Read The Given Day Online

Authors: Dennis Lehane

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Historical, #Thrillers, #Suspense

The Given Day (3 page)

BOOK: The Given Day
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Babe tried, at least for a moment, Luther'd give him that. He said, "Come on now, fellas, we were having us a game."

Flack gave him a big, bright smile. "Gonna have us a better game now, Ruth. See how these boys do against the best in the American and National Leagues."

"Oh, you mean, the white leagues?" Sticky Joe Beam said. "That what ya'll talking about?"

They all looked over at him.

"What'd you say, boy?"

Sticky Joe Beam was forty-two years old and looked like a slice of burnt bacon. He pursed his lips, looked down at the dirt, and then up at the line of white men in such a way that Luther figured there'd be a fi ght coming.

"Said let's see what you got." He stared at them. "Uh, suhs."

Luther looked over at Ruth, met his eyes, and the big baby-faced fat boy gave him a shaky smile. Luther remembered a line from the Bible his grandmother used to repeat a lot when he was growing up, about how the heart be willing but the flesh be weak.

That you, Babe? he wanted to ask. That you?

Babe started drinking as soon as the black guys picked their nine. He didn't know what was wrong--it was just a ball game--but he still felt sad and filled with shame. It didn't make no sense. It was just a game. Some summer fun to wait out the train repair. Nothing more. And yet, the sadness and the shame wouldn't leave, so he unscrewed his flask cap and took a healthy swig.

He begged off pitching, said his elbow was still sore from game one. Said he had a World Series record to think about, the scoreless-inningspitched record, and he wasn't risking that for some bush league pickup game in the sticks.

So Ebby Wilson pitched. Ebby was a mean, flap-jawed boy from the Ozarks, who'd been playing for Boston since July. He smiled when they put the ball in his hands. "That's right, boys. Be done with these niggers 'fore you know it. 'Fore they know it, too." And he laughed even though no one laughed with him.

Ebby started it off throwing high heat and burned right through the top of their order in no time. Then Sticky Joe came to the mound, and that nigra had no other gear but full on, and when he uncorked that loping, tentacle- swing delivery, god knew what was coming at you. He threw fastballs that went invisible; screwballs that had eyes--soon as they saw a bat, they ducked, winking at you; curveballs that could circle a tire; breaking balls that exploded four inches before the plate. He whiffed Mann. He whiffed Scott. And he got McInnis out to end the inning on a pop-up to second.

It was a pitchers' duel there for a few innings, not much hit past the mound, and Ruth starting to yawn out in left, taking longer sips from the flask. Still, the coloreds scored a run in the second and another in the third, Luther Laurence turning a run from first to second into a run from first to home, tear-assing so fast across the infield it took

Hollocher by surprise and he muffed the relay from center and by the time he stopped bobbling the ball, Luther Laurence was crossing the plate.

What had started as a joke game went from surprised respect ("Ain't ever seen anyone put mustard on the ball like that ol' nigra. Even you, Gidge. Hell, even Walter Johnson. Man's a marvel") to nervous joking ("Think we'll score a run before we got to get back to, you know, the World Fucking Series?") to anger ("Niggers own this field. That's what it is. Like to see them play Wrigley. Like to see them play Fenway. Shit").

The coloreds could bunt--good Lord could they bunt; ball would land six inches from the plate and stop moving like it'd been shot. And they could run. They could steal bases like it was as simple as deciding you liked standing on second more than first. And they could hit singles. By the bottom of the fifth, it looked like they could hit singles all day long, just step up and poke another one out of the infield, but then Whiteman came over to the mound from first and had a chat with Ebby Wilson, and from that point Ebby stopped trying to play cute or clever, just unloaded heat like he didn't care if it put his arm in the sling through winter.

Top of the sixth, the coloreds ahead 6 -3, Stuffy McInnis took a fi rst-pitch fastball from Sticky Joe Beam and hit it so far over the trees that Luther Laurence didn't even bother looking for it. They got another ball from the canvas bag beside the bench, and Whiteman took that one long, got into second standing up, and then Flack took two strikes and fought off six more for fouls, and then pooched a single to shallow left and it was 6-4, men on first and third, no one out.

Babe could feel it as he wiped his bat down with a rag. He could feel all their bloodstreams as he stepped to the plate and horse-pawed the dirt with his shoe. This moment, this sun, this sky, this wood and leather and limbs and fingers and agony of waiting to see what would happen was beautiful. More beautiful than women or words or even laughter.

Sticky Joe brushed him back. Threw a hard curve that came in high and inside and would have taken Babe's teeth on a journey through Southern Ohio if he hadn't snapped his head back from it. He leveled the bat at Sticky Joe, looked down it like he was looking down a rifl e. He saw the glee in the old man's dark eyes, and he smiled and the old man smiled back, and they both nodded and Ruth wanted to kiss the old man's bumpy forehead.

"You all agree that's a ball?" Babe shouted, and he could see even Luther laughing, way out in center field.

God, it felt good. But, oh, hey, here it comes, a shotgun blast of a breaking ball and Ruth caught the seam with his eye, saw that red line dive and started swinging low, way lower than where it was, but knowing where it was going to be, and sumbitch, if he didn't connect with it, tore that fucking ball out of space, out of time, saw that ball climb the sky like it had hands and knees. Ruth started running down the line and saw Flack take off from first, and that was when he felt certain that he hadn't gotten all of it. It wasn't pure. He yelled, "Hold!" but Flack was running. Whiteman was a few steps off third, but staying in place, arms out in either direction as Luther drifted back toward the tree line, and Ruth saw the ball appear from the same sky into which it had vanished and drop straight down past the trees into Luther's glove.

Flack had already started back from second, and he was fast, and the moment Luther fired that ball toward first, Whiteman tagged up from third. And Flack, yes, Flack was very fast, but Luther had some sort of cannon in that skinny body of his and that ball shrieked over the green field and Flack trampled the ground like a stagecoach and then went airborne as the ball slapped into Aeneus James's glove, and Aeneus, the big guy Ruth had first encountered playing center field when he'd come out of the trees, swept his long arm down as Flack slid on his chest toward first and the tag hit him high on the shoulder and then his hand touched the bag.

Aeneus lowered his free hand to Flack, but Flack ignored it and stood up.

Aeneus tossed the ball back to Sticky Joe.

Flack dusted off his pants and stood on the first base bag. He placed his hands on his knees and planted his right foot toward second.

Sticky Joe stared over at him from the mound.

Aeneus James said, "What you doing, suh?"

Flack said, "What's that?" his voice a little too bright.

Aeneus James said, "Just wondering why you still here, suh." Flack said, "It's where a man stands when he's on first, boy." Aeneus James looked exhausted suddenly, as if he'd just come home from a fourteen- hour workday to discover somebody'd stolen his couch.

Ruth thought: Oh, Jesus, no.

"You was out, suh."

"Talking about, boy? I was safe."

"Man was safe, nigger." This from Ebby Wilson, standing beside Ruth all of a sudden. "Could see it from a mile off."

Now some colored guys came over, asking what the holdup was. Aeneus said, "Man says he was safe."

"What?" Cameron Morgan ambled over from second. "You've got to be funning."

"Watch your tone, boy."

"I watch whatever I want."

"That so?"

"I do believe."

"Man was safe. With change."

"That man was out," Sticky Joe said softly. "No disrespect to you, Mr. Flack, but you were out, sir."

Flack placed his hands behind his back and approached Sticky Joe. He cocked his head at the smaller man. He took a sniff of the air for some reason.

"You think I'm standing on first because I got confused? Huh?" "No, sir, I don't."

"What do you think, then, boy?"

"Think you was out, sir."

Everybody was at first base now--the nine guys from each team and the nine coloreds who'd taken seats after the new game had been drawn up.

Ruth heard "out." He heard "safe." Over and over. He heard "boy" and "nigger" and "nigra" and "field hand." And then he heard someone call his name.

He looked over, saw Stuffy McInnis looking at him and pointing at the bag. "Gidge, you were closest. Flack says he's safe. Ebby had a good eye on it, and he says he's safe. You tell us, Babe. Safe or out?"

Babe had never seen so many angry colored faces this close. Eighteen of them. Big flat noses, lead-pipe muscles in their arms and legs, teardrops of sweat in their tight hair. He'd liked everything he'd seen in these ones, but he still didn't like how they looked at you like they knew something about you that they weren't going to tell. How those eyes sized you up fast and then went all droopy and faraway.

Six years back, major league baseball had had its first strike. The Detroit Tigers refused to play until Ban Johnson lifted a suspension on Ty Cobb for beating a fan in the stands. The fan was a cripple, had stumps for arms, no hands to defend himself, but Cobb had beaten him long after he was on the ground, applying his cleats to the poor bastard's face and ribs. Still, Cobb's teammates took his side and went on strike in support of a guy none of them even liked. Hell, everyone hated Cobb, but that wasn't the point. The point was that the fan had called Cobb a "half-nigger," and there wasn't much worse you could call a white man except maybe "nigger lover" or just plain "nigger."

Ruth had still been in reform school when he heard about it, but he understood the position of the other Tigers, no problem. You could jaw with a colored, even laugh and joke with one, maybe tip the ones you laughed with most a little something extra around Christmas. But this was still a white man's society, a place built on concepts of family and an honest day's work. (And what were these coloreds doing out in some field in the middle of a workday, playing a game when their loved ones were probably home going hungry?) When all was said and done, it was always best to stick with your own kind, the people you had to live with and eat with and work with for the rest of your life.

Ruth kept his gaze on the bag. He didn't want to know where Luther was, risk looking up into that crowd of black faces and accidentally catching his eye.

"He was safe," Ruth said.

The coloreds went nuts. They shouted and pointed at the bag and screamed, "Bullshit!" and that went on for some time, and then, as if they'd all heard a dog whistle none of the white men could hear, they stopped. Their bodies slackened, their shoulders lowered, they stared right through Ruth, as if they could see out the back of his head and Sticky Joe Beam said, "Awright, awright. That's how we're playing, then that's how we're playing."

"That's how we're playing," McInnis said.

"Yes, suh," Sticky Joe said. "That's clear now."

And they all walked back and took their positions.

Babe sat on the bench and drank and felt soiled and found himself wanting to twist Ebby Wilson's head off his neck, throw it on a stack with Flack's beside it. Didn't make no sense--he'd done the right thing by his team--but he felt it all the same.

The more he drank, the worse he felt, and by the eighth inning, he considered what would happen if he used his next at bat to tank. He'd switched places with Whiteman by this point, was playing fi rst. Luther Laurence waited on deck as Tyrell Hawke stood in the box, and Luther looked across at him like he was just another white man now, giving him those nothing-eyes you saw in porters and shine boys and bell boys, and Babe felt a shriveling inside of himself.

Even with two more disputed tags (and a child could guess who won the disputes) and a long foul ball the major leaguers deemed a home run, they were still down to the coloreds by a score of 9-6 in the bottom of the ninth when the pride of the National and American Leagues started playing like the pride of the National and American Leagues.

Hollocher ripped one down the first base line. Then Scott punched one over the third baseman's head. Flack went down swinging. But McInnis tore one into shallow right, and the bases were loaded, one out, George Whiteman coming to the plate, Ruth on deck. The infi eld was playing double-play depth, and Sticky Joe Beam wasn't throwing nothing George could go long on, and Babe found himself praying for one thing he'd never prayed for in his life: a double-play so he wouldn't have to bat.

Whiteman feasted on a sinker that hung too long, and the ball roared off into space and then hooked a right turn somewhere just past the infield, hooked hard and fast and foul. Obviously foul. Then Sticky Joe Beam struck him out on two of the most vicious fastballs Ruth had seen yet.

Babe stepped up to the plate. He added up how many of their six runs had come from clean baseball and he came up with three. Three. These coloreds who nobody knew, out in some raggedy field in Shit-heel, Ohio, had held some of the best players in the known world to three measly runs. Hell, Ruth himself was hitting one-for-three. And he'd been trying. And it wasn't just Beam's pitching. No. The expression was: Hit 'em where they ain't. But these colored boys were everywhere. You thought there was a gap, the gap vanished. You hit something no mortal man could chase down, and one of these boys had it in his glove and wasn't even winded.

If they hadn't cheated, this would be one of the great moments of Ruth's life--facing off against some of the best players he'd ever come across with the game in his hands, bottom of the ninth, two out, three on. One swing, and he could win it all.

And he could win it all. He'd been studying Sticky Joe for a while now, and the man was tired, and Ruth had seen all his pitches. If they hadn't cheated, the air Ruth sucked through his nostrils right now would be pure cocaine.

BOOK: The Given Day
6.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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