Labels: I'm back
“I actually just signed papers to become an undergraduate-student coach, so I’ll be helping out this year.”Huzzah! He's teaching the next generation of players how to effectively fill out an NBA roster by having a career average of 3.5 points per game. That's important. Someone's gotta be that guy who plays for five teams in six years. (Well, assuming we ever see another NBA game played in our lifetimes.)
Grantland:Do you get any double takes from students or teacher by being in class again?"Seriously? You think people recognize me? Even I don't know what I look like! I always have to carry around this GQ article Profile in Obscurity about me!"
Shannon and Bill guide me slowly into the house, my hand and face wrapped in ice packs.
“I still think we should go to the hospital,” Shannon says.
“I’m fine,” I say through my tightened jaw. “The other team’s third baseman checked me out. He said I’m ok.”
“But he’s a veterinarian,” she says.
“Humans…animals…we all have…bones and stuff,” I say, and look to Bill. “I think I might be able to pitch next week. They’re gonna need me.”
Bill eyes me like I’m crazy.
“Tell me something, Doug,” he says. “Have you ever had the bacon, egg and cheese biscuit at McDonald’s?”
“Greatest breakfast sandwich ever, right?” he says.
“I guess,” I say.
“You ever take it apart to see what that rolled up piece of processed egg tastes like on its own?”
“Hasn’t everyone?” I say.
“How’d it taste?” he says.
I make a sour face.
“That’s right,” he says. “Doug, you’re a good egg…you might even be a good egg substitute made from a mass-produced powder, but you need that bacon, you need that biscuit, you need that cheese to be something great.”
“I don’t understand what that means,” I say.
“It means that you could be a very good contributor on a talented team,” he says. “But you’re not anyone’s savior.”
I stare back him with resentment.
“I’m a flimsy, tasteless piece of processed egg,” I say.
Shannon giggles. “An egg,” she says.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Bill says. “Without the egg, there’s no sandwich.”
“So you’re calling me a…” I spit out the term in disgust, “a role player.”
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being a Danny Ainge,” he says. “You’re a white guy with some pretty good game, but you need a Larry, you need a Kevin, you need a Chief.”
Bill and Shannon lower me into a chair at the kitchen table. I pull the ice pack off my head.
“You need any more ice, honey?” Shannon says.
“I’m good,” I say.
Shannon tells to Edwin and Fiona to get into their pajamas. The conga line heads upstairs.
I have that melancholy look. Bill sits down across from me.
“Hey, man, I know,” he says. “You want to be bacon. I want to be bacon. Everyone can’t be bacon. If everyone were bacon, you know what you’d have?”
“What,” I say.
“The Atkins diet,” Bill says. “And I’ll tell you what – that’s an unpleasant existence. I tried that diet for a week. By day 5, I was dreaming about doughnuts, bagels and bread, and eventually bacon didn’t even taste good anymore. The world needs eggs like you and bread like me. We make the bacon taste good.”
“Why do you get to be bread?” I say.
“Because I’m often toasted,” he says.
I grin and as Bill stands.
“Good one to finish on,” he says. “Tip your waitress. Try the veal.”
Devlin comes into the kitchen. Bill looks to Dev and points to me. “Good egg, your dad,” he says, then to me. “Alright, later.”
“Thanks,” I say. “Later.”
Devlin takes the same seat across from me.
“So,” I say, adjusting the icepack on my hand. “What did you think? Embarrassing, huh?”
“Kind of,” Devlin says, “but I was kinda proud too.”
“Really? Why?” I say.
Dev thinks. “Well, we spend a lot of time on sports,” he says. “We play, we coach, we cheer, we watch Sportscenter all day long. If we didn’t try hard, if we didn’t care a lot, what would be the point? It wouldn’t make sense. It would be a waste. Tonight, I could tell how much you cared. It was a little embarrassing, but it was…who you are. Who we are.”
“You think I should quit?” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “But you won’t.”
“Do you want me to quit?” I say.
“No,” he says. “It’s not you.”
“We’ll see,” I say. “You and Bill might be right.”
“I just don’t like seeing you get hurt,” Dev says. “As for Bill, he just wants you to spend more time on the couch watching games.”
“How’d you get so smart?” I say.
“Mom,” he says.
Dev stands and circles the table. On his way past me, he pats me on the shoulder.
“You’re bacon to me, Dad,” he says.
He bounds upstairs, oblivious to the impact he’s just made. My chest swells with pride.
In spite of the evening’s humiliating events, I feel like I’ve just…I don’t know...
Two weeks later, I call out Larry Bird’s name during an intimate moment in bed with Shannon. I have no idea why. To this day, if you listen closely on a quiet summer night in Chicago, you can hear the distant echo of her reaction in the breeze.
Well there you have it, folks – my over-the-top therapy-session-slash-response to the Celtics’ gut-wrenching loss in the 2010 Finals. I sincerely hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please comment, even anonymously, to let me know.
And if you really enjoyed it…
You can buy the book. Yup, that’s right, you can buy Traveling, the novel.
Now I know what you’re asking yourself: “Why should I bother to purchase what I just received for free?” Well, that’s a pretty damn good question, actually, so I guess I better come up with something. Ok, here it goes – each book contains:
- A special Author’s Note enjoyed only by those who have made this special purchase.
- The official text version of Traveling on actual, physical pages that you can turn, like a real book.
- A version that allows you to enjoy Traveling without a WiFi connection, or even a computer.
- An item you can use as your virtual Wonka golden ticket, entitling you to meet me, Evil Ted, if you are ever in the downtown Chicago area. You will receive:
o One face-to-face meeting, during which I will talk to you as if you are a person I care about for a period of at least five minutes.
o My signature on your copy of the book (or of any other copies of my books you may have purchased). I will be happy to give you either a personalized signing (as in, “Hi Joe, glad you liked my book…”) or an I-want-to-sell-this-on-eBay-version-someday-when-you’re-famous signing (just my signature and nothing else).
o Special mention in our Basketbawful “Fan of the Day” segment, which will include a photo of the glorious meeting and a special ET write-up of the encounter.
- For purchasers of three or more books, I will wear special accoutrements, such as the Larry Bird wig and stache made famous in my Larry Bird Theme Park video.
- For buyers of six or more books, I will basically debase myself in whatever way you choose. If you are a Laker fan, bring a Laker jersey and I will wear it in said Larry Bird hair and stache, prance around like a drunken fairy, and scream “Lakers rule!” at the top of my lungs in a public place.
Now much would you pay? But wait… there’s more!
Purchases of any of my books (even the much more thrifty downloads) will contribute to the make-Traveling-a-movie fund. You’ve already seen what kind of magic I can create on a budget of virtually zero. Imagine if I can sell a whole ton of books and stockpile some cash for a better camera and lunch money for a few good actors….
And finally, if you have trouble parting with your hard-earned cash for a narrative you’ve already read online, consider my other works. There’s The Art of Reprisal, a cool, dark psychological thriller that took me about fifteen years to complete… and oh yeah… I do have a couple of books that…. let’s see…. hmmm…. how to describe them….. ok…. imagine, if you will, the easily digested humor of Traveling, but as a hilarious, disgustingly filthy, dystopian male satire that would burst into flame if you brought it anywhere near a church, or even near, like, an optimistic person. That’s Modern Man. Now imagine I’ve cast aside my conscience and decided not to only have gut-bustingly funny filth, but also decided to eliminate any redeeming qualities from my characters whatsoever. That would be Hot Mess.
Piqued your interest? Thought so. Perverts.
I know what you’re saying: “How sad to debase this great and pure literary experience with a tawdry money-making scheme, ET.” To that, I say – money making? HA! Given that I’ve been writing for 20 plus years, adding up the profit of the books I’ve sold would give me approximately…10 bucks a year – hardly something on which to make a living. I do it because I love it. Of course, if I could be successful enough to do it full time someday, awesome. But if not, the Clark Kent job continues.
Again, I hope you enjoyed reading Traveling as much as I enjoyed writing it. I was thrilled to be able to share it with you in this way.
If you have any questions, comments, or inquiries for me directly, contact me at: email@example.com
I look over my right shoulder. At third base is Tooth. Next to him at shortstop is a wrinkled man in red suit shorts, penny loafers, compression socks up to his knees, and a pink Polo shirt. He leans heavily on his black shillelagh. How he could possibly catch a grounder and throw it to first base is a genuine mystery.
I look over my left shoulder. At second base, a woman wearing corrective sneakers whose everything is sagging picks at the webbing of her glove like an ape grooming flies. At first base is Annie, pounding a fist into her freshly purchased softball glove and glaring toward home plate with staunch determination.
The situation in the outfield is almost as bad. In left is stringy pastor Jeb. In right is an ashen, lumbering woman who appears to have been hijacked from a George Romero production. In center is a Thurston Howell-type dressed in white slacks, navy jacket, and a sailor captain’s hat.
As I approach the pitcher’s rubber, I feel like a genuine God. On this team, everything I do will spawn adoring awe. Even in defeat, I personally will win by virtue of just being so dominant in comparison to my teammates. Selfish? Yes. But foolproof.
Or so it would seem.
Patch comes up to me before the first pitch.
“Gotta warn you,” he says. “This first batter hits it hard right up the middle, so be ready for something right back at you.”
“No problem,” I say.
“No, really,” Patch says, his voice laced with meaning. “He hits it hard.”
I put out my arms. “Look at the team around me,” I say. “We want this guy to hit the ball up the middle.”
Patch thinks about it. “Good point,” he concedes, and returns to the plate.
A large man in a tank top, backward baseball cap, and basketball shorts comes to bat. Readying myself, I give a confident nod to Shannon and the kids sitting in the stands. Shannon and Dev each offer me a thumbs up signal while Edwin and Fiona bicker over a sandwich bag full of goldfish crackers. Bill is there too. When I told him about the team and its problems, he said he had to “watch this train wreck.”
I do a little Elvis-inspired hip wiggle before my first pitch. I’m not sure why. Probably because it will make me look like an even bigger jackass after what happens next.
With a smooth upward motion, I float the first offering into the air. It’s a beauty, rising like the moon against the evening sky. It spins ever so slightly. I admire the high arc of the ball for what feels like an eternity. My slow motion appreciation of myself allows me to completely forget about Patch’s scouting report.
Right up the middle….right back at you.
I hear only the dry crack of the aluminum bat vibrating the night air. A split-second later, the ball pounds my chin like a sledgehammer, the force cantilevering my full jaw back into my throat, sending an electric pulse through my ears, both of which pop.
Everyone watching looks stunned. Even the batter cringes and fails to move.
For a moment, time stands still.
When the batter realizes I’m not dead, he begins sprinting to first.
Now deaf, I cannot hear the people around me telling me to pick up the ball, but I see them pointing to the ground at my feet. I find the ball, pick it up, and raise it behind my head to throw to first.
I have plenty of time to make the play. I can see the hope and amazement in everyone’s eyes – my ability to perform in the face of such brutal physical punishment astounds them. I can feel the effect of my own virility pulsing across the field. I am the Golden Child – the first of many building blocks to make this team what it can someday be.
And then it hits me.
The true damage of the impact to my chin comes on me all at once – my vision dims, my head spins, my jaw wobbles, and my ears make a noise submarines make in the movies just before they implode at crush depth.
The ball drops from my hand and I topple like the AT-AT walker Luke took out with a grenade in Empire.
My face collides with the dusty earth, sending up a cloud that hazes my vision further, obscuring the appearance of the ethereal figure before me. He glows, and despite the blur and dust, I think I can make out that he’s wearing his home whites. He might even have wings, but I’m not sure.
“You alright, Doug?”
That Indiana drawl is unmistakable.
“Larry?” I say.
“I’d prefer Mr. Bird,” he says.
“Yes, Mr. Bird,” I say.
“Just kidding,” he says. “Larry’s fine.”
“What are you doing here?” I say.
“You idolize me, remember?” he says. “Who else would you see when you’re near death?”
“Death?” I say, coughing into the dry infield dirt.
“I know. Tough break,” Larry says, “but don’t quit.”
“Don’t quit?” I say. “I can’t feel my face, I can hardly see, and I think the only reason I can even hear you right now is because you’re a…” I try to remember the word. “Phantasm.”
“Doppelganger is a more compelling term,” Larry says. Apparently in my imagination, Larry Bird possesses book knowledge.
“Did I quit when Dennis Rodman blocked my shot with 5 seconds left in ’87?” Larry says.
“What did I do?”
“You stole the ball,” I say.
“What? I didn’t hear you,” he says.
“You stole the ball,” I say a little louder. Or maybe I just think it a little louder.
“That’s right I did,” Larry says. “Did I quit against the Pacers in 1991 when my face slammed into the parquet floor?”
“What did I do?”
“You scored 32 points on 12 for 19 shooting.”
“That’s right,” he says. “Now get up, Doug. It’s your destiny.”
When Larry Bird tells you to get up, you do it, even if you think doing so may cause your head to explode. I rise slowly by my own power. Tooth, Patch, and Annie all stand around me.
“You ok, Doug?” Tooth says. His voice is muffled, like he’s speaking to me from a distance.
I nod, opening and closing my mouth to get my ears working again.
“You sure?” Patch says, holding tight to my wrists like a trainer trying to assess the condition of his boxer.
“I’m fine,” I say, pulling my hands away. “I can keep going.”
As I pick up the ball and return to the rubber, I look over at the stands. Shannon is pressed up against the chain-link fence, her hands clenched to the metal links. Devlin stands next to her in the same pose. Edwin and Fiona continue to bicker over goldfish crackers.
With the man-woman rotation, a female batter is next to the plate. As if out of mercy, she taps a timid grounder to my feet on the first pitch. I throw her out. Despite the runner on first reaching second, the play shows a hint of Doug promise.
As the next batter steps to the plate, the ancient second base woman with corrective shoes steps to my side. She has a bewildered, urgent look on her face.
“Hey. We played this team last year,” she says. “You need to be careful. This guy hits it hard up the middle too.”
I recall what Tooth told me about her.
“Don’t you have…like… memory loss?” I say. “How would you even know that?”
Her expression remains unchanged.
“Hey. We played this team last year,” she says. “You need to be careful. This guy hits it hard up the middle too.”
She wanders back to her position.
“You just…told me that,” I grumble.
This time, I don’t admire my pitch. This time, I am ready.
The bat cracks and the ball screams at me – toward my bare hand. Without the time to extend my glove, I try to catch the screamer with the gloveless hand. My fingers crunch and contort on impact, and again I am on the ground, squirming.
Larry returns instantly. This time he’s on all fours, his head the directly in line with mine.
“That looked painful,” he says.
I check my fingers. They’re swollen, turning purple, and stuck at curious angles.
Larry winces at the sight. “You know what?” he says. “I’m going to give you some advice I’ve never given anyone before,” he says. “Quit.”
I lift my head slightly off the dirt, shocked.
“Et tu, Larry?” I say. “Et tu?”
“I know,” Larry says. “Look, quitting was never my style. But I think for you it might be a good fit.”
“I can still move my fingers,” I say, showing Larry the bulbous collection of uncooked sausages loosely attached to my palm. I move them forward and back as far as I can, about an inch. “I can still pitch.”
“Look,” Larry says. “If you need someone to encourage you to keep playing beyond all logic and reason, then you need to hallucinate Brett Favre.”
I can’t let this statement go.
“Larry, I worship you and everything, but those last couple of seasons after you threw out your back-”
“Really?” Larry says, his voice low and fierce. “With all the joy my career has given you, you want to go there?”
“Favre could say the same thing, right?” I ask. “You’re the one who brought him up, so I figured-”
“My cameo’s over,” Larry says, and evaporates.
I feel people lifting me by the arms. Patch is on one side of me, Tooth on the other. I look up at them.
“I can still go,” I say in a weak, shaky voice. “Larry’s wrong. He’s totally wrong.”
Tooth and Patch escort me from the field, my legs dragging and my head slumped.
The crowd noise fades as they take me to a quiet area of grass. They drop me onto my belly, lifeless and spent.
“Well, back to the drawing board,” I hear Tooth say.
“Yup,” Patch replies.
They walk away, planning future moves.
“Who else is there?” Tooth says.
“Maybe that guy from the tailgate we met last week,” Patch says.
“Did you know there’s adult kick ball on Thursday nights?” Tooth says.
“Really?” Patch says.
“Let’s think about switching to that next year,” Tooth says. “Less dangerous.”
Their voices trail off.
I realize I’m not alone. I am staring into the eyes of another man lying next to me. Like me, he is spread eagled on his stomach. Half his face his concealed by grass. The half I can see is blackened with bruises.
“You the pitcher?” he says in a gravelly voice.
“I pitched last week,” he says. “Those line drives are a bitch, aren’t they?”
Disturbed, I gather all my strength to turn my head in other direction. In my line of vision lies another man, his nose twisted and bleeding.
“I pitched for two weeks last month,” he says. “They dumped me here after I took a few shots to the face.”
What is this? I think to myself. The Island of Misfit Pitchers?
My body starts sliding, in increments, away from them.
“Hey, where you going?” one says.
“Come back!” say the other. “Don’t leave us!”
“The last thing I ate was a worm!” the first adds. “Help me!”
I look around. Pulling at my right leg is Brett Favre. He’s in a Jets uniform. I spin my head to the other side. Holding my left foot is Michael Jordan. He’s in a Wizards uniform. I turn again to my right. Favre is a Viking.
“He can keep playing,” Jordan says.
“Of course he can,” Favre says.
Every instinct I’ve ever had contradicts the one I’m having right now. Holding on to each leg is a solemn reminder of the perils of holding on too long.
I claw at the grass with my good hand, trying to resist.
“No!” I scream. “Larry warned me about you! He was right!”
“Get back in there,” Favre says, angrier.
“Show them you’re the best, and always will be,” Jordan barks.
“I can’t play anymore!” I say.
“Then why are you resisting?” Patch says.
I look around. Patch is now where Favre used to be. Tooth has replaced Jordan. Instead of grass, I’m clawing at the pitcher’s rubber. I’m still on the field.
Bill makes a stay-here wave to Shannon and strolls out to the mound. Halting next to me, he drops down on one knee and leans forward.
“How ya doin there, buddy?” he says.
I give a sausage-up signal with my injured hand, keeping the fingertips of my healthy hand clutched tightly to the half-inch thickness of rubber like I’m a mountain climber hanging onto a sliver of rock for dear life.
“You know, when I said I wanted to come and watch the train wreck, I wasn’t really expecting it to be you,” he says. “Is this because of the Celtics?”
I can feel my eyeballs flex at the question.
“Take it easy, Doug,” Bill says, showing me his open hands in a calming gesture. “I think we all want the same thing here. Let’s get you off the field.”
Delirious, I lock my gaze on Bill. “But I don’t want to tarnish my legacy,” I say.
“What legacy, Doug?” Bill says. “What are you trying to save?”
“My…dignity?” I say. I don’t even know what that means.
Bill assesses my crumpled mass.
“I hate to break it to you, pal,” he says, “but I think that boat has sailed.”
I look to Bill with a sad, weary gaze. “So is this it? Should I retire?” I say.
“Well,” Bill says, looking around the field. “I feel strange saying this given your team’s average age is 60, but yeah, I think you should retire.” Bill looks at my hand, still clenched to the pitcher’s rubber. “You’re holding on too tight, Doug. Time to let go.”
The sanity of Bill’s words washes over me, and my body unclenches. As my muscles relax and my hand drops away from the pitching rubber, I feel like something profound has taken place.
I am not, however, afforded much time to consider what that something is.
Bill immediately nods back at Tooth and Patch like a SWAT commander giving the go signal. They gather up my legs wheelbarrow style and drag me from the field. Completely spent, I have no more energy to resist.
As I slide across the ground, my eyes are naturally aimed toward the stands. Shannon and Devlin are again attached to the chain link fence in rapt attention. Even Edwin and Fiona have abandoned their fight over goldfish crackers to watch me get hauled off the field.
This is how you know you have achieved complete humiliation – when a child would rather focus on your disgrace than on a struggle to claim a bag of goldfish crackers.
Against the stunned silence of all onlookers, the sound of my body dragging across earth dominates the air. It is, in all likelihood, the final time I will ever consume the collective consciousness of an entire crowd at an athletic event.
It feels, somehow…
Annie sits next to me. I address her softly, scanning the room like a spy in enemy territory.
“You started coming to this group after I did,” I say. “Tell me you’re not in on this.”
Annie shrugs. “I barely even understand what’s going on,” she says.
“Well, I think you might be Princess Leia,” I say, handing her the papers, “and these may be the Empire’s plans to rule the galaxy.”
“That’s my only copy,” Tooth says. “I need those back.”
I take Annie’s arm, and nod to the bucket. “Grab R2-D2.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Tooth says, standing. “Join me. It’s your destiny, Doug. Search your feelings.”
“Pull up your hood,” I say, pointing at Tooth’s black hoodie.
“Why?’ Tooth says.
“Humor me,” I say.
Tooth lifts the hood, draping it over his eyes. His gnarly tooth gives him a distinct look.
“The Emperor,” I say under my breath.
Patch pulls a futuristic looking gun out of a duffle bag by his chair. Maybe he’s just a stormtrooper. That would make sense – he’s no Vader.
“When are we going to get back to my paintball stories?” Patch says. He appears stunned as the gun starts rapid-fire shooting red paint balls into the cafeteria wall. The recoil causes the gun to jerk uncontrollably in Patch’s hand. It’s turning toward me and Annie when I reach for Plunger’s plunger. Pushing Annie behind me, I raise it before me like a light saber. As paint balls zip toward us, I wield the plunger with calm, precise strokes.
Apparently, the Force is not strong with me.
I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s a plunger, for God’s sake. Paint balls hammer and welt my chest until I can barely breathe. Whining like a sick puppy, I drop the plunger and grab Annie’s hand.
“RUN!” I say.
The paintball gun continues to blast pellets as we race out of the cafeteria. I can hear Patch apologizing behind us.
“I’m so sorry!” he’s yelling. “Don’t go! The trigger’s stuck. It does this sometimes!”
We speed down the hallway. Patch is close behind, still firing, with Tooth marching up the rear.
“It’s not me, it’s the gun!” Patch screams.
People from my Yellowstone trip appear in various classroom doorways as we pass. First it’s the boy scouts from Devil’s Tower.
“Ewoks!” I say, “or maybe Jawas.”
Then comes Stuart, the grotesquely ancient Laker fan who challenged me at Mastermind.
“Yoda!” I pronounce.
Next is Frank, his elephantine mass lying motionless on the floor as paramedics give him CPR.
“Jabba the Hutt!”
Then a woman in khaki shorts and a tank top.
“Who’s that?” Annie says.
“I had to do her laundry to watch game 2,” I say.
“No, I mean what Star Wars character is she?” Annie says.
“No idea,” I say.
“What about Natalie Portman?”
“Amidala?” I say, scoffing. “Don’t get me started on the prequels.”
In the middle of the hallway is an adult grizzly bear. It rises onto its hind legs, towering over us. Annie and I scream and clutch each other, waiting for something horrible to happen. It does not. The bear drops back down onto all fours and begins to sway, his eyes half open.
“This must be Chewbacca,” I say. “He’s on our side. Let’s go.”
I try to pull Annie forward, but she resists.
“Trust me,” I say.
As we pass with methodical slow motion baby steps, the bear sniffs us and paws at us gently.
“Are you sure this is Chewbacca?” Annie says, her arms clutched tightly to her chest.
“Could be a rancor, I guess,” I say, “but it would have eaten us by now.”
We get past the bear and it looses interest in us.
“Ha! I knew a rancor was too obscure,” I say as we pick up speed.
We reach the end of the hallway. All of the doors around us are locked.
“Dead end,” I say.
“What now?” Annie says.
Nothing’s coming to me.
“What would Larry Bird do?” I say aloud to myself.
“Screw that,” Annie says. “What would Princess Leia do?”
Annie tosses the softball plans into the bucket and drops her face into it.
“Tell me,” she says.
“Tell you what,” I say.
“Tell me about my daughter,” she says.
“Really?” I say. “You want to Brundlefly all over the plans? I’m not sure that’s what Princess Leia would do.”
“You’re wrong,” Annie says. “Leia would go to whatever lengths necessary to keep the plans from the Empire. Do it!”
I look down the hall. Patch and Tooth have made their way past the bear.
“Your daughter came in second!” I say. “She wasn’t good enough! She lost!”
Annie drops her face deep into the bucket. Retching noises echo in the plastic container as Patch and Tooth approach.
“Too late, boys,” I say. “Your plans are ruined, covered in gelatinous chunks of-” I turn to Annie. “What did you eat for dinner?”
“Chicken marsala and rice,” she says.
“Eeew, chicken marsala and rice,” I say. “Too bad. So sad. Buh-bye.”
Tooth reaches into the bucket and pulls out the papers. They are clean and dry.
“Wha-?” I look into the empty bucket, then at Annie. She smiles like victory itself.
“Are you on the Dark Side too?” I say.
“No,” Annie says, beaming. “I’m cured.”
“Well, perfect time for that,” I say.
“Enough,” Tooth says, stuffing the plans into his pant pocket. “What’s it gonna be, Doug? Will you join us?”
“You know, you’ve never even asked if I’m any good at softball,” I say.
Lowering his hood, Tooth steps toward me and places a hand on my shoulder.
“Do you have any idea what it’s like trying to assemble a team from a church congregation?” he says.
I shake my head.
“My shortstop is 72 years old,” Tooth says. “He uses a cane…while he’s out in the field. My second basewoman has short term memory loss. If by some miracle she catches a grounder, she doesn’t remember what to do with it. My catcher has one eye.”
“Easy now,” Patch says. “I’m your best player.”
“Precisely,” Tooth says. “Doug, I never asked you if you played softball because it doesn’t matter. I can use you. Trust me.”
I ponder, then look at Annie, who hasn’t stopped grinning. She’s still thrilled she didn’t vomit.
“What do you think?” I say.
“Depends on who you wanna be,” she says. “Luke or Anakin. Hey, wasn’t Anakin’s nickname Annie?”
“Again with the prequels,” I say. “Yes, his nickname was Annie.” I look to Tooth. “Who comes up with that? Darth Vader being Annie? Did they call Hannibal Lecter Hannie?”
Patch chimes in. “I think Leia called Han Solo that once, didn’t she?”
Tooth raises a calm hand at Patch – very Emperor-like. The sudden silence is palpable.
“Enough. No more stalling, Doug,” Tooth says. “Will you join us?”
I gaze back down the long hallway. The bear is sleeping. Frank is on a gurney flanked by paramedics, but is sitting up waiting for my answer. Stuart is there, inexplicably eating Scrabble tiles. The boy scouts are each holding pieces of rope and making knots – must be a badge day. Jeb is there, looking on. He kneels and folds his hands in prayer.
Tooth gives it one last try.
“Think about it, Doug,” he says, gravelly seduction in his voice. “You’ll be the most talented player on a team of misfits.”
“Hey,” Patch says.
Tooth revises his statement. “You’ll be the most talented two-eyed player on a team of misfits,” he says. “When you speak, people will listen – assuming they can actually hear you. When you make a great play, it will be that much more amazing against the backdrop of widespread incompetence. You’ll be a star, Doug. As much as a man can shine in the face of difficult circumstances, you will.”
Impressed, Annie looks at me.
“Damn, now I wanna play,” she says.