A short story
At the Raymond M.
All around, car doors opened, emptying boys and girls in uniform and younger siblings clutching teddy bears and dolls, followed by parents,
She and Laurin joined two groups straggling onto an empty field dressed in T-shirts bearing the emblems of their rivalry: a pair of crossed socket wrenches and a stork carrying a shopping bag in its beak. The shirts also bore the opposing team names: Randy’s Auto Parts, and Laurin’s team, the Mother and Child Maternity
Suzanne headed for the concessions stand where Marge Balmagia and her son Jason unloaded bags of hot dog buns from the back of their minivan.
“Suzanne! Where’s Reed?”
“Spur of the moment business trip.”
“He asked my mom to fill in,” Laurin added, rolling her eyes. She looked around. “Where’s Coach?” “
My Dad’s sick,” Jason piped up. “He’s got the flu. He’s been on the toilet all day.”
“Well, practically,” he said, and climbed into the back of the van.
“Wait a minute. Wait,” Suzanne said, feeling her face flush. “You mean he’s not coming?”
“No, he’s sick. Here’s the scorebook,” Marge said, holding out a binder. “I’ve got to open up.”
The blood drained from Suzanne’s face. She thought she was going to be sick.
“But Reed said Larry would be in charge.”
“In his present condition,” Marge said, “that would be difficult.”
“Oh great,” Laurin said. “This is the worst day of my life.”
From the start, the prospect of substituting for her husband, as assistant coach of the
“Look, it’ll be a snap,” Reed had said the night before, stretching across their bed to grab a legal pad off the nightstand. Plucking a pen from his shirt pocket, he filled the page with a large diamond. At each point, he placed a box. “Okay,” he said. “First base. Second. Third … “
“A little credit. I know what a baseball field looks like.”
“Consider this a refresher, Babe.”
At 37, the jock in Reed refused to die. Even if there was a thickness around his middle and gray like the rime of an early frost dusting his temples. Even if he could only enjoy the vicarious pleasures of watching Laurin, their eleven-year-old, take center field.
“Now, if the ball goes over home plate and it’s between the batter’s armpits and the top of his knees…?”
“Exactly! That’s the strike zone. Anywhere else is a ball. What did I tell you? A snap.”
“Write that down for me, will you?”
“That business about the strike zone.”
“Look, don’t worry.” He tossed the pad on the bed.
“I’m not. Can’t you just jot it down?”
Reed got up and reached into the closet for his Val-Pak. “Suze, you’re just going to be the assistant coach. For one game. Your job, basically, is to make sure the parents don’t kill each other.”
“Have you forgotten the opening day prayer?
Self-conscious chuckles had rippled among the nervous parents clustered in the stands when Reverend Brittingham began his invocation.”Dear Lord, keep the parents cool.”
“Okay?” Reed said.
She let out a long, contained breath. “Okay.”
In fifteen years together, Reed and Suzanne had never been hidebound about who did what. Suzanne often thought of her own parents and the boundaries that defined their roles: Mom’s kitchen, Dad’s basement workshop. She had friends whose husbands l
And when they decided to replace the cheap wall lamps in the living room with brass sconces, Suzanne surprised Reed—and, she had to admit, herself—-by doing the job while he was out of town. Even so, for all her feelings of liberation, and Reed’s support, sports remained for her a male preserve, a foreign territory with baffling customs the appeal of which eluded her.
With both of them working, they had no choice but to share the time-consuming chores of modern-day parenthood, but they tried to divide them according to spheres of interest and temperament. Suzanne chauffeured Laurin to her Saturday ballet lesson; Reed played videographer at recital time. Suzanne tried to show up at the ball field on Laurin’s game nights, but it was her responsibility as department manager to close out all the registers; she rarely arrived before the last inning. She told herself that baseball was Reed’s time with his daughter. Laurin seemed to have inherited her father’s passion for sports, just as she had his sleepy green
“Are you sure you have to go?” Reed’s job as a health care consultant put him on the road one week out of four, helping hospitals and medical practices make their way through the government and insurance labyrinths. During baseball season, he religiously cleared his schedule; this was an impromptu trip, occasioned by a suburban medical center grappling with a rash of malpractice suits.
“Come on. You just stand by the bench and cheer them on. Buck them up when they strike out. High five them if they get a hit or, heaven forbid, catch the ball. Besides, Larry is going to be there. He’ll be running things.”
“But I don’t even know the rules.”
“Don’t worry about the rules. That’s the umpire’s job.”
“What time would I have to be there?”
“5:30,” he said, and, beaming, he kissed her.”Hey, if I don’t get stacked up over Chicago, I may even get home in time to see you in action.”
She checked her watch: 8:15.
Laurin, no doubt, was in the den watching an “L. A. Law” rerun. In the last few months, she had become enamored of Grace Van Owen, the show’s brilliant, beautiful prosecutor. Laurin taped the shows and replayed favorite scenes: Grace making coolly passionate closing statements; Grace tenderly caressing Michael’s face; Grace squaring off against a recalcitrant witness. Suzanne stopped at Laurin’s darkened room to switch on the light on her bedside table. She lingered to look at her daughter’s collection of hot air balloon posters, one of the quirky passions that made her so precious; her friends decorated their room with photos of air-brushed teen idols and MTV stars. Suzanne’s favorite was the one mounted on the wall behind Laurin’s bureau: a stately procession of immense striped globes suspended over a patchwork quilt of Pennsylvania Dutch country farms. For a moment, she imagined herself standing in the wicker gondola that dangled below the balloon, gazing down at the postcard world below.
On the television in the den, Victor Sifuentes was making a fervid summation to a jury.
“Guess who’s coaching your game tomorrow?”
Laurin didn’t even turn her head.
“Psych! You don’t even come to the games.”
“That’s not true. I come to some of them. ”
“Yeah, when the game’s almost over.”
“Now that’s not fair. I can’t help if I have to work.”
“You always use work as an excuse.”
Lately, Laurin had been doing everything she could to provoke Suzanne. Challenging her with defiant comebacks when she wasn’t ignoring her; leaving her room a mess; dropping her dirty clothes in a heap.
“I’m not going to fight with you about this, Laurin. Someday when you have a job you’ll understand.”
Laurin brushed past her, and ran upstairs. “Daddy!”
In a flash, Laurin returned, triumphant. “You’re not coaching us. Daddy says you’re just helping out.” Before Suzanne could answer,
She made arrangements to leave work early, picked up Laurin and raced to the mall. The coolness of this air-conditioned cocoon was a relief from the muggy afternoon. When she had time, she liked to browse here
“I just want to look around, Mom. I’ll stay right out here. Promise.”
When Suzanne emerged a few minutes later, with a pair of tube socks, Laurin stood before a table lined with trays of printing symbols: alphabets and inventories of stock images, castoffs in an age of computerized printing. A bearded man in a plaid shirt and suspenders sat in a rocking chair beside the display, reading a paperback.
“Mom, look!’ Laurin held up a small block of wood topped with a brass die engraved with the curved ribs of a hot air balloon and a tiny gondola.
“Pretty. Let’s go.”
“Mom! I want to buy it!’
“We’re late. We’ll have to come back.”
“We’ll be at the Crystal Mall tomorrow,” the man said without looking up. “Through the weekend!’
“Somebody else will buy it,” Laurin cried.
“No, they won’t. Now let’s go. We can’t be late!’
She put the symbol back in the tray and took Laurin by the arm. Laurin tugged back.
“Fine. Buy it. I’ll bring the car around.” Suzanne turned on her heels and stomped away, furious with herself, her daughter, and all the people in America who had turned yesterday’s junk into items of value.
“Here’s the equipment!’
Jason dumped an oversized canvas bag at Suzanne’s feet and loped over to the concessions stand where his mother was putting hot dogs on the grill.
Unzipped, the bag gaped open, revealing bats, baseballs, molded plastic helmets, chest protectors, and a first-aid kit. Her fate was sealed by the collection of children lining the bench, its forest green paint rubbed away by bottoms shifting with excitement and boredom over summers come and gone.
“Kids, I was supposed to, uh, pinch-hit for Mr.Rawlins, Laurin’s dad. But Coach Balmagia, as it turns out, is sick. So I guess y
The team stared at her. She opened the scorebook, and was instantly confused.
“Mom,” Laurin whispered, “you don’t understand any of this, do you?”
“It can’t be all that difficult,” Suzanne said, leafing through the binder.
Laurin took it from her. “Look, here’s the lineup. Who plays what position. The batting order.” She ran her finger down the list, as confident as Grace Van Owen pursuing a line of inquiry.
“So, let’s just go down the lineup,” Suzanne said. As she read off the names, each child rose, all but a skinny little boy who sat at the end of the bench peeling the wrapper from an ice cream sandwich.
“Didn’t I call your name?” The other children tittered. Laurin nudged her arm and whispered, “That’s Nate Marshall. He doesn’t play much!’
“Well, you better eat that ice cream fast or give it away. You’re playing today.” Nate looked up, startled.
A skinny, balding man wearing dark blue trousers, a powder blue polyester sports shirt and holding a face mask walked onto the field. “Coaches. Let’s huddle up over here.” The umpire was a familiar face, but Suzanne had trouble placing him.
Once the game began, it seemed to operate on its own power. This far into the season, the kids knew their roles and didn’t even look to her for guidance. After three outs, the teams exchanged places. In the bleachers, the parents cheered. Booed. Suzanne began to relax.
In the first inning, the umpire inspected a foul ball before tossing it back to the pitcher and she recognized him. It was the same careful scrutiny that Mac, the produce manager at he Food Fresh, gave fruits and vegetables. It was also the same beady gaze Suzanne had noticed
One of the reasons she hadn’t enjoyed the games, she realized now, was her self-conscious discomfort alongside parents who easily filled the air with shouts, chants, the occasional blasphemy. But here by the bench, she found herself effortlessly mimicking the patter from the children around her.” Come on, Jason. Attaway. Attaway. Pitch the batter. Pitch the batter.
As the game proceeded, her hair drooped with perspiration, wisps framing her temples like spider webs. The new tube socks—white with aqua and pink stripes—bunched over the tops of her sneakers, dusted ochre from the field’s clay.
In the third inning, a curious thing happened. The
Until then, Ricky, the
“What?” Suzanne said, rising off the bench, then quickly sat down again. As much as she wanted to challenge the call, Suzanne felt on
But the call, so patently unfair, left the boy rattled. His next pitch came in a slow, uncertain arc; it was easily batted past the shortstop. By the time Laurin in center field had control of the ball, two runners had scored.
“Take him out,” a man cried from the stands. “Get somebody who can throw the ball.” Suzanne wheeled around and glared at the heckler.
“Timeout,” she called to the umpire and walked to the pitcher’s mound where Ricky, unable to look at her, stood, red-faced, near tears.
“Don’t worry. I’m not taking you out. Take a couple of deep breaths. You’ll be fine!’
“Mom, he puts his mitt in front of his face. And he can’t hit.”
“Now look, you’ve had a chance. He deserves one too.”
Laurin tossed her glove at the ground and stomped off to the bench. Suzanne was about to yell after her, but caught herself. Laurin had a right to be mad. Life was unfair at times. You just had to live with it. And the sight of Nate’s proud smile as he trotted into center field made it almost worth Laurin’s whining.
In the fifth inning, a taxi pulled up at the entrance to the field and Reed got out carrying his briefcase and travel bag. He was fully prepared to take over but the sight of Suzanne, stalking the bench, applauding and peppering her team with cries of approval made him hold back, unwilling to interfere. He kept out of sight, leaning against a car in the parking lot.
Nate came to bat. The opposing pitcher, a bruiser with a man’s muscles bulging under his uniform, eyed the little boy and dismissed him with a derisive laugh. “Wait for a good one, Nate,” Suzanne said.”Don’t swing at everyone.”
Mocking Nate robbed the pitcher of his concentration and his first throw was wild. For once Nate held his ground, although he did close his eyes as the ball whizzed past his chin.
Suzanne could feel the anger rising, tensing every muscle in her body.
“It’s umpire, lady.”
“Oh? Weil, it’s coach, buddy. And that was a ball.”
“Who’s calling the shots here, lady? You or me?”
Feeling her team’s eyes on her, Suzanne backed off. “Okay, Nate, hang in there. Wait for it.”
The next pitch was almost over his head.
“Are you blind? Do you know where the strike zone is,” Suzanne said, shocked by her temerity, “or are you just making it up as you go along?”
“Stuff it, lady.”
Even the pitcher seemed confused. He tugged at his cap, hitched his belt and then threw another wild pitch.
“Strike three. You’re out.”
Clenching his right fist, the umpire punched the air, Nate dropped the bat and began to cry.
Before Suzanne had time to focus a rational thought, to weigh the disadvantages, to bring to bear arguments that would keep her feelings in check, she stormed to home plate and began shouting, unleashing a torrent of accusations about incompetence and injustice and stupidity.
She got so close to the umpire that she noticed, beyond the bars of his face mask, a tiny black hair growing out of the tip of his nose. The hair distracted her momentarily so that what he was screaming back—”That’s it lady. You’re outa here”—- didn’t register. It was only when she saw him jerk his thumb violently over his shoulder that she realized how far she had gone. “You’re history. Get off the field!’
Stunned, her face burning, Suzanne turned around and found herself staring at her husband, who had a wide grin on his face. “Hey, coach!’
“What have I done?”
“You stuck up for your team is how it looked to me!’
“But I lost it. I just blew up.”
“So? Take a breather. I’ll fill in!’
“That…that man is just the-the worst.” Reed put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulders.
“What do I do now?”
“Well, you can’t stay on the field once you get bounced. Think you’ll be okay in the car?”
Once sitting behind the wheel, Suzanne breathed deeply, felt a catch in her throat and expected to sob. Inexplicably, laughter burst forth and she had to grip the steering wheel until the spasms subsided, leaving her wet-eyed and giddy with relief.
When the game ended minutes later, and parents and children filed past her, she looked down at her lap, hoping they would ignore her. But out of the corner of her eye, she realized a few were waving and smiling. One man flashed a thumbs up. Her
“That ump’s been a jerk all summer,” Nate said. “Thanks, Coach.”
Then she was alone with Laurin and Reed.
“Mom, can we walk home?”
“I’ve got to round up the equipment,” Reed said. “You two go ahead. I’ll stop and get us a pizza.”
“I’m ashamed of myself, you know,” Suzanne said as they walked out of the parking lot. She felt Laurin’s hand slip into hers, moist and gentle.
“Mom, you were awesome.” Laurin stopped and fished something from her pants pocket and pressed it in her mother’s palm. The balloon etched in brass felt cool against her skin. “1 want you to have it!’
“No, honey. It’s yours.”
“Please, Mom. Please.”
Behind the field the sun was setting, an orange wafer in the pale August twilight. Splashes of rose washed the sky. Suzanne wanted to imprint this moment in her memory, the glorious sky, the feathery touch of Laurin’s hand. She squeezed the balloon and felt herself rising skyward, beginning to float free.
Elysian Fields Quarterly: The Baseball Review. Summer, 1998.