I moved three friends across the city and myself across the country. The last Nationals game was the best we've been to yet, and the mayor almost ran us down in the parking lot. It was pouring rain in DC, early in the morning when I was trying to get to the airport. I'm home for good. I'm exhausted. I saw Okkervil River last night and Giants-A's today. There was a car crash, which was surprisingly mundane, all things considered. The In-N-Out burger parking lot where I waited for the cops to show was the hangout for both tough motherfuckers on motorcycles and high school kids coming from prom. Tomorrow is Zito vs. Lowry and we'll be there too, and I cannot believe my luck right now. I still have no goal, and no plan, and that bothers me less than it probably should.
All right, we're caught up. Mostly. School's over, you guys. School's over forever. This is really intense.
As far as the team goes, I don't believe this will last. I don't see how it can, we're not all that good, but we're much better than this. I've officially given up on the division and probably the playoffs, though secretly I believe we're gonna win it all, but don't tell anyone I said.
On that note.
Token Freakshow Prodigies
Rich Harden wakes up and for a second he thinks he’s still in Phoenix, the bed unfamiliar and the pillowcase feeling overly starched. The fringe of trees out his window sets him straight, though, and it’s only because they just moved into this house that it feels so impersonal. Harden rolls around for awhile until he gets bored, and climbs out of bed, twists his shoulders, cracks his back.
Bobby Crosby’s got a hairline fracture in the lowest rib on his right side, and he sleeps deeply and late, his door still closed when Rich Harden goes down the hallway. They share a wall, Crosby and Harden, and sometimes Harden can hear him talking on the phone really late at night.
Harden’s the first up, which is typical, and he turns on the radio and the coffeemaker, gets the paper off the front porch. It’s cool and blue-lit in the kitchen, wide clean windows and the sun just above the level of the trees in bars of rainbow.
He’s eating the crusts from his toast and listening to the oldies music they play on KFRC when there’s not a baseball game, and Huston Street comes in barefoot and wet-haired, hands busy getting his watch on and the dark-green, alternate-jersey-matching WWJD bracelet bit between his teeth. He grins around it, and Harden smiles back.
Street pushes the bracelet onto his wrist and says, “hey man, morning.” Street has never been anything other than unfailingly polite, which irritates the hell out of some of the guys, Harden knows, but he’s never minded it.
Street gets some cereal and orange juice, forgoing the coffee because he doesn’t drink caffeine except for the Red Bull he’ll kill as they’re walking across the Coliseum parking lot, and sits opposite of Harden. Just like every morning, he looks like he got a perfect amount of sleep, had excellent dreams.
He reaches for the sports section, and Harden, just to test him, says, “Dude, I was gonna read that next.”
Street immediately pulls his hand back. “Oh, sorry.” Harden looks at him in amazement for a second, Street smiling apologetically and poking without much interest at the classifieds.
Harden smirks and shakes his head incredulously, goes back to reading the comics, taking his sweet time and working the word puzzles just to see if Street will say anything. Street doesn’t, and the sports section sits forlorn, still folded into the rest of the paper.
Just another day.
Street still looks like a college pitcher, it’s in his stance and his delivery and his heavy reliance on throat-high fastballs early in the count. College pitchers stay higher in the zone because they don’t have as much confidence in their breaking stuff as they should, and they show more emotion, they curse and tear at anything in reach, they win or lose with all their hearts.
It’s stuff that you’re not supposed to show once you’re doing this for a living on national television. They’re supposed to be taking this seriously, which is hard sometimes, because half the team still gets carded in bars.
Street gives up a base hit, and Harden is surprised to hear the crack instead of the ping. With a runner on first and no outs, Street stays in the black and puts a bit of cut on the tail of each pitch. He strikes out one, then strikes out another, and Harden can see the brace of Street’s shoulders relax, can see him settle and calm down and forget that this isn’t Texas.
Street in his home whites looks like a brushstroke on the green, and Harden leans on the rail, arms folded and sunglasses on. Behind him, Barry Zito and Danny Haren are talking, and Harden hears Zito say, “He’s better than I thought he’d be, actually.”
“Yeah?” Haren answers, and Harden wants to turn and follow their eyes, make sure they’re talking about who he thinks they’re talking about.
“I don’t know, I’ve stopped trusting people from Texas,” Zito says, or at least that’s what it sounds like, but Harden’s not sure because that doesn’t make much sense. Were it anyone other than Zito, who prides himself on making as little sense as possible, Harden wouldn’t believe it for a minute.
“Oh, well.” Zito falls silent. Haren does too, new enough to not press it.
Harden kind of badly wants to know why Zito doesn’t trust people from Texas, but Street hooks a slider over the corner of the plate and strikes out the side, and as he straightens up, Harden can see him registering the crowd again, the high stadium walls and the flags sweeping out of the bleachers. Harden can see him remembering where he is, all at once, and then Street looks so joyful it hurts to watch, and Harden draws a breath in between his teeth, fades back into the dugout so he won’t have to see it up close.
Every night, Huston Street does two hundred sit-ups and two hundred push-ups, on the floor of his room or his hotel room, under the window. Harden’s seen him do it, walking past to his own room, taking a casual look in and seeing Street with his shirt off because the air-conditioner is broken, his arms crossed over his chest, holding onto his shoulders.
Harden thinks about gym class in middle school, and watches the notches of Street’s spine appear in a skinny column as he curls forwards. Street breathes in time, short and measured, and counts under his breath. His back runs tan and smooth all the way down, the waistband of his white briefs showing over the tops of his athletic shorts, and Harden’s mouth is dry.
He raps his knuckles twice and Street falls flat on his back, rolling his head to look at Harden. His chest rises and falls in the same even tempo, his stomach gleaming. He smiles at Rich Harden—he smiles all the fucking time.
“Don’t stop on my account,” Harden tells him, leaning his shoulder against the doorframe and seeing the crucifix around Street’s neck catch gold like confetti, slipping off his collarbone and falling to the carpet.
“No, it’s okay,” Street says, blind-white teeth and three days’ scuff because he left his razor in Baltimore. “What’s going on?”
Street’s accent, slow and plains-broad, reminds Harden of something, but he’s not sure what. It makes him feel sleepy, the patch of carpet next to Street’s body welcoming.
“Um.” Harden blinks. Porch light falls through the window with its lines still intact, a square across Street’s legs, up to his neck. Street’s looking at him expectantly, and Harden forces clarity back into his mind.
“You wanna come with me and Barry to this club-type place tomorrow?” Harden asks quickly, swallowing hard as Street absently brushes his hand across his own stomach.
Street’s constant smile splits and grows and takes over his whole face. Harden loses his breath. Street sits up, beaming. “Definitely. I would love to.” Street nods happily, eyes bright, the cool kids invited him to their party, this is the best day ever. Harden finds himself grinning back, inadvertently charmed.
“I would love to,” Street says again, and Harden has to get out of there before he does something stupid.
In the hallway, though, he thinks that it’s probably already too late.
Street wears number 20 and he doesn’t even seem to realize that it looks strange and not-right to the others. Eric Chavez sometimes ends up glaring at him from third when Street comes in late in the game, not really on purpose but just because numbers get attached to names and faces and Chavez isn’t seeing what he wants when he sees Huston Street.
Everyone takes him pretty much in stride when he’s not in uniform, though. They’ve learned to take advantage of him the same way Harden has, knowing that Street will do more than a normal rookie, will do anything they ask of him without hesitation. Harden spends a good deal of his time wondering how deep Street’s desire to win them over goes.
Street signs more autographs than anyone on the team, he’d be lost if the A’s bullpen wasn’t right next to the stands. He’s easy and eminently personable, never gets short with the fans, even when teenage girls ask him if Zito’s gonna come out, which is the kind of thing that pisses Harden off to no end, makes him want to pull out the early season statistics and emphatically demonstrate the new generation to them.
It’d be arrogance for anyone else, the assumption that everybody wants his autograph, that he’s the one they’re crowding the rail for. But Street doesn’t think like that, Harden can tell by the way he blushes whenever anyone recognizes him or tells him how good he is. Street’s thinking like the eight year old kid he was once who didn’t particularly care whose name got scrawled on the baseball, as long as it was the right team.
Street strikes out better than a man an inning. Rich Harden wants someone to write a hymn about the kid’s slider, and has to constantly remind himself that he throws harder than Street, and that he’s a starter, when he starts to get light-headed and jealous watching Street throw in the bullpen.
And Street stretches in the clubhouse, Zito’s trying to teach him yoga but no one will stop making fun of them long enough for Street to get any of it right. Street sits with his legs open in a vee in front of him, and he folds himself in half with his hands hooked around his foot, his forehead resting on his knee. Harden listens to his headphones and keeps his eyes half-closed, watching Street bent double with his shirt tight across his shoulders, holding the position for a ten-count as every dirty thought that has ever crossed Harden’s mind returns full-force.
It’s weird, because the team is still largely intact, but they walk around with pieces missing anyway. Zito’s not growing into the leadership role as well as anyone expected, and now it’s Harden who gets talked about the most, and Harden figures he’ll live up to it, if everyone would just back off and let him catch his breath for a minute. If everyone would just give him a little bit of time.
Street rises and puts on his jersey. He’s whistling soundlessly, mouth small and round, and Harden thinks they’ll be talking about Huston Street soon enough, with that number on his back and that slider breaking hard enough to tear the air like a sonic boom.
In a bar, out on the road, Zito leans into Harden, weighted and drunk, and says, “I think Huston’s a virgin.”
Harden chokes on his beer, and starts to cough, Zito pounding him on the back unhelpfully. It takes him a while to get under control again, his eyes watering and his chest on fire.
“What makes you say that?” he asks eventually, keeping his voice carefully neutral.
Zito gestures indistinctly at Street, talking with Joe Blanton at the bar. “He, like. Never has sex with anybody.”
“Jesus, man, how do you know? Just because he’s not giving you the play-by-play.”
Zito shakes his head, scowling. “No, because also, there were these girls? At least three of them. Who, like, wanted to fuck him, like, a lot, and he just bought them drinks and then went to play darts.”
Harden rubs his face, feeling slightly overheated. “So he’s not as casual about it as you, that doesn’t mean anything.”
Zito claps his glass on the bar and punches Harden in the arm. “Quit implying that I’m a slut.”
Harden punches him back. “Quit pretending like you consider slut an insult.”
Zito grins. “You live with him,” he points out. “Does he ever bring anybody home?”
Harden shakes his head, mute, realizing it for the first time. Zito nods wisely and continues, “I think he’s, like, hardcore about the Christian thing? Saving himself for marriage, probably.” Zito shudders. “It’s just weird.”
“Maybe he doesn’t like,” Harden starts, then stops, carefully edits, because Zito remembers everything that happens even when he’s drunk. “Groupies.”
“Why on earth wouldn’t he like groupies?” Zito says, looking genuinely confused. Harden rolls his eyes, signals for the check.
“We should make it our goal to get him laid by the end of the season,” Zito says, sounding altogether too serious, wrapping his hand around his glass, tapping his index finger thoughtfully.
Harden crosses his arms over his chest, not liking the hot tight feeling in his chest, a petulant set to his mouth. “I think I’m just gonna let him do what he wants,” he says.
Zito sighs. “Where’s the fun in that?”
Harden doesn’t answer, doesn’t think too much about what if Zito’s right and Street has never had sex, what if Street’s brand-new and untouched, what if everything that happens to him this year will be the first time?
On subway platforms, they mill around and spot rats jumping the third rail. Harden likes being underground like this because there could be a nuclear explosion or a tidal wave, and they’d be okay. He sits down next to Street, who’s studying the pocket map he got at the little kiosk up the stairs.
Harden watches Street happily engrossed, and thinks randomly of being on long drives with his family, his dad marking their start and their destination with stars, and letting Rich trace the route with a felt-tip pen. They used the same map most of the time, until the ink bled through and the span of British Columbia was hatched and woven.
“Okay,” Street says, folding the map back up. “I found our hotel. Also that sushi place that’s supposed to be good.”
Harden inches his knee closer to Street’s. “Oh yeah?”
“We’ll still get lost, probably, but at least we’ll get lost in a direction.”
Harden yawns, idly watching Zito lean out over the tracks to peer down the tunnel, Byrnes’s hand wrapped in his shirt in case Zito overbalances.
“I used to have this watch, with a compass on it, that’d probably come in handy,” Harden says, fingering his new watch, which is flashy and very expensive.
“Boy Scout watch,” Street nods excitedly. “I had one of those.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t call them Boy Scouts.”
“What’d you call them?”
“Um.” Harden looks at him, surprised that he’s at all interested in this. Street doesn’t look like he’s faking it, doesn’t look like he’d even know how to fake it. “Scouts Canada.”
“Neat,” Street says, and Harden has to take a moment to process the fact that Street just used the word ‘neat.’
“Anyway,” he says eventually. “It was the exact same as what you guys had, just a different name.”
“Yeah. I did that till I was ‘bout thirteen, I guess.” Street’s drawl is getting thicker, their knees now touching. The other guys have wandered to the vending machine down the platform, pushing coins around on their palms. Harden lets his eyes half-close, thinking about the camp at the lake, and Street continues, “I was the youngest kid to get the archery badge in my whole county.”
Harden almost has to laugh, but he’s having a hard time making fun of Street, though there have been innumerable opportunities. It’d be like kicking a puppy. “Archery?” he asks mildly.
“I don’t know, I’m just real good at it,” Street answers with a shrug.
“Well, it’s about control and concentration, right?” Street nods. “That sounds about right,” Harden says, grinning, and Street blushes, the corners of his mouth twitching.
Harden shifts so his leg touches Street’s a bit more, in a way that can no longer be considered accidental. He waits for Street to push him away, already planning how he’ll laugh it off, but Street’s face just gets even redder, and he stares at his feet, and their legs press together from knee to hip, and Harden thinks, ‘huh.’
The night’s not even begun and Harden is reciting the oath in his head, physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight, shoulders straight and patches sewn on his chest, and hey, two out of three isn’t bad.
He looks away from Street so it won’t get any worse, and sees the train approaching from way down the tunnel, the light growing on the tracks, each rail oil-slick and glowing like bones on an X-ray.
Harden walks down the hall one night and hears Street mumbling softly to himself, the door not quite closed. He stops in the hallway and makes his breath light so he can hear. It sounds like Street’s talking on the phone to someone, trying to be covert about it, but Harden knows that Street’s cell phone is charging in the kitchen, he just saw it in there.
Harden keeps listening, getting more and more confused, worried suddenly that Street’s a fucking psychopath with, like, imaginary friends and everything. Then Street says, just clear enough to make out, “ thankyou, amen,” and Harden almost smacks himself on the forehead for not figuring it out.
He has a hard time falling asleep that night, thinking about Street lying on his back with a hand over his eyes and the other on his chest, his eyes closed and his lips moving, or Street on his knees beside the bed like television taught him, hands together, and Rich Harden swears, kicking the blankets away angrily to get some cool on his body, doing what he can to force the image out of his mind, because he’s never gonna get to sleep otherwise.
A couple of days later, watching television with Street and still unable to shake it, Harden says, “Can I ask you something? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
Street looks a bit wary, but he smiles anyway. “Sure.”
Harden looks back to the television, some dumb commercial with happy little kids and a yellow lab bounding around on perfect grass. “What do you pray for?”
Street doesn’t answer, and Harden glances over apprehensively. Street just looks caught off-guard, not offended, and Harden hurries to explain, “I hear you sometimes. At night. I was just wondering. But it’s probably personal. You don’t have to tell me.”
Street shakes his head. “No, it’s. It’s okay. I just didn’t know that you’d—well, anyway. Um. I guess I pray for the regular stuff. You know. I say, please watch over my brothers, and my mom and dad, and my friends who are in the army and my friend who’s in the hospital.”
“You got a friend in the hospital?”
Street nods. “Yeah, back home. He’s gonna be okay, though.” Street runs a hand through his hair. “And now, I pray for you guys, too.”
Harden looks at him with surprise, and Street’s smile dims a bit, gets kind of subtle and sweet. “I say, please let no one get hurt. Please make sure we show up for real.”
“Dude,” Harden says, because he doesn’t know what else to say.
“Guess you don’t do that,” Street says, fiddling with the remote control.
“I pray for third strikes.”
Street grins. “I do that too.”
Wanting badly to put his hand on Street’s chest and press him down, Harden swallows and says, “Well. Thanks for thinking of me.” Harden winces. “I mean, thinking of us.”
Street’s eyes widen for a second, and he licks his lips unconsciously. “I figure, what can it hurt, you know? It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.”
Harden nods, and touches Street’s knee, as casually as he can. “No, it’s good. We gotta cover our bases.”
Street’s staring at Harden’s hand on his knee, and Harden leaves it there for as long as he can without it being explicit and purposeful, and then sits back. He thinks for a second that Street will turn and lean over him and they’ll finally get this motherfucker started, but Street’s back is tight and he doesn’t take his eyes off the television.
Harden closes his eyes, trying it out, asking God for the strength to get through however much longer it will be before he gets what he wants.
Two days later, by unspoken agreement, they all start ignoring the rookies. Pretty soon the hazing will start in earnest, and it’s important not to give anything away. Nick Swisher refuses to accept it, and keeps following everybody around, pestering and offering them gum until Blanton pulls him away with an apologetic smirk, Joe Blanton who is weirdly cagey for a guy from Kentucky, and will likely be everyone’s favorite by the end of the year.
Street comes up to Crosby and Harden and says, “Richie, are you still gonna come to that concert next month because I’m buying tickets tonight.”
Crosby, who is perversely intense about fucking with the rookies, considering how easy he got off himself, widens his eyes meaningfully at Harden, and Harden glances at Street before forcing his face still and staring at Crosby’s ear.
Street makes a noise like the start of Harden’s name, then cuts himself off, just looks at Harden for a minute. “Oh,” Street says, and goes back to his own locker without another word.
Harden watches him go, the combed back of his head and the line of his collar, remembering for the nine thousandth time that Street is actually younger than him, after two years of Harden being the token freakshow prodigy. Something about the carry of Street’s shoulders, the angle of his head, shows him for what he is, twenty-one years old and still getting care packages from his mom.
He turns back to find Crosby staring at him. “What?” Harden asks.
Crosby narrows his eyes. “Are you doing something stupid?”
Harden maintains his poker face only because he’s had a lot of practice. “No.”
“Are you sure?”
Harden glares at him. “I’m sorry, are you honestly talking to me about doing something stupid?”
Crosby blushes, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on and they both know it. Harden’s room last year was right next to Mark Mulder’s, after all.
“I don’t think he’s like that, man,” Crosby says softly, and Harden has to look over again, see Street with his feet kicked up on an empty chair, his headphones in his ears and his head back, face tilted up. His eyes are open, trailing across the ceiling as his fingers skitter on his stomach.
“Probably not,” Harden agrees. He shrugs, meets Crosby’s eyes. “Worth a try, though.”
Crosby grins, nods. “Definitely worth a try.”
Harden heads to the trainer’s room, and as he’s passing Street, he whispers under his breath, “Hey, Huston,” way too low to be heard, especially with headphones on, but it counts as not-ignoring, it’s as much as Harden can do until they start the initiation.
Harden wakes up and his back hurts, his head hurts. He’s in a hotel bed, and there’s a baseball jammed in the small of his back. He digs it out with a groan and tosses it off, thump thump on the floor and then colliding with something soft.
And Huston Street mumbles, rustling, “yeahwhat?”
Harden sits up. “Is that you?” It’s dark in here, the curtains drawn. Harden doesn’t remember anything that led up to this, Street on the floor and a baseball in bed with him.
Street takes his time, and Harden would suspect that he’d fallen back asleep, except for the quick awareness of his breath. “It’s me.”
Harden’s wearing his watch and his lightning bolt necklace, his jeans and socks, but not a shirt. He doesn’t know what day it is or what city they’re in, and his head is killing him. “Dude,” he says, painfully confused.
Street hurries to fill him in. “You passed out. This is my room, you’re next door. It’s okay, though. Chavez thought you were dead for a little while, but then we figured out you weren’t.”
Harden rubs his eyes with the heel of his hand. “I’m sorry I stole your bed,” he says, voice rough. He finds his missing shirt near his feet, and pulls it on.
“Don’t worry about it.” Street stands up, and Harden moves to get off the bed, go back to his own room and finish the night. Harden’s back cracks as he straightens, and Street has stopped moving, just standing there looking at him in the shunts of this mysterious hotel room in wherever they are.
“Just drag me into the hallway next time,” Harden says with a little smile. “Pin a note to my chest so I know what happened.”
Street’s teeth show up clear in the shadows, white summer slice of a grin. “You’d get kidnapped. We’d have to pay ransom.”
Harden looks at him, brow furrowed, trying to piece that together. Why would anyone want to kidnap him? He gets a mental image of himself tied to a chair, a gag in his mouth, and Street sliding open the window, dressed all in black, come to rescue him with a switchblade between his teeth. It’s possible he’s still kinda drunk.
“Well. Good night,” Harden says, rubbing the back of his neck. Street hesitates, then nods. Harden hesitates too, his hands twitching, then pulls his eyes away and moves for the door.
“Oh, wait,” Street says. Harden turns back eagerly, biting his tongue, thinking about skin under his palms, hair in his eyes.
But Street just lobs the baseball at him, no spin so he can’t read the stitches. “You came in here with that,” Street tells him, looking nervous with one thumb hooked in his waistband.
Harden tightens his grip on the ball in disappointment, and makes a smile. “Thanks.”
Street does a little wave and Harden cannot stand being in the same room with Street like this, his hair all fucked up and his eyes swollen, his mouth looking bitten and ready, T-shirt wrinkled across his stomach and threadbare on his arms. “See you tomorrow.”
Harden nods and leaves, paces around outside Street’s room door, passing the baseball hand to hand and swearing without sound. It’s not until he sees the light come on under the door, Street at last giving up on ever getting to sleep, that Harden is finally able to go to his own room and do the same.
Home again, and Harden’s reading a magazine on the deck, halfheartedly listening to Melhuse and Street messing around in the pool. The sunlight’s enough to drain him, and he fixes the chair so he’s mostly reclined, takes Adam’s sunglasses out of his sneaker and puts them on. He could fall asleep like this, gazing at the sun through the shades, the magazine spread open on his stomach.
Street detours on the way to the diving board and stands over him, dripping on Harden’s legs. He’s wearing UT athletic shorts, orange with white stripes down the sides, long white drawstring.
“Why won’t you come in with us?”
Harden lets his eyes fall mostly closed behind the sunglasses, weaving his hands together over his stomach. “I’m busy with lifeguard duties.”
Street laughs. “What, is Adam’s mom paying you five bucks an hour?” Harden smiles sleepily, watching the roll of water drops down Street’s chest, thinking about rap videos.
“Sit down for a minute,” Harden says, folding his legs in. Street cocks his head, but sits obediently, turned towards the pool, where Melhuse is attempting backflips off the diving board.
“Remember how you said you wanted to see Monterey a couple of weeks ago?’ Harden asks, and Street nods, peering back at him, his back sloping near to Harden’s hands. “Well, I gotta go down there because there’s this shop that does, like, glassworks or whatever, and I was supposed to get something for my mom for her birthday.” He pauses, catches his breath. “So do you wanna come with?”
Street squints at him, strange because the sun is definitely on Harden’s face and therefore not on Street’s, but also that smile that Harden is getting to know as well as anything, and Street lifts a hand, pushes his soaked hair back, his forehead clear.
“Yeah, okay. We can go to the aquarium.”
Harden starts to snort, but then notices that Street’s not kidding, and instead nods in agreement, already planning how they’ll drive it and where they’ll stop for lunch.
They’re quiet, watching Adam make up tricks and crash awkwardly into the water. Harden’s only absently following the shift of the muscles in Street’s back, the lines of his shoulders, when Street breaks the quiet to say, “Thanks for taking me along so much, man.” He half-turns, one hand on his knee. “I mean, always inviting me and stuff. It’s been really cool of you.”
Harden’s face gets hot, and he shrugs uncomfortably, fixing his eyes on his hands. “No big deal,” he mutters.
“It kinda is, though,” Street says. “I mean, I think this woulda sucked without you.”
That’s certainly not true, because it would still be Street’s rookie year without Harden, and no rookie year is all bad, no matter what the numbers, not even Mark Mulder’s, not even Billy Beane’s. Failure up here is sometimes better than ascension anywhere else, and that’s something they learned early.
Street reaches out and takes Melhuse’s sunglasses off Harden’s face. He meets Harden’s gaze, holds it for a bit longer than he should have, and then, just before it can get heated or anything like that, he turns away, and Harden is left with Street’s back again, not so impressive now after Street’s bare chest and stomach, and Harden feels suddenly and abjectly bereft to not have Street looking at him or touching him, and decides that at least part of this has gone on long enough.
“Hey,” Harden says, and puts his hand on Street’s back, wet and slick and almost too hot to touch, Harden’s fingers trailing down Street’s spine, the dip at the small of his back. Street goes very still, and Harden continues with his voice low, “Will you please tell me if I’m wasting my time?”
He leaves his hand there so there can be no question about what he’s asking. He stares resolutely at the place between Street’s shoulder blades, holding his breath.
Street doesn’t answer for a very long time, and Harden is about to give up and run inside and hide under the bed until everyone stops looking for him, but then Street says in a whisper, not looking back at him or shifting against his hand or anything, “You’re not.” He pauses, takes a breath. “I don’t think you are.”
Harden scratches Street just a little bit, just to see Street twitch. Harden wants to stroke his hand all the way up Street’s back, but no chance of that. Even just his fingertips, and Street’s already shivering with anxiety.
“You don’t know for sure?”
Street swallows, his ears dark red, still staring forward like his life depends on it, Melhuse splashing around and cartwheeling off the deck. “I’m. I’m having some trouble. But if it’s okay, if you could just not, um, stop. Don’t stop until I figure it out. Please.”
Harden grins, the sunlight direct through his skin and three perfect fingerprints on Huston Street’s back, marked for life now. “I won’t stop until you tell me to,” Harden says.
Street looks back at him, his forehead sunburned and tracks of water slipping around his eyes, down his nose. His face is desperately confused, hotly excited, and Harden slides his hand casually to Street’s side, running his thumb along the top of Street’s shorts.
“I don’t think I’m ever gonna tell you to stop,” Street says solemnly. Harden’s eyes widen, more than he’d expected on an afternoon like this, and Street swallows again, very carefully touches his fingers to Harden’s wrist.
Melhuse whoops and crashes into the water again, two front flips with his head tucked against his knees, the best of the day, but Harden and Street miss everything, both of them staring in amazement at Street’s hand holding on to Harden’s wrist.
Harden’s sitting on the dugout steps with his back to the field, gnawing on his thumbnail and watching the crowd. Every now and then, someone sees him looking and waves, but he can’t wave back, because then everyone would start, the whole twenty-three thousand of them.
Street’s pitching, and this is a test of will power for Rich Harden, how long can he go without turning around. It’s a stupid game because Street is only ever in for an inning or two, and Harden knows enough ghosts in this clubhouse to know that he should look while he’s got the chance, he shouldn’t assume that Street will always be there for him to enjoy.
He keeps at it, though, stubborn and self-destructive, sucking blood off his thumb. He wonders why this has gotten so big in his mind, why he can’t think of anything else half the time. Maybe because Street doesn’t know for sure if he even wants this, maybe the lost-cause aspect of it is what’s so appealing. Maybe this is just manifestation of Harden’s tendency to back underdogs, his depthless affection for impossibly long odds.
It’s as good an excuse as any, and then the hitter turns too quickly on Street’s fastball, cracks a line drive foul into the A’s dugout, right into the back of Rich Harden’s head.
He wakes up in the trainer’s room. Some amount of time has passed, because his jersey has been taken off and his head aches magnificently. He lies there for a moment with his eyes closed, remembering everything, sickly counting heartbeats against his skull, and when he opens them, Street is sitting in a chair near the door, wearing his street clothes with his hair drying from the shower.
“Hey. Did we win?” Harden asks.
Street shakes his head, and Harden sighs. “Do I have a concussion?”
“They don’t think so. They wanted to take you to the hospital to make sure.”
Harden grimaces. “I don’t want to go to the hospital, man. Convince them to let me go home.”
“I already did,” Street tells him with a grin. Harden grins back and sits up very slowly. Street comes over to help, his arm around Harden’s back and Harden leaning into him because you take whatever you can get.
“You should watch the game, next time,” Street says quietly, not minding Harden staying pressed up against him even though it’s clear that Harden can walk and everything.
“You were pitching, dude, if my attention wandered you have only yourself to blame.”
Street laughs a bit, opening the door for Harden and hooking his arm around Harden’s shoulders. “Didn’t realize I was so boring.”
Harden stops, and hasps his hand in Street’s belt at the small of his back. “You’re not, though,” he says with Street’s face close to his, their shoulders together. “You couldn’t be if you tried.”
And Street grins again, so clear and bright it fucks up Harden’s head some more, makes him sag against Street’s arm and shut his eyes to regain his balance, his injured mind fracturing and making him wonder if maybe they’re like penguins, maybe right-handed pitchers mate for life.
Harden won’t tell anybody because nobody would believe him, but it’s true that the lightning bolt he wears around his neck makes him a better pitcher. He gains about three miles an hour on his fastball, and can hit the outside corner to lefties while wearing it. Everything is sharper and he can feel like the field is his to win or lose, the whole world.
He’s tested it more times than he can count, because he didn’t believe it either, but at the end of the day, the thing is just magic, that’s all.
So when he can’t find it in his Boston hotel room, he gets real worried, real quick, upending his duffel bag and raining all his clothes down on the carpet, down on his knees to dig through. He had it in New York, he’s certain of it, but there was a bus and a plane and another bus between then and now, and a million chances for it to be misplaced.
He’s panicking when Street comes in, checking every pocket in every coat and every bag he has for the sixth time, his hands shaking and his eyes peeled for a flash of silver, the heavy links of the chain, the smooth dangerous edges of the bolt. Street takes it in calmly, then says hi.
Harden makes an impatient noise in reply, squirming with his shoulders and head under the bed.
“Are you—dude, are you looking for this?”
Harden jerks himself from under the bed, sneezing with dust in his eyes and his hair. Street holds up his hand and Harden’s necklace is wrapped around his wrist like a rosary, the lightning bolt hanging free. Harden makes a noise of great relief, getting to his feet.
“Oh, you’re so my best friend in the world. Oh, man.” He takes the necklace, beaming. “Where was it?”
Street looks happy and proud, shrugging. “Hallway. I think from when Zito put you in that headlock? You shouldn’t let him get away with that shit.”
Harden runs the chain over his fingers, the tough fused links and the click of movement. “Zito gets special treatment because he’s an idiot man-child who doesn’t know any better.”
Street blinks. “Wow. Can I tell him you said that?”
Harden shows a shark-like grin. He’s got his lightning bolt back, nobody can touch him now. “Be my guest, man.”
He puts the chain on, his hands behind his neck. He has some trouble getting the clasp to catch, and thinks about turning and letting Street do it for him, but there’s definitely no way Harden’s gonna be the girl in this scenario.
Street’s watching closely, and when Harden lowers his hands, Street reaches out and takes the lightning bolt, turns it over in his fingers. He studies it, rubbing his thumb and tapping his knuckles against Harden’s chest, and then tucks it under his shirt collar, cold and sharp on Harden’s skin.
Street steps back, not meeting Harden’s eyes. Harden suddenly recognizes this, it’s a chance, that’s what it is, a chance. Adrenaline crashes and he’s suddenly terrified that he’s gonna fuck it up, he’s gonna trip and make an ass of himself, but instead he just moves forward perfectly, moves to Street’s downturned face, Street’s hands in his pockets.
Harden puts his hand on Street’s chest and feels Street suck in a breath between his teeth, flinching backwards instinctively. He winds his fingers in the thin chain Street wears, his crucifix, and lets the little gold cross bounce back against the hollow of Street’s throat. Street lets Harden stand way too close, lets Harden’s shadow fall on his body. When Street doesn’t move away, Harden knows he’s not going to.
“Pretty,” Harden comments, turning the cross, seeing the light. Street swallows, his Adam’s apple brushing the side of Harden’s hand. He’s clearly terrified, held in place by invisible wires, the gravity of Harden’s body three inches away from his own.
“My, um. My mom, she gave it to me. For Christmas one year.” Street’s eyes are huge and nervous, his hands twitching at his sides. Harden hmms under his breath, shifting a half a step closer, liking the tight skin under his fingertips and the fear running all through Huston Street.
“That’s funny,” Harden says. “My dad gave me mine.”
Street’s eyes flick down and he licks his lips. “Yours is way cooler than mine,” Street tells him, voice low.
Harden smiles. “Goddamn right,” he says, and then kisses Huston Street with nothing less than three months of warning, twists his fingers and fits their mouths together. Street goes stiff and motionless, as if he’s been caught in headlights, and Harden closes his free hand around Street’s arm, keeping him from pulling away.
He licks Street’s lower lip and murmurs, “I know you can do it, man, just settle down.”
Harden feels Street let out a shaky breath against his mouth, a rough sound from his chest. Harden waits and waits and his courage is failing, vanishing, and then something hesitant is itching at his side, and he grins as Street curls his fingers and gets a solid grip on Harden’s hip. Harden closes his eyes and tilts his head and Street starts to kiss him back.
Harden holds on, both hands on the back of Street’s neck now, Street’s hair and the crucifix chain wound around his fingers. Street leans back against the door, pulling Harden with him so that they’re pressed together, and Harden thinks, ‘oh what a good idea,’ deliriously proud of Huston for thinking of something so clever.
Street’s hand slides up under Harden’s shirt onto his back, his shoulder blades, and Harden drops his head onto Street’s shoulder, panting.
“Rich, man,” Street says unevenly, petting Harden’s head. He sounds astonished. “Richie, I, um. Look. I don’t, or, well, I haven’t, ever before-”
Harden shakes his head, cutting him off. He wipes his eyes on Street’s shirt, unsure why they’re wet in the first place. “It’s okay,” Harden tells him. “I’ll show you everything. You know how long this was in coming? We got nothing but time, now.”
And Street smiles, his fingers wide and flat on Harden’s back, his strangely-colored eyes hooded and his teeth still abnormally white. Harden wants everything from him, it’s unbelievable.
Harden closes his eyes and lets himself get pulled back in again, aware that there is light streaking in his mind, aware that his pulse is fast and his breath short, his hands starting to shake, and his heart, his doubtful stubborn heart, it’s been hit hard, rising against the sky now, and pretty soon, clean outta sight.