Beaning Mr. Kopex
Coach Tinker said, "What I'm trying to instill in these individuals is to want a bigger pie," and he leaned in even closer and looked at Mr. Kopex's foot, which had blossomed like an orchid. "You might want to tape that," he said. "Keep moving it around so it doesn't stiffen up on you."

Presently Mr. Speers and the student trainer eased themselves under Mr. Kopex's arms and began to walk him very slowly back in the direction of school.

Tinker had another quick look at the circle Mr. Kopex had drawn in the dirt, then scrubbed it out with his shoe and turned away from the world of geometry and all its inhabitants. He clapped his hands and blew his whistle. "Let's go, let's go, move it..."

Tinker could not stand to waste practice time.

And all around Spooner the throwing and catching resumed, and Russell Hodge pounded the plate again and cocked the bat and waited for Spooner to feed him the ball.

He had never pitched from a mound before --- even the roof of Major Shaker's chicken house was flat --- and as he threw he experienced a sensation like stepping into an unseen swale in the road.

The baseball headed east, just missing the wire backstop, passed a foot over Tinker's head, curving slightly to the north, and vectored on out in the direction of Mr. Kopex, who was holding his injured foot behind him and a few inches off the ground and using Mr. Speers and the student manager as crutches. It hit him, of course, as Spooner already knew it would, struck him exactly on the knob of the heel of the hammer-toed, orchid-blossomed bare foot that Russell Hodge had just mangled with his line drive.

Mr. Kopex dropped to the ground again, bringing the student manager down with him. He cried out, "Oh, for the love of Christ," and it sounded like he was begging for mercy, but of course if what you are looking for is mercy, high school isn't the place for you anyway.

Tinker stared at Spooner, trying to remember who he was, then turned to the outfield and called for a new pitcher. And then headed out to tend to Mr. Kopex again.

One of the second stringers fielding balls in the outfield jogged in to throw batting practice. Spooner watched the kid coming, realizing he'd just gone through all the chances he was ever going to get.

He picked a ball out of the basket and motioned Russell Hodge back to the plate. When he looked again, trying to judge how much time he had left until Tinker returned, Mr. Kopex was writhing in the dirt, in a circular motion around his foot, which seemed strangely fixed to one point, as if somebody had pinned it to the ground with a compass from geometry class.

Russell Hodge pounded the plate and stepped in, pointed his bat at Spooner, aiming at him down the barrel. Spooner laid his fingers carefully across the stitches before he threw, putting a little extra pressure on the middle finger so that the ball would tail to the right, and as a result, the pitch hit Russell Hodge in his deaf ear instead of the mouth.

The sound was like breaking the seal on a pickle jar. Russell Hodge curled on the ground, holding both ears, as if the volume of the world was suddenly turned way too high. The thought passed at a strange, leisurely pace through Spooncr's brain that he'd killed Russell Hodge.

His first whift of celebrity.

He stayed where he was, looking for signs of life, not really sure if he wanted to see any or not, not even sure if he'd hit him on purpose --- if the thought had been there before he let the ball go or if his arm had just taken over. It hadn't been an accident the way hitting Mr. Kopex was an accident, though. Spooner had known when the ball left his hand where it was headed...

§     §     §

Tinker knelt beside Russell Hodge and gently rolled him onto his back. "Everybody get back," he yelled. "Give him air."

But there wasn't anybody close enough to suck up Russell Hodge's air. Most of the players took one look and were inching as far away as they could get. Russell Hodge lay cockeyed in the dust with his eyelids half open, staring off into the blue.

Tinker looked around, frightened. He lifted one of Hodge's eyelids, stared for a moment and then let it go. He took Hodges mouth in his hand, puckering the boy's lips, and moved his head slowly back and forth. All right, Hodge," he said, "let's shake it off." But even Tinker --- who privately was still of the opinion that running a few laps on a broken femur wasn't as bad as it looked on paper --- even he knew better than that.

He rocked back on his heels, looking at Russell Hodge, and then went forward again and gently fitted his hands under the body --- two hundred pounds if he weighed an ounce --- and took him up in his arms and stood, and then walked slowly east, back in the direction of school, casting a surprisingly long shadow for a fellow of his height.

§     §     §

Tuesday morning Dr. Baber came on the loudspeaker to announce that Russell Hodge was still in the hospital with a brain injury, but doing well and expected to make a full recovery. A cluster of troublemakers booed from the back of Señor Rosenstein's second-year Spanish class, where Spooner was at the time, and were sent to Dr. Baber's office for detention slips. The two cheerleaders in the class both wept in gratitude, and one later claimed to have prayed for his recovery.

Tinker had spent all night and most of the day at Russell's bedside, and, in the way these things sometimes turn out, news of this simple act of concern went a long way toward repairing his reputation among those who had criticized him after the Lemonkatz affair, and also served as a cooling-off period in another matter, as only last Friday Tinker had caught a student named Richard D. Peck lying under the bleachers reading Othello when he was supposed to be taking the sit-ups portion of his national youth fitness test, and threatened to kill him.

Peck's family had already notified the school board of its intention to sue.

That afternoon found Spooner standing alone as warm-ups began, Mr. Kopex's glove curled under his chin like a baby's head. He felt no guilt about stealing the glove, which he viewed as no worse than grave robbing --- grave robbing being one of the terms Spooner still misunderstood at this stage of his matriculation, thinking it meant taking something old or unwanted. Kopex had been in the hallway on crutches when Spooner saw him earlier that day between classes, overwhelmed by the movement. and jostling and noise, fighting for breath, sweat soaked and old overnight. No, Kopex wouldn't want the glove anymore, wouldn't even want it around the house where it could fall out of the closet and remind him of what had happened.

Spooner was thinking of Mr. Kopex and the glove --- grave robbing wasn't stealing, but it must have been something because he kept thinking about it --- when Coach Tinker appeared at his side. "Spoonerman," he said, and Spooner jumped at the sound of his voice, "I know you're worried about Hodge."

Spooner nodded, although the only specific worrying he'd done about Russell Hodge was that he would get out of the hospital and kill him.

"The best thing you can do," Tinker said, "is go out there and give it a hundred and twenty percent. That's what he'd want."

Two questions at once: Did this mean Hodge was dead, and was Tinker, after everything that had happened, still going to let him pitch? Spooner hadn't expected another chance. He was now two pitches into his career in organized baseball, after all, and one had taken out the heart of the school's math department --- Mr. Kopex's heel was cracked, while the roof of the foot, where Hodge's line drive had drilled him, was only bruised --- and the other had possibly killed the greatest all-around athlete in the history of the Prairie Glen High Golden Streaks.

"How is he?" Spooner said. The truth was Hodge dying still didn't strike him as the worst way this could end.


"Hodge. Is he dead?"

Tinker gave Spooner a little elbow in the ribs, as if he had just told him a joke or wanted to point out a set of tits. It left Spooner's ribs tender all week. "Don't worry about old Hodgie," he said, "he'll shake it off. You just throw the baseball. Keep us in it until he gets back."

Tinker divided his players into two teams that afternoon and put Spooner on the mound to pitch to both sides.

They played three innings before it rained, Spooner getting used to the mound, to the movement of a new unscuffed baseball, to the sense of the players behind him in the field, depending on what he did. The center of attention. He walked two batters and struck out the other eighteen he faced. No hits, no runs, nobody hurt except the catcher, Ken Jonny, a perfect toad of a kid who, although apparently designed without a neck, was in fact hit twice in the neck when balls skipped over his mitt and under his face mask.

--- From Spooner
Peter Dexter
©2009 Grand Central Publishing
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