Schwartz, still wet from his post-practice shower, was standing in his weirdly clean kitchen, chasing a couple Vicodin with some flat ginger ale, when he heard the gate’s jingle and footsteps on the front porch. The bell rang. Pella, he thought wishfully, but she was off somewhere with The Architect. Schwartz had fantasized about hunting them down, about putting a scare into The Architect if not pummeling him into submission, but Pella didn’t have a cell phone, he didn’t know where to find her, and he needed to get some sleep before tomorrow’s games.
“Gentlemen.” He nodded, shaking Starblind’s hand and then Rick’s. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“No thanks,” said Starblind. Rick shook his head solemnly, his pink anvil chin describing a long slow arc.
“Something wrong?” Schwartz asked. “O’Shea looks ready for a funeral.”
Rick stared down at his Birkenstocks. Starblind gave the lid of the mailbox a few apprehensive flips, not meeting Schwartz’s eye. “There’s something we wanted to talk to you about.”
“Well, here I am.”
“Right.” Starblind sucked in a breath and steeled himself. “We talked it over at practice today, and we think that Henry should sit out tomorrow.”
Schwartz’s whole big body tensed. “Who’s we?”
“Rick and myself. Boddington and Phlox. Jensen. Ajay. Meat.” Starblind glanced at Rick. “Who else?”
Rick looked like Starblind had just asked him to name a Jew. “Sooty Kim,” he muttered.
“Right. Sooty was there.”
“You had a meeting,” Schwartz said.
Starblind shrugged. “Not officially. It was just the juniors and seniors. No need to get the younger guys involved.”
“Was the Buddha there?”
“Buddha hasn’t been around much lately.”
“What about me? Was I there?”
“No,” Starblind conceded. “You weren’t.”
“Sounds like some meeting.” A dangerous calm suffused Schwartz’s voice. “What else did you geniuses do? Elect yourselves captains?”
“Schwartzy, please. Hear us out.” Rick’s normally ruddled face was drained of color. His left thumb flicked at an imaginary lighter, tapped at the filter end of an imaginary cigarette. “It wasn’t a meeting. How could we have a team meeting about this? What would we do, get everyone together to talk about what’s wrong with the Skrimmer? With him sitting right there?”
“So you did it on the sly,” Schwartz said. “Behind my back.”
“It wasn’t like that. It was an impromptu discussion that led to a consensus. And here we are right afterward to tell you about it. As our captain.”
“How big of you.”
“I’ll tell you what’s big,” Starblind said. “This weekend. These four games. We beat Coshwale, we win UMSCACs. We go to the regional tournament.”
“You think we’re gonna beat Coshwale without Henry?” Schwartz said. “Even if we could, you want to go into regionals with him riding the bench? You’re nuts.”
“He cost us that game yesterday,” Starblind said.
“The whole team played like shit the whole game! Rick here dropped a pop-up, Boddington booted two grounders, I struck out with a runner on third. That play of Henry’s was one play. We should have been up by twelve by then.”
“We should’ve been,” said Starblind, “but we weren’t.”
Rick sighed miserably, riffling his ginger hair. “Schwartzy, you know how I feel about the little guy. I love him and I’d go to war for him. He’s like the brother I never had, and I have four brothers. But what’s going on with him is messing with all of our heads. Why do you think we looked so shaky yesterday? I’m not saying it’s Henry’s fault, but…”
Rick lifted his arms and let them drop. Schwartz stayed silent, waiting for him to finish. “Nobody knows how to talk to him anymore. It changes the whole atmosphere. When we win nobody wants to celebrate, because Henry’s our leader, you and him are our leaders, and obviously he’s hurting. And when we lose… well, we shouldn’t lose. We shouldn’t have lost to Wainwright. We’re too good a team.”
“Izzy looks sharp at practice,” Starblind added. “He could step right in. We’d barely miss a beat.”
A pickup rolled by with two kegs in the bed, blasting the rap anthem of the moment. Friday night, for nonathletes, was under way. Schwartz felt a splinter from a cracked porch board pierce the meat of his foot. “Tomorrow’s the Skrimmer’s day,” he said. “His family’ll be here. Aparicio’ll be here. You think he’s just going to take a seat?”
“He might not want to,” Starblind said. “But he should. For the team.”
“Hell, he can play first base if he wants,” Rick said. “I’ll sit. Anything so he doesn’t have to make that throw from short to first. It’s killing him, Schwartzy. You know that. Anyone can see it.”
“He’s just pressing. He’ll be fine.”
“If he was pressing before,” Starblind said, “what do you think’s going to happen tomorrow?”
It wasn’t like it had never occurred to Schwartz. It hadn’t escaped his notice how smooth Izzy looked at practice, how confident an athlete he was, how much he’d already learned from Henry about playing shortstop. Izzy couldn’t hit like Henry, not even close, but on defense it would actually be—Schwartz felt like a traitor to think it—an improvement. And maybe Starblind was right; maybe it would be not just foolish but cruel, sadistic, to send Henry out there tomorrow when the pressure would be cranked up ten times higher than ever before. Maybe the kid would crack wide open. Maybe it was Schwartz’s job to head that off before it happened.
“Why are you coming to me with this?” he said. “Coach Cox decides who plays and who doesn’t.”
“You know Coach Cox,” Rick said. “Loyal to a fault.”
Starblind nodded. “Remember Two Thirty? Guy was a head case. But Coach Cox wouldn’t bench him. He was convinced Toovs would suddenly start crushing in games the way he did in practice. How many wins did that cost us over two years?”
“Hardly the same situation,” Schwartz said.
“Skrimmer’s lost his confidence. Toovs never had any to begin with.” Starblind shrugged dismissively, thrust his hands into the pockets of his shiny track jacket. “They’re both fucked.”
“So you want me to decide that Henry can’t play tomorrow.”
“You’re the captain,” Starblind said, a hint of snideness in his voice. Schwartz squeezed his right hand into a fist, then uncurled his fingers slowly, like a man warding off a heart attack. Thinking of cracking a few of Starblind’s blinding arctic teeth.
“Just one day off might do the Skrimmer good,” Rick said. “He could relax, take it easy, come back stronger on Sunday. He might even feel relieved.”
Starblind eyed Schwartz levelly. “Just don’t forget what you’re supposed to put first, Schwartzy. It’s not Henry, and it’s not Henry’s pro career.”
It’s this team.
It wasn’t a given that sitting Henry would be the best thing for this team—how far could they possibly go without their best player?—but Starblind’s words gave Schwartz pause. It was true that he’d gotten locked on Henry, Henry’s feelings, Henry redeeming himself to the scouts. Not necessarily to the detriment of the team thus far—Henry’s success and the Harpooners’ had always gone hand in hand—but it was possible, it could happen. It was possible that the younger Schwartz, the hard-ass sophomore who’d galled Lev Tennant into punching him to get Henry into the lineup, would now decide to do what it took to get Henry back out of it. Sometimes you needed a rupture; sometimes you had to clean house. The younger Schwartz had known that. It was easy to know that when you weren’t in charge.
“You guys have a shitload of theories.” Schwartz meant to say this loudly, bitterly, but he could feel the emotion leaking from his voice like air from an old balloon. He sighed, rubbed a hand over his beard—but his beard wasn’t there. His hand found freshly shaved skin that was starting to burn like hell. “I can’t do it,” he said. “We live by the Skrimmer, we die by the Skrimmer.”