It was outside Lord's Hill, coming east on 84 on the way to Port Jervis, when the right front tire blew. Rudy managed to muscle the Camaro into the breakdown lane, spraying slush onto the hood. As he got it under control, the car shook, shuddered and conked out.
The snowfall hardened into rain.
He sat there in the Pennsylvania darkness, both hands on the wheel. Blowing past and rocking the car, a double-hitched semi threw off a cresting wave of water he could have surfed on. Heart pounding, adrenaline pumping like he was rounding third and heading home, Rudy used his new Hawaiian shirt to wipe off the steamed-up windshield. When he was done, he threw the shirt at his baseball glove, which stuck out like a taunting, weathered tongue from the rest of his possessions, boxed in the back seat.
So, slowed by getting repaired, he was a day and a half late to Nabbington. He put on his dark glasses as he drove down Main Street, to block against the glare from the early April sun coming off the snowdrifts. From the look of it, nothing had changed.
Rudy inched in the noontime traffic past the bars, sub shops, banks and insurance agencies. Kids ducking school were hanging out in front of the pinball arcade. Across from the Masonic Temple, Mrs. Pluto was still reading palms. The convenience stores that had been advertising Help Wanted when he left still hadn't found it.
Seventy-four in Hawaii was Rudy's guess.
When he had torn open the envelope after last season, the day the contract and his assignment arrived at his mother's house, the sight and slight of "Nabbington, New Hampshire" hit him like a gut punch. Before he realized what he was doing, he was on the phone to Pittsburgh...but hung up before anyone answered. He should have added it up as he stood there squeezing the phone cord in the kitchen. The average guy playing in the majors now...he had ten years on him. Adding it up he realized they had even cut him in pay.
By the weekend, the spring sun had melted most of the snow. The room the team had found for him with three other players, all new to the team, was the worst yet, the second floor of a tumbledown old wreck where the heat came out from the vents lukewarm and the furnishings were third-hand. The wallpaper was faded yellow flowers, the same in every room.
Rudy was late getting to Hedgeman Park for the first practice on Monday. His mouth felt like he had been chewing on an old bath mat and his head pounded like the Mummer's parade. He had spent most of the weekend drinking.
At the park, the snow not yet off the outfield grass, they had put down another coat of pea-green paint in the locker room. It was still sticky to the touch. The lingering fumes, not to mention his hangover, made Rudy light-headed as he stood in the doorway. He glanced at his already-assembled teammates, all of them but Rudy fitted out in full uniform, from cap to spikes. In the parking lot, there were license plates from all over the States.
"Well, well...what do we have here?"
Rudy had no desire to confirm it, but he was sure he was the oldest player on the team. The year before, he had had the dubious distinction of being the same age as the manager. But Jim Spruce had smooched the right butts during his career, and now was up in Pittsburgh. This year he would warm up the pitchers, drink in the swank hotel bars, and pocket big league meal money.
This year there was a new manager in Nabbington.
"What we have here is a walking, talking, fifty-dollar bill. Son, you and I are off to a hell of a bad start. Don't you know how to figure out that fancy-ass watch?"
Rudy was too dulled to argue as the laughter circled around him. He went over to sit on the folding chair next to Sandy Santiago, one of the other players back from the year before. Fifty? His new tire was going to cost that much.
"As I was saying," said W.R. Plunkett, who stood in front of the players in the home white pants, tan work boots, a black windbreaker over a blue-plaid lumberjack shirt with a white towel wrapped around his neck. With Rudy's assignment had come the organization announcements with Spruce up and Plunkett down. Rudy had never heard of the guy. Some minor league lifer. He had his hands slipped under the waistband of his uniform pants and he took one out to push his cap back off his brow before he went on.
"I can and will answer to 'Skip', 'Coach', or 'Sir'. No preference. If you must know, W.R. stands for Washburn Reynolds. That's a two-sides family name. It'll also be the last time I hear it spoke until my dead Momma calls me to come on home. You got something to add to that, Fifty?"
Rudy had been muttering, but he was surprised that Plunkett had heard it.
"I'd be hard-pressed, speaking of names, to have to start all over and get comfortable with 'Seventy-Five'."
Santiago bumped Rudy's leg. Then the catcher whispered what Rudy assumed was some urgent caution in his exuberant Spanglish. Rudy put his head down and kept quiet, but dug his heel into the puke-green floor to show he didn't like it.
"Now men...and I will call you-all men until you show me different...we have a few rules and of course the signs, which I'll be giving you right now. I'll be right there in the third base box. No way you can miss me…"
Plunkett then went over his rules for the club at home and on the road—what to wear, how to act—and ended with the signs they would start the season with for bunt, hit-and-run and steal. His indicator, until further notice and drawing laughs, was a tug on his balls.
That night, Rudy saw himself trying to hit a liner just wide of third, through the coach's box, that made the fat man skip rope. He opened his eyes and considered the bottle half-filled with foamy, room-temp beer resting on his stomach.
From behind it, Louise Pachette took a break from what she was doing, and gave him a wink.
"Now batting!" she announced, standing him up straight, "right field, Number 21! Rudy Russo!"
He grunted and put the bottle down on the floor beside his barely-double bed. With a little help, she climbed deftly aboard. She began to move, to roll her hips, and for awhile Rudy stopped thinking so much. He lay back and let her ride. Rudy watched as she ran her hands through her brittle-looking blonde hair, styled and swept back and hardened with spray. It looked like birds' feathers to Rudy, who wondered why it was that the women who worked in beauty parlors had the strangest haircuts. And then they picked up the pace and he had a tit in his mouth.
When they'd circled the bases, Louise took a pack of cigarettes off the night table and blew smoke into the small room. Sitting cross-legged, she alternated puffs with nibbles around her Really Red nails. Her make-up had run a bit in the heat of the moments.
"Hey Russo, you ain't passin' out on me are you? Dreamin' of surfin' and hula girls again?"
"Forget Hawaii. They'll skip you right up to the big club, Rudy, you start fast."
He opened his eyes. "How do you know? Been spending time with Plunkett?"
She didn't flinch. Rudy supposed a girl with her hobby needed a hard shell.
"What's the W.R. stand for anyway?" she asked.
"Wet Rag," he said, trying to lighten up.
"I heard it was Wedding Ring," Louise said, looking at him. He had a thought of Melissa, the local girl he'd broken up with at the end of last season.
"A lot of young blood this year, Lou," he said. "Why you spending time with me?"
"I like a hairy guy."
"Because you ask nice," Louise went. "When you remember to be."
Her touch on his leg, the tickle of her long-nailed fingers, sent a pleasant sensation through him that he didn't fight. He remembered their first time together, three years ago, maybe to this very night. She had been the tallest in a trio of women hanging around the clubhouse at Hedgeman after his first practice. Before he had known any better, he thought being cut out of the herd meant he was somebody special.
"And because you're lonely," she went on, her smile quick and fleeting, "and I'm lonely, and we can get each other through the night."
"Turn it off," he said, pointing at the lamp, but meaning everything. He wanted to get back to where he just had been. He didn't want to think about where he was headed after that.
Some brain surgeon in charge of scheduling for the Northeastern League had come up with an end of April home opener for the Nabbington, New Hampshire Pirates. It snowed to bury that first game and then Rudy found himself staring out of the dugout for the ones they got in over the next week between the on-going rain and sleet. He didn't care if he played or not. He had been spending so much time getting the Camaro fixed he was beginning to wonder if the dealership might give him a job.
Plunkett put him in right for the first night game of the season. It had warmed enough to melt the snow piles and muddy the field; bugs came out and collected in a fog around the lights. Rudy strolled across the outfield, noticed a couple of new advertisements in the multi-colored, logo-filled fence. Out beyond the forty-foot pines behind the fence, local softball and Little League games had started on the other fields that were out there. There was the clink of metal as ball met bat.
Rudy threw long warm-ups to the centerfielder, Kelvin Woodward, who bounced his back. It was bittersweet; in spite of not liking it, Rudy felt at home. He knew the angles, the way the ball wouldn't come off the old plywood wall, how to take his position so as not to be blinded by the glare of the lights off the poles behind home plate.
There weren't a lot of fans this early in the year; mostly old-timers with nothing else going on and kids. They were the only ones willing to come and sit down on the cold metal benches that served as seats. If they had shelled out an extra buck or two for the "boxes," they could have sat in the three rows of green seats closest to the field.
In the top of the first, Rudy robbed some unlucky bastard with a diving, tumbling catch. In the home half, batting lefty, he took the Hartford hard-thrower deep, cracking the ball into the trees over the fence for a home run. All the kids blew into the long yellow souvenir horns they had given out that night and the sick cow chorus took him around the bases.
He was in the line-up to stay, but he didn't take it seriously. He had no more room on his plate for disappointment. When the Cubs took him out of Horace Greeley High in '78, he knew he would be in the Show in no time. After all, he had a strong arm, and could handle a curve from either side. After Rookie League however, he was part of a minor league deal that sent him across town, to the White Sox. As the years wore on, the closest he got to the Windy City was whatever games he could catch on TV. He was going nowhere fast, buried alive under the red clay of the Carolina League.
He got the itch to quit, but then, the winter he turned 28, Jackson White Jr. called. White was with the minor league operations for the Pirates, of Bonds and Bonilla at that time, but more importantly, the team of his father and grandfather, of Pops and Dave Parker, of Manny Sanguillian, Doc Ellis, and even a few white boys his Dad claimed, like Maz and Dick Groat, who weren't half-bad. And leave us not forget Roberto Clemente, who was his father's all-time favorite on his favorite team. The chance to play for the Pirates, no matter how low a level, brought back the memories of his father. It brought back the broken shingles on his parents' garage, as he pitched, fielded, and battled against the best. It brought back his father watching from a window in the house, watching the only one of Rudy's games he would live long enough to see.
But Double A, it seemed certain, would be his brand. The Pirates Triple A team was in Hawaii and Rudy had been convinced he would finally be promoted; his mother had even bought him a proper shirt. Now, even a vacation to Hawaii seemed unlikely and if he wanted to see the big club, he was going to have to buy a ticket. He would be left with the memories of the anonymous, hard-edge accented shouts of the New Hampshire fans, of the bus rides down to Connecticut, across to Vermont, and back the other way, to the coast of Maine.
He was hitting over .400 a month into the season, leading the club in homers and RBI. He was getting the loudest cheers of anyone when he came to the plate at Hedgeman, and this year it wasn't because he hit a lot of souvenir foul balls. But he didn't care. Rudy knew he wouldn't even look at a box score when he was through. He had grown addicted to the Help Wanted; on those nights he told Louise not to come by, he would pick out a job like "Automobile Service Writer," and try to imagine what the hell it would be like.
In the third inning of their first road game, over in Burlington playing the Reds, Rudy thought he spotted Melissa in the stands. It was crazy the way it hit him...one more load shoveled on. He ran in from right one inning and there she was, high up behind the plate. She ran her hands through her long black hair, nervously twisted its ends; when she shook the silver bracelets on her wrist, he could almost hear how it accompanied her laugh.
Even as close as the on-deck circle, looking up while he swung the bat, pretending he was watching the dark sky threaten over Lake Champlain, he would have almost bet it was her. He struck out on three pitches, knowing she had moved to Virginia, not Vermont, and that she almost never went to his games.
It was as if the entire team imagined old girlfriends in the stands. There were errors, strikeouts, pitchers rocked, cutoff men missed. They were behind 18-3 when Plunkett came out of the dugout in the bottom of the eighth. He had practically worn a path by this time, like an old fat animal's labored trips to the watering hole.
It was breezy, so at least there were no bugs, and in the outfield, Rudy leaned forward with his hands on his knees, stared at the ground, chewed gum, spit, straightened up and folded his arms across his chest, chewed gum. He looked in when he heard something. Bart Roberge was out from second base like he expected a relay.
He looked past the second baseman, to where Plunkett was waving to him at the mound. He waved back.
A pack of pubescent girls in the nearby stands had been giving it to him since before the game began, and though they had found other ways to amuse themselves after awhile, this got them going again.
"Hey 21! Nice ass!"
"Wave to us!"
"Hey you! You're cute!"
A smile hit Rudy's face as Plunkett's long distance mime job finally became clear. He wanted him to pitch!
"About time," the manager remarked, handing the ball over after Rudy had trotted in. Santiago gave him a wink.
"Any advice, Skip?"
Plunkett watched the sky continue to darken over the lake. Rudy took a moment to try to find the woman who had reminded him of Melissa. Maybe, if he hadn't taken it all for granted, he'd be a Vice President or something already in her father's bank.
"Throw it down the middle," Plunkett said. "They're bound to miss sooner or later."
It may have been sound advice, but it appeared it would take awhile. After the ump had called Rudy's first pitch a strike, the first three Reds got clean, sharp hits. The next man popped up, but things returned to form when the batter after that raked Rudy's attempt at a curve and cleared the bases with a double against the centerfield fence. They were obviously trying to set some sort of record.
Plunkett looked pissed about returning to the field so soon. Even the ever-buoyant Santiago, wet and weary in the humid night under the catcher's gear, dragged himself out to the mound with a stunned look on his face.
"Come on Fifty, what the goddamned hell's the matter with you?"
"Just doing what you said, Boss. Put Sandy in, you want the big artillery."
The catcher broke into a grin at hearing his name. Rudy caught "hot hard one" in the course of the Dominican's comment.
"What you call me?"
"It's 21-3. They're bound to miss sometime, right?"
Plunkett chewed on it, hitched up his pants, stuck his hands down there. The umpire emerged from the uneven shadows cast by the stadium lights to join them.
"Men. My kids are asleep, and I love my wife. Let's go."
"We all want to get home," said Plunkett. "Give us a new ball here, my pitcher can't get a good grip on this one."
"Your what?" The ump took the game ball from Rudy, spun it around, and examined it.
"Best one in the bag," he announced. "Next boy up'll probably lose it anyway."
Plunkett took his hands out from the front of his pants where he seemed to always keep them, grabbed the ball, and rubbed it up as the umpire walked back to the plate.
"Two more lousy outs," he said, shoving the ball into Rudy's glove. "Here's my advice. Part it on the dry side."
The manager trotted back to the dugout, feet barely rising off the ground.
"Won is for fass…" Sandy went.
"Two is for faster. Right with you, amigo."
Rudy hadn't pitched in a game since high school. From the mound, home plate seemed far away; when you batted, the pitchers sometimes seemed nine feet tall. Rudy knew that Plunkett was doing the right thing, saving his staff for the Sunday doubleheader that was coming up the next day, but he also knew if he didn't do more than just lay it in there, he was going to lose some teeth.
Every wind-up he had taken was different. This time, as he brought his hands together over his head and rocked back, he remembered the runner at second (now heading for third) and his fingers entered some sort of gop that covered the seams of the ball, a slick substance that made his hand stick.
Part it on the dry side, came the reminder. Somehow, Rudy got enough of a grip to send it towards the plate.
It started for the right-handed hitter's head, but immediately drifted. He could see the batter perk up as he recognized a cripple. Rudy felt naked and defenseless.
As the batter started his swing though, the ball dropped as if it had been shot out of the air. He hitched, strode forward again, leaning off-balance... flailed at the pitch.
Out came a dead duck of a line drive that Rudy snared like a cat swallowing a moth. He ran it halfway to second and underhanded it to the second baseman for the third out.
In the dugout, Plunkett walked back and forth, clapped his hands. He put them back under the waistband of his pants.
"Okay, top of the end here...little rally! Go down fighting! Hey, how 'bout my boy here...he's sneaky, he's sneaky fast…"
Rudy ignored the other players' laughter. He considered Plunkett from the other end of the bench. Where did he keep it? Crotch it had to be. Or somewhere north of there.
The seeds of something sprouted in Rudy's mind, germinating a faraway light. He may have been bobbing out to sea, but there was a glimmer of hope.
"My boy Sneaky'll hold 'em...let's tie 'er up!"
Later he realized he should have approached Plunkett that night, or at the latest on the bus ride back to Nabbington the next night, when the idea had seemed as right and deserving as a winning lottery number. Instead he sat and stewed on it and before he knew it a week had gone by. Instead of passing the Southern Comfort at the back of the bus and telling his old stories to the new players, he should have been up front where the manager was bullshitting with the driver and wormed his way in.
What held him back was that he hadn't and couldn't warm up to Plunkett, and was sure that the feeling was mutual. Plunkett didn't like any of the players, near as Rudy could tell; he was just there for the paycheck. Rudy sat around in Nabbington through two off days wondering whether to do it, worrying that he had just lost the last chance for what might keep him in the game.
He was getting a little long in back, so he went down to see Louise at Hair Again, where she had moved the best shampoo, cut, and blow dry in town. As she gently massaged his scalp, pressing her old friend of a breast against his shoulder, Rudy tried to take his mind off things. It took him a moment to realize she had asked him a question.
"I said," Louise tried again, wrapping him with a towel, "think you guys are going to win it this year?"
"Christ Lou, you been around to know nobody gives a shit. That's not what it's about. Not in the minors."
"Mrs. Pluto says you're going to win it."
"Oh yeah?" He let Louise cover him with the black tarp after he'd walked over and sat in her chair.
"She's more right than wrong, just like the Farmer's Almanac." Louise warmed up her scissors, clicked them in the air.
"We talked about you," she went on.
Rudy, examining his reflection, said: "Your mirror's dirty."
"She'd know more for sure if she could see your palm too along with mine, but she did this thing with tea...not for drinking tea, but a special kind."
"I told her... you know, to help her, since you weren't there... how you were down on yourself now... but that you really shouldn't be, that most guys... most regular guys... they would kill to be you. Be a baseball player and all? To get as far as you got?"
"That's nice," said Rudy, barely listening. He closed his eyes, wished she would get on with it.
"She says your future is…." Louise stepped back and paused and Rudy, annoyed, looked over at her.
"Somebody close to you now, who maybe you don't respect as much as you should, can hold the key to change your sour outlook on your damn life."
Louise's new seriousness made him take notice. She was a party girl, not a prophet. She was meeting his look with a determined stare, like she was trying to project something into his head.
"She said that?"
"Well," Louise said, "she didn't say 'damn' I guess."
"And this person I'm close to?" said Rudy.
"Real close," said Louise, taking a step forward.
"Would help me if I asked?"
"If the person heard the question," Louise said with a small smile, "I'm sure the person would say yes." She reached over and put her scissors down on the counter in front of Rudy, among the mirrors, combs, brushes, hair treatments, sprays, dryers, jumbo coffee cup and a framed photo of her two nephews.
"Hey, maybe it is worth a shot," said Rudy, getting up from the chair. He took off the black plastic sheet she'd covered him with.
"Thanks for the wash, I'll be back for the rest."
When he reached Hedgeman, forgetting his promise to himself to baby the Camaro, he went down into Plunkett's office, a small cubbyhole under the stands. The manager was at his desk, in front of what remained of a messy sub covered with red sauce, drinking coffee and talking with Al, the kid whose father owned the team.
"I call you Sneaky," said Plunkett, "but that don't mean you can't knock."
"Hey Rudy," called Al. He was a big boy, with slicked-back brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and an always-flushed face, about 23 years old. He served as "Marketing Director" of the team. His most recent promotion had been "Pirate Freebie Frisbee Night" during which all of the gold and black hamburger-sized discs had ended up on the field by the bottom of the third.
"Got a moment, Skip?"
"Hear about Kelvin, Rudy?" asked Al.
Plunkett grunted and Rudy watched as he picked up what might have been bits of meat with the tip of his finger, and sucked them down.
"Got called up today," Al went on. "Already gone."
Rudy looked at Plunkett. He felt himself drop from the high he had been on.
"Man can hit," commented the manager. "Got to love that long ball."
Al must have picked up on the vibe Rudy began to give off like a bad stink. The kid left without saying anything else.
Plunkett stood up from his chair with difficulty. Rudy knew Plunkett didn't like him but...he could hit as well if not better than Woodward, and definitely had twice the arm.
Plunkett made his way over to the toilet in a small closet behind his desk. As usual, he was in his own creative version of the team uniform. A towel was wrapped around his neck and he had a pair of bedroom slippers over his white stocking feet. Rudy hung back as Plunkett went in and let loose a few blasts.
"Come on, Sneaky! I ain't got all day!"
Rudy realized this mocking audience was the best he was going to get.
"What about me as a pitcher?" he called out. "I got the arm, and maybe with a few pointers, now's the time to try it maybe," Rudy hurried on, "with your help... know-how of the game. Not that it wouldn't take awhile, but frankly our guys are getting rapped around anyway, and based on what I've seen..."
He was startled when Plunkett walked out, yanking his baseball pants over his gut. The older man stood there shaking his head as the delayed echo of the flush rattled the pipes in the stadium.
"Honestly son, what you been smokin'? You ain't a bad player. But there's more than a few too many better. They tell me you been around this long 'cause some of the fans have a hard for you here."
Rudy ran sprints in the outfield for awhile. He cursed Mrs. Pluto, and all the rest of the planets. He dressed for that night's game early, and tried to nap on a locker room bench.
As the other players came in, and they got the word on Kelvin Woodward making the jump, Rudy didn't need to open his eyes to know The Look was on their faces.
Yeah, so? it meant. And what does that do for me?
Plunkett went through a new set of signs in the clubhouse after infield, while the Burlington team was on the field. He thought their big victory and subsequent sweep in the recent series in Vermont had been helped by their stealing signs. There was now a tip of the cap, a touch of the arm, a rub of the belly. Another change was that one of the players would coach third; Plunkett would sit in the comfort of the dugout and give the signs while Rudy and the others crawled to never next in line, nowhere special after all.
In the bottom of the first, Rudy fouled one into the grove of trees beyond the chain-link fence that stood behind the first base line foul pole. It bounced off the top of the ambulance that waited every game for some player to get hurt, or some fan to get a stomach ache from too many nachos or hot sausages. The driver flashed his red lights and whooped the siren.
Rudy sent the next pitch high to center, the deepest part of the park. He stood and watched it. He snapped out of it in time to slide into second before the relay brought it in. Santiago, the closest thing they had to a clean-up hitter now that Woodward was gone, grounded to second, and Rudy, automatically off with the pitch, made it to third.
"Heads-up there!" urged the young Kiss-Ass coaching in Plunkett's place, clapping his hands.
Rudy looked into the dugout for the sign.
Plunkett gave the indicator, then stood up suddenly off the bench. There it was: with a jerk of his hand as it was some sort of obscene gesture between them, the old fart grabbed his left arm.
Plunkett sat back down, but he still had a grip on his arm, holding the pose to taunt Rudy.
He walked into his lead. The Burlington lefty's foot found the rubber and he moved into his set.
It wasn't fair. It was all right to joke with him, to call him Sneaky Fast, but to embarrass him like this? To have him get thrown out at home for no other reason except to show him how he was totally, absolutely, and in point of fact fucked?
In all the games he'd played, going back to Little League, high school, Babe Ruth, Legion, and then pro, he'd been picked off base and thrown out stealing more times than he cared to recall. Speed—not having much—was, he had always known, the weakest part of his game.
But there was a certain freedom, a nothing left to lose thrill to it. The pitcher lifted his leg ever so slightly, and Rudy timed it right. He was suddenly in uncharted territory, running home. He heard the "NO!" of some leather-lunged fan, and the small crowd began to hum in surprise.
The ball came in high. His teammate batting in the right-hand box came down to earth from his panicked leap as Rudy slide safely into home.
As he stood up and dusted himself off, there was something happening in the dugout. Rudy felt the world take another corkscrew turn. It seemed as though everybody else was running somewhere too.
The ambulance, red lights whirling again, came onto the field.
Santiago was crossing himself as Rudy reached the dugout. Others yelled to give Plunkett room. They had him laid out with a white towel under his head on the cold concrete in front of the bench.
Someone unbuttoned his shirt; his face was as white as the towel. His eyes were closed; a thin line of drool came out the corner of his mouth and down his cheek. His forehead was damp with sweat.
Had anyone ever seen me play? Rudy wondered.
His next thought was of his father. Not his father at the window watching. His father as his mother must have seen him when she discovered him that day.
Rudy left the dugout as the paramedics came rushing in.
His spikes on the asphalt path that led up from the field sounded like the ticking of a wind-up clock. The kind that no one used anymore. In the parking lot, the kids who waited out beyond the walls for the foul balls looked over at him as he drove off, but then back up into the sky.
For once, the Camaro started right up. Heading west, he wouldn't get the flat tire until he was an hour or so into Pennsylvania. He would get out and lean up against the car for awhile, in the surprisingly warm air of the night. He would watch the traffic stream past and feel its wind against his face. Before he changed the tire, he would take out his Hawaiian shirt and put it on.