By Pete Dexter
From Spooner, 2009
Later that year Spooner began his career in organized baseball. The coach of the baseball team was Evelyn Tinker, who in addition to being held almost blameless in the Lemonkatz boy’s injury was now rumored to be collecting sixty bucks a week for the newspaper column, this in spite of Lily’s public campaign to have him fired, and being as Spooner was not old enough yet to have voted for Richard Nixon, this joining of Tinker’s team constituted the single most disloyal thing a child of Lily Whitlowe Ottosson’s had ever done.
How could he?
The question hung in the air at 308 Shabbona Drive, unspoken, like another dead father.
The answer—not that the answer mattered—was that Spooner had stopped at the baseball diamond on the way to the shopping center after school, and watched through the fence as Russell Hodge pitched four innings of a practice game against Crete-Monee, striking out twelve of the thirteen batters he faced. It was a tiny school, Crete-Monee, six hundred students, kindergarten through twelfth grade, and two of the players were only thirteen years old. The smallest one—who wore number thirteen, and was the only batter Russell Hodge did not strike out—was plunked between the shoulder blades as he turned away from an inside fastball, and cried.
Half a dozen times Spooner started to leave but couldn’t, waiting around to see one more pitch, and in the end hung on the wire fence more than an hour, leaving diamond-shaped imprints on the underside of his forearms, wrists to elbows, taking the measure of Russell Hodge’s throws.
It came to him as he watched that Russell Hodge pitched in much the way he played linebacker, which is to say blind with rage. But it was more difficult in baseball, a game that had very little maiming, to sustain a murderous rage than it was in football, even for Russell Hodge, and after an inning or two Spooner thought he saw him working to conjure it up, sucking from the air every bit of resentment he could find. Giving Russell Hodge his due, even in a practice game against little Crete-Monee, he brought himself again and again to a state just short of foaming at the mouth—furious at the batter, at his own catcher, the umpire, who, behind the mask and protective vest was only Mr. Kopex the math teacher, furious even at the ball itself—and by the end appeared to have lost all his stuff.
Monday afternoon, Spooner showed up at the practice field in tennis shoes and shorts. He didn’t have a glove—he’d taken the one he had out of his closet, but it was a toy and he could barely get his hand inside, and if he’d brought that along, he might as well have worn his old cowboy hat too.
The players were already scattered in the outfield when he arrived, loosening up their arms or throwing each other grounders or fly balls. The student manager was chalking the batters’ boxes. Spooner stood behind the fence, unsure how to announce himself.
Presently, Tinker materialized and blew his whistle, and players jogged in and players jogged out, and pretty soon Mr. Kopex took the mound and threw a few tepid fast balls in the direction of the plate, and the star players took turns and took their cuts, and the players who were not stars chased the balls they hit.
Russell Hodge put one over the fence marking school property boundaries, fouled the next one off, and then lined a screamer back up the middle, catching Mr. Kopex, who’d given him a D in slow-track Introduction to Algebra, in the foot. Mr. Kopex was a large, fleshy fellow and he made one complete turn on the way down, 360 degrees, then lay on his back a long moment, getting his bearings. Here and there were scattered his glasses, his glove, and his cap. Presently he sat up and took off his shoe and sock, revealing a tiny, bone-white, misshapen foot, and lifted it up like a contortionist, cradling it, pulling it up almost to his mouth, and rocked slightly back and forth, staring at Russell Hodge, hoping, Spooner imagined, to get one more shot at him in slow-track algebra.
Coach Tinker went to the mound in a concerned jog but did not tell Mr. Kopex to run it off. Thanks perhaps to young Lemonkatz, Tinker had tamed his wild impulse to make the injured run.
Meanwhile, Russell Hodge was still at the plate, stamping his feet, stoking the fire.
Coach Tinker studied the problem, which in essence was that Mr. Kopex was holding up practice, and pushed back his cap to scratch his head. There was a scar there the shape of a smile from butting Lemonkatz. He nodded to Mr. Kopex and then turned and yelled, “We need a pitcher.”
The other assistant coach, Mr. Speers, the typing teacher, was also a large, fleshy man and, like Mr. Kopex, pigeon-shaped and had seen the line drive hit Mr. Kopex and was coming in from the field, walking at what appeared to be emergency walking speed. Mr. Speers and Mr. Kopex were bachelors and best friends and had volunteered together to coach baseball, thinking they could use the extra $250 the school district paid toward a European trip they hoped to take next summer. They were much alike physically, although Mr. Kopex belted his pants beneath his stomach and Mr. Speers hitched his together just below the nipples. They enjoyed exercise, that is, what they had considered exercise, the outdoors and fresh air and all that, hiking together in the forest preserve, but coaching baseball for Tinker had turned out to be nothing like exercise as they had known it before. On top of that the season was less than two weeks old and Mr. Speers had discovered he was allergic to dust and was runny-eyed and sneezing all the time. For his part, Mr. Kopex had developed hammer toes over the years and worried constantly about someone in spikes stepping on his feet. Unlike Mr. Speers, who wore black high-topped Converse sneakers, Mr. Kopex had played Little League ball in his youth and, as a matter of dignity, spent the money for a new glove and spikes of his own, and had, a few days earlier, admitted to Mr. Speers to a certain stirring at the sound they made as he walked over gravel.
Mr. Speers stood hesitantly over Mr. Kopex now, unsure if it was against the rules to help him up. “Get us off the field, Frank,” Mr. Kopex said, and Mr. Speers nodded at his friend and then bent down and rooted his head through his armpit, and tried to lift him up. Mr. Kopex was a loose handful though, slippery with sweat and pretty soon Mr. Speers gave up his hold on the armpit and fastened on to whatever parts he could fasten on to, and before they had cleared the practice field the two men had more or less reversed positions, with Mr. Kopex in a kind of headlock and making strangling noises as Mr. Speers dragged him off.
Spooner had stopped cold at the sight of Mr. Kopex’s misshapen foot—had the man been tortured in Korea?—and now he also saw Mr. Kopex’s glove, which lay brand-new and halfway open behind the pitching mound, where the imprint of the accident itself could still be seen in the dirt. Spooner thought he could smell the leather.
Tinker called again for a new pitcher, and Spooner walked onto the field, just like he belonged there, straight to Mr. Kopex’s glove. He picked up the glove as if it were his own and retrieved the same ball that had bounced off Mr. Kopex’s ankle. There were another fifty or sixty balls in a basket behind the mound, all of them scuffed and brown with dirt. The glove was still damp from Mr. Kopex’s hand, and Spooner remembered being introduced to him a long time ago at a faculty Christmas party. Spooner might have been eleven or twelve, and Mr. Kopex’s hand was no bigger than his own. He conjured up the feel of that hand exactly, it was like someone had passed him one of Phillip’s wet diapers.
Russell Hodge pounded the plate.
On the sidelines, Mr. Speers eased Mr. Kopex to the ground—not that he had been so far off the ground—and Tinker bent down in front of him with his hands on his knees and proceeded to scruff his hair playfully and compliment him on giving 120 percent, which was all that anybody could ask. Tinker was not easy with those sorts of compliments—for instance, Spooner couldn’t imagine poor stubby-legged Mrs. Tinker getting even an 85 or 90, even if she fucked him on a trapeze.
A certain look came over Mr. Kopex’s face. This was the third day of the second week of practice, meaning Mr. Kopex had been hearing Tinker’s percentages tossed around for nine days, and now, removed from the business of assistant coaching and back on his home turf, he returned fire.
“A hundred and twenty percent of what?” he said.
“A hundred and twenty percent,” Tinker said, as if percentages were self-evident, like your won-lost record.
Mr. Kopex, who was still sitting on the ground and in pain, nevertheless picked up a small stick and drew a circle. “Show me,” he said, and handed him the stick.
Spooner felt a stillness in his heart, waiting to hear Mr. Kopex discuss percentages with Coach Tinker, and likewise could barely breathe in anticipation of pitching to Russell Hodge.
“Let’s say this is the whole,” Mr. Kopex was saying.
Spooner decided to let Russell Hodge wait.
Coach Tinker set his cap back a little on his forehead again—this was his thinking mode—and said, “The whole what?”
“The whole whatever. The whole pie. And what you’re trying to say is that you want it all. You want a hundred percent.”
“It’s not for me,” Tinker said. “It’s for the youth. I want them to learn to give more than a hundred percent.”
Back in the other direction, Russell Hodge was pounding the plate again with his bat.
“Ah, but that’s just the point,” Mr. Kopex said. “One hundred percent is all there is. That is the whole. That is the definition of the whole.”
“The whole what?”
“The pie. The world. Everything. Where is the extra twenty percent?”
Mr. Speers was nodding along as Mr. Kopex spoke, and Coach Tinker was staring at the circle Mr. Kopex had drawn in the dirt, also nodding, as if he saw what Mr. Kopex was getting at too.
Coach Tinker said, “What I’m trying to instill in these individuals is to want a bigger pie,” and he leaned in even closer and looked at Mr. Kopex’s foot, which had blossomed like an orchid. “You might want to tape that,” he said. “Keep moving it around so it doesn’t stiffen up on you.”
Presently Mr. Speers and the student trainer eased themselves under Mr. Kopex’s arms and began to walk him very slowly back in the direction of school.
Tinker had another quick look at the circle Mr. Kopex had drawn in the dirt, then scrubbed it out with his shoe and turned away from the world of geometry and all its inhabitants. He clapped his hands and blew his whistle. “Let’s go, let’s go, move it …”
Tinker could not stand to waste practice time.
And all around Spooner the throwing and catching resumed, and Russell Hodge pounded the plate again and cocked the bat and waited for Spooner to feed him the ball.
He had never pitched from a mound before—even the roof of Major Shaker’s chicken house was flat—and as he threw he experienced a sensation like stepping into an unseen swale in the road.
The baseball headed east, just missing the wire backstop, passed a foot over Tinker’s head, curving slightly to the north, and vectored on out in the direction of Mr. Kopex, who was holding his injured foot behind him and a few inches off the ground and using Mr. Speers and the student manager as crutches. It hit him, of course, as Spooner already knew it would, struck him exactly on the knob of the heel of the hammer-toed, orchid-blossomed bare foot that Russell Hodge had just mangled with his line drive.
Mr. Kopex dropped to the ground again, bringing the student manager down with him. He cried out, “Oh, for the love of Christ,” and it sounded like he was begging for mercy, but of course if what you are looking for is mercy, high school isn’t the place for you anyway.
Tinker stared at Spooner, trying to remember who he was, then turned to the outfield and called for a new pitcher. And then headed out to tend to Mr. Kopex again.
One of the second stringers fielding balls in the outfield jogged in to throw batting practice. Spooner watched the kid coming, realizing he’d just gone through all the chances he was ever going to get.
He picked a ball out of the basket and motioned Russell Hodge back to the plate. When he looked again, trying to judge how much time he had left until Tinker returned, Mr. Kopex was writhing in the dirt, in a circular motion around his foot, which seemed strangely fixed to one point, as if somebody had pinned it to the ground with a compass from geometry class.
Russell Hodge pounded the plate and stepped in, pointed his bat at Spooner, aiming at him down the barrel. Spooner laid his fingers carefully across the stitches before he threw, putting a little extra pressure on the middle finger so that the ball would tail to the right, and as a result, the pitch hit Russell Hodge in his deaf ear instead of the mouth.
The sound was like breaking the seal on a pickle jar. Russell Hodge curled on the ground, holding both ears, as if the volume of the world was suddenly turned way too high. The thought passed at a strange, leisurely pace through Spooner’s brain that he’d killed Russell Hodge.
His first whiff of celebrity.
He stayed where he was, looking for signs of life, not really sure if he wanted to see any or not, not even sure if he’d hit him on purpose—if the thought had been there before he let the ball go or if his arm had just taken over. It hadn’t been an accident the way hitting Mr. Kopex was an accident, though. Spooner had known when the ball left his hand where it was headed.
What had Margaret said? “I think they just put you in the ground and you rot.”
Tinker knelt beside Russell Hodge and gently rolled him onto his back. “Everybody get back,” he yelled. “Give him air.”
But there wasn’t anybody close enough to suck up Russell Hodge’s air. Most of the players took one look and were inching as far away as they could get. Russell Hodge lay cockeyed in the dust with his eyelids half open, staring off into the blue.
Tinker looked around, frightened. He lifted one of Hodge’s eyelids, stared for a moment and then let it go. He took Hodge’s mouth in his hand, puckering the boy’s lips, and moved his head slowly back and forth. “All right, Hodge,” he said, “let’s shake it off.” But even Tinker—who privately was still of the opinion that running a few laps on a broken femur wasn’t as bad as it looked on paper—even he knew better than that.
He rocked back on his heels, looking at Russell Hodge, and then went forward again and gently fitted his hands under the body—two hundred pounds if he weighed an ounce—and took him up in his arms and stood, and then walked slowly east, back in the direction of school, casting a surprisingly long shadow for a fellow of his height.
Tuesday morning Dr. Baber came on the loudspeaker to announce that Russell Hodge was still in the hospital with a brain injury, but doing well and expected to make a full recovery. A cluster of troublemakers booed from the back of Señor Rosenstein’s second-year Spanish class, where Spooner was at the time, and were sent to Dr. Baber’s office for detention slips. The two cheerleaders in the class both wept in gratitude, and one later claimed to have prayed for his recovery.
Tinker had spent all night and most of the day at Russell’s bedside, and, in the way these things sometimes turn out, news of this simple act of concern went a long way toward repairing his reputation among those who had criticized him after the Lemonkatz affair, and also served as a cooling-off period in another matter, as only last Friday Tinker had caught a student named Richard D. Peck lying under the bleachers reading Othello when he was supposed to be taking the sit-ups portion of his national youth fitness test, and threatened to kill him.
Peck’s family had already notified the school board of its intention to sue.
That afternoon found Spooner standing alone as warm-ups began, Mr. Kopex’s glove curled under his chin like a baby’s head. He felt no guilt about stealing the glove, which he viewed as no worse than grave robbing—grave robbing being one of the terms Spooner still misunderstood at this stage of his matriculation, thinking it meant taking something old or unwanted. Kopex had been in the hallway on crutches when Spooner saw him earlier that day between classes, overwhelmed by the movement and jostling and noise, fighting for breath, sweat soaked and old overnight. No, Kopex wouldn’t want the glove anymore, wouldn’t even want it around the house where it could fall out of the closet and remind him of what had happened.
Spooner was thinking of Mr. Kopex and the glove—grave robbing wasn’t stealing, but it must have been something because he kept thinking about it—when Coach Tinker appeared at his side. “Spoonerman,” he said, and Spooner jumped at the sound of his voice, “I know you’re worried about Hodge.”
Spooner nodded, although the only specific worrying he’d done about Russell Hodge was that he would get out of the hospital and kill him. “The best thing you can do,” Tinker said, “is go out there and give it a hundred and twenty percent. That’s what he’d want.”
Two questions at once: Did this mean Hodge was dead, and was Tinker, after everything that had happened, still going to let him pitch? Spooner hadn’t expected another chance. He was now two pitches into his career in organized baseball, after all, and one had taken out the heart of the school’s math department—Mr. Kopex’s heel was cracked, while the roof of the foot, where Hodge’s line drive had drilled him, was only bruised—and the other had possibly killed the greatest all-around athlete in the history of the Prairie Glen High Golden Streaks.
“How is he?” Spooner said. The truth was Hodge dying still didn’t strike him as the worst way this could end.
“Hodge. Is he dead?”
Tinker gave Spooner a little elbow in the ribs, as if he had just told him a joke or wanted to point out a set of tits. It left Spooner’s ribs tender all week. “Don’t worry about old Hodgie,” he said, “he’ll shake it off. You just throw the baseball. Keep us in it until he gets back.”
Tinker divided his players into two teams that afternoon and put Spooner on the mound to pitch to both sides.
They played three innings before it rained, Spooner getting used to the mound, to the movement of a new unscuffed baseball, to the sense of the players behind him in the field, depending on what he did. The center of attention. He walked two batters and struck out the other eighteen he faced. No hits, no runs, nobody hurt except the catcher, Ken Jonny, a perfect toad of a kid who, although apparently designed without a neck, was in fact hit twice in the neck when balls skipped over his mitt and under his face mask.
[Photo Credit: AB]
Excerpted with permission from Spooner.