I am so grateful for my fellow Stooshpr member Kenneth Weene for this great little short story. It is full of good humour, pathos and cleverly-observed childhood lives. I commend it to you. Stooshpr is a wonderful Facebook group that enhances the networking of all types of creative people – singers, musicians, radio personalities, writers of all kinds, and so on. If that’s you, I recommend you find out more. And/or checkout #stooshpr on Twitter.
Horatio at the Game
Horatio tries to chew his gum in a manly way. He wants desperately for the other boys to think him one of them, to count him a teammate. They do not. He doubts they ever will.
It would help if he could blow a bubble – not a puny popper, but a real bubble – the kind that would leave a skein of pink gum to peel from his pasty face.
Horatio hates his face. He hates the nickname, Ghost, it has earned. In fact, there is little in his life that Horatio doesn’t hate. For the moment, sitting in the dugout knowing that the coach, Mr. Leven, will reluctantly put him up to bat for a certain out and even more reluctantly order him into the outfield with a muttered prayer that no balls will loft in his direction, for this moment all that hatred is focused on the three sticks of Bazooka that he knows will never yield to his tongue, will never smoothly expand into a giant chicle ball, and will certainly not burst in a moment of ten year old hilarity.
In the bleachers, his mother, determined to humiliate him, waves and points as if his brother – only seven and already a better athlete – cares what Horatio might be doing. Albert is as dismissive as his teammates. He would rather be out on the field throwing and catching and hitting. Horatio knows that his team would prefer Albert out there with them, and Horatio – though he hates to think it – knows that he too would be happier if he were in the stands watching sturdy, muscular, dark-tanned Albert playing for the Steinhartz Cleaners’ Braves.
Horatio had not wanted to play Little League. He knows and fears his limitations. He knows and fears the derision of other kids. That his teachers love him for his reading and arithmetic does nothing to reassure; adults – other than his father and Coach Leven – are easy. They do not require running and jumping; they make believe that throwing and catching are unimportant.
His mother waves again, this time with more energy, more feigned excitement. Without raising his arm, he gesticulates and hopes it will be enough. Why did she have to come? he asks himself already knowing the answer.
Part of him wishes that his father, too, were in the stands. Another bigger part is glad that he is not.
On his right are the other benchwarmers. They sit in the order of their uselessness – Tony closest to the empty space where the nine boys now on the field will sit. Next to Tony – shoulder-to-shoulder – a boy whose name Horatio still doesn’t know. That boy, too, gives a half wave, an embarrassed acknowledgment. Horatio sees the boy’s mother somewhat higher in the stands and somewhat to the left of his own. She is waving, but her movements seem more appropriate, less dramatic, less demanding of attention.
Next to that boy, Roy, blond and heavyset, lots of power at bat but slow as a freight train. The coach calls him Tubby just to watch his cringe. Roy talks about quitting the team, but something keeps him coming back – practice after practice, game after game. Perhaps it is the dream, the fantasy that the moment will come, that he will hit the game winning homerun, that someday he will be the hero. Any boy can dream.
Between Roy and Horatio sits Scott. Scott is new to America, new to baseball. He grew up playing something he calls rounders. The coach keeps saying, “You’ll get the hang if it. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.” He never says anything like that to Horatio, which is just as well – Horatio would never believe him.
Horatio watches the sweat on Roy’s temple. It is trying to escape from beneath his robin-blue cap – just like the one on Horatio’s head.
When the season started, when the regulars and the benchwarmers had first been sorted, Horatio and Scott had sat shoulder-to-shoulder; over time – as if by some mysterious process – a space has grown between them – a space big enough for another boy, a player to be named later.
In the moment – as often when they are sitting on the bench waiting for their moments of play – the boys – as boys do – tease and hit each other in a playful way that says we are together in this boat called baseball and that makes us a unit, a team, a possibility. The moment flows downhill – starting with Tony – a whack to the next boy’s shoulder and so on until it comes to rest on Scott, who is tempted to pass it along to Horatio but stops to think and decides to not.
As Tony squirms his failed attention and tries to decide what silly thing to next send down the bench, the inning mercifully ends. The Blackbird Chevrolet Panthers have only scored four runs; the game stands at nine to four favor to the Panthers; two innings are in the books. Four more innings to play; it will be a long afternoon.
Coach Leven is yelling, “Hustle, you guys, hustle.” His son, Alex, the pitcher, leads the Braves from the field. He jogs as his father expects. Alex spits as he runs. Alex spits a lot; so do the other boys. Horatio spits sometimes; he would spit more often, but he knows his mother does not approve. He knows that he doesn’t spit well, that he doesn’t spit like a real baseball player.
The other kids do not call the coach’s son Alex; his nickname is Jughead, after the Archie Comics he loves to read and after his loose-jointed way of walking when his father is not present. The coach doesn’t like his son’s nickname; he takes it as a personal affront so the boys don’t use it on the field. Jughead prefers the moniker to Alex, but he has never said that to his father; he knows he was named for his father’s father’s brother, a man he never met but who died earning a medal in a place called Vietnam. The medal sits in a plastic case on his dresser. Jughead would love to put it away in a drawer, but Alex leaves it where his father wants.
As the other team takes the field, the benchwarmers stand up and twine fingers in the chicken wire fencing that protects the dugout. They are glad to have a moment when they are allowed to stand; they are glad to be yelling. They yell encouragement to their teammates and taunts at their rivals. Even Horatio yells. For the moment his bubblegum is forgotten. Scott, too, yells. His words sound strange to the other boys; his accent is from far away. Sometimes they tease him about it; sometimes they try to copy him. One time Ray, the regular second baseman, asked, “How do people say ‘fuck you’ in your language?”
Scott thought for a moment and replied, “They say ‘Go Ray yourself,’” and laughed.
Everybody except Ray had laughed, too. Ray was pretty pissed, but the other kids all slapped Scott on the back or hit him in the arm. Even Horatio had slapped Scott that day; he had slapped him and wished that the other kids were slapping his back and giving him shots.
“Go Braves,” the boys yell; “Yay team.” Their high-pitched voices are excited more because they finally have a chance to stand than from any involvement in the game, which has already exceeded their attention spans. Other teams’ benchwarmers are less orderly than the Braves’.
Other coaches are less in charge, less demanding than Coach Leven. He has made it clear to the boys that they will behave themselves on his team. At the beginning of the season he had written a letter to all the boys’ parents. “Baseball teaches boys how to work, how to take life seriously. It prepares them for growing up. That is why I expect so much from all our sons.”
Most of the parents – especially the fathers – told their sons Mr. Leven would be a good coach. Most of the parents, especially Horatio’s father, thought it was just fine that their sons learn how to work, how to take life seriously.
The boys are not so sure. They see the other teams having fun. They see the other teams playing just as well as the Braves. They wonder why they can’t have more fun. But, like Roy, they keep coming back.
Horatio has asked his parents if he can quit the team. His father told him that he has to play out the season. “You wanted to play. You made a commitment. Now you should be a man and keep your word.”
He knew there was no point in reminding his father that he had not wanted to play, that he had not made a commitment, that it had been his father’s choice for him to be in Little League.
He wanted to remind his father that all he had said was that he wished he had more friends. He had said it hoping to find a book club, an activity at the library, maybe something at the science museum. He wanted to remind his father but knew that would only mean a yelling.
Horatio had nodded his head in unhappy submission.
The players sit; the regulars sit in batting order. Only Tim is still standing. He is just in front of the dugout swinging a bat and waiting for the umpire to call “Play ball!”. Coach Leven checks the team with a jaundiced eye – ready to yell at a squirm, at a show of disinterest. The boys are still so he turns his attention to Tim. “Challenge him,” the coach instructs. “Crowd the plate. Make him pitch.” Tim nods his head the way children do when adults talk at them.
Tim grounds out, but the team manages to close the gap. It is nine to seven, two outs, nobody on base. Coach Leven sends Horatio to bat. He knows it won’t matter if he strikes out. He will have had his one required at bat. He will then go into the field for his one required inning in the field. He feels like a fool, but Alex shouts encouragement. Of all the kids sitting behind him, Alex is the only one to shout.
“Go, Ghost,” he yells. Suddenly the nickname doesn’t seem so bad.
Horatio takes a couple of practice swings. He feels awkward, he handles the bat badly, and he is afraid of the ball. But Alex has yelled encouragement, and that makes the moment worthwhile.
Horatio takes his place in the batter’s box. He taps the dirt from his shoes and twists and scrapes his feet the way he has seen ballplayers on TV do it, the way the other kids do it, as if he is digging in, as if he expects to use the torque of his entire body to belt that scuffed white ball into long flight. He copies the big leaguers and the other kids even though he knows it is a lie.
“Strike one,” the umpire, who is himself no more than fifteen, shouts with a pumping motion. He, too, is mimicking the big leagues.
“Strike two.” This time Horatio has swung late and without real effort.
“Keep your eye on the ball,” Coach Leven yells.
“Hit it, Ghost,” Alex calls.
“Go, Ghost,” another boy.
There is a moment of relief. At least it isn’t three straight strikes. He almost wants to run out to the mound and thank the dark-skinned boy who is staring past him at the catcher, who is in turn signaling as if the next pitch will actually matter.
“Good eye!” one of his teammates hollers.
Horatio is almost happy. He digs in once again. Lifts his elbows the way the coach has taught them, cocks his bat the way he has learned.
The pitch comes in; he starts his swing. It is, he is sure, the greatest effort of his life. He feels the jolt of metal against ball. It isn’t a solid bang – not the sound of a hit. Rather it is the muted sound of …
“Foul,” the umpire yells.
He can hear his mother cheering.
“Go, Ghost.” Is that Tony’s voice?
“Strike three. You’re out.” Another pitch has flown past him.
Dejected yet triumphant, Horatio heads back to the dugout. Alex meets him at the bats, which are leaning against the protective fencing. Alex is carrying Horatio’s glove. “Good at bat,” he says as he hands Horatio the glove. Horatio can feel his chest swell.
The game is kind. No balls are hit to right field where Horatio tries to look ready. But balls are hit. It is Alex’s last inning to pitch; those are the rules – only 85 pitches. Alex struggles. Walks, a hit batter, and a number of solid hits: an eight run inning. The Braves are at the edge of the mercy rule when they return to the dugout. If they had given up one more run, the game would have been called. As it is, they will play on.
The other boys know that Alex is not a good pitcher. They know that he really shouldn’t be in the starting nine. With a different coach he probably would sit in Tony’s spot on the bench, maybe even in the spot of the kid whose name Horatio does not know.
But Mr. Leven is the coach, and no other parent wants the job. So Alex pitches and plays third base when he isn’t pitching. Sunday afternoons he plays catch with his father. His father crouches like a catcher and flashes signs. Alex throws and wishes he were reading Archie comics or watching television.
Greg, whom the kids call Mr. Cool, is easily the best player on the team. He is the second pitcher; he should be the first. When Gregg isn’t pitching, he plays first base. He’s good at first, but he is awesome on the mound. Behind his fastball, the Braves battle back.
Alex, like the rest of the team, knows that Mr. Cool should pitch as often as possible. He knows that Tony should be on third instead of him. He wishes his father would be fair. He doesn’t think the other kids resent him; he knows that they resent his father. He resents his father, too. Sometimes he wonders if he’d like playing baseball on another team. He knows that he hates playing on the Braves. He has tried to talk with his mother about it, but she doesn’t want to listen. She is busy taking Marie, his older sister, shopping. Marie likes boys and clothes; she watches TV shows about dancing and cooking. She and their mother spend a lot of time together. “Talk about it with your father,” Alex’s mother had told him. He knew that he would not.
Alex’s birthday is in September, long after the Little League season ends; but the professional season, the real season, is still on. Every year Mr. Leven takes his family to a game to celebrate Alex’s birthday. Alex would prefer to go to an amusement park, but he is not given that choice.
His father has already purchased the tickets. They are excellent seats. Marie has a party that evening. Her mother insists that a teenaged girl’s parties are more important than baseball. Mr. Leven doesn’t argue; baseball is – after all – for boys. There has been some discussion of letting girls play Little League, but at the organizing meetings he has consistently voted against the idea. He tells Alex that he can bring another boy with him to the game.
Mr. Leven has Greg or possibly Ray in mind. He wants Alex to invite a kid who will be interested in the fine points of the game – not in the hotdogs and peanuts and doing the wave. He wants to teach the boys how to keep score. He wants to give them tips on batting and fielding and especially on strategy.
Alex invites Horatio. “Hey, Ghost, it’s me, Jughead. My dad is taking me to a ballgame this Sunday. It’s for my birthday. Want to come?”
“Who else is coming?”
“Nobody. Why? Do you want to come?”
“I figured he was taking the team.”
“No, just me. My sister doesn’t want to come this year so he said I could bring a friend.”
“Yeah, sure. I bet we’ll have a good time.”
“Yeah, a great one. Let me ask my mom.”
“Yeah, sure. Go ask her.”
Moments later. “She said sure.”
“I’ll see you Sunday.”
“Yeah, we’ll pick you up at 10.”
“Great. See you then.” There is a pause. “Hey, Jughead.”
“Thanks. Wow, really, thanks.”
“Glad you can come.”
Alex hangs up. He has a smile, almost a smirk. Boy, will this piss him off; and he can’t say anything. He told me I could invite another kid. That Ghost is the worst player on the team; well whose fault is that?
His parents are going out. Marie will be at a friend’s. Alex’s mother calls to him, “What do you want to eat tonight. You’ll be home alone. I can order you a pizza if you want.”
He thinks for a moment. “No, how about a couple of hotdogs?”
“Sure. I’ll get them set up for you. All you have to do is turn on the microwave and take them out when the bell goes off.”
“Great.” He knows that he’ll do them right, in a frying pan. She doesn’t have to know.
I wonder how many dogs Ghost can eat. We’ve got to have a dog eating contest. He’s sure his new buddy will like the idea. Better, his father will hate it. The ballgame may be fun.
Horatio slurps a long piece of spaghetti. It whips about, hits his nose, and leaves a brand of bright marinara. His mother smiles knowing that her son is, for an unexpected moment, happy.
Albert, her younger boy, his face a mask of sauce and a small strand of pasta clinging to his chin, complains, “I want to go. I want to go, too.”
“You can’t,” their father explains for the fifth time. “You weren’t invited. It’s one of Horatio’s friends.” He turns to his older son. “What did you say his name is?”
“Jughead. I mean it’s really Alex, but that’s what we call him.”
“I meant his family name. What’s his family name?”
“Leven, Leven?” He is searching for a connection.
“Yeah, my coach, Mr. Leven; he’s Mr. Leven’s son.”
“Yes, Leven. He’s an insurance man, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know.” Horatio really doesn’t care, but he doesn’t say that. He feigns interest because he needs something. He needs money for the game, and he needs money for a present. “He used to play second,” he adds as if the information will mean something to his father.
“Yes, I’m sure he’s in insurance.”
Horatio clears his throat. “Dad?”
“I need to get Jughead a present.”
“He’s right, Dear,” his mother adds.
“Yeah, sure. What are you getting him – a game, a model?”
“What about a nice sweater?” his mother suggests.
“No,” Horatio answers emphatically, “I want to get him something he’ll really like.”
Albert snickers in the way seven-year-olds can, in the way that says, “You’re just stupid.”
“I’m going to get him a box of baseball cards,” Horatio says triumphantly.