Owen was circling phonemes on the patio of the coffee shop when the owner stuck her swan neck out the back door and yelled, “White Dodge, you’re being towed!”
It was Tuesday afternoon, September, he’d been back in school one month, things were beginning to go right. Owen had found Common Grounds on the first day of the semester, looking for a place to study (he’d never needed one before). Every afternoon he sat under the patio’s green awning, squinting at his Intro to Linguistics assignments, learning, as Professor Fordica was teaching him, to isolate syllables from the meaning of their words, to see them as functions in themselves. Owen lost himself in this new division, until “White” and “Dodge” collided in his mind.
He stood as quickly as his injury allowed, propelled himself on his cane, dragging his dead leg toward the parking lot. In the sun’s white shock Owen saw his car latched to the spine of a stuttering tow truck, and, framed in the truck window, beneath a Dodgers cap and behind black sunglasses, the driver’s mugshot glare. The man panicked when Owen appeared, wrenched the gear stick into drive, reversed. With a peal of tires and a clunk as it cleared the dip onto the street, the truck lugged Owen’s white Dodge away.
The coffee shop owner—Owen had heard regulars call her Anna, but from her guarded demeanor, the way her head ripped around every time the front door flung open, he could tell she handed out her name like a permission slip, and he didn’t have it—approached him cautiously. “It’s the man across the way,” she said, pointing at the building on the other side of the lot. Real Estate Classes Taught Here! its front window promised in red. “He’s some obsessive about parking codes. Says anything parked against his wall needs to be for his business, or he tows.”
Owen bent at the waist to massage his knee. She leaned forward to help him, as if he might topple, then pulled back, afraid of being the force that did the toppling. Nobody knew what to do with him. People spoke to him in slow-ly e-nun-ci-a-ted syllables, as if his knee had fractured his brain. Children pointed at him in supermarkets and malls, their mothers pulling them aside, until Owen recognized the ba-bum rhythm of there but for the grace of God even when it was whispered.
But he was learning to accept pity, another of his professor’s lessons. So he let Anna-to-everyone-but-him walk him back to the patio. The other regulars, the med students huddled over anatomy textbooks, the obese man who skulked in the dark corner, tracked him as he limped to his table. Owen’s knee throbbed, the same alarm as the moment it had shattered.
Owen daydreamed of being his linguistics professor. Michael Fordica: tall, sinewy, florid-skinned in billowy guyaveras, kelly-green cargo shorts flapping about taut kneecaps, the tag from his last flight looped around his briefcase handle and boasting blocky airport abbreviations Owen couldn’t decode. The professor’s black coiled hair hid secretive white strands, and bored into the clay pendant hanging from his neck were two tiny dark holes that looked like eyes. He spoke to Owen and everybody else with polite brevity, as if they were taking his ticket at the gate of a plane.
Fordica’s current project was an Inuit dialect still extant in central Alaska. Owen had spent three years drinking in sad-sack Anchorage dives after his stint in the minors; remnants of the language rattled about his mind, the way he could still picture, from his days on the farm team, the catcher’s hand signals for fastball or sinker. He’d found Fordica’s ad calling for speakers of the dialect posted on an online job board. The two met at a panini shop on the Esplanade, down by the beach. From a couple blocks away came the soft crushing waves Owen remembered from his days getting loaded under the Redondo pier in high school; he liked the Pacific so much more than the cranky Atlantic that had chopped away beyond the stands of the Florida ball field.
Fordica proposed the deal: Owen would recount everything he remembered of the dialect; in exchange Fordica would sneak Owen into some undergrad classes, despite his missing high school diploma, despite the arrest record. If Owen kept up with it, perhaps he could one day sneak a degree out of the bargain.
Owen spat the simplest objection he could think of: “I can’t afford that.”
“Don’t worry about the money,” Fordica said. “There are scholarships for—” He waved his hand casually at Owen’s cane.
“I don’t need pity,” Owen said.
The professor shrugged. “To be pitied or not isn’t a choice you get to make. The world decides to pity you. For the record, I don’t care why you didn’t graduate high school, or why you never made it in the ‘majors.’ What, uh—‘position’ were you?”
“Middle relief pitcher.”
“Sure. I don’t follow the sport. I’ve never understood the attention paid to it. There are more important things.”
“Language is the bones of the world.”
“Bones break,” Owen said.
“Words don’t.” Fordica pointed again at Owen’s cane. “You can’t walk. You have to do something else.”
So three days a week, Owen sat in Fordica’s office and sounded out what words he recalled, Fordica scribbling symbols on a yellow notepad and murmuring to himself as he drew lines between shapes and completed mysterious circles. After the sessions, on the patio of Common Grounds, Owen squinted at the linguistics textbook the professor gave him. The squiggles refused to reveal their meaning. He failed the first assignments in Fordica’s Intro course. He thought of dropping out, closing all books and drifting away, as he had years earlier.
It was Fordica’s effortless exoticism, the easy luxury of his speech, that kept Owen coming back. Fordica sounded British, though Owen knew that wasn’t it, that was his own ignorance: the professor spoke in some amalgamated accent that said less about where he was from than everywhere he’d been. Opening Fordica’s first book, Dialects of the Philippines—Owen had been caught flipping through it in Fordica’s office, and now had the professor’s much-marked copy—Owen passed over the inscrutable text and eyed the maps. He imagined himself as a field linguist, knee-deep in foreign brush, listening for—what? He didn’t know enough to know what he should be imagining. He turned his ear toward some formless person and heard unintelligible sounds; in his fantasy, he understood them.
Owen used two hundred dollars of his stipend to reclaim his car from the impound yard. The next day he returned to Common Grounds, saw the handicapped spot taken, parked on a side street, and, as he slowly walked the couple blocks, invented the Real Estate Man, assigning him the sun-squeezed eyes and cocksure voice of an old teammate. He glared at the building’s tinted front windows, daring the Man to show himself.
The coffee shop owner’s head whipped around as Owen jingled open her door.
“Nobody who’s been towed,” she told him, “has ever come back.”
He saw her look him over, his hulking figure, huge shoulders hovering over strong elbows—his elbows were what had gotten the scout’s attention—and the cane, and the linguistic textbook under his arm. He watched her back: brown eyes, that long neck, skin the scratchy tan of a baseball mitt, too many years in the sun. If she’d hung out by the pier when she was younger, he might have met her.
Anna—she introduced herself officially—carried his coffee out to the patio. She found him a table, pulled out a chair, again stopped halfway, unsure how much care he needed. To show how smoothly he took the world, Owen hooked the edge of the chair with his cane.
It scraped loudly over the concrete deck. The other patrons watched as he craned his leg under the tabletop, lowered himself into the chair while angling forward, scooted in too forcefully and hit the table, almost knocking his drink over. Anna kept both hands on the mug until he was settled.
“Do you need anything else?” she whispered.
“No,” he said without looking at her.
Anna retreated inside on her two long legs, the med students returned to their anatomy, but the obese man, the one who sat at the corner table every day around noon and again around five, chainsmoking cigarettes, cloudy eyes surveying the distance, continued to consider Owen. Their gazes met. The obese man blinked, and Owen’s knee throbbed.
“I’m sorry about your car,” he called out. “There should be a way to stop things like that.”
“When you figure it out,” Owen said, “let me know what it is.”
The man heaved himself up, shuffled over, and dropped into a chair at Owen’s table, grunting as his squat legs swung out from under him. Up close, his eyes were light, anemic, unfocused, as if confused as to what was close or far away. “They’re sensitive to the light,” he said, practiced at explanation. “After a day at a site—like, yesterday, we were putting in this back deck at a pad over in Gardena, I was in the sun the whole day—I come here to let my eyes cool down. It can take almost an hour before they feel normal.”
“You work construction?” Owen asked, glancing before he could stop himself at the man’s fat joints, the oval outlines of his knees submerged in flesh.
“My cousin’s business. I run the books. I’m too big to do the work myself. But I like being around the sites, watching a deck appear out of nowhere.” He lit a slim brown cigarette scented with sage or saffron; it smelled like Professor Fordica sounded. After a leisurely drag, the man asked, “What happened to your leg?”
“Baseball injury,” Owen said.
“Does it hurt?”
“Have you gotten used to it?”
The cigarette scent needled Owen’s nostrils. “I can’t.”
“Yeah, I can’t get used to my eyes, either. They’re just gonna heat up and cool down for the rest of my life. Is your leg ever going to heal?”
“I guess we’re stuck on the patio, then.”
From the lot burst the bleeping of a tow truck in reverse. Owen rose before remembering he’d parked a couple blocks away. The heavy man stood in his stead and waddled across the patio, arriving at the asphalt as they heard the crunch of the truck clearing the driveway. Owen wondered what the man thought he would do to the truck if he caught it.
Owen returned the professor’s book on the Philippines and asked for his title on Mozambique. “This is a good one,” Fordica said as he handed it over, and described the months he’d spent unearthing the tribe’s grammar structure. The words zoomed past Owen; he caught only the zither of their adventure. “I hopped a plane to Australia for a week in between,” Fordica said. “I’ve always been curious about Aboriginal dialects, just never had time to study them. Next life, maybe.”
“Next life,” Owen agreed.
On the patio, the obese man smoking quietly next to him, Owen opened Grammar Structures of Eastern Africa, Volume One. He followed this book more easily than the previous title, hearing it in Fordica’s voice, those os and rs shimmying the jargon into melody.
The last time he’d felt this way was senior year of high school, when the Florida scout found him and said he had great hinges. “A fastball is all in the elbows,” he’d told Owen, eighteen years old. “The elbows, the knees: it’s where the body hinges that matters.” By then Owen had stopped going to classes, showing up only for his games, the rest of the time chugging from a bottle of Jack Daniels under the Redondo Pier. The scout courted Owen, promised him the majors within two years, pretended not to notice that Owen didn’t read the contract he signed.
In Boca Raton, the team housed him in an apartment complex near the beach, stumbling distance from a slope of dive bars. Owen drank Jack and coke, sometimes with teammates, or with one of the blondes who fizzed in the background, sometimes by himself. The next day’s sun menaced him on the mound. His fastball slowed to the mid-eighties, landed low and left, pinging dirt. The coach ran him through drills anyway, as if some perfect pitch would stop his slide. Owen threw dutifully at the mechanical targets, pulling ball after ball from the wire basket until it was empty.
Then Tyler Renfro joined the team. Renfro was not long for any minor league: with his bronze skin, his swing, that endorsable grin, he was just idling until the franchise found a slot for him. When he first pitched to Renfro during practice, Owen willed his hangover away and threw two corner strikes before his control got away from him. That third pitch went low and left, but Renfro smacked it. As the ball sang over the green right field wall Owen knew his last chance of a major league career left with it.
Midseason, the GM, the scout, and the pitching coach called a meeting. Owen sputtered something about keeping his pitches low but pulling them in towards center, fooling the batters into swinging—
“You can finish out the season,” the GM said.
The scout looked broken. “You had great hinges.”
That was eight years ago. Since the injury Owen hadn’t held down a job to speak of. He inherited his dad’s house when the man passed away, a small place at least, one he could cross quickly even at his limited pace. Seated at his father’s desk, Owen searched the online job boards for something to do. He was twenty-eight. He was too young to feel finished.
Now he sat on the patio, reading Grammar Structures of Eastern Africa by Michael Fordica, forming a new fantasy of being a field linguist. Owen envisioned the Mozambique native, imagined the man speaking gruff approximations of Fordica’s symbols. This life circled him like his new friend’s smoke.
Anna stopped charging Owen for his coffee. After a week of free drinks he used another chunk of his stipend to take her to Mes Amis, a French restaurant in Palos Verdes that Fordica recommended. Anna drove them up the winding streets of the wealthy hill, Owen in such buoyant spirits he didn’t even notice the valets fumbling over themselves to help him from the car to the door. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to an establishment that nice—likely an end-of-the-season dinner with the farm team. He unclenched under the dim lighting, his leg sighing beneath the linen.
They traded past lives. The coffee shop was her third business, Anna told him; a flower shop in her twenties had been sold to a chain, then a yoga studio had closed before its first birthday. She’d started Common Grounds two years ago. “It’s mostly businesses around me,” she said, “so their employees come in. But south of us, all the way to the shore, it’s miles of homes, and we’re the only café in the area. So I get a lot of mothers; you know, book clubs, knitting circles. I turn a profit. Barely. But it’s turned.”
Owen talked about being drafted, nobody caring that he never graduated high school. He told her that the scout, the GM, the pitching coach, all chose to ignore that he wasn’t reading anything, not the sports section, not his pitching charts, nothing. He didn’t learn to read until after the injury, recuperating at his mother’s bed and breakfast in Anchorage; she’d made it a condition of his living there. But even she wouldn’t put up with his drinking. With nowhere else to go, he staggered back to Redondo. His father—he didn’t mention this part—had all but wasted away.
Owen asked Anna if she hung out at the Pier when she was younger.
“My high school boyfriend was a surfer,” she answered.
“I wonder if we ever met each other on the beach.”
“I’m a few years older than you.”
“You might have seen me, though.”
She held her glass to her lips. “I wonder what I would have said to you.”
“Who knows. Maybe you said it.”
The tab for dinner was nearly as much as the impound fee. Owen paid it, Anna got the tip. She stopped at a grocery store for a bottle of wine on the way back to her apartment, asked Owen what kind he liked. He coughed, turned down another aisle. “I bought zinfandel,” she said as they left. “Is that okay?” He pretended he hadn’t heard.
Anna lived on the second floor of a complex. She took the steps excitedly, disappeared inside her door before he’d made it halfway up the stone staircase. After a moment, she ran back out, tumbling in apologies, begging to help him up.
“Don’t pity me,” Owen said as he climbed one step at a time. “Just walk like you normally do.”
When he finally stepped into her apartment two plastic glasses of zinfandel waited on the coffee table. He eyed the drinks anxiously. But Anna led him past the wine into her bathroom, opened her medicine cabinet, took out the orange bottles, showed him her anti-anxiety medications, the pills for depression.
“I have bad patches,” she said. “After the yoga shop failed…It was really bad. I barely got out of bed.”
“It’s okay. I just want you to know. My divorce was rough, too. I married that high school boyfriend, the surfer. We were young. You would have been in high school.”
“So if I had seen you on the beach, you would have been married?”
“Yes. If I had seen you, you would have been illiterate?”
“Yes,” Owen said.
“Do you feel like you’re the same person as you were back then?”
Owen shook his head. “Oh, no. I know words like dipthong and phoneme now. Language is the bones of the world.” He checked to see if she believed such a line coming from him. “If you know new words, it’s like having a whole new skeleton.”
Anna took him to her bedroom, undressed him, laid him on her bed. The few women Owen had slept with since his injury had been obnoxiously careful with him; as Anna slipped her arm under his back, as if he needed to be cradled, he longed to tell her his knee couldn’t get any more injured. But she squirmed when he clutched her shoulders, and Owen let go, recalling the way her head yanked around whenever somebody entered the coffee shop. There was something he didn’t know about her, and he had just grabbed it. They were so close they could feel what they hadn’t told each other like a layer between them.
The obese man’s name was Dante. He joined Owen on the patio every afternoon, soothing his eyes while Owen finished phoneme exercises. It was unnerving, how still he sat, gazing at nothing, blinking riddles. But Owen figured if he were ever to be a field linguist this would be the least of the oddities he’d encounter. As he bent toward his textbook he studied his new acquaintance in his peripheral vision, until Dante’s milky eyes, the labor of his breathing, the silky cigarette aroma, became as much a part of the lulling patio as the green roof above.
One afternoon Dante drove Owen to his shuttered one-bedroom off Avenue A after the coffee shop closed. Opaque tawny shades smothered its windows; a charcoal blanket choked the couch; the air conditioning blew at an Alaskan temperature. Three sleek silver-furred dogs rose lazily to greet Dante as he entered; the house hung with their musk. “I breed them,” Dante said, and called one over. It was a lithe, delicate animal, slender thighs narrowing into bony, twig-like legs, a grey coat so fine that it shimmered even in the despotic dark. Dante highlighted aspects of her breeding, the conic snout, the stub of a tail, the balance between her shoulders and her back that kept her from tipping over. The dog held proudly still while he described her, as if knowing she was there to be savored. “They’re a boutique breed,” Dante said. “They don’t hunt, they don’t guard. Really, they can only stand about an hour of physical activity a day. Just being in the sun can wear them out, so you have to keep them in cooled rooms.”
The dog followed them out to a back deck cloaked into permanent dusk by a wall of sunflowers. It sniffed at Owen’s knee a moment, eventually lay on its side, panting. Owen petted her while Dante filled a pipe. He took a hit, the blown glass fragile in his giant grip.
“My cousin built this deck for me,” Dante said. “When we were kids, he used to torment me. For my weight, for my eyes, for anything. Cruel little fucker. I thought I’d never stop hating him. But about, I don’t know, five years ago, I ran into him at a family reunion. There he was, all grown up, his own construction company, and—It’s hard to explain, but he was a completely different person. When he found out I needed work, he brought me on at his company. He tailored the whole office around my eyes, replaced the ceiling lights with lower wattage bulbs, built an awning out front so I could smoke. We’ve been like that ever since.”
Dante passed the pipe. Owen took a hit and felt a welcome spark in his throat.
“My last year on the team,” Owen said, “there was this guy Renfro who wouldn’t leave me alone. He put empty bottles of Jack Daniels in the locker room and wrote Owen Wright Pitching Trophy on them. He used to find me in bars just to tell me management said he was so good he was getting hits off Owen Wright.” Owen coughed into his fist. “None of that got to me; I mean, he was just killing time till they brought him up. But during practices this guy insisted on hitting off me. Everybody else had given up, accepted I was going to walk ‘em in four pitches, which was fine by me, I just wanted to get taken out of the game. But Renfro hit off me every time. I couldn’t bear it.”
The two men sat enraptured in the twisting vines. Dante called the dog to him. The thing collapsed between his two thick legs, resting its head on his pillowy thigh as Dante’s fingers left velvety trails in its fur
“You’re smiling,” Dante said to Owen.
“I can’t feel my knee.”
“Yeah,” Dante said. “I can’t feel my eyes.”
Owen allowed himself to go to a bar to watch the World Series. The left fielder from his farm team was playing in the championship; Owen had squandered too many nights in those Anchorage dives wishing failure upon his former teammates; now he just wanted to root for his old friend. He ordered a soda, set Grammar Structures of Eastern Africa on the bartop, read one paragraph at a time while tracking the score on the mounted television.
His fantasy elaborated: now Anna was beside him in Mozambique, transcribing the sounds as he repeated them, the two of them traveling the world on Owen’s grants, free of pills and impound fees. By the fifth inning he just let their futures unfurl, superimposed on the television. When the game switched to a commercial, Owen glanced around him, the pedestrian bar hazing into the wilds of East Africa.
Two seats away, the tow truck driver stared up at the screen.
Owen pushed off his stool and scraped his dead leg behind him menacingly as he could. The driver turned and started, the same recoil as that afternoon in the parking lot. Unsmeared by the truck’s tinted window, in the grim bar glow rather than the sun’s hot glare, his face lost its villainy; he looked terrified.
The driver began to swivel an escape on his stool, but Owen’s athlete frame towered over him. He shut his eyes and said softly, “Get it over with.”
But now that he was looming unsteadily above the man, Owen figured he’d only get in one swing before losing his balance and landing on the floor with a sorry crash. And he couldn’t even imagine Fordica throwing a punch—the professor hadn’t acquired that inclusive accent through violence. Owen saw a link from the present moment to a possible existence in which he nimbly navigated his way through all adversity. That next life started now.
He snagged the bartender’s attention. Mimicking as best he could Fordica’s—not his voice, exactly, but his confidence, his tone—Owen said, “I want to take care of this man’s tab.”
The bartender shrugged and walked away. The driver peered for a moment into the translucent orange of his beer. “Now that I did not expect.” His eyes looked tentatively up. “If that’s how you want to be, my name’s Robby.”
Owen shook his hand. “You follow baseball?”
“When the Dodgers are winning.”
“I used to pitch.” Owen identified the left fielder on the television. “We played together, back in Florida, about eight years ago.”
“You mean with Renfro and all them? Didn’t Renfro come out of Florida?”
“Yeah,” Owen said deadly. “I knew Renfro.”
“I’ll be damned. An honest-to-God ballplayer! I should be buying your drinks.”
Owen slid his Jack-less coke away, then showed Robby his cane. “You mind if I sit down? It hurts to stand too long.” He exaggerated his difficulty in getting onto the high stool, cringing in pain both fake and real, huffing as he settled. He let the driver dwell on his injury until Robby cringed as if he’d caused it.
“So,” Owen said. “What’s the story with the Real Estate Man?”
Robby raised his hands. “Listen, Owen-the-ballplayer, I got nothing to do with it. Him and my boss set it up. Guy calls us anytime he sees a car that don’t belong to one of his customers, I come pick it up. Can be fifteen cars a day. He gets twenty percent of the impound fees, so the more we tow the better he does.”
“And you’re all right with that?”
“If I refused to have anything to do with every piece of shit I came across, I’d be out of the towing business.”
Owen glared at the driver, hard.
“Look,” Robby said, again raising his hands as if Owen were about to charge. “I’m just doing my job. It’s nothing personal. I don’t know who’s got a bum leg, or who’s a ballplayer, or a crook. I tow the cars they tell me to tow.”
“Even if they hop after you begging you to stop.”
“Hold on a goddamned minute, Owen-the-ballplayer. You know how many guns I’ve had pulled on me in three years of towing cars?”
Owen looked up at the seventh inning. It had never occurred to him that the driver, or anybody else for that matter, would ever be scared of him again.
“The answer’s not on the TV,” Robby said. “Four. Four guns been pulled on me. I’m talking honest-to-God, shoot-you-dead-in-the-head guns. I see a guy of your size coming toward me, yelling at me? I think you’re coming to shoot me. I gotta carry a gun of my own. You think I want to? Hell no, I don’t want to. But one of these days I’m gonna tow the wrong person.”
On the screen, the relief pitcher walked in a run and lost his team’s lead; Owen watched the coach trundle to the mound to replace him. Finally, he turned back to driver. “You never saw my limp, did you?”
“I put the truck in gear and got the hell away from you.”
“All right,” Owen said.
“We understand each other?”
The bartender swooped by and filled Owen’s glass with just coke. Owen avoided the man’s gaze after that. He had an answer—six months—ready in case Robby asked. Instead, the driver pointed at the television. “Do you wish you were up there?”
Owen nodded. The two watched the last couple innings together, the driver asking him to evaluate the pitching, Owen explaining the mechanics of the relievers, how to tell by their wind up when they were tiring. He winced with each low pitch, smacked the bar with each called strike; his own arm tingled in muscle memory even as his knee pulsated from its stool-bent angle. He regretted it all over again, the wasted chance.
The game finished. Robby gathered his Dodgers windbreaker, thanked Owen for the beer. At last Owen asked, “What can I do about the Real Estate Man?”
“Beats me, ballplayer. I just tow the cars.”
“It’s not right.”
“I guess not. But I got nothing to do with it.”
Robby left. Owen closed his tab, sipped the last of his coke. He flipped over the coaster beneath his pointless drink, wrote I got nothing to do with it, and divided the sentence into phonemes until the bartender turned on the houselights and offered Owen, if he needed it, help to the door.
But then, near the end of the season, Owen’s pitches got faster. He brought them in, still low, just like he’d told the GM, but closer to center, so that batters swung too high. He started collecting strikeouts again.
On a Saturday afternoon scrimmage, Renfro came up to bat. Owen’s head was throbbing from the night before, the Florida sun punctuating his skull. Behind him the Atlantic hashed away. But as Owen flexed his arm, he felt the hinges he’d been promised. I’ve got my fastball back, he thought as Renfro raised his bat. Owen aimed right at the batter’s bright smug face and threw.
The day after the World Series ended Owen was giving Dante a linguistics lesson, mapping the sentence I am sitting on a patio, when Anna called from the back door, “Tan Toyota, you’re being towed!” The two men were so dissolved in the parceling of language that it took them a moment to put her sentence together. “Tan Toyota,” she hollered again, and Dante’s head rose.
Owen launched on his cane. By the time he reached the lot, Dante’s car was already lashed to the truck’s backbone, the driver’s eyes blacked by sunglasses. “Robby!” Owen called, but the window was already up. The truck roared out of the lot.
When Owen turned, Anna was glaring at him from the border of the patio, as if she’d finally seen what had caused her head to whip around the first time he’d hobbled into her coffee shop.
She didn’t say a word to him as they climbed the winding road to Chez Nous, where Professor Fordica treated them to an end-of-semester dinner. Inside, the linguist perused the wine list as if the vintages bored him, and after settling on a bottle of Rhone he told the couple of his trip through the south of France, mapping variations of a rural Basque dialect as he holidayed from one vineyard to the next. Their conversation eventually made it around to Anna’s coffee shop, and from there, inevitably, to the Real Estate Man. Eyeing Anna, Owen gave Fordica a careful summary of the man’s scam. The professor took it in as if he were sadly accustomed to minor evils, but Anna grew angrier and angrier with each detail. They were on their second bottle when Owen recalled the unfortunate mixture created by Anna’s medications and alcohol.
“I’m getting a lawyer,” she said, slamming her wine glass down on the cream-colored linens. “I’m getting a fucking lawyer.”
Owen adjusted his chair, his leg. “I don’t think you want to make this worse than it already is,” he said.
“It can’t get worse than it is,” she said. “I had six cars towed from my shop last Saturday.” She looked at Fordica. “Can I tell you something? Coffee shops are one of the hardest ways to make money. When nothing you’re selling is over five dollars, you have to depend on volume. And here’s this guy towing every car he sees, giving people two-hundred-dollar reasons to never come back.”
Owen moved his hand on top of hers, but she snapped hers back.
“You don’t understand,” she cried. “You’ve never lost a business. Have you ever lost a business?” she asked Fordica. The professor shook his head casually, like saying, no, his luggage did not contain any weapons. “See? You two don’t understand. I know how fragile these things are.” She gulped the last of her wine, and Owen noticed that Fordica had scooted the bottle away from her. “I’m getting a fucking lawyer,” she said.
A busboy cleared their plates. Owen looked over to his professor in hopes that the man had some casual way of distilling the situation, but Fordica’s gaze was blank. He was to depart for Alaska the next morning, was probably thinking about what time he had to be at the airport. When the waiter returned the tab Fordica removed his card and offered farewells, leaving Owen to open the check presenter and sign the professor’s name under the startling amount.
Outside a valet delivered Anna’s car to the curb, spotted her redshot eyes, and foisted the keys to Owen, who could do nothing with them. Anna stood crossed-armed with her back to him as he shifted his weight on and off his leg. Twenty, thirty minutes until a cab the manager must have called pulled up. Anna slumped against the window the ride down, so that Owen could see only that long neck, browned from her beach years. The cab dropped her at her complex; she slammed the car door before Owen could follow her, stormed up her stone staircase on those long legs. Owen watched her vanish, knew he had been added to the clamp of her regrets, that cinching force that caused her to seize up when he touched her shoulders, stretching back to the days she’d sat lonely in the sand as her husband took waves in the Pacific, while Owen had lain just a couple hundred feet away in the glum beneath the pier, when they maybe had connected, maybe for a second, and then didn’t.
Owen had never laid eyes the Real Estate Man. Students came and went through the dark front doors, but he ruled from inside, conjuring Robby’s tow truck as if by decree. Owen didn’t even know his name, and so could not address the speech, penned through many overnight hours onto a sheet of lined paper and crammed in his pocket, explaining that once upon a time he’d have solved this problem by chucking a breaking ball at the man’s face, but that he was a different person now, had been gifted a new life, and it was from this rebirth that he was asking the man respectfully to cease his assault on Anna’s business. He now recited the words as he thought Fordica would say them, his reflection hobbling toward him in the frost of the Real Estate Man’s black reflective windows.
Parked directly beneath the red and white warning sign, sneered sideways across three spaces, was Dante’s tan Toyota.
Owen spun around and limped across the lot, ignoring the pain of his knee. Dante sat at his old table on the patio blowing darts of smoke. “You’re going to get towed,” Owen said.
Dante smiled flatly. “I’m not worried.”
“I can get him to stop,” Owen pleaded. “Let me talk to him—”
Dante’s damaged eyes peered at some horizon beyond Owen. “My cousin, when we were young, he used to grab a lamp and hold me down and shine the bulb directly up against my eyes. For the rest of the day, they throbbed like they were going to come right out their sockets.” Dante shifted, the plastic chair complaining beneath him. “But here’s the thing: the back of my eyes would be throbbing, so I’d close them to keep them inside of my head, but my lids were so hot that when I closed my eyes they’d burn like they were on fire. So I’d open them, and they’d feel like they were going to burst. I’d close them again, they’d feel like they were on fire. I’d have to spend all day like that.”
His eyes’ once-soft whiteness had sharpened into searchlights. In their focus Owen took a deep breath. “My knee,” he began, but then the loud syllables of a reversing truck bleated from the lot.
“They’re towing you,” Owen said.
Dante didn’t move.
“They’re towing you,” he said again, but Dante just shook his head, and then another sound, a tantrum of metal on metal, exploded.
By the time Owen arrived all twelve men from Dante’s construction crew had descended upon the tow truck. Some of them were smashing out the windows with baseball bats, while one took a soldering iron to the crane. But it was the unrelenting staccato that seized Owen. He tried to cover his ears as he searched for its source, hopping on his good leg in all directions, but the cacophony seemed to be howling from inside of him. Finally Owen stumbled around the side of the truck, where a crewman was methodically demolishing the front right tire with a jackhammer. The rat-a-tat mangled the air, the wheel gave, the truck crouched into the asphalt. The man lifted the jackhammer, set it against the front fender. Its outburst obliterated everything.
A few feet away, staring in mute wonder, was the tow truck driver. It took Robby a moment to recognize Owen. When he finally did, something about Owen, his cane, maybe, clicked into place. “Why?” Robby screamed. Owen stuttered forward, shouting that it wasn’t him who was doing this. The tow truck driver reached into the back of his waistband and removed a pistol.
Owen yelled at him, but nobody could hear over the jackhammer, the constant, constant throbbing that brought Owen back to that Saturday on the mound, the throbbing in his head from the Florida sun. He’d been improving, tricking the batters into swinging at his low fastballs. And then Renfro came up to bat. Stretching his arm, feeling the hinges he’d once been told would launch him beyond the ditch he’d dug under the Redondo Pier, he took aim at Renfro’s head and threw.
But his control was gone. The ball flew up and to the right, toward Renfro’s head but far too high. Renfro dropped to the ground as the pitch sailed over him. The ballpark hushed as the catcher fetched the wild ball. Renfro picked himself up, his white uniform insulted with dirt.
And then he came for Owen. He came in a steady stride, like he was marching his way towards the majors. “You pathetic motherfucker,” he called. Owen stood still, his head pounding. “You couldn’t hit me if you tried.” Renfro lifted his bat, and Owen felt so good for a second, basking in the end. “Dumb motherfucker,” Renfro said, “you couldn’t hit me if I was right in front of you.” He swung, the bat striking Owen’s rib cage, toppling him onto the mound’s lush sand. Owen curled and thought, It’s over. Another swing hit him in the hip. From the ground, Owen saw his teammates rushing towards him. He tried to tell them to stay away. Then came the third swing.
The bat struck his kneecap and shattered it into tiny useless pieces. Hurt and alarm charged through his body, his fingers and toes and eyes suddenly alert and awake and aware of themselves. Owen gulped, wanting to scream, but he couldn’t say anything; it was as if his body was electrified. Because, the thing was, he had been expecting the pain, that dull ache, been asking for it this whole time. But not this, this brand new thing surging through his body, awaking every inch of him—this was something else entirely.
Evan McMurry graduated from Reed College and received his MFA from Texas State University-San Marcos. His fiction has appeared in more than a half-dozen publications, including Post Road and Euphony, and his reviews have appeared in Bookslut and elsewhere. He is currently the social media editor at ABC News.