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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Swing and a Miss

(Note from Opus: This is an excerpt from my novel, “Goldberg Variations.” Thanks, Highlander for the media space and the opportunity!!)

(Note from Highlander -- Opus posted this as a draft. I'm going to hit 'Publish Post', which may give credit for this to me at the bottom, but pay no heed, it's all Opus. She's the first of my guest bloggers for the month, and hopefully won't be the last.)

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By the time I bought a ticket and found my seat, it was already the fourth inning of what I presumed to be the second game of a doubleheader. Three of these parks could have fit into Dodger Stadium. The outfield was ringed with placards for local businesses, the stands lousy with kids, wound up on sugar and stomping their feet against the metal bleachers. My mouth watered from the smell of hot dogs and cotton candy. I beat it toward some empty seats down front, ending up in the third row just over the home team’s dugout. Close enough to smell the after-shave and the dust. I’d never been this close to the players without a television camera intervening. I preferred this view, instead of a lens zooming in close enough to evaluate the condition of a player’s pores.

“Now batting,” the PA boomed, “Tonight’s K Man!”

A whoop vibrated through the crowd. “He went down swinging last time. Two more and it’s free pizza for all the kiddies!”

K Man’s batting average read like a Valley Girl’s IQ score but from what I’d seen so far, tonight’s pitcher couldn’t find home plate if the catcher trotted up and shoved it at him. But it was only AA ball. Kids with a long road ahead and an uncertain future. I admired them just for sticking with it.

At 3-0, K Man got the green light and took a wild cut at a slider in the dirt.

“Striiiiiike one!”

The bleachers rattled. The pitcher went into his stretch. And lost him. K Man trotted to first. The woman next to me groaned.

“I wanna ice cream,” said a plump little boy I assumed was her son. An argument followed. Too much junk food already. She wasn’t made of money. He continued to whine.

“All right!” She dug into her fanny pack and retrieved some crumpled bills. “Don’t come crying to me when you rot your goddamned teeth.”

The boy snatched the money and disappeared. She didn’t watch him go.

“What did I miss?” I asked.

She sported a good inch of black roots and should have had all the Lycra in her wardrobe confiscated. “Nothing much. Seen better baseball at that one’s Little League games.”

Wild pitch. K Man took second. The boy’s mommy cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted something un-mommy-like at the pitcher. Something about his own mommy.

Ball four. The catcher flipped off his mask and took a slow walk to the mound. A familiar figure popped out of the dugout, and my heart thumped a little faster.

“Uh-oh,” the announcer said. “Mazz wants to talk it over.”

I smiled. Mazz. Cute. I craned my neck to see him better. Even wearing the warm-up jacket, he did as much justice to the uniform as any of his players. He reached the mound in a jaunty trot, hands in his pockets. Stood rocking on his heels, nodding to his pitcher, his catcher. With a final nod and a turn of his heel, it was decided. The pitcher would be spared. Each returned to his position. Joey’s walk back was slower. I tried to catch his eye, but he seemed too focused on his destination.

“Joe Mazzarella, folks. Manager of your Dutchess Dukes! Formerly pitched for the Baltimore Orioles, the Cleveland Indians, the Texas Rangers, the Toronto Blue Jays, the KC Royals and of course our own NEW YORK METS!”

The Dukes, I learned from the program, were one of the Mets’ farm teams, and the crowd exploded at the mention of their name. Joey waved halfheartedly as he continued toward the dugout, looking like he’d prefer to give the announcer’s booth the finger instead, for listing so many of the teams that had traded him.

His stint with the Mets was the only one I could clearly recall. They drafted Joey fresh out of Arizona State. With impressive stats and a head-turning fastball, the boys upstairs plunked him into double A ball for “development.” It had been a huge whoop-de-do around these parts. Mom sent me clippings from all the papers. After a few seasons, he was called up, sent back down, called up, sent down, then traded more often than a bad stock until he fell off my radar screen. Which didn’t take much effort back then, when I was so busy in Hollywood trying to become famous. Last I heard, he’d settled in Texas. Once in a while I’d have a bout of nostalgia. But time, alcohol, and reminding myself he’d married that bimbo Linda Lamb usually cured it.

The next batter whacked a dinger all the way to the Connecticut border.

“Should of taken him out,” the woman said. “Mazzarella sucks. No wonder he never made it in the majors.”

I glared long and hard. I could have said a few things about her prospects, but I had class. Plus I couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t get me popped in the snoot. She looked like she’d popped a few people in her day.

“He is kind of hot, though,” she said. “Maybe he’s a lousy manager but I wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers.”

“He’s my husband,” I told her. I didn’t know why. But it sure shut her up fast.

--------------------

My box-mate disappeared during the seventh inning. Perhaps Junior had a bellyache. She didn’t say goodbye. I was so disappointed. I thought we could swap recipes later. Give each other makeovers and childrearing advice.

I hung on until the bitter end, even as the Dukes got thumped, even though my nephew’s jean jacket over my sweater just wasn’t cutting it in the chilly April night.

We lost, eighteen to seven. Players high-fiving as they trotted past each other. Joey looked as animated as a sack of potatoes. When I saw him tattooed for ten runs on his rookie pitching debut at Dodger Stadium, I didn’t have the heart to look for him afterward. But this time, I decided to stay.

--------------------

I drifted toward the field entrance, where a handful of players autographed programs and posed for pictures. Mere pups, some barely older than my seventeen-year-old nephew. I leaned over the railing for a peek into the dugout, to see if Joey was still there. All alone and stowing away bats was one of the studlier Dukes, Vito-something, their first baseman. Slicked-back hair and enough gold chains around his neck to haul up the Titanic. He looked sulky. Possibly he was being punished. Relegated to equipment duty instead of flirting with the girls after the game. Then he saw me.

“You want me to sign something, sweetheart?” He smiled as he slowly rubbed his bat with a tack cloth. “I can be real gentle.”

Cocky bastard. “Swing and a miss.”

He lifted an eyebrow, clearly pleased with himself. “Hey. I swing with a lot of misses.”

“Yeah, I’m sure the nursery school is grateful for the extra help in the playground.”

“Ouch.” Still smiling.

“Mazz around?”

The smile faded. “Aw. What’s a pretty lady like you want with an old man?”

He couldn’t have been more than twenty, twenty-one. The kind of boy I would have compromised myself for in high school, in a heartbeat. An arrogant smart-ass, a little dangerous. At thirty-six, I saw his insecurities through the veneer, and could afford to be charitable.

“I’m into old men.”

He leaned toward an open doorway in the dugout. “Yo. Coach. Yo, Mister Mazzarella. Chick out here wants you.” Then, bored or angry that I wouldn’t let him autograph my bare ass, he slumped onto the bench and resumed diddling with his bat. The disrespect was the first thing Joey had better train him out of. Among other bad habits.

A head popped out, chin first. “If you’ve got a prayer of starting the rest of this season, Vito—“

“What? What’d I do now?”

Joey shook his head.

“Visitor, coach. A lady. A woman. Over there.” Vito pointed at me with the bat.

Joey’s gaze followed the barrel end. Put his hands on his hips and a slow smile worked its way into his crinkled eyes. “Well, hell. It’s Dizzy Dean home from the war.” He winked at me then turned toward Vito. “I believe that before I interrupted, you were about to say something to the lady?”

With a huffing sigh, the first baseman’s shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry, ma’am.” My nephew did a better job of fake apologizing when he was eight years old. “Can I go now?”

Joey speared him with a look and didn’t let go. “Ten laps.”

“Oh, man...” Vito flipped the bat away but hauled himself up and began trotting the base paths.

Joey came to the railing. Dusty and pleased with himself despite the loss, smelling like leather and springtime. Vito gave him the finger while his back was turned.

It was going to be a long season.

“Tell me you weren’t here for both games.”

“No. Just this one. And only from the fourth inning.”

“Too bad,” he said. “We could have used you on the mound.”

--------------------

He emerged from the clubhouse clean-smelling and damp around the edges. A golf shirt tucked into well-fitting jeans. I followed him to a nearby diner, where the waitresses called him Mazz and gave me sly looks and fussed with our table settings. He ordered the manly-man blue-plate special. Because he joked about girls in Hollywood having no meat on their bones, I ordered the same, knowing I’d regret it later.

Aside from this brief foray into anorexic actresses and inquiries into our respective parents’ health, mostly we talked about the Dukes. Their chances for not finishing in the cellar this season, and what he was going to do about Vito. According to Joey, he had good stats and stupefying potential, but had been a thorn in his side from the first day of practice.

“They would have kicked my sorry self all the way back to Little League if I said a quarter of the things to my manager that he does to me.”

“Kids,” I said. “What can you do?”

He shrugged. And we came to a dead stop. Our burgers came, sparing us from getting personal. Joey reached for the ketchup, offering it to me first. I declined, and he whapped a dollop of it onto his plate.

“So,” he said. “Frankie Goldberg. What’s it been, twenty years or thereabouts?”

“Something like that.”

“I can’t believe it’s been that long. Life, huh.”

“Better than the alternative.”

“Guess so.”

This was depressing. We’d run the gamut of small talk from bad to worse in less than five minutes. If he talked about the weather, I was leaving.

Gaze dropping to his plate, Joey speared a fry and shoved it around in a puddle of ketchup. Then looked up at me. Caramel eyes crinkled pleasantly. It touched me someplace thirteen years old and tender.

“Mom told me about you and Linda.” I said. “I’m sorry.”

Again he shrugged. “It was tough on Ry. We’re doing better, though. I was thinking of coming back east even if the Dukes job hadn’t opened up.” He chomped at his burger, chewed while appearing to be in deep thought. “You got kids, Frankie?”

I snapped my fingers. “Damn. I knew there was something I forgot to pack.”

He laughed, and I saw the boy in the forty-year-old face. When his expression settled, he was another guy you might see in the mall, in the hardware store, pushing a grocery cart. Better looking than most, but on the whole, your average Joe. Half a lifetime carved into his face, pulling down the corners of his mouth. Baseball did this to him, I told myself. Players aged faster than the rest of us from all that squinting into the sun. Managers aged twice as fast from extra innings and unearned runs and kids like Vito. I told myself this because I was only three years behind him, had at least as much mileage on the “life sucks” odometer, and surely I didn’t look that weathered.

Or maybe I did and just refused to see it. Couldn’t be. Didn’t a twenty-year-old kid just try to pick me up? But from fifty or so feet away, Vito only focused on the one thing that interested him: I was female and looking in his direction.

“No,” I sighed. “No husband and no career, either. But we’ll need a pitcher of beer for that story.”

He smirked. “Order a second and we can start on divorce lawyers.”

Soon, we’d reached a kind of impasse. The seam in the conversation where ancient history threatened to ooze messy details better left to therapists, major drinking binges and post-coital confessions.

The check came before this could happen.

He insisted on paying and I let him. We lingered in the parking lot, leaning against our cars, parked side by side. An absurd juxtaposition. Him and I. Pickup and Corvette. Spots and roll bar versus rear spoiler and leather.

I shivered in my nephew’s denim jacket. Joey didn’t seem bothered by the cold, or eager to be heading home. I had to confess that I wasn’t hot to haul out of there either. He opened the door of his pickup and tossed me his warm-up off the front seat. I smiled a thank you and wrapped it around my shoulders. It smelled like baseball gloves, aftershave and tools. Nothing in a shot glass or a pair of jeans had ever offered me this much comfort.

“How long you in for?” Joey said.

It was my turn to shrug.

“Extended road trip, huh.”

I’d known Joey since I was twelve and he was fifteen but realized in that instant I didn’t know him at all. Together we had baseball. Summer afternoons, after the chores were done, where we’d toss the ball around the backyard until his father said it was time to go home.

But I didn’t know a damned thing about him now. Except that he loved baseball and his son, worked construction with his father in the off-season, and knew how to fix things. And he knew just as little about me.

Except now we had something else in common. Our dreams had run their courses and we’d been pulled back to shore up the sagging branches of our family trees.

He already knew about my mother’s stroke. But I told him the other reason I’d pointed the ‘Vette east. About the mudslide that destroyed everything I owned except the car and the clothes on my back. I turned it into shtick, which I’d been practicing to use in some club someday, somewhere. He charmed me by laughing in all the appropriate places. He knew the motel I’d stayed at in Texas during my trip. Told me I shouldn’t have stayed there. Told me where I could get the best coffee and chili in the state.

“If you’d been around when my house fell into the Pacific,” I said, “you could have been my personal tour guide to the southwest.”

Again, he smirked. I didn’t think that was particularly funny. But it could have been the delivery. “What?”

“What, nothing.” He looked at the keys in his hand, then up again. “You’re just funny, Sprout. You could always crack me up.”

All the humor drained out of me. I was still a kid to him! A sprout. I wasn’t about to stick around for the ultimate humiliation: the kiss on the forehead, the “see ya ‘round, Sporty.” No way.

I opened my car door. “It’s getting late. My sister’s going to worry.” I shrugged out of his warm-up. Thirteen-year-old Frankie would have kept it. Slept in it for weeks. But I wasn’t thirteen anymore. “Thanks for the burger.”

“Yeah, um, sure.” He looked befuddled. Maybe expecting something else. Because I’d come all the way down here to watch his pathetic team, tracked him down like a groupie and let him buy me dinner, did that mean I was supposed to go home with him?

If he hadn’t called me “Sprout,” I might have.

“You know how to get back?”

I manhandled the ‘Vette into reverse. “I know my way around, Sporty.”

I saw that befuddled and now slightly hurt look all the way to the bridge.

4 Comments:

At 6:19 PM , Blogger Highlander said...

Lovely frag. You have a real flair for dialogue, and Parkeresque first person narrative. However, Parker (Robert B.) is better at bringing an outsider into baseball and sharing a passion for it in a way that nearly hooks even someone as bored with the sport as I am into the narrative.

The only thing I'd point to as a rough spot in the flow was the line "Our dreams had run their courses and we’d been pulled back to shore up the sagging branches of our family trees." To me, at least, as a fellow writer, that lines sticks out. It doesn't seem casual. It strikes me as something you worked hard on, and it jars me out of the flow. I think it needs a few more minutes on the sander.

The only other problem I see with this (from a publisher's pov) is I can't see the hook. So we have a mid 30s woman down on her luck looking up an old crush, who is a 40 year old ex pro baseballer who's also down on his luck. I see potential conflict in a few places, but I'm not interested enough in our narrator or Mazz to care much at this point whether they get together, and other than the Dukes' chances of finishing outside the cellar, there's not much else here to keep me reading except a very smooth, very facile, very skilled prose style... which ultimately won't keep me inside the covers.

Now, I have low tastes and you don't necessarily want to throw in a vampire, a ninja, an alien cyborg, or a teenager with psionic powers just to hold my interest. But I think there needs to be something more here for nearly any audience.

Still, what's here works very well. It amazes me, because I don't remember you ever really wanting to write that much, but you've turned into a better writer than I am.

 
At 7:53 PM , Blogger AaA said...

Huh, whaddya know? I kinda 'noticed' that line too. Didn't occur to me at the time, but I guess 'noticing' a line in that fashion is jarring.

Man, I hope all the guest bloggers don't get pounced on this hard...

I'll be up one of these days.

 
At 11:13 AM , Blogger Opus P. Penguin said...

Boy, tough crowd. But thanks for the comments. Not that I'm defending myself, but this is only one of several conflict threads in the novel. Hope that'll be something worth hanging on for. But from the rejection slips piling up, maybe not.

Still, thanks. OK, who's on deck?

 
At 5:34 PM , Anonymous The Always esteemed Scott said...

Cool! A baseball story. Can't go wrong with a baseball story... even without alien vampire ninjas. :)

 

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