The following morning I was sitting in front of the Keystone Hotel reading a newspaper when I heard a voice say, "Heh, mon, been looking for you." I looked over the paper to see Elrod smiling down at me.
"What for?" I said. He hit me on the side of the head and I fell off the bench. I landed in a sitting position on the sidewalk, my legs spread out in front of me. I was still holding the newspaper. I was more dazed than hurt. Then I remembered the night before, but was still not sure that was why Elrod had hit me. It was not enough, I thought, not enough for me to hit someone. There must be more. I had been shoved into this melodrama without having played the first scene. And he was still smiling at me! I got up and he swung again. This time I blocked the punch with my arm. We circled warily. To the death? I wondered. But I wasn't even angry. I just wished he would put down his arms and walk away. But he didn't. I thought of my career. Two and one-third innings. Would that be it?
Once the excitement of my arrival in McCook and the start of my career had worn off, I discovered it was a dull life. The mornings and afternoons were free, and endless. Only the hours from six to 11 p.m., when the games were played, held any excitement. Those games were our only reality. Our lives were lived primarily within nine innings and were greatly affected by what took place during them. The rest was nothing but dead time to be filled somehow. There was a pool hall that opened at noon and a bar that served those over 21. There were two movie theaters, the drive-in and the Fox, both of which opened at seven p.m. and closed at midnight. At best, after a night game we could rush to see the final minutes of the same movie two weeks running. We had only ourselves to alleviate the boredom. Often I would sit by myself for long periods of time in the old band shelter in the small park across from the hotel. Most of the players drifted into cliques. They shared the boredom as if it were a weight that could be lessened in proportion to the number of shoulders that bore it.
One night, walking home from the armory, I passed the town bar. Through the window I could see several of the older players. The room was dimly lit but their faces were illumined in an eerie way by the colored lights of a pinball machine around which they stood. They held bottles of beer, and every so often one would raise a bottle to his lips, tip his head back and take a long swallow. They took turns playing the machine. As the silver balls ricocheted underneath the glass they laughed and pointed at the flickering scoreboard. I watched for a while, not daring to go inside and suffer the humiliation of being denied service because I was under 21. Besides, I had not yet acquired a taste for beer, nor for pinball machines, though I definitely did desire the camaraderie the older players seemed to share.
A few nights later I got up the nerve to walk over to their house after a game. They were sitting around in their underwear, talking, swearing and drinking beer. They offered me a beer, too, and I sat down with them. I said very little at first, but after a few sips began to talk loudly and slur my words. I was not drunk really, just showing off, and it wasn't until I saw the disgusted looks on their faces that I realized I had done the wrong thing.
I lacked something, I decided. But what? I gave up my efforts to befriend the older players. Still, I did not spend much lime with Ron Hunt, either. I had grown estranged from him over the weeks. We had little in common. I was restless, preferring to spend my free time downtown, while Ron would rather have stayed home with Mom. One afternoon I returned to our house to find Ron standing on the front lawn with one arm around a middle-aged man in a business suit and the other around a woman with a corsage pinned to her dress. Mom—that is, the woman in whose house we slept—was peering at the three of them through a Brownie camera. After she snapped the picture, Ron introduced the man to me as "my dad," and the woman as "my mom." A few weeks later I returned home another afternoon to find the same scene being played out. Ron, smiling, his arms around a man and a woman. Only they were different people. Mom snapped their picture. Ron called me over. "I want you to meet my dad," he said. "And this is my mom." I later learned that his parents had been divorced and had each remarried, so he had two sets of them, of moms and dads, not counting any others who befriended him along the way. It was a source of comfort to him.
Most of the younger players lived together in a house. I went there once and found little to interest me. They spent their time writing to mothers and girl friends. The former always seemed to be sending cookies and the latter pictures of themselves. The players treated the snapshots of one another's girl friend with great reverence no matter how unpretty that girl might be. Each player was faithful to his snapshot and, in fact, made as great a production of his faithfulness as a reformed alcoholic does of his sobriety ("It's been 32 days since I last saw her"). Dennis Overby went so far as to bring his girl friend to McCook. One night while she was there he struck out 17 batters and the next day they were seen at 11 o'clock Mass. Afterward she flew back to Fond du Lac.
I had a girl friend back home, also. She is now my wife, has been these past 13 years. She says I sent few letters from McCook. They were never more than a few lines, scrawled in large letters across one side of a piece of note-paper. She kept one:
I miss you so much. I love you an awful lot. I can't wait to see you again. How are you? Fine, I hope. I have a terrific roommate. His name is Ron Hunt. He has a girl friend back home, too, and all we do is talk about each of you. He's a swell guy and I wish you could meet him. I pitched yesterday but was wild. My arm didn't feel real good. But I still throw harder than anyone on the club. And I'm learning lots about pitching and lots of other things. Love and kisses, Pat.