(continued from Richie Hebner)
The downsloping corridor narrows to a tunnel. I keep going. It begins slightly curving to the left as it descends. I catch glimpses of the back of Richie Hebner’s windbreaker for a while but soon lose sight of him altogether. There’s not much light. The cold clay walls and ceiling continue to constrict. I keep going. I start to hunch down to keep from hitting my head. But instead of hunching down I grow smaller. I grow smaller and lighter and younger. This happens with the same slight but visceral inner effort, a tensing of the stomach muscles, that in dreams of flight precedes liftoff. I start to hunch down and instead grow smaller and lighter and younger. Meanwhile, the leftward curve of the tunnel sharpens. I see in my mind the shape of my route so far. I’m in a spiral. A downward spiral. In dreams when the world is too much we lift up off the ground and fly. Here as I move away from the world the way I always do, in a downward spiral, I keep growing smaller and lighter and younger. And I keep going.
Finally the tunnel narrows to a dead end, the tip of the spiral. I’ve grown as small and light and young as a child. I can barely see anything. I can feel where the tunnel comes to an end. There are clumps of hard cold dirt there, like the replaced chunks of a freshly dug hole. I pull at them and through the cracks that open I see flashes of light. I know these cold hard chunks. I know this hole, this grave. I hear a muffled voice. It comes from the other side, below the chunks.
“The fuck?” the voice says.
The flashes continue, accompanied each time by a quick, flinty sound, like a lock opening. And, closer to me, just on the other side of the piled chunks, there is the faint sound of whimpering. I know this whimpering. I know where I am. This is the fall of 1976. I’m 8. I’m pulling the chunks of earth away. On the other side comes the flinty chk and a flash of light. The hole opens wider and I see I’m not the only one making an opening. This is the fall of 1976 and I’m shivering and the long winter is about to start and the ground is frozen and our beautiful dog Jupiter has just died and my stepfather Tom has spent all afternoon weeping while pick-axing the frozen ground to make a grave and we’ve said our goodbyes and cried in the backyard and he’s gone but he’s not gone he’s pulling away at the chunks right now just like I am and here he is.
Here he is alive again.
Jupiter, Jupiter, I try to say, the words buried, tremors. Hey boy.
He barges his muscular body through the opening and begins licking my wet salty face, his whole self wagging. I kiss his fuzzy muzzle and hug him and pet him. When we moved to Vermont he was the beautiful heartbeat of our family, a big red and black and gold song of pure motion in love with everything alive. The stranger who hit him with a pickup truck carried him to our doorway in tears.
Now he darts in the direction I’ve come but immediately returns when I don’t follow. He was always that way. Is always that way. Darting up ahead and then checking back with everyone one at a time, every hike for him a hundred times longer than for any of us.
“Just bought this piece of shit from the mini-mart,” the voice on the other side of the opening mutters.
I pet Jupiter with one hand and pull away enough of the chunks of his beaten grave to allow my body to pass through. Jupiter whimpers but follows.
Richie Hebner is there, trying to light something with a lighter that can only seem to throw off sparks. He glances at me.
“Hey, pudlips,” he says. “You pack flame?”
I shake my head. He starts trying the lighter again. In the flashes from the sparks I catch glimpses of the room. It’s the size of the kind of basement I never had, the warm and compact all-American sunken playroom of television-show families. Our basement was always a dark, scary place, one of the parts of my family’s attempt to build a new pure life in the country that remained forever unfinished.
Jupiter takes a seat next to me, leaning his body into mine. I can feel the warmth and weight of him.
Richie Hebner finally gets his lighter to work. For a long time the flame lights up his face and his small silver baseball-bat-shaped one-hitter. It also lights up the room. The walls have been painted like the stands of a baseball stadium during a game, everywhere the blurred shapes and colors of a crowd.
I glimpse a man in the corner in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, looking as if he has just thrown a pitch. His name is written in black letters beneath him.
He has a wad of tobacco in his mouth. It’s a moment of pure life, the beat between something and something. Will the pitch be a strike or a screamer through the box? Will the pitch sail past the catcher and roll to the backstop? Will the fielders then walk to the dugout, the season gone, the regal rightfielder moving particularly slow, as if he knows it’s his last time? Anything can happen until it can’t.
The flame of Richie Hebner’s lighter goes out. It’s dark for a while. I feel Jupiter against me and hear him panting. Richie Hebner makes some choking sounds with his throat and then coughs and coughs.
“I knew him,” he says, his voice hoarse. I can’t see anything. “We were teammates.”
What’s going to happen to him? I try to say.
It’s the fall of 1976, winter on the way. Bob Moose, who four years earlier threw a wild pitch that made Roberto Clemente’s last on-field moment a loss, wrecks his car. It’s the fall of 1976, winter on the way. Bob Moose is twenty-nine. He wrecks his car and ends.
What’s going to happen to him? I try to say.
“Man, I’m lit,” Richie Hebner says, still hoarse. There seems to be a chuckle in his voice. The room has grown a little brighter. Richie Hebner isn’t chuckling or smiling. But he is glowing, just a little, like a glow-in-the-dark frisbee. I use his light to find Bob Moose again. Bob Moose is still frozen in the in-between moment, the middle of a heartbeat.
“He was just a month and a half older than me,” Richie Hebner says. “We were champions.”
What about now? I try to say. I hold onto Jupiter. What’s going to happen to him now?
Richie Hebner just stares at me. Then he turns and walks toward a dugout that has been painted onto the wall below the blurry colors of the crowd. Somehow he walks into the dugout, then through a door to what must be the clubhouse, taking the light with him. I find Jupiter’s collar and hold onto it. In dreams you sometimes find out that you’ve always known how to fly. I find out I can talk to Jupiter, that I have always been able to talk to Jupiter. I don’t even have to use words. I tell him I don’t want to stay here with Bob Moose. I don’t want to stay here in between something and something.
Jupiter stands and starts moving. I keep my hand on his collar. I shuffle along and hold one hand out to feel for a wall but the wall never comes. We descend concrete steps. It must be the dugout. We pass through a doorway into a hallway, Richie Hebner walking a few feet ahead and glowing like a glow-in-the-dark frisbee. There is faraway music now, echoing, the rippling sun-water sounds of the start of Wouldn’t It Be Nice? I let go of Jupiter’s collar. He stays with me. We’re spiraling again, the curve in the hallway opening to a new and growing brightness that the gravedigger walks toward and we follow and he seems to join the light and Wouldn’t It be Nice? and we follow.
(to be continued)