He liked it when they played the big cities, or at least, the bigger cities, the ones with a big enough population to keep everybody from knowing everybody else, large enough to sustain that area of town a man could go when he didn't want his business known by anyone else he knew. They were nearing the end of their two-week run of away games, and Finn'd thought for sure there'd be no end to the boarding houses run by little churchgoing widows who minded all their p's and q's and everyone else's as well. But Albany was a hotel city, the place where even a penny-pincher like Rube had to spring for rooms for his guys so they didn't look quite so much like the pick-up team from farm country that they were at heart, and no hotel in Finn's life had ever cared where or when he'd come and gone, so long as the bill got paid on time and the furniture ended up mostly in the condition it'd started.
So he'd told the guys who were going out that he'd be staying in, and half an hour later he'd asked the sleepy-eyed man behind the desk if he knew where those friends had headed, so if anyone else even bothered to ask, the story would be that he'd changed his mind and gone to find his teammates in their chosen bar, only to fail at navigating the unfamiliar city and spend the evening in a fruitless search. They might even get some good-natured ribbing out of the tale, hee-hawing at the old man's failing memory, and he'd laugh along with them because a guy who could laugh at himself had nothing to hide.
It was risky, sure, but what about this wasn't? Anyway, he'd gotten this far by being careful, and no one had ever so much as batted an eyelash at his peculiarities.
He hopped off the streetcar at the busy intersection, where the music from the buildings was loudest and the streets were the busiest, but turned away quickly from the crowd, following his nose toward the wet smell of the river. As he neared the source, the streets got smaller and rougher, and the alleys got narrower and dirtier. As much as he wanted to, he fought the instinct to look back to see if he was being followed; the surest way to attract attention was to look like you were up to something and didn't want to be followed. He turned innocently down a narrow gap between two buildings and held his breath, craning his ears for footsteps, but heard nothing. Hopefully all of Albany's finest had better things to do on their Friday nights than wonder what a minor league ballplayer with a slight hobble to his left leg was doing down at the docks well past sundown.
He knew he'd hit upon the right section of town when he started spotting them, the other versions of him with their hunched-over frames and their hats pulled low, leaning against walls just beyond the outlines of the streetlamps' beams, eying him with looks of equal mistrust and invitation. They looked like a rough crowd, though he supposed they always did, keeping to themselves, waiting to see if he had any business with them, ready to come out with fists flying or disappear into the ironwork at the first sign of trouble.
There was no science to this, no strategy, just the unspoken rule of attraction: you walked until you saw somebody worth stopping for, and then you stopped, and if the guy turned out not to be worth stopping for, or if he thought the same thing of you, you kept walking. Easy peasy japanesey, as Rube liked to say, though Rube would probably have something far different to say if he knew where Finn was. Those were the kinds of things Finn had learned to stop thinking.
He was thinking about losing his nerve and heading back to the hotel when he turned down the next street and saw somebody worth stopping for several times over. Just past the next corner stood a young man, standing too close to the light's edge, close enough to let Finn know he maybe hadn't been doing this long, or maybe he'd been doing it so long that he'd gotten cocky about it. It was kind of cute, in its own way, and made Finn think of how he hadn't been picking up men in dark alleys for that long himself. A late bloomer, one might say. The man -- more of a kid, really, with his jaw that couldn't need a shave more than once a week, this side of twenty if he was lucky -- wore his grey cap cocked to the side and kept a cigarette caught between his teeth, and when he saw Finn, the cherry of the cigarette rose with the rest of his mouth in a smile. "Evening," he nodded, and even that one word of greeting pinched with Brooklyn vowels.
"Evening," said Finn in a low voice, stepping closer while still giving the streetlamp a wide berth. "Nice night out."
"Yeah, real pretty out here, by the water." The kid folded his arms across his chest, affecting a more casual pose. The collar of his shirt was unbuttoned and pulled wide enough that Finn could see the pronounced ridges of his collarbone. He was a nice-looking kid, no two ways about it, lean and pretty in that boyish kind of way that wasn't Finn's usual thing, but hey, he could remember what his late mother had told him about beggars and choosers.
Finn nodded toward the nearest alley between the buildings, well out of the range of lights and traffic. "Come on," he said, taking the lead toward the darkness without even turning back. After a moment, he heard footsteps, and knew that the kid had decided to follow him. That, at least, was going well.
The kid, who was turning out to be one cool customer, didn't even bat an eyelash as Finn grabbed the collar of his shirt and pressed him back against the wall. "Just keep quiet," he growled, and fell into a crouch in front of the kid. It made his bad leg ache, but it was better than getting the knees of his pants dirty in the God-knew-what on the ground beneath him. At least he had an explanation already for the leg.
The buttons on the kid's trousers were already straining from the hard-on beneath, which at least gave Finn some hope he wouldn't be down here too long. The pull from the kid's suspenders tugged the fabric open as soon as the flaps were freed, and Finn gave his newfound focal point a once-over before opening his lips and throat wide, and swallowing the kid's cock all the way in. He was good with that, he knew, no gag reflex or anything, and it was just the way he wanted it -- the taste filling his mouth, all salt and sweat and precome. The kid shuddered and leaned back fully against the wall, gripping the sides of Finn's close-shorn head with both hands as though to make sure neither of them was going anywhere. Finn would've told him not to worry, they weren't, not until this was all over, but his mouth was a little full. He ran his tongue flat and hard along the underside of the kid's cock, noting with no little surprise how taut the skin beneath remained all the way from root to head; the kid was cut, which wasn't unprecedented as far as Finn's mouth's experiences went, but was different enough to note.
If there was a more cultured art to sucking cock, Finn had never learned it; he got by on the sheer pleasure of the act, and past the first few experiences had never gotten any complaints. For his own part, the kid seemed like another satisfied customer as he came a few minutes later with a startled jerk, spilling all his seed into Finn's mouth without so much as a warning. Kids like him tended to be hair-trigger anyway, keyed up both by youth and the danger of the situation. Maybe it wasn't all of what Finn had wanted, but it never was.
After a moment's pause, just letting the kid go slack in his mouth for the sheer hell of it, Finn tucked the kid back into his pants and stood, wincing a little as his joints registered a complaint that he was getting too old for this shit. Thirty-five wasn't old, he'd told them time and again, but joints, like kids, didn't listen to you.
The kid's cigarette had gone cold, but it was still there in the corner of his mouth, pulling his lips to the side in a permanent half-smile. "You want I should...?"
"Nah." Finn shook his head, waved the kid back a little. "See you in the funny papers." And he turned and walked off back into the open street, keeping every inch of his concentration focused on not staggering like a drunk. He could still taste the kid in his mouth, and it made him even harder to rub his tongue over his lips, but whatever, he could deal with that himself at home. Some things, though, you couldn't even get in the privacy of your own hotel room.
He liked to think of it as a failing of the age, that he could walk around a place like this nowadays and no one would spare even a flicker of recognition for his ugly mug, even though he knew it was really a failure of himself. Still, he had to admit, the war had done great things for his private life; it'd been nearly a decade since he'd looked up into the face of the man he'd just sucked off and heard the still-foggy post-orgasmic revelation: "Say, you're that Eldridge guy what throws for the Dodgers, ain't you?" Getting knocked down to the minors had come with a lot of drawbacks, but at least those awkward conversations had gotten cut down to nothing. The little things, those were what you had to be grateful for.
He needed a drink, Finn thought as he met up with the broad street where the trolley line ran and limped back towards the city lights. He needed ten.
"Listen up, listen up!" Rube clapped his hands together and called out through the locker room with his best I'm-the-manager-so-listen-goddammit voice. "Hey, you chowderhead cannonballs, can you shut your yaps for thirty seconds?"
It was more amusement at Rube's eternally inventive insults than any respect for his authority that shut the team up every time, but no one had ever told him that, because no one wanted to encourage him. Finn's own yap was already shut, which was where it remained most of the time, and he lay stretched across one of the benches, one damp towel wrapped around his waist and another draped over his eyes and forehead. The world was cool and steady like that, and a little bit quieter, which was the way Finn liked it best after a game.
"All right, already," said Rube, once the team had mostly gotten settled. "That was a good one out there today, guys, a real fine showing."
"A real fine showing of zero," shot back one of the men, probably Robinson, judging by the snippy tone of his voice. All Finn knew was that if he'd fouled out like that in the eighth, he wouldn't be so quick to gripe.
"Yeah, but you played hard and you kept 'em down to two runs. It was a tight one." Rube was always like this, a lion before every game, a lamb when they all came off the field licking their wounds from yet another defeat. "Stanley, Crawford, that was some fine hustle out there in the outfield. You all, I want to see hustle like that all the time, you hear?"
There was a general grunt of assent that rolled, wave-like, through the locker room, but it died out without any real conviction. Everyone was calculating the same stats in their heads -- how many losses this made, how many other games were being played this afternoon, where this was liable to wind them up in the standings. Everyone was also, regardless of mathematical ability or good sense, coming to the same general conclusion: not good.
Rube cleared his throat. "Now, I know we're still hurting from Smitty's loss--" he began, and before the room's murmur could rise over his voice, he yelled them down again: "Hey! I said, I know we're still hurting, though he did send a real nice telegram from Chicago saying that he misses you all."
"Misses us all the way to the bank," muttered another voice Finn couldn't identify. Leaving the minors for the majors was the goal, of course -- or at least leaving for the slightly better minors -- and the end of every season usually meant saying good-bye to at least one fellow player who'd gotten tapped upward. Leaving mid-season, however, was generally considered to be a bum thing to do to one's teammates, and the Bulldogs' attitude toward Smitty hadn't improved much in the month since he'd been gone.
"That's why," Rube said, his voice bubbling with the good news, "I've gotten us another pitcher."
That was enough even to make Finn sit up. He took the towel from off his face and draped it around his neck, blinking as he let his eyes adjust to the mid-afternoon light filtering in through the locker room windows. The announcement had gotten everyone else's attention as well, apparently, as they'd all riveted their gazes on Rube, giving him the yap-shut silence he'd been yelling for earlier.
Looking like nothing so much as the cat who swallowed the canary, Rube smiled and folded his meaty arms across his chest. "His name's Jem Wolfe. An associate of mine found him on a city league team, bought his train ticket out here so he could see what we were about. I just finished settling the deal, and he's in the manager's office right now, signing the papers."
Finn had never been much for matters spiritual, as his Quaker mother and Unitarian father had raised him with a strictly secular, non-supernatural view of the world. And yet, as he sat there listening to Rube's brief introduction for their newest player, Finn felt stirring within him a sense of perfect, cosmic dread, the likes of which he'd always felt when he'd overheard the army chaplain talk of God's coming final judgment of all souls. It was like hearing a gun's hammer make contact in the impossible split second before it fired, hearing and knowing that the inevitable would follow shortly. He couldn't trace the source of this knowledge, but it made his guts turn to ice water as he sat there, staring at the blank doorway behind Rube, waiting for this ridiculous intuition to be proven wrong.
It wasn't. The kid that walked in -- and he was a kid, even more clearly in the daylight, when he smiled without a cigarette tugging at his mouth -- gave the room a quick wave. "Pleased to be here," he said in that Brooklyn accent, the one that just the night before tried to reciprocate Finn's back-alley affections. With the cap no longer blocking the way, his hair was clearly wheat-golden and slicked back with some sort of pomade, the kind Finn's hair had always been too short to bother with. He looked like he was still wearing the clothes he'd had on the night before, but they were clean, and he was clean, far too clean of a kid ever to be found hanging around a dockyard.
Finn thought about bolting, hiding his face, anything, but in the end, it wasn't even necessary. The kid's eyes, so far as Finn could see, scanned his future teammates without differentiating them, and his gaze lingered on Finn no longer than it did on anyone else. Well, thank the God he didn't believe in for small favours.
Rube clapped the kid -- Jem, he'd said, had to be short for something -- on the shoulder and gave the rest of the players a wink. "We'll give the fans a few more to clear out from the stands, and then why don't we go grab the empty field and let our new pitcher show us what he can do? How's that sound?"
It sounded good enough to the team, apparently, because they all pulled themselves up out of their latest defeat and stood with a new spring in their steps, eying the rookie with interest. They clapped him on the shoulder and shook his hand, introducing themselves as they filed out of the locker room, while Finn busied himself with getting dressed, taking as long as he could in the hopes that they'd just give up and go on outside without him, letting him follow unnoticed a few steps behind.
His luck, however, wasn't going to hold that far. As the last few players worked their way out the locker room's single exit into the summer afternoon, Rube grabbed the kid around the shoulders again and made a beeline for where Finn sat on the bench, lacing up his shoes. "And this is Finley Eldridge," said Rube, giving Jem a little shove forward.
Apparently fate wanted him to face the situation head-on. "Call me Finn," he said, sticking out his hand.
"Pleased to meet you," grinned Jem, reaching out to take Finn's hand in a firm handshake. If he recognized Finn from the night before, he gave no sign of it. "My dad used to take me to see all the Dodgers home games. Saw you throw that no-hitter against the Phillies in '13. Hell of a game."
It wasn't precisely the recognition Finn had been expecting, and Rube laughed to see the surprise written on Finn's face. "See there, Finn? You've still got a fan. Which is why I think you'd be perfect to show the kid around, keep an eye on him." This wasn't a request, and Rube didn't stop to get confirmation from Finn, just kept right on: "Maude and me'll have him in our spare room, just until the end of the season and he's got time to find his own place, but you'll be rooming with him on the road -- and don't give me that face, you're the only guy without a roommate now and the season's halfway over anyway. Are you with me?"
"Sure," said Finn, trying to look like this wasn't the probably the worst confluence of factors to converge on him in years. The worst thing about Rube was, for all intents and purposes, Rube had done him a favour -- and not just a tiny one, but a huge one -- by looking Finn up when his team had turned him down and the rest of the sport had followed suit. And you never stopped owing on big favours, so for the past five years, Rube had called in on that fact time and again.
"That's the spirit!" Rube grinned like he had no idea what was eating his second baseman -- which, to be fair, he probably didn't -- and folded his arms across his chest. "Now, what say we get you up on that mound and let everyone see what you're made of, eh, kid?"
"Sounds great!" said Jem, with all the enthusiasm Finn could remember of being a kid fresh off the sandlot signed up to his first paying gig, but now even when he smiled at Rube's invitation, he kept his eyes on Finn. "I promise I won't be a bother, Mr. Eldridge."
Rube gave Jem a gentle cuff upside the head, one that mussed his pomaded hair until a few strands of it fell into his eyes. "Don't you start calling him 'mister', you hear? You'll give him a swelled head and we won't be able to fit him out the locker room door."
"Let the kid be." Finn rolled his eyes and went back to lacing up his shoes, working tangles in and out of them convicingly enough that he didn't have to look up again. "Door's big enough for your noggin, anyway, ain't it, Rube?"
"Don't you start with me, old man," Rube laughed back at him, even though Finn wasn't the oldest Bulldog, even though Rube himself was nearly old enough to be Finn's dad. How old you were in the dugout had no relation to how old you were out on the field. "Don't let him get to you," he said to Jem, putting his arm around the kid's shoulders and leading him toward the door. "It'll be nice, the two of you together! You can keep an eye on him, get him to bed on time, make sure he puts his teeth in a glass of water before he goes to sleep...."
Finn may have been sent backward a couple yards on the field to the baseline, but there wasn't a thing in the world wrong with his throwing arm itself, and the damp towel that had previously been around his waist collided on an expertly crafted trajectory with the balding back of Rube's head.
Despite Finn's misgivings -- and even maybe his hopes otherwise -- Jem took to the Bulldogs like a duck to water. Everybody liked the new kid, even the colossal grouches like Peyton and Jeffers, and he seemed to like them all back. On the bus ride back to New Haven, it seemed like he'd never run out of stories to tell, some rip-roarer about a fair ball caught by some overeager spectator or a play where everyone involved had made at least one error apiece. The kid was even willing to tell stories that made himself look bad, like the one about his first real baseball game when he was a kid, so surprised he'd hit the ball that he'd run the bases backward. The team had a good laugh about that one, and even Finn had to crack a smile. His secret plan to dislike the kid was failing miserably.
That had been what he'd decided, anyway: be a grouch, keep the kid at arm's length, grumble at him until he got it into his blond head that he should give the cranky team elder his space. And a great plan it had been, too, for all thirty seconds it lasted, until Jem had stepped off the mound at the Albany field and looked past all the other applauding players, straight back to Finn, with a wide-eyed look that just begged his approval. Not even the Rock of Gibraltar could have withstood such an assault.
Of course, the moment Finn had taken his usual solitary station near the front of the bus, Jem had up and moved himself the two rows between them, asking, "Can I sit here?" even as he'd deposited himself in the vacant seat next to Finn, proceeding from there to keep his captive audience in stitches with his anecdotes. This kept up until the bus stopped for a late dinner at a little joint just across the state line into Massachusetts, and the well-fed team that returned to the bus afterward seemed less up for talking and more inclined toward sleep.
The team, that was, except for Jem. Apparently willing to concede that he'd lost his audience in the rest of the bus, he wasn't quite willing to give up Finn. "So, uh," he said, his voice barely audible over the engine's constant whines and clattering, "where're you from? I mean, originally."
Finn lifted his head from where he'd rested it against the glass, feigning sleep. Truth be told, he'd never really liked sleeping on buses, and he never felt like sleeping after a loss anyway. "All over," he said, clearing his throat. "Born in Harrisburg, but we moved a lot. My father was a mechanic in the army."
"Must be nice, getting to travel." Jem's hands beat a soft rhythm on his knees, and Finn resisted the urge to reach over and grab them, just to make him stop. He was a fidgeter, apparently, and Finn had little patience for people who couldn't sit damn still. "I'd never really left New York City before last week. I think I like it, though. Sure's a lot of trees out here. Like Central Park, only everywhere."
"I haven't been to Central Park in...." Finn trailed off, doing the calculation, then stopped counting when he realized the numbers added up to the far side of the War, the last time he'd gone with Maggie, long enough ago to seem like another lifetime. They'd gone that Sunday after his last game of the season, the day between baseball and the army, since the weather had been nice, and -- as Maggie had said -- who knew when they'd get another chance to be back there? The tone beneath her voice, of course, had been fear that he'd be the one who wouldn't get the chance; they hadn't even imagined then that she would be the one who wouldn't last the end of the Great War.
Jem clucked his tongue, snapping Finn back to the bus, to the real world. "Must've been some time, huh?"
"A long time," Finn nodded, rubbing his knee. Memories always made his scars ache. He reached into the deep back pocket of his pants, pulling out a battered tin flask and unscrewing the cap. He didn't like to drink in front of other people, as a general rule, but he felt little pull to stop on Jem's account. After all, either the kid actually remembered the night before and was just playing dumb, in which case he'd seen Finn at a place far worse than this, or he had a memory like Swiss cheese, in which case he wasn't going to take away any lingering impressions anyway. Six of one, half-dozen of the other.
He unscrewed the top with a flick of his fingers and took a drink, grimacing as the earthy taste of the whiskey burned its way down the back of his throat, swallowing a cough down with it. Another two quick drinks, and he was on his way back to feeling a little better, a little more grounded, a little less raw. Mindful -- after a fashion, at least -- of his companion, he tipped the open flask toward Jem. "Care for some?"
Jem's hand hesitated for a moment, and then he took the flask from Finn's hand, squinting at it through the dimness. "Looks like it's been through hell," he observed, tilting it just enough to catch a clearer look at its dented sides.
"Kept me warm in France." Finn sighed and leaned back in his seat, shutting his eyes, letting the whiskey work.
"That's how you hurt your leg, right?" Jem's fingers drummed a little rhythm along the metal surface. "When you were fighting in the army?"
Finn cracked one eye open and gave the kid the best junkyard dog stare he could manage, given the circumstances. "You gonna drink it, or you gonna talk to it?"
Looking somewhat abashed, Jem lifted the flask to his mouth -- and damn if the kid didn't have a nice mouth, especially up close, with a full lower lip that made Finn sad he'd said no to -- and took an exploratory sip. His eyes widened, and he coughed into the back of his hand. "...Nice," he managed, handing the flask back to Finn.
Finn took it and shook his head, then tipped back another mouthful himself, trying not to think of where the lip of the flask had been just a few seconds ago. "Not for kids."
Jem's pretty face wrinkled up into a frown. "To hell with you. I'm twenty already."
"Like I said." With a few careful twists, Finn secured the cap on the flask and returned it to his back pocket. It was maybe a little uncomfortable, sitting on it like that, but the truth was it'd been with him for so long, he didn't really notice it anymore.
"What's it take to convince you I'm no kid?" Jem leaned emphatically toward him, crossing the short distance between them, until his hand was braced on the seat just a half-inch from Finn's thigh and his face was dangerously close. It was a hell of an opening, somewhere in the dangerous grey area between innocent and aware, tilting toward the latter by how much his voice sounded like it had down by the docks. Finn gauged that if he turned his own head to look at Jem, he could bridge the gap between their mouths with no more than a slight lean, and maybe that would answer Jem's question.
Instead, Finn shut his eyes and leaned back in his seat, folding his hands across his middle. "Convince me on the field," he said with a smug smile he didn't mean.
It didn't take more than Jem's first home game to convince not only Finn, but all the other Bulldogs fans, to say nothing of the whole Eastern League, as word spread out along the news wires that the Bulldogs had pulled the Little Pitcher That Could from out of thin air. He kept the Worcester Panthers to only a dozen hits, and the rest of the field, energized by the show on the mound, made sure those balls didn't get the Panthers much of anywhere. The final scoreboard had a big white 3 chalked at the end of the home team's row, hovering above the visitors' 0. Rube was so happy he looked like he was about to cry.
With Jem doing the lion's share of the throwing, the Bulldogs went on to take the Waterbury Brasscos 5-2, and the Norfolk Tars 6-1, bringing the team up in league estimation as a force to be reckoned with. By the end of July, mutterings were even being heard about league championship playoffs, something that hadn't seemed even remotely in the realm of possibility a month previous. A team that'd had more than its fair run of poor luck was finally seeing a change in fortune.
Their first away game, just a day trip down the road to Bridgeport to match the Bears, was a similar success story, and not just one for the Bridgeport fans' eyes -- a number of Bulldogs fans actually got together and made the twenty-mile trip down from New Haven, where their presence in the stands was heard and felt alike. They cheered louder than Finn could remember hearing in all the past five years he'd been with the team, roaring with acclaim every time Jem took the stand. "Ladies and gentlemen," roared the announcer's microphone, "the rising star of minor league baseball, number twenty-eight, pitcher Jeremiah Wolfe!" And they all clapped and cheered, and even the Bulldogs whooped and hollered the kid on, all of which Jem took bravely with only a wave and a sheepish smile to the crowd -- which the crowd, of course, ate all up. Fans loved a good player, but more than that, they loved one who'd be a nice guy, and to all eyes Jem was a nice guy in spades.
After the game was over, in fact, the first thing he did was saunter over to the chain fence at the edge of the bleachers, where a crowd of fans had congregated, mostly pretty young women and little boys with mitts and balls of their own. Most of the players that made a point of showing up for their fans were there for the former, and true to form, most of the Bulldogs could be seen standing tall by the fence, keeping small clutches of ladies giggling and impressed with their stories of how they'd been the one to make that play in the third inning. Finn, who was fairly certain none of those ladies knew what an inning was nor could have told the third one from any other, was unique in his habits, bypassing their attentions to go shake hands with the boys.
Which was why it startled him to realize that Jem had done the same thing, giving only a wave to the congregation of young misses calling out his name before hunkering down in front of their little brothers. "Hey, guys!" he grinned, sticking his hand through the fence so the boys could all slap his palm.
"You were great!" said what must have been the self-appointed leader of the crew, a gap-toothed redhead with more freckles than stars in the sky.
"You guys like to play?" asked Jem, brushing off the compliment. The boys' collective answer was a rousing cheer -- of course they liked to play, they loved to play, you could see all over their faces and their battered gloves that one day they wanted to be standing on the players' side of the fence.
Another of the boys pressed forward, his eyes barely visible from beneath his mop of dark curly hair. "My dad says you'll be pitching for the Yankees someday!"
"He says that, huh?" Jem smiled, shooting Finn a quick, sly glance. "Well, you tell your dad that the Yankees can call, but the operator'll have to keep them on hold until I get done talking to the Dodgers."
"The Dodgers?" The curly-haired boy sounded disappointed, and blew a dejected bubble with his bright pink gum. "They stink this year!"
"Yeah," chimed in a third from somewhere near the back of the group, "they couldn't do any worse if they played with their eyes closed!"
"That's 'cause they don't got me playing for them, eh?" Jem thumped his chest once, and the boys cheered, their hope in the Brooklyn team apparently renewed. Finn was so charmed by their enthusiasm that he didn't see Jem's arm coming toward him until it was around his shoulders, grabbing him in a stiff half-hug still facing their fans. "And 'cause they were stupid enough to let this guy go!"
The boys' excitement turned to pure awe as they stared wide-eyed at the rough-jawed man who only a few moments ago had been just that ball player who'd hit a double in the seventh, pushing the Bulldogs into a two-run lead they kept for the rest of the game -- which was impressive enough, sure, but now he was a real slugger, and probably the closest these working-class boys from this immigrant factory town would ever come to a major league ball game. Finn never boasted about his past history in the majors, and tried to downplay the whole thing when most adults brought it up, but somehow the idea of talking about it with kids didn't rub so much salt in the wound. Maybe, Finn rationalized, it was because kids never got that look of pity in their eyes, the one that said they knew just how much of a fall from grace a man needed to take to go from pitching for the Dodgers to keeping second base warm for the Bulldogs.
The redhead, the most astute of the bunch, was the first to break through the amazement with a dose of skepticism: "Hey, so, if you played for the Dodgers, why don't you play for them no more?"
A kid with bottle-bottom glasses, the one in every group who always looked and talked less like a kid and more like a miniature accountant, peered at Finn through the fence. "Did you take a bribe like Shoeless Joe? Did you take make the whole team take a fall and tarnish your reputation forever?"
Finn shook his head. "Hurt my leg," he said, which was enough of the truth for a bunch of youngsters who were still years out from their first shave. "No scandals." He was still aware of Jem's arm around his shoulders, holding him in place like a man posing for a picture with a trophy, which was a little bit what he felt like. He wanted the boys' attention to shift back to Jem, away from him, but there just didn't seem any way to redirect them now.
"Sliding into home?" asked another boy.
Finn swallowed, not wanting to get any further into it -- but the question was there, and his mother hadn't raised him to be a liar. "Got shot in the war."
That brought on a chorus of oohs and wows, and the boys' eyes widened to the size of home plate. "Can we see?" asked the curly-haired kid, gawking at both of Finn's legs to decide which one had been the career-ending traitor.
The sentiment was echoed throughout the young crowd, who cheered like a group of genuinely curious onlookers waiting for the sideshow attraction to start -- only here the attraction was him, and Finn was pretty sure he didn't car for that kind of attention. He was about to decline as politely as he could and beat a hasty exit back to the dugout, when he happened to catch Jem's eye and saw beneath his ever-present smile a glint of something deeper, something that had no place coming out in front of a clutch of grammar-school boys in broad daylight. "Well, Mr. Eldridge?" Jem said, folding his arms across his chest and leaning against the fence, which sagged and jingled at the press of his weight. "Why don't you show us?"
Under any other circumstances, Finn's response would have been flat-out refusal, and to tell the truth, he wasn't entirely sure why that wasn't his reaction now. In fact, he'd think on it time and again for the rest of his life, and never be able to come up with a sufficient explanation. Maybe it was the idea of someone who wasn't a doctor taking a positive interest in his war wounds, or maybe it was the dark look behind Jem's smile, or maybe just it was how kids that age didn't know enough to know when you were supposed to pity a broken old man. But whatever the reason, he bent and pushed the sock down his left calf, then hiked up the grey pinstriped leg of his uniform pants to expose his knee.
It was funny, at first, because he found himself staring just as plainly as the boys were; sure, he lived with it every day, but he didn't know when he'd last actually stopped to look at the wound, and didn't know if he'd ever seen it in daylight. The bullet itself had only grazed him, the medic had told him when he'd woken up in the field hospital, and sure enough, there for all to see was the pale, clean line that cut straight across the front of his calf, just below his knee. If that'd been all there was to it, he knew, he would've been up and shooting again the next day, patched up and maybe drugged up, if they'd had any to spare. But if the bullet graze was a shooting star across his pale skin, then the shrapnel wounds surrounding it were the constellations, little pinpricks of relief against his flesh. They hadn't told him what exactly they'd pulled out of him, or how much of it there'd been, or even if they'd gotten all of it, but through his haze of pain he'd seen the little tin tray beside his makeshift bed, and didn't have to count the slivers covered with his own blood to know that the number was many. And if any one of those pieces had been a fraction to the left or a hair's breadth deeper, he not only wouldn't be playing baseball anymore, he'd be six feet under French soil. He'd been more than just lucky, the medic had told him -- he'd been flat-out blessed, no two ways about it.
Of course, he'd still been in the hospital when they'd come to tell him about Maggie and his parents and his sister and her boys, and how everyone who'd been afraid he'd never come home again wasn't even going to be there to come home to. Lying there in the army ward with his leg still wrapped tight and his discharge papers on their way, 'blessed' hadn't been the first word to come to mind.
Awed into silence, the boys could only gape, occasionally nudging one another out of the way for a better look. After a moment, the tiny accountant, seemingly moved by a bout of intense patriotism, stiffened his spine and lifted a hand to his forehead in an awkward salute. The other boys took his cue, and they formed a tiny, impromptu honour guard, saluting a fallen hero, or perhaps one who had merely been knocked down. The youngest among them was probably the age his own son might have been, if he'd ever had a son, if there'd been anything for him to come home to. He wondered how many of their own fathers had these kinds of scars, and how many of them had never made the trip back across the Atlantic.
At last, Finn rolled down his pant leg, pulled himself tall, and snapped off a fierce salute. "Dismissed!" he barked in his best drill sergeant voice, and they all scattered, laughing and chattering amongst themselves about what a sight they'd just seen.
And then they were gone, and Finn was left alone with Jem at the fence, caught together in the quiet afternoon sunlight. Jem's smile was still there, but it had faded at the corners, as though he were bracing for retribution -- and he very well deserved it, putting Finn on the spot like that. He hadn't meant any harm, sure, but meaning and causing were two different things, and that all could have gone a lot different than it did. Besides, he surely didn't want Jem getting it in his head that that sort of thing was all right to do, or worse, to do again.
Instead, Finn turned away, shaking his head. "Let's go get cleaned up," he said, starting the walk back to the dugout, and presently, Jem followed right behind.
Finn was surprised when he stopped by the field on a Thursday evening, meaning to pick up a pair of shoes he'd left in the locker room after the previous game, and saw Jem standing alone on the pitcher's mound, lost in deep concentration as he sent one ball after another speeding through the strike zone. Finn watched him wind up each pitch and throw with deadly accuracy, until the little pile of balls at his feet was reduced to nothing, then go and gather them from where they'd all smashed against the fence, starting the whole process again. The routine was so practiced that he might have been here for hours, doing nothing but this.
He wasn't the best pitcher Finn had ever seen, not by far, but it wasn't fair to expect the kid to be, after only a handful of minor league games and practically nothing but stickball for experience. Technique was mostly a function of training -- what was most important was that he had the instinct, the part that you couldn't teach. Everything else just depended on time, and on how much the kid wanted it.
As the last of Jem's most recent stack of balls cracked against the fence planks, Finn stepped out of the dugout, tapping a bat against his ankle. "Out for a little extra practice?"
Jem jerked his head toward the dugout, looking like he'd just been caught doing something far more dire than practicing his fastball. "Hey," he waved, tugging his cap a little lower over his eyes. "Didn't see you there."
"You were busy." He leaned the bat against the fence, then shrugged off his jacket, folding it before draping it over the top of the low fence. Working as a file clerk for the University was all right, especially since they let him disappear on away game trips for weeks at a time, but not even five years of doing it had gotten him used to wearing a suit. He pulled his tie off with a single long tug, then rolled it up and stuffed it in his jacket pocket.
"So, you want to give me something to throw at other than my imagination?" Jem jogged over to the plate and started grabbing the balls rolling around the ground, tossing each one with a heavy clank into his metal pail.
Finn smiled. "Something like that." He unbuttoned his dress shirt at the cuffs and rolled up his sleeves up to his elbows; the early evening was unseasonably cool, especially for early August, but Finn could still feel the first drops of sweat prickle at his skin. "That is, if you don't mind."
Jem grinned. "Matter of fact, it gets a little lonely out here." He snatched up two balls in a single sweep, holding them both easily in his too-large hands; they managed to give him the look of a puppy who hadn't quite grown into its paws, which did little for his campaign to convince Finn not to think of him as a kid. "Kind of different, out this way. Real quiet. I'm used to so's you can't go to a ball field without finding a whole team's worth just waiting around for an excuse to play."
"New Haven's quiet," Finn nodded, picking up the bat again. He took a few light practice swings as Jem walked back to the mound, getting a sense of the weight of the wood, feeling how it cut through the air. All bats were different, and anyone who said otherwise wasn't paying attention.
"Guess I'm just not used to having my place, you know? I mean, sure, the field don't have my name on it, but...." Jem scratched the back of his head, looking around at the empty bleachers, weighing the otherwise uninhabited space.
Finn tapped the bat against the plate, settling into a stance as the dust rose around his good shoes. "But you're supposed to be here. Right?" He gave Jem a quick glance, and saw the kid nod. "I felt like that with Ebbets, when I started there. This whole big stadium, and they weren't even going to kick me out."
"Must've been great to play there," said Jem. He wound up into the pitch and let one fly; Finn connected with it easily, sending it soaring toward left field. They both watched its progression as it arched into the air and came down hard on the too-long grass, bouncing a few times before rolling to a stop.
"Keep your shoulders down," Finn said, tapping the dirt from his shoes. "You get all hunched up when you're about to throw."
"I do?" Jem wound up into the pitch, pausing in the moment before he stepped into the release. Finn could see the concentration on his face as Jem consulted with his body, checking his muscles for feedback to confirm Finn's observation. He rolled his shoulders back and pushed them down, too far down, before bringing them back up a touch. Then he pushed his whole body forward and let the ball fly.
It connected with Finn's bat and went soaring high, a pop fly the likes of which Finn wouldn't necessarily want to hit in a game, but didn't care about in practice; from there, it hung in the air for a moment, suspended against the mid-blue evening sky, before changing its direction and coming crashing back to earth somewhere in the vicinity of the imaginary first baseman. Easy out, easy out. "Feels a little better?" he asked.
Jem rolled his shoulders again and nodded. "A lot better, actually. Like there's more control."
"I bet. Anybody ever try to teach you, or did you just wake up one day and start throwing?"
"Woke up one day and started throwing, mostly." Jem shrugged as he plucked another ball from his arsenal. "I've got three big brothers and they all play, so I'd follow them down to the lot by the trainyards. One day, one of them popped a foul over in my direction, so I picked it up and tossed it back so hard, it made my brother Abe's hand sting. So they put me in the middle and told me to throw a couple, and I did."
"And the rest looks like history," said Finn, who got distracted for a moment by a noise in the street and wasn't quite all in the game when the next pitch came screaming at him. He swung at it, but a fraction too late, and it sailed through the strike zone as his swing connected with nothing. Shaking his head, he picked up the missed ball and hurled it back to Jem, not a proper pitch like Jem was throwing, but a good, hard toss nonetheless.
Jem caught it in his glove and looked from the ball to Finn, weighing what had just happened. "So," he said, like a man who's been sitting on a question for a long time, "your arm's okay, right?"
"Arm's fine." Finn took a deep breath, waiting for the follow-up.
Jem kicked at the dirt around his feet. "Then why don't they have you pitching?"
Knowing that he'd ask in one day softened the inquiry, and Finn was able just to shrug and take a couple practice swings in response. "Pitcher's got to be able to hustle, if it comes to it. Second base has at least two other people keeping an an eye on him, but sometimes a pitcher's just got to move and there's nobody who can do it for him."
To his great relief, Jem didn't pursue the line of inquiry; instead, he stretched his arms above his head, reached wide, and sent a fairly impressive curve ball flying home, which Finn turned into another right field pop fly. Without comment, Finn lifted his bat over his shoulder again, and Jem sent another ball rocketing toward him; this one he didn't manage to get under, and instead he bounced a clean grounder to third. Easy out again -- unless third base was paying attention to something else, in which case he might make it to first. So much depended on any given moment.
There were only five more balls in Jem's bucket, and he threw them all in quick succession, letting Finn knock five good ones back all the way to the far fence. That done, he bent down and picked up his empty bucket, slinging it over his shoulder as he walked toward home. The sun was nearly down, making long shadows from the nearby trees and buildings fall in dark lines across the field. "Looks like you cleaned me out," said Jem, showing Finn the bottom of the bucket as though Finn might otherwise not believe him.
"Time to call it a night, anyway," said Finn, looking up to the darkening eastern sky before heading over to the fence for his discarded jacket. "Maude'll have dinner waiting for you."
From behind him, Finn could hear the toes of Jem's shoes as they kicked against the baseline dirt. "You could probably come too, you know," Jem said, his voice soft.
The hell of it was, Finn probably could -- time and again, Rube had reminded Finn of his standing invitation to come eat with the family, and dear sweet Maude, who had come from a coal mining family of fifteen, didn't know the meaning of the phrase 'cooking for two'. But instead, he shook his head, folding his jacket over his arm. "Thanks, but I'd feel like a heel. Plus, there's a can of soup with my name on it waiting for me back at my place."
His heart was already beating a little hard from the batting practice, but Finn felt everything go doubly into overdrive as Jem stepped closer, then closer still, until Finn was trapped between the kid and the fence by the dugout. The place was beyond deserted at this hour on a Thursday night, so it wasn't like there'd be anyone to see them anyway, but the openness of the gesture still caught him cold with panic. "Then maybe I ought come back to your place," Jem said, and son of a gun if he wasn't wearing that face again, looking at Finn with the same gaze that had followed him from under the streetlamp.
Finn swallowed hard and grabbed Jem's shoulder, holding him at arm's length. "Doesn't work like that, kid," he said, his voice deep and rusty.
"Why not?" Jem reached up for the arm that held him and rested his hand at Finn's elbow. "I thought it worked pretty well for us." Well, at least that answered the question about whether or not Jem recognized him from the night in Albany. Finn didn't know if he felt better or worse knowing.
"Because you're a kid, okay?" It seemed like every ounce in his body was asking him just what the hell he thought he was doing turning down an offer like this, and it was only with the last of his willpower that he stood his ground. "You're a kid and it was a one-time thing. And now it's a bad idea."
"Doesn't have to be." Jem stepped closer, into Finn's personal space, and anyone who might see them now would have no questions about what exactly was going on. He was slighter than Finn, but he had the height advantage by an inch or so, and his long arms stretched beyond Finn's reach. "I'll call Rube from the pay phone, tell him I met up with an old friend, tell him I'll be home late."
"No." Finn's hand tightened in Jem's shirt, pulling at the material, exposing his pale neck. "Don't be stupid."
Jem laughed, but a vein of nervousness cut through his cocksure come-on. "I owe you," he said, pressing his body to Finn's, until Finn could feel Jem's hard cock jutting against his hip -- and, he was sure, Jem could feel his.
"You don't. You really don't." Though he'd originally been trying to keep Jem at a distance, Finn found himself clinging to Jem to keep from falling over, just slumping against the fence and sliding all the way to the ground. He'd gone from limp to fully hard so quick that his cock ached from the sudden status change, and he could feel it throb with blood where their bodies came together. "Kid, you don't want--"
"Stop calling me that!" Jem grabbed Finn's collar and yanked his head close, until their mouths were only a few inches apart. "I'm not a damn kid!" he spat through clenched teeth. As though to make his point, he ground his hips against Finn's, pressing his cock hard into the muscle of Finn's thigh, and even Finn had to admit there was nothing kid-like about him below the waist.
And suddenly, the whole weight of the situation set on Finn's shoulders, and he started to laugh, a cold and bitter sound.
Jem frowned and pulled back, a little spooked by the quick change. "What's so damn funny?"
"Look, kid," Finn said, shrugging Jem off him, easing their bodies apart; with the adrenaline of initial contact thwarted, Jem's body put up little resistance to the brush-off. "That's exactly what you are, if you're here out in the open where God and everyone can see you, thinking that, what, you might get a little rub-off from the old man? It doesn't work like that, it never worked like that, not here or Brooklyn, and don't try to tell me what you think you know, because I'm nearly twice your age, and I know a hell of a lot more."
Robbed of his mercurial bluster, which seemed to change quicker than the August weather, Jem pulled back, fisting his hands into tight, white-knuckled balls and staring down at the dirt. At the end of the day, he didn't know which way he was coming or going, whether he wanted to be the big man or the little boy, and Finn felt sorry for him because Finn could remember exactly what that felt like. He sighed and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Look, kid -- Jem -- you remind me of me when I was your age, all right? Only better, because you throw better than I ever did, and you've got a real shot at making something of yourself. And you're never going to make that something if you're stupid enough to try and put the moves on an old dog like me, and you're sure as hell never going to make that something if I let you get the idea in your head that it's okay."
"Yeah?" Jem tugged a cigarette and a matchbook out from the band across the brim of his hat, and as he lit it, Finn could smell the sharp scent of the burning paper give way shortly afterward to the sickly-sweet tobacco smoke. "Sounds like you could take more of your own advice."
Finn raked his fingers harshly back through his short hair. "That's why, like that? Like that night? That's supposed to be a one-night, one-shot thing! God, you're so stupid if you don't know how that's how it has to go! Only an idiot does the same thing twice, and only the chairman of the board of the World Series of the idiots does it twice with someone he works with!"
"You afraid I'll rat on you, or something? Because hey, I'd be in just as much trouble as you."
Finn rolled his eyes. "I said stupid, kid, not suicidal."
"Then what?" Jem spat, nearly sending his cigarette tumbling to the ground with the force of his words.
"Then that ain't how it goes! Look, you want to be a fairy? Fine, it's your life, but take it from someone who knows -- you've got to be a fairy where nobody knows your face enough to ever mouth off about it later, or you might just as well take those matches and send your whole life up in smoke right now, because anyone finds out and it'll all be the same." Finn wasn't shouting, he was smarter than that, but his voice was rising in volume, and he hastily beat it back down. He didn't think anyone was around, sure, but Jem hadn't thought anyone was around earlier either.
Jem bit the end of his cigarette between his teeth, sending a little cloud of ash down the front of his ratty practice shirt. "Don't you call me a fairy," he seethed, his nostrils flaring.
"Well, then, what the hell are you, kid? Because from where I see it, you look a lot like what I used to see in the mirror. Except for how I may not shout out what I am to the rest of the world, but at least I never lied to myself." Unsure of how much more of this argument he could take before he said something he'd really regret, Finn set off toward the gap in the fence behind third base, back on the way home. His leg was starting to hurt worse now, and if he didn't get something to drink for it soon, he might not be able to get to sleep.
He didn't get more than a few pained steps, though, before he was grabbed and jerked back around by Jem's strong hand, spun so hard he nearly lost balance. "You don't know nothing about me!"
"I know more than you think." Finn shoved Jem's hand away before turning and continuing with his exit. "Keep your chin up and forget about it, kid," he called over his shoulder, not even bothering to look back and see the expression on Jem's face. He knew it well for the number of times he'd seen it on his own -- disappointment, hurt, and just plain fury, all come courtesy of advice from someone who knew better that he didn't want to hear anyway. That was maybe the worst part of being thirty-five: being able to see so clearly how stupid he'd been at twenty, how he'd had the whole world in front of him and lost it all. Hindsight, not German bullets or the Spanish flu, was the real killer.
Finn half-expected Jem to take another crack at stopping him, but he heard no footsteps or movement behind him, and as he left without looking back, he saw only his own shadow stretching out before him, limping across the uncut grass. He slipped out the gate and shut it behind him, then started up the road. It was a good mile and a half to his apartment building, and he could hop up a block to the main road and take the streetcar, but he figured the walk would do him good.
He hadn't wanted to piss the kid off, but he remembered being twenty, and how nothing important got through his thick head unless somebody yelled it there. Served him right, he supposed, that he'd hated being hollered at so much, only to be the one to grow up and do the hollering. At least he'd been the one to do it, and not someone else who would've spared the lecture and gone straight to the rest of the team -- or worse, to the police. The world was on the whole a bigger and meaner place than most kids gave it credit for being, even good-looking pitcher kids just out of Brooklyn.
He wasn't even angry at Jem, though he knew it might've come off that way, and he'd probably have to make that clear later. Mostly, Finn just felt sorry for the way Jem ran hot and cold, love and anger, back and forth all the time, not even really knowing which one he wanted. He probably would have been equally willing to fuck Finn there in the bullpen as to have an all-out fistfight with him on the same ground, and then just as willing afterward to convince himself that whichever way it had gone had been the way he'd meant to do it from the start. Finn had been right there in his shoes too, once upon a time, back before the Great War had changed everything and Finn'd had to change with it, back before two short years had robbed him of everything good.
Halfway to his house, he came to a light, and instead of waiting at the crosswalk, he turned the corner just as neatly as though it'd been what he'd meant to do from the start. Maybe, he thought as he saw the smokestacks from the heavy cargo boats appear on the horizon, it had been exactly what he'd meant to do all along. So much for not lying to himself.
Because the truth was, he'd wanted nothing more clearly than to throw the kid to the ground and have him right there, to link arms and take him back to his apartment and sweat into the sheets with him all night and have him there when they woke up in the morning, almost the way Maggie had been there for him, once upon a time. He'd wanted so clearly to kiss the cigarette out of Jem's mouth, and keep kissing him, and know that he could stop kissing him at any time, because there'd be more kisses to have later, whenever he wanted them. And what got into his blood like poison was that he couldn't even make himself take a ghost of that chance, because he'd spent his entire sexually mature existence grinding all the truths he'd yelled at Jem deep into his own bones, so deep that they were the only things left he believed.
So really, telling the kid off was the best thing for him, Finn told himself as he leaned against a corner lamppost, waiting for the light to change. Maybe if someone had tried to scare him a little harder once, he'd be going home now to the nice little house and the wife and the kids, and not following a path he knew far too well, down to where, come nightfall, he might find someone to take care of his lingering need, someone whose face he wouldn't have to know tomorrow.
The kid would probably just forget about the fight, though. That's what kids did, after all -- they sprung back, got up off the floor, came back swinging. The day you got knocked to the ground and didn't get back up, Finn thought to himself as he let his feet carry him down toward the docks, well, that was the day you knew you weren't a kid anymore.
The Allentown Dukes didn't stand a chance. The best-out-of-five playoffs were concluded with Jem's three-hit shutout of a third game, where the Dukes might have been swinging at thin air for all the good their bats were doing them. As the top of the last inning closed with the ninth chalk zero in Allentown's column, the crowd roared as the team who'd come from out of nowhere won a place in the final league series against the York White Roses.
However happy the fans were, though, they couldn't have been happier than the Bulldogs themselves. Rube ran out to the field and gave Jem a hug so hard it lifted the kid off his feet, and Jem laughed and raised his arms triumphantly over his head as the team swarmed him. Finn watched this all from a distance with a sad smile, secure in his assessment that kids bounced back, trying not to linger on how Jem had barely said ten words to him over the past two weeks, reminding himself that it was for the best. Alone in their shared boarding-house room that night, he drank down too much whiskey too fast, so he didn't have to hear when Jem came in later.
Two days later, on what would have been Maggie's thirty-third birthday, he again crawled into the bottle and this time drank himself so sick he couldn't get out of bed the following morning. When Finn didn't show up for practice, Rube came over and picked the lock; he'd known Finn long enough now to know what the end of August did to him, and he didn't chew Finn out, didn't even say anything at all, just shook his head and poured him a glass of water. It was meant as kindness, Finn knew, but somehow that just made him feel worse.
And then, as the week of the big series arrived, the air grew still in the way it often did before a storm, and everyone was talking about rain.
Sheer adrenaline pushed them through the first game, and they were all fueled by a nervous bowstring energy that meant every touch set them humming. Even Finn, who'd sworn that trench warfare had forever reset his metric for just what was worth getting excited over, felt electric as he stood there in the warm sun, pounding his bare fist into his glove, ready to pounce at any ball foolish enough to venture within his reach.
But if the other Bulldogs had ever thought they'd get sail through the league championships on the strength of their new pitcher, the game showed them they had another think coming. Only Crawford's crackerjack reflexes in the bottom of the eighth had made the throw from left field to home that kept the Roses from unloading their bases and taking the lead, and even still the Bulldogs had only managed to hold to their one-run lead by their fingernails.
The near-loss rattled all the players, to be sure, but the threat of his first professional defeat shook Jem hard. The veteran Bulldogs were no strangers to losing, as the team record would show, but everything the greenhorn pitcher had touched thus far had turned straight to gold. Faced not only with a victory nearly hadn't pulled off, but one where he hadn't even been the clincher, Jem walked off the mound with a shellshocked wideness to his eyes -- and worse, everyone who saw it was infected. A win was a win and that went double in the championship series, Rube reminded them all as he gave his post-game locker room talk, but from the faces of the ballplayers, a casual observer couldn't have been blamed for thinking they'd lost.
It was a tough lesson for a young superstar, learning that the hero he thought he was still had feet of clay. Still, thought Finn as he lay awake in his hotel bed that night, listening to the soft rhythm of Jem's snores from the next bed, maybe a close call with failure was just the kind of reality the kid needed to make him buckle down and focus.
In fact, it worked just the opposite. During the second game, the Roses coasted ahead on a full seven-point lead into the ninth, when Finn managed to hit a triple deep into center, sending him and the two runners on base ahead of him home before the outfielders could even get the ball back to the basemen. Under any other circumstances, it would have been a game-winning comeback, but by then it was too little too late, and the game ended 10-6 for the Roses.
The mad sprint around the bases had given his knee something to complain about, though, and that evening he sat down on the floor at the foot of his bed, pressing his back to the wall and extending his legs straight in front of him. Displaying a flexibility he'd always been somewhat proud of, he reached forward and locked his fingers together behind the ball of his left foot, letting the muscles stretch out any residual ache. With his forehead pressed to his leg, he closed his eyes and let himself concentrate on his breathing. It hurt, of course, but in a good way, and he fell so deeply into the stretch that he first thought he might be imagining the voice that said, in its adorably Brooklyn accent, "That was some hit out there today."
Finn lifted his head to look at Jem, who'd barely had five words for him unrelated to some practical matter in the span since their tense conversation on the home field. That distance was best if the kid was ever going to get his head on straight, Finn had reminded himself time and again, but only as it stretched over days into weeks did Finn realize how much, in such a short time, he'd grown fond of having someone around. Even if that someone was just a kid.
"Lucky hit," Finn shrugged, trying to brush it off as he ever did. "Their reliever's shoulders get all hunched up when he's about to throw."
That actually cracked a smile from Jem, and he put his dimestore western aside, leaning forward over his knees. "Maybe someone should tell him about it."
"Long as he keeps throwing like that to me, he can do whatever he wants with his shoulders." Finn straightened his back and craned his neck from side to side, listening to the joints in his neck snap like popping corn. There'd been a time when five games on five consecutive nights had seemed like the best idea in the world, but now ... well, now, he was too old for this nonsense, too old by half.
"Still. It was a good play." Jem scratched at the back of his neck and yawned, which had the charming effect of making him look even younger than he already was. He may have wanted to be an adult, and that was its own fine kettle of fish, but even tired as he was, his baby face still had a long way to go before he came close to looking like one. "Tough game."
"You did real well," said Finn, looking at the the floor, at the wall, at his leg, at anything but the kid's face, because he didn't want to see what the compliment got him in return -- hope or indifference, he didn't know which was worse.
He couldn't shut off his ears, though, and when Jem laughed, Finn couldn't tune out the bitterness tinging the sound. "Yeah, well, we still lost, didn't we?"
"Doesn't mean you didn't do well. Just means they did a little better."
"Four runs better."
"So we'll do five runs better tomorrow."
Jem paused, and from the corner of his vision, Finn could see him scoot forward down the bed a little, leaning in. "You think," he began, and then stopped, as though he couldn't bear to give voice to thought. Finn just waited, drawing his knee close to his chest as he did, and presently, Jem found the question in him again: "You think we can win tomorrow?"
"Have to," said Finn, running his thumb across the bullet's years-old trajectory, feeling where the tissue stretched and ached. He wondered sometimes about the soldier who must have fired it, maybe another pitcher just like him, someone as accurate as he had once been, whose faster-than-fastball had missed its target and yet was still being felt years later.
"Have to win?"
"Have to believe."
"Yeah." Jem nodded, folding his arms around his knees and peeking up from over them. "Leg hurt?"
Finn shrugged. "Usually does."
There was a pause as Jem nodded again, drumming his fingers on his forearm as he watched Finn push and pull his offending limb back into shape. He was such a handsome kid, not pretty, not really, but just real good-looking with a beautiful mouth Finn had never even gotten a chance to taste. He was all lean lines and sharp angles, and the months of pro ball had melted away the last of the baby fat around his cheeks, revealing the leaner, sharper man beneath. Finn wanted to tell him that, because he knew it'd make Jem happy, but everything about Jem had been on eggshells lately, and he didn't know where to make his next move so he just never made a move at all. It was the coward's way around the problem, maybe, but at least it kept the peace, and Finn had no shortage of practice at being a coward.
Finally, after a moment's contemplation, Jem asked in a soft voice, "You, uh, want me to rub it for you?"
"No," said Finn's well-trained survival skills, kicking in before his conscious mind even had time to register the substance of his reflexive protest -- rubbing it would help, to be sure, but having Jem's body so close to his, having Jem's hands all over him? That'd lead to nowhere good real fast. "...No, I don't think that'd be a good idea."
Jem didn't say anything, but from the corner of his eye Finn could see the muscles in that lean jaw set, and his brown eyes narrow. He lay back on his side, facing away from Finn, and pulled the covers over him with a sharp tug that, if it had been meant to convey his displeasure, was successful. Finn rolled his eyes at the quiet tantrum, but said nothing, just stayed in place until he was sure Jem was asleep. Then, with a quiet series of grunts, he got to his feet, used the washroom one last time before bed, and switched off the hotel room lights.
In the dark, he made his way back to his bed, which was the farther of the two from the lightswitch. As he passed Jem's bed, though, he found his feet slowing and his attention wandering, until he was standing in place beside Jem's body. Before he could stop himself, he leaned down and brushed a stray curl of Jem's hair away from his forehead, letting the backs of his knuckles wander from there down Jem's soft cheek, toward his jaw, until the pad of his thumb came to rest against Jem's bottom lip. He held his breath, his heart racing in his chest, his rational mind asking him just what the hell he thought he was doing, and, more to the point, what the extra hell he would say if the kid woke up.
But Jem's eyelids barely flickered at the touch, and his breathing remained low and steady with sleep. Finn let his thumb come to rest in the corner of Jem's mouth, the place where he always stuck his cigarettes, and as though this had triggered some unseen mechanism, Jem's lips parted with a sigh. He looked so peaceful like that, not like a little kid trying to suck up or puff up until someone treated him like he thought he should be treated, but like a quiet, confident young man who wouldn't have to say anything to get someone to take him seriously. Finn wondered what Jem'd say if he could see himself like this, how much it would mean to him to know that the thing he'd been fighting for had snuck up on him anyway, and all he needed to do was stop fighting long enough to see it.
Finn took a deep breath and shut his eyes, feeling the warmth of Jem's exhalations as they puffed across his fingers. "I wish I could," he said, his voice so low it barely made it back to his own ears. "But when I'm gone, I don't want you remembering me as the bastard who ruined your life." He balled his other hand into a fist to keep his whole body from shaking, pressing the half-moon ghosts of his fingernails into his palm. Maybe some day the kid would get it, and maybe he never would, but either way was better than the alternative.
At long last, Finn drew his hand away and crossed the few feet to his bed, stretching out across the top of the covers. He knew he needed his rest before the next day's game, but instead he lay awake for what might have been a minute or an hour, caught in insomnia's time distortions as his wide eyes scanned the cracks that ran across the plaster ceiling. Thinking about how much he should be asleep just made him more anxious and less likely to get there.
It must be the leg, he finally decided, though in reality it hurt no more or less than it usually did. But it was something to blame the sleeplessness on, and it was something he knew the cure for. He pulled open the drawer by his bedside and felt around for the two objects he knew were inside -- the Gideon Bible and his flask. He took the one of actual use and unscrewed its cap, polishing off the few fingers of whiskey inside in a single go. With that under his belt, he lay back and closed his eyes, praying for morning.
The third game was an utter disaster, and Finn's only consolation was that his head-pounding hangover wasn't even a major contributing factor. Nor, for that matter, was his careless error in the fourth, when he misjudged a throw from right field that should have had the Roses' runner out at second, except that it went whizzing past his open glove and nearly beaned Coleman at shortshop. Any other game, it might have been a notable folly, but in this game, it was par for the course. The Bulldogs went six innings without even getting a runner on base, and in that time, poor fielding and poorer communication gave the White Roses a bruising nine-run lead.
But the main problem was on the mound. Maybe their conversation the night before hadn't helped matters, or maybe it'd just plain made things worse, but one way or another, Jem was a disaster. The look on Rube's face said that if he'd thought any of his relief pitchers might do any better, the kid would be gone; as it stood, none of them could do much save watch as Jem did everything but let the bases load themselves. One particularly loud fan bellowed at him, "You ain't supposed to be helping them, boy!" and even Finn, who made it a point never to take heckling from the stands seriously, had to agree.
Worse, the hunch to his shoulders was back, and when he wasn't tossing salads across home plate, he was walking runners with wild pitches gone far afield of the strike zone. By the end of the seventh, as Jem nearly handed the Roses' hitter a line drive that only some quick work at third turned into the inning's final out, Finn was tired and miserable and had put up with more than enough. As the teams walked off the field before the stretch, he hustled over and grabbed Jem hard on the arm, spinning him so they were face to face. "Get your goddamn shoulders down!" Finn shouted.
The general commotion of the seventh-inning stretch was enough to cover a multitude of sins, but a confrontation in the infield was hard to miss, and players from both teams turned to see what was happening. "Get your hands off me!" Jem spat back at him, stumbling as he stepped away from Finn.
But it felt good to yell, good to lose control, and Finn hadn't done it in so long that he couldn't've stopped then if his life had depended on it. Every aching ounce he'd swallowed down came back in a volcano of venom, and it only had one target. "You call that pitching?" He tossed his glove to the ground practically on top of Jem's feet. "You want to throw like a five-year-old, you go back to your fucking sandlot and lob beanbags at milk bottles, and let us grown-ups do our jobs!"
There was always a moment where these things turned from rough camaraderie into a prelude to war, and players tended to be good about noticing the transition and stepping in before it could get out of hand. What no one else on the field knew, though, was that it had already crossed that line, long before the first pitch had even been thrown, and there was nothing to wait for anymore. "You're one to talk, you drunken fucking mess!"
"Goddamn snot-nosed toddler--"
"Some washed-up old--"
"Go run home crying to your mama--"
"Maybe if you could crawl your way back out of the bottle--"
"Don't even belong on the big boys' field--"
In retrospect, he should have seen it coming, but at the time he could only see red, and so Jem's fist came out from nowhere, cracking him across his nose and drawing blood. Finn was no stranger to taking a punch, but now his aching brains just collapsed under the impact, and he toppled backward toward his approaching teammates who, too little too late, had decided to break things up. He fell too fast and they were too far away, though, and he landed on his side, scraping up the left side of his face. By the time Finn lifted his head again, two of them had Jem, one around each arm, and though he stomped and strained against their hold, he wasn't going anywhere.
"Break it up!" Rube's roar was unmistakable, and the players parted to let him in. At the sight of his angry approach, the fight went out of Jem, and he shrunk back, a kid caught red-handed and now only awaiting his father's punishment. Practically smoking from his ears, Rube pushed the warring parties as far away from one another as his arms could manage. "Get him to the locker room and clean him up," he barked at the players holding Finn, and the men snapped at Rube's orders so that Finn never even got a chance to hear what words Jem had coming to him, so quickly was he carted toward the safety of the locker room.
There, Finn turned on the cold tap as far as it could go and stuck his head directly beneath, letting the roar of the water and the sting of the temperature drown out everything else. The taste of blood had begun to back up into his sinuses, and he exhaled as hard as he could through his nose, wincing as red splatters collected on the tile floor before washing away. He could hear his own heart roaring in his ears, almost as clear as he could hear the things Jem had said. He didn't know if he should feel good the kid hadn't brought up the fairy thing or sick about what the kid had noticed, so he settled for feeling nothing at all.
Presently, the water stopped, and a dry towel fell across his head. "You that convinced the kid needs a degree from the Finley Eldridge School of Hard Knocks?" asked Rube, who at least sounded calm again.
"Hey, I wasn't the one introducing his face to the dirt." Finn ruffled the water out of his hair and pressed the damp cloth against his swollen face, wincing as it made contact with his raw cheek. From beyond the locker room, he could hear the sound of the crowd rise again. "Sounds like game on out there," he said weakly.
Rube folded his arms across his barrel of a chest, wearing that same awful pitying face he did every time he had to break into Finn's apartment to make sure he hadn't finally drank himself to death. "Cut the kid some slack. You remember your first playoffs."
"My first playoffs weren't also my first pro season," Finn pointed out.
"All the more reason. Look," Rube sat himself down on the hard wooden players' benches, leaning forward over his knees, "I'm saying, cut the kid some slack. He worships you and you treat him like week-old fish guts."
Finn rolled his eyes. "Give me a break, he hasn't said more than five words to me in weeks."
"That's because he's afraid you're hacked off at him about something," said Rube, who nodded sternly when Finn gave him a questioning look. "I generally know more than even you give me credit for." He reached into a little metal first-aid kit and pulled out a bandage, then unscrewed a bottle of peroxide and dabbed it on the gauze.
With a steadying breath, Finn leaned forward and presented his face for mending, and only winced slightly when the antiseptic bubbled against the inflamed skin. It hurt, of course, but he'd taken and given worse in his time, and wasn't about to roll over and give up for this one, even if Jem had knocked him to the ground. "Kid hits hard."
Rube shrugged, taping the gauze into place, then went back for another to stop up the gash over the bridge of Finn's nose. "Maybe you were asking for it."
Finn sighed as Rube took his hands away. He ran the towel over his hair again, getting rid of most of the big drops; the dampness might have felt good on a warmer day, but the warned-about clouds had rolled in earlier that morning, and without the sun, the day had taken on a chill. "Look, Rube, I'm sorry--"
"Forget it." Rube waved Finn quiet, then pulled off his hat and ran his hand across his ever-growing bald spot. "...You really willing to let this be the one you end on?"
They hadn't discussed it, of course, but like Rube said, he knew more than Finn gave him credit for. All the logical reasons added up, and every one of them came to the conclusion that the world of baseball -- major, minor, or otherwise -- would be better off without Finley Eldridge as a participant. It had been as plain to Finn as the wounded nose on his face even before the kid had shown up, and everything that had happened since had convinced him of the rightness of his decision. There were just two things he had left to work out: how he was going to tell Rube, and how he was going to get over missing the game he loved more than he'd loved just about anything in his life. The first seemed to have sorted itself out, though, and the second probably never would anyway.
With deadly accuracy, Finn sent his balled-up towel striking into a mound of discarded linens of all stripes. "Time to face up to reality," he shrugged, still not entirely able to look Rube in the eye. "I'm an washed-up ex-player with a bum knee, and you should've taken me off the roster even before you put me on."
"You're a piece of work, Finn, you know that? You're a damn fine piece of work." Rube shook his head as he closed up the first aid tin, snapping its metal fastening shut. Outside, the crowd roared again -- maybe the Bulldogs had gotten a runner on base, and maybe the Roses had struck them all out, you couldn't tell allegiance from this distance. With a sigh, Rube hoisted himself to his feet and started out the door to the locker room, his heavy steps sounding through the hollow concrete space.
"Rube, wait," Finn called after him, feeling another resurgence of the hammering in his temple as he stood too quickly. "I don't want to seem ungrateful...."
Without turning, Rube sighed, and his shoulders slumped forward. "Finn, I love you like I love my own kid brother, God rest him, but you are one dumb sumbitch, you know that?"
Finn nodded and shoved his hands in the pockets of his tight pants. "I know, I know."
"No, that's it, you don't. If you did, we wouldn't even be having this conversation." Rube scratched at his bald spot before jamming his cap back over his head, then took a deep breath. Though Rube's back was still turned, Finn could imagine the look on his face, the pity that'd let itself stew all the way to the edge of patience, until there wasn't any holding it back anymore. The crowd, from a distance above them so great it might have been miles, gave up another noisy cheer, yet despite the noise, Rube's voice was clear: "The world didn't end in 1918."
It hit him like a punch to the gut, and Finn actually took a step back, grabbing the metal edge of the lockers for support. Shaking his head, Rube continued, "I saw you play Ebbets. You were like your own little god-in-training, everything all set up, perfectly untouchable. You were a powerhouse, you threw so hard I thought the bats would break. When I heard the Dodgers weren't re-signing you, dammit, I tracked you down! Because I thought, maybe, just maybe, the owners couldn't see from the bullpen what I'd seen from the stands. Maybe all you needed was a good place to recover, and it'd be like that again."
Finn scoffed, pushing his hand against his injured cheek as hard as he could, getting every ounce of pain out of the injury he could. It still wouldn't be as much as he deserved. "It's gone, Rube."
"It's not!" Rube smacked his fist into his thigh, and Finn could see him literally shaking with frustration. "I see little shots of it all the time! Every time you hit one over the fence, every time you make a catch, every time you seem to just know if a guy's going to steal even before his feet start moving -- there it is! And every time it comes back, you find some way to drag it down again, and drown it with a dead fiancée or a bum leg or a war story or now a kid who just wants a shot but you can't stop thinking how much he looks like a twenty-year-old you! And I'm past being sick of how it's killing you, because it's killing me, because I'm the one who takes it in the face every time you go under! Me and the rest of the team." He waved his hand at Finn, as though pushing him off, as though he could feel Finn's breathing down his neck. "So hit the showers. You're out the rest of the game."
"I don't need--" Finn began, but Rube talked calmly over him as though Finn'd said nothing.
"Jones can take your place on the field. And I don't want to hear it, I don't care if he's shit at second, from the way it's been going up there, at most he'll be the difference between losing by ten and losing by fifteen. This one's over anyway. I need you down here getting your head together." He turned his head and gave Finn a quick glance over his shoulder. "Because you're the difference between losing and winning, period. Like it or not, you have been since the day you put on the jersey. The new kid's not the only one who looks up to you."
"This supposed to be your you're-letting-the-team-down-son pep talk?" asked Finn weakly, trying to smile like it was all a joke but meaning none of it. Mostly he just felt like he needed a drink, something to start dissolving the rock that Rube had just dropped into his stomach. The fact that Rube, of all people, didn't see what a lost cause he was -- well, like Rube's pity, that kindness just made things worse.
Rube sucked his teeth. "You want to walk out, I ain't gonna stop you. But don't pat yourself on the back like you'd be doing me a favour." And he marched out of the locker room and back up to the dugout, the only further comment the disappointed slap his shoes made against the cement floor.
By the time the final score was tallied, Finn was cleaned up and out of the park, wandering the near-deserted streets of the little Pennsylvania town; the series had practically shut down the place, and every darkened storefront he passed down the main street seemed to have a hand-lettered sign stuck in one window or another, all to the effect of: OPEN AFTER THE GAME. Well, at least this win would make the Roses' fans happy. Like his mother had always said, before she'd died in the same epidemic that had killed off pretty much every family tie he'd ever had, every cloud had a silver lining.
The clouds above him now, however, were keeping their linings to themselves. With every gust of wind, the sky drew closer and darker, burying any hint of the early afternoon sun's rays behind heavy cover. Finn walked along beneath it, his eyes turned upward, not sure if he was hoping the same thing every other player in the stadium was, that the storm would change direction and spare them long enough for the series to finish, or if he was praying for the rains to fall and never stop, and wash him clear out to sea, all the way back to France, back to 1918, back to the last place he could remember belonging at all.
Jem threw out the first ball of the fourth game just as the first far-off clap of thunder rolled across the sky, its sound so startling and ominous that the Roses' first hitter turned his head toward the source along with everyone else and completely missed swinging at what should have been an easy pitch. It was a sign of things to come, and whether the ass-kicking the Bulldogs had suffered the day before had been inspirational or whether the Roses were collectively afraid of rain, it didn't matter -- the Bulldogs were getting their footing back. Crawford and Manley both crossed home in the second inning, pushing the Bulldogs ahead, and everything about his team as they took the field again told Finn that they were planning on holding on to that advantage for dear life.
Apparently no one had anything to say to him about the previous day, which was good, because he didn't want to talk about it. Mostly everyone regarded him with distant smiles and gave him a wide berth, apparently collectively unwilling to believe that their very own Finn McCool -- as some of the team's more Irish members had taken to calling their always-calm veteran, mostly when they thought he wasn't listening -- had gotten so hot-headed in front of everyone. He greeted each of them as they greeted him, and looked away before he could see their eyes linger on where the left side of his face had shaded a faint purple.
He'd learned from eavesdropping that Rube had benched Jem for the last two innings, bringing in Connolly, the team's reluctant relief pitcher who'd limped them along in the gap following Smitty's departure. Apparently Rube had given the kid an earful of his own following the game, though if anyone but those two knew what had been said, no one was telling. It hardly mattered, though; Finn'd been around long enough that he could take a guess as to the substance of Rube's complaint.
By the bottom of the third, as he stepped up to bat, Finn took a look up to the gathering clouds and felt a drop hit him square between the eyes -- the sky, finally making good on its week-long threat, wasn't going to hold itself in much longer. The fans started to pull their newspapers over their heads, and those who'd been possessed of even greater foresight unfolded umbrellas against the coming storm. As the Roses took to bat again, the occasionally drip had become a steady misting, and by the time the Bulldogs got their turn again, the mist was a full-out drizzle -- and what was falling from the sky at the top of the fifth, no one could call anything but plain ol' rain.
Whether out of some misguided hope that things might clear up, or just because they'd fallen asleep at the wheel, the game officials gave no sign that play should stop, even though Finn could see the ground around the baseline slowly turning into mud. They played, though, because they hadn't been told not to, holding their places in the steadily increasing downpour as Jem's successive pitches became harder and harder to see. By a small mercy, the adverse conditions hurt the batters as much as they worried the players on the field, and after a handful of foul balls and a sufficient number of strikes, Jem had earned the team the three outs that took them back to the dugout.
No sooner had Finn stepped beneath the shelter of the dugout roof than a bolt of lightning cracked across the sky, and the heavens opened, turning a late summer rain into a flat-out downpour. Fans cleared the stands as the rain beat down with bruising force, crashing against the tin roof of the dugout hard enough to make Finn's ears ache; a few lingered, bolstered by fanaticism and by umbrellas, but within minutes, the place had turned into as much of a ghost town as the town itself had been the day before.
The players sprawled around in various stages of anticipation, watching the water collect on the field. Most hung back near the tunnel to the locker rooms, as far away from the rain as they could get, but Jem took a seat next to it, lighting a cigarette and shaking his head at the sight before him. "Nice weather for ducks, huh?" he said to no one in particular.
Ducks, Finn declined to point out, didn't have league championship games to play.
Rained Out, by iianbe (gallo_de_pelea)
A half hour later or so, Rube jogged back in from the Roses' dugout, holding his hat on his head, and grabbed a towel to wipe off his face before gathering everyone around him. "They're going to call it!" he bellowed, straining to be heard above the din. "We got it!"
Finn was so wet and generally miserable that he didn't understand at first what Rube meant, or why he was so damn cheerful about a rainout. Then his gaze jumped past Rube to the slowly dissolving white numbers on the scoreboard, which, because he'd had his mind so clearly on the weather, Finn hadn't really registered hadn't changed since the second inning. Bulldogs 2, Roses 0, and a game called in the middle of the fifth with the team just at bat behind was a fair game. The series was dead even.
Despite their soaked uniforms and collectively sodden mood up to this point, the Bulldogs seemed to come back to life with the news of the officials' decision, cheering and shouting and clapping one another on the back. Even Finn managed to lift himself out of his general funk enough to be glad for the victory, even if it had been more a lucky break in the weather and less anything the Bulldogs had done. Besides, it wasn't like he had so much pride left that he couldn't take four innings' worth of charity. A win was a win was a win, the end.
No, he realized as he stripped off the outermost layer of his sodden uniform, what was upsetting him wasn't that they'd won on a meterological technicality. It was that he'd wanted to lose. Three games to one, it would all have been over; the White Roses would have taken the trophy home, the Bulldogs would have patted one another on the back and made the necessary comments about good game and next year, and Finn could have slipped away on a down note no one would have contested. Just like no one understood when a player quit at the height of his career, no one blamed a guy who took his last shreds of dignity away from a serious thumping and went home.
He moved like molasses getting cleaned up, hanging up his gear as the first guys hit the showers, only just getting down to wringing out his socks by the time everyone else was ready to go. Rube, who hadn't stopped grinning since the officials had made the decision, called back to him, "Hurry up or we're leaving you here!"
Finn shook his head and waved Rube on. "I'll walk it back. It's letting up out there."
Rube cast a skeptical eye toward the rain, which had lessened its intensity only a fraction. "And if it doesn't?"
"I'll thumb a ride." Finn shrugged, then turned as though he were headed for a solitary shower. Rube, presumably accustomed by now to Finn's occasional bouts of self-imposed isolation, didn't argue his case further, just left and shut the door behind him.
Instead of stripping down and showering off, though, Finn stood there in his pants and undershirt, listening through the locker room's high ground-level windows to the sound of the rain and, behind it, the sound of the team bus as it choked and sputtered its way down the wet road. He stayed still in place, his feet planted, for a moment longer, closing his eyes and hearing the downpour as it smacked against the building's sides. He'd been rained on a lot in his life, of course, as much as anyone growing up on the east coast, and could remember a number of times he'd sat quiet inside the house on a rainy evening and just watched it pour. It had even been raining the bleary evening he'd woken bandaged in the field hospital, his body too clouded by pain and morphine to do anything but let him lie there and listen to the way the trench rain sounded as it hit the oilcloth folds of the tent.
But when it rained, the first thing he always thought of was Maggie and how he'd planned so carefully how to ask her to marry him, only to have his carefully scheduled outing in Central Park ruined as a swift summer thunderstorm swept across the city, dumping sheets of water on the happy couple as they ran for shelter. He'd had it all set out, he'd tried to explain as they stood dripping beneath the awning of a high-rent apartment building, with the picnic and the nice day and the ring when she least expected it, everything his teammates told him a girl expected from an occasion like this. But she had only smiled and shook her head as she'd rummaged through the sodden picnic basket for the little box, and as he'd explained to her how a debacle like this could only of course mean her immediate rejection, she'd calmly pushed the ring onto her own finger, giving him the look she always gave him when she thought he was being the biggest idiot in the world.
Had she known? Undoubtedly, probably from the start, and if not then at least by the end. But she'd been Maggie, and she'd loved him so patiently, and he'd suspected on more than one occasion that it would have been precisely what she'd wanted: a marriage of chaste kisses and separate beds, two quiet people who each knew enough to protect the other's quietness. How they'd loved one another had been no one else's business.
But the last time he'd seen her had been nearly eight years ago, and he sometimes found it hard to remember what it all had even been like. As much as Rube accused him of living in the past, there were times Finn had to think hard before he could conjure her face in his mind, her freckled nose, her soft brown hair, her deep dark eyes. She had become more an excuse than a person to him, more an easy way to deflect questions about his personal life than an actual factor in his daily life. By now, he'd mourned her longer than he'd known her.
So he did the only thing he knew how to do, which was to pick up a bucket of balls and head out in the deluge for the mound. The rain soaked right through his uniform pants and undershirt, and after only a few steps, his shoes were waterlogged. But his cap kept the rain from his eyes, and that was all he really needed, a place to stand and a target to see.
His first windup felt awkward, like a song he hadn't heard since he was in grade school, teasing his memory for the words. He brought the ball to his chest and balanced back on his right leg, lifting his injured knee closer to his hip, feeling as the joint pulled tighter than second base ever asked. Water ran down the sides of his face, but the wind was comparatively still, and so he stood his ground. The worst he felt was out of practice, but it all came back to him so clearly that he could nearly hear the crowd, could almost imagine through the rain a catcher on the other side of the distance and a batter in-between. As equations went, it was one of the simplest. Gripping the ball between his thumb and first two fingers, he brought his elbow back and twisted his torso, like cocking a hammer on a gun, and then in one quick sweep brough the whole motion crashing forward, ready to whip the ball across the plate like he always had back when he'd stood on the mound at Ebbets.
But a pitcher's left foot always came down before he let loose the ball, and now Finn's came down hard -- no harder than it ever had before, of course, but adding impact to injury set off firecrackers of pain exploding beneath his skin. His body teetered at that last moment, and when the ball let loose, it went wild, smashing into the ground several feet in front of home plate. Finn's own body pitched forward after it, and he caught himself on his right knee and hand on the muddy earth, cursing and spitting out rainwater.
"Jesus!" called a too-familiar voice from the Bulldogs' dugout. "You okay?"
Without acknolwedging the inquiry, Finn pulled himself back to his feet. He wanted to say he was surprised to hear Jem there, but with the roundhouse way his luck had been running lately, he supposed he'd been expecting it. His uniform pants were caked in mud, and when he wiped his palm clean on his hip, he left a long brown stain the same shade as the baseline dirt. His hand still stung from where it'd hit the ground, but he picked up another ball anyway, gripping it white-knuckled tight as he brought it back to his chest.
The second pitch went much the same as the first, every muscle in his body tensed to release a bullet that would scream past the batter before he knew it'd left Finn's rifle, like the strikeout against the Phillies in '13, when afterward even the opposing team had been forced to congratulate his good work, and one of them had said to his manager that the kid -- and Finn had been the kid back then -- might as well have been launching ghosts of balls for all the batters made anything of them. Not even three years in the army and five at second base could have erased that knowledge from as deep as his bones; he knew the stance, the feel, the motions as well as he knew anything else in the world. He just no longer knew his body. Another hit like that to his heel, and his knee buckled, this time pitching him forward with his momentum, until he landed chest-down on the infield.
Strong hands gripped his forearms and hauled him back upright, and Finn couldn't even find it in his heart to mount any protest. "You keep this up and forget the game tomorrow, you'll throw yourself straight into a hospital."
"Just...." As he regained his footing, Finn shrugged away Jem's hands, limping back to the mound. "Just leave me alone." He reached into the increasingly waterlogged bucket to pick another ball from the stack.
"No!" Jem kicked the bucket away, scattering balls all over the muddy pitch, and Finn came away empty-handed. "The hell is wrong with you? How drunk are you?"
Finn laughed and spat water onto the ground. "I'm not!" he shouted, throwing up his hands. "Maybe that's the problem! Well, don't worry, I'll go get some right after I'm done here. Now will you go away?"
Jem rolled his eyes and raked his hair back from his face; he hadn't even thought to wear a cap out into the rain, which Finn took as something of a victory for his own general foresight. "Are you trying to injure yourself?" he asked, gripping Finn by the thin sleeves of his undershirt and shaking him once, as though a good rattle might be all Finn needed to clear the cobwebs out of his head.
"What part of 'go away' didn't they teach you in school?" Finn pushed feebly against the chest of Jem's shirt, soaked through by rain so it was nearly transparent. The stupid kid had probably made Rube stop the bus when he'd realized Finn wasn't on it and come all the way back in the rain for him. Because that was what stupid kids did, they never got it into their thick heads when you just wanted them to let you be miserable on your own free time.
But Jem just rattled him again, fisting more material into his hands until he had a fairly tight, close grip. "No! I won't let you yell me away like you do everyone else! You're so damn stubborn, you get an idea in your head and you don't listen to good damn reason or anybody else, you just bark and bite until they've got to do what you say!"
Now it was Finn's turn to roll his eyes; all right, the kid wasn't actually stupid, not by any stretch, but occasionally he came to a real clunker of a conclusion. "Maybe it's because I've got two licks of common sense, which seems to be more than--"
"Why'd Rube hire me?" Jem shouted him down. "Team's got the best goddamn pitcher I've ever seen, a guy good enough to start for the Dodgers, and instead they go scrounge up a kid from the sandlots because they've got him playing second base? And don't give me the 'pitcher's got to hustle' line -- everyone's got to hustle, and I've seen you do it fine! Makes no goddamn sense!"
"You saw!" Finn roared as he pushed Jem away, and Jem was caught so off-guard that he let go of Finn's shirt. "You saw me!"
"I saw you trying to pitch like you used to, like trying to launch a goddamn elephant over home plate!" Jem was back in Finn's face almost as quick as he'd left, cutting into Finn's personal space like nobody had in a long time, and no amount of Finn's seething anger seemed to deter him. "The Dodgers didn't call you back not because you can't pitch, but because you're a goddamn idiot!"
The urge to haul off and slug the kid was so intense that Finn had to physically turn away from him, or he didn't know if he could be responsible for what might happen next. "Mind your own damn business!" he shouted as he stomped off toward the dugout. He'd gone from enjoying his misery to just being miserable, and the wet clothes weren't helping.
"Did you even try?" Jem yelled after him, and the question stopped Finn in his tracks.
They stood there for a minute in the rain, listening to it hammer all around them, its steady din punctuated once by a sharp crack of lightning. Finn counted -- one, two, three, four, five -- before the inevitable thunder crept up on them, crashing in and rolling away. The last count had gotten him to the middle of four; the storm was passing over, and might even be gone by the morning, well enough in time to dry up the field before the fifth game. If not, then, it'd be the next day, or the day after that. Like the thunder, it wasn't a question of if, but when.
From behind him, Finn heard Jem take a wet step forward. "You didn't, did you?" he asked, his voice softer now. "Son of a bitch. You didn't even pick up a ball. You were so afraid of what'd happen that you didn't even try. You didn't even show up to prove it. You just called the team and told them you plain quit."
"You saw," Finn repeated, though he found that the rage had ebbed out of his own voice as well, replaced by a quiet exhaustion. Angry was easy, like getting hit with a bullet was easy; if you were unlucky enough to survive that, the hard part that came next would just as surely do you in, only not so kindly.
"I saw," said Jem, and from the sound of his voice, he'd taken a couple steps closer, "a great pitcher with a bad knee who thinks if he can't have everything the same way it was always, he don't want none of it."
Finn scowled, first at the convoluted syntax of Jem's observation, then at the dawning awareness that Jem was somewhere in the vicinity of right. "It's called getting old."
"Bullshit it's getting old! My zadie -- my grandpa's eighty-six, barely speaks three words of English, and he's still more adaptable than you!" The pitch of Jem's voice was rising again, this time not with anger, but with a frantic emphasis, a deep need to be heard. "It's called being a coward!"
This time, when Finn turned to face Jem, he felt less like punching the kid in the face and more like knocking his own lights out. He wasn't sure what, in the grand tally of crimes he'd committed, had earned him the punishment of having to hear the truth of his sad sack situation from out the mouths of babes, but whatever it was, he was heartily sorry for it. "What'd you call me?" he asked, trying to sound menacing and mostly sounding pathetic.
"A coward," Jem repeated, folding his arms across his chest. "You quit the Dodgers because you're scared you'll never be as good as you used to be. You quit pitching because you're scared you'll have to change the way you do it. You quit me because you're scared--"
"That's different," Finn tried to point out, but Jem just kept going.
"Because you're scared you might actually have to let your sorry, self-centered life matter to somebody else. And you're about to quit baseball altogether -- even though so far as I can tell it's the only thing in your whole miserable life what even makes you half-happy -- because you're scared it's going to get in the way of you trying to drink yourself to death!" Jem stopped and took a breath, scanning Finn's face. "So, how'm I doing?"
Finn scowled, but there was no fight left in it; everything had been kicked out by Jem's litany. It was one thing to acknowledge privately that you were a coward, sure, but it was a hell of another thing to know someone else had noticed. "I'm starting to remember I owe you a knuckle sandwich."
"And I owe you a blowjob. So you want we get started on evening the score?" Jem stretched his arms out to either side, palms facing outward, nothing to hide. "First hit's free. But then it's my turn."
Caught off-guard, Finn sputtered for a second, then stuck his hands into the pockets of his uniform pants, feeling through the thin fabric how cold the skin beneath had gotten. "What say we just call it even?" he said through gritted teeth, looking away to try and hide the flush rising in his cheeks.
"No can do." Jem shook his head. "You walk away now, and I've gotten the better end of the deal twice." A little smile had begun to creep up on his face, that cocky grin that tugged one corner of his mouth slightly higher than the other. In more ways than one, the kid was good.
Finn shook his head, but stepped closer, reaching out for one of Jem's arms and pushing it back down toward his side. He took a deep breath and brushed the heel of his hand across Jem's forehead, pushing away the soaked blond hair that threatened to curtain his brown eyes invisible. "It's not because I'm scared of anything, it's because I'm scared for you."
"Say it all you want, but repeating it don't make me believe you any more." Jem looked as though he was trying to put on a scowl, but that little smile shone persistently through. "You may be old and smart and all kinds of wisdom-of-the-aged, Mister Eldridge, but if growing up means being afraid of everything all the time, I'm staying young and stupid forever."
"I'd say eternal stupidity is looking more and more likely if you still haven't given up on this." Finn gestured across the distance between the two of them.
Jem shrugged. "Tell me you don't want me."
"I don't want you," Finn deadpanned back, firing it off reflex-quick so he had no time to process what a lie the words were.
With a snort, Jem stepped closer to Finn. "Tell me you don't want me and mean it."
Finn grunted as though the only thing that bothered him was the stupidity of the request, but he still found himself unable to hold Jem's gaze; he looked away, glancing up at the lightening sky, letting the slowly lessening rain hammer a bit at his face. "I can't," he admitted finally.
"Then there you go." Jem reached out for Finn's shoulder, outwardly a gesture of nothing more than manly teammate solidarity, but the touch still felt electric through Finn's wet shirt, which conducted the energy and heat of contact throughout the rest of his body.
"It's not that easy."
"Only if you don't let it be," Jem said, bringing his hand closer to the bare skin at Finn's neck.
"You're going to get picked up by some major team--"
"And," Finn continued, frowning at the interruption, "I'm too long out of practice, even if I did start pitching again--"
"I'm not talking about--"
"And anyone who's paying attention would notice--"
"I said," Jem reached up and clamped his hand over Finn's mouth, stopping Finn's lame excuses to what appeared to be their mutual relief, "I ain't talking about five or ten or even two years down the road, or whenever it takes the majors however long to find me, if that's even what happens. For God's sake, you're so scared that I might, I don't know, not find you attractive thirty years from now -- or some such, I don't even know what goes on in that wrinkled old melon you call a head -- that you can't even take a chance on the next thirty minutes!"
He stepped closer, and Finn was glad the weather had cleared out the stadium, because this was far, far beyond the acceptable boundaries of cameraderie. "But I," Jem said, keeping his hand tight in place, "am saying, I don't even know what I'll be doing the day after tomorrow, much less when I'm fifty -- but I know right now, not in some crazy future imagination, but in real life, at this very second, I want you. And I'm willing to let what happens happen if I can have you now."
After a moment's pause, as though to make sure Finn wasn't about to yell him deaf, Jem withdrew his hand, and Finn took a deep breath, staring down the invitation. He'd been so careful for so long, because everything else was uncertainty, and because it seemed the one time he hadn't been careful, he'd woken up one rainy April afternoon with everything gone.
Except everything hadn't been gone, not really. As Rube had said, the world hadn't ended in 1918, no matter how much Finn sometimes wished it had. He'd been trying to hold it in place with all his might, but it had just kept on turning, dragging him along with it. And it would keep dragging him along, no matter how much he fought it -- but right now, at least, it had spun him here. In the face of all that, he might as well be moved.
"Come on," he said, pulling away and heading back out of the rain. Half a step behind him, Jem followed, down through the dugout and into the cement hall that led to the lockers and showers. Their shoes hit wetly on the hard ground, and more than once Finn was afraid a careless step might take him down just as surely as his bad knee had. But they made it the yards down to the locker room, and when they were both inside, Finn slipped the deadbolt latch.
By the time he turned away from the door, Jem was on the other side of the room already, cranking the left-hand dial on the showers all the way on. "I'm freezing," he said, kicking off his muddy boots. "I swear, I was about to knock you out and drag you back in from the rain myself. I catch a cold, it's your fault."
"I think we can have a good long argument about exactly whose fault it is," Finn snorted, unlacing his shoes before starting to peel off his shirt. He hadn't noticed the chill, not really, but now that he was out of the storm, he felt the edges of a full-blown shiver creeping across his skin. The shower, on the other hand, had already started to send a small cloud of fog toward the ceiling, and the contrast seemed irresistible. As quickly as he could, he stripped down to his bare skin, leaving his wet and muddy uniform in a sad heap on the floor.
Jem was already naked and waiting for him, leaning against the wall just outside of the shower's spray, giving Finn a weird flashback to the night they'd met. But Jem's smug smirk had been replaced by an honest smile, and he reached out a hand to Finn. "See? Not so scary."
Finn grunted as gruffly as he could, but took Jem's hand and locked their fingers together, then let Jem pull him beneath the spray. They both stood there for a moment, inches from one another, letting the hot water warm their cold skin, with their joined hands as the only point of contact. Finn closed his eyes and breathed through his mouth, letting the shower wash him blind.
After a minute, he felt a break in the spray, and a different wet warmth covered his mouth as Jem's lips closed the months of distance between them. Finn, for his own part, fumbled his way into it, bumping their teeth together more than once -- he'd barely kissed Maggie before, much less one of the dirty pickups who'd been on the other ends of his dark alley encounters -- but Jem moved his mouth with expert skill past any awkwardness, parting Finn's lips with his tongue and kissing deep. His bare hands reached around to encircle Finn's waist, keeping them both from falling over and pressing their bodies together beneath the warm water.
For a long moment, they just held one another like that, their mouths learning all they could about one another. Finn felt the sandpaper brush of contact as his two-day stubble rubbed against Jem's sorry excuse for a week-old beard, and he smiled, taking a cue from Jem and sucking on his lower lip. Jem laughed and bit back, drawing away from the kiss to press their foreheads together, breathing in time as the shower stream doused them. "Just like this," he said, his voice a hoarse whisper edged with his smile.
"You need to set your sights higher," Finn snorted, a cranky holdout to the end.
"You," Jem pulled them both back against the tile wall, until Finn was the ostensible captor and Jem had become the one trapped between a rock and a hard man, "need to quit acting like you don't understand why I want you so bad."
Finn rolled his eyes. "I've come to accept it's a part of that bit where you're stupid."
Jem laughed, his bright tenor reflecting off all the locker room's hard surfaces. "And you're a mean old man." He slipped his hand down between their wet bodies, taking Finn's cock in his water-slick hand and rubbing his thumb hard along the vein down its underside. "And," he added, nipping at Finn's ear, "I really want you to fuck me."
At that, Finn's knees nearly buckled, and he had to brace himself against the wall to keep upright. He'd had men like that before, of course -- as a matter of necessity, Finn had found himself amenable to just about anything -- but the idea of taking Jem made his brain go a little pale. He recovered as smoothly as he could, turning his head to kiss at the curve of Jem's jaw, feeling gratified as Jem's cock strained against his hip. "Now?" he asked, wanting that last bit of confirmation.
"I've been waiting a hell of a long time," said Jem, squeezing Finn's cock hard enough to prove that he meant business. "So, whenever you're ready...."
Finn nodded, surprised as anything to find out he was aching to go. How long had he been wanting this, anyway? Probably longer than he would ever have admitted, he thought as Jem turned in his embrace until he was facing the wall, longer than he would ever have dared to hope. He kissed the lean, muscled skin of Jem's back -- and then, a thought struck him, and he began to laugh quietly.
Jem looked over his shoulder. "What?"
Finn shook his head. "It's not really funny, it's just...." He traced the line of Jem's hips, watching as the water trickled down Jem's pale skin, changing course where it intercepted Finn's rougher, darker fingers. "This is the first time I've ... done this, or anything like this," he shrugged, pressing his cheek to Jem's shoulderblade, "with ... someone whose name I knew."
Perhaps he'd expected scorn, or even shared laughter, but Jem grew quiet and turned until his face was eclipsed completely from Finn's sight. "...Me too," he said, his voice barely audible over the water.
Finn's eyes widened with surprise, and he took a deep, steadying breath. Somehow, that made it better -- not that they'd both spent their time up until now with opportunistic sex, but that this was new territory for both of them, something where neither one of them had the advantage to hold over the other. Even Finn had to admit, being in this together was a hell of a lot better than going it alone.
There was a bar of soap nearby, and Finn lathered it hard in his fingers before letting them slide with the water down into the crack of Jem's ass, feeling Jem press against him. "You all right?" he asked.
"Don't be gentle," smirked Jem, spreading his legs and bracing himself against the wall. "I've had a lot of practice."
His statement caught Finn in a terrible grey area between disturbed and incredibly aroused, but fortunately for the occasion, his body decided for him that the image of Jem's straining and sweating beneath other men definitely belonged in the latter category. He pressed a fingertip inside of Jem, testing the waters, and was gratified when Jem gasped and leaned back against Finn's hand, doing the work for him. Finn added another finger to the knuckle easily before deciding that this was sufficient preparation for the both of them, and withdrew his hand only long enough to rinse his fingers clean, before grabbing his cock and pressing it inside.
Jem groaned as Finn entered him, the sound so much like pain that Finn nearly stopped, but Jem reached back and grabbed at Finn's hips, pulling Finn deep inside him in one swift, practiced motion. "Just wait," Finn grunted, and Jem could feel him take several deep breaths, his back rising and falling as he gathered his bearings. Finn kissed the nape of his neck, and Jem shivered. "Okay," he said after a moment's consideration of their arrangement, "I'm good."
It was all the incentive Finn needed. He grabbed Jem's hips with both hands, hard enough to bruise, and pushed his cock inside, feeling Jem's muscles tighten around him as he drove in deep. For a moment, everything was lost in the heat of contact, and Finn's whole world was reduced to friction and skin. The water beat steady and slick between their bodies, so Finn bent forward, reaching around Jem's hips and taking his cock in his fingers. "Yes, please, fuck," Jem groaned, his shoulders sagging as he leaned forward. Well, thought Finn with a wicked smile, that was one way to get him to keep them down.
They fell into a slowly gathering rhythm together, Finn's hips and hand moving in time, Jem gasping every time Finn simultaneously plowed into him and stroked his cock from root to tip. "You don't know how hard it was," Jem said, his sentences broken into short phrases with the punctuation of movement, "not to just tie you to the bed, ride you blind."
Finn laughed, though the sound was strained with arousal. "You've got a dity mouth for a kid."
"I'll show you sometime how dirty," Jem smirked over his shoulder, wiggling his ass against Finn's body. He was so beautiful, so lean and pale and unexpected at every angle, made marvelous by his own contradictions, a world of trouble and all the more wonderful for it. "I'll show you everything I know. I promise."
"I'll hold you to that," grinned Finn, fucking Jem hard up against the shower wall. His hips slammed faster as he lost the need for words, and indeed the need for anything except as much of Jem's skin as he could get inside and around and within. He'd been so long doing this all secretly, so cautious and so afraid all the while, that he didn't know if he'd ever felt safe before as he held another man's body with his own. But Jem was Jem, frustrating and comforting all at once, and there was nothing to stop Finn from just letting his guard down and letting go.
Too quick for his liking -- he might have been content to stay like this forever, just moving inside Jem beneath the spray -- Finn felt heat rise within him, and before he could get out even a word of warning, he was coming hard, gasping loud and inarticulate, his lips pressed to Jem's back. His hand sped its motion in time, and he felt Jem's hips thrust hard into him twice before he, too, came in a rush all over Finn's hand.
Finn's first concession to the aftermath was to pull out of Jem as gently as he could, wincing when Jem hissed once or twice with the too-sharp friction against sensitive skin. But then he was done, and Jem turned around to catch him, and they stood there in one another's arms against the shower wall, letting everything wash away.
Presently, Jem kissed Finn's cheek where the fall the day before had scraped the skin. "Now," he smiled, "we're even?"
There were a thousand snide remarks he could have thought to say in that moment, but instead Finn drew his arms tighter around Jem's neck and kissed him, chasing away the threat of things to come with the taste of Jem's mouth.
The bus rumbled on through the night, heading back to Connecticut, and unseen in the darkness, Jem slipped his hand inside Finn's. "Rube tells me your place is too big for a bachelor," he said, a light comment that would have raised no flags from any of the Bulldogs, had any been awake to eavesdrop.
"Does he," said Finn, glaring in the general direction of Rube's customary seat.
"And Maude's been saying she'd like to have my room back if their daughter's family comes to visit." Jem rubbed the ball of his thumb across the back of Finn's knuckles.
Finn settled himself back and closed his eyes. "I'm sure."
"Just thinking aloud," Jem shrugged, draping his jacket over him like a blanket, letting the sleeve cover their joined hands. "You know, for the future."
Things fell apart, Finn knew, and knew first-hand better than most. But for the first time in as long as he could remember, as he listened to the engine's heavy hum, the thoughts that came to mind were not disasters, but possibilities. Maybe another season with the Bulldogs wouldn't be so bad, or two or three, even, depending on how long it took the majors to notice Jem -- and they would notice Jem, because Jem was amazing, that much was certain. After that, well, there were minor league teams everywhere there were major league ones, and no damage to his knee could take away what he knew about the sport. He'd never thought of coaching before, but he'd never thought of a lot of things before very recently, and was learning slowly that no matter how old he thought he was, he still had a lot of thinking to do.
Or maybe Jem would go off on his own, or maybe Finn would do the same, or maybe something completely unexpected would sweep in and knock him on his ass. What surprised him was not the awareness of the unpredictability of the world, but a sudden comfort. For the first time in almost as far as he could remember, Finn looked into uncertainty and felt unafraid. If the world hadn't ended yet, the odds were it wasn't going to, and that was good enough for now.
Taking one deep breath after another, he let the bus rattle him off to sleep, his hand never letting go of Jem's. Tucked safe between them on the seat sat a bright silver trophy, its metal surface cool to the touch as it leaned against Finn's shoulder, coming with them all home.
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