Watching players circle the bases like hands on a clock

Tony Bender

There were 40 runs scored. That left time to talk. His biological father Doug, an old friend of mine, was supposed to be there too, but was back at the doctor’s office. Cancer.

I hadn’t seen Barry since he was baby bouncing in a crib in his mother’s downstairs apartment. We were all so young then. She was a waitress at the truck stop. I was a groundskeeper at a cemetery that summer.

Barry’s son was playing shortstop. We sat on the visitor’s bleachers, eyes on the field mostly, sentences punctuated by the ping of the bat.

I wondered how much he remembered about his mom. He was eight or nine when she died at 26 of an aneurism. It still hit like a sledgehammer to the chest when I got the call. Barry glanced sideways at me. He doesn’t remember much. Another run scored. Then another. A hit batsman. A couple of walks. We silently implored the umpire to expand the strike zone. After a while we voiced the sacrilege out loud.

He’d gone a little crazy with grief after she died. Doug had been an absent and irresponsible father, and by then married to someone else. Extended family took the boy in, but for a while he was incorrigible, he told me regretfully.

I wanted to tell him about the feisty girl I remembered — the cynical way she’d hold her cigarette and stare balefully at you, knowingly, silently bemused, dissecting the moment, dissecting you. “She could be tough,” I said. “Stubborn.” As a young mother she’d grown up fast. Wary. Pragmatic. Not jaded. She didn’t tip her hand but couldn’t hide her heart.

Another walk. A solid hit to the gap. A fly ball over the centerfielder’s head.

“She’d get this twinkle in her eye,” I told him. It was like she knew something you didn’t. She could contain the laughter for a while — she looked like she was about to explode, rosy cheeks and scrunched up, dancing eyes — and then she’d give in, lighting up the room.

The sun edged toward the western horizon. We watched another foul ball, waited for the thunk and dent. It never happened. We all departed with our deductibles intact. I said goodbye before the final out, but before I left, I asked Barry to tell me when their team is in the area again. Maybe we’ll spend another afternoon in the sun watching the players circle the bases like the hands on a clock.

Between innings, the catcher threw down to second. Good arm, but I’d seen better. “Doug was a heckuva catcher,” I told him. He seemed surprised. “Oh, yes. Great, great athlete,” I said. “If he could have hit a lick,” he could have made the majors. “He might have been able to hit .230 or .240, which would have been enough back then.”

No one ever stole on him. He’d fire that cannon during warmups, and the warning was clear. He’d so agitate batters with his chatter and gamesmanship that they spent more time devising plans to kill him than trying to hit.

“Great pitcher, too,” I told Barry, but a knot-head. He was fast — the ball hissed — but he’d insist on throwing a wicked knuckleball for a third strike that would invariably roll to the backstop because no one could catch it, let alone hit it. Still, we won most of the time.

I watched Barry’s son’s easy, loose-limbed glide. I knew its genesis. I glanced at Barry as we spoke, and his mother’s face flashed before me. He’s got her eyes.

Doug’s been coming to his grandson’s games for a while now, Barry said. You don’t ever make up for lost time in this world, but you can try. Doug and I plan to get together soon too. I worry. He’s always been thin, but he’s lost 26 pounds — says he has trouble eating. Probably the chemo. I’m gonna try to feed him. I know we’ll laugh. He’s always made me laugh.

The sun edged toward the western horizon. We watched another foul ball, waited for the thunk and dent. It never happened. We all departed with our deductibles intact. I said goodbye before the final out, but before I left, I asked Barry to tell me when their team is in the area again. Maybe we’ll spend another afternoon in the sun watching the players circle the bases like the hands on a clock.

Oh, and the visitors won.

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