Authors: Richard Ford
My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter.
For the past fourteen years I have lived here at 19 Hoving Road, Haddam, New Jersey, in a large Tudor house bought when a book of short stories I wrote sold to a movie producer for a lot of money, and seemed to set my wife and me and our three children—two of whom were not even born yet—up for a good life.
Just exactly what that good life was—the one I expected—I cannot tell you now exactly, though I wouldn’t say it has not come to pass, only that much has come in between. I am no longer married to X, for instance. The child we had when everything was starting has died, though there are two others, as I mentioned, who are alive and wonderful children.
I wrote half of a short novel soon after we moved here from New York and then put it in the drawer, where it has been ever since, and from which I don’t expect to retrieve it unless something I cannot now imagine happens.
Twelve years ago, when I was twenty-six, and in the blind way of things then, I was offered a job as a sportswriter by the editor of a glossy New York sports magazine you have all heard of, because of a free-lance assignment I had written in a particular way he liked. And to my surprise and everyone else’s I quit writing my novel and accepted.
And since then I have worked at nothing but that job, with the exception of vacations, and one three-month period after my son died when I considered a new life and took a job as an instructor in a small private school in western Massachusetts where I ended up not liking things, and couldn’t wait to leave and get back here to New Jersey and writing sports.
My life over these twelve years has not been and isn’t now a bad one at all. In most ways it’s been great. And although the older I get the more things scare me, and the more apparent it is to me that bad things can and do happen to you, very little really worries me or keeps me up at night. I still believe in the possibilities of passion and romance. And I would not change much, if anything at all. I might not choose to get divorced. And my son, Ralph Bascombe, would not die. But that’s about it for these matters.
Why, you might ask, would a man give up a promising literary career—there were some good notices—to become a sportswriter?
It’s a good question. For now let me say only this: if sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined.
I believe I have done these two things. Faced down regret. Avoided ruin. And I am still here to tell about it.
have climbed over the metal fence to the cemetery directly behind my house. It is five o’clock on Good Friday morning, April 20. All other houses in the neighborhood are shadowed, and I am waiting for my ex-wife. Today is my son Ralph’s birthday. He would be thirteen and starting manhood. We have met here these last two years, early, before the day is started, to pay our respects to him. Before that we would simply come over together as man and wife.
A spectral fog is lifting off the cemetery grass, and high up in the low atmosphere I hear the wings of geese pinging. A police car has murmured in through the gate, stopped, cut its lights and placed me under surveillance. I saw a match flare briefly inside the car, saw the policeman’s face looking at a clipboard.
At the far end of the “new part” a small deer gazes at me where I wait. Now and then its yellow tapetums blink out of the dark toward the old part, where the trees are larger, and where three signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried in sight of my son’s grave.
My next-door neighbors, the Deffeyes, are playing tennis, calling their scores in hushed-polite early-morning voices. “Sorry.” “Thanks.” “Forty-love.” Pock. Pock. Pock. “
to you, dear.” “Yes, thank you.” “Yours.” Pock, pock. I hear their harsh, thrashing nose breaths, their feet scraping. They are into their eighties and no longer need sleep, and so are up at all hours. They have installed glowless barium-sulphur lights that don’t shine in my yard and keep me awake. And we have stayed good neighbors if not close friends. I have nothing much in common with them now, and am invited to few of their or anyone else’s cocktail parties. People in town are still friendly in a distant way, and I consider them fine people, conservative, decent.
It is not, I have come to understand, easy to have a divorced man as your neighbor. Chaos lurks in him—the viable social contract called into question by the smoky aspect of sex. Most people feel they have to make a choice and it is always easier to choose the wife, which is what my neighbors and friends have mostly done. And though we chitter-chatter across the driveways and hedges and over the tops of each other’s cars in the parking lots of grocery stores, remarking on the condition of each other’s soffits and down-drains and the likelihood of early winter, sometimes make tentative plans to get together, I hardly ever see them, and I take it in my stride.
Good Friday today is a special day for me, apart from the other specialness. When I woke in the dark this morning, my heart pounding like a tomtom, it seemed to me as though a change were on its way, as if this dreaminess tinged with expectation, which I have felt for some time now, were lifting off of me into the cool tenebrous dawn.
Today I’m leaving town for Detroit to begin a profile of a famous ex-football player who lives in the city of Walled Lake, Michigan, and is confined to a wheelchair since a waterskiing accident, but who has become an inspiration to his former teammates by demonstrating courage and determination, going back to college, finishing his degree in communications arts, marrying his black physiotherapist and finally becoming honorary chaplain for his old team. “Make a contribution” will be my angle. It is the kind of story I enjoy and find easy to write.
Anticipation rises higher, however, because I’m taking my new girlfriend Vicki Arcenault with me. She has recently moved up to New Jersey from Dallas, but I am already pretty certain I’m in love with her (I haven’t mentioned anything about it for fear of making her wary). Two months ago, when I sliced up my thumb sharpening a lawnmower blade in my garage, it was Nurse Arcenault who stitched me up in the ER at Doctors Hospital, and things have gone on from there. She did her training at Baylor in Waco, and came up here when her marriage gave out. Her family, in fact, lives down in Barnegat Pines, not far away, in a subdivision close to the ocean, and I am scheduled to be exhibit A at Easter dinner—a vouchsafe to them that she has made a successful transition to the northeast, found a safe and good-hearted man, and left bad times including her dagger-head husband Everett far behind. Her father, Wade, is a toll-taker at Exit 9 on the Turnpike, and I cannot expect he will like the difference in our ages. Vicki is thirty. I am thirty-eight. He himself is only in his fifties. But I am in hopes of winning him over and eager as can be under the circumstances. Vicki is a sweet, saucy little black-hair with a delicate width of cheekbone, a broad Texas accent and a matter-of-factness with her raptures that can make a man like me cry out in the night for longing.
You should never think that leaving a marriage sets you loose for cheery womanizing and some exotic life you’d never quite grasped before. Far from true. No one can do that for long. The Divorced Men’s Club I belong to here in town has proven that to me if nothing else—we don’t talk much about women when we are together and feel relieved just to be men alone. What leaving a marriage released me—and most of us—to, was celibacy and more fidelity than I had ever endured before, though with no one convenient to be faithful to or celibate for. Just a long empty moment. Though everyone should live alone at some time in a life. Not like when you’re a kid, summers, or in a single dorm room in some crappy school. But when you’re grown up.
be alone. It can be all right. You can end up more within yourself, as the best athletes are, which is worth it. (A basketball player who goes for his patented outside jumper becomes nothing more than the simple wish personified that the ball go in the hole.) In any case, doing the brave thing isn’t easy and isn’t supposed to be. I do my work and do it well and remain expectant of the best without knowing in the least what it will be. And the bonus is that a little bundle like Nurse Arcenault seems sent straight from heaven.
For several months now I have not taken a trip, and the magazine has found plenty for me to do in New York. It was stated in court by X’s sleaze-ball lawyer, Alan, that my travel was the cause of our trouble, especially after Ralph died. And though that isn’t technically true—it was a legal reason X and I invented together—it is true that I have always loved the travel that accompanies my job. Vicki has only seen two landscapes in her entire life: the flat, featureless gloom-prairies around Dallas, and New Jersey—a strange unworldliness these days. But I will soon show her the midwest, where old normalcy floats heavy on the humid air, and where I happen to have gone to college.
It is true that much of my sportswriter’s work is exactly what you would think: flying in airplanes, arriving and departing airports, checking into and out of downtown hotels, waiting hours in corridors and locker rooms, renting cars, confronting unfriendly bellmen. Late night drinks in unfamiliar bars, up always before dawn, as I am this morning, trying to get a perspective on things. But there is also an assurance to it that I don’t suppose I could live happily without. Very early you come to the realization that nothing will ever take you away from yourself. But in these literal and anonymous cities of the nation, your Milwaukees, your St. Louises, your Seattles, your Detroits, even your New Jerseys, something hopeful and unexpected can take place. A woman I met at the college where I briefly taught, once told me I had too many choices, that I was not driven enough by dire necessity. But that is just an illusion and her mistake. Choices are what we all need. And when I walk out into the bricky warp of these American cities, that is exactly what I feel. Choices aplenty. Things I don’t know anything about but might like are here, possibly waiting for me. Even if they aren’t. The exhilaration of a new arrival. Good light in a restaurant that especially pleases you. A cab driver with an interesting life history to tell. The casual, lilting voice of a woman you don’t know, but that you are allowed to listen to in a bar you’ve never been in, at a time when you would otherwise have been alone. These things are waiting for you. And what could be better? More mysterious? More worth anticipating? Nothing. Not a thing.
The barium-sulphur lights die out over the Deffeyes’ tennis court. Delia Deffeyes’ patient and troubleless voice, still hushed, begins assuring her husband Caspar that he played well, while they walk toward their dark house in their pressed whites.
The sky has become a milky eye and though it is spring and nearly Easter, the morning has a strangely winter cast to it, as though a high fog is blotting its morning stars. There is no moon at all.
The policeman has finally seen enough and idles out the cemetery gate onto the silent streets. I hear a paper slap on a sidewalk. Far off, I hear the commuter train up to New York making its belling stop at our station—always a consoling sound.
X’s brown Citation stops at the blinking red light at Constitution Street, across from the new library, then inches along the cemetery fence on Plum Road, her lights on high beam. The deer has vanished. I walk over to meet her.
X is an old-fashioned, solidly Michigan girl from Birmingham, whom I met in Ann Arbor. Her father, Henry, was a Soapy Williams best-of-his-generation liberal who still owns a plant that stamps out rubber gaskets for a giant machine that stamps out car fenders, though he is now a Republican and rich as a Pharaoh. Her mother, Irma, lives in Mission Viejo, and the two of them are divorced, though her mother still writes me regularly and believes X and I will eventually reconcile, which seems as possible as anything else.