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When Dave Long tagged up and tried for third, everyone had to laugh. A bonehead move, and, for Davetypically a prudent guyuncharacteristic. As he took off, Dave laughed, too, at his own folly. Church-league softball, one gone in the last inning, not a blessed thing on the linethe game was without meaning and out of reachand he went on a shallow fly to left.
"Good Lord," his wife, Susan, said to the woman next to her. She was sitting in the aluminum bleachers with the rest of the Bethany Baptist bunch. She had arrived latebarely in time to see Dave reach second on an overthrow. He was surprised to see her. Susan Long was a busy, charitable woman. She worked half-time keeping the books for Nuñez Chiropractic and gave her afternoons and evenings to business of the church, the school, the community. Before the game, Dave and his son, Randy, grabbed some food downtown, as they did two or three times a week. Given her responsibilities at the church, which included a leadership role in Christian education, her several Bible studies and support groups, her involvement in such service arms as Member Care and Prayer Chain and Meals on Wheels, Susan had little time to prepare supper, or eat it. "What the heck is he doing?" she said.
Dave was trying for third. There was no question: he knew he should stay at second, he should not go, and he went. The left fielder, Pastor Jeff, of the Alliance Church, had a cannon. He looked at Dave as if Dave were pursued by demons. In shallow left field he was closeenough to speak to Dave as he headed for third.
"Where are you going, Dave?" Pastor Jeff said. "You're dead, man."
Dave smiled. He liked Pastor Jeff. On the street. He hadn't cared for his manner in the pulpit, the few times he'd heard him preach. Pastor Jeff was too tallhe was six foot nineand his preaching posture was stooped and condescending. He was also too familiar and digressive for Dave, who had been raised in the cooler, straighter logic of the Episcopalians. But Pastor Jeff had the straight truth here: Dave was dead. To rights. Dave had been fast, but he was forty-four now, and he was too slow to pull this sort of stunt.
Dave's son, his only child, Randy, stood a way off, down the third-base line, behind the Cyclone fence. He was hanging from the fence as if tethered there, his arms stretched out above his head, his fingers laced through the wire, the toes of his sneakers wedged in the bottommost holes. He shook his head back and forth, almost violently. Randy was thirteen. He had not wanted to come watch his father play.
"God," he said when Dave tagged up. "Stupid. You're stupid."
Randy was a big, strong kid. He was, almost all the time now, angry, at his father. He could tolerate his mother, but everything about Dave, who you would have thought the more approachable parent, enraged him.
Randy hated the way Dave dressed. He hated his whole wardrobe, in particular a blue down jacket Dave had had for years and wore when he drove Randy to school on winter mornings.
"You garbageman," Randy would say to him. "You look like a garbageman. You grunge monkey."
Dave liked this latter expression; he tried not to smile.
"Laugh," Randy said. "Laugh. The garbagemen dress better than you do."
Dave's beard, which he kept respectably trimmed, made Randy angry.
"No kisses, wolfman," Randy said, if Dave bent over his bed to kiss him good night. "You werewolf. You're scaring me, wolfman."
Randy spoke with stage disdain of Dave's friends. Dave's car, a Taurus wagon, was boring and dumbfor Randy, an emblem of all that was insufferable and pedestrian about his father. But the thing that really drove Randy wild was that Dave liked to read. Dave rose every morning at five so he could spend a quiet hour reading and thinking and praying. Which left him irredeemable in Randy's eyes. If Dave sent Randy to his room or otherwise disciplined himthis happened more often than Dave wantedRandy would say, in his cruelest, most hateful voice, "Why don't you just go read a book, Mr. Reading Man. Mr. Vocabulary. Go pray, you praying mantis."
Watching Randy in his father's presencethe way his face went tight, the way his back stiffenedlistening to the explosive, primitive noises he made in place of speech, you could see the boy's anger was beyond his control and understanding. It had sandbagged the kid, hit him blind side. It made Dave very sad. He missed the easy love of his son. He missed talking to Randy, he missed his companionship, and he felt sorry for him, because in the periodic rests between peals of rage, when he took breath, Randy was clearly dazed and spent and, himself, sad.
Sometimes it was hard for Dave to remember that this abrasive, scowling thing, always coming at him, was his own son. Randy would bump him or leer or growl, make some foul and belligerent gesture, and before he'd had time to set or check himself, Dave would have responded in kind. "You shut your mouth, punk, or I'll shut it for you," Dave might say. He would grab Randy's arm above the elbow and squeeze it hard, trying to hurt him, and he would fill with regret and shame.
Randy said, "Stupid. You're stupid," and Dave, slow but hell-bent for third, heard him.
Shoot, Dave thought. Poor kid. What am I doing?
Pastor Jeff threw a rope to the third baseman, also named Jeff, who worked in the auto-salvage yard. This layman Jeff caught the ball and straddled the bag, waiting for Dave, who was still only halfway there.
"Dumb," Randy said. "You are stupid." He untangled himself from the fence and turned his back to the field.
The third-base coach, Pastor Rick, senior pastor at Bethany Baptist, was at a loss. When the ball left the bat, a weak fly, he had raised his hands, palms out, signalling Dave to stay put. "Hold up, Gomer," he shouted, but it was too lateDave had committed himself.
Pastor Rick was Dave's age. They met downtown once a week for lunch to discuss Scripture and Dave's personal journey in faith. They had that day, over turkey melts and iced tea, considered Matthew 7:13-14, a familiar passage Dave had lately found compelling and vexing: "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." After a space of silent meditation, Pastor Rick asked Dave what he thought the Gospel writer might have meant by the word narrow. They had their Bibles on the table before them.
"Apart from the obvious?" Dave said.
"Yes," said Pastor Rick.
"Are you asking because you know, or because you want to know?"
"The second," Pastor Rick said. "I don't know. How would I know?"
"No shit," Pastor Rick said.
"If we knew what the Hebrew was," Dave said. "Or the Greek."
"Good question. I don't. So?"
Dave thought a moment.
"Maybe as in severe," he said. "I don't know. Narrow. As in pinched. It pinches you to go through. What's the word? Straits. Straitened. Maybe exclusive. Most people are excluded. They are left out. Unpopular. Maybe narrow as in simple. Sheer. Simple. Severe. Did I already say that?"
"Yes, you did."
"Yeah, well that's what I come up with."
"Good stuff," Pastor Rick said.
"What have you got?" Dave said.
"Half my sermon. Thanks."
A female fan on the Bethany side was yelling, "Slide, Dave, slide!" This was a joke, because no one slid in church leaguethe guys were too old, too sedateand, besides, Dave was wearing shorts. Everyone laughed. Dave heard the call for him to slide, and he, too, found the proposition laughable.
Then he slid. He raised his right hand in a fist. He yelled, "Oh, mama!" And from six feet away, and at what was for him top speed, he slid into third. Under the tag. Around the tag, really. No one who watched could believe it. It was the best, the only hook slide anyone had ever seen in that church league.
The base paths were a hard, dry, gravelly dirt, and Dave tore up his leg. He stood up, called time, and limped off the bag. He looked down at his leg, the left, which was badly abraded from ankle to knee. Beneath a thin film of dirt, which Dave tried to wipe off with his hand, the leg was livid, strawberry, a crosshatch of cuts and gashes, bits of sand and gravel in the wounds.
Pastor Rick was beside him. He put his arm around Dave.
"Why did I do that?" Dave said. "Ouch."
"Wild man. You O.K.?" Pastor Rick said. "Nice slide."
"Thanks. I'm O.K. I think."
"Can you walk? You want a runner?"
"Nah," Dave said. "I'm fine."
"Yeah," Dave said.
Pastor Rick patted Dave on the rump. "All right, then. Go get 'em."
Dave turned to the crowd. He smiled sheepishly and waved.
Susan stood up in the stands.
"I'm O.K.," he said.
"Big jerk," she said to herself as she sat down. Then, to the woman next to her, "I don't believe it." She took a magazine out of her purse and looked at the cover. She stood up. She shook the magazine at Dave. He pretended to cower, and the crowd laughed.
Randy, who had wheeled to watch the play from the left-field foul line, was embarrassed: that his father slid; that his father slid in shorts and hurt himself sliding; that the slide, in this contexta game for coots and feebs and wacko fundamentalistswas inordinately, ridiculously good; and, on top of it all, that his mother had got into this bad circus act. Randy began to drift in his father's direction, up the line. Dave watched his unwitting tack with gratitude and wonder. He looked at Randy, shrugged his shoulders, and smiled, a bit goofily.
It was only when Dave smiled at him that Randy saw he was moving toward his father. Randy wrenched himself away. He turned and headed for the parking lot.
Dave's leg looked bad, painful, but it didn't really begin to hurt until after the next batter, Lloyd Weeks, who worked for Dave at the cereal plant, tapped a ground ball to the pitcher, stranding Dave at third and rendering perfectly gratuitous his miracle slide.
Randy caught a ride with his mother, who left as soon as the game ended, taking time only to tell Dave to get home and clean up his leg. To give Randy some time for his anger, Dave stayed to help gather the equipment, then wound up going for a beer with Pastor Rick and a few of the men. His leg was stinging. He doused it with cold water from a spigot by the backstop. At Tiny's, he ordered a beer and a Scotch. He poured out the Scotch on his napkin and swabbed his leg.
"Shoot," Dave said. "That stings."
"That is one ugly leg," said Pastor Rick.
Pastor Jeff of the Alliance Church held up his diet coke and waggled it. "Just for the record," he said. "And if anyone asks, I wasn't here."
"Who was?" said Pastor Rick.
"Great slide," said Pastor Jeff to Dave. "I had you nailed."
"Never in doubt," Dave said.
Dave nursed his beer, listening to Pastor Rick and Pastor Jeff disagree about glossolalia, about the dangers (Pastor Jeff) and the appeals (Pastor Rick) of ecumenism, and then commiserate about the unremitting demands of the lectionary.
"You write me this week's," said Pastor Rick. "I'll give you half the take."
"I'll do it for nothing," said Pastor Jeff. "You preach what I write."'
"Sure, sure," said Pastor Rick. He looked over at Dave. "My guys couldn't handle it."
"Talk about speaking in tongues," Dave said.
Pastor Jeff laughed, then sat up very straight.
"I cast thee out, little feller," he said to Dave.
"I was just leaving," Dave said.
When Dave got home it was half past nine, and Susan was already asleep. Randy was closed up in his room listening to his music. Dave stood outside the door. Randy had the volume down, but Dave could still feel in his feet the pulse of the bass and the drum. It was a song he knew.
I'm your only true friend now
I'm forever there
He knew the song, he knew the CD. Metallica. Randy played it often and loud, and Dave had listened to it several times, on his own, when Randy wasn't around.
I'm your hate
I'm your hate when you want love
The boy had taste. This music was virtuoso stuff, and Dave thought it might lead him to other forms. But the lyrics, which seemed to speak to Randy so nearlythe spirit, pitch-dark and bereft, to which Randy vibrated with such sympathymade Dave unhappy and fearful. He'd told Randy, once, that he liked the music.
Randy needed no time to work into his rage. "You don't like it. You don't know anything about it. You've never even heard it."
"I've heard it," Dave said, backing off. "I think it's good. Forget it."
"You don't know anything," Randy said. "Keep out of my room. Don't touch my stuff."
Dave showered, and dabbed his leg with a soapy washcloth. The injury was worse than he'd thought. There was almost no skin left on the wound, which covered a sizeable portion of the leg, from the ankle to the knee. It looked as if someone had gone at his leg with a cheese grater. The tissue around the lesions was pink and swollen. When they were clean, they would not stop bleeding. The blood didn't flow so much as pool up, and he used a roll of toilet paper trying to stanch it. When it still would not stop, he wrapped his lower leg tightly in some gauze bandage he dug out of the vanity drawer and fastened that with adhesive tape.
Almost at once, his leg began to throb. It felt hot. It was already infected, he figured. He lay down on the living room couch and elevated his leg with a cushion. After a few minutes the blood had seeped through the gauze, and Dave gingerly removed it. There would be no way to stitch the thingthe surface area was far too large and irregular. He thought about going over to the emergency room. Instead, he boiled some water in a pot. He soaked a fresh dish towel in the water, lifted it out with salad tongs, and, thinking to cauterize the wound, applied it to his leg. It scalded him. He cried out but held the towel to his leg as long as he could bear to.
Then he sat down on the kitchen floor, his left leg stretched out before him, and prayed.
His praying was rarely premeditated or formal. Most often it was a phototropic sort of turn, a moment in which he gave thanks or stilled himself to listen for guidance. He shied from petitionary prayer. With all he had, it felt scurvyscriptural commendation notwithstandingto ask for more. This night, his leg hurting to the bone, he permitted himself a request.
"Father," he said quietly, "please help me to see what I can do for Randy. He is in great pain. I love him. If it is your will, show me what I might do to bring him peace."
Dave looked up. Randy was watching him from the bottom of the stairs.
"Amen," Dave said. He smiled. "Hey, bud."
Randy said nothing. He stood looking at Dave.
Dave got to his feet.
"Man, this sucker hurts," he said. "What are you up to?"
"You screamed," Randy said. He did not move from his spot on the stairs.
"I burned myself," Dave said.
"I came down."
"Thanks," Dave said. "I'm O.K."
Randy snorted. He shook his head and went back upstairs.
The doctor used the word suppuration. Despite Dave's homespun palliatives, the wound had begun to form and discharge pus. So much that by the end of the next day, when Dave came home from work and called the doctor, the pants he'd worn to the plant were sodden and glued to his leg.
"You'd better come in and let me look at it," the doctor said. "Can you come in sometime tomorrow?"
"I can't," Dave said. "I can't get away. What do I do for it on my own?"
"You keep it clean," the doctor said. "You use a topical dressing. Bacitracin. Neosporin. I'll tell you this: if it's as infected as it sounds, you'll need a course of oral antibiotics. Perhaps even intramuscular."
"Or what?" Dave said.
"What are you asking?"
"I'm asking what might happen?"
"That's not a question," the doctor said. "All sorts of things might happen. Which is why we don't fool around. Staph. Strep. Massive swelling. You want more? Gangrene. Sepsis. Work at it, you could lose your leg. Does that scare you?"
"Yes," Dave said.
"Good," the doctor said. "Because we're not negotiating. You come in. Day after tomorrow."
"If I can," Dave said.
"No, no. Not if you can. You come in."
The leg continued to weep. After several days, the pain was so bad, so deep, he could not put any weight on it. Though he tried keeping it clean, it had begun to smell. At night he removed the dressing and left the wound open to the air.
"Randy gone?" Susan said. She was on her way to Nuñez Chiropractic and stopped in the kitchen to sit with Dave for a minute while he ate breakfast.
"He's gone," Dave said.
"How did he go?"
"He was peaceful," Dave said. "I don't knowlight. He seemed lighter. I said good-bye. Then he said goodbye. No agony. No outbursts. We had ourselves a remarkable morning."
"What's your day like?" Susan said.
"Good," he said. "The same. The usual. What about yours? You busy?"
"The usual," she said. "Listen a minute. I'm concerned about you. About your leg."
"Don't be," he said.
"Not too bad," he said. "It's better today."
"I've thrown away two pairs of your pants," she said. "And I can see. You can't walk. How can you say it's better?"
"It is. I'll be fine."
"Why don't you go to the doctor? Did you call him?"
"I did call," Dave said. "He told me what to do for it. I've got an ointment. What about dinner? We in or out?"
"I'll make something," Susan said. "Dinner. You tell me now. What's going on?"
"What?" he said.
"Tell me what you're doing. Because I'm concerned. I'm worried. And I've got to go. Please. What are you doing?"
"Nothing," she said.
"Hacking around. Whatever. You know me."
"I know you," she said. "We're talking about your leg."
"It will be fine," he said.
Dave did not go to work. Without crutches or a cane he could not make it to the car. He phoned his secretary and told her he'd be out of town for several days, maybe a week. He devised, halfheartedly, a story about his mother, who suddenly needed tending to. His secretary was confused by the story, but she did not question him. He would call her again, that afternoon, he said, to fill her in. Could she handle things for a while in his absence?
He spent the morning stretched out on the couch, the living room curtains drawn, in prayer. At one point he woke from a near trance to find his heart wildly beating, as if he'd just run a set of wind sprints. He was not flushed or dizzy or short of breath. He felt calm and relaxed, except for the steady thrum of pain in his leg and his heart thumping away. The strangeness of it made him laugh. He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes.
In the afternoon, just before Randy got home from school, the doctor called.
"I called your office," the doctor said. "You weren't there."
"I'm here," Dave said. He was, by then, on the cool kitchen floor, supine, three crocheted hot pads beneath his head, his left leg raised slightly, the foot resting on a cookie tin.
"Your secretary said you were out of town."
"I haven't left yet," Dave said.
"I want to know how your leg is, David, and why you didn't come in as I asked."
"The leg is fine," Dave said. "I put that ointment on it. It's looking good."
"No more discharge?"
"It's healing?" the doctor said. "The pain is subsiding?"
"Seems to be," Dave said.
"So. Good. That's good. You're lucky. These things can turn nasty if they're not attended to. You got lucky. The next time I tell you to come in, I want you to come in."
"I will," Dave said. "Thanks for calling."
Dave was on the kitchen floor when Randy came home from school. He thought about getting to his feet, but he had found a comfortable, if somewhat ludicrous, position and was unwilling, even for Randy, to suffer the pain that would attend trying to stand up. Randy came into the kitchen for his snack. He looked at his father lying on the floor and stepped over him on his way to the refrigerator.
"Thanks for not stomping me," Dave said.
Randy got out the milk and poured himself a glass. "What are you doing?" he said.
"It's cool down here. I'm having a little trouble standing."
"What is it?" Randy said, without looking at him. "Your leg again?"
This was the first mention Randy had made of Dave's leg, though Dave could see, in the way Randy had behaved the past few daysrestrained, even equablethat he'd been aware of it.
"How was school?"
"O.K.," Randy said.
"Have you got homework?"
"No. A little."
"Get yourself something to eat," Dave said.
"I am," Randy said, and he began probing the refrigerator. He took out packages of Muenster cheese and sliced ham and a jar of mayonnaise. "Where's Mom?"
"Out," Dave said. "What do you need?"
"Nothing. Where are we going for dinner?"
"Here," Dave said.
Randy made himself a sandwich.
"You hungry?" Dave said. A question he regretted as soon as he had asked it. It was the sort of questionnervous and dumb and self-evidently posed to fill the uneasy space between him and his sonthat invariably caused in Randy a detonation.
"Starving," Randy said.
"Well, leave some room for dinner."
"I am," Randy said.
Sunday afternoon was hot, and Pastor Rick came by the house, in cutoff jeans, tank top, baseball cap, and flip-flops, to see Dave. Susan had put him up to it. She'd lingered in the narthex after the service to talk to him. Pastor Rick had begun to worry about Dave on his own. He hadn't heard from him in nearly a week, and, seeing Susan in church alone that morning, he thought something might be wrong. Dave was as steadfast a parishioner as Pastor Rick had. Susan was undisguisedly afraid. She said the whole thing was inexplicable. Dave could no longer walk at all. No matter how tenderly she urged, no matter how forcefully she insisted, he would not go to the doctor. He claimed it was simply a matter of keeping off the leg for a few more days. But, so far as she could see, it was worse. She admitted that he seemed calm and reasonable and in amazingly good spirits, but he could not get off the couch, and spent his time now in the living room.
"Where is that gimp?" Pastor Rick said, loudly enough for Dave to hear. Susan had gone to the door to let him in. "Why is this room so dark? What is this thing on the couch? Can't we open the curtains?"
"It's cooler like this," Dave said. He was glad to see Pastor Rick. "Sit down. Relax. You're not in charge here. This is my house, bud."
"Tough guy," Pastor Rick said as he sat in a cane rocker opposite Dave, who, to receive his friend, had worked himself up to a sitting position.
"What's with you?" Pastor Rick said.
"Where you been?"
"Here and there. Mostly here."
"You missed a game. Susan, you got anything to drink?"
"What would you like?" She was standing at the entrance to the living room.
"You got a beer?"
"We do," she said.
"Bring it on," he said. "You want one, Dave?"
"I'm fine," Dave said.
The two men talked for about an hour in the darkened room. Susan delivered the beer, then left them alone. They talked, first, about baseball. At one point Pastor Rick turned on the TV, and they watched the last two innings of a game. They talked about their children, their faith. Pastor Rick had been chafing under denominational expectations, these having especially to do, as he described it to Dave, with his maverick preference for the indicative Gospel over the imperative, for the good news over the dos and don'ts. There were, likewise, the expectations of the particular body of believers at Bethany Baptist, which he divided roughly into two camps. Those with what he called a "mature" faith were at ease with a theology and homiletics less than prescriptive. The others, new to the faith, or unable to push beyond a relatively simplistic version of it, were skittish without a neatly packaged set of rules and admonishments.
"I think you got it backwards," Dave said.
"Oh, yeah? How's that?"
"It's we mature ones who need the hard line. We don't know what to do with grace once we've got it. It's too much for us. It's too much. We don't know how to behave. And so we behave as we always did, grace or no. I've been thinking about this."
"I see that," said Pastor Rick.
"I have. We're sloppy. We're slack. We're smug. We're just flat-out disappointing. You got to whip us into shape, or we embarrass ourselves. And each other."
"Be careful what you ask for," Pastor Rick said.
Just before he left, he turned the conversation directly to the question of Dave's leg.
"You don't need to do this," he said. "It isn't called for."
"I know," Dave said.
"What do I say?"
"You don't say anything," Pastor Rick said. "You go to the doctor, is what you do." "Maybe I will."
"Don't, and I'll be back to take you myself."
The family had supper that night in the living roomDave ate on the couch, Susan on the cane rocker from a tray; and Randy on the floor in front of the television. Susan fixed a light salad and made fresh lemonade; it was too hot to eat much else, though Randy asked for a grilled cheese sandwich. It was a quiet meal. Dave and Susan hardly spoke. Randy watched a sports-magazine show; he was subdued, well mannered. Dave, who was lightheaded and running a low-grade fever, was happy. After supper he fell asleep on the couch. He was not aware of Susan and Randy going up to bed.
At two in the morning, he woke when Randy came down the stairs. Dave turned on the table lamp behind his head, and when his eyes got used to the light, he could see that Randy was crying. He was standing at the foot of the couch, a plaid cotton blanket draped shawl-like over his shoulders. He was wearing boxer shorts and nothing else, and he was weeping. Dave looked at him for a moment, certifying that he was neither dream nor delirium.
"Randy," Dave said. "You O.K.? What time is it?"
"I don't know," the boy said. "Two. I'm O.K."
"I came down."
"Have you been asleep?"
"I was out cold," Dave said. "What's going on?"
"Nothing," Randy said.
"I'm not crying," Randy said. "I came down because I want to say something. Go to the doctor. That's all I came down for."
"Hold a minute," Dave said. "Let me get up here."
Without thinking, Dave swung his feet off the couch and tried to stand up. He wanted to touch Randy. To make some sort of physical contact with his son. To comfort him, put his arm around his shoulder, hold him. Dave's left foot touched the floor, and the pain in his leg was astonishing. It knocked him flat on the couch.
"Whoa," Dave said. "Hold the doors. Good Christ."
"Do you see?" Randy said. "For shit's sake, Dad. Do you see? Are you nuts? What are you doing?"
"I'm not sure," Dave said. "I'm really not sure."
"Oh, man. Oh, man. What are you doing? Go to the doctor."
It was, by then, too late. He would lose the leg.
"That's not a bad idea," Dave said. "I will."
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