When the house cleared and the kids were off to school, his wife off to work, he moved swiftly to his black Nike bag hidden in the garage, unzipping it with the excitement of a child left home alone. So many choices: Percocet, Demoral, and Vicodin for the pain, Xanex and Prozac for the mood swings, Diazapram or Valium to simply sedate. All his. The prescription stickers neatly typed in small black letters, Dellonzo Fletcher with instructions: two times a day, four times a day, two at bedtime, one before bedtime.
He decided on a small sample of each, swallowing seven tiny pills from six separate yellow prescription bottles. He grimaced at the bitter taste as the pills disintegrated before he could completely swallow them. Within minutes the numbness had set in, making his limbs feel like flat rubber inner tubes, his mind a hazy fog of irrelevance.
It didn't matter. He'd already arranged himself on top of Josh's skinny twin-sized bed, staring up, counting the baseballs on the tan papered walls. He had nowhere to go. Nowhere to be by a certain time. Off into the peaceful bliss he went floating above the storm cloud his life had become. No paparazzi, no reporters, no questions he couldn't answer. His long lashes comfortably closed over his dark brown eyes. Smooth sailing, riding the waves of oblivion where he was unknown, even to himself. He didn't recognize himself as the man that women used to throw themselves at. Nor the man who commanded more attention than the King of Pop himself when he walked into a packed stadium. Here, he was safe, worry free, until midday, when the smorgasbord began to wear off.
Always right on time. He didn't want to die, but by chance if he did, he wouldn't be too upset about it.
The hazy Los Angeles sun filtered through the miniblinds. He could sense the hour of the day by the alertness of his mind. Two o'clock, maybe three in the afternoon. Somehow the drugs had made an agreement with his internal clock, knowing precisely when to wear off, knowing exactly when to free his brain. His eyes involuntarily fluttered open. His elbows wobbled as he pulled himself up to focus on his surroundings. Again, the dancing baseballs, gloves, and bats, coordinated with the burnt red color on the upper portion of the wall. A large framed print of Dell himself, sliding into home plate. This was Josh's room. His safe place. Leah, his bride of fifteen years, rarely came down the hall past the point where organization and structure became disheveled, where mess and clutter lurked behind every closed door. Leah had given up making sense out of the household chaos when Josh started kindergarten. She simply asked that the children's doors be kept closed so what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her.
Dell took that for its full meaning. He could hide here as well, blending in with the chaos of dirty clothes, books, and decapitated still figures, Power Rangers, X-men, cars, and dinosaurs with lost seniority. If she ever came home unexpectedly, she'd never think to look for him here.
The mess strewn all over the floor faded in and out of foggy waves. He felt wobbly when he stood. His foot twisted on an empty plastic Knott's Berry Farm water bottle. Underneath, Snoopy smirking, Had a wild ride at Knott's. The door, only a few steps away, seemed an infinite distance. He inhaled deeply the mixture of dry musty air, knowing his own breath was partly responsible. Standing with his head sandwiched between the open door, he peered down the long wide hallway before taking his first step out. His feet sunk into the plush thick carpet, making him aware he was back in the real world. The one where elegant wood-framed art lined the wall. On the other side, pictures of the life and family he'd created. His fingers trailed the textured walls as if seeing them for the first time. Dell and Leah fifteen years ago in a wedding portrait. She wearing a white satin dress, smiling broad, and unabashed. Her short dark wavy hair wrapped with a thin white chiffon scarf that draped across her shoulders. He in a modest shirt and tie with black slacks, looking younger than his twenty-one years, still in college, barely able to afford the gold band he'd placed on her finger.
He'd come a long way since then. The $200 million dollar man. His team, the California Angels, had gone as far as insuring his limbs, making sure he was worth the same whether he was crawling or walking. But there was no price for what he did, rejuvenating the entire game of baseball for the city of Los Angeles, bringing back the same excitement that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays once brought to the sport. He'd been the golden boy, clean and pure. His dark coffee skin, smooth. His teeth white rays of light, smiling with the confidence only a completely pedigreed athlete could know. This picture was the same one used for his baseball cards, he in the midst of a full swing, his arms still flexed, hands tight around the bat, his legs in a conqueror's stance.
In the next photo, he was dressed in a sleek tuxedo holding the ESPY award, Most Valuable Player. 1997, the year he'd signed the contract making him one of the highest-paid baseball players in the majors. He'd been the most seen face on television. Exposed. Cameras in the living room, cameras in the kitchen. Interviewers from ESPN, ABC, FOX sports, asking who'd influenced his life. Who'd made the difference in him becoming an all-star versus another Black man with his face framed between bars? He always had the same answer. "God, my mother, my teachers who believed in me. It's a collaborative effort. A kid needs to be honored, told that he can accomplish something great."
After a while his answer had begun to change, taken on a cockier tone. "I believed in myself when nobody else would. You've got to be able to get past all the negativity out there. I can only depend on three people, me, myself, and I." He'd been the leader, the big man, standing six feet four inches, and all heart. A passion for the game so deep and so strong that his team looked up to him, the fans adored him, the media had put a gold star next to his name. Anything about Dellonzo Fletcher could sell a million copies off the stand.
As he moved down the expansive hall, it became a chronological
family tour. His daughter, Kayla, grinning with missing front teeth, not yet aware of life's disappointments. His son, Josh, in his baseball uniform, posed with a bat held too high, angled all wrong. He focused to see better the year etched in gold at the bottom of the photo. 1994 Blue Jays, Hollywood Hills Little League. Dell remembered the coaching sessions with his little guy, only in T-ball, but skills had to be learned early.
"Okay, Daddy. I'm ready."
"No, son. Like this. Squeeze your arms tight to your side. Now raise them up slowly until they're comfortable. Now you feel that. Now you're ready. You can hit any ball that comes your way when you're positioned right."
Dell smiled, graced with the thought of simpler times, when the children listened, hung on his every word. He'd had a sense of balance. All-American baseball hero, father, and husband, the roles fit neatly, intertwined with each other. No one liked the image of a pure star. A mogul needed the edges softened by a loving wife, healthy smiling kids. He was the full package.
The dull throbbing returned, but he accepted the pain. Pain as familiar to him as breathing. He moved unsteadily down the hall, using the wall for balance. He found himself staring at a family photo taken just six months ago. Leah believed in taking pictures, the documentation of time. This one she insisted on because it had been five years since all four of them had been captured together. They sat underneath the mid-April clouds that threatened to unleash a torrent of rain. Leah picked an evergreen-covered spot in their backyard. They sat on the picnic table pushed against the trees as backdrop. The children sat on the bench while Dell and Leah sat above them on the table, stiff like Ma and Pa Kettle, looking straight into the camera. They all held their puppet smiles in place while the photographer appraised his subjects.
"Okay, everybody. This way. Say pepperoni cheeezz." The photographer stopped to peer over the camera. He strummed his fingers through the oily pompadour on top of his head as if it had been a long day and it was only going to get worse. "I'm sorry I'm no stand-up comedian, but that's the best I can do, guys. Can you just smile, please? Quick and painless, one more time. Cheeeeze."
The flash went off.
Dell blinked hard, as if the brightness jarred him once again. He straightened the frame by touching it slightly. It fell back into a crooked slant.
Voices from downstairs sailed up, shaking him from his time travel. He swiftly moved to his bedroom, closing the door quietly behind him. The large white walls of his own bedroom seemed to be on an angle. A familiar but altered state. He tried to slow his panic. His flat footsteps echoed as he plodded onto the icy bathroom floor. He rushed the shower, reaching in to flip the brass knob for full pressure. The clothing he was wearing quickly fell to a heap near his feet. He stepped in and winced from the hot water scalding his face and naked body. He didn't adjust the temperature. Hot was necessary. The hotter the better. Maybe it could rinse away his shame.
On the rare occasions that he and Leah made love, he worried that she would smell the Vicodin mixed with Scotch, or the Prozac broken down by gin. Her face pressed into his naked chest, he pictured her gasping and choking while he lay on top of her, struggling to breathe through the toxins secreting from his body.
He swore, promised, he would never do it again, mixing one lethal dose with another, especially after the accident forced him to admit that the drinking had gotten out of control. A sickness spreading uncontrollably. The painkillers were okay, even understandable. An injury like his took time to heal. But the alcohol he used to numb his shame, his failure. It was a vicious cycle. Trying to stay sane and sober to prove his remorse only made him go deeper underground for relief of the humiliation.
He washed harder, squeezed more soap out of the dispenser, rubbing it into his, face, chest, and arms, determined to mask himself with the softly scented suds. He let the soap slide around his head and neck like a cloak, down his back, curving around his thighs and muscular calves. There wasn't enough soap in the world to lather away what he needed to hide.
Dell heard his name being called through the bathroom door along with a gentle tapping of small knuckles. "Dad, I'm home."
He could pretend he didn't hear his son over the powerful jet stream of water cascading over his gleaming bald head. Continue washing and scrubbing. Instead, he flipped the knob, shutting off the water. The steam encapsulated the glass walls and the surrounding air. He stepped out of the shower and wrapped himself with a towel.
Dripping wet, he pulled the door open, grateful for the spurt of cold air and the sweet round face that greeted him. "Hey, big man. How was school?"
"It was okay. Elliot and Skeet got in a fight so we couldn't go out for recess." Josh backed his way to the edge of the king-sized bed. The bathroom steam floated out, thickening the air.
"Again? Boy, you may want to consider a new set of friends. Every time you mention those two, they've been in a brawl." Dell reached past his son and grabbed a clean but thoroughly broken-in T-shirt out of his drawer. He was momentarily shocked at how loosely it fell over his torso. In the past months his size had withered, leaving him only a shell of his former self. He'd always stayed in top physical condition when he played for the California Angels. Baseball was a slow sport compared with most, but the speed and agility he maintained during his twelve years on the field gave him the nickname "Roadrunner." Stealing bases at the blink of an eye was his MO. The announcers would sometimes be the opposing team's only hint he'd taken off. "And there he goes, ladies and gentlemen. Dellonzo Roadrunner Fletcher, stealing home." He looked at himself in the dresser mirror for confirmation. His eyes seemed too close together while his cheekbones and chin were now defined lines in his chiseled face. His rich chocolate skin had been replaced with a pale cookie dough . . . lack of sunshine. It seemed, now, he had no reason to go out, unless it was during the night.
"I keep telling those guys to stop fighting over dumb girls. It's the same one too, Jessica. She doesn't like either one of them." Josh dropped his head, knowing the secret of who the little red-head girl truly did like. He circled and traced the shapes of flowers on the silk duvet.
"I'm shocked they're fighting over girls in the first place. I didn't know fourth graders were interested in girls." Dell had forgotten his own childhood. Playing baseball was all he remembered. But to him it was no game. Never had been. It was his life, what he believed in, the only thing, he thought, that could never fail him.
"Dad, they've been fighting over girls since first grade." The way his son's face lit up eased any lingering strain Dell may have felt. He touched his son's downy head and pulled him in close. Josh's gangly height was more appropriate for a basketball career rather than the sport they both knew and loved. He had his mother's coloring, like fresh baked bread, but his eyes were courtesy of his father. Sensitive dark eyes that reflected light in the center of his irises, reminding Dell that he'd done something right in this world. It hadn't all been a waste.
Dell hugged him for a moment too long, turning away abruptly, fearful his earlier transgressions would surface. More than tea tree and peppermint soap could find its way into his son's nostrils. "Is Kayla home?"
"Yeah, downstairs on the phone."
"She doesn't waste a minute, huh? All right, big man. Let me finish getting dressed. I'll be down in five."
He dressed, ignoring the urge to crawl into his bed, pull the covers over his head, and sleep until Leah came home. His wife would know if he'd spent the day in bed, even if he popped up the minute she arrived. Leah had a special talent for knowing what went on without having seen it, and it made him constantly second-guess himself. Feeling analyzed all the time, he made choices that were sane and acceptable, at least he tried.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Roadrunner by Trisha R. Thomas. Copyright © 2002 by Trisha R. Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.