by Clay Reynolds
The guys who coach and who know him respect him, and most all the kids are afraid of him, although he’s probably not more than five-six, five-seven–weighs maybe one-thirty-five or one-forty an hour after he eats a big dinner–squirrely little guy with thick glasses, always needs a shave and has pimples, though he’s on the far side of forty. And when he talks, he sounds like an old screen door on an older farmhouse–squeaky and whiny. But he’s always there. On time. He pulls up in a rusty old Pinto that anybody else would have junked back in the Carter Administration. It has four mismatched and completely bald tires, the windshield is cracked, and the passenger-side door is wired shut. So when they see him pull in, purple smoke trailing back into the street, dieseling three times before it chugs to a stop, and get out and use a broken Louisville #32 to prop the hatch open so he can get to his gear, they yell “Blue’s here” to each other and start winding up their infield. They know that he always starts the plate meeting as soon as he hits the field–no bullshit. That’s what he says: “No bullshit, guys. I’m not here to fuck with anybody. You call ‘Time,’ you got a five count to tell me what’s on your mind, but when I hit six, I better see your butt moving toward the dugout, ’cause when I hit seven, I’ll see it moving toward the parking lot.” And they shuffle and hide grins at this little man who can’t even look over their shoulders talking so tough, but those who know him know he means it. “So what about questions?” a new coach asks, and Blue’s glasses flash a little, but it’s hard to tell if it’s the sun or something behind them making them spark. “That’s why you got a rule book, Jack. I ain’t no school-teacher. Look up what you don’t know.” And then he jerks the mask down over his eyes and yells, “Batter up!” and God help any player who isn’t already in a helmet and on his way to the box or any pitcher who didn’t have time to warm up enough. And no one but the new coach laughs when he squeaks out “Seeeerike” or says in that high flat little voice, “Ball,” or when he takes a little hop and almost turns himself inside out when he rings a kid up. The new coach says, “Jesus Christ, he’s embarrassing.” But the others know him and respect him, and they know better than to feel sorry for him. And then there’s a close call at third and he scurries down there, running awkwardly in his gear, like a stork might run–a short skinny stork–and he yells, “No, he’s out!” But the kid is really safe, or so it looks to everyone else, especially the new coach, who suddenly is in his face turning red and yelling “Why’s he out? Tell me that! Why’s he out?” And Blue stands there tapping his toe and says in that same high-pitched squeaky voice, “He’s out ’cause I say he’s out. Play ball.” But the new coach yells some more, and kicks some dirt, and throws his cap down, and says some mean and personal things, and Blue’s toe taps the seventh tap, and he jerks a thumb toward the parking lot and goes to the plate, where he stands, tossing the ball up and down in his hand, waiting until the confused new coach swallows his anger and bangs through the dugout and leaves the field. Blue says, “Batter up.” So the game goes on, and once in a while another coach calls “Time” and goes out to yell about a call, but everyone’s watching blue’s toe tapping: one, two, three–waiting for him to hit seven again. But the coaches watch him, too, and they can get what’s on their minds off their chests in a four count–most of them. Some don’t even stay that long.
When he awoke it was around midnight and he realized that he’d only been lying there for an hour, but he also knew that he wouldn’t sleep until he made it right. Only there was no way to make it right, and he knew that, too, but he didn’t feel safe, so he got up and didn’t wake his wife and went into the living room and turned on the tube and lit a cigarette and watched late-night recaps of the majors’ games that were played that day through the powder gray smoke that trailed between him and the set. But he didn’t feel any safer about it, watching those guys in the blue shirts behind the plates calling the balls and strikes, safes and outs, and always so goddamned cock-sure they were right, always so safe behind their gear and their masks. And suddenly, through the smoke and darkness, the screen began to show the game he called that night, and he was the guy in blue. But it wasn’t Cleveland or Cincinnati, and it wasn’t the majors, it was just a kids’ league right there in his town, and it was two-out, two-on, two-strikes, bottom of the ninth, with the home team down by one. And the runner on third broke for home on a suicide squeeze, which was stupid, given the situation, and the batter didn’t see him, and the runner slid into the batter and the catcher, who had the pitch in his mitt–and it was strike three–he was sure of that, at least–and then the pitcher got there, and he saw the catcher’s mitt tag the runner’s inside knee, and they were all in a pile of dust and arms and legs and gloves and batting helmets and catching gear, but the catcher came up with the ball in his mitt, still, and the runner looked up, right into his eyes. And he looked back through those metal grates of his mask and yelled “Out, Yer Out!” But when it was too late, just a fraction of a second, less time than it takes to feel the burn of the first smoke of the day in his lungs, he saw that the runner’s outside leg was across the plate, which meant he made it under the tag and he was safe. And he saw all that on the recap program, and he also saw the runner’s face when he turned it up and looked through the metal bars of the mask and he saw the runner’s eyes that said he knew he was safe, and the runner knew that he knew it, also. And he saw the quick flash of hate in the runner’s eyes, that hate that can only come when something’s not right, and it made him feel afraid. But he wasn’t able to change it or admit it or do anything about it because the visiting team was already dancing on the field and the home team was dragging itself together and trying to figure out how it could have gone so wrong. And it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway, because it was strike three. But how do you explain that to a kid? And it was impossible that this could be on television, but more impossibly, the whole thing started over again on the screen, and he was more afraid than ever. So he knew that he had to make it right somehow, so he crushed out his cigarette and turned off the set and pulled his pants on over his pajamas and went out and got in his car and drove fifteen miles to the runner’s house, chain-smoking all the way and telling himself that this wouldn’t make it right. But when he got there, he didn’t wait, he just got out and went up the walk and rang the bell and told the kid’s surprised and irritable father that he needed to see him. And in a minute or two, there was the kid in a pair of boxer shorts, rubbing sleep out of his eyes, no longer a runner, no longer a player, but just a kid, tall and muscular and fit and trim and handsome, lithe even in his lethargy. And he asked did the kid know him, and the kid looked at him and rubbed his eyes some more and nodded, and he said, “You were safe.” And the kid just looked at him and nodded again and closed the door. And he went back to his car and sat there, smoking another cigarette, and deciding that he was quitting, for even though it hadn’t made it right, it at least made him safe.
It was one of those games that umpires talk about when they gather for beer and smokes in somebody’s backyard, a nightmare game, when every play seems to be a crisis and every call is close and every pitch is meaningful. He knew that and it wasn’t the first time he had called one like that, and he hated them–they all hated them–but it bothered him this time, more than it ever had before, because when it was over, none of them would talk to him, not the winners, who were embarrassed to have won it on close calls, and not the losers, who had lost it on close calls, all his calls, all his calls, and not even his ukes, who stood out behind the bags and ever so slightly shook their heads when something was so close it could go either way. So he left the field as he always did, through the winners’ dugout with a “Goodgamecoach” on his lips, but the shameful silent shrug of the winning coach haunted him as he stumbled to the concession stand for a hotdog. He should have gone home, he thought, but he couldn’t leave yet. He couldn’t leave because he felt the hurt of noticing that no one would look him in the eye, not even the ukes who almost always followed him there then out to the parking lot to talk about the game, then about the good-looking mother of the red team’s third baseman, who sat up high on the bleachers in short-shorts and a halter top, with her fingers laced tight across her sexy knees when her kid batted. And they would talk about her legs and her tits for a while, and then they would talk about some other mother who used to come out, and they would argue over who was better looking and tell a story about another Blue who actually “got him some of that” in exchange for giving her lead-butted kid a walk when he should have gone down looking for the third time. But knowing they were there and not including him this time fixed it so he couldn’t leave, not yet, not while they were all gathered together in a pool of light out by their cars, casting looks his way, for he knew they were talking about him, discussing his calls behind the plate and saying that he was squeezing the zone and that he missed that tag at home in the sixth. He could almost hear them, and his face burned when he went out to his car and took off his gear and stowed it in the trunk, then stood there feeling so completely alone and leaning on the car and sipping a beer he always kept on ice in the cooler back there, smoking a cigarette, wanting to go but unable to leave. And he felt like walking over to where they still stood around and watched him from over their shoulders and saying, “Good game” to them, but he feared too much that they wouldn’t say it back to him, and he didn’t know how he would handle that or if he could ever leave if they didn’t. Then he saw the pitcher for the losing team coming toward him–or actually, just walking by him, cap still square on his blond head, his batbag slung over his shoulder like a fat carbine, his long legs striding wearily but strongly across the blacktop until he got close enough to reach out and touch. And he wanted to turn away and get in his car and drive off and leave all the doubts he had about his calls behind with the ukes and their furtive glances and sarcastic laughs, but he couldn’t leave yet, and it was too late anyway, for the kid was right there now. “Good game, Blue,” he said when he walked by, but he didn’t stop. “Thanks,” he said automatically, “Good game.” And then, he relaxed, for now, he could leave.
His belly is huge and forces the spandex waistband of his BIKE coaching shorts to double over in protest when he squats or sits, but he spends most of his time standing, pacing really, with his cap tugged low over his eyes, forcing wisps of thinning hair to thrust out like pitiful fingers seeking freedom from the sweaty felt cover. His McGreggors kick up sand and sod and wear out a path from the door of the chainlink dugout to the on-deck circle and back again. He has a pencil behind his ear and clipboard under his arm, and when something goes wrong–and that day, everything goes wrong–he pulls them out and studies the papers on the board and scribbles notes and changes, while his expectant subs on the bench watch him and wait, afraid to ask, afraid to volunteer, afraid to say anything, but mostly afraid that he won’t call their names, or that he will. And his face is red, and his jaw is filled with seeds which he spits like bullets into the frayed grass around his feet, and he keeps fumbling in a pocket that isn’t there for a cigarette he can’t smoke on the field anyway. The small hairs on the back of his neck seem to stand up and away from the sunburned skin that boils and blisters in frustration while, one by one, he calls the subs’ names and sends them in, watching but trying not to watch when those who come out slam down their gloves, their helmets, or their butts on the metal bench and hang their shaking heads in confused dismay. “It’s only a game, kid,” he says to one, who booted a slow roller and let a run come in, and “We’ll get ’em next time,” he says to another who struck out looking at a perfect fastball, and “Try stepping back a step and read the ball off the bat,” he advises an outfielder who let a fly ball go over his head. And each time his voice–though hoarse with yelling field adjustments and complaints at the jerk-off behind the plate, who probably has a nephew on the other team–is soothing and reassuring and cajoling and positive–always positive. But behind the burning blue of his eyes, the painful ordeal of losing feeds on his ego and grows fat while the outs mount up and the score goes out of sight, and he know that it was only a matter, now, of getting through the afternoon, then telling them that they played their best, and hoping that the best of them come to practice on Tuesday and don’t quit on him. And he wishes, above all, that he was twelve and could go out there and save them. “Rally time,” he yells with a hurtful glance at the scoreboard, jerking his cap around, bill backwards, and points at each boy individually, says, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” but he knows that it’s over, and he’ll take them for ice cream and then go home and lie awake and replay this game in his mind and wonder what else he might have done while his wife and son–the kid who struck out looking–sleep the blissful sleep of the indifferent.
He squats in the dugout door, dressed more like he’s going out to mow the lawn than coach a team, quietly chewing his tobacco and dropping surreptitious globs of dark spittle down between his feet, which are shod in brogans, not cleats or spikes like his assistants wear, with his cap pulled low down over his bushy brows and his dark eyes scanning the field like a sentry searching for enemy sappers. But he gives no alarm, never raises his voice, and makes his comments in a quiet, paternal tone, refusing to do more than glance down the bench to silence a complaint or stymie a protest before it’s mouthed. They want him to stand up, for it’s clear to them that the pitcher is in trouble, and the top of the order is up. From time to time he shakes his head in disapproval, or says “Yeah,” when something goes right, and then he settles back onto his hams and chews and spits and slides his eyes toward the scoreboard while his assistants frantically pace and try to make him stand, giving the signal that it’s time to change, because they know they can win this game if they have a pitcher who isn’t out of gas and throwing wild. So, to appease them, now he watches his pitcher, who is struggling, and who casts his eyes toward the dugout, afraid he will be pulled, hoping he will be pulled, praying he won’t be pulled, and who slides another ball too high and too far to the outside, sending a runner to first and threatening their lead. And the pool of spittle in the dugout door grows from a puddle to a pond, but still the squatting figure sits and chews and spits and says nothing. And the next batter bunts and the runner goes to second, and the pitcher muffs the throw and now has two men on and no outs. But his pleading look at the squatting man in the dugout keeps everything the same, and the chewing continues, and nothing is said, and the assistants, exasperated, slap their thighs with their clipboards. The pond between the brogans becomes a lake. And the next batter hits fair, and the runners advance, and the lake becomes a sea, but still he says nothing while the clean-up man strolls to the plate. Then he looks at his assistant and nods, once and briefly, then spits once more into the dark nicotine sea, and the assistants smile. Now, they think, he will stand up. But too quickly, the batter steps into the box, and the pitcher, overanxious for redemption, rushes and throws low and inside and hits him, and the batter is down, and the crowd is yelling, and everyone knows that he won’t pull him now, for that could take confidence from a youngster, and that’s not his way. So he remains squat over his sea and concentrates on making it an ocean while the next batter takes a fat fastball over the fence to clear the bases and put the game on ice, and the pitcher hangs his head, and the assistants slam the fence with their clipboards and curse, and the substitutes hang their heads. At last, when it’s too late, they think, he stands up. But he knows it’s time, now, for he needs a new place to spit.
You could hear him from the parking lot, if you were in the parking lot, but you’re not. You’re on the bench, and your head is down, because you’re the one who made the last out of the previous inning at third, and you know that you’re not supposed to do that. And you feel bad because he didn’t pull you out of the game and give some of the benchers a chance, because you really don’t feel like going out there and trying to redeem yourself, not in a losing effort you don’t. But that’s not what’s got your head down. It’s him, marching back and forth like some kind of Praetorian Guard, yelling at the umpires, yelling at the other coaches, yelling at his own assistants, yelling at his own kids, yelling at everyone. Embarrassing you, making you ashamed to be a part of this team. His language is “clean,” or at least marginally so, for he knows that there’s a line, and if he steps across it, he’ll be out of the game, out of the park, if blue so calls it, and you don’t want him to leave, but you don’t want him to stay if he’s going to yell like that and be abusive and complain about everything, even when he’s clearly wrong. So you fiddle with your glove, knowing that you’ll be in the hole after the next batter, but there’s already two outs, so you won’t get to bat, probably, again in this game. And that’s too bad, for you could redeem yourself if you could get a hit, even though it wouldn’t make much difference, you’re so far down and the innings are almost gone. But he keeps on yelling, and you try not to look at him, or at the game, but it’s hard not to, because it’s fascinating and horrible to watch a grown man act that way. And when the umpire comes over for the umpteenth time to tell him that “one more word” and he’s “outta here,” you hope in a way that that’s what’ll happen, but when you look down the bench and see the fear in the eyes of your teammates, you know that they don’t want it to happen, so you don’t want it to happen, and all you feel is the hollow fear inside you that says that if you do get to bat that maybe you can hit something and maybe, just maybe, he won’t be so hard on you tomorrow when you go home and he turns back into your father and the players turn back into your friends and you turn back into the kid you always wanted to be.
He was fourteen, but I’d heard about him because I teach him, and I thought he was no good and knew he was a poor student and ungrateful, they said, but I heard about him, so I went out to the park to see for myself. The grass was tall and the weeds were thick, but none of that slowed him down as he glided, flew really, from one side of the field to the other, his glove like a lightening rod, attracting the white sphere as certainly as if it were a bolt sent toward his heart. He mowed lawns, they said, three days a week from school’s out to dark, and three days a week he paid what he made to high school boys to come out to the park and–at five dollars an hour apiece–take turns hitting fly balls to him so he could run forward and back, sprint from side to side, bounce off the rusty chainlink fence and spear those doubles and triples, reducing them to naughts on a scoreboard sign that flashed only in his imagination. And I took a Diet Coke and sat there munching peanuts and watching him with the bloodred sunset deepening behind him and the high thin clouds of early spring streaking across an azure sky like bright scratches on a new car’s paint. His ratty-toed spikes kicked divots out of the soggy outfield when he dug for one the older boys kept lining out away–really out of his zone–to his right or left, making him run hard and leap through the air like a human javelin, his long arm extended, converting the glove to a basket to catch the precious stitched apple before it struck the ground and bruised. And he caught more than he didn’t, his body sometimes thudding down, sometimes bouncing hard, sometimes sliding smoothly across the jimsen and clover, staining his white shirt green, ripping holes in his pants, but failing to dim the brilliance of his smile when he jogged back to center and leaned over and wordlessly pounded his glove, waiting for the next impossible challenge. My Coke forgotten, peanuts dead in my hand, I watched the grim dedication of a boy in a man’s body playing a boy’s game, his mind focused not on mundane pastimes of this present, but on another place, far removed from this school’s crude park, a place where the grass was always mowed and the sky was always blue and fly balls always got lost in the sun. That’s where he was as the next pudgy high school kid stepped up to the mud-covered plate and tossed one up and spanked it low and hard to right, laughing–meanly, it seemed, and I knew it was mean–while the player jumped–effortlessly, it seemed, but I knew it took effort–to his left and raced, his knees high and his glove ready, to the point where it was now or nothing and leaped through the air, snagging the ball only inches from the top of a clump of dandelions before he came down, rolled once, and popped to his feet, his glove held high in impossible victory, his cap askew, his tattered knees dark with fresh wet sod. “Fly balls,” I said to the ugly, pimple-faced kid who laughed every time they fooled him and made him run from his deep center position. “He pays you to hit him fly balls,” I said again. “You keep doing that, he’ll hurt himself.” The fat one frowned at me. Aw,” he said, “it don’t matter, he’s just a kid.” And I looked and saw him waiting in his crouch beneath that darkening sky and knew that he had already learned patience–the most important rule of the outfield–and I took the bat away from the high school boy and hit a long high one, and watched him step back two paces, then circle under it and shield his eyes, and take it with the respect such a ball falling from a bright and mottled sky demanded. And he waved his cap in thanks. But he didn’t see me, didn’t see them, either. He was somewhere in his eyes. “No,” I said to the pimply frowns surrounding me, “you’re just a kid. Fly balls.” And I handed him the bat and walked back to the school, hoping that I would live long enough to see the place that filled the player’s eyes.
They say that years ago he was in the Show, but he won’t talk about it, and it’s hard to believe, the way he is now. He’s fat, for one, real fat, and when he comes tooling up to the park in that rusty old Buick and gets out and stands there for a minute with the sauce stains on his shirt, it’s a whole lot easier to see the fast food store manager he is than the player he might once have been. But he won’t miss a game. Not when his kid’s team is in it. Notice I said, “kid’s team,” not “kid.” That’s because his kid doesn’t get to play one hell of a lot. I mean, like in five-six games, he might get an inning. He’s just not that good. But he’s not that bad. He made the team and all, but it’s kind of pitiful to watch his dad out there in the parking lot, opening the squeaky trunk of that old rattletrap and pulling out the imitation satin jacket and cap–all in the team’s colors, right–and tugging them on, jerking the jacket over his belly before he waddles up to the concession stand and buys a couple dogs, maybe a Coke and a bag of peanuts, and then goes and takes his place five rows up–always the same place–right behind third, where he sits and peers out at the field through those thick, bottlebottom glasses, like he’s waiting for something grand to happen. But it never does. The games drag on, one behind the other, and the team wins some, loses some, never makes the playoffs, and, like I say, his kid almost never gets in, not even to pinch. He just sits way down on the bench and tries not to look at his dad.
Any coach’ll tell you that handling a guy’s father is a whole hell of a lot easier than handling his mom. Any coach knows that. A father–hell–a father’s been there. He knows what it takes to make it, and he knows, even if he won’t admit it, when his kid don’t have it. He’ll stand over there and throw knives at you with his eyes, smoke maybe twenty cigarettes in an hour, pace a lot, and slap his leg with his cap, but he won’t say nothing. He knows if he says something, his kid’s screwed as far as the coach is concerned. And when his kid gets up or if a long looper is hit out his way, he won’t say shit. He’ll just watch it real calm like, and maybe his eyes may slit a little, and if the kid gets the hit or makes the play, he might grin a little. But if he don’t, alls he does is light another smoke, maybe take off his cap and knock some imaginary dust off it. And that’s it. But Mom’s a different kettle of chowder. Bet on it. If you don’t play her kid, she’s all over you like a case of the shingles. She’s yelling at you while you’re on the field, and she’s calling your house, and if you don’t talk to her, she’s calling the league commissioner telling him you might be some kind of pervert the way you abuse her kid, who probably can’t throw a meaningful glance or hit a basketball hanging on a string. And she’s hanging on the fence when he is playing, yelling at him, giving him advice that the coach maybe don’t want him to have, making him think that if he screws up, he’s letting her down someway, and what he’s really thinking, instead of concentrating on the ball or the count, is that he just wishes she would sit down and shut up or take up Tupperware parties or something like everybody else’s mom.
When I was a kid, he never missed a game. Not one. He’d take off from work sometimes, give up overtime, even double-overtime, just to come out to that dusty old park and sit on those splintery old benches and watch me play. Not that I was that good when I was a kid. I didn’t even get to play a lot. I still don’t. But I got good enough, and so when I made the minors, he thought it was grand. He thought it was the next best thing to getting out of the Army, which he said was the best day of his life, next to the day I was born, he’d say sometimes, if he thought I was listening. But he didn’t get to see me play in the minors. I was playing far away, and he couldn’t get that kind of time, not with everybody getting laid off all over the place, and the only slow time always coming in the winter. So my first year he didn’t see me play at all. But in my second year, he said he had a vacation coming, and he was going to see me if it hairlipped everybody in Kansas–which was sort of an expression of his. And so he took the vacation, and he drove in our old Chevy all the way from home–nearly twelve hours–and left too early for me to call and tell him that a water pipe burst on our field and we had to move the game to the other team’s park, and that was a twenty-hour bus ride for us and for him not to bother. But he was already coming, and he got there just as we were leaving, so I saw him, in our old Green Chevy, following our bus, weaving a little sometimes and making me think he might be falling asleep, but somehow keeping it on the road right behind us, his face fixed on the rear of our bus, his eyes already seeing me on the field. And we drove all night and into the morning, and Coach came down the aisle saying that he had to make some roster changes, and I listened and found out I wasn’t starting, might not even get in, since I didn’t hit so well in the other team’s park. And I grabbed Coach by the shirt, which he didn’t like, and I said, “You gotta start me,” and I told him about Dad, and I dragged him back to the back, which he really didn’t like, for that’s where the black players sat, and I pointed out those dirty windows toward that weaving green Chevy and the old man behind the wheel, grimly watching the black exhaust of our bus the way he had for the past eighteen hours, and told him about the twelve hours before that and about the year before that, and I begged Coach to put me back on the lineup. “He’s a fan,” I said, “he’s my fan.” But Coach just shook his head and said he’s already promised Caldwell, and Caldwell didn’t get that many starts, and he was too happy to disappoint, that maybe he’d try to get me in late innings, if we had a lead. And I went back to the back and looked at that green Chevy and thought about how far he’d come, how many games he’d missed, and how long it would be till he had another vacation coming, and wondered if I could hold up that long, for I wasn’t that good, and then I started to cry.
You wait for him, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and you’ve finished your third bourbon, but you don’t want him to know that, so you hurriedly splash in the new one, with your eye on the door, relieved when you can slip back across the worn pattern of the rug and ease down into your chair–the same chair where you used to sit with him in front of you on the floor while you explained the infield fly rule and cursed the designated hitter–where you–the two of you–watched the Cubs lose year after year. And you wait for him, knowing that he said he wouldn’t be there before four, yet hoping that he will be early, and at the same time hoping he might not come at all, or that your heart might give out, or a vessel might burst in your brain, so you won’t have to deal with it, face up to what you’ve done. And you wait for him. And you wonder how it all came so fast–it wasn’t meant to be this fast–and you think back to all those afternoons, teaching him how to lay his fingers across the stitches just so, and how to keep his balance even and swing level, and how to take two steps back before surging forward on a looper, and how to read a Texas leaguer off the bat, and how to slide so he won’t hurt himself. All those years, you waited. Four years before he had hair on his balls he could hurt your hand when he burned one in with all his might, and four years before he had a driver’s license, he could put one out and over your head, no matter how far out you seemed to go, and four years more you yelled at him to oil that glove and take those empty practice swings. Twelve years total, of telling him it was all right if he didn’t make it, but knowing in your heart that he could make it, if only he practiced and only he cared and only he wanted it as bad as you–but did you want it for him or for you? And you wait for him to come in and tell you in the flesh what his voice told you on the phone, that they called–they finally called–and he’s going there to play for peanuts, but that’s okay, for from there he can get the real call, the big call, the call only a few ever hear to bring him to the Show, to put him on those well groomed fields which is exactly where you saw him the first time you saw him all wrinkled and ugly and red. You saw him there. And you wait, and you hope that, in spite of everything, maybe he got it wrong, that maybe they didn’t call, and that maybe he’ll give this up and become an engineer or a shoe salesman or a hold-up man, or anything that offers the prospect of something more than the heartache you knew he would be in for as soon as he got the call.
“It’s a pisser is what it is,” were the first words out of his mouth. He slouched against the bar and ordered another three-fifty beer, and I could tell from the number of coasters he had stacked in front of him that it wasn’t his second, or even fifth. He was much taller than I, and better dressed, probably wearing more from the waist up than I made in a good month from the waist down, but there was a rough cut about him, something that said that prosperity always eluded him, no matter how many bills were rolled in his tailor-made pockets. I could tell that we had that much in common anyway, not that I had money, just an expense account. Still, I could tell that he had been waiting for somebody to come into this plastic hotel bar–“a lounge,” they called it–just as hard as I’d been hoping to find somebody– anybody, I thought when I left my room’s loneliness–there to talk to. Being on the road is tough, and I sometimes think I fucking live on the road, constantly searching my bags for clean underwear or a tie that isn’t too badly wrinkled or the one shirt I always try to keep for good because it’s the only one without a stain of some kind on it–and wondering if maybe I ought to get laid, though I never do–or trying to get three shampoos out of those goddamned little complimentary bottles or worrying about the family who are worrying about me. So I could tell, just from the way his eyes were vacant when they scanned the bar and settled on me and he waved me over and bought me a beer that I wasn’t what he was looking for, but I was all there was, and he settled, for when I got there the first words out of his mouth were “It’s a pisser.” He was a ball player, of course, and he wasn’t upset I’d never heard of him–“Lots of guys ain’t heard of me,” he said–and that I didn’t follow the team he played for–” used to play for,” he said–because what he wanted to tell me had nothing to do with what he was, at the time, or what he had been–“I ain’t no has been,” he said–but with what he could be, if only they had given him a shot that day as they said–after fifty phone calls and twenty-five thousand dollars–“wiped out my daughter’s trust fund,” he said–they would–“in cash,” he said–to the “right people”–to get him a try-out with a team that cut him before they even saw him hit. He woke up that morning and found the old pain, the one that sent him out of the game–“the Show,” he said–and landed him in Japan playing for a bunch of guys who didn’t know anything–“asshole from applebutter,” he said–about baseball. It–the pain–was back, and that was the point. So he couldn’t bat that day, and so he was cut. So tomorrow, after fifty phone calls and twenty-five thousand dollars sent to the right people, he was going to have to take a twenty dollar cab ride out to the park where he would ask could he please get a front for the fare back to Detroit so maybe he could patch things up with his old lady–“ain’t seen her in a dog’s age, wonder if the kids remember me, wonder if she’s got herself a man,” he said–and maybe get the dealership that promised him a job when he retired–“when I couldn’t hit it on the green no more,” he said–to come through, because, even though he wasn’t but thirty-two, he was hanging up his spikes, and his dreams of Cooperstown and a seven-figure contract, like he could have gotten when he was hitting .320 and fielding .980 and could “screw the daylights out of any little bitch he picked up outside the players’ gate,” he said–and like he thought when he spent almost his last dime flying in here from Tokyo two weeks ago he could get again–“the contract, not the bitch,” he said. And I gave him the fifty I kept back for emergencies, and he grabbed me in his big black arms and hugged me like I was his daddy, though I was only four years older, and I told him I expected a deal on a new Toyota, and he said “no problem,” although I never have been in Detroit and never hope to go there. And he went off to bed, alone I guess, although there was a bimbo hanging around the lobby, who wasn’t there a few minutes later when I went upstairs early and called my wife and said I thought I would cut it short this week and come home early and maybe take the kids to a ballgame, and she, worried, asked if everything was okay, and I said, “It’s a pisser.”