Frank Lerner tripped on the doorsill and sprawled onto the ground outside the bar. He landed flat on his butt, jarring his spine. His mouth gaped open as his head snapped back. A million tiny spotlights blazed against a black curtain. Embarrassed at his clumsiness, Frank’s mouth twisted to the side as he sucked in the cool, fresh air. Too bad the beautiful nights of the Arizona summer could not make up for the days, which sucked the life from your body while it seared your skin. No wonder so many people hated the desert. Yet, no matter where he went or what he tried, he kept returning to this small, god-forsaken town. He found that ironic, even though he knew the reason. He shook his head to straighten out his jumbled thoughts, then pushed himself to his feet.

Frank fumbled with the pack of cigarettes in his pocket and fished one out. I drink too much. He lit the cigarette and stared at the match, breathing lightly through his open mouth, until the flame was close to his fingers. I smoke too much. He took a deep drag, held the fumes in his lungs, then released them in a pale cloud.

This is a waste of life. I have no one. I belong no where. I have to figure out a way to change it.

Frank moved one halting step at a time over the uneven tarmac as he turned to make his way back to the dive he was renting down the street. He reached the corner of the bar when a man’s voice came from the alley.

“You whore!” the voice yelled. “Heroine whore!”

Frank turned toward the voice. Thirty feet away, a man loomed above a much smaller figure sitting on the ground. The man was bent over, elbows resting on his knees. Like a rattler striking, he pulled his right arm back and gave the figure on the ground a violent smack across the face. A sharp cry of pain was followed by the sobbing of a woman.

“What the hell you think you’re doing?” the man yelled again.

Without thinking, Frank stepped towards the couple. The man raised his arm to strike the woman again.

“Stop!” Frank ordered.

He moved closer as the man straightened up and looked at him. In the bright moonlight, Frank saw a disdainful look on the man’s face. He seemed to have been drinking as well, but perhaps not as much. Frank automatically straightened his shoulders and raised his head as he approached.

“What the hell you want?” the man snarled. “This is none’a your business.”

“I’ll let the lady decide that. Leave her alone.”

The man laughed, a deep sound like the guttural snarl of a bear and the barking of a large dog at the same time. His sneer bared a few dark teeth.

“This ain’t no lady. This here’s a snow queen, a white horse bitch.” He whirled and smacked the woman across the face again. The movement was so sudden she’d had no time to raise her hands to protect herself. “Ain’t you, bitch!” he shouted.

All his current self-disgust, all his frustration at all the perceived injustices in the world, and all the anger of his drunken rage, focused on this one man. Frank stepped to within a few feet, his fists balled and his arms tensed.

 “I told you t’leave her alone!”

The man slowly straightened up again. He stood a few inches taller than Frank, and probably weighed in the mid two-hundreds, but he looked soft, flabby. Frank tried to stop his slight swaying. The man’s sneer returned, more contemptuous than before.

“Why, you stupid little shit—”

Frank hit him with all his strength. The blow lifted the man into the air. On the other side of the alley ran a low sidewalk. The back of man’s head caught the curb right on its crown. He lay there stunned, jerkily trying to move his hand to reach the back of his injured head. Frank stood over him for a moment, his fists still clenched and ready for the fight, but the man just lay there moaning.

Frank turned toward the woman. She was silent, staring with wide eyes at the two men. He reached down to take the woman’s hand.

“C’mon, lady. I’ll take you home.”

“Get away from me!” she screamed. “You hit my husband, you bastard!”

The woman scrambled over to hold the man’s head in her lap. She stroked his hair and cooed softly at him. She held her hand up and stared at it, then looked back at Frank. Her hand was covered with blood. “You animal!” she screamed. “You hurt him!”

Stunned, Frank stood still for a moment as the woman comforted her husband. Then he slowly shook his head. The world was obviously far too complicated for him to figure it out. He turned, staggered, caught his balance, and then stumbled away.


 Chapter 1


 As the sun sank reluctantly toward the horizon, Frank Lerner let his eyes wander from the ball field for just a moment. He exhaled in a measured stream, relieved that the day’s heat would soon diminish, and that practice had gone without trauma. The long, sweltering session between two rivals insured that tempers ran ragged as they neared the end.

“Strike three!” cried the gangly seventeen-year-old who was paid twenty-five cents to umpire practice games and fifty cents for league matches. “You’re out. Game’s over.”

Frank registered the words, but continued to stare at the dilapidated field. The blazing sun had turned the baseball diamond into a failed mosaic, a ceramic platter placed too near the kiln’s fire. Cracks ranged from hairlines to several inches deep. The shimmering air mingled with the uneven surface to create an adventure on every ground ball, a potential ankle trap on each pop up. The surrounding chain-link fence sagged in several places, creating an additional hazard on fly balls, whether fair or foul.

Frank reflected on the ways the past few years made this otherwise mundane sight so appealing. It was his new life, an answer to his prayers.

The teen removed his mask and wiped his sopping face with a bone-dry handkerchief. The handkerchief would be dry again in a few minutes, but now it left streaks of mud from the dirt kicked up by the hitters and catchers during practice.

As the rest of the players shuffled off the field to gather their personal equipment, Tommy Lerner whirled toward the umpire. Catching the motion from the corner of his eye, Frank turned in the direction of his son. Tommy was short for his seven years, and looked like a road runner next to the eight- and nine-year-olds in the division. His face flamed with heat and anger.

“That was way outside! I couldn’t hit that with a ten-foot pole!”

Frank blinked, refocusing on the scene. The umpire looked down at the boy with the superiority of height, age, and authority. Dirt on his right cheek enhanced the contempt of his sneer.

“You couldn’t hit anything that guy threw with a ten-foot pole. And it was a strike.”

The teen was unprepared for the ferocity of the boy’s sudden attack. Even as Tommy charged, Frank was on the move from the dugout to the field. Tommy still managed to land several punches, a few kicks, and an unceasing barrage of vituperation on his stunned victim before he was plucked away by his father. Frank calmly turned Tommy away from the poor teen, whose long jaw hung down in shock.

“Sorry, Nick,” Frank apologized over his shoulder.

Hanging by the scruff of his neck in mid-air, the boy continued to flail away, feet and fists making occasional contact. Nasty, angry words flew in all directions. Frank paid no attention to the blows. It was the words that bothered him.

“Calm down now, Son,” Frank said, his deep voice as soft and soothing as he could make it. “There’s nothin’ to get riled about.”

“He made a lousy call!  He cheated me!  He said I lost the game!”

“Now, Tommy, he just said the pitch was a strike and the game was over. There’s no blame on you.”

“It wasn’t a strike! It’s not my fault we lost!” Tommy yelled. He squirmed, his face still flushed and twisted. Normally a handsome little boy, it was moments like this that made many of the people in the small town of Paz de la Mente believe he was possessed by the devil.

“It was a judgment call, Son. People make ‘em all the time. And you know it takes the whole team to win or lose, so it ain’t your fault one way or the other.”

Tommy’s slight body stopped moving. He hung helpless, like a feral cat gripped in the talons of an eagle, but still unbowed, looking for a way to escape. He glared into his father’s amused gaze with deep blue eyes that glinted like steel.

“He called me out on strikes all four times. I hate him. I wish he was dead.”

Frank’s heavy brows knitted. “Tommy, you know I told you hate’s a real bad word. It ain’t got no place in no baseball game. And wishin’ somebody dead—” his shoulders shook with a sudden shudder. “I want you t’tell this young man you’re real sorry for what you done, and that you ain’t gonna do it again.”

“I won’t,” Tommy insisted with finality, crossing his thin arms in front of him.

“I ain’t gonna let you down ‘til you do,” Frank assured him.

“But you told me never to lie,” Tommy said triumphantly. “What’s worse, hating someone who cheated me, or lyin’ about I’m sorry I was mad at him?”

Frank’s sigh was barely audible. He didn’t think he was a stupid man, but once again he was caught by the quandary of Tommy’s clever words. How could he explain the world to a seven-year-old boy blinded by his anger at a perceived injustice? He thought involving Tommy in sports would make it easier, but it only seemed to provide more opportunity for trouble. Maybe he should never have agreed to coach.

Tommy was still a year too young for baseball, but the league had ignored his birth certificate when Frank volunteered to coach the team. Frank knew little about the game, but he agreed to read the tired old books the league made available. Because of his size and reputation, it was also true that he would not have to take much verbal abuse from the “baseball parents” who would not volunteer their time to help, but were generous with their advice and criticism once the games started. And his son needed him here.

“What’s worse,” Frank asked, “telling some poor kid you’re sorry for kicking and cursing him, or hangin’ by the scruff of your neck all night?”

Tommy glared at him more fiercely, until a sly smile came over his face. “Then we’ll both miss dinner, and Mom’ll make us both feel real bad with her sad face.”

Frank nodded. “That’s true. But I’ll explain to her what happened, and she’ll be happy I done the right thing by you ‘stead of letting you be bad.”

Tommy huffed several times, but he finally sighed with frustration. Frank could follow his thoughts: Tommy knew that sometimes he could out-talk his father, but he could never out-patience him. Patience was another thing he needed to teach the boy. Frank knew it was a very hard lesson.

“All right, I’ll go tell him,” Tommy conceded.

Frank pulled the boy close to him and kissed the small, upturned, dirty nose. “I know you’ll keep your word to me, Son, so I’ll let you go tell him in your own way.” He set the boy back onto the ground.

Tommy turned toward the tall, angular figure slowly shuffling away. He whirled back to his father.

“I’ll tell him, but I won’t mean it.” Then he turned and stomped away.

Frank sighed more heavily. For perhaps the thousandth time, he wondered if his desire for a son was worth the difficult reality. He immediately scolded himself for such an unworthy thought. Tommy was young and painfully immature. The boy would grow up to become the source of pleasure and pride he and Maria had always envisioned. As with everything, it was just a matter of time and patience. And, of course, love. Lots of love.


Chapter 2


 Frank squashed the cigarette under his shoe. He felt guilty for having two after work instead of the usual one. It wasn’t like when he was a kid smoking two packs a day, maybe more. With a family to support, he couldn’t afford many luxuries. Anyhow, he could do without them.

He sighed as he entered the small, two-bedroom house. How much more satisfying this life was than a drink in one hand and a smoke in the other! Inside it was dark, and the steady hum of a small fan broke the silence and stirred the suffocating air. It was only a few degrees cooler than outside. Still, the dwelling was Frank’s haven from the heat of the desert as well as from his labors of the day and the craziness of other people.

Maria slipped in from the kitchen, a glass of iced lemonade in her hand. She put it into Frank’s hand almost before he settled himself onto the sofa, the only padded piece of furniture in the main room. He smiled gratefully and took a long, slow drink. When he was comfortable and cooler, Frank was happy to oblige Maria’s beseeching look for a kiss.

“A hard day, mi amor?”

Frank sat up and engulfed his wife’s hands in his own. “Nothing worse’n usual,” he assured her with forced cheerfulness.

“But a little shoulder rub would be nice?”

In spite of his worry, Frank’s smile broadened. He leaned back against the couch while Maria stood behind him, kneading his heavily muscled shoulders. It was heavenly after the hard labors of the day.

For the past several months, Frank had worked on a medical office building. It was less than ten thousand square feet, so the contractor hired a lot extra cheap manual labor instead of renting excavators and other equipment. For Frank and his fellow laborers—many of whom were Mexicans, legal or not—that meant digging ditches, lugging and mixing concrete in wheelbarrows, hauling heavy framing beams, and other back-breaking chores performed in sweltering heat. The hard work was aggravated by the dangers of dehydration and even heat stroke. Only the strongest and fittest could maintain the pace, which was one of the reasons Frank was a popular worker. But the shell would soon be finished, and Frank would again be out of work.

As Maria’s strong fingers dug into his shoulders, Frank sighed in pleasure. They both enjoyed the almost nightly ritual. Some evenings Maria’s mother, known to everyone in the town as “Abuela” – Spanish for grandmother – took Tommy to the park. Then Frank would strip off his dirty, sweaty shirt so Maria could dig her strong hands deep into his aching muscles. Sometimes, the pleasure from this simple contact led to more intimate moments.

Tonight, Tommy was still outside playing, taking advantage of the remaining summer days before school started. Abuela was in the kitchen putting the last touches on dinner. Maria finished her ministrations, and Frank left to wash up and get a clean t-shirt. As he pulled it over his head, he could not help but think of the pain of finding more work.

Frank was well-skilled in carpentry, as well as finished concrete and masonry work, but there just wasn’t enough new construction in the town to keep him employed at those tasks. He was willing to accept unskilled construction labor rather than being away from his family for long periods, but when work was non-existent he would go to Tucson and even as far north as Phoenix. Traveling had been okay before Tommy, but the boy was more than a handful for Maria. Frank didn’t think it was fair to ask Abuela to deal with the boy at her age, although she was happy to do so. Frank still wanted to improve his life for his family, not just himself. He did not let his anxiety show at the dinner table.

During their simple meal, the conversation was more quiet than usual. After dinner, Frank told Tommy to go to the room he shared with Abuela and study his letters, certain the boy knew the adults would soon be talking about him again.

Tommy closed the door to the small bedroom without a protest. Frank sat at the kitchen table while the ladies cleared away. When Maria and Abuela joined him again, Frank leaned forward, his arms crossed on the table. He kept his voice low.

“Well, you know I talked with Miss Rubins, the District psychologist, and she agreed with the principal. She reckons it won’t be bad for Tommy if we hold him back a year. Mrs. Boyette don’t seem real thrilled by the idea, probably because she’s worried she’ll get him in her class again. But she did say he’s behind on his studies and it’d help him catch up.”

Frank disapproved of Mrs. Boyette because she thought Tommy was not very bright. But he knew Abuela had even more reason to dislike the woman. Abuela had volunteered in her class a couple of times and encountered Mrs. Boyette’s quick judgments. The woman took one look at Abuela, who was very old and very Mexican, and refused to let her help any of the students except Tommy. She apparently did not know or care about Abuela’s background as an educator. After receiving the same treatment twice, Abuela did not to go back.

“That would be a blessing,” Maria said. “Perhaps he could learn to concentrate a little better.”

“And perhaps improve his social skills,” Abuela added.

“Tommy can concentrate just fine when he’s interested in somethin’.” Frank’s voice was mild, but he clipped his words to show he was again being critical of Mrs. Boyette. “He listens real good when we read him stories at night, and I bet he’s in there right now workin’ on his readin’.”

Frank knew Maria was less concerned with Tommy’s school work than with the way he got along with the other children. Tommy was young, she often said, and he would learn when he was ready. However, she admitted that his temper and his ego were both a lot bigger than his body. Already some of the bigger boys picked on him. If staying back one year helped relieve some of that, she was all for it.

Abuela nodded at Frank’s words. In a rare moment, she told him that Mrs. Boyette acted like all of her students should be little robots, eyes fixed on her at all times and parroting back the lessons rather than her encouraging each child’s personality. He still grimaced when he thought about that.

Abuela had also fretted about holding Tommy back academically when she thought he really needed to be challenged, but she agreed it would probably be best if he had another year before starting first grade. She was very aware that Tommy’s tendency to live in the moment, which included blurting out exactly what he thought without any consideration for others, got him into more trouble than he could handle.

Like Abuela, Frank knew Tommy was more intelligent than most people suspected—than they could even understand—and that the boy needed to be challenged and encouraged instead of being punished for being different. But he agreed with both of the women about Tommy’s behavior, especially until the boy could take better care of himself physically. Tommy’s rapid mood swings, especially how he blew up at times, distressed Frank more than he liked to admit. If nothing else, his staying in first grade would give Frank another year to work with the boy on learning how to calm himself down in times of stress. If there was one thing Frank considered himself an expert at, staying calm in the face of stressful situations was it.

Frank folded his hands in his lap and looked at them. His voice was almost a whisper. “So you both think we should let the school have its way in this?”

“Yes, mi amor,” Maria said gently.

Frank saw the slight nod of Abuela’s head. But, having spoken her mind before, Abuela added, “It is a decision for you two to make.”

Frank rested his cheek on a calloused palm as he looked at her. Born Angelica Maria Fortunado, the tiny, ageless woman was like a grandmother to any youngster who would allow her to be one. Subtracting the wealthier Anglo children who were not allowed to mingle with the poor, that still left several hundred children of assorted ages who looked forward to seeing her soft brown eyes and gentle smile and hearing the kind, encouraging words of the town’s Abuela.

Although he never said it out loud, everyone in town knew how much Frank respected Abuela’s opinions. Very few, however, knew all of the reasons. As usual, his two women agreed. Frank rubbed his face and gave a small sigh.

“All right, then,” he said flatly. “I reckon it’s decided.”

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