EDIT: As K. Tuttle points out, the prologue has something different happening than I have here…the joy of pubbing your first drafts online 🙂 It’ll all be reconciled perfectly in the final edition, I swear!
CHAPTER EIGHT – ONE LAST MINUTE
“Little pig, little pig, let me in,” Brian growled at the door of the cabin, his arms full of wood.
“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!” Roger squeaked, grinning madly as he opened the door.
“Fuck it’s cold!” Brian shuddered, throwing the wood down by the already-roaring stove. He’d bundled up to ludicrous lengths for the short walk to the woodpile, but he was Santa Vera born-and-bred, used to the balmy climes of southern California, where the weathermen advised you to bring your pets and plants inside and urged the homeless to seek shelter whenever the temperature went below 50.
Roger laughed. “Dude, you were out there five minutes.”
“You could die of exposure in five minutes.”
“Maybe, naked, in the Antarctic. Not in the Sierras swaddled in every Patagonia product in existence.”
“Easy for you to say, you didn’t have to go out there.” Brian squatted in front of the stove’s open doors, warming his hands.
“Here,” Roger said, handing him a cup of cocoa.
“Aww, thanks, mom.”
Roger sat on the couch with his own cocoa and sighed.
Brian turned around. “What?”
“Nothing,” Roger said, startling himself. “Absolutely nothing. I’m relaxed. I have nothing to do and nothing to prepare for and nothing to worry about.”
Brian thought about that. “Yeah, huh? No shit. Wow. We’ve just been…”
“Energizer bunnies,” Brian laughed.
Roger smiled, willed himself not to think about Brian’s Adderall habit. Sometime this week, he’d learned to let go of that, among other things. It was February, Roger’s first dead time of the year and Brian’s last, and other than a brief encounter at Christmas, it was the first real time they’d spent together since…well, shit. Since college, really.
“You still game for the cross country ski thing?”
“Hell, yeah,” Brian said, his competitive spirit outboxing his loathing of the cold. He joined Roger on the couch, and Roger rested his head on Brian’s shoulder. Brian put his arm around his friend, pulling him in. Roger sighed again, and so did Brian.
It had been awkward, the first night. It had been so long, and Roger wanted to fling himself at Brian, as he’d done in that hotel room…but he was afraid the result would be the same. That Brian would tell him how many women he’d been with, and how many times he hadn’t been careful, and Roger didn’t want to know.
As bedtime approached that first night, Brian said, “I, um. So listen. I know you don’t want to hear this, but…”
Roger braced himself.
“…the Adderall. I’m still taking it. Sometimes some other stuff too. And I can’t…it’s embarrassing. But, I can’t get a hardon much anymore.”
Roger held his breath. “And the other women, have you…?”
“No,” Brian said. “I haven’t. I’ve kept it in my pants.” He laughed mirthlessly. “Which is easy when it doesn’t want to come out of ‘em.”
Roger felt a wave of guilt immediately following the wave of relief. He should be upset that Brian was still on league-banned substances without a prescription. But the thought that they were keeping him from fucking around, well, made him secretly happy, in a dark, angry way that shocked him.
“So,” Brian ventured. “Can we just, you know, sleep together?”
“Of course,” Roger said, realizing as he said it that this was what he needed right now, more than sex, more than anything – to hold and be held, to feel…together with someone. Even if it was a fucked up relationship, even if it wasn’t all it could be, should be, it was something. Given the circumstances, he told himself, it’s more than I can expect.
Strangely enough, not fucking had brought them closer together. Brian had brought his little speed pills with him, Roger knew, but he’d cut back for their winter idyll. His friend slept ten, twelve hours a night, which was fine because Roger was clocking at least nine himself, worn out from a grueling postseason that had seen the Phoenix Skywalkers get close, so close, to the Super Bowl under Roger’s glittering leadership, only to fall short in the NFC championship game.
Brian’s offseason had been hectic, too. His three-run homer at his first at-bat had brought him a flurry of media attention, and his gorgeous face and crooked grin (combined with a sustained performance at the plate the rest of September) had brought him sponsorship deals, personal appearance fees, invitations to awards ceremonies as the squire to various starlets and supermodels (more than one of whom had been disappointed by his gentle refusal of an “after party”), the life of the celebrity athlete.
And when ESPN had discovered that Roger and Brian were best buddies in college, that Brian went home to Santa Vera at Christmas not to his own dysfunctional family but to Roger’s house, well, cue tinkly piano time indeed. Nobody was clued in to their real relationship, thankfully – Brian had to laugh; ironically the fact that his own awful family had driven him into the arms of Roger’s covered up the other facts.
And Roger’s own performance had sent the media into overdrive as well. How could a rookie in the NFL step in to the shoes of first-string QB and do…that! This! The other! Take his team into the postseason! Of course everyone was disappointed when the Saints beat the Skywalkers to take the Super Bowl berth, but then, on reflection they realized, holy shit, how did the rook get that far? And now he too was coping with the swarm of offers, invitations, “remember me” phone calls from people he didn’t remember at all.
Up here in what Brian referred to as the “stabbin’ cabin,” south of Lake Tahoe and down a private road they’d had to pay someone to plow in order to get to it, there was no cell phone reception, no Internet, and only Jacob knew where they were and how to get hold of them in a dire emergency. Brian was finally free of the calls he hated the most – the ones from his dad, now fawning, admiring, full of the praise he’d so stinted on when Brian was growing up. The ones he didn’t answer, and didn’t return.
They didn’t talk about their relationship, about their future, about Brian’s drug problem. They hiked and went cross-country skiing and watched DVDs and cooked and ate and slept.
Later, Brian told himself. Later I’ll feel guilty I couldn’t fuck him, that I’m off to spring training soon and won’t see him again until who knows when. Later I’ll feel guilty that I’m on drugs and can’t stop, don’t dare stop. If he was going to enjoy this moment, then all he could do was put off all those feelings till later, whenever that was. He knew from experience that later would come when he was alone, and lonely, and suddenly overwhelmed by all the attention, the expectations
Roger on the other hand postponed nothing. He allowed the grief, the sorrow, to wash over him, to think of the pain of their parting, the loneliness inside him without that full connection with Brian, Brian deep inside him filling the hole he didn’t even know existed until Brian wasn’t there to fill it. Someday, he thought, we’ll be together for good, for real. Not today, but someday. He smiled. There it was, the marshmallow test again. That was okay. He could wait.
CRACK. Brian dropped the bat, watched it sail, took his run around the bases as the crowd went wild. He was the guy! He was the man! Here it was, only May, and he was on pace to break the team record for most RBIs.
High fives all around when he got to the dugout, and only Joe’s eyes, evaluating him, searching him, dented his exuberance. He knows, Brian thought, seeing the older man’s unsmiling face as he took his turn congratulating Brian. He knows it’s all a lie.
There were whispers, of course. Anyone who did this well, this fast, was suspect. But there were none of the signs of steroid use – no freakish sudden growth, no “giant Barry Bonds head” syndrome. In fact, he was losing weight, just like every player who bulked up in the offseason and saw the toll of the season take their muscle mass. Only maybe he was losing a little more weight than was normal. Maybe more than he ought to and keep this power up much longer. But right now, it was all good. He’d always been a big dude, so to be a little less big, not such a big deal. Right?
“Did you hear?” Sam Farr asked him as they sat there, gobbling sunflower seeds and watching the action.
“About Marcus Karnuson.” Brian looked down the dugout for the right fielder, and didn’t see him.
“Tested positive for PEDs.”
“Huh.” Brian wasn’t surprised; Karnuson had shown up at spring training with Mark McGwire’s old body.
“He’s naming names, and it’s gonna be trouble for a lot of people. Turns out there’s some guy in the minors who’s been supplying all kinds of shit to guys.”
Brian froze. “Some guy?”
“Yeah, Jeremy something. Marcus ratted him out, and I guess he rolled just as fast.”
That’s it, he thought, a strange sensation settling over him. He looked at the field, the dugout, with longing, with regret. It’s all over. Jeremy would name him, and he would be tested, and come back positive for stimulants, and pow, another Golden Boy bites the dust.
“You okay, son?” Working Joe asked him after the game.
Brian smiled weakly. “Yeah, Joe, I’m fine.”
Joe didn’t smile back. “Come on. I’ll buy you a beer.”
The first pain set in, the first anticipation of how awful the times about to come would be. How could he let Joe treat him well, when he deserved to be punched by the man? The man who’d come to work for how many thousands of day, never imbibing anything more performance-improving than a cup of coffee?
“No, thanks, I…”
“I insist,” Joe said with steel in his voice.
Time to go to the woodshed, Brian thought. Let’s get it over with.
At the bar, Brian knocked his beer back fast. Joe didn’t say anything as he nursed his, only signaled for another for Brian.
“Son, there’s some trouble ahead for you.”
Brian nodded. “I know.”
“There’s a guy who’s saying he sold you steroids.”
Brian blinked. “What?”
Brian laughed. “That’s…that isn’t true. There’s…” He sighed. Joe had become a mentor to him, without even trying – had just been there for him. Brian had just been Brian, helping the other guys out with their mechanics, and lately Joe had been there, too, watching, standing with him, adding advice. Making Brian his…equal, almost. It had been almost as exhilarating as hitting homers, having Joe there, just like a…
Well, never mind that. That’s all over with. He knocked back his second beer.
“I’ve been on uppers for a while now, Joe. That’s why I’ve been hitting so well.”
Joe didn’t blink; it clearly wasn’t news to him. “Yeah, I thought so.”
Brian frowned. “But…you still. You haven’t…” He was at a loss.
“Haven’t cut you off, denounced you, turned you out?”
Joe looked at Brian with his steel blue eyes, still as clear and bright as they’d been twenty years earlier in his own rookie season, only the crinkles around them betraying the passing of time. “Brian, I’ve been playing this game a long time. I’ve seen it all. Drugs, strippers, steroids, wife beatings, gun charges, fighting…” He sighed. “Give young men a lot of fame and a lot of money and bad shit happens sometimes. But, I know you, son.”
Brian swallowed a lump in his throat. Son. How could he still call me that? With a shock, Brian realized that Joe didn’t use the term lightly. In fact, Brian couldn’t think of another man on the team with whom Joe used the term.
“So here’s how it’s going to go down. You’ll be tested, you’ll come up positive. There’ll be a hearing, you’ll need your player rep to go, you’ll be suspended. You can fight the suspension, declare your innocence…”
“No.” The sun came out inside Brian as fast as it had gone away. The solution was apparent. Obvious. Complete. It solved…everything. He would be worthy of Joe, of Roger, he would do…something else with his life. Maybe coach somewhere someday, like McGwire ended up doing.
“No. I’m not going to fight it.”
Joe bit his lip, nodded. “Okay. Just keep silent, then. Take it like a man. It might be a fifty game suspension, you know.”
He smiled. I’m going to be punished. He couldn’t believe how happy it made him – to be punished for cheating, all his life, cutting corners, skating on talent. For cheating on Roger, for disappointing Roger, for letting down all the kids who’d started asking for his autograph. I’ll take it. Then, a clean slate.
And Roger. Roger can disown me, deny me, move on with his life. That hurt. The thought of Roger, gone. But for once, Brian decided, I’m going to do something for him. I’m going to give him his life back.
He smiled at Joe. “I’ll take it, Joe.”
Joe smiled back at him at last, clapped him on the shoulder. “Good man. So. Let’s eat. Alice will have supper on the table soon.”
“At your house?”
“Where else, son?”
Son. Still. He couldn’t believe it. Fathers were supposed to be at their worst when their sons were at their weakest. That was the way fathers were, right?
Maybe not always, a faintly hopeful voice said inside him.
Joe’s house, strangely enough, was a suburban three-bedroom house in a decent section of Portland where he and his wife had lived for twenty years, raising two kids, gone now to college. Alice greeted Brian with a hug and a smile and a glass of iced tea and it was like a dream to Brian, like…like a TV show, with a mom and dad and a roast chicken dinner and potatoes and have some more, you need to put some weight on, honey.
And afterward, Brian and Joe sat on the porch outside, and Brian finally said. “I’ll miss you, Joe.”
“What do you mean?”
“When, you know, it’s all over. When I’m gone.”
Joe narrowed his eyes. “It’s going to be a suspension, Brian. It’s not forever.”
“Yeah,” Brian said, not believing it, knowing in his heart this was the end for him, the end of his career. “But one day I’ll leave Portland and baseball and I won’t see you anymore and…”
“Bullshit,” Joe said, shocking Brian, as the man had a reputation for never swearing. “You’re part of my family now, Brian. Listen to me. You’ve got character. You’ve got…weaknesses, but every man does. But when I see you with those boys, the instinct you have for this game, the way you can communicate how to play it, how to improve at it… You’re not leaving baseball, Brian. And you’re not getting rid of me that easily, either.”
Brian wanted to cry. But then some dark part of him said, o yeah, there’s one more thing you can tell him. Then he’ll let you go.
“Joe, I’m gay.”
“Yeah. You and Roger Ehrens. I knew that.”
Brian sat up. “What?” He was terrified that the whole world knew, terrified that Roger’s career would be over, and that too would be his fault.
“Like I said, I’ve seen it all. I’m not blind. I’ve seen you on the phone with him, seen you right after, the glow on your face. I get that after I call Alice from the road, I’ve seen it in the mirror enough times. And the jokes the guys make about your football boyfriend, your celebrity friendship, the way you participate in the joke but it’s because it’s easy to participate because it’s true.” He shrugged. “I heard you had quite the reputation in the minors as a ladies’ man. So I didn’t think much of it at first. Couldn’t make sense of it.”
Brian blushed. “I…I couldn’t stay faithful to him, on the road. It was too much, being alone, being fucking horny, sorry about the language…”
“Oh, I know. You think Alice and I never had phone sex?”
Brian spluttered with laughter at the picture, America’s sweethearts talking dirty and touching themselves.
“Yeah, go on, laugh. But it worked. We both stayed faithful, even though we had…urges. Both of us are very sexual people. Anyway. So does he know about the speed?”
“Yeah.” Brian realized that Roger would defend him in public, realized that he had to stop him. I can’t let him go down with my ship.
“Well, there’s that, at least. It won’t be a shock to him.”
“I forgive you, Brian. Roger will forgive you. But you’re going to have to learn to forgive yourself, too.”
Brian nodded. “I…This means a lot to me, Joe. My dad wasn’t…” He broke off.
“I know. Trust me, I know from experience. I swore I’d never be that kind of dad myself. I’m behind you, Brian. Whatever you want to do.”
It was as if Joe had given him wings, the wings his own father should have given him long ago, the sense a boy should have that he could jump and wouldn’t fall, would fly, and if he failed to fly, he’d be caught, safe and sound.
“Thanks. I know what I want to do.”
“You have to fight it,” Roger said automatically.
“No,” Brian said. “I’m guilty. I’m going to take my lumps.” Pissing in a cup had never felt so good as it had that morning, knowing what the result would be, knowing there was nothing left to hide, nothing to worry about.
“I’ll make a statement, I’ll say you’re…”
“No. No you won’t,” Brian said as firmly as Joe had spoken to him. “Don’t say anything, Roger.”
“Let me…let me do this. Let me go.”
Roger stood in his hotel room, staring out the window, barely able to hold the phone up, as stunned as if he’d gotten news of a death in the family. Not because Brian had gotten caught but because…something final as a death was happening, and he couldn’t stop it.
“You’re leaving me,” he said at last.
“I’m letting you go on with your life. Giving you the chance to find someone, something better.”
“I don’t want someone else. I want you, Brian, warts and all. Goddammit.”
Brian smiled. “Then let me go for a while. Let me…become something better than I am now. So I can feel like I deserve you.”
What surprised Roger most of all was the surge of pride he felt in Brian. A surge of pride that seemed to even outweigh the ache of their parting. “I don’t want you to stand up there by yourself. With no support.”
“I do have support. I have you, I have Joe, I hope I still have your dad.”
“You do. Don’t ever doubt that.”
“Then I can do this. Just because I’m standing there alone, doesn’t mean I’m alone. I love you, Roger. Fuck, I love you so much.”
“I’m not letting you go. You’re not leaving me.”
“Just for a while. Till I’m…wherever I am next. Please.”
Roger swallowed hard. “Okay. But not for long. Not forever. You don’t get off that easy, mister.”
Brian smiled. “I know. I’ll be in touch. Soon.”
“Okay. Don’t ever forget that I love you.”
“I won’t. I love you too. That’s why I’m doing this, you know.”
“I know. I hate it.”
“This too shall pass.”
Roger laughed. “Right.”
It was a huge suspension. Fifty games. The guys who’d been on steroids got 100. Jeremy got a lifetime ban from baseball, and was looking at possible prison time. Time to send a message, blah blah, Congress suspending all work on the nation’s real problems to have an extended shit fit about a game where men hit balls with sticks.
Joe had insisted on accompanying Brian to the press conference. He’d be live on ESPN for the last time.
“It’s going to ruin your reputation,” Brian said, getting into Joe’s car and smoothing out his tie. “Hanging out with a guy like me.”
“People will say we’re in love,” Joe replied, just as nattily dressed for the press, and Brian laughed. This would be easy, so easy, compared to everything else that had brought him to this place, this time.
The cameras were clicking, flashing madly, as Brian took the podium. At least, he thought, this is the last time I’ll have to go snow blind from the attention.
“I have a short statement. Major League Baseball has suspended me for fifty games for violation of the substance abuse policy. I have elected to retire from baseball instead. I hope someday to regain the trust of the fans and the institution. That is all.” He started to leave the podium.
“Brian! Are you guilty?”
He went back to the podium. “What do you think?”
“Is that an admission of guilt?”
“Does it matter? Honestly? Yeah, I’m guilty. I did speed. Lots of it. And I got caught.”
“Why didn’t you fight this? Why just retire instead of taking the suspension?”
He gripped the podium, leaned forward. “Because I don’t want to play. Baseball, I want to play. I want to play it so bad. You can see how bad because of what I did to make it. But I don’t want to play…this. This game. This bullshit game. Where I either declare my innocence, right? Everyone lies and says they’re innocent, it was a lab error, that’s not my bag, someone put it in my drink.” The reporters laughed.
“Or, I say nothing and let the lawyers whack the suspension down to 20 games. Or I take the 50, but even then, that’s when the real game starts, the real bullshit, right? That’s when I have to say, oh my God, I’m so sorry, I’m so full of regret, please forgive me. Am I sorry? No. I don’t think I could have made the majors without speed. I’ve always had a lot of talent, but I’ve always been a corner-cutter, always looked for the shortcut. Always got what I wanted the easy way. Failed the marshmallow test, every time. Look it up, you’ve got Internet access.
“And you know what? Everyone says they’re sorry. So so sorry, even, especially, when they’re not. So that you’ll forgive them, so they can get it all back. You want us to hit home runs, you want us to jump and run and do amazing shit, and we want you to love us, we want to do that for your love, and if it takes a fucking pill to do it, I’ll take it. Most guys would take it. Tell me none of you take Viagra.” More laughter.
“But when we get caught, then you want us to break down and cry, and strip naked in front of you and get into the Forgive-0-Matic 3000, to the whole route through rehab for something, anything. Then go on Oprah and confess again, and bawl, and let her tear you a new asshole, and then it’s the speaking tour, kids don’t do what I did, etc. You want us to do it, you want us to do anything it takes to entertain you…you just don’t want us to get caught.
“Well, I got caught. I don’t deserve to be in the major leagues. I don’t deserve…” He choked up. “I don’t deserve the friends and the support and the love I’m getting right now. But I’m going to find a way to deserve it. I am. Goodbye.”
Silence. Other than the clicking of cameras, total silence. Then a rustling murmur, a fever, growing, swelling. Tweets, going out, clips, being posted, the chattering classes running amok. Something new, something unexpected.
Roger watched with tears running down his face, remembering what Brian had said, a million years ago – press conferences were always boilerplate, but everyone showed up, just in case, just in case you fucked up, went off message. Well, nobody had ever gone further off message than Brian had just now, he thought with a smile.
The other guys in pre-camp who’d taken a break with him to watch it said nothing. Then, finally, Royal Jackson spoke.
“Damn. That was fucking amazing.”
Other players nodded. “Good for him.”
“Took it like a champ.”
“Told the fuckin’ truth.”
They clapped Roger on the back as if Brian had won an award, as if Roger’s friendship with Brian had magically transformed from liability to asset.
Brian, Roger thought with a crazy smile. You bastard. Go on and become a better man. You’re halfway there already. I’ll see you soon, dammit.