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FICTION

High and Inside
By Andy Bailey

 

"Holy hell," Jeff says, while looking at the bar behind me, his beer lingering a few delicate inches from his mouth. "Brett Burlage is here." I whirl around but see only the mass of hungry, desperate faces that always flood The Cactus on a Friday night; the surrounding air a thick smoky gauze that clings to everyone's conversation, muffling all the abrasive laughter and half-assed pickup lines. Suddenly he cleaves through the crowd, laughing, the pretty-boy features he had as a teenager now sharpened into a taut alpha-male smirk that shines with careless success. They part for him in hushed awe like he's a celebrity, which I guess he is, considering you can turn on ESPN any summer night and see him hitting doubles off the wall or making impossible diving catches in center, not a scuff of dirt on his Dodger blue uniform as he trots back to the dugout.

"Why would he come back here?" Jeff asks. I shrug and turn back around, burying my face into my beer as I take a long drink. "I heard he bought a condo in L.A. after he signed that new contract. Maybe visiting his parents or something." Jeff whips his cigarette through the air while he talks, coiling strings of smoke between us.

I nod vaguely and try to give a disinterested look. I feel flushed inside, as an unexpected adrenaline rush washes over me and makes my arms feel jittery. "Yeah, probably," I say, just to say something, and turn my attention to the TV above Jeff's head.

I keep focused on the screen as Jeff stares, though I can't tell whether it's at me or at Burlage behind me. "Do you want to go?" he asks abruptly as he puts his hand on my shoulder, the first time I can remember physical contact between us in years. He was on the team with Robby and I; he carries around the same heavy memories that I do. I keep staring at the TV as he continues. "Yeah man, let's go back to your place and check up on Robby." I look down at him and he flinches, as though the very mention of my older brother will spark the murderous fury that he is sure is swelling inside me.

It isn't until I see the worried look on Jeff's face, though, that I realize that I am actually angry. I try to control my breathing as a smoldering pressure builds in my stomach and the possibilities play across my mind in a crimson tint. I could smash my bottle of Budweiser over Burlage's head, raking the broken glass across his skin so as to tear open the scalp and expose the slippery eggshell-colored bone underneath. Then, ripping my arm free from the guy behind me who would be trying to hold me back, I could use the heavy glass ashtray from the bar to beat at his skull, pound and pound and pound as blood sprays across the floor until I hear the reassuring "crack" I want. "Sound familiar?" I'd ask to his shuddering body, just before I'm tackled by the bouncer or Burlage's friends.

The image of Burlage's body twitching on the dirty barroom floor makes me tired, as though I had really acted it out, and I shake my head at Jeff. "Nah, it's fine. Maybe we'll end up having a real pleasant conversation," I say with a grin. Jeff gives a sharp "Ha!" in return. "I'm going to go grab us another round," I tell him, standing up and feeling the blood leave my head in a woozy rush.

When I turn around Burlage is already looking at me. We lock eyes, and he stops smiling.

 

We locked eyes last on May 26, 1989, as he stepped into the batter's box in the top of the sixth inning of the semifinal game of the Oregon State High School Baseball Tournament. It was an oppressively hot day, the kind of throat-scratching heat that made me feel as though I was drowning, struggling for breath as the catcher's gear weighed me down. I had taken off my mask to wipe the sweat out of my eyes, and Burlage stared at me a second with the same cocky smirk before digging his cleats into the box. "Ready to lose, assface?" he asked, eyeing the field in front of him. It was too hot to think of a comeback.

My brother Robby was on the mound and had been sharp all day, as our Capital Eagles led Burlage's Salem Chiefs by one run. It was the first time I had caught Robby in a game, having spent most of the season trapped in the dark obscurity of the dugout before the starting catcher, DeWayne Lowe, was kicked off the team for smoking pot during practice. I had tried to act like it was just another game, that I wasn't at all worried to be making my first varsity start during our longest run in the state tournament in twenty years.

I kept up the unconcerned front until about five minutes before the game, when I started to feel so lightheaded with anxiety I had to slam my face against the dugout wall while wearing the catcher's mask to keep from passing out. After all the years of Little League and Wiffle ball and nighttime sandlot games lit up by the lights from our mom's pickup, it was finally us, the Rigby brothers, together on the diamond where we always felt we belonged. It had been a tight game throughout, everything taking on a strange muted quality because of the heat and the languid effect it had on the crowd. There were two outs and a man on second when Burlage stepped up. His home run in the second inning was responsible for Salem's only runs in the game.

I nodded to Robby, who nodded back lightly, and held up two fingers to the infield to signify two outs. I pounded my mitt a few times, made a face at the back of Burlage's helmet, and crouched down.

Then I signaled for the pitch.

 

Burlage holds his stare for only a breath before recovering himself, brushing the front of his shirt and giving me his Hollywood smile. I can't believe he has the balls to smile at me! I turn back towards the bar without giving a sign of recognition and lean forward to try to get the attention of the bartender. Burlage is a splotch in my peripheral vision that looks like it's growing closer. Please, please just leave it alone, leave it alone prettyboy; just let the past rot. . . .

"Kenny?" he asks, appearing right next to me. I pretend not to hear him, searching desperately for the eyes of the barman. "Kenny!"

I turn slowly and level my gaze at him, slightly above his eyebrows. He's bigger than I remember, probably juicing like all of them are. "Hey . . . Brett." There's no point in pretending like I don't remember him. His smile widens at the mention of his own name. "Oh man. Kenny Rigby. Goddamn. Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn." He's sweating, his forehead slick and shiny underneath his spiky platinum hair. Being famous must be hard work. "How the hell are you, bro?"

You're not my brother, I want to say. He's at home. I finally look him in the eyes and give the slightest of shrugs. "You know . . . fine."

I try not to sound morose but he shakes his head anyway, shoulders slouching as the grim certainty of the past rushes up and slaps us in the face. I probably could have made some trite chatter, asked him about playing in the bigs and then faked interest as I listened to him talk about contracts and asshole teammates and traffic in L.A. What's the point, though? He's the one who came to talk to me, and I'm not going to let him gloss over our conversation with that cheesy smile and pretentious pink button-down shirt with the collar flipped up. If he wants to talk to me, he'll have to deal with everything head-on.

"Getcha another Bud?" he asks. Beer does seem like the only way to help us slide down into the messy conversation that I now realize we can't avoid. But I don't want to say yes so I remain silent. He nods, seeing some sort of acquiescence in my face. "Hey, dude, can I get two?" he asks, holding up two fingers as all three bartenders swarm to him immediately.

 

I could have signaled for a curveball. Held down two fingers, instead of one. With Burlage sitting on a first-pitch fastball it would have been a good call; get him to reach for it and hopefully foul it off. True, Robby's curveball was mediocre at best; a slow, barely noticeable hook telegraphed by his fumbling around in the mitt as he tried to find the right grip. We had practiced it over and over in the backyard during the sticky summer nights when the dusky half-light made the ball dance erratically and my thighs and chest hurt from blocking so many. But he never quite got the hang of the ten-to-two motion, so the pitch probably would have flattened out, big as a grapefruit and coming in low to Burlage, right in his wheelhouse. He would have cranked it to left field, no doubt in anyone's mind it was gone as he took his asshole time around the bases, a little stutter-step before touching each one. I would have taken off my mask and given him a fierce glare as he crossed the plate, which he probably would have ignored with the ease of a tiger ignoring a fly.

Burlage puts the bottle of beer in front of me. I nod my thanks. "So . . ." he trails off. I don't bite, and let him squirm for a minute as I work my fingernail underneath the Budweiser label. "It's been, what, ten years since we've seen each other?"

"Yeah, ten years. Huh."

"Hey, I heard about your mom. I'm sorry." I wonder if he has a checklist of apologies in his brain. There's one.

"Oh yeah, thanks."

"Was she . . . was it, uh, peaceful?"

"Yeah. Just went to sleep and never woke up. Long time coming, you know?"

Burlage nods as he surveys the crowd. He seems impervious to all the eyes focused on him, everyone staring anxiously as if they half-expected him to pull out a bat and whip off a few home runs right here, in the bar. Nodding his head again, satisfied at something I can't see, he turns back towards me.

"You were selling cars last I heard?"

"Trucks, yeah. Still am."

"Cool." Burlage smiles at two women giggling next to him, all bangs and tits, but shakes his head sadly when they ask him to join their table. He looks at me and shifts uncomfortably. "How's—"

"He's fine." I look down. "His doctor says that he could be ready to get a place of his own nearby, but . . . I don't know." I regret saying this immediately. Force of habit, I guess. I'm so used to everyone asking that the answer just becomes automatic. But I definitely don't want his pity, and even though I still don't like him, I have enough humanity left in me to keep from throwing extra guilt his way.

Burlage ignores the guy behind him tapping on his shoulder, asking in a high-pitched whine for his picture. "Listen, I, uh . . . if you guys ever need any help or anything, any money or anything, you know . . ."

My body clenches. Fuck him. "Fuck you," I say.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2006 issue.

—EFQ

ANDY BAILEY was raised in Boise, Idaho, and now lives in Los Angeles. He spends his time attending the University of Southern California's Master of Professional Writing program, teaching English, and ranting about the Little League shoulder injury that kept him out of the pros.

© 2006 Andy Bailey

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