A Man of His Own

Susan Wilson

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One
 

The men’s room stinks so badly that Rick walks past it and out the open back door of the tavern. He’s in an alley, a brick wall conveniently placed, so that he conducts his business in privacy. Today was the last day of play for the Waterbury Comets, and Frederick “Rick” Stanton has just spilled his good news to his teammates. Despite the C-league Comets’ losing season, he’s pitched well, and in the spring he’ll report to the minor-league AA team, the Hartford Bees. It was surprisingly hard to say, and he was a little embarrassed to have gotten choked up, especially when they all raised their beer mugs and toasted his good luck.
He’s finally going to be able to say good-bye to cobbled-together amateur teams, and all his years of hard work, from sand lot to high school to playing in college, have paid off. Sacrificing steady employment in a respectable profession like his father’s, banking or accounting, in favor of menial jobs he has no compunction about leaving when practice starts up has been worth it.
Still, he’ll miss these guys, the oldest among them the catcher, “Foggy” Phil Dexter; the youngest, a kid of sixteen who cheerfully takes all their good-natured abuse, lugging most of the equipment, always riding stuck between two bigger players, fetching for the rest of them, and enduring persistent razzing about the state of his virginity.
Finishing up, Rick feels the first drops of rain on his bare head. Those few drops are quickly followed by a complete cloudburst, but he stays where he is. It’s hot inside, and the cool rain feels good. Rick raises his face to the sky and opens his mouth, taking in the taste of fresh rain. “I’m the luckiest man on earth,” he says to the sky, and in that moment, he’s pretty certain that he is. Well, he should get back in. Eat another couple sandwiches, toss back one more beer; laugh at a few more tired jokes. The season is over and no curfew tonight.
Thoroughly soaked now, Rick turns around and trips over something, nearly pitching headlong onto the brick pavers. That something yelps.
It’s a puppy, and rather than running away after being tripped over, it stays put, and for a hard moment, Rick thinks he may have accidentally killed it with his big feet. In the weak light of the open back door, Rick sees the glint of life in its eyes. “Whoa, fella. Where’d you come from?” Rick squats down and the wet and trembling puppy inserts itself between his knees as if seeking shelter. It sits and rests its muzzle on Rick’s leg. As quickly as the cloudburst started, it fades away, the rivulets trickling down the side of the wall, pooling in the interstices between the bricks. “Where’re your people, little guy?”
The puppy shakes, spraying Rick with a thousand droplets. Rick scoops it up and heads back into the tavern. In the light, he can see it’s a boy, silvery in color, with a darker saddle across narrow shoulders and along ribs that poke out like the bones of a chicken. His ears flop over at entirely different angles, as if they belong to two different puppies. Probably a German shepherd, or at least mostly shepherd. The bartender doesn’t say anything when Rick comes in carrying a puppy, so Rick holds him up. “He yours?” The barkeep shakes his head no.
The barkeep’s wife swings a new pitcher onto the table and considers the dog on Rick’s lap. “Probably got dumped out back. You found him, you keep him. Don’t leave him here.”
The puppy has settled neatly on Rick’s lap, gently taking the bits of meat Rick offers without nipping those important fingers with his sharp teeth. He can’t keep a dog; he’s living in a boardinghouse. In nine months, he’ll be at training camp. In a year, with luck, he’ll be pitching for the majors.
“Got to name him if you’re keeping him.” Dan Lister, their manager, spreads a gob of mustard on his third corned beef sandwich. “How ’bout Spot?”
“Too common. Besides, he doesn’t seem to have any spots, and who said anything about me keeping him?” Rick fingers another tiny bite of sandwich into the puppy’s mouth.
“Lucky.” Foggy has slumped in his chair, so that his chin is barely above the edge of the table.
“Well, he is a lucky dog if one of you bums keeps him.” Rick holds the wriggling fur ball up as if offering the puppy for auction.
“Darby?” This from the kid.
“Darby?”
“I had a dog named Darby. My dad’s Irish. It’s how they say Derby over there. Darby was a real good dog, never left my father’s side all the time he was sick with tuberculosis. We even let him come to the funeral.”
The group grows silent. No one had known that the kid was a half orphan.
“Maybe I’ll call him Rin Tin Tin. He looks like he might be shepherd.” Rick scratches the puppy under the chin. “What do you think? You gonna grow up to be some kind of movie star hero dog?” The puppy yawns, drops his head, and is instantly asleep. Rick realizes what he’s just said. If he names this puppy, how will he ever drop him back in the alley? It’s not even fair to keep the dog on his lap, to allow the little thing to accept a few minutes of comfort, let him think that humans are trustworthy. The party will break up soon, and what then? Abandon the tyke to the elements? His first trust in humans to do right by him destroyed, and maybe he’ll never trust another human being again. Rick can feel the puppy’s beating heart in the palm of his pitching hand. The fluff of baby fur feels like the softest mink of his mother’s fur stole as Rick strokes him, lifting the spatula-shaped paws and feeling the thick bones of a puppy with the potential to become a large dog. If he’s not hit by a car or starved to death.
Dan Lister pushes away from the table. “I’m done in. Go to bed, gentlemen. I bid you farewell. Keep healthy and see you”—he looks at Rick—“most of you, in the spring.” The manager presses both hands on the table, suggesting that he’s more sober than he is.
The bartender hands Rick a length of string for a leash, but Rick carries the ten pounds of soft fur in his arms. Foggy is bumbling into chairs and tables while trying to find the front door. “Come on, Phil, throw an arm over my shoulder.”
Foggy Phil Dexter gladly slings his arm over Rick’s neck and leans into him. “You’ll be great. Bees need a good curveball pitcher.” His breath is rank with beer and pastrami, but Rick doesn’t mind. Phil’s been a good friend and taught him a lot about the game. “By God, you’ll be in the majors in a year.”
“Your mouth to God’s ear.” Rick bears the weight of the man and the small burden of the puppy as they walk the few blocks to their boardinghouse.
Everything that he’s done has been fed by his lifelong ambition to play for the majors. Rick has never wanted anything else in his life. As a kid, he asked Santa for gloves and balls and bats; as a teen, he paid his own way to baseball camp, using the money he earned from a paper route. He never learned to sail, letting his father practically adopt the next-door neighbor’s kid to crew for him. Tomorrow, he’ll head down to his parents’ Greenwich home. He wonders if, when he gives them his good news, his extraordinary and long-awaited news, they’ll finally respond with some pride and enthusiasm.
The puppy in his hand wriggles himself up and under Rick’s chin. Well, so what if they don’t. He’s a grown man, he’s stuck to his plan, and now, at very nearly the last minute, at age twenty-seven, he’s finally there. Almost. He doesn’t want to be the world’s oldest rookie when he finally gets the call to major-league baseball.
Maybe this will be the last winter keeping fit by any means possible while substitute teaching or doing temporary work at a busy accounting firm. In eight months, he’ll be back in training, a hardball in his hand, sensitive fingers feeling for the seams, the magic of that perfect throw. The future spools out in front of him: a winning season with the minor-league Bees, then getting the call to the majors. His first appearance in the National League. Rick sees himself doffing his ball cap and waving at cheering fans. He’s paid his dues, by God. Forfeited job security and Mary Ann Koble, who didn’t want to be a ballplayer’s wife.
The puppy yawns, burrows his tail end deeper into the crook of Rick’s arm. Why not keep him? He could be a mascot. A lucky charm. A companion on all those miles of roadwork.
There is a church along the way, more beautiful than any other building on this defeated main street; its all-white marble facade glows softly in the newly rain-freshened air. Picked out in gold leaf on the pediment are Latin words: Gloriam Deo Pax In Terra.
“Pax. Peace.” Rick looks at the puppy in his arms, now sleeping with utter trust in the man carrying him. It’s started raining again, a warm drizzle that makes the wet pavement shimmer beneath the sparse streetlamps. “I’m the luckiest man on earth.”
Pax. The puppy in Rick’s arms suddenly wakes. He reaches up with his baby muzzle and his long pink tongue comes out to lick Rick’s nose. Pax.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Susan Wilson