Excerpt from "Backstop" by J. Congrad Guest

I’d come to love Darlene for many reasons, not the least of which was her ability to avoid avoiding confrontation. I called her from a hotel that night, but she let the answering machine take my call. I left my number, reminded her I was leaving for Detroit for the start of our playoff series with Minnesota, and told her again we needed to talk.

Then I called my mother to tell her what I’d done, and Nestor, to apologize.

The room was cavernous, yet the walls seemed to close in on me. Not knowing what else to do, I called Hart.

“Hello, John,” I said into the phone.

“Backstop,” John said from the other end of the line. “How did Darlene take it?”

“Not well, and neither am I. She asked me to move out of the house.” I heard John sigh.

“I understand your pain.”

“Do you? Do you really, John?” I wondered again if he, too, had been a casualty of a similar seduction at some point during his career, but I refrained from asking. There are some questions a man doesn’t put to a buddy let alone a teammate.

“No, I guess I don’t understand it, not from a personal perspective,” he said, surprising me with the warmth in his voice. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t empathize.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take this out on you.”

“Of course you didn’t.”

When I said nothing, Hart went on: “What’s to come?”

“She told me she needed time to think.”

“Give her time, Backstop.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what she asked me for—time. We can’t work through this apart, John.”

“No, but you need to give her time to consider whether she wishes to work through it.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”

“Of course not. Yet the choice is hers, Backstop. You have no right to decide for her.”

“I suppose you’re right.” I’d given up everything the result of one stupid act. I sighed, told Hart that I’d called Darlene’s father.

“I know you were very close to him.”

“He was like I wish my father could’ve been. I needed to apologize to him.”

“How did he take it?”

“He was as disappointed in me as my mother was when I told her the news. Maybe more.” I felt the tears threaten to spill over, gave up the fight, let out a great sob.

“It’s okay, Backstop,” Hart said, probably because he could think of nothing else to say.

“No, it’s not,” I argued. “I can only imagine how my own father would’ve reacted. Nestor was much more civil than my father would’ve been, but he was angry, too. I’m not his flesh and blood. I hurt his little girl.”

I waited for Hart to say something. When he didn’t, I cursed myself, said, “All those months during our courtship I told her she could trust me, and all the years I spent building that trust. All a lie.”

“No, Backstop. Not a lie.”

“Then what?”

“The human condition. We’re not perfect, far from it.”

“Not every man has cheated on his wife. I imagine I’m in the minority. Nothing to be proud of, certainly nothing in which I should take solace, that I’m not the first. Nor that I’ll be the last.”

“Only God knows what’s in a man’s heart.”

I thought about that for a moment, what John was intimating. “I don’t imagine Rosalynn Carter took Jimmy’s admission that he’d lusted after women in his heart as hard as Darlene took my news.”

“Perhaps not. But we’re all capable of failing.”

“Not something I’m used to, John, failure. I’ve always tried to live to a higher code.”

“You know what God says about pride, Backstop.”

“One of the deadly sins.”

“Lucifer was exiled from Heaven over pride. Perhaps God intended this as a lesson to you, about pride.”

“I have Him to thank for this? I was perfectly happy in my marriage, content with my career, with walking away from the game in a few years, maybe finally starting a family. He couldn’t be happy for me? He had to test me, knowing, omnipotent as He is, that I would fail?”

John was silent in my ear. Was he unable to refute my argument or just letting me vent? Certainly he couldn’t be questioning his own faith, or what he believed to be God’s plan.

I felt as if I were about to be exiled from the Eden that had been my marriage. “It’s better I put out my own eyes than to lust,” I said, paraphrasing one of Christ’s teachings. “It’s sinful behavior to envy, to give in to gluttony. Yet it’s just as sinful to take pride in our accomplishments, a life well-lived. Life truly is a lose/lose situation.”

“The man who wishes to follow Christ must give up everything.”

I shook my head, fully aware Hart couldn’t see me. “I won’t pretend I understand what that means.”

“Jesus told Matthew, ‘Follow me and let the dead bury their dead.’ He meant, in the first instance, the spiritually dead. To win eternity, Backstop, we must give up everything of this earth.”

I didn’t hear Hart’s explanation. “You have no idea how sorry I am.”

“I know you are. And God knows, too.”

I snorted. “Yes, you, John, and God. But the one person who matters most will never believe another word that comes out of my mouth.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I love Darlene. More than I love baseball, more than life.”

“She loves you, too, Backstop. Even now. Give her time to miss you, your life together.”

“I know I’ve broken her trust, but I fear that if too much time goes by, she may decide she no longer loves me.”

“Sadly, that’s for her to decide, alone. You can only tell her how sorry you are, and try to reassure her of your love from a distance.”

“I know, John,” I said. “But what if it’s not enough?”

“Time will tell.”

“Yeah, time.” I thanked John for use of his ear, and for his advice, and hung up.

I turned on the TV to catch a rerun of All in the Family on some cable channel. It was the episode in which a waitress flirts with Archie and she entices him to meet her at her apartment. Once there, his guilt forces him to flee after they kiss. When he confesses to Edith, she is devastated. That Archie couldn’t go through with the encounter meant nothing to Edith; in her mind he committed adultery the moment he returned the waitress’s flirtation.

Sighing, I turned off the tube grieving for poor Edith. Archie was the one thing she always counted on, and he had let her down. In that moment, I realized that infidelity comes in many forms. A flirtation, as Archie and I both discovered, is never innocent. That night at McSorley’s, I’d enjoyed the flirtations of a stranger. By participating, I’d even encouraged it. Add to the mix that I considered withholding from Darlene the events at McSorley’s, and I was guilty even before the morning after.

I could do nothing more but wait for sleep, painfully aware that Darlene hadn’t called back. It seemed she knew something of the art of avoidance after all.