Rick Stanton was a promising professional baseball player with dreams of playing in the major leagues and starting a family with his young wife, Francesca, when World War II changed everything. Rick returns from the war with his body broken and his dreams shattered. But it was not just body and spirit he sacrificed for the war. He and Francesca volunteered their beloved dog, Pax, for the Army's K-9 Corp, not knowing if they'd ever see him again.
Keller Nicholson is the soldier who fought the war with Pax by his side, and the two have the kind of profound bond that can only be forged in war. Pax is the closest Keller has to a sense of family, and he can't bear the thought of returning him to the Stantons. But Rick and Francesca refuse to give him up. Instead, an arrangement is made: Keller will work as Rick's live-in aide. And thus an unlikely family is formed, with steadfast Pax at the center. As they try to build a new life out of the ashes, Keller and Francesca struggle to ignore their growing attraction to each other, and Rick, believing that he can no longer give Francesca what she needs and wants, quietly plans a way out.
All three of them need healing. All three of them are lost. And in Susan Wilson's A Man of His Own, Pax, with his unconditional love and unwavering loyalty, may be the only one who can guide them home.
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A Man of His Own
By Susan Wilson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Susan Wilson
All rights reserved.
The men's room stinks so badly that Rick walks past it and out the open back door of the tavern. He's in an alley, a brick wall conveniently placed, so that he conducts his business in privacy. Today was the last day of play for the Waterbury Comets, and Frederick "Rick" Stanton has just spilled his good news to his teammates. Despite the C-league Comets' losing season, he's pitched well, and in the spring he'll report to the minor-league AA team, the Hartford Bees. It was surprisingly hard to say, and he was a little embarrassed to have gotten choked up, especially when they all raised their beer mugs and toasted his good luck.
He's finally going to be able to say good-bye to cobbled-together amateur teams, and all his years of hard work, from sand lot to high school to playing in college, have paid off. Sacrificing steady employment in a respectable profession like his father's, banking or accounting, in favor of menial jobs he has no compunction about leaving when practice starts up has been worth it.
Still, he'll miss these guys, the oldest among them the catcher, "Foggy" Phil Dexter; the youngest, a kid of sixteen who cheerfully takes all their good-natured abuse, lugging most of the equipment, always riding stuck between two bigger players, fetching for the rest of them, and enduring persistent razzing about the state of his virginity.
Finishing up, Rick feels the first drops of rain on his bare head. Those few drops are quickly followed by a complete cloudburst, but he stays where he is. It's hot inside, and the cool rain feels good. Rick raises his face to the sky and opens his mouth, taking in the taste of fresh rain. "I'm the luckiest man on earth," he says to the sky, and in that moment, he's pretty certain that he is. Well, he should get back in. Eat another couple sandwiches, toss back one more beer; laugh at a few more tired jokes. The season is over and no curfew tonight.
Thoroughly soaked now, Rick turns around and trips over something, nearly pitching headlong onto the brick pavers. That something yelps.
It's a puppy, and rather than running away after being tripped over, it stays put, and for a hard moment, Rick thinks he may have accidentally killed it with his big feet. In the weak light of the open back door, Rick sees the glint of life in its eyes. "Whoa, fella. Where'd you come from?" Rick squats down and the wet and trembling puppy inserts itself between his knees as if seeking shelter. It sits and rests its muzzle on Rick's leg. As quickly as the cloudburst started, it fades away, the rivulets trickling down the side of the wall, pooling in the interstices between the bricks. "Where're your people, little guy?"
The puppy shakes, spraying Rick with a thousand droplets. Rick scoops it up and heads back into the tavern. In the light, he can see it's a boy, silvery in color, with a darker saddle across narrow shoulders and along ribs that poke out like the bones of a chicken. His ears flop over at entirely different angles, as if they belong to two different puppies. Probably a German shepherd, or at least mostly shepherd. The bartender doesn't say anything when Rick comes in carrying a puppy, so Rick holds him up. "He yours?" The barkeep shakes his head no.
The barkeep's wife swings a new pitcher onto the table and considers the dog on Rick's lap. "Probably got dumped out back. You found him, you keep him. Don't leave him here."
The puppy has settled neatly on Rick's lap, gently taking the bits of meat Rick offers without nipping those important fingers with his sharp teeth. He can't keep a dog; he's living in a boardinghouse. In nine months, he'll be at training camp. In a year, with luck, he'll be pitching for the majors.
"Got to name him if you're keeping him." Dan Lister, their manager, spreads a gob of mustard on his third corned beef sandwich. "How 'bout Spot?"
"Too common. Besides, he doesn't seem to have any spots, and who said anything about me keeping him?" Rick fingers another tiny bite of sandwich into the puppy's mouth.
"Lucky." Foggy has slumped in his chair, so that his chin is barely above the edge of the table.
"Well, he is a lucky dog if one of you bums keeps him." Rick holds the wriggling fur ball up as if offering the puppy for auction.
"Darby?" This from the kid.
"I had a dog named Darby. My dad's Irish. It's how they say Derby over there. Darby was a real good dog, never left my father's side all the time he was sick with tuberculosis. We even let him come to the funeral."
The group grows silent. No one had known that the kid was a half orphan.
"Maybe I'll call him Rin Tin Tin. He looks like he might be shepherd." Rick scratches the puppy under the chin. "What do you think? You gonna grow up to be some kind of movie star hero dog?" The puppy yawns, drops his head, and is instantly asleep. Rick realizes what he's just said. If he names this puppy, how will he ever drop him back in the alley? It's not even fair to keep the dog on his lap, to allow the little thing to accept a few minutes of comfort, let him think that humans are trustworthy. The party will break up soon, and what then? Abandon the tyke to the elements? His first trust in humans to do right by him destroyed, and maybe he'll never trust another human being again. Rick can feel the puppy's beating heart in the palm of his pitching hand. The fluff of baby fur feels like the softest mink of his mother's fur stole as Rick strokes him, lifting the spatula-shaped paws and feeling the thick bones of a puppy with the potential to become a large dog. If he's not hit by a car or starved to death.
Dan Lister pushes away from the table. "I'm done in. Go to bed, gentlemen. I bid you farewell. Keep healthy and see you" — he looks at Rick — "most of you, in the spring." The manager presses both hands on the table, suggesting that he's more sober than he is.
The bartender hands Rick a length of string for a leash, but Rick carries the ten pounds of soft fur in his arms. Foggy is bumbling into chairs and tables while trying to find the front door. "Come on, Phil, throw an arm over my shoulder."
Foggy Phil Dexter gladly slings his arm over Rick's neck and leans into him. "You'll be great. Bees need a good curveball pitcher." His breath is rank with beer and pastrami, but Rick doesn't mind. Phil's been a good friend and taught him a lot about the game. "By God, you'll be in the majors in a year."
"Your mouth to God's ear." Rick bears the weight of the man and the small burden of the puppy as they walk the few blocks to their boardinghouse.
Everything that he's done has been fed by his lifelong ambition to play for the majors. Rick has never wanted anything else in his life. As a kid, he asked Santa for gloves and balls and bats; as a teen, he paid his own way to baseball camp, using the money he earned from a paper route. He never learned to sail, letting his father practically adopt the next-door neighbor's kid to crew for him. Tomorrow, he'll head down to his parents' Greenwich home. He wonders if, when he gives them his good news, his extraordinary and long-awaited news, they'll finally respond with some pride and enthusiasm.
The puppy in his hand wriggles himself up and under Rick's chin. Well, so what if they don't. He's a grown man, he's stuck to his plan, and now, at very nearly the last minute, at age twenty-seven, he's finally there. Almost. He doesn't want to be the world's oldest rookie when he finally gets the call to major-league baseball.
Maybe this will be the last winter keeping fit by any means possible while substitute teaching or doing temporary work at a busy accounting firm. In eight months, he'll be back in training, a hardball in his hand, sensitive fingers feeling for the seams, the magic of that perfect throw. The future spools out in front of him: a winning season with the minor-league Bees, then getting the call to the majors. His first appearance in the National League. Rick sees himself doffing his ball cap and waving at cheering fans. He's paid his dues, by God. Forfeited job security and Mary Ann Koble, who didn't want to be a ballplayer's wife.
The puppy yawns, burrows his tail end deeper into the crook of Rick's arm. Why not keep him? He could be a mascot. A lucky charm. A companion on all those miles of roadwork.
There is a church along the way, more beautiful than any other building on this defeated main street; its all-white marble facade glows softly in the newly rain- freshened air. Picked out in gold leaf on the pediment are Latin words: Gloriam Deo Pax In Terra.
"Pax. Peace." Rick looks at the puppy in his arms, now sleeping with utter trust in the man carrying him. It's started raining again, a warm drizzle that makes the wet pavement shimmer beneath the sparse streetlamps. "I'm the luckiest man on earth."
Pax. The puppy in Rick's arms suddenly wakes. He reaches up with his baby muzzle and his long pink tongue comes out to lick Rick's nose. Pax.CHAPTER 2
I just didn't see myself a farmer's wife. No insult intended to all my friends who found satisfaction in it, but I just couldn't. I was, at heart, a town girl, even if the town was little Mount Joy, Iowa, population insignificant, city limits something like six blocks firmly built on the banks of the Mississippi River. It wasn't that I didn't want marriage; of course I did. And kids. But I wanted something else for them besides the grinding work of feeding America. I wanted something more for myself than being sentenced to cooking three meals a day seven days a week for insatiable farmhands. Pickling and canning and putting up. Putting up green beans and tomatoes. Putting up with bad harvests and droughts and too much rain and corn borers. I was a town girl, but the domestic realities of my farm-bred girlfriends made an impression on me.
Thus I was flirting with old maidhood, a ripe nineteen years old, my only significant accomplishment the high school diploma my mother had framed and hanging in the den. My high school chums were getting married one after the other, but I was determined that my knight in shining armor wasn't going to be one of the local boys, most of whom had already adopted the high seat of the combine as their throne and were deep in the family cornfields. Their chief currency was the half acre set aside for a new house, or the addition Daddy would put on the old one to accommodate the anticipated bounty of babies. More fodder, I thought, for the machine of agriculture. That's not what I wanted for my kids. I wanted for them what I wanted for myself, an indefinable more.
When I try to unravel the skein of circumstance that led me to meet Rick Stanton, I have to look to my cousin Sid. Cousins through our mothers, we were playmates, and then he grew into a boy, and I wasn't much interested in playing army or being forced into the damsel in distress role for Sid and his buddies to rescue on their imaginary chargers, wielding not so imaginary sticks as lances and swords. One unfortunate kid got his eye poked real good, as his imaginary knight's visor was a little porous, and the neighborhood mothers put a stop to stick play for a time.
The one thing Sid and I continued to enjoy together was baseball. We'd sit in our parlor, or his family's, the big cathedral radio on, our dads in their undershirts, sneaking Pabst Blue Ribbon beers past our mothers. We listened to the games of the St. Louis Cardinals, as close to a home team as those of us in Mount Joy, Iowa, had. We might have rooted for the Cubs, but my family had turned its back on the Chicago team a generation ago.
Sid sided with me even when I refused perfectly nice Buster Novack. Buster's family were good people, good farmers, but sown into the earth like the corn they raised. Life with Buster would mean respectability and church suppers, raising a nice family to farm the same acres as his grandfather farmed. The biggest excitement the daily corn futures. One day the same as the next. The truth was, I burned for something else. Something beyond watching a slender and good-looking Buster Novak take on a farmer's bulk. Maybe someday I'd regret a missed chance at an ordinary life, but right then it seemed more like a death sentence. So I told Buster no, thank you, and mystified my parents.
But Sid sided with me, and then told me I needed to get the heck out of Mount Joy, that the pickins were too poor for a girl of my standards. "You won't find a prince in this pack of paupers, Francesca. You've got to go farther afield." Sid, having reversed our pioneer heritage, was living in what we simply called the East, Boston to be exact, a graduate of Bryant College, in Rhode Island, and making a good living as an accountant for a shipping firm. He had become exotic. And when he invited me to visit him there — the East — I did. I packed enough so that, unbeknownst to my parents, should an opportunity arise, I could stay. I don't know exactly what I thought might comprise an opportunity, but I knew that should one arise, I'd recognize it. And I did.
So there it is, a friendly cousin, a girl on her first big trip, and a mutual love of baseball. Sid took me to Nickerson Field, traveling the whole way from his digs in Dorchester by subway, which for this country girl was almost as exciting as the train ride east had been, the shopgirls and the businessmen straphanging, looking bored, not the least bit uncomfortable as bodies bumped up against those of perfect strangers, as if this was all so ordinary.
Sid bought me a hot dog and a Coca-Cola, even though I'd asked for a beer. The Braves were playing the Cardinals and Sid and I were in hog heaven. Our seats were perfect, just a few rows back from the bull pen, where the relief pitchers played catch with catchers, legs extended in a balletic arc, the hardballs whizzing into the mitts with satisfying smacks. It would be so romantic to say that our eyes met, or that one look and I knew he was the one, but the truth is, I didn't notice Rick Stanton in the bull pen because he wasn't one of the pitchers warming up. He was acting as one of the catchers. So it wasn't until the game began and the relief pitchers all settled down to watch the action, rumps in white trousers lined up side by side on the wooden bench like pigeons on a wire, that this catcher unfolded himself into a tall, thin man, unburdened himself of the chest protector and mask, and, for reasons neither he nor I ever understood, looked up at me. And I waved.
It still goes back to Sid. Consulting his program, he identified this dark blond, tousle-haired ballplayer with the strong jaw and Roman nose as Rick Stanton, recently brought up from the Eastern League's Hartford Bees. A curveball pitcher with a decent win-loss history in the minors. He wasn't scheduled to play today, unless the game went south and the three other pitchers on staff that day were tossed out. I was rooting for the Cardinals, so I hoped that maybe I'd get to see Stanton play for that reason alone.
He didn't and the Braves won, but I admit that I hadn't paid much attention to the game itself. Every few minutes, I glanced back down to where Rick was fence hanging, a study of concentration on the game. Every now and then, he'd lift his cap, run a hand through his hair, and glance back at me. I couldn't tell then, from that distance, that his eyes were the richest hue of blue I'd ever seen. The kind of blue that seems to have a light behind it, like an Iowa sky on certain fall days. By the ninth inning, we were smiling at each other, and when the game was over, he jumped the fence and made his way up the steps to where I was trapped beside Sid in our row. Rick stood in the emptied-out seats just below me, which put us almost eye-to-eye.
"My name is Rick Stanton and thank you for coming to the ball game." Wisely, he put his hand out to Sid first. Later on, I asked him how he knew that Sid wasn't my beau; after all, he might have looked like a piker horning in on someone's girl like that, maybe even gotten himself decked. It was simple, he said; Sid was a good-looking guy, but you were smiling at me, not him.
Sid stepped aside and let me out of the row. "Sid Crawford, and this is my cousin, Francesca Bell. Good game, but I have to tell you she's a Cardinals fan." With that, my cousin excused himself to go to the men's room and left me with the man who would become my husband.
The moment is crystallized in my mind, but I remember it as if I'm looking down on these two young people. I see the girl, dressed in a summer skirt that lifts slightly in the breeze. I see this ballplayer, all long legs and arms outfitted in his baggy white uniform, the number 65 on his back. He has his hat in his left hand, gripping the curved bill. He reaches out with his right and takes the girl's hand in his. There is a frisson, a jolt, as if they are both charged with positive and negative ions, two forces meant to join up. It was the first time in my life I'd felt physical attraction, and the longer he kept my hand in his, the stronger the sensation. I leaned forward slightly, breathing in the scent of his skin, my eyes closed. I don't know what possessed me. Or, maybe it's more reasonable to say, I didn't know then. I just knew that Rick Stanton was what I'd been waiting for.
* * *
Our courtship seemed so fraught with complication: I lived in Iowa; he traveled all summer. The only thing to do seemed to be to get married right away, set up a home in the Boston area, based on his optimistic hope that he wouldn't be traded for a few years. But the thing I had the most trepidation about wasn't Rick, or leaving home, or setting up what might prove to be temporary housekeeping in a strange city. It was Pax.
Excerpted from A Man of His Own by Susan Wilson. Copyright © 2013 Susan Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I: 1939-1945,
Part II: 1946-1947,
Part III: 2008,
Also by Susan Wilson,
About the Author,