San Francisco, May 2011
Marlins at Giants
KNBR’s teaser for the series that week is come on out to the yard and watch the Giants fry the Fish.
Right now, it’s an hour later than it oughta be, past eleven, and Buster’s forehead aches where he got clonked by a bounceback in the fourth. Tonight’s game - the second of a three-game series - has been tied since the Giants put up a late-inning rally in the ninth. The seagulls are diving and weaving over the field.
It’s the top of the twelfth, one out and two-two. Mota, bubble-blowing and potato-shaped, deals a hanging slider that Emilio Bonifacio bloops shallow to right center. Nate Schierholtz plants himself underneath and snags it, and then hurls it home to beat out Scott Cousins, the runner who’s tagging. It’s gonna be close. Nate’s one-hop cannonball is dead straight and right on time - yessss, Buster whistles under his breath, the plate a pale white blur in his left eye. He half-squats ready for it, he’s got it, and then at the last second it squirts past the tip of his glove.
He turns towards the runner just in time to see Cousins’s left foot scud sideways straight at him, a truck swerving over the double-yellow.
Buster remembers this feeling from football: the taste of sweat and blood in the back of your throat, the cartoon dots behind your eyes. You’re blasted back over into the dirt, your knees and ankles jerking like a marionette’s. And then there’s the thump and the flash and you can hear it - muscle tearing off bone.
Then comes the pain. The pain where your ankle’s your whole body and your body is a scream.
Your eyes go dark and your hands claw the dirt as you try to crawl away from yourself.
From somewhere out in the park there’s a high keening wail that doesn’t stop.
Buster, face down, sees Mota’s arm surge past his head, elbow crooked and plunging like he’s calling a strike. Someone’s unbuckling his shinguards and footpads and chestpad. There’s people’s hands on him, hands he doesn’t know, and then there aren’t. There’s a forest of legs and feet around him, some of them smudged with infield dirt and some clean and white and creased at the instep.
When he’s sucked down enough air to feel like he’s finally popped his head above water, Buster squeezes himself up into a sit. For the first time he looks at his foot and he’s amazed it’s still there. He has to lift his left knee with his hands, his left foot dangling like it’s been chainsawed. Dirt and spit leak out the side of his mouth.
Groeschner frames Buster between his knees so the cameras can’t get at him. Gruesbeck shifts around in the air above them like a buzzard. He stretches his arm out and hardens his eyes at the skipper, who’s been hovering over Buster’s shoulder.
Above the jet-engine rumble of the crowd, a roaring chant of PO-sey, PO-sey, PO-sey echoes around the ballpark. The sound washes over him and then it’s borne away into the wet darkness beyond the stadium. The crowd around him fills his eyes, the blurry waving mass of people rippling like something he saw once In a tidepool.
Buster’s always secretly dreamed of this - his name the only name shouted by the crowd. But not like this. Not for this reason. Something flashes into the front of Buster’s brain, something clearer than any memory that actually belongs to him: Jason Street lying spent and broken on the field, the crowd chanting his name.
Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can't Lose.
Later, in the trainers’ room with the sound off, when he watches the footage of Groeschner and Gruesbeck ponying him off the field, he remembers. His whole body seizes up in a rictus of pain. He sees everything with unwordly clarity: how Cousins disappears from the all of the different camera frames. The blank stare-and-spit of Jonathan Sánchez, that crazy motherfucker, from the lip of the dugout. That woman behind home plate whose mouth keeps becoming a black hole. He can’t take his eyes off his hands - his nails are fully dug into Groeschner and Gruesbeck’s shoulders - and his dangling foot and his face folded in on itself. He’s amazed, over and over, at how he made it off the field, down both sets of steps, without screaming.
And in the months that follow, when he’s alone with the computer, late at night when Kristen’s gone to bed, he’ll watch it compulsively from five different angles, in slow motion and super-slo and then stop-motion, the part where Cousins takes him down. The film and Jon Miller’s call will become how it happens in his head.
On Thursday, the Marlins complete their sweep. The Giants are too shocked to put up much of a fight.
The Giants organization wraps the injured-man story around Buster like a metalized shock blanket: it was a clean play we’ve already started the rehabbing process healing takes time he’s ahead of schedule finest team of surgeons in the nation we’ll have to wait and see happy to be spending time with the family with his work ethic and our training staff we expect a full recovery out for the season
Before this, Buster had never spent a night in a hospital. He’d never experienced the uncanny sleep-and-snap-wakeup of anesthesia, or the rage you have to smile through when you can’t take a piss without help from a nurse.
The sense that his body has turned on him keeps him bug-eyed awake for five entire days. He sleeps only when they give him an Ambien with his ten o’clock meds, and then he doesn’t dream.
Everything’s magnified: the way the orderlies bang around their charts and carts outside his door, the beeping pulse monitor clipped to his index finger, the mouth-breathing stupidity of cable TV. This is what it’s like to be old.
Someone’s slipped a nubby hospital sock onto his right foot. Perky and baby-blue, it pokes up from the peeled-back covers, mocking the inert thing next to it, that hot heavy log that used to be his left foot.
Once he was home, the changes kept blowing into his eyes like dirt before a thunderstorm. It was the little things that got him at first, like his struggle to get up the front-yard steps he used to take two at a time. Then the bigger, uglier things, like Kristen’s mom standing in the doorway, Kristen next to her, leaning against the jamb with one arm cupping her pregnant belly, tears snailing down her neck into her collar.
There’s one memory in particular that makes him grind his teeth: getting left behind. The clubhouse when the guys were away, cool and stale-smelling, his own stink of bandage tape and Betadine and liniment. Nobody there but him and two trainers and the TVs on mute, the trades-and-injuries crawl with his name ticking past every seven minutes.
The ligaments in his ankle had healed up faster than the doctors had thought possible, and Buster’s pretty smug about that. But even after he’d starting walking, unsteadily at first, and then working up to jogging on the treadmill, he could see the doubt in Dave Groeschner’s face. The trainer looked like he’d swallowed a pill that stuck in his throat. That look was still there, first day of spring training, on everyone’s face - the trainers, the coaching staff, his teammates - that February day when he’d taken his first trot around the bases, his left foot hollow and crumbly as cake.
What Buster discovered about himself that summer brought him to his knees, visibly and painfully and publicly. He’s grateful for the way his team and his family and his friends stood by him. But he can’t help how he feels when people talk about it, all hovering and hesitant and full of concern. Buster’s not a whiner or an explainer, so he lets them assume.
They assume it’s all about the injury. About the loss of everything - health and faith and confidence - that can happen when a catcher’s blown up at the plate.
What else happened to him that summer isn’t something he has words for. He carries it around with him like a letter written in a language he doesn’t know. There’s everything in it: fear and hope and desire and rage. It’s worked itself smooth in the bottom of his back pocket, creased and torn from all the times he’s pulled it out and read it one more time, parsing.
In the living room of their new house in Orinda there’s an enormous whiteboard propped against the gaping mouth of the gas fireplace. Kristen’s drawn a big calendar on it. It’s right where he can see it, all the time, from his zero-gravity chair that she jokingly refers to as the command center. Every day she uses a different color of marker to draw little daisies or hearts in another square to mark off the two of them’s slow and steady progress toward their goals: her due-date in mid-August, and the day Buster’s second cast is supposed to come off.
Buster is too polite to say so, but he hates it. He props the laptop screen at an angle that, from his chair, precisely blanks it out. And when he’s tempted to glance at it, he pulls his eyes back to the Chinese-restaurant fortune he’s taped below the touchpad: a new world awaits the man who seeks it.
What gets him up in the morning is the prospect of getting out of the house and going to the yard, even if it’s just for rehab. It takes half an hour pushing and wrangling to get him down the steps and into the back seat of the minivan they bought for when the twins arrive. Then another hour or so of rubberbanding along I-80 in rush-hour traffic, watching the faces in the cars next to him. There’s people smoking frantically with all the windows rolled up, sucking down half a pack before they get over the bridge, and women with weird-colored hair putting on their mascara in the rearview. People tipping their commuter mugs back to drain the dregs of their coffee.
What he can’t keep his eyes off is the guys with bowed heads staring intently at their laps, stabbing screen with both thumbs, texting their broker or the guy who was on call last night or the woman they’re meeting after work today, the one their wife doesn’t know about.
For the first time in his life, Buster’s got way too much time to think.
Buster doesn’t remember falling asleep afterward, at Tim’s. Even after all the times he’s thought about it, the memory of how he let himself go still stings a bit. He’s reluctant to touch it but he can’t help himself. What he does remember is waking up. It was like coming to that time he’d taken a liner to the head - splayed out crooked in the infield dirt (this was junior year, when he’d been playing shortstop). But different. This time it was like he was in San Francisco, the yard around him empty and blank-dark. And there was no sound but the seagulls bleating above him, their shapes coming and going in the fog.
Gradually, as he gets used to thinking about it, he lets the memory sweep him back.
He’d jolted awake with a start, spooked by the syrupy sound of his own breath. He’d been snoring the way he always does when he falls asleep on his back. Nonetheless his stomach had seized with panic and he’d come right up to attention on his elbows because he had to try in the dark to make out where he was. This room, familiar but with something wrong with it, a room that looked like his bedroom but backwards. The hiss of cool air from the vent above the door.
Oh, right. (Fuck.) It's not his room or his bed. It's Tim’s.
Funny how he’s become Tim now, the guy who used to always be Lincecum said with an obligatory eye-roll.
After a minute he’d closed his eyes and stretched, coiling and uncoiling his fingers and letting his back arch off the mattress and making the muscles of his ass tense and curl beneath him. He’d sucked in a big breath, and as he slowly let it go he’d laced the fingers of both hands behind his head. The sheets were cold and slippery, some of them bunched and tangled around one calf; he’d kicked them loose and pushed the rest aside with one foot. His skin felt bruised and strange, as if it’d been stolen and handed back to him. The palms of his hands and the insides of his fingers were as hot and itchy as if he’d been working outside all day in the loose red Georgia dirt. And his lips, as he’d circled them with his dry, woolly tongue, were chapped and pulpy and tasted like blood.
He’d never felt this good before in his life.
The stretching had waked him into it, but it wasn’t the stretching that was responsible for this tease of warmth and fullness in his belly that made his cock stiffen in the dark. As he’d smiled in spite of himself, the tickle had spread itself wide to the edges of his skin till he could feel it, all of it, his sticky sleep-gummy eyelashes and the hair curling behind his earlobes and that little cave of coolness where the small of his back arched above the sheets. His dick, swelling with the uncanny persistence of an air mattress unfurling, heavy and hard against his belly. That. Oh, fuck. He’d rolled over onto his stomach but that’d just made it worse. He was suddenly so horny he felt like he could fuck the mattress. The mattress just about deserved it, the way it was insolently pressing against his hard-on, rubbing against his nipples like that.
As his eyes clamped shut and his jaw went slack, he’d slipped one hand under his belly and started to stroke. Oh. But the skin on the inside of his thumb and forefinger was so dry and rough that it felt like punishment on the hot tender skin of his cockhead. So he’d rolled back over onto his back, happily surrendering to oblivion, and let his fingers stripe the length of his cock, his pinky pressing that place at the root that lets him feel it but keeps it going too, oh man, till he’s at that place where the meaning of life boils down to nothing more than what lies between here and coming.
Then he’d felt the rough wet muscle of a tongue sliding along the side of his neck. For a second he’d wondered if it was the dog - the Poseys’ beagle-spaniel mix Calvin used to wake Buster like that sometimes, mornings before practice. But then he felt Tim’s body snake up against his, cool and hard up against his side, and Buster knew. Tim had breathed something softly into the big catcher’s ear, his voice traveling up his frame from gut to mouth, vibrating against Buster’s skin. Slowly and deliberately Tim had swiped his slick, strong tongue up Buster’s neck, taking a detour at the jawline. Once he’d sensed he had Buster’s complete attention, he’d eased up to his earlobe, which he took between his lips, sucking it softly, his tongue a suggestion at first, and then a statement. Salty, Posey’d thought absently, as though he were observing from afar, it’s gotta be salty, I been sweating. Buster hadn’t been able to keep from flinching a little from the way it tickled, but then he writhed himself against it, wanting the way it sparked and shot through him and his skin shone hot and cold and his hips bucked with wanting. It was so good that he hadn’t been able to keep himself from groaning a little.
And Tim’s hands, what he was doing with his hands - it’d been something Buster didn’t even want to think about having words for. He’d known if he named it, he’d never be able to watch Tim scuff up the seams of a baseball ever again with those magician’s fingers, wiry sensitive fingers that can make something swerve and dive and die flat out underneath you in the dirt.
Buster’s eyes had popped open just as Tim threw one leg over him and straddled him, his legs holding them both there fast, quads standing out like cordons and his feet flexed so that his heels had tacked Buster’s thighs to the mattress. He’d been breathing hard as though they’d been wrestling, his long hair curtaining his face in the darkness. Instinctively Buster had slid his arms up Tim’s in an effort to brace and hold him off, but in response Tim just collapsed his elbows and lowered himself forward and down. Buster was left grasping, both palms open in the air, while the pitcher had settled his chest against Buster’s, his face so close that Buster could feel the ends of Tim’s long dark hair, coarse as a horse’s tail, bristling against his neck and the sides of his face.
There was a long moment of silence where there was nothing but the darkness and the wet pulse of Lincecum’s breath near his face.
- You can’t stay here, Posey. Lincecum had finally hissed in his ear, his voice at the edge of audibility and his lips brushing Posey’s untrimmed sideburn. - You’re not supposed to be here. Rules.
Buster wasn’t expecting this. He’d simply frozen in place, his whole body hardening itself. Suddenly, all that delicious heat had dissolved into nothing more than sweat and dead weight.
After a while, he’d remembered to breathe. Tim still had him locked in place between his thighs, and he’d sat up and pinned Buster’s shoulders with his straight arms.
The words had tumbled out of Buster’s mouth before he’d known he was going to say them.
- Fuck your rules, Timmy. Just fuck ‘em. Who died and made you God, anyway?
Lincecum’d swung off him in an instant, pulling one leg over as though were dismounting a bike. Then Buster could feel him breathing there, a few inches away from touching, in the blur of not enough light to see.
Buster hadn’t been able to see Lincecum’s face in the dark, but he could feel the pitcher sitting there tense, waiting. It didn’t matter.
Buster had sat up and pulled the sheet up over his lap, one knee clasped to his chest. The sweat’d been starting to cool on him, wetting his hair, slicking the skin of the insides of his arms, a drop of sweat tickling a path down his ribs. He’d heard his own voice again, barking like a dog in the next yard over.
- Fuck your bullshit rules. If you want me outta here, just say so. Have the balls to say so, for Chrissake.
After he’d said that, Tim had been silent for a long time. Buster, who’s spent the better part of a decade waiting (on a batter or an umpire or a pitcher or a manager, and now on an unhealed injury and a pair of unborn babies) had known better than to say anything. Let him think.
Absent-mindedly there in the dark, strangely at peace with the silence between them, Buster'd found himself reflecting that he hadn’t said fuck this many times in a row since the last time he’d gotten drunk in college. And taking the Lord’s name in vain - so not his style.
It felt great.
Buster prides himself on being able to put it out of his mind, what happened with Tim.
Buster’s systematic. He’s got his phone and his laptop and his PlayStation within arm’s reach. His Kindle’s loaded up with three Jack Reachers and Atlas Shrugged, a novel he’s been reading the first fifty pages of about three times since college. He watches movies - he’s been through the whole Lethal Weapon series twice. All the Die Hards and the Mission Impossibles and the Bourne movies start to run together, a gigantic collective scattershot explosion in his head.
Once he turns off the TV at around ten-thirty, he likes to read himself to sleep. It takes awhile. His eyes blur from the lines of words and from the warp of the Vicodin, which makes him itchy and restless and hot.
When his attention swerves into forbidden territory, he brings himself back by focusing hard on the whatever strings of words are on the screen. He reads sentences out loud to himself until his mind clears. Sometimes it takes a whole page. Sometimes it takes two.
The isolation, though, is something else. These days he’s sleeping by himself in the hospital bed they’ve installed in the ‘blue bedroom,’ the guest suite that has the virtue of being downstairs and having a bathroom with a step-in shower. (Even if he weren’t injured, Kristen would still likely want to sleep alone. The twins wake her up every hour, like there’s not enough room in her belly for them both and they’re already fighting in the back seat.)
The cocktail of painkillers, sedatives, and beta-blockers he takes every night at eleven makes him reliably sleepy reliably fast. Within half an hour, he’s out like a blown match. Problem is that the drugs don’t keep him asleep. He’s started waking up at three-thirty or four, full of that kind of wide-awake that makes you think morning already, and then he can’t get back to sleep. Maybe it’s the excess energy that wakes him - sometimes he’s so wound up he feels like he could bench-press an elephant. A restlessness boils just under the surface of his skin. It makes him feel like a sprinter in the blocks waiting for the crack of the starting pistol.
More times a day than he’d ever admit to anybody, he thinks to himself I can’t do this, I just can’t do this, sitting around, lying around, waiting for my body to heal.
He can’t help running back over his memories of the injury in his head, reshuffling the players and the choices, wondering how things might have turned out differently if. What if it hadn’t been Nate who’d made the throw home - what if it’d been Torres or Ross or someone else with a weaker arm, and there’d been a cutoff man? What if it hadn’t been a close game and Cousins hadn't been a marginal player desperate to prove his value to the Marlins? What if Cousins had gone in head-first and sideways instead, aiming for an arm tag on the left? What if Buster had had a day off, playing first for a change, and it’d been Whitey instead of him at the plate?
The fact that such speculation is futile and meaningless is neither here nor there. Ideas and feelings that are as unruly and dangerous as a half-broke colt have pushed their way into Buster’s everyday life. He’s got the rope in his hand to show for it.
What’s hardest for Buster to control is the few minutes that elapse between sleeping and waking. In those moments, his eyes still hazy and soft and his head still buzzing with sleep, he feels like getting up is another farm chore, something that has to be done for reasons that seem entirely beside the point.
He remembers back to when he was fourteen and his sister Samantha’s horse Pete was first learning to load so she could take him to a show. For some reason, Buster, who had no interest in horses whatsoever, was put in charge of making it happen. It took a day and half of waiting patiently and waving a hose and dragging a rope around that horse’s stubborn ass to get the green colt to finally step up into the black hole of the horse-trailer. Only then could Buster snap the door-bolts shut behind him, flip the animal’s spoiled-brat tail over the edge, and stride around to the front of the truck so he could get the show on the road.
Some days Buster doesn’t feel like getting the show on the road. He doesn’t see the point.
Those days he lets himself settle back against the pillows. His specially designed hospital bed heaves like a live thing beneath him, inflating and deflating slowly. The motion’s supposed to prevent bedsores, but for Buster it brings back a host of memories. The rock and lilt feels like the gentle bump-and-slap rhythm of water when you’re out on a floating wooden boat-dock, soaking yourself sun-dry after a long swim in the lake. It feels like the push and pump of his legs on the playground swings, stretching himself towards something higher.
It feels like what had happened when the silence finally broke on that too-early morning at Tim’s when each of them was waiting out the other to see what he’d do.
Once they’d switched off the bedside light, the darkness of Tim’s room had made things easier in a way. Buster had wrapped the darkness around himself like a towel, grateful not to have to look the pitcher in the eye. Somehow letting Tim’s mouth and hands explore his body was easier than letting Lincecum get a long good look at him, stripped and defenseless and looking pretty damn stupid, lying there wanting it.
Until that point, he’d always seen sex as a not very well-kept secret, a dance-step that pretty much everybody agreed on. He’d read the magazine articles and seen the internet videos and listened with one ear to the locker-room gossip, and even though some of it was pretty over-the-top-weird he’d never questioned his own tastes. The way he and Kristen had gone about it was so, well, normal. He’d liked it - all of it. The romantic dinners, the bottles of wine they’d never drunk more than two glasses of. Kristen waiting for him in her Victoria’s Secret underwear, a bowl of floating candles on the table next to the bed. The way Kristen let him know without actually saying it that she wanted him to fuck her fast and deep at the end, and the way she wanted him to curl up around her, his arms enfolding her, when they fell asleep afterwards.
Blinded by darkness that night at Tim’s, Buster had stumbled into a world of touch and smell and taste and sound that he hadn’t known existed. He’d spent so many hours watching Tim on the mound and in the bullpen that he figured there wasn’t much left to learn. Showering together had given them the easy intimacy of brothers who’ve been through so much together that they no longer notice whether someone’s naked or wearing clothes.
What had been familiar became strange that night, strange and new. Puzzling, disturbing, arousing, at the time and now as he thinks about it. He’d used his fingers to stroke Tim’s long hair back at the temples just as he’d done with Kristen’s, but what he felt as he took Tim’s face in his hands was not his wife’s utterly soft skin but the angular jaw of a man like himself whose lips were soft at first but fierce enough to fight back, his tongue fighting with Buster’s when what started as a kiss turned into something more like a challenge. Tim hands were both soft and certain when he took Buster in hand; he’d known exactly how to use his nails on the insides of Buster’s thighs, and how to stroke his balls. And how to stop just at the point where Buster'd felt like he was going over the edge, Tim’s mouth tearing away from his, and the faint flash of those sharp white teeth, grinning at Buster, pleased with himself.
It’s not clear, it’s not obvious, he remembers thinking, what you’re supposed to do.
But in the dark he'd felt all the awkwardness dissolve. There was touch - the way Tim’s skin felt, smooth and wiry and as slippery as a dolphin’s. The way Tim's hands glided effortlessly to all the places he knew to kiss and suck and lick. And there was the sound of their bodies sliding together and wrenching apart, the sound of Tim’s breath stopping when Buster’s tongue or hands hit the mark. He'd learned how touch can make sound when he found that the tip of his tongue or the backs of his fingers, brushing as softly as a bird’s wing, could make Tim’s back arch and a low gravelly sound wrench itself up out of his gut. And the tastes of things he'd never dreamed of knowing. The salt and slickness and velvety hardness of Tim’s cock in his mouth made his own hips buck in frustration against the bedclothes.
When they’d come to a stop he’d lain there in the darkness, his arms around the pitcher, trying to know what parts of Tim he was touching - his ass and his improbably wide shoulders and the bony tip of one elbow? He'd let his hands slide down over Tim’s hipbone and buried his nose the skin between his shoulder blades, which smelled like salt and sweat and sex. Like the ocean, Buster had found himself thinking, smiling a little, as the boom and hiss of the waves pulled him down into sleep.