“And so are you. Geez, we’re up 7-2 in the fifth,” he said, pushing me away. “Go wait on the bus.”
People in the stands shouted down in anger. An apple hit me square between the shoulders on number 18.
The parking lot was behind the field house so I couldn’t even watch the game – nor could they see me.
My thoughts switched to dealing with coach, the principal and all the other PC types. They meant nothing; I knew the old man would be proud. He’d want to know exactly what I said and when I said it. If I told him I couldn’t remember, he’d think less of me so I recreated the whole incident in my mind making the words sound like his.
The bus was empty. I pried open the bright yellow doors and looked down at the narrow seats I could barely fit into. If it had ended there, if I hadn’t gone into their locker room, I might have been all right. Maybe started in the regionals, even the states, and talked to Arizona, USC and Oregon about scholarships.
But it didn’t.
I can’t explain how or why it went further, but it did.
They suspend me for the semester. Plus, I have to pay a thousand dollar fine for defacing school property and see a therapist. Although we won the game, the league makes us forfeit, killing any chance for a championship run. To help pay off the penalty, the old man gets me a job clearing land on the old Johnson place off Route 43.
I ride a city bus to the construction depot. From there I take whatever truck I can to the worksite.
I walk up to a medium-sized carting truck catching early morning windshield glare and ask for a ride.
“You the ballplayer I hear about?” asks the operator lowering the driver’s side window.
“Yeah, I suppose,” I say, squinting into the sun.
“You suppose,” he says, his dark hand slapping the green cab door, “don’t you know who you are?”
“I’m Blaine Broderick,” I say.
“Gus’s’ son,” he adds, “That explains it. I heard you might be here. Don’t pull none of that dumb-ass shit.”
“Yes, sir,” I answer glancing away. “Can I get a lift?”
“Didn’t I just say so?” he says, shifting into gear. “You ride in the bed with all the other crap we’re collecting.”
I climb up on the back tire and hop into the truck bed.
He isn’t kidding. There are piles of crap left from yesterday’s run. Along with bent bicycles, busted furniture, rusty appliances and anything else deemed expendable. In the driver’s side mirror, I watch the three dark faces in the cab laughing. Reaching for my cell, I realize it’s still on my dresser. I swear they’re aiming for every pothole and taking every sharp turn at maximum speed so I’ll go sliding into one of those shit piles.
We finally pass the sign “Future Site of Johnson Gardens at Essex Farms” after a thirty-five minute ride.
It wasn’t worth the wait.
There’s junk everywhere in this section. People use this place as a dump. It’s our job to remove all the recyclables. The Condo builders can’t start construction until all the debris is gone.
Without the highway air to clear my nose, the truck starts to stink. I won’t beg him to open the tailgate. I lift myself out of the bed and jump off the side lip. I look for a crew to latch onto, but no one picks me. The driver who gave the ride sips coffee with one foot on the steps to the cab.
Staring ahead, he seems to be contemplating an important decision.
I want to go over and say something. Explain what happened, but the old man’s voice keeps shouting over mine inside my head.
“Never second-guess yourself Blaine,” he’d bellow. “People will never respect you. They’ll think you’re weak. You just swallow hard and stand your ground. They’ll back off. They always do.”
I turn away from the driver. I’ll fill his truck for him without any help. Must be fifty acres to this section of the abandoned farm. Sheets of corrugated metal lie a hundred feet away. Piece by piece I drag them to the truck. The last sheet rumbles with thunder as it lifts.
“What the –”
A chill from the damp exposed earth runs through me. The remains of a child’s room are underneath.
A bedframe, toy chest, unlaced never-worn PF Flyer sneakers. I take a new baseball out of a red, yellow and black “Wilson” box and smell the leather. Next to it lies a 34-ounce wood bat with a $2.00 price tag still on it. I leave a teddy bear in the pit, take the bat and ball with me.
A cool breeze makes the morning work tolerable. When the lunch van pulls in, my driver heads to the recycling station with a full load. I stand in line with the rest of the day workers. No one talks to me and I say nothing in return.
“Hard land to keep,” says the old timer inside the van, taking my money.
He hands me a ham and cheese with a nod. I’m grateful there’s finally someone who doesn’t know, or care, who I am. After lunch, I pile all the tires I find where the carting truck was. Seems every eighteen-wheeler in the county shed its tires here. Working by myself, I figure I did twice as much as the other crews. I plop on a sand dune away from them to take a breather. The sun is just starting to lower. As the other trucks fill, there is no sign of my driver. I roll up my jacket pillow-like and close my eyes for a moment feeling the warmth of the sun.
When I awake, the site is deserted. The orange sky is evaporating into blue dusk. There are no streetlights out here. I don’t remember how to get back to Route 43. I use the bat to hit rocks as I follow rows of tire tracks. At the bottom of a gully, I feel the cooling air on my arms. Rotting telephone poles lie next to the dirt path where the ground flattens out.
A man sits on the far end of a pole with his back to me.
He seems more shadow than man hunched over tying his bootlaces. I stand still, holding the bat in both hands.
“I don’t bite,” he says, speaking into the grass. “Sometimes I wish I did, make life a might easier.”
He stands and turns around. I’m relieved to see he’s white. My hands loosen their grip on the bat.
“Good to know,” I say.
“You new around here?” he asks, digging both hands in his pockets.
“Cleaning things up before the builders come.”
“Hope your barn wright fixes that door latch,” he says, sticking a thumb back over his shoulder, “jams all the time.”
There is no barn far as I can see. The man looks homeless with a stubble beard and ill-fitting clothes. His collarless shirt is tattered and his pants have patches. The felt hat he wears is squashed and bent.
“Know how I can get to 43?” I ask, pointing at the ground with the bat.
“Only roads I know are Old River Landing and Logan’s Cross, both due north of here.”
His head nods in to the left. I move to the outer edge of the truck path putting as much distance as I can between us. A smirk breaks out across his face as I pass.
“It’ll be moonrise soon,” he says, grinning, “that’s when the fun begins. You won’t want to miss it.”
I say nothing feeling for the ball in my front pants pocket in case I need to throw it at him. Out of his sightline, I break into a slow trot building to an all-out sprint. The back of my shirt is sweat wet. I remember my jacket is still on the dunes. I stop to catch my breath. This is the turn where the truck swerved this morning and I nearly flew into that shit pile. It can’t be more than ten minutes to the right-of-way road and another five to Route 43 West.
As I move up the hill, Homeless Guy stands at the crest with that hat brim pulled low over his eyes. Arm extended, he holds out my jacket.
“Forget something my b’hoy,” he says.
I step forward and see fifteen or so black men dressed as shabbily as he is on the other side of the hill.
“First things first,” he adds, pulling back his arm. “What’s that ya holding?”
“C'mon, it’s a bat,” I say, twirling it in the air as if I’m waiting for a fat pitch, “and I’m not afraid to use it.”
“Just what I wanted to hear,” he says, rubbing his stubbled chin.
The group closes around me as the moon rises above.
Homeless Guy holds the baseball aloft between his thumb and forefinger. They all stare and start mumbling. None of them has ever seen anything this perfectly round, except the moon. I’m afraid, yet their wonder is comical.
It hits me. They’re punking.
The whole thing is a setup to teach me a lesson. Even the friendly food vendor. He probably slipped something in my sandwich to make me sleep. Now they paw over the bat, rubbing, smelling, one even licks it. A bone from some sacrifice. They could easily kill me with it. Buried out here no one would ever find me.
“Keep ’em, they’re yours,” I say, pushing through the crowd. “I got to go. I have people waiting for me.”
“No one’s waiting for you,” he says. “We need you, you’re eighteen.”
I pull my jacket tight against the cooling air. He must have seen my number on it.
“18 is my uniform number.”
“No, you’re our eighteenth player,” he says. “We need even sides.”
“I’m not so good.”
“How you come to this game isn’t as important as why.”
“I don’t play,” I add trying to move past them, “more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Can’t rightly say you could keep up with us anyways,” he says. “We’ve been practicing together since last spring’s planting.”
“Good for you,” I say, “best of luck.”
“If it were me, I’d want to test my mettle, know where I stand.”
“Well you’re not –”
“One time batting won’t kill ya, will it?”
I glance at all the dark faces watching me. They aren’t angry. Their expressions are hopeful, inviting, the confident stares of winners with chips on their shoulders. The kind of look I love to wipe off an opponent’s mug.
I grab the bat and turn to Homeless.
“Who chooses sides?” I ask, pointing it at him.
Their field is a ballpark I don’t remember seeing on the way here. The grass is smooth and cut even. Logs lay as player benches along the third and first base lines. Shirts stretched over sticks create a makeshift backstop. A communal water bucket and ladle await the thirsty. The equipment they bring is laughable, old axe handle bats, rocks wrapped in yarn stuffed between stitched shoe tongues. Cedar shingles for bases.
If I were punking and filming this at someone else’s expense, I’d laugh too.
We go through the long ritual of introductions. Some give handshakes, others nod or tug their forelocks. The group votes Jonesy and Ezekiel captains to choose sides. Jonesy picks me third. He wants to learn how to use my bat. A coin flips for home field advantage.
Homeless pitches for Ezekiel’s team. He politely asks where each batter wants the pitch. I crack up until I realize this is how these fellows play the game.
The white ball is easy enough to pick up in the moon glow. Playing hardball with bare hands comes second nature to these louts.
My turn to hit.
I ask for the ball low and outside. It’s a pitch I can golf into the weeds and finally get on my way.
I clobber it.
I picture myself tagging all the bases and dashing for the path to Route 43 after I touch home. The left fielder races back before snatching the ball from the dark air.
“You gave it quite a ride,” says Homeless doffing his hat, “but Town ball is a grounders game. You’ll learn.”
Seriously, I’ll learn.
He’ll teach me. I feel anger surging and want to throw something. It’s the same feeling I had when I entered the home team locker room after being tossed from the game weeks ago. The leftover spray paint from the school banners still on the gym floor.
Soft sobbing interrupts my rage. I whirl about and see nothing as we place runners on first and third.
I sit down knowing my shot went nearly four hundred feet. The crying begins again. On the other end of the log sits a boy, three maybe four years old his legs dangling as he cries.
Our eyes catch one another.
“What’s the matter?” I ask, thinking he might be the little brother of Homeless.
“Someone took my bat n’ ball,” he sniffles.
“Come now rush out,” says Homeless coming off the field.
I look back at the vacant log while heading behind the plate. After each pitch, I steal side-glances at the log, but see nothing of the boy. Between innings, I splash cold water on my face.
“You alright lad,” I hear Homeless say. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
“Maybe I have,” I say, drying my chin, “at least a very young one.”
“Oh, he’s back.”
“You’ve seen him?”
“We get visitors from time to time, he’s a lonely soul,” Homeless says. “And what brings you this way?”
“Me?” I say. “Dumb luck I guess.”
“Everyone who comes here has a reason; you just don’t know what it is yet.”
“And what’s yours?” I ask, going along.
“To play Town ball as we always do. Find our eighteenth player.”
Finally, he introduces himself. Isaac. Isaac Johnson. He learned to play ball visiting his uncle in New York and now he has a team.
“What about them?” I say, looking at the two sides exchanging places.
“They don’t bite, ask them yourself,” he says, trotting to the bench.
My next AB I pop out to short. Embarrassed, I trudge to the bench with my head down. Jonesy throws his long arm over my shoulder.
“When you know what’s coming, the hardest thing to do is hold back,” he says.
Another player tells me I’m the best catcher he’s ever seen. Others are equally nice, grateful to have two full squads.
I stand and clasp their hands.
“Out here, we make our own decisions,” says Poke, taking practice swings. “No one tells you when to swing or how to play. You’re on your own.”
Poke lives up to his nickname softly dropping the ball into right field. This is what I miss about not playing ball. It’s all you, but it’s not because you’re still part of a team acting together. Something I forgot for a while.
I plop down between two players. Watching the centerfielder hit third base on one bounce, makes me shake my head.
“Good arm in center,” I say, without looking at the player to my right.
“Moss can bring it, always could.”
The sound of the voice makes me do a double take.
“You’re a –”
“Johnson, that’s right,” she says, looking at Isaac winding up to pitch, “his father is mine too, if it matters none. Isaac doesn’t know we’re related. He taught us this game at night said teamwork would unite us, maybe free us someday.”
“Free you,” I say, “free you from what?”
“Petticoats,” she says, snatching an axe handle and heading to the plate. “What country are you from anyway?”
I watch her stance in the batter’s box. She spreads her feet and uses the axe handle to measure her distance to the plate same as any of my school teammates. Her short compact swing explodes with a look of determined joy as the ball rifles into left field. In the quiet of the moment, we’re all just players. These aren’t the people I raged against using spray-paint on the locker room walls.
No one is.
Maybe the therapist is right. Maybe all those painted messages are about me. The hurt aimed at someone who would never associate with it.
At the edge of the field, I see the boy again. I apologize for taking his stuff and ask him why he’s here.
Why are any of us here?
“Might as well ask grass why it grows,” he says, walking behind the backstop. “It just has to.”
“And what happens to a lonely blade of grass?”
“I don’t know,” he says, shrugging his shoulders, “you tell me.”
“Sometimes it gets protected by a big tree,” I say.
“I don’t know any trees,” he says, picking up the Teddy bear I left in the sand earlier.
“You do now,” I say.
“Good people don’t say things they don’t believe,” he says, shaking his head.
“I believe,” I yell, pulling the Teddy bear from his hands. “I might not be a good person. I ruined my team’s chances for a championship, insulted a whole lot of people and I hate everything I don’t understand, but I can belie…”
The game stops and everyone stares at us. The boy pulls the Teddy bear back and runs into the tall grass.
“Get back here,” I shout, running toward him.
“Whoa, whoa, steady there,” says Isaac, stepping in front of me with his hands up.
“Am I dead?” I ask, sitting on the log.
“Do you feel dead?” says Isaac, sitting next to me.
“All the time, I hate being me.”
“Try becoming someone else.”
I hear horses galloping in the distance. The moon is setting. Isaac stands with the same crazed look on his face when I first met him. Up close, I realize he’s not much older than I am.
“They’re coming,” he whispers before shouting. “They’re here.”
Frightened, everyone starts to panic.
“Let’s hide in the barn, maybe I can talk sense to them,” he yells.
We start running toward a barn I know doesn’t exist. As I run, I feel a cold hand in mine pulling me in another direction.
“Don’t go, stay with me,” says the boy.
He pulls me to a nearby stand of trees. We watch as the barn fills with escaping players.
The arm of the wooden latch falls into place as the doors slam shut.
“The barn wright,” I say, remembering what Isaac said. “They’ll never get out. We have to help them.”
“It happens this way every full moon,” says the boy shaking his head. “Ever since I came here to find my toys, it never changes.”
He grips my hand tightly as seven horsemen with torches surround the barn. An older man with a white mustache rides to the front.
“Think we have all of them,” says, one of the riders.
“Where’s my son?” asks the mustached man.
“Best as we can tell he’s not here sir,” says another.
“Good, the blasted fool. Teaching games taints the whole lot with the taste of freedom,” says the older man backing up his horse. “What must we do with tainted stock?”
“Destroy it sir.”
“Let’s get this over with.”
The barn doors shake and rattle, but remain locked, jammed. The hayloft flies open.
“Mr. Johnson in here, Mr. Johnson in here,” screams Jonesy pointing inside.
“I know where you are,” shouts the mustached man as they ride off. “End this. Damn barn is too small anyway.”
The torches land and ignite the walls. Frightened horses bray.
I run toward the doors but they’re already too hot to touch. Screams echo off the trees and funnel into a police siren startling me as I wander along 43 West.
I catch hell from the old man. He chews me out, but wants me to become one of the boys too. In a strange way, he admires me for being out all night.
If only he knew.
I skip work and head to the library instead. Reference tells me the Johnson family papers are online. Land we refer to as a farm was part of a plantation worked by a hundred slaves. Elijah Johnson bought the land from local Indians in 1828. He had a son Isaac who went missing in June 1860. There is little else in the father’s letters.
The therapist thinks my incident, my dream, is stress and guilt related. She thinks I should move away. I ought to go live with my uncle and forget all this. For a while I do forget, even play ball for a summer league in the next county under a different name.
Then bulldozers start to clear the land.
Animal bones and burnt timbers unearthed. Not surprising given the land use.
I was there right at the edge of the yellow tape after forensics found human skeletal remains. They carefully dusted everything the way an ump does home plate.
Then I saw it.
Saw it clutching something. A new baseball from 1965.
They said it was just a white rock near a few bony fingers. A fact never reported, but I saw it.
I saw it.
I told the archeologists they’d find at least two of Elijah Johnson’s children among the seventeen skeletons there. Each one of them belonged buried in his family plot.
They died in a barn not worth saving.
The next day I return to the library. This time I visit Johnson’s accounts and debits ledger. And there it was. Hand written succinctly and neatly.
“Seventeen expendable items consumed in stable fire. Regret the loss of two brood mares and a cull sow. Expect full recovery of assets from insurance. Restitution anticipated before spring planting.”
There are many entries after that for Pinkerton Detective Services right through the Civil War. The father never gave up on finding his sacrificed son. Or maybe searching was just easier than admitting what he surely knew he had done.
Murdered two of his own children.
I look up my own case, find the player I wronged and locate his house. It’s in a nice part of Essex County, much nicer than where I live.
I board a bus. It drops me three blocks away from the player’s home. Three blocks gives you a lot of time to think. I want to apologize, but I want him to hear this story too. If he thinks I’m crazy and beats the crap out of me, I’ll take it. I’ll take just about anything to make this right.
But nothing will.
How could it?
But maybe, just maybe, after hearing what I have to say, he’ll help me bury the bones of those slaves found at the construction site. Along with Isaac and his nameless sister too.
My long ago teammates.
Maybe remembering them – all of them – can open some new space for us today so we’re not beholding to the past.
Walking up the cobbled walkway to the front door, I feel a cold little hand slip in mine. I deserve to be alone, but I’m not and there’s some solace in that.