An Unfinished Season

BOOK: An Unfinished Season

Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents






















About the Author

First Mariner Books edition 2005


Copyright © 2004 by Ward Just


All rights reserved


For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.



The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

0-618-56828-x (


eISBN 978-0-547-52455-9


An excerpt from this book appeared in
Five Points.






For Sarah

and for two friends of fifty years,
Bunny Carney Heuer and
Ann Terry Pincus






of the year my father carried a gun for his own protection was the coldest on record in Chicago. The winter went on and on, blizzard following blizzard, each day gray with a fierce arctic wind. The canyons of the Loop were deserted, empty as any wasteland, the lake an unquiet pile of ice beyond. Trains failed, water pipes cracked, all northern Illinois was locked in, the air as brittle as a razorblade. The newspaper story that had everyone talking was the account of a young colored woman found frozen solid in an alley on the South Side and taken at once to the city morgue, where an alert doctor discovered the faintest of heartbeats. She was revived, thawed as you would thaw a frozen piece of meat, and in the course of the subsequent examination was found to have so much gin in her veins that—“Jeez, it was like she had swallowed antifreeze,” the doctor said. Religious leaders, ignoring the lurid details in the papers, declared her survival a miracle. She was a young woman touched by the hand of the son of God. Jesus had visited Chicago and saved the humblest and most destitute of his creatures, praise the Lord.

Happened all the time when I was a boy, my father said.

Some poor bastard wandered away, got lost, passed out, froze to death.

Happened to our neighbor. They didn't find him for a week.We didn't have morgues out here. And the doctor was twenty miles away.

My father was born on a farm on the prairie north of Chicago and insisted that this winter was nothing compared to the winters, he had endured as a boy, interminable winters when the snow reached to the eaves of the roof; and when the western wind from the plains blew away the snow, the icicles remained, icicles as thick as your arm. My father had an imaginative memory stacked with stories and often different versions of the same story. One time he had the wind howling like wolves and another time wolves howling like the wind. When he told his stories, my mother always rolled her eyes and winked at me. We lived in his family's homestead, except now it had nine large rooms instead of six small ones, and where the barn had stood, an emerald lawn with oval flower beds and a great oak so broad two men could not reach their arms around it. The house was on the grounds of a newly minted golf club in a township that was unincorporated but known informally as Quarterday, meaning that in the previous century it took a quarter of a day to reach Half Day, itself half a day's ride to Chicago. Tell someone from the North Shore that you lived in Quarterday and you got a condescending smile because to the suburban gentry it was nowheresville, a common flatland of family farms and a few estates and the newly minted golf club, a crossroads with a drugstore, a market, and a gas station, the unfashionable western point of a triangle whose eastern points were Lake Forest and Winnetka. What do people do out there anyhow? What do they see in it? The suburban gentry associated Quarterday with one-room schoolhouses, pheasant shooting in the cornfields, hayrides in the moonlight, and the annual agricultural fair. Something unsettled about it, a place that never developed. There were rumors of gambling in the roadhouse down the highway from the club, the roadhouse owned and operated by Italian interests from Chicago.


The sixth green of the golf course was visible from our terrace. Between the terrace and the fairway was a shallow pond shaped like an eyelid and fringed with high-crowned sycamore trees,
among the trees swaybacked metal chairs. That was where my father went each evening when he returned home from work, duckwalking in his skates, his long stick over his shoulder, huge in pads and decades-old leather gloves, a worn green jersey (the number 33 still distinct on the back), and a black wool balaclava. He had installed arc lights in the trees so that the pond was brilliantly lit, the cage with its floppy net at one end. My father stood quietly a moment, breathing deeply, his breath pluming in the frigid air. Most nights the ice was covered by an inch or more of snow, which he cleared with a wide-bladed shovel, skating patiently from the edges of the eyelid to the center until the surface was clear. Then he opened the small duffel he carried and scattered half a dozen pucks on the ice, using a sidearm motion as if he were skipping stones over water. And then he would step gingerly onto the ice and begin to skate in earnest, long powerful strokes around the pond, tapping the stick on the ice to some mysterious rhythm. Then he would rotate and skate backward, his elbows close to his body, his knees churning. He looked as indestructible as a truck. After a few minutes of warm-up, he would execute a sweeping curve and take the puck up the ice, nudging it gently as if it were an eggshell, swiveling left and right, his head high, and at the last moment fire the puck into the net. He rarely took a slap shot. Slap shots hinted at desperation and he believed in patience and thorough preparation. Due diligence, he called it. It was easy to imagine the defensemen he eluded, confused opponents scrambling to check him or steal the puck. My father did not stop until all six pucks were in the net and at that time he took one, two, three victory laps, skating as fast as he could around the perimeter of the pond, his stick held high above his head, hearing the tick-tick-tick of the stick striking the bare branches of the sycamores. I imagine he was remembering his days at Dartmouth College, captain of the almost-undefeated hockey team in his senior year. He was fifty now, his hair thinning and his waistline spreading, nearsighted behind wire-rimmed glasses. On the ice, he looked twenty years younger. I watched all this from my desk in my second-floor bedroom, schoolbooks piled around me, my father's athletic skill a momentary distraction from European history, art appreciation, and Spanish. Everyone said we looked alike, but I didn't believe it. The photograph on my desk showed an outdoorsman, a few years older than I am now, burly in a Dartmouth letter sweater. I am taller than he is, and thin, an indoor man. When they say I look like him, they mean our mannerisms are similar, the way we walk, our gestures, and our voices.

From the pond my father could see the lane that meandered around the club grounds. There was little traffic in January, most of our neighbors in the South somewhere, Florida or one of the Caribbean islands. When my father saw a car's headlights, his pace would slow and he would follow the lights until they were lost to view; and if the car hesitated for any reason, he would move to the shadows of the pond, out of the bright lights and into the sycamore grove, where he would wait in one of the swaybacked metal chairs, the duffel beside him out of sight. He removed his gloves and placed them beside the duffel while he waited. When the car disappeared, my father would emerge from the shadows and resume his practice, puck after puck fired into the net, and then the victory laps, ending always in a defiant spray of ice when he came to a full stop. After an hour of this, the arc lights blinked twice, my mother's signal that she was preparing cocktails. Practice was over. Time to come in. Time to shower and say hello to the family. I knew she had been watching him from the French doors that opened onto the terrace from the den, trim in slacks and a sweater, an ascot at her throat; of course she was worried, and I imagined her hand moving in a tentative wave, though she knew he could not see her, so complete was his concentration. He always took two final laps, and when he removed the balaclava you noticed his damp hair and the sweat on his forehead, his face flushed, smiling broadly—and as he stood, his chest heaving in the bath of bright lights, you could almost hear the applause. When he took a last reluctant look around, I knew he was remembering himself as a boy on the same pond, those interminable winters when the icicles were as thick as your arm, vibrating from the howls of the wolves on the prairie. The prairie swept away in low undulating swells like a great inland ocean, the soil unimaginably rich, everything else inhospitable. The horizon line was out of reach. And then it seemed overnight Chicago's sprawl defeated the farmland. Roads replaced wagon tracks. The golf course arrived. My father stood on the ice, shimmying on his skates, looking at the fairway in the darkness, remembering that a barn once stood there stark against the empty sky and beyond it cornfields for miles and miles. In such a landscape a human being was diminished. You knew your place.

Then he fetched his duffel and duckwalked back into the house, where minutes later I heard the rattle of ice cubes and a companionable round of laughter before their voices lowered and I knew he was telling my mother about the events of his day, how it began and how it ended and everything in between. How things had gone at the office, and when the crisis would be over.


It was not over in the spring. The weather changed. The pond's ice melted in late March and I was no longer able to watch my father skate. I missed the evening interlude, looking up from my books, watching him step onto the ice, his spirits visibly rising in the frigid air, arms high above his head, his speed increasing with each lap, skating in a zone of absolute privacy. I watched most carefully when he saw a car's headlights and moved into the shadows, lowering himself into one of the swaybacked chairs, his hand bare on the crimson duffel at his feet. That was where he kept the gun, a long-barreled Colt .32, the identical model favored by gangsters in B movies, a sinister accessory along with a fedora and a trenchcoat. The revolver was a gift from his friend Tom Felsen, the county sheriff. Tom Felsen had an arsenal in his office at the courthouse, firearms that had been used in the commission of crimes. The long-barreled Colt was a murder weapon, exhibit A in a case that involved a poker game, a quart of whiskey, and an unmarried woman. The sheriff and my father had been best friends in grade school and hell-raisers together in high school and each had been an usher at the other's wedding, though they no longer saw one another “socially,” as my mother said. They had taken different paths in life, beginning when my father went away to college in the East and his classmate stayed home. Tom and his wife lived quietly in one of the new subdivisions out near Mundelein, their life together circumscribed by the complexities of county law enforcement and Tom's political ambitions; he wanted to run for the state legislature and needed my father's financial backing. In any case, the Felsens did not belong to the country club, the center of my parents' social life. My father and Tom Felsen spoke on the telephone almost every day, and two or three nights a week the sheriff insisted on escorting my father home from work, meeting him at the office and following him to the club entrance but no farther.




My father always motioned for Tom to come along and have a drink but he never did. He dipped his lights once, gave a little whine of his siren, and was gone.

Deprived of his ice hockey, my father arrived home a little later each evening, his arrival announced by two short toots on the horn of his Oldsmobile. He put his overcoat and the duffel in the coat closet and joined my mother for their evening drink, now more often two drinks; and their conversation ended when I entered the room. I felt like the walk-on who had wandered onto a stage set from the wings, the actors momentarily at a loss, in their surprise and confusion forgetting their lines—until one or the other smiled or laughed falsely, suddenly remembering the cue. How was my homework coming along? Did you finish your history paper, the one you worked on all last weekend? What was the grade?

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