A few days after Stephanie called and told me Bob had shot himself in the foot, then in the gut, Sammy Sosa got caught corking his bat. My feeling on that was, I didn't care if his bat was made of cotton candy, he had the sweetest skip-hop in baseball, and he couldn't stay in his shoes at the plate. As for Bob, that was more complicated. I guess I was surprised he'd used a shotgun, and that he took his foot off first, because I didn't see the need for that, unless he was trying to keep himself from getting away.
Bob was our high school softball coach, an ex-marine who stood on the foul line with his arms crossed and his legs spread, sucking on an old bullet, rolling the slug on his tongue. He rocketed around town on a Ninja 600R at any speed that suited him. The cops rarely pinched him because he was the kind of driver who terrorized everyone else into slowing down, so letting him go served the greater good. That was Bob's theory, anyway. He was full of these theories. He said our lives would ease up infinitely once we were willing to be taken for morons, which was an interesting but difficult idea to work into a cheer. His batting signals were equally cryptic. If he spit, then tugged on his ear, that meant to finesse it, and none of us knew what finesse it meant, so we hit away.
I hadn't seen Bob in fifteen years, and then only in news clippings Stephanie had sent my way. Coach Suspended for Supplying Minors. Coach Accused of Sexual Misconduct. Coach Faces Felony Charges for Sexual Assault. The charges had revolved around a team he'd coached in Guerneville after we were all graduated and gone. I remember The Register quoted his pitcher as saying, "I didn't say anything at first because no one else was saying anything and I thought, you know, We're OK, or something." I liked the way she phrased that—reminding me of that time in life when you waited for other people to tell you whether you were OK, and you trusted them, as if there were no other way to find out. When they hauled Bob off, his team was 0-12, which the Guerneville mob took as proof Bob had messed the girls up, but that was sloppy thinking. I'm no cop, but 5-7 would have seemed more suspicious to me, depending on how the wins and losses sorted out, because any season has a rhythm—any obsession, too. They should have looked for the girl batting .500 then striking out five games in a row.
When the Guerneville story broke, our parents nuzzled in, wanting to know if Bob had tried anything on us. The only girl who stepped forward was our right fielder, and I guarantee he never laid a hand on her. This girl had an extra pinky, or part of one, and she still couldn't get her batting average over .200. I'm speculating there, but the numbers talked to Bob. Dead players talked to and through Bob, and I believed everything he told me. I believed Jim Thorpe could hit a ball anywhere on the field plus or minus a yard. I believed Ty Cobb filed the metal spikes on his cleats so he could gouge the second baseman's shins. Maybe Bob was the last man I believed, and the sooner that man comes along in a life, the sooner you can relax and quit worrying whether you're OK.
I held off telling my boyfriend, Mack, about Bob because I wanted to work it out myself first, and because I wanted the right Simpsons episode to come on, which was the best time to drop disagreeable news on Mack. He knew every episode and every scene he was going to laugh at, but still we had to sit quiet and wait for his cues, which was true about guys and that show. Mack was six-four, 180, and no fat, but he was a passive and pent-up man, always on the lookout for that one future unforgivable wrong. He had tiny, eyelashy eyes and a laugh with actual hos in it; and some days that made the whole damn mess worth it, that laugh. The episode with Homer conducting the monorail was starting, and I didn't see any improving on that, so when the teacher wrote on the board mono=one, rail=rail, I told Mack about Bob's suicide, about the day Bob took me shooting in the woods. When Homer stopped the careening monorail with a doughnut, I told Mack about the other girls.
He stared at the screen, asked why Bob wasn't in jail. I said he was, or had been, that he'd done three years in Vacaville, which didn't improve Mack's mood any.
He said, "Stephanie, too?"
I said, "Yeah, Stephie, too."
Stephanie was Mack's favorite friend of mine. When she brought a man around or we saw him on TV—she coached basketball for UConn then—Mack picked the guy to pieces. I told myself he wasn't more disturbed to learn about Stephanie than about me, only more surprised.
He sat on the couch for a long time, nodding then not nodding, then nodding again. Then he picked up his keys and didn't come home until three the next morning.
Mack's second reaction was to buy a dead pig. Some background on that: We lived half a block from Wrigley Field, and on game days we sat in the street drinking Killian's Red out of baseball mitts. The gang we sat out with had been talking for two seasons about roasting a pig. Everyone knew we'd never do it, until one of the wives started talking side dishes, and the guys got defensive and turned to logistics. We settled on Saturday's game because Roger Clemens was pitching for New York that day and he was chasing three hundred wins, and we wanted to see Sammy put a hold on his plans. But now that Sammy was on the bench, Saturday wasn't making any promises, and the talk about the pig fell off. However, the business with Bob put Mack in a nasty way, and suddenly all he cared about was laying claim on this pig. When the lowest quote landed at $300—money we'd slotted for camping gear—I wanted particulars on how he planned to roast this thing. He said the guy up in 2D had gone to Ohio State, so he knew all about roasting pigs. I told him 2D wore an Ohio State sweatshirt, and a diploma and a sweatshirt weren't the same thing. I told him you couldn't just throw a pig in the trash.
"So we'll eat it either way," Mack said.
"You're prepared to eat a raw pig?"
Mack said, "Isn't that what ham is?"
"They have hair, you know," I told him. "Pigs are hairy."
Mack thought about that. "So we'll shave it, then eat it."
That was the most we'd spoken in a week, and there were smiles in our voices even if our eyes didn't match, so I shook hands with the idea and walked away from the camping gear.
What you have to understand about our softball team that year: if it weren't for Bob we never would've stepped onto the field. We played volleyball—that was our game. Two years running we'd flown down to L.A. and swept state. The problem with that team was the same problem with every team Stephanie was on, which was figuring out how to get her involved in every play. On the one hand, she had the softest set in the state—the ball would float off her hands as still as a knuckleball. But she also had the most consistent kill shot, even if you set her at the ten-foot line; and she had the kind of hang time where her legs would relax in the air, and you'd see her up there looking like she had to decide to come down. She didn't like the attention sports drew, but her father had been in a coma for five years, so she played to give her mother something to do. Later that year you'd see her out at shortstop toeing the dirt between plays like she was the last girl waiting on the last bus anywhere, and if it never came that was fine, too.
But that was Stephanie. The rest of us walked around school in our warm-ups thinking everyone else was a biohazard of uncool. We got Bs and Cs, and we said things like I am mightily vexed, and we ate baby food to be coy. That year women on the circuit switched from wearing shorts to those ass-huggers, and so did we, taking the court in what were basically panties with our numbers on them, and we were sixteen and we were champions and we knew exactly what we looked like out there. Which is where I get confused about Bob, and who did what to whom, and what did people think would happen when he rolled up to our exhibition game on his Ninja and asked how we planned on staying out of trouble now that the season was over, then said, "I'll tell you how, you're going to play ball for me."
We said, All right. We said, Nice bike.
The guy from 2D, clown that he was, knew another guy in Bucktown with a barbecue mounted on off-road tires. This thing had an actual license plate on it, and we figured if the DMV could get behind this machinery, so could we. While 2D went to pick up the grill, we set up our chairs in the street—camping and beach chairs, those cheap aluminum deals that leave a weave pattern on your ass, some asses more than others. Through-traffic honked and hooted "Go Cubbies," the kids waving those lame foam hands out the window.
Mack and his oldest friend, Spivy, had picked up the pig that morning and stored it in the basement, then Spivy headed down to Murphy's to interview tailgaters on the Sosa affair—to get their views on Sammy's story that he grabbed the corked bat by mistake. Spivy said everyone just repeated what they'd heard on the news, so he bailed to come help with the pig.
Spivy wrote a column for The Sun, and you never knew when something you said would wind up in the paper, so we all had opinions. One guy who was temping at an engineering firm said his bosses said corking didn't help, that if anything it hurt. Spivy said it depended who you were, that you could get a corked bat around quicker, so if you needed the extra time, like Sammy, it helped, whereas for a Barry Bonds, all it did was take some distance off.
The temp's brother said, "You're saying Sosa's got a slow bat?"
Mack said, "He's saying he's no Barry Bonds."
"He doesn't need to be Bonds," the temp said. "Why would he want to be Bonds if he's already Sosa?"
A guy I'd never seen and who hadn't spoken said, "I'm just saying what I'm saying."
I said everyone knew you practiced with a heavier bat, not a lighter one. Spivy popped his beach chair back a notch and said, "Not in pregame. In pregame you've got to please the crowd. Who you've got to feel for is Dusty—a few million witnesses, and he has to back Sammy's crackpot story."
The temp's brother said, "But what did they see?"
"Cork," Mack said. "They saw cork." For some reason he was glaring at me. Wherever he was headed with this, I had to let him. There were too many people around, and when he drank like he was drinking his mood could go anywhere.
"But the question is," the temp said, "did he grab the wrong bat."
Spivy said, "No homers since the beginning of May, and he was two for fifteen taking the field. That's a special time to grab the wrong bat."
Mack paced to the end of the block, watching for the grill to show up. The fidgeting wasn't like him, but that week I wasn't sure what was like him. In the guy-ways he was impossible to know—kinky in bed until he knew me well, for instance, then old-fashioned and quiet until, toward the end, sex became more like jogging—something we did at all the same places and times but not strictly together.
At the corner, Mack yelled over his shoulder, "No getting in another man's head. Only Sammy knows." I thought of that line years later, after the scandals that followed and guys like Bonds and Clemens came through on top, where Sosa and McGwire tanked with the fans. I thought that's because they'd put on a face—Sammy with his fist-on-heart thing and all that—whereas Bonds and Clemens didn't try to be liked. They let their games talk.
Someone's girlfriend said, "I read Sammy sleeps with his bat and cares for it like a baby."
The crude guy whose wife was always sick said, "Check that baby's diaper; what you'll find is cork."
Mack stomped back and pulled a fresh Killian's out of the cooler. "Did you know, sitting right there"—he waved the Killian's over my head—"is the champion of California?"
While I sat looking like an idiot, the building manager's second wife asked how long I'd been champion, then the sensible tuba player from the broken home asked, sensibly, "Champion of what?" His mother shushed him like it wasn't polite to ask.
Spivy leaned in and asked only me, "The hell's up with him?" He knew us well enough to recognize that Mack had a rotten taste in his mouth and wanted me to taste it, too, but before we could get into specifics 2D wheeled around the corner with the barbecue hitched to the back of his Jeep. Mack clapped a few times and said, "We in business, boys."
It worked like this: Bob would stop you after practice and say, "Stay and bang the erasers," which meant help with the equipment, which you would. Then when all your rides were gone, he'd say, "Let's get you home," and you'd wind up in Bob's dumpy hatchback nowhere near home, the bats and balls clattering in back and Bob talking baseball. I don't know where he took the other girls—I like to think we all had our own personally tailored routes—but me he sped into the hills and parked on this tiny stone bridge. All but one or two of these rides were harmless. Sometimes he never even turned off the car.
The first time we went up there, Bob handed me a collage of yellowed news clippings in a beat-up frame. He wiped the glass with the fat of his fist and asked if I'd heard of Ty Cobb. I hadn't but said I had, and looked at the pictures. Three were action shots of Cobb spearing basemen with those infamous cleats. There was a close-up of the cleats, spike-side-up, and a face-shot of Cobb, with his crazy see-through eyes and mouth of a killer. Down in the corner, in a Did you know? box, I learned that Cobb's father had married his mother when she was twelve, and years later—mistaking him for an intruder—she shot and killed him.
With the stick shift and a phone book between us, Bob said, "You're going to break the stolen base record this season. You're on target to do it."
I didn't know how that could be, since we hadn't played any games yet. I said, "I'm not that fast. I just look fast."
"No, you don't look fast, but you know how to read people."
I'd always felt like I looked fast, so that was a blow, maybe calculated. Then Bob worked around to the real object of our talk, which was getting me behind the plate, catching. He talked about me gunning down runners, fucking with their minds. He said catcher was the most important player on the field. Even I knew that was stupid, but as I said, I didn't much care about baseball or softball—boring to watch, boring to play—and if I was going to spend my spring on the diamond instead of getting high with my brother's friends, I'd just as soon have my hands on the ball. Besides which, I liked the clamor of the catching gear, everyone lashing around and tearing the pads off when I was on deck. I liked the horror-movie mask and the ump hunched flush against my back.
That was the first time, in the trickle of the car's interior light, I saw Bob up close—how rough he was, his sexy bad skin, his lipless mouth set in parenthetical grooves that made everything he said seem incidental to what he was leaving out. Overall, his face looked uncomfortable, its creases in every way opposite to the give of his jeans. I don't know if he had one pair of 501s or twenty, but they all fit the same—the bulbed-out knees, the tucks and folds that marked his thigh-heavy stride. On the sideline, in those jeans, he had the air of a guy pissing in the shallow end of the pool while kids snorkeled by and dove for pennies. Bob was the first man I wanted until it made me tired looking at him. So I looked at the pictures of Cobb instead, I read and reread a quote of his I remember to this day: "My whole plan on base was to upset batteries and infields. How? By dividing their minds."
Bob said no team of his was handing out bases for free, so one Saturday he took me and Stephie out for a special practice, just the two of us, looking to perfect my throw to second. He blew out the bottom of a moving box and set it on its side between the mound and second base. I was supposed to skip the ball through the box, make it bounce once and rise low into Stephie's mitt right at tag-level. "You see this box?" Bob said. "I don't want to see this box move." My arm was powerful but wild, and that box danced all over the dirt. I missed the box, I beaned the box; what I didn't do—as the drunk on the swing set tirelessly pointed out—was make it through the box. After an hour of this, Bob revised his command. "We're not leaving until you get this down or destroy the box." I was more a destroyer of boxes than a getter of things, so that's where we ended up—with Bob dragging the mutilated box off the field and Stephie and I snorting-laughing. None of this mattered anyway, because Stephanie could catch anything and get anywhere before the runner wised up and headed back to first.
I guess Bob couldn't figure out which one of us he wanted to drive home that day, or maybe Stephanie and I cared enough for ourselves or each other not to let him stand there and decide, so we walked off together, said we'd see him Monday. We'd always respected each other on the court, but we'd never quite been friends. I was intimidated by her comatose father and the isolated life that went with it. I'd known a kid who drowned, but that girl was a twin, so it sort of seemed like the family had a spare to work with, the tragedy incomplete.
Most of the walk, we laughed about Bob and the box. She said it was an impossible target, which was sweet and untrue. I could've done all right, I thought, without Bob in my line of sight, in his 501s. Who knows what I was trying to hit.
We entered the alley of the dogs, and Stephie said, "So what record are you going to break?" I told her stolen bases. "Let me guess," she said. "Because you can read people." She laughed, then her arm flew out and snatched at a branch, ripping off a bigger sprig than I think she'd intended. The tree shook behind her.
I asked what she and Bob talked about. "What does anyone talk about with Bob?" she said. "Ted Williams." She took a strange pigeon-toed step and said she thought he'd been driving our pitcher Tracy around lately, which made sense when I thought how her pitching had improved, how he had her switch-hitting now.
We came out of the alley onto Stephanie's street, a dead end with a barn and three known lunatics living in the ten or twelve houses. Stephanie nodded at a long ranch house snarled over in bushes and scrub. You couldn't even see the front door. She said, "That's me."
The barbecue was a mean piece of hardware—a steel barrel sawed in half, with posts and prongs and a crank welded to the sides. It was the work of a country boy consigned to a cubicle, the kind of guy who gets fired for clogging up the network with right-wing chain e-mail.
In gardening gloves and plastic butcher aprons—and where did a sportswriter and an options trader come by those?—Spivy and Mack carried the pig across the street pallbearer-style, hooves-up. I'd assumed the pig—Lola, Mack called her—would come groomed or flayed or prepped in some manner, but all they'd done was peel back the skin around her eyes, which bulged in the naked sockets. Maybe this is just how a pig's face is built, but Lola looked like she was smiling, a sort of fuck all y'all grin like the joke was on us. She looked less like an entrée than the hero of a children's book. You live so intimately with the idea of pigs in the world, you assume you've seen one, but I realized I never had, not in person, and this one was full of funky features—ears like those horns on old-time record players; short, sparse, grassy hair; and bulldog-folds on her neck. But it was the dishpan-hand skin that got me: I knew I could either watch them cook Lola, or eat her—but not both.
Originally I opted for the eating, but mounting Lola on the grill became such a slapstick of horrors that I decided to forgo the pork, gorge on junk food, and watch Mack and his crew botch the job. Expensive fuck-ups were valuable currency in a relationship like ours.
As Mack drove the spit in, a cheer went up at Wrigley. We got this a lot, the random cheers and boos. Try having sex or fighting when you have detractors and fans. Sometimes I think living that close to a ballpark candies your mind, the way living near Disneyland would.
When the time came to insert the prongs into Lola's fore and aft, not even Mack could stomach noodling them in. We stood around drinking and stalling until the lady gym teacher stepped up and said, "For Christ's sake." After she stuck Lola in the haunches, she paused for a long time, then stood. "I hit bone," she said. "I felt it." We were all looking down, peeling at the labels on our beers. You can do anything you want to the dead, and what people don't like about that is the reminder that you can do anything to the living as well. Finally she said, "Well, you're on your own with the face," and went and sat in her chair.
Mack stepped forward then, as he had to, sucked down his Killian's, and took the second set of prongs in hand. The guy from 2D warned, "Don't go in through the eyes. When it gets hot enough they're supposed to, like, melt or something. We should probably see that."
Mack said, "I thought you'd done this before."
Spivy and I passed a glance, seeing Mack was on his way. At least it wasn't his whiskey drunk—that meant someone was going to jail. I cocked my head toward the chairs and, with most of the others in tow, sat with the sulking gym teacher.
Back in our circle, the tuba player's mother said, "Why don't we try it? Cork a bat ourselves and see if the ball goes farther?" This was after she noticed Mack and his guys stringing orange extension cords together. "What do we need to do it?" she asked.
Spivy said he thought it worked pretty much like you'd guess, that a drill and Krazy Glue should do it. And the cork.
I heard the grind of a power tool, saw in my periphery Lola shimmying and shaking and Mack at the helm, wearing ski goggles and looking crazier than on his passport photo.
Bob came for me the Saturday before our playoff game. I'd never ridden with him on a weekend, but he was in town running errands that morning, or so he said. Personally, I couldn't see him buying milk or mailing, really, anything, but I got in the car.
We headed off on our normal course, but when we got to our turn-off he kept driving. It had rained all through the night—sideways, leaf-slapping rain that sounds like applause, then when you listen again, like boots marching in formation. The deeper and higher we swerved into the hills, the darker and damper the road became, with a high hiss in the air. When finally Bob pulled off, we were miles from anything recognizable to me. He worked the lock on the gate to a private driveway, jogged the fence open, drove us through, and jogged the fence closed, jumping and tagging the NO TRESPASSING sign on his way to the car.
We drove jerking and bobbing along a dirt road with a strip of grass down the center. Maybe half a mile in, Bob cut the engine and we rumbled to a stop in a clearing. The first sun of the day lit the field into a fire of green, ballpark green, which was the one poetic thing baseball had on its side. While Bob ran around, popped the hatch, and fiddled in the trunk, I sat in the passenger seat trying to name that green. Then Bob walked past my window and crossed the field, the wet, wild grass slapping at his pant legs. At the far end of the field, he kicked over a fallen log and set up a row of cans.
The gun was a .38 Special, what cops use. In Bob's outstretched palm, it looked fake, like spray-painted wood. When I told him that, he half-smiled, like it was a cute thing to say. But he didn't pull the gun back.
I said, "You're not thinking I'm going to shoot? I don't like guns."
"You don't need to like them. You need to know how to use them."
I looked at him, at the cans. I had no intention of shooting, but then the gun was in my hand and Bob had come around, fit himself against my back. He wedged his knee in between my knees, nudging them apart. "You want your feet about like this."
Still I didn't intend to fire, but I liked Bob there behind me arranging my arm like a mannequin's. It was that same sensual feeling you get at the salon when they wash your hair and really dig in, and you don't care if your hair's clean or falling out, you're thinking: Jesus, hair lady, just keep going.
"Remember," he said, testing the resistance at my elbow, "it's going to kick. Be ready for the kick." I felt the stubble on his cheek but not the skin. Then he stepped off to the side, crossing his arms, copping his stance.
I don't remember much in the way of operating instructions, and though I didn't know guns I knew I'd just as likely shoot the man as not. He was well within my firing range. All around us the trees were dripping with the previous night's rain.
"Let's go," he said.
I told him I was trying, which I was. I think. Then the thing went off. My arm tore up and back and the gun flew out of my hand, thunking down somewhere behind the car. For some time I stood with my hand over my head, fluttering like I was waving at someone on the other side of the field.
Bob laughed and said, "Do it again." In those deaf after-seconds, I more lip-read than heard this, and for that span of time he looked different to me, happier and like cardboard.
He said, "Fire one more shot."
I couldn't pull the trigger that second time, nor was I convinced I needed to. Sometimes defying Bob was the strongest kind of obedience. I told him I was done and to please come and take the gun. He paused, then started over. He was the only thing moving in the field. He came in behind me as if to take the gun, but it was back in the grass somewhere, which I'd forgotten. "Please take it," I said. Then his hand was moving up the small of my back, his fingers scrabbling at my belt loop, the other hand digging under my shirt. I lost track of how many hands were at work and where. I was looking all around. He smelled of BO, but there was the smell of the wet grass to counter it. One of his hands moved up my inner thigh and stuck, and then Bob picked me up a little off the ground and I tried to think if there was any way to stop this, and did I want to, but he was doing so exactly what I wanted done I might as well have been doing it myself. I remember: The orange Afro hair on Bob's stomach, the hard pimples on his back. How I fumbled and snapped the elastic on his Y-fronts, and he tumbled into my hands like a bunch of rotting fruit. Then the switch from fast-sexy-hot to interminable hard labor, like two people struggling to fit through a turnstile. And then the disaster afterward, watching Bob feel around for a personality—and me, of all things, helping him—until he reverted to a boyish flirtation that embarrasses me even now. But that, the part at the end there, was what I'd looked forward to most, meeting the man behind the bullet-sucking and statistic-spouting, but there was no one there. Or no one with any language for the afterward. He's not the last man I could say that about, but he was and remains the saddest to me. It's strange how much you miss and overlook, how little you know about the one you want most.
While the gym teacher made a run to school for mitts and balls, some neighborhood kids measured out the 60.6 feet from the mound to home plate, where we slapped down a HOME SWEET HOME mat. I heard the guys at the grill talking about a beer run, which was the last thing we needed, which was usually when someone went for beer.
Alone in the circle of chairs, Spivy sat corking the bat. Once, late-night, he'd talked to me about pitching in college, about quitting when he realized playing the game didn't make him happy. When he pitched poorly, he said, he didn't sleep for days, but when he pitched well he felt only relief, "like I'd dodged a bullet." And at that moment, as I watched him handle the bat—blowing off the sawdust, sifting in the cork with autistic precision—his past became real to me. I sometimes thought if it weren't for Mack and me, Spivy and I would've given it a go. But probably our attraction depended on having Mack there between us—without him we wouldn't have known each other at all.
Each batter got five swings with the corked bat, five with the solid one. You weren't allowed to know which was which. I'd taken practice swings with both and they felt the same to me, but to detect a difference of ounces I think you'd have to know bats the way chefs know knives. Grounders didn't count.
One of the girlfriends led off. The kids scattered with mitts and hopscotch chalk to mark where balls struck the pavement. Spivy tossed in a hittable yet not patronizing pitch, which she swung at, in heels, after the ball was in the catcher's mitt. Mack yelled from wherever he was, "That's one, mama." She was up a long time and whiffed on every pitch.
The gym teacher was up next. She managed to pop a few in the air, which pleased the kids. Then the fourth or fifth pitch struck her in the shoulder. She took it personally and dropped the bat, returning to her chair with a limp, like she needed her shoulder to walk right.
Down at Wrigley some of the fans were letting out early, including a pack of soused options traders who worked with Mack at the Mercantile Exchange. They'd come to see the pig but ended up more interested in our experiment with the bats. The married moms asked them to tone down their language. The rest of us were glad to have them swinging. Certainly Spivy was. One guy had played a season in Triple-A and sent a pitch clear down onto Addison. The kids went nuts over that, and soon we had chalk marks all over the street.
Mack being Mack, he took the plate with a longneck in one hand and the bat in the other, swinging one-handed, missing the first two pitches. The third grazed the tip of his bat; the ball changed course only slightly and headed full steam into the lounge area, causing the gym teacher to topple backward in her chair, flashing a red thong none of us had time not to look at. The ball bounced once, then smashed into the front of the grill. A tire came loose and the grill dropped to the ground, embers and coals spilling out in a steaming mound. Then there was a creaking sound and Lola slid snout-first down the spit like she wanted to see what was for dinner.
The guys from the Merc hopped to it, maneuvering Lola off the spit, fitting her into one of the chairs. She was hot, smoking from both ends. One guy lit a cigarette on her hoof, took a drag, then inserted the lit cigarette into the side of Lola's mouth, gangster-style. Another bowed and made the sign of the cross over her head. Mack watched from home plate, not joining in, which surprised me—these were his guys, his kind of thing. For a second I thought he might even stop them.
Instead he turned and held the bat out to me. "Let's see the slugger take a whack."
To advance in the playoffs we had to beat the unbeaten Pioneers, and we had to drive four hours to do it. Bob drove the infield in Tracy's parents' Suburban; and since your parents' things count as yours in high school, it was her duty to suggest we stop for beer. We figured: why not. We were batting practice for the Pioneers, and all of us knew it.
Bob said, "You're dreaming." He said, "If you girls don't think you can win this game, pipe up and I'll turn around right now." That wasn't believable in the least, if only because he had nothing better to do. "There's no reason you girls don't go out there and blow beans today."
Pug said, "Blow wha?"
Some miles on, we pulled into a Shell station to fuel up. While Bob went in to pay, we started flirting with the guys at the next pump, in the middle of which Pug bumped me and said, "Well lookie here. The man do have his moments."
Bob was pumping across the lot with four plastic bags full of wine coolers. He'd never bought us alcohol before, and if we lost this game we were done. Not that we thought much about it at the time. Except for Stephanie, who pressed her hand to the window and said, "Why would he do that?"
Bob swung the bags in back and we took off. While we drove, the bottles made a huge, unignorable racket, but we knew to keep our mouths shut, that nothing was ours until Bob gave it to us. We turned up the music. We waited. When he was ready Bob said, "You can have one, ladies. One means one." But there were sixteen bottles, and Bob didn't drink. He said he was only doing this to get our heads out of our asses and our mind on the game.
I said, "Minds, Bob. Minds plural." He slit his eyes in the rearview mirror—our first eye contact since that day in the field. Whatever was in his look, I couldn't read it. We were as separate then as hands on a stopped clock, and his bad skin wasn't sexy; he needed Clearasil, was all. I saw the day nearing when he'd pull up to the gym on his bike—whatever gym, whatever bike—and the girls would pass on by, murmuring, What a dork. Because maybe in life you like what you like, but the hitch to liking girls—at least the kind Bob got anywhere with—is that they don't care if you're a criminal but they care if you're a dork, and no one can sniff that out like a teenage girl.
Not until we pulled into Fort Bragg and the car and the music stopped did we take stock of ourselves. Pug was lacing her cleats on the wrong feet. Tracy said she didn't know if she could walk, let alone pitch. When she opened the door a bottle cap spun to the ground, and we listened to its tinny whirl the way you watch a top until it stops. During the ride we were in it together, but no one could sober another person up, or help her see a speeding ball.
Twice during the game I tipped backward onto the umpire's shoes, but when he helped me up I smelled beer on his breath and figured we were square.
The Pioneers' pitcher smoked in strike after strike, looking like she was dislocating and relocating her shoulder with every pitch. Stephie took a couple hits off her. The rest of us more or less stood in the batter's box waiting for the ump to tell us when our turns were up.
Bob paced the dugout, dragging the scorebook along the fence. "OK. She's faster than we're used to, but we can hit that."
Pug asked how we could hit a ball we couldn't see.
"Watch her hips," he said, "her point of release. You have to decide sooner, that's all."
"Pretty much, like, now," I said.
Fifth inning the hangovers hit. A mousy thing stepped to the plate and launched one deep into left-center. Pug took the cutoff. The ball crashed into the backstop fifteen feet behind me. I didn't have time to scramble for it and make it back to the plate, so I hunkered down. The girl was rounding fast. With no ball in my mitt, I can't guess what I was thinking. It's not something I would do today, but maybe that's because I've already done it.
I dove. I took her out at the knees.
No one knew how to react, including the ump, who came bumbling forward, hoisting his pants, making this chewing motion with his mouth. Then he pointed at me and said, "You—you can't do that!" Which we'd all suspected but I guess needed to hear.
The off-duty postman who came to all our games yelled, "Atta girl!" And just like that, the game flipped from blow-out to farce. I was sorry for that. I saw what a delicate and fragile thing a game is, and games have mattered in my life. I never would've stepped onto a volleyball court drunk or half-drunk, or even tired.
The ump gave them the run and we finished out the game, but not before this: A mean line drive up the center with no one and nothing to stop it. Stephanie in a dive you wouldn't dare without a pool. Her mitt, with teeth, snapping up the ball. Stephanie whoomfing down, hobbling to second on her knees, scorching the ball to first for the double. Then, still on her knees, Stephanie spinning, puking in the grass. Sure, you see this in the majors any day, minus the puke. But this was high school softball, and when you see a play like that, you start feeling around for your purse.
No one in the stands seemed to notice Stephanie get sick. I noticed. Pug noticed. Because the thing was, Stephanie didn't care about winning—she certainly didn't sweat a loss. She gave the minimum and still outplayed us all. So why pick that laughable, unwinnable game to turn on the juice? Because—and maybe only I knew enough to know—she wanted to win, single-handedly if she had to, for Bob. For the rest of us Bob was experience. Bob was practice. But he'd gotten to Stephanie, and I'd played a part in that. We all had.
After the season ended, I didn't talk to Bob again. Not for any particular reason—because I'm lazy keeping up with people. But Stephanie visited him in prison, which I think embarrassed her, so I didn't ask about it. Then one year I was in town and we were driving around. Bob was due to be released from prison, I knew, and Stephanie said, "I keep wondering how he'll be when he comes out."
I wasn't sure what she meant. I said, "He has that thing in him."
We pulled to a stoplight and Stephanie said, "You know what never made sense to me?"
"The drive to Fort Bragg."
She tipped her head back, smiling wide that I knew. Then she laughed and said, "You tackled that girl. You just—tackled her." She gave a tiny honk of the horn. She turned to me. "That was the best thing I've ever seen."
I said, "That was the best thing I've ever done."
Two teenage boys passed in front of the car—one a devastating dirty blond who glanced our way, squinting into the sun. Stephanie sighed. "I'll be thirty-two next month, and I still think about that game."
I told her I didn't think the drinking mattered, that only she could hit off that pitcher.
"Sometimes I think he wanted us to lose," she said.
I looked at her. I said, "That's so scary."
"That," she said, "was the scariest part."
The light turned green, so it was chance more than sense that stopped me from asking: Part of what?
Spivy asked if I was ready for the heat.
I said, "Let's see what you got."
He sunk his cap low on his eyes, did a slow, jokey wind-up, then I heard the ball crack in Mack's mitt, behind me. I more felt it go by than saw it.
I puffed up. "If that's what you call heat, bring it."
This pitch I fully intended to hit, but the bat didn't move. It was then I got what Bob had tried to tell us all those years before, which was: Guess. When you see the pitcher's arm come around and you've got no bat-time, guess.
Mack said, "Strike two."
We were flirting, the three of us, in a way that had to do with girls and guys and sports and whether they could ever take you seriously as a competitor or simply as a physical person, so when I saw Spivy's knuckles, I swung.
It was nothing I could've done twice—just one of those dumb, fluky things you'll always have when you're commuting or doing dishes years down the road. A good hit could fix anything for a time, and I'd forgotten that.
Someone whistled. One of the guys yelled, "Booyah!"
I was about to do a victory lap, but something made me turn to Mack. He'd turned, too, and was facing everyone but Spivy and me. "You see that?" he yelled. "That's what happens when your softball coach molests you."
The guys from the Merc busted up like they were in on the joke. The girls looked at me for a reaction. We stared at each other, Mack and I. What could I say? I knew the man's face. I knew he would've taken it back if he could, but he'd been building to some ugliness all week. I used to wonder if in a relationship of any substance or length you could do one dumb thing and sour the thing forever. And maybe you'd go on for months or even years, but when it did finally end, that would be the moment you'd point to—That, you'd think, that was the end. At the same time, it all felt like a horrible accident, but starting when? A week before? A year? When I took that first ride with Bob?
I picked a ball from the bucket and beaned it at Mack. I threw to hit him, to hurt him. As I let go, I remember thinking how soft the tops of his feet were. He didn't try to dodge it, but I missed him anyway. The ball bounced once and slapped into Lola's side, leaving a dent that disappeared while we watched. One of the guys picked up the rolling ball, jogged over, and shoved it in her mouth like an apple. Her fattened, half-cooked lips sunk around it like a mitt, and I stared. I stared and wished Mack wouldn't have named her. The name made her look used, and victorious, and sick.
Mack looked down, thinking to himself. Then he walked over, got to his knees, and pried the ball out of her mouth. I thought he was going to hurl it back at me, and I was ready. Spivy must've thought the same because he hurried over, but Mack leaned in skew and—he kissed her. Right on the lips. His guys made a lot of noise, but Mack wasn't with them then. He was with me. I'm not so dumb as to think kissing that pig was the same as kissing me—me he hadn't touched all week—but I knew everything we did right then was important, and I tried to think how I'd want to remember acting. I knew Mack didn't completely understand what he'd said, or why—or how he'd acted that week or why—and I felt obligated to comfort him for that. Which is something guys do to you. I set the bat down and walked over and kissed his greasy, pig-tasting face. Which was gross, and OK. We kissed a long time, an old-people kiss, where your mouths meet and that's it. I would've given more if I could. Which is something else guys do to you.
We lasted another eight months and kept in touch for a while after that, but other people came into play and we drifted. I last saw him in a line at a Bears game. He looked chubbier but, when we got to talking, like himself. It was snowing, and we talked leaning against a cold cement wall. We both had people waiting. I was surprised how much I missed his laugh, and I felt achy the rest of the day—the ache that comes with the helplessness of endings, any ending. I realized the pig roast alone carried as much weight in my mind as our thousands of shared hours before and—how awful—the way memory resizes everyone for the better or worse. So before we parted ways, I tried to put Mack right in my mind. I tried to envision one man finding a little of another man in himself, and hating it, and having to hate the girl who was the link, and hating the hating most of all. I got close on that, but walking away my thoughts returned to Sammy, and never could I see—if you cared about the game, cared the way Spivy did and even Bob—grabbing the wrong bat.
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