There must be some narrowness in the soul that compels one to have secrets.
- Henry David Thoreau
What do you do, when you have just won a college baseball championship and your secret boyfriend, the school president, is dead?
There were no instruction manuals for grief among the tightly packed and stacked books on the woefully inadequate shelves in Phumber 405. The bed on Henry’s side of the room was empty of a person, much less the solace and understanding that even Henry’s silently baffled presence could often convey. Just an alley away, in Scull Hall, in the place where they’d kissed and made love for the first and last times, in the place Guert had lived and worked and died, were the only people in the entire state who knew what he was going through. He couldn’t talk to them. Owen hugged his knees to his chest and sobbed.
Pella was a wreck. She deserved to be a wreck, and everyone understood it. She’d lost not only her father, but her only surviving parent, her only close relative, the one person she’d always been able to depend on, even when they were fighting, even when Guert was doing crazy, undependable things like falling for a much younger black student. What Owen had lost, other than several years of a schoolboy crush, was two months’ worth of a relationship. Two months that, had Guert lived, would have eventually paled into insignificance. Had Guert lived, Owen would have gone to Tokyo and perhaps they would have seen each other once every couple of years, kept in touch by e-mail, but when Guert eventually died at some ripe old age, silver hair finally white, Owen would surely have accepted the news dry-eyed.
He hated himself for finding that idea comforting.
Of course, it could also have been much worse. He might not have gone to Tokyo, in that other world, or maybe Guert had gone with him. After a year he would have graduated, and then their relationship, though odd and the kind of thing that made people gossip, would have been nothing to prevent them being a public couple. They could have lived together for years, decades. Wouldn’t it be worse to lose your partner of a lifetime than the lover of a few weeks, no matter how sweet and passionate those few weeks had been?
At least, he thought bitterly, that hypothetical, idealized future version of himself would have been permitted to cry at the funeral.
He’d caught the bus into Door County to buy himself a good suit with the money his mother had given him for new clothes for the summer school classes he was supposed to be teaching. The day after, he’d put it on, washed his face a dozen times, resisted taking a handful of whatever pills came to hand, and marched himself over to Scull Hall.
Guert’s funeral was held a week and a half after his death. Henry was still in a psych ward in South Carolina. Pella was still a wreck, but a Xanaxed wreck. Mike held her right hand, Owen her left, the three of them rivaling each other in bone-crushing intensity. And that was how they got through the service.
It was a beautiful event, if you could somehow divorce yourself from the fact that Guert was dead and no amount of flowers or weeping students or inspirational speeches would ever make that hurt less. There was an open casket, and Guert looked like Guert, at least if you had only ever known him as the school president, as a dapper figure of a man. Before April, before Owen knew what it was like to kiss him and make love to him and hold him as he slept, doubtless Owen would have been convinced as well. He would have been sad at the loss of a good man and the author of The Sperm-Squeezers, but he would have gone back to his dorm, drunk some good scotch, and started writing out his lesson plans.
Owen had tried the scotch. It hadn’t helped. He’d tried staying in bed all day, the shades drawn, and that hadn’t helped either. Sometimes he dreamed of Guert, or of Henry collapsing on the field, and that just made everything worse. So he wrote his lesson plans, because what was the alternative? The alternatives were all around – pills in his top dresser drawer, the lake or the rooftop just footsteps away – but what would be the point in that? Had Guert saved him at fourteen to kill him at twenty-one?
Two weeks after Guert had died, he woke up. It was still dark outside, but he felt refreshed, awake like never before. He sat up in bed, rubbed his eyes, and gently prodded inside his mind at the knowledge that, yes, Guert was dead. He swallowed.
Two weeks was hardly any time at all. No one would expect Pella to study or work or be a functioning human being for months yet. But plenty of people had to carry on regardless. Perhaps he could be one of them. He wiped his glasses, found his flip-flops, and ventured downstairs to check his mail.
The Phumber mailboxes were arranged alphabetically, such that mail for Dunne was lumped in with mail for Dewar, Ellis, and Farquhar. Owen switched on the light in the hallway and dropped the circulars straight into the conveniently-placed trashcan. A journal he subscribed to had arrived, as well as a thick envelope from the Trowell Foundation. And a business-sized white envelope. Owen flipped it over, squinted at the stamp in the half-light.
Upstairs, he cleared papers away from the answering machine and flipped on the ringer. Nine messages – the most, he thought, the dilapidated machine could store at once. His BlackBerry, reactivated for the first time in weeks, evidenced a similar flurry of activity. His e-mail pinged the instant he signed in, revealing a host of newsletters, congratulations about the championship, several messages from his mother, and… Something from G. Affenlight, dated around noon on the Friday he had died.
Once Owen had sent Guert an e-mail and then sat nervously by the computer for two hours, pretending he was writing a paper in order to keep Henry away from the screen. Had he been too forward in addressing the president by his first name? Had he assumed an intimacy that, for all he’d sensed it in their meeting, just wasn’t there? Was the president even by his computer rather than out on a date with any of the college’s eligible ladies?
His inbox had, finally, pinged:
I always appreciate hearing from the students, particularly on matters that have such relevance for us all. Unfortunately I tend to concur with your summation. I’ll have to consult with Mrs. McCallister in the morning regarding a suitable time for our next meeting, but rest assured I’ll be in touch soon. In the meantime, however, would you forward some recommendations regarding further reading on this subject? The breadth of your cohorts’ knowledge has led to the somewhat shameful realization that my expertise is almost non-existent.
The e-mail – or, really, that last word, the use of a first name – had made him whoop suddenly, startling Henry, who looked up from his physics textbook in alarm. Now the message, when he braced himself and clicked on it, was much shorter:
Thinking of you. Good luck for today’s game.
It had been foolish of him to send such an e-mail from his public, college president’s account. But sweet, too, and now precautions were sadly unnecessary. No one was going to see them kissing or start raking through his correspondence. And even if they did uncover his love affair with a student, what then?
The cursor lingered over the Reply button, as if anyone but Mike, who even now was doubtless in front of Guert’s computer in his office, would ever read it. Owen saved it instead to the folder that contained all of his exchanges with Guert, resolving to print it all later.
The next message was from an unfamiliar name: Dwight Rogner.
Please contact me at the cell number below or by reply to this message, any time, day or night. We have a lot to discuss!
Looking down the list, there were several more from the same address, with increasingly urgent-sounding titles. Owen looked a little closer at the e-mail address. The St. Louis Cardinals? Something to do with Henry?
He remembered the crest on the business envelope and tore it open. Inside was a thick wad of stapled paper, and a single sheet letter congratulating him for being chosen by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 49th round of the amateur draft. It was also promising him a signing bonus in the low five figures. Owen thumbed through the contract. This had to be a fantasy baseball thing, or a stupid prank from Starblind. Or both.
Well, it was easy enough to find out: straightening his glasses he Googled the draft, which had taken place a few days ago. Henry’s name jumped out at him, and Starblind’s right above it. He smiled – no matter Henry’s recent problems and Adam’s ego, they both deserved it. But then, a little further down: Owen Dunne, right fielder, Westish Harpooners.
He checked other news sites, reputable sites. Then the official MLB homepage. It couldn’t be true. Why would anyone pick him? Maybe Henry had swung it, somehow: he’d only sign if they picked his friend too. But Henry didn’t have that kind of pull, and even if he did he had no reason to think Owen wanted a career in baseball. They should’ve taken Mike, despite his knees, or Sal Phlox or Rick O’Shea, schlub that he was, or Ajay, even if he was short. Owen was going to Tokyo. Owen was an academic, a playwright. Owen fully intended never to pick up a bat again.
Scrolling up through the mess of e-mails, he read through Dwight Rogner’s comments, congratulations from Westish and San Jose friends, some slightly drunken remarks from Harpooners, something he skimmed past from his father, and… He paused. Three messages, all with innocuous titles and vitriolic content from alleged Cardinals fans, shocked and dismayed that their team – or, indeed, any team, had drafted a gay player. They’d probably Googled his name and found the Westish LGBT club, plus papers he’d written on transcendentalism and homosexuality.
The insults were poor, clichéd, and nothing he hadn’t read a hundred times directed at men and women just like him. But now they were actually directed at him in particular, by people who would be in the stands, hurling abuse at him (and possibly more). Gay men had been beaten and killed for less. And these were just the few people who had cared enough to search for a prospective minor league player picked in the 49th round. If he actually played, actually gave interviews to gay magazines or brought some future boyfriend to games…
It was late, but he pulled on real shoes and went downstairs again, crossing to the public entrance of Scull Hall and slipping inside. There was a dim light in Guert’s office, and it was nice to linger for a moment in the hallway and just imagine finding the man himself behind the desk… But in fact there was no one at the desk. Mike was sitting on the love seat, going through a box of files. Contango the husky sat up and nosed Owen’s hand before settling back down to resume dozing on the rug.
Owen held up the contract. “Do you know anything about this?”
Mike gestured for him to switch on the main overhead light before taking the contract from him. Owen leaned against the edge of the desk, which was also covered in papers. Ever since they’d returned from South Carolina, Mike had been doing a hero’s job wading through all of Guert’s documentation, trying to make sense of it, determining how it should be filed away, what would be required by the new president, and what could be thrown out.
On the very first day, when they’d stepped into the office together, into what was now and would forever be the place Guert had died, Mike had offered him the task: “You knew him best,” Mike had said. Pella, after all, was in no state to do anything, and Owen had been putting up a good front. It was only after he’d wordlessly gone to the love seat and swung his legs up like he had on so many days, like Guert had one final time, that he’d been wracked by sobs, gasping for breath while Mike tried to comfort him.
In any case, he could never have done it. He would have kept everything, everything Guert had ever written or touched, as if a pile of papers could give him back that warm body, that ready smile, breath against his skin, wise words when they lay together.
“Are you going to sign it?” Mike said.
Owen spread his hands. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s fairly simple… A signing bonus, plus a basic salary, general terms…”
“No, no, no.” Owen tried to breathe, to feel himself relax. “You mean it’s real? A real major league team drafted me? They want to give me money to play baseball?”
Mike nodded. “Yeah. I mean, plenty of guys get drafted and never see any kind of success, but that’s the idea.”
“And you don’t think it’s crazy anyone wanted to draft me? Let alone give me tens of thousands of dollars for it?”
“Look, Buddha, it’s crazy anyone gets paid so much to hit and catch balls. Now I won’t say you’ve got the natural talent Henry has – or used to have – but who really does? You can certainly hit pitches reliably, you’ve got a good tactical brain, and you’re not the worst right fielder I’ve ever seen. Plus you’re a southpaw, which can help.”
The lack of complete bafflement on Mike’s part seemed even more baffling than the original letter. “I wasn’t even a first team pick for the Harpooners, for a division three college team.”
“The team that won the championship, and you were first team in our toughest games. You made some huge, vital runs for us. I don’t know I’d have relied on anyone else to hit those pitches. You’re not that strong, Buddha, but you’re accurate. Accuracy’s pretty hard to learn, but strength? Spend a year or two in the minors with pro coaches and a ton of whey protein and you’ll be hitting like Henry used to. Like I used to. Sure you’re a wildcard, but who isn’t in the, what, 49th round?”
“I’m supposed to be going to Tokyo,” Owen said dully.
When he’d won the fellowship, it had seemed like an entire world had opened up for him, giving him a year expanding his horizons at a major university, in one of the world’s most spectacular cities. With Guert’s death and Henry in the hospital, it had seemed like there was absolutely nothing holding him to the US. But now this… If he’d believed in signs, in miracles, this would still be one of the strangest. He straightened his glasses. “Mike… how many gay players are there in the major league?”
Mike shrugged. “Openly gay players? None that I know of.”
“And in the minors?”
“Well, they don’t get the same publicity or scrutiny, but I’d have to say none there either. But Buddha – Owen – you can’t make this decision based on being gay. You have to make it because it’s what you want to do with your life. I know Henry’s going to be okay eventually. Baseball’s everything to him. And, hey, if he doesn’t make it, then at least he didn’t give up some other dream to pursue it. Honestly I’m not even sure Starblind’s head’s in the right zone. Sure he’ll love the money and the girls, but he’d love anything if there was money and girls. And you – I know you enjoyed being on the team, but it’s not your dream to play professionally.”
“Maybe it should be.”
“Mike, how many gay men get this sort of chance? Even if I do nothing for a year I’ll have been the first openly gay man playing professional baseball in the USA. That makes it that much easier for the next guy, who’s done nothing but dream about the big leagues, to say yes and get a contract. Do you know what it would’ve meant to me, ten years ago, seeing a gay guy playing on ESPN?”
Mike stood up from the love seat, setting the contract down. “I get it. I know I’m not in the same position, but I get it. But Owen, you’re not some sort of political puppet. If you sign that contract you’d be giving up Tokyo, giving up your education. Sure you’ll get a nice payday, but you’ve already got a great fellowship to study in Japan, which is what you actually want to do, not sit on a bench and hang out on buses all over the country for a few years. You can’t define yourself by being gay. You’ve got to do what you want to do.”
“I want to save some kids’ lives and hearts and sanities the way Guert saved mine.”
“And you’re going to do that from right field? What if Affenlight had played football instead? He might never have written that book.”
“It’s not the same situation. No one ever knew Guert was queer.”
Mike sighed. “Look, I know it isn’t my future we’re talking about, but now isn’t the time to make any decisions about anything. We just won a championship, Henry’s in the hospital, Affenlight died… I know how nuts I feel, and I can’t imagine how you even get up every day, let alone how you can contemplate making a choice now that could determine the whole course of your life. You’ve got until the end of August to decide about this. That’s almost three months. Take a breath. Talk to your mom. To your professors. To Henry.”
Owen nodded. He felt exhausted. “I want us to practice.”
“Baseball,” Owen said, as if Mike had somehow contracted amnesia. “Henry’s not here, so imagine I’m Henry from three years ago. I’ll get up at five and drink that awful stuff that makes you fart and bench press and actually run on our runs. I need to know if I could actually do this. If I’m going to be the first gay man in pro baseball, I want to be good too.”
“Three months might be a lot of time to think, but it’s not that long for your body. You’re not going to pack on much muscle.”
Owen looked down at himself. In the past, he’d always found his body to be suited to whatever he wanted to do. He could run at a reasonable pace without getting winded. He could blow through yoga classes. He could enjoy making love for hours, and his lovers, of whom there had admittedly not been many, had seemed to enjoy his body too. He’d never before envied the musculature of Henry or Starblind, or the bulk of Mike Schwartz.
“I just need to know if I can do it,” he said.
When he walked back to his room, Phumber 405 wasn’t any less empty, but the screensaver on his laptop was winking colors at him. He let it continue to dance from corner to corner, popped the window, and lit up a joint – his last, until he decided to be sociable with the theater staff he suspected might have the same predilection.
Mike, as always, gave good advice. And if Guert were here? If they were lying in Guert’s bed now, kissing, discussing solar panels and Lear, what would Guert say? He’d laugh at the idea of playing professionally, it was almost certain – not because he was being cruel, but because he didn’t value sport anywhere near as highly as academia. He’d tell Owen to frame the letter and go to Japan. Except…
Maybe there was a world in which Owen was a professional, openly gay baseball player in a relationship with the president of Westish College. Now that would be a world. An utterly insane and improbable world, but nonetheless…
His phone rang.
He fished it from his pocket suspiciously, expecting an Unknown number that meant Dwight Rogner. He answered, “Mom?”
“Oh Owen. I was just about to get on a plane and come myself to check you were all right. You haven’t been in touch in weeks.”
Owen snuffed out his joint and closed the window. “I’ve been busy. Classes.”
“You sound terrible.”
“I’m just tired.”
“Your head’s okay?”
“My head’s fine.” If it had been hurting lately, it wasn’t anything to do with his recently-broken cheekbone.
A pause. If Genevieve was good at respecting his personal boundaries, she was also a journalist and concerned mother. “O, do you want to come home? You’ve had an awful few weeks, with Henry and Guert. I know they meant a lot to you.”
It sounded like they were stuffed animals. “Henry’s going to be fine. He’s flying home in a few days, he thinks.”
“How’s Pella doing?”
“Mike’s looking after her.”
Another pause. “People have been calling the house. The studio. I know baseball must be the last thing on your mind, but you can’t avoid the entire outside world forever.”
Owen reflected that, if he did, Westish would be the very place from which to project his isolation. Besides, after August the decision would be made, by him or for him. “I’ll get in touch with the club.”
“Okay. It’s good to get one thing off your shoulders. I’m so proud that they even considered you, but you have such a bright academic future. I don’t think Guert would have wanted you to waste your time playing baseball.”
“Guert came to every one of my games.” Even if her assertion was true, he couldn’t believe that Guert, if Guert had been sitting with him now, would have been so blunt. Guert might even have wanted him to say yes: Say yes, stay, and we can be together.
“He… seemed like a very sweet man, O, but college baseball is very different to doing it as a career.”
Owen hung up as soon as he politely could, cutting short Genevieve’s comments about his father trying to get in touch. Doubtless it wasn’t the sniff of money that had inspired him to pick up the phone – rather the idea that his only son might finally have done something he found admirable. Either way, Owen had nothing to say.
He set his alarm for 5am and read The Art of Fielding until he fell asleep.
The morning was disorienting, the light level outside too low for him to think of it as “day”. Usually when Henry got up, he’d burrow down under his comforter and be thankful for the three or so hours he still had to sleep. This time he got up and showered without really being conscious of anything. He tugged Henry’s hot-rod protein powder out from the closet and mixed it up with a glass of milk that hadn’t exactly gone bad. It tasted just as repellent as he feared.
Probably a minor league coach would proclaim him both too skinny and too fat – no real meat on him, but no tightly-defined abs either. How much could his body change in three months? And did he want it to?
He dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt, noting that his Harpooners uniform was still dirty and crumpled in his bag, badly needing to be laundered, and trotted out. At least he could pretend to be awake.
The campus was quiet, the June air cool. As he crossed the Small Quad, the chapel was tolling in the half-hour. Had anyone even set foot on the baseball diamond since their last practice? There were always a few eager footballers and track athletes around the sports fields, always swimmers and weightlifters at the VAC, but no one went to the diamond just for the hell of it.
Mike was there, leaning on the chain-link fence by the dugout. In a way it seemed as though they were two old men returning to the scene of a long-ago triumph, their teammates all dead or in nursing homes, the diamond fielded only by ghosts. In reality, of course, they were all safe at home with their parents or off partying with friends or traveling the world.
Owen had met Guert’s two surviving brothers at the funeral, both of them in their seventies, both of them almost exactly like the windbeaten Midwestern farmers he would have imagined. They were both tall like Guert, but they were fairer, their gray eyes closer to blue, their white hair once blond. Owen introduced himself as Pella’s friend – even to be Guert’s friend was impossible – and they were polite and pleasant enough, but their memories were clearly all of Guert when he was Owen’s age, before he’d alienated himself forever by moving to Boston and becoming an academic. Still, Owen would have loved to sit down with them over a bottle of Guert’s scotch and hear stories about Guert as a young man…
“I wasn’t sure you would come.” Mike looked pretty terrible in daylight – hangdog, unshaven, simply unfit rather than the massive presence he had been on the field just weeks ago.
Owen nodded. “It’s all just a dream, isn’t it?”
“We passed out drinking in Affy’s study? Maybe. Maybe your mom’s about to wake us up.”
They paused for a moment, just in case.
The drills were nothing out of the ordinary: Owen had been doing them at every practice since freshperson year, excepting his month off. Lately he’d even been taking them seriously. But today he gave them his all, sprinting, making the catches, hitting the curve balls. Twenty minutes in, he puked up most of Henry’s SuperBoost by home plate.
“This isn’t going to work, is it?” he asked Mike dully as they sipped water from the gym’s cooler.
Mike shrugged. “Same thing I told you last night, Buddha. You have talent. You have brains. If this is what you want, and you want it enough, you can make progress between now and the end of August. You won’t be at Starblind’s level of speed, or hitting homers, but you’ll be better than you are now. Ditch the pot, start guzzling down the protein, working out, running, practicing your fielding particularly… You wouldn’t be in bad shape for the minors, and they’ll whip you into pretty damn good shape soon enough. If you want it. The other guys you’re with, they might be heavier or slower or even weaker than you. They might not be able to think strategically if their lives depended on it. But you have to believe they want it. They’ve dreamed about the Show their entire lives. A lot of them have absolutely zero prospects if they don’t make it as ballplayers, and there’s a lot of dough at stake if nothing else.”
“You don’t think I should do it.”
“I think you need to do it for the right reasons.”
“There’s more than one right reason.”
The phone in his room was ringing by the time he got back and, assuming it was about the class he was scheduled to teach later in the day, he picked it up, cradling it to his shoulder as he untied his sneakers. “Hello?”
“Yes? Who is this?”
“Dwight Rogner. Boy am I glad to hear from you. I was just about to hop on a plane and track you down myself. I heard about your president, very sad, seemed like a good guy, but people usually don’t drop off the edge of the world when they get drafted. Not even in Wisconsin. I managed to find your friend Henry and he’s in some random hospital in South Carolina. Now, did you receive our offer?”
Owen eyed the envelope on his desk. “I did, and the club is being very kind, Mr. Rogner, but…”
“Honestly, you Westish boys. Henry gave me the same spiel: he’s had all these problems, he’s out of practice, he’s not eating right. As long as you kids are walking and talking come September, we’ll figure out the rest. You have potential, and it’s our job to make that potential into something.”
“Henry’s a genius on the field. I’m just okay. And not ‘okay’ by major league standards. Okay by division three college standards.”
“Yeah? Listen, Owen. You boys haven’t had the stiffest competition, I’ll give you that. But my entire job is to go round colleges and high schools and watch kids play ball. I’m paid to pick the right ones, to know what real talent is. I’ll grant you, I haven’t seen much of you this season, I heard about that terrible injury, but you hit some pitches I wouldn’t think even A-Rod had a prayer of getting… And you hit them well. We didn’t pick you as some kind of Halloween prank, son. We want you in a Cardinals jersey in a few years.”
Owen glanced dumbly down at his wrinkled Harpooners t-shirt. “I’m supposed to go to Tokyo. I have a scholarship.”
“Okay, but Tokyo isn’t going anywhere, and in a few years you won’t need a scholarship. You know how it feels to retire at thirty, thirty-five, with a bank account that means you can go anywhere? Go back to school then. You’re an English student, right? You think they’ll have redefined books in ten years?”
“And how will you feel about having a gay man on your team?”
A breath. “Yeah, I heard about that. Look, we’re an equal opportunity team. Black, white, gay, straight, whatever. I’m not saying everyone’s going to be fine with it, but you’re a big guy, you can play, and everyone’s going to figure out you’re here on merit, not because we’ve got some quota to fill.”
His summer school class was composed of twenty people, mature and international students in addition to local Wisconsin teenagers trying to make up credits. Compared to the regular students who had just gone home, burnt out by the semester, they seemed bright and fresh-faced, eager to learn, even from someone younger than most of them who didn’t even have a degree yet. It was a huge honor to be asked to teach, a reflection of Dr. Sobel’s confidence in him, and another reassurance that his alleged brilliance wasn’t just something Guert had half-imagined because he was in love. Still, he found himself doubting what wisdom he had to impart, wishing he could just set these students his own problem to solve as homework.
“Crisis,” he said. “Whether it’s external or internal, a crisis is at the crux of most well-told stories. Why should we be focusing on this particular period of the characters’ lives, this hour or these years? Because of the crisis. Perhaps the most difficult, terrifying, paralyzing question in their lives is how to deal with an earthquake, an act of terror, the loss of a child, an upcoming election. But for a particular character, perhaps it’s something as deceptively simple as speaking in public, coming out of the closet, or even just throwing a ball. The way you confront that central issue, that key crisis, can make us all believe that bringing himself to get out of bed can be as momentous, challenging, and remarkable for that character as it would for another character to save the known universe.”
They looked at him, some blankly, two or three tapping every word out on their laptops.
Owen cleared his throat. “Okay, so I hope you’ve done the assigned reading from the department website…”
There was no way for the summer to pass quickly, but it passed, June slipping into July, students sunbathing shirtless and in bikini tops by the lake. Owen went by Guert’s quarters to invite Pella to join him on a walk, to get her out into the sunshine and fresh air among people, rather than clinging to her father’s absent presence. She seemed coherent, almost cheerful, when they talked, but he always found himself sitting alone in the grass, making notes on his Xeroxed pages from The Cherry Orchard.
If Guert had been here, would he ever have been here, not shirtless but maybe in a t-shirt, sitting on the sun-dappled grass, letting Owen read to him? Owen had never before spent the summer at Westish, had instead gone home to San Jose or vacationed in Egypt. What had Guert done during the summer? Sat in his stuffy office and toiled?
Sometimes Owen lay back, made drowsy by the words and the hazy air, and daydreamed about Guert nestled against him, a hand slid inside the undone buttons of his shirt, even Guert’s questions helping to clear his mind. And then a student would appear with a hesitant, “Uh, Mr. Dunne? About the assignment?” Perhaps it was all for the best.
In the mornings he kept up his training with Mike – the benefits of fitness were addictive once he started noticing his improved stamina, his slightly more muscular arms. More to the point, it got both him and Mike out into the fresh air, away from books and bars.
“Hey,” Henry said on the phone one evening. He sounded faint, unsure. Owen wanted to brew him some hot chocolate. “How are your classes going?”
Owen tapped through the day’s e-mails on his computer, marking more expletive-laden tirades to be deleted. He had to wonder if he should taken any solace from the fact that many perfectly straight young men drafted by teams were also being called “fag” and “pussy” by so-called fans across the country.
“Very well,” he said. “I’ve hardly had to make any students stand in the corner at all.”
A pause. Henry was back in South Dakota now, living with his parents over the summer break, bussing carts at a supermarket. It was probably good for him to return to mind-numbing routine free from competition, where all he had to do was take care of himself. But there were many nights Owen lay awake staring at the opposite bed, wishing Henry was there to listen to his thoughts, to offer hums of agreement or contemplation in response.
“Have you thought about signing the contract?” Henry asked. They were already in August, past Owen’s twenty-second birthday, and the beginning of September was rapidly approaching.
“I’ve thought about it. You?”
“Yeah. I guess Starblind will sign up.”
“I’m sorry about President Affenlight,” Henry said after a pause. “He was always very nice to me.”
“Yes,” Owen said. The register was still on his mantle, closed, holding a twenty-year-old man within. “Guert was always very nice.”
On the weekends he went to the cemetery, quietly moving past elderly women placing flowers, or a parent visiting with a small child. Guert’s headstone was impressive, distinguished, fitting for a Westish president and a great man, although in all probability never to become a point of pilgrimage for any but the most dedicated students of Melville. He sat cross-legged on the rolled turf above where the coffin had been laid and bowed his head and cleared his mind. It wasn’t that he believed Guert was there, at least not any more so than Guert was anywhere, but this was a quiet place and for now the only place they could be alone in the sunlight.
As they’d sat in that dank basement restaurant, Guert radiating anxiety even after Pella had assured him he wasn’t needed at Maison Robert, Owen had asked him, hoping to change the subject to something less nerve wracking, if he’d ever had a simpler job than marine biologist or English professor.
“I was a bartender,” Guert had said, cutting a chunk from his beer-battered cod. “In Chicago.”
“Before you went to grad school?”
“Before I blackmailed my way into grad school. You think Harvard normally accepts guys to a PhD program in American history when they barely have a biology degree and extensive mixology experience to their name?”
Owen had lifted his foot to rub against Guert’s ankle under the table. “But you impressed them.”
“I was desperate enough to try.” Guert had said. “If I hadn’t driven up to Westish, I’d probably be drunk and depressed and very much dead by now. At least,” he’d said, downing the rest of his beer, “drunker than I am at the moment. We should probably find that motel while I can still see straight.”
That single decision, made by a conflicted young man not so much older than Owen was now, had changed his life and the lives of so many others in the years to come. But unfortunately Owen couldn’t think ahead to himself at sixty, reflecting on his successful career as a playwright, or a baseball player, or both, or some other career option that hadn’t yet presented itself.
It was tempting to look at this as he would a play. If he wasn’t supposed to say yes, why had this opportunity presented itself? But there was no narrative arc to life except the one you imposed on it. If Guert had stayed as a Chicago barman, perhaps he would have died young. Or perhaps he would have fathered more children, gone to work with his brothers on the farm, lived a different and maybe just as good a life. Had driving to Westish and going to Harvard and eventually becoming the president of Westish College been who Guert really was? Was it the only decision he could ever have made?
Owen leaned back against the headstone and pulled out his phone.
Mike was dozing in the immense oaken presidential chair when Owen walked in, bearing coffee in gaudily-sloganed mugs. The papers looked like some vague order was being applied to them now, but who knew how much more there was left to go through before Pella and Mike moved out, barred forever from treating this office like home.
“I turned down the contract,” Owen said as Mike nodded. “Which you knew I would… even if I spent three months agonizing about it.”
Mike shrugged. “It kept your mind off other things, and I know you’re healthier for the training we did. There’s nothing wrong with reassessing your life and making sure you’re doing the right thing before you take a leap into the unknown, whether that’s Tokyo or baseball.”
“I’m not sure I am doing the right thing.” Owen sat on the love seat, reaching down to pet Contango. His fur was warm, comforting. “But it’s who I am. There’s no point in me being an out gay man in baseball if I’m not a baseball player, if I don’t really want to be there. The whole point is being able to be who we are, all of us, without being afraid to be black or gay or anything else. I’d be a hypocrite if I signed. There will be an openly gay player one day, and at least he’ll be a real athlete, not someone who’d prefer to be in a theater or a library.”
Mike sipped his coffee. “So. Tokyo, huh?”
“Tokyo. Maybe I’ll even find a college baseball team to join.”
“Knock ‘em dead.” He took another sip, cleared his throat. “Buddha… Pella’s got this crazy notion… You have to understand, she’s doing a lot better. A lot better. But it still hasn’t been very long. It’s a tough thing to get over, we all know it. But I said I’d float the idea to you if you came over.”
“What is it?”
“She thinks… She thinks we should give Affenlight a burial at sea. Out in the lake. She thinks that’s what he would have wanted.”
Owen nodded. “Call Henry.”
Mike leaned forward on the desk. “This isn’t some idealistic fairytale. It means sneaking out to the cemetery in the middle of the night, digging up a grave, and then rowing a corpse out into the lake. Even if it’s possible, even if we can get shovels and a boat and I don’t know what else, we could get caught. You know how many students wander around in a drunken haze at night? There might be dog walkers, security guards… We could get in real trouble.”
“It’s Guert,” Owen said. “You think we care about getting into real trouble?”
Contango raised his head from the rug, looked at them.
Mike, finally, nodded too. “All right. But Henry… He doesn’t need this.”
“We need him. And how many other people do you know who’d do this for Guert? Or for Pella, or me, or you? Honestly, this might be better for him than bussing carts. We all have more things to lay to rest than a man we loved.”
They left the paperwork for the evening and retreated upstairs with Contango, rousing Pella from her sleep on the couch, her cheek resting on an open book. Mike brought out one of the better remaining bottles of scotch and distributed liberal amounts in tumblers. A toast would wait until they gave Guert the funeral he should have had in the first place, a funeral where Owen could cry – where they all could cry – and talk about what this man had really meant to them, something that could never be conveyed through the pomp of an official Westish ceremony.
And then… He’d go to Tokyo. Study hard. Explore the culture of a new country. Maybe find a baseball team in need of a decent right fielder. At what point did you move on from a dead lover and start dating again, even having coffee again with a boy you liked? Probably not anytime soon. But he had a year laid out before him that would keep him busy, keep him focused, until the awful aching pain of loss gradually started to diminish just a little. At least, he’d heard that might be true.
When he was woken by sunshine the next morning, he was still on the leather couch, Pella asleep next to him, the two of them covered by a blanket Mike must have found. Soon they’d all have to leave, to an apartment a few streets away, perhaps to another city in Henry’s case, and to another country in his. But Guert had left them more than enough: money to assure Pella’s future until she found a career of her own, books to delight Mike for years to come, a world of choices for Henry, and for himself three dear friends to share his secrets. In some way or another, through books or sport or simple love, he’d somehow manage to inspire a young gay man the way Guert had once done entirely by chance.
He wandered back to his room after breakfast to confront the stack of lesson plans on his desk and the hateful e-mails in his inbox. His decision would at once be welcomed and seen as cowardice, as though he’d given up on a dream because of a few real men he just couldn’t face. But he was a no-name kid in the 49th round of a draft full of no-name kids who would never get out of the bush leagues, and it would have been far worse for him to give up on his real dream just because of the insults.
He deleted the day’s outpouring of hatred and looked up the e-mail address for his student ambassador contact in Tokyo.