Boy's Game

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Flash Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The last game of the season for a school baseball team and it's a day they will soon remember forever, but for none of the reasons they would ever want to.
Walter Joss paints a vivid picture with a colorful pallet of memories and a nostalgic paintbrush. Together with the insightful coach who, unbeknownst to him, subconsciously guides the reader through his last day on Earth, exploring the fleeting nature of memories, hope, and life itself.

Submitted: November 26, 2016

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Submitted: November 26, 2016

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He pulled in and parked at the end of the lot that ran along a complex of baseball diamonds. It was a sunny, but brisk morning and the lot was nearly empty at this time of morning. The fields were beautiful and green, blades sharply manicured; each one deflecting the morning sun in a different direction. The infield was maintained to perfection. The pitcher's mound softly rising out of its grassy center. The dirt was mixed with just the right amount of clay giving it a reddish tint. Soft enough for the spikes of cleats to sink in and get a good grip. Hard enough that base runners and ground balls could move across its surface without losing any momentum. He wished the boys knew how good they had it. He grew up playing on uneven dirt. Routine grounders become unpredictable, and you had to be prepared to take bad hops everyday. Some days you could take em, but some days the bad hops took you. He turned his engine off and sat in his truck for a second, watching the grounds crew as a they laid down the chalk on the third base line. He always thought this crew did their job well. And a thankless job it was. They would be gone long before the first pitch. He was early, and he liked it that way. Always the first to arrive and always the last to leave. He lived to be at the ballpark. It's who he is. This game and it intricacies (it's fallacies too) is all he's ever known. It's the only thing he's really ever been good at. He was a great player but an even better manager. He could step back, instinctively read situations and people. He seemed to always know what the other managers next move would be, sometimes before they even knew themselves. Although he was quite a realistic and pragmatic man; relying on numbers and stats, he was also born with a great instinct for this game. And he was smart enough not to ignore it when it spoke to him.

He stepped out of the truck, changed into his cleats, and tossed his shoes into the back. From his equipment bag he took out the same flimsy hat he'd worn all season, the bottom edges stained white from the alkaline in his sweat. He closed the driver door and put it on adjusting the brim in the reflection of the window. He could see the gray that had started to come in this year, but he didn't mind at all. He was tall, still in good shape for his age and many of the mothers of the kids on the team he coached thought him very handsome. He was aware of that and he enjoyed the attention but always politely declined their offers of introduction to their single friends or newly divorced sisters. He spoke with the grounds crew for a bit, brought the equipment and bats into the dugout and hung the day's batting order on the fence. By now a few players and their parents had started to arrive, congregating around tailgates, pouring coffee and chatting. As moms and dads unpacked their umbrellas, seat cushions, and ice chests, he could clearly see from where he stood in the dugout that they were beaming with an exuberant pride. They looked back over to him, with ear to ear smiles and exchanged waves. That made him happy to see. In a way these were his kids too. He couldn't have been more proud. He pushed them hard. Shit, he pushed himself hard this season, he thought. Even picking up some gray hair along the way to show for it. This was a big game and these boys played their hearts out. Nobody expected them to go this far, not even themselves. The school administration cut funding in favor of the football program, which put more butts in the seats and trophies in the case. But he believed in them from day one and he taught them how to believe in themselves, to believe in one another. They showed up. They dug in. Sometimes even surprising their coach in their capacity to progress. They played smart just as they did hard, and possessed a team unity that some of the college teams he'd managed had sorely lacked. They hardly knew each other in that summer, but by now they shared a unbreakable bond. They knew, without a shred of doubt, that they could depend on each other out there, between those lines. They were written off by opponents and peers alike. They had proved everyone wrong. They should be proud. They deserved to be here. This was their day and nobody could take that away from them. Leaving the shade of the dugout, he spit his gum into a trashcan. He'd quit chewing tobacco before he got married, and gum was never an adequate enough replacement. But he was too old to pick the habit back up. It was something he didn't want his boys to see their coach do and have them attempt to emulate, like he had done with his father. But man did he enjoy his chew and he missed it sometimes, there's no doubting that. Maybe he was too tired. Maybe he's just gotten better at letting things go over the years. He was still tough, although his stubborn, thick-headed ways have long faded away. He walked with his head down, his hands in the front pockets of his windbreaker. Past the on-deck circle, carefully stepping over freshly laid lines of chalk, he crossed the infield slowly but with purpose. He passed second base and calmly stepped into center field. He liked to just stand out in the grass, facing the fences, with his back towards home plate. He did this before as many games as he could. He did this to clear his mind, as a sort of meditation. In a game that is as demanding mentally as it is physically, an effective coach needs a clear head, free from distraction. That's the way he looked at it anyways. He's just always been a thoughtful and contemplative person. Far from introverted, he was, however, acutely aware of the torrential seas that lay within. Part of this desire to quiet his mind came from this game. He was never into meditation, eastern religions, or any religion at all although he could see what others gained from it. It was the same thing he gained from playing ball. He always thought Buddhist monks might make good hitters because of their mindfulness, but only if they changed their diet and ate some meat. Maybe lift weights. The idea still amused him. But out here he found his own nirvana. Out here, this early, when the day was at its most peaceful. He could quiet his mind. He didn't have to think too much. In a few hours, the game and his team will demand much more from him. But for now he could just stand there, spikes in the grass, and quietly listen.

He could hear the distant drone of a gas-powered leaf blower. It sounded just as natural as the birds rising to greet the Autumn sun. He could hear the cars as they passed somewhere out of sight, displacing air on the freeway. From here these dirty, industrial beasts sounded no more out of place than the waves on a faraway beach. This was always the most beautiful time of the week for him. Saturday mornings when suburbia started stirring. Before the sounds of life became overwhelming and he couldn't think. When the Southern Californian sun shined so bright yet there was still dew on the blades of thick, slightly long, outfield grass. He could hear a dog bark in the distance, somewhere in the vast sea of one story houses. He could hear car doors being slammed in the parking lot, parents barking orders and the clinks of aluminum bats as the first few kids walked in the dugout and threw down their equipment bags. He had been out here longer than he had realized. But he remained right where he stood. The air was crisp and cloudless, it chilled his skin and warmed the fabric of his jacket . Eyes closed, turning towards the sun, he inhaled through his nostrils; deep and sustained, the cold air passing down his throat and into his chest. As he exhaled, the smells of a baseball field in October arrived in his brain, exciting neurons that triggered memories and nostalgia that made his heart pause, as if it too was distracted; forgetting to beat then quickly stuttering back into sync, like the crow hopped steps of an outfielder throwing home. He always thought of other times like these. The last days of summer. Carefree days of college, with the newfound freedom of a man, and the almost non-existent responsibilities of a kid; knowing that real life is just around the corner. The approach of night as the sky turns orange at dusk. The bitter-sweet feeling of moving on. Right before things come to their end. In the summer, when one or two leaves on a vividly green oak turned red, floated to the ground and hinted at the Autumn still to come. Just like October, the best part of the baseball season, before winter comes and there's no ball until next year. Times just like this, before today's game. Before we've won or lost. The boys taking batting practice, eyes following the slow arc of a well squared ball; whistles and encouragements all around. No matter how the game ends, just to be there at the park, laughing with their buddies. That is what they will always remember. Friends who wear the same uniform, have the same ups and the same downs; the same desires and the same insecurities. The season may be over tomorrow, but today the potential is endless. These were the times to cherish and remember.

Like just right before Marie died. Those were the best times we had. She loved days like these. She never liked baseball. "It's too boring," she had always said "a lot of standing around, just waiting for something to happen". But like her husband, she lived for Saturday mornings, filled with the comforting sights and sounds of this great American game. The ding of aluminum, infielders shouting encouragement at pitchers as they pound their fist into worn leather mitts. Parents clapping, shouting out their kids numbers. Umpires calling strikes, the silence just after the dust settles at home plate on a close sliding play. Everybody anxiously awaiting the umpires call. Ecstatic high-fives in one dugout and bitter glares from the other. The tension and release creating a sort of natural high. When their son was the same age as these boys, she wouldn't miss a Saturday for anything. Even the days she was was sick, the boys couldn't keep her home. The more she came to cheer for her son, the more she understood the appeal the baseball and it's nearly glacial pace held for so many. She also understood that her time left was limited. What had once bored her she could now never get enough of. The "beautiful game" and its competitive leisure has an effect on time itself. As long as you are at the ballpark, life is slow, life is simple and life is good. The game holds a certain quality of innocence and reminds us of when we all once did too. And that is something to hold on to these days. America's favorite past-time is polarizing; you either love it or you don't. But if you do, if the game means something to you, its love that transcends all earthly descriptions. That feeling never dies - even if we do. The game showed her love and she learned to love it back, bringing her closer to her son and husband in those last few years. He loved seeing his wife in the bleachers, chatting with the parents, and overhearing her explain the complexities of the games rules. He smiled as he thought about those times, of Saturday's and snack bars. Grass stained pants and practices ending at dusk; taking a knee and learning with every win, growing with each loss. He still stood out there in center field; hands in his pocket and his eyes still closed, head tilted towards the sun.

A few more kids filled the dugout, and he could hear the clopping of cleats on cement and the clanging of chain link fence. He was always telling them not to tug on it. Hell, he did the same thing, wrapping his fingers around the links and leaning back with all his weight. Spitting sunflower seeds and talking shit. Just teenage boys coping with the boredom and anxiety of playing a man's game. The boys stopped their horse play and squinted towards their coach. He could hear that. The only thing louder than these kids sometimes was the silence that came after they stopped yelling and swearing. They were used to his pregame ritual, treating it with respectful indifference, but he wasn't usually out there this long. He looked down at his cleats and chuckled to himself. I better get em warmed up, he thought. He opened his eyes to scan the horizon, shook himself off and turned towards the infield.

Then something stopped him. He didn't hear birds anymore. The excited chatter of parents no longer filled the air. Something had changed. This was a silence he had not heard before. A strange feeling washed over him, a feeling he could not understand. The silence grew louder and his head started to swell. Behind the dugout fence the boys looked at each other then at their coach who was looking back at them. Time to issue marching orders, let's get this show on the road. He cupped his hands around his mouth and took in a deep breath, preparing to shout. But before he get the words out, a series of loud unmistakable cracks broke the silence. His chest and arms dropped and the boys all turned towards the parking lot. What had first sounded like heavy pieces of wood smacking the asphalt was followed by the blood curdling scream of a woman. Another loud crack. There was nothing for the sound to bounce off so it was a sharp, whip-like sound that traveled fast through the air. Most of the boys had never heard a gun shot before, but the screams were enough to turn them white. They turned to their coach, their eyes open wide. He was already in a full sprint, his cleats gripping hard as they threw up turf in his wake. More screaming, then desperate pleas from the now nearly full parking lot. He vaulted the low fence just past the third base, falling to one knee before recovering. He flew past parents who were taking cover behind a line of cars at edge of the lot, his cleats hitting hard on the asphalt. Running past the cars and into the center of the lot, he turned towards the panicked screams. Immediately he saw blood pooled around a small blond child just in front of him. He tried to stop, but his cleats slid on the blacktop, into some of the bright red blood, forcing him to jump over the body on to his hands and knees. The air smelled of cordite, it seemed heavy and thick. Two more shots. He looked at his hands and they were bloody, so was his white uniform. His eyes moved up, and he saw things he thought he would never have to see. A man face down, next to him a leather baseball mitt, red with blood. He saw a pair of lifeless feet sticking out from between two cars. Three more shots. A cooler was tipped over and refreshments that had been for boys were now strewn carelessly across the black top. He could hear the wretched sounds of somebody vomiting. He looked up, to see the shooter walking towards a woman who had fallen down. She was was face down but alive, and she knew the man was behind her. The terrified woman turned over and raised her trembling hands. The kneeling and bloody coach tried to yell, but nothing came out. He watched the muzzle flash. The bullet passed directly through her skull and it's contents were ejected. The shooter changed the clip and turned, revealing his face. The father of one of the boys. The ex-husband of the woman who lay lifeless between two cars. She was wearing her son's number on the breast of her jacket. Open eyes looking straight ahead, past blue sky, pupils locked on a faraway point only the dead can see. She looked surprised and betrayed. The coach got up, eyes still very much alive, his dilated pupils locked on to the cold, wild eyes of a man too far over the edge to return.

Everything was happening in still frames, as if this was a merely a memory he was reliving. A gun raised to take aim. A flash of light as the sun reflected off the barrel. The click of metal. He could hear screaming and begging all around him, but they sounded muffled; pleas, warnings and cries coming from behind concrete walls. It didn't matter. He wasn't listening. He hardly knew how he got here, and he couldn't find a way out. He didn't even know why he ran this way without even thinking. As if something was calling him. He stared back into eyes blue and clear just like his. Why are you doing this? Why here? Don't do this, man. Please. Not today. They fought so hard for this. They fought tooth and nail to stay at the top. They fought to stay alive. To stay alive. Where is your son? Are you not proud? It's getting late. The boys need to start warming up. Tell them to get the lead out. Where is my son? My wife should be here, he thought. Even though baseball always bored her so much. She loved the field, the atmosphere, the twhack of ball against mitt..... The heavy thud on third base of a runner batted in, turning towards home. He heard those sounds, in fact they were so loud he felt them through his body. They tore through his and out the other side. He now felt weightless. He begun to feel cold. I hope Marie gets here soon, this is a big game. It's gotten so dark, he thought. It had gotten so quiet. Where did they all go? The game is about to start. Ah, this was his favorite part. The part right before the end.


© Copyright 2017 Walter Joss. All rights reserved.

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