If I Never Get Backby Darryl Brock
Contemporary reporter Sam Fowler, stuck in a dull job and a failing marriage, abruptly finds himself transported back to the summer of 1869. After a wrenching period of adjustment, he comes to feel rejuvenated by his involvement with the nation's first pro baseball players. He also finds his senses quickening and tastes changing as he faces life-threatening… See more details below
Contemporary reporter Sam Fowler, stuck in a dull job and a failing marriage, abruptly finds himself transported back to the summer of 1869. After a wrenching period of adjustment, he comes to feel rejuvenated by his involvement with the nation's first pro baseball players. He also finds his senses quickening and tastes changing as he faces life-threatening 19th-century challenges on and off the baseball diamond. Through his attachments to the ballplayers and the lovely Caitlin O'Neill, he might just regain the sense of family he desperately needs. Darryl Brock masterfully evokes post-Civil War America’s smoky, turbulent cities, the new transcontinental railroad that takes passengers over prairies and mountains to California, the dance halls and parlor houses, the financial booms and busts, and historical luminaries like Mark Twain and Jesse James. Equally appealing to sports fans and anyone who likes a good read, If I Never Get Back well deserves the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s judgment that it “hits a home run.”
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Read an Excerpt
THE AMTRAK crawled out of Cleveland. I sat sweat- ing in my new dark suit, staring out at the blackened brick walls from which milky light was beginning to ooze. Maybe I could hold it off. What had I been thinking about: The TV. Concentrate.
She opens her mouth wide: NNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! But I have no intention of hitting her. I shoulder past to the console squatting near the vaulted window of her hog-rich parents' Burlingame home. On-screen is Anchorman, her lover, smarmy voice and trademark eyebrows embellishing the tripe he intones from the TelePrompTer.
I get my back into it, thrust upward with my legs, muscles knotting ... no workouts for too long ... a frenzied snatch-and-lift ... I stagger sideways and heave ... picture window explodes ... shards of glass cascading ... TV in flight ... cabinet folds inward as it crashes on the flagstone ... muted cracklings precede one large red spark ... the long rumble down the hill, pieces flying ... Stephanie screaming ... for an instant ... one pure rushing instant ... I was King Fucking Kong....
Milkiness encroaching. I reached for the pint of Scotch in my coat. Almost empty. The pale light was seeping in through my ears.
Rock bottom. If not here, couldn't be far off. What I didn't know was whether to feel scared or relieved.
The TV ...
Maybe she picked him on purpose, knowing how I detested the breed: electronic jackals in symbiosis with their brain-dead viewers. Mincing on the scene, crews running interference. Checking makeup. Asking their two stupid questions. Broadcasting the shoddy results hours before our stories hit the streets.
It was when she told me she was moving in with him that I assaulted the tube.
It proved costly. With the divorce came a custody judgment barring drunken violent me from seeing our daughters more than once a week.
Booze gradually came to fill a lot of empty places. I was a wretched part-time father. I alienated my friends. Jeopardized my job. Screwed up everything.
Strangely, my father's death had seemed to offer a certain opportunity, a rite of passage to manhood.
"I can't imagine how they tracked you down." Stephanie's cool measured words-her telephone voice-sounding in my brain. "They called here for you. I told them our situation. If you need to miss a visit, I'll think of something to tell the girls."
By burying him I would ascend some pinnacle of maturity. There, viewing my thirty-two years with new wisdom, I would find significance and a tenable position.
"Take a month if you need, Sam." City Editor Joe Salvio giving me a fishy smile, significant look. "Pull yourself together ... skimpy interviews ... facts not checked ... get back to your old form!"
Or your ass is dead.
So this morning I had picked up the suit I'd ordered, flown to Cleveland, and cabbed to the Cuyahoga County Morgue. Without ceremony they slid the cold-storage drawer out and raised the sheet. Shivering in the refrigerated chill, I peered into the sallow face for the first time, seeking traces of myself. There was no cosmetic work: skin sagged from his neck, hair sprouted from his nostrils, snowy stubble matted his jowls and collapsed cheeks.
Did you fill your days? Did you love anyone?
I stared at the swollen nose. It was bulbous-like mine before college boxing flattened it-and purplish, crosshatched with tiny broken vessels.
Did you ever think about me?
"... like a chunk of pumice...." The voice of the man from the coroner's office buzzed. "... enlarged twice normal and severely cirrhotic ... yellow and fibrous as dry sponge ... sure as putting a gun to his head, just slower...."
I had a fleeting urge to reach down and lift one of the wrinkled lids. What color were his eyes? Shouldn't a son know?
Burial was expensive. I opted for cremation, my hand shaking as I signed as "nearest surviving relative." I asked where he'd been living. The answer was vague; no address. I went back in for a final look. Beneath the odor of preservatives I imagined his stench rising about me. I turned away and heard the drawer slide in.
So long, Pop.
Outside, the afternoon heat hung like a force field. I stood uncertainly, swallowing hard, then headed for a liquor store.
Lately the milky light came often. Enveloped in it, confused by it, I seemed to experience multiple dimensions. Without disappearing, things around me receded into the pale haze as distant images and voices swirled to the foreground. Most of them I recognized as my own memories. But not all. The experience was unnerving, sometimes almost terrifying. Drug overload. Or maybe I was going crazy.
The idea of taking Amtrak back had been to give myself time to savor the experience, see the country. But what was to savor? A long look at a corpse? I tilted the pint up. They say drinking runs in families.
The woman across the aisle was staring at me. I leered and winked. She pursed her mouth and looked away. Hell with her. The last of the whiskey slid down. My stomach churned. My vision blurred. I pressed my hands to my eyes. The milkiness was close.
The delay-something about a tie-up outside Toledo-was announced not long after we'd cleared the last dismal suburb and were barreling across open country. I'd been watching the fields rush by ablaze with wildflowers, their beauty a mockery.
The train's rhythm flattened as we slowed. We curved onto a siding and glided to a halt beside a weather-beaten loading dock rising like a low island from a sea of weeds and nettles. Waves of heat radiated from the wooden platform though dusk was settling. Insects swarmed in spirals. The compartment's doors opened with a hiss. A steward announced that we would be held up awhile; we could stretch our legs. I looked around. Nobody seemed eager to leave the air-conditioning. I stood unsteadily. Had to go outside. Had to do something.
My shoes clumped on the long platform. I retreated inside the sounds, tried to focus on the grain of the boards. Sweat filled my armpits. I felt a chill in the thick, heavy heat.
At the far end of the dock a small wooden ticket office stood darkly limned against a glowing backdrop of greenery. Drawing closer, I saw a rusted weather vane tilting from the peak of the roof. Strips of sun-bleached yellow paint curled from the wallboards; cobwebs sagged like nets from the eaves. Somebody had scrawled Sucko on a square of plywood covering the single window.
"Daddy?" A child's voice; my daughters' faces.
I walked on, faster.
The rear of the depot looked out on a meadow green from spring rains and bordered by a row of tall sycamores. Near the edge of the platform wild clover exploded in bursts of pinks and whites. From their midst a cacophony of buzzings and dronings suggested that life was indeed very pleasant. If you were a bug.
A wave of dizziness passed over me. I shut my eyes for a moment, a mistake.
"Won't you live with us anymore?" Hope asks, her voice quavering. "Mommy says you won't." I look down at her helplessly. "Daddy?" she urges. Behind her, Susy stares with huge round eyes. "Don't go, Daddy!" she cries suddenly, and rushes to me. I press her in my arms, feel her small shoulders trembling. I struggle to find words that will tell her I don't want to go-never wanted to go.
My eyes burned. For a long moment I didn't know where I was. Shapes moved in a pattern before me. I blinked. Circling in the middle distance, blackbirds played tag in the slanting light, their scarlet wing patches flashing like epaulets as they wheeled and darted over the field.
... light glowing on the sallow face ...
I must have said it out loud. The sound reverberated in the evening stillness. My head pulsated. I pressed my hands to my temples and leaned against the depot wall.
"Why do you have to go, Daddy?"
Did he think about me?
"Are you coming home, Daddy?"
I reached into the pocket where the bottle had been. My fingers closed around my watch. I pulled it out and pressed the hidden latch that opened the silveroid case, eyes fixed on it, trying to drive the milkiness back.
Years after losing Grandpa's railroad watch I'd found this one in an antique store. The name P. S. Bartlett inscribed on the works identified it as a model first made in 1857, and its serial number dated it in late '60 or early '61. The seventy-five-dollar price was steep, considering it lacked the key for winding and setting. I paid a locksmith fifty dollars to make a replacement; it came out too modern-looking but did the job. With brass polish I buffed the case to a high sheen and took pleasure that the watch kept perfect time.
But now the hands said six-thirty. Hadn't it been nearly eight before I got off the train? I saw the secondhand not moving in its tiny inset. Funny, I'd wound it that morning. Pulling the key from its hole on the top-where stems were fixed in later models-I fitted it over the winding knob.
At the edge of my vision was a fluttering. Two redwing blackbirds landed on the dock a few yards away. Their wings beat the air, one squawked while touching down, and their feet scratched nervously on the platform.
They were real, not my imagination.
When their wing markings began to vanish, I shook my head to clear my vision, although every detail was registering: the yellow borders of the patches slowly disappeared, then the red centers, leaving both birds completely black.
I stared at them.
Then, soundlessly, still hopping about on the platform, the birds themselves began to grow hazy. They didn't fade, exactly, or dissolve, but seemed to fill and overflow with pale light until the spaces containing them held only the light and noth- ing more.
The milkiness climbed around me.
Another bird materialized and flew very near my face, a dark fluttering form flashing before me, wings thrashing. It shot past. Then, for a distinct instant, emerging from the white light, I saw a human figure. It was draped in a uniform coat-military, or some kind of conductor's; long and faded, with parallel rows of brass buttons-and one arm was stretched toward me. I thought it was moving, as if in flight, but I couldn't tell whether approaching or receding. In the background, on a hill across a stream or narrow river, a group of people stood in hazy tableau, looking at me.
The world tilted. The sycamores grew smaller. Beyond them the dusk light bronzed and the sky shrank to a narrow band. I clutched at the depot wall but couldn't hang on. The platform rose abruptly and crashed against my face. Blackness engulfed me.
The next thing I knew, pain was pulsing behind my eyes and I couldn't see. I tried to climb to my feet, reaching one knee and falling back again, nauseated. A loud, insistent hissing probed the air somewhere inside or outside my brain. Groping on the platform, my hand encountered the watch and returned it to its pocket.
Gradually the depot wall reappeared, blurred and grainy. I made out the two blackbirds on the platform where they had been, their wing markings again visible. I took a deep breath and touched my face where it felt swollen. My fingers came away bloody.
Moments later I was mystified by the sight of cordwood around me. It was split in three-foot lengths and stacked neatly against the depot, the sawed ends looking fresh cut. Nearby, a loading cart rested on enormous iron-rimmed wheels. Where had that come from? I turned and peered at the wall. The peeling yellow paint was gone, replaced by whitewash. Was I in the same place? I scanned the field. It seemed unchanged. Then I looked again. Had those cornstalks been here? That rail fence? The puddle of water in the foreground? Suddenly the shapes of the trees looked different and the heat felt stickier.
Then I heard the hissing again, loud and shrill, cutting the air, and I realized with a start that it came from the opposite side of the station.
Christ, I'd forgotten my train!
I struggled to my feet and made my way along the platform. My throbbing head forced me to move slowly. When I reached the front corner of the station, I stopped altogether, transfixed by what I saw.
The silver Amtrak train was gone.
In its place, coming the other way, a black locomotive rumbled slowly toward me, bursts of steam spraying from its skirts. Behind it stretched a line of creaking, swaying wooden coaches. I stared, mute and disbelieving, as it bore down on me. A scarred red cowcatcher curved downward from the swirls of steam. Behind it, a long ebony boiler gleamed like a polished boot. Brasswork glinted on the headlamp-enormous, square, shining in the thickening darkness-and on the elegant bell and myriad pipes and fittings that wound like lace around the boiler. Fragrant hardwood smoke curled from the diamond-shaped tip of the stack. The noise was deafening. I backed up and leaned against the station wall.
The cab passed, the engineer twisting to stare at me from his square window. Behind him came a tender piled high with cordwood like that stacked on the station platform, baltimore & ohio on the tender's side in block letters.
I tried to make sense of it: a steam locomotive pulling a train out of Currier & Ives. Someone must have spent a fortune restoring it, and yet it looked oddly work worn. The passenger coaches drew near, silhouettes moving inside.
A wispy elderly man in grimy overalls and a striped trainman's cap stepped onto the platform carrying a sputtering lantern.
"Some sort of historical thing?" I asked when he drew near.
"What say?" His eyes were yellow in the lantern glow.
I cocked a thumb at a passing coach. "What's the occasion?"
"Don't follow." He raised the lantern. "Something happen to your cheek?"
"Took a spill," I said. "What's this train about?"
He looked blank. "Just the reg'lar run from Shelby Junction. Stops here for wood 'n' water. Leaving for Cleveland now." He held the lantern at arm's length, scrutinizing me.
"Okay, if you say so. What happened to Amtrak?"
"What?" He frowned, looking down at my pants.
"The Amtrak out of Cleveland-where is it?"
"Ain't nothin' by that name comes through here."
"What do you mean?" My head throbbed. "I was on it."
"I guess you know more about 'er 'n me," he said wryly, "so go ahead-climb back on."
"I can't," I said through clenched teeth. "It's gone. Again I'm asking, where is it?"
"You ain't makin' sense," he said doggedly, shaking his head. "First off, what're you doin' out here, mister?"
"What difference does it make?" I snapped. "I flew into Cleveland this morn-"
"Flew?" he interrupted, eyes narrowing. "You say flew?"
"Yeah, I-" He turned abruptly and strode away, the lantern trailing a pungent paint-thinner odor. I stood dumbly, then pursued him and caught his arm. "What's wrong with you? I'm just-" I caught a lungful of the lantern's acrid fumes as he swung it around. "Jesus Christ, what're you burning in there?"
He struggled to pull away, then stood rigid. "No need to curse me, mister; it's just coal oil." His arm trembled in my hand. "The station's closed up now. I'm the yardman. I got nothin' you want. Please turn me go."
I released him and watched him scuttle around the corner. He looked badly frightened. Coal oil? What the hell was going on? Then I remembered the blood. I probably looked like an ax murderer. Slow down and think, I told myself.
Maybe somebody was making a movie. I didn't see film equipment, but a couple at the far end of the dock looked like costumed actors: he wore a stovepipe hat and swallowtail coat, she a bonnet and long bustled skirt. They were waving to someone on the train.
I started toward them. A voice suddenly boomed over the slow clacking of the wheels. "You! Hullo!"
I looked around.
He leaned out a window of the last passenger coach and waved in my direction, a straw boater shading his features.
"Hurry up!" he called. "We're pulling out!"
"You talking to me?"
"You out from Cleveland?"
"We've been waiting for you!"
The cars were gaining speed. I tried to walk faster. "Where'd the other train go?"
"Other train? Next one's in the morning." He waved his arm. "Jump aboard! I've got your ticket! I'll fill you in!"
from If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock, Copyright © September 2002, Plume Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission
Meet the Author
For the better part of two decades, Darryl Brock was a history, English, and psychology instructor in San Francisco Bay Area high schools. He holds a BA from the University of Redlands and has many graduate units in history at UC Berkeley. He has served as a writing consultant to the State of California and worked with Educational Testing Service to establish essay-scoring programs. Since 1984, Brock has been a full-time freelance writer, and is the author of numerous articles and reviews, many of them about early baseball and/or Mark Twain.He is an accomplished public speaker on the subjects of the Red Stockings, early baseball in general, and his experience in researching those pioneer pros. He is heavily involved in the world of baseball, attending Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) regional meetings and occasionally national conventions, as well as other baseball organizations' functions.Darryl Brock lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and daughter.
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