Michael Croley was born in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Corbin, Kentucky. A graduate of the creative writing programs at Florida State University and the University of Memphis, his work has won awards from the Kentucky Arts Council, the Key West Literary Seminars, and the Sewanee Writers' Conference. His stories regularly appear in Narrative, where he is an associate editor. His fiction and criticism have been published in Blackbird, The Louisville Review, The Southern Review, Fourth Genre, and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. His first novel, After the Sun Fell, will be released in 2012. He lives in Granville, Ohio, and teaches creative writing at Denison University.
When Eddie Jackson struck out—looking at a fastball right down the heart of the plate—we felt like we had let him down. Every single one of us. Across the field the sun was setting, casting warm yellow light on all that beautiful, sharp-tipped grass. He came toward the dugout, his Dr. Pepper jersey streaked with dirt and grass stains at the knees, and before any of us could move away from the chain-link fence to console him, his father, Tripp, was out on the field waiting for the boy’s return. He didn’t say anything immediately. He eyed his son and his lonesome walk back to us. In the stands our mothers and fathers were milling around, gathering up their trash, pressing half-eaten bags of popcorn into red, white, and blue Pepsi cups. For a moment we turned from Eddie to see Gatliff Coal jumping up and down, celebrating the Little League championship.
We were twelve that year, but what happened that day, what happened for the next six years, has never left us. Not because it was purely awful, though it was by any stretch of any imagination, but because many years later, as grown men, there is the knowledge that none of us tried to save Eddie. Perhaps, we were too young to know how to save someone we called a friend.
Tripp followed Eddie down the dugout steps. Tobacco juice was seeping out of the corner of his mouth and he spit to the side of Eddie’s cleats. Through a clenched jaw he said, “God bless, America.” His teeth were brown with flecks of tobacco and his neck was red from the day’s heat. “What the hell was that?”
A small spray of juice landed on the boy’s cheek, which made him flinch, and when he did, Tripp grabbed his chin, straightening it, and looked him dead in the eye. By then we were watching with our bodies backed against the fence. The stands were clear and the heads of our fathers could be seen over the dugout’s roof as they talked to one another about jobs and school, the chances of us, their sons, making the season ending all-star team.
“You took strike three right down the damn middle,” Tripp said.
Eddie tried to shrug and turn his shoulder, but Tripp grabbed his arm, and pushed him into the wall. The hollow knock of Eddie’s bones and muscles slapped the surface.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” he said. “I want you to stand up and apologize to your teammates.” Tripp turned to acknowledge us as a group for the first time since his pre-game speech. “Stand up and tell your teammates you’re sorry for letting them down,” Tripp said, pulling off his hat and readjusting it on his scalp. He had a thin strip of white flesh from his tan line across the top of his forehead and he spit again at his feet.
The last place any of us wanted to be right then was watching Eddie stand—the tears and pain visible only behind his eyes—and tell us he was sorry. That afternoon he had walked only one batter and given up only one hit, but it was a homer to dead center that Sam Miller had swung at with his eyes closed while pulling out of the box. We lost the game 2-1, but before that we owed our only run to Eddie and the long fly ball he had placed in the middle of a gray Ford’s windshield. All season long it had been the same story. Eddie was our best hitter, fielder, and pitcher. He popped homers the way the rest of us did Flintstones vitamins. He threw the ball seventy-five miles an hour as a twelve-year old. He was featured in Sports Illustrated. He was everything we weren’t. Athletic, graceful, broad-shouldered, a man.
Tripp’s chest was heaving up and down. If breath had any sort of color we could have seen it leaving his nose in two long beams all the way to his toes and spread the spare dust on the dugout floor.
“I’m sorry,” Eddie said and the only comfort we found then, that any of us could find in his unnecessary apology, was that for one moment Eddie Jackson was like us. He was a kid again. Human. Vulnerable. Capable of doing wrong.
Tripp turned from Eddie to the rest of us still lining the fence. Baseballs and bats were scattered at our feet. On the field a couple of men were carrying a table full of little gold trophies and setting it behind the pitcher’s mound. Eddie sat on the bench, his batting gloves still on tightly around his hands, and caught our eyes. What could we have looked like to him? What did he see in our faces? He shrugged his shoulders then, staring past each of us.
Later, when we were out on the field to accept our second-place trophies somebody told Eddie he played a good game. Eddie, his head hung, looked up, toward the empty bleachers behind home plate, and said, “We lost. Doesn’t matter what you do if you lose.”
WE KNEW nothing of Tripp Jackson back then except that the summer before he coached our Dr. Pepper Little League team he had divorced his wife, who immediately left and went back to Michigan, where she was from. She had given Tripp full custody of Eddie and as far as we knew had not spoken to either one since the day she left town. Before this we had only seen Tripp when he came to pick up Eddie from school in a rusty, brown and yellow Toyota Corolla. Tripp Jackson was a rough-looking sort; a constant stubble on his thick cheeks, a little paunch to his belly that seemed to be a hard kind of fat, stout and taut. He often wore shorts, even in winter, revealing his hairless, smooth-muscled calves. He wasn’t from Fordyce like most of our parents and because of that he didn’t carry judgments about him from his youth. Eddie once said he had played single A ball in Jackson, Tennessee and his father did have the bowlegged walk of a former athlete, but he was, for the most part, a mystery. We didn’t understand how he could be so cruel to Eddie and so kind to the rest of us on the team.
He was a good coach and at practice he kidded around. He showed us how to field grounders and open our hips on an inside fastball. We were one of the few teams in the league that turned double plays on a regular basis. When we faltered in our execution he was always right there to tell us we would do better the next time. He would put his arm around boys like Benji Parsons, whose spastic, high-kneed running style often led him to fall when he came charging in from right field for a line drive, and tell him it was okay. And when Alvis Blanton’s limp-wristed throws soared high in the air, only traveling twenty yards, he’d swat him on the backside with his worn leather glove and say, “Hustle and heart are the most important things.” He was patient and kind with everyone except his own son. He simply couldn’t stand to watch Eddie make mistakes. One day after Eddie hit a triple into right field, going with the pitch, he snapped him up by the collar for not sliding into the bag even though he beat the throw in easily.
“How many times do I have to tell you to get your tail down? Get dirty. I don’t care if your legs are covered in bruises and strawberries from your ass to your ankles.” Almost always after something like this he’d turn back to one of us and tell us “Good job” on the play. Eddie would stand there, hands on his hips, and we’d see him looking at his father, but he never showed disgust or anger.
We were powerless in these displays and more than once we didn’t give our best in the hopes we might spare Eddie from his father’s wrath. But no matter what the boy did, no matter how well he played or distanced himself from the rest of us—no matter how much more talented he was—none of it was good enough for Tripp.
While we went home to separate (and mostly happy) lives, Eddie was at home undergoing further instruction. Push-ups and sit-ups, sprints up the steep hill that led to their house. Early in the evenings, just before the lightning bugs claimed the night, we saw Eddie and Tripp outside, behind their house as Tripp knelt off to the side and tossed tennis balls to Eddie that he smashed into a makeshift net strung between two maple trees. They both glowed in the soft light and from that distance we saw what could pass for love between the two, but when we were in those moments with them at practice, we weren’t sure how anything Tripp said could ever feel like affection to Eddie.
As we got older, middle school then high school, Eddie continued to outshine us all. Our sophomore year he was clocked at ninety-four on the gun and he had more homeruns than the rest of the team put together. Scouts from big league clubs started to show up at our games. Some came more frequently than our own parents, but Eddie was never so lucky. Wherever we played Tripp found a spot, usually along the first base line, away from the rest of the crowd, and stood with his arms hanging over the fence.
Mostly, he yelled encouragement to us, pounding his thick hands together in loud claps when we came off the field, but he still had his outbursts. His voiced carried through each ballpark and each of us felt embarrassed when he blistered an umpire for a missed call or kicked at the fence, walking up and down in the grass, shouting as loud as he could. It was hard to imagine what Eddie must have thought when Tripp’s voice singled him out for either good or bad, to know that his father was the owner of the voice so many people couldn’t stand to hear. But because Tripp wasn’t our coach anymore, in some ways, everything he said felt different and carried a lighter weight than it had when we were children, and because of this nothing he did then ever seemed as nasty as the day he made Eddie stand up and face each of us. We wanted to believe the old man had calmed down and mellowed out. Maybe, we hoped, he finally saw what everyone else did. That on a baseball field his boy was something like perfection.
But that wasn’t the truth.
Near the end of that year, when we were playing in the region finals, the old Tripp Jackson revealed himself to us again. For five innings against the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets, the second-best team in the state, Eddie was untouchable. His fastball darted left and right, his curve looped toward hitters’ heads then dove into the strike zone. Our bats were hot. The constant ping of metal was like a church chorus on the field. Then, in the top of the sixth, Eddie hit a batter. Right in between the numbers on the kid’s back. The kid fell to the ground, wheezing and heaving his body, trying to reclaim the function of his lungs. His coach came out from the dugout, yelling at Eddie, saying he hit him on purpose. “Nobody with your control throws a wild pitch,” he said. Eddie stared back at the man, holding his glove up to his chest, as if ready to deliver another pitch, but he never said anything or changed his disposition. The boy eventually got up off the ground, rolled his shoulders and walked to first base, taking in shallow breaths.
What we wouldn’t know until later was the shock Eddie felt. It is the only explanation for what then happened. He walked the next batter. The next hit a double in the gap. They closed the score to 4-1. Eddie was shook. Our coach went out to calm him. There was a lot of nodding between the two, a pat on the back. Eddie threw the ball in his glove and refocused. But his next pitch went sailing over the right field fence and the score was tied. We went on to lose the game in extra innings by two runs.
Afterward, as our coach gathered us together in the outfield, standing in the middle of the circle we formed around him, he told us we had a good year and to be proud of ourselves. He said we were losing some good seniors, but we had a lot to look forward to next year. When he said that last part he was looking right at Eddie who was toeing the grass with his cleats and for the first time in our lives we saw tears in Eddie Jackson’s eyes. He didn’t sniffle or change his breathing. They simply mixed with the eye-black he’d put on and now ran down his face in smudged, ghoulish streaks.
None of us had known what to say to him in the dugout. While we gathered our equipment, Eddie sat on the bench staring ahead of him at the lit field where the chalk lines were now smeared and broken. A few of us put a hand to his shoulder, but nobody said a word. No “Good game” or “You did all you could.” We let him sit on the bench in silence until we had loaded up the bus and were waiting for him. Coach Phipps went back to the dugout where Eddie still sat and when the two of them were coming toward us we heard the yelling, muffled at first, but then clear as we rushed to the side of bus and pulled the windows down.
“What the hell was that?” Tripp said. “You just quit out there. In all my life I’ve never seen someone quit like that.” He took hold of Eddie and threw him into the side of the bus.
Coach Phipps tried to get between Tripp and Eddie, but Tripp pushed him out of the way. “He’s not your boy, Darrell,” he said. “Stay out of this.” He turned back to Eddie. “Look at me,” he screamed. Eddie’s chin had been down but he raised his head and looked Tripp in the eye. Failure was on his face, but he said nothing.
“Goddamnit,” Tripp said and slammed his hand into the bus right beside Eddie’s head.
Coach Phipps moved toward him, and called out Tripp’s name. Tripp turned to face him full on. “Damnit, Darrell. I ain’t going to tell you again. You raise yours the way you want and I’ll raise mine the way I want. This ain’t got nothing to do with you.”
“The hell it doesn’t,” Coach Phipps said.
Tripp came forward and that’s when Eddie moved away from the bus stepped in front of his father. “Get on the bus, Coach.” Coach Phipps didn’t move. “Go on,” he said. “Dad’s right. This ain’t your business.” He turned back to Tripp. “I’ll see you at home,” he said and then he turned to see us, the entire team, hanging out the windows of the bus, watching from above the three of them.
We scrambled back to our seats when Coach and Eddie came on board. The bus rocked side to side from our movements and Coach Phipps stood at the front and said, “Not one word. Keep your mouths shut until we get back to school.”
Eddie took a seat in the front and we did ride back in silence, each of us wondering if what we had just witnessed was the end of his night or only the beginning.
SHORTLY after all this was when Eddie began showing up to school with bruises. We only saw them when we were changing for practice, usually along his chest and shoulder blades. And though we knew where they came from, none of us said anything.
That night after the game in Middlesboro, word spread that some saw Eddie Jackson walking home. His father had not come for him and long after many of us had already left, they said you could see him walking through the streets of downtown still in his baseball uniform with his cleats tied together and slung over his shoulder. He walked as the dark night descended upon everything and the little stores lining Main Street, closed and vacant, were faintly lit with just a few bulbs still burning inside them. He refused the offers of those that had cars to drive him home and begged off the parents that pulled up beside him that night as he made his way across town to the small house by Lynn Camp Creek. His walk was a shuffle and his hands were firmly tucked inside his baseball jacket. His figure slumped along the sidewalk and we discovered later that when he got home that night what awaited him was a fist to his gut. We imagined his shoulder cracking the drywall and Tripp making sure to not punch the boy’s face so that he landed one slap after another across Eddie’s sunken cheeks. Eddie “took it“like a man” and when his father was done, he showered and let the warm water running over his body sting the bruises deeper into his flesh.
The effect of Tripp’s beating, and the subsequent ones, was that his son played more ferociously than any of us had ever seen. We watched in utter amazement at the way he dove for fly balls in the gap. We came out of our seats when he, somehow, stretched singles into doubles, doubles into triples with his choppy, grinding gait. It was almost as if we didn’t know how he did it. His talent alone couldn’t explain it. But, of course, we did know. We knew that after one particular game, when Eddie had only gone two for five, Tripp had put him through a sliding glass door. Eddie’s face and arms were nicked and cut, his cheek green and black from the blow, but he still suited up the next day and ran full speed into the fence trying to chase down a foul ball in the corner.
Coach Phipps ran from the dugout as soon as he saw it but before he got there, Eddie was up and waving him back.
“You don’t have to keep playing this way, son,” Coach told him.
Even from the dugout we saw the answer to this in Eddie’s eyes. There was both a pleading and incredulity in the boy’s look. There was no other way to play. There was only giving everything he had.
They stood toe-to-toe and then Coach Phipps smacked Eddie on the tail and ran back to the dugout and off the field.
Undressing after the game we saw the red and raw marks along Eddie’s ribs, but if he was in pain we never would have known it. He answered questions from a local reporter and smiled the whole way through it. We were seniors then, accustomed to the exploits of our best athlete and aware of the hell he lived with at home because when he wasn’t present we traded what we knew about him, the separate pieces of his story he offered to us individually. More than once we said we should do something and more than once one of us would say, “But remember that day Eddie told Coach Phipps it wasn’t any of his business?” And that seemed to close up the conversation and we went about our business. It wasn’t as if we ever stopped wondering how Tripp could be so hard on him or how the man could constantly bring his fists to the hardest playing kid on the team. But we also wanted to be carefree and have fun, the stuff that composes a teenager’s life. What concerned us most were our girlfriends and college decisions, our lives away from baseball and one another and what might be awaiting us in a future that did or did not include Fordyce and its smallness.
So it was easier than it should have been to forget Eddie. He was a boy who, because of his talent, was always popular among us and everyone else in the school, but his popularity was derived only from his feats on the fields of play and had very little to do with anything in his personality. In fact, in the moments when we circled the Trademart Shopping Center in the cars our parents gave us or parked behind the Belk-Simpson after it was closed, our memories of Eddie and what he said were never clear. We never remembered laughing at his telling of a story nor did we ever go to him with our own private confessions. He was friendly and he had friends he ran with, but no one was close to him.
Maybe these are the selfish and shameless reasons we turned away from our teammate. Maybe we believed that even though his arm had gone dead the year before and the scouts had stopped coming around to our games, Eddie would somehow will his way toward something bigger than who and where we were. We believed he would do what he had always done, that he would always be better than us.
The cumulative effect of all those beatings, though, had left Eddie believing he was only the one thing. A future that didn’t include baseball had become, in his mind, not a future at all. In those last waning days of our senior year, when the world had seemed alive with nothing but possibility for so many of us, Eddie Jackson’s was extinguished. And though we knew how important the game was to Eddie, how hard he tried to prevent our losses, it wasn’t until our final game when we came to know how much he had always needed us.
What had begun in the sixth grade continued through the last game of our lives when we were beat out in the finals of the region for the third straight year. Eddie is still the only person, as far as anyone knows, to be named the regional tournament MVP from a losing team. He hit over six hundred in three games with five homers and twenty RBIs. He threw a two-hitter in the final. The only run of that game was when our catcher let a sinker-ball slip through his legs and roll to the backstop. The runner on third came home and didn’t even slide. But unlike that little league game six years before, when we were separated by different teams, the entire town felt the despair when Eddie scorched a double down the line and one after another of us came up and could not advance him home. While the Harlan Green Dragons ran out to the pitcher’s mound, Eddie Jackson stayed on second base, squatting with his hands on his head. His forearms were rippled with veins and his long, boyish black hair snuck out from under the flaps of his batting helmet. School was already over for the year. Our graduation had been the week before and with the final out of that game nothing was left to tie us to Fordyce High School anymore. Eddie’s uniform showed traces of the crushed red brick that made up the infield’s dirt. In front of him the boys from Harlan tossed their hats and gloves in the air, they piled onto their pitcher, and our coaches exchanged quick handshakes at home plate. But Eddie refused to move, as if doing so meant the final out of his life.
Tripp Jackson moved away from his spot on the fence. The stands emptied. The litter of stray peanut shells and aluminum foil that once held hot dogs lifted into the breeze. In the parking lot, boys much younger than us, boys we had once been, played a game with wadded up paper cups serving as a ball and the flat of their palms as bats. In their own makeshift diamond they ran circles, left ghostmen behind to run their bases and dreamed of the day when they too would be on the big field with the green grass, the chalked lines, and their own dirty uniforms.
They did not know disappointment in the way we did, but that would come and they too would learn to accept it or live with it and, like us, they would go on to lead lives that were predictable and, in many ways, ordinary and full. There was not an Eddie Jackson among them that we knew of, but there almost always is we came to find out, just as there is almost certainly a Tripp Jackson too, who was pulling away from the park at the moment his son finally stepped off second base, relegating himself to defeat.
Across that field I still see Eddie’s eighteen-year old figure in the way our mind sometimes refuses to let a person be more than what they once were. When I see him around town I don’t see the man he is now with two little boys of his own, to whom he’s never so much as raised his voice when angry. I see the kid on second rising from his squatted position and whom I grew up with. Eddie was our star, our bright boy. It may seem strange that I know what we all felt in those six years we were teenagers and even now that we are adults. But we did so little to ease the weight he carried how can I believe that any of us who really look at him can’t see the boy he was, walking alone, past a celebration that he—that we—had always dreamed would involve him? Later that night, after the trophies were handed out, and the lights from the ballpark were shut off, we were not surprised to see Eddie walking through downtown in his jeans and tee shirt, his ball cap pulled low on the front of his forehead. He wasn’t headed home, though, like the rest of us. He was going in a different direction, which we did not follow or ask about, which did not carry the burden of unmet expectations, and where we could never fail him again.