(continued from Danny Frisella)
“I was golden,” Richie Hebner is saying.
“Drafted in the first round. Right out of high school. Same age as you.”
I’m lying on the dock in the middle of the lake beside Richie Hebner, both of us staring up at the stars. The stars look like glow-in-the-dark decals.
Same age as me? I try to say. Nothing but a groaning sound comes out, maybe not even that. I’m in the middle of my life. I’m lost. Or I’m a boy saying goodbye to a broken dog lying in a backyard pit. Or I’m just past the baseball card years shooting baskets with a pale kid who dribbles with both hands. Or maybe Richie Hebner is right. Maybe I’ve changed again, grown a little taller and older still. Maybe I’m just out of high school. Lying on the dock beside Richie Hebner.
“My sole purpose in life was to hit a baseball,” Richie Hebner says. “Stand at the plate, wait for my pitch, take a rip.” He sits up. The silver one-hitter he’d been holding is gone. Now he’s holding a silver shovel. He gets to his feet and walks to the edge of the dock. I sit up and look around. I don’t quite remember how I got out here. I don’t remember swimming. The surface of the water is a dim gray. Richie Hebner jabs his shovel at the surface and produces a cracking sound. Ice.
“People think purposelessness equals innocence,” Richie Hebner says. “They think kids have no purpose and that’s what saves them from an awareness of the affliction that is the human condition.” He continues jabbing at the surface with the shovel. I can hear the cracks spreading. The dim gray of the surface seems to shimmer as if coursing with a thin, uneven current. I think I see a figure in the shadows along the dark far shore, but maybe it’s just a bush shuddering in the wind. Except there’s no wind.
“But watch a little kid some time,” Richie Hebner says. He keeps jabbing down at the water, holding the handle with both hands, the motion of his arms each time he jabs down like that of someone checking their swing. “They’re all purpose, man. Their purpose might shift a lot from one thing to another but they’re always locked into whatever it is when they’re doing it. Locked in! Then when they get hauled off to school they get purpose shoved onto them. If they go along with it they’re golden with purpose, and if they fight against it they’re still golden because they’re full of their own invented purpose.”
The dock begins to shudder, starting to move. I always thought it was anchored. The surface of the water around us seems to have begun breaking into pieces. The figure at the edge of the far shore has gotten free of the ice and has begun to move, slowly, haltingly. The pieces of ice breaking loose are gray shimmering rectangles, the widening spaces in between them just darkness.
“After high school, man, that’s when it could happen,” Richie Hebner says. “But not to me, man. I was golden. Like the picture of the guy in the card you’re holding.”
I don’t know how it got there but I now have Bo Diaz’s 1981 card in my hand. A few years after that card came out, in the offseason, his skills in decline, another season of being golden in doubt, Bo Diaz was crushed to death while trying to install a television satellite dish. There’s enough light from Richie Hebner and the glow-in-the-dark stars and the gray shimmering from the rectangles of ice to see that in the card I’m holding Bo Diaz is at bat, waiting for a pitch, determined, locked in, nothing else in the world of any concern. The end of his career is far off, and satellite dishes are still years away from being available to the public.
“Pure purpose,” Richie Hebner says, as if reading my thoughts. “Waiting for that pitch. Knowing it’s gonna be a bitch. Using everything you’ve got to lock in and just fucking connect.” We have begun moving through the water, the blocks of ice thumping against the wood. There seems to be a hissing sound now, as if of wind through trees, but there still is no wind here. We’re moving toward the figure on the shore. Judging from the slowness with which he moves, it’s an old man. He’s pushing something.
“As long as you’re in the batter’s box,” Richie Hebner says. “As long as you, uh, as long. Um. Shit.” He uses the shovel as a paddle. The dock has narrowed to a raft. The shape of the lake seems to be changing as well, narrowing and pushing forward.
“Forgot what I was going to say,” Richie Hebner says. “Always happens on the downslope of the high from this shit. Get all brilliant for a second then it’s Flowers for . . ., for . . . Shit. What was the name of that book about the mouse and the retard?”
Richie Hebner’s glow begins to fade. This makes it easier to see beyond him, to the surface of the lake, which I realize is made up not of rectangular blocks of gray ice but of television sets, hundreds of them piled all around our wooden raft and all the way to the shore, which continues to dissolve, opening out into a narrow extension of the lake. All of the TV screens are hissing with snow, though some of them also flicker with brief glimpses of faces, each glimpse only long enough to make it seem that the figure on screen is in the middle of howling.
“You come to the end of the road,” Richie Hebner says. “That’s when. That’s when the shit gets real.”
We are close enough to the shore to see that the old man is pushing a grocery cart. He is wearing a red uniform with blue piping and a matching short-billed policeman-style cap, cocked a little to the side. Jauntily. It’s my grandfather. The grocery cart has a French horn lying in it. He’s whistling tunelessly with each of his exhalations, something he did when I lived with him near the end of his life. He wanted to hide that he was out of breath.
I lived with him after I got kicked out of high school. You come to the end of the road. No institutionally imposed purpose anymore, no purpose rising up from within. No skills. No specific wants, nobody wanting.
The two of us, my grandfather and I, we drifted though that summer like we were on a rudderless raft. We watched a lot of TV. We went to a nearby pond sometimes. It wasn’t that much bigger than Lake Champagne. He circled the edge of it, as he’s doing now, except then he swam the whole way in a very slow elementary backstroke.
Richie Hebner is barely visible now, and he rows us into the curving river that the lake has given way to. The borders of all the television sets have given way, too, as if melting together, their snow-filled screens all merging, and we drift forward and down as if on a slow river of static. We are drawing closer to my grandfather.
Up until the summer we lived together my grandfather had played in a brass band that gave oompahing concerts at the town band shell every Friday night. He wore the uniform he’s wearing now. But that summer his lungs weren’t up to it anymore. He lost his last scheduled activity.
I try to call out to him now, but nothing comes out.
One day that summer we went to the giant new Stop & Shop. He was amazed. We walked up and down the aisles slow as reverent monks. He pushed the cart, his portable oxygen tank in the upper basket, the tubes from it snaking into his nose. He kept saying the store was the damnedest thing he’d ever seen.
We’re close enough now that Richie Hebner could reach out and touch him with the tip of his shovel, but Richie Hebner doesn’t seem to notice him, and he doesn’t seem to notice us.
When we got home from the Stop & Shop, I’m sure we watched TV because we always watched TV. TV had a schedule, specific start times and end times. The TV was in my grandfather’s bedroom. He sat in his La-Z-Boy and I sat on his mechanized bed, periodically raising and lowering my head and legs with a remote control. My grandmother’s bed lay empty beside me. One show ended and another began.
I try to call out to my grandfather again. We’re past him. He is walking along the shore in the direction we came. He whistles tunelessly with each exhalation. I try to call out to him one last time. He stops, and I think for a moment that he’s heard me. But I understand, because I know him, that he’s stopping to look around at everything, to marvel at everything, as if the darkness and the static and the star-shaped glow-in-the-dark decals are all the damnedest things he’s ever seen.
(to be continued)