Read an Excerpt
The Art of Fielding A Novel
By Harbach, Chad
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2011 Harbach, Chad
All right reserved.
Schwartz didn’t notice the kid during the game. Or rather, he noticed only what everyone else did—that he was the smallest player on the field, a scrawny novelty of a shortstop, quick of foot but weak with the bat. Only after the game ended, when the kid returned to the sun-scorched diamond to take extra grounders, did Schwartz see the grace that shaped Henry’s every move.
This was the second Sunday in August, just before Schwartz’s sophomore year at Westish College, that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin. He’d spent the summer in Chicago, his hometown, and his Legion team had just beaten a bunch of farmboys from South Dakota in the semifinals of a no-name tournament. The few dozen people in the stands clapped mildly as the last out was made. Schwartz, who’d been weak with heat cramps all day, tossed his catcher’s mask aside and hazarded a few unsteady steps toward the dugout. Dizzy, he gave up and sank down to the dirt, let his huge aching back relax against the chain-link fence. It was technically evening, but the sun still beat down wickedly. He’d caught five games since Friday night, roasting like a beetle in his black catcher’s gear.
His teammates slung their gloves into the dugout and headed for the concession stand. The championship game would begin in half an hour. Schwartz hated being the weak one, the one on the verge of passing out, but it couldn’t be helped. He’d been pushing himself hard all summer—lifting weights every morning, ten-hour shifts at the foundry, baseball every night. And then this hellish weather. He should have skipped the tournament—varsity football practice at Westish, an infinitely more important endeavor, started tomorrow at dawn, suicide sprints in shorts and pads. He should be napping right now, preserving his knees, but his teammates had begged him to stick around. Now he was stuck at this ramshackle ballpark between a junkyard and an adult bookstore on the interstate outside Peoria. If he were smart he’d skip the championship game, drive the five hours north to campus, check himself into Student Health for an IV and a little sleep. The thought of Westish soothed him. He closed his eyes and tried to summon his strength.
When he opened his eyes the South Dakota shortstop was jogging back onto the field. As the kid crossed the pitcher’s mound he peeled off his uniform jersey and tossed it aside. He wore a sleeveless white undershirt, had an impossibly concave chest and a fierce farmer’s burn. His arms were as big around as Schwartz’s thumbs. He’d swapped his green Legion cap for a faded red St. Louis Cardinals one. Shaggy dust-blond curls poked out beneath. He looked fourteen, fifteen at most, though the tournament minimum was seventeen.
During the game, Schwartz had figured the kid was too small to hit high heat, so he’d called for one fastball after another, up and in. Before the last, he’d told the kid what was coming and added, “Since you can’t hit it anyway.” The kid swung and missed, gritted his teeth, turned to make the long walk back to the dugout. Just then Schwartz said—ever so softly, so that it would seem to come from inside the kid’s own skull—“ Pussy.” The kid paused, his scrawny shoulders tensed like a cat’s, but he didn’t turn around. Nobody ever did.
Now when the kid reached the worked-over dust that marked the shortstop’s spot, he stopped, bouncing on his toes and jangling his limbs as if he needed to get loose. He bobbed and shimmied, windmilled his arms, burning off energy he shouldn’t have had. He’d played as many games in this brutal heat as Schwartz.
Moments later the South Dakota coach strolled onto the field with a bat in one hand and a five-gallon paint bucket in the other. He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat. Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly. The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.
The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.
The coach hit balls harder and farther afield—up the middle, deep in the hole. The kid tracked them down. Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was flat-out unreachable, but he got to each one with a beat to spare. He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.
After each ball, he dropped back into his feline crouch, the fingertips of his small glove scraping the cooked earth. He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup-thick air. Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. He weighed a buck and a quarter, maximum. Where the kid’s thoughts were—whether he was having any thoughts at all, behind that blank look—Schwartz couldn’t say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine’s poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God.
Then the coach’s bucket was empty and the first baseman’s bucket full, and all three men left the field without a word. Schwartz felt bereft. He wanted the performance to continue. He wanted to rewind it and see it again in slow motion. He looked around to see who else had been watching—wanted at least the pleasure of exchanging a glance with another enraptured witness—but nobody was paying any attention. The few fans who hadn’t gone in search of beer or shade gazed idly at their cell-phone screens. The kid’s loser teammates were already in the parking lot, slamming their trunks.
Fifteen minutes to game time. Schwartz, still dizzy, hauled himself to his feet. He would need two quarts of Gatorade to get through the final game, then a coffee and a can of dip for the long midnight drive. But first he headed for the far dugout, where the kid was packing up his gear. He’d figure out what to say on the way over. All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t let it walk away.
Henry Skrimshander stood in line beneath a billowing, navy-and-ecru-striped tent, waiting to obtain his room assignment. It was the last week of August, just three weeks after he’d met Mike Schwartz in Peoria. He’d been on the bus from Lankton all night, and the straps of his duffel bags formed a sweaty X across his chest. A smiling woman in a navy T-shirt with a man’s bearded face on it asked him to spell his name. Henry did so, his heart thumping. Mike Schwartz had assured him that everything was taken care of, but each moment the smiling woman spent flipping through her printouts confirmed what Henry had secretly known all along, made only more apparent by the groomed green lawn and the gray stone buildings that surrounded it, the sun just risen over the steamy lake and the mirrored-glass facade of the library, the lithe tank-topped girl behind him tip-tapping on her iPhone as she sighed with a boredom so sophisticated that Henry could imagine precisely nothing about her life: he didn’t belong here.
He’d been born in Lankton, South Dakota, seventeen and a half years earlier. It was a town of forty-three thousand people, surrounded by seas of corn. His father was a foreman at a metalworking shop. His mom worked part-time as an X-ray technician at All Saints. His little sister, Sophie, was a sophomore at Lankton High.
On Henry’s ninth birthday, his dad had taken him to the sporting goods store and told him to pick out whatever he liked. There had never been any doubt about the choice—there was only one glove in the store with the name of Aparicio Rodriguez inscribed in the pocket—but Henry took his time, trying on every glove, amazed by the sheer fact of being able to choose. The glove seemed huge back then; now it fit him snugly, barely bigger than his left hand. He liked it that way; it helped him feel the ball.
When he came home from Little League games, his mother would ask how many errors he’d made. “Zero!” he’d crow, popping the pocket of his beloved glove with a balled-up fist. His mom still used the name—“Henry, put Zero away, please!”—and he winced, embarrassed, when she did. But in the safety of his mind he never thought of it any other way. Nor did he let anyone else touch Zero. If Henry happened to be on base when an inning ended, his teammates knew better than to ferry his hat and glove onto the diamond for him. “The glove is not an object in the usual sense,” said Aparicio in The Art of Fielding. “For the infielder to divide it from himself, even in thought, is one of the roots of error.”
Henry played shortstop, only and ever shortstop—the most demanding spot on the diamond. More ground balls were hit to the shortstop than to anyone else, and then he had to make the longest throw to first. He also had to turn double plays, cover second on steals, keep runners on second from taking long leads, make relay throws from the outfield. Every Little League coach Henry had ever had took one look at him and pointed toward right field or second base. Or else the coach didn’t point anywhere, just shrugged at the fate that had assigned him this pitiable shrimp, this born benchwarmer.
Bold nowhere else in his life, Henry was bold in this: no matter what the coach said, or what his eyebrows expressed, he would jog out to shortstop, pop his fist into Zero’s pocket, and wait. If the coach shouted at him to go to second base, or right field, or home to his mommy, he would keep standing there, blinking and dumb, popping his fist. Finally someone would hit him a grounder, and he would show what he could do.
What he could do was field. He’d spent his life studying the way the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so that he knew in advance whether he should break right or left, whether the ball that came at him would bound up high or skid low to the dirt. He caught the ball cleanly, always, and made, always, a perfect throw.
Sometimes the coach would insist on putting him at second base anyway, or would leave him on the bench; he was that scrawny and pathetic-looking. But after some number of practices and games—two or twelve or twenty, depending on the stubbornness of the coach—he would wind up where he belonged, at shortstop, and his black mood would lift.
When he reached high school, things happened much the same. Coach Hinterberg later told him he’d planned to cut him until the last fifteen minutes of tryouts. Then, from the corner of his eye, he saw Henry make a diving stab of a scorching line drive and, while lying flat on his stomach, flip the ball behind his head and into the hands of the shocked second baseman: double play. The JV team carried an extra player that year, and the extra player wore a brand-new extra-small jersey.
By his junior year he was the starting varsity shortstop. After every game his mom would ask how many errors he’d made, and the answer was always Zero. That summer he played on a team sponsored by the local American Legion. He arranged his hours at the Piggly Wiggly so that he could spend weekends traveling to tournaments. For once, he didn’t have to prove himself. His teammates and Coach Hinterberg knew that, even if he didn’t hit home runs—had never, ever hit a home run—he would still help them win.
Midway through his senior season, though, a sadness set in. He was playing better than ever, but each passing inning brought him closer to the end. He had no hope of playing in college. College coaches were like girls: their eyes went straight to the biggest, bulkiest guys, regardless of what those guys were really worth. Take Andy Tsade, the first baseman on Henry’s summer team, who was going to St. Paul State on a full ride. Andy’s arm was average, his footwork was sloppy, and he always looked to Henry to tell him where to play. He’d never read The Art of Fielding. But he was big and left-handed and every so often he crushed one over the fence. One day he crushed one over the fence with the St. Paul coach watching, and now he got to play baseball for four more years.
Henry’s dad wanted him to come work at the metalworking shop—two of the guys were retiring at year’s end. Henry said maybe he’d go to Lankton CC for a couple of years, take some bookkeeping and accounting classes. Some of his classmates were going to college to pursue their dreams; others had no dreams, and were getting jobs and drinking beer. He couldn’t identify with either. He’d only ever wanted to play baseball.
The tournament in Peoria had been the last of the summer. Henry and his teammates lost in the semifinals to a team of enormous sluggers from Chicago. Afterward, he jogged back out to shortstop to take fifty practice grounders, the way he always did. There was nothing left to practice for, no reason to try to improve, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to. As Coach Hinterberg tried to rip the ball past him, Henry imagined the same scenario as always: he was playing shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the World Series, against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, ahead by one, two outs, bases loaded. Make the last play and win it all.
As he was putting Zero into his bag, a hand gripped his shoulder and spun him around. He found himself face-to-face—or face-to-neck, since the other man was taller and wearing spikes—with the catcher from the Chicago team. Henry recognized him instantly: during the game he’d tipped Henry the pitch and then called him a name. He’d also hit a home run that cleared the center-field wall by thirty feet. Now he fixed his big amber eyes on Henry with a fierce intensity.
“I’m glad I found you.” The catcher removed his huge sweaty hand from Henry’s shoulder and proffered it. “Mike Schwartz.”
Mike Schwartz’s hair was matted and wild. Sweat and dirt streaked his face. The sweat made his eye black bleed down his cheekbones onto his heavy stubble.
“I watched you taking ground balls,” he said. “Two things impressed me. First, that you were out there working hard in this heat. Christ, I can barely walk. Takes dedication.”
Henry shrugged. “I always do that after a game.”
“The second thing is that you’re a hell of a shortstop. Great first step, great instincts. I don’t know how you got to half those balls. Where are you playing next year?”
“What college. What college are you going to play baseball for?”
“Oh.” Henry paused, embarrassed both by his failure to understand the question and by the answer he would have to give. “I’m not.”
Mike Schwartz, though, seemed pleased by this. He nodded, scratched at the dark stubble on his jaw, smiled. “That’s what you think.”
SCHWARTZ TOLD HENRY that the Westish Harpooners had been crappy for too many years to count, but with Henry’s help they were going to turn it around. He talked about sacrifice, passion, desire, attention to detail, the need to strive like a champion every day. To Henry the words sounded beautiful, like reading Aparicio but better, because Schwartz was standing right there. On the drive back to Lankton, while crammed into the jump seat of Coach Hinterberg’s Dodge Ram, he felt a kind of desolation come over him, because he figured he’d never hear from the big man again, but when he got home there was already a note on the kitchen table in Sophie’s girlish handwriting: Call Mike Shorts!
Three days later, after three long conversations with Schwartz, conducted in secret while his parents were at work, Henry was beginning to believe. “Things are moving slowly,” said Schwartz. “The whole Admissions office is on vacation. But they’re moving. I got a copy of your high school transcript this morning. Nice job in physics.”
“My transcript?” Henry asked, baffled. “How’d you do that?”
“I called the high school.”
Henry was amazed. Perhaps that was obvious—if you want a transcript, call the high school. But he’d never met someone like Schwartz—someone who, when he wanted something, took immediate steps to acquire it. That night at dinner, he cleared his throat and told his parents about Westish College.
His mom looked pleased. “So Mr. Schwartz,” she said, “he’s the baseball coach at this college?”
“Um… not exactly. He’s more like a player on the team.”
“Oh. Well. Hm.” His mom tried to keep looking pleased. “And you never met him before last Sunday? And now all this? I have to say, it sounds a little strange.”
“Not to me.” His dad blew his nose on his napkin, leaving the usual dark streak of steel-dust snot. “I’m sure Westish College needs all the money it can scrape together. They’ll stick a hundred gullible suckers on the baseball team, as long as they pay their tuition.”
This was the dark thought Henry had been working hard to suppress: that it was too good to be true. He steadied himself with a sip of milk. “But why would Schwartz care about that?”
Jim Skrimshander grunted. “Why does anybody care about anything?”
“Love,” Sophie said. “He loves Henry. They talk on the phone all day long, like lovebirds.”
“Close, Soph.” Their dad pushed back his chair and carried his plate to the sink. “Money. I’m sure Mike Schwartz gets his cut. A thousand bucks a sucker.”
Later that night, Henry relayed the gist of this conversation to Schwartz. “Bah,” said Schwartz. “Don’t sweat it. He’ll come around.”
“You don’t know my dad.”
“He’ll come around.”
When Henry didn’t hear from Schwartz all weekend, he began to feel glum and foolish about having gotten his hopes up. But on Monday night, his dad came home and put his uneaten bag lunch back in the fridge.
“Are you feeling okay, hon?” asked Henry’s mom.
“I went out for lunch.”
“How nice,” she said. Henry had visited his dad on his lunch hour many times through the years: regardless of the weather, the guys sat outside on the benches that faced the road, backs to the shop, munching their sandwiches. “With the guys?”
“With Mike Schwartz.”
Henry looked at Sophie—sometimes, when he found himself unable to speak, Sophie did it for him. Her eyes were as wide as his. “Well well!” she said. “Tell us more!”
“He dropped by the shop around lunchtime. Took me to Murdock’s.”
Flabbergasted was maybe not a strong or strange enough word to describe how Henry felt. Schwartz lived in Chicago, Chicago was five hundred miles away, and he’d dropped by the shop? And taken Henry’s dad to Murdock’s? And then driven back, without so much as telling Henry he’d done it, much less stopping by to say hello?
“He’s a very serious young man,” his dad was saying.
“Serious as in, Henry can go to Westish? Or serious as in, Henry can’t go to Westish?”
“Henry can do whatever he wants. Nobody’s stopping him from going to Westish or anywhere else. My only concern—”
“Yeay!” Sophie reached across the table and high-fived her brother. “College!”
“—is that he understands what he’s in for. Westish is not your average school. The academics are tough, and the baseball team is a full-time commitment. If Henry’s going to succeed there…”
… and Henry’s dad, who so rarely strung four words together, especially on a Monday night, went on to talk for the rest of the meal about sacrifice, passion, desire, attention to detail, the need to strive like a champion every day. He was talking just like Mike Schwartz, but he seemed not quite to realize it, and in fact he also sounded a good deal like himself, only in many more words, and with, Henry thought, a slightly more generous attitude toward his son’s talents than usual. As his dad stood up to carry his plate to the sink, he clapped Henry on the shoulder and smiled broadly. “I’m proud of you, buddy. This is a big opportunity. Grab on to it.”
It’s a miracle, Henry thought. Mike Schwartz works miracles. After that, he continued to talk to Schwartz on the phone every night, making plans, working out details—but now he did so openly, in the family room, and his dad hovered nearby, the TV on mute, cigarette going, eavesdropping and shouting out comments. Sometimes Schwartz would ask to talk to Jim. Henry would hand his dad the phone, and his dad would sit down at his desk and go over the Skrimshanders’ tax returns.
“Thanks,” Henry said into the phone, feeling sentimental, on the day he bought his bus ticket. “Thank you.”
“Don’t sweat it, Skrim,” Schwartz said. “It’s football season, and I’m going to be busy. You settle in. I’ll be in touch, okay?”
“PHUMBER 405,” said the smiling woman. She thrust a key and a paper map into his hand, pointed to the left. “Small Quad.”
Henry slipped through a cool aperture between two buildings and emerged on a bright, bustling scene. This wasn’t Lankton CC: this was college in a movie. The buildings matched—each four or five stories high and made of squat gray weather-beaten stone, with deep-set windows and peaked, gabled roofs. The bike racks and benches were freshly painted navy. Two tall guys in shorts and flip-flops staggered toward an open doorway beneath the weight of a gigantic flat-screen TV. A squirrel tore down out of a tree and bumped against the leg of the guy walking backward—he screamed and dropped to his knees, and the corner of the TV sank into the plush new sod. The other guy laughed. The squirrel was long gone. From an upper window somewhere drifted the sound of a violin.
Henry found Phumber Hall and climbed the stairs to the top floor. The door marked 405 stood slightly ajar, and bleepy, bloopy music came through the gap. Henry lingered nervously in the stairwell. He didn’t know how many roommates he’d have, or what sort of roommates they might be, or what kind of music that was. If he’d been able to imagine the students of Westish College in any specific way, he imagined twelve hundred Mike Schwartzes, huge and mythic and grave, and twelve hundred women of the sort Mike Schwartz might date: leggy, stunning, well versed in ancient history. The whole thing, really, was too intimidating to think about. He nudged the door with his foot.
The room contained two identical steel-frame beds and two sets of identical blond-wood desks, chairs, dressers, and bookshelves. One of the beds was neatly made, with a plush seafoam-green comforter and a wealth of fluffy pillows. The other mattress was bare but for an ugly ocher stain in roughly the size and shape of a person. Both bookshelves had already been neatly filled, the books arranged by author name from Achebe through Tocqueville, with the rest of the Ts through Z piled on the mantel. Henry plunked his bags down on the ocher stain and drew his beat-up copy of Aparicio Rodriguez’s The Art of Fielding out of his shorts’ pocket. The Art was the only book he’d brought with him, the only book Henry knew deeply: suddenly it seemed like this might be a terrible flaw. He prepared to wedge it between Rochefoucauld and Roethke, but lo and behold there was already a copy there, a handsome hardcover with a once-cracked spine. Henry slid it out, turned it in his hands. Inscribed on the flyleaf, in a lovely calligraphic hand, were the words Owen Dunne.
Henry had been reading Aparicio on the overnight bus. Or at least he’d kept the book open on his lap as the dreary slabs of interstate rolled by. By this point in his life, reading Aparicio no longer really qualified as reading, because he had the book more or less memorized. He could flip to a chapter, any chapter, and the shapes of the short, numbered paragraphs were enough to trigger his memory. His lips murmured the words as his eyes, unfocused, scanned the page:
26. The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.
59. To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. This is antagonism. The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense.
147. Throw with the legs.
Aparicio played shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals for eighteen seasons. He retired the year Henry turned ten. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the greatest defensive shortstop who ever lived. As a ballplayer, Henry had modeled himself after his hero in every particular, from the gliding, two-handed way he fielded grounders, to the way he wore his cap pulled low to shield his eyes, to the three taps he gave his heart before stepping into the batter’s box. And of course the jersey number. Aparicio believed that the number 3 had deep significance.
3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.
There were, admittedly, many sentences and statements in The Art that Henry did not yet understand. The opaque parts of The Art, though, had always been his favorites, even more than the detailed and extremely helpful descriptions of, say, how to keep a runner close to second base (flirtation, Aparicio called it) or what sort of cleats to wear on wet grass. The opaque parts, frustrating as they could be, gave Henry something to aspire to. Someday, he dreamed, he would be enough of a ballplayer to crack them open and suck out their hidden wisdom.
The bleepy, bloopy music lulled. Henry became aware of a murmurous sound that seemed to be coming from behind a closed door in the corner of the room. He’d thought it was a closet, but now he pressed his ear to it and heard a rush of running water. He knocked softly.
No response. He twisted the knob, and a sharp yelp rang out as the door struck something solid. Henry jerked the door shut. But that was a foolish thing to do—it wasn’t as if he could run away. He opened the door again, and again it cracked against something solid.
“Ow!” came a cry from inside. “Please stop!”
The room turned out to be a bathroom, and a person about Henry’s age was lying on the black-and-white checkerboard tile, clutching the top of his head. His ashen hair was cropped close, and between the fingers of his canary-yellow rubber gloves Henry could see a cut edged with blood. Water ran in the tub, and a toothbrush lay at his side, frothing with grainy, aqua-flecked cleanser. “Are you okay?” Henry asked.
“This grout is filthy.” The young man sat up, rubbed his head. “You’d think they would clean the grout.” His skin was the color of weak coffee. He put on a pair of wire-rimmed glasses and surveyed Henry from head to toe. “Who are you?”
“I’m Henry,” Henry said.
“Really?” The young man’s lunular eyebrows lifted. “Are you sure?”
Henry looked down at the palm of his right hand, as if that might be the place to find some irrefutable sign of Henryness. “Pretty sure.”
The young man rose to his feet and, after peeling off one of his bright-yellow gloves, pumped Henry’s hand warmly. “I was expecting someone larger,” he explained. “Because of the baseball factor. My name’s Owen Dunne. I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.”
Henry nodded in a way he hoped was appropriate.
“I was supposed to have this room to myself.” Owen swept one hand before him, as if spanning a broad vista. “It was part of my scholarship package, as the winner of the Maria Westish Award. I’ve always dreamed of living alone. Haven’t you?”
Henry, actually, had always dreamed of living with someone who owned a copy of Aparicio’s book. “Do you play baseball?” he asked, turning Owen’s hardback Art in his hands.
“I’ve dabbled in the game,” Owen said, and added somewhat mysteriously, “But not like you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Last week I received a call from President Affenlight. Are you familiar with his Sperm-Squeezers?”
Henry was not. Owen nodded sympathetically. “Not surprising,” he said. “It doesn’t have much academic traction these days, though it was a seminal—ha!—work in its field. It was a great inspiration to me when I was fourteen, fifteen years old. Anyway, President Affenlight phoned me at my mother’s house in San Jose and said that a student of considerable talents had been added to the freshperson class, and that though this was excellent news for the college as a whole, it posed a dilemma for the Housing office. Since I was the only member of the class with a single room, he wondered if I might be willing to forgo one of my scholarship’s privileges and take on a roommate.
“Affenlight’s a smooth talker,” Owen continued. “He spoke so highly of you, and of the more abstract virtues of roommatehood, that I almost forgot to negotiate. Frankly, I find the professionalization of collegiate sport to be a rather despicable phenomenon. But if the administration was willing to buy me that”—he pointed a yellow-gloved finger at the sleek computer that sat atop his desk—“and to throw in a handsome book allowance just to persuade me to live with you, then you must be quite a ballplayer. I’d be honored to throw the ball around sometime.”
“They’re giving you money to be my roommate?” Henry asked, so incredulous and confused that he barely registered Owen’s offer. What could Mike Schwartz have possibly said or done to produce a situation in which the president of Westish called people on the phone and spoke highly of him? “Would it be rude… I mean… do you mind if I ask…?”
Owen shrugged. “Probably nowhere near what they’re paying you. But enough to buy that rug out there, which is an expensive rug, so please do not put your shoes on it. And enough to keep me in high-quality marijuana for the year. Well, maybe for the semester. Till Halloween, at least.”
After that first encounter, Henry scarcely saw Owen. Most afternoons Owen would sweep into the room, remove certain notebooks from his satchel and replace them with certain other notebooks, or remove his handsome gray sweater and replace it with his handsome red sweater, and then sweep back out again with a word: “Rehearsal.” “Protest.” “Date.” Henry would nod and, for however many seconds Owen was in the room, devote himself deeply to whatever assignment lay open in front of him, so as not to seem entirely useless and adrift.
The date was with Jason Gomes, a senior who starred in all of the campus plays. Before long Owen’s notebooks and sweaters had migrated to Jason’s room. In the mornings, as Henry walked to class, he would see them reading together at the campus coffee shop, Café Oo, Jason’s hand laid atop Owen’s as they lingered over their espresso and their books, some of whose titles were French. At dinnertime, as Henry sat alone in a dim alcove of the dining hall, trying to look both inconspicuous and content, Owen and Jason would wander in, gather fruit and crackers to sustain them through rehearsals, and wander back out again. After midnight, as Henry drew the shades to go to sleep, he would see them sharing a joint on the opposite stoop, Owen’s head tipped sideways to rest on his lover’s shoulder. They didn’t need to bother with food or sleep, or so it seemed to Henry: they were too busy, too happy, for such trivial concerns. Owen had written a three-act play, “a kind of neo-Marxian Macbeth set in an open-plan office,” as he once described it, and Jason was playing the lead.
On a couple of weekends that fall, Jason drove home to Chicago or some suburb thereof. For Henry these weekends were a source of relief and joy. He had a friend, at least till Sunday night. Owen would spend the morning reading and drinking tea in his plaid pajamas, sometimes smoking a joint or staring idly at the face of his silent BlackBerry, until Henry, with careful nonchalance, asked whether he might like to go get brunch. Owen would look up over his round-rimmed glasses and sigh, as if Henry were an annoying child. But as soon as they got outside in the autumn air, Owen—usually still in his pajamas, with a sweater over the top—would begin to talk, answering questions Henry would never think to ask.
“It’s with my full permission that he goes,” he said, looking again at his phone that hadn’t made a peep. “My full permission and understanding. We’ve established parameters for what’s allowable behavior, and I’m quite certain that he abides by those parameters. We communicate openly, like adults. And I know that if I went along, it would change the entire nature of the experience.”
Henry, who understood who he was and not much else, nodded thoughtfully.
“Not that I even want to go along, mind you. I really don’t. I’ve said as much and I meant it. And I appreciate his honesty about what he wants at this stage of life. We’re both young, he says, and I can’t argue with that. But it bothers me nonetheless. For two reasons. Both of them indications of my retrograde sentimentality and general unfitness for modern life, I’m afraid. The first is that his family is there, his parents, his brother, his sister. He ate dinner with them last night. Can you imagine, four other humans who look and act anything like that? I want to meet them, I admit it. I want to meet them quite badly. Which is perhaps embarrassing given that it’s only been seven… six weeks since we met. God, six weeks. I’m so pathetic. But I know that if my mom lived within driving distance of here, I’d already have forced the two of them into a room together, just for the sake of my own stupid pleasure. You know?”
Henry nodded again, loaded his plate with pancakes.
“You shouldn’t eat so much flour,” Owen said, taking a single pancake for himself. “Even when I’m stoned I don’t eat much flour. The other reason, of course, is that I’m a staunch monogamist. In practice, if not in theory. I can’t help it. Do I acknowledge the oppressive, regressive nature of sexual exclusivity? Yes. Do I want that exclusivity very badly for myself? Also yes. There’s probably some sort of way in which that’s not a paradox. Maybe I believe in love. Maybe I just badly crave my mother’s approval. Hang on a sec.” Owen jogged back to the hot-food line, spatulaed up four more flapjacks, and slid them onto his plate. “Sorry to babble on like this, Henry. I think I’m immoderately stoned.”
After brunch they went to the union to play Ping-Pong. Owen, even immoderately stoned, proved to be a surprisingly good player. His swings were gentle, but he never missed the table, and Henry, who hated to lose at Ping-Pong, had to hustle and grunt and sweat to stay ahead. All the while Owen spoke steadily about love and Jason and the contradictions of monogamy, paying no discernible attention to the game but still carving out subtle drop shots that sent Henry sprawling across the table. Occasionally Henry would interject a comment, to show that he was listening and interested, but for him monogamy was less a contradiction than a glamorous, possibly unattainable goal, the flip side of his virginity, and he kept his comments vague. Inexperience hadn’t bothered him much in high school—he was only seventeen, after all—but here at Westish, where everyone was so much more sophisticated, not to mention older, it had already come to seem a rare affliction, one that, though not terribly hard to live with, would be both shameful to reveal and hard to remedy.
Still it felt beautiful to move, to play, and soon Henry was down to his T-shirt, leaking sweat. After each game he felt painfully sure that Owen would put down his paddle—he seemed gently bored, Owen did—but Owen, his high forehead dry, still wearing his sweater over his pjs, would merely murmur, “Well done, Henry,” and deliver another cottony serve. They played until it was time for dinner, and afterward they returned to the union to watch the World Series, Henry leaning close to the screen to study the shortstops’ moves, Owen lounging on the couch with an open book. Occasionally, roused by a gloomy thought, Owen would pull out his phone and gaze into its face, then tuck it away again.
Henry slept well that night, tired from four hours of Ping-Pong and somehow calmed by the soft snuffle of Owen’s breathing. On Sunday evening Owen’s phone finally buzzed, and he vanished again.
Even in Owen’s absence, Phumber 405 suggested his whole existence so palpably that Henry, as he sat alone and bewildered on his bed, was often struck by the eerie thought that Owen was present and he himself was not. Owen’s books filled the bookshelves, his bonsai trees and potted herbs lined the windowsills, and his sparse angular music played around the clock on his wireless stereo system. Henry could have changed the music, but he didn’t own any music of his own, so he let it play on. Owen’s expensive rug covered the floor, his abstract paintings the walls, his clothes and towels the closet shelves. There was one painting in particular that Henry liked, and he was glad that Owen had happened to hang it over his bed—it was a large rectangle, smeary and green, with thin white streaks that could easily have marked the foul lines of a baseball diamond. Owen’s pot smoke hung in the air, mingled with the bracing citrus-and-ginger smells of his organic cleaning products, though Henry couldn’t figure out when he smoked or cleaned, since he came home so rarely.
The only traces of Henry’s existence, by contrast, were the tangle of sheets on his unmade bed, a few textbooks, a pair of dirty jeans draped over his chair, and taped-up pictures of his sister and Aparicio Rodriguez. Zero sat on a closet shelf. Get settled, he thought, and Mike will be in touch. He would have liked to clean the bathroom, as a show of goodwill, but he could never find a speck of scum or grime worth cleaning. Sometimes he thought of watering the plants, but the plants seemed to be getting on fine without him, and he’d heard that overwatering could be deadly.
Though his classmates supposedly hailed from “all fifty states, Guam, and twenty-two foreign lands,” as President Affenlight said in his convocation address, they all seemed to Henry to have come from the same close-knit high school, or at least to have attended some crucial orientation session he’d missed. They traveled in large packs, constantly texting the other packs, and when two packs converged there was always a tremendous amount of hugging and kissing on the cheek. No one invited Henry to parties or offered to hit him grounders, so he stayed home and played Tetris on Owen’s computer. Everything else in his life seemed beyond his control, but the Tetris blocks snapped together neatly, and his scores continued to rise. He recorded each day’s achievements in his physics notebook. When he closed his eyes at night the sharp-cornered shapes twisted and fell.
Before he’d arrived, life at Westish had seemed heroic and grand, grave and essential, like Mike Schwartz. It was turning out to be comic and idle, familiar and flawed—more like Henry Skrimshander. During his first days on campus, drifting silently from class to class, he didn’t see Schwartz anywhere. Or, rather, he saw him everywhere. From the corner of his eye he would glimpse a figure that seemed finally, certainly, to be Schwartz. But when he whirled eagerly toward it, it turned out to be some other, insufficiently Schwartz-like person, or a trash can, or nothing at all.
In the southeast corner of the Small Quad, between Phumber Hall and the president’s office, stood a stone figure on a cubic marble base. Pensive and bushy-bearded, he didn’t face the quad, as might be expected of a statue, but rather gazed out toward the lake. He held a book open in his left hand, and with his right he raised a small spyglass toward his eye, as if he’d just spotted something along the horizon. Because he kept his back to the campus, exposing to passersby the moss-filled crack that ran across his back like a lash mark, he struck Henry from the first as a deeply solitary figure, burdened by his own thoughts. In the loneliness of that September, Henry felt a peculiar kinship toward this Melville fellow, who, like everything else on campus that was human or humansized, he had mistaken several times for Mike Schwartz.
That Thanksgiving was Henry’s first holiday away from home. He spent it at the dining hall, working his new job as a dishwasher. Chef Spirodocus, the head of Dining Services, was a tough boss, always marching around inspecting your work, but the job paid more than Henry had ever made at the Piggly Wiggly in Lankton. He worked the lunch and dinner shifts, and afterward Chef Spirodocus gave him a sliced turkey breast to take back to Owen’s minifridge.
Henry felt a surge of homesick joy when he heard his parents’ voices on the phone that night, his mom in the kitchen, his dad lying on his back in the family room with the TV on mute, ashtray by his side, halfheartedly doing the stretches he was supposed to do for his back. In Henry’s mind he could see his dad rolling his bent knees slowly from side to side. His pants rode up to his shins. His socks were white. Imagining the whiteness of those socks—the terrible clarity with which he could imagine it—brought a tear to Henry’s eye.
“Henry.” His mother’s voice wasn’t Thanksgiving-cheery, as he’d expected—it was chagrined, ominous, odd. “Your sister told us that Owen…”
He wiped away the tear. He should have known that Sophie would spill the beans. Sophie always spilled the beans. She was as keen to get a rise out of people, especially their parents, as Henry was to placate them.
“… is gay.”
His mom let the word hang there. His dad sneezed. Henry waited.
“Your father and I are wondering why you didn’t tell us.”
“Owen’s a good roommate,” Henry said. “He’s nice.”
“I’m not saying gay people aren’t nice. I’m saying, is this the best environment for you, honey? I mean, you share a bedroom! You share a bathroom! Doesn’t it make you uncomfortable?”
“I sure hope so,” said his dad.
Henry’s heart fell. Would they make him come home? He didn’t want to go home. His total failure so far—to make friends, to get good grades, or even to find Mike Schwartz—made him more loath to go home than if he were having—like everybody around him seemed to be having—the world’s most wonderful time.
“Would they put you in a room with a girl?” his mom asked. “At your age? Never. Never in a million years. So why would they do this? It makes no sense to me.”
If there was a flaw in his mom’s logic, Henry couldn’t find it. Would his parents make him switch rooms? That would be horrible, worse than embarrassing, to go to the Housing office and request a new room assignment—the Housing people would know instantly why he was asking, because Owen was the best possible roommate, neat and kind and rarely even home. The only roommate who’d want to be rid of Owen was a roommate who hated gay people. This was a real college, an enlightened place—you could get in trouble for hating people here, or so Henry suspected. He didn’t want to get into trouble, and he didn’t want a new roommate.
His mom cleared her throat, in preparation for a further revelation.
“We hear he’s been buying you clothes.”
Two weeks prior, on Saturday morning, Henry had been playing Tetris when Owen and Jason walked in, Owen calm and chipper as always, Jason sleepy-eyed and carrying a big paper cup of coffee. Henry closed the Tetris window, opened the website for his physics class. “Hi guys,” he said. “What’s up?”
“We’re going shopping,” said Owen.
“Oh, cool. Have fun.”
“The we is inclusive. Please put on your shoes.”
“Oh, ha, that’s okay,” Henry said. “I’m not much of a shopper.”
“But you’re not not a master of litotes,” Jason said. Lie-toe-tease. Henry repeated it to himself, so that he could look it up later. “When we get back I’m burning those jeans.”
“What’s wrong with these jeans?” Henry looked down at his legs. It wasn’t a rhetorical question: there was clearly something wrong with his jeans. He’d realized as much since arriving at Westish, just as he’d realized there was something wrong with his shoes, his hair, his backpack, and everything else. But he didn’t know quite what it was. The way the Eskimos had a hundred words for snow, he had only one for jeans.
They drove in Jason’s car to a mall in Door County. Henry went into dressing rooms and emerged for inspection, over and over.
“There,” Owen said. “Finally.”
“These?” Henry tugged at the pockets, tugged at the crotch. “I think these are kind of tight.”
“They’ll loosen up,” Jason said. “And if not, so much the better.”
By the time they finished, Owen had said There, finally to two pairs of jeans, two shirts, and two sweaters. A modest stack, but Henry added up the price tags in his mind, and it was more than he had in the bank. “Do I really need two?” he said. “One’s a good start.”
“Two,” said Jason.
“Um.” Henry frowned at the clothes. “Mmm…”
“Oh!” Owen slapped himself on the forehead. “Did I forget to mention? I have a gift card for this establishment. And I have to use it right away. Lest it expire.” He reached for the clothes in Henry’s hand. “Here.”
“But it’s yours,” Henry protested. “You should spend it on yourself.”
“Certainly not,” Owen said. “I would never shop here.” He pried the stack from Henry’s hands, looked at Jason. “You guys wait outside.”
So now Henry had two pairs of jeans that had loosened up slightly but still felt way too tight. As he sat by himself in the dining hall, watching his classmates walk by, he’d noticed that they looked quite a bit like other people’s jeans. Progress, he thought. I’m making progress.
“Is that true?” his dad said now. “You’ve got this guy buying you clothes?”
“Um…” Henry tried to think of a not-untrue response. “We went to the mall.”
“Why is he buying you clothes?” His mom’s voice rose again.
“I doubt if he buys Mike Schwartz clothes,” Henry’s dad said. “I doubt that very much.”
“I think he wants me to fit in.”
“Fit in to what? is maybe a question worth asking. Honey, just because people have more money than you doesn’t mean you have to conform to their ideas about fitting in. You have to be your own person. Are we understood?”
“I guess so.”
“Good. I want you to tell Owen thank you very much, but you cannot under any circumstances accept his gifts. You’re not poor, and you don’t have to accept charity from strangers.”
“He’s not a stranger. And I already wore them. He can’t take them back.”
“Then he can wear them himself.”
“He’s taller than me.”
“Then he can donate them to someone in need. I don’t want to discuss this anymore, Henry. Are we understood?”
He didn’t want to discuss it anymore either. It dawned on him—as it hadn’t before; he was dense, he was slow—that his parents were five hundred miles away. They could make him come home, they could refuse to pay the portion of his tuition they’d agreed to pay, but they couldn’t see his jeans. “Understood,” he said.
It was nearly midnight. Henry pressed his ear to the door. The noises that came from within were sweaty and breathy, loud enough to be heard above the pulse of the music. He knew what was happening in there, however vaguely. It sounded painful, at least for one of the parties involved.
“Uhh. Uhh. Uhhh.”
“Come on, baby. Come on—”
“That’s it, baby. All night long.”
“Slow down, now. Slow, slow, slow. Yeah, baby. Just like that.”
“You’re big! You’re fucking huge!”
“Give it to me! Come on! Finish it!”
The door swung open from within. Henry, who’d been leaning against it, staggered into the room and smacked against the sweat-drenched chest of Mike Schwartz.
“Skrimmer, you’re late.” Schwartz wrenched Henry’s red Cardinals cap around so the brim faced backward. “Welcome to the weight room.”
After hanging up with his parents, Henry had put on his coat and wandered out into the dark of the campus. Everything was impossibly quiet. He sat at the base of the Melville statue and looked out at the water. When he got home the answering machine was blinking. His parents, probably—they’d thought it over and decided it was time for him to come home.
Skrimmer! Football is over. Baseball starts now. Meet us at the VAC in half an hour. The side door by the dumpster will be open. Don’t be late.
Henry put on shorts, grabbed Zero from the closet shelf, and ran through the mild night toward the VAC. He’d been waiting three months for Schwartz to call. Halfway there, already winded, he slowed to a walk. In those three months he’d done nothing more strenuous than washing dishes in the dining hall. He wished that college required you to use your body more, forced you to remember more often that life was lived in four dimensions. Maybe they could teach you to build your own dorm furniture or grow your own food. Instead everyone kept talking about the life of the mind—a concept, like many he had recently encountered, that seemed both appealing and beyond his grasp.
“Skrimmer, this is Adam Starblind,” Schwartz said now. “Starblind, Skrimmer.”
“So you’re the guy Schwartz keeps talking about.” Starblind wiped his palm on his shorts so they could shake. “The baseball messiah.” He was much smaller than Schwartz but much larger than Henry, as became apparent when he peeled off his shimmery silver warm-up jacket. Two Asian pictographs adorned his right deltoid. Henry, who didn’t have deltoids, glanced nervously around the room. Ominous machines crouched in the half-dark. Bringing Zero had been a grave mistake. He tried to hide it behind his back.
Starblind tossed his jacket aside. “Adam,” Schwartz remarked, “you have the smoothest back of any man I’ve ever met.”
“I should,” Starblind said. “I just had it done.”
“You know. Waxed.”
“You’re shitting me.”
Schwartz turned to Henry. “Can you believe this, Skrimmer?” He rubbed his tightly shorn scalp, which was already receding to a widow’s peak, with a huge hand. “Here I am battling to keep my hair, and Starblind here is dipping into the trust fund to have it removed.”
Starblind, scoffing, addressed Henry too. “Keep his hair, he says. This is the hairiest man I know. Schwartzy, Madison would take one look at that back of yours and close up shop.”
“Your back waxer’s name is Madison?”
“He does good work.”
“I don’t know, Skrim.” Schwartz shook his big head sadly. “Remember when it was easy to be a man? Now we’re all supposed to look like Captain Abercrombie here. Six-pack abs, three percent body fat. All that crap. Me, I hearken back to a simpler time.” Schwartz patted his thick, sturdy midriff. “A time when a hairy back meant something.”
“Profound loneliness?” Starblind offered.
“Warmth. Survival. Evolutionary advantage. Back then, a man’s wife and children would burrow into his back hair and wait out the winter. Nymphs would braid it and praise it in song. God’s wrath waxed hot against the hairless tribes. Now all that’s forgotten. But I’ll tell you one thing: when the next ice age comes, the Schwartzes will be sitting pretty. Real pretty.”
“That’s Schwartzy.” Starblind yawned, inspected his left biceps’ lateral vein in one of the room’s many mirrors. “Just living from ice age to ice age.”
Schwartz held out a big hand. Henry realized that he wanted him to hand him his glove. No one but Henry had touched Zero in seven or eight years, maybe longer. He couldn’t remember the last time. With a silent prayer he placed the glove in the big man’s hand.
Schwartz slung it over his shoulder into a corner. “Lie down on that bench,” he instructed. Henry lay down. Schwartz and Starblind, quick as a pit crew, pulled from the bar the heavy, wheel-sized plates Starblind had been lifting and replaced them with saucer-sized ones. “You’ve never lifted before?” asked Schwartz.
Henry shook his head no.
“Good. Then you don’t have any of Starblind’s crappy habits. Thumbs underneath, elbows in, spine relaxed. Ready? Go.”
Half an hour later Henry threw up for the first time since boyhood, a weak quick cough that spilled a pool of pureed turkey onto the rubberized floor.
“Attaboy.” Schwartz pulled a ring of keys from his pocket. “You two keep working.” He returned with a wheeled yellow bucket full of soapy water and a long-yarned mop, which he used to swab up the mess, whistling all the while.
With each new exercise, Schwartz did a few reps to demonstrate proper form, then spotted Henry and Starblind, barking insults and instructions while they did their sets. “Coach Cox won’t let me lift before baseball season,” he explained. “It drives me nuts. But if I get too big up here”—he slapped himself on the shoulder—“I can’t throw.”
The session ended with skullcrushers.
“Come on, Skrim,” Schwartz growled as Henry’s arms began to quiver. “Make some goddamn noise.”
“uh,” Henry said. “gr.”
“You call that noise?”
“Big arms,” cheered Starblind. “Get big.”
Henry’s elbows separated, and the squiggle-shaped bar plummeted toward a spot between his eyes. Schwartz let it fall. The dull thud against Henry’s forehead felt almost pleasant. He could taste a cool tang of iron filings on his tongue, feel the throb of a future bruise.
“Skullcrushers,” Starblind said approvingly.
Schwartz tossed Henry his glove. “Good work tonight,” he said. “Adam, tell the Skrimmer what he’s won.”
Starblind produced, from some dim corner, a gigantic plastic canister. “SuperBoost Nine Thousand,” he intoned in a game show announcer’s baritone. “The proven way to unlock your body’s potential.”
“Three times a day,” instructed Schwartz. “With milk. It’s a supplement, meaning it supplements your regular diet. Don’t skip any meals.”
The next day, Henry could feel the soreness mounting throughout his dishwashing shift. When he returned to the room, a glass of milk heavy in each hand, Owen was seated behind his desk, dressed in white, picking broken twigs from a baggie.
“What’s that?” Owen gestured toward the canister, which Henry had left atop the fridge.
“SuperBoost Nine Thousand.”
“It looks like it came out of a hot-rod garage. Put it in the closet, will you? Behind the guest towels.”
“Sure.” Owen had a point: the black plastic tub didn’t exactly fit the room’s decor. The label’s lightning-bolt letters slanted forward, trailing fire behind as they wrapped across a stylized photo of the most grotesquely muscled arm Henry had ever seen. “But first I have to try some.”
Owen licked the fringe of a small piece of paper. “Try it how?”
“By mixing one heaping scoop of SuperBoost with eight ounces water or milk.”
“You’re going to eat it?”
Henry twisted the lid off its threads and peeled back the shiny aluminum seal. Inside, half buried in pallid powder like an abandoned beach toy, lay a clear plastic scoop. He dumped both glasses of milk into his quart-sized commemorative Aparicio Rodriguez cup, which Sophie had bought him on eBay for Christmas, and added two heaping scoops of SuperBoost.
Instead of sinking and dissolving, the powder floated on the milk’s surface in a stubborn pile. Henry found a fork in his desk drawer and began to stir, but the powder cocooned around the tines. He beat at it faster and faster. The fork clanged against the cup. “Maybe you could do that elsewhere,” Owen suggested. “Or not at all.”
Henry stopped stirring and lifted the cup to his lips. He intended to down it in one gulp, but the sludgy mixture seemed to leaven in his stomach. When he set down the cup it was still almost full. “Can you see my body’s potential being unlocked?”
Owen put on his glasses. “You’re turning a little green,” he said. “Maybe that’s an intermediate step.”
Two months later, when tryouts began, Henry didn’t look much bigger in the mirror, but at least he didn’t throw up anymore, and the weights he lifted were slightly less small. He arrived at the locker room an hour early. Two of his potential future teammates were already there. Schwartz sat shirtless in front of his locker, hunched over a thick textbook. In the corner, smoothing a pair of slacks on a hanger—
“Owen!” Henry was shocked. “What are you doing here?”
Owen looked at him as if he were daft. “Baseball tryouts begin today.”
“I know, but—”
Coach Cox appeared in the doorway. He was Henry’s height but thick-chested, with a strong square jaw in which he ground a wad of gum. He wore track pants and a Westish Baseball sweatshirt. “Schwartz,” he said gruffly as he stroked his clipped black mustache, “how are those knees?”
“Not bad, Coach.” Schwartz stood up to greet Coach Cox with a combination handshake-hug. “I want you to meet Henry Skrimshander.”
“Skrimshander.” Coach Cox nodded as he wrung Henry’s hand in a painful grip. “Schwartz tells me you plan to give Tennant a run for his money.”
Lev Tennant, a senior, was the starting shortstop and team cocaptain. Schwartz kept telling Henry he could beat him out—it had become a kind of mantra for their evening workouts. “Tennant!” Schwartz would yell as he leaned over Henry, dripping sweat into Henry’s open mouth while Henry struggled with the skullcrusher bar. “Beat out Tennant!” Henry didn’t know how Schwartz could sweat so much when he wasn’t even lifting, and he certainly didn’t know how he was supposed to beat out Tennant. He’d seen the smooth, sharklike way Tennant moved around campus, devouring girls’ smiles. “I’ll do my best, sir,” Henry said now.
“See that you do.” Coach Cox turned to Owen, extended a hand. “Ron Cox.”
“Owen Dunne,” Owen said. “Right fielder. I trust you don’t object to having a gay man on your team.”
“The only thing I object to,” Coach Cox replied, “is Schwartz playing football. It’s bad for his knees.”
Tryouts would take place inside the VAC, but first Coach Cox ordered the assembled crowd out into the cold. “A little roadwork,” he instructed them. “Around the lighthouse and back.”
Henry tried to tally up the bodies as they filed outside, but everybody kept shifting around, and anyway he didn’t know how many guys would make the team. He ran faster than he’d ever run and finished the four miles in the first group, alongside a surprisingly nimble Schwartz and behind only Starblind, who’d sped ahead in the first hundred meters and disappeared from view. The second group included most of the team’s established players, including Tennant and Tom Meccini, the captains. Schwartz’s roommate, Demetrius Arsch, who weighed at least 260 and smoked half a pack a day between the end of football season and the beginning of baseball, brought up the rear. At least everyone assumed he’d brought up the rear, until Owen cruised into view.
“Dunne!” Coach Cox bellowed.
“Where the goddamn hell’ve you been?”
“Doing a little roadwork,” Owen reminded him. “Around the lighthouse and back.”
“You mean to tell me”—Coach Cox planted a hand between the shoulder blades of Arsch, who was bent over, gasping for breath—“that you can’t beat Meat here in a footrace?”
Owen bent down until he and Arsch came face-to-face—Arsch’s damp and fragrantly purple, his own composed and dry. “I bet I could beat him now,” he said. “He looks tired.”
But when batting practice began, Owen knocked one line drive after another back up the middle of the batting cage. Sal Phlox, who was feeding balls into the old-fashioned machine, kept having to duck behind his protective screen. “Get out of there, Dunne,” grumbled Coach Cox. “Before you hurt someone.”
Henry had never taken grounders on artificial turf before; it was like living inside a video game. The ball never hit a rock or the lip of the grass, but the synthetic fibers could impart some wicked spin. In four days of tryouts he didn’t miss a single ball. When the roster was posted, four freshpersons had made the team: Adam Starblind, Rick O’Shea, Owen Dunne, and Henry Skrimshander.
Six weeks later, the Harpooners strode across the tarmac at the tiny Green Bay airport, wind whipping their faces, WAD-emblazoned bags slung over their shoulders. Everyone but Henry nodded to the beat of his headphones’ music. It was a clear, cold day, the temperature in the twenties, but they were dressed for their destination, no jackets or sweaters allowed. The plane’s propellers pureed the air. Dry week-old snow swept across the runway in windblown sine curves. Henry threw back his shoulders and walked as tall as his five-nine frame would allow, just like every road-tripping athlete he’d ever seen on TV. They were headed to Florida to play baseball, all expenses paid.
They were staying at a Motel 4 an hour inland from the Clearwater Municipal Baseball Complex. The older guys slept two to a bed; the freshpersons slept on cots. Henry was assigned to Schwartz and Arsch’s room. He lay awake the whole first night, listening to Meat’s plane-engine snoring and the tortured cries of the springs as the two sophomores, five hundred pounds between them, battled in their sleep for control of the supposedly queen-size bed. Henry closed his eyes, wrapped the smoky vinyl drapes around his head, and counted the minutes until their first real outdoor practice.
The next morning, a Saturday, they loaded onto the bus and drove to the complex—eight plush and lovely diamonds laid out in adjacent circles of four diamonds each. The dew twinkled in the buttery Florida sunlight. Henry, as he jogged out to short for infield drills, spun and launched into a backflip, staggering only slightly on the landing.
“Damn, Skrim!” yelled Starblind from center field. “Where’d that come from?”
Henry didn’t know. He tried to remember the footwork he’d used, but the moment had passed. Sometimes your body just did what it wanted to.
“You should try out for gymnastics,” Tennant said. “You’re about the right size.”
During batting practice, Henry scaled the left-field fence and stood in the parking lot to shag the amazing moonshots that Two Thirty Toover kept hitting. “Welcome back, Jim,” Coach Cox cheered, as ball after ball soared easily over the wall. “We missed you.”
Mild-eyed Jim Toover had just returned from a Mormon mission to Argentina. Jim was six-six and had a long, powerful swing. They called him Two Thirty because that was when the Harpooners took batting practice before home games. Now Henry was standing thirty feet beyond the fence, and the balls were raining down as if dropped from the clouds. Fans hustled out to the parking lot to move their cars. The teams on adjacent diamonds abandoned their drills to watch.
“But we wouldn’t call him Two Thirty,” Schwartz told Henry, “if he did it during games.”
“What does he do during games?”
That afternoon, the Harpooners played the Lions of Vermont State. DON’T CROSS THE STATE LIONS, read one long-traveled mother’s sign. Henry sat in the dugout between Owen and Rick O’Shea. Starblind had already been penciled into the starting lineup, as the center fielder and leadoff hitter.
Owen took a battery-powered reading light from his bag, clipped it to the brim of his cap, and opened a book called The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Henry and Rick would have found themselves doing shuttle drills and scrubbing helmets if they’d even thought about reading during a game, but Coach Cox had already stopped punishing Owen for his sins. Owen posed a conundrum where discipline was concerned, because he didn’t seem to care whether he played or not, and when screamed at he would listen and nod with interest, as if gathering data for a paper about apoplexy. He jogged during sprints, walked during jogs, napped in the outfield. Before long Coach Cox stopped screaming. In fact, Owen became his favorite player, the only one he didn’t have to worry about. When practice was filled with miscues, as it usually was, he would whisper mordant remarks to Owen from the corner of his mouth. Owen didn’t want anything from Coach Cox—not a starting job, or a better spot in the batting order, or even any advice—and so Coach Cox could afford to treat him as an equal. Much the same way, perhaps, that a priest appreciates his lone agnostic parishioner, the one who doesn’t want to be saved but keeps showing up for the stained glass and the singing. “There’s so much standing around,” Owen said when Henry asked him what he liked about the game. “And pockets in the uniforms.”
By the sixth inning against Vermont State, Henry could barely restrain his restlessness. “Kindly desist,” Owen said as Henry’s knees jittered and twitched. “I’m trying to read.”
“Sorry.” Henry stopped, but as soon as he turned his attention back to the game his knees started up again. He flipped a handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth and precision-spat the splintered shells into a little pool of Gatorade on the floor. He turned his hat backward. He spun a baseball in his right hand and flipped it to his left. “Doesn’t this drive you nuts?” he asked Rick.
“Yes,” Rick said. “Cut it out.”
“No, not me. Sitting on the bench.”
Rick tested the bench with both palms, as if it were a floor-sample mattress. “Seems okay to me.”
“Aren’t you dying to be out there?”
Rick shrugged. “Two Thirty’s only a junior, and Coach Cox loves him. If he does half of what he’s capable of, I’ll be spending the next two years right here.” He looked at Henry. “You, on the other hand, have Tennant worked into quite a lather.”
“I do not,” Henry said.
“Yeah, sure. You didn’t hear him blabbing at Meccini last night while I was lying in my cot, pretending to be asleep.”
“What’d he say?”
Rick looked both ways to make sure no one else was listening, then segued into his Tennant impression. “Bleeping Schwartz. Can’t stand the fact that I’m the captain of this bleeping team. So what does he do? Digs up that little piece of bleep who catches every bleeping thing you hit at him, that’s what. Then trains the little bleep night and day, and proselytizes Coach Cox all bleeping winter about what a fantastic bleeping player he is. Why? So the little bleep can steal my bleeping job, and Schwartz, who’s only a bleeping sophomore, for bleep’s sake, can declare himself the bleeping king of the team.”
Owen looked up from his book. “Tennant said proselytize?”
Rick nodded. “And bleeping.”
“Well, he has reason to fear. Henry’s performance has been outstanding.”
“Come on,” Henry protested. “Tennant’s way better than me.”
“Lev can hit,” Owen said. “But his defense is slipshod. He lacks the Skrimshander panache.”
“I didn’t realize Tennant disliked Schwartzy so much,” said Henry, by which he meant, I didn’t realize Tennant disliked me so much. No one had ever called him a little bleep before. He’d noticed that Lev treated him coldly during drills, but he’d chalked this up to simple indifference.
“What, you live under a rock?” Rick said. “Those two can’t stand each other. I wouldn’t be surprised to see things come to a head pretty soon.”
“Verily,” Owen agreed.
The game was tied in the ninth, Tennant on first base, when Two Thirty stepped to the plate. He screwed his back foot into the dirt, lifted his bat high above his head. Already today he’d hit a single and a double. Maybe Argentina had done him some good.
“Jim Toover!” Owen cheered. “You are skilled! We exhort you!”
Ball one. Ball two.
“How could anyone miss that strike zone?” Rick asked.
Henry looked toward third base to see if Coach Cox would put the take sign on. “Letting him swing away,” he reported.
“Really?” Rick said. “That sounds like a bad i—,” but his words were interrupted by an earsplitting ping of ball against aluminum bat. The ball became a speck in the pale-blue sky and carried deep, deep into the parking lot. Henry thought he heard a windshield shatter, but he wasn’t sure. They rushed from the dugout to greet Jim at home plate.
Rick shook his head in astonishment. “Now I’ll never get off the bench.”
“Indeed!” Owen gave Two Thirty a celebratory smack on the ass with his Omar Khayyám. “Indeed!”
With that win the Harpooners, for the first time in anyone’s memory, including Coach Cox’s, were undefeated. They celebrated at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in the strip mall near their motel. Then, over the next three days, they lost their next five games. Tennant was booting every grounder that came his way. Two Thirty struck out repeatedly. As the losses mounted, Coach Cox stood in the third-base coaching box with crossed arms, digging a moat in the dirt with the toe of his cleat and filling it with a steady stream of tobacco juice, as if to protect himself from so much ineptitude. The mood in the dugout turned from optimistic, to determined, to gloomy, to gloomy with a venomous edge. On the bench during their seventh game, Rick hid his phone in his glove and surreptitiously scrolled through the Facebook photos that their classmates had posted that day from West Palm, Miami, Daytona, Panama City Beach—album after album of bikinied girls, blue ocean, brightly colored drinks. “So close,” he moaned, shaking his head. “But so, so far away.”
“Owen,” Henry said excitedly, “I think Coach wants you to hit for Meccini.”
Owen closed The Voyage of the Beagle, on which he had recently embarked. “Really?”
“Runners on first and second,” Rick said. “I bet he wants you to bunt.”
“What’s the bunt sign?”
“Two tugs on the left earlobe,” Henry told him. “But first he has to give the indicator, which is squeeze the belt. But if he goes to his cap with either hand or says your first name, that’s the wipe-off, and then you have to wait and see whether—”
“Forget it,” Owen said. “I’ll just bunt.” He grabbed a bat, ambled to home plate, nodded politely at Coach Cox’s gesticulations, and pushed a perfect bunt past the pitcher. The shortstop’s throw nipped him by a quarter step, and Owen trotted back to the dugout to receive congratulations from his teammates. This was Henry’s favorite baseball custom: when a player hit a home run, his teammates were at liberty to ignore him, but when he sacrificed himself to move a runner, he received a long line of high fives. “Sweet bunt,” Henry said as he and Owen bumped fists.
“Thanks.” Owen picked up his book. “That pitcher’s not bad-looking.”
Throughout the week the Harpooners slept, ate, traveled, practiced, and played as a unit. If they weren’t at the fields or their crappy fleabag motel, they were tethered to their decrepit rented bus. The most inconsequential decisions, like whether to eat dinner at Cracker Barrel or Ye Olde Buffet, took hours. “I love it when I have to take a dump,” Rick said. “It’s the only time I get to be alone.”
As the losing continued, the constant togetherness grew tougher to take. On the too-lengthy trips between the diamond and their motel, the juniors and seniors sat in the back of the bus with Tennant, the sophomores and freshpersons up front with Schwartz. Only Jim Toover stretched his endless limbs across the empty seats of no-man’s-land; being six-six and Mormon lifted him above the fray.
Meanwhile Tennant’s defense was growing worse with each passing day. His face hardened into a haggard, pinched expression, and he radiated a black energy whenever Henry came near. Between games Coach Cox would confer with Tennant quietly, a hand on his shoulder, while Tennant nodded and looked at his shoes. “He’s pressing,” Rick said after Tennant bobbled a toss at second, botching a sure double play. “Look at his face.”
Owen cleared his throat, pressed a hand to his chest. “For at his back he always hears / Henry’s footsteps hurrying near.”
On Thursday night, Henry and Schwartz reclined in stiff plastic-weave chairs by the scum-topped, unswimmable pool of the Motel 4. As the earth cooled, Henry’s senses expanded to take in what they normally missed: the scutter of roaches and geckos over the tile, the flit of moths against the blue security lights, a whiff of distant water on the breeze. Schwartz paged through a phonebook-sized LSAT prep guide, though he wouldn’t be taking the LSAT for eighteen months. “You know, it’s only my first year,” Henry said. “I can wait.”
“Maybe you can.” Schwartz didn’t look up. “But the rest of us can’t. We’re one and seven. We need you out there.”
“Maybe if somebody told Lev he didn’t have anything to worry about, he’d relax and play better.”
“What do you think Coach Cox is saying during their little powwows? He spends half his time stroking Tennant’s ego, telling him he’s the man. But Lev’s not stupid. He knows you’re the better player.”
“But I’m not, really. Tennant’s just playing tight.”
“He’s playing tight because he’s a crappy shortstop. He did this last year too. Makes errors and mopes about it. His attitude’s abysmal. It has nothing to do with you, Skrimmer. Almost nothing, anyway.”
“I hope not.”
“It has nothing to do with hope either.” Schwartz slapped his LSAT book shut. “It has to do with Coach Cox. I respect Coach a lot, but he’s too loyal to guys just because they’ve been here for a while. Why be loyal to a bunch of losers? I’m sick of losing. This is America. Winners win. Losers get booted. You should be in there, and Rick should be in there, and the Buddha should probably be in there too. If only to get you ready.”
“Tennant’s a senior,” Henry said uncertainly. “I can wait till next year.”
“Wait till tomorrow,” Schwartz said. “That’s all I ask.”
The next afternoon, they played Vermont State, the team against which they’d scored their only victory. The Harpooners led 4 to 1 with an inning to play. But the first Lion batter of the ninth stroked a routine grounder to short, and Tennant couldn’t get the ball out of his glove. It was just one play, but it seemed to remind the Harpooners that they were losers and destined to lose. Four batters later the game was over. As his teammates filed grimly to the locker room, Henry lingered in the dugout, picking up scraps of trash and gazing at the infield, which looked especially green and regal in the afternoon sun.
When he reached the locker room, Schwartz had Tennant in a headlock. A steady stream of blood dripped from his nose into Tennant’s hair. “Try that again!” he roared as he rammed the crown of Tennant’s head into the metal lockers. “Try it one more time!”
“Get him off me!” Tennant pleaded, his voice muffled by Schwartz’s meaty forearm. “Get this crazy bastard off me!”
“You crazy bastard!” Owen cheered. “Get off him!”
No one moved to intervene, and the scene hung in an almost peaceful stasis, Schwartz slowly banging Tennant’s head against the lockers, until Coach Cox charged in from the coaches’ room, his unbuttoned jersey flapping around his white briefs. He and Arsch pried Tennant from Schwartz’s grasp.
Henry braced for a tirade from Coach Cox. But Coach Cox didn’t scream at all. “Schwartz, go wash your face,” he said, his tone that of a weary parent at the end of an exasperating day. Schwartz walked toward the bathroom, head held high, not bothering to check the flow of blood down over his lips and chin. He returned with a wad of toilet paper protruding from one nostril and held his hand out to Tennant. Tennant studied it for a moment before shaking it firmly.
“You two take the night off.” Coach Cox cast his gaze around the room. “You loose, Arsch?”
“Like a goose, Coach.”
“Henry, you loose?”
Henry heard the story from Rick and Owen during warm-ups: While Henry picked up paper cups from the dugout floor, Schwartz walked past Tennant’s locker and whispered something under his breath. Tennant whirled and threw a wild punch that connected with Schwartzy’s nose. His head snapped back and blood poured down. “Schwartzy looked pissed for about half a second, while his head was still bouncing around,” said Rick. “But then he sort of smiled, like getting socked by Tennant was exactly what he wanted.”
“I think it is what he wanted,” Owen said.
Rick nodded. “Even when he was banging Lev’s dome against the lockers, you could tell he wasn’t trying to hurt him. Strictly pro forma.”
“He orchestrated the whole episode to get you in the game,” Owen told Henry. “He even took a punch in the nose for you. You should feel flattered.”
It seemed far-fetched to Henry. Then again, Schwartz had promised he’d be in the lineup, and here he was, in the lineup. Two hours later, as he jogged out onto the diamond under the lights, he felt giddy and light-headed. He bounced on the balls of his feet, windmilled his arms, dropped into a squat to slap the ground. Starblind collected a fresh ball from the ump, went into the night’s first windup. “Adam Adam Adam,” Henry chanted. He danced a step to the left and back to the right, kicked up each knee, pounded his fist into Zero, leaped, and landed in his crouch.
Ball low. Starblind called time and motioned to him. Henry sprinted to the mound.
“Are we at a dance party?” Starblind asked. “I’m trying to pitch over here.”
“Sorry sorry sorry,” Henry said. “Sorry.”
Starblind looked at him, spat into the grass. “Are you hyperventilating?”
“Not really,” Henry said. “Maybe a little.”
But when the game’s second batter lofted a blooper down the left-field line, Henry turned his back to the infield and took off, unable to see the ball but guessing its landing point based on how it had come off the bat. Nobody else was going to get there; it was up to him. He stretched out his glove as he bellyflopped on the grass, lifted his eyes just in time to see the ball drop in. Even the opposing fans cheered.
Putting Henry at shortstop—it was like taking a painting that had been shoved in a closet and hanging it in the ideal spot. You instantly forgot what the room had looked like before. By the fourth inning he was directing the other fielders, waving them left or right, correcting their tactical miscues. The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond. The Harpooners made only one error, by far their fewest of the trip. Most of their tiny, grating mistakes disappeared. They lost by a run, but Coach Cox was grinning after the game.
The next day, their last in Florida, Henry started at shortstop and Tennant moved to third. Instead of bitter or angry, Tennant seemed relieved. When Henry struck out, as he did too often—his hitting was nowhere near as good as his defense—Tennant cuffed him on the helmet and told him to hang in there. They won the game, and though a 2 and 9 Florida trip wasn’t great, an odd kind of optimism was creeping in.
After his freshperson year ended, Henry stayed at Westish to train with Schwartz. They met at five thirty every morning. When Henry could run up and down all the stairs in the football stadium without stopping, Schwartz bought him a weighted vest. When he could run five seven-minute miles, Schwartz made him do it on the sand. When he could do it on the sand, Schwartz made him do it with lake water lapping at his knees. Medicine balls, blocking sleds, yoga, bicycles, ropes, tree branches, steel trash cans, plyometrics—no implements or ideas were too mundane or exotic. At seven thirty, the sun still low over the lake, Henry showered and headed to the dining hall to wash breakfast dishes for the summer-school kids. After his shift he walked to Westish Field, where Schwartz set up the pitching machine and the video camera. Henry hit ball after ball until he could hardly lift his arms. Then they went to the VAC to lift weights. In the evenings they played on a summer team in Appleton.
Henry had never felt so happy. Freshperson year had been one thing, an adventure, an exhilaration, all in all a success, but it had also been exhausting, a constant struggle and adjustment and tumult. Now he was locked in. Every day that summer had the same framework, the alarm at the same time, meals and workouts and shifts and SuperBoost at the same times, over and over, and it was that sameness, that repetition, that gave life meaning. He savored the tiny variations, the incremental improvements—tuna fish on his salad instead of turkey; two extra reps on the bench press. Every move he made had purpose. While they worked out, Schwartz would recite lines from his favorite philosophers, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus—they were Schwartz’s personal Aparicios—and Henry felt that he understood. Every day is a war. Yes, yes it was. The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. Done: there was only one of those. He was becoming a baseball player.
By the time his sophomore season began Henry had gained twelve pounds. He was still one of the smaller guys on the team, but the bat felt different in his hands, lighter and more lively. He batted .348 and was named the first-team Upper Midwestern Small Colleges Athletic Conference shortstop. In thirty-one games he didn’t make a single error. He was still shy in class and around campus—he never went to the bars and rarely to parties; there was too much work to do—but among his teammates he flourished. He loved those guys and felt good in their midst, and now that he was undisputedly the best player on the team, he became something of a leader. He wasn’t loud like Schwartz, but everyone listened when he spoke. The Harpooners finished .500 for the first time in a decade.
That summer, inspirited by success, he worked even harder. Instead of five thirty, he got up at five. Instead of five meals a day, he ate six. His mind felt clear and pure. The ball rocketed off his bat. He was coming to understand certain parts of The Art of Fielding in a new way, from the inside out, as if the great Aparicio were less an oracle than an equal.
He acquired a protégé too—Izzy Avila, a player Schwartz had recruited from his old neighborhood in South Chicago. Schwartz loved Westish, and he both loved and hated where he came from, and he wanted to help guys get from one to the other. Izzy was a perfect candidate, a gifted athlete and decent student who nonetheless needed the help. His two older brothers had also been gifted athletes—now one lived with their mom and the other was in prison. “He’s a little raw,” Schwartz said. “He can ride the bench this year, learn some things. Then play second next year after Ajay graduates. Then when you’re gone, he’s the new shortstop.”
Izzy feared and respected Schwartz, but he worshipped Henry. When they took their daily ground balls, he tried to copy Henry’s every move. When Henry talked about the subtleties of infield positioning, Izzy, unlike the other Harpooners, understood. When he didn’t understand, he studied until he did. They worked relays, rundowns, bunts, feints, pickoffs, double plays. Henry bought him a copy of The Art of Fielding for his birthday.
But Izzy wasn’t ready, mentally or physically, for Henry’s toughest workouts. Henry trained speed with Starblind, the fastest guy on the team. He trained strength with Schwartz, the strongest. When those guys went home, he went to yoga class with Owen. Then he trained some more. He fielded grounders in his mind until he fell asleep. He got up at five and did it again.
By the start of his junior season, he’d become something Westish College had never seen: a prospect. He hit a home run in the second game of the Florida trip, another in the fourth game, a third in the sixth. By then the scouts were loitering in their Ray-Bans behind the backstop. Fans showed up too, local baseball lovers who’d heard about the must-see kid with the magic glove. By week’s end the team was 10 and 2, Henry was hitting .519, and he’d moved within a single game of tying Aparicio Rodriguez’s NCAA record for most consecutive errorless games. The flight back to Wisconsin was one long celebration.
In the spring of 1880, Herman Melville, then sixty years old, was working as a customs inspector at the Port of New York, having proved unable to support his family through literary work. He was not famous and earned almost nothing from royalties. His first-born son, Malcolm, had committed suicide thirteen years earlier. Melville’s in-laws, among others, feared for his health and regarded him as insane. On a national scale, the horrific, bloody rift he’d prophesied in Moby-Dick and Benito Cereno (both long out of print in 1880) had come to pass, and, as he had been perhaps the first to foresee, the anguish had not ceased with the end of the war.
Not surprising, then, that the great writer might have found himself growing grim about the mouth, as his best-known protagonist put it; that he might have deemed it high time to get back to sea. Too old, impecunious, and hemmed in by family matters to make any more ocean crossings, Melville settled upon a more modest adventure. The spring thaw came early that year, and in March he boarded a ship headed up the Erie Canal, to tour the Great Lakes and thereby reprise alone a trip he had taken with his friend Eli Fly forty years before. Scholars have made much of Melville’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem (1856–57), but this later domestic voyage went unmentioned until 1969, when an undergraduate at Westish College—a small, venerable but already in those days slightly decrepit liberal arts school on the western shore of Lake Michigan—made a remarkable discovery.
The undergraduate’s name was Guert Affenlight. He was not, at the time, a student of literature. Rather, he was a biology major and the starting quarterback for the Westish Sugar Maples. He had grown up in the undulant, plainsy part of the state, south and west of Madison, the fourth and by far the youngest son of small-time dairy farmers. He’d been accepted to Westish in part to play football, and though the school, then as now, did not offer athletic scholarships, he was rewarded for his gridiron toils with a cushy job in the college library. Officially he was supposed to shelve books for twelve hours a week, but it was understood that the bulk of that time could be spent studying.
Affenlight enjoyed having the run of the library after hours, and frequently he neither studied nor shelved but simply poked around. Late one evening in the fall of his junior year, he found a thin sheaf of yellowed paper, tucked between two brittle magazines in the library’s noncirculating bowels. The faded handwriting on the first page announced that it was a lecture given by one “H. Melville” on “this first instant of April 1880.” Affenlight, sensing something, turned the page. A visceral charge went through him when he read the opening sentence:
It was not before my twenty-fifth year, by which time I had returned to my native New York from a four years’ voyage aboard whalers and frigates, having seen much of the world, at least the watery parts, and certain verdant corners deemed uncivil by our Chattywags and Mumbledywumps, that I took up my pen in earnest, and began to live; since then, scarcely a week has gone by when I do not feel myself unfolding within myself.
Upon his first reading, Affenlight failed to untangle the syntax before the semicolon, but that final clause embedded itself swiftly in his soul. He too wanted to unfold within himself, and to feel himself so doing; it thrilled him, this oracular promise of a wiser, wilder life. He’d never traveled beyond the Upper Midwest, nor written anything a teacher hadn’t required, but this single magical sentence made him want to roam the world and write books about what he found. He snuck the pages into his knapsack and back to his room in Phumber Hall.
The stated topic of the lecture was Shakespeare, but H. Melville, excusing himself by the sly pronouncement that “Shakespeare is Life,” used the bard as reason to speak of whatever he wished—Tahiti, Reconstruction, his trip up the Hudson, Webster, Hawthorne, Michigan, Solomon, marriage, divorce, melancholia, awe, factory conditions, the foliage of Pittsfield, friendship, poverty, chowder, war, death—all with a scattered, freewheeling ferocity that would have done little to refute his in-laws’ allegations of mental imbalance. The more deeply Affenlight imbibed the lecture, hidden away in his dorm room from any influence that might shake him out of his strange mood, the more convinced he became that it had been delivered extemporaneously, without so much as a note. It astonished and humbled him to think that a mind could grow so rich that its every gesture would come to seem profound.
The next day Affenlight left his room and went in search of an appropriate authority. Professor Cary Oxtin, the college’s expert in nineteenth-century America, perused the pages slowly in Affenlight’s presence, tapping his pen against his chin. Upon finishing, Oxtin declared that though the prose was unmistakably Melville’s, the handwriting was not. The lecture must have been transcribed—and who knew how reliably—by some attentive listener. He added that by 1880 Melville counted as little more than a travel writer past his prime, and so it was not implausible that his lecture had been misplaced and that his visit to Westish had passed unnoticed by history.
Affenlight left the pages with Professor Oxtin, who shipped copies of them eastward, to the counters and compilers of such things. Thus they entered the scholarly record. Several months later, Oxtin published a long essay on Melville’s Midwestern trip in the Atlantic Monthly—an essay in which Affenlight’s name did not appear.
At the end of that dismal ’69 season—the Sugar Maples won just one game—Affenlight turned in his helmet. Football had been a diversion; he had a purpose now, and the purpose was to read. It was too late to change majors, but each night when his problem sets were finished, he devoted himself to the works of H. Melville. He began at the beginning, with Typee, and read through to Billy Budd. Then the biographies, the correspondence, the critical texts. When he’d absorbed every word of Melvilleania in the Westish library, he started over with Hawthorne, to whom Moby-Dick had been dedicated. Somewhere in there he’d stopped shaving as well—these were the opening days of the ’70s, and many of his male classmates wore beards, but Affenlight imagined his as something different: not a hippie beard but an antique, writerly one, of the kind that graced the faded daguerreotypes in the books he was learning to love.
He had also, from his first days on campus, fallen in love with Lake Michigan—having grown up in landlocked farmland, he was amazed by its vastness and the combination of its steadiness and its constant fluctuations. Walking along its shore called forth some of the same deep feelings that his reading of Melville did, and that reading explained and deepened his love of the water, which in turn deepened his love of the books. He resolved to get himself to sea. After graduation, he managed to display enough knowledge of marine biology to win an almost unpaid job—an internship, in today’s parlance—aboard a U.S. government ship bound for the South Pacific. For the next four years he saw much of the world, at least the watery parts, and learned how well Melville had captured the monotony-in-motion of life under sail. He woke in the night, every three hours, to record data from a dozen instruments. With the same regularity he recorded his lonely thoughts in graph-paper notebooks, trying as best he could to make them sound profound.
After those four years he returned to the Midwest. He’d turned twenty-five, the Age of Unfolding, and it was time to write a novel, the way his hero had. He moved to a cheap apartment in Chicago and set to work, but even as the pages accumulated, despair set in. It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended. That sentence could contain anything, anything, and so it promised the kind of absolute freedom that, to Affenlight’s mind, belonged to the artist and the artist alone. And yet that sentence was also beholden to the book’s very first one, and its last unwritten one, and every sentence in between. Every phrase, every word, exhausted him. He thought maybe the problem was the noise of the city, and his dull day job, and his drinking; he gave up his room and rented an outbuilding on an Iowa farm run by hippies. There, alone with his anxious thoughts, he felt much worse.
He returned to Chicago, got a job tending bar, resumed his reading. With each new writer he began at the beginning and proceeded to the end, just as he’d done with Melville. When he’d exhausted the American nineteenth century, he expanded his reach. By absorbing so many books he was trying to purge his own failure as a writer. It wasn’t working, but he feared what would happen if he stopped.
On his thirtieth birthday he borrowed a car and drove up to Westish. Professor Oxtin, thank God, was still alive and compos mentis. Affenlight, with a calm determination that stemmed from desperation, reminded the old man of the capstone that the Melville lecture had placed on his career, and of Oxtin’s failure to credit him in the Atlantic article. The old man smiled blandly, not quite willing to admit or refute the charge, and asked what Affenlight wanted.
Affenlight told him. The old professor lifted an eyebrow and walked him down to the campus watering hole. There, over beers, he administered an impromptu oral examination that ranged from Chaucer through Nabokov but dealt mainly with Melville and his contemporaries. Satisfied, perhaps even impressed, the old man placed the call.
That September Affenlight trimmed his beard, bought a suit, and began Harvard’s doctoral program in the History of American Civilization. There he became for the first time—excepting a few lucky moments on the football field—a star. Most of his fellow students were younger, and none had achieved so desperate a grasp on the literature of his chosen period. Affenlight could drink more coffee, not to mention whiskey, than the rest of them put together. Monomaniacal, they called him, an Ahab joke; and when he spoke in seminar—which he did incessantly, having suddenly much to say—they nodded their heads in agreement. Thirty-page papers rolled out of his typewriter in the time it had taken to write a single paragraph of his not-quite-forgotten novel.
At first, Affenlight felt uneasy about his newfound sense of ease. He considered himself a failed writer, nothing more, and there didn’t seem to be much honor or grandeur in having read some books. But soon he decided—whether because it was true or because he needed it to be true—that academia was a world worth conquering. There were fellowships to win, journals to publish in, famous professors to impress. Whatever he applied for, he got; whatever he hinted he might apply for, his classmates shied away from. His successes were social as well. He’d always been tall, square-shouldered, and striking; now he had a purpose, an aura, a name that preceded him. The Cambridge ladies come and go / from Guert’s flat at 50 Bow. That was another joke of his classmates, and it was true.
He wrote his dissertation in the kind of white heat in which he’d always imagined writing a novel—the kind of white heat in which his hero Melville, over six torrid months in a barn in Western Massachusetts, had written the greatest novel the world had ever seen. The dissertation, a study of the homosocial and the homoerotic in nineteenth-century American letters, turned into a book, The Sperm-Squeezers (1987), and the book turned into a sensation: academically influential, widely translated, and reviewed in the Times and Time (“witty and readable,” “augurs a new era of criticism,” “contains signs of genius”). It wasn’t Moby-Dick, but it sold more copies in its first year than The Book had, and it became a touchstone in the culture wars. At thirty Affenlight had been nobody; at thirty-seven he was debating Allan Bloom on CNN.
Just as abruptly, he’d become a father. While preparing the book for publication, he’d been dating a woman named Sarah Coowe, an infectious-disease specialist at MGH. They were evenly matched in many ways: sharp-dressed, sharp-tongued, and devoted to their careers and personal freedoms to the exclusion of any serious interest in so-called romance. They spent ten months together. A few weeks after they broke up—Sarah initiated the split—she called to say that she was pregnant. “It’s mine?” asked Affenlight. “He or she,” replied Sarah, “is mostly mine.”
They named the child Pella—that was Affenlight’s idea, though Sarah certainly had the final say. For those first couple of years, Affenlight conspired as often as he could to show up at Sarah and Pella’s Kendall Square townhouse with expensive takeout and a new toy. He was fascinated with his daughter, with the sheer reality of her, a beautiful something where before there’d been nothing. He hated kissing her good-bye; and yet he relished, couldn’t keep himself from relishing, the total quiet of his own townhouse when he walked in, the scattered books and papers and lack of baby-proofing.
Soon after Pella turned three, Sarah received a grant to go to Uganda, and Pella came to stay with Affenlight for the summer. In August came the news: Sarah’s jeep had rolled off an embankment, and she was dead. Pella was half an orphan, and he was a full-time father.
After a perfunctory stint as an assistant professor, during which a series of winks and perks from the administration kept Stanford and Yale at bay, Affenlight was awarded tenure. He never mustered another major project like The Sperm-Squeezers, but his lectures were the department’s most popular, and the grad students vied fiercely for his favor. He reviewed histories for The New Yorker, stockpiled teaching awards, and kept up with his reading. He became the head of the English Department and a fixture on the Boston magazine Most Eligible Bachelor list. Meanwhile he raised Pella, or at least stood by while Harvard raised her; the entire school seemed to consider her their charge. He sculled on the Charles to stay in shape. He took the Cambridge ladies to the opera. He thought he would do such things forever.
Then, in February of 2002, while Pella was in eighth grade, the phone in his office rang. Affenlight, rattled by what was proposed, dumped his espresso on a stack of senior theses. The interviews and vetting would take months, but that first phone call so unnerved him that he knew it was going to happen. Never again would he stride through the Yard with a graduate student at each elbow, extending the seminar as the sun went down. Never again would he hop the shuttle to LaGuardia just for kicks. Never again would his recent publication record bedevil his sleep. He was headed home.
Guert Affenlight, sixty years old, president of Westish College, tapped an Italian loafer on the warped maple floorboards of his office on the ground floor of Scull Hall, swirled a last drop of light-shot scotch in his glass. On the love seat sat Bruce Gibbs, the chair of the trustees. It was the last afternoon of March, the eighth year of Affenlight’s tenure.
Besides Affenlight’s desk and the love seat, the room contained two wooden spindle-backed Westish-insignia chairs, two wooden filing cabinets, and a credenza devoted to dark liquor. The built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were filled with leather-bound volumes of and about the American nineteenth century, a drab but lovely sea of browns and olives and faded blacks, alongside neat rows of navy binders and ledgers related to the business of Westish College, and the brushed-steel stereo through whose hidden speakers Affenlight listened to his favorite operas. He kept his more colorful collection of postwar theory and fiction upstairs in his study, along with the handful of truly valuable books he owned—early editions of Walden, A Connecticut Yankee, and a few minor Melville novels, as well as The Book. The room contained so many bookshelves that there was space for only one piece of art, a black-and-white handpainted sign Affenlight had commissioned years ago that constituted one of his prized possessions: NO SUICIDES PERMITTED HERE, it read, AND NO SMOKING IN THE PARLOR.
Gibbs’s walking stick, which he never called a cane, was propped on the love seat’s arm. He sank deeper into the leather, swirled the amber liquid in his tumbler, gazed down at the lone melting cube. “Peaty,” he said. “Nice.”
Affenlight’s scotch was long gone, but to pour another would be to encourage Gibbs to linger. The chill coming off the windowsill at his back reminded him how much he wanted to be out there, at the baseball diamond, before driving down to Milwaukee to pick up Pella from the airport.
Gibbs cleared his throat. “I’m confused, Guert. I thought we’d agreed to postpone new projects until we recapitalized. We got hammered in the markets, we’re hemorrhaging financial aid, and”—he met Affenlight’s eyes steadily—“there’s almost nothing coming in from donors.”
Affenlight understood the admonition. He was the fund-raiser, the face of the school; in his first years on the job he’d mounted the most successful capital campaign in Westish history. But the economy of recent years—the collapse, the crisis, the recession, whatever you called it—had both eroded those gains and frightened donors. His influence among the trustees, once almost boundless, was gently on the wane.
“And now,” Bruce went on, “suddenly you’re putting all these new initiatives on the table. Low-flow plumbing. A complete carbon inventory. Temperature setbacks. Guert, where is this crap coming from?”
“From the students,” said Affenlight. “I’ve been working closely with several student groups.” Really, he’d been working closely with one student group. Okay, really he’d been working closely with one student—the same student he wanted desperately to get down to the baseball diamond to see. But Gibbs didn’t need to know that. It was true enough that the students wanted to cut carbon.
“The students,” said Gibbs, “don’t quite understand the world. Remember when they made us divest from oil? Oil is money. They complain about tuition increases, and then they complain when the endowment earns money.”
“Cutting emissions will be a PR boon,” Affenlight said. “And it’ll save us tens of thousands on energy. Most of our benchmark schools are already doing it.”
“Listen to yourself. How can it be a PR boon if our benchmarks are already doing it? If we’re not first movers on this, then we’re back in the pack. There’s no PR in the pack. Might as well sit back and learn from their mistakes.”
“Bruce, the pack’s way out ahead of us. Ecological responsibility is basically an industry ante at this point. It’s becoming a top-five decision factor for prospective students. If we don’t recognize that, we’ll get hammered on every admissions tour till the cows come home.”
Gibbs sighed, stood up, and hobbled to the window. Management consulting terms like industry ante and decision factor were the glue of their relationship—Affenlight tried to learn as many of them as possible, and to intuit or invent the ones he hadn’t learned. Gibbs gazed out at the Melville statue that overlooked the lake. “If it’s a decision factor we’ll deal with it,” he said. “But I doubt we can afford it this year.”
“We should get started now,” Affenlight replied. “Global warming waits for no man.”
Excerpted from The Art of Fielding by Harbach, Chad Copyright © 2011 by Harbach, Chad. Excerpted by permission.
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