I woke up the next morning alone, with a note tucked into my hand that said, “Thanks for dinner and a movie. See you around 6:00.”
I could admit I was a little disappointed she was gone, but I hadn’t really expected Sookie to stay. Regardless of what my feelings for her were, the fact was she was with Sam. And the last thing I would want was for something to happen between us that she would later regret.
I had enough regret for the both of us.
So once I got Hunter up and fed, we worked on his homework and then spent the rest of the afternoon at the park working on his baseball skills. He really was pretty good, especially for a kid who hadn’t played much at all, and since I was in between jobs at the moment I decided I would talk to Sookie about maybe spending a few evenings with him throughout the week too now that I lived closer. We could practice after school or even just hangout, but I loved my son and now that I had the chance to spend more time with him, I didn’t want to miss out on any of his life.
But I also didn’t want to disrupt their lives any more than necessary.
After we had split up, Sookie and I managed to work out a loose visitation schedule between us and what I would pay her in child support, but since she’d given up going to school to be with me for six years, I thought it only fair to pay her what amounted to alimony. She resented it at first, seeing it as my way of trying to buy her forgiveness for what I’d done, and maybe my guilt had fueled it initially. But I also knew what she’d given up to be with me for those six years, so I didn’t want her to have to worry about money if she wanted to return to school, which she eventually did.
Now she worked as a paralegal at a small law firm in a nearby town called Monroe and she’d had nothing but good things to say about her boss, Mr. Cataliades. According to Sookie he was very understanding when it came to her being a single parent and didn’t give her a hard time if she had to leave early or come in late because of something to do with Hunter.
But now that I was living here I hoped to be able to ease her burden when it came to caring for him.
We arrived at their place a little before six and I tried to hide my grimace seeing what I suspected was Sam’s truck already parked in the driveway. But as Hunter and I got out of my car, I could hear yelling coming from inside the house.
Putting my hand on his shoulder to stop him, I said, “Wait,” and listened for a minute.
They were fighting.
And from the garbled words I could make out, I would guess it had to do with our activities from yesterday.
We hadn’t been standing there – between a rock and a hard place – for very long when the front door flew open and Sam came out onto the porch. His face was red and his breathing labored, but when he saw us he tried to act like nothing was amiss and said, “Oh, hey Hunter. Eric. Uh…when did you two get here?”
“Only a minute ago,” I replied, not sure if Hunter had been able to catch everything they’d been saying to one another.
And hoping he hadn’t.
If he did, he didn’t say anything and the dinner that followed was awkward to say the least. The tension was so thick between the two of them I didn’t know what to say or how to act. So as soon as dinner was over I made up an excuse and left after asking Sookie to give me a call later on to talk about me spending time with Hunter during the week too.
Hunter beat her to it, calling me the following afternoon and yelling into my ear, “I MADE THE TEAM!”
“That’s great buddy,” I smiled into the phone. “Did they say when practices start up?”
“Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” he panted into the phone and quickly added, “Will you come? They’re from six to eight and mom’s home from work by five thirty, but I want you to come too.”
“Of course I’ll be there.”
Which is how I found myself back in Bon Temps at six o’clock Wednesday evening.
“Did you already get your homework done?” I asked, walking up to where he was standing next to the dugout. When Sookie had called me later on after I’d spoken to Hunter on that Monday, she’d mentioned it was the only thing she was worried about with him playing ball. So I promised her I would help tag-team-terrorize him into keeping his grades up.
We did not talk about the giant pink elephant named Sam.
She was right when she’d said I was the last person she should talk to about her relationship with him. And while I was dying to know what was going on there, I didn’t want to be the one to point out his faults to her. Not that I knew what they were, but I had a feeling if she told me about them I might possibly beat the shit out of him if she cried.
“Yes, I did my homework,” he grumbled and added, “You sound just like mom.”
“I don’t have a southern accent,” I smiled. But looking around and not seeing her, I asked, “Where is your mom?”
He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “She said she had stuff to do, so she dropped me off and said if you can’t bring me home after practice, to call her and she’d come get me.”
“Oh.” And trying to hide my disappointment, I added, “Kay,” hoping he wouldn’t catch on.
He didn’t seem to, but that was the only thing he didn’t catch. Hunter fielded every ball that came his way and ran down the ones that went over his head. I ended up sitting with another dad, Terry Bellefleur, and learned both him and his wife Arlene worked for Sam. Their son Mikey was on Hunter’s team and Terry’s cousin Andy was their coach.
I tried to act like I didn’t care about Sam one way or the other, so it was especially hard when Terry offered, “So Sam’s acting like a bullfrog at the beach now that you moved here.”
“I’m sorry?” I asked, not quite sure what he was getting at. A lot of southern colloquialisms flew right over my head.
“You’re the saltwater turnin’ his ‘lil freshwater pond brackish,” he said, only confusing me more. So he further explained, “Like he don’t know what to do. Arlene’s been givin’ him hell for months about not makin’ an honest woman of Sook, but when she stopped comin’ around as much as she used to, Arlene dropped it figurin’ they were on the outs. I doubt Sam’s been goin’ to her much since he’s always at the bar, but then we hear you’re on your way and suddenly they’re engaged.”
He stared back at me, letting those words hang in between us, so I let them hang not sure what the appropriate response was until I finally came up with, “Maybe they just kept to themselves.”
Sookie never was one to go flaunting anything and it wasn’t like she could go hanging out at his bar every night of the week when she had Hunter.
Besides, Sam managed to make it to dinner on Sunday and was still there when I left for the night, so they must be spending some time together.
Terry didn’t seem to agree because he laughed out, “You can’t take a shit in this town without everybody knowin’ about it, but I guess you could be right. Besides, Sam’s about the only good catch to be had around here, so Sook woulda been a fool to throw him back.”
It didn’t sound like the Sookie I knew, but when I really thought about it, I didn’t really know her at all anymore. I knew the Sookie who was the mother of my son, but we hadn’t just talked to talk since well before we’d broken up. Every conversation we had had to do with Hunter. When he was born our world revolved around him at first, but when I had to go back to playing ball, her world continued to revolve around him. Not that I blamed her or even saw anything wrong with it at the time, but on a subconscious level I think I’d known I missed her.
And it may have had something to do with why I’d fucked up, looking for attention where I had no business looking for it.
That didn’t excuse what I’d done, but it probably played a role in it all. I hadn’t even looked at another woman once I’d met Sookie. At least I hadn’t all the way up until I got the feeling she wasn’t really looking at me anymore.
I felt like a selfish tool for even thinking it, so I shoved it all back down into the box marked ‘Fucked up’ in my mind and only said, “As long as she’s happy. That’s all I care about.”
And if Sam made her cry I would beat the shit out of him.
I was saved from having to contemplate Sookie’s relationship with Sam even further when Hunter’s coach, Andy walked over to us at the end of practice and asked, “You’re Hunter’s dad, right?”
I’d believed Terry when he said nobody could take a shit in this town without everyone knowing about it, so I was sure he must have known who I was. But instead of taking out my Sookie/Sam frustration on my son’s new coach, I merely nodded and then I was pleasantly blindsided when he asked, “You think you’d be willing to be my assistant coach? I’m a detective here in town and sometimes I’ll be on call, so I don’t know that I’ll be able to make it to every practice or I could be called out to a crime scene in the middle of one.”
Then why did he volunteer in the first place?
But since I had nothing but time on my hands and I wanted to spend more of it with Hunter, I was happy to do it and said, “Sure.”
I doubted Bon Temps was the crime mecca of Northern Louisiana, so how many calls could he possibly have to go to?
And besides, how hard could it be?
It turned out the answer to both of those questions was a lot.
I learned that the hard way on Friday when I’d shown up to practice and found Hunter’s team running riot across the ball field and no Andy in sight. My phone beeped just as I was getting out of my car, with a text from Andy saying, “Out on a call, but I dropped off the gear at the field. Be there when I can.”
I noticed Sookie sitting off to the side with a few of the other parents, so I waved to her and walked over to the largest group of kids, calling the strays over to join us, and said, “I’m Eric and I’m going to be your assistant coach. Coach Andy is still at work, so we’re going to get started without him.”
I started off with having them do stretching exercises, which wasn’t too bad. At least not until somebody showed up at the field with their new puppy on a leash and I lost three quarters of the team to it. It took me another fifteen minutes to get all of them back and then I paired them up to practice throwing a ball back and forth. But because there were an odd number of kids on the team, there was one kid who didn’t have a partner, so I partnered with them.
Bon Temps didn’t have a youth girls’ softball team, so the Little League was co-ed and I walked over to the shy little redhead who looked teary-eyed at not having anyone to play catch with and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Jessica.” She seemed to shrink into herself so much that if it had been possible, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d turned herself inside out.
“Okay Jessica,” I smiled, hoping it would put her at ease, and said, “You can practice with me.”
And seeing her lower lip wobble, I was grateful I’d had a son and not a daughter because I had a feeling I’d be toast watching any daughter of mine giving me that pitiful expression.
“I’m not very good,” she whispered, looking down at her feet.
“That’s okay,” I smiled and tilted her chin up, adding, “That’s why they call it practice. Now show me what you’ve got.”
And after seeing what she could do, I knew I had my work cut out for me.
The ball only traveled at most five feet when it left her hand and more often than not it rolled out of her fingers behind her before she even pitched her arm forward. So I showed her how to hold the ball and plant her feet, going through the motions with her a few times to get her used to it, before sending everyone out onto the field to practice fielding balls I hit to them.
Comparing them to The Bad News Bears would be considered a compliment.
I knew they were only eight and nine year olds, but the competitor in me was gnashing his teeth. So I tried to put a choke hold on him – and kept myself from ordering them all to return to the ball field over the weekend for eight hour practice sessions – waving them off at the eight o’clock hour and only said, “I’ll see you all on Monday.”
Hunter was still running around with a few of his friends, while I gathered the gear Andy had dropped off, and I was in the middle of wondering if maybe I should buy an SUV just to haul it all around in when Sookie walked over and said, “You did good today.”
“Uh huh,” I smiled at her with a raised eyebrow.
Pitiful wouldn’t even come close to describing how the practice had gone. Most of the kids hadn’t yet grasped the concept of staying at their assigned position on the field, so every time I hit a ball most of them ran in the direction it had soared towards.
The first baseman doesn’t belong in left field.
“Really,” she laughed and added, “You didn’t yell once.”
“I guess it’s a good thing you’re not telepathic,” I chuckled. “I think I came up with a few new curse words when the outfield decided picking the grass out of their cleats was more important than fielding balls.”
“It’s a good thing your first baseman is so ambitious then,” she laughed.
“Maybe I’ll switch them up on Monday and put the outfield on the bases where there’s less grass and put the infield out in their spots.”
The first baseman would probably make one hell of a center fielder.
I was dying to ask her what was up with her and Sam on Sunday, but because I was trying to be a better man, I stopped myself and only teased, “If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought Jessica was your kid with the way she throws a ball.”
“Hey,” she chided and playfully smacked my arm. “I resemble that remark.”
She did too.
But that whole ‘better man’ mantra I was trying to live up to kept me from adding how well she’d always done playing with my balls.
But I managed to keep it in.
“But really Eric,” she said, pulling my mind back out of sexy times past, “I think it’s great that you’re doing this for Hunter.”
“I don’t mind,” I replied. “It’s not one on one time with him, but at least I get to interact with him more than I would if I was sitting on the bleachers.”
“So, doing this isn’t going to keep you from doing…whatever it is you do when you’re not here?” she asked.
“I haven’t been doing much of anything,” I admitted. “In fact, I’ve been bored out of my mind whenever he hasn’t been with me.”
And that was an epic understatement. I wasn’t used to having so much idle time on my hands because if I wasn’t actively playing ball, then I was getting ready for the next season. Now I had nothing to keep me occupied when Hunter wasn’t around.
“Oh,” she replied softly.
But sensing there was something more to it, I stopped what I was doing and turned to her asking, “What?”
“Nothing,” she shrugged.
“No,” I argued. “You’re a horrible liar Sookie and I happen to know both of your ‘Oh’ faces, so just tell me what you were thinking.”
Her eyes widened, with her skin turning pink at my truthful reminder, but she didn’t deny it and only shrugged again admitting, “I just figured you’d be out every night of the week, painting the town red now that you have so much time on your hands.”
There was something more behind her explanation, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Not jealousy, but something close to it.
And not wanting to assume it was me she was jealous over, I assumed it was all of my free time she was envious of. Raising Hunter on her own hadn’t left her with much of it, so I said, “The only hotspot I’ve been to is the grocery store, but I’d be willing to get Hunter after school and keep him for a few hours during the week when he doesn’t have practice if you want to go out. And I can take him on weekends too.”
It made me wonder if she’d wanted to spend more time with Sam at his bar, but I didn’t ask and she only looked back at me with a quizzical expression before saying, “If you do that, then you’ll never have time for a social life.”
“I don’t have one to take time away from it to begin with,” I admitted.
Going to bars and clubs just wasn’t fun anymore. I’d tired of it long before I retired, but it was the only thing to do when I was still playing ball professionally and going from city to city. But now I felt like I should find something better to do with my time.
And what better way to spend it than with my son?
“Oh,” she repeated again.
And again it felt like there was more behind her ‘Oh’ face.
But before I could call her out on it again, Hunter bounded up to us and asked, “Can I get a puppy?”
“No,” Sookie answered, just as I asked, “What kind?”
And I didn’t need to be a telepath to know she wasn’t too happy with my response.