T. R. HEALY - SOUPBONE
T. R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his stories have been published in such journals as Gravel, the Hawaii Review, the Steel Toe Review, and Welter.
Hoping for some decent luck this morning, Brad Brashear looked up at the overcast sky and crossed his long arms as he often used to do when he went out to the mound to pitch. Then he crouched down on the edge of the slippery dock and hauled in the first of three long blue nylon ropes floating in the narrow estuary. He pulled slowly, scarcely disturbing the calm water. The pot at the end of the rope felt a little heavier than it did yesterday afternoon when he first lowered it into the water and he was tempted to smile but didn’t because he didn’t want to sour his luck.
“Son of a bitch,” he growled a minute later when the metal crab pot surfaced the water. It was empty except for the chicken necks he used for bait and placed in the wire container inside the pot.
A little faster then, he pulled in another rope and, to his delight, saw that a huge Dungeness crab was trapped inside the pot. At once, he loosened the wire hook at the top then turned the pot over and shook the crab into a plastic sand pail. He smiled. Anything smaller than 5 ¾ inches across the back, as measured in front of the spike on the widest part of the shell, had to be returned to the water and he was confident this crab measured a good six inches.
Again, he crossed his arms and gazed up at the sky then began to haul in the last rope. It required a bit more effort than the others so he was hopeful this pot contained a couple of crabs. Nearly half the rope was pulled in when he heard loud voices behind him on the dock, and as he turned around to see who was causing all the commotion, something stung his left arm and he spun back and fell across the sand pail.
“Son of a bitch.”
A speck of sunlight caught the corner of his left eye as Brashear rolled over on his side and immediately he opened his eye a little more and noticed a small oval mirror on the far wall. He was surprised, not remembering a mirror hanging there in his motel room. Then he rose up on his right elbow and was startled to discover that he was in a hospital room. A couple of damp cotton balls sat in a pink tray on the nightstand beside a pair of forceps. There was only one bed in the oblong-shaped room and only one chair.
He started to get out of the bed when he felt a tightness in his left arm and saw that it was wrapped in bandages. He could not budge it however hard he tried.
“I see you’re awake,” a freckled nurse remarked as she entered the room.
“Sort of, I guess.”
“That’s good,” she said, handing him a small paper cup. “Now I won’t have to wake you up to give you your pain pill.”
Quickly he swallowed the tiny pill with a sip of water. “Excuse me, nurse, but how long have I been here?”
“You were admitted yesterday morning, sir.”
“And what for?” he asked sheepishly, not having any idea what happened to him yesterday on the dock.
“You were shot, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, yes, sir,” she said, removing the cotton balls from the tray on the nightstand. “I understand the incident led the evening newscasts of all the stations carried in Ocean Shores.”
He was stunned. “I can’t believe it.”
“It’s crazy, all right. You come to the beach to kick back and relax, I assume, and some idiot takes a shot at you.”
“Who, in the hell, did it?”
“Someone by the name of Hackel, I believe. You know him?”
“Never heard of him.”
“I didn’t think so. From everything I’ve heard reported you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He squinted in confusion.
“This Hackel character, according to the newspaper, was stopped early yesterday morning for some minor traffic violation and, for whatever reason, went berserk and shot the deputy. Later that morning he was spotted near the dock where you were and more shots were exchanged and, obviously, one of them struck you.”
“You’re fortunate you only suffered a graze wound in your arm,” she declared as she poured him a fresh glass of water. “The deputy was shot in the stomach and suffered a tremendous loss of blood.”
Grimacing, he said, “This is my pitching arm, though.”
“You a softball player?”
Sternly he shook his head. “Hardball.”
“You’re a pitcher, are you?”
“I was,” he answered after blocking a yawn with his right hand. “And this was my meal ticket for a few seasons but now all I do is occasionally throw batting practice for a high school team in my neighborhood.”
“So you don’t pitch in games anymore?”
“Well, after some physical therapy, I suspect you’ll be as sharp as ever.”
He looked at his bandaged arm, smiling sourly. “I wish.”
A few hours later, after lunch, he was visited by Deputy Rick Maglie of the Ocean Shores Sheriff’s Office who asked him to recount everything he could recall just before he was shot. All he remembered, as he told the nurse earlier, was suddenly hearing some shouting and turning around to see what was going on then feeling a sharp sting in his arm and falling back on the dock.
“Did you see anyone when you turned around?”
“So you didn’t see who shot you?”
“No, deputy, I didn’t.”
He then handed him a wrinkled newspaper clipping. “Do you recognize the person in this picture?”
“I’ve never seen him before,” he said with absolute certitude. “Is this the guy who shot me?”
“I believe so.”
“One of the nurses told me he also shot one of your people.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
The deputy nodded as he slipped the clipping into the breast pocket of his starched forest green shirt. “By the way, sir, what were you doing on the dock yesterday morning?”
“Checking my crab pots.”
“You a resident of Ocean Shores?”
“No, I just came down here for the weekend.”
“Well, I’m sorry things turned out as they did.”
“So am I. This is not the sort of thing I ever expected to happen to me.”
“Well, rest assured, the person who put you in the hospital will be apprehended,” he pledged. “Probably before the weekend is over.”
“I certainly hope so.”
“Oh, he will be, all right. There’s an active manhunt out for him across the entire county. He won’t be loose for very long.”
Brashear was released from the small community hospital in Ocean Shores after spending one night there and was driven back to his apartment in Bridgeport by a colleague from the furniture store where he worked in the accounting office. He was urged by the store manager to take off a couple of days to recuperate, and though he didn’t believe that was necessary, the manager insisted. So he did, not wanting to argue with his boss, and drank cup after cup of Chinese tea and watched probably more television than he suspected was good for him.
To his surprise, on the second day he was off, he was visited by a physical therapist, Buzz Wiltcher, who was referred by the Ocean Shores physician who treated him. The guy was around his age, in his early twenties, maybe a couple of years older. His arms were thick and strong, his chest as firm as the bark of the cedar tree in the courtyard of the apartment building.
“So how are you getting along?” Wiltcher asked after he introduced himself and shook Brashear’s hand.
“All right, I guess, considering all that happened.”
He nodded. “It’s a good thing your arm was just grazed by the stray bullet because sometimes so much damage is done to the tissue people have to lose their arms.”
“So I’ve been told,” he said, motioning for the therapist to sit down on the bamboo couch in the living room.
“Are you in much pain?”
“No, not much.”
“That’s good to hear,” he said as he sat down. “Anyway, besides wanting to see how you are doing, I came by to remind you of the importance of beginning a strengthening and stretching program as soon as possible.”
“The longer you put it off the more difficult it will be to recover the flexibility and strength in your arm.”
He nodded politely.
“One simple but effective stretching drill you should be able to begin in a day or two is the so-called ‘pendulum exercise,’” he declared. “And if I may, I’ll demonstrate it for you.”
At once, he sprang off the couch and bent down as if to pick up something he had dropped, his left arm hanging loosely at his side. Then he swayed his whole body back and forth, using the weight of his left arm to generate small clockwise circles from his shoulder.
“Perform this exercise three times a day,” he informed him, “as you should the other exercises on the handout I have for you.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Now, should you have any questions or problems, please don’t hesitate to call me,” he said as he pulled the exercise sheet from his jacket pocket and handed it to him. “My cell phone number is on the bottom of the sheet.”
“Thank you, Mr. Wiltcher.”
The therapist then extended his hand. “You know, I saw you pitch once when you were at Elk Grove High School.”
He smiled. “That was a while ago.”
“A cousin of mine played for John Quincy Adams and faced you in a playoff game his junior year I believe.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember that game.”
“You were the best pitcher I’d ever seen, threw nothing but smoke that afternoon. My cousin struck out three times, and he was considered a pretty decent hitter, and you made him look like a Little Leaguer. He wasn’t the only one you embarrassed, either. If I remember rightly, you had something like sixteen strikeouts in the game.”
“Yeah, some games you have your stuff and everything goes just as you want it to.”
“Well, sir, you had it that afternoon, all right,” he said, pausing at the front door, “and I gather you had a lot of other days like that or else you wouldn’t have made it to the big leagues.”
Smiling again, he watched the therapist walk to his car, wishing he had had a lot more outings like that game in his brief Major League career.
Brad Brashear was easily the most dominating high school pitcher in the state when he was at Elk Grove, possibly the best ever according to some observers. He seldom ever lost and when he did it was usually because another player made a critical error. His senior year he was undefeated, compiling a 16-0 record, with two near perfect no-hitters toward the end of the season. He had a 39-7 record during the three years he was on the varsity team, with 633 strikeouts in 361 innings and an earned run average of 0.47. He went the distance nearly every outing and had a staggering 26 shutouts.
Because of all the strikeouts he recorded at Elk Grove a local sports reporter started referring to him as “Bullet Brad” and the nickname stuck but it wasn’t really accurate. He had a solid fastball to be sure, what his father described once as generating “easy heat,” but not a blazing one. Generally, it clocked in the mid-to-high 80s, seldom ever getting much faster. The hard slider was his money pitch. It was taught to him by his father who learned to throw it when he pitched on his high school team. Then it was known as a “nickel curve.”
“You master this pitch,” his father told him repeatedly when they played catch together in the backyard, “you’ll be every bit as successful on the mound as any flame thrower.”
He was skeptical, not being tall or strong or muscular like so many dominating pitchers, but he followed the advice of his father and practiced throwing the curious pitch. When his father was out of town on a sales trip and could not catch him, he practiced by throwing a tennis ball against the side of an abandoned warehouse a few blocks from his house. Night after night after dinner, he walked down to the warehouse, gripping the ragged ball across the seams with his left index and middle fingers slightly off center and his wrist cocked as required when throwing a slider. Diligently he practiced, cutting down through the ball with his index finger, aware that if he threw it with his middle finger it would flatten out and reduce the break in the pitch. Often he was there until it grew too dark to make out the small bull’s-eye he had chalked out on the filthy limestone wall.
“Throw just as you would if you were throwing a fastball,” his father suggested, and so he did, delivering the ball with the same motion as he did his fastball.
“Think of outs as completions … as steps on your way to the goal line.”
Gradually he grew comfortable with throwing what amounted to a three-quarter-speed fastball, registering more strikeouts than he could have ever imagined. His father was right, as he so often was when it came to the game of baseball. Because of the slider he became the best high school pitcher in the state his senior year and a top prospect for the big leagues.
Just as he hoped, maybe even more as his father hoped, Brashear was signed by the San Francisco Giants shortly after he graduated from high school and was assigned to pitch for their Single A club in San Jose. He was ecstatic, hugged his father so hard the day he signed his contract he was afraid he might squeeze the breath out of him.
He started five games for the minor league club and won three of them with a 1.84 ERA, 38 strikeouts, and only eight walks in 32 innings. Then he moved up to Double A where he won three more games with an even lower ERA. To his surprise, his slider and fastball were nearly as effective as they were in amateur ball but he quickly discovered he needed to work on other facets of being a pitcher such as throwing from the stretch, holding runners on, and fielding off the mound.
He began the next season in Triple A then, after four quality starts, was called up to the Show and became the fifth starter in the rotation. He requested uniform number 32, the number he wore in high school and American Legion ball, but it had been assigned to someone else so he took number 23. The first time he put on the major league uniform he stood alone in front of a motel room mirror and stared at himself for several minutes as if not quite believing what he saw. He even pinched the bicep of his throwing arm at one point to make sure he was not still some youngster locked in the middle of a dream.
It did not take long for him to discover he would not be the dominating pitcher he was accustomed to being in high school and the minor leagues who averaged at least ten strikeouts per game. But because of his outstanding control he was able to nibble at the edges of the plate and get batters to swing at balls out of the strike zone and hit pop-ups and lazy ground balls. He did pretty well in his first start, walking one batter and allowing four hits when he was taken out in the sixth inning for a pinchhitter. But he was down a run at the time and was upset because it appeared his debut was going to result in a loss. The team rallied for three runs in the eighth, however, and he escaped with a no-decision. His next start he nearly went the distance, got a win, and celebrated that night with some teammates who took him out to dinner at a crowded restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf. He finished the season as the third best pitcher on the staff, with 11 victories, and had the second best earned run average. He could not have been happier and even garnered some votes for the All-Rookie team.
The next season started off even more promising with a complete game shutout. He had been elevated to the third spot in the pitching rotation and was almost as confident on the mound as he was at Elk Grove. With his repertoire of pitches, especially his hard slider, he was convinced he could get any batter to make an out. By the time of the All Star Game he had the second most wins on the staff and the most innings pitched. His control, as usual, was superb, averaging slightly more than two bases on balls per game. If he continued to perform at this level, he would not be surprised if he moved up another notch in the rotation.
His first start after the mid-season break, however, was not a good one. He walked two batters in the first inning, struck another on the elbow in the second, and was relieved early in the fourth after loading the bases. He attributed his dismal performance to an upset stomach he had earlier in the day but his next start was even worse. He walked four of the first six batters he faced and did not get out of the second inning. He was mortified. He had never been that wild before on the mound, not even in Little League. Always, his strength as a pitcher was his pinpoint control of his pitches, which, according to his high school coach, enabled him to paint the corners of the plate like “goddamn Picasso himself.”
He did better in his next start, despite giving up five walks, and completed the game for his eighth victory. His wildness persisted, however, and by the middle of August he was removed from the rotation and assigned to the bullpen to work on his mechanics. With the help of Bruce Sheen, the Giants’ longtime pitching coach, he broke down and analyzed every aspect of his pitching motion in order to find out what, if any, mistakes he was making in his delivery. One flaw Sheen noticed right away was that his body was moving faster toward the plate than his arm and, as a result, his arm was hurrying to keep pace. This caused him to throw pitches high and outside to right-handed batters and behind the heads of lefthanders. He figured after he made the necessary corrections he would snap out of his prolonged slump but he didn’t and was not called on to pitch another inning for the rest of the season.
“I feel as if I’ve been cursed somehow,” he admitted to Sheen one afternoon in the bullpen. “Physically, I feel fine. My arm’s not sore, neither is my shoulder, and my back hasn’t flared up once all season. So I don’t understand why I can’t throw the ball where I want to instead of being all over the place.”
“You’re just in a slump, kid,” Sheen tried to console him. “You’ll pitch your way out of it.”
In frustration, he bent down and picked up a practice ball and fired it at the backstop. “I don’t know, Bruce.”
“You’ve lost some confidence out there on the mound but you’ll get it back. I’m sure of it.”
“Lord, I hope so.”
Next year, in spring training, Brashear continued to work diligently with Sheen on reducing his wildness. One afternoon, under his supervision, he even threw a make-believe game of seven innings with the coach calling balls and strikes. His command of pitches was as strong as ever, enabling him to record twice as many strikes as balls. Yet, when it was time to throw five minutes of batting practice, he struggled to get the ball over the plate. It just did not make any sense. His control was fine when he was in the bullpen but as soon as he had to face a batter it unraveled. He threw balls in the dirt, into the screen, over the heads of batters and behind their shoulders, as if afraid to get too close to them. He acted as if he had never held a baseball before, let alone thrown one for a strike. He was just as erratic in the few innings he pitched during spring training, walking twenty-three batters in eleven innings. He was devastated, not having any idea what was the matter with his delivery, and he wasn’t the only one.
“What the hell is going on with that kid?” Leo Rhein, the manager of the Giants, asked Sheen after sending Brashear to the showers after another dreadful performance.
“It’s hard to tell, skipper,” he answered slowly. “There’s definitely nothing wrong with his throwing arm. I can’t count the number of times he’s been checked out by the medical people. And, just the other week, he made an appointment with an optometrist to have his eyes examined and they were just fine.”
“Hell’s fire, Bruce, there has to be some explanation for his wildness. I mean, I’ve seen slumps before---bad ones---but this has been going on far too long and he’s getting worse I believe.”
Sheen sighed. “The other day he asked if I thought he should look into seeing a hypnotist.”
“Christ Almighty, he’d be better off hiring a goddamn detective to find out what his problem is, if you ask me.”
Not surprisingly, Brashear did not make the Giants roster at the close of spring training and was sent down to their Triple A affiliate to work further on his mechanics. Things didn’t improve, however, despite all the prayers he said and all the good luck charms he put in his pockets and wore around his neck. In his first start he walked six batters in four innings, threw two wild pitches, and gave up four earned runs. The only time he heard any applause from the fans was when he was taken out of the game. Of the forty-nine pitches he threw, only fourteen of them were strikes. His next start was not any better as he surrendered six earned runs in four innings and walked eight batters. And in his third outing he didn’t get out of the second inning after walking five men in a row and hitting one of them on the shoulder. Following the performance, he was called into the manager’s office and informed that he would be given his unconditional release and put on waivers the next morning.
He was devastated by the decision, felt in a way as if he had suddenly died and now was observing his own funeral. But he was not really surprised, knowing he had been given ample opportunities by the organization to regain his control. And, in an odd way, he was almost relieved because over the past six months he had grown afraid of walking out to the mound because he didn’t know where the ball was going after he threw it. He had become more of a menace than anything else and just felt so helpless and embarrassed being out there now.
“I told you I’d be back to check on you,” Wiltcher bellowed when Brashear answered the door. “But you probably didn’t think it’d be this soon, did you?”
“No, sir, can’t say that I did.”
“Yeah, well, I was in the neighborhood, visiting another client of mine, so I thought I’d swing by and see how your arm is responding to the group of exercises I gave you to do.”
Wincing a little, Brashear extended his left arm. “It’s still sore as hell but its gradually becoming more flexible.”
“I can see that,” he said, firmly placing two fingers under Brashear’s elbow for support. “You’ve definitely got more movement than you had when I was here before.”
“I guess those exercises you gave me to do did some good after all.”
He grinned and removed his two fingers from under Brashear’s elbow. “I figured they would and, trust me, the more of them you do the more limber your arm will become.”
“Oh, I’m sure of that.”
“Hell, before you know it, you’ll be able to throw a baseball again.”
He nodded, declining to tell him he had not seriously thrown a baseball in quite some time.
“I read in the paper yesterday that they still have not arrested the prick who shot you and that deputy.”
“That’s what I understand.”
“I’m surprised, frankly,” he admitted, sorting through some manila folders in his shoulder bag. “I’d have thought in a little bitty beach town like Ocean Shores they’d have cordoned off all the roads leading out of the area right quick and caught him right away.”
“He must have escaped into the woods.”
“Still, with tracking dogs, you’d think he’d be in custody by now. Believe me, people who wear badges are pretty determined when one of their own is shot.”
Again, he nodded. “I’m sure of that.”
Wiltcher demonstrated a couple more strength exercises then, together, they performed them in front of the mirror in the hallway.
“Well, my friend, your recovery is coming along quite nicely so I don’t think you’ll be needing my services anymore,” he said after they completed the last set of exercises. “But, please, if you have any problems, any at all, please don’t hesitate to give me a call.”
“I won’t, Mr. Wiltcher, and I appreciate all your help.”
The therapist started to sling his canvas bag over his shoulder then hesitated and set it back down on the coffee table. “Oh, I almost forgot something.”
Sighing, he rummaged a moment through the bag then pulled out a grass-stained baseball. “I was wondering if you would sign this for me?”
Brashear was startled. “Are you putting me on?”
“No, not at all. It’s for my nephew. Believe me, he’ll be very impressed because he’s a huge fan of the game and knows how hard it is to make it to the big leagues.”
It’s even harder to stay, he thought, adding, “I was only there for a cup of coffee.”
“You were there, though.”
It had been a long time since anyone had asked him to autograph a baseball and, awkwardly, he scribbled out his name, deciding not to add “#23” after it, as he used to do, because he no longer had a uniform to wear.
“Thanks a lot,” Wiltcher said, putting the baseball back into his bag. “Robbie is going to treasure this.”
He doubted that but smiled in appreciation for the kind sentiment.
Wiltcher walked to the door then paused and looked back at Brashear. “You know, if you don’t mind me asking, why did you leave the game so early?”
“I didn’t. It left me.”
“You tear your rotator cuff or something as serious?”
Glumly he shook his head. “Amazingly, I never suffered a serious injury as a player. Seldom ever got even a scratch, truth be told. But, for whatever reason, I lost what talent I had. It just vanished, poof! Like something that falls down a drain and will never be seen again.”
The therapist, smiling thinly, glared at him for an instant then walked out the door.
Brashear watched him hurry into his SUV and race around the corner as if he wanted to get away as quickly as possible, as if afraid he might be contaminated by his misfortune. Many, many times he had seen that same look of bewilderment in the eyes of others when he tried to explain why he was out of baseball. It made no more sense to them than it did to him that suddenly he lost his control and could no longer throw strikes and he doubted if they believed him. Instead, he suspected they dismissed him as a bust, another highly regarded prospect who didn’t live up to expectations. Or, even worse, they assumed he lacked discipline and was not willing to work hard enough to succeed even though he knew no one could have worked any harder than he did. He didn’t blame them for not understanding what happened to him because he didn’t understand it either. Still, for quite some time after he returned to Bridgeport, he was reluctant to leave his apartment because he was so embarrassed by his failure and didn’t want to see the pity and confusion in the eyes of people he had known much of his life. So, after a while, he decided it was easier to explain why he was out of baseball by saying that he had developed a sore arm that would not heal properly. Everyone seemed to be satisfied with that explanation, including himself, even though it was a blatant lie. The only soreness he had ever experienced in his throwing arm was when he was shot on the dock. He just was glad his father wasn’t alive to witness his failure because he would have hated to lie to him but he would have he was sure.
After a few minutes, he did another set of pendulum exercises then cracked open a can of Michelob and sat down at the breakfast table and thought about the afternoon he visited that hypnotist in Tiburon. Dr. Schatz. No one recommended him; he was just someone he found in the telephone directory.
Until today, he was possibly the last adult to ask him to sign a baseball. The only reason he asked for his autograph, he suspected, was to flatter him so he would be more amenable to purchasing the package of six sessions he decided his problem required in order to be cured. He was a charlatan, as Brashear assumed he would be, as phony as the charcoal-black hairpiece he wore. Dressed in a dark blue velvet jacket, he sported a Van Dyke beard and spoke with an exotic accent that made him sound as if he were from a place thousands of miles away.
The hypnotist led him through a beaded curtain into a dimly lit room where there was a chair and a narrow couch and invited him to lie down on the couch. He did then was told to close his eyes and picture himself back on a pitcher’s mound. Then, in a low, soothing voice, practically timed to his breathing rate, Dr. Schatz encouraged him to relax. Again and again he insisted that he let his whole body relax until he was sure he had induced him into a deep, peaceful state of hypnosis that would make him receptive to his suggestions about regaining command of his pitches.
Glancing out the kitchen window, he took another swallow of beer. The memory of the session was so vivid it seemed as if he had visited the hypnotist just the other week. And, just as he did at the time, he could not believe he had become so desperate to recover his ability to throw strikes to submit himself to such foolishness. He was as embarrassed being inside the dark, scented room as he was being on the mound. And when the session was over he rushed out of the room even faster than the therapist had rushed out of his apartment a few minutes ago.
Driving home from his second day back at work, Brashear felt as if he had not been away for more than a couple of days instead of nearly a week. Nothing at the furniture store had changed nor had anything changed on the route he took to and from there the past two and a half years he was at the store. It almost seemed as if he were in a trance until the music on the radio station he was listening to suddenly was interrupted by a traffic alert that the streets around Estacada Park were in the process of being sealed off by the police because of the reported sighting of the fugitive Ward Hackel.
“My God!” he exclaimed, suddenly jolted out of his near trance.
He could not believe it and immediately signaled to make a left turn and headed toward the park. He was not really sure why he was going there, reckoned he just wanted to see the person who shot him. He had seen a couple of grainy black-and-white pictures of him in the newspaper but he wanted to see him in person because he was curious if he was the wild man the press had made him out to be in their breathless reporting.
Some fifteen minutes later, he was about four blocks east of the huge brown neighborhood park when he spotted a ribbon of bright yellow police tape strung from one lamppost to another on the corner. He also noticed a patrol car parked behind a fire hydrant but didn’t see any officers who, he assumed, were inside the park searching for the fugitive. He wished he could get closer but knew that was not possible so he decided to wait there and pulled over to the curb and shut off his engine. Maybe the officers assigned to the patrol car would be the ones who caught Hackel then he could finally see him with his own eyes. But the longer he waited for that to happen the more he wondered if he really wanted to see the guy apprehended.
“What, in God’s name, are you thinking?” he blurted out loud, shaking his head.
Really he could not believe he could have entertained such a ridiculous thought but, in a curious way, he kind of identified with Hackel. He hated to admit it but, if he had been pulled over by a patrolman or a deputy for some minor traffic violation at the time he was released by the Giants, he might have reacted as Hackel did if he owned a handgun. It was a terrible admission to be sure, certainly something he would never share with anyone, but it was the damn awful truth. He had never been as dejected in his life as he was those initial days after he was put on waivers and well might have snapped, too, if the wrong thing was said to him.
It was nearly forty-five minutes before the two officers assigned to the patrol car returned and began taking down the security tape. He regarded them closely, trying to determine by their demeanor if Hackel had been caught, but it was impossible to tell because their expressions were as blank as the globes of the lampposts in the park. Finally, after the last strand of tape was removed, he started to get out of his car to inquire about the status of the fugitive when he heard someone riding by on a bicycle post that question to the officers.
“We didn’t see him,” the taller officer answered wearily.
“You think he was ever in the park at all?”
The officer shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. Someone thought he was but I guess she was mistaken.”
Brashear smiled, as if relieved that Hackel was still loose, then smacked the heel of his right palm against his forehead.
“Imbecile!” he reprimanded himself, still smiling.
Breathing rapidly, Brashear completed another set of stretching exercises in front of the hallway mirror. His pulse was racing, his workout shirt soaked with sweat. He was tempted to call it a night but knew he had one more set to complete before he could quit. So he walked over and picked up the sawed-off broom handle leaning against the umbrella stand. Then, standing erect, he held the broom handle in both hands, his palms down, then lifted it directly above his head, straining to keep his elbows straight. He held the handle in that position for twelve long seconds then relaxed and lowered his arms. Breathing harder than ever, he performed the exercise eleven more times then set the broom handle back against the umbrella stand.
Staring at himself in the dusty hallway mirror, looking as haggard as someone twice his age, he thought of all the hours he had spent as a youngster practicing his pitching motion in front of his bedroom mirror. Every morning, before he left for school, he practiced throwing in front of the mirror, and every night before he went to bed. Grinning, he turned away from the hallway mirror, briefly shutting his eyes, then turned back and for an instant saw that youngster again.
The modest brown house was in the middle of the block with a bare apple tree in the middle of the front yard and beneath it a rake and a basket. A dilapidated pickup truck was parked in the driveway so Brashear assumed someone was home but he decided to wait a few minutes before he knocked on the door. He needed to collect his thoughts because he doubted if he would receive a very warm reception.
“Can’t you read, mister?” the scrawny woman who answered the door growled as she jabbed a smudged thumb at the “No Solicitors” sign posted beneath the broken doorbell.
“I’m not selling anything, ma’am.”
“So what do you want?”
“Are you married to Ward Hackel?”
“You a reporter?”
“With the police then?”
He shook his head, softly jangling the loose change in his pants pocket.
“So what business is it of yours who I’m married to?”
“I believe your husband is the person who shot me in the arm last month at the beach.”
Immediately her face tightened and her eyes narrowed in apprehension. “So you’re here to check out what he has that you can sue for for your pain and suffering. Is that it, mister?”
He shook his head. “That’s not why I’m here.”
“The hell it isn’t,” she barked, her eyes suddenly widening.
She started to close the screen door then hesitated. “Technically, we’re still man and wife but Ward hasn’t been living here for close to five months. So, as far as I’m concerned, the marriage is over.”
“I was just curious if you had any idea why he started shooting that morning?”
“How the hell should I know? I wasn’t there, for Christ’s sake.”
“But you’re married to the guy. You must have some idea why he snapped as he did.”
“All I know is, he left me with a lot of bills to pay and a six-year-old daughter to raise.”
“Please, ma’am, you must have some hint?”
She sighed, cocking a veined hand on her right hip. “He is not the man I married, mister, not anymore. For whatever reason, a year or so ago, he started to believe everyone was against him, including me, and all he wanted to do was lash out at them. I used to think he was only like that when he was drinking but soon it became apparent even when he was cold sober he could be mean as a snake. And why he became like that is a complete mystery to me.”
He wasn’t sure if she had told him all she knew but he did believe what she did tell him was true. “Well, thank you for speaking with me.”
Again, she started to close the door then hesitated once more. “Mister?”
“Don’t come back here. I have nothing more to say to you.”
Just like old times, Brashear thought to himself, as he pictured his make-believe childhood nemesis, Home Run Hudson, standing before him in the batter’s box. His heavy black bat looked like a stick of licorice in his massive hands that he could whip around with alarming speed. Swallowing what little saliva was left in his mouth, Brashear waited for the catcher to go through his progression of signs then when he saw what pitch he wanted him to throw he adjusted his fingers across the seams of the baseball for a sinking fastball. Some people seated along the first base line heckled him to hurry up and throw but, as always, he ignored them and concentrated on getting just the right grip on the ball which he kept inside his glove. He exhaled slowly, staring at the jagged plate he had sketched out on the red brick wall. A moment later, he reared back, raising his right leg until his thigh was as high as his hips, and strode toward home plate, releasing the baseball with a loud groan.
“Stee-rahhk!” the umpire bellowed as the ball shaved the inside corner of the plate.
Brashear smiled to himself as Hudson argued the call. Then he threw a change-up, which completely fooled Hudson who swung way ahead of it, then his money pitch, a hard slider, which Hudson missed so badly he almost spun out of the batter’s box.
After he fielded the ball off the wall, he tucked it in his glove and set the glove beside his backpack. Then he pulled out his water bottle, took a long swig, and sat down on the grass, gently massaging his left arm. It was still a little stiff but he decided he should start throwing with it, as his therapist suggested the last time he saw him, because it had been nearly five weeks since he was shot. He had not thrown a baseball against a wall since he was a kid, confidently challenging the power of Home Run Hudson and other imaginary sluggers, and yet he felt as comfortable as ever there. Against a wall he always dominated.
He laughed heartily, still massaging his arm.
Last week another sighting of Hackel was reported, as there was the week before, and he ignored it just as he had ignored the previous one. Both sightings turned out to be false alarms, with neither man suspected of being Hackel looking anything at all like him. He was not particularly surprised, figured, by now, the guy had fled the state, maybe even the country. That was unfortunate because, after speaking with Hackel’s estranged wife, he realized the guy should be put in prison for a good long while for his shooting spree. The idea that he could ever have identified with him was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous; all they had in common was a certain curious conundrum that had stubbornly intruded into their lives without explanation.
After taking another swallow of water, he picked up his glove and ball and walked back in front of the wall. Casually he twisted his shoulders while making sure his toes were on the chalk mark that served as the pitching rubber. Not having a tape measure, he could not be sure the mark was exactly sixty feet six inches from the wall, but he had pitched in enough games to have a fairly good idea of the distance between home plate and the pitching rubber. Then, with his glove pressed against his chest, he waited for Home Run Hudson to come up to bat again, confident that he would dispatch him as easily as he did last time.
He smiled then, quickly, his smile dissolved because he knew if an actual batter stepped in front of him he would probably be as wild as ever despite his seeming confidence.
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