It’s Thursday, which means I have to go to my sister’s house and pick up my nephew for a baseball lesson. Guy’s in Little League now; he’s the kid in right field wearing his glove on his head.
As much as I was the “good kid” growing up, my sister, Jill, was the hellion. She got knocked up at twenty-one by Rick, a guy in his mid-thirties, whom she later married and had two more children with, so I guess, to me—never so much to my parents—everything worked out.
It’s just Jill and the kids now. They live in town, too, in a small cottage on Lake Fournier that Rick inherited from his parents and renovated before he took off a few months ago.
Jill’s in the kitchen pacing with the baby, Nathan, on her shoulder. She puts her index finger over her lips and mouths, “Nathan’s sleeping.” I pretend to scream, and Jill gives me the finger.
“Where’s Guy?” I ask gently.
Jill mouths, “What?”
I ask again, and again she’s unsure of what I’m asking.
“Where’s Guy?” I ask in my fullest register because I’m confident the baby will eventually go back to sleep.
“Great,” Jill says. She bounces crying Nathan on her shoulder. “You know how hard it is to get him back to sleep?” Nathan’s cries become progressively louder. “Guy’s in his tree-house,” Jill says.
“Please just get the hell out of here.”
Through the kitchen’s bay windows Guy’s little figure bops around the tree house. It looks like he’s hanging curtains.
Jill slaps me on the shoulder and points for me to leave.
I knock on the playhouse’s ladder.
“You may enter,” Guy says.
Guy stands in front of the last bare window with a tape measure in his hands and a pencil in his mouth. To his credit, he’s got a hell of a knack for interior décor, and his decorative eye shows tremendous maturity in my immature opinion. He’s spent the afternoon hanging curtains (measured, mind you, so they fit properly and can be drawn with convenience—his words). He’s even used the left-over material to make matching covers for the beanbags.
“It looks great in here.”
“I know,” Guys says, and the pencil falls out of his mouth.
“When’d you get the curtains?”
“I made them awhile ago, but didn’t get around to hanging them until today.”
“How about the beanbag covers? Did you make those?”
“Yeah, it’s the same fabric.”
“The curtains really soften the space.”
“That’s the idea,” Guy says.
And we share the temporary silence because Guy knows what’s coming. “You ready to play some ball?”
Guy places his tape measure on the floor as if it was a delicate egg, and he turns to face me. “Uncle Gary,” he says, “can I just finish this last one, and then we’ll go play baseball.”
What a good sport.
We frequent an indoor batting cage facility called Full Count. When we get to the front entrance I stop Guy and spin him towards me. He’s wearing a sky-blue polo shirt that’s buttoned all the way up, khaki shorts, and perfectly white and red cross-trainers with olive-colored dress socks oozing up his leg. Yet in addition to all these things that scream, “I know nothing of sports,” they pale in comparison to Guy’s denim hat. It’s obvious he only wears the thing once a week.
“Buddy,” I say, “let’s have a quick lesson on how to wear our hat.”
Guy looks up at me like I’m a unique breed of asshole.
“You see for a ballplayer his hat isn’t just a hat. It does more than match the uniform. You need your hat. It’s a tool, like your glove—you know what I mean? You need to know how to use your hat. It’s important.”
It’s not important, at least not to Guy, but he’s humoring me, and I love him for that.
“So what do you think you need your hat for?”
“To block the sun,” Guy says.
“Yup, to block the sun,” I say. “And sometimes you can even use it to intimidate other players. See, your hat can make you look mean, it can make you look scary. It can be an advantage in your favor.” I take his denim hat and bend the visor to give it a smooth, professional curve, but the brim feels like wet cardboard and won’t take to my efforts. I put the flat-brimmed hat back on Guy’s head, pulling the visor low over his face to hide Guy’s eyes.
“Do you feel like a bad man, or what?” I ask.
Guy tilts his head upward and to the left so he can see me from underneath the visor. “I don’t really like baseball.”
“That’s okay,” I say, “but this is important to your Mom, so let’s give it our best.”
“But I really stink at this.”
“First of all, you don’t really stink. Second of all, no one is telling you that you have to like baseball, or that you even have to play baseball, but for this season you’re already signed up, you’ve already got a new glove and uniform—”
“I love our uniforms,” Guys says.
“So that’s a positive,” I say. “The one thing we don’t do is quit something once we’ve begun. In our family if we begin something, we finish it, we see it through, and if we realize we don’t like it, nothing says we have to do it again. We learn, and we move on. Okay?”
Guy nods and appears mostly unconvinced.
We practice pitching because Guy doesn’t like to bat. He says that he’s afraid the ball is going to hit him.
“But that means you get on base,” I say.
“So what?” he replies.
While we stretch I ask Guy to tell me what we went over last week.
“Balance point,” he tells me. “And keeping the toe on my kicking leg pointed straight down.”
“That’s right,” I say. “I can’t believe you remembered that.”
“Why? I’m not stupid.”
Guy’s attention is suddenly directed to the entrance. He becomes nervous and stands behind me. He asks me to hide him from two boys his age who are walking towards us.
Without hesitation, I stand up to hide Guy.
The two young boys walk by our cage, one taps the other and points at Guy. They both laugh. “Hey, Gay,” one kid yells. “Shouldn’t you be home putting on makeup?”
“I hate them,” Guy whispers.
The two young jocks enter a batting cage next to ours and start hitting. In between swings they cough words like “Homo,” “Gay,” “Fairy,” and “Butt-love.”
“That’s all anybody ever tells me.”
Guy’s thrown eight pitches and not a single ball has reached the plate in the air because Guy throws like a kid with polio. I toss the ball back to him and he ducks out of the way, retrieves the ball, and comes back to the mound looking rather frustrated.
“Find your grip,” I say. “Deep breath. Small step back. Small step to the side. Bring your body around. Hold. Balance. Kick. Balance. Point the toe. Good. Hold. Push off and break your hands. Land and follow through.” And the baseball tumbles along the artificial turf until it reaches my glove. “Okay,” I say, “that was better.”
I lob the ball back to Guy, and he ducks out of the way. The other two boys laugh at him. I look over ready to say something, but they’re leaving their batting cage to get gum.
“I’ll get that one.” I pop from my crouch, jog past Guy to the back of our cage and slip out from underneath the net and into the other two boys’ batting cage. I adjust their hitting machine so it points up and in—so they can practice getting out the way of high and tight—and return to my lesson with Guy.
Once more we re-review the necessary steps: Balance. Step. Turn. Kick. Point the toe. Balance, balance, balance. Break the hands. Land. Follow through. And out of nowhere Guy hits me in the chest with a fastball. My glove pops, echoes through the old warehouse. I pretend the pitch knocks me backwards. I smile at Guy. He smiles back, he even laughs a little. We laugh together. Guy looks to see if the two jocks saw, and I think they did because for the first time all afternoon they kept their mouths shut.
“That’s it! That’s a great pitch. Now if you can do that eighteen consecutive times for outs, you’ll throw a perfect game.”
I soft-toss the ball back to Guy, and again he ducks out of the way.
“Can you underhand it?” he asks.
“I don’t like catching it when it’s thrown hard like that. My dad always used to underhand it to me.”
The hum of the other two boys’ batting machine steals my attention. I watch one of them dig into the bucket of yellow batting practice balls, gnawing a mouthful of bubble gum. He wears a glove stuffed with reserves on his left hand, and he drops a ball into the batting machine with his right, prompting that familiar yet distinct noise, that unique thwap.
The pitching machine spits a streak of yellow fury like a blow dart launching. The kid operating the machine jumps panicked as soon as he comprehends the ball’s new and surprising trajectory. He drops the reserves from his glove and screams something to his friend.
The other kid drops his bat and coils away from the ball with his hands tight to his chest, but he’s too slow. The streaking yellow comet crashes into his left cheek, it sounds like a pool-ball thrown into dry wall, dense and painful and hopeless. The batter hits the ground as if he was thrown from his feet, and he stays down, holding his face, squirming on his side.
The other boy runs over to his damaged friend, crying. They’re both crying. Everyone in Full Count turns their attention to these two crying sissies.
Guy comes over to me. “Can I tell everyone at school about this?”
Guy scrambles out of my car and runs for his tree-house, but he stops and comes back to my window. “I saw what you did,” he says. He looks away, into the backyard. “Today was one of the best days since my dad left.”
I smile at him, nod. “Good,” I say. I wait until he’s out of sight to sit in my car and cry—just a few good yelps—nothing like those pussies at the batting cages.
“You look awful,” Jill says when I sit down at the kitchen table. “Your face looks awful.
“Right,” and Jill returns to bathing Nathan in the sink. “Is he getting any better?”
“Not at all?”
“Not even close.”
“I don’t get it,” Jill says. “Rick and I were fantastic athletes. You were almost a pro. How can he be so bad?”
“It’s just who he is.”
“Please don’t start on that,” Jill says with aggravation. There’s probably some anger in there, too.
“Jill, you know I love you, and I love Guy—the kid’s some kind of genius—but he ain’t gonna be a ballplayer because he doesn’t want to be a ballplayer.”
“I don’t care if he’s a ball player,” Jill says. “I just want him to try, for his own sake.” Jill takes the hand towel she was using to dry Nathan’s head and tosses it over her shoulder. She grips her hands onto the counter of the sink and leans forward, her chicken wing shoulder blades piercing through her t-shirt. “You don’t know what it’s like to see him come home from school miserable everyday.”
“I have an idea.”
“You don’t,” Jill says, shaking her head.
I get up and tuck my chair underneath the kitchen table. “Do us all a favor and forget about the pitching lessons.” I walk to the doorway, lean against its loose frame. “I bet he comes home in a better mood tomorrow.”
Sean Connell received his BA in English from Clark University, and his MFA in fiction from Southern New Hampshire University. In addition to fiction, he has written screenplays for Picture Planet (Brooklyn, NY). He lives in Portland, ME.