Read an Excerpt
How did it start? they always asked. When did you know? And I always
told them that it started when we were very young.
I was seven and my brother was four. We grew up in Southern
California, my brother and me. It was late August, and I remember how
his blond hair was almost white, and as summer ended, our little arms
and legs, soft like rising dough, were showing some wear and tear-
scratches, scabs, and mosquito bites. On that day I was shirtless,
wearing a dark green bathing suit instead of shorts. My brother wore
navy Bermudas and a white T-shirt with a brown stain on the collar
that was probably Fudgsicle. I carried him on my shoulders so the two
of us could see the same world.
We lived two blocks from South Pasadena High School, massive and
daunting at our young age, with its endless squares of one-story
buildings and green courtyards. The playing fields were in the back,
and empty when we got there. I dragged a baseball bat along the
ground as I moved toward the plate; my brother held the glove we
shared out in front of him with both hands, like the steering wheel
of a bumper car, as he careened beyond the pitcher's mound, which
rose, uneven, like a muffin top.
He looked back at me. I stood in the batter's box and waved him
farther. He moved deeper into the no man's land of tamped grass
between the mound and second, still looking at me, wondering if he
had gone far enough.
"Keep going," I said, full of confidence. He took a few more
reluctant steps, as if the outfield were the deeps of the ocean and
he was afraid of getting sucked in. Thebreeze picked
up, raking my face with bracing desert heat. A real hitter would have
noticed that the wind was blowing in. But I was just a kid.
My brother finally stopped behind second base, in the shallow of
center field. I held the bat in my left hand and tossed the baseball
to myself with my right. The contact I made was crisp, but the swing
was clumsy, and the ball went nowhere. I tried again, starting my
swing at virtually the same instant that I tossed the ball, but the
head start made no difference. The ball kicked down, thumping the
ground and rolling slightly forward, not even out of my reach.
It is difficult to foul off pitches to yourself, but I managed to do
it. Repeatedly. It was close to 100 degrees that day, and the field
seemed empty and enormous with only the two of us. All the elements
that were missing from a real game-crowds, players, and their
overlapping chatter-were suddenly apparent. I fouled off another.
Sweat beaded on my forehead. I was starting to get angry, which never
helped my game. I didn't understand how to convert frustration into
usable energy. All I knew was that I should swing harder and keep
trying to put the ball in play.
At some point I looked up. My brother wasn't in center field anymore.
For some reason, he'd begun to shuffle toward left.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
He didn't answer. He just squinted at me, the sun blinding him. He
pounded his tiny fist into his glove-he must have seen someone do
this and decided to mimic the gesture. And he continued to shuffle,
still facing me but now angling back toward the infield.
"Stop moving around!"
He stopped at third base and looked at me again. Taking a few
tentative steps in front of where the bag would have been, he popped
the glove with his fist one more time-a sound at once more ordinary
and convincing than any I'd been able to produce between the ball and
the bat. Then he sat down.
"Get up!" I yelled.
"It's hot. I'm tired," he said.
"I'm gonna hit it far," I said.
He didn't answer. He looked happy.
"You're going to have to run," I said.
He smiled, his legs straight in front of him, and clicked the tips of
his sneakers together. Dried mud from some other day popped loose,
tumbling out like tiny bricks. I watched as he began picking blades
of grass and lining them up in a row on his thigh.
In retrospect, his grin is delightful and beatific. At the time, it
was the vicious, toothy taunt of a punk toddler entirely
disrespectful of his older brother's athletic prowess. So I ignored
him, the little fucker. I was going to hit it hard. The bat would
crack and the world would snap to attention, in a brief reverent
moment, and then complete its bow before me. I would scorch the blood-
red seams of the ball and send a slingshot of fire high in the air,
where it would kiss the sun. Or something like that.
I tossed the ball in the air, perfectly. It was on a string that
slowed it down yet somehow made it big-the ball ballooned and
hovered, beckoning for me to smack it. I closed my eyes, grabbed the
bat with both hands, felt my weight shift forward, and swung.
I made obscenely full contact, absolutely authoritative. The sound
was deep, different, beautiful. It was not a dribbler, but it wasn't
a long drive, either. It was my first screamer, a low-lining rocket,
a foot off the ground. And it was ticketed directly for my brother's
Things do not often happen quickly in baseball; the game has an
endearing lassitude that can make you feel like you own it. But speed
is speed in any game, and baseball has its fractional moments, more
powerful because they surprise you-that savory shock and then the
swift resolution. My brother was ready, though. In one fluid and
relaxed gesture, he raised his glove in front of his face and caught
I dropped the bat and looked at him. His head was still hidden behind
the glove, which remained frozen and clamped around the baseball.
Then he peeked around it and smiled, rolled the ball back to me, and
the game went on.
Only years later did I realize why my brother had moved from the
outfield and shuffled toward third and raised his glove so
fearlessly. He was only four years old, but he had watched me swing,
seen the way my tosses leaned, the na-
ture of the contact I was trying to make. And he knew that after all
my straining and my dramatic posture of power, down the left-field
line was exactly where I would end up hitting
That was the day my brother moved to third base, and he never left.
I told that story well. No one ever doubted the simple truth it
delivered, because it wasn't outlandish enough to be fabricated. It
was uneven and natural; it triggered a smile and celebrated foible.
It painted him as human in a way that only an intimate could do. It
was a story people liked to hear.
At first I told it haltingly, but after my brother made the
majors and his career began to soar, I grew more familiar with living
in his reflected glow. Without even noticing what I
was doing, I tightened the story and made it better. I hit the ball
harder and harder, shaving split seconds off the amount
of time I gave him to react. I added that brief beat of
aging-sportswriter wisdom-the bit of "endearing lassitude" pablum-
which made me seem smart about the poetry of the game. And I added it
immediately after mentioning that I'd hit the ball right at his head
but before revealing that he'd caught it-taking a step back from the
play-by-play narrative, simultaneously philosophizing and adding
I also must confess that the last part-about him keeping the glove in
front of his face and then peering around it-was a fabrication. I
don't remember if that really happened, though it seems like
something that might have, like something CJ would have done. Who the
hell can remember all the details of a summer day twenty years ago?
Also, I usually didn't refer to him as "the little fucker" when I
I told the story to a national magazine that didn't cover sports.
They ran a short profile of my brother, together with a photo where
he stood, shirtless, to flaunt his physique. ("Ever since that August
afternoon when he was four . . ." the snippet began.) I told it to
the female network sports reporter who, fifteen years earlier, had
wanted to be the first female player in the majors and later sued her
minor-league hitting instructor for sexual harassment. I told it to
my brother's unofficial biographer, a man not much older than me, a
law school graduate who had decided to become a ghostwriter and wore
the wobbly smile of a boy not sure he'd get away with it.
And of course I told it to my dentist, strangers at the car wash and
the dry cleaner, students in my first-period honors physics class,
and the woman who became my wife.
And now I'm telling it once more, a final time. But I'm doing that to
reclaim it, to view it in a different light, and to use it to answer
different questions, ones that no one has ever asked. Because only
after everything happened did I realize that it wasn't a story about
him. It was a story about me.
CJ Columbus-it was a great ballplayer name. The initials made it
work. They suggested boyish familiarity, a kid brother lent to the
world. And the last name wasn't bad, either-a red-and-blue rainbow
over his shoulder blades on the back of his Chicago Cubs jersey, with
its thin whisper of cobalt pinstripes. It was almost embarrassingly
wholesome, a headline writer's dream. (The worst was behind him: his
rookie year. After he throttled Atlanta with a late-inning grand
slam, the first of his career, the Chicago Sun-Times
declared "Columbus Slaughters Braves.")
I believed in the power of names. I believed that CJ would not have
been half the player he was had his name been Oswald or Morris. I
don't wish to offend people who have those names, but those men are
not destined for lives as modern-day ballplayers. They are destined
for difficult though probably interesting lives, I think, perhaps
involving hostage dramas or studio apartments overrun by cats.
On more than one occasion, I asked my parents where they'd come up
with our names. But those discussions, usually part of the meandering
family nostalgia that accompanied
coffee and dessert after bloated holiday meals, failed to yield
satisfying answers. "Your mother liked Charles, your mother liked
Joseph," my father would say.
"But did you like them?" I would ask.
And he would pause, knowing who was listening from the kitchen. "I
liked your mother," he would reply.
I liked my name-I didn't mind the sound of Joe-but I knew that it
wasn't remarkable. It didn't come with expectations. But CJ Columbus;
oh, the rhythm and whir of it. It brimmed with promise. Say it to
yourself if you don't believe me. Say it, as I did, again and again.
You could always count on hearing it at the ballpark. Public address
announcers called his name each time he stepped to the plate. Then
came the applause, dwindling to a murmur as he dug in, and the
jittery silence of the first pitch: would he slap a single, or could
he touch them all? Would he tie the game, or win it with just one
I knew who he was when he was four, but my parents must have known
much earlier-when he was born, when they looked down at him on those
first days home from the hospital and tried out his name, checking to
make certain it would fit. And the fit was perfect. He looked up at
them from his crib like a CJ, bright blue eyes full of knowing. And
so my parents began waiting patiently for the day when he would live
up to the obligations of his fan-friendly nickname and show us all
what he was capable of.
CJ grew to be six-foot-one, and he weighed one hundred and ninety-
five pounds. His blond hair was always cut short. He squinted a
little when he smiled, but the grin was familiar, genuine, absolutely
perfect. He had what baseball scouts call "the good face"-from an
early age, determination and maturity chiseled it a certain way. It
was the face of a ballplayer.
He was the most popular baseball player in the country at age twenty-
three, with that good face, with his blond hair and blue eyes. My
hair is black, and my eyes are brown. We looked nothing alike.
It started out as something he did, a game he played, the same way
everyone else in the neighborhood played it. There was tee-ball and
then Little League, with games three days a week and practices on the
days in between. If you liked to play, it was heaven, and if you were
good, it was easy to get much better. Owing to the agreeable Southern
California climate, the league ran year round. In the late 1970s and
early 1980s all
the kids in the neighborhood played; baseball was still thriving, not
yet immolating itself through labor dispute and arrogance, not yet
being eclipsed by suburban soccer leagues or by Michael Jordan and
the glamorous surge of professional basketball. All our friends
played baseball, and all the parents were friends. It was a closed,
inward-looking world. It surrounded us, and we wanted nothing else.
When we started playing, a lot of kids were good; even I
was good. That's not saying much. I honestly believe that to
be good at any sport when you're a child, you don't have to be
talented, you don't even have to be an athlete; you just have to be
big. (This is true even in baseball, which is the hardest game of
all.) There was one kid, Jeffrey Carder, who was well over four feet
when he was ten. He had one eyebrow and no ability whatsoever. But
Jeffrey was big, and when he hit the ball, he dented it; his swings
were wild and fierce. We knew Jeffrey Carder was picturing the ball
as someone's head, and we wondered how long that person had to live.
We respected his size as talent, and he scared the shit out of us.
I played first base, largely because of my boyish infatua-
tion with Steve Garvey, the indestructible Dodgers infielder with
movie-star looks and Popeye forearms. Growing up, my brother and I
were rabid Dodgers fans; South Pasadena was a ten-minute drive from
the team's spectacularly beautiful stadium in Chavez Ravine. The
stadium had apparently been built by muscling out large numbers of
Latino families who lived in the area, though I didn't know that at
the time. All I knew was that my father shared three season tickets
with two co-workers, we went to many games, and we always stayed
until the end and scoffed at those who couldn't tough it out, those
who scurried to their cars at the first lick of evening chill or hint
of an insurmountable (never!) visitor lead.
My brother and I would fall asleep as the night wore on; in our
matching blue hooded sweatshirts, curled against each other, we were
like two kittens. Sometimes one of the stadium cameramen would find
us, and our pictures would go up on the big screen above left field.
The crowd would try to wake us, but we didn't know or care. We only
knew the comfort
of sleep and of the organist's lullaby; we were in love with
it all. This was back when my brother was in the middle years of
elementary school and I was finishing up. We were still friends, we
did things together, we did things with our par-
ents-shopping at May Company on a Thursday evening, eating burgers
and brownie sundaes at Big Boy on a Saturday night-things we wouldn't
be caught dead doing with them or with each other in a few years.
Since CJ and I were three years apart, our size was always classified
differently, and we never played on the same team. I remember coming
home from school one May afternoon-CJ was nine, so I must have been
twelve. (As was often the case, I figured out the place in my own
life only in relation to the important event happening in his.) I
turned the corner and approached our house. CJ was sitting on the
steps to our front porch, not the place he usually hung out. Both of
us preferred the claustrophobic, air-conditioned chill of the living
room. Our street was flat and sleepy, and nothing surprising happened
CJ was still in his uniform from practice, and a large grass stain
blotted the left shin of his white pants. There was a little mud
mixed in, plus some dried blood where he had dived or slid or just
plain fell. His dark green Screaming Eagle jersey was untucked over
his right hip.
Back then we were both South Pasadena Screaming Eagles. I never
understood why we couldn't just be the Eagles. Apparently it wasn't
enough to be named after an Endangered Species; it had to be an
Endangered Species that was pissed off about it. My friend Ben
Clark's mother had drawn the team logos the previous year; she had
some artistic ability but was recently divorced and tended to lose
her focus. None of the other parents wanted to indicate that she
wasn't good at anything, so they waited and waited for her drawing.
Only later did we learn that on all those dewy early mornings we'd
seen her around town, sitting on benches with her sketchpad before
the heat made everything senseless, she was just staring out at
nothing and waiting for life to turn for her.
But she finally did draw the Screaming Eagle, the bird depicted at
varying levels of agitation. To me, the assorted eagles looked
startled, as if they'd been caught in the middle of some unseemly
bird behavior, but the several renditions adorned shirts, caps, and
the backs of our green satin jackets. My brother's Screaming Eagle
baseball cap was between his feet, and he idly nudged it back and
"Hey," I said.
I noticed that his lips were blue, his tongue as well: Popsicle
residue. "Why are you out here?" I asked.
He didn't look at me. He seemed tired, slouched back against the
steps. "Mom and Dad are inside talking."
"Mom and Dad?" It was strange for them both to be home so early.
CJ nodded. "They're talking to Mr. Covington."
Mr. Covington was CJ's coach. He owned two Chevrolet dealerships, in
Tustin and Monrovia; he was a pleasant man, chubby and grinning. His
family consisted of a wife and five daughters, and all those boys on
all those teams were the sons he never had. He marveled over every
single thing they did, good or bad, with the same expression of
"Covington? What did you do?"
"Nothing. What time is it?"
I checked my watch. It was a gold Timex, red liquid electronic
digital, a suspiciously heavy source of pride on my scrawny
wrist. "Four-fifty," I said.
"Marvosa doubled," CJ said.
"No shit." Nicky Marvosa was a benchwarmer on my brother's team. He
didn't want to play, but his parents forced him to. His father came
to every game and watched his son's sporadic at-bats while standing
apart from the other par-
ents and chain-smoking, grinding the butts into the dirt at his feet.
Father and son drove home together in a burgundy van with tinted
windows. Nicky was small and spooky; he had a black bowl haircut, and
his nose started to bleed when he came up to bat. We were scared of
him, too. We understood
"Do you want me to find out what's going on?" I asked. I didn't
really care if CJ wanted to know; I wanted to know.
CJ burped. "I'm thirsty."
"So go in."
"Are you in trouble?" But I knew he wasn't.
"What did you do in the game?"
"That's what they're talking about," he said.
He wasn't making sense, and my response sensitively reflected
that. "You're being stupid," I said.
"Shut up," he shot back, though his heart wasn't really in it. He
"You're lazy and stupid. Stop burping." This was the kind of
conversation that kids could build a world around, but, sadly, it was
the kind of comeback I would still be making to him years later. I
always found it difficult to argue with my brother. Even as we grew
up and my vocabulary sprawled across a much wider range of evocative
adjectives and profanity, I was rarely able to articulate anything
other than sputtering rage in the face of his Zen-like
I walked up the steps and past him, my shin hitting his shoulder,
granting me a flicker of perverse pleasure, though I did nothing more
than slightly, momentarily buckle him. Between certain brothers, this
would have been enough to start a fight, but not between CJ and me.
We never threw punches at each other, because our parents would not
have tolerated any type of physical confrontation. When we were
younger than I can remember, they must have stopped something before
it could start. It was a good solution, approached with the
intellectual rigor that was typical of the upper-middle-class, book-
smart way they had raised us. We would grow up and have to find other
ways to be cruel to each other.
As I entered the front door, I saw that everyone was in the kitchen,
standing very close to each other. I decided to go about my business
as if theirs meant little or nothing to me. I would be mature,
without needs, and therefore invisible. My parents would be too
enthralled by crisis to notice that every word they said was
escaping, declassified, as soon as it left their mouths.
I weaved among them-Mom, Dad, Covington. I was busy and did not need
direction. They ignored me, and I listened.
"We'll have to talk about it, Jim," my father said.
"It's out of the question," my mother said.
Covington turned to her. "With all due respect, Gail, I'm not sure
you understand what we're dealing with here."
I winced inwardly; Covington really didn't know my mother. All Due
Respect was not enough if you were implying that she didn't
"He's nine years old, Jim," she answered. "How can you be sure what
we're dealing with here?"
Covington took a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was
surprisingly calm and confident. "I've never seen anyone do the
things he can do, Gail. Your son isn't running around in circles out
"What 'things' exactly?" my mother asked.
Covington thought about it for what seemed a long time. Long enough
for me to get the milk, get a glass, and pour it. I glanced at him
quickly; he was looking down, rubbing the back of his neck with his
"He understands the game," Covington said. "I don't know how else to
A silence followed, and I felt myself joining my parents in trying to
understand this statement. My mother was staring
at Covington, squinting and trying to make sense of him. But my
father was looking at me, as if noticing my presence for
the first time. He smiled, the kind of smile that said please leave
I took my Oreos and milk into the living room, put them on the coffee
table, and turned on the television. He understands the game. The
words rocked me-the first external confirmation I'd heard that my
brother was different and somehow better. There was awe in
Covington's voice, even a tremor. This man had coached hundreds of
kids. What could CJ have possibly done, and in only a scrimmage? Was
it a sparkling defensive play, or a great at-bat against an
overpowering, oversized reliever? I couldn't imagine. It was
sometimes a miracle if a pitcher his age could get the ball to the
plate or a third baseman could plant and throw to first.
Covington left a half-hour later, and nothing was ever the same. My
father adjusted his work schedule so that he could drive my brother
thirty miles to play in a different, elite league in Santa Monica. It
was called Babe Ruth AA-Select, like some deluxe cardboard carton of
eggs. And I was introduced to the game of tennis.
My mother, who to my knowledge had never picked up a racket, insisted
that the game was best suited to my physique and intellectual
temperament, as if tennis were a bride my parents had chosen after
mulling over several applicants. I believed my mother, because I
didn't expect her to lie. But what my parents really wanted was for
the two of us not to be competing. We were no longer a pair of
Screaming Eagles-two brothers who played baseball together on a
couple of unambitious neighborhood teams. My parents were not
athletes; they deferred to Covington and his accumulated wisdom, and
then they made their own, seemingly logical leap. They didn't think I
could handle a younger brother who was so much better than me at
something we both did. They were probably right.
So I embraced their low expectations. I'd finish the spring baseball
season, but would soon become the older brother who played catch for
fun. The brother who liked to watch, who could name all the Dodger
players-the kind of useless knowledge only nonplayers flaunted. But
then I became the brother who hated baseball altogether, who thought
it was stupid and slow and boring. This probably didn't bother my
parents; I don't think they loved baseball either. And later I became
the brother who also hated everyone who played it.
CJ was the ballplayer. He was the one who understood the game; he was
the one they came looking for when they came looking. But on that
day, with the coach in our kitchen, the finality of it all-those
entrenched positions that dictated feelings and defined relationships-
was still to come. I walked over to the living room window. CJ,
sitting on the porch step, was pulling his Popsicle stick apart,
examining the tiny splinters. He had played coy with me, but he damn
well knew what they were talking about. He had done something, and
Covington had seen it, and Covington had asked my brother if he could
talk to our parents.
I didn't remember anyone ever corralling my parents on my behalf. I
was never told to wait outside. I suppose it was possible that a
discussion of my future did take place, in some meaningless moment I
overlooked, between breaths, focused elsewhere. And maybe, in one of
life's casual symmetries, my brother was around to overhear it,
sneaking into the kitchen for a glass of soda, the only witness to a
great life-changing debate. Did he tell them what should be done with
me, sending me down some road between sips of his drink, sweet fizzy
pinpricks that tickled him? He never said.
So I became a tennis player. I was pretty good at it, enjoyed the
solitude and the limited number of elements I was required to master,
even if I could never hit a topspin lob, or serve and
volley without foot-faulting. And I never rose much above mediocre,
probably because I practiced against a brick wall up at South
Pasadena High, which forced a degree of urgency upon the game and
gave me many bad habits in return. The ball would ricochet back to me
much faster than it should
have-much more like racquetball-and I ended up conditioned to an
opposing player who was closer, and a net
that was higher, than they actually were. When I returned to the
court for a match, my opponent was small and the net
was low, the reality fuzzy and disappointing. I wanted my
And my mother was wrong about my temperament, or she was right and I
changed my personality merely to prove her wrong. If a call went
against me during a set, or if I made one critical error, I would
plummet to earth like flaming wreckage: launching forehands over the
fence, double-faulting entire service games away, the whole match
over in a matter of minutes. But after the match, I'd quickly forget
the loss and go cheerfully about my business. Losing never ruined my
entire day, just the part of it when I was actually playing, when the
loss might still have been prevented.
In any event, I was too distracted, and there was far too much new
noise inside my head. I had discovered a talent for math and science,
but, more important, girls were everywhere, in places I'd never
noticed them before. They were in front of me at the water fountain,
leaning down, hands pulling the straight brown hair back to spare it,
revealing the delicate right earlobe with its small silver hoop; or
in the front seat of another car at a red light on Fair Oaks
Boulevard; or in my stormy subconscious, their faces parading in arcs
before me, like pictures of ice cream dishes on a glossy parlor menu.
was moody and constantly feverish, bouncing off all people
and objects in my path, or knocking them flat with earnest
obliviousness. My parents did their best to act as if every-
thing were normal; the best way to do this was to gather
around my brother. CJ was younger, he played baseball, and he did not
notice me or anyone else. Thus, he kept everyone
Covington vanished from our lives, fleeing his bold, soapbox-style
assertions about my brother's talent, which, in the short term,
proved shockingly inaccurate. CJ struggled for the first month in the
new league. Early on I watched him play against a towering and tanned
team from Newport Beach. It was a beautiful day, and there was a cool
breeze from the ocean that blew away any anxiety. But the plays I had
seen my brother routinely make were suddenly and puzzlingly beyond
him, his instincts dulled, as if he were growing old before my eyes.
He couldn't reach a sharply hit ball to his right that I'd seen him
swallow many times before. And at the plate he was hesitant and
afraid, taking pitches that I knew he could hit, watching them float
past for strikes one two and three. "Let the game come to you," they
always said, but I got the sense that CJ was letting the game come to
him and watching it pass right on by.
Maybe it was the separation, joining a new team mid-
season-the Santa Monica Mariners, a group of boys from West LA who
had more money than we did and found solidarity in ignoring him.
Maybe, more specifically, it was the awkward tenth birthday party
held that June, when a few of them grimly piled out of a black
Mercedes station wagon and mingled uneasily with us local boys. But
no one asked CJ what he wanted, because he didn't have a choice. He
had an obligation to his talent. He must have known what had to be
done. He understood the game.
After the first sixteen games, he was batting .096. He had nineteen
errors. He was a ghost. I listened as my parents considered returning
him to the Screaming Eagles. There was talk in the neighborhood that
my brother had overstepped, aimed too high; all hype. He was my
brother, but he had left me behind as well. So I didn't defend him. I
stayed silent and relished it as they smashed him flat.
And although I assumed he was miserable, he never let on. CJ wasn't
one to throw his glove and sulk or burst into fits of tears-behavior
that characterized many kids his age, even those who didn't play
sports. He was still a kid, though it was easy to forget it. He bore
the whole thing with grace. It was
his first slump; he would get out of it. And he even seemed to sense
that there would be others and that he'd manage to rise from them,
Still, I couldn't help provoking him. He refused to lean on me, and
at thirteen I saw confrontation and the potential for violence in
every rebuffed gesture. I was drawn to the imagined heat of CJ's
predicament. Since he didn't need my help, I had no choice but to be
cruel, not deviously, behind his back, but brutally, to his face. I
would taunt him with unanswerable questions, desperate to get a rise
out of him. "What's it like to be the worst player on a team?" I'd
ask, shaking my head, intimating genuine curiosity, gleefully unable
to make sense of it all. "Don't you think Michael Caruso or Sean
McGee should have gotten a chance before you did?"
He wouldn't respond. He'd just toss his glove in the air and catch
it, or study the fraying seams of a dirty old baseball that had
camped in the mouth of Rusty, the Houstons' limp-legged golden
retriever across the street. He'd let me rant for twenty or thirty
minutes, sitting there and taking it. "You know, Dad's gonna lose his
job because of you. He has to leave work early every day, and he's
getting fired next week. Darryl Warner told me." (This was blatantly
untrue; my father is part of that generation where all jobs
apparently have tenure-he was a seismologist at Cal Tech, and he
still worked there years later.) Finally, CJ would leave, and I'd let
him, pleased with myself, satisfied for the moment that I had
inflicted heavy emotional damage.
After seven weeks of lousy play and evening harassment, CJ and my
father returned home one day from a game against Malibu. When the
front door opened, I could tell from my father's face that things had
not gone well. He murmured something to my mother-later, I found out
that a ball had darted between my brother's legs and he had also
struck out three times. CJ entered the house behind my father and
quickly disappeared down the hall. Our loved one remained in a coma,
On the other hand, the South Pasadena Intermediate tennis team had
obliterated visiting San Marino, and I had won matches in both
singles and doubles. It was unusual to play both, but I stepped in
when a boy named Jason Wilder cut his foot on a piece of broken glass
and had to sit out. I thrilled at the drama of being the Last-Minute
Replacement; though completely exhausted, I felt unusually thick-
chested that night. I waited until after dinner, when CJ and I were
in our room doing homework, to start on him.
Our beds were flush against opposite walls. It was a room that lent
itself to symmetry and imaginary dividing lines to protect private
space. It was the last year we'd share a
bedroom; I would be exiled that fall to the old guest room above the
garage, with its mealy gray carpet and odd, crumbling built-in
shelving, covered with possibly toxic flaky white paint and housing
numerous secret cubbyholes for storing pornography.
CJ was studying for a world geography test, the kind of thing that
kept fifth-graders busy. He had flash cards filled with quantifiable,
useless facts: the second largest city in Poland, the national anthem
of Greece. I should add here that CJ was an above-average student;
though he thoroughly outpointed me in athletics, I was not able to
declare the clean,
cinematic victory in academics that would have granted me consolation
and calming projections of inevitable, long-term triumph. (Besides,
at that age, I would have gladly chosen dumb jock phenomenon over
undersized budding brainiac
I was staring at my algebra book, bored. I looked over at CJ,
shuffling the geography flash cards, mouthing answers to himself,
flipping them over for confirmation. He had stacks of these cards,
color-coded and organized in rubber-banded stacks on the shelf above
his desk. It was my father's idea.
The room was quiet, and I decided that my brother's recent failures
were not sufficiently devastating. I had dominated in my chosen
sport, a young Borg or McEnroe. He had sucked once again.
"Hey, CJ," I said.
He looked up.
"Let me ask you something." I smiled at him.
I expected him, knowing that I was about to attack, to wilt right
away. I always expected that. But he just looked at me.
"Do you think you'll ever be good at baseball again?"
He went back to the flash cards.
"I mean, what's it like to stand out there at third and be hoping the
whole time that they don't hit it to you, because you know you'll
screw it up if they do? What's it like to be scared every time you go
up to the plate?" I imagined it for myself, with delight.
"I'm not scared," he said, his voice low and bored. He kept at the
"You should be. You haven't hit the ball out of the infield in, like,
"I will tomorrow."
I laughed. His confidence made my job that much easier. "You say that
"This time I'm right."
He sounded so confident that I hesitated. "I don't know. Maybe
baseball's got you beat. Maybe you don't have what it takes."
He leaned back in his chair, stretching and unconcerned. "Nah. I
figured out what my problem is."
"Right." I laughed again, but his cool tone had begun to irritate
me. "Face it. You're terrible, CJ. People are laughing at you. You're
making the whole family look bad."
But I'd lost him-my accusation that he had ruined the Columbus name
throughout Los Angeles County notwithstanding. He got up and wandered
out. I smirked, misjudging everything; I'd thought I could hurt him.
That night, I woke up just after three a.m. I wasn't startled, and I
felt myself ease from sleep. The room was dark. I heard the faint
whir of a truck shifting, picking up speed, carrying through the
still air from some distant street. I was lying on my stomach,
tangled in my comforter and constricted by it. My right leg dangled
off the edge of the bed as if part of me was itching to go somewhere.
I twisted my neck and looked up. My brother was standing next to my
bed. I rotated onto my back and pulled up the blanket so that both of
my feet peeked out. There was little light in the room, and I was in
the process of adjusting, but I could tell that it was him-though I
couldn't make out his expression, his eyes, or anything other than
his unmistakable silhouette.
For the first time, that night, I felt him tower over me. I realized
how it would feel not only to look up at him, but to look up and not
even be able to see him. Apparently, CJ also felt the poetry of the
moment, in those elastic hours before morning. He raised the baseball
bat he was carrying, his favorite Easton aluminum, and smashed it
down on my exposed lower left leg.
I couldn't see what my brother was doing. There was a slight whiff of
movement, a short chopping stroke, then a whistling through the air
an instant before the contact. A flashbulb of agony surged through my
body, the hollow pop of the bone snapping inside me. CJ dropped the
bat. It hit the ground hard and did not roll. He went back to his bed
and sat down on the edge, invisible to me.
I screamed. Lights came on, and my parents flooded into the room.
Time slowed down, sped up, unrecognizable. I kept screaming. I did
not know I could scream so loud. It sounded to my ears as if the
scream was coming from someone else, though it definitely wasn't; my
brother was sitting there, so I kept screaming to make sure I was
doing it louder than this mysterious other person who was filling the
room with sound. All the anger and frustration and hurt of my life
had been isolated into one forgivable moment where I was allowed to
yell as much as I wanted to.
My father carried me out of the house to the station wagon and laid
me in the back seat, my good leg bent at the knee, my broken one limp
and throbbing, shrouded under an oily beach towel. I closed my eyes,
feeling the cool steel of the seatbelt buckle prodding my cheek,
which was wet with tears. I felt a sticky dampness below my chin as
well, and realized that I had thrown up all over myself.
My father drove me to Huntington Memorial Hospital, where the bone
was set and cast, from knee to toe. I was not going to die. It was a
clean break. They gave me crutches made of cheap yellow foam and
sheeny gray metal, and I took my first awkward steps with them,
outside. It was around five in the morning, still cool and quiet, the
sky amping slowly toward dawn. We were sent home, and I found out
later that while I was being treated, my father had given a statement
to a social worker at the hospital, who had been called in because
the injury looked suspiciously like child abuse.
When we got home, my mother was waiting for us. She was making French
toast, though she had placed a box of Cap'n Crunch on the kitchen
table as well. My brother was not around.
My father kissed my mother on the cheek, moved past her, and left the
two of us alone.
"You're back," she said. She didn't look up and made no effort to aid
me, leaving me to hobble toward the kitchen table and collapse in a
chair. She had showered and dressed, and she was beating eggs.
Something was sizzling, but I could also smell that something had
Her voice was lilting and suspiciously friendly. "Does it hurt?" she
"Yeah," I said. It did. It was aching, and I expected it would throb
forever. My lower left leg had seceded from my body and was in the
midst of developing its own temperament and behavior patterns. At
that moment, it was giving me a big fuck-you.
She came to the table, placed a plate in front of me, and sat down.
"Thank you," I said, halfheartedly. The French toast looked blackened
and overcooked. I wondered if she had burned it on purpose to punish
me. I didn't have a fork and I was covered in puke. I wasn't hungry.
"Don't eat it if you don't want it," she said.
That made me feel guilty, so I started to tear at it, savagely. The
logic of our family was gone. I was a different person, suddenly free
to eat without utensils and otherwise behave irrationally. But in the
silence, as she watched me, I quickly settled down. "It's great,
Mom," I said, feeling some convoluted need to placate her. I kept
eating. The bread was crisp and difficult; I couldn't taste it. I
only felt the grit of the charred bread, mixed with the cinnamon
sugar, scratching the roof of my mouth. I took smaller and smaller
bites, losing energy and interest. Maybe I wanted it to last forever,
afraid of what was coming next.
When I glanced up, she was staring at me. My mother was tough and
smart. At that time she was a deputy district attorney for the city
of Los Angeles. Her black hair was cut stylishly short, and with her
pale skin and dark eyes, we looked a lot alike and even seemed to be
growing oddly closer in age-she was fighting hers, and I was getting
carried away with mine.
"What did you do to him?" she asked.
"Huh?" I was startled by her question.
"To provoke him. What did you do to provoke him?"
"I didn't do anything!" I heard my voice become a whine, all screechy
and cracked. My eyes grew large, like an unconvincing gesture of
surprise and innocence, right out of a comic book.
"That's impossible. You must have done something." She squinted at
me, not suspicious but beyond that. It was the same look she'd given
Coach Covington-the look that indicated that she couldn't understand
me and I was to blame for it, a gaze that said I'm on to you.
I was suddenly infuriated. "So this is all my fault?" I gestured, but
I was still clenching the crutch in my left hand. The crutch rose
from underneath an empty chair and knocked the chair to the floor.
I ignored the mishap, a self-conscious commitment to the intensity of
my innocence. There weren't two sides to this story. Were there? "He
hit me with a baseball bat, Mom. He broke my leg."
"You must have done something, Joey."
"So? Does that give him the right? When someone kills someone, they
can't just do it because they had a reason to!" I framed the debate
in legal terms, learned not from her but from watching too much
television. It was my pathetic attempt at common ground.
"Actually, they can. It's called justifiable homicide."
"Well!" I flipped my hand in the air dismissively.
"Tell me what you did."
"Why? Will you break my other leg if I don't?"
She glared at me. I glared back, slowly chewing my mouthful of shitty
French toast, swallowing dramatically, and never blinking or looking
away. It seemed defiant at the time.
CJ was not punished for what he did. He apologized, one of those
mumbly numbers, in a ceremony that made all of us even more
uncomfortable. I apologized as well, furious that I was forced to. I
took the obvious and irritating reverse tack, enunciating loudly
along the lines of: "I'm really sorry, CJ, that I said you were a
terrible baseball player and that you would never be good at anything
again." Next, I recanted bonus, ad-libbed cruelties-my final,
flailing jabs-until my father guided me from the room. It was the
only way I could make my apologies palatable.
But that was all for show. I don't think either of us was sorry, and
we never spoke of the incident for what it really was: a younger
brother's brutal act of retaliation-possibly justified in spirit if
not in reality-against an older brother who had persisted in being an
That afternoon, in a game against Redondo Beach, CJ had a couple of
hits. It was nothing overwhelming, nothing other players on other
teams hadn't done thousands of times. But the hits were in a row-a
single to left, followed by a double down the right-field line-and
two in a row was almost a bunch, and hits bunched together made all
the difference. The coaches and my parents were encouraged; these
were the first flickers of life, the fluttering eyelids of a ten-year-
old giant rising from dead slumber.
He was also solid defensively-no errors in seven chances. He knocked
down a liner slicing into the corner over his head, holding the
opposing batter to a single instead of a double. The next batter
grounded sharply back to him, and he threw to second to start an
inning-ending 5-4-3 double play, a rally killer only possible because
his first play had kept it in order.
Santa Monica won two more games that weekend; CJ had three hits in
the first, including a home run. The next day he had three more hits,
stole two bases, and charged a weak bunt down the line and gunned
down the runner at first.
Summer arrived. My cast was sawed open, and I stored it
in the closet, shutting the door on the stale signatures of
bored boys from the neighborhood who didn't mind crouching over my
lower leg. I unzipped the cover to my tennis racket and noted
emotionlessly the hole in its middle; the strings had snapped and
unraveled. I went to camp for six weeks and worked part-time for a
local landscaping company that paid me under the table with a plastic
bag of loose change and a deceptively thick stack of one-dollar
bills. I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom seven times, and I
read a book of short stories by Stephen King, a dog-eared paperback
I'd found abandoned at the local pool; its sudden, graphic violence
felt forbidden and smutty. I moved into my new bedroom and decorated
it badly. And my brother played baseball, every day and every night.
He didn't start to fill out physically for another few years, but the
fact that he stayed small, albeit briefly, allowed him to hone other
elements of his game. He was never able to fall back on power; his
fundamentals, on the other hand, were exquisite. He was quick. He had
tremendous vision. He was always perfectly positioned in the field-
some of this was coaching; some of it must have been instinct-and he
made hard plays look routine. At the plate he could hit the ball to
all fields, put the ball in play to advance a runner or play hit-and-
run, or bat lead-off and work the count. Somehow, so young, he had
managed to grasp all the elements of the game-
batting, fielding, running, catching, throwing. He wasn't yet great
at all of them, but he knew the way they related and
balanced. At times the ebb and flow of the game seemed so natural
that it was as if he'd already played the whole game
in his head, and was replaying it that day in the field for our
He played fall and summer ball with Santa Monica for two more years;
springtime was reserved for the brief, less meaningful middle school
season. The boys grew up, and the Mariners went to the state
championships twice but were shut down each time by a team from
Sonoma that featured a genetic anomaly of a pitcher with the unlikely
name of Clark Kent. Kent limited them to a handful of hits each year,
though CJ had five of them.
CJ immediately joined the varsity team at South Pasadena when he
arrived as a freshman. People had started talking about him: the
batting average over .500, the remarkable defensive range and perfect
mechanics, the composure and comportment beyond his years, maturity
that even many pouty pros still lacked. There were always lots of
good high school athletes, everyone telling them that they were going
to make it, but most of them had already peaked. They were destined
to be superstars in only a minor constellation, but they were also so
young and blindered and full of confidence that they refused to
believe it. CJ was told the same stories, with their same
unbelievably happy endings. Were we wrong to think they were real?
There were college and professional scouts watching him play; they
circled around each other, squinting and chewing gum and calculating,
watching my brother-men falling in love with the sun on his great
I was in the twelfth grade when CJ arrived; it was the first time
we'd been in the same school together in seven years. We were civil
to each other but traveled in different spheres. I gave him a ride to
school each morning, but we did not speak of anything important, and
after practice or games he found his own way home. We had no friends
or interests in common. I had long ago given up tennis, and playing
baseball together seemed even more foreign and remote. I was focusing
on school, on getting good grades and getting into a good college.
This was territory over which I still had some control.
For every story you tell there's one that you don't. Most people
thought that CJ played all the time, cultivated his natural gifts,
and flourished. But I knew better, even though, in many ways, I never
really knew him at all.
When I was seven I moved my brother to third base. The world knew all
about that. But all those years, under the radar of inquiring minds,
was the second story-of how, when I was twelve, I helped him to
succeed there. CJ had told me that he knew what was wrong. He knew
why he wasn't playing well. A few hours later, in the middle of the
night, he swung and did not miss. He could have caved in my skull,
shattered my face and disfigured me, or cracked my knee and made me a
cripple. But of course it wasn't about what he was doing to me; he
was doing it for himself, the way we all acted out, more often in
small and everyday ways, to quiet something inside.
After that, CJ began to surpass expectations instead of slumming
beneath them. My broken leg was an anecdote to which I added no
drama. There was a neatness to it that I instinctively mistrusted,
but not everything that was obvious was also false. I rolled it over
in my mind so many times that I had no choice except to embrace it,
because even if it was no more than a comforting, delineating lie, I
could not outrun it.
Baseball players struggle at the plate; it is a fact of life. They
bring their hands together or close their stance, raise their elbows,
bend their knees. They watch tapes, study opponents, burrow into
themselves. Most of them never figure it out. Baseball is a game of
failure; my brother faced it down early. All he needed was contact,
the pure and delicious crack of the bat. It was something I helped
him to hear and feel. He had looked down on me that night when we
were young; he had waited for his confident gaze to open my eyes.
Then he found his voice, there was a gorgeous realignment, and the
Copyright (C) 2000 Houghton Mifflin Company.