39. Secret

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Albert resisted every urge to open the mahogany trunk at the foot of his bed. Opening that chest would be like re-opening an ancient wound. But those ball players that had come through a few weeks ago, they had stirred up some old memories that struck both pain and longing in his heart.

Albert sighed. He bent over and removed the pile of items that had sat atop the trunk for years, several folded quilts and a basket of Popular Mechanics magazines. He hated the thought of getting rid of those old rags before giving them one last look.

Even though he couldn't read every word, Albert had a way of grasping any material about automobiles. In the Popular Mechanics, there were diagrams – lots of diagrams – and pictures of parts and part numbers. Flipping through those precious monthlies, Albert had gotten pretty darn good at understanding those crafty automotive articles and advertisements. And that had been enough for him to go off and tinker and figure out how to fix just about any vehicle.

But Albert's thoughts were starting to get away from him. That seemed to be happening more often lately. Albert supposed he really was getting on in years. Maybe Sarah was right to be worried about his memory. Maybe he was starting to lose his mind.

Albert unlatched the chest and grunted as he lifted up the lid.

Gazing down into the trunk, there was only one object laying inside, but it caused in Albert two waves of conflicting emotions. There was a side of him that felt a wave of warm and sweet nostalgia. He recalled the happiness of those days, and it was enough to prick his eyes with tears. There was also a side of him that felt pain and loss. He had lost what was most important to him in the world. Something he once breathed and sweated and lived for each and every day.

Albert reached inside and pulled it out. A well-used Louisville Slugger. The bat that had been with him through it all. Albert held it in his hands, turning it over and caressing the old yellow wood. Feeling the contrasting smoothness of the wood and the many tiny dents with his fingertips.

It had been his "lucky bat," and Albert had been all too aware of how silly and superstitious that sounded, and still he refused to give up that sentiment.

The bat had given him a way out of the poverty and sadness in his life.

When he stood at home plate with this bat cradled in his hands, Albert was no longer that poor, black boy from Alabama. He became free of the bars around his life. Free of the prejudices that caged him in. And free of the curse of his dark skin.

When he held that bat, Albert felt his very identity fall away, giving way to an inner strength of someone with far greater potential. Someone with hope and a future.

The freedom that baseball had given him was something special.

And now that freedom was gone.

Sometimes Albert wondered what would have happened if he had simply done what was asked of him. Maybe he should have just listened to that white man. What really was integrity anyway? It had seemed so vitally important to Albert at the time. But by clinging so desperately to it, Albert had lost everything that was important to him.

Albert leaned back on his heels. Still cradling the bat, he drifted back to his final days playing for the Birmingham Black Barons, one of the best Negro teams in Alabama. He was a pitcher, and he was that good that players throughout the Negro leagues called his ball-throwing skills "sweet magic."

The other pitchers looked to him to teach them how to throw fast and slow, low and high. That he could do. But damn if he could explain the true magic. Albert seemed able to read batters and how they were going to swing. And with that kind of skill, he made those hitters look like pure fools.

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