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Nick stared at the strike zone and took a deep breath. That was something his dad had taught him; he said it relaxed your shoulders and cleared your head. As soon as Nick’s lungs were empty, he began his windup, the movements as smooth and natural as the breath he had just taken, until—
SMACK! The rubber ball nailed the center of the chalk square on the wall, skipped neatly on the polished linoleum, and landed next to Nick in the hospital bed.
“Twenty-nine,” Nick said to himself.
He picked up the ball, focused on the chalk target again, and took another breath. But before he could begin his windup, Dr. Miller appeared in the door.
“Are you wearing out my wall again?” Dr. Miller asked. He kept a straight face, but Nick knew he was joking—Dr. Miller was the only adult in the whole hospital who wasn’t afraid to laugh.
“I’m trying to break my record before I leave,” Nick said.
“What’s your record?”
Nick pointed at the chalk square. “Inside the strike zone eighty-seven times in a row.”
Dr. Miller raised an eyebrow. “Eighty-seven is a whole lot.”
“I guess,” Nick said. “But not as many as eighty-eight.”
This time Dr. Miller did smile. “You keep that attitude and you’re going to be fine. Are you ready to go?”
Nick felt his heart speed up—the same nervous feeling he used to get when there was a man on third base and nobody out. “He’s here?”
“Waiting downstairs.” Dr. Miller glanced at Nick’s duffel bag, which was lying next to the door. “You tighten up your brace and I’ll get the bag.”
“I’ll take the bag,” Nick said. “He won’t like it if I’m not carrying my own bag.”
Nick could tell that Dr. Miller was staring at him, but he kept his eyes locked on the metal bar at the foot of his bed. He hated the look that doctors and nurses would sometimes get—like they felt sorry for you but didn’t know what to say. Nick didn’t want pity. Maybe his left leg didn’t work the way it was supposed to, but most of the kids who came through the ward had worse problems. Polio was a terrifying disease. In mild cases you would get symptoms similar to the flu, but if you were sick enough to get transferred to this hospital, it meant you had nerve damage, which often meant paralysis. Some of the kids on the ward couldn’t walk at all—or even sit up in bed. And the very sickest ones couldn’t breathe for themselves and had to be stuck in a terrifying machine called an iron lung.
“Fine,” Dr. Miller said after a long pause. “But let’s get you in that brace.”
The brace was made of iron with two creaky hinges and thick leather straps. It stretched from the top of Nick’s thigh to just above his ankle, and when he wore it for more than a few hours, it would chafe and leave big red swaths on his skin. But at least he could limp around with the brace, which was certainly better than being a prisoner to a wheelchair.
It took a few minutes to fasten the buckles, and when they were finally done, Nick slung the bag over his shoulder and limped down the hall, Dr. Miller next to him.
“You must be excited to see your friends,” Dr. Miller said as they entered the elevator.
Nick shrugged. “It’s been a year. They probably forgot about me.”
“I doubt that. You’re a pretty memorable kid.”
Nick ignored the comment because he had other stuff on his mind. Over the past year Nick had imagined this moment a thousand times, but it still felt weird to be leaving the ward. On some level Nick had never really believed that his father would actually come—the only time he’d visited the hospital was for an hour at Christmas—so Nick hadn’t even bothered to say good-bye to the other kids. But Nick knew they’d understand. People came and went on the polio ward, which was why nobody ever got too attached.
When the elevator doors finally opened, Nick immediately saw the familiar face across the stark lobby. His father always looked out of place anywhere but behind home plate. He was stocky and bowlegged, with deep lines around his dark eyes from spending years squinting in the sun. Their landlord in Bismarck used to joke that the stork must have gotten lost the day he delivered Nick because he and his father were like opposites—Nick was tall and thin for his age, with sandy blond hair and blue eyes. Supposedly he looked like his mother, but his father didn’t have any old pictures so Nick didn’t know for sure.
His father noticed them emerge from the elevator, and he trudged across the lobby, his worn felt hat in his calloused hand. He gave Nick a long look and then turned to Dr. Miller.
“Is that brace permanent?” he asked.
Dr. Miller ignored the question and stuck out his hand. “I’m Dr. Miller,” he said. “You’ve got a fine son.”
Nick’s father reddened as they shook hands. “Thanks, doc. And I surely appreciate you looking after him. It’s just . . .” His voice trailed off, his eyes locked on the brace, and Nick suddenly wished he were wearing pants instead of shorts.
“Nick’s doing great,” Dr. Miller said. “But I’d be wary of giving you a specific prognosis.”
“Can he pitch? Can he play ball?”
“Once again, I don’t want to make any predictions. But I think a more realistic goal is for Nick to be able to walk without a brace.”
“So he’s a cripple.”
Dr. Miller pursed his lips. “That’s not a word we like to use around here.”
They were quiet for a long moment. Nick stared at his feet, trying to keep the shock from his face. Had his father really just called him that word? Cripple? Just as he felt like he might burst, Nick felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Dr. Miller.
“Good luck, Nick,” he said. “We’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,” Nick said.
As Nick followed his father into the parking lot, he realized that it wasn’t exactly the truth and wasn’t exactly a lie. He wouldn’t miss the sharp, antiseptic smell of the ward or the chatter of the nurses early in the morning or that horrible, lonely feeling you got just before you fell asleep. But nobody in the hospital had ever called him a cripple. Why would his father say something like that? Unlike most of the kids in the ward, Nick could wash himself and eat normally and even walk. And, yeah, maybe he had to wear a brace, but did that mean he was permanently broken? Was that really what people outside the hospital would think about him?
His father stopped in front of a strange-looking brown Chrysler and waited impatiently for Nick to catch up. The car was long with an enormous hood and hardly any straight lines.
“You got a car?” Nick asked.
“Mr. Churchill lent it to me.”
“It’s nice,” Nick said, trying to be polite.
His father rolled his eyes. “Are you crazy? That newfangled body looks like a squashed cow patty. And those idiots in Detroit built it so badly that the engine falls out whenever it hits eighty.”
“Well, I like the color,” Nick said.
His father grunted, grabbed the bag from Nick’s shoulder, and tossed it in the backseat. He started around the car and then paused and glanced at Nick.
“Can you get in by yourself or do I have to help you?” he asked.
“I can do it,” Nick said.
It was a long drive back to Bismarck—almost five hundred miles. They headed north to Minneapolis, northwest to Fargo, and then due west across the rolling plain. The journey was brutal in the winter when the arctic wind was whipping snow across the road, but now, in early June, they cruised along with the windows cracked to let the sweet summer breeze into the car.
As they drove, Nick couldn’t help thinking about the last time he’d been on these roads. Polio had ambushed him. One morning in late May he woke up with a fever and a stiff neck, and the moment the doctor heard his symptoms he was whisked into quarantine at the local hospital in Bismarck. At first Nick hadn’t been worried—other kids in his neighborhood had gotten polio and been okay. But the second morning he felt pins and needles in his legs, and he knew he was in trouble because the doctors kept whispering in the hall outside his room. By the time they put him in a truck to drive him to the Mayo Clinic, Nick had been fading in and out of consciousness, and all he really remembered about the journey was his father’s stone expression and the soothing feeling of the nurse dabbing his forehead with a cold washcloth.
But this time there was no nurse and no washcloth, and Nick spent most of the long drive staring out the window at the passing plains, bored. They had to stop three times for gas and oil, and once for sandwiches, and it was almost midnight by the time the car was finally rolling down Main Street. They had barely spoken two words since they left the hospital, but as they caught a glimpse of the stadium, Nick felt that old familiar rush of excitement and couldn’t contain himself.
“How’s the team this year?” he asked.
“Best in the Dakotas,” his father said. “Maybe the best semipro club in the Midwest. Just depends how many more of those colored boys Mr. Churchill signs up.”
“Who have you got?”
“Satch, supposedly. And Red and Barney Morris. And there’s rumors about Double Duty Radcliffe.”
Nick tried to keep the excitement out of his voice. “Satch is coming back?”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” his father said.
Nick wanted to ask more questions, but he knew from his father’s tone that any further attempts at conversation would be answered with silence. It seemed impossible to believe that Satchel Paige might actually return to Bismarck. Of course, Nick never would have guessed that one of the greatest living pitchers would come to Bismarck in the first place, but that was only because Satch was black and the majors wouldn’t let black players in the league.
And so two years earlier—the fall of 1933—Mr. Churchill, the team’s owner, had convinced Satch to pitch the last month of the season for Bismarck. He was nothing short of amazing as he won six of his seven starts and averaged almost fifteen strikeouts a game. Nick’s father had caught four of those games, and Nick, who was ten at the time, had sat in the first row of the stands and watched as Satch’s magical arm bewildered helpless batters. Satch had promised to return the following season, and the team had even rebuilt the stadium to handle the expected crowd. In fact, that had been one of the things that Nick dreaded most when he went into the hospital—the idea that Satch might be pitching in Bismarck while he was trapped in a ward five hundred miles away had been too painful to contemplate.
But Satch never showed up, not even after Mr. Churchill threatened to have policemen drag him back to Bismarck to fulfill his contract. Nick had followed the story in the papers—the rumor had been that another team was paying Satch more money—and in the wake of that nasty fight, Nick had assumed that North Dakota had seen the last of the great Satchel Paige. He was very glad to be wrong.
“We’re here,” his father said, interrupting Nick’s thoughts.
The car had pulled up outside a dilapidated house on the outskirts of town. Nick stared at the peeling paint and weathered door.
“Why did you move out of Mr. Powell’s place?” he asked.
“Rent went up,” his father said. “Let’s go.”
Nick grabbed his duffel from the backseat and then followed his father down a gravel path that led to a little cabin behind the main house. The moon was bright, but Nick still stumbled as he climbed up the stairs to the sagging porch. His father caught him by the shoulder and then roughly grabbed the bag.
“Quiet,” he said. “If you wake Mrs. Landry, I’m going to hear about it in the morning.”
As they entered the cabin, his father flipped a switch next to the door and a naked bulb flickered to life. The inside was just one tiny room with a bed, a sink, a chair, and a small cot. Nick’s father tossed the duffel in the corner and then began stripping off his clothes while Nick settled on the cot and struggled to undo the leather straps on his brace.
“You’re working for Mr. Churchill this summer,” Nick’s father said when he was wearing just a T-shirt and his oil-stained pants. “He’s been real nice paying for the hospital and letting me borrow the car and everything, so you’re going to give him a hand. That’s the deal.”
“At the dealership or with the team?” Nick asked.
“Whatever he wants.” Nick’s father glanced at his brace again. “Whatever you can actually do. Understand?”
His father flipped off the light and then grunted as he settled into bed. Nick kept fumbling with the straps of his brace in the dark—he would never be able to fall asleep with that thing clamped to his leg.
“Good night, Dad,” he said after a minute.
Silence. Nick kept working on the straps, and when the last one was finally undone, he lay down on the lumpy cot and pulled the rough wool blanket over his clothes.
He was back.
© 2012 Wes Tooke
Posted December 1, 2014
Posted December 13, 2011