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The Life of Eamon
James McManus
illustration by Craig Mrusek
Halo Baseball-Craig Mrusek
Rivers and rivers of beer. He poured it down with joy and bitterness. When beer wasn’t enough, he soaked his soul in whiskey. Some wounds are too fierce for love. Love is timid; whiskey is a bulldog with a tender tongue. And he poured that tongue near his scars. Poison for poison. Eye for an eye.

Some days the whiskey was sandpaper and ripped open his scars and he screamed and bled and poured cold beer after the whiskey in a futile chase. And he wept in fits. Fetal and old. He felt the hard knuckles of his father flush against his jaw. The warm red hands around his neck. His chest ached cold and heaved. The knuckles crushed his nose. He thought it sounded like a head of lettuce falling to a linoleum floor. The hard knuckles jolted his left ear and his nose was cold and ached and smelled of whiskey and beer.

And he shit his pants. He smelled his own shit and warm tears streamed down his face and the salt stung the open wounds. His mother kneeled in the corner. The smell of whiskey and beer and salt and shit. Lifted and crashed into a cold hard white bathtub. The cold water on his head, the washcloth at his face. He sucked for air beneath the red water. Gasped. Pants around his ankles; the shit mixing with the blood. The cold water on his red-striped body. Up. Tossed onto cold, stiff, clean sheets. And the slam of the door. He stuck his face deep into his pillow and prayed to die.

Sylvern Groomes was slow. He was the same age as Eamon, but two grades behind. He was slow and he was black and the other kids told Eamon that black kids stunk and didn’t like to swim and had big dicks. And they liked white girls and would stick their big dicks into your girl and make her moan. But Eamon didn’t have a girl and he played basketball and Michigan Rummy with Sylvern.

And Sylvern’s dad beat him. Beat him because he was slow. Beat him because he needed a special doctor and forgot to pick up his cards after Michigan Rummy. Sylvern and Eamon both vomited blood and they cried together in the cellar and dabbed alcohol into open wounds. And laughed at scars.

“You so fucked up, I don’t know what you rilly look like.”
“You so poor, the dogs is bringin' you food.”
“You so ugly, your Moms tried to shove you back in.”
“You so thin, I seen better legs in a bucket of chicken.”
“You so fat, my Daddy says we should cook you up for Christmas.”
“You ain’t never seen a girl naked.”
“’Cept your Moms.”
“Your Moms look like she was beated by the ugly stick.”

Sylvern and Eamon played hand after hand of Michigan Rummy. Michigan Rummy was played with three decks of cards and at least four players. Sylvern and Eamon played alone. Eamon dealt out six hands to open chairs and they moved around the table playing each hand and inventing the names of the absent players. Sometimes wearing sunglasses or turning their ball caps around and mimicking Willie Stargell. Or Phil Garner—Scrap Iron. Sylvern thought he should be Willie because he was black and Eamon white, but Eamon liked Willie and Sylvern liked Scrap Iron. So they took turns being Willie and Scrap Iron. Black and white. And Eamon kept track of all of the hands and he allowed Sylvern to win every other hand. They taught themselves shuffling tricks and ate Cheetos and drank orange pop. Eamon taught Sylvern how to back away from a punch to soften the blow. He learned it watching wrestling. Eamon knew that wrestling was fake and Sylvern thought it was real. But it was fake. Another lie. Theater for the poor. Large men landing fake punches and kicks.

Punches and kicks were not fake to Eamon and Sylvern. Blood poured and vomited and shit was all real. And black eyes and ringing ears. Sylvern’s black eyes were mitigated by his brown skin but Eamon’s were like two small dirty tires against his pale white skin.

“Where is Sylvern now?”
“They found him face down in the neighbor’s old swimming pool that hadn’t been used in years.”
“He drowned?”
“His Dad beat him to death and dumped his body in the pool. They found him fully clothed with a full load of shit in his pants. They had to re-set his nose to give him an open casket.”

The kids said he died because it was the first bath he’d taken in years and he got confused and drowned. What do you call ten thousand niggers at the bottom of a pool? A good start. And Eamon cried for weeks and told his parents that Sylvern didn’t drown. He was a good swimmer and would not have been swimming fully clothed. His Dad told him that when Sylvern saw the shit in his pants he thought he was melting, so he drowned himself. And everyone laughed and said he was better off anyway because he was slow. It was bad enough that he was a nigger and then to be a slow nigger was even worse. He couldn’t even play basketball.

This was in the summer, and the Pirates were in first place. They were six games up on the Phillies. Eamon hated Steve Carlton because he always threw his slider way outside and made Willie look silly. But when Willie did hit the ball ... man, did it go. They were in first place and might have a chance to win the Series this year. Eamon feared he was next. He would miss the series and end up floating in a swimming pool with shit in his pants. But the Pirates were in first place and the newspaper said Captain Willie might win the Most Valuable Player award and he’d be the oldest man to win. Eamon wanted to see Willie in the Series, so he huddled below the porch of his home and stayed clear of his father. He listened to the games on a small transistor. When the Pirates were on the West Coast, he would listen to the games in his bed and cry when they lost. But they didn’t lose too often, because they had Willie.

And Willie kept hitting home runs. And Omar Moreno, The Antelope, kept getting on base and would score when Willie hit his shots to right field. And they would have to give Willie the MVP. Who else could they give it to? No one hit the ball as far as Willie. The only time he went to Three Rivers Stadium, Eamon walked up to the sixth level. The yellow seats. There was a plaque hanging on one seat and the date of when Willie hit a home run that smashed into that seat. Eamon stood on the seat and he could barely see home plate from the top of the seat. How could Willie hit a ball so far? The other players called him Pops because he was thirty-nine years old and they were all younger. And Eamon imagined that Willie was a good Pops. That one day Willie would show up at Eamon’s door and take Eamon to his house to live. And if Eamon’s father came to find him, Willie would tell him to stop drinking and if he tried to hit Willie, Willie would knock him out and make him shit his pants. And Willie would take Eamon to the ear doctor and to get haircuts. And maybe Willie would allow Eamon’s mom to live with them. She could make fried chicken wings and fried potatoes and they would drink orange pop and be happy.

But Willie was too busy with the season to come to Eamon’s home right now. And Sylvern didn’t make it to the series. Eamon dealt out hands of Michigan Rummy by himself and played all six hands. Sometimes he cried when he thought of Sylvern, but he figured that Jesus on the cross was taking care of him. Jesus liked all people, even black people. He would be kind to Sylvern and wash his wounds and Sylvern wouldn’t worry about being slow because Jesus loved all people. Sylvern’s brother said Jesus was brown like Sylvern, but no one called Him a nigger. And Eamon still dealt a hand of Michigan Rummy for Sylvern and allowed him to win and some nights he prayed to Sylvern because he was close to Jesus on the cross. Eamon wanted Sylvern to ask Jesus if he could live until the Series. He felt selfish because Sylvern was dead with shit in his pants, but he imagined that Jesus cleaned him and that heaven smelled like baby powder and was warm and had all the peanut butter you could eat. Peanut butter didn’t make you fat, and the other kids in heaven didn’t call you fatso. Eamon sometimes drifted to sleep with the smell of baby powder and peanut butter and Jesus on the cross.

Eamon felt guilty about asking Sylvern for a favor. But he asked his mom if Sylvern would be able to watch the Series in heaven. And his mom said yes. But his dad said no.

“Sylvern ain’t in heaven.”
“He is too.”
“He’s in nigger heaven.”
“There ain’t two heavens.”
“Sure there are.”
“I’ll ask Father Mac.”
“And even if they had a TV in nigger heaven ... someone prolly stole it and he won’t get to watch it anyway, stupid.”
“God wouldn’t allow stealing in heaven.”
“Niggers’ll steal anything ain’t nailed down.”

But Eamon believed his mom. And if Sylvern could see the Series in heaven, it wasn’t so bad to pray to Sylvern to ask Jesus to keep him alive. But Jesus on the cross had to answer other prayers and Willie was too busy playing ball to help Eamon. And beatings were more brutal in the summer. Too hot and no fans or air conditioning. His ears rang until the next day in the wavy heat. And there was no school to escape to. But maybe he could watch the game with Sylvern and Jesus on the cross and eat Cheetos and drink cold Cherikee Red. Eamon thought of red pop and orange corn puffs. And the ringing in his ears. Some days he would stick a pen deep into his ears to stop the pain.

And the summer wore on. Humid and sticky and poison ivy. Eamon was alone. Alone in his room. Alone under the porch. Alone on the floor of his closet. And he knew every batting average. Antelope .286. Tim Foli .250, but he could field. Dave Parker, The Cobra, .323. Willie .298. Bill Robinson .263. Maddog .321. Scrap Iron .276. Ed Ott, The Otter .254. And he knew all of the ERAs. Candy Man 3.14. The Rook 4.43. Bruce Kison 3.86. Bert Blyleven 3.08. And he knew that The Teke, Kent Tekulve, had 38 saves. He knew the score of every game. But mostly, he knew Willie. Knew every one of Willie’s at-bats. The strikeouts and the groundouts and popups and line drives. Willie held the record for strikeouts in a career. But he also hit home runs. Hit long home runs. Eamon waited for Willie to hit home runs. He never knew for sure if he would survive a beating, but he knew cold in his heart that Willie would hit a home run. And when Willie hit a home run, he held his head high the next day. Usually Eamon stared at his shoes to hide bruises, but Willie filled him with a power that only Jesus on the cross could match. The kids noticed that Eamon was walking upright and they knew Willie must have hit a homer last night.

And the Pirates won the Series. Down three games to one, they won the last three and Willie hit the winning home run in game seven. Eamon listened to every game on the transistor radio beneath his front porch. Willie was MVP. And even Howard Cosell had to admit that Willie was great. Eamon wasn’t in school the day after the Bucs won the Series. He couldn’t hold his head high. His Dad came home drunk after game seven and Willie was in Baltimore and couldn’t help Eamon. And when he got out of the hospital, the parade for Willie was over and it was six months until the next baseball season.

Eamon opens bottles of beer and no longer remembers the year the Pirates won the Series. He pours the rivers of beer into his liver. And the poison fills his liver and spills over into his blood. And his eyes turn yellow and he soaks the sheets. Willie Stargell is dead. Dead like Sylvern. Dead like Jesus on the cross. Eamon no longer remembers home runs that Willie hit. He cooks fried potatoes and fried chicken wings and drinks orange pop and thinks of his mother in the casket and his father in his blue suit and the taste of altar wine and the smell of incense. Eamon lights a cigarette and watches the horse races. Sometimes, the horses make him happy.

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