NOTE: Some of the various threads of this story began floating around in my head over a year ago, around the time I posted an article about George Bjorkman and myself here. Over the intervening months, I thought several times about sitting down and trying to pull everything together; but I never did, because A.) I knew it would be a lot of work and, B.) I feared some of it might be painful. I basically resigned myself to the idea this story would never be told in its entirety. No great loss, there.
Then Ike happened. Sitting around alone in the hot, almost dark every night for over a week (the family had evacuated to Rayne, LA), listening to the thrum of a generator creating just enough juice to run a refrigerator, a few lamps, and a few box fans; with enough left over to power up this old Dell Inspiron laptop/boat anchor I had sitting around, well, some force compelled me to sit down each night and go about lashing this thing all together.
So I did. It is a little dark in a few places, convoluted in a few others. If you decide to read it, keep the context and setting of when and where it was written in mind, and maybe it will make a little more sense. Or not.
Anyway, everything in it is factual – all this stuff happened. I might have altered an ancillary detail or two in the interest of flow, but that is it. I did change a few names, not so much to protect the innocent – I don’t know any of those, and certainly no one in this story is anything close to it. No, I changed them on the off chance one of the principals might come across this on the interwebs, and feel compelled to come after me, with the intention of kicking my ass.
So, in a way, I guess I am protecting the innocent. That being myself.
I was across the hall, sitting on a small divan thing in a little alcove, trying to make time with some skinny blond girl I’d just seen do three rails of snowy, white cocaine, right up her nose. That’s when I heard the shotgun go off. BAM! At that time, snorting coke was beyond my experience, so I did not know exactly what effect the drug would have on this girl. But I had heard for one thing it tended to turn your normal, everyday, All-American girl into a sex freak; and an already promiscuous one into a stark, raving nymphomaniac. That is what I was hanging around on the divan for, trying to cash in on this supposed aphrodisiac effect. I’m sure back then I liked to think, at least, that I could get what-all I needed without the girl having to be fucked up and everything. . . but I was 18 years old going on 19, and always looking for new experiences, you know?
The experience of that night would turn out to be way more than I had ever bargained for.
My cousin and I were out riding around one afternoon in his pickup truck, around the rice field roads out west of town, drinking beer and listening to an Astros game. We liked to do that. There was something so peaceful and calming about riding around those empty two-lane roads, some of them barely paved, some of them no more than caliche and dust, riding around on the front end of a buzz and listening to the game. We would do that for hours. Out there, we were just outside the city limits; so we didn’t have to worry about cops, and there was just enough rural-ness about to make it seem like we were really out in the country, even though in most places we were no more than ten to fifteen minutes from town. Still, sometimes we could ride along for miles and never see anything but levees, irrigation canals, rice fields either flooded or fallow, rows of tallow trees along the fence lines, and every so often a collection of farm buildings and a house. I suppose the lack of visible clutter lent to the calming effect, that and the cold beer. But the Astros announcers – Gene Elston and Dewayne Staats on that particular day – lent to the good feeling, as well. We’d been listening to those guys broadcast Astros games on the radio, in one configuration or another, since we were kids.
One of my clear childhood memories is of being eight or nine years old, lying in my bed one night and listening to Elston and Harry Kalas and Loel Passe broadcasting a game against the Dodgers. I was listening on this Philco radio I had, larger than a transistor but still a portable, listening under the covers with it turned down low, because it was past my bedtime. It was late in the game and the Astros were down by a run. They were up to bat, and had made two quick outs, but then had got a man on. And up to the plate came Jimmy Wynn, The Toy Cannon. He was the Astros last, best hope, for that game anyway. It seemed like Elston’s play-by-play during Wynn’s at bat, and the commentary from Kalas, just heightened the tension of the moment. The entire time I lay there with my fingers crossed on both hands, and my toes crossed on both feet, hoping against hope that Wynn would get hold of one and really drive it. I was giving it everything, everything I had, as I am sure Jimmy Wynn was. . . but, alas, on that night it wasn’t to be. Wynn went down on a weak pop up; one could sense the disappointment in Gene Elston’s otherwise even tones. Dangit! The Astros were on their way to another close loss.
Of course, had I been more sensible back then, I’d have realized that the late, dramatic home run was pretty rare, probably a silly thing to wish for. But I wasn’t that sophisticated in those days. Had I been, it might also have occurred to me that baseball was full of disappointments, particularly if one was an Astros fan. But I didn’t realize that yet, either; and in retrospect, I am kind of glad I didn’t. Most of life’s disappointments were still ahead of me, and I was always naïvely hopeful when it came to the Astros. Good for me.
Now here we were, a decade later, all-knowing teenagers driving around drinking beer in a pickup truck. Still listening intently to the game, creating our own mental images of the action to go along with the commentary, as the countryside passed us by. I have often felt that one of the only true connective threads running through my by now pretty long and often turbulent life is my affiliation with and affection for the Astros. It is poignant to me to think that all along, no matter how fucked up I or my life was – or how un-fucked up, for that matter – I always kept up with the Astros, made as many games in person as I could, listened to the broadcasts when I couldn’t. Those days in the rice fields are just one example.
On that particular day, a gloomy Saturday afternoon and drizzling rain where we were, the Astros were taking on the Cubs, I think at Wrigley. The game had been going along for awhile, and it was tied or maybe Houston was behind by a run. We’d been through most of a six-pack and were coming around a ninety degree turn on one of the farm roads in the rain when the back tires skidded across the pavement a little and the truck spun out and ended up nosed in against a barbed-wire fence, facing across some guy’s field. It wasn’t any big deal, we hadn’t been speeding or anything. I think the beer and a preoccupation with the game on the radio had caused my cousin to forget to compensate for the fact the asphalt was wet and slick, and we sort of gently skidded partway off the road.
We sat there and collected ourselves for a moment and kind of laughed; a moment of quiet before my cousin would put the three-speed in reverse (three-on-a-tree, remember?) and back us onto the roadway again. He was about to do just that when we saw it. Out across this field we were facing, almost all the way to the back of it, was a gray wolf, standing there in the straw, looking over to see what the commotion was.
I’d seen red wolves before, out duck hunting; but they were pretty small, and very elusive. Pretty much the most I’d ever seen, in the half light, was the ass end of one as it disappeared over the side of a levee and off into the marsh. But this was a big wolf, and gray, no doubt about it. I don’t know what the fuck it was doing out there – I don’t think big wolves have ever been indigenous this far down (I’d seen signs of them around our place in Tyler County, in the Piney Woods, but never on the coastal plain), and this was pretty close to the city, which wolves generally avoid. Anyway, it didn’t really matter, it was an amazing sight. My cousin and I sat there for several seconds, mesmerized. Then before we knew it, the wolf was gone; and almost immediately we went about trying to confirm with and affirm to each other what had just happened. I don’t know why, but we were almost giddy about it for awhile. Eventually, though, the moment passed, and we got back to our beer, and the game. The Astros rallied late that afternoon, and pulled another one out in the end. Fuck the Cubs.
I never told my cousin, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that wolf, for a long, long time. How he was free, but not really. He was being fenced in, and he was probably not long for this world. But he had it in him to be free, he knew what it felt like. I couldn’t get over that. I kept thinking if I could have just looked into his eyes for a few moments longer, I would have been able to feel what that felt like, too. Ridiculous, but that is what I thought. For many years, on the odd occasion I had to pass by that field, I would stop my vehicle and get out and look. I didn’t really expect to see a wolf again. But I would see one, just as it turned from looking at us, not caring at all, and loped off across a field and then faded into the brush, as the pipes and flares from the Mobil Chemical refinery rose off in the distance, through the gray and misting rain, beyond the rice fields.
Maybe it was the ghost of that wolf I saw. Or maybe I was a ghost of myself, back to see that wolf again. I’ve never been able to work it out, and after awhile I get really confused trying to. But, God. I am haunted by a wolf I barely saw, thirty years ago. I am haunted by a freedom I never had, was never meant to have, never will have. And, I think, I am haunted by the scariest ghost of them all. That being myself.
It’s weird when a gun goes off inside an enclosed room or structure, especially a shotgun. Such a rush of sensual stimuli. First, there is the concussive effect of the gunshot itself. Depending on how close to the shooting one finds oneself, it can be incredibly loud. A pistol shot is more of a sharp CRACK! Whereas a shotgun is more of a THUD! Or WHOMP! I never was very good at onomatopoeia, but the point is the respective sounds are distinctly different. If any kind of gun goes off at a loud, raucous party that has already been going on for hours and is spinning out of control into the night, it tends to get people’s attention. Or actually, that again sort of depends on how close to the shooting one is. I was right across the hall, and everyone in the part of the house I was in went into a brief, absolute silence just after the shot rang out. It was weird, because at that moment I could hear other people in the back of the house still partying on. Either they hadn’t heard the shot at all – it was a pretty big house – or they had but had disregarded it.
Actually, for an initial millisecond or so, I wasn’t really sure what it was I heard. A discharging firearm is not something one expected to hear, in the 1970s anyway, at a decadent teenage party in a tony suburban home in southeast Texas. Dude’s parents out of town for the weekend, call up a bunch of kids, arrange for some beer and tunes, and. . . This uncertainty of mine ended with the screaming that started coming from the bedroom across the hall, and then the clincher – the heavy smell of burnt gunpowder in the air. Holy fucking shit, I thought. What the fuck did those drunk-ass motherfuckers do now?
My friend Rocky and I always kept up with the Astros, for as long we could remember. And we kept up with each other’s keeping up. We used to call each other, just to talk about what the team was doing that week. We went to dozens of games together, and watched dozens more laying around one or the other of our apartments, back in our pre-marriage days. Rocky was one of my best friends, one of a few. But he was the best baseball friend I ever had, by far.
Rocky also played. We played together, from Little League up through high school. Rocky was shorter than me, about 5′ 8″, and a bit stockier, but he was faster, and with more than a little occasional power, too. He usually batted leadoff, one of those uncommon players who threw right-handed but batted from the left side. Our junior year, our high school team went to the state playoffs, and we both made all-district. Quite a coup for us. After high school our organized baseball-playing days ended, but we kept it up by putting together a team and playing open slow-pitch in the city softball leagues for several more years.
Rocky was great, because I could get a wild hair at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon, call him up, and before you knew it, we were on our way over to Houston to watch the Astros play that night. It was as natural to us as running up the street from my apartment to the liquor store between innings to get another pint of cold gin.
One particular afternoon I got the urge to go watch the Astros play, a Friday, they were hosting Pittsburgh in the Astrodome, in one of the more meaningful series in Houston in some time, maybe ever. After years of mostly mediocrity, the team had really gelled that summer, and now it looked like they might have a chance to go all the way to the playoffs, for the first time ever. It was pretty easy to talk Rocky into making the trip, and another friend of ours, Seth, called and said he wanted to go, too. So the three of us headed over that afternoon after work, in my Wagoneer. On the way over, we talked about baseball, but also about women and work and getting fucked up, etc. The usual stuff. I thought I could sense a little extra excitement this trip, though. We were used to going over to catch a game. We weren’t quite as used to the game being truly meaningful this late into the season.
I think I sensed something was up around the time we crossed the bridge over the Ship Channel on 610 South. The traffic ahead seemed awfully heavy for a Friday evening. No way all those people were going to the ‘Dome, was there a concert or something going on at the Astrohall, too? But, it turned out, all those people were going to the Astrodome, or were trying to. We ended up getting stuck in traffic about three exits before Kirby, and then sat for an hour waiting to get off the freeway. We listened to the pre-game show on the radio, and then the top of the first inning. Just about the time we were getting off the exit, it was announced the game was a sellout, no one else could get in to the Astrodome on that night.
I don’t remember any of us being too put off by all this. Personally, I thought it was cool there were so many other people interested in the team now. A sellout at the ‘Dome was exceedingly rare back in those days, and on a Friday night? Get out. We ended up listening to the first part of the game on the radio, on our way to some music clubs over off of Westheimer (didn’t want to waste the trip.) I recall stumbling out of the last club at nearly midnight and suddenly wondering about the outcome of the game. No one where we were knew; I figured I would just check the box scores in the morning paper.
We got back to town about 1:30 a.m. I dropped off Rocky, and Seth, and then decided to go by my girlfriend’s house on my way home. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t still be up, but in fact, she was. The moment I saw her, I knew something wasn’t right. Her eyes were all swollen and red, and she looked like hell. “Everybody has been looking for you, all night,” she said. “Where were you?” I told her about impulsively deciding to go to a game and then not getting in and going clubbing instead. She looked at me and said, “Terry and some of his friends were in an accident tonight.”
Terry was my brother, a year-and-a-half older, a surfer, a lover, an athlete, musician. He was, to this day, the coolest guy I ever knew, in the truest sense of that word; and to be honest about it, I idolized him. Always had. “He’s okay, huh?” I said.
“Well, it was head-on, and the driver of the other car died instantly, but they took the guys in Terry’s car to the hospital. But. . . Terry didn’t make it, baby. I’m so sorry.” And she dissolved back into tears.
I was stunned, and had no idea what to say; or even what to feel, really. My first thoughts were of my parents, of my other brothers, of Terry’s girlfriend. . . but truthfully, after that just about everything I thought about was pretty fucking selfish. It had been such a great night. Yet, all that time I was trying to see the Astros, and carrying on in the clubs, my sweet brother lay dying, and I didn’t even know. I was used to getting knocked down a peg or ten anytime things had been going pretty good for me, but this? Of course, deep down I knew it wasn’t all about me, or really even about me at all. My brother’s own story could fill volumes, and I’d occupy only a very little part of it; but selfish thoughts were some of the first to come to mind, I am ashamed to say. All I knew was, the earth had just shifted on its axis, and there was a hole where my brother used to be. I didn’t have any idea at the time how to even begin to try and fill that hole, and to this day, I still do not.
My brother’s death wasn’t all about me, at all. But it would color everything I did, ever after.
When I finally realized what I had really just heard was a gunshot, I jumped up from the divan and ran across the hall to my friend John’s bedroom, where all the noise was coming from. The door was shut but not locked, and I instinctively flung it open. I really, really wish I hadn’t. What I saw inside that room that night was like the worst scene from the goriest horror movie you ever saw, times ten. It is a vision I would give almost anything to be able to forget; but it was burned onto my retinas or something, and it is as vivid now as it was that night, nearly thirty years ago.
The images in that room were so overpowering, I don’t think my brain could process them normally. They came at me in stop action, frame by frame. The first thing I noticed was all the gun smoke hanging in the air. The first person I saw was this guy named Mike, who was standing there in a daze, spattered with blood and holding a 12-gauge Remington. The next thing I saw was a couple of other guys I didn’t really know, standing there looking down at the floor, off to my right. The next thing I saw was three or four girls. Two of the girls I didn’t know; they were the only one’s in the room not struck dumb at the moment, and were running around in small circles, holding their ears. That is where the screaming was coming from. At some point I realized everyone in that room was at that moment half-deaf from the sound of the shotgun blast; and half-crazy, too, from the effects of it. I saw another girl, one I knew. It was Colette; she was the long-time girlfriend of the guy whose house we were having the party in. His name was John. And that is who I saw next. He was laying on the floor to my right, his head blown almost completely off. He was saturated in his own blood. Behind where he lay, on the wall, was a black-light poster, which had blood and some other stuff on it. Bone, and brain matter, I was told later. There even seemed to be a fine mist of blood in the air, mixed in with the shotgun smoke. But I could have been imagining that.
I learned later what had happened. John’s parents had a lot of valuables in the house, and to them it seemed like a good idea to keep several loaded shotguns around, in the closets and whatnot, in case any intruders tried to get in. But god-fucking-damn, not only was it not a good idea, it was a terrible goddamn idea. They had to know that on weekends when they went out of town, which was pretty often (they were antiques dealers), John was having big parties there, with lots of drunk teenagers wandering around. On that night, while I was across the hall trying to make time with some little coke-head girl on the sofa, a bunch of people were gathered in John’s room, getting high. This guy Mike saw a shotgun leaning against the wall and picked it up and started waving it around, trying to be funny. John was either playing along or trying to prevent a disaster, and grabbed the barrel of the gun and pulled it toward himself, trying to wrestle it from Mike. Somewhere along the way the safety got turned off, and then Mike, trying to wrest the gun back from John, inadvertently pulled the trigger. At the time, the barrel-end of the shotgun was about six inches from John’s face.
It probably only took about 15 seconds for me to take in the scene in John’s bedroom, standing there in the doorway; though it seemed at the time like everything was moving in slow motion. The sensible, mature, good part of me may have been thinking I should try and calm everyone down, get the gun away from Mike, and call the cops and then wait for them to come. I don’t know. I do know every bit of all the rest of me was overcome with the overwhelming urge to just get the fuck away from there, and right now. Now time sped up again. I slammed the bedroom door shut, and took off down the hallway, toward the back of the house. I found my younger brother and my cousin, both of whom had come to the party with me, hanging around a keg in the back yard, and playing on a trampoline. I grabbed each by the arm around the biceps and started pulling them toward a gate in the wooden fence that enclosed the area. Neither had any idea what had happened yet, but panic was starting to filter through the rest of the party already, so it wouldn’t have been long. I pushed them through the gate and onto the driveway, then down to the street and about half a block, to where I had parked. The whole time, I was saying, “Keep moving, keep moving.” Over and over again, they told me later; I don’t remember it. Once I got them into the Jeep and got going, I began to tell them about the horror story going on back there behind us. I was driving down John’s street, away from what was left of him and his house, and I could already hear the police and ambulance sirens, coming from the other way. I quickly turned onto a side street, and then another, and then another, until we had completely lost ourselves in the maze of neighborhoods in that part of town.
It was after my brother was killed that I think I first realized, I mean really realized, just how tenuous everything in life is. All the good things, anyway. Innocence, happiness, love, success. Mine is hardly a unique experience – in fact, I am sure it is almost universal in some form – but after that realization, my final loss of innocence, I never really believed in a “sure thing” again. Or in security. In happy endings, an end to all troubles, sustained success. What I finally really did then, after my brother died, was begin to grow up.
At some point, after one falls from grace, one decides how to live with what one is left with. Or does not decide. Myself, I do not recall ever having made some conscious decision, or having had any epiphany about how I should conduct myself in the aftermath. Rather, I can look back now, thirty years on, and realize that for whatever reason I just kept going, and never truly slipped into cynicism or despair; instead, I began to take each thing as it came, and each person. I began to value laughter and good times, and not take them for granted anymore. I learned how to get by when times were lean, waiting for when the times were good again. Rather than wallowing around thinking about how unfair it all was, I learned that what was most important – above all else – was to just keep moving. When one was always moving one was sometimes alone, even lonely; but better that than sitting around in a slough of despond, just waiting to go under. How I ended going down the path I did, in the manner that I did, I do not really know. Was it an accident? Nature? Nurture? Providence? It was probably some of each.
But I found a way to keep moving, that is the thing. To put it simply, after my brother died, I began to think like a wolf. Not a lamb.
Oh, and here’s one thing: This guy named Robert, one of the closest friends I had, was sitting on my living room floor one night, basically in a drunken stupor, rocking himself back and forth. He kept mumbling something over and over. At first I ignored him; but then it began to get really annoying, so I moved closer to hear what it was he was saying to himself. He was saying, “Absorb the losses. Absorb the losses.” Over and over again, like a mantra. At the time, I asked him if he would please shut the fuck up, I couldn’t hear the stereo. Later on, sober, I asked him about it. He did not remember the incident at all, or where the phrase he was muttering came from, or why he felt specifically compelled to employ it as an incantation that night, shit-faced, on the floor of my apartment. Who knows? We decided the words probably came to him from God, or at least from one of the Muses. Personally, I think he was facing his demons that night, whatever they were, and it was the only thing he could come up with at the time with which to defend himself.
We laughed about that night and his drunken, nonsense phrase for a long time; but to be honest, I kind of adopted it, and I have used it more than a few times myself over the years. I found that whenever I did, it seemed to ease my burden a little. . . if for no other reason than it brought thoughts of my friend back to me. Absorb the losses, yes.
The death of my brother was one of those losses I needed to absorb. It was a tough one, I don’t mind saying. It took me years to even begin to think about how to go about starting to absorb it. I sometimes think I still have not, completely.
And then there was my friend Robert. He was one who liked to wade way out, into the deep waters, confident always in his ability to stay afloat. And one day he just got fucking swept away.
The demons got him in the end, I guess. Absorb the losses.
When I got home from the party, after driving around aimlessly for half an hour and then dropping off my brother and my cousin, the first thing I did was take a long, hot shower. I think in some way I was trying to cleanse myself of what had happened that night. It didn’t work, though. By the time I dried off and pulled on some shorts, it was three-thirty; so I laid down on this ugly orange corduroy sofa I had in my living room, and tried to sleep. Except, no fucking way.
My mind was racing. I felt like I was a fugitive from something, or someone. From something I did, maybe from myself. I had this overwhelming sense of dread. It was palpable, and had heft; like a huge weight on my shoulders and chest. I felt like I’d done something really, really wrong. And I had, of course. I had been doing fucking everything wrong, for a long time. I had somehow become a fucking bad guy, who got fucked up all the time, didn’t contribute anything to anything, hurt people’s feelings, the people he loved. . . and didn’t even give a shit. This fucking shit. . . the fucking guilt, it was eating me up that night; and I knew I wasn’t done running, not yet. I had to go.
It crossed my mind to get in the Jeep and just start driving, find a cheap motel room somewhere, and hole up there and not tell anyone. I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about what I had seen that night, and I didn’t want to, anyway. I just wanted to be alone, to live with it, to let it fucking batter the fucking shit out of me. Well, most of me wanted that. A tiny part of me wanted to come up for air, I think, wanted me to let myself up for air. I tried to think of someone, someone who could throw me a life line. . . and then I thought of Callie Ann.
Callie was my cousin, on my mom’s side. She was a year older than me, and we had grown up together, gone to the same schools, until my sophomore year, when her family moved to the Pasadena area, south of Houston. Even then, we still kept in close touch. We were pretty tight, for cousins. Callie said that since I had grown up without a sister, I had sought her out as a surrogate sister-figure, sort of like a boy who grows up without a dad often gravitates toward a father figure. I don’t know about all that, but she was kind of like a sister to me. She was the only female I knew – hell, the only person I knew – to whom I could just unload myself, and tell her everything, and never worry about it.
That is a tremendous asset to have, a confidant like that. And that late night/early morning I realized I really needed to be around Callie then. I hadn’t talked to her in awhile – she was one of the loved ones I’d been neglecting – and I waited as long as I could, until maybe 6:30 or so, and then I called her. Woke her up, and gave her some scant details, and she said to just come on. We would talk when I got there.
After high school, Callie had got a job at NASA, that had to do with NASA, working for a NASA contractor, something. I never could get it straight, a whole bunch of fucking acronyms that meant little or nothing to me. But it was a pretty good job, as I understood it. She lived in a nice place, in Webster or Clear Lake or Clear Creek, one of those (I never could keep them straight, either.) That area wasn’t nearly as built up then as it is now, but it was just taking off. Callie’s place was close to NASA Road 1, and had an extra bedroom and a pretty decent view of Nassau Bay (I think it was called), from a second story balcony. When I got there that morning, around nine-thirty or so, my cousin said “Hello,” and then promptly told me that I looked like crap. I said I hadn’t slept, so she set me up in the spare bedroom and left me alone. I threw my bag into a corner and laid down on top of the bed and fell into a fitful sleep.
I woke up in the early afternoon, around two o’clock. I felt much better. Actually, I kind of felt like I was at the beach – I caught the faint aroma of salt air, coming off of Galveston Bay. When I walked into the living room, I could see my cousin sitting in a plastic lawn chair out on the balcony. She had her toes up on the top of the surrounding railing, and a book in her lap she wasn’t reading. She was looking out at some boats in a marina, and at the bay beyond. Had on a pair of blue jean cut-offs and a bikini top. Catching rays, like always. I went to her fridge and got a couple of Miller Lites and walked through the sliding glass door out onto the balcony. Callie asked how I was, and I said I was better and I offered her one of the beers, and a cigarette, which I lit and handed to her when she assented. We had both always smoked the same brand (Kents, in a box.) I sat down, and looked out at the boats, too. For a few moments we were silent. Callie was a terrific listener, and I think she sensed I needed to tell her everything that was on my mind, and that sooner or later I would, on my own. And after a little while, I did.
Like the Virgin Mary, my cousin Callie saved me that day. Literally. I felt like my personality was about to shatter from everything that had been building up for a long time and that had culminated with the horror that was the previous night. I really felt closer to coming undone than I ever had, and I don’t know what would have happened to me if Callie hadn’t sat there for half an hour that day on that balcony in Nassau Bay, and just let me pour myself out to her. But she did, bless her, and after it was done I almost immediately felt vastly better.
After that, we lingered out there, smoking and drinking and talking about everyday stuff – our families, our loves, our jobs. And baseball. Callie was a big Astros fan, a true fan. She had grown up with four brothers and a sports-fanatic dad – and me – so she really had no choice. She knew strategy and the intricacies of the team, day-to-day. I’d been to several games with her over the years, and she always kept score, just like I did. That impressed me tremendously. She mentioned that afternoon on her balcony that the Giants were in town for the weekend, did I want to go? I think if anyone else had asked me that day, I would not have felt up to it. But somehow it sounded like a great idea when my cousin asked. So we made plans to drive to the ‘Dome that night and watch the game.
We arrived at the Astrodome about 6:30 that evening, and bought tickets for the field level boxes along the right field line. We each bought programs, too, and beer. Then we sat down, got comfortable, and started filling out our scorecards.
I loved to watch Callie keep score. Or rather, I loved looking at her scorecard after the game. Everyone who scores baseball games has idiosyncrasies in their styles, but my cousin was something else. I tended to be spare in my scoring, recording all the pertinent information while trying to avoid clutter. On the other hand, Callie’s card would look kind of like a drawing in one of those Richard Scarry books I used to read to my kids. Just a million different things going on, everywhere; you could look at it for an hour. She would fill up the designated block for each batter, then there would be all these long, string-like lines with arrows on both ends leading out to the margins or any other blank spot on the page, where there would be additional info; drawings of players, inanimate objects, even animals; and Callie’s own comments, which usually had to do with something going on in the game, but not always.
I hadn’t been keeping up with the team much over the previous couple of weeks, so as the game began Callie filled me in. The Astros had been stumbling along, and needed to turn things around soon. On this night they were sending out a nondescript starter named something-or-other to take on the Giants veteran lefty Bob Knepper. Not good. Then, BOOM! The Astros scored three in the bottom of the first, all the runs driven in on a bases-loaded triple by my favorite Astro of them all, Bob “Bull” Watson.
The Giants tied it back up in the top of the fourth, and then went ahead in the fifth on a solo HR by their leadoff hitter, Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock. In the bottom of the fifth, after a couple of quick outs, my man Watson came up again. I happened to glance up at the clock on the back wall of the Astrodome at that moment. It read 8:06.
The Astros had been running a promotion for two or three years by then, called “Foamer Nights.” Usually on Fridays, not always. If an Astro hit a home run when the clock was on an even minute, it was free beer for everyone in the stadium through the ninth inning. They even put up these small incandescent orange cubes that would light up on even minutes, when the Foamer promotion was in effect. On that night, I had a funny feeling Watson might deliver for us. He murdered left-handers anyway, and the woebegone Knepper was still out there and hanging on, but barely. He (Watson) had been mashing the ball all night – he already had a triple and a double under his belt, and it was only the fifth inning. As “Bull” dug in the box and looked out at Knepper, I looked up and, sure enough, the orange light was lit.
I told Callie later, taking me to the game that night was one of the better ideas she ever had. Somehow watching something I loved so much, with someone I loved so much, made me finally realize everything else would work itself out, if I would just let it. Oh, I knew I’d have to go back to town in a couple of days, and talk to the cops. I had called my brother that afternoon so everyone would know where I was, and he told me the police were making everyone who had been at the party go down to the station and give a statement, with parents in tow if they were under age. My brother said he didn’t tell them much, they were asking all kinds of shit about who was doing drugs and if there was illicit sex going on and shit that had nothing to do with the shooting. He said most of the kids were stonewalling, but a few had talked. Several told the detectives that I was in the bedroom when the gun went off. So they were looking for me, big time.
I knew I had to go back and face all that, and more, but it didn’t seem so daunting anymore. I looked around at the 15,000 or so other freaks in the stands with us that night, and over at my cousin scribbling away in her scorebook, and out at the field, where Knepper was fidgeting on the mound before stepping up onto the rubber to face Watson. I just felt really good, a thousand percent better than I had that morning. Everything was going to be all right, after all.
I watched Watson stand in and wiggle that huge bat he always used, and saw Knepper rock back and then deliver a slop curve, and then WHAM! Watson pole-axed it to left-center, waaay up and out. A foamer! Almost before The Bull had rounded the bases and the scoreboard had finished going off, the stands were emptied, as everyone went for their free brewskies. I stood there for a moment, reveling in the craziness, the pandemonium. Then I felt a strong tug on my arm. “Come ON!”
It was Callie. She didn’t want us to miss out on any of the free beer. So I followed my cousin up the steps of the field level section to the concourse and the beer stands beyond. I thought about the detective waiting to question me back at home, and about the gunshot and the blood in my friend’s house, and about a lot of other things, too – my parents’ split, my academic probation, my brother. . . and then I let it all go. I was scrambling like hell just trying to keep up with Callie, who was holding my hand, pulling me along, and making a bee line through the crowd for the beer vendor set up against the glass doors, underneath the Section 126 sign. “Come ON!”