stricken cast to his eyes. “Nothing,” he said. “Trying to get to the clubhouse, if you don’t mind.” He tried to jerk his arm out of Zito’s grip, but Zito’s fingers were hooked in Crosby’s elbow and he didn’t let go.
“Hang on, slow down for a second.” Zito was fascinated by the feel of the tendons of Crosby’s arm tensing and giving, Crosby’s pulse rabbiting against Zito’s fingers. “What’re you. Well. Um.” He stared at his hand, his thumb drawing circles on the bare skin of Crosby’s arm, totally without intention. “Huh.”
Crosby had gone utterly still, his chin tilted slightly as he looked up at Zito. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked steadily.
Zito shrugged, his throat dry. “Oh, well. You know. Mostly just. Playing it by ear.” He let his fingers relax, and Crosby didn’t take the opportunity to break away. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep last night.”
“Is that what you did?”
Zito grinned, feeling vaguely hysterical. “Maybe more like passing out.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Crosby said caustically, his arm twitching. Zito kept thinking that Crosby could get away so easily, one sharp tug and they’d be apart.
“Bobby, listen-” he began.
“Oh, so it’s now it’s ‘Bobby,’ huh? What happened to ‘new guy’?”
“I’m just trying to. Look.” Zito pressed his thumbnail into the soft skin of the underside of Crosby’s arm, feeling Crosby twitch again, cut an angry look up at him. “I didn’t want you to think that I did it on purpose.” Crosby glared stonily over Zito’s shoulder, the muscle in his jaw jerking. “Are you okay?”
Crosby’s lips curved into a harsh little bend, not half a smile, not like last night. Zito rifled through every joke he’d ever heard, wondering if he’d ever be funny enough to make Crosby smile again.
“Not even a little bit,” Crosby answered, but Zito had forgotten the question. His hand slid up Crosby’s arm, under the sleeve of his shirt. Crosby’s skin felt cooler here, pale as milk. Zito caught the tip of his tongue between his teeth.
“Do you. You don’t mind, do you?” Zito asked, his fingers high on Crosby’s shoulder now, a misshapen lump under Crosby’s shirt, twisting in to find the knob of his once-broken collarbone. Crosby was staring at him as if he’d like to set him on fire. “This is something you do?”
Crosby swallowed, and Zito hummed unconsciously, wanting to duck down and lick Crosby’s throat.
“Something you do?” Crosby echoed faintly.
Zito nodded, deciding right this second that it was, he would, if Crosby wasn’t going to knock his hand off, if Crosby was going to be metal-hot and skin and bone beneath him. Zito would be whatever it took to have this not be over yet. “Yes. Don’t tell anybody.”
Crosby shook his head, his mouth thinning. “I won’t.”
Then he pushed Zito up against the wall, his hands on Zito’s stomach and Zito’s hand wriggling like a fish in Crosby’s shirt. Crosby pressed against him for a second, his chest hard and their knees clacking together. His breath raked hot on Zito’s face, the underside of his jaw, and Zito thought frantically of teeth and blood. He clutched at Crosby, his nails digging into Crosby’s shoulder, and Crosby hissed, snap-bit at the air in front of Zito’s mouth.
“I’m gonna pretend I don’t know you,” Crosby said.
“You don’t know me. We only got drunk once.” Zito tried to push into Crosby’s hands, lifting his shoulders off the concrete wall, cocking his hips out. Crosby stepped away from him, yanking Zito’s hand out of his shirt so that they weren’t touching anywhere. Zito made a low moan of disappointment, and reached out to pull him back. But Crosby was quick, and out of his range.
“Can’t do this here.”
Zito blinked, and then his face split with a huge grin. “But we will?”
Crosby tipped his head to the side, and poked his tongue out, resting it lightly on his upper lip. He shrugged, but his eyes were shining. Something went cartwheeling through Zito’s stomach.
“Be cool, man, okay?” Crosby said, and Zito nodded, breathless and wide-eyed, forcing his face clean of expression. Crosby reached out and flicked open the top button of Zito’s jeans. “Be cool,” he repeated, and walked away.
Zito jittered in the clubhouse, in the dugout, on the field talking to the guys as they warmed up. He tore up Gatorade cups and teased out a loose thread on his jersey, wrapping it around his finger until the tip turned the color of a plum. He chewed on a toothpick until it broke and stabbed into his lip, leaving a tiny spot to swell and taste of copper, and he couldn’t quit worrying it with his tongue.
He watched Bobby Crosby like he’d paid a hundred thousand dollars for the privilege.
Crosby stretched on the grass, and sprinted to the outfield wall and back, hiking his knees up. He took infield practice, concentrating on his footwork, the move to his right to backhand a hard grounder, and he leapt-spun, his arm slicing fully sidearm when he was in motion, when he was in the air.
If the ball was too far away, if Crosby had to dive, he would let it go, skimming into the outfield. Zito nodded to himself. No point risking anything when it was just practice.
His nails were gone, his fingertips bleeding. He kept thinking, what would they do, how would it go? Six thousand dirty thoughts about Crosby’s legs and Crosby’s back, his jersey smooth and tight, white-orange-blue letters and the mean-looking brown dog showing his teeth on the sleeve. Wondering if Crosby would be able to take Zito’s weight on the untrustworthy brace of his ribcage, whether Crosby’s arms would give out right in the middle, and they would crash together, cracking their foreheads and both of them knocked unconscious. Waking up hours later with a killer headache and Crosby sprawled atop him.
By the time the game got underway, Zito’s attention had nicely fixated on Crosby’s mouth. Crosby’s lips pursed as he spit sunflower seeds, and Zito imagined the taste of salt, the smell of Chapstick. He thought about what it would be like to see Crosby’s lips part under his thumb, and the scratch of Crosby’s stubble on his knuckles.
It seemed terribly ungrateful to fantasize about the other things that men did with each other, beyond the most abstract and ill-defined flip-book pictures. Zito was sure that Crosby’s mouth was all he’d ever need.
It was a normal kind of day in Texas, early summer, the sky flat and dull blue, higher than airplanes or satellites. Crosby was true to his word and didn’t even look at Zito. Zito didn’t mind. As long as he was allowed to stare, that was okay. Everything was okay.
Crosby came in after the end of the fifth and the water cooler was across from Zito’s spot on the bench. Crosby poured himself a drink and Zito let his hair fall in front of his eyes, watching the line of Crosby’s shoulders and the clean nape of his neck, his cap pushed back. Crosby crushed the cup in his hand and wiped his mouth with his arm, squinting out at the field with his face profiled.
Zito waited for him to turn, wink, half-smile, stick his tongue out at Zito like a kid. But Crosby just dropped his cup on the ground and pulled off his cap to run his hand over his head. Nothing in him suggested that he even knew Zito was there.
Zito reminded himself that it didn’t matter. And who knew, once they actually got started, if Crosby would be able to keep this up. Zito got distracted again by what it would be like once they got started. He spent the rest of the game daydreaming about his crummy little house in Midland, the oily light through the bedroom window, writing on the heel of his hand in blue ink, ‘change sheets.’
Crosby went three-for-four with a double and two runs batted in, and flew into the hole. They won decisively.
They got back late. It was a Sunday, so not even the bars were open. The players filed out of the bus and diffused in all directions, calling to each other across the still asphalt of the parking lot. Zito was tranced out in the back, his music turned up loud, and had to be kicked back into awareness by another pitcher, so he was the last one out.
Crosby was already at his car. Zito let his bag drop off his shoulder and ran to catch him.
“Hey, hey,” he said, pulling up with one hand on the side of Crosby’s car, keeping him from opening the door. “Aren’t you, um, don’t you wanna come to my place?”
Crosby scowled at him. “Say that a bit louder, I don’t think the people in Dallas heard you.”
“What? Nobody cares. Hey,” and Zito wondered what it was about Crosby that reduced him to this dumb hey-ing person. “So, like. Come home with me.” He lifted his eyebrows and made his eyes go big, the look that always used to make his mother say, what a handsome boy.
Crosby sighed, hitching his bag higher on his shoulder. “I’m kinda tired.”
Zito tipped his head to the side, a thick pressure building in his throat. “But, dude. You’re still gonna come over, right? Because, I’ve been thinking, you know.” He waved his hands around. “All day long. And I think you should come over.”
Crosby flipped his keys around his thumb, making a pitched clinking sound. He stared off over Zito’s shoulder, the extinguished palm-tree stadium lights, the land beyond that refused to end. After a long moment, he let his shoulders fall with another sigh and said quietly, “Tell me how to get there.”
Zito rattled it off, quickly before Crosby could change his mind, the west road, five miles down and take a left. Don’t be scared of the oil derricks rising like skeletons. Don’t be worried if it seems like there’s nothing out there, because you’ll find it if you just keep going. Crosby nodded and pushed Zito’s hand off his car.
Zito had to go back for his bag, and by the time he was out of the parking lot, Crosby’s tail-lights were the size of match-heads. Crosby drove faster than he did, and soon enough Zito had lost him.
But he was leaning back against his car when Zito pulled up, flooded in the headlights, his T-shirt caught out paper-white. Zito wanted to grab hold of him, thinking dry-mouthed about the slide of cotton over Crosby’s arms and chest. Crosby warned him off with a look, and they went inside.
“So, um,” Zito said, all of a sudden awkward with the lights on and Crosby’s hands in his pockets, his shoulders curved inwards. “This is where I live. You want something to drink or something?”
Crosby stayed where he was with his back against the door. He shook his head, watching Zito intently from across the room. Zito felt imminently out of place, his hand twitching as he put his keys back on the hook, clearing his throat.
“You’re. Well.” Zito fiddled with the hem of his shirt, trying to figure out how to get back to that moment in the hallway when Crosby had plastered against him and breathed hotly on his mouth. He tried to force the feel of Crosby unbuttoning his jeans into his mind, the brush of Crosby’s fingers so low on his stomach.
“I’m having trouble reading you,” Zito said eventually.
“I get that a lot,” Crosby replied, and went back to not saying anything.
Zito swallowed, seeing the way the muscles in Crosby’s arms were strung tight by his hands in his pockets, the brass shine off his belt buckle. “Would you mind. Like. Doing something?”
Crosby tilted his head, and the corner of his mouth drew up almost imperceptibly. “Like what?” he asked, his voice lowering.
Zito pressed his tongue against the back of his teeth. “Oh, you know. Anything. Anything would be good.”
The smirk on Crosby’s face deepened. “You don’t even know how stupid this is, do you?”
Zito’s forehead lined, and he worked his way through that, thinking that he definitely knew how stupid this was, he wasn’t under any illusions.
“I do,” he said defensively. “What’s it matter? Can’t it just be something that a couple years from now we’ll pretend never happened?”
“Do you always plan so far ahead?”
“Hardly ever. Special circumstances.” Zito showed his most charming grin, and Crosby rolled his eyes, but didn’t sneer, and didn’t look away.
Zito figured that was as much of an invitation as he was going to get, and took a step towards him, and the world didn’t end, so he took another. He got up close, and Crosby seemed noticeably bigger than when Zito had been across the room and staring at him framed by the door. Zito didn’t know what to do with his hands, so he flattened them on the wood to either side of Crosby’s body. He held his breath.
Crosby leaned his head back and his eyes looked like coins. He took one hand out of his pocket and hasped it in Zito’s belt, but that was it, just the backs of his fingers on Zito’s skin.
“Fair warning, man,” Crosby told him seriously. “It’s gonna be different than you think.”
Zito shook his head. “Nothing has ever been the same as I thought it would be. You think that’s new?”
Crosby smiled, looking honestly pleased with Zito, and something clutched in Zito’s stomach, he did it, he made Bobby Crosby smile, and he kissed him if for no other reason than not wanting to see that smile fade.
Crosby kissed back, half-asleep, his hand digging farther under Zito’s belt. Zito licked into his mouth and Crosby pulled their bodies flush with the cold metal links of his watch getting caught in Zito’s shorts. Zito let his weight angle slowly down, until Crobsy was pressed to the door and he was pressed to Crosby, and he wanted to say, hey, wow, hey hey hey.
It was Zito’s day to go into the park early, his supplemental and ill-advised workout session, and he woke up in time, Bobby Crosby rolled away from him with his T-shirt draped over his head.
Zito touched Crosby’s back and shoulder, running the flat of his palm across. Crosby stirred and coughed. He dragged the shirt off and blinked back at Zito from over his shoulder, his mouth moving and sticking.
“Too early, my god,” Crosby said thickly, and buried his face back in the pillow.
Zito smiled and walked his fingers up Crosby’s spine, letting his thumb fit into the notch at the base of Crosby’s neck. “I’m going to the park. I usually do. Or, well. Couple times a week.”
Crosby shifted and his metallic eyes reopened. “Yeah, I heard about that.”
“What were you, running a background check?”
Crosby shrugged, put his face into the pillow again, his back rising and falling. “Everybody talks about you,” he said, muffled. “You didn’t know? Everybody’s trying to figure you out.”
Zito thought about that, their not-too-bright teammates with dusty foreheads, scarred hands. He thought that Crosby was crazy; nobody cared what he did, not anymore.
“Figure me out? But I’m so easy.”
Crosby snorted into the pillow. “Don’t need to tell me.”
Zito shook his head, absently petting the length of Crosby’s back, watching the ants crawling on the wall over the dresser. “Anyway. I gotta go.”
He went to get off the bed, and Crosby was suddenly moving, zero to one-twenty and his hand around Zito’s wrist, pulling him off balance. Zito thumped down, making a noise of surprise, and Crosby’s arm wound around his waist, Crosby’s mouth hot-open on the curve of his shoulder, his teeth flat and cutting.
“No you don’t,” Crosby mumbled, and bit him. Zito shivered and let Crosby flip him over onto his stomach, his breath already hitching, his mind gone white. Crosby licked the back of his neck, and Zito realized what was happening and panicked a little bit.
“Wait,” he managed, feeling Crosby’s forearm chain down across his lower back. He tried to push his shoulders up, but Crosby was too heavy, his knee holding Zito’s legs apart.
“Just breathe, man,” Crosby told him, and pulled Zito’s arms over his head, pinning his wrists down. Zito’s face was jammed into the mattress and he could feel his own breath blowing humidly back at him. Crosby mouthed his shoulder blade and said again, “Breathe.”
Zito did his best.
They shouldn’t have done it in the morning, Zito realized miserably in his truck on the drive in, Crosby tailgating with his headlights on even though it was destructively bright. Zito would have liked a night to sleep it off. His hands shook and his eyes in the rearview mirror looked huge and scared. He could feel it pressed up against the walls of his throat, terrified that one of the boys was gonna say, how’s it going, and he’d blurt out, I got fucked by the new guy this morning.
He was going to feel it all day long. This was going to be terrible.
He was starving. He pulled into the Kwik-Stop and saw Crosby turn in behind him, which sorta confused him, but maybe Crosby was hungry too.
Zito poked at the packaged Hostess snacks, trying to decide, powdered donuts or chocolate. The Kwik-Stop was all yellow and red on the inside, buzzing fluorescent lights and overly air-conditioned the way most of Texas was. Crosby’s head floated past in the next aisle, and Zito found himself staring at Crosby’s neck, a scatter of bruises at the base of his throat.
Crosby met his gaze over the pastry rack, a tiny smile on his face and brand-new sheen of knowledge in his eyes. Zito blushed fiercely, forcing his voice steady as he asked, “You want anything?”
Crosby’s smile grew, his teeth coming out clean and even, his eyes darkening, and Zito could have sworn that gravity had given way as Crosby answered in a low voice, “Oh, yes. But now’s not really the time.”
Zito blushed even harder, and tried out a casual little laugh, stupid and cackling. He thought feverishly that they’d be doing that again, that and everything else, tonight probably, Crosby would push his legs up and smooth his hand down Zito’s back, same as two hours ago, and Zito would make those noises that he hadn’t realized he was capable of, and Crosby would curse and groan and break Zito’s skin.
Feeling like he was melting, Crosby smirking at him in amusement, Zito dragged his eyes away and went to get some chips. Crosby trailed behind, flicking at the brightly-colored displays and reading the ingredients of things he clearly had no intention of purchasing.
Zito wanted to press him up against the cold wall of the drinks case, do unthinkable things with his mouth and hands, until Crosby’s head slammed back and shattered the glass, and they would both be drenched, shocked awake into some measure of control.
The Oakland Athletics put together a neat little eight-game winning streak, and the Rockhounds hung around after their games for a week, watching on the clubhouse television.
The second baseman talked about how the big club going on a run obviously meant there was luck in the pipe for them too, something about the trickle-down effect. Zito wasn’t sure what kind of credibility that had, but he was willing to nod along. Crosby sat next to him on the couch, leaning against his shoulder occasionally, his eyes trained on the television, high up above the lockers.
It’d been a week. Crosby had left two T-shirts behind at Zito’s place, and five socks. There were three Coors in Zito’s plastic ice-bucket among dozens of Heinekens, left of the six-pack Crosby had brought over a few days before. And Zito drove home at night with Crosby’s headlights shining in his rearview mirror, Crosby sticking his head out the window and yelling, “You wanna speed up, old man?” a disembodied voice when the road was deserted.
Zito was kind of stunned, all the time.
Joe Blanton, who most of them had known when he’d come through a year ago, was pitching for the A’s that night, and that meant sliders ripped off at the corners, and fastballs up and in, the fearless angry kind of pitching they all loved. Zito dropped his head back and thought absently, ‘my curve’s better.’
The outfielders were placing mean-spirited bets on which of the A’s would be the next to go down with an injury. Zito listened to them with half an ear, Hudson’s oblique again, Mark Kotsay’s back, Aaron Boone’s knee, Ramon Hernandez and his tendency to dislocate his throwing shoulder. Zito let himself briefly imagine a plane crash, nothing too serious, just enough to put the whole rotation on the DL, and the left side of the infield too, and maybe he and Crosby would get a shot then.
Crosby drummed his fingers on Zito’s knee. “Falling asleep?” he asked softly. Zito smiled and shook his head, knowing that Crosby would prefer they go back to Zito’s house and watch the game there. He flicked at Crosby’s hand and Crosby flicked him back, and they did that for awhile, their fingers tangling and bumping on Zito’s leg.
Zito opened his eyes and the TV was showing the A’s dugout, some variation of facial hair all down the line, green wristbands and white spikes. They didn’t look all that much different than the ‘Hounds, a little older, certainly wiser, but Zito thought that he could cut and paste his teammates into that clubhouse a half a continent away, and no one would know the difference.
He realized that his thumb was still hooked with Crosby’s, and hastily let him go. Crosby smirked at him sideways, and the announcers started talking about Mulder and Hudson, the two of them leaning on the rail with their elbows touching.
One of the pitchers groaned overdramatically, throwing a handful of peanut shells at the screen. “Christ, we fuckin’ get it,” he said to the television. “They’re perfect, okay, moving on.”
The others laughed. “Bitter, Jayce?”
The pitcher scowled. “Sick of it. The Pair of Aces, right. So who else will they ever need?”
Mulder and Hudson were in their sixth year of pitching one-two for Oakland. They had the best combined winning percentage of any duo over that stretch, and a bunch of other similar marks, WHIP, ERA, opponents’ average. They’d been the heart and the soul for as long as anyone cared to remember, and they’d both signed for far below what they could have gotten as free agents to stay where they were.
The back of the rotation changed every year. Only Noah Lowry had been around for more than a season, and he was constantly trade bait, dangled for relief pitching and utility infielders, decent prospects that Billy Beane could mold in his own image.
Zito sighed. It was endlessly damaging to think too long about the big club while stuck in Double-A. He’d learned that a long time ago.
That one month Zito had spent in Oakland, he’d talked to Hudson once for four hours straight, in a hotel bar in Anaheim, but he couldn’t remember anything that they’d said. What was much clearer was the fact that Mulder never actually learned his name, and was still calling him Brian on the last day of the season.
“They’re very good,” Crosby said in a quiet voice that only Zito could hear. “Terrible standard to have to meet.”
Zito shrugged. “No one expects us to be as good as they are. They’re, like. Once in a generation.”
“You know what’s weird, though?”
Zito lifted his eyebrows inquiringly as Marco Scutaro raked a double and brought two more home, the A’s lead now in double-digits. Crosby half-smiled.
“Nobody remembers Johnny Sain.”
Zito thought about that for a long time, then put his hand up over his face, rubbing his temples. “You make my head hurt.”
Crosby laughed lightly, and slid an arm around Zito’s shoulders, saying quickly into his ear, “I can probably help you with that,” and Zito colored deeply, took a careful breath.
The game was pretty much over, anyway. And surely they’d received all the luck they were going to get from the blessed Oakland A’s, as Zito pled exhaustion and paced around waiting for Crosby in the parking lot, as Crosby tugged him by the shirt until Zito’s truck was between them and the clubhouse door, and kissed him stupid against the door, the handle digging into his lower back and the moon in the sky snowball-full, visible everywhere from there to California.
It became every day. Crosby followed him home, sometimes went ahead if Zito had to hang back and talk to the coaches for awhile. Crosby waited patiently on the front porch, sucking on Lifesavers so that he would taste rainbow-colored, messing around with a ball, the white flipping between his hands as Zito pulled up in the driveway.
He thought that it would be easier if Crosby just had a key, but didn’t really like what that implied. He unlocked the door and Crosby stuck close behind him, hitching his hand in Zito’s belt, the house pitch-black before he got the lights on. Sometimes they had a beer first, sometimes Crosby was tunneling his hands under Zito’s shirt before the front door was closed. His elbows were rashed with carpet burn, and there was a dent in the wall from when Crosby had dropped to his knees and undid Zito’s fly without warning, and Zito’s head had snapped back, thud-crack and plaster falling down around them.
They slept in Zito’s bed and after awhile they both chose a side. The implications of that, too, were something Zito preferred not to contemplate.
Crosby left in the morning, going back to his place to shower and change and live the part of his life that didn’t involve Zito. Zito cleaned up their beer bottles and the crumpled bits of paper that trailed Crosby everywhere, the coins that fell from his pockets, and wandered insubstantially around his house, thinking about the time Crosby had fucked him over the kitchen counter and the time Zito had sucked him off in the hallway and the many times they’d necked on the couch during dumb made-for-TV movies. The whole place was haunted.
The dent in the wall made Zito think about the kitchen doorframe in his parents’ house in San Diego, where laddered pencil marks had tracked his height until he was taller than his father. He looked at the dent and thought, ‘that’s how tall I am now,’ and had to laugh.
Zito got bits and pieces of Crosby, the stuff he said in his sleep, the old stories he told when he was tired and drunk, the jagged landmarks across the planes of his body, little signposts telling Zito to press down harder, bare his teeth, curl his tongue. Crosby swore viciously and kept ripping Zito’s shirts.
At the ballpark, they stayed close but still didn’t talk much. Crosby gave Zito gum and car magazines, and Zito brought him Gatorades and sat nearby while he ironed his jersey, the steam making his eyes water, his hair shriveling.
Zito didn’t come in early anymore, abandoning his extra workout, and didn’t even miss it. The four white paper targets slid up over his eyes sometimes in the morning, and he mapped them out, Crosby’s throat, his side, his hip, way down low on his stomach. Zito’s control improved with every game, the strike zone narrowing itself down to the sketch of Crosby’s chest in the pink light of dawn.
It was as if he’d been asleep for years.
Crosby was cool and Crosby was easy and Zito awoke in the middle of the night with his face resting against Crosby’s shoulder. His neck was stiff, so he shifted away, and put his hand up where his head had been, for fear that Crosby’s shoulder would get cold.
Zito won his next start, a day game with the stands crowded with Boy Scout troops, clutching white baseballs and Sharpie markers, sugar on their faces. Zito knew he was gonna have a good day, because the tips of his fingers were hypersensitive, able to tell the angle of the sun with his eyes closed.
In the seventh, cruising, there was a break in the action when a black dog ran across the outfield. The left and center fielders gave chase, their hats tumbling off behind them, and the crowd yelled encouragement, banging their hands on the wooden facing of the stands. Zito paced around, rotating his arm to keep his shoulder warm.
The third baseman was chatting with the opposing third base coach, catcher with the umpire, the second and first baseman with each other, all of them facing the outfield, laughing as the dog juked around the players, barking joyfully. Crosby came up to the mound, picking up the rosin bag.
Crosby squinted against the sun and tucked his glove under his arm, covering both hands in chalk. “You know, I’m getting kinda bored with this strikeout crap.”
Zito smiled. “Oh yeah?”
“You got infielders. We got gloves. Some of us even know how to use them.”
Zito grinned, running the lineup briefly in his head, figuring two-seams and sliders were what he would have thrown to the next few batters anyway, and none of these guys could elevate a low pitch.
“You gonna come over after?” he asked Crosby, who was looking away, the left fielder tackling the dog in short right.
“I need to buy batteries,” Crosby answered, distracted.
“Um. I have batteries. You can have some of mine.”
Crosby looked back at him, mouth twisted at the corner. “Well, I guess I’ll come over, then.” The dog was passed over the fence to its owner, and everybody took up their positions again. Crosby handed the rosin bag to Zito, and hooked a finger in Zito’s belt loop. “All right, babe, two more. Put it on the left side and I’ll show you something.”
He grinned and winked, popped his finger out and went back to short. Zito set his fingers and narrowed his eyes, shaking off signs until the target was low and outside, until he could send something to Crosby.
At Zito’s place, after the game, Zito was kind of unsettled, because for all the nights and all the stuff Crosby had left behind, he wasn’t usually around during the day, didn’t stick around long after sunrise. There wasn’t anything good on television and it was too early to start drinking, and Crosby looked different in the light.
They played videogames and Zito did his laundry while Crosby called people from the back porch. It was all disturbingly normal, and by the time they were sitting at the kitchen table, Coke in glasses and oranges in front of them, Zito felt like they’d been doing this for years.
“I looked you up, you know?”
Zito looked up from the newspaper he was idly reading. Crosby continued peeling his orange, unconcerned.
“Compiling more information for your report?” Zito snarked.
Crosby shrugged. “Just curious.” He piled up the pieces of the peel on a paper towel, sucking juice off his thumb. “You were really good in college.”
Zito sat back. “I know.”
“Also your first season in Visalia. Not, like, as good as you might have been, but pretty good.”
Zito drained his glass, ice cubes bumping into his upper lip, the clean smell of oranges filling his head. “You going somewhere with this?”
“I’m making conversation. Something wrong with that?”
“Coming from you? Yeah, kinda,” Zito answered, thinking about all the times he’d been unable to get any sort of answer from Crosby, much less a straight one. Then he snickered to himself, because maybe he should have been looking for gay answers.
“So, what happened?”
Zito went very still, his stomach knotting. “What do you mean?”
Crosby gave him a quick, probing look. “The way you played in college, and your first year—you were on your way. And then all of a sudden you weren’t. Started out your second year here, and you’re still here. I was just wondering why.”
Zito shoved his chair back, scraping hard on the linoleum. Crosby’s hands stilled on the orange, looking up at him with surprise. Zito’s stomach hurt very badly now, and his vision stuttered like an old record. He said roughly, “Find out for yourself. You’re pretty good at that.”
He left and went for a long ride through the oilfields, thinking about the highway from Visalia to Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, which he had driven while blind, crying uncontrollably.
He got back and Crosby was gone. The next day, Zito saw him talking to their manager, the cautious way they kept their voices low and the solemnity in both their faces. Zito didn’t know why they needed to talk so long. Three words, and Crosby would know the last thing there was to know about Barry Zito.
At one point, Zito caught Crosby looking at him with a quiet, helpless cast to his face, and Zito pressed his lips together, looked away.
Zito wasn’t at all surprised to find Crosby sitting on his front porch when he got home, waiting for him just like always.
Zito got out of the car and stood in front of Crosby, his hands in his pockets, his face expressionless.
“I’m sorry, man,” Crosby said, standing to face him. “I didn’t know.”
Zito shrugged. “Yeah, well.” He looked away, wishing futilely for a skyline, an airplane, something. But he was at a loss.
“I don’t. There isn’t anything I can say, right?”
Zito looked back at him and Crosby’s left cheek was sucked in, a nervous habit that Zito knew pretty well, at this point. The inside of Crosby’s mouth, he knew, tasted sometimes like blood.
“No. Don’t bother trying. Everybody. Everybody’s always trying to say something, like, that’ll make it better. Even though they know it won’t. I don’t know. It’s better when people just shut up,” Zito said, hating that he had to go through this again, every time someone new found out, this wash of pity and uselessness, the same sad fucking story over and over again, poor little half-orphan boy, so far from home.
Crosby came over to him and put his hand on Zito’s stomach. “C’mon. Let’s go inside.”
Zito nodded, thinking that it wasn’t much good not to talk about it, because unspoken it carried, if possible, even more weight. He could see it written across people’s faces once he told them or they found out, not just at that moment but forever, like they couldn’t get it out of their heads when they saw him any more than he could get it out of his. It was one of the many reasons he didn’t tell people very often. He closed his eyes, feeling the pain recur like his spine had been cracked.
Suddenly, Crosby’s hand latched onto the back of his neck and Crosby pulled him into a hard, momentary kiss, then broke away and said, “I’m not thinking about it, I promise.”
Zito breathed out and let Crosby take him to bed. He could feel Crosby doing his best to make him forget, and was by turns thankful for and bitterly amused by the effort.
That night, he had a nightmare, the waxy yellow color of his mother’s skin when he’d arrived at her hospital room for the last time, the heavy-browed face of the doctor who’d told the four of them that they hadn’t been able to find a donor, his father weeping in the cafeteria, his head in his hands.
Zito awoke and Crosby was fit against him like a puzzle piece. Zito wiped his eyes and pulled Crosby’s arm across his stomach, his wet face sliding on Crosby’s bare shoulder, and Crosby sighed in his sleep. Zito concentrated on Crosby’s hand twitching on his stomach, and swore that he would think of nothing else for all the long night ahead.
Two or three days later, Zito was making them breakfast, and Crosby wanted to know, “Can I ask you something?”
Zito glanced over his shoulder, distractedly pushing the eggs around in the pan. Crosby had spilled out a little rain of salt on the tabletop, drawing designs with his finger, his forehead densely lined. Zito sighed.
“I thought you said you weren’t thinking about it.”
Crosby looked up guiltily. “I wasn’t,” he protested. “I just. I am now.”
Staring at the eggs, the heat of the stove curling the ends of his hair, Zito shrugged, thinking that it had been five years now and he needed to get over this at some point. “Shoot.”
“How come. Like. How come that meant you couldn’t pitch as well anymore? What did she have to do with it?”
Wrapping his free hand around the lip of the counter, Zito took his time before answering, “She was, like. No matter what happened, she’d be able to set me right again. I was kind of a punk, in college and Visalia and stuff, but she didn’t care. I’d call her when I was all messed up and I’d say, mom, how am I supposed to do this? And she’d fix me.”
Zito turned the stove off and got the orange juice from the refrigerator, taking a long drink, the backs of his eyelids spiraling like ninja stars. He rested his head against the refrigerator, exhaling carefully.
“I’m a whole lot younger than my sisters, you know. My folks, they didn’t really expect to have another kid. Just sorta happened. My mom used to say that it was because I was perfect, and perfection took time. I don’t know. None of my family knew about baseball. My dad taught me how to throw a curve from a book about Sandy Koufax. My mom, she was a singer, a dancer. A minister for a little while. And I used to worry, because the game has been everything for me since as long as I can remember, and I knew most everybody thought it was, like, trivial. But my mom told me that I talk about baseball the way other people talk about faith, and probably even God gets them mixed up when he’s looking at my heart. She said that like it was a good thing.”
Zito shut his eyes.
“She died and pretty soon I was fucked up again, and there was no one there to fix me. And I couldn’t quit because she wouldn’t want me to quit, because this is, like. Faith. So I just stuck around.”
Crosby squeaked his thumb on the table, following the pattern of the wood. “What about your dad?”
Zito shook his head, hating this. “He can’t help. He’s a, a good man, and I love him, but. After, it was like, whenever he looked at me, all he could see was her. And it was the same for me. It just, it got too hard. We don’t talk much anymore.”
A brief phone conversation every month or so, how’ve you been, how’s your arm feel, what’s the weather like. A drag in his mind when it was late at night and there was nobody around, when he was homesick like a college freshman, too stubborn to call his father first.
He was still for a moment, and then carefully poured them both a glass of orange juice, fixing their plates. Crosby didn’t say anything, and Zito gave him his eggs, sat down across from him and started eating.
After a while, Zito couldn’t deal with it, needed something else in his head, anything that wasn’t the memory of those last hours in Los Angeles, and asked, “Your dad played, right?” Crosby nodded, sipping his orange juice. “What was that like?”
Crosby shrugged. “He retired before I was born.”
Zito waited, but Crosby didn’t add anything, and Zito bit his lip hard, thinking that Crosby would just leave him with his own thoughts, an astonishingly cruel thing to do. His fork bent in his hand, and Zito put a hand up over his eyes.
“Hey?” Crosby asked softly. Zito shook his head, pressing his fingers into his eyes. “Look, man,” Crosby started to say, then stopped, and Zito could imagine the look on his face, bewildered and annoyed that his simple cute little fuckbuddy had gotten all complicated on him, quickly finishing his breakfast so he could make some dumb excuse and get out of there.
“The thing, see, the thing about my dad,” Crosby said instead. “Thing about it was that it was kinda just assumed, you know? Like, I didn’t even know there were sports other than baseball until I was, like, six or seven. Because that’s all we ever did. He didn’t always have a job, so he was around a lot when I was growing up, and every day we’d go to the park. And he used to tell stories about the Indians, and we’d go out to see the Angels play them and my uncle, who lives in Cleveland, right, would call afterwards to say he’d seen us on TV, and the announcers had been talking, like, reminiscing, about Ready Eddie and they’d say, that’s his boy sitting next to him. My dad was real careful to make sure that I wasn’t gonna be, like, in his shadow or anything. He’d say, nothing I ever did matters. It was true, too, because he was never an everyday player. They called him Ready Eddie just because he’d play wherever they put him. And, you know, because it rhymed. But mainly because he’d play anywhere. Mostly at short, though. And it didn’t occur to me that I’d be anything else, you know? And it wasn’t about being in his shadow or even trying to outdo him, okay. It was how it was meant to be. I guess. You’ll probably meet him. He and my mom find their way out to whatever team I’m on, coupla times a year. You’ll like him. He’s really kinda goofy in a lot of ways. Like you. He’ll still put his hat on rally-cap style late in the game, and if he’s not wearing a hat, he’ll put his glove on his head instead. Funny stuff. Anyway, you know how nothing’s weird if it’s all you’ve known. That’s like how it is with my dad being a big leaguer. It wasn’t any different than my friends’ dads being, like, firefighters or whatever. It was just, like, this’ll be my life too. So it made a lot of sense.”
Zito stared at him, certain that Crosby had never before said that much at one time, Crosby’s eyes big and surprised, Crosby’s hands moving on the table top. Crosby barely took a breath, and then kept talking, and Zito’s mind was blank of everything except different ways to keep Crosby right there with him forever.
Zito came to his senses on the couch, the television happily yelling through an infomercial, spilled Coke sticky on his hands. He sat up, thinking, ‘bobby,’ and sure enough Crosby was at the card table by the window, studying pitchers’ scouting reports in the porch light from outside.
Zito couldn’t remember the last time Crosby had gone home. Maybe not since they’d had their Big Dramatic Conversation about Zito’s mom and Crosby’s dad, which they had not mentioned again, to Zito’s infinite relief. Maybe not since long before then. They’d gotten back from the most recent road trip and Crosby’s duffel was on the floor of Zito’s bedroom, his jeans hung up to dry over the shower curtain rod, his T-shirts on the doorknobs. Zito hadn’t asked how long he was planning on staying, for fear that he’d scare Crosby away.
Crosby saw him stirring and let the report fall closed, sitting back and giving him a tired smile. Zito was hardly even keeping track of that anymore, though he still remembered the first time he saw it, and was convinced that he’d never forget.
“How long was I asleep?” Zito asked, cracking his neck, pulling out his arms.
“Hour or two. You missed the end of the movie.”
“Yeah? Ruin it for me, I don’t care.”
“The good guys won.”
Zito popped his knuckles. “I totally called that.” He wanted Crosby to come over him, balance with his knees sunk into the couch on either side of Zito’s body, and push his shoulders down.
Crosby got up, but bypassed Zito, heading for the kitchen. “I’m making some coffee.”
Zito followed him in, the light stark and awful beaming off the tile. The faucet of the sink was being slowly colonized by rust, and Zito flicked pieces of it off, cocking his hip against the counter. “Isn’t it, like, the middle of the night?”
Crosby shrugged, digging in the cupboard for a filter. He turned on the machine and leaned back against the counter, facing Zito. Crosby was wearing a wife-beater that did wonderful things for his arms, and Zito knew they had seven minutes before the coffee would be ready.
Crosby gave him an amused look when Zito put a hand on his hip, sliding up under his shirt. Zito pressed his thumb on the tough curve of Crosby’s hipbone from below, finding a pressure point and making Crosby flinch. Zito was kind of obsessed with the structure of Crosby’s bones under his skin. He hadn’t yet been able to discover any part of him that seemed fragile, despite the knobs and rifts, and thought sometimes that it was all just a joke, and Crosby had never missed a game.
“Really good,” Zito mumbled, his head foggy from being just-awoke, his other hand twisting in the fabric of Crosby’s sweatpants. He kissed Crosby on the cheek, feeling absurdly attached to him, as if they were best friends or something.
Crosby laughed lightly, his nose moving on Zito’s face. He angled off the counter, fitting their sides together. Zito put a hand on Crosby’s face and kissed him for real. Everything went fizzy, and Zito broke away, breathing hard.
“You lied, didn’t you?” Crosby asked, not sounding that winded at all.
“Huh?” Zito said distractedly, rubbing his fingers in the hollow of Crosby’s hip.
“You said you’ve done this before, but you haven’t. You’re so. It’s so clearly your first time.”
Zito froze, his eyes coming fully open. He thought, ‘fuck, i’m caught,’ and his face reddened. He stared at Crosby and Crosby was just smirking at him, like he always seemed to be doing these days.
“I. I never said I’d done it before,” Zito said, halting word to word, his mother’s voice telling him that anything that wasn’t the truth was the same as a lie. “I said it was something I do. And it is.”
“Yeah, now it is. But it’s never been before, right?”
Zito took his hands off Crosby, suddenly and irrationally angry with him. “I’m sorry, are you complaining? Because, you know. Fuck you.”
Crosby grinned, and fisted a hand in Zito’s shirt. Zito wouldn’t angle towards him, sullenly held back. “Aw, did I hurt your feelings?”
Zito tried to take hold of his wrist and throw him off, but that just stretched his shirt; Zito hated getting his shirts stretched out, and now he was even more irritated.
“What about you?” he said defensively. “You and your hesitation and oh, it’s a bad idea, oh, we shouldn’t, we musn’t, all that shit.”
“I never said we shouldn’t,” Crosby told him, his fist on Zito’s stomach. “I was just giving a guy who I was pretty sure didn’t know what he was doing a chance to get out without any damage done. Excuse me for trying.”
“You wanted me to say no?”
“No.” He showed his teeth. “Only ‘cause I knew you wouldn’t.”
Zito let his weight rest back against the counter, sighing heavily. He took a moment, then glanced at Crosby, who was just standing there holding onto his shirt, keeping careful watch on him. “There’s gonna be damage?”
Crosby shrugged. “It’s possible. Anything’s possible.” He stepped forward and opened his hand, flat below Zito’s ribs, his thumb snuck under the waist of Zito’s jeans. “There’s gonna be other stuff too, though. There already has been.”
Zito sucked his stomach in, making a concave plain for Crosby’s hand to rest on. He imagined the flicker under his skin, the pulse in the center of Crosby’s palm. He wet his lips and asked, “You’ve done this before? You didn’t lie?”
“I never actually told you one way or the other,” Crosby answered, his eyes hooded.
“Tell me now.”
Crosby nodded, skating his hand, rolling up over Zito’s chest, his fingers cold. Zito’s shirt bunched around his arm, his bare stomach bitten by the draft. “I keep trying to. To kill the time. Like, if I distract myself enough, I’ll wake up someday and be in the majors, and I won’t have had to pay attention to anything.”
Zito raised his eyebrows, his breath coming shallowly again. “How’s that working out?”
“Oh, not so well. I remember everything. Doesn’t matter how many guys I fuck or how many times I get hurt.”
Zito blinked at him, something slowing down in his mind, like taking pictures out a car window. “You fuck a lot of guys?”
Crosby smiled, his hand traveling back down to Zito’s stomach, thumbing open the buttons of his fly. “I’ve been living in your house for three weeks. When am I supposed to have time to fuck a lot of guys?”
Zito breathed out, and cupped his hand around the base of Crosby’s skull. He placed his mouth on the side of Crosby’s face, said quietly, “Don’t ever find the time, okay?”
Crosby pulled back, looking at him with an expression on his face that seemed awfully deep and existential, something Zito couldn’t decipher if he had a million years to try. Then he kissed Zito, and whispered against his mouth, “Okay, okay, sure,” and Zito dragged him flush, the smell of coffee rising around them, a trigger for this moment for the rest of Zito’s life.
They went back on the road, three nights fucking in a motel bed (the roommate situation long since repaired to fit their needs) that felt like foil and tasted like ash, bad water pressure, discolored stains on the wall, and an outfield all chopped up by the local high school soccer team’s pre-season practice, run off their own turf by football players.
They were in Arkansas. The only place on earth more godforsaken than Midland, but Zito was trying not to focus on that.
He shook dust out of his hair the first night. Rather, Crosby scuffed his hands through, making clouds float down around Zito’s face, his eyes screwed shut, his lips pressed tightly together. Crosby coughed and made him take a shower before they could get started. It was just barely August and sometimes cold at night, the wind screaming across the plains, the room’s heater busted, and Zito climbed into bed shivering and damp.
The Travelers were the AA affiliate of the Angels, and played dirty, spikes-up baseball that Zito had to grudgingly respect, though he feared for Crosby’s legs when the runner came into second as hard as he could. Crosby stayed high, stayed out of trouble.
After the third game of the set (the ‘Hounds got swept without much fanfare), they were hanging around the clubhouse waiting to leave for Frisco, and one of the utility infielders got called into the manager’s office.
Zito continued playing cards, keeping an eye on Crosby sprawled out on the couch, reading a magazine. He kept losing money, and he’d have to stop soon, before he endangered his ability to pay rent. He kept thinking, he’d turn it around, he was due for a good run, way overdue.
There was a joyous shout from the direction of the manager’s office, and Zito looked up from his lousy pair of treys, a familiar crippling sensation in his stomach. Crosby’s head came up too, his eyes looking like frost.
The third baseman threw in his hand with a sharp exhale of disgust. “Bucky’s going up,” he said, his lip snarled. The other guys nodded, because that was the only thing that could make a man cry out like that, in this league.
The utility man came out wearing a grin as wide as an open hand. Their manager leaned on his shoulder in the doorway, smoking a cigarette and watching them absorb the news.
“Sacramento,” the utility man said happily. “Fuckin’ Trip-A, boys!” Some of the more mature players came up to congratulate him. Zito knew he should be one of them, but when he stood, his feet took him over to the couch, sat him down next to Bobby Crosby.
Crosby scratched at the seam of his jeans, his eyebrows pulled down. Zito took the magazine Crosby had been reading and leafed through it, but nothing caught his attention. He sighed, and asked, “You all right?”
Crosby moved his shoulder in half a shrug. The utility man was calling for someone to bring him some champagne, then changed his mind and hollered for a beer instead. Most of the team began to gravitate towards him, because a guy who’d just been called up was usually good for a round or two. Crosby and Zito were alone on the other side of the room.
“He’ll. He’ll leave tonight?” Crosby asked.
“Yeah, probably. They’ll want him by tomorrow. It’s a long flight.” Zito had seen this happen a hundred times before.
“Isn’t all his stuff still back in Midland?” Crosby stared at him, looking intensely confused. “What’s he gonna do about his stuff?”
Zito shook his head helplessly. “I don’t know, man.”
Crosby punched his own knee and stood up quickly. “Come on,” he said, jerking his head towards the door.
Zito blinked up at him. “Where?”
“Just come on,” Crosby told him, and stalked off. Zito checked on the others and they were still grouped around the newly anointed, saying, hey buck, nice job, gonna do great up there. None of it sounded too believable, but none of them were paying any attention, and Zito was able to sneak off after Crosby without anyone noticing.
Crosby was waiting for him in the dugout. The field was perfectly deserted, still enough for ghosts to come out, the infield dirt too heavy to be spun up by the wind. The grounds crew had already been and gone, tarps down over the mound and the home plate area. Crosby was down by the helmet cubbies, where the shadows were rich and closing fast around him.
Zito moved to him cautiously. “We’re supposed to be waiting for the bus.”
Crosby glared at him. “What the fuck makes Bucky so special?” he asked. “I’m hitting twenty points better than him. More doubles, more ribbies, higher fielding percentage.”
“You’re better-looking too,” Zito said in an attempt to lighten the mood, but Crosby wasn’t having it.
“Don’t fuck with me,” he warned, and Zito held up his hands.
“Why would they want him instead of me, is what I want to fucking know.” Crosby made a fist, as if he was going to punch the wood, and Zito swiftly grabbed his arm, his eyes wide, his mind echoing with the dream-sharp crack of bone, the loss of Bobby Crosby that neither Zito nor the team could stand right now.
Crosby’s arm flexed in his hand. Zito could barely talk. “They, they wanted a utility man. You know. Their second baseman got hurt, they need someone. If it had been at short, they woulda, you know they woulda looked at you.”
Zito thought for a moment about life down here without Crosby, something he’d once been so used to, and he could feel his face paling, fear hot and clawed in his chest.
“People have been looking at me for four years, okay? And it never gets me anywhere,” Crosby said, his voice breaking, his eyes sparkling and homicidal.
“Calm down,” Zito whispered. “It isn’t, it’s not all bad, dude. You’ll get there, and in the meantime, you, you got this. Me.” He stroked his fingers on the underside of Crosby’s wrist, trying to impress upon him the significance of this, the way it could save both of them if Crosby would let it.
But Crosby just laughed, a wrenching painful sound from deep in his throat. He pulled his arm out of Zito’s hold and shot him a look of disbelief.
“Are you trying to be funny?” Crosby asked, his voice clipped. Zito swallowed and shook his head. Crosby rolled his eyes in anger and told him harshly:
“I’m not happy to be here, Barry, and having someone to fuck around with doesn’t change that.”
Zito reeled, but only on the inside. He said the first thing that came to mind. “Not even me?”
Crosby stopped and looked at him with a mix of surprise and disgust. “Jesus. Are you, like, are you seriously like this?”
Zito didn’t know what to do with his hands, which still wanted to hang on to some part of Crosby, if not his arm then his hips, if not his hips then his belt. “Well, um. What do you mean?”
Crosby shook his head, his neck popping. “Never mind. Just tell me something. Are you okay with being down here?”
“In the fucking Texas League, man.”
Zito took a chance and put one hand up on the cubby over Crosby’s shoulder, clutching the wood and feeling splinters inch under his skin. Crosby let him stay close like that, but they weren’t touching. “It’s. This is. Look. I’ve been down here for the better part of a decade, all right? I’m. I’m a career minor leaguer, and it took me a long time to get to a place where that didn’t make me want to drive my car off a cliff.”
Crosby laughed again, the same awful joyless sound that was worse than teeth on a blackboard to Zito’s ears. He didn’t seem to realize that that was the first time Zito had ever admitted that out loud. “After seven years, I think driving your car off a cliff is a totally reasonable thing to want.”
Zito thought about waking up on a Saturday with a Little League game to play, back when he was much better than everyone around him, and his mom was making pancakes in the kitchen, his dad playing old Rat Pack records. There was sunlight like a blanket and small boys waiting to get struck out, and Crosby should have been nothing more than one of them. Zito felt something brush up against his face, a cobweb, the nearby life that they both deserved.
“Why’d you come out here?” he asked hoarsely. “Why’d you make me come with you?”
Crosby’s eyes flickered as he blinked fast. He was shaking, Zito realized, very subtly as if his muscles were guitar strings. “I couldn’t stay in there,” he answered. “I woulda lost my mind.”
“Okay. But why am I here too?”
And Crosby’s face fell, his anger draining out of him so quickly that Zito watched it go, and Crosby leaned forward, hiding his eyes in Zito’s shoulder. Zito, stunned, took his hand off the cubby and curled it around the back of Crosby’s neck, turning his face into the side of Crosby’s head.
“Because,” Crosby said slowly, “because if you weren’t here . . .”
He trailed off, and Zito was aware of Crosby’s breath on his chest through his shirt, Crosby’s lips moving on his throat and his hands clinging to Zito’s hips. Zito heard over and over again in his head, ‘if you weren’t here,’ sometimes in Crosby’s voice and sometimes in his own. He slid his other arm around Crosby’s waist, thinking that if he could just hold on long enough, if he could just.
“It’s not worth it,” Crosby whispered. “I can’t imagine anything in the world that would be worth this.”
Zito hugged him, tight as he could. Crosby vibrated in his arms, his heartbeat rattling against Zito’s chest. Zito couldn’t think of anything to say, except ‘it’s okay,’ which it wasn’t, and ‘you’ll be fine,’ which had a good chance of being a lie.
So Zito just kept his arms strong and motionless around his brokenhearted shortstop, believing that he was a cage, he was inescapable.
In Frisco, after the game, they got back to the motel and Zito hadn’t even made a move, his shirt only half-off, before Crosby said, “I’m really tired.”
Zito stilled with his shirt pulled up, his arms raised. “Okay,” he said, seeing Crosby glance at his bare stomach and chest, and then turn away. Zito pulled his shirt over his head and let it fall to the floor. Crosby was stripping his own clothes off, and Zito thought maybe he should go over there when Crosby shucked his jeans, but Crosby just crawled into bed, burrowing under the covers.
Zito hesitated, took off his own pants and turned off the lights. He moved towards Crosby’s bed, but Crosby had the covers pulled up above his shoulders, his head only barely visible, and Zito gave up, got into the other bed.
He wasn’t very tired, despite the fact that they’d gotten in way past midnight the night before, and he’d been up at seven for no particular reason, eating breakfast alone in a diner down the street from the ballpark. He was pitching tomorrow, but he didn’t think he’d sleep much tonight.
It was impolite to turn on the television, he decided, when your roommate was already asleep. Or fake-sleeping. Or whatever it was Crosby was doing over there, motionless and hardly breathing. Zito worried about him, unable to roll into Crosby’s body and make sure he was still warm. Crosby could have died, and he wouldn’t know until morning.
Zito decided that was a pretty horrible thing to think about.
He lay awake and the ceiling wasn’t very interesting, no cracks or stains to occupy his attention. There was a clock ticking somewhere, though the alarm clock was digital, and there was nothing on the walls, not even some of those cheap pastel-colored seascapes that seemed to infest the motel rooms down here.
It was bad, thinking of it like Crosby did, ‘down here,’ as if everywhere else was higher, better. Zito tried to remind himself that getting paid to come to the ballpark every day was all he should care about, and it shouldn’t matter where. But Crosby made him wish for something more, and that hadn’t happened in a very long time.
Zito thought about Oakland, the shabby black-sheep city by the water. He’d gotten badly stuck in traffic there, every single day of his one month. He couldn’t figure it out, which highways to avoid, the backroads a mystery to him, and he paid too much for parking, ran into gas stations in the middle of the night to ask for directions. It didn’t help that he kept forgetting the address of his hotel, kept saying, the big shiny one downtown, do you know it?
He didn’t really have enough money to stay in that hotel, and ended up living off Ramen all winter.
He remembered the stupidest stuff about Oakland, the green street signs with white Chinese characters, the toy boats and kayaks on the lake, the retired people moving slowly in the early morning. The Oakland Tribune clock tower with the red neon letters on the side, lit up gold once the sun went down. The candy rack in the Coliseum clubhouse, the arcade game and giant card table. Carpeted floors and bobbleheads nodding on locker shelves. The hills, the fog rolling down, and some four in the morning, buying Altoids and Coke at the all-night newsstand on Broadway, which had a big ‘Go A’s!’ poster in the window and a clerk who didn’t know Zito’s face.
He looked over, just to check, and Crosby was gone, the sheets thrown back. Zito sat upright so quickly his back snapped.
He hadn’t slept, he was sure. There was no way he could have missed Crosby slipping out, the door creaked and the light from the hallway was halogen-bright. Zito rubbed his face, and thought on a sickeningly loop, ‘but I wasn’t asleep, I wasn’t asleep, I wasn’t asleep.’
Zito got up, got dressed, barefoot with his hair smashed to one side. His eyes hurt, more proof that he hadn’t nodded off thinking about Oakland. He went looking for Crosby, the vending machines, the front office, the roof. He went back upstairs to put his shoes on, and widened the search.
There wasn’t much to Frisco, and even less within walking distance of their motel. Zito checked back alleys and parking lots, his heartrate picking up at the sight of a 7-11 glowing on the horizon, but that was too far.
He began to panic, because what if Crosby had run away?
There was a bar about a half a mile out. Country music hummed through the walls, boards hammered over a broken window. The beer sign to the side of the doorway was spastic, jiggering on and off. Zito walked faster; it was the last place he could think to look.
Crosby wasn’t there, but their manager was, nursing a beer at the bar, and he spotted Zito before Zito could duck back out.
“Kid,” he said in surprise, and then his face tightened. “It’s past curfew.”
Zito shook his head, crossing to the bar. “It’s not my fault. I had to, I-” He stopped abruptly, thinking how pissed off Crosby would be at him if Zito gave him up.
“I, um. Sorry, skip,” he said instead.
His manager sighed, disappointed but not telling him to go back. “You’re pitching tomorrow.”
“I know that. I just. I couldn’t sleep.”
“How long has that been going on?” his manager asked sharply. “You know you can get something for that from the doc. You can’t be getting burned out on us, you know how close this one’s gonna go.”
Zito took the stool next to him, flattening his hands on the bar. “It’s not like that. It was just tonight, I promise.”
His manager harrumphed, and took a drink of his beer. They sat in silence for a moment, Zito’s hands shaking.
“Something on your mind, kid?”
Zito started, jerked away from the mental picture of Crosby lying in a ditch somewhere with blood on his face. “Uh, no. Not anything in particular.”
His manager looked at him skeptically. “You’ve been kinda. Not all there, past coupla months.”
“I’m here,” Zito protested. “Where else would I be?”
“You’re here,” his manager said, jabbing him in the arm. “But your head sure ain’t.” He paused, tapping his finger thoughtfully on his glass. “Expected you to come by last night, to talk about Buck.”
Zito coughed, and ran his hand through his hair. “Not much to say, is there?”
“Hasn’t stopped you before.”
“I guess.” Zito wanted to get out of there. The cigarette smoke was making his head ache.
“You going through a bad spell?”
Zito glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “What do you mean?”
His manager shrugged, his scarred hands rolling a quarter on the bar. “You don’t come by to talk anymore. Don’t come in early to do that stupid extra workout of yours. You turn up at the bar when you’re supposed to be in bed. You hang out with the new guy, who, I gotta tell you, has got a fucker of an attitude on him.”
Zito flinched, Crosby was somewhere with his ribs shattered and stabbing into his lungs, and Zito was gonna have to sit here and listen to this instead of going to find him. “He’s all right.”
“He’s a fuckin’ black cloud. Walks in and you can tell he thinks he’s better than all the other guys. You ever wonder why you’re the only one who talks to him?”
Zito hadn’t realized. He’d been kinda caught up. He stared at the bar, carved with initials and lopsided hearts.
The bartender came up, wiping down the counter. “Last call, fellas.”
His manager nodded at his beer. “Another.” Zito started to order one of his own, but his manager cut him off, “Shirley Temple for him.”
The bartender lifted an eyebrow, but nodded. His manager saw Zito’s annoyed look and told him, “You get special permission to break curfew, but you’re certainly not fucking drinking.”
Zito made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Fine. Whatever. I already got a dad, but whatever.”
They were quiet again, sipping their drinks. The Shirley Temple was actually pretty good, but fuck if Zito was gonna admit that.
“I’m not your dad,” his manager said eventually, his face in its constant scowl. “And I’m not gonna tell you who you can and can’t hang around with. But if Crosby’s way of thinking is starting to sound good to you, then you better be real clear on where that shit’s gonna lead.”
Zito swallowed, his throat slick and cherry-sweet. “What’s wrong with the way he thinks?” he asked. “Not being happy with where he is? Maybe, maybe we’re not supposed to be happy down here, maybe being happy is what keeps us down here.”
His manager shook his head roughly, curling his hand tight around his glass. “Everybody’s working to get out. Nobody wants to spend their life in Double-A.”
Zito laughed. “What, like I have? Like you?”
“Watch your fucking mouth,” his manager snapped. “And don’t interrupt me when I’m talking to you. Everybody’s trying to leave, but if you’re thinking about your next team, that means you’re not thinking about the team you’re on now.”
Zito glowered at his Shirley Temple, the bubbles sinking gracefully upwards. “I’m not thinking about my next team,” he said, not really believing that there would be a next team for him. “I’m not thinking about anything.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty goddamned clear.” His manager took a long drink, and Zito matched him, holding the straw away from his face with his finger. “You need to get your head back in the game. You’re too valuable to be getting turned around by some fucking momentary shortstop.”
“Valuable, now?” Zito scoffed, not thinking about how Crosby was as permanent a thing as Zito had known since his family had been chipped apart. “That’s new. Coulda sworn you were taking me for granted.”
His manager gave him a look of mild, impatient surprise. “You’ve been pitching too well to take for granted anymore.”
Zito blinked at him, startled. “Have I?”
“You’ve only been the best pitcher in the league for the past month.”
Zito’s eyes widened; nobody had said anything like that about him since he was twenty-one years. “I thought. That kid from Wichita?”
“He got shelled last week, lit up like a nightmare. You haven’t had a truly bad outing since May. Jesus. This is exactly what I’m talking about. You don’t even know your own numbers.”
It was hard to believe. Zito looked and there was a spot in his mind where the season had always lived, taking up more space with each day, his own stats and the memory of every pitch. It had always been there, and he was shocked to find it blank, as white as static. He’d totally lost track.
“Well,” he began, rubbing his hand on his jeans, nervous without a line score by which to orient himself. “You’ve been telling me for years not to be so focused on the numbers.”
“Never told you to ignore them entirely,” his manager told him. “Never told you to get all fucking disillusioned and not even care anymore.”
Zito shook his head, thinking that he wasn’t disillusioned, not even close. He was bright-eyed and young again, and he’d never seen a season like the one he was in the middle of now.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His manager looked at him sadly, his mouth hard and angry. “I know you won’t be down here much longer, the way you’re going. So, there you go. You can be happy now.”
Zito stared at him, his blood going slow in his veins. “Don’t, don’t say that,” he managed. “Don’t tell me that.”
Shrugging, his manager drained his beer. “Don’t ask a man half in the bag not to tell you the truth.”
“I didn’t fucking ask you-” Zito started, but he was cut off again.
“Finish your drink. We’ve got to get back.”
Zito allowed himself to be led out of the bar, feeling like he’d been sucker-punched in the back of the head. They walked back to the motel in silence, and his manager said to him in front of his room door:
“Whatever ends up happening, kid, you’ve had a helluva year.”
Zito half-smiled, oddly certain that he was about to cry. “I know. Honestly.”
He let himself into the room and Crosby was back, looking as if he hadn’t disappeared or even moved since they first went to bed. Zito didn’t even take off his shoes, crawling immediately onto Crosby’s bed and finding his shoulder through the covers, turning him onto his back.
“Where the fuck were you?” he asked breathlessly, pulling the covers down and pressing his fingers against Crosby’s forehead, forcing his eyes open. “You know how uncool that is?”
Crosby gazed up at him without anything showing on his face, not bitching about Zito being too heavy as he worked his way on top, or Zito’s sneakers messing up the bed. “Went for a walk,” he said.
“A walk? We’re five hundred miles away from anything.” Zito buried his face in the crook of Crosby’s neck, pushing his arms under Crosby’s body, his hands curled over Crosby’s shoulders, fingers pointing down.
“You should have told me you were going,” he whispered into Crosby’s bare shoulder.
“You were asleep,” Crosby answered, his throat humming.
“I was not.”
“Doing a pretty good impression of it, then.” Zito felt him sigh, and then a second later Crosby’s hand was combing through his hair. “And where were you?”
“Looking for you.” He didn’t want to say anything else. He kept thinking about the possibility of not being here anymore, not in this bed or with Crosby beneath him, squirming slowly and making him feel like an idiot for leaving his shoes on and not getting under the covers first thing.
“Aw, aren’t you something,” Crosby murmured, and pressed his mouth to Zito’s temple. They were quiet for a moment, Zito breathing in when Crosby breathed out.
“You didn’t want me around earlier,” Zito said to him, biting the tip of his tongue. Crosby’s breath blew out warmly against his face.
“Yeah, well,” Crosby replied, sounding distracted and not too interested, his hands mapping out Zito’s back under his shirt. “That’ll happen.”
“But. You’re not tired anymore? You want me around now?”
Crosby laughed lightly, and pulled one of his hands free to flatten it on Zito’s face and draw him up, kissing him, licking the insides of his mouth. “What is that?” Crosby wondered, barely a rumble against Zito’s lips. “You taste like cherries, man.”
And Zito closed his eyes, aware with frightening clarity that he was happy down here, he never wanted to leave.
Zito tread lightly around Crosby for awhile after that. They’d reached some kind of fragile stability in the wake of recent events, and Zito could see it in his mind, a glass pushed half-off the table, maybe a millimeter away from being caught by gravity. He knew a bunch of stuff now, and his greatest fear was saying any of it out loud.
Crosby didn’t spend every night at Zito’s house, but when Zito couldn’t sleep and drove over to Crosby’s two-room walk-up on the south side of town, Crosby always let him in.
Zito hated the feeling in his stomach on the drive over to Crosby’s place in the middle of the night, the sick rolling sensation that this was something he’d never be able to live without, and so he stayed away for two nights, then three, then four, and didn’t sleep at all. He was almost hallucinating when he finally gave in, and tripped on the stairs and gashed open his forehead.
He sat on the stair with his back against the wall, pressing the heel of his hand hard to the cut and calling Crosby, three flights above, because his head was spinning and his vision was fuzzed over, and he didn’t trust the stairs anymore. There was blood in his eyes.
Crosby came down the stairs and saw him and said, “What the fuck did you do to yourself?” and Zito imagined that he heard wild concern in Crosby’s voice, but mostly Crosby was trying to hold back laughter. He took off his T-shirt, though, and held it to Zito’s head, his other hand folded around Zito’s, their fingers interlocked and the blood making them stick together.
Crosby sat on the stair above him until he felt okay walking again, and let Zito lean against him, sat Zito down on the edge of the bathtub and affixed a Band-Aid, wiped his face clean with a wet rag. Zito could hardly speak, dumb with exhaustion, and Crosby kept cracking little jokes that Zito was too slow to get, stuttering, “what?” every few minutes.
Zito was put to bed with extreme caution, and he collapsed into sleep, feeling Crosby’s hand tangle in his hair.
Crosby’s bed was smaller than Zito’s, but there was still room for the both of them. He had beer in his refrigerator and nothing else, and when the shower was first turned on, the water came out brown. Zito never said, let’s just go back to my house, because there had to be a reason that Crosby wasn’t coming around as much anymore.
Zito made up reasons to talk to him, to stand close, his arm touching Crosby’s back, their hands separated by an inch on the counter. Sometimes, Crosby said, “Can I get some breathing room, please,” and pushed him away, but sometimes he fishhooked one of Zito’s belt loop and tugged him all the way in. As steady as Crosby was, as firmly guided in one direction, he was somehow also unbearably difficult to predict.
Zito had a dream about being on a plane, and waving goodbye out the porthole window to his family in the terminal. He couldn’t tell where he was going; nobody was speaking English. Europe, maybe, or Japan. Everybody was much taller than him, and he realized it was because he was a kid again, small kid-hands, hairless legs and his hair brushing down to his shoulders. He was going someplace wholly new, and he didn’t know anybody there. He didn’t know where he would stay or why he was going, but his mom was smiling and mouthing, ‘good luck, have fun,’ through the terminal’s window glass. The sun must have been rising, because it suddenly hit the window full-on and turned it into a sheet of white, and Zito woke up.
Normally, Zito liked dreams about his mother, but not when they were separated by runway and glass and he could only read her lips.
On an off-day, Crosby and Zito drove to San Angelo, three hours east of Midland. Zito wasn’t clear on why; there was some roadhouse bar that Crosby had heard legends about, but when they got there, the place was gone, and the waitress at the diner told them it had burned down two years before. There was talk of building on the land, either a church or a parking lot.
Crosby slept in the backseat on the drive back, and Zito pulled over at a truck stop, bought the biggest cup of coffee they had. He watched Crosby through the car window in the pasty yellow of the sodium lights, Crosby’s face lined with anxiety and his head jerking fitfully. Crosby showed more emotion asleep than awake, and Zito got back in the car, smoothed his thumb across Crosby’s forehead until it was clear again. He didn’t know Crosby was awake until he was pulling out of the parking lot and heard from behind him:
“You’re starting to worry me.”
Zito checked the rearview mirror reflexively, but Crosby was lying down and invisible. “Am I?”
Crosby coughed. “You act like you’re scared all to hell, and I can’t figure out why.”
“I’m not,” Zito protested weakly, staring at the highway, the whisk of headlights on black.
“You are, a little bit. You might, like. You might want to tell me. Might make it go easier.”
“So that you can, what? Magically fix all my problems?”
“Fuck, man, how many do you have?”
Zito took a sip of coffee and burned his tongue. “Nine hundred. Rough estimate.” He laughed to himself, pressing down on the accelerator. “You know what’s crazy, though?”
“I don’t want you to fix anything. I don’t know what’s going on with me, but I, I know I don’t want it to stop.”
Crosby was silent for a moment, and then he said Zito’s name dimly. Zito tightened his hands on the wheel, going ninety with nothing behind him.
Crosby took his first at-bat in the second inning, the Rockhounds having been sent down in order in the first. There was a man on second and Crosby crowded the plate, looking for an outside pitch to send to right field. Zito was pitching, and he’d hit a batter in the top of the inning, sort of intentionally, not liking the smirk on the guy’s face.
He thought idly that Crosby shouldn’t dig in so close, because retaliation was a religion in this league, but Crosby knew that as well as he did. Crosby had to know what he was doing.
The third pitch came with the count even, came up and in, and Crosby arched his back, pulling away. It happened too quickly, and the pitch cracked into either his hand or the bat. Crosby said, “fuck,” loudly enough to be heard in the dugout, loud enough to get him in trouble with a ballclub trying to cater to a family crowd, and the umpire pointed him down to first. His hand, then. And that broken-wood sound, reverberating in Zito’s head.
He’d thought that if the pitcher was gonna plunk someone, it would have been the first man up. He didn’t think the pitcher would wait for Crosby before getting his boys’ backs.
Crosby stood on first and gingerly pulled his batting gloves off. The first base coach called to the dugout and the trainer jogged out, Crosby scowling at him. Zito watched the trainer studying Crosby’s hand, watched Crosby pull away, shaking his head. He could see Crosby’s mouth saying, “I’m fine,” over and over again.
The trainer came back in the dugout and told the manager, “Kid says he’s all right.” The manager nodded and dismissed it, and Zito was astonished that they didn’t see through that. He could see, all the way across the diamond, that Crosby’s hands were open, not clenched around his batting gloves the way they always were when he was on base.
Crosby got to second on a run-scoring single, and was stranded there. Zito got Crosby’s cap and glove and met him on the grass behind the mound.
“Dude, your hand-”
Crosby daggered him with a look, taking his stuff. “It’s fine.”
“It is not,” and Zito tried to grab his wrist, the ring finger on Crosby’s left hand already deeply bruising. Crosby jerked away, carefully sliding his glove on.
“You. Pitch. Don’t make a fucking scene.”
Crosby’s mouth had almost disappeared, his eyes glassy with pain. “Bobby,” Zito said in a low voice, but Crosby was already turning away.
Zito started leaving the ball up, figuring without reason that pop-ups would be easier on Crosby’s hand than grounders.
It was a blow-out. Zito went the distance and scattered three hits, and he got a standing ovation when he came in at the end of the seventh, eighth, and ninth. He did everything he could to keep the plays on the right side of the infield, and Crosby only touched the ball four times, while striking out three times, the only man in the lineup not to get a hit.
Crosby disappeared after the game, and it wasn’t until after Zito had gotten his arm iced and checked out with the manager that he had the time to go looking for him. He found him in the equipment room, sitting on the floor with baseballs spilled out around him, a roll of white tape at his side, cursing quietly at his hand.
Crosby looked up sharply when Zito came in, hiding his left hand under his right, but sighed when he saw who it was, and leaned back against the wall.
Zito closed the door and put his hands in his pockets. “It’s broken, isn’t it?”
Crosby glared at him. “Sorry, my X-ray vision seems to be on the fritz today.”
Zito didn’t let it get to him, raising his eyebrows and asking again, “It’s broken?”
Crosby blew out a hard breath. “Yeah. Of course it is.”
“I’ll. Get the doctor?” Zito could feel a pressure growing in his chest, the splinter of everything going wrong, and he hadn’t intended to phrase that as a question.
“You will fucking not,” Crosby told him immediately, his eyes lit with pain and anger. “You will keep your goddamn mouth shut and do your very best not to fuck me over.”
He was trying to tape his ring finger, which had turned the sick color of spoiled plums, to his pinky, but his right hand was shaking pretty badly.
“You. Dude. You can’t play like that,” Zito said, feeling nauseous.
“Of course I can. I’ve played like this before. It’s not my throwing hand. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to loosen my grip on the bat.”
“Loosen your grip? You can’t even bend it.”
“If I tape it right, I can. I. I can, I’ll be fine.” He tried again with the tape and his hand yanked itself away, his body shying away from something he was mentally able to deal with. “Fuck, fucker, goddamn it,” and Crosby broke down for a moment, a tear inching out the corner of his eye. He scrubbed his face hard with his good hand and said with his voice cracking in frustration, “I just need to get this taped and then it’s done, that’s it, okay, I can do this.”
Zito shook his head, staring in awe at Crosby sitting on the floor with his fist against his eye, fiercely holding himself back. Zito went over and sat down next to him, took Crosby’s hand gently in his own.
“Will you let me,” he said softly, and Crosby resisted for a moment, his arm taut, before making an agonized sound and passing Zito the tape.
Crosby pressed his face against Zito’s shoulder, and Zito could feel him crying. Zito kept his eyes focused on Crosby’s hand, his ring finger swollen and purple and the bones moving with ease beneath his skin. Zito tried to be as careful as possible, tried not to jar him, but Crosby kept pulling in jagged bursts of air, kept shuddering and biting his lip.
After about a year, Zito got Crosby’s ring finger taped to his pinky, the purple mostly hidden by the white. He cradled Crosby’s hand in his own, rubbing his thumb across the tendons. Crosby trembled and dampened the fabric of Zito’s shirt, and Zito couldn’t believe he intended to go out and play through this.
“You could really fuck yourself up, you know,” he said. Crosby made a low moaning sound and banged his head on Zito’s shoulder.
“Don’t make me think about that.”
“You should think about it. If you’re gonna do this, you have to be aware of the, the potential. For, like, disaster.”
Crosby laughed hoarsely, and fit his eye socket into the curve of Zito’s shoulder, hot as a furnace. “No, that’s so wrong. Disaster is being taken out of the lineup and then sent back down to A-ball. Or maybe they decide I’m not worth the risk, release me outright. I don’t. I don’t have a whole lot of chances left, man. And I’m gonna do what I have to to make sure I don’t lose this one.”
Zito carefully placed Crosby’s taped hand on his knee, and wrapped his arm around Crosby’s shoulders. He kissed Crosby’s temple, and didn’t say anything.
As it turned out, the secret wasn’t all that hard to keep. Possibly Zito should have expected that, considering the other secret they’d been keeping all season. But there was nothing on his face to show that he’d been turned kinda gay, nothing as obvious as the two fingers taped on Crosby’s left hand.
Crosby’s antisocial tendencies, his existence largely ignored by the rest of the team, played in his favor. Nobody looked at him, and certainly not close enough to see his eyes constantly narrowed slightly against the pain, the lines dug in at the sides of his mouth, the way he wore his batting gloves or his mitt almost all the time.
And Zito kept an eye on everyone around them, moved to intercept anyone who might be heading in Crosby’s direction, chattered aimlessly with intent to distract whenever the coaches started wondering what the fuck had happened to Crosby’s swing.
Crosby took white pills from an unmarked prescription bottle the origin of which Zito didn’t know, and didn’t talk much, didn’t come home with him for the first two nights. Zito went back to drinking himself to sleep in the armchair, dreaming highly-interpretable dreams about rivers and tunnels and Crosby widening his eyes in surprise, and then shattering into a million pieces.
He caught Crosby alone after the fourth game Crosby had badly played, in the video room, which had been gutted a year ago when the budget was cut, only one monitor left, each game filtered with static. Crosby had padded headphones on and a bag of ice resting on his hand. Zito sat down next to him and pulled the headphones off.
“Okay, can we talk about the team for a minute?”
Crosby glanced at him, an uncharacteristically wary look like a little kid afraid of being hit for saying something wrong. “There’s not a whole lot I could say to keep you from talking about it, is there?”
“No, probably not.” Zito hesitated, then lifted the ice off Crosby’s hand, Crosby hissing between his teeth. Crosby’s hand was white and indigo, and the tape, which Zito had replaced twice since the night Crosby had broken his finger, was turning black at the edges. Zito winced, and put the ice back down.
“Dude, you’re oh-for-nineteen. You’ve made three errors in four games.”
Crosby’s face solidified into familiar shades of irritation. “Christ. You’re a real ray of sunshine, you know that?”
Zito stared down at his hands, his perfect hands. He stuck to what he’d rehearsed. “We got a good shot to win the league, but we can’t do it with a. A hole in the lineup.”
“A hole?” Crosby repeated, aghast. “That’s what I am now?”
Zito swallowed. “You’ve got a broken finger.”
“I fucking know, Zito, god. I just need. I need to figure out how to play around it. It’s not a big deal.”
Zito just looked at him, and Crosby shook his head roughly. “Okay, I’m kinda done talking to you now.”
Zito smiled faintly. “Brush me off, that’s cool. But there’s still the team, man.”
“Fuck the team.” Crosby stopped, looking kinda shocked. “I mean.”
Zito stared back at him, and Crosby opened and closed his mouth a few times, like a fish. Zito felt as if he should back slowly out of the room, hands held in front of him, but he just sat there stupidly.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Crosby said eventually. “You know I’m not like that.”
“I think. I think maybe right now you are.”
Crosby’s eyes whickered crazily, and he blinked several times very fast. “So why are you still here?” he asked.
Zito shook his head. “I have no idea. Except to say that you, you’re not gonna be able to do this without me. You probably won’t be able to do it even with me, so. I can’t just, like. Let that happen.”
“You don’t owe me anything, man.”
“I kinda do.” He shook his head again. “I don’t know. I’m not gonna just hang out and watch it go down, though, I promise you that. That’d kill me.”
Crosby propped his elbow on the table and covered his face with his good hand. “It’s already killing me.”
Zito put his hand on Crosby’s back, sighing. “I really think you should stop this, then.”
Crosby steepled his fingers over his eyes, his back moving smoothly under Zito’s hand. “You don’t get it. You’ve never been injured.”
“If you had been, you’d know. It doesn’t matter how bad it hurts to play, as long as you’re still playing.”
“At the expense of everybody else? Which, you know. Includes me.”
Crosby was silent for a long time, and Zito feared he’d crossed a line, set up some easy punchline for Crosby to deliver: what does it matter if it includes you?
But instead, Crosby let out a long breath and said carefully, “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t. You know I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t fuck with your season if I had a choice. I just. I don’t have a choice. So I’m sorry. And whatever happens, I’m sorry about that forever, okay? I don’t mean to scare you, or, like, put you in jeopardy. Because I wouldn’t do that. But, you know, you’ll be all right. You don’t need me.”
Zito closed his eyes, and a second later Crosby’s hand was creeping across his face, palming his cheek and stroking his thumb across Zito’s eyebrow. Zito thought that somewhere along the line, everything must have been inverted, and now their shirts were inside-out and backwards, and nothing was like it should be.
Crosby leaned in and touched his mouth to the line of Zito’s jaw, and told him again, “I’m really sorry, man.”
Zito woke up to the whine of his bedroom door being opened, and Crosby tripped over his sneakers, almost fell headlong. Zito sat up, seeing Crosby outlined in the dimness as a slightly darker shadow. Zito could feel elastic attached to his back, trying to pull him back down.
Crosby was giggling.
“Hey?” Zito said uncertainly, his hands balled up in the sheets.
“Hey,” Crosby said back, and stumbled to Zito’s bed, sitting heavily on the edge to yank off his shoes and socks one-handed. He was listing to the side, rocking uneasily like a ship, and he crawled without grace up Zito’s body, his left hand hovering above the blankets.
Crosby braced himself on his forearms and smiled dumbly down at Zito.
“What’s going on?” Zito asked, terribly confused.
“Oh, my hand. It doesn’t hurt anymore.” Crosby waved it around, and Zito winced, wanting to catch Crosby’s wrist and hold him still.
“How many of those pills did you take?”
Crosby shrugged off-balance and kissed him. “Three or four,” he said against Zito’s mouth. “Five.” He tasted like bourbon, and Zito pushed Crosby’s shoulder until he let up.
“And you’ve been drinking?”
“No, no, no. I’m not stupid.” Crosby grinned, and leaned down to whisper in his ear. “Just a little drunk.”
Zito rolled Crosby onto his back, cautious of his hand, the sticky edges of the tape catching the hair on Zito’s arm. “Jesus, Bobby,” he said, his mind wrecked with stories of dead musicians and suicidal housewives. There had to be someone he could call to ask what to do in this situation. But all his punk-rock friends had settled down; it was past midnight even in California.
Zito ran his hand over Crosby’s face, and bent to place his ear on Crosby’s chest. His heartbeat was regular and strong, though his breath was coming short, and his hand was twisting into Zito’s hair.
“Don’t, don’t fall asleep, okay?” Zito said, feeling disastrously unprepared. “I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to fall asleep.”
Crosby worked his hand out of Zito’s hair and slid it down the back of Zito’s T-shirt, a fan spread out between Zito’s shoulder blades. “Didn’t come to sleep.” He levered up and pressed his open mouth to the underside of Zito’s jaw.
Zito jerked away, and Crosby made a disappointed sound. Zito gaped down at him. “What’re you doing?”
Crosby laughed, an unhinged noise in a higher register than Zito had ever heard from him. “Didja, you lost your manual? I could write it down for you, really clear directions. Already did that once.”
He tried to kiss Zito again, but Zito dodged him. “You’re like. Really drunk.”
“I am feeling no pain. None, baby, it’s wonderful. You know? After so long, and I just. I didn’t want to have to deal with it tonight.” He shimmied, pressing his hips up. “And I taught you everything, I can do it again.”
Crosby’s one good hand was moving restlessly over Zito’s stomach and chest, and Zito’s resolve was weakening.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said, his eyes shutting as Crosby scraped his nails under Zito’s belly button, flicking the waist of his boxers.
“It’s not like, Doubleday or anything. But it’s a good idea. What else was I gonna do? There were fireworks at my apartment. The window, I couldn’t see anything. Spelled out your name, strange stuff.”
“You’re, um. You’re not making a whole lot of sense.”
Crosby craned up and set his teeth on Zito’s throat. “Can’t help it.” He laughed breathlessly, licking across Zito’s pulse. “I do love you, man, I wanna turn you into a penny. Carry you around in my pocket.”
Zito flattened a hand on Crosby’s chest and pinned him to the bed, blinking in shock. “What did you just say?”
Crosby grinned again. “Something about money?”
Zito shook his head, tasting his pulse on his tongue. Crosby was warm and making rough eager noises in the back of his throat, his hand on Zito’s neck. “Before that.”
“There wasn’t anything before that. Or this. Or you. Only good thing that happened to me this year. Maybe it was a refinery fire. Or, like, that thing where stars explode. What’s that called?”
Zito’s head spun, and he gave up, allowing his hand to slip down Crosby’s chest and his face to bury itself in Crosby’s shoulder. “You won’t remember this, will you?”
“I remember everything,” Crosby told him, happily bunching up Zito’s shirt and trickling his fingers down Zito’s spine. “You’ll tell me the stuff I don’t. I got, like, photographic memory, and you can fill in the missing spots.”
Zito lifted his head and covered Crosby’s mouth with his own. Crosby hummed and bit Zito’s lip, pushing his hips off the bed. Zito half-sat to pull off his shirt, and Crosby started talking disjointedly again, talking dirty and sweet and saying, “like that, perfect.”
Zito made Crosby lie still so he could get him undressed, and kept track of Crosby’s left hand, fearing that Crosby would get caught up and forget, slam his broken finger against Zito’s ribs or shoulder, and it might not hurt now, but it would tomorrow. Zito licked down the line of Crosby’s chest and drew his shorts off, but Crosby pulled him back up by the hair and flipped them so that he was on top again.
Crosby mumbled and his teeth left long paths of scuffed skin on Zito’s stomach. Zito was losing control on the situation and managed, “You should let me-”
“Nah,” Crosby said, breathing hotly in the hollow of Zito’s hip, hooking Zito’s leg over his shoulder. “Gonna suck you off and then I’ma fuck you, and then maybe we can fall asleep.”
He wrapped his hand tight and Zito gasped. Crosby’s left hand was on his stomach, angled up at the wrist, his two taped fingers trembling slightly. Zito had to remind himself forcefully that he couldn’t grip Crosby’s hand, imagining the crunch and squeal of bone, the blood spreading through the tape.
He rubbed his palm on Crosby’s head instead, soft bristly hair and beautifully taut muscles in the back of his neck. Crosby took him all the way down and Zito could feel the breakup of light and sound in each movement, the itch of Crosby’s nails on his thigh, his heel stuttering on Crosby’s back.
Zito saw sparks, and he thought desperately, ‘supernovas,’ and then his world collapsed in on itself and he was left blind.
Crosby woke up before he did, moaning about his head and his hand until Zito rolled over and rubbed Crosby’s back to make him be quiet, found his jeans on the floor and dug the prescription bottle out of the pocket. Zito was still mostly asleep, and Crosby dry-swallowed a pill before Zito remembered to ask if he’d eaten anything yesterday.
Crosby only shrugged, so Zito took him out to the diner, made him eat pancakes and hashbrowns, drinking black coffee with lots of sugar, Zito’s hands rattling the silverware. The painkiller hit and Crosby sank back into the booth, slumping down and peering up at Zito through half-closed eyes.
Zito curled his arm around Crosby’s shoulders and walked him out. He propped Crosby up against the side of his truck and fumbled for his keys, watching Crosby close his eyes against the sun, roll his head on the metal.
“I,” Zito said, and then stopped. Crosby cracked his eyes open for a moment, a tinge of inquisition on his face, and yawned. Zito could count his fillings and he wanted nothing more at that moment than to get in the truck and drive back to his house, board up the windows and push furniture in front of the doors, sleep with Crosby in total darkness until his hand had healed and they could start over again.
“What you said last night,” Zito said. “I just. Me too.”
He held his breath.
Crosby blinked at him. “You too what? What I’d say?”
Zito dropped his keys, bent to get them with his eyes burning. He scraped his knuckles on the asphalt and fought to keep his heart inside his chest. When he straightened, he showed Crosby a normal grin.
“You said you couldn’t wait for the season to be over. Don’t you remember?”
Crosby moved his shoulders tiredly. “I think it’s kind of amazing that I remember my own name, after last night.” He leered a bit, but it was spoiled by another yawn.
Zito unlocked the door and went around to the other side, measuring each step and each breath, crossing his heart, hoping to die. He drove with his wrists, and Crosby dozed in the shotgun seat, breathing through his mouth, his broken hand resting carefully in the bend of his elbow.
“Anyway,” Zito said too quietly for Crosby to hear. “I just wanted you to know that I do too.”
Crosby finally got a hit, and Zito seemed to be the only one who noticed that he lashed at the ball with his left hand barely touching the bat, swinging one-armed like a coach hitting infield practice. The ball squibbed between third and short, and Crosby stood on first with a hard smile on his face, stuffing his batting gloves into his pockets.
His legs twitched; he wanted badly to steal, make the most of the rare opportunity, but there was a lefty on the mound and he had a good pick-off move. Crosby was scared back to the bag twice, once diving for it, and Zito dug his nails into his leg, waiting to see if Crosby had jammed his finger into the base, if he would scream out loud. But Crosby got to his feet again, brushing the dust off.
He was stranded at first, and in the top half of the next inning, three ground balls were hit to him, time slowing down for Zito with every one, and every one fielded cleanly.
They lost, but it was an okay kind of loss, fought to the end.
Zito sat by Crosby’s locker as Crosby got dressed, cracking his knuckles idly and talking some shit. Crosby grunted in response and smoothed his shirt tightly across his stomach and chest. He was getting very good at being one-handed, and Zito pictured the knit of marrow, the slow fuse of bone under the tape. It couldn’t be much longer now.
Zito looked up and their manager was standing in the doorway of his office, gesturing him over. Crosby inclined his head to the side, and Zito said, “be right there, skip.”
He stood and took his keys out of his pocket, detaching the key for his truck and handing the rest to Crosby. “I’ll see you at home, okay?” he said, keeping his voice prudently low. Crosby quickly pocketed the ring.
“Don’t be too long or I’ll fall asleep.”
“If you fall asleep, I’ll wake you up.”
Crosby rolled his eyes. “I don’t know why I even bother.”
Zito punched him on the shoulder, and pushed the tag of Crosby’s shirt under his collar. He crossed the clubhouse, only looking back once to see Crosby putting his stuff away, his head bowed.
His manager was sitting behind his desk, and waved Zito into the other chair. He had something bright coloring his eyes and a white envelope in front of him.
“How you feelin’, kid?” he asked, the corners of his mouth twitching.
Zito shrugged, eyeing him suspiciously. “Pretty good.”
“Gonna feel better in a second.” His manager paused, and a broad grin split his face, unnerving Zito. He tapped the envelope. “Know what this is?”
Zito shrugged again. “An envelope.”
His manager chuckled. “Yeah, I’m gonna miss you.”
Another smart remark died on Zito’s lips. He stared at the envelope, blinking hard as if he could turn it into something with wings that would fly out of the room. “Miss me?”
“It’s a plane ticket,” his manager told him, beaming, his face creased with unfamiliar lines.
Zito could feel his throat drying up, the walls closing in. “To where?” he managed.
“Sacramento.” His manager spread out his hands, his eyebrows up as he waited for Zito to erupt into joy. “You’ve been called up.”
Zito shook his head, having trouble breathing. “I have not.”
His manager’s smile wavered, a cut of ice dragging briefly through his eyes. He scrutinized Zito, looking for evidence of a head wound or something, then said, smiling wide again like he could peer-pressure Zito to do the same, “Hard to believe, I know. But I told you. Didn’t I tell you? Pitch like a god for half the summer and people are gonna take notice.”
Zito counted to twenty, staring hard at the broken pencil on his manager’s desk, trying to refocus himself around a simple thing.
“I can’t go,” he whispered.
He didn’t look up, and didn’t need to. His manager’s sharp inhale was clearly audible. “I beg your pardon?”
Zito shook his head again, fisting his hands and pressing them into the wooden arms of the chair. “I. I’d like to stay. Finish the season. We’re. You know. The league, we’ve got to win the league.”
There was a moment of silence. Then his manager said, dangerously quiet, “What the fuck are you talking about?” Zito didn’t answer, and his manager slapped the desktop, making the broken pieces of pencil jump. “Look at me, Zito, and tell me what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Zito jerked his gaze up, feeling split apart and drained, his eyes gleaming hopelessly. He opened his mouth, but couldn’t find the words.
“We win the league or we don’t, but you’re flying to California tonight irre-fuckin’-gardless, do you understand me?” his manager said. “This is all you’ve ever wanted.”
Zito coughed, and raked his hand across his face, squeezing his eyes shut. He used all his strength to keep from shaking his head once more, to keep from saying, not anymore, it’s not.
“I can’t leave now,” he said instead. “I’ve got. Everything’s unfinished down here.”
“Down here,” his maanger told him harshly, “does not fucking matter anymore. When you get a ticket to Triple-A, Double-A is no longer a concern of yours.”
Zito’s lip sneered, quite of its own volition. “What happened to not thinking about my next team while I was still on this one?”
“You’re not still on this team, kid, are you fucking deaf? You’re property of the Rivercats now and that’s it. So take this,” and he flicked the envelope at Zito, hitting him in the chest, “and go pack your stuff.”
Zito didn’t answer, forcing himself to stay calm. His manager ran a hand through his hair and drummed his fingers near the cigarette pack on his desk.
“What is this?” he asked. “This isn’t the first time you’ve been sent up. And every other time, you couldn’t wait to get on the plane. You’ve never even hung around long enough to say goodbye before.”
Sinking his teeth into the inside of his lip, Zito replied, “It’s different now.”
“Why? Give me one reason why and maybe I won’t think you’ve lost your fucking mind.”
Zito put his hand up over his face. “Maybe I have.”
“It’s Triple-A, Zito,” his manager said with excruciating slowness, like maybe Zito hadn’t heard him the first time. “It’s as close as you can get without actually being there, and it’s the only way to get there, and. Fuckin’ years you’ve been dying for this, and all the stuff you’ve lost along the way, and now you’re, you’re just gonna throw it away? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Pressing his thumb into his eye, Zito was astonished to find himself wishing he’d never met Bobby Crosby with the power he usually reserved for wishing his mother hadn’t died. He was for a moment completely unrecognizable to himself.
Zito closed his hands around the envelope, the paper crinkling and slicing into his fingertips. There was an Oakland A’s logo in the corner, a clear plastic window showing the address of this ballpark. He imagined, just for a moment, tearing the ticket in half, standing and walking out.
“You show up at this ballpark tomorrow and I’ll make sure they don’t let you in the gates,” his manger said, his face dark and threatening, looking at him like his hair had gone stark white, something impossible like that. “Your flight leaves in four hours. You probably want to get a move on.”
Zito swallowed, and opened the envelope with his thumb. He took the ticket out and touched his name, thinking that the ink might still be wet, and he could smear it so badly that they wouldn’t accept it at the airport. The ink was dry, of course. Zito thought for a moment about how flawless it must be on the coast right now, though Sacramento was many miles away from the ocean and at least fifteen degrees hotter than the bay cities. It still had to beat Midland.
He felt his good intentions shriveling up inside him, blown away by a quick wind. Crosby was waiting for him, trying not to fall asleep. Zito stood.
“I’m not going tonight,” he said, and his manager’s face was furious and disbelieving, painfully betrayed.
“I’ll go,” Zito interrupted him, shoving the ticket in his pocket. “But you can tell them to wait one fucking day, all right? Just give me one day and then I’ll do whatever they want me to do.”
His manager stared at him, shaking his head slowly. “Jesus, kid, what happened to you?”
Zito clenched his teeth, and left the room.
He drove home with his eyes closed most of the way. He pulled over at one point and walked in circles around the car, steam rising from the oilfield. He was trying to figure out what to say, which parts to leave out and how to defend himself if Crosby tried to hit him, or maybe just spread his arms and bare his face and say, don’t use your left.
Zito parked behind Crosby’s car, aware that he was blocking him in, trying not to think of it as cutting off the avenue of escape. The front door and screen were both standing open, letting the bugs in. Zito followed the blue light down the hall to the living room, where Crosby was barefoot and drinking a beer.
“Hey,” Crosby said without taking his eyes off the television. “Welcome home.”
Something cracked like a gunshot, and Zito fell to his knees.
His hands slammed into the thin carpet, powder-burning the heels, and he could hear his breath whistling in gasps, in and out, again and again. He was sure for a moment that he was dying, and thought wonderingly, ‘figured it’d be a car crash.’
Crosby was saying his name, louder with every moment that passed, and came to him so quickly his footsteps sounded like rain on sand. Crosby pounded him on the back as if Zito was choking, tugging at his hair. Zito tightened his hands into fists, his knuckles snapping, his skin chafed, and worked on breathing deep and slow, his mother somewhere nearby saying, calm down baby boy, nothing hurts forever.
Zito squeezed his eyes shut and the season flickered past in a slide-show, flying backwards in time until all he could see was Crosby lounging on the couch studying him carefully in the moment before the power went out.
“Dude, what’s going on? Dude. Talk to me, motherfucker, c’mon. C’mon, please.” Crosby’s hand was rubbing wide figure-eights on his back, between his shoulder blades. He sounded scared and that made everything worse.
Zito sucked in some air and wrenched himself up, swearing that he wouldn’t cry. He sat back on his heels and his back hit the wall, his head thumping and sending down a rain of plaster. He kept his eyes closed and Crosby’s hand touched his chest, pattering nervously at his heart.
“What happened?” Crosby asked, and Zito shook his head, more white drifting into his hair. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the crumpled plane ticket, holding it out blindly.
It took Crosby forever. Zito heard the rustle of paper and the airy sound of surprise, and Crosby’s knee, which had been pressed against his own, was taken away, so that they were touching nowhere.
“Oh,” Crosby said eventually, his voice flat. Zito could hear him getting to his feet, walking away.
Zito opened his eyes and Crosby was standing over by the television, reading the ticket by the light. Zito wanted to tell him that he wasn’t leaving now, he’d stolen one more night, but no part of him was working.
Crosby looked over at him, weirdly lit from below by the television, his eyes sunk deep, his cheeks hollowed. Crosby grinned joylessly and looked like a skull.
“Well, fuck, let’s go celebrate.”
Zito stared at him. His mouth was starkly dry and there was a buzz of static in his ears, blaming it on the nearby sky thatched with high-frequency power lines. He worked his jaw and asked in a tiny whisper, “What?”
Crosby lifted the ticket, his eyes heated. “It’s the best night of your life. And all your dreams come true. So let’s go burn this place down, what do you say?”
Zito pulled his legs out from under him and sat heavily on the floor, burying his face in his knees. “Fuck you,” he said, muffled, his arms clenched around his legs.
“Don’t you dare,” Crosby said angrily, coming closer again. “Don’t you dare feel sorry for yourself, you son of a bitch.”
“I’m not,” Zito lied, pressing his forehead as hard as he could into his kneecaps. “What’s the matter with you? I’m. I’m kinda fuckin’ heartbroken, Bobby, would you at least give me that?”
Zito raised his head. Crosby balled up the ticket against his hip with his good hand, and whipped it at Zito. It hit him right between the eyes and bounced away.
“You don’t get to be heartbroken,” Crosby told him, ripping each word into a jagged shape. “You’re not allowed to be anything except happy right now, okay? Because this is everything and it’s what you’ve been waiting for and I don’t care how bad you wanna fuck it up, you’re not going to. You’re not.”
Zito found it in him to scoff. “As if I really have control over what I fuck up.” He shivered, wrapping his arms tighter. “Look,” he said, his voice breaking. “I’m sorry. I know it’s kinda. Kinda rude to be like this, when you’re. Well.”
“When I’m gonna rot away in the bus leagues without you?”
Shaking his head, Zito bit the thick denim of his jeans, blinking back tears. “You’re not gonna rot away, man, don’t say that. You’re, you’re almost better, anyway.”
“And the season’s almost over. You get three weeks in California and I get, what? A fucking baseball card with your autograph on it? I mean,” and Crosby faltered, his eyes widening. “Who’s gonna tape up my hand?”
They stared at each other for a second, and then Zito used all his strength to get to his feet. He went over to Crosby and carefully slipped an arm around his waist, waiting for Crosby to pull away or spit in his face. But Crosby stayed straight and motionless, letting Zito hook a thumb in his belt loop.
“I don’t mean to be like this,” Zito said, brushing his hand across the lines on Crosby’s forehead. “I just. I don’t want to go. And I hate that. Trust me. I’d give anything to be happy right now.”
Crosby glanced up at him, the television light catching like fire in his eyes. “All you have to give up is me.”
“I know that. I know.” Zito rested his head against Crosby’s, breathing faintly on his cheek. “I’m just trying to figure out how.”
Crosby’s eyes closed, and his good hand crawled up Zito’s shirt, winding his fingers in the fabric. He shifted closer and Zito took the chance to curl his other arm around Crosby’s shoulders, the scuff on their faces rasping.
“You got in over your head,” Crosby told him, his lips moving against Zito’s cheek.
“So did you,” Zito said back, and waited for Crosby to deny it. But Crosby just sighed, pushing his fingers under Zito’s collar. Zito wanted Crosby to say something else, willing to wait until after four or five painkillers and half a bottle of bourbon, but he figured this was as close as he was going to get.
“It’s not so hard, man,” Crosby told him, lowering his head to kiss Zito’s smooth collarbone. “You’ll play, and all this’ll seem real far away. Like a dream or something. It won’t take too long, and soon it’ll be just like you thought when you were a kid. Playing in Triple-A, five seconds away from everything. Nothing else will matter then.”
“How do you know?” Zito asked. “You talk like you’ve been there.”
Crosby pulled back, smiling vaguely. “Every night for the past twenty years, actually.”
Zito traced his fingers on the back of Crosby’s neck, wanting to find his old camera and start taking pictures again, realizing all at once that he had no record of this summer, nothing to look at when he was drunk and lonely and wasting another night in Hollywood.
“Well,” he said, swallowing hard. “It’s probably all for nothing, anyway. I’m sure I’ll be back down here eventually.”
Crosby’s hand clutched in Zito’s shirt. “You better fucking not be. If I see you around here again, I’ll, I’ll kick the shit out of you, man, I swear I will.”
Zito closed his eyes and bent his head, pressing his face into Crosby’s neck. “I guess you’ll just have to come up and meet me, then.”
His hand loosening, smoothing out the wrinkles in Zito’s shirt, Crosby exhaled and turned his face into Zito’s hair. “Guess I will,” Crosby said.
They stood like that for a long time. Zito kept thinking, next he’d kiss Crosby on the mouth or Crosby would kiss him, and then they’d fall to the floor or maybe make it to the couch if they were lucky. And then they’d have sex for the last time and Zito would try to make sure they both stayed awake, but he wouldn’t be successful, and they’d fall asleep and hours would pass. And then he’d wake up and have to leave.
He let Crosby go, and stepped away. Crosby’s hand stayed up in the air for a moment, his palm showing, and then Crosby let it fall. Zito rubbed his face, and asked, “Have you eaten anything?”
Crosby blinked. “No.”
“Okay. Let’s make dinner or something.”
Crosby lifted his eyebrows. “You don’t have any food.” He scratched his stomach, his expression confused and like he wanted to put his hands back on Zito. “And don’t you have to. Um.”
“I’ll go tomorrow. Tomorrow. I can trade the ticket in, I’m pretty sure.”
Crosby’s eyebrows pulled down and his mouth thinned and for a second he looked abjectly miserable. He swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand and said, “Can we, like, be done talking about it now?”
Zito nodded fiercely, his throat closing up again. Crosby nodded back, probably more than a little relieved.
Zito called for pizza and his voice trembled so badly that Crosby put a steadying hand on the small of his back, Zito’s hand up on the wall and his forehead pressed to the flats of his knuckles.
Each minute went by quicker than the last, and Crosby took him by the arm and guided him to the couch, got him a beer and sat down beside him. Zito stared without seeing at the television, the inside of his chest feeling echoey and strummed. He wasn’t sure if he’d made it better, because now they’d eat pizza and watch bad TV and it all still seemed an unbelievable waste. Like they should ride out to an oil derrick and climb it hand over hand until all of Texas was beneath them, send him off like reckless teenagers.
Crosby bumped him and Zito put his arm around Crosby’s shoulders. “So,” he said hoarsely. “How was your day?”
Crosby started to laugh, burying his face in the hollow of Zito’s shoulder. Zito held on, as tight as he could.
In the morning, Zito awoke to find Crosby still asleep beside him, his arm over Zito’s stomach. Zito lay there for an hour or so, and then slid out, his joints popping and the dust swirling in the shaft of pale light through the window.
He made coffee and the scent of it stirred Crosby, led him bleary and stumbling into the kitchen, where he leaned against Zito and pressed an open-mouthed kiss to his shoulder. They had cold pizza for breakfast, and went into the bedroom to pack Zito’s life up in three suitcases. Zito gave Crosby a couple of old T-shirts and his favorite keychain, and they left everything that didn’t fit on the front porch with a cardboard sign reading ‘Free’ in Sharpie.
They found baseballs and dead bugs all over the house, and though they must have spoken, Zito would never remember a word.
He put the suitcases and his duffel in the bed of his truck, and then turned to Crosby, his hand fiddling with the loose keys in his pocket. They’d locked all the doors and bolted the windows, stripped the bed. Crosby looked exhausted and washed out, red dirt coating his shoes.
Zito said, “listen,” acutely conscious of the taut lines of Crosby’s face, his stupid stick-out ears and the bite mark on his throat.
Crosby shook his head, staring at something over Zito’s shoulder, blinking quickly. “Go,” he said roughly. “Don’t look back.”
Zito bit the insides of his cheeks and reached out, took Crosby’s left hand in his own. He touched the stringy remains of the tape, feeling the unnatural swell, the shiny stretched skin peeking out. He lifted Crosby’s hand to his lips and kissed his broken ring finger with all the care he could muster, the sunlight sheering off the house’s windows.
Zito got in his truck and drove out into the wasteland, praying for a cloud of dust to rise in his wake and obscure what he was leaving behind, but he checked his rearview mirror and Crosby was standing there, one hand in his pocket and the other at his mouth, getting smaller and smaller until Zito could pretend that he was just a smudge on the glass.