Henry wiped his right hand against his thigh, back and forth, back and forth. His index finger must have slipped off the seams. That must have been what happened. He misgripped the seams, and then his finger slipped, and then a gust of wind kicked up and carried the ball much farther off course than could have happened with finger-slippage alone. Finger-slippage could cause the ball to tail only so far, and wind could cause the ball to tail only so far, but finger-slippage combined with wind probably had some kind of multiplier effect, like smoking pot when you’ve been drinking. Henry rarely drank and never smoked pot, so he didn’t know about the multiplier effect firsthand. But something like that must have happened here, to account for what happened.
Which was that Owen was dead. Henry knew it. He kept wiping his hand against his thigh, back and forth across the cool, starchy warp knit of his uniform pants. Back, forth, back, forth. His index finger itched, just above the top knuckle crease, an itch that wouldn’t go away. The spot where the ball slipped off.
Owen was dead. No one had said so yet, but Henry knew. He didn’t need to go over there, by the paramedics and umpires and coaches who were crowded into the dugout around the body. He could stay right here on the infield, by himself. He squatted down, rubbed the itchy index finger against his thigh. Against the red-brown dirt of the infield.
The throw had struck Owen full in the face. He was reading a book, his battery-powered light clipped to the brim of his cap; he never saw it coming. His head snapped back and cracked against the concrete wall behind him. Bounced, like a ball made of bone. After the bounce he hung there, wobbly but upright, for a frozen moment, his eyes huge and white. He seemed to be staring straight out at Henry, asking him some wordless question. Then he slumped to the dugout floor, where Henry couldn’t see him.
Schwartzy, who’d been hustling down the first-base line to back up the play, charged down into the dugout. So did Coach Cox. A tall man in a suit—could it have been President Affenlight?—hopped the short fence beside the dugout, barking into a cell phone as he did so. The two umpires followed President Affenlight down the dugout steps. The five of them were down there now with the paramedics, crouched over Owen. Over Owen’s body.
It had been such an easy play, a topspin bounder two steps to Henry’s left. When he let go of the throw it felt fine, routine, indistinguishable from hundreds of other throws, all of which had been perfect.
The ballpark lights came on. Henry hugged himself and shivered. Behind him the scoreboard remained lit. Ninth inning. One out. WESTISH 8 VI ITOR 3. The players from both teams chomped their sunflower seeds or wads of gum and looked on in silence, though of course the silence did no good. Henry wished they would scream, throw their heads back and scream bloody murder until the paramedics strapped Owen to their pale-blue surfboard-looking thing and carried him to the morgue. That would at least have been something.
Schwartz emerged from the dugout and walked across the field—big, bowlegged, unhurried. He was still wearing his chest protector and shin guards, his backward cap. He turned to face the same direction as Henry, laid a hand on Henry’s shoulder.
Henry bit his lip, looked at the ground.
“The Buddha’s out cold.”
“Cold?” This seemed like an odd way to tell someone that someone else had died. Odd but effective. What’s colder than death?
“Cold,” Schwartz confirmed. “You put quite a lick on him. He’s going to be hurting tomorrow.”
“You know. Day after today.”
The two of them stood there, side by side in the yellowish, unreal light of the diamond that made distant objects seem near. After a while Schwartz said, “At least those two scouts left before things hit the fan.”
That thought had occurred to Henry, though he was glad not to be the one to voice it. The paramedics carried Owen out of the dugout, lowered the gurney’s collapsible legs into an X, and wheeled him toward the ambulance. The fans and Milford players clapped. When things like this happened on TV, the strapped-down athlete always lifted a hand to the crowd to show that he’d be okay. To show that the human spirit could triumph over any hardship. Owen did no such thing. President Affenlight clambered into the ambulance behind the gurney, and the ambulance screamed away.
The umpires and coaches gathered at home plate, conferred for a few moments, and exchanged handshakes. As he walked back toward the rest of the team, Coach Cox beckoned Henry and Schwartz with a wave. Schwartz put a hand in the small of Henry’s back, guided him toward the huddle.
“We decided to call the game.” Coach Cox smoothed his clipped black mustache, spoke in clipped black words. “So good win. I know you’re worried about Dunne. But we can’t have twenty of us dinking around the hospital. Go home, shower up. As soon as I hear anything, I’ll send out word. Understood?”
Rick O’Shea raised his hand. “Off day tomorrow?”
Coach Cox pointed at him. “O’Shea. Watch yourself. Three o’clock practice. Now let’s get out of here before we freeze our asses off.” As the players dispersed he squeezed Henry’s shoulder. “I’m headed to the hospital. You need a ride?”
“We’ll go in my car,” Schwartz told him. “So you can hit the road afterward.”
Coach Cox lived in Milwaukee, two hours south, and commuted through the season. “Goddamn Dunne,” he muttered, stroking his mustache. “Him and his goddamn books.”
Henry waited off to one side, goose-bumped and shivering, while his teammates collected their equipment. They slapped him wordlessly on the back and set out across the early-spring mud of the pitch-dark practice fields, toward the campus proper. When they were no longer visible, even to Henry’s 20/15 vision, he took a deep breath and headed down the dugout steps.
The dugout was low and long and dark. The concrete walls exuded an ominous coolness, like the hold of an arctic ship. A narrow beam of fuzzy-edged light streamed through a few feet of grayness and illuminated a small patch of wall. Owen’s reading light, still clipped to his Harpooner cap. Henry clicked it off and zipped the cap-light combo into Owen’s bag. Then he slung one big bag over either shoulder—Owen’s with the number 0 stenciled on the side, his own with the number 3. Halfway up the dugout steps he thought to check for Owen’s glasses. He unslung the bags, dropped to his knees, and felt around the sticky floor in the darkness beneath the bench: Small mucky puddles of tobacco spit. Tooth-printed wads of gum. The plastic caps of Gatorade bottles, their spiny underedges like tiny crowns of thorns. Plain old clumps of mud. Owen’s glasses had been kicked all the way to the far end of the bench. Henry picked them up and wiped the lenses clean against his jersey. One arm wobbled on its hinge.
When he and Schwartzy arrived at St. Anne’s, President Affenlight was pacing up and down the ER waiting room, head bowed. He devoured the checkerboard floor with six strides, turned, and did it again. Schwartz cleared his throat to announce their entrance. Affenlight’s expression, weary and disarmed when he thought he was alone, changed instantly to a bright presidential smile. “Michael,” he said. “Henry. Glad to see you.”
Henry hadn’t expected President Affenlight to know his name. They passed each other often on the sidewalks of the Small Quad, because Phumber Hall was right beside the president’s quarters, but they’d spoken only once, on Henry’s very first day at Westish, while Henry was blending in with the tent poles at the Freshperson Barbecue, nibbling his fourth or fifth hot dog:
“Guert Affenlight.” The older man sipped his drink, held out a hand.
“Skrimshander?” Affenlight smiled. “It’ll be the seven hundred and seventy-seventh lay for you, I’m afraid.” He was wearing a silver tie that matched his hair. His sleeves were rolled midway up his forearms—the way they hung unwrinkled from shoulder to cuff, their lines crisp and pristine, suggested a man at ease with his surroundings. When Sophie had asked Henry to describe Westish, the first image that came to mind was that of Affenlight’s perfectly rolled-up sleeves.
“Any news?” Schwartz asked now.
“He woke up for a moment in the ambulance,” Affenlight said. “Out cold, and then suddenly his eyes popped open. He said, April.”
“April,” Henry repeated.
“The cruelest month,” Schwartz said. “Especially in Wisconsin.”
“April.” Henry parsed the word into sounds so small their sense disappeared, as if he’d wandered into the wide spaces that separate the solid parts of a molecule. “Starts tomorrow.”
Coach Cox walked into the waiting room. Like Henry and Schwartz, he hadn’t changed out of his Harpooner pinstripes. He carried, two to a hand, bulging white bags that bore the golden arches. “Any word?”
“He’s in having a CAT scan,” Affenlight told him. “They want to make sure there’s no bleeding in the brain.”
“Goddamn Dunne.” Coach Cox shook his head. “If anything happens to him I’ll kill him.” He plunked the bags down on the round faux-wood table in the corner. “I brought dinner.”
Schwartz and Coach Cox settled in at the faux-wood table and unwrapped their Big Macs. Henry loved fast food, but tonight the smell made him queasy. He sank down on a stiff couch and looked up at the TV bolted high on the wall. On-screen a statuary Christ, shot tight in a bright swath of light, hung upon the cross. His chin slumped against a bony, toga-sashed shoulder. ORGAN MUSIC, read the closed-captioning. Cut to biplane angles of an equatorial island: sapphire water, pink beach, the firework tops of palm trees. ISLAND DRUMBEAT.
“Here,” said Coach Cox. “Keep your strength up.”
Henry let the french fries sit there in his hand. The televised colors, the swift jolting movements from shot to shot, didn’t help his stomach. He hadn’t seen a TV since October, when the World Series ended.
President Affenlight stopped pacing and sat down on the couch. Henry tipped the flimsy red carton toward him. Affenlight, with a nod of thanks, drew out a fry. The gesture reminded him of his smoking days, which had—more or less—ended with his return to Westish. Upon taking the job, he’d come to this very hospital for a checkup, his first in fifteen years, as was required by his new insurance. He’d expected accolades and hushed admiration from the doctor; he’d recently guest-rowed on a Harvard varsity eight at practice and hardly cost the team a beat. What he got instead was a vehement, statistics-laden lecture. His family history—his father had suffered two heart attacks; his older brother George had died of a so-called coronary event at sixty-three—was as cautionary as they come. His LDL of 200 placed him squarely in the danger zone. His age-old three-pack-a-week smoking habit amounted to a suicide note. The doctor, having played up the pathos of all this to extract from Affenlight a promise not only to quit smoking but to cut back on red meat and alcohol, sent him away with prescriptions for Lipitor, TriCor, and Toprol-XL. Sentenced to a life of pills. He was also supposed to take a baby aspirin every day.
What proved hardest about forgoing his vices wasn’t the loss of the vices themselves but the fact that some young punk of a doctor had insisted he forgo them. Baby aspirin indeed. Apparently this was how a man got treated after fifty, even if he was the picture of health. George’s death had saddened Affenlight without frightening him much; George was eighteen years his senior, and their relationship had always been removed and avuncular. But it was true that they shared their genetic predispositions, and after a stint of somewhat juvenile resistance Affenlight resolved to comply, or mostly comply, with the doctor’s regimen, while making sure to preserve a margin for his freedoms. He took his meds and his baby Asa five days a week, with longer breaks in the summer, as if they were a job from which he required time off; he’d kicked the cigarettes except for the occasional sneaky singleton; and he thought twice before ordering a steak or a second scotch, though especially in the case of the scotch, thinking twice and declining were different things. Whether he was better off for all that was an open question, but he certainly felt fine.
On the TV, young men wearing short-sleeved black shirts and clerical collars filed down the steps of a turboprop, squinting into brilliant sunlight. WELCOME TO TEST OF FAITH, said the program’s host, his hands thrust pensively in his clam diggers’ pockets. BEFORE THESE TWELVE MEN ARE ORDAINED AS PRIESTS, THEY’LL HAVE TO GO THROUGH SOMETHING A LOT MORE TEMPTING THAN FORTY DAYS IN THE DESERT. Cut to drab yearbook photos of girls in plaid jumpers with braces, bangs. THESE YOUNG LADIES ALL WENT TO CATHOLIC SCHOOL. THEY ALL LIST “FAITH” AS AN IMPORTANT QUALITY IN A FUTURE HUSBAND. OH, AND ONE MORE THING—color-soaked flash-cut montage of tanned and sweat-beaded stomachs, cleavage, thighs—THEY’RE ALL REALLY, REALLY HOT.
Are they? Affenlight wondered. The girl-women scampered around a beach house in various states of preparative undress, wriggled into sundresses, shook out their hair. He took another fry. They possessed a veneer of hotness, certainly, a sheen of sexual health. You could call them clean, chromatic, shapely, sun-kissed, and, yes, even hot—but you could never call them lovely, not in the way that Owen was lovely.
A baby-faced novitiate sat in the interview chair and thumbed through a well-thumbed Bible. His sad Hispanic eyes found the lens. RODERIGO: WHY? I FEEL THAT THE LORD HAS SENT ME HERE. THAT HE MEANS TO TEST MY FAITH, JUST AS HE TESTED HIS SON. Cut to ice-blue kidney-shaped swimming pool. Roderigo playing water volleyball with three women: peach bikini, striped bikini, cream bikini. Roderigo’s necklace’s gold crucifix swinging toward his shoulder as he rises for a spike.
“TV’s strange,” Henry said.
Affenlight slid out another fry, wondering what else Henry found strange. Was it strange for a college president to show so much concern for a student? To run out onto a baseball field? To ride in the back of an ambulance? To watch bad TV, chain-munching french fries, waiting for news?
“How long have you known Owen?” he asked.
Henry stared up at the screen. “We’ve been roommates since freshperson year.”
Roommates! Yes, of course, Affenlight remembered now: how he’d been enlisted by Admissions and Athletics, three years ago, to convince Owen to take on a roommate. The roommate was a late admit and supposedly some kind of baseball phenom. Affenlight had rolled his eyes and complied; he didn’t like special treatment for athletes, and he didn’t see how one player could help such a bungling baseball program. Now the phenom was Henry, being courted by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Back then Affenlight knew of Owen only because he’d chaired the selection committee for the Maria Westish Award. He admired the elegance of the young man’s essays, the breadth of his reading; he championed his application, though other candidates had higher test scores and GPAs. But that had been strictly business, or had seemed so at the time. He’d always avoided entanglements with students, and entangling with a male student had never crossed his mind.
Then, two months ago, the campus environmental group had requested a meeting. A dozen students crowded into Affenlight’s office. They lectured him on the evils of global warming. They presented a ten-page list of colleges that had pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020. They demanded energy-efficient lighting, facility upgrades, a biomass plant built out beyond the practice fields, fired by woodchips. “You’re getting me too late,” he said when they’d finished. “Where were you back when we had money?” Three-quarters of those schools would renege on their pledge; the other quarter were filthy rich. Besides, a dozen students—was that all they could muster? Where were the petitions, the rallies, the outrage? A biomass plant for a dozen students? The trustees would giggle.
While thinking these things, he’d been riveted by Owen, who leaned against the door, hands in the pockets of his baggy sweatpants, while his cohorts gesticulated and shouted. When he spoke his voice was soft, pacific, but the others fell silent; even in their most strident moments they were waiting for him to intervene.
Later that night, while still thinking about Owen, thinking about why he was thinking about Owen, he received an e-mail:
Thank you very kindly for meeting with us today. I found it edifying but more cacophonous than might have been maximally productive. I don’t wish to impose on your busy schedule, but perhaps we could schedule a smaller meeting to determine which initiatives might be fiscally possible?
A Dear Guert and a one-initial signature, coming from a student, would normally have annoyed Affenlight. In this case, for whatever reason, it felt more like intimacy than presumption. Since then he and Owen had met several times, had put together a plan, and a plan for achieving the plan. Owen’s group would collect the student signatures; Affenlight would rally the faculty and lobby the trustees.
Had Owen caught him staring and known what it meant? Was that why he’d written that e-mail? The eyes behind those wire-rimmed glasses seemed to miss nothing. In their subsequent meetings, Owen was self-assured and patient and sometimes teasing; Affenlight was rapt and eager to please. After nearly thirty years of student-teacher interactions, he’d found himself on the wrong end of a crush. After a few weeks the word crush no longer covered it.
Affenlight drew another fry from the carton. Henry’s eyes were squeezed shut—he wasn’t asleep but seemed rather to be wincing, perhaps in memory of his errant throw. His face was ghostly pale, still dusted with infield dirt. He was in full uniform, except for his cap. His glove sat on one knee. “It’ll be okay,” Affenlight said. “He’ll be okay.”
Henry nodded, unconvinced.
“He’s a wonderful young man,” said Affenlight.
Henry’s chin squinched, as if he might cry. “Schwartzy,” he said, “do you have a ball on you?”
Schwartz, having finished his dinner, had pulled out his laptop and begun typing away, a stack of note cards at his elbow. Now he reached down into his backpack and flipped a baseball to Henry. Henry spun the ball in his right hand, slapped it into the glove. The gesture seemed to enable him to speak. “I keep seeing it over and over in my head,” he said miserably. “I’ve never made a throw like that. A throw that bad. I don’t know how it happened.”
Schwartz stopped typing and looked up, his face bathed in the cool submarine glow of his laptop screen. “Not your fault, Skrimmer.”
“The Buddha’s going to be okay,” Schwartz said. “He’s already okay.”
Henry nodded, unconvinced. “I know.”
“Goddamn Dunne.” Coach Cox kept his eyes on the bikini-clad Catholic girls on TV, who were testing the novitiates’ faith with back rubs. “I’m going to wring his scrawny neck.”
A door opened. “Guert Affenlight?” called a young woman in pale-blue scrubs, reading the name off her clipboard.
“Yes.” Affenlight stood and straightened his Harpooner tie.
“My name is Dr. Collins. Are you a relative of Owen Dunne?”
“Oh, no,” Affenlight said. “His family, actually, is from, um…”
“San Jose,” Henry said.
“Right,” Affenlight said quickly. “San Jose.” He’d felt such stupid pride at having the doctor call his name, as if he were the person nearest to Owen. The doctor turned to address herself to Henry:
“Your friend isn’t doing too badly, all in all. The CT showed no epidural bleeding, which is what we worry about in this kind of case. He has a severe concussion and a fractured zygomatic arch—that is, a cheekbone. His functions appear normal. The arch will require reconstructive surgery, which I imagine we’ll try to do right away, as long as we’ve got him here.” Dr. Collins, who despite the purple fatigue marks under her eyes looked no older than twenty-five, paused to pluck at the V of her scrub top, above which her skin was Irishly pink and mottled. Affenlight saw, or imagined he saw, her tired eyes settle on Henry in an interested way.
“Can I see him?” Henry asked.
Dr. Collins shook her head. “His concussion’s pretty severe, and we’re going to keep him in the ICU tonight. He seems to be suffering some short-term memory loss, which we assume will clear. Tomorrow you can see him all you like.” She patted Henry consolingly on the arm.
Affenlight’s cell phone shivered against his thigh. The number was unfamiliar, with a 312 prefix, but he knew who it would be. He made an apologetic gesture toward the doctor, who didn’t notice, and walked into the hall. “Pella. Kiddo. Where are you?”
“Chicago. I made my connection. We’re about to board, so I should be right on time.” Her voice sounded thin and crackly through the pay-phone static. “I thought maybe we could go to Bau Kitchen.”
This was Pella’s favorite restaurant in Milwaukee, the place where they’d celebrated her sixteenth birthday. If Affenlight had been zipping down I-43 toward the airport, an Italian opera tucked into the Audi’s CD player, he would have been heartened by this suggestion, which seemed like a gesture of peace. Instead he was bound to be late, and he couldn’t help wondering whether Pella had already sniffed out his neglect, or what was bound to seem like neglect, and had decided to punish him with solicitude. “That’s a wonderful idea,” he said. “But I’m afraid I’m running a little late.”
Disappointment, fragility, the phrase picking up where we left off—these things and more came streaming through the phone line’s silence. “I’m at the hospital,” Affenlight said, trying to ward them off. “We’ve had an accident at the school. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Sure,” Pella said. “Whenever.”
As he hurried out, Affenlight paused long enough to buy a pack of cigarettes—Parliaments, his old standby—from the hospital gift shop. A hospital that sold cigarettes: he rolled this notion in his head, wondering whether it spelled doom or hope, while he thrust a twenty at the gray-haired woman behind the counter. He shoved the pack in his pocket and tried to leave without his change, but she summoned him back and insisted on counting out, with excruciating and perhaps remonstrative slowness, a ten, five ones, and several coins. Coach Cox drove him to his car, and he rocketed down the empty interstate, Le Nozze di Figaro blasting, windows down.