By Candle Beck
At a bar in Chicago, Crosby sat across from Rich Harden, his shoelaces untied. Harden was scratching their initials into the wood of the table with the file on his nail clippers, forehead lined with concentration.
This was in 2004. Zito had recently abandoned Harden, drunk the other night and killing mix tapes in their driveway, waving at Mark Mulder in the window with skinny shiny brown tape in a tangled pile at his feet. It was probably for the best, but Harden was kinda fucked up about it anyway.
Little curls of blond wood gathered under Harden’s hands. Crosby put his feet on top of Harden’s and ordered them another round. There was a brawl building two booths over, someone barking, told you to not show your fucking face here again. Crosby was taking care of things.
He asked Harden, “Did you ever get into a fight with one of your friends?” Harden lifted an eyebrow, and Crosby amended, “I mean, a fistfight. Did you ever, like, come to blows?”
Harden licked the rim of his pint glass, dirty fingertips cut up and red neon drenching the side of his face.
“This one time, in college. This kid. Fuck. What the fuck was his name?” Harden narrowed his eyes, his collarbones showing through his shirt. “Obviously we weren’t very good friends. But we hung out a little bit. We were drinking out by the reservoir one night, way far gone, got to arguing. Thought he knew hockey, but he didn’t know shit. Came up with the stupidest shit you ever heard. I couldn’t listen to it.”
“You hit him for not knowing hockey?”
Slick white smile, and Harden shrugging. “I hit him because he was irritating. The hockey thing was inconsequential.”
“Did he hit you back?”
“Yeah. Fell right off the fucking car, bounced up swinging. He didn’t know how to do that, either. Punched my forehead, broke his pinky finger. I had to drive him to the hospital, which was difficult because I was laughing my ass off, you know?”
Crosby grinned. Harden pushed his thumb around the freshly carved letters in the wood, his mouth and shoulders relaxed.
Harden looked up, flag-colored eyes in the red light. “I wish I could remember his name,” he said.
Crosby signaled for their check.
Most nights were the same. Whether at home or on the road, Crosby would shadow Harden and make sure he didn’t do anything stupid. Harden let him because Crosby had existed in his life long enough to serve easily as background noise now, static, and there was more between them than there’d ever been between Harden and Zito. Harden was sick of things being complicated.
On the street, the two short blocks back to their hotel, Crosby put his arm around Harden’s shoulders. Harden’s hands were in his pockets, his hair wrinkled soft on the inside of Crosby’s elbow. The city was ripped open high above them, drawn in black glass and gummed sidewalks. No wind, no visible moon.
“I liked that bar,” Crosby commented.
Harden nodded, didn’t respond.
“I think what I liked most about it was that nobody seemed to care that you were carving up the table. Because, you know, most places, we woulda got rolled. But they were very laidback. Very chill. It was nice.”
Crosby stopped, checked the street. He drew Harden close, kissed him quick, his fisted hand touching the front of his own shoulder. Harden kissed back sleepily. His teeth ghosted across Crosby’s lower lip.
“Richie.” He rested their foreheads together. Harden closed his eyes and tipped his head to the side.
“Come on,” Harden whispered, and they went.
A couple of years after that, Crosby was hungover in Arlington. Harden hadn’t been with him the night before, just the manic swirl of club kids and Danny Haren head and shoulders above the crowd. Crosby slumped out of bed and fought nausea on the elevator, collapsed poolside with his sunglasses on.
He drifted, thinking of Harden’s hands and Harden’s mouth. The sunlight was this great battering thing that hurt his brain even through the sunglasses and his closed eyelids. He could feel the drunk sweating out, slick as oil on his skin.
Voices nearby, crawlingly familiar. Crosby cracked one eye open and saw Huston Street’s parents by the gate, comfortable in the heat. James Street looked so much like his son that it was eerie, perfect vision of the future.
Crosby knew they would recognize him, and he wasn’t up to conversation, especially not polite parent conversation, so he angled his face away, lay still until Street’s girlfriend showed up and things got more interesting.
Street’s parents were happy to see her, asked where Huston was and she said in confusion, “I thought he was with you?”
They, of course, had thought he was with her.
Crosby smiled a little bit to himself. His head felt vised, his eyes gritty and sore and so fucking tired. Lying in the sun was good because it allowed him to feel at least here, still present, in a way that suffering behind blackout curtains wouldn’t have. And the amusing one-act in progress by the gate, that was just gravy.
They talked worriedly, where could he be, why would he lie. From the way they said it, Crosby thought it likely that Huston Street had never before lied to his nearest and dearest.
Crosby was pretty sure he knew where Street was right now. Why he had lied.
He was even more sure when he heard Street rambling and half-panicked, hurrying across the pale concrete, “Sorry sorry sorry.”
Crosby slid his shoulders down guiltily, peeking around the chair. Street kissed his girlfriend on the cheek and hugged his parents. He was disheveled, his hair matted and unwashed, his shirt hanging out. He might have been flushed; it was hard to tell through the sunglasses.
It was entirely familiar. Crosby, barely legal in Texas and fucking around with someone still too young to buy liquor, paranoid in grocery stores and gas stations, thinking that it was smeared on his face like mud. It had taken him two months of sleeping with Rich Harden before he felt okay going out drinking with him, not picturing Harden slick and rough and laughing the first time Crosby had attempted to go down on him.
He flinched. Street was covering badly, saying, “Yeah, I got caught up, did, um, didn’t you get my message? Stupid phone, I don’t know, let’s go, okay? Okay?”
Crosby waited until they were gone before he went back upstairs, using the walls to hold himself up. He knocked on Harden’s door and it was a long time before he answered, sick-stumbling and muttering at Crosby, turning his back. Harden faceplanted onto the bed and Crosby took off his shirt, climbed in after him.
“You got the kid in trouble.”
Harden bit the pillow. Crosby skimmed his forearm all the way up the long line of Harden’s side.
“I’m not sure if he can handle this kind of thing, man,” Crosby told him softly.
Harden sighed, his back arching a little bit. Harden was good at destruction but not so much the rebuilding process.
“You handled it. Probably it’ll just come with time.” Harden rolled to face him, pushing his knee between Crosby’s legs. Crosby was sun-drunk and keeping time by the steady throb of his head. “Sleep,” Harden mumbled. “We’ve still got a couple of hours.”
Crosby first got to Oakland in the early fall of 2003, late and broke. Harden was stroke-lit in the parking lot when his bus pulled in, the sun hard behind him, and Crosby almost went blind. He was shaking, three days awake now and his hands felt like metal.
Harden grabbed him as he stumbled off the bus, slammed him up against the side. Harden smiled, fists wrenched in the hollows where Crosby’s arms met his chest, and said, “Hi.”
“Lemme go. Psychopath. God.”
But Crosby was grinning, his knees clocking Harden’s and the side of the bus skillet-hot through his shirt. Harden pushed his hand over Crosby’s hair and took him into the ballpark.
Crosby stumbled around, hanging on Harden’s belt. He felt like the son he’d never been, the kid hidden under towels in the clubhouse, because his dad had already been retired from major league baseball when Bobby was born. Static climbed up his body and made the skin on the back of his neck prickle.
The team was in first place. Crosby crouched next to Miguel Tejada on the infield dirt and they talked about positioning and footwork. Tejada told him about how the grass on their side of the pitcher’s mound was scraped down by the Raiders games, played so quick that a man at short had to see the future to know where the ball would go. Crosby doubted that he had that ability, but maybe it was one of the things that would come to him in time.
Harden was twenty-one years old at the moment. They’d started the season together in Sacramento, but Harden held himself differently now. He listened and watched all the time. Crosby crowded into his space, the clock of Harden’s hip, the copper gleam of his hair under the stadium lights.
Crosby figured, at least he knew one thing about being a major leaguer.
After the game, after they’d eaten dinner and washed the dirt and salt off their bodies, Harden took Crosby’s bag along with his own and carried them out to his car, lovely sky-black car that he had not owned three months ago.
“You’re coming home with me,” he told Crosby, beeping the doors unlocked.
Crosby nodded. “Duh.”
Harden tossed their bags into the back. “I already told the other guys that you’d be staying with us until the season’s over.”
“They were okay with that? I thought you said you weren’t even paying rent.”
Harden grinned. “I’m not. Which is why I told them you’d just sleep on my floor and not cause any trouble.”
Crosby grinned back, his body light and his hands fast on the pretty black of the car. “So you lied twice?”
Harden had lied a million times, built for it with his pilot-bright eyes and his untouched face, the fits and starts of his voice. He’d told Crosby, I talk to you when you’re not around, and he’d smiled. He’d said that nothing would change, but he didn’t play short and he couldn’t see the future.
Harden had only beat Crosby up here because he was a starting pitcher on a team that was addicted to them, and breaking into shortstop was hard with Miguel Tejada in the way. But now they were both here to stay and Crosby was willing to forgive most things, maybe even everything. He had enough time, thinking giddily about how this was the first night of all the years to come.
They drove out to the house that Harden shared with two of their teammates, who were already drinking in the hallway when they came in. Second introductions were briefly made, and Crosby kept offering toasts to the Athletics of Oakland.
He passed out on the kitchen floor before midnight. He awoke on and off for the next few minutes, when Harden was dragging him by his ankles across the tile, when Harden was manhandling his shirt off, when Harden was sucking on the bone of his hip. Crosby spread his arms out in Harden’s bed, happier than he’d ever been.
The thing with Zito was ill-fated from the start, anyway.
Harden, torn across his hands, weird fingernail scratches on his back, came around in Phoenix to blueprints taped to the walls of Zito’s house. Branches clicked on the windows. It was February and Crosby wouldn’t be down for two weeks yet.
Zito was fresh and newly destroyed by Mark Mulder, but Harden didn’t know that.
Harden was sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor in front of the open refrigerator, because the air conditioner was busted. His shirt was damp with sweat, cold-clinging to him like cellophane. Harden had gone to college fifty miles from here, but he still couldn’t orient himself in the desert.
“Hey, get the fuck up. Close that.” Zito was in the doorway, glowering at him. A wet glass bottle shone in his hand.
Harden touched his forehead to the white rack, then sighed and got to his feet.
“Do you have any idea how much energy that wastes?” Zito asked him, shoving the refrigerator shut.
Harden took the beer out of Zito’s hand and didn’t say anything, giving him a long speculative look from the corner of his eye. Zito watched Harden’s throat, and Harden asked the invisible Bobby Crosby that existed perpetually to his left, what do you think?
They retired to the living room. The whole front of Harden’s body was numb. Zito had been running uphill ever since they got down here, worse than the rest of them because he had weights around his ankles and Mulder never looked at him anymore.
With his feet up on the coffee table, Harden bitched about the broken air conditioner and the low-quality American beer they were drinking, the strands of Zito’s hair that stuck to the sweat of his forearms. Zito closed his eyes and muttered unkind things back, propped on his arm and flushed under his skin, which made it seem perfect, the chill sinking out of Rich Harden’s body.
They got to talking about the team (as ever), and Zito sneered as he said Mulder’s name, and Harden filed that away for later examination. Zito pulled his lower lip between his teeth and the sun went down behind the back fence.
Harden crawled over him, not drunk or dark enough to excuse it, muddy orange light peeling through the wood. Zito blinked up at him in slow surprise, as Harden straddled him and again stole a beer from his hand.
His head back, draining the beer, Harden felt Zito’s fingers close on his hip, felt Zito lean forward and open his mouth on Harden’s throat.
He crowed to the invisible Bobby Crosby, fucking told you, dude!
Harden stayed there for two weeks, learning that Zito’s favorite coffee came from Circle-K, and what station the radio in the shower was always set to, and the kinds of sounds Zito made while he was asleep.
Zito told him about Mulder, the sharp places left behind and Zito’s awareness that they were not close to done with each other yet. Harden kept his mouth shut, because Crosby was his alone, and his name might be damaged by the air.
When the position players showed up, Harden arrived home for the first time in days to the sight of Crosby on his front porch, knees up, bags at his side, sunglasses tight on his face. Harden pulled him into the house, grinning so big it hurt.
They hadn’t seen in each other in three weeks.
Exhausted, they lay around in bed and the new season was approaching like a meteor, picking up speed as it hit the atmosphere. Harden told Crosby that he’d been fucking around with Zito and Crosby congratulated him, snickering against Harden’s stomach.
They fell asleep, halfway caught up, handprinted like felons. Harden dreamt of Crosby on a ledge, fifty stories high and wrecked by the wind, and when he cried, bobby get down, Crosby only smiled and told him, don’t worry about me, I’ll still love you when I’m dead, and jumped.
Before that, though, a long time ago, Harden lay spread-eagled in the middle of the road, black heart of Texas, forty feet from Crosby’s front door. The night sky was the only thing he could see, bristling angrily with stars. He felt like he was being buried alive.
Crosby came from nowhere, looming over him with his pale face and his heavy hands on Harden’s chest.
“You’re gonna get yourself killed,” Crosby told him. Harden reached for him, stone drunk, gasping for air. Crosby gripped his wrists and dragged him out of the streetlight, onto the grass. “The fuck are you doing out here?”
Harden was inexpressibly thankful for the soft scorched grass under him, the hard bones of his shoulderblades aching and gouged by the asphalt. He could smell tar on his hands, in his hair. Crosby was a very good thing to have found in Double-A, like a heartstop change-up or a sweet pick-off move.
“I came to see you. See if you wanted to get a drink with me.” He wasn’t all that hammered, Harden thought proudly. Still forming complete sentences.
Sitting cross-legged beside Harden’s messy body, Crosby snorted. “Are you sure you didn’t already drink all the alcohol in the state?”
Harden shook his head, biting at the inside of his lip. “It’s a big state, Bobby.” There was blood in his mouth as he grinned. “C’mere. Lie down with me for a second.”
Crosby gave him a crazyboy look and a put-upon sigh, but did as Harden asked. Crosby did most things that Harden asked, which Harden was beginning to realize, three months into their friendship.
They pressed together, shoulder to wrist. Harden was learning new kinds of sight, the clatter of his elbow into Crosby’s, the crinkling fold of the grass. Crosby’s face was very near, flat in the night.
“Tomorrow. They’re gonna pitch you inside,” Harden said.
Crosby exhaled. “I know.”
“They’re gonna go in, down. That fucking cutter. You hit too much straight back today. They know they can’t fuck around with the outside corner no more.”
“Don’t worry about me. I can get around on it.”
Harden didn’t need to be told that. Crosby was quick in all things, hands and wrists and a suicide lead off first. Quick like falling down stairs, like back roads in Midland where the speed limit signs had been buckshot into nothing. Harden had studied Crosby like an enemy, knew just how he’d pitch him if he ever got the chance.
Epically still out there in the oilfields. Harden could hear the hum of electricity in the power lines, and Crosby breathing, the crunch of their bodies on the dry grass. He put his fingers down on the inside of Crosby’s wrist, smiling up at the sky.
Crosby’s breath hitched. “What’re you doing?”
Harden shook his head, crazier in the minors than he would ever be again, smoke bleeding out through his skin. He counted mississippis against Crosby’s pulse, rolled his head to the side and bit Crosby’s shoulder through his shirt.
Crosby froze. Harden told him, “I’m not fucking worried about you, man.”
He sat up and that was a stupid thing to do. Balanced with one hand on Crosby’s chest, Crosby’s huge diluted blue eyes blinking at him, Harden swallowed back his nausea and thought, fresh air, fresh air, until his mind cleared. He leaned down cautiously and licked a stripe up Crosby’s cheek.
Shivering as if it weren’t July, Crosby’s hand inched up Harden’s arm, but Harden was standing in increments, rising with his back to the streetlight. He shook the chaff from his hair and he wanted to carry Crosby home in his teeth.
The front door was standing open, rectangle of playing card light like a chunk missing from the world. Harden made it to the porch, stood there swaying, thinking about the sweat on his back and Crosby so warm, always so fucking warm. He turned back to see Crosby sitting alone in the grass, looking deserted. Harden waved at him.
“Come on,” he called, and took off his shirt. Left it like a red flag on the welcome mat, a trail for Crosby to follow.
High alive in March, Harden and Crosby hung out on the roof of Mark Mulder’s house, where Crosby was staying for spring training because Mulder was in Florida. Mulder was no longer a teammate of theirs.
The roof wasn’t the most comfortable place to be, crushed gravel digging gravely into Harden’s elbows, prickly palm tree leaves papercutting his palms, but Scottsdale was laid out for them. Crosby was chucking pieces of gravel at the mailbox at the end of the driveway, squinting in the sun.
“What do you think?” Harden asked.
“I think whoever Mark is paying to take care of his lawn is totally ripping him off. Look how ragged it is, there by the edge.”
Harden lay back, grit on the nape of his neck. “About the new guys, man.”
“Well, I don’t trust them. But I’m sure that’ll come with time.”
“We should get beers. Do you want a beer?”
The sun, five feet over Harden’s head, turned the backs of his eyelids dark red. “It’s too early, Bobby.”
There was highway silence for a moment, the faraway click of gravel chipping off the mailbox. Harden recognized the crude oil and sandstone scent in the air from West Texas, craning his face towards insubstantial breezes.
“You’ve got your eye on one of them,” Crosby said, and Harden smiled.
“I’ve just known you too long.”
Harden knew what he’d see if he opened his eyes, that smirky goofy look on Crosby’s face, like when they found a pair of boxers that had been missing for a week in the sheets.
“Lemme guess,” Crosby said, touching Harden’s leg, pattering his fingers absently. “Danny Haren.”
Harden shook his head, gravel combing into his hair. “’m over my stoner-boy phase.” Zito had been enough for one lifetime, thank you very much.
Crosby’s fingers tripped innocently to the underside of Harden’s knee, making him jerk, ticklish and Crosby knew that, Crosby knew everything there was to know about Rich Harden’s body. “Knock it off.”
Harden squinted one eye open, a little surprised. Crosby was grinning at him. “He’s twenty-two,” Harden muttered.
“Ha! He’s only twenty-one! Awful fucking liar, you know that? Going to hell, man, no doubt.”
Harden smiled against his will. “I’m intrigued by him.”
Crosby rattled Harden’s leg. “You want to fuck him so bad it hurts.”
Harden sat up, feeling the shirt peel away from his back, the rain of gravel. “Maybe I do. Let’s go inside.”
Crosby showed his best death’s head grin. His hand was heavy and strong on Harden’s leg, just under his board shorts. “Gonna use me to practice for Huston fucking Street?” he asked sweetly.
“Don’t you mean, to practice for fucking Huston Street?”
“Don’t fucking tell me what I mean.” Crosby swooped and kissed him. Harden let him, weird to feel it in the daylight, with the sweat on his back, the clarity of things at this altitude. Half the Cactus League lived in this neighborhood, but Harden had never done well with fear.
Crosby stood, balancing on the shifting rocks. He offered Harden his hand, commenting without malice, “You’re gonna get fucked up again, you know that? You’re gonna get yourself killed.”
Harden grabbed his wrist. Crosby’s pulse hollered like a car alarm. “That’s kinda the point, dude,” Harden told him, and let Crosby take him down again, understanding that it didn’t really matter if it wasn’t his own life he was risking.
In November of 2004, when Harden was mostly recovered, Crosby kicked around Long Beach like a crushed-up soda can. The nature of the world was reversed for him—winter days were much longer, thirty or thirty-five hours to drift around the boardwalks and the white halls, flicking pennies and talking to his teammates on the phone.
Zito would probably be traded after the GM meetings. He or Hudson, anyway, and Crosby wondered about the aftershocks. Harden had gotten in too deep with Zito, but that was a long time ago, a couple of months at least.
Mulder called too early in the morning and left a message, “We’re meeting up in Vegas, you should go get the kid and come with.”
Crosby decided that was a pretty good idea. Vegas, loud and ever-lit, fire breathing, pirate-shipped, wide desert avenues and hotel rooms a thousand miles high. He showed up at the airport with five thousand dollars in hundreds and twenties, bound by rubber bands and stuffed into the pockets of his backpack, and caught the first flight to Vancouver. He was carrying his iPod and his cell phone and two changes of clothes, and that was all.
He took the last ferry over to British Columbia, the gray sun aching down into the sea. It was colder than anything that had ever happened to him, and he was underdressed, thin fall coat against the Canadian winter. He stood at the rail and kept his hands in his pockets, watching the land approach.
Harden’s address was written out on the back of a bank receipt, and Crosby didn’t know if it was too late to knock, if Harden’s parents were already asleep. It was Harden’s own fault for still living at home, though, so he made his presence known.
Harden answered, red-shirted, frostbit fingertips, grinning when he saw Crosby like he’d just caught a frog in his bare hands.
Crosby shivered, shoulders closed up against the wind. “I came to see you.”
“Thank fucking god. Get in here. Or, no. Wait.”
Harden stepped out, shutting the door behind him. He put his warm hands on Crosby’s face and kissed him, kissed him so good Crosby’s knees buckled and he would have fallen but for Harden angling him into the wall. Crosby’s hands were frozen, shoved up under Harden’s T-shirt and making Harden yelp into his mouth. Crosby wanted just this, all the time, aluminum siding at his back and Harden’s tongue moving with his own, Harden pressed against him with his knee neatly parting Crosby’s.
They broke away, breathing heavily and clouded. Harden slid his hands down Crosby’s neck and said, “Okay, now you can come in.”
Inside the house, Crosby’s head spun, and Harden was hollering, “Mom, one of my friends is here, we’re going upstairs,” and then they were thudding up to the second floor and into Harden’s childhood bedroom, skinny twin bed and the walls papered with hockey players and postcards.
It was two days before Crosby remembered Vegas. He brought it up, tied together with Rich Harden in the spaceship sheets, snow falling out the window. His hands were down Harden’s pants, and Harden bit his lip, shook his head.
“We’re not going anywhere, man, c’mon.” He hiked his hips up and kissed the side of Crosby’s neck.
Crosby had been taken in like a stray by Harden’s parents, a place set for him at the dinner table, a sensible family sedan at his disposal if he wanted to drive anywhere, Harden’s mom always asking him if he had anything that needed to be washed, because she was putting in a load.
Victoria was pretty as the whole day, stuck in the past as if under glass. Crosby asked if Harden’s parents knew what they were doing up here, long cold afternoons with the house empty, and Harden shrugged, didn’t care. Sometimes, Crosby thought that Harden wouldn’t care if everyone knew, if they were betrayed or otherwise revealed.
Eric Chavez called from the Strip, neon sights buzzing audibly in the background. Crosby explained carefully, motionless with Harden’s leg over his shoulder, so sorry, won’t be able to make it down. Chavez called them cocksuckers and hung up, and Crosby started laughing, his chest hitching.
“Do you think he knows?”
Harden’s eyes glinted. “No fucking clue,” and Crosby wasn’t sure what was meant by that. It wasn’t important, and he could move again, clutching Harden’s knee and seeing his breath break in the air.
Back down in the minor leagues, Crosby studied himself in the bathroom mirror. Spider cracks in the glass made wrinkles on his face, making him look older than he was. His shirt was off and he was gonna shave and then probably go home.
“Hey?” Harden called from the bedroom.
Crosby pushed the door open with his foot. He could see Harden in the mirror, twisted on the bed with the sheets around his waist. Harden’s eyes were closed, stricken with dawn coming in the window.
“You sticking around, or what?”
Crosby rubbed his hand over the stubble on his face. He mouthed in echo, watching his lips move, sticking around or what? He looked strangely lost.
Fifteen minutes ago, Harden had him on his back on the bed, his legs over the side and Harden kneeling between them. Mile-wide hands on Crosby’s stomach, licking sucking mouth and Crosby felt like his heart was about to punch right out of his chest. He’d looked down the long foreshortened stretch of his body and seen the top of Harden’s head, slight point of his nose and the angle of his cheek.
He splashed water on his face and washed out his mouth and went back into the bedroom, sitting cross-legged next to the bundle of Harden.
“I was gonna go,” Crosby said. He wove his hands together, looking down at his battered fingers.
Harden pressed his face into the pillow, baring his teeth for a moment. “Stupid. You should stay.”
Crosby swallowed. “Listen, I’ve never. I mean. Like, this? Kinda new. Never happened before.”
Harden’s eyes opened and he blinked up at Crosby, smirking. “I de-virginized you?”
“No.” Crosby scowled. “I’ve slept with twelve girls. So fuck you.”
“Yeah, but no guys, right? It counts if it’s just for guys.” Harden grinned, pushed his face back into the pillow, and mumbled, “Virgin.”
Crosby punched his shoulder, but then his fist stuck like a magnet on the slick hot curve, the bone cut like diamonds under Harden’s skin. He ran his knuckles, his mouth dry.
“I was sixteen,” Harden said, one blue eye half-open. “This kid, he was. What the fuck was his name? He was from another school, came to play our team. Sucked me off behind the gym and I cut my face on the brick. After the game, took me to the diner and we had grilled cheese and Cokes and then he fucked me in my parents’ garage. I never saw him again.”
Crosby didn’t know what to say. He opened his hand on Harden’s shoulder, feeling the shift like rumors in his muscles, feeling himself start to respond to something even that slight, that uncharged.
Harden rolled onto his back and Crosby’s hand slid to his chest. “For what?” he asked, honestly confused, lines forming at the sides of his mouth.
Crosby shook his head, and kissed him. Harden lifted his chin and curled his tongue up behind Crosby’s teeth. There were marks already on Harden’s throat and chest, but Crosby was sure that he could lick them away if he was given enough time.
He said haltingly against Harden’s cheek, “I. I didn’t know that I was. Like this.”
Harden laughed, sucked at a good spot under Crosby’s jaw. “Yeah. Crazy life we’ve got here.”
Crosby stuck around.
They all moved in together, Harden and Crosby and Street and Melhuse, and Crosby spent a lot of time on the phone with Mark Mulder the first month, asking how to change blown fuses and the name of the pool-cleaning company and is the water heater supposed to sound like a death rattle?
Harden made fun of him, grinning at Huston Street. Crosby was trying to keep the oven from killing them slowly while they slept, unappreciated and fearfully sniffing the air.
Harden drank Cokes with Street outside, their legs in the pool. They watched movies until near dawn, ruining their eyes with only television light. Sometimes, they left barefoot for late-night runs to In-N-Out, and Street was always smiling, held in a short orbit around Rich Harden.
There was a persistent pressure in the back of Crosby’s mind, memories of Harden like this last year with Zito, and like this back in Triple-A. Turned on like a flashlight, magic blue eyes and the tilt of his face always just right, funny all the time, his attention cored and funneled until there were only two people in the world.
Even a guy like Street, with the cross around his neck and his nightly prayers and his pretty girlfriend back at Texas Christian and his polite manner, couldn’t deny Harden when Harden was like this.
It was just a matter of time.
In the night, closer to morning than he would have liked to admit, Harden slipped into Crosby’s room and locked the door behind him. He whispered hey and Crosby pushed the pillow off his head, slid over to the far side of the bed, drew the covers back. Harden climbed in and searched Crosby out in the dark.
“Made my move,” Harden said, faintly shivering. He smelled like burnt popcorn, an unfamiliar cologne.
Crosby hummed, bonking his head on Harden’s arm like a newborn animal still unused to the world. He tried to place himself, in bed here with Harden but that could be anywhere. The East Bay, but that had happened before too. Flatlined in Midland, frostbit in Victoria, choked in Phoenix, right here right now.
Harden and Street had been watching Braveheart for the seventy-second time. Harden liked the part at the beginning where the one guy misses with the big rock and the other guy pegs him with a stoned four-seam between the eyes.
“Kissed him, told him I was gonna suck him off and didn’t that sound fun? You know what he did?”
Crosby slung his arm across Harden’s body, mumbling into his throat, “Died of shock.”
Harden laughed breathlessly, hot puffs of air on Crosby’s skin. “Almost. Jerked away, right, fell right off the fucking couch. He’s down there on the floor, looking up at me, you know what he’s saying? Do you know?”
“Was I fucking there, Richie?”
“My gosh, he’s saying. Over and over. Oh my gosh, oh jeez, my stars.”
“He did not say ‘my stars.’” Crosby smiled, faint with a growing fear of dawn. Harden’s shoulder tasted slick and clean, sweeter than wine.
“Okay, he didn’t. But, seriously. It was like suddenly we were in fucking Mayberry or something.”
Crosby lifted his head. His eyes were unadjusted, his contacts in the little plastic guy on the bedside table. Harden was a vaguely familiar shadow among other shadows.
“Told you it was a bad idea, man. Catholic boys? Have some fucking taste.”
He kissed Harden then, pressed their mouths together and there was something sharp-new on Harden’s tongue, in the back of his throat, and Crosby knew before Harden told him, before Harden pulled away with a laugh and said:
“I still went down on him, dude. It just took a little convincing.”
And Harden was grinning white as a hipbone in the dark, triumphant.
It started out just for sex, because Harden couldn’t stay still. There was so much going on under his skin, hot itchy flickery push of blood, and it was like that every second of every day that he wasn’t pitching. When he was pitching, it came out as a hundred miles an hour even though it was true what had been said, he was too small for baseball.
Crosby was great, probably the best thing that had ever happened to him, if he wanted to be honest. Crosby had flown to Canada last winter because Harden had the flu, hung around in Harden’s bed sharing orange juice with him and setting his phone for four hour increments to take more aspirin, until they were both miserable sick and sleeping curled up together for fourteen hours at a time.
Harden thought that he’d like to do anything for Crosby. He’d like to be given that chance.
Instead, though, he fucked Zito to beat the energy out somehow. Taking his best intentions and the thing inside him that picked up radio signals in Crosby’s vicinity, Harden fucked Zito and he knew Crosby wouldn’t care. They’d had this conversation years ago, in Texas, when Harden had tried to explain about power and youth and needing something different like a fifth pitch, and Crosby had only laughed and said, “You’re not making any sense.” Crosby had said, “It’s okay, man, I’m sticking around.”
The problem was, Zito was skittish and still transparently gone on Mark Mulder and still overwhelmingly irritated that that was the case. Harden was used to being the center of attention.
He tried a little bit harder. He showed up at Zito’s place with red Mountain Dew and Chinese food. He went thrifting with Zito and nearly died of boredom, hands clenching on tattered stained band T-shirts. He found an old tape of Mulder at Michigan State and they drank hard liquor and made fun of how skinny he was back then, two shots every time they could see Mulder’s ribs through his jersey. He bought Zito a fucking candle.
And the problem with that was, all the time Harden spent trying to get Zito to grin and snort a laugh through his nose, all the times he found himself repeating one of Zito’s idiot stories to Crosby latelate at night, and Harden forgot that this was just a side thing.
Harden was chipping little pieces of his heart off, bit by bit because he thought he could spare it if it happened like that, like it’d grow back by morning. Crosby put his hands on Harden’s hips and sighed and told him, “Look, maybe you need to figure out what the fuck you’re doing.”
Harden twisted away from him, his back sliding through Crosby’s palms. He kicked away the sheets and stared at the ceiling.
Something. Heartbroken like Harden had never been, distracted by coffee mugs and certain commercials and Harden when Harden wore white BVDs instead of boxers. Zito knew the words to every showtune ever written, and he tasted sometimes like peppermint and cinnamon all fucked up together. Harden was stuck on the ways that his body could get him into trouble. He wanted to see Zito all the time.
“Yeah,” Crosby sighed, rolling onto his back and they were matched on the bed, not touching. “You can do what you want, man. So. What do you want to do?”
Harden swallowed hard and thought about Crosby backlit by streetlamps and the Texas sky. They were deeply bound to each other.
“No fucking clue, Bobby.”
Crosby sighed again, quiet for a long time before he said softly, “You know I’m not going anywhere until you tell me to.”
Harden got the fuck out of there. Drove across the water and hammered at Zito’s door until he woke up, roller-coaster hair and heavy eyes. Harden wanted to tell him then, wanted to say out loud for the first time, I’m in love with Bobby Crosby and I’m in love with you and I don’t have any idea how that happened to me.
But Zito was half-asleep. He wouldn’t remember any of this in the morning.
They staggered along like that for most of the season. Harden kept waiting for one of them to win out, final drag race and a photo-finish. Crosby was calm most of the time and Zito was so fucking depressed, tiny little smiles that Harden could wrench out of him, dreaming of Zito’s serial killer grin.
Then, in August, Mulder reneged on his promises, cornered Zito in the hallway of their house when Zito had just left Harden to go to the bathroom. Ten minutes after Zito should have come back, Harden crept out with a baseball bat in his hands, terrified, thinking that the house had been broken into and Zito was being held hostage, duct-taped silent in the kitchen, wrists bound with rope.
But Zito was in the small alcove off the kitchen, his back against the closet where they kept extra sheets. Mulder was there too, his hand spread out wide on Zito’s side. They were talking low and close, and Harden saw Zito tip his face up, saw him grin.
Reeling, kicked in the chest, Harden stumbled into Crosby’s room and fell upon him. Crosby shifted in his sleep to make room, his arm hooking around Harden’s neck.
As it turned out, Bobby was pretty good at turning back time.
How they ended up in New Mexico in the off-season was anyone’s guess. A daytrip gone horribly awry, something. Harden was trying to go all winter only paying for things in cash, so that he couldn’t be traced. All this really meant was that Crosby paid for everything and they were staying in motels with spiders and stains on the walls.
They’d both spent much of the previous season on the disabled list.
Down there, Harden bought Crosby beer after beer, seeing the glass roll like ice between his palms. Harden was going to get Crosby drunk and take advantage of him, but probably he wouldn’t succeed. Probably Harden would get drunk first and Crosby would carry him back to their room, feel him up a little on the bed before Harden passed out fully dressed.
This was after Zito and after Street. This was just the two of them, at a cowboy bar, at a table made out of a wagon wheel.
“I never get enough sleep these days,” Harden complained. “Have you noticed that?”
Crosby was watching the football game on the television, not paying attention. It was like talking to the invisible Bobby Crosby that existed without face or breath, weirdly comforting because Harden liked his invisible Bobby Crosby; they never got into fights.
“I feel, like, no matter what, I’m gonna wake up more tired. And then I’m thinking about that and worrying about it and then I don’t fall asleep for like three hours. It’s a vicious circle.”
Harden kicked him. Crosby looked over with a ready grin. “Bobby,” Harden said sternly.
“Richie,” Crosby mocked.
Harden sighed heavily, his foot laid neat alongside Crosby’s under the table. Not very smart, because anybody could see and maybe people in New Mexico wouldn’t be as quick to forgive them their sins.
“I think maybe north tomorrow,” Harden proposed. Crosby nodded.
Harden smiled. Crosby slept in the back most of the time they spent in the car, but he let Harden wake him up for handjobs on empty stretches of road. Almost everywhere they went was an empty stretch of road; it was working out pretty well.
They came up with no better plan than ‘north,’ and drank, folding the damp napkins into weak-winged airplanes. Crosby wove, happy, laughing overloud and Harden could see the silver of his fillings glinting in the barlight.
This was after almost everything.
They left the bar and Crosby was limping, as he did whenever he got drunk, ever since he’d played on a broken ankle for two weeks in September. Harden couldn’t properly support his weight, his shoulder still frail from the surgery. Other than that, though, they were okay.
Crosby stopped, catching his breath with his hands on Harden’s shoulders. He stared fearfully at the streetlights, hunching his shoulders.
“Richie,” he whispered. “Where the fuck are we?”
Harden tried, but couldn’t remember. He shook his head, back Crosby into a wall. “I don’t know. I think we, um, maybe we got lost? Outside Santa Fe?”
“Lost? Wasn’t that kinda the point?” Crosby asked him, grinning, just too fucking clever. Harden kissed him, forgetting the dangers that awaited them in redneck towns, aware of the desert at his back.
The next day, fourteen hours north, Crosby was asleep like always and Harden decided to keep driving. They could make the border by the end of the week.
What Crosby remembered most, though, the thing that kept him up nights in 2006 when Harden was hurt and not traveling with the team, was one morning in Sacramento, a week or two before Harden got called up.
They woke up slow. Everything was like that in the minor leagues, like each day was a bird with broken wings. Crosby opened his eyes and saw Harden’s heavy arm and half of the alarm clock. He went back to sleep.
He woke up again to Harden moving, rolling over and clocking his hip into Crosby’s, slight thrum of pain. Crosby sat up and there was dust in the air, clogged in the sunlight through the blinds. Harden was dead asleep, his foot hooked over the edge of the bed.
Crosby could see salt in Harden’s hair from the shots last night. Tired in a way that settled hot in his stomach, the small of his back, Crosby got out of bed carefully, balancing with one hand on Harden’s shoulder. He washed his mouth out in the bathroom and it was very quiet. Out in the farmlands where the heat got as bad as Texas, in the crummy little house he and Harden had been living in together for three months, and Crosby sometimes heard Harden talking to him when he wasn’t even in the room.
Harden was awake when he went back, sitting up in bed looking sleepy and confused.
“Dude.” Harden glared faintly at him, moved his mouth like it was sticky. “You should, like. Be here when I wake up.”
“Just getting a drink of water,” Crosby said. Harden pushed the covers off the bed and lay back, bared to the weather, the broken air conditioning. Crosby got in next to him and watched him so closely, he could see the sweat as it appeared on Harden’s skin. He wanted to put his hand there, but it was too hot.
Shining, lit up gold and still the only thing Crosby wanted, Harden looked at him through narrowed eyes and pushed his fingers across Crosby’s mouth.
“It’s okay,” Harden told him, yawning, his body moving in pieces and increments, his nearly shut blue eyes. “We’ve still got a couple of hours.”
Crosby didn’t go back to sleep. He never quite woke up.
Endnotes: The thing, by the pool with Street’s parents and girlfriend? Actually happened. Substitute Crosby for a kind reader who happened to be staying at the same hotel as the A’s, and overheard Street’s family drama, saw him come out rumpled, and raised the best question ever: what exactly was he doing when he told his girlfriend he was with his parents and his parents he was with his girlfriend?
Also. Was not able to research this as extensively as most of the others. The errors are mine.
Also. I should read it over and edit it, but it’s coming on one in the morning and I’ve still got a thirty minute drive and work in the morning. Those errors are mine too.
Also. You have no idea how tempted I was to title it, ‘The Ballad of Richie/Bobby.’ But then I remembered: the only good pun is a dead pun.