The phone call came eleven days after the Harpooners won the championship. Henry had met with Dr. Rachels and talked about going home, back to South Dakota to spend time being bored and ordinary with his parents and Sophie. She’d agreed that he could go home in a day or two, and now he was slowly packing up his team bag, which Schwartzy had brought for him almost two weeks ago. It was a long, long way home, and yet he was in no hurry to start the trek.
Henry picked up. “Hello?”
It was a short call – neither of them had really ever learned to have long ones – and the substance, for a minute or two, seemed to be nothing more than “look at us, we’re talking, we’re being friendly, we might be okay.” But then Mike said:
“We want you to help us with something before Owen and Guert leave.”
Henry, who had never heard Mike call President Affenlight by his first name, and had no inkling where he might be going, glanced at the half-packed bag on his hospital bed.
“Who’s we?” he said.
He was supposed to take the bus back home, but on Saturday he took one to the airport instead, where a ticket was already waiting for him, courtesy of the president. Maybe the college paid President Affenlight enough that buying him two cross-country airplane tickets in two weeks was barely a dent in his bank account, but the gesture still impressed him. He browsed the airport bookstore, hoping to find something with which he could at least partly repay him, repay all of them, but President Affenlight had a whole library of rare books, Owen had told him, and the latest murder mysteries looked more than stupid in that sort of context.
There was a bus headed for Westish from Milwaukee, and when it stopped at the town’s main terminal, Pella was standing there waiting for him with a fairly large, iceberg-white husky. Henry shouldered his bag and stepped from the bus. “Hi.”
She wrapped him in a hug before he had a chance to stand there awkwardly, gazing adolescently at the ground between them. He’d put on a bit of weight in two weeks, but probably not muscle, and probably not enough for her to tell. He hugged her back tentatively at first, then harder as the hug lasted. She smelled good. He felt like crying.
“Oh, this is Contango.” Pella disentangled herself and gestured at the dog.
“Hey,” Henry said. The dog seemed supremely uninterested.
“My dad bought a house, and he was part of the deal. Apparently huskies don’t take well to New Mexico or something.”
The walk to this new house wasn’t long, although it was more cardio than Henry had done in weeks, if you didn’t count his breathless run to the right departure gate. Owen had mentioned the house on the phone a couple of weeks ago, and Henry had thought no more of it. But the idea that he, Owen, and Mike were helping President Affenlight move was beginning to stir suggestions in his brain, coupled with what Mike hadn’t exactly explained on the phone.
As they walked, Pella said almost nothing, except a rush of information about how you looked after a dog and did he know how many shots they had to have. Henry thought of numerous questions, all of which began with So… and then immediately ventured into what he suspected was dangerous territory.
“So…” He looked over at her. They might have been intimate, might even have become friends, but they’d never really been close. “We’re not going to dig up a body, are we?”
“Ha!” Contango looked around at them, puzzled. Pella gave Henry a nudge to the shoulder. “Not exactly, no. Although my dad keeps talking about digging up the garden. We’ve lived in cities all my life, and now he wants to grow beans like Thoreau.”
“Oh. How’s Chef Spirodocus?”
Pella adopted a not-very-precise rendition of Chef Spirodocus’ accent: “Where is that young man Henry? No one understands the art of washing like he does!”
Despite the mocking humor in her tone, Henry smiled as he kicked along a stray bit of gravel. “I miss it.”
“Believe me, there are plenty of dishes waiting for you.”
This far along Main Street, the houses were bigger and more widely spaced, the traffic lighter. Between the houses, he could see the lake. Up ahead, a rental truck was parked by the curb, boxes stacked on the sidewalk.
“We’re kind of a hazard to the neighborhood at the moment,” Pella said. “I’m sure the Association will complain, if there is one. There has to be one. Anywhere with lawns this immaculate has regulations.”
Henry nodded. He’d never encountered a neighborhood association in Langton, or very many neatly-kept lawns, but he’d seen evidence of them in movies. He scratched the side of his head. He hadn’t actually seen a movie in years.
Before they reached the truck, Mike came out from the house’s porch entrance. In a t-shirt and sweatpants he looked good, purposeful. He looked just as huge to Henry as he’d seemed the first time they met. “Hey, you made it!” They didn’t hug, but he took Henry’s bag from him. “Spent all morning and most of yesterday moving out. Now we’re moving in. I think Guert’s regretting buying so many books.”
“We should have just hired a company,” Pella said, with the air of someone repeating a well-worn point.
“With the five of us having nothing better to do? Besides, a company would wreck half these books. C’mon Skrimmer. Let me show you the lay of the land.”
If Henry had imagined the kind of house President Affenlight might live in, he wouldn’t have chosen this one – it was too white and bright for the dull coziness of a library – but it was on the right scale at least. One room was filled with furniture wrapped up in plastic, while the others seemed to be the new homes of boxes.
“The old owners haven’t exactly moved out yet,” Mike explained. “And what Affenlight owns are mainly books. But he and Owen have a bed at least.”
“And a desk,” Pella pointed out before Henry could digest this. “So they’re going to be fine.”
Henry frowned. He’d missed something. Well, he’d missed a lot of things, in the hospital for two weeks, but something of more immediate importance than international politics. “Um…”
A look that told him nothing passed between Mike and Pella.
“Affenlight resigned,” Mike said finally. “So he could be with Owen.”
“Oh,” Henry said. This concept seemed to come from a love story more epic than he’d thought could possibly be going on at Westish College. “He’s not president anymore?”
“As of yesterday, no.” Pella picked at a flap of loose packing tape on one of the boxes. “Some people are pretty pissed about the whole thing, just so you know. Homophobes and idiots, mostly.”
“Uh huh.” Henry waited.
She cleared her throat as Contango pushed between then. “Anyway, they’re out back.”
Beyond the kitchen’s patio door was another neat lawn, and beyond that the lake. The view wasn’t very much different than the one from the campus, but there was something different about having a slice of it as your own backyard. Henry had expected he’d see Owen and Affenlight kissing or having sex or something just as coupley. Instead they were sitting on the grass by the shore, Affenlight cross-legged with a pen in his hand, Owen propping himself up on an elbow, a stack of papers between them.
“Henry!” Owen scrambled to his feet, and for a moment all Henry wanted to do was launch into their customary pre-game elaborate handshake, kisses and kung fu and all, but instead they hugged and Owen gripped his upper arms with a smile. “You’re almost as skinny as me!”
“Almost,” Henry said, hoping that if he didn’t make an issue out of it no one else would either. He didn’t need them anxiously watching everything he ate, or didn’t eat, for the rest of his life.
President Affenlight offered him a hand. “Skrimshander! Welcome aboard.” His shirt sleeves were still rolled up to mid-forearm, but he was in jeans Henry suspected Owen must have bought for him. His own crotch suddenly felt too tight. “Thanks for coming. We were all worried about you.”
“Thanks for asking me to come.” He glanced back at Mike, but really had the sense that a conspiracy had been at work behind that phone call.
“Come on,” Pella said, giving his elbow a tug. “If you’re not ready to carry book boxes, you can help me with my dad’s thousand dress shirts.”
There was a bed in one of the downstairs rooms, with boxes stacked at its foot. A dresser stood by the wall. “We’re going to seriously hit the flea markets and some real stores,” Pella told up, ripping open the top box. “My dad didn’t bring much furniture at all when he moved out here – the apartment at the college was fully furnished – and now he’s got practically nothing. He just put this bed together this morning.”
Affenlight might have assembled the base and set down the mattress, but everything on top just had to be Owen’s doing. With its plush seafoam green comforter and array of cushions, it was a queen-size version of his bed in Phumber 405. Henry could barely imagine President Affenlight sleeping there… but then he had no real idea what President Affenlight might like or not like when it came to beds. At least it had to be very comfortable. Snug.
He thought of Phumber 405 empty of Owen’s presence and Owen’s things, and felt a twinge of despair.
Shaking out the shirts and placing them on hangers in closets was something he could do mindlessly, so much so that Pella left him after a while and went to unwrap dishes in the kitchen. Here he was accomplishing something with every movement, something he couldn’t get wrong – or if he did, it was a wrong that could be rectified in seconds. His shoulders started to ache with the repetition of it, but he told himself it was a good sort of ache.
He’d almost filled the closets and dresser when Owen rapped on the open door, holding out a coffee mug. “Sustenance.”
Maybe no one would ever have suspected the two of them could become friends, if Henry hadn’t been squeezed in as Owen’s roommate at the last second. Without baseball, they probably never would have, quiet co-existence and occasional pity-based shopping trips aside. But on the team Owen had been a brother, a voice of reason, a good player when he needed to be, and a solid, dependable presence throughout three years of losses and victories.
When Pella had told him about her dad and Owen, and when he and Owen had discussed it as much as they ever had, in low voices as they lay in their own beds after dark, he’d never felt as much shock as vague surprise. He hadn’t known Affenlight liked men, but he hadn’t known much about Affenlight at all, really, and what he did know was all good. The idea that either one could be using the other had only occurred to him later, as a sort of hypothetical suggestion not to be taken seriously, because if anyone knew Owen it was him, and if anyone knew Affenlight it was Pella, and if they weren’t worried, who should be? If anything he’d been happy, happy that Owen felt so happy, happy because Affenlight had seemed so lonely.
Naïve, trusting, he’d never imagined that they could get caught without Owen being the one to rat them out.
“He’s nice,” Henry said finally, as they sat on the edge of the bed and sipped their drinks. “Affenlight. He’s always been nice.”
Owen smiled, a little blush of pink coming to his brown cheeks. “He’s very nice. Did Pella tell you we’re going to Tokyo?”
Tokyo. Of course. He’d forgotten about Tokyo. “Both of you?”
“Guert’s still working out the details, but it looks good. One of his Harvard friends who just adores him works for the university there. Fortunately she didn’t react with horror to the reasons behind his resignation. I think everyone in academia knows some sort of similar story. In any case, we’ll share a little apartment somewhere and I’ll go to classes and Guert can do whatever he likes.”
“Oh.” Henry frowned. “But the house?”
“Mike and Pella are going to use it while we’re away, and then once I graduate we’ll figure out what to do. We’ll live here, or Mike and Pella, or all four of us. And in any case it’s a good investment.”
He sounded so calmly confident that Henry felt stupid asking any of the questions that occurred to him, all of which began with, “Yes, but…” They’d managed to plan things out for a year. Henry wasn’t even sure where he would be sleeping that night. He took another sip. “So Mike and Pella are…”
“Indeed. And Pella and Guert are talking again, which is good for all of us. And you’re back. I’d suggest champagne, but Guert isn’t supposed to drink so much. Maybe some lemonade.”
Although Henry’s discussions with Dr. Rachels had focused on baseball and his relationship with Mike, they’d started out talking about the incident that had apparently started everything – the evening Henry’s throw had hit Owen in the face, the evening he and Schwartzy and President Affenlight had sat in the ER waiting room, sick to their stomachs, terrified of what news the doctor might bring.
He’d told her about Owen, about this unusual teammate of his who not only was gay – Henry was a little baffled by how strange she thought this was – but also read novels on the bench. He’d even said, after checking that patient confidentiality thing, that Owen was sleeping with the college president, with whose daughter both he, Henry, and Mike had initiated some sort of sexual relationship. Dr. Rachels’ pad had wound up looking like some sort of Jewish star, or a pentagram, or whatever, lines linking them all.
“And so this… relationship between your friend and the president,” she’d said carefully. “This was why he came to your room and took you to the game?”
Henry hadn’t really thought about it. It had never seemed odd that Affenlight was there, had come in without Henry needing to unlock the door. He was the president. He could probably go anywhere he liked.
“Did you ask him to check on me?” he asked Owen now. “The night before the game?”
Owen nodded. “Guert’s a sweetheart, and we were both worried. But it was his idea to bring you to South Carolina. I’m glad he did.”
There was an idea in there, a possibility, that if Owen and Affenlight had never begun this odd, unconventional relationship, then Affenlight wouldn’t have come to the games, would never have cared much about the team, might never have known who Henry was beyond his name and maybe his major. There was the possibility that no one would’ve unlocked the door that night. Henry might never have gotten out of that bathtub.
He swallowed, and he must have made some whimpering noise, or seemed too deathly still, so that Owen put an arm around him, half a hug. “We would never let anything happen to you,” Owen said. “Not again. Not now we’re family.”
Henry spent an hour or two working with Mike, unloading the truck until they had everything either inside the house or stacked in the driveway. His t-shirt was soaked through with sweat by the time Mike clapped him on the back and drove off to return the truck. His arms felt almost numb. But it was a physical sort of pain, the aching sort that promised better in the future, a body willing to repair itself and get stronger.
He stripped off his t-shirt, letting the evening breeze wash over him as he wiped himself down. They said that muscles remembered, that even if you didn’t train for weeks or months, you could gain back what you’d lost faster than it had taken to put on the muscle and gain strength in the first place. He had almost three months till the start of the semester, and all of the football season before he had to play a game. He could mix up SuperBoost and go running and practice his batting and be like new. It had only been a month since he’d been at his physical peak. He was still only twenty. He could do it.
But his heart sank at the thought.
They ordered Chinese from the only restaurant in town and sat on the couch and boxes around a table of other boxes, swapping cartons and listening to Affenlight share stories of his years as a marine biologist in the South Pacific. It sounded like something mythical to Henry, forty years ago and a world away. He’d never been on a ship, never really thought that you could go out there and see whales today, see dolphins and squid and everything you knew was out there, somewhere…
After a month of living in his own head, with only fuzzy memories of brief conversations with Pella and Owen, and whatever nonsense he’d talked to Affenlight two weeks ago, it was good just to sit and listen, to let Owen show him again how to use chopsticks, and see that no one was watching every bite he took. The food was good, too, or maybe it was just nice to have something with a bit of flavor after the deliberately bland hospital fare. Mike had brought back a couple of six-packs from the town convenience store, and even though Henry generally hated the taste, he liked sitting there with the bottle in his hand, taking a sip occasionally to wash down his chicken and noodles.
A couple of months ago, Owen had reported back to him about an evening he’d spent in Affenlight’s quarters with Pella, Mike, and his mom, drinking champagne and eating grape leaves stuffed with something delicious, listening to stories. Henry had lain in bed thinking about it even after Owen was asleep, longing for that kind of warm companionship, that sense of family he couldn’t find even with the team. But it was unexpectedly nice to see Mike leaning in close to Pella to share a quiet joke, or the way Owen finished up his tofu and sat back on the couch, draping his arm around Affenlight’s shoulders.
“I should probably go,” Henry said, not wanting to move an inch. It wasn’t that the campus was so far, or that it was dangerous on Westish streets. He just didn’t want to exchange this feeling of acceptance and warmth for the emptiness of Phumber 405 – and possibly, now he thought about it, the emptiness of the entire Small Quad now that the semester was over.
“You can sleep on the couch,” Pella said. “I mean, if you want.”
Henry looked at the couch. It was about the same size as his dormitory bed, and the cushions seemed more comfortable. “Um.”
“Maybe just for tonight?” Owen said smoothly. “You need to get some sleep and you’ll be coming back here tomorrow anyway. It would be a pity to go all the way there and back. And Guert makes great breakfast eggs.”
“It’s true,” Pella said, almost reluctantly. “He does.”
Pella and Mike went first, while Owen was clearing their used cartons and chopsticks and beer bottles away – one bag for trash, one for recycling – and then Owen and Affenlight were kissing, laughing, flirting, going to bed together. But Owen came back, carrying a pillow and blankets. “It shouldn’t be cold,” he said. “But if it is just knock. We’ll find something else for you. Do you want my pajamas?”
A month ago they wouldn’t have fit, and Henry felt momentarily ashamed that the question could even be asked. “I think I’m okay,” he said. “Thanks.”
Lying in the living room, with Pella and Mike upstairs and Owen and Affenlight along the hall, wasn’t so very much different to being in Phumber. If anything, in Phumber he had always been closer to other people, had always had Owen a few feet away, and the Asian Steves across the short landing, and the girls below… He wriggled under the blanket in his boxers, trying to get used to the feeling of individual cushions beneath him, hoping he wouldn’t have to listen to anyone having sex. In three years, he’d never even heard Owen masturbate, although with the shower on and the door closed, it was difficult to hear anything at all.
He could hear a murmur of laughter and talking, but nothing more filtered through the doors and walls. In a house with two couples, it would have been easy to feel alone, but no, Phumber would have meant feeling alone. Here he was anything but.
After a while, his hand that he’d left hanging down, brushing the carpet fibers, was nosed and licked by a friendly dog who, once Henry had yelped in surprise and then petted him, settled down by his side, with Henry’s hand between his ears. “Good dog,” Henry said, and yawned.
It was early when he woke, the toilet flushing in the bathroom and Affenlight moving around. “Sorry Henry,” Affenlight said, and Henry saw the black flash of a tattoo as he pulled a t-shirt over his head. “Coffee?”
Following espresso stronger than Henry had ever experienced, and once they were both dressed, they took Contango out into the early morning light of Wisconsin in June. It was early, but still later than Henry’s early-morning stadium runs had been. For once it felt good to walk, to breathe, to put one foot in front of the other without wondering how fast they were going, or how far.
“I won’t pretend that I can give you answers,” Affenlight said around the time they turned back toward the house. The gray-blue of the lake to their right seemed to perfectly match his eyes as they walked, and the sound of the waves against the shore was louder this far from the house. “But I had a terrible season in my junior year, playing quarterback for the Harpooners. We had a terrible season every year, really, but in that last season we won only one game. It’s not much like baseball, you can’t point at a scoreboard and say how many errors I made, but I was responsible as much as anyone. And once I found those Melville papers, I didn’t care anymore, win or lose.”
Henry stared at the sidewalk beneath their feet, and nodded despite knowing he still cared very much, even if he were sitting on the bench, even if he were back in Langton, waiting for Mike or Loondorf or someone to text him the score.
“Most of my life, since my next oldest brother passed on his football gear to me, I thought the only thing I was good at was football. And I really was good in high school. I’m tall and I can throw and I can think strategically. But there was no way imaginable I was ever going to be in the NFL. I was going to graduate in biology and maybe go to veterinary school and live on my dad’s farm. Birth cows for a living.”
Even in the jeans and shirt Affenlight was wearing now, Henry couldn’t exactly imagine him mucking out barns, or covered in calf’s blood, or whatever farmers actually did. But he could imagine himself sweeping the floors of his father’s workshop, learning the trade, maybe sitting around and watching the high school team on weekends. A few weeks ago the thought would have crumpled him. Now it came with a dull acceptance.
He jumped a little when Affenlight laid a hand on his shoulder: weighty, paternal. “Losing your dream doesn’t mean you won’t find other ones. Whether that means coaching, or teaching, or cooking, or being with the one you love… it’s whatever makes you happy.”
“What do you call it,” Henry said, “when you assume somebody else has the same problems as you?”
Affenlight laughed and gave his shoulder a pat. “You’re right.” He hooked his thumb into a belt loop of his jeans. “Still, effort and error, Henry. All part of the same thing. You know Thoreau… do you know who Thoreau was?”
This was a name Henry mainly knew from conversations that Owen generally conducted with the walls of their room rather than with Henry himself. “Sort of. He lived in the woods?”
“Absolutely. So on one occasion, Thoreau happened to drop a match in the forest. The blaze spread, and soon he had a real inferno on his hands. It was burning through the woods, through farmers’ land, threatening the nearby town. Everyone was understandably in a panic. But Thoreau, contemplating just what he’d done, decided that rather than being his fault, the fire was an inevitability, a force of nature, no more a result of his error than if a bolt of lightning had started it all. So he walked up to a cliff top and settled down to admire the view.”
“Some people just want to watch the world burn,” Henry said.
Affenlight smiled. “I never saw the movie, but with two thousand students wandering around yelling taglines at each other, I can’t help but absorb a few things. O’s threatening to take me to a cinema, if we can find one closer than Milwaukee.”
“There’s one in that mall up in Door County.” It seemed easier to imagine Owen and President Affenlight sitting together, kissing in the darkness, than Henry and Pella, or Henry and anyone. But a similar image occurred to him. “You know that Owen used to date this guy Jason?”
“Jason Gomes. Yes.”
“Jason broke up with him around spring break two years ago. And Owen… We call him Buddha, because… I guess you know why. He was always pretty mellow, and whenever he was with Jason he was the kind of happy I wanted to be. We’d just come back from winning a couple of games in Florida, we were ecstatic, but Owen cried for pretty much three days.” Henry caught Affenlight’s eye. “And I mean it. He didn’t get out of bed. He wouldn’t eat. I had to make him drink something. After three days I made him eat something too. Just like you did for me. And he got up and he puked and he was okay again, like normal, just not really happy. Not until a couple of months ago. I thought it was the drugs they gave him for his face, or because the team was doing so well…”
Affenlight was already nodding. “I know the feeling. I won’t hurt him, Henry. No broken hearts.”
It was strange to walk, almost shoulder to shoulder, and speak to President Affenlight as though he were an equal, not forty years older, not a parent or a professor or a president. Not just that, but to warn him, as though Henry were Owen’s dad or brother, as though Henry could really do anything if Owen were wrecked emotionally again. He had barely been able to get himself out of a bathtub.
Still, if Owen had found a way to be on equal terms with Affenlight, maybe Henry could too. At a certain point after eighteen or twenty-one you were all just adults, making the same mistakes.
“Henry!” Owen was waving at him from the porch. “Come and help. Mike’s about to give himself a hernia.”
The house started to form on the second day, when removals men came to shift the last of the Bremens’ furniture, and they organized Affenlight’s belongings, piling books onto shelves. Henry walked over to the campus with Owen to bring back some of Owen’s things – “You can keep the mini-fridge,” Owen said, looking around. “And almost everything else, barring books and art, if you like.”
The laptop, which Henry used the most, was already gone. But he’d grown to like Owen’s potted plants, and even the rug, which by this point had lost some of its worth having been assaulted by milk and scotch.
“Oh, and perhaps you could keep the Rothko.” That was the almost-baseball diamond above Henry’s bed. “You always liked it, and I’m not sure it’s Guert’s style.”
“I’m not sure if I’m staying,” Henry said awkwardly.
Owen raised his eyebrows. “Well, if not I can collect everything at the end of the summer.”
Henry carried the Cardinals contract with him in his back pocket, felt it burning there as he worked. He took it out occasionally, to see if his sweat and the humidity had made the ink run, but it always seemed fine. Once Owen started teaching, and Mike and Pella went to clear out their own apartments, he was often in the house alone with Affenlight, fixing things up, alphabetizing books by subject matter. They stood around and discussed paint colors before deciding that, really, Owen and Pella were the experts. Still, after three years of dorms and seventeen of his parents’ house, it was refreshing to be asked his opinion. One afternoon they drove to a hardware store to buy a trunk’s worth of wood and tools. Affenlight, surprisingly enough, seemed to know what he was doing, could pass himself off to the staff as something a little more rugged than an English professor. In the backyard, they sat on the grass and worked, making bookcases, not talking much about anything.
“O made me quit smoking,” Affenlight said as they sat down by the lake, sipping from water bottles, cooling off. “Which is fine. It’s good for me. But on days like this… It’s really all I want to do.”
All Henry wanted to do on summer days was to be at the diamond. The grass called to him despite the empty seats, despite the fact that all the other players bar Schwartzy and maybe Arsch were gone for the summer, some of them forever. He excused himself and took Contango for a walk over there.
There were some local kids playing soccer on a practice field, a women’s running club slowly jogging around the track. Henry exchanged bright hellos with other dog walkers, accepted that Contango was indeed a beautiful animal, and tried to remember what Affenlight had told him about the unusual name.
Out on the field he stood in the right-handed batter’s box, letting Contango wander. The diamond seemed bigger than before, bigger than it had when he was fourteen or ten. It seemed daunting. He found a bat and a bucket of balls in the locker room and stood, practicing his swing, seeing how it felt. Not bad. He could get into this again. Dedicate himself to the weights room. He could hit homers. He could be reliable.
Standing out at shortstop, it seemed both familiar and strange. He’d stood there for years, knew in his mind he’d made perfect throws to every part of the field a thousand times. Did he remember them, remember the physical aptitude and mental alertness it took? If he started thinking about it, which was what he’d been doing lately, he couldn’t.
On the phone, Sophie had said, “It’s kind of like when I notice a boy looking at me. I suddenly start worrying if I’m walking normally. And I’ve been walking totally fine since I was two or something, and all of a sudden I can’t figure out how the heck anyone walks, and I’m about to trip over my own feet.”
Henry looked down at his feet. He halfheartedly tried some of Owen’s usual yoga stretches, realizing how tight he was, and how much the work of the last few days had made him ache. But he persevered until he flopped over onto the grass and just gazed up at the sky, watching clouds.
“You’re going to give yourself one hell of a sunburn.”
Henry raised his head just enough to see Mike giving Contango a good scratch behind the ears at home plate. “Just hanging out,” he said.
“Yeah, I see that.” Mike’s foot clanged against the bucket of balls. “You’re not going to sign that contract.”
Not an order. An observation. Henry let his head fall back onto the sun-yellowed grass. “I want to come back. I want to play.”
“Yeah? DH, maybe, if you can get your hitting back up to speed by the winter. We just won a championship with Izzy. He’s good and getting better. He’s dependable.”
Henry pushed himself up so he was sitting. “He’s a kid. He can’t teach them. He can’t push them. And neither can you in the off-season. Starblind and Owen are going away. Rick’s… you know, he’s Rick. I’m the only one.”
“There’s juniors who could do it.”
“Yeah?” Henry said, and even the whisper of a challenge in his tone sounded good.
Mike leaned over and picked up a baseball from the bucket, turning it over in his hand. “In the Minors you won’t need to worry about teaching. You’ll be taught. You could improve even beyond what you were like at the beginning of this season. Fine, you lost weight. Rogner’s right. They’ll get you up to speed. Fuck it, just tell the other players you had mono over the summer.”
Henry smiled. “You want me in the Minors, but you don’t want me on the team?”
“We can’t carry your weight, Skrimmer. I’ve got two teams to look after. That’s a lot of players, a lot of kids who need to start training properly, need better diets, need to be pushed. I can’t push you anymore.”
“If I get past this,” Henry said, “I’ll be better than ever. It’ll never be a problem again, cause I’ll know how to beat it.”
Mike tossed the ball in the air. Caught it. “Lot of guys in the Show, better than either of us, couldn’t beat it.”
Henry hopped up to his feet. “Still worth a try.”
You caught forty balls out of fifty, you threw thirty-nine of them wide or high or short, it was pitiful. Owen would do much better. Even Pella would probably do better. But you heard one out of fifty clang into the first base bucket, and you started to believe.
Out of the next fifty, sweat pouring over him, sneakers threatening to sprain ankles as he slipped on the grass, he got nine in, others ghosting past the sides. With those numbers it could still be pure luck. But he could do it.
“Getting closer,” he said to Mike, his mouth dry but for the sweat on his lips. “Ten tomorrow.”
In the mornings he and Affenlight started jogging with a bemused Contango, and at first they were both similarly bad, breathing hard, walking half of the way. But Henry, a third of Affenlight’s age, who had never smoked, improved faster, took to sprinting off and then back, off and then back. In a week he was on the running track at the college, forcing his stamina to improve beyond breathlessness and beyond puking. He went to the batting cage with Owen, who spotted him in the weights room too, when he remembered to haul the barbell away from Henry’s throat rather than frown over some passage from Chekhov. Whenever Mike found him on the field, they did the same practice drills. His scores went up, just like Tetris in his first year. The blocks were slotting into place.
When Affenlight and Owen went away for a weekend, Henry laid down sheeting and painted the downstairs rooms according to the palette Owen had left him, his dad frequently on speakerphone, advising him on how to carry off the tricky parts. Henry’s lackluster performance on the field, his psychological problems, and the revelation he was staying a room away from two gay men seemed to be forgotten in the face of home improvement. By the time he was finished, he had more empty buckets for the field, more bases to hit.
The summer went well: Pella and Mike appeared to be happy, hauling back furniture from little stores and markets in Door County, and Henry more often than not found Owen and Affenlight kissing by the lake. He’d never seen a couple on their honeymoon, but he imagined that was what it must be like. Pure joy just to be with someone, to be able to see them and touch them and kiss them after months of hiding it all. Henry lay on the couch at night and tried to feel envious, about Mike having Pella, or Pella having that intense closeness he’d once had with Mike, or Owen having found that sort of nineteenth century romance he’d been looking for once in Jason Gomes (“Albeit a nineteenth century with full gay rights and racial and gender equality,” Owen said. “And no whaling. Which honestly leaves me with not very much more than Guert.”).
“Henry,” Affenlight said one evening, as Henry flipped through The Art of Fielding, not even really reading the text. “Do you have a moment?”
He looked up. Owen was there next to him, and Pella and Mike too. He thought back, trying to remember if he’d done something that might require an intervention. Were they going to make him sign the contract?
“Sure,” he said.
They sat down. “You’ve been sleeping on the couch for two months,” Pella said.
Oh. So that was it. He was being banished back to Phumber. “Sorry.”
“No, actually we talked about it, and we thought it was a pretty good idea, you staying here.”
Henry looked between them. “Yeah?”
Owen’s smile was reassuring, laying a hand on his thigh. “It’s a big house, and Guert and I are leaving soon. Someone needs to look after Contango, do maintenance, and everything. Mike’s going to be busy. Pella’s studying and she has a job too. You’re all going to be busy, but with three of you here you can probably cover it.”
Henry’s gaze flicked to Mike. “Not a… kind of third wheel?”
“We’re upstairs, you’re down,” Mike said. “Better than Meat or Pella’s roommates. And you’re a senior now. No reason to still live on campus.”
“And you can use our room, of course,” Owen said. “If you like. Obviously you don’t need to use the same bedding.”
“Oh,” Henry said again. It all sounded reasonable. It all sounded like precisely what he wanted. A home. A family. Playing ball. Even getting back to his physics labs this fall. And if next year led to being drafted again, or to some other job, he could handle it then, when all five of them would be in the same boat, spending another summer together, reassessing their lives and relationships. “Okay,” he said. “Great!”
At the end of August, just before the semester was due to begin, the five of them left Contango with neighbors and drove down to Milwaukee to see Owen and Affenlight off – first to California to see Owen’s mom, and then to Tokyo.
“I want lots of e-mails,” Owen said, hugging him. “Game reports. Get Loonie to take pictures and post them up on a blog, okay? The Harpooners need to come into the twenty-first century.”
Then Pella grabbed Owen by the shoulders and said, “Promise me you’ll look after him.” And Owen said, “Of course I will,” as they hugged, maybe both a little tearfully.
Affenlight shook both Henry and Mike’s hands, giving them the sort of presidential stare they hadn’t seen in months. “I’m relying on you to take care of my house, my school, and my dog while I’m gone.”
“And your daughter?” Mike suggested.
“My daughter keeps proving she can take care of herself. I’m not so sure about you two. I’m expecting victories, Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Skrimshander. I may only be a former president, but I’m still an alumnus and a parent.”
“We’ll do our best,” Henry said, and smiled.
Affenlight and Pella hugged last of all, swapping “I love you”s and promising to call. And then he and Owen shouldered their bags, joined hands, and headed off to spend nine months together in Japan. Henry had barely been able to contemplate spending nine months in Wisconsin when he’d first been accepted to Westish.
Mike’s phone beeped on the drive home. Pella took it from him. “Someone called QQ says they’re here. Who’s QQ?”
“Quisp,” Henry said. “Left field.”
The phone beeped again. “Izzy?” Pella asked.
Mike cleared his throat. “Guess the bus company just offloaded a bunch of Harpooners. Loonie doesn’t live that far away. He’ll be here soon. Suitcase…”
“You have a player named Suitcase?”
“Think it was something Ukrainian. Got changed at Ellis Island back in the forties.”
Henry leaned forward, between the seats. “Too early to start drills?”
“Hell no,” Mike said. “Get them before they lay into the dining hall and put on another fifteen pounds. And grab any freshpersons who look like they can pitch while you’re at it. There’s no way we’re getting through a whole season with Q and Loonie.”
By the time they’d pulled into Affenlight’s driveway, Henry had a mind full of mental notes about who he needed to round up, what they should do at the Freshperson barbecue… sure some players would be on the football team too, but they could remind everyone they existed at least. And the others needed to keep fit, keep loose and ready for baseball season.
He liberated Contango and jogged over to the college. There were already freshpersons and parents everywhere, carrying boxes and TVs, looking blankly at pieces of paper, a couple even blindly walking into walls. He’d used Mike’s phone to text everyone they could think of who would be back today, and so he and Contango set off for the diamond over the practice fields, nodding at other dog walkers they passed.
One of them stopped by his side. “Oh, it’s Henry, right?”
Henry opened his eyes wide, begging for a memory. She seemed like any other student in her twenties, but he didn’t think she was a Harpooners fan, or from his classes… It came to him in a flash – he’d only ever seen her in scrubs, and he’d been distraught at the time, but: “Dr. Collins?”
“Hi, yeah. Congratulations on the championship, by the way. Saw it in the paper.”
“Oh, thanks.” She’d probably seen that he’d collapsed, too. “Uh, Owen’s doing much better. He’s gone to Tokyo.”
“Yes!” Her response was a little more effusive than he’d expected. “I saw him a few weeks ago with his, um, his partner? Great that he’s healed so well. I know you were all pretty worried that night.”
Henry nodded, looking down at Contango warily making friends with her German shepherd. “Yeah…” He’d thought Owen was dead. Owen easily could’ve been dead – a little more power on the throw, an inch difference in where it hit him, a vein ruptured or not. But now Owen was on a plane, probably resting his head on his lover’s shoulder while Affenlight read to him. Owen was going to be okay.
“Um,” he said. “I have to get to practice…” He pointed at the looming baseball diamond. “But do you want to maybe… get coffee or something? Later?”
He had a sudden attack of fear that she was married, or she was forty-five, or a lesbian, or someone else who would immediately shoot down this, his first ever attempt at asking out a real live human being. Not that shooting it down wasn’t absolutely her right, as Owen would point out. He’d just prefer it not to happen.
But she shrugged and said, “Sure. Meet you at Carapelli’s at four? You know where Carapelli’s is, right?”
Henry nodded and admitted that, yes, he knew where Carapelli’s was. When they’d smiled goodbye and pulled their dogs away from each other, Henry jogged over to the diamond. Waiting for him were Izzy Avila, Craig Suitcase, Phil Loondorf, and Quentin Quisp, maybe not looking ready to play, but fresher than they’d seemed in May. Two guys he didn’t know sat with them, maybe friends from home, maybe kids they’d grabbed on the way over.
“Hey,” he said.
Loonie crouched down immediately, ruffling Contango’s fur, telling him what a good boy he was.
“Where’s Schwartzy?” Izzy asked.
“Rounding up the football squad. How’re your abs, Q?”
“Heard you got drafted,” Izzy said. “Didn’t think you’d be back.”
There was the sound of someone huffing and puffing, and then Rick O’Shea appeared. “Skrim! Holy crap, did you hear that whole thing about the Buddha and Affenlight?”
Loonie lifted his head. “Is Schwartzy still going out with his daughter?”
“Naw, that was over ages ago.”
“Anyone seen Nolan yet?”
“That’s a really pretty dog, Skrim.”
Henry cleared his throat. Even after so many months, silence fell. “We’ve lost a lot of people,” he said. “Seniors graduated, Starblind’s been drafted, Owen’s in Tokyo. But we’ve got a few months to get a team, to get ready.”
“Are you going to be ready, Skrim?” Rick said. “I mean, no offense.”
“Does this mean I’m back on the bench?” Izzy, sulky.
“You’re in at shortstop as long as you’re playing better than anyone else. I’ll play right field if I have to.”
Loonie looked around. No Owen, no Sooty Kim. “Might have to, actually.”
“Last season was incredible, but there’s no reason for it to be a fluke.” Henry had learned from Mike that if he sounded like he believed it, others just might agree. And maybe he would too. “We’ve got Harpooner spirit here. We take down whales every day.”
Come next June, he thought, it would be nice to welcome Owen back for graduation, coming off a great season, maybe another regional championship. It would be great to sit there and listen to the speeches with his parents and Sophie, and Owen’s mom, and maybe Mike and Pella and Affenlight too, and know he’d done well. He’d come to Westish knowing nothing and managed to succeed. But that, of course, was next June.
“The summer’s over,” Henry said, tossing Loonie the keys to the locker room. “Time to play ball.”