Standing by the yellow kitchen telephone, cradling the receiver precariously between her jaw and shoulder, Anita gazed through the window onto the back alley. She was drying a pair of forks while watching her husband Stuart and their six-year-old son Brendan play ball. “Of course we’re going,” she was saying, making her words ring with conviction. “Stuart wouldn’t miss it for the world.” She smiled. It was an attractive smile, the smile of a woman halfway between thirty and forty who has retained her youthful good looks. “Sometimes I think he loves playing softball more than anything else. . . . It would take more than Old Billy-Boy’s hypocritical bleating to keep him away.” A yell drew her attention back to the alley, where Brendan was hurrying, flailing arm and legs, toward a makeshift first base. But before he got there, Stuart swooped down and tagged him with the plastic Wiffle ball. “Out!”
“What? Oh, a casserole, I suppose,” said Anita, turning away from the window. She was not pleased to see her husband take the little practice game with such apparent seriousness. “I hope Mrs. Billy-Boy brings her key lime pie ; it’s the only thing Stuart has ever mentioned kindly about that family.” She heard her husband’s voice drowning out Brendan’s protests. She frowned. “Yes, I suppose so,” she said into the receiver, a bit vague about what she had just heard. “See you, then. And tell Joe to oil his glove tonight. We don’t want any excuses.”
After hanging up the phone, she rested both hands on the windowsill and stared out at Stuart and Brendan. With his oversized red plastic bat, the boy cut a comical figure. He stood leaning over slightly, the bat upright and still. (“No extra motion! No wasted energy!” her husband would say.) His face was solemn. Then, when Stuart delivered the pitch, he would take one graceful step, whip the bat around, and send a line drive up the middle. At least, that was the ideal. As she watched, Brendan swung at a pitch in on the hands and popped it up only a few yards from the plate. “Brendan, was that a decent pitch? Was it?” The boy merely shrugged and looked at his feet. “All right. Watch the ball, okay? If it’s not any good, lay off, right? A walk’s as good as a hit, remember.”
“A walk’s as good as a hit,” murmured Anita, shaking her head. She had lost count of the times he’d said that over the last few weeks. It was getting cooler. Dusk was just a few minutes away. Perhaps it was time for Brendan to come in. A quick wash, and then a half-hour of television. Perhaps even a granola bar for a snack. . . .
“Brendan! That was right down the middle, boy! Right down the middle. You should have creamed that one.” Stuart stood with his head cocked forward, his hands tucking his waist. In such a position, he looked more gaunt and lanky than he really was, almost crane-like. The Splendid Splinter, his teammates in college had called him, for despite his lack of visible brawn, he had had a perfect swing and could drive the baseball into right and right-center with startling consistency. Not that he had Ted Williams’s power. But, said Stuart, with all the sagacity of a paunchy, furrow-browed coach, it was important to live within your own potential. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Et cetera. And so on.
As she watched by the window, sensing the subtle change in the atmosphere outside, she debated again with herself whether they should attend the faculty picnic and softball game the next day. Or, as Stuart would no doubt put it, the softball game and picnic. It was nearly time to turn on the overhead light. A veil of gray fell over the surroundings, dulling the faces of her husband and son, making each sound of plastic bat meeting plastic ball seem curiously foreign.
“With two strikes, Brendan? . . . What do I tell you? With two strikes?”
The boy mumbled something. Anita could not hear it. Neither, apparently, could Stuart.
“What did you say? With two strikes?”
“You’ve got to protect the plate.”
“Right!” He bent over and retrieved the Wiffle ball, which had bounced off the back wall and was rolling slowly toward him. “It may not be your pitch, you know, but you just can’t take it. You’ve got to at least foul it off.”
Anita shook her head. What was he saying to a boy who still wet his bed sometimes, who still had difficulty tying the gaudy, multicolored laces of his sneakers?
“Stuart!” He looked up immediately at the sound of her voice, an expression of annoyance crossing his face. “I think he’s had enough, don’t you? After all, he’ll be playing tomorrow.”
Her husband’s lips, pressed tightly together, twitched a few times. Then he smiled, and it was easy to see what had so attracted her to him ten years before. “You’re right. That’s all for this evening. In you go, sport!” If only he could smile more these days. But not getting the department’s recommendation for tenure hurt, especially for someone like Stuart, who had been extremely confident of his performance. Too bad they didn’t keep teaching averages – a two-base note, a round-tripper essay in PMLA or MPS or any of those other journals with initials, like ERA and RBI. He knew he could write rings around an old fart like Williamson, who had gotten in when things were ridiculously easier, or Diane Bruschi, whose fuzzy but fashionable catch-phrases and neo-feminist, crypto-deconstructionist jargon had earned her a spot on the department’s under-womaned staff. One more shot at it, he had said to Anita that evening, when they had spent some long hours and much of a six-pack of Heineken Dark trying to put the best face on things. The fact remained, he had said in a firm voice: there was still next year. And then, starting the next day he seemed to have given up the fight.
“Don’t you think you’re working him a little hard?” she said, when Brendan had trudged up the stairs to the bathroom.
Sighing, as if he had heard it all before, as if he had always to deal with unbelievers, Stuart shook his head. “All I can say is: judge the results. Who’s he playing with these days? Kids six, seven, eight! He’s the best damn hitter in the bunch. Well, except for that Kupcinski kid, but he’s got two years and twenty pounds on him.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Oh? And what is the point? Don’t you want him to perform well? You, my dear, played a pretty good game of softball, as I recall.”
She gave him a wry smile, the kind that had won his admiring glance in days gone by. “How flattering. And here I thought you meant to compare him to yourself!”
He shrugged, smiling easily. ” I was always too much of a pull hitter, you know. I want him to hit to all fields.” And before she could continue the conversation, he threw up his hands in mock horror. “Amazing what a little batting practice will do. Filthy!” Then he bounded up the stairs and was out of sight. Anita was left confused, not knowing whether to follow him or not. It was impossible to gauge his mood, impossible to guess how he would behave the next day, before the gathering of a good two-thirds of the department faculty, spouses, partners, younger children, and the more intrepid graduate students. Late June. The chance of a hot sun. Sweaty game. Beer flowing freely. One ill-considered utterance from Old Williamson, “one fartling from the Old Fart,” and anything could happen.
Anita ran her hands through her red hair, then caught herself and glanced at her fingernails critically. She did not want to break a nail tomorrow. She was the exemplar for the women, who had over the years fought and won the right to participate in this peculiar ritual. For every knock-kneed, pigeon-toed player like Diane Bruschi, who barely knew which end of the bat to hold and whose mere batting stance confirmed eons of male prejudice, there was Anita Weinstein, who could wipe a sneer off a bearded face with a rocket down the line. Still, it might be time for a little trim.
“Pinch hitter, pinch hitter!” yelled Tom Bojanowski, medievalist, clapping his hands. “This is it, guys. We’re gonna take this game.”
“Okay, now remember what I said, Brendan,” whispered Stuart, slapping him on the shoulder. “Just meet the ball and follow through. That’s all there is to it. He’s used to a bigger strike zone, so don’t make it easy on him. Make him pitch to you.”
“A walk’s as good as a hit, eh, Tom?” said Anita, jostling him on the sideline. She had given up her final at-bat for Brendan, and was now able to relax. After a total of thirty runs, it was not exactly a very serious game. But Stuart gave her a quick frown. “Let’s go, Brendan.”
“Remember, they’re using a tennis ball for you,” continued Stuart, keeping his voice low and his tone level. “A good swing, and you should be able to drive it. Let’s show ’em, son.” He watched as the boy slunk to the plate and thought for a moment about calling him back. Joe Simmons was on the mound, one of the resident wits, and at the sight of Brendan and his fat red bat he let his jaw drop. Behind the plate was Old Williamson himself, and Stuart found himself hoping for a nice hard foul tip into the old ninny’s chin. “Okay, Brendan. Make him pitch.”
But Brendan swung at the first delivery and topped a slow roller a third of the way between home and first. As his team leaped and roared encouragement, Brendan dashed down the line. Williamson, showing surprising agility, pounced on the yellow tennis ball and prepared to throw to Denise Wolff, a teaching fellow, at first base. But he hesitated. Brendan hurried on. “Go, Brendan! Go!” yelled his teammates. “Throw the damn ball,” thought Stuart. “Don’t tease him!” Finally, Williamson got rid of the ball and sent a wobbly throw – certainly not a man’s throw – to first base, beating Brendan by a step. The bench erupted in wails of lamentation. “Way to dig it out, Catcher!” called Joe Simmons, nearly doubled over in laughter. “Way to run, Brendan. Ya almost made it,” said Tom Bojanowski, offering the boy his open palm as he trudged glumly back to the sideline. The standard softball was tossed back to the pitcher.
“Did you see that?” said Stuart in a harsh whisper. “He deliberately made him run it out.”
“No, he didn’t,” said Anita.
“He sure did. Made him run. As if he had a chance.”
“He did have a chance. Billy-Boy doesn’t have the best arm in the world.” Anita shook her head. “Just get up there and bat, and stop imagining things.”
Stuart took a deep breath and grabbed the aluminum bat with the black rubberized handle. It was an ugly thing, and he normally would have rejected it for the familiar, soothing feel of a Louisville Slugger, but the game was on the line and he needed a big hit, and the aluminum bat seemed to have more power than the wooden one. He took a few practice swings and sauntered to the plate.
“No batter, nooo batter!” shouted Williamson as he dug in. “Easy out!” Stuart, of course, gave no sign of having heard.
“Move in,” called Joe Simmons, waving to his outfielders. “It’s only Stu.”
He disliked the shortened form, almost as much as he disliked the other nicknames like Weinie or The Stick. He had Joe Simmons to thank for The Stick, since he had also bestowed upon Anita her nickname of Carrot-top, which had then somehow become The Carrot. Here come the Weinsteins: The Carrot and The Stick. Loads of fun, laughs all around. To stop their snickering he needed a long drive over the outfielder’s head. Maybe it would be a close play, and Billy-Boy would be standing by the plate, pounding his meager fist in his glove, awaiting the relay from the second baseman. And Stuart would slide. Dust. Grunts. Williamson knocked on his scrawny ass as the ball rolls free.
“Strike him . . . out!” shouted Mrs. Williamson, as ever somewhat dubious of the proper terminology. She sat in a green and white folding chair well back of the third base line, her mountainous bag of yarn resting in her lap. Stuart smiled, and bent his knees slightly, his weight evenly distributed. He was ready.
The first pitch looked fatter than a grapefruit, and Stuart could not resist. Weight on the back foot, shifting, striding, a smooth compact swing, following through: level, deep – but foul. There was chatter and grumbling as Louis Williamson, the Chairman’s fifteen-year-old son, went trotting into the trees to retrieve it. Stuart, taking a deep breath, watched the boy toss the ball in and resume his stance. This time, he’d make him run all day.
The next pitch came, and again Stuart swung. But the bat was a little too heavy, and he was late. He cursed and saw the ball go spinning in a lazy arc just beyond the shortstop. He ran down the line, almost too disgusted to see clearly. Time waited. Time let him run. Time delayed. The ball hung, in no hurry to drop. The shortstop moved back two steps, waited, then squeezed his monstrously huge glove tightly over the ball. The third out.
“That’s it!” shouted Williamson, throwing his glove in the direction of his seated wife.
“The hell it is,” muttered Stuart, returning to where Anita waited, her brow creased in sympathy.
“Bad luck, Stu,” said Tom Bojanowski.
“And that moron wants me to teach the survey course in the fall,” he snapped, startling the medievalist. “I haven’t even read The Faerie Queene since high school, I think. The damn Red Cross Knight, with his Hot Cross Buns or whatever! …”
“Well, then read the damn thing,” said Anita. She had slung her weathered glove over the end of a bat and was waiting beside a large red cooler containing the remains of lunch. Other players and watchers were streaming past toward the parking lot.
“What’s this I hear? Who has hot buns?” asked Julie Berman with a husky laugh. She took an exaggerated glance at Tom Bojanowski’s decidedly modest backside and gave a loud wolf-whistle. Tom smiled in embarrassment.
Still gripping the bat, Stuart thought about saying something to Julie.
A young specialist in Modernism, she at least had a mind he could appreciate. But earlier she had committed two costly errors in right, and after the second he had thrown his glove on the ground. It wasn’t so much the errors, of course, but her peals of unabashed laughter. Especially with someone like Williamson or Denise Wolff circling the bases. But perhaps he was taking it all too hard.
Behind him he heard Mrs. Williamson’s high-pitched voice and two graduate students singing an obnoxious jingle in unison. There was a pat on his arm.
“Don’t be too hard on Julie,” said Eleanor Pruitt, who shared an apartment with her. She shook her head in mock weariness. “Too much sun, too much beer, too much strenuous physical activity, a deadly combination, especially after a night spent poring over that new biography of Eliot.”
“You’re right,” said Stuart. “It’s just a game.”
Anita, still close by, admired the apparent sincerity of his comment. A moment later, he whispered to her, “Let’s get out of here.”
Julie Berman was still talking excitedly. “I’m not sure who I feel sorrier for, Eliot’s first wife – or his second!”
“Brendan! The car is over here,” said Stuart.
“Next year, eh, Stick?” It was Joe Simmons, leaning out of the window of his Red Volkswagen.
“Could be,” he replied. And slowly waved back.
“And what do you have planned for today?” asked Anita. She was at the top of the stairs down to the basement, bearing a laundry basket full of clothes.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe I’ll putter about the place, as they say.”
“What about the survey course?”
“What about it?”
“Well, aren’t you going to brush up on The Faerie Queene at least?”
“Oh, screw The Faerie Queene!” He opened the refrigerator with a jerk and peered inside.
“You know, you did get a teaching award two years ago. Are you just going to let everything slide?”
“A hell of a lot of good any teaching award did me,” replied Stuart, stalking out of the room.
Anita made a grimace but did not go after him. There was laundry to do. Her nursing uniforms had to be cleaned, along with Brendan’s T-shirts and white socks, now grown gray.
At first, she had welcomed Stuart’s extraordinary interest in the boy. With the end of classes and exams, he had plenty of time, if he chose, to devote to Wiffle ball in the back, and Brendan had been very happy. But after a few days, it began to seem that Stuart had lost his patience, which was one thing he had always demonstrated, at home and in the classroom. Stuart’s attention to detail had changed into a nagging perfectionism, as Brendan swung and swung and nearly always failed to deliver the ideal hit. One afternoon Brendan had burst into the house, barely keeping back the tears. He had never told her the precise reason for his flight, but it made little difference. Another time, Stuart had teased him at the dinner table for popping up twice during one of the kids’ games. Stuart had watched from the window, even taking an occasional note. Anita, on the other hand, had refused to watch her son or listen to her husband.
As the washing machine began to hum, she heard the distant slamming of the back door. Were they at it again?
“Okay. Keep your weight balanced on both legs at first. Got it?”
Anita stopped by the open window. She felt heaviness in her chest.
“Let’s try a few curveballs, all right? You don’t have to hit them, Brendan, but pay attention to the path of the ball.” Stuart reared back, lifted his long, slender leg, and threw a perfect pitch that broke away from the boy. “Pretty good, eh? Of course, it’s not too hard with a Wiffle ball. Let’s try it again, only this time try to make contact.” Brendan swung wildly. “Again. Let’s keep at it until you’ve got it, okay? . . . I know you can do it.”
“But I can’t. It’s too hard.”
“Brendan, I know you can do it. All you’ve got to do is concentrate. Now stop blubbering and get ready.”
“But I am trying! Curves are too hard.”
“Look, last summer you could hardly handle pitches thrown underhand. Now it’s strictly overhand stuff! You’ve just got to keep at it. . . .”
Anita had seen enough. She hurried down the back steps to join them.
“Mind if I play?”
“Sure,” replied Stuart, surprised but pleased. “I was just showing Brendan the curveball. A nasty little pitch, eh, son?”
“Daddy, let’s just have batting practice,” he said, letting the fat red bat drag across the plate they had chalked in white on the pavement. “I can’t hit it.” The bat was almost two-thirds as tall as he.
“Oh, don’t be silly . . .” began Stuart.
“I’d like to pitch, do you mind?” asked Anita, reaching for the ball. “Why don’t you catch.”
“Okay,” he said, more surprised than ever. After all, she was still wearing her slacks, which she usually tried to keep immaculate. He ambled to the plate, then squatted down behind Brendan. “Now pay attention. Your mom has a pretty good pitch.”
“You’re too close, Mommy.”
“Just a little practice, okay, honey?” she said, swinging her arms back and forth, getting loose. Stuart chuckled and cupped his hands together, offering a target. “Here comes!”
Brendan, the grimace gone from his face, waited for the pitch. The fastball struck Stuart’s hands with a clear stinging noise. Brendan was very late with his swing.
“Show-off,” called Stuart, smiling as he tossed the ball back. “Come on, Brendan, you can do it!”
The second pitch was another fastball, but this one hit the boy on the upper arm. He howled and dropped the bat.
“Rub it, rub it. It’ll go away,” said Stuart. “Hey, Anita! Let’s be a bit more careful, okay?” Behind the plate, just behind the batter, he had a different perspective.
“Sorry. Come on, Brendan. Get back in there.” She waited, letting her arms swing. Then, when the boy was ready if apprehensive, she uncorked another throw. This time, the whizzing plastic ball struck the bat even before he could swing.
“That too fast, Mommy!”
“Anita! Be careful! Look, do you want me to pitch?”
“No, I’m okay. But he’s crowding the plate a little, don’t you think? A pitcher’s got to fight for every inch, right? You can’t let the batter intimidate you.”
“Move back a little, Brendan,” said his father quietly, his mouth twitching. “Just be careful. You can always bail out if necessary.”
“But you’ve also got to protect the plate.” Anita stared at the two of them, as if peering in for a sign. This time Stuart did not bother to cup his hands for a target. She could tell from the expression on Brendan’s face he was struggling mightily to control himself. In the sunlight of early afternoon, she imagined a red mark on his arm, glowering. She knew she could muster the necessary strength of will only once or twice more. Quickly. It had to be now. But at least by now he must be ready. After an exaggerated wind-up, she kicked her leg high and delivered a fastball right toward Brendan’s hands. Plastic met plastic, louder than anyone could have expected.
“Mommy!” he shrieked. Dropping the bat again, he fled around the side of the house and was out of sight.
With his foot, Stuart stopped the bat from rolling. The plastic ball he let stay where it had landed in a slight depression in the pavement. He was staring at her, and his face revealed hurt and confusion.
“I didn’t think that last one was too bad,” she said airily. “He’s got to learn to adjust. And besides, a walk’s as good as a hit.”
The next day, Stuart left the house early and did not return until shortly before six in the evening. Anita was home, rummaging desperately in the kitchen and pantry for supper. On the days she worked, it was his responsibility to get things ready.
“I thought we’d go out for a pizza,” he said. “Brendan’s agreed.”
She paused. “All right. Where is he?”
“Mrs. Furst was watching him. Now he’s in the back somewhere with some kids, I think. We didn’t practice together today. You know, I don’t think there’s much more he needs to learn.”
Anita pondered. Then a wry smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Interference? Infield fly rule? The appeal play?” She could not restrain a laugh.
“Later, later! Maybe in college, okay? Are you ready to go?”
As Anita sidled into the front seat of the car, listening to her son’s excited jabbering behind her, she found a few books in her way. They looked like library books. She turned them over. Something called The Consolation of Philosophy. So one would like to think. An introduction to Chaucer. A bulky, yellowing edition of The Faerie Queene. And when she looked over at Stuart, he rolled his eyes and, without another word, started the engine.
John Shea is an editor at the University of Pennsylvania. Evidence is hard to come by, but he may be the only person to have stories in both “Partisan Review” and “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.” He won second prize in a “Philadelphia City Paper” fiction competition for a story set in Colonial Philadelphia; it included witchcraft and a cameo by B. Franklin. His stories have also appeared in “The Twilight Zone Magazine,” “The Café Irreal,” and “Literal Latte.”