“Dad’s doing better today, isn’t he?” George’s daughter asked. “He’s responding well,” the doctor said. “But we’re only treating his body. His mind leaves us more each day, one memory at a time until only his body remains.” George’s daughter leaned over George and kissed his forehead. “I believe in a soul, doctor. And I know it’s floating around here somewhere. Even if my dad’s body doesn’t know I’m here, his soul does. And that’s the least I can offer him.”
George held the baseball bat choked high on the handle. One foot outside the batter’s box, he reached across the plate and pounded the bat. The umpire asked George if he was ready, and George held up his hand toward the pitcher. He stepped into the batter’s box and dug in his cleats. The umpire crouched behind him. He repeated what his coach had told him: two on base, down by one, two outs, top of the ninth, get on base. He heard Nancy’s promise delivered in a mock raspy voice before the game: “Do it for me and I’ll do it for you.” The pitcher wound up and threw the first pitch. George ducked when he saw the ball approaching his head but he was too late. He heard that the ball cracked his helmet, and even saw what it looked like afterwards, but he didn’t remember any of it. His high school team won after the next batter hit a double to the corner that drew two runners home. Nancy couldn’t do it for him that night, but she made up for it on prom night.
George woke up when the nurse prodded his arm. “The doctor will be here in a moment, George. Relax.” He didn’t know the time, and when he looked through the window, he thought he saw the sun sitting on the horizon. It was hard for him to see, though. Buildings, one piled on the next, blocked the horizon and most of the window. But if there was a horizon, he felt confident that the sun would sit on it. “How are you doing this morning, George?” His doctor was a young pretty thing. George didn’t she could be older than his daughter, certainly not old enough to be a doctor. But he couldn’t remember how old his daughter was. George reached toward the doctor to ask her, but became distracted when he saw his own wrinkled arm. A cord ran out from his arm into an IV bag. He tried to say something but nothing came out. George reached for the cord in his arm but the doctor held his arm gently and he moved it back onto the bed.
George put down his pencil and raised his hand. His teacher Mrs. Cummings sat at her desk marking homework papers. The kids around George looked over at him, but he ignored them. When she came over to his desk to collect the test, she told him to put his head down and rest. He couldn’t resist watching her walk back to her desk, fascinated by the way her tight cranberry skirt stretched across her legs as she walked. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on. As he put his head down on the desk over his crossed arms, he smiled in the knowledge that he would one day marry that woman.
The car’s engine idled and Nancy sat in the passenger seat. They had pulled to the curb over an hour ago, and George still talked about religion. Nancy was a devout Catholic and had no doubts about her beliefs. George had more doubts than he could count, and when he finished his tirade on cults and religion, Nancy laughed, and George took this as a good sign. When she started talking, George reached his hand past the shifter and placed it on Nancy’s knee. She wore blue slacks and didn’t seem to notice the hand. She continued, and George, feeling her soft skin under the cotton, didn’t hear what she said. When he tried to respond, he knew he spoke in gibberish, and she patted his hand on her knee as if she understood.
George screamed. He couldn’t free his arms from the covers in the crib. The lights came on and his mother entered the room. She leaned over the crib and cooed. He tried again to move his arm, and screamed. She reached down and picked him up, loosening the sheets. He wagged his arms on her shoulder and laughed. His mother laughed and rocked George up and down. With his ear on her shoulder, he heard her humming through her body. He reached over, grabbed her earring, and closed his eyes.
The principal’s office seemed brighter than the rest of the school. George sat on the wooden chair outside it crying. The secretaries, sitting at their typewriters and talking on their telephones, paid him no attention. His chair was next to two empty wooden chairs, which moments before held Thomas and Stan. The microphone used for the morning announcements was across the door near the window. George wiped away the tears and studied the microphone. A large red switch dominated the wall with the letters “A/V” typed on blue tape above it. None of the secretaries watched George as he stood up, walked over to the microphone, and clicked the switch. A loud click sounded in the gray speaker at the other end of the office. George screamed, “I love Mrs. Cummings,” into the microphone.
George placed his hand on Nancy’s stomach. Her breathing was shallow and her stomach barely moved his hand up and down. The moon’s light shone through the shaded windows and illuminated her face. He traced her cheek and nose with his finger. She was still beautiful. He placed his hand on her stomach, trying to feel her cancerous growth. He never believed in prayer, but he prayed for the thousandth time for remission. She grew worse each day, and the doctors had increased the morphine drip to the point where she rarely came out of unconsciousness. He had promised never to leave her, and after forty years, he didn’t intend to start breaking his promises.
George dropped to the kitchen floor and pounded it with his fist. The ceramic tile under his fist cracked. He heard his mother screaming from upstairs. He pounded the next tile with his fist until it cracked. Red clouds of anger obscured his vision. He asked himself, not for the first time, how his mother could be so stupid? The next tile he broke cut his fist and he bled on the tiles. “What do you think you’re doing?” his mother asked, standing cross-armed in the kitchen door. “You break my stuff, I break yours,” George said. “You stop that this instant,” his mother said. George kept pounding until his mother grabbed him by the arms and carried him screaming back to his bedroom.
The green dining hall tray was still warm from the dishwashing machine. George and Nancy had stolen the trays from the dining hall to ride down the snow-covered hill outside his dorm room. Two of their friends had already flung themselves down the hill, and George prepared himself. He sat on top of the hill on the tray and held onto the ground with his gloved hands. Nancy gave him a slight push, and he started down the hill. He felt the tray gliding over the snow, picking up speed. He approached the bottom dip of the hill at high speed when he saw a white, upside down bucket sticking out from the ground. He tried to maneuver away from it, but it was too late. He was sideways when he struck the bucket, and his tailbone smacked the bucket. He fell sprawled on the snow, his butt numb. He sat up and tried to wave to Nancy not follow, but she was already on the hill, heading toward him. He crawled away from the bucket, and she changed course to intercept him, safely away from the bucket.
There were three kids left, two on the far side of the dodgeball line, and George. George didn’t have the ball. He waited with his back to the wall for the next throw. Mrs. Cumming watched from the sideline, her whistle poised in her mouth, ready to blow out the next kid. The last three throws banged harmlessly against the wall near George. The kids watching grew bored with the throws, and chanted “Chickeny George, Chickeny George.” Even his teammates joined in, since Mrs. Cumming switched up the teams for each game. The ball banged the wall next to George and he flinched. The ball bounced back across the line. George decided to catch the next ball, knowing it was only a matter of time before they threw him out. When they next threw the ball, George stepped up and held out his arms. He was amazed when he looked down and saw the ball wrapped up in his arms. He bent over it so it wouldn’t escape. Mrs. Cumming called the thrower out, and George smiled at her, confident that he had impressed her. He ran up to the line and threw the ball hard, hitting the final kid in the knees. It wasn’t until Mrs. Cumming blew the whistle that he looked down and saw that his foot had landed over the line. He looked at Mrs. Cumming, but she was already choosing new teams. The wedding bells that always filled his head when he saw her vanished in that moment.
They swam toward the wooden platform floating in the lake. George wasn’t a good swimmer and he was having trouble keeping up. Nancy kept circling back for him, encouraging him to continue. He struggled on, taking turns crawl stroking through the water, and paddling on his back. The platform didn’t seem to be getting closer, and he grew worried, until she swam back for him. The way he told the story, the dolphins saved him by escorting him safely to the platform. Nancy knew better, but never interrupted his story. She would later tell George that he never called her anything sweeter than a dolphin. He would tell her she was crazy, and that dolphins did save him. He would then kiss her.