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In his mind Harold prepared a speech. If Maggie was going to fire him for stealing food, well, OK, it might’ve happened but he’d never gone overboard, and he supposed he wasn’t the only one? (Of course he wasn’t, but Harold wouldn’t rat on other kitchen workers and name names—people had families to feed, and some had no legal papers.) Plus, he never called in sick. “A person can count on me!” Maggie was young for a day manager, a perky white kid with a gummy smile, hard to read. Harold felt nervous as he approached her. The pressure never let up, as much as in the days when he’d had a stadium of 50,000 people cheering him on, loving him but also daring him to fail.
“You want to see me?”
Maggie cracked a roll of nickels against the cash register drawer, then spilled the coins into their slot. With her hip, she banged the drawer shut.
“Good news, Harold.”
“Looks like you’re in for a promotion.”
What this meant, Harold had no idea. He hadn’t talked to anyone or applied for anything. But he showed no emotion.
“That so? What kind of promotion?”
“Not sure. But they want to see you at the main office at two o’clock tomorrow. Mr. Cusik himself. I’ll get somebody to cover your shift.”
“Cusik? You serious?”
Maggie laughed. “Must be nice to have connections.”
Harold had heard the stories. Cusik had bought the restaurant on a whim. He wasn’t a restaurateur at all but a tech millionaire whose headquarters occupied the 18th floor of an office building down the street. A frequent customer, he was fond of the stir-fry shrimp and Japanese green beans. He kept odd hours and often arrived late. Since Harold worked the day shift, he’d never seen the man, but people said Cusik walked with crutches, accompanied by an assistant who drove him the short distance from his headquarters and sat at the same table but did not eat. The story went that one night, Cusik came in late and the hostess on duty, who was new to the job, refused to serve him. The kitchen was closed, sorry. Cusik insisted that he’d arrived at this hour on other occasions and been served shrimp and beans, but the hostess stood firm. Too late, she said. Cusik became angry and, depending on whom you believed, he used foul language or even swung a crutch at her. He’d shouted, “It’s never too late!”
Not long after this scene, employees learned the restaurant had been sold. The buyer, they discovered, was Cusik. The hostess who’d refused him was promptly fired. Everyone worried about what would happen next, but in fact almost nothing changed, except now the kitchen was kept open till two a.m., like the bar. Cusik rarely arrived to eat before midnight, often the only customer in the place while a bored night crew hung around, scrolling through their cell phones.
Harold rolled up with a reverberating growl: his muffler was shot. The Toyota was a shitbox with 140,000 miles and rust, and Harold performed countless mean economies to maintain it. Without it, he couldn’t get to work. He would end up on the street again. The parking lot for the main office building was located immediately off the highway, surrounded by shrubs, with a trembly arm lift gate at the entrance. Harold had no trouble finding a space, slipping in between a pair of scooters. There were many bikes and scooters in the lot.
Harold exited the elevator on the 18th floor and the receptionist instructed him to wait. True, he was ten minutes early. He sat down in a leather chair with a tubular steel frame. Surprisingly comfortable, but it obliged an upright posture. Harold wore his best pants and a clean white shirt, wondering if he should’ve put on a tie. Observing a giant ceramic sculpture of an avocado near the elevator, he reflected that the owner of such a piece, which must’ve cost thousands of dollars, wasn’t going to be impressed by a tie. Wearing one might even count against him. Hell, what did such a guy expect from a 45 year-old dishwasher?
“Mr. Cusik is ready to see you.”
She opened the door and Harold stepped into a large office. The door clicked behind him. Cusik stood facing the window, his back to Harold, propped on crutches. The window offered a sweeping view.
“Mr. Hines. Thank you for coming.”
Now Harold realized that Cusik wasn’t looking out the window but was observing his reflection on the glass. Their eyes met. With surprising agility Cusik spun around and pointed a crutch.
“Sit down, please.”
Harold settled into a leather chair, a larger version of the one in the waiting area. Cusik ignored his own chair but remained behind his desk, leaning forward on the crutches.
“I’ve got plans for you, Mr. Hines.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Harold didn’t bend his neck to look up but he was mindful of his face, a mask of unrelenting pleasantness. There was a silence as Cusik stared. Harold waited.
“Have you read much Rousseau? Do you know The Confessions?”
“Uh, no. Not really.”
“Can I offer you a drink? I can get Tina to bring in a nice cold beer. With a lime, if you like.”
“No thank you.”
“Or maybe you prefer the finer stuff? I’ve got some very special single malt in a drawer here.”
“No. I’m good.”
Cusik came around from behind his desk, thumping as he went. He was a slight man with a conspicuous round head, shaved perfectly smooth.
“We’re going to get you out of the kitchen. Recently I looked at the payroll, you know, to better acquaint myself with the restaurant. Improve efficiencies. And your name jumped out at me. Harold Hines! We’ve got to give him a fair shake! Right? I’m sure you agree.”
Now Cusik stood so close that he was hard to see. His belt was a chocolate-stippled leather.
“I agree,” said Harold.
“So tell me. How would you like to manage the bar? Our staff is pretty solid, overall. You’d have to track the schedule, keep people on their toes. And of course you’d be in charge of inventory.”
“Manage the bar? Me?”
“You’ll make three times what you do now.”
In the window, high cottony clouds moved across the sky. Harold knew what he had to say.
Even so, a vision unfurled before him: a chance to move out of his sublet, to get a handle on his debts, fix up the Toyota—hell, forget the Toyota, he’d get another car! Above all, he could stop looking over his shoulder. People said you couldn’t buy dignity but an extra 20 bucks an hour would make a big difference.
Rehab hadn’t always worked for him, the endless meetings; the appeal to a power greater than himself remained a struggle; but he’d learned this much: he wasn’t a person who should spend time in a bar among drinkers. There was no way around that fact. The knowledge that Cusik had a bottle of scotch at his fingertips and one syllable (Yes!) would set him up with a lovely drink and even an excuse—they could toast his promotion!—this possibility, in all its dubious splendor, brought a familiar anticipatory buzz in his head. How easy it would be to flip the Off Switch and forget everything he’d learned! So before it was too late he spoke in a loud voice, louder than the buzz, addressing himself as much as Cusik.
“No. Thank you, but no. I can’t take that job.”
“But why not?”
There was only one answer. The truth. This much, too, Harold knew. So, briefly and bluntly, he explained how his personal situation was incompatible with Cusik’s offer.
“But I’d gladly consider other offers,” Harold continued. “I’m fourteen months sober now. I’m open to suggestions. I mean it!”
It didn’t matter if it sounded like he was sucking up, because the stakes ran deeper than such considerations—actually, it was the opposite of sucking up. He’d revealed himself. Announced his vulnerability. That wasn’t easy. And now, he must continue to be brave. He had the man’s ear.
“Give me a chance to show you what I can do.”
Cusik bobbed his head. “Well. Since you put it that way. Come around here. Bring your chair.”
Cusik thumped back to his desk, swiveled and sat down on his chair. He dropped his crutches to the floor. Harold carried his chair to the other side. Cusik switched on his computer, opening files, then clicked on a video game. He plugged in a console with a toggle switch. “You ever play this one?” he asked.
Home Run Derby!
Harold shook his head. He kept his eyes on the screen, resisting the urge to stare at Cusik. Who was this nut?
Cusik opened a desk drawer and extracted a baseball cap. He put it on. He brought out another cap and handed it to Harold who, when he saw the insignia, felt a panicky rumbling in his gut. “Go ahead,” Cusik said. “Put it on. I’ll show you how to play.”
The game was simple, with pitches fired at various speeds: fastballs, looping curves and sliders. Working with the toggle, Cusik smacked a few over the fence before he eventually struck out.
Harold took the toggle. The last time he’d gamed was two Christmases ago, with his son Damon from his third marriage, back when he still had visitation rights. Damon preferred games with submarines and giant sea serpents. Not baseball. Harold leaned forward and focused on the screen.
A pitch sailed at him. He swung and missed. Another pitch: he missed. He managed a foul tip. Then he struck out. He released the toggle but Cusik encouraged, “That’s OK, try again. You’ll get the hang.”
Harold didn’t want to continue but he turned back to the screen. And now, as pitches whizzed by, Cusik offered his opinions. “You’re too anxious”and “The best hitters are patient.” This was especially irksome. But it also occurred to him, as he hunkered down, that maybe this was his new job. Right now, was he on the clock? A paid playmate for a rich loon? Harold struck out four times in a row (the pitches were programmed to go faster and faster, impossible to hit), then he released the toggle. “Sorry, Mr. Cusik. Don’t think I can do this one.”
“You’re pathetic, Hines.”
Harold raised his voice. “The fuck do you know? I played the real game, which is more than most people can say. Not this kiddie stuff.”
Cusik looked at him calmly. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”
Harold eyed him. Such a big, babyish head.
“No, I don’t.”
“I’d thought you might, Harold. But you never could come through in the clutch.”
If not for this final jibe, he would’ve told Cusik to screw himself. He would’ve left the office and assumed that he’d talked himself out of a job and that he was back on the street. Bad, all around—but he’d seen worse.
Instead he stayed on the 18th floor, watching as Cusik opened a drawer, extracted a bottle of scotch. He poured generously. Harold carried his chair to the other side of the desk, where he wouldn’t have to smell the drink.
“So what’s this all about? Do you know me?”
“You promised me, big time.
“You abused me, and I’ve never forgotten.”
Harold was speechless. Yes, the guy was crazy. But he seemed to believe his words. Worse, he might repeat them to other people. At the same time, Harold had the impression that Cusik wasn’t angry. He was enjoying himself.
“Think back now. The pediatrics unit at St. Jude’s Hospital?”
Harold shook his head. “What?”
“You don’t even remember!”
Harold ran his hand along the grain of Cusik’s desk. “You’d better just come out and say it.”
“You promised me that you would get a hit. Then you bent over my bed and winked. ‘How about a homer?’ You don’t remember that?”
Suddenly—oh God—Harold could see it. Memories rushed back. Flustered, he blurted, “You must mean Riverside Hospital.”
Cusik shook his head. “No, it was St. Jude’s. I ought to know. I was there for a year.”
Harold closed his eyes. He and his teammate Alfredo Ramirez had visited several hospitals, they were a blur, speaking to sick children. They signed autographs and handed out tiny flashlights and other cheap swag with the team logo. Harold and Alfredo had the same agent, Arnie Swanson, who set up these encounters. “Community service is good for the kids and good for the team image and good for you when you negotiate your next contract. It’s a win-win-win.”
“That night,” Cusik said, “you struck out three times and popped out once.”
“Against Cincinnati,” Harold said softly.
“Right. I was listening on the radio. You guys were heroes, special like nothing else on this earth. And even after that game, I was ready to give you the benefit of the doubt. Because I believed I was going to die. My parents thought so, too. Everybody. It was a desperate time but that night, Harold, I didn’t pray for myself. I prayed for you. For you, Harold. I was just a kid but I wasn’t stupid, I understood how hard it was, that a player couldn’t step up and hit a homer whenever he wanted, just because he felt like it or had made a promise. No, there would have to be a special force or inspiration! A higher power at play, intervening in a shitty world where kids like me lay in St. Jude’s listening to ball games on the radio, where, for an instant, they got granted grace. Hope prevailed! And even after you struck out three times and popped up—I was praying on every at bat! every pitch!—I told myself that God must have a reason, that the game was still part of his plan, and the grace would come later, another game. So I prayed for you, Harold. You were my link. But the next night you didn’t play. Or the night after that, or the night after that. You never played again! I was putting God on your case, Harold, but you didn’t even bother to show up.”
Harold shook his head.
“You don’t know.”
He had no precise recollection of what he’d said to the young Cusik. He’d seen a bunch of kids. And he’d completely forgotten that the hospital visits coincided with that game which, among the thousands in his career, still whispered in his ear.
The season hadn’t started badly. Harold played well in May, but he tapered off in July, and by August he was in a dreadful slump. He didn’t panic, though, because he was a veteran of six seasons, he’d seen ups and downs, and he knew that at times like these, you had to trust your skills to do their work. He and Kimberly had just moved into a big new house on Windemere Bluffs and she flew back and forth with a group of friends on pleasure trips to Miami. It was perfectly fine—he was a millionaire, after all. He still had another year on his contract, and then he’d be a free agent. Arnie Swanson told him, “Harold, I’m looking forward to that bidding war!”
But the slump. Hitless for four straight games, and the previous week had been almost as bad. He was getting nervy, made a couple of errors in the outfield. That night against Cincinnati, with Fisher on the mound, he terribly needed some hits. He had no fear of Fisher. He knew he could touch this guy.
His first time at bat, he swung and a foul tip grazed his ankle. A stupid little accident, but painful. He stepped out of the box to walk it off, then stepped back in. Harold was concentrated, in the moment, and he didn’t think to call a time-out and ask the trainer to look at it.
To this day, he couldn’t say if it mattered. If he started favoring this ankle, if it threw off his timing. (Years later, he’d made numerous drunken phone calls to ex-teammates, claiming as much, but honestly he didn’t know if it was true.) He’d had other injuries, broken fingers and inflamed joints, and he’d played through them. To get this far, you had to be tough. But for that night, he didn’t know.
Three successive strike-outs. Then, in the bottom of the eighth inning, his final at bat. There were two men on base. His team trailed by a run. With a hit, he could tie the game. A long ball could win it. He faced a relief pitcher, a left-hander he’d never seen before. On the second pitch, he connected perfectly: a line shot soared toward the left field seats. The instant the ball struck his bat, he could feel it in his hands: oh, the sweet spot! Before he had time to look up, he knew that this one was gone.
A roar! But at the last instant the ball twisted foul, narrowly missing the pole. A groan, from thousands. Harold trotted back to the batter’s box, where he worked through a few more pitches before popping up to the left side of the infield. They lost the game.
The next day, the manager benched him and put in Sanford Dupree, a lanky rookie from Louisiana. Dupree got two hits, so the manager left him in the line-up for another game. He got another hit and the following day, he whacked two home runs. Harold spent the last month of the season on the bench while Dupree went on a tear.
During this time Harold took extra batting practice, consulted the trainer about his ankle; he wanted to find his old timing but in order to do so, he needed the opportunity, a chance to play regularly and recover his rhythm. Instead he was relegated to pinch hitting, an unpredictable role that destabilized him. Each attempt put everything on the line. In eight at bats that final month, he managed only a sacrifice fly. Harold had trouble sleeping at night, worrying about the next day. In late innings where it appeared he might get summoned, he also had to duck back to the clubhouse and sit on the toilet, his bowels gone entirely liquid.
Over the long winter he was haunted by that game against Cincinnati, particularly by his mighty stroke that had narrowly missed the pole. Just inches! What if the ball hadn’t twisted foul? He would’ve broken his slump! Won the game! In such circumstances, the manager wouldn’t have benched him the next day. He would’ve regained his confidence and recovered his stride. Sanford Dupree—that fucker—would still be a guy nobody had heard of, instead of the new sensation and a pretext for journalists’ exaggerations. That winter Harold often drank late into the night calculating the team payroll and calling Arnie Swanson about Arnie’s theory that the front office would sell Dupree to another team to raise some quick cash. Arnie had speculated about this only once but Harold made him repeat it many times.
During spring training, Dupree was still with the team, wowing onlookers. Even when the kid made a mistake, got fooled by a pitch, somehow his puny pop fly fell into the hole. Harold watched and felt his head would explode. On the field, Harold performed miserably. He stayed sober the entire time—threw himself fearlessly into two-a-day workouts—but he couldn’t pull his game together. At the end of March, he was cut from the roster and sent down to the minors. The money still flowed in, because there remained a year on his contract, but his pride was shattered. He abandoned the Des Moines team mid-season and took a Mediterranean vacation with Kimberly and a group of their friends. He danced in Ibiza, ate sea urchins in Nice, and he enjoyed many bottles of pinot gris. “I’ll be a free agent,” he told Kimberly. “I’ll sign with a new team.” When he came back to the U.S., Arnie Swanson told him, “You’re radioactive, man. Who’s gonna touch you now?”
“I tried to put you out of my mind,” Cusik was saying. “And I did, because you, Harold, are utterly insignificant. I had bigger worries, believe me. But what a coincidence, all these years later! When I saw that name on the payroll—Harold Hines—I wondered, could it be my Harold Hines? There aren’t that many Hines, I suppose, and how many of them are Harolds? So I looked into your case. And it was you. Behold the man! I found out many things about you. And that’s why I wanted this conversation. I have questions, I’m curious about your insights. Truly. How about this question: looking back on it all, is there anyone, I mean anyone, who sucks more than you?”
“Listen,” Harold said, “I’m sorry I disappointed you that day. I shouldn’t have made that promise. It was foolish of me. We were just trying to cheer you up.”
“Let me show you something, hot shot.” Grasping for his crutches, Cusik struggled to his feet, moved around his desk.
“But surely you understand now,” Harold continued. “Baseball isn’t for kids. The pressure in that business! It isn’t about winning, not really. Because winning never lasts. You just try to survive while everybody else is waiting for you to fail, hoping you’ll fail, because it’ll allow them to hang on and survive just a little bit longer.”
Cusik poked Harold’s chair with a crutch. “Stop whining, it’s embarrassing. What do you know of the world of pain? Look over here.”
With a sigh, Harold rose and followed him to a corner of the office, where Cusik balanced himself before a frame on the wall. From a distance, Harold had assumed it was a painting but closer up he saw two narrow pieces of leather, mounted on a velvet background.
“See those?” Cusik asked.
Cusik tilted his head appreciatively, while Harold wondered what he was supposed to say. He definitely preferred the ceramic avocado in the waiting area.
“Do you ever think about Providence, Harold? I’ve always envied Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Confessions. I bet you would, too.”
“He’d been full of doubts about the universe. It tortured Rousseau, really. Well, one day he was throwing stones and he made a test. He couldn’t stand it anymore, because he needed answers! So he took aim at a tree. He told himself, ‘if I hit the tree, all is well with God and I will go to heaven. If I miss, there is no hope in my existence and I am damned.’ He threw the stone, and there was a terrible moment of not knowing. He had to wait in order to see. But the stone found its target. Hit the tree. After that day, he said he knew he would be all right. He never again worried about his fate.”
“Sounds like he was a pitcher,” Harold said.
“Go ahead and joke. You could say it’s a lot of romantic nonsense. But consider a child with a degenerative disease of the spinal column who might never walk again, whose very survival is in doubt. What was God’s intention for him? Was he supposed to be content that he could still move his toes? Was he wrong to long for more? He, too, needed a sign. And then Harold Hines appears and announces he’ll step up to the plate for him.”
“Not like that,” said Harold.
“You volunteered it, not I.”
“Not like that!”
“In the end, you took God away from me. Should I thank you?”
“Hold on. That’s not on me. You had to throw your own stones.”
“I haven’t done too badly. You see, my condition was considered too risky for titanium implants, such surgeries would finish me. That’s what everyone said. And then I got my first leg braces—talk about a contraption—freakin’ Victorian! Nobody thought I’d ever walk. But I’m stubborn, Harold. I worked those babies so hard, I actually wore them out. Look at those bootstraps.” He nodded toward the frame. “I pulled so hard they broke!”
He tilted his head back and laughed, a deep, almost bovine rumble from his narrow chest. He clumped back to the other side of his desk, swiveled and sat down. He dropped the crutches and poured himself another glass of scotch. “Sure you don’t want one?”
Harold shook his head.
Cusik sniffed his glass. He sipped, his brow furrowing, and licked his lips. “Oooh. Nice!”
“You do like a show, don’t you?”
“Thank you, Harold. But I won’t dance. Just so you know. Please sit down. Please? There now. Shall we get back to business? That’s what we’re here for. Am I to understand that you refuse a promotion? You’re turning down this job?”
“You would keep your current job instead?”
“That’s right. I told you why.”
“Harold Hines—a big league dishwasher!”
Harold blinked slowly, then closed his eyes for several seconds. “I’ve done things I regret, but I’m not going to apologize for that.” He opened his eyes.
Cusik stared back at him, his chin propped on a fist.
“My my. Mr. Hines will not be brushed back. Tell me, Harold, when you were a child, did you ever do experiments with insects? They’re so small, you’re like God, really. Did you ever kill a bug, just for the hell of it? Squash it?”
There was a juicy quality in Cusik’s voice. He wasn’t good at holding his liquor.
“Yes, I suppose I did.”
“OK, Harold.” Cusik took another sip. “Watch me!” He put down the glass. With his thumb, he made a squashing gesture on his desk. “Oooh, sorry!” He paused, turning his thumb back and forth. “Does that hurt? Sorry, Harold!” He continued grinding his thumb. “You’re not even a dishwasher anymore.” Cusik stopped and looked up. “You’re fired.”
Instantly Harold rose to his feet. Ready to tell him to fuck off, he quit this job. He would slam the door.
But then he saw something unexpected in Cusik’s eyes, a glitter of rebellion. It struck him as ridiculous and the power shifted. Without a word Harold slowly walked around the desk.
With his forearms, Cusik lifted himself up out of his chair. His face was fearful but he was no coward, his jaw thrust out as he stood quivering. Harold ignored him and bent down and scooped up the crutches. He didn’t even have to think about it. He continued to the window, turned the handle and opened it. He threw the crutches out the window.
Down, down they fell. From the height of the 18th floor he had time to watch their descent with a horrified satisfaction. Like wings ripped off a body, useless. One crutch landed in the bushes, the other bounced off and skittered onto the sidewalk. Fortunately no one was walking by.
“My, how impressive you are!”
Harold turned around. If only this day could start over. He regretted coming here. Cusik teetered slightly. With the smallest shove, Harold could push him over. With a puff of breath, it seemed. Cusik looked unhappy but also expectant. Did he want Harold to finish the job? Was that it? But Harold couldn’t do it. He felt ashamed of what he’d created.
“This is messed up,” he said.
“Now go fetch them for me, Harold. Jump.”
Cusik laughed but Harold couldn’t tell if it was another of the man’s strange jokes or if he really meant it, that’s what he wanted to see. Harold went back to the window and pushed it shut.
As he did so, he noticed a tow truck in the parking lot below, raising the front wheels of his Toyota.
The sight gave him a queer feeling. Not even Cusik would be able to arrange such a perfectly-timed intervention. The tow truck began to pull away. Harold turned around.
“I better go. Take care of yourself.”
“Where are you going?”
Harold took the elevator down to the lobby, and then left the building and surrounding shrubs. There was no foot traffic out here. Soon he walked down the highway, cars buzzing past.
Charles Holdefer is an American writer based in Brussels. His next novel, DON'T LOOK AT ME, about Emily Dickinson, basketball and the persistence of literature in a post-literary age, will be published in October 2022.