Spring 1988, Volume 5.1
Greg Luthi (M.A., Kansas State U) is presently working on his Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. "Grace" is his first published story.
In 1963, my parents bought me my first car, a new Ford Thunderbird, for graduating as the valedictorian of my class.
I got the T-Bird late in May, just after school ended and many of my classmates were baling hay with their fathers, grandfathers, and uncles in the alfalfa fields outside of Chapman, Kansas. I had no connections with agriculture in that small farm community; my father was the principal of the high school, my mother one of the secretaries. Elitism kept me from asking for a job baling hay or driving a truck during the wheat harvest, and I suffered for it. Desperately wanting money, I had to swallow my pride and agree to do custodial work for my father, starting in June. So, while my classmates spent the summer toning their muscles and getting tans, I was relegated to the dim halls of the school, wrestling a floor waxer across the dull green tiles.
But for a few days there in May, before my job started, the time was mine, and I spent it breaking in my new T-Bird on Old Forty, the highway set on a ridge curving along the base of the hills south of town. Below me, where the ridge sloped into bottom land, were fields of ripening wheat, dusty plowed earth, and cut alfalfa lying in windrows waiting to be packed into bales. In the distance, the varied colors of the land seemed laid out in an intricate geometrical pattern, dotted by men, boys, and machinery. Sometimes I stopped my car on the shoulder of the highway, got out, and stood gazing across the fields; though I'd never worked in them, they were a sight I wanted to remember.
One afternoon I met Buddy Tibbitts walking along the highway; I guessed there'd been a breakdown in the field and he was going for help. I didn't know him well enough except to say hi, but here was a classmate who'd soon be playing minor league ball for the Red This, along with the fact that he'd taken to the prom the girl I wanted to ask, gave me the incentive to offer him a ride.
I had other reasons as well. Even in our small high school, which graduated seventy-seven seniors in 1963, it was impossible to know everyone, especially someone like Buddy, who seemed nice enough but kept to himself. He was the closest thing to a celebrity the school had, a handsome young man who swatted base hits as consistently as he cut off grounders at second. What he thought of the attention no one knew, but he seemed reluctant to be cast in the role of the jock, always standing at the edge of that clique, content to be a watcher when he could have so easily been the leader. His silence gave him an air of mystery he never intended to cultivate; my classmates used to joke about him being left by someone unknown on the doorstep of Tibbitts' farmhouse. But he seemed modest enough, always mannered and polite, and everyone liked him. Even I, with my great but abstract ambitions that made me sensitive to competition, felt no hostility toward him. I might envy him, but he was impossible to dislike.
Such was the case when he and I took an interest in Susan Young. She was a plain-looking girl with braces, but had beautiful brown hair I was always tempted to touch as I sat behind her in class. She was also shy and very smart—just my type. It never occurred to me that Buddy thought she was his type too.
While I sat in the cafeteria one day, practicing imaginary conversations in which I asked her to the prom, he stood in the parking lot with her, asking her the same question. She must have been stunned, because he had shown no interest in her, or in any other girl. At any rate, she accepted, and, on prom night, she looked beautiful in the way truly happy people do. 1, meanwhile, had to settle for my second choice, my pal Didi Konkle, who played second trombone to my first. But I wasn't angry with Buddy. Having his pick of all the girls in school—and in two or three other schools as well—he chose Susan for the qualities I also admired.
When I offered him a ride that afternoon he was polite as usual.
"Thanks, Virgil, I appreciate it," he said, putting on his shirt before he got in. He smelled of sweat, dust, and alfalfa, the lower half of his forehead tan and dirty, the upper half starkly white from being hidden by his Reds ballcap. Self-conscious, he sat with his knees together and hands folded in his lap, as if he were afraid he'd dirty my new car. "This is some car you've got."
"Thanks," I said, suddenly embarrassed; Buddy drove an ailing old pickup he'd saved from the junk yard.
"I figured you'd be with the Reds by now," I said.
"I told them school wouldn't end till next week. I want to help my dad finish the hay first."
"Have a breakdown?"
"A belt on the baler broke. And both our trucks're still in the shop, so we were stuck."
At the Coop station he got a new belt and bought us bottles of Pepsi, saving one for his father. On the way back, I asked him how he felt about playing pro ball, a question he was probably tired of hearing.
But he smiled and said, "I'm scared shitless." I knew enough not to patronize him, to laugh off his comment and tell him what a great player he was. Instead I waited for him to say more.
"You know," he said after taking a swig of Pepsi, "all I want to do is play in the majors. I don't want to be another Mickey Mantle, I don't need a lot of money. All I want is a few years in the majors, a chance to be a respectable player for any team, good or bad. That's more than most guys get."
"Farm with my dad."
At that moment I realized he recognized something none of the rest of us had ever considered: his limitations. He understood the world would grant him no favors, that it would grant them to very few of us, and already he had adjusted his sights accordingly, making preparations.
"What're you going to do, Virgil?" he asked.
"Go to college. I don't know what I'll end up being, though."
"In a way that's good," he said, but before I could ask him what he meant, he told me where to turn off - He got out of the car at the edge of the alfalfa field, thanking me again.
"What happens if you do become famous?" I asked.
He smiled and said, "It'll never happen. It's not in the cards."
Back on the highway, I started to drive away, but then pi led off to the side of the road, where I watched Buddy and his father. In minutes they had replaced the belt and started up again, Myron Tibbitts driving the tractor, Buddy standing on the hayrack, hooking and stacking the bales with the easy rhythmic grace he used in batting practice. Working there in the dry, dusty field, he seemed oblivious to the world, to anything beyond the heavy bales he methodically pulled from the chute.
Envious, I wished him well.
As it turned out, I wanted to become an attorney; it seemed the best way to make money and a name for myself. I went to Kansas State on a scholarship and took courses in English, philosophy, business law, speech—anything I thought would help me. I belonged to clubs, held a seat in the student government senate, and participated in a sit-in when my convictions about the war in Vietnam grew stronger than my fears about getting arrested and damaging my future prospects. But my protesting ended when I graduated. I was accepted to the prestigious Washburn University Law School in Topeka, the state capital, and specialized in criminal law. There I divided my time between studying and clerking for Thomas J. MacIntyre, an influential attorney in the city and a Democratic Party boss in Kansas. Through him I made connections, and, by the time I reached thirty, I was the assistant D.A. in Wichita, hand-picked by Jack Springer himself.
Jack (I was on a first-name basis with him from the start) was one of the most influential people in my life, though I didn't like him much at first. When he picked me, he was fifty, chain-smoked Lucky Strikes, drank Kentucky bourbon, had tattoos on both arms from his stint in the army, and had been divorced twice, no children. The only thing that changed in him from year to year was his age. What the public saw of him they liked, and he was content to keep his job when he could have easily been a judge. But he refused to play by the rules that would have advanced him; he thrived on being vulgar, insulting, and sometimes cruel.
Once, when we were walking along the second-floor hall in the courthouse shortly after I started working for him, he jerked his thumb at the offices we passed and said, "Know why everyone in all these sweet-smelling septic tanks either loves me or hates me? Because I'm the goddamn man from Roto-Rooter. Some people like their shit clogged, others want it stirred up." Comments like this worried me, but I quickly got used to them; despite his antics and maneuvers, he was a hard-working man who played by the rules of law—they were probably the only ones he obeyed.
I don't know why he took an interest in me and I never asked. My connections might have helped a little, though. Jack didn't depend on many people's recommendations. Maybe he liked my background or my attitude; perhaps he thought I was a bit of a bastard like himself. Whatever the reason, he taught and guided me, helping to make me famous in Kansas before he died.
During those years, I sometimes thought how different Buddy's life must have been from mine. I knew about him only what my parents told me and, later, what I read in the newspapers and heard on the radio and the TV. It wasn't all that much. By the time I was working with Jack in Wichita, it was enough for me to want to reconstruct those twelve years since I'd given him a ride. I realized I'd be making a lot of assumptions and leaving gaps, unfair things to do with a man's life, but I was thirty now, having invested a great deal of time and money in my career, and I needed to believe my life was more satisfactory than his.
Given the proof I had, it should have been easy enough. I knew Buddy had played for a half-dozen teams, jumping from the minors to the majors; like any player, he lived a good part of his life on the road, viewing the world from the windows of buses, planes, hotels. Even when he found playing time in the majors, he earned less money than I, and spent the winters helping his father on their farm, working in cold, snow, and mud. In February he went to spring training, trying in a land of palm trees and warm breezes, to balance hope and disappoint through the weeks of cuts, trades, and demotions to the minors. And yet, as I lived the good life, buying new cars and making investments, drinking smooth Scotch on junkets, skiing in Colorado—anything at all—I wasn't satisfied. It seemed I'd worked my entire life to reach my position, but now that I'd attained it, I could only think about how little it meant. Buddy, on the other hand, had every right to the dissatisfaction I felt, but I doubt that it ever crossed his mind.
There was something special about him; his jumps from team to team were an indication that, however mediocre he was, he possessed a quality managers wanted. I saw him play a few times when he was with the Royals, and that quality was evident every time he came up to bat; it was impossible to tell he was a .220 hitter.
He stepped up to the plate with such poise and grace that he seemed to have developed a secret philosophy, one that put him in tune, as it were, with himself, the pitcher, the game. That's what must have kept him in baseball: that attitude and composure, the look that said he'd never known defeat and never would.
It was a look I envied, couldn't understand; he acted as if he'd never jumped off the hayrack. What gave this nice man, this second-rate ballplayer, the right to such an attitude? How had he managed to hold on to it for so long?
The following year, when Buddy and I were thirty-one, significant events occurred. In October, I helped Jack convict the murderer of two teenage girls in a trial publicized around the state, and two days later Buddy did the impossible: he became the hero of the World Series, driving in the twelfth-inning run that won the seventh game. He was the only pinch-hitter left on the bench, and, with two outs, the count full, and the winning run on second, he hit a fastball off the wall in right with the surety and ease of a swing in batting practice. Jack, who watched the game with me, saw the look on my face and smiled knowingly. "Things're just begining for you and your friend," he said.
He was right. Buddy and I were asked to return to Chapman for a day of celebration, including a homecoming parade and a banquet, both attended by the governor. I could accept Buddy's startling feat and the fact it came just two days after my own success, and I wasn't surprised the town wanted to honor him. But I couldn't understand why they wanted to recognize me. To give a parade for a man who'd helped convict a murderer seemed perverse.
But I went; I didn't know what else to do. I tried to persuade Jack to ride in the parade with me, but he refused, shaking his head as he said, "A lawyer in a parade! Better get your hair cut, Virg—and get a manicure too." He did, however, agree to go to the banquet Saturday night and sit with me on the dais, on my assurance he wouldn't have to give a speech and I'd have plenty of bourbon available.
The parade was to be held on the Saturday following the Series, so Friday afternoon I drove up from Wichita to my parents's house. They lived at the edge of the woods just outside Chapman, not far from the spot where the parade was to start. I didn't have to drive through town to get there, but, as I learned from my mother when I arrived, preparations had been going on all week. My father told me some reporters would probably stop by that evening; at the moment they were supposed to be gathered over at the Tibbitts's farm, trying to get an interview with Buddy, who had arrrived earlier in the day.
For supper my father grilled steaks on his new gas barbecue, and I stood on the patio and watched him, the smoke from the meat scenting the crisp air. Behind him, the back yard sloped down to the edge of the woods, where the colored leaves hid the creek. I remembered the times during heavy rains when the water crept up the yard to flood the basement, but always stopped short of the main floor, as it if recognized the line between mischief and cruelty. Having built the house so close to the water was a sore spot with my father; he couldn't understand how he'd let the beauty of the woods blind him to the dangers of the creek.
"Remember the floods we used to get?" I said.
He smiled, turning the steaks over. "Still do. Didn't we tell you about the one we had last year?" I couldn't remember, but pretended I did. "Your mother and I are experts at flood damage control," he said.
"Still regret building the house so close to the water?"
He shook his head. "I've pulled enough catfish from it to even the score."
"You're getting close to sixty," I told him, "close to retirement. Is there anything you regret, wish you could do over again?"
"Everyone can find something to regret," he said. "It depends on how hard you want to look, how much you want to make of it."
"What about you?" I prodded.
"Well, if I thought about it, I could find a dozen things I wish I'd done with my life. But there's no point to it, so I think about other things instead. You, for instance. Your mother and I are very proud of you. Always have been."
He looked up at me, smiling again, then turned his attention back to the steaks, the clouds of smoke veiling him as he turned the meat over.
Not knowing what to say, I gazed at the trees, trying to picture the creek, its still water and sloping banks. How long had it been since I'd walked down to it, since I'd floated on the water in a tracter innertube and swung from bank to bank on a rope tied to a tree branch? The memories were dim; they had, I realized, been fading for a long time now. And I was only thirty-one. As I stood there on the patio with my father, trying to remember my past, the only image that remained clear was one in which Buddy stood on the hayrack beneath the sun, but even it seemed detached from my life, something I'd borrowed, a vision I couldn't call my own.
As my father predicted, a few reporters arrived later that evening. My mother said something about inviting them in, but I told her not to; I was afraid they'd make themselves too much at home if we brought them into the house.
In theory, reporters were supposed to be objective; in practice, it rarely worked out that way. Like everyone else, they had their own opinions, their own ideas about what was important. I'd learned that much when I read the first interview I gave to the Wichita Examiner, about the murder trial. I was shocked. The facts were accurate, but the focus was one I'd never imagined. The thing I considered most important—the insanity pleas—was relegated to a couple of paragraphs, while the majority of the piece emphasized my political ambitions, which supposedly depended on our winning the case.
Putting on jackets, we went outside and stood on the front steps; first my parents dutifully answered routine questions about my upbringing, their pride in me, and the goals 1 might pursue in the future. As I'd hoped, their answers were purposely bland.
Then the reporters turned to me, and right away someone posed the question I'd been expecting: "How do you rate your and Buddy's success?"
I smiled. "Together or separate?"
Everyone laughed, and the reporter said, "Separate."
"How'd Buddy answer that question?" I asked. Again more laughter, while I felt like a soldier inching his way through a mine field.
"He said serving justice is a lot more important than driving in the winning run in the Series."
Such a simplistic, perfect answer! How was I to respond?
"Yes," I carefully replied, "but Buddy gave baseball fans something they'll remember for a long time. That's important too."
My answer pleased them, and I added, "Law may be more important than baseball, but we all know which of us is more photogenic." They recorded that statement with the relish I'd shown in cutting into my grilled steak, and I felt disgusted with myself. I was glad Jack wasn't there.
After my parents had gone to bed that night, I sat in the living room rocking chair, drinking bourbon from the quart I'd brought along for Jack. I was tense from the interview, and neither the rocking nor the bourbon did much good. The reporters's questions about the trial got me to thinking about it again, which could be a dangerous thing to do, especially in a murder case. The defendant was Donald Dodd, a high school biology teacher a year out of college who'd killed two students he'd been sexually involved with. He pleaded insanity, but Jack and I believed it was groundless: the girls had threatened to expose him and he lost his nerve. Still, uncertainty flickered in the backs of our minds, and I clearly saw that Jack was feeling pressure in the way he railed against the increasing use and abuse of the plea.
Meanwhile, I felt pressure to win for the families of the slain girls. I thought I'd been sufficiently hardened to despair, but it unnerved me to talk to the parents and see them sitting in the courtroom, looking as if they were on trial themselves. And in a way, we all were. At certain times in the courtroom, I knew they were staring at me; I could feel it, and it was as repulsive as the nicotine on Jack's breath when he whispered something to me. This was not what I'd imagined to be my chance for glory. Instead, it became my personal vendetta, and Jack lost his temper with me in his office one morning when I told one of the mothers I'd resign if we didn't get a conviction.
"Goddamnit," he shouted when we were alone, "you don't quit because you didn't get your way! Even shysters know that."
He looked as if he were going to flick his cigarette at me, but threw it at the ashtray, hitting the edge of the desk instead. It bounced onto the floor and I tried to get rid of my frustration by grinding it out in the carpet with my shoe. I was afraid to speak.
We won, getting a life conviction and the glory I'd wanted, and suddenly I was the object of speculation. What were my plans for the future, my political ambitions? I didn't know. But I felt as if I were being pushed into my future, and that the parade would push me even further.
But for Buddy, success seemed so easy to attain, so easy to accept.
With a swing of the bat he'd won the World Series, becoming a hero for children to trade and collect on baseball cards. To be part of the national pastime and called one of the 'boys of summer." To answer simple questions about wood meeting ball, and how it felt to round first base with arms held high, fireworks exploding overhead. And to have waited all those years to do it, as if it were just a matter of time.
More important to me than the parade was seeing Buddy again after twelve years, and at one o'clock the next day, I stood on the crowded patio, eagerly waiting for him and his parents and sister to arrive. Since the parade route began so close to my parents' house, it was decided those of us who'd be riding in the cars would gather there for a few minutes' talk. The governor arrived, along with his wife; he was an unflappable Republican I hadn't voted for but respected for his intelligence and integrity. Sporting a moustache and a Vandyke, he reminded me of Lenin. Also present were two of the governor's assistants, the mayor and his wife, Coach Rindt, who'd taught Buddy to play baseball and put on quite a bit of weight since I'd seen him last, and his wife, Fern.
We learned from a highway patrolman that Buddy and his family were late because they'd been stalled in traffic; to save time, they'd meet us at the parade.
We were driven in patrol cars to the north edge of town, where a banner welcoming Buddy and me was stretched across the highway between two telephone poles. The parade stood in formation, the high school band, twirlers and pompon girls, a color guard and a drill squad from Fort Riley, ranchers on horses, farmers on tractors. Sitting between the drill squad and the ranchers were four convertibles, the red one reserved for Buddy and me.
The Tibbitts family arrived just after we had been seated in our assigned cars. They were introduced to the governor and his wife, and then Buddy's parents and his older sister, Belinda, a secretary in Kansas City, were shown to the car in which my parents sat. Seeing me, Buddy waved and came over to our car with the confident stride he used in walking up to home plate. He had aged, of course, his hairline starting to recede, his face tan and weathered like his father's. Shaking hands with him, I was reminded of the day I watched him in the field, hooking and stacking the bales.
"Need a ride?" I said.
He smiled, remembering, and replied, "Whenever I can get one."
We paused, unsure of what to say next; the sound of the bass drum made us jump.
"What the hell am I doing in a parade?" I said as the music started. "I'm a goddamn lawyer." He laughed, then looked thoughtful, gazing off toward the hills south of town, as if he might find an answer there.
"You're here because they want you," he said. "It's their parade, not ours."
Our route took us past the park and into the business district, then east on Main, where we eventually stopped at the grain elevators. Kids waved from trees and the tops of cars, people threw confetti and streamers while others crowded around our car with their hands held out, and the noise, according to Buddy, was louder than in some major league ballparks he'd played in. The size of the crowd became an event in itself for the little town; I later learned it was estimated at five thousand, three times the size of the population, and my father told me he'd seen license plates of counties from all over the state.
By the time we reached the dirty white grain elevators, where the smell of feed and motor oil seemed permanently fixed in the air, I had come to realize something that should have been clear to me long ago: Buddy and I were strangers. We always had been, and always would be. And I envied him more than ever. Sitting beside me on top of the back seat and shaking hands with the crowd, he seemed untouchable, as unaware of the irony of our being heroes as I was aware of it. It was as if he had stepped up to bat, in complete accord with everything.
My parents and I went home to change for the banquet and wait for Jack. He was late, and finally I told my parents to go while I waited for him. He arrived just minutes after they left, the smell of bourbon strong on his breath. Something was wrong, but I waited until we were in my car before I mentioned it.
"You keep drinking and driving," I said, "and I'll end up having to defend you."
"Speaking of which, did you bring the bourbon?"
"In the back seat," I said, glad when he showed no move to get it. "What's wrong?"
He blew smoke at the windshield, where it feathered out against the glass. "Goddamn ulcer," he said. "The doc told me I've got a four-alarm ulcer. A goddamn bleeder."
"Christ, you ought to be in the hospital."
"Well, what're you going to do?"
"Nothing," he said. "If I give up everything I'm supposed to, I'll be a fucking vegetable."
"You should've called me. You didn't have to drive up for this."
"Yes, I did," he said. "We've got to talk about what happens if this gets worse. I might have to go on leave."
Things already seemed at their worst, but I said, "What would we do?"
He smiled grimly. "I get a vacation in the Bahamas and you're the number one shit-twister for Sedgwick County."
"Maybe you'd better drive," I tried to joke.
He put out his cigarette and popped something into his mouth, sucking on it. "Maybe I'd better start doing what the doc tells me," he said.
As I sat between Jack and my parents on the dais in the high school gym, I couldn't keep my mind on the proceedings. I didn't want to take over for Jack; I wanted to work for him. I was so lost in thought, so conscious of Jack's pain, that my mother had to whisper to me that I was being called to deliver my speech. Amid the generous applause I stepped up to the podium, discarding the short speech I'd prepared, which seemed even more hypocritical now than when I wrote it. This was not the time for polite jokes and glowing optimism.
Instead, after thanking everyone, I told them how it felt to be both the prosecutor of a man and the defender of two families' memories, weighing one against the other, hoping to be wise enough to make the correct decisions. I talked about objectivity and compassion, the need for balance, the duty to be moral and fair. There were few clear victories, but many questions, much uncertainty, a great deal of learning still to be accomplished. For the conscientious it was a difficult task, one that grew harder and didn't allow them much time to relish their honors, as pleasing as they might be.
The speech was not one my audience wanted to hear, and it created the perfect mood for Buddy. These people needed to be reassured, to have life made simple again, to be told that heroes existed and victories lasted forever. And Buddy, quite unaware of the challenge, succeeded the moment he stepped up to the podium and smiled.
He spoke of the dream of boys to be baseball players, the dream of players to compete in the Series, the dream of everyone to have a moment of glory. He didn't think there was a formula for success, that all a person could do was work hard, overcome disappointments, enjoy the good times while they lasted and keep faith. He'd been fortunate all his life to have good things happen to him, to be liked by many people, and now that he'd been blessed with a moment of glory, he was glad to share it with people just like him.
His speech seemed to hypnotize them, to hold them in silence until he stepped away from the podium and they burst into applause. He restored to those people everything I'd taken away, and as they gave him a standing ovation, he looked at me and smiled, as if he believed they were also applauding me.
The conclusion of the banquet signaled the official end to the day's activities, and the governor and his wife left for Topeka. But everyone in town knew about the informal party Dean and Huggles Riffle were throwing for Buddy and me at the Irish Bar & Grill. My parents decided to return home, not being inclined to the beersoaked revelries Dean and Huggles were known to throw, so I got Buddy and Coach Rindt to ride with Jack and me.
Waiting for the traffic to thin out, we passed the bottle of bourbon around, Jack and I in the front, Buddy and Coach Rindt in the back. Jack acted as if he didn't care about his drinking, and I didn't want to say anything in front of the others. We were quiet, and I thought about Buddy's speech, the applause he received, and the way he sat now in my car, acting as if he hadn't the slightest idea of what he'd accomplished.
"I feel like I'm on a goddamn double date," Jack said. "Give me that bottle."
I handed it over, and Coach Rindt asked him if he had a cigarette.
"You smoke, Coach?" said Buddy.
"Not in twenty years," he replied, taking a Lucky Strike from Jack's pack. "I used to smoke Camels."
"Filterless?" said Jack. "Good man."
"I'll take one too," I said. "Buddy?"
In just a few minutes we were sitting in a cloud of smoke, so we rolled down the windows. The cold air felt good.
"Who's got the bottle?" asked Buddy.
Jack pased it back to him and said to Coach Rindt, "You ever get an ulcer, Coach?"
"What's the -ocrot?"
"None I know of, except maybe I was smart enough to stay put. I was always satisfied where I was at."
"So am I," said Jack, but it ain't done shit for me."
"Got a bad one?"
"Bad enough. Tonight may be my last binge for a while."
"Buddy," said the coach, "pass that man the bottle."
The traffic cleared, so I started the car and drove into the street. Feeling a glow, I joked, "You know what's worst about being famous? The demands. Always someone to please."
Jack snorted. "Then you're in the wrong business, pal."
"What do you think, Buddy?" I asked.
"He thinks he is ready for another drink," said the coach. "Pass her back."
"I think," said Buddy, "you should enjoy it while you've got it,"
"Remember that day I gave you the ride? You said it wasn't in the cards."
I glanced back at him and saw he was gazing out the window, not at the houses we passed, but at something beyond our vision, something he was fond of, intimate with.
"I was right," he said. "I'm a .220 lifetime hitter and batted .199 this season. That's what the front office remembers, not the Series. I'm already gone. I'm just waiting to be told what team they're trading me to."
None of us was surprised; we knew the realities as well as anyone else. But to hear Buddy say it after a day of celebration jolted us nevertheless.
"Maybe it's my fault," said Coach Rindt. "Maybe I didn't teach you good enough."
Buddy laughed and said, "Without you, Coach, I never would've made it in the first place." After a pause, he added, "Just do me a favor, all of you. Don't tell anyone else. These people're having the time of their life, and I don't want to spoil it. They'll find out soon enough."
"How do you feel about it?" I asked him.
"Just fine, Virgil," he said. "I've had my day in the sun, the kind most players never get. I couldn't ask for more."
"That's a hell of an answer," Jack kidded. "Son, you ought to go to NOW, arbitration."
Buddy laughed again. "And get my salary cut in half."
"Buddy," I said, staring ahead at the street, "you gave a good speech tonight. You made it look so easy."
"I guess I just knew what to say," he said.
We went to the party, where Buddy demonstrated to everyone the swing that made him famous, and the next morning Jack's ulcer was hurting him so badly I drove him back to Wichita and checked him into a hospital. The following day, I became the temporary D.A.
Buddy was traded to the Mariners and, as usual, spent the winter working on the farm. MY parents told me that when he got his World Series ring, people drove out to the farm to see it. At first he didn't wear the ring at all, but then put it on whenever he went to town because, as he confided to my father, it pleased everyone to see him wearing it.
Jack died three years later. He'd given up smoking and drinking, which I thought he'd never be able to do, but the ulcer was only the beginning of his illness. He contracted cancer, spending the last year of his life in the hospital. I had become the D.A. by then, with my own assistant to train, but I visited Jack often, bringing my work
with me. We spread my briefings and notes out on his bed, and he chased away the nurses with a lot of double talk, warning them they'd be breaking the law if they overheard our conversation. I doubt they believed him, but they left us alone. A nurse told me he looked forward to my visits.
Almost to the day Jack died, Buddy retired from baseball. He'd been dating a new teacher at the high school, Linda Walker; according to my ever-reliable sources, my parents, he wanted to get married and settle down. They did get married two months later, in a private ceremony, and Buddy went into business with his father.
At one level or another, he played professional baseball for sixteen years. Now, he's taken over the farm operation and is doing very well. He's the father of twins, a boy and a girl, and coaches Little League. My mother says he looks "beatific."
Meanwhile, I've secured the position of superior court judge. Though I have a large staff, my work keeps me busy; I don't have time to do the things I'd like to do. Then again, it seems I've never had the time. A man's career makes great demands; to get where he wants to go, he has to make sacrifices. I accept this fact, accept it when I sit at committee meetings and when I drink toasts at fundraisers; I accept it every morning as I sit down at my desk amid mountains of legal questions and human dramas.
During times like these I remember Buddy and want to talk to him. But it would be impossible. Even if I were to visit him on his farm, to stand eye-to-eye with him, the distance would be far as far as it was that day I stood on the highway and watched him standing on the hayrack beneath the sun, oblivious to the future, to everything except hooking and stacking the dusty bales.