Boy in Lake

Boy in lake; Friendship, Wisconsin.

The green water ripples blue and Bruno’s bright tangle of orange curls soaks deep red around his pale face, a swimming solar crown. He floats on his back, long body white as a corpse, blinding alabaster in the sun.

“You look dead.”

“I could be.”

“Don’t say that.”

The water’s cold; first warmth of May. Nate Youngthunder caught three bass last weekend and pitched his first game of the season, but the scouts were there for Bruno.
From the pontoon, he gazes down at Baseball America’s number one high school prospect.

This is their last summer.

The buckram is stiff and starched, the cotton a rich shade of electric blue. Nate turns the cap in his hands, bends the flat visor with his thumbs. His first Milwaukee hat was a beat-up gold-shield hand-me-down from the Molitor era.

“You know, if you make it to the bigs, you’ll be the first Ho-Chunk to play for the Brewers,” His father utters, breaking the stunned silence.

Outside, the muted pastels of the Wisconsin moraine sag under the summer sun. The contracts sit signed in the back seat. Nate looks down at the brand-new hat, and he smiles.

His world before the pros is the jewelry box of the Upper Midwest, trimmed by the glittering shores of Lake Michigan and the emerald velvet of the northern woodlands.

There’s no money to go much farther, not that there’s any need, not with the kettle hole lakes to jump into and the warm grass to lie in and the towering dells to climb upon.

And sure, it’s a low draft pick. But at night, in a motel parking lot somewhere in Montana, Nate stares up. The sky, the moon and stars, the mountains and rivers and trees are all his.

Bruno’s wildfire curls make the front pages before Nate even makes Triple-A, and they stay there.

‘Untouchable’ isn’t a word of faith, not in a game where reality bends to belief. Yet what comes up must come down.

It’s all hearsay, at first, diaphanous rumors in the fog of the showers. It’s not unheard of, a shooting star burning out, an unsustainable trajectory, but that’s not what this is, because the tragedy of Bruno’s body escapes definition in more ways than one.

By the time Nate hears the words “mysterious illness”, he’s just upset it isn’t from Bruno’s mouth.

Bent over the sewing machine, Nate strains his eyes on the lightning motif of the front apron.

“How about some green diamonds? For baseball, you know?”

He hasn’t danced competitively since high school, the pow wow circuit slicing right into Spring Training and through the season. But he likes to think he’s got the singing lead of the drum and the warmth of the earth beneath his stomping soles to thank for the lightness of his footwork and his prescience of the pitcher’s rhythm.

“Not everything about me has to be about baseball.”

“But it’s your job.”

Right. It is.

Firmament wide open, cotton blanket of winter over Wisconsin; whole world an immaculate Malevich.

They’re sixteen at best, and Bruno’s face is like a map. Under the glacial skies his skin glows too bright and near-translucent, endless screened horizon agleam with his transparent thoughts, an open book.
So clear, so firm, so absolute and fine in his single purpose.

They used to be best friends, homemade beaded bracelets and red-stitched together at the hip, kindred spirits. Nate’s not sure what baseball’s made of them now. When Bruno shows up cadaverous on his front porch, he doesn’t know what to say.

There’s something in the eyes of old ballplayers, something so full of love and hate it’s hard to look too long.

It’s a bittersweet kind of jaundice, one that commands tears of rage and spiteful acts of self-salvation. It’s the smell of gas in the air, floating in the clubhouse, a volatile coalescence of unbearable tenderness and unfathomable disgust.

Nate has seen his share of washed-up infielders, bodies full of betrayal, hearts full of distrust. Men on borrowed time, with the end in the rearview mirror, closer than it appears.

It’s just that Bruno’s much too young for it.

The clunky ring glitters in its case, dozens of tiny sapphires and yellow diamonds gazing back at Bruno. Nate pads in like an intruder.

“I’m sorry they’re Miller Lites.”

The bottles clatter crystalline against the glass of the coffee table, and Bruno looks up from his morbid contemplation, the team-signed Youngthunder jersey framing his face in a ham-fisted exposition shot.
The sun hits him bone-white there, hollow cheeks digging at his birdshot freckles, biopsy scars dotting his waning biceps. The thinning remains of his copper ringlets are aflame in the early evening.

“How’s it feel?” He asks. “Winning, I mean.”

Nobody knows a ballplayer like failure does, and nobody knows failure better than a ballplayer.

It’s just the nature of the game: ineluctable as the seasons, failure follows you like a shadow, echoing your every move; and the roaring furnace of baseball hungers for more still. They really should be used to it: after all, you can learn to live with the most humbling of bedfellows.

“You know,” Bruno mutters, skeletal hand grasping the bottle’s neck. “I gotta be honest with you.”

A beat.

“That line, between what I’m good at and what I’m good for, it keeps getting blurrier.”

This isn’t how their stories were supposed to go, there’s no use equivocating. But baseball’s funny like that — sometimes it really does throw you the proverbial curve.

“I can’t keep going like this.”

Outside, the sky streaks with pink, thieving dusk sneaking up on the city.

“I’m just tired. I’m so tired, Nate.”

Nate knows the lake must be glimmering right now, sunset striking the surface, a match to gasoline.

“I’m tired of being in pain. Of pretending I’m gonna get better. I’m not gonna get better.”

Golden light tears through the room, and Bruno’s cheekbones glisten.

“I’m just not.”

Nate’s seen enough guys retire to know it’s never the game they miss. Nobody ever misses the drills and the aches and the stress.

Everybody misses the guys.

It’s a secret that isn’t one, really. The clubhouse is chock-full of fear and longing, of unchecked intimacy, of legal touch, the borders of masculinity soft as a glancing embrace.

But baseball is lightning in a bottle. And when you’ve stepped outside these chalk lines for the final time, is all that you long for still the covenant of tenderness of the locker room, or is it something else — something more?

“I’m sorry it’s been so long.”

Nate’s shoulder is damp and Bruno smells of early winter.

He closes his eyes and sees soft green fields of corn and beans and pastures of cows, sees cranberry bogs and fall foliage ablaze at their corners; and, in the middle, this oversaturated diamond of grass and earth. In his dreams Bruno is always there, forever young and red as the Evening Star.

“It’s just, I don’t know who I am without baseball.”

Wasn’t it all about love?
Nate could have been anything, and yet he chose to be a ballplayer.

Doesn’t that mean something?



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