Authors: James Bennett
“Thank you for calling, Coley,” said his mother. “I'm glad you're having such a good timeâ”
“Just a minute, hold on,” his father interrupted. “Hold on, there. Can you give me a little more information about the game?”
“You mean the game we won or the game we lost?”
“Don't be a smart-ass, Son. You know what I mean.”
Coley did know. The strategy of misunderstanding was his standard defense mechanism: play dumb. “I was awesome, Dad. Even these guys in Florida are overmatched.”
“I told you not to be a smart-ass. Can you give me any more details about the game?”
“What else can I say? We won the game. I think it was four-zip. They only had that one cheap hit I already told you about. I think I struck out nine.”
“Okay. I struck out nine.”
“Did you walk anybody?”
“You didn't let your front shoulder fly open, did you?”
“No. Never, never, never.” Coley turned his brain off until, some moments later, they hung up. He spotted Rico in the lobby store looking through the ball caps and Florida muscle shirts. He ended up buying chewing gum.
Coley joined him by the register, where he began leafing through a
while he waited for Rico to pay for the merchandise. “What happened, you get bored with the party?”
“Not exactly, but they ran out of pizza.”
The picture of a very young naked girl on page 88 caused him to think of Bree Madison. He put the magazine away before they reentered the lobby.
“D'you know anything about Bree Madison?” Coley asked Rico.
“A little, not too much,” his friend replied. He was opening a gum wrapper.
“So whatta you hear?”
“I hear she's hot.”
“That's what I hear. Why?”
“No reason. I was just wonderin'.” Coley knew this would be one of those elliptical conversations, because Rico would be breaking in two or three of the fresh sticks. But he asked anyway, “Who told you she was hot?”
“Kershaw told me.”
“What does he know about her?”
“He was datin' her.”
Rico swallowed before he continued, “He was takin' her out for quite a while. He says she's hot.”
“If she's so hot,” Coley asked, “why'd he dump her?”
“That's not the way it happened. She dumped
“The little bitch.” Coley chuckled. “She dumped Kershaw. How long ago?”
“Can't say for sure. Not too long ago, though, maybe a couple weeks.”
“You know why she dumped him?”
“Nope,” declared Rico. “I told you everything I know. Why do you care?”
“I'm not sure exactly. There's somethin' about her.”
“What about Gloria?”
“Gloria's history; I told you that.”
“That's not the way she tells it,” Rico said.
Coley shook his head. “I think she's in denial.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“You're in denial if you refuse to accept something that's actually true. People do it when someone close to them dies.”
“Where the hell is this comin' from?”
“From Miss Wells. It's part of human dynamics.”
“I can't believe you'd cut Gloria loose for good. She's such a babe.”
“She gets to be real boring, bro,” Coley informed him. “But if you're so impressed, you take her out.”
“You think I could?”
“Not if you don't ask her.”
It was after ten thirty curfew when somebody discovered Quintero was missing. “Where is he?” asked Nate Spears, one of the two assistant coaches. He was impatient. “I said, does anybody know where the hell Jamie is?”
Nobody seemed to know, or at least nobody was saying. The party was broken up and most of the team members had returned to their individual rooms, but Coley could see Kershaw and Kuchenberg out on the balcony. It was hard to tell from this distance, but he was nearly certain he saw a smirk on Kershaw's face.
“Goddamit!” Coach Spears seemed inclined to swear at anyone in close proximity. “It's lights out in about an hour. If you know where he's at, I want to hear about it right now.”
While Spears interrogated the few individuals still left in the room, Coley went out to the balcony. “Do you know where he's at?” he asked Kershaw.
“How the hell would I know?” was the response. Kershaw turned away, but not before Coley smelled the beer on his breath. Kuchenberg turned away too; he was giggling, but trying not to show it.
Coley pressed Kershaw again, “Just tell me where he's at if you know. I don't want him to get in trouble.”
“Fuck you, Burke. I just told you I don't know.”
Coley stood up straight.
So he does know
. Coley could feel his anger swelling inside. He and Kershaw had been antagonists for years, ever since junior high basketball. As much as he hated the thought of fighting, he didn't fear it. When he stood up straight, at six feet four inches and 220 pounds of well-defined muscle, the intimidation factor usually made it unnecessary.
“I don't want to hurt you, Kershaw,” he said evenly. “Just tell me where he is.”
Kershaw turned to face him. “What're you, playin'
? Piss off.”
“Just tell me.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Kershaw spoke with his arms loose at his sides and his eyes staring straight into Coley's. Coley could feel the hair standing up along the back of his neck.
It was apparent that Kuchenberg, too, felt the tension generated by this unexpected face-off. “Hey,” he said. “It's okay, just tell him.”
“You can piss off too,” was Kershaw's quick response. “I asked Burke who the hell he thinks he is.”
“I think I'm the pitcher who would've had a no-hitter today,” Coley replied quietly, “except our third baseman's such a jackoff he can't even field a little dribbler.”
Kershaw's eyes were flashing. “Fuck you, Burke,” he said again. Kershaw was a tough guy for his size, but there wasn't enough size for this occasion. He knew it and Coley knew it. His string of epithets was simply the proof.
Kershaw turned away to lean on the balcony again. He draped his arms loosely over the iron railing.
“Just tell him,” said Kuchenberg again.
“I'll tell him shit,” said Kershaw, still staring toward the gulf.
“If you don't tell me, you tell Coach,” said Coley. “That means you probably sit out the rest of the trip. You'll get to watch us play though.”
But it was Kuchenberg's discomfort that finally defused the potentially volatile situation. He said, “This is too much. This is goin' too far.”
“So where is he?” Coley followed up.
“He's down on the beach,” Kuchenberg replied with his eyes down. “Down by that tiki bar where we went wadin'. If you want me to go with you, I will.”
“What's he doin' at the beach?”
“We pantsed him down there so he couldn't come back to the hotel.”
“I'll go with you if you want.”
“Kuchenberg, I oughta smack you one.”
“Make sure you listen to the
,” Kershaw was saying. “Don't even think about crossin' the
Coley was past the anger. Anything Kershaw might have to say could only be another feeble effort to save face.
Coach Spears went with him to the beach, but he was good and pissed. Coley was carrying a pair of sweats and his pitcher's warm-up jacket. “
at the beach?” Spears was asking.
They were walking fast. “I don't know,” Coley replied.
“It's a big beach. Where do you plan to look?”
“I don't know that, either.”
“How did you find about about this? Who told you?”
“Look, Coach, I just found out, okay?”
“But who told you? Who left Quintero down here?”
“Can we just go find him and take him back to the hotel? Can you cut me some slack here?”
They found Jamie in waist-deep water, some sixty feet from the shore. Because he was naked, he was afraid to come out of the water. Coley could barely make him out because the lights from shore were faint at this distance.
“Jesus Christ,” said the coach.
Coley was wearing his running shorts, but when he waded on out, the cold water rose above his waist. The chill night air had turned Jamie's lips blue and pebbled him with chicken skin. His teeth were chattering. He was hugging his own chest to try to stop the shivering.
Coley thrust the warm-up jacket at him. “Put this on.”
“It'll get all wet,” Jamie protested.
“Who cares? Just put it on.”
Quintero slipped into the jacket, which was far too large but provided the advantage of covering his groin area when he moved to the shore. He squirmed into the fleece sweatpants, although they resisted stubbornly against the wet skin of his legs. The light was stronger here, while farther up the beach hotel guests were yukking it up at outdoor bars.
“Are you okay?” Coley asked him.
“I'm okay.” Jamie shivered. Through his chattering teeth he added, “I'm gonna kill the motherfucker though.”
Coley almost had to laugh, looking at Jamie's wiry but adolescent form nearly drowning in the huge clothes that engulfed him.
Coach Spears was close at hand. “Are you all right?”
“I'm okay, Coach.”
“Are you warm enough?”
“Now, just who is it you're gonna kill? Tell me that.”
“Never mind. I'll take care of it myself.”
This time Coley
have to laugh. As small as he was, Quintero was spunky enough to take Kershaw on. He would get the crap beat out of him, but he would be willing anyway, just to get in a punch or two before he went down.
“Coley won't give him up either,” said the coach.
Jamie was using the inside lining of Coley's jacket to wipe the water from his face and neck. “I said I'll take care of it, and I will,” he repeated.
“What you'll take care of,” countered the coach immediately, “is getting warm and dry.”
“That'll be the first thing,” Jamie murmured.
“And the second thing is you'll go to bed and get some sleep. And the third thing is you'll get yourself ready to pitch tomorrow. We want you to go at least five innings.”
“You mean it?” Jamie was smiling.
“I mean it,” confirmed Spears. “Would I lie about a thing like that?”
Coley was still smiling at him. He thought briefly about the earlier conversation he'd had with his parents. He was still pissed at Kershaw and Kuchenberg, and he felt sorry for Jamie, what they put him through. But it was so much better feeling like a man than like a child. “Since I didn't beat him up,” he said to Jamie, “you have to give him a break too. You gotta pitch tomorrow.”
As soon as he went to sleep that night, Coley dreamed of Bree Madison.
The following day they lost two games to Central High in Clearwater. The scores were 11-3 and 8-3. Coley played left field both games but didn't have to face any defensive challenges. The only balls hit his way were high, routine flies. At the plate he was always dangerous, of course, because of his athletic talent and his strength. But he never practiced hitting, because pitching was always the priority. He had one hit in the first game, a single, and walked twice. In the second game he got into a couple of the Central pitcher's lazy curves, but both times he got the ball slightly underneath. The results were majestic fly balls clear to the warning track, but they were both outs.
As promised, Jamie Quintero was the starting pitcher for the second game. He worked two good innings, but then he got wild and started walking people. A couple of errors and a long home run, and he was on the bench before he'd gotten anybody out in the fifth inning.
Coley watched the wiry freshman slump to the end of the bench, where he hung a wet towel over his head. Coach Mason let Kershaw pitch in relief. He wasn't too bad, but the score was 7-1 by the time the inning was over.
When they came in after the sixth, Coley went to the end of the bench to take a seat next to Quintero. “Don't feel too bad, Jamie.”
“Easy for you to say.” The muffled reply came from beneath the towel, but Coley could still discern the words.
“Yeah, I know. But don't feel too bad. You have to keep your head up.”
Jamie removed the towel and sat up straight. He looked Coley in the eye. “Okay, my head's up.”
“I mean mentally. I'm talkin' about your emotions. It's your first varsity game, and we're down here in Florida where these guys are way ahead of us.”
“How many did I walk? Five? Six?”
“I wasn't countin'. The point is, you have to learn what you can do to get better.”
“Now you sound like Coach.”
Coley shrugged before he answered. “Well, maybe he's right.”
“It's all easy for you to say, 'cause whenever you pitch, you just blow people away.”
“Yeah, maybe, but not when I was your age. Not when I was a freshman. What you need to concentrate on is usin' your legs.”
“Yeah, you can't just pitch with your arm. Even when you drop down sidearm, you can't just throw with your arm. That's when you start walkin' people, because you get tired.”
“Yeah, I know.” Quintero lowered his head again while his elbows were planted on his knees. He held Coley in such high esteem he nearly deified him, so the advice wouldn't be wasted. Not in the long run. But Coley knew the little guy was too bummed at the moment to appreciate it. He dropped the subject.
They lost two games the next day as well, to another Clearwater team, Madison High. Coach Mason kept them after the second game to deliver a pep talk. He reminded them for the umpteenth time that the teams from the Sunshine State, having played competitive games for six weeks or so, were bound to be ahead of them in development. Therefore, their mission here was to work on fundamentals and developmental elements. Winning or losing would take care of itself. And later in the season there would be a payoff.