Black Pork

by Greg Downs


Read this story with “Diggin’ My Potatoes” by Leadbelly:



On Tuesday, Ruby-Anne kept Branch company during his grandfather’s checkup. It meant missing softball practice, but her mother, Marie Claire, was the softball coach, and loved Big Pop, too, and didn’t try to talk Ruby-Anne out of it. Branch and Ruby-Anne talked pitching while they waited in the car. When Big Pop walked out the clinic door, they both went quiet. The old man weaved across the clinic parking lot, bracing his fingertips against the hoods, then settled into the passenger seat. Before he buckled up, Big Pop whispered in his grandson’s ear.

“I want to taste black pork again,” Big Pop said. “Congo cut. Nigger meat. I want to feel big.” Big Pop’s mouth slid down his grandson’s ear and he kissed the boy deep on his neck, on the trail of hair the barber shaved every other Thursday. Branch nudged the old man away. Then he reached down and squeezed his grandfather’s hand.

“What you whispering, Big Pop?” Ruby-Anne asked. She sat in the backseat, working her needles through a baby sweater. The piece had just taken the shape of an arm, and she knitted it steady, nodding her head as she counted stitches, only looking down when it was time to cross over. She was fifteen years old.

Branch squeezed his grandfather’s hand tighter, warning him. “Nothing,” Branch said. “Big Pop ain’t saying nothing.”

“You telling him something about me, Big Pop?” she asked.

“Just the truth,” Big Pop said. “Better not let a girl like you slip away. Not many can knit and throw a baseball, both.”

Branch turned the ignition, steered the car onto 34, toward Faircloth.

“That doctor give you some kind of medicine?” Branch said. “You’re talking crazy, Big Pop.”

Ruby-Anne glanced down, checked her needles, then looked up at the white men in the seat in front of her.

“He’s worried about my feelings, Big Pop. He thinks he’s protecting me.”

“Protecting hisself,” Big Pop said. “You’re the one who’s the kid, Branch.”

“I know what I am,” Branch said. “And I know what she is. I know both of those things.”

* * *

Three times in the week previous, Branch found notes in his mailbox. They were written on the stationery of a local college. The notes all said about the same thing. “Those days are history, asshole. No more white men chasing down black girls just because they can. There are laws now, and there are people who will make sure those laws get enforced, until assholes and statutory rapists like you are history.”

Three letters, on the cream-colored college stationery, written in purple ink with a woman’s careful hand. No signature, but he knew they were from Lanie Laurence, the woman professor who’d bought the Meyers place up the hill. She was the owner, also, of the two old sharecropper cabins down the hill, the one that Big Pop and Branch rented, and the one that Ruby-Anne and her mother Marie Claire lived in. Nobody knew where the professor was from, so people said she was from New York City. Branch didn’t touch Ruby-Anne, of course, but not because of the notes. He had other reasons for that.

* * *

Six months ago, when he came home from that one awful season in Davenport, Iowa, Branch was ashamed to face Big Pop and Marie Claire. He drove up to the cabins, and he sat in the driver’s seat of his Ford Tempo, listening to the Mellencamp song on the radio. Marie Claire was over to his left, drinking lemonade at the picnic table behind her cabin. And Big Pop was to his right, chewing on a sandwich. After a while, Marie Claire got up from her table and walked over to Big Pop and gave him her hand. Big Pop took it, and the old white man and the middle-aged black woman walked over together toward him. Branch rolled down his window. He knew he had disappointed them twice, by not being a better pitcher than he was, and by not taking the team’s offer to bring him the next year. They had hopes for him, Marie Claire and Big Pop, both, and Branch had broken those hopes. Big Pop surprised him by leaning through the window and kissing him on the lips, something Big Pop had never done before.

“It’s my boy,” Big Pop said. “Couldn’t stay away from home cooking for long.”

“Look at you,” Marie Claire said. “You grew up and got sad on us.” She kissed him on the cheek, then led Big Pop back to his picnic table. Branch was so relieved that he didn’t even notice how slowly Big Pop was walking. He got his suitcases from the trunk.

Ruby-Anne pretended to be mad at him.

“And who are you supposed to be?” she said. Ruby-Anne was taller, up to his chin. That was the first thing that told him she had changed.

“Well, I ain’t Nolan Ryan.”

“Don’t you leave me no more. I don’t like it one bit.”

Branch used to hug her every night, before bed, the way a brother would. But now he was frightened to touch her. He looked down at the glove in her hand.

“Want to throw?” he said.

“Think you can still catch me? After all that time sitting on the bench in Davenport, Iowa?” Ruby-Anne could throw much harder now than she could four months earlier. That was another difference.

* * *

On Tuesday, Big Pop wanted to go out to eat after his doctor visit. But he couldn’t keep anything down, just brushed his food across the plate. The waitress wrapped his steak in aluminum foil.

“You don’t usually leave anything for the dogs, Mr. Russell,” she said.

Big Pop looked toward the women’s bathroom. Ruby-Anne was in there, washing up.

“I ain’t hungry for this white food,” he whispered. “I’m hungry for black pork. Nigger meat.”

The waitress dropped the bag on the table. “I don’t think that’s on our menu.”

Branch gave money to the waitress, so she’d go away.

“Stop that big talking,” Branch said. “Before you hurt somebody, saying something you don’t mean.”

Big Pop drew his tongue across his lip. “But I want to feel big,” he said.

The whole drive home, Branch talked, to keep Big Pop quiet, to protect Ruby-Anne from hearing something she shouldn’t have to hear.

* * *

Big Pop was born across the river, in Kentucky. His parents died from the flu when he was four years old, both of them, and his uncle and aunt took him in. They lived in a few cabins on one side of a tobacco plantation, with some other white hands. The colored lived on the other side of the fields. Though they all worked the same damn tobacco plants, they kept to themselves, the white and the colored. One spring when he was a teenager, Big Pop’s uncle got tired of feeding him, drove him across the river to Faircloth, Ohio, and got him a job sweeping floors at the sporting goods store, the same one where Branch worked now, selling equipment to high school teams.

That wasn’t the story Big Pop told, though. This was the story he told. The Christmas he was fifteen, just before his family sent him to Ohio, the colored families dug a big pit and dropped rocks in boiling water and lifted them out with tongs and carried them to the pit. Then they piled wood and set it to fire. When it was burned to ashes, the colored lay the pork shoulder on top and then they buried the whole mess. Two of the men standing guard over it, and the smoke rising up through the fissures in the ground. When they dug it up, late the next day, a woman and a girl carried over a plateful to Big Pop’s uncle.

“For the holiday,” the mother said. Big Pop pinched off a piece and stuck it in his mouth. The grease coated his tongue. It was like eating oil and smoke.

But his uncle gave the colored the back of his hand, told them to stay where they belonged. “We folks can provide for ourselves,” he said.

As the woman and her daughter walked away, Big Pop’s uncle said, “Damn niggers. Let their toe in, and they’ll stick their whole damn foot. But you didn’t say no, did you, boy?”

The taste in his mouth, the sight of them walking away, those were things Big Pop talked about. But only late at night, after Ruby-Anne had gone back to her mother’s house.

* * *

Tuesday evening, Ruby-Anne came over to watch the television with Big Pop. Big Pop was just like ever, whistling at the pretty girls on the television, sassing back to the “boss men.” But Branch couldn’t relax around his grandfather. He got his glove, went outside to the backstop he and Big Pop put up years ago. They painted the strike zone with yellow road paint they got from the state highway crew. Nailed sponges to the front, in the strike zone, so a strike sounded different than a ball. Branch took a ball from the bucket, threw it, waited for the wood to tell him what he had thrown. A strike made a soft thump.

Marie Claire carried her pitcher of lemonade out from her house to the picnic table. “Kick high,” she hollered, her voice hoarse from screaming. After a few weeks of softball, she’d be reduced to whispering. Even in the dark, Marie Claire could tell when Branch threw lazy. He went over, sat down across the table from her. Marie Claire poured lemonade into the glass she brought out for him. “It’s strong tonight,” she said. “Had to be, the way those damn fool girls practiced.”

The lemonade was spiked, always had been, though Branch did not know it when he was in high school. Marie Claire liked to talk about her people, who worked the shipyards in Chester, Pennsylvania. She went through the college here on softball scholarship and then she got pregnant with Ruby-Anne and took a job coaching softball at Faircloth High, and she had never left. “Which is all right,” she’d say. “Cause Chester, Pennsylvania, sounds better in pictures than it does in living color. I’ll tell you that.”

“Season starts Saturday,” Branch said.

“Not that we’re ready for it.” Marie Claire tapped a cigarette from her pack and lit it. “Least I got Ruby-Anne. She’ll be ready. Those other girls nothing but fools. Children.”

“Ruby-Anne’s arm is livelier than a fucking firecracker,” Branch said. “She’s going to make them little high school girls look stupid.”

“A fucking firecracker.” She smiled around her cigarette. “Didn’t talk that way before you went to Davenport, Iowa.”

Liquor, yes, but she wouldn’t let him touch her cigarettes.

“It was Ruby-Anne’s father got me started, and look now, he ain’t around but the Marlboros still are.” She puffed, the red ring at the tip flickering and then quieting down.

“He was a fast-foot man. In your door and then out the window. He probably don’t even smoke Marlboros no more. He probably isn’t even faithful to his habits.” She poured him another class of lemonade. Before, in high school, she used to lecture him at night, but now she talked story to him, like he was her friend.

“Me,” she said. “I’ve always been a faithful one. Fall in love once and stick with it.” She stubbed out her cigarette on the wooden table. “And Ruby-Anne’s the same way. Any fool can see that.”

The lemonade caught deep in Branch’s throat and started him coughing. Marie Claire slapped him on the back. Ruby-Anne came out of Big Pop’s house to check on the noise.

“He need mouth to mouth?” she said.

“I know you need to give it to him.” Marie Claire slapped Branch’s wrist. “Look, you’re making him blush, and you just a little girl.”

Ruby-Anne went back inside Big Pop’s house to watch the television. Branch stayed outside with Marie Claire. The kids passed back and forth between the two homes all the time, but Big Pop and Marie Claire only went inside each other’s house twice a year, to Marie Claire’s at Thanksgiving and to Big Pop’s at Christmas.

* * *

On Wednesday, Marie Claire kicked the varsity out of practice, and hollered at the jayvee, who at least would listen. Ruby-Anne called Branch at the sporting goods store, and he drove over to pick her up as soon as he finished. The other varsity girls were standing on the sidewalk, giggling. “That’s Ruby-Anne’s boyfriend,” one of the girls said. “He’s got a car.”

Big Pop was asleep, so the two of them were alone, unless that professor Laurence was staring down the hill at them. From the second-floor windows, that professor could probably see the whole compound, their little lives opened before her like one of her books.

Ruby-Anne waited for him to open her door. That was something else that had changed when he came back from Davenport, Iowa. She expected to be treated like a lady.

“Let’s go for a stroll,” Branch said. Being alone with her made him nervous, these days.

They walked the old furrow, left over from the corn days. Now that the lady professor didn’t farm it, the land was mostly heather and ragweed. They went far into the fields, all the way to Red Creek. There, Branch stepped onto the flat rock in the middle of the stream and turned back and gave her his hand. Ruby-Anne didn’t let go, even when they reached the other side. Her fingers were strong, from all the baseball they had thrown. In season, he made her stick to softball, since there wasn’t any baseball for girls, once you got to high school.

“You worried about falling?” he said. “That why you holding so tight?”

“Maybe I already fell.”

“You shouldn’t talk like that.”

“You should let me kiss you, Branch. It wouldn’t hurt you none. You should want to make other people happy.”

“I ain’t going to make you happy. I’m going make you sad, Ruby-Anne.”

“You’re just making yourself sad right now, Branch. Not letting yourself kiss this black woman who loves you.”

“If you don’t shut up, I’m going to shake your hand loose.”

“I’ll just catch hold again. You know I got strong fingers.”

But she stopped talking about kissing him. On their way back, Ruby-Anne described the game coming up against Consolidated. The way she would pitch the first inning.

“Think, don’t just throw,” he said. “That was my problem. I was an arm, not a head.”

“You ain’t going to have no problems, Branch.” She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed his index finger once, quickly.

“Be careful but don’t walk nobody. Throw strikes but not too good ones.”

He let her hold his hand the rest of the way home. The truth was he didn’t mind holding hands with her. The truth was he didn’t mind anything he did with her. It was just that she had become pushy, these last few months, and he feared the next things coming, when they might do something he couldn’t ever take back. He had come home from that Iowa baseball team because he liked his old life, not so he could mess it up. Didn’t he have enough to worry about, with Big Pop acting so strange? As they came out from the fields, Branch shook her hand free, and this time she didn’t fight him.

* * *

Wednesday night, Branch found a new note in the mailbox. An article about Neanderthals copied from the Encyclopedia Britannica. The professor Lanie Laurence had written two sentences across the bottom, with her purple pen.

“See any creatures like that anymore? They’re extinct, and you will be too if you don’t keep your hands off that poor girl.”

The picture showed a hunched-over man with a scraggly beard. Branch had seen a hundred men who looked like that in the stands of his baseball games, here and in Iowa, both. He threw the paper into the trash can.

* * *

Big Pop could snore like a champ. He’d lie on his back, twitching his head as the breath tore through his throat and the back of his mouth. Sometimes it got so bad that Branch would walk out to the couch, where Big Pop slept, and punch him on the arm to quiet him. Big Pop never got angry. He’d rub his arm and apologize. “I’ll stop it, I promise.” Of course he didn’t. But Branch was used to it. Most days it didn’t bother him.

Late Wednesday night, Branch woke up to silence. No snoring. He jumped out of bed naked and ran to the living room. He was scared without admitting why. But the couch was empty, the blankets in a heap on the carpet. The bathroom was empty, and the kitchen, too. He put on his shorts and walked outside.

“Big Pop?” The night was dark and he walked to the edge of the yard, up past the pitcher’s mound, and he called again. Marie Claire came out from her house.

“Is Big Pop over with you?” Branch asked.

“Course he isn’t.”

“Ruby-Anne sleep?”

“She ain’t on the telephone, and she ain’t throwing softball, and she ain’t chasing you, apparently, so sleep must be about the only option left.” Marie Claire turned on the light. She was wearing her shimmering green sweat suit, the one she wore all day at school. “Let’s go find him.” Marie Claire zipped up her jacket.

They walked up the road toward the Meyers house, where Big Pop was standing on the porch, pounding on the door. Big Pop had been friendly with Mrs. Meyers, before she died, but he had not been up to the house since that professor Lanie Laurence bought it.

“I just want some black pork, Mrs. Meyers,” he said. “Nigger meat. I remember you used to get some.”

From inside, a woman’s voice, Professor Laurence, called out to him. “You go away, right now. I won’t have any man talking that way around me. You understand?”

Branch hollered his grandfather’s name. Big Pop didn’t seem surprised to see him.

“Sometimes Mrs. Meyers used to come back from her cousins in Kentucky and bring some with them,” Big Pop said to Branch. “Mrs. Meyers would always save me a little, but now she won’t give me none.”

“Miss Marie Claire’s with me,” he said.

Big Pop slouched down, stuffed his hands into his pockets.

“Hi, there, honey,” he said. Marie Claire slid her hand through his elbow, leading him to the steps.

“Why don’t we take you home?” she said.

“Mrs. Turner?” It was Professor Laurence, from inside. “You alright out there? I’m already calling the police. There are laws against racism in this country.”

“I don’t need no protection from Russell here,” she said. “He’s just confused.”

“I’d call it bigotry.” Professor Laurence opened the door. She was a thin, dark-haired woman with nervous eyes and the most enormous red-framed glasses. “Mrs. Turner, I need to tell the police about the way his grandson is chasing your daughter. I saw him kissing her down in the field today.”

“I bet she was kissing him back,” Marie Claire said. “If I know my daughter.”

Marie Claire steered Big Pop down the steps. The old man had been thinking deeply, and finally he said, “That Mrs. Meyers ain’t look the same, is she?”

“No, she doesn’t,” Marie Claire said.

“I didn’t never kiss her,” Branch said to Marie Claire. “I did hold her hand a little, cause she wanted to, but I didn’t let her kiss me.”

“You say it like it makes a difference,” Marie Claire said. She led Big Pop down the steps, and they walked down the hillside to their cabins.

* * *

Thursday evening, Big Pop forked the roast beef into the trash. He hadn’t eaten anything solid since his appointment at the clinic.

“You got to eat,” Branch said. “You were the one said you wanted to be big.”

“Whyn’t you throw the ball again?” Big Pop said. “It’d make me feel a little lighter, watching you.”

Branch took the plate from his grandfather and ran it under the faucet. He waited for the water to take the last of the gravy, and then he wiped the plate with the sponge.

“I’m a catcher, these days,” Branch said. “It’s Ruby-Anne who’s got the games ahead of her.”

“I been knowing that. I just know I want to see you again. You threw the ball so beautiful. Like it sprouted from your fingers.”

“They didn’t think so in Davenport, Iowa.” His first two weeks there, Branch started three times. Lost all three. And then didn’t pitch again for two months. No one would tell him why he was stuck on the bench. At the end of the season, they offered him another year, since he was a lefty, to see if he could fill out, grow into his arm. But he didn’t want to go back. He wanted to be nowhere near that life again.

“They don’t know shit in Davenport, Iowa,” Big Pop said. “I know what I saw.”

So Branch got the glove from the hook by the door and walked out to the mound. There was a bucket of balls in the kitchen, lumpy and scuffed from use. Why warm up? No reason to save his arm. He kicked his leg high, Dizzy Dean-style, the way Big Pop taught him and then he let himself fall into the pitch, his toe diving toward the plate. The coaches at Davenport wanted to shorten his motion, take a little off the fastball, gain some on the control. Be a pitcher, not a thrower. But he loved to throw. He threw fastball, fastball, fastball. Who needed a curve in the dark? Who needed anything except the thump of the ball striking the sponges? Sometimes he missed low, just so he could hear the crack when it landed outside the strike zone, ball on wood.

“Look at my boy,” Big Pop said. “Better than any symphony I ever heard.”

Big Pop was sitting on the picnic table in back of their house, resting his hands on his belly. Across the driveway, Marie Claire was watching from her table. Ruby-Anne looked out from her window; she was talking on the telephone, nodding her head as she watched Branch throw. He leaned back again, hesitating the way Luis Tiant used to do in the Saturday afternoon games they showed on the television. He held himself, his knee tucked against his stomach, waiting until he felt like pitching. No umps here, no coaches, nothing but his world. Then he kicked his leg up high and began to fall forward. The ball thumped against the backstop.

“Beautiful,” Big Pop said.

“Kick high,” Marie Claire said. “An inch up there makes the whole difference.”

“He looked good to me, honey.”

“He did look good. I’m just saying he needs to look great. Cause he can, when he remembers.”

Big Pop loving Branch the way he was, Marie Claire pushing him to be better. The same as it had been before, when he was still in high school and had the draft ahead of him and didn’t know anything at all about Davenport, Iowa. After a while, Ruby-Anne came out, and she turned on the headlights of the cars so they could see, and squatted to catch for him.

“Unhittable is what that is,” Ruby-Anne said.

“Oh, it’s hittable,” he said. “Those bastards from Cedar Rapids hit it like it was on a tee.”

“I don’t care nothing about Cedar Rapids,” she said. “That is a first-class fastball.”

After a few pitches, he got a softball, and he warmed her up slow. Tossing from close in, backing her off as her arm woke. Twenty, thirty minutes of soft tossing before he let her unleash. She had the game in two days, and he didn’t intend to interfere with that. She was the best softball pitcher anybody in the county had ever seen, dismissing batters like insults.

“Ain’t nobody in Davenport or Cedar Rapids, either one, can hit that ball,” he said. “I’ll tell you that.”

“That’s cause softball’s for girls.”

“And you’re a girl. Perfect fit.”

Ruby-Anne whipped her arm and fired. The pitch rode a little high, and Branch was slow raising his glove. The ball tipped off the glove’s edge and smacked him on the forehead. Actually, it didn’t hurt; it just made him feel funny. Branch rolled backward onto the dirt and lay flat, the sky dark and open above him, until Ruby-Anne’s face filled it. She knelt over him, running her fingers across his cheek.

“I killed him,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”

He blinked his eyes. “No, you didn’t. Not yet.”

Ruby-Anne bent down to kiss him. Branch felt it without feeling like it was happening to him. He lay there and let it happen. She held her tongue on his lip, then she pulled away.

“I was just checking his breath,” she said. “He ain’t dead, yet.”

“That goes for all of us,” Marie Claire said, and Big Pop laughed. If they saw the kiss, they didn’t say anything.

* * *

Friday morning, Branch found a folded sheet of paper under his windshield wiper. A pen-and-ink drawing of a bird and above it the words “Carolina Parakeet.” The professor—he recognized the tight curves of her vowels—wrote beneath it, “They used to be everywhere, and they used to think they were beautiful, and now they’re gone. Good-looking things go away, and so will you if you keep climbing on top of that girl. You’re history.”

Branch crumpled the paper into his pocket. He never thought of himself as good-looking, particularly. When he was pitching on the mound, maybe, but not just standing around in his T-shirt and his Wranglers. In regular clothes, he looked just like everybody else.

* * *

Friday night, Ruby-Anne tossed a few slow ones to Branch, just to calm herself. Then she said she needed to rest up for the next day. Branch placed her glove in the passenger seat of his car, so she wouldn’t leave it behind in the morning. Game days, Ruby-Anne was so nervous she’d forget anything. Ruby-Anne followed him to the car. When he turned around, she was so close he could smell her, swampy from sweat. A year ago, her sweat didn’t stink. She was changing.

“Give me a kiss for luck?” she said.

“I can’t.” He could feel Professor Laurence’s crazy, nervous eyes reading him the way a psychic read a palm. Seeing his little acts and predicting his future. He hadn’t told anybody about those notes.

“I know you want to.”

“Once you can’t, you don’t even ask if you want to.”

Ruby-Anne bit her bottom lip under her teeth. A year ago, before he left for Iowa, all her facial expressions had been big. Happiness and fury and hurt and curiosity and confusion. But now, she had a whole slew of stifled looks, masking her feelings. Like she had gone from comedy to drama in just those few months he was gone. During the months he was in Davenport, Iowa, Ruby-Anne wrote him a postcard almost every day. The cards didn’t say much, but beneath her signature she’d draw a circle and write there the number of days left until he came home. Branch wrote her back, every Sunday, and he signed his letters “love,” even though that wasn’t exactly what he meant.

“I’ve got to have my luck,” Ruby-Anne said. “So you’re either going to have to kiss me now or in the morning, at the ball field, in front of everybody. If that’s what you’d rather, that’s your choice, though.”

Her forehead was even to his chin, a final growth spurt that happened while he was gone, and that warned of what came next, her body swelling and thickening and curving out of its childhood. He bent down to kiss her on the forehead. She tilted her head into him, met his lips with her own.

“Good luck,” he said.

“I don’t need luck, you big dummy.”

* * *

After Branch put Big Pop to bed, he sat down with Marie Claire at her picnic table. Behind her, the house was dark. Right now, Ruby-Anne was knitting in her room, waiting for the sleep to take her. Marie Claire poured a glass of lemonade for him. The first sip made him wince. Even stronger than usual.

“You nervous about tomorrow?” he said. Sometimes, Marie Claire walked the fields before games, blowing her whistle at the birds, trying to calm herself.

“It’s not like she’s going to lose,” she said. “I mean, let’s talk straight here. No girl can hit Ruby-Anne from forty-five feet. It’s a travesty.”

Branch drank from the lemonade. When he coughed, she reached over and slapped his back. Her polyester warm-up suit whistled as she swung her arm.

“Russell looks bad,” she said. He coughed again. “You going to tell your mother?”

“Why?”

“It’s her father.”

“She’ll find out someday,” he said. “I wouldn’t even know where to start looking, anymore.”

“You got that Christmas card.”

“Two years ago, now.”

Marie Claire drummed her fingers against the picnic table. Branch watched them, and then, without knowing exactly why, he reached out and put his hand over hers. She slipped her hand over the top of his. Squeezed once and let go.

“When I was your age, I used to feel like the only thing that could happen to the world was for it to get better,” she said. “Not the globe world, the one on the news, but my world. Like if I threw everything up in the air, it’d come down in the right order. In a perfect row. Better than it had been before. Then she happened.” She pointed her thumb behind her, at the house, at Ruby-Anne’s room.

“Now I sit out here, and I just thank God that things haven’t got any worse.” She lifted the cup and drank from it. “You know what I mean. Now, you do. A year ago, before Iowa, you didn’t.”

Branch was proud to be talked to this way, by Marie Claire. He didn’t feel like she’d rejected him; he felt like she’d understood what he really wanted.

“The world can break,” she said. “It can land on the ground and bust into a million pieces. Maybe all we can do is cradle it in our arms and try not to drop it. Is that so bad?”

“I don’t think so.”

She pointed her thumb behind her, again.

“And, Branch, what if that girl’s love for you is big as she thinks it is?”

“It’s a crush, is all.”

“She’s a mix of girl and woman. The phone calls and the stupid torn blue jeans, those are girl things, right? And the knitting and the serious way she takes to the pitching now, like it’s a duty, those are woman things, aren’t they? What if her love for you isn’t a girl thing at all? What if it’s the first rock of her woman, cracking through the little surface of her girl? What if it’s the most real and lasting thing about her?”

“Then it’s too bad she got it too young to do anything about.”

“The hell with everybody else,” she said.

Across the driveway, they heard a cough, a weak, giving sound, and then the back door opened, and Big Pop walked out. He was wearing an old porkpie hat, a white undershirt, and some blue gym shorts he must have found in Branch’s dresser.

“You best go inside, Marie Claire. Big Pop’s not right. He’s talking crazy.”

This time, she reached out to squeeze his hand. “Branch,” she said. “You don’t have to worry none about protecting me.”

Big Pop walked slowly across the driveway, bracing his fingers on the hoods of their cars. “Oh, me,” he said. “Oh, me.”

“You alright?” Branch said. Big Pop didn’t answer. He was staring at Marie Claire with an intensity that Branch had never seen in the old man. His mouth was raised to a pained smile, his eyes narrow and hard.

“I want black pork,” he said. “I want to go back to Kentucky and get me some of that nigger meat.”

“Big Pop,” Branch said. “Don’t say that to her. You love Miss Marie Claire.”

“But I want to feel big.” He coughed, and the force of it shook his cheeks and closed his eyes. He sat down at the picnic table.

“Russell?” Marie Claire said. “You alright in there? You recognize me? You recognize your boy here?”

“I’m so empty,” he said. “My stomach is burning itself up looking for food.”

“Shut up,” Branch said. Marie Claire tugged at Branch’s arm, pulling him into the kitchen. “I’m only shutting him up cause he’d want me to,” Branch said. “You know that isn’t who he is, not when he’s in his right mind.”

“It isn’t who he is,” Marie Claire said. “But he does mean it. Both things are true.”

At the sink, Marie Claire poured some water from the tap and gave it to Branch to drink. “He showed me his doctor’s letters,” she said.

“I never saw no letters.”

“He didn’t want you to worry. Made me promise not to say. But I wouldn’t be in no rush to get him to the hospital.”

“Cause he’s alright?”

Marie Claire shook her head, and he understood. He lifted himself onto the counter and sat there, staring at his toes. Branch had known all along, without admitting it.

“I want to do something for him,” she said. “I want to make him feel big.”

Branch tossed the remainder of the water into the sink.

“I want to fix him supper,” she said. “I want to let his mouth lead him back home. I ain’t got no pork. Just chicken. But it isn’t the color of the meat he’s worried about.”

“I should do it. All he’s done for me.”

“What you should do is get Ruby-Anne out from the house. She hadn’t ever seen me serve anybody before, and I don’t want her to now.”

“It’s a game night.”

“I thought you outgrew games,” Marie Claire said. At the kitchen door, she turned back to him.

“If I thought it was something Ruby-Anne could control. If I thought I could just stamp it down and have it go away, like the time she wanted to buy stickers, don’t you think I’d already have done it? It’s who she is, Branch.”

In her bedroom, Ruby-Anne was knitting in the dark; he heard her counting the stitches.

“You can sit down at the foot, if you think I’m going to bite,” she said. There had been times when he sat on her bed with her, but that had been a year ago, before Iowa.

“I want to get out of here a while. Just put on your shoes.”

“The game’s tomorrow.”

“I want you to come with me. You don’t want to come, that’s your call.”

Branch went into the kitchen. From the sink, he could see Big Pop at the picnic table, his elbows resting on the wood, his chin sitting on his hands, waiting like he had done a thousand times, at ballgames or in restaurants. Most of what people called parenting was just waiting, it seemed like, and waiting was something Big Pop could do as well as anybody. Was, in fact, something Big Pop could do much better than Branch’s own parents. And now Big Pop was waiting for something else, something Branch could not understand, or maybe even forgive. He closed his eyes.

Ruby-Anne’s fingers slid over his belly, coming from behind him.

“It’s just me,” she said.

He turned, into her, felt her milky night breath, sour and weak. They were standing like that when Marie Claire walked into the kitchen. She was carrying a bag of frozen chicken legs.

“This fool wants me to go for a walk on a game night,” Ruby-Anne said.

“And so do I,” Marie Claire said. Ruby-Anne looked out the window, where Big Pop was sitting at the picnic table. She thought a minute, then she took Branch’s hand, led him to the front door, where Big Pop would not see them. They went into the fields behind the houses, moving through the dark and overgrown land. After a while, Ruby-Anne slid her fingers into his hand, and he didn’t push her away. They were walking toward the creek, both of them, and they didn’t need to say so aloud. When they came to the fence, he ducked under, held the barbs up for her. The water dallied beneath them, and they took off their shoes and let their feet cool. Ruby-Anne was the first one to lie down, looking at the top branches of the trees. Branch didn’t lie down, though. He knew it was a silly difference, but he wanted to hold to it.

“Don’t you feel like all this has already happened?” she said.

“All what?”

“Us,” she said. “The things we’re going to do. I just feel like I can’t get too excited about whether we do them now or six months from now or a year. Because it’s like in my head, it’s already done, and I’m just waiting for our life here to catch up.”

Branch could also see the future, but it wasn’t the same one Ruby-Anne saw. There would be a note waiting for him. The college stationery, the purple ink, the tight vowels. What would that professor Lanie Laurence write? She had covered Neanderthals and Carolina Parakeets, and maybe now she would describe the dinosaurs or the dodo birds or all the other things that had once lived and now were extinct. Or maybe this time she would call the police.

“You don’t know what’s coming. You’re just a kid.”

“Not when I look at things like that, I’m not. I’m an old, old woman.” Ruby-Anne pulled him down to his back. Her fingers were strong, and he didn’t feel like resisting, much. “Don’t you ever feel like, on the mound, like you can see what you’re going to do three batters ahead. Before they’re even up to the plate? Like it’s done, already? Don’t you feel that?”

“I did,” he said. “When I pitched here. Out in Davenport, Iowa, I didn’t know the next pitch from Manuel Noriega.”

“I feel it,” she said. “I feel like the future’s already happened, and all I have to do is keep from messing it up.”

“It’s already done messed up,” he said. “You’ll go on off to college on your scholarship. You won’t need no backstops or picnic tables or pitching partners. You’ll be the best pitcher the Big Ten ever saw. You’ll be spreading your wings wide as the sky. That’s what I know.”

“Then you’ll come with me,” she said.

“You can love something and still not be able to keep it alive. You don’t know that yet.” Branch held out his left arm, his pitching arm. It wasn’t like the rest of his body. It was muscular, for one thing. And it had its own life, separate from his. It had been born and it grew and now it was dying, becoming just like the rest of him.

“Big Pop didn’t want no boy better than you,” Ruby-Anne said. “There isn’t nothing more you could do for that man.” Branch turned away from her. He had not been thinking of Big Pop, and that shamed him. “He made me promise to take care of you,” she said. “He’d told me you’d need somebody to protect you.”

She put her hand on his cheek, and he kissed her. At first he just wanted to keep her from saying anything, from hurting him any more. But then his own wants budded open inside of him, and he could feel the desire branching through his fingers, his toes, the back of his knees, the other places. A small popping sound slid from their lips. Ruby-Anne nodded, serious and old.

“And now every second’s big as a basket.” Ruby-Anne slid her fingers softly over his cheeks. Too solemn, trying too hard to hold the moment in her hands, as if a moment could be held. Branch rode his left hand up her back, lifting her body to him. He bit her lip, rubbed his teeth against her chin. He kissed her shoulder and tasted something on his tongue, something strange and dark and salty. Sliding down her neck, he sucked hard on her skin, until dried sweat coated his tongue, until he made her gasp.