Shortly after dawn, eight Schlitzes in, Schwartz walked to the VAC under low-slung clouds, not feeling drunk or sober. He took the elevator up to his office and unlocked the cabinet that stored the navy binders and reams of expensive watermarked paper he’d bought back in September. The conference table where he worked looked disastrous, littered with coffee mugs full of dip spit, protein-bar wrappers, note cards bearing hundreds of choice quotes and turns of phrase he’d never deployed. The introduction wasn’t finished, much less the bibliography. Back in December, on the basis of his research and outline, his adviser had assured him he’d win the History prize.
He used his school ID to jimmy the lock on the office of Duane Jenkins, the athletic director. There was a high-speed, high-quality printer there, for flyers and posters and press releases. Schwartz slid his watermarked paper into the tray, connected his laptop, and began printing his rough-draft chapters in twelve-point Courier, the official font of idiot jocks.
As the Courier-besmirched pages spooled and printed, in triplicate, he picked up Jenkins’s phone.
“Skrimmer,” he said. “Why aren’t you in class?”
“Why are you calling me,” Henry countered, “when I’m supposed to be in class?”
“You can have an off day, Skrim…” God, Schwartz was sick of his own shtick.
“… but I can’t have a day off. I know.” Henry sounded annoyed; he was sick of it too. Schwartz couldn’t remember him ever skipping class before. He wanted to broach the topic of Henry’s panic attack, but the distance between them seemed too great. “Feeling any better?”
“I’m fine,” Henry said. Which was part of the problem: Henry always said he was fine. Generally Schwartz considered this the proper attitude—say you’re fine and you’re fine. It was what made Henry such a perfect pupil. Except now, when nothing was fine. Probably Pella was right that he needed a therapist, but there wasn’t time for that anyway. Twenty-four hours to Coshwale, twenty-four hours to Henry Skrimshander Day.
“Meet me at the VAC in ten minutes,” he said. “No need to change.”
ON A SHELF IN HIS OFFICE Schwartz kept a long row of DVDs of Henry taking batting practice. Labeled and arranged by date, they formed a complete record of Henry’s progress as a hitter under Schwartz’s tutelage, week by diligent week, from his freshperson season till now. Together they’d spent hundreds of hours watching these tapes, breaking down and rebuilding Henry’s swing frame by frozen frame. If you had the editing equipment and time to kill, you could take a frame from each day’s session and splice them together chronologically, so that the Henry who awaited the pitch would be skinny and indefinite, the bat wavering timidly above his bony right elbow, while the Henry who finished the swing, following through with such forceful purpose that the bat head wrapped around and struck him between the shoulder blades, would be chiseled and resolute, his eyes hardened, his curls shaved down to a military half inch. The making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.
For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer—you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error. The scouts cared little for Henry’s superhuman grace; insofar as they cared they were suckered-in aesthetes and shitty scouts. Can you perform on demand, like a car, a furnace, a gun? Can you make that throw one hundred times out of a hundred? If it can’t be a hundred, it had better be ninety-nine.
At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabeled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.
“What’s this?” Henry asked.
Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant.
The camera, that day, had been positioned on a tripod behind home plate. A thin stripe of chain-link backstop cut at an angle across the frame. The sun glared white against the lens, bleaching out one side, so that when Henry ranged to the camera’s right his white undershirt and finally his entire scrawny body dissolved in a ghostly burst of light.
Henry watched himself field a few grounders and whip them to first. “Is this from Peoria?”
“Weird. Where’d you get it?”
“My Legion team. We taped all our games.” After Henry finished fielding on that scorching afternoon, Schwartz had checked the camera and found its red light still lit. He wanted a record of what he’d seen—proof to other people, and especially to himself, that he hadn’t exaggerated Henry’s talent or hallucinated him altogether. So he commandeered the tape, watched it several times, mailed a copy to Coach Cox. It had served, more or less, as Henry’s Westish application.
Henry didn’t know the tape existed. Schwartz couldn’t quite say why he’d kept it to himself for the past three years—as if there were a part of Henry that belonged more to him than it did to Henry. That he didn’t want to share, not even with Henry.
“Weird,” Henry said again. “Look how skinny I was. Somebody give that kid some SuperBoost.”
Henry tossed a baseball from hand to hand, gazed at the screen. “What am I watching for?”
“Just watch, Skrim.”
“I thought maybe you’d noticed something.”
“Maybe you’ll notice something,” Schwartz snapped. “If you shut up and watch.”
Henry looked hurt. He stopped tossing the baseball, stared at the screen.
“Sorry,” Schwartz muttered. He was doing so unforgivably little to help his friend. Hitting extra grounders, repeating stupid bromides like relax and let it fly—it amounted to moral support, nothing more. Once Henry stepped out on the field, he was totally alone.
There was that aloneness on the screen: that implacable, solitary blankness on Henry’s sweat-streaked face as he backhanded a ball and fired it into the glove of his pudgy first baseman. Not that Henry withdrew from his teammates; in fact, he was more animated on the diamond than anywhere else. But no matter how much he chattered or cheered or bounced around, there was always something frighteningly aloof in his eyes, like a soloist so at one with the music he can’t be reached. You can’t follow me here, those mild blue eyes seemed to say. You’ll never know what this is like.
These days, when Henry walked onto the diamond, those eyes were saying the same thing, but with a rising undercurrent of terror. You’ll never know what this is like. Baseball, in its quiet way, was an extravagantly harrowing game. Football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse—these were melee sports. You could make yourself useful by hustling and scrapping more than the other guy. You could redeem yourself through sheer desire.
But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric—not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn’t storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?
It took ten minutes to watch the tape straight through. Schwartz rewound it to the beginning, and they watched it in slow motion. Then regular speed again. Then slo-mo one more time. Sudden spring rain drummed against the flat metal roof of the VAC. The kid on the screen fielded ball after ball, intent and tireless, engulfed in his half-bored rapture.
“Can we go now?” Henry’s foot tapped nervously on the carpet. “I’m hungry.” He wasn’t, really; he had very little appetite these days, but he wanted to get out of there. It was weird, even creepy, how intensely Schwartz was focused on the video—as if he wanted to will that skinny, thoughtless kid back into being. As if Henry were dead instead of sitting right there. I’m right here, he thought.
“One more time,” Schwartz said. “Just once more.” They watched it again, and still Schwartz’s finger hovered over the rewind button. To Schwartz the kid on the screen seemed like a cipher, a sphinx, a silent courier from another time. You’ll never know what this is like. But Schwartz had been trying for years, and he kept trying now. If he could crawl inside that empty head, crack open the oracle of the kid’s blank face—expressionless, expresses God—maybe then he’d know what he should do.
Henry headed to lunch, Schwartz to Glendinning Hall with his anticlimactic stack of binders. When he got home he went through three razors shaving off his thesis beard.