The next morning I bought six aerosol cans of DDT. We sprayed every corner of the house, sprayed until we began to feel sick. We waited. Nothing. We waited all day and into the night and still nothing. We turned off the lights and were about to go to bed when we heard a thousand crunchy steps. I flicked on the lights and the bugs scattered into the walls. I trapped a straggler in a glass jar, sprayed an entire can of DDT into the jar and then screwed on the top. The jar clouded up and the bug disappeared from view. I waited—10, 15 minutes—and then unscrewed the top and turned the jar upside down. The palmetto fell onto the floor and darted into the wall. We went to bed with the lights on. Carol stuffed towels in the crack under the door leading to the living room and more towels under the door to the bathroom and we lay down cautiously on our precariously balanced bed in our brilliantly lighted, hermetically sealed room. And we stared at the ceiling.
In the mornings I played pool and drank lemon Cokes on the benches that lined Lemon Street, and in the afternoons I went fishing with Ron Pavia, perhaps the only other married Azalea besides the manager, Mike Fandozzi, and myself. Ron was a chunky, swarthy Portuguese from Cranston, R.I., who so resembled a character in the cartoon strip
that we nicknamed him "Boo Bear." Boo and I went fishing every afternoon, and we never caught anything. We went first to a bait store, where we bought 30 shrimp in a pail of crushed ice, and then we went to a grocery store and bought six lemons and a package of Dixie cups and a few six-packs of 7-Up, and then we went to a liquor store and bought a gallon of port wine, which we stuck in the pail of crushed ice with the shrimp, and then we drove to the outskirts of town, where the road passed over the narrowest part of the St. Johns River without benefit of a bridge railing. We parked the car on a soft shoulder and sat on the edge of the road with our feet dangling over the river. We baited our hooks with shrimp and tossed them into the water. We poured some port wine over crushed ice, added a dash of 7-Up and a squeeze of lemon, and relaxed.
To combat the heat we refreshed ourselves often with our wine coolers. After a while we no longer noticed the heat; sweat pouring down our necks, heads nodding on our chests, the bamboo poles now weightless in arms gone numb. Nor did it register that we never got a nibble, that we never saw a fish, that after a while we had begun to eat our bait.
We fished like this daily and probably would have continued until the end of the season except for an experience we had late one afternoon after we had finished the last of the wine. The sun was beginning to set and the day had grown dark and cool, although by then we were too numb to really notice. We had not moved a muscle in minutes, it seemed, when suddenly there was a splash and we saw, rising out of the water, twisting like a corkscrew as it rose, a huge and ugly fish. It had a hide like rusted armor and a mean, long-billed face like an alligator's. The fish kept rising and rising in slow motion, endlessly, it seemed, until it had reached a height of almost six feet and its beady popeyes were level with our own. We stared at one another. Then we stared into the popeyes of the garfish and he scrutinized us with a narrowing squint. He opened his long-billed mouth to reveal rows of tiny teeth like thumbtacks. With a single swipe he severed both lines and then slipped silently back into the river. We said nothing. We just sat there, fishing with our severed lines that no longer reached the water, staring at that point in space where the garfish had stared at us. After a while we got up to leave. We threw the rest of the shrimp into the river, and then we threw the pail of ice in, too, and the empty 7-Up bottles, and the wine bottle, and then, as an afterthought, we threw our bamboo poles into the river, and we never dared mention what we had seen—what we thought we had seen—to anyone, not even to one another.
I was put on the Azaleas' active list early in July. A few days later I won my first game of the season. I pitched five innings against the Daytona Beach Islanders before being relieved with the tying runs on base. My relief pitcher retired the side and then pitched three more scoreless, hitless innings to preserve my first victory of the year. Nothing had changed in my pitching, really. I had given up three runs on six walks, five hits and a wild pitch. I had struck out only one batter. My motion was still a disaster and my fastball and curve were faint echoes of what they had once been. But I had had luck that night (now that I no longer needed it), and I had begun to cease to care. I threw easily, without thought or anxiety over my lost promise. It was hard to be tormented by lost promise at Palatka, where one was surrounded by so much lost promise. We laughed at our inadequacies. One night, playing third base, Boo Bear kicked two routine ground balls into the third-base stands. When he returned to the dugout at the end of the inning, he sat at the far end of the bench, shaking his head gloomily. Someone called down to him, "Atta boy, Boo, great hands!" We all began to laugh. Boo glanced sideways at his laughing teammates, his face dark and threatening, and then not so threatening, and then he was laughing, too.
I laughed at myself. For the first time. After my victory over the White Sox, one of the Azaleas shook my hand. "Nice motion you got there, fella," he said. "Smooth."
"Just a little something I picked up along the way," I said, and we both laughed.
Ironically, I was one of the most successful pitchers on the club during the last weeks of the season. I started every fourth game or so, and often relieved between starts. In one 11-day span I appeared in four games for a total of 20 innings, and I won two. When we left for Tampa on the last road trip of the season, I had a 4-5 record. Despite this modest success, I had not deluded myself into thinking I had recaptured anything. I knew I was not throwing well, was getting by on a little luck, a little know-how and indifference. I realized that my pitching had deteriorated as much as it possibly could have at Eau Claire and now, at Palatka, I was not making progress; I was just not getting worse.
I thought about all of these things as Boo Bear and I drove toward Tampa on that hot afternoon near the end of the season. I wondered where I had lost my talent, tried to discover that point where it all started going downhill. But it was like trying to read random, unconnected points on a faulty graph, none of which indicated a direction. I turned to Boo Bear beside me in the front seat. "Pour me one of those, Boo," I said.
He had set up a small bar on the dashboard—wine, ice, 7-Up, lemons—and he had already poured himself two wine coolers while I was daydreaming.