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Authors: James Bennett

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BOOK: Plunking Reggie Jackson
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“Your brother died when you were in the ninth grade.”

“That's true.”

“That's when you started to slip.”

She had Coley's attention. The way she said it made the dovetailing of the two things seem quite vivid. He told her quietly, “Mrs. Alvarez, you're the one with all the records. If you say it's true, I can't argue with it. What does it prove?”

“I'm not exactly sure if it proves anything, but it's interesting.” She was cleaning her glasses. Every once in a while she held them up to the light for inspection.

“Okay, why is it, like, interesting?” Coley regretted the words almost as soon as he spoke them.

“I wonder if you've ever thought about guilt.”

“Guilt?”

“When people die before their time,” the counselor declared, “people close to them often feel guilty. Sometimes it's completely unreasonable. Maybe even most of the time it is. People often act out the guilt in roundabout ways.”

“What ways? What guilt? I had nothin' to do with Patrick's death; he was wild and crazy. He got killed in a boating accident in Florida.”

“I already told you it's not reasonable lots of times.” She had her glasses back on and was looking straight at him.

Surprisingly, he found himself engaged in this give-and-take. He looked right back at her. “Did you feel guilty when your husband died?”

“Absolutely. I still do.”

“Guilty about what?”

Mrs. Alvarez didn't waste time thinking about her answer. “He had to convince me that reenlisting in the service was a good thing for him to do. I probably could have talked him out of it.”

This seemed to be getting very personal. “But he died in an accident, didn't he?”

“Yes. It was an accident.”

“Mrs. Alvarez, that could've happened to him just driving a car or crossin' the street. None of it could be your fault.”

“I know. I told you it wasn't reasonable.” Her eyes glistened but didn't tear up.

“Okay, so why would I feel guilty about Patrick? Tell me something unreasonable about that.”

“I have a theory, but that's all it is.”

“So what's the theory?”

“Maybe you're afraid of too much success. What if your biggest fear is that you're better than Patrick?”

“Better in what way?”

“In any way. In every way.”

“No offense, Mrs. Alvarez, but you're starting to sound like a shrink.”

“I know.” She reached down to drag the box of books in her direction. “But the fact remains, you were once a very good student and he never was. Based on the records I've looked at, I'd say you're also a more generous person than he ever was.”

The words
generous person
seemed like a description of a wuss. “Patrick had the fire and the killer instinct,” he replied quickly.

“I don't doubt it. He was suspended from school at least four times. You've never been suspended from school; you don't even have a referral in your records.”

“He was just a little bit wild and crazy, Mrs. Alvarez. He was fearless. That's one of the things that made him such a great pitcher. A great athlete, period. That was the quality that put him over the top.”

She answered quietly, “That may also be the quality that put him in the grave, Coley. Based on the information I've gathered, I think that might be a fair statment, don't you?”

“Yeah, that too.”

The counselor was taking paperback books from the box and stacking them on her desk. Coley asked her, “So how is this supposed to make me feel guilty? I'm a better
citizen
than Patrick and I used to be a better student. What's, like, the point?”

“What if you're a better baseball player than he was?”

“Say what?”

“What if you're simply superior to your older brother, even at baseball?”

“Mrs. Alvarez, that's crazy. You never saw Patrick pitch.”

“That's true, I never did.”

“He was on the Mets' roster by age twenty. He made the big club and was going to be heading north when they broke spring training. You never saw him pitch; he was awesome.”

“Okay, he was awesome. If you think so, that's fine.”

“What's up with that—
if think so
?”

“I mean, if you really think so, that's fine.” She was speaking softly. Her sincerity was never more evident. “On the other hand, if you were better than Patrick, how would that make you feel?”

“This is too crazy. This is nuts.”

“Maybe, but why not answer the question? How would it make you feel?”

“I have no idea.”

“Would it kill you to think about it?”

“Why? What would be the point?”

“Your older brother is your measuring stick. If you surpass him, what does that do to you? How does it affect the things you do and the choices you make? That would be the point.”

Coley let out a deep sigh.
I came here to carry some books for her and now this
. “Mrs. Alvarez, this is all over my head.”

“That's exactly what I'm talking about. That's the easy way out, isn't it? That's what feels safe.” But she was smiling.

Coley looked at the clock. It was four minutes till passing period. “I'd better get back,” he said. “I've got world history.”

She was still smiling. It was a warm smile indeed. “Just bear with me another minute. I didn't ask you to carry these books inside for no reason. Some of them are for you.”

She pushed six paperbacks across the desk in his direction. They were all in good condition. One was called
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
. The only one he'd ever heard of was
Catcher in the Rye
.

He had to smile. “Why are you giving me books?”

“These books belonged to Hector,” replied the counselor. “I've been sorting through some of his things.”

Sifting through the possessions of a dead husband was a sobering notion; Coley couldn't respond right away. “Your husband had books?”

“Lots and lots of books. I picked these out for you because I thought they might be appropriate. If not right now, then later, when you're in college.”

Coley appreciated her thoughtfulness but felt the need to be honest. “You know I'm not much good in English, Mrs. Alvarez.”

“I know you're not much good in English
now
. You're an underachiever, but I think we've established that you're not stupid.”

“I've never been much of a book reader, though.” As best he could remember, the only book he'd read on his own within the past year was Tom Seaver's book on pitching mechanics.

“Maybe you will be someday,” she replied. “A book reader, that is.”

It was hard for Coley to imagine such a development, but this wasn't a time for arguing. “It's real nice of you, Mrs. Alvarez, thanks.”

“Hector loved baseball. He saw you pitch a couple of times when you were a sophomore. I think it would please him to know that some of his books ended up in your hands.” Her eyes glistened when she spoke this last sentence.

“Thanks,” he said again. Then he added, “I think you're looking for a way to improve my mind.”

“I'm just hoping you'll find a way to put more of your mind to use.”

“That would be the same thing, though, wouldn't it? I mean, the more you use a thing, the stronger it gets, like a lifting program to strengthen your arms and legs.”

“I suppose. Now get on out of here—go to world history. I need to get some work done today.”

Coley took the books to his locker before he returned to the library.

For his birthday Coley got his own credit card. Visa Gold. His dad got a new lawn tractor, the top-of-the-line John Deere, all shiny green with a huge mowing deck. It was parked in the driveway, where Ben Burke sat high in the saddle, leafing through the owner's manual.

“For Coley's birthday you bought yourself a lawn tractor?” asked his mother sarcastically.

“It will benefit him, too. It'll mean he'll have to spend less time on yard work.”

“Oh, please. Since when did anyone other than Trinh do any yard work around here? Besides me, I mean.”

Coley knew how right she was. The only chores he or his father did around the house were touch and go. They hired Trinh for all the heavy lifting.

“This is just a toy,” his mother said.

“But it's a toy I don't have,” his father pointed out.

“Not true. You already have a tractor.”


Had
a tractor. I traded it in on this one.”

“The fact remains, it's Coley's birthday, not yours.”

His dad lobbied his position by saying, “I've been trying to tell you how he'll be a beneficiary. So will Trinh. I'd say it's a win-win proposition.”

“I'd say it's a dramatic lesson in credit card abuse.” She turned to Coley to add, “This is called impulse buying. People with credit cards are prone to this kind of behavior.”

His dad said, “I paid cash for this tractor,” but his mother paid no attention. She continued speaking to Coley: “There's a giddy freedom that sometimes goes with plastic purchasing. People buy things they don't need, with money they don't have.”

Dad concurred, keeping a straight face: “Your mother's right, Son. It can be a demon for sure. A credit card demands a lot of personal responsibility.”

Coley found it almost entertaining when his parents argued this way. Toothless and scripted, it seemed like an old shoe, so absent of malice it was more like a workout than a quarrel. If it was an argument about Patrick, though, he knew how down and dirty it could get.
Would
get.

He went up to his father's study to play back phone messages, but there were none for him. He received birthday cards from two major-league organizations, the White Sox and the Texas Rangers. He wondered how he could see this credit card as an asset; hadn't his parents' plastic always been available to him when he needed it?

The day the tulip tree started to bloom behind the third-base bleachers was the day Coley pitched his first no-hitter of the season, in a game against Eisenhower. He had pitched four no-hitters as a junior, so this was nothing unique.

Nevertheless, it wasn't pretty, nor was it altogether satisfying. It took him three innings to really find his rhythm, by which time Eisenhower had scored two runs on a combination of walks and throwing errors. In the end Coley walked five but he struck out thirteen.

A fifth-inning throwing error by Rico Cates was premeditated, designed to save the no-hitter. But it nearly led to another run. When one of the Eisenhower batters hit a high hopper back toward the mound, it was slightly to Coley's left side and too high for him to reach. He leaped as high as he could but couldn't grab it; he was pretty sure the ball had grazed the tip of his glove.

The ball was bouncing feebly between the mound and second base when Rico swooped in to barehand it. He unleashed a hopelessly wild, off-balance throw that sailed at least ten feet over the first baseman's head and landed beyond the restraining fence.

“You think you coulda got him?” Coley asked his shortstop.

“No way,” said Rico. “Not even if I was Derek Jeter. Nohow. Let's just hope the throw was shitty enough they give me an error.”

Coley couldn't help laughing. “Thanks, amigo.”

“No problem. You do what you have to do.” By this time the umpire had given Coley a new ball and was telling them to break up the socializing.

“Now you got to strike the next two guys out,” Rico reminded him, “or this dude here might score.”

“No sweat, I've got my rhythm now.” He struck out the next two batters to end the inning. Nobody reached base against him in the final two innings.

Even his father was impressed. “You worked a good game, Son, once you got your rhythm.”

“Thanks,” Coley mumbled.

“The next step is, find your rhythm from the get-go. That's called consistent focus.”

“Consistent focus,” Coley murmured.

“Richie Romine was here today,” his father continued.

“Who's Richie Romine?”

“He's a scout for the Expos. He was sitting over there by the phone booth for the last four innings.”

“I didn't know there were any scouts here.”

“That's always the best situation, isn't it? If you know scouts are around, it can be a distraction.”

Chapter Seven

Right from the start Coley didn't like Burns, who was Bree's father. Or rather, stepfather. Maybe it was the way he took your space by getting too close for comfort when he talked to you. He was a big man, too, at least six feet two inches and heavily muscled. An inch or more shorter than Coley, but maybe ten pounds heavier.

Even when he told Coley he'd heard he was a terrific pitcher, he was still maintaining the handshake and standing with his face about eighteen inches away. It might have been meant as a compliment, but something about his demeanor suggested challenge. His beer breath was too close.

Bree's mother seemed timid in the extreme. She made a brief appearance near the sofa to say she was pleased to meet him, then returned to the kitchen table, where she had a game of solitaire in progress.

Burns had a fleshy, youngish face, with only the well-defined creases at the corners of his eyes to suggest he was over forty. His crew cut, even though it had some gray in it, added to his youthful appearance. He said to Coley, “You can have her back no later than eleven, then.”

“No problem,” Coley answered. They had already confirmed this a few moments earlier.

Then he was in close again; he seemed to keep his eyes locked on for a second or two too long. “We'll leave the light on for you.”

By the time they got to the car, Coley felt relieved. He was driving his mother's Chrysler because it had the bench seat, which would give Bree the chance to sit close. She did. Had she squirmed any closer, she would have been perched in his lap. It was sure as hell a much more promising package of body language than what her old man delivered.

BOOK: Plunking Reggie Jackson
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