The play was going to be close. The runner, my best friend Sam, was trying to go from first to third on a ball lined into the gap in right center field. But the guy in right had jumped off with the bat-crack and knifed in smoothly. He’d gloved the ball and was launching a low hard wicked throw to third, where I was covering. Sam dug around second base in the pointy-toed lean of the runner as he fights the diamond’s tight geometry. He may have come to baseball late, but he was a shrewd competitor. We’d been roommates at Fordham in the Bronx –Class of ’83 if either of us had graduated on time.
He’d grown up in Watervliet, New York, a cloud-covered, working class nowheresville in outer-ring Albany. The place wasn’t big on organized sports. It was big on hunting and 8-ball for money, and pitchers of Coors and holy Lynyrd Skynyrd on the jukebox at the Last Call Bar and Grill. It was the kind of place where the Rensselaer Boys would hot rod in a pick-up down the main drag and you knew as they sped away that by the code of your old hometown you and all the males who had witnessed the insult had a sacred obligation to haul ass after them until you caught up and slammed on the brakes and jumped out from the car and someone would square up and throw fists to the head until someone else threatened gunplay if that shit ever happened again, you fucked-up asshole motherfuckers. Then you pointed a finger and slowly backed away before you fell back into the car and drove to the Call to talk it over and down a few pitchers. And if you didn’t, well then shit, you wasn’t dick.
So Sam hadn’t played the game much growing up but he knew how to take on other males in pointless contests. We could both see he’d be nailed if he came in standing. Sliding was out. We were playing on a painted asphalt field in a fenced playground at the corner of 9th Ave. and 13th St.
I figured my friend was going take advantage of one of the warped rules of city softball–the one that lets you mow down any fielder in your way.
Sam was thin and wore glasses, like me. (Around campus, we had often been mistaken for John Lennon or each other.) This meant that the collision might bruise but would probably not be epic. One thing worried me, though: Sam had gained 30 pounds in the past eight months.
He’d been living on my couch so I’d watched it happen. First the overlapping rolls appeared mid-gut. Then a fine sheet of fat seemed to infiltrate the understory of his skin, like foam insulation.
“Look at this shit,” he’d say as he sat on the couch and worried his rolls. “Fuckin’ Buddha.”
I knew how he drank from living with him at school. There was the 40-ounce to crank out a five-page paper. And there were the many, many beers he won from the fierce and fluid 8-ball he played at the dive Irish bars off-campus. And most nights a couple of Michelobs at dinner. But I wasn’t sure what to make of it when we would set out from my Bronx apartment on the long morning walk to the subway and he would stop at a bodega for a Grolsch. Even on cold days, he would suck on it from the bag as we trucked along. After a while he quit his job, so I walked alone and thought things over.
I decided I disapproved. I believed he was becoming an alcoholic. He sensed my feelings, so he plied me with the tritest kind of shit. “I’m really cuttin’ back,” he’d volunteer when he saw me looking at the screw-top in his hand. So I did something drastic.
I attended an Alanon meeting. Raised a Catholic, I believed in hocus-pocus and transubstantiated matter. I believed that if I learned the right words from the Alanon people and said them to Sam–or maybe over Sam, like a secular temperance priest–he would shuck off his doleful skin and put on the new man. (That expression, put on the new man, sounds like it comes from a letter of St. Paul. I probably got it from Sam: he dug that muscular Pauline theology the moment he heard it in a class on the meanderings and martyrdoms of the apostles. He would quote it at odd moments, like when we wrestled and he pinched my ribs in a painful scissors lock. “And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body,” he recited as I tried to wriggle free, “already dead.”)
I saw that the throw would slow down as it bounced before reaching me, so I cut my eyes to the runner. He was gathering himself to deliver a blow. I bent my knees and tensed in anticipation as the ball hit and stuck in my mitt. But the blow didn’t come. I opened my eyes and saw Sam sprawled on the ground. Apparently, he had stumbled as he lowered his center of gravity. I stepped over and looked down. He was drunk. I tagged him out.
At a bar in Chelsea after the game, as the Mets played the Cubs on a muted TV, I ditched the hocus-pocus and just blurted out to Sam that I’d attended an Alanon meeting because I thought he was in trouble with his drinking. He frowned down at the coasters on the bar. A chair scraped and a beer tap gurgled and a few guys started to racket on a pool table in the corner, then halted to argue the rules. After a long time, without looking, Sam said: “This isn’t your fuckin’ business.” His cheek was drawn and flaring, as if I’d slapped it. “You don’t know a thing,” he added.
“Why not check out a detox?” I tried. “Six days. I know where to go. And I’ll help when you get out.”
He raised his eyes to the t.v. set and pretended to watch the game. Dwight Gooden in his prime stared in for a sign, then wound and threw. Sam gripped his glass like a club. Strike two–Sandberg swinging. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crush-proof pack of menthol cigarettes. He tamped the pack down on the bar, hard, then drew one out and deliberately lit it up. Sandberg grounded to third to finish the inning. And that was it. I waited for Sam to say more, but our friendship had just ended. Except to discuss necessities, we would never talk again. After a minute, he stubbed out the cigarette, picked up his glove and moved toward the door. Then he stopped near the jukebox and turned around. I expected him to curse me out while he pointed and backed away. He didn’t. He made as if to speak. But the words wouldn’t come. So he pivoted and pushed outside. By the time I got home from work the next day, he’d moved to another friend’s couch.
I tried to bring it up once or twice after that, but nothing I said could draw down the boil of his incommunication. Soon after, he got a new job and moved to Queens. Then he married and settled in Phoenix.
Friends told me at the time that I was cruel. They claimed that Sam had, in fact, been cutting back, and who was I to assume the role of savior, anyway? They said that even if right, I shouldn’t expect to impose my will or even persuade my friend to change his life, no matter how good it made me feel. The Alanon people say this, too. And so do some Protestants: Grace comes not from the acts of men, but the mercy of our God. It’s a paraphrase, but this is the Reformation version of the twelve-step notion that sinners are all but helpless in the face of their consuming sin, in vital need of redemption through surrender to a kindly higher power. I don’t know. Compared to the mute separation I got, I would have preferred a collision.
At the very least, I know I betrayed this code: stand by your friends no matter what. And another: take what comes. Sam said that when his father, a big guy in town, a military man who handed out jobs at the arsenal, would come by the house at night and try to get in to see his ex-wife, Sam’s mother, it was Sam who came down and met him on the porch. He was only a teenager, but he stood there while his father yelled and threw fists to his head, knocking off his glasses. “I just took it,” he said.
I think Sam surrendered long ago. But I could be wrong. Three years back, I got his number from a friend to let him know I was going to be interviewed on the radio in Phoenix. Would he listen? I got his machine and left a message. I must have included my address, or maybe he looked me up on the internet, because at Christmas he sent a card. On the cover, there were photos of his children: a boy and a girl both gorgeous and smiling. On the inside, the card read, “Peace.”