Excerpt from The Happiest People in the World
Baseball meant it was time again for the annual student-faculty baseball game. Henry had never completely understood why this game took place during football season, nor why it was called a student-faculty baseball game when the only students who played in the game were already on the baseball and softball teams, and the only faculty who played were the faculty who coached baseball or softball. The only thing that made sense about the game was that everyone—students, faculty, staff—was required to go to it: in the case of an out-of-season, inaptly named student-faculty baseball game, you had to require attendance if you wanted people to attend.
The game had already started by the time Henry and Jenny had arrived. Jenny went to lean against the fence with the other kids who dressed like something was wrong with them. Henry went to sit by Dr. Vernon, who was sitting by himself halfway up the bleachers. He was wearing a blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt with parrots perched on either end of the branch. The branch was supposed to span the shirt wearer’s pectorals, but Dr. Vernon was hunched over in such a way that it looked as though the parrots were feasting on his nipples.
Dr. Vernon (his first name was Barry, but no one at the school ever called him anything but Dr. Vernon, with the italics) was the school’s long-term sub. If you went to Broomeville Jr-Sr High School, then sooner or later Dr. Vernon would be your long-term sub, but he would never be your regular teacher because even though he (supposedly) had his doctorate in something or other, he couldn’t be bothered to get his teacher’s certificate. He was that kind of guy. He was also the kind of guy who always wore loud Hawaiian shirts, including to the student-faculty baseball games, where he would conduct loud, possibly comic play-by-play calls of the game. For instance, just as Henry sat down next to him, Dr. Vernon had yelled out, “Jared Johnson hits a scorcher to short,” when in fact Jared had hit a dribbler that had barely made it to the pitcher’s mound. It was unclear to Henry whether Dr. Vernon’s commentary was meant to be optimistic or sarcastic, but in any case it was found by almost everyone within earshot to be incredibly annoying. “Why don’t you deck him?” Grace Vernon shouted to Henry. Grace was sitting several rows behind them. She was a home ec teacher at the school, and like so many who’ve had that calling, she seemed as though she’d blown in from some prairie in her longsleeved sundresses and heavy braids and her crafty ways of making a little go a long way. She was also Dr. Vernon’s wife. “Why don’t you deck him already?” she asked Henry.
“Why don’t you?”
“He likes it when I deck him,” Grace announced. “It only encourages him.”
Dr. Vernon turned in her direction. “That’s true, sweetie,” he said, beaming. Then, he turned back to the field and said, in response to a lazy pop fly to the first baseman, “A Ruthian blast to right field. Going, going, going. . .”
That was it: Grace charged down the stairs, the metal bleachers bonging and vibrating in her wake, decked her husband, hard, in the upper arm, then ran back, where she was greeted with cheers. Meanwhile, Dr. Vernon rubbed his arm, still beaming, encouraged.
“See?” Grace said to everyone, and, then, to Henry, “How you can stand to sit next to that fool, anyway?”
Stand to sit? Henry thought, but did not say. Instead, he waited a few seconds, then leaned closer to Dr. Vernon. The urge is great among those in hiding to casually test other people’s knowledge of the events that necessitated their going underground in the first place. Henry had resisted the urge for so long. For the last two years, he’d resisted it so expertly that he didn’t really feel the urge anymore. But now that the stranger had shown up, Henry felt it again, more strongly than ever.
“Do you remember a few years ago,” Henry said, whispered actually, “the controversy about the Danish cartoonist Jens Baedrup?”
“Your mother is a hamster and your father smells of elderberries!” Dr. Vernon shouted—not at Henry, but at the umpire. This was another thing he did at these baseball games: he insulted the umpire—Matty—by way of quotes from Monty Python movies. Matty took off his mask and looked in the direction of the insult. He smiled at Dr. Vernon, then stopped smiling and gave Henry a more complicated look, a look meant to communicate, among other things: I’m watching you, buddy, don’t forget that, and don’t forget that I know your secrets, or at least I know some of your secrets, or at least I know what someone else has told me about some of your secrets, or at least I know you have secrets, otherwise you wouldn’t be here, not that you’re the only one around here with secrets, God knows, and maybe one day, you and I will drink some beers and talk about them, and Jesus that would feel good, wouldn’t it, wouldn’t it feel fucking great to finally stop lying, to tell the truth, not to everyone, just to one person, just to have one person who you can sit down next to at the bar and rip open your chest and reveal your terrible secret heart and have that person sitting next to you at the bar not judge you or hate you for what’s in that heart, for what you’ve done, a buddy, a true friend who will say, after you’ve shown him your heart, I’m so glad you just did that, I understand, we all have our secrets, this is what makes us human, this is what makes me human, now it’s my turn, now I’m going to rip open my chest, etc., and so hey, let’s get those beers someday soon, although speaking of beers, I know that in three days you’re going to be marrying Ellen down at the bar, and I’m glad, or at least I’m going to act like I’m glad, because I know you make her happy, and also because the other day she told me, when I said, casually, like you marrying her didn’t bother me, because it doesn’t, I said hey, don’t you think you’re making a terrible mistake marrying this joker, and when I said that, she told me not to be a jealous dick, that I, of all people, have no right to be a jealous dick, and so here I am, not being a jealous dick, no, this is me being glad you’re going to marry my ex-wife, but make no mistake, every time I think about you touching Ellen, even accidentally, I want to murder you, but hey, I hope you’re enjoying the baseball game. Then Matty put his mask back on, and squatted back down behind the catcher.
After that, neither Dr. Vernon or Henry spoke for such a long time that Henry started to forget that he’d ever asked Dr. Vernon the question about the Danish cartoonists, the way, before the stranger had shown up, he’d almost managed to forget that he’d ever been anything but a public school guidance counselor in upstate New York.