from Thieves I’ve Known
originally published in Glimmer Train
It was the day after my fourteenth birthday, and I’d been looking out the window of the bus for most of Tennessee and into the Appalachians, watching the fog rise from the shoulder of the road and the patchwork of barns and homes near the state highway. A pale, spotted horse here, a brown dog lying on its side there, a group of young girls, about my age, dancing to music from a tape player set on the hood of a car. When we pulled into the station I spotted my Uncle Jake – dressed in a blue T-shirt and jeans – leaning against one of the support poles. I recognized the wide green eyes from a picture my dad kept on our mantle at home. In the picture, my dad is propped on the trunk of a yellowing Ford Pinto, a serious, solemn look on his face, even as a boy – the dark curly hair, like mine, falling down his temples – and Jake, leaning back on the fender of the car, a slight, wild grin curving from his lips, a cigarette dangling from his fingers at age fifteen. The bus driver swung open the door and called out, “Morganton. Five minute stop,” but even as I stepped across the legs of the man sitting next to me, I noticed I was the only one exiting the bus.
I stepped down onto the platform and felt the heat of the July sun. Jake ambled over and reached for the small duffel bag in my hand, but I said, “I got it.”
“Is that all you got?”
“That’s all I got,” I said.
“Well all right then,” said Jake.
His transportation was a blue flatbed pickup truck, rusted on the fenders, with a dent in the passenger side door. In the cab of the truck I was introduced to Mulligan, a sandy-colored, overweight mutt with four white paws, like boots. Mulligan scooted to the middle of seat and sniffed at my duffel bag.
“He’s got a tick in his ear,” I said to Jake as I closed the door. “It’s been there for a few days.”
“Is that right?” Jake said, turning the key, but no sound came from the motor. He reached under the seat and pulled out a long-stem hammer, popped the hood, and got back out of the truck.
While he was banging on the starter in the engine I took out the tweezers from my pocketknife and picked up the book of matches lying on the dashboard. I lit one, letting it burn for a moment. Mulligan sniffed at the sulfur in the air. When I blew the match out I stuck it quickly to the tick, yellow and fat, its legs shuddering as I grabbed hold of Mulligan’s orange collar and said, “Take it easy.” I clamped the tweezers shut near the head of the tick, squeezing and prying it loose as quick as I could and then tossing it out the window with the match. Mulligan glanced sideways at me, wrinkling the white stripe of fur that ran down his snout.
When the motor turned over, Jake backed out onto a two-lane road and ran his fingers along the dashboard, eventually giving up and punching the cigarette lighter on the console. “How was the trip?” he asked.
“Long. Boring,” I said.
“Did you read your books?”
“I hear you’re a big reader.”
“You heard right.”
“What’d you read?”
“A book about mountain climbing and a book about sharks.”
“Are you a mountain climber?”
“I caught a shark on the Outer Banks last summer,” he said. “Hooked him with a spring rod. Three and a half feet. A Mako.” The cigarette lighter popped out and Jake lit up without taking his eyes off the road.
“Mako’s aren’t found on the Outer Banks. They’re only found in warm climates.”
“This was summertime,” he said.
“Summer isn’t warm enough. It was probably a nurse shark. They’re harmless and are an endangered species.”
“A nurse shark you say?”
“How do you know?”
“When we get to the house I’ll take a look.”
“What makes you think I’ve got it at the house?” he said.
Mulligan leaned against me as we took a turn. I looked over at Jake. “You seem like the kind of guy who would have the one shark he ever caught stuffed and put up over his mantle.”
“I don’t have a mantle,” said Jake.
“Do you have a stuffed shark on the wall?”
“Yes I do.”
“It’s a nurse shark.”
“You want to bet?”
“No,” I said.
“You afraid of losing?”
“No, I don’t bet, that’s all.”
“A betting man is a man who knows what he’s talking about,” he said. “You sound like you know what you’re talking about. Why don’t you take the bet?”
I looked over at him. “My dad said you once lost a house in a poker game.”
Jake puffed off his cigarette and flicked the ashes out the window. “He did, did he?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Well,” he said. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”
“My dad wasn’t a liar.”
“I didn’t say he was.”
“Yes you did. You just said it.”
“When did I say it?”
“You inferred it.”
“Oh,” said Jake. “I inferred it.”
The truck was in need of new shocks and bounced in the road at every slight pothole and bump. We drifted down an off-ramp and onto a state highway, still two lanes.
“Your dad was a good man,” said Jake. “But he and I were not that close.”
I didn’t say anything.
“How long you staying?”
“Until I hear from my mom.”
“How long’s that going to be?” he said.
Jake rubbed his hand along the wheel. “Well, I’ve got some rules that I want you to know about.”
“Yes,” he said. “I do.”
On the highway we passed the Bonds Motel, a long brown building with an empty swimming pool. Stands with signs for homemade honey and fresh vegetables appeared every quarter mile or so, and a brick building advertising violin repair. Mulligan sat down on his haunches, licked his paw and rubbed at the ear where the tick had been.
I asked Jake if he was going to tell me what these rules were. I told him my psychic powers weren’t too good.
“Your dad was a smart-ass too,” said Jake.
“Better than being a dumb-ass,” I said.
Jake laughed, his white-stubbled jaw reaching forward, blowing smoke out his mouth. “I taught him that one,” he said. “Better than being a dumb-ass.”
“You must be real proud,” I said.
“Rule one,” said Jake. “I watch a lot of TV. If you don’t like what I’m watching, then too bad. In my house, I’m in charge of the remote.”
“I don’t watch TV,” I said.
“Well I guess that won’t be a problem.”
“Well all right then,” he said.
“Okay then,” I said.
“Rule two,” he said. “I need my sleep. I’ve got to be at the ballpark at 8 AM, so no making loud noises in the middle of the night.”
“I don’t make loud noises in the middle of the night.”
“Well I guess it won’t be a problem.”
“I guess not.”
“Rule three,” he said. “If you break something, you pay for it.”
I asked him if he was running an antique shop.
“No, I’m just saying. Don’t go breaking my things.”
“Rule four,” he said, rubbing his hands back and forth along the steering wheel. He flicked the ashes from his cigarette out the window again. Outside on the road we passed a veterinarian clinic and a stretch of farmland, silos and gray barns cluttered together. Jake leaned back in the seat and glanced over at me. “Well,” he said. “I can’t think of anything. I guess there is no number four.”
“I’ve got some rules too,” I said.
“Well, let’s hear them.”
“First,” I said. “You want to smoke, then that’s your prerogative, but there’s the issue of secondary smoke. I don’t want you bringing your cigarettes into my room, and I want the door to my room kept closed.”
“Who says you’re getting a room?” he said.
“I just got off a three day bus ride. I better have a room.”
Jake turned the wheel at exit 20 and gunned the engine up the on-ramp. Outside, the clouds had covered the sun.
“Did you know,” I said. “A smoker can quit after seven years, and in seven more years he can have lungs that are as healthy as a person who’s never smoked.”
“Is that a fact?”
“I read it,” I said. “It doesn’t make it a fact. There are some exceptions, but for most people, that’s the case.”
“How long have you smoked for?”
I rolled down the window to get at some air. “You’re screwed,” I said. “That makes you at least forty-eight years old.”
“How do you figure?”
“Am I right?”
“I’ll be fifty this December.”
“If you make it to December,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” he said and flicked ashes out the window.
“Second,” I said. “I don’t have much stuff, but what I have I don’t want you looking through. I’ve got a letter from my dad to you. I’ll give you that when we get home.”
“What’s it say?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He told me if anything ever happened to him I was supposed to give it to you.”
“And you never looked at it?”
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t for me, it’s for you.”
“What do you have that you don’t want me to look at?”
“Nothing,” I said. “What I’ve got is mostly clothes and books.”
“I don’t read too much,” he said.
“Then I guess it won’t be a problem.”
“I guess not.”
“Well all right then.”
“Okay then,” he said. “You got anymore rules?”
The cab of the truck bounced as we hit a pothole, and Mulligan placed his paw on my leg. “Not that I can think of,” I said. “But I may come up with some more later.”
“Me too,” Jake said. “I may come up with some more later, too.”
We turned onto a gravel driveway, covered overtop with the arching limbs of pine trees. The truck continued to bounce and lean as we made our way to the house, a wooden A-frame with a chimney, blackened at the top, and a rail-less porch on the second story. Mulligan wagged his tail and turned to look at Jake.
“This is home,” Jake said.
“If you say so,” I said.
The spotlights in Memorial Stadium can be seen just over the treetops on highway 64, right next to the scoreboard with the big sign for Coca-Cola. When I arrived in mid-season, the Morganton Knights were eleven and a half games out of first place in the South Atlantic League and not looking to move up any time soon. I’ll say this for Jake: he kept a good field. The grass in the outfield was a bright green, and he kept the baselines razor-straight, not allowing the dirt to form a lip into the infield diamond. Somehow he conned some local kids into dragging the baselines with rakes in the middle of the fifth inning, and on the nights when it rained – which was often – the Knights players themselves helped pull the light-blue tarp over the dirt on the pitcher’s mound and around the bases.
I got ten dollars to mow the outfield three times a week, alternating between the 305 (the distance between the foul poles) and the checkerboard cut, plus another two bucks to make sure the lime was dropped on the baselines before each game.
The second week I was there, the team mascot – some teenager dressed up in a suit of armor, no joke – passed out from heat exhaustion during the seventh inning stretch. We could hear him clatter to the ground next to the concession stand. After the games, Jake and I dragged the infield again and he ran his hands through the grass, testing for soft spots. The night before a homestretch against Gastonia he flipped the floodlights off in the stadium and carried a lantern and a shovel in a wheelbarrow out to first base. I knelt with him in the dirt.
“The Cougars’ve got this kid named Ellis,” he said. “He’s stolen everything this year except the catcher’s underwear, but we’re going to fix him good.”
He pitched the shovel into the ground and removed the topsoil where a runner would take a lead off first base. Down in its place he scooped a mix of peat moss, water and sand. Then he covered the mixture with a thin line of topsoil, slapping it flat with the back of the shovel. “When your man digs his cleats in here, he’s going to sink like the Lusitania.”
“Is this legal?” I asked.
“If no one finds out about it.”
“It’s cheating,” I said.
“Well,” said Jake. “You could call it that. You could also call it ‘home-field advantage.’” For good measure he slanted the baselines around homeplate so that any bunted ball would curve straight to the pitcher.
Some nights we took turns hitting soft loopers into the outfield, with Mulligan running out into the dark to retrieve them.
“You’re not a bad hitter,” said Jake after I slapped the ball, off a bounce, against the yellow and blue sign for Denny’s in left field. That was weeks later, after he’d shown me how to stand in the batter’s box and dig my right foot into the dirt. “Choke up on the bat,” he said. “When you get older and your arms bulk up you can grab it at the bottom. There’s no shame in doing what works. You’re not going to be Hank Aaron in two weeks.”
“Who’s Hank Aaron?” I said, but I knew.
“Jesus,” said Jake, and pitched a fastball smack over home plate.
When it was his turn to bat he could smack the ball into either corner of the field – triple territory – and a few times he’d knock it over the wall. If we’d had the baseballs to spare, my sense is that many more would’ve gone over the wall.
If it was late enough at night, after we collected the equipment and put it away in the shed, and after Jake walked the field one last time, plugging holes in the batter’s box and pitcher’s mound with wet clay from a tin bucket, then he’d push the driver’s seat in the pickup truck forward and let me drive home. We never saw a police car on the back roads. Most nights I had to smack the starter with the hammer two or three times to get the engine to turn over, and then I’d push in the clutch gently and back out of the lot.
“Did you get the emergency brake?” said Jake.
“I didn’t see you do it.”
“You weren’t watching close enough.”
The breeze slanting through the windows was cold at night, even into late July, and I kept the speedometer needle steady at 40 or 45. After a time or two, Jake leaned back in the passenger seat and pushed his baseball cap over his eyes. Mulligan sat across him with his head out the window. Every few minutes Jake stretched his legs out in the cab and I could hear the pop-pop of his kneecaps and hear him sigh in relief.
“Your mom’s got my number?” said Jake.
“You told her you were staying here?”
“I didn’t talk to her,” I said. “I told her neighbor on the phone, and he said he’d give her the message.”
“Your mom still in that hospital?”
“What do you know about it?”
“I don’t know anything except what your dad told me in the letter.”
“What’d he say in the letter?”
He flipped the cap up over his eyes and looked out the windshield. “The turn’s coming up here.”
“I know where it is.”
“Why haven’t you asked me about the letter before now?”
“Because,” I said, “The letter was for you. I try to stay out of people’s business.”
Jake nodded. “That you do.”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“I’ll tell you.”
I glanced over at him. “Well what are you waiting for then?”
He looked out on the road. “I’m waiting for you to make this turn up here that we’re going too fast to make.”
I pressed down on the brake and made the turn. A sedan in the other lane stopped and the driver shook his head as I swerved over the line. The trees overhead began to block out the stars.
“Your dad wrote that your mom’s been in and out of Frank Wood Hospital in Phoenix, which is a mental hospital, and she may not be able to take care of you.”
I didn’t say anything. Mulligan stuck his head back in from the window and tried to lean across my lap. I pushed him away.
“He said you were something special,” said Jake. “Real smart. Said you skipped the third grade when you were younger.”
“I did,” I said.
“He said you had a garden back home. Used to raise vegetables.”
“He said you’d be some help at the ballpark.”
“I think I have been.”
“Yeah,” said Jake, lighting up a cigarette. “You’ve been all right.”
“He told me some things about you too,” I said.
“He did, did he?”
“He said you’d drink all day if you could.”
Jake blew smoke out the window and propped his foot up against the dashboard. “Not anymore I wouldn’t.”
“He said you don’t speak to your wife or kids anymore.”
“Is that a fact?”
“You tell me,” I said. “It’s just something I heard.”
Jake was quiet for a while. The sharp smell of pine drifted into the cab as we approached the driveway. Leaves and dust scattered across the road with the wind.
“Your dad was a harsh man,” said Jake.
I nodded. “He could be.”
“He never thought I was much help to him growing up.”
“Well,” I said. “What help were you?”
When we came up to the house I parked the truck next to the vegetable garden, long abandoned, the grass pushing over the soil. On the house, one of the gutters leaned crooked off the roof. I switched off the motor and sat still. Jake opened the door and let Mulligan out but didn’t rise from the cab. We could hear the crickets out in the woods.
“I don’t know, Grady,” Jake finally said. “I guess I was never good for much.”
Jake didn’t watch as much TV as he claimed, and some nights, after we got back from the ballpark we sat in beach chairs on the second-story roof and looked at the stars. It was cold late in the evening and sometimes I’d throw a thick blanket over my legs. Jake sat next to me and dropped the ashes from his cigarettes into a can filled with topsoil. I learned that when you look straight up around midnight in late summer you can spot Vega, a blue-white star that shines bright in a cluster of other, duller stars in the constellation of Lyra.
“Most constellations don’t look anything like they’re supposed to,” said Jake. “Cassiopeia is supposed to be some lady sitting on a chair, but it looks more like the letter W, and Sagittarius is the archer, but he looks just like a teapot. See that orange star just south of Vega?”
“Right there,” he said, pointing with the end of his cigarette. “Right below Vega. It’s the beginning of Scorpius, which actually does look like it’s supposed to. That arc there is the claws of the scorpion and that hook of stars just underneath it is the tail.”
“If you say so.”
“How do you know so much about this?” I said.
He leaned forward in the chair and glanced down into the yard. A pair of groundhogs stood in the yard, silhouetted from the light in the stars. One of them bent down and dug into the grass, his front paws working like shovels. We watched them in silence for a while, until Jake got caught up in a coughing fit, and the groundhogs stood listening, still as stumps of trees, and then they meandered into the woods. We were up high enough to see over the treetops, and up on the horizon I could see Jupiter appear, the first planet Jake had pointed out to me the week before.
“How do you know so much about the sky?” I asked again.
“Me and my kids used to sit up here. They learned about it at some class they took at the community center.”
“How old are your boys?”
“The oldest will be eighteen this year, and the younger one’s a couple years older than you.”
“Where do they live?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Don’t you ever call them?”
He took a drag off his cigarette. “There’s not much point.”
I picked up the binoculars from the porch and put them to my eyes. The moon that night was almost full, and it dimmed our view of a lot of the constellations. I squinted as I looked through the lenses, and then when my eyes began to adjust I could make out the giant crater on the south end of the moon, with the lunar Alps stretching out in gray and black. There was a strong breeze that night, the smell of burned wood drifting from the brush fire of one of Jake’s neighbors.
“You must be proud of your little stunt tonight,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s just part of the job.”
“I bet,” I said. “I bet that’s not in the job description.”
With two outs in the fourth inning, Gastonia finally got a man on base. When he took a lead off first, digging his heels into the baseline, he sunk about an inch and a half into the dirt. He tried to steal second anyway and got nailed by the catcher with a few steps to spare. The runner walked back to first and swiped his foot at the line, kicking up enough peat moss to have the umpire come out and have a look. The home crowd jeered him. After a huddle with both managers, the umpire ordered the hole to be filled in, so Jake went out with the wheelbarrow, containing mostly the same mix we’d put in the night before, and filled it over top. Because the baseline then had a mound of sand and muck sticking up on the line, the umpire had Jake water it down, and Jake looped the hose out onto the field and sprayed it over. It all resulted in a kind of over-grown swamp area near first base.
“I think I saw a few fish flopping around out there,” I said.
Jake nodded. “We’ll see if we can’t catch us one or two tomorrow night.”
The mailbox sat at the end of the gravel driveway, and every night when we returned from the ballpark Jake walked down the road with Mulligan, returning a few minutes later, sticking his head into my room. “Nothing came,” he said.
My room had a banner for the Atlanta Braves and a chart of the stars on the ceiling that I began to study. A few clothes, about my size, hung on the rack in the closet – a red shirt with pineapple designs on the front, a black pair of corduroys, and two thick, winter jackets with fur lining.
I placed my books on a shelf above one of the desks and slipped my clothes into the top drawer of the dresser. I didn’t spend much time in the room because Jake and I were at the ballpark five, sometimes six days out of the week. We arrived at nine or so, after stopping at a diner on the highway for coffee and french toast. If there was a game that night then we stayed at least until eleven o’clock, eating dinner in foil wrappers and styrofoam drink cups. I became pretty good at spotting sunken divots and soft spots in the outfield that we filled with dirt and soil, and the holes in the batter’s box and pitcher’s mound were packed in with clay.
During the games I could sit in the dugout with the team if I wanted to, but I didn’t want to. The players were the kind of men who held spitting contests while the sides were changing, and they told dumb stories about high school – usually involving narrow escapes from the police and strange encounters with women from New York in the back seats of their cars. Mulligan sat in the stands with me, raising his ears at the sound of a ball struck hard or a child screaming in the family section near right field. Mostly, I just read during the games.
I found a lot of books about vegetable gardening in the town library. The soil in the foothills of North Carolina is best for tobacco, but a few food crops grow well, particularly potatoes and soy beans, and by the end of July I’d pulled the weeds and overgrown grass out from the small garden at Jake’s house. On our day or two off I began to plant a few rows of onions, carrots and some other winter vegetables.
One day Jake walked out and stood over me as I knelt in the dirt. “What’d you do to my shovel?”
“What do you mean?”
He picked it up off the ground and fingered the blade. “You cut holes in it.”
“I made a serrated edge so I could cut back the weeds. I didn’t see a hoe anywhere.”
“What’d you cut the holes with?”
“The file in your toolbox.”
“Did you blunt it?”
I looked up at him. “Yes I blunted it, that’s what it’s there for.”
“I was going to use that.”
“What kind of seeds are those?” he said.
“It’s like an onion.”
He stuck the shovel into the dirt. “Nothing’s going to come up here. Winter’s going to start in a few months.”
“They’ll be up about then.”
“Nothing’s grown here for a while,” he said.
“That’s because you haven’t planted anything.”
“You sure they’re going to be up before winter?”
“Then why are you doing it?”
I stuck the trowel into the ground and scooped up the soil I’d put down the week before. I’d had to dig up the rocks and tree roots and just then was placing seeds in the ground.
“Because if nothing comes up this year, then something will come up next year. You’ve got to make the ground think like a garden.”
“Where’d you learn that?”
“In a book,” I said. “They’re these thick things with words in them. I’ll show you one sometime.”
He just stood there, so after a while I put him to work digging five-inch deep pockets along the left side of the garden. He stuck the shovel into the ground with his boot and chucked the dirt onto the grass.
“Could you keep that in a pile, please?” I said. “We’ll need it to fill in the holes.”
He didn’t say anything, but he scooped it into something resembling a pile.
“And could you try to keep them in a straight line?” I said.
“What’s it matter if it’s in a straight line?”
“It matters to me.”
“So,” I said. “This is my garden. I’m in charge of it. You’re in charge of the baseball field and I’m your assistant there. If you want to help out here, then you’re my assistant.”
“What are you paying?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing?” he said. “What’s the matter, you saving your money for something?”
I dropped seeds into the holes that he made and covered them up with dirt. I eyed the garden hose, hanging on a nail on the side of the house. At the bottom of the hose were long holes, worn away over time.
“You saving your money for something?”
He shoveled another hole and flipped the dirt onto the growing pile. Looking up, he paused for a moment and said, “It’s going to be a good night for watching the stars. Those clouds are moving out.”
I packed the dirt down flat on top of the seeds and then wondered why I did that. They needed loose soil so the plant could reach through. I stuck the trowel into the ground and turned it back and forth.
“If you say so,” I said.
That Sunday night Jake took an old white sheet out from the closet and pinned it up over the fireplace in the den. From the basement he brought up a large, gray film projector and sat on the couch, threading a line of film into the feeder. Mulligan stretched out on his belly on the thick rug and kept an eye on the ice cream that I’d filled in two bowls. When Jake was finished, he flipped off the lights and turned the projector to the wall. Backwards letters and dark lines, like hair, shot across the screen, and then numbers counted down from seven to two.
Two shapes in the water, out of focus, splashed and kicked at each other until the camera moved closer, and I spotted the dark-haired head of my father as he waved to shore. The film was grainy and yellowed, and everything was in fast-motion, like time itself moved faster back then. When they came out of the water, Jake was by far the taller of the two, broad-shouldered and wiry. He lay face down on a picnic table and pretended to swim through the air, laughing like an idiot. My father stood behind him a little ways, washing the water out of his ear with a towel, his body skinny enough that I could count his ribs and collar-bones.
“That place was called Holden’s Creek,” said Jake, licking at the ice cream on his spoon. “It was about a half-mile away from the neighborhood we grew up in. Your dad was there all the time. He was a damn good swimmer.”
“Who’s behind the camera?”
“I don’t know. Mom died when your father was about ten, and he looks older than that here.”
“Was it your father?”
“No,” said Jake. “It wouldn’t have been him.”
A dog trotted into the picture, a long-haired collie mix, and Jake picked it up by the front paws and began to dance. Behind them, the long leaves of a willow tree leaned forward with the breeze. My father sat on the picnic table, already pulling his shirt over his head and cleaning the dirt from between his toes. He glanced at Jake and the dog for a moment and then rolled his eyes.
“I bet your dad’s about thirteen there. He moved away, you know, probably the next year. He lived in Seattle with our grandmother, our mom’s mom, and then he went straight into the Coast Guard from there.”
“What’d you do?”
“I just hung around home. They used to have a race track up near where we lived, and I always had the idea that I’d buy a stock car and get onto the circuit, but that never panned out.”
“And then you got married?”
“No. I didn’t get married for a while. I moved around a bit, taking a job here and there. I worked a lot of construction jobs. They were always easy to find in those days, probably still are. I met my wife in New Mexico of all places.”
I looked at him. “My mom’s from there.”
“Is she?” he said. “I didn’t know that. I never met your mom. But lots of good people come from around there.”
“I’d like to see it one day,” I said.
Jake set his bowl down on the floor for Mulligan. “You probably will. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
I shrugged. “If you say so.”
The film split to Jake and my dad in the backyard of a house, a wire fence standing crooked behind them. They both wore small, tight boxer’s gloves. Jake hopped from toe to toe, bare-chested, tapping my dad on the forehead and then leaping away. Dad kept his head low, sweat spots staining the arms of his T-shirt, stalking Jake slowly, not wasting punches until he was close enough. Jake talked to the camera, but there was no sound, and he stopped every once in a while to wind up his arm as if he was going to throw a wide hook, but dad kept his gloves up and Jake backed off again.
By the middle of August the Knights crept to within seven games of first place, but then they floundered in a weekend road trip to be eliminated from playoff contention. On our days off I worked at the weeds in the garden, sometimes at night under a full moon, and Jake brought home two buckets from the ballpark so we could water the vegetables in the evenings. The phone never rang in the house. I picked the receiver up from the cradle every few days or so, just to make sure the dial tone was still there.
During the late innings of games Jake sat in the stands with me and Mulligan, and if there was some kind of action down on the field, he’d point or nod his head at a base runner or an infielder.
“See that shortstop? He’s checking the distance between him and second base because of the runner at first. And the third baseman, he’s got to cover the gap. If that batter’s any good, he can knock a line-drive over the bag at third and score the runner.”
In between innings I pointed out things in my books, like the picture of the Mako shark. “Indigenous to southern climates only,” I said.
Jake squinted and looked at the book. “You don’t say.”
On the day before the final homestand, Jake had me cut the outfield extra low near the foul lines, hoping to turn some of the team’s doubles into triples, and long after the sunset, he brought a shovel and a pail of dirt out to the pitcher’s mound. He put his foot to the blade and dug out a concave shape into the front of the mound, where the pitcher’s foot might land.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He scooped the dirt into the wheelbarrow. “Scouting report on Burlington says they got this new kid. One hell of a fastball. Keeps it low and outside. The Knights can’t hit lowballs, never could.”
“So, when this kid goes into his windup, his foot’s going to hit the dirt about a quarter second later than he thought it would, and that ball’s going to float up over the plate like a giant piñata.”
I stood with my hands in my pockets. “How many games do you think you’ve won for the Knights this year?”
He considered that. “About four or five. Not nearly enough.”
I knelt down and packed the dirt down with my hand, smoothing it over so it would be hard to spot by the umpire. Jake picked up a baseball and threw it into the outfield, and Mulligan jumped up from one of the on-deck circles and chased after it.
“What do you do in the off-season, Jake?”
He shrugged. “I work a little in town at a hardware store that an old friend of mine owns, and I still come out to the field every once in a while. Make sure that nobody’s messed with it. I’ll be pretty busy all the way up to October, going to lay down some new sod in the outfield this autumn, before it gets too cold.”
“Sounds like a lot of work.”
“Probably will be,” he said.
I looked up at him. “I’ll probably be gone in a few days,” I said. “I’m sorry I won’t be around to help you.”
He looked at me. “Is that a fact? You hear something from your mom?”
“No. But she’ll be ready to take me by the end of the month.”
“How do you figure?”
I looked out at the highway past the stadium. A tractor trailer made its way up the hill, and smaller cars passed it on the outside. “It’s just what we’d talked about,” I said.
“When did you talk to her?”
“Before I came out here.”
“Oh,” he said. He put the shovel over his shoulder. “I don’t remember you mentioning that.”
“Maybe I didn’t.”
“Is she going to send for you?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’ve almost got enough money to get a train ride there.”
“I see.” He placed the rest of the tools into the wheelbarrow. “How much you short?”
“About thirty dollars.”
He picked up the wheelbarrow and began to walk toward the shed. “I bet you I can spot you that if you’re still short.”
I followed behind him. “I’ll pay you back.”
“No. We’ll just call it an end-of-the-season bonus.”
“If you say so.”
We put the tools away in the shed and snapped the lock shut. The truck was parked outside in the space closest to the gate. Jake said he’d drive that night, so I opened the passenger door for Mulligan and then climbed in. Up in the sky, the moon was absent, and I could spot Vega just to the north of center, bright as I’d seen it. We pulled out onto the highway.
“Arizona’s a good place,” said Jake. “I’ll miss having you around, though. You’ve been a lot of help to me.”
“I’ll write you a letter when I get there.”
I played with a strip of fabric hanging off the seat cover. “Are you going to write me back?”
“I suppose so.”
“I’d like to hear how the garden turns out,” I said. I rolled up the window. “Are you going to keep working at it?”
“If you want me to.”
“All right then,” he said.
The road was empty on the ride back. We didn’t pass a single car on the state highway or the narrow road leading to the house. When we pulled onto the driveway, the trees covered up the stars and the headlights glowed, shining on the leaves and the tree branches fallen to the ground.
“Thanks for showing me the stars,” I said. “I learned a lot while I was here.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“I’ll probably show my mom some of them.”
“I’m sure she’d like that,” Jake said. He began to roll up his window. “Tell you what. You remember which one Scorpius was?”
“And what’s its main star?”
“Okay,” he said. “Scorpio’s going to rise in the sky as autumn comes, and on into winter. You try to check out Antares every once in a while. Around midnight or so, and I’ll try and look at it the same time here.”
I considered that. I looked over at him. He wasn’t factoring in the two-hour time difference. I thought about saying something smart.
“That sounds good,” I said.
“All right then.”
When we came out from the treeline, we could see two small shadows stand up in the dark, like rocks suddenly come to life. As we approached, one of them began to lope toward the woods. The second groundhog paused and then chased after the first. I opened the truck door and Mulligan tore out across the yard after them. I watched him run, but the groundhogs made the edge of the trees before he was halfway there.
It looked like someone had dropped a grenade in the garden patch. Half-eaten onions lay scattered across the soil, and a short trench, where the carrots had been planted, stretched in shadows in the dirt. Roots from the leek plants were tangled around the makeshift wooden stands, snapped in two. We could hear Mulligan’s barking from down the driveway, and the scent of the loose earth hovered above the wreckage, sweet and sharp.
Jake stood beside the truck as I poked at the some of the carrots, bits and pieces missing, and their long, stringy roots wrapped in knots.
“That’s a lot of hard work ruined,” he said.
I nodded but didn’t say anything.
He walked up the driveway after Mulligan and left me kneeling in the soil. I picked up a string of carrots, half-grown, and wiped at them. In the shed I switched the light on and found the trowel and the shovel, slinging them over my shoulder with the two empty buckets. I returned a few minutes later and dragged a heavy bag of fresh soil along the pathway. With the moon gone it was dark in the patch, but some of the brighter stars were beginning to appear on the horizon. Jake’s boots crunched in the gravel down near the woods. I knelt in the soil and began to separate the vegetables, making two piles in the corners.
Fixing torn-up divots in the outfield at the baseball stadium was good practice for the job. I was already making calculations in my head – the number of seeds I still had in the house, how much time I had before winter, which rows, as a whole, might be replanted, and where I might get some wire fencing to put up around the garden.
Jake walked up to the patch, and Mulligan trotted behind him, his head hung low, defeated. Jake stood with one hand in his pocket, the other holding an envelope face down. “Grady,” he said.
I went back to separating the vegetables. “What’s that?”
“It’s for you.”
I took the letter from him, smearing soil across the envelope. The return address was from Frank Wood Hospital, Arizona, but it was addressed to Jake, not me.
“It’s for you,” I said, handing it back.
“But it’s about you.”
He frowned but closed his fingers around it, pausing and then tearing the paper up the side. He slipped a letter out and unfolded it. Turning in place, he tried to catch some of the light from the stars, and I could see his eyes squinting and trying to focus. I thought I could hear those groundhogs out in the woods. I listened for them. Jake stood a few moments, and I waited on him. He handed the letter back to me.
“My eyes aren’t good enough,” he said.
I took it from him and read it, pausing word by word, trying to make out sentences in the starlight. Mulligan sniffed at the onions in the garden, and Jake lit up a cigarette, the first spark of tobacco mixing with the scent of the soil.
After a time, I folded the letter up and stuck it in my pocket. I picked up the trowel and began scooping dirt back into the short trench.
“Go through that pile,” I said, motioning to the rest of the vegetables. “Pick out anything worth saving.”
I knelt in the dirt and dug new holes in the earth. Jake brought pails of water from inside the house and a stack of wood from behind the shed. He set the cords of wood one by one on a bigger log, splitting them in thirds down the side with a hatchet. With the hammer from the truckcab, he pounded the fresh stakes around the edge of the garden, making a wall a foot and a half high. On the corners were longer stakes, like the towers of a frontier fort. While I replanted the carrots and onions, dropping seeds into fresh holes, Jake disappeared inside and returned later with an armful of wire hangers. He clipped them near the top with wire cutters, twisted them together, and ran them like string from the four corners of the fence.
We worked all night, stopping only to share coffee from a thermos. When the orange glow from the sun appeared over the mountains, I had to squint from the brightness. All night long we’d worked in the light from stars.
I remembered then something my mom had told me. The first star at night appears like a point on a map – the only point – and from that position, other stars emerge. They scatter in unpredictable places, depending on where you are, and they begin to create meaningful constellations. When the sky becomes full, in the middle hours of the night, it’s easy to pick out the dominant star – Vega some nights, Polaris on others. But it’s difficult to remember, looking up at the map, which star came first, which is the one that holds the rest in place. You think to yourself: which one of those stars up there was the brightest, when it mattered the most?