It was a Wednesday night and Robyn expected an easy shift. A fall evening, church calendar sunbeams shone on Puget Sound to the northwest. The roadwork holding up the I-5 had finished on Sunday and there was still at least a month before the winter rain came sliding in off the Olympic range.
The first call came from Cheney Stadium where the Raniers were playing. Parked at the first base gate, they found an older gentleman in the concession concourse, in the eye of a small crowd. He was lying on a table cleared of its load of condiments, a distraction for the hotdog queue.
“He ordered a brisket sandwich, then he just toppled over,” the vendor said.
“I’m okay,” the man said, hiking himself up on his elbows. “Really. Get me off this table, would you? I feel stupid.”
“Sure thing, hon,” Robyn said. “Let us help you out. We’ll get you outta here and give you a guided tour of downtown Tacoma.”
She checked his pulse, thick wrist heavy in her hand. Liverspotted skin, pale and bloodless; the beat was erratic, faint. Sticky spittle caught in the corners of his mouth. As he started swinging his legs down, he made a muffled noise and then fell back on the table. His head landed softly on a wadded sweater someone had placed there.
“He just passed out! Let’s get him on the gurney!”
I remember it now. The outfield falling-away in endless green except for the white chalk lines climbing the foul poles. Fences so distant only giants could see them; much less challenge them.
“This ballpark is bigger than it looked from up on the road,” someone says as we pull cleats and bats from the trunk of the old Ford.
We warm up in shallow right. Rakes rasp on the base paths around the tink-tink-tink of rusty spikes driven in at 60’6". The Gatling-gun, syncopated smacking of the warmup tosses, back and forth and bantering, "Howza kids, howza job, howza arm?" We settle nerves. Shed workaday worries.
Meadowlark calling, cars parking in the tall grass in foul ground, lawn chair clatter, catcher trotting to the mound with his shin pads clacking. I can smell the stinging reek of lime as they draw out the batter’s boxes – righty and lefty poured out of the same brown paper sack.
Kornelsen raps out some fungoes to us. He hits a flat line drive to my right and I round on it like a car taking a corner at speed, picking the ball out of the air on a bounce; freshly smudged from the grass.
Our boys are on the bench, leaning forward, chattering as our first batter digs in.
“Get ‘im next time,” I say as our leadoff batter trudges back to the dugout and I go to the plate. The umpire resets his counter. Then the red stitches are spinning as my soft liner clears short and settles in front of the galloping fielder. It one-hops into his glove and I make a little extra turn at first just to piss him off.
I wander off the bag and stop. There’s that long stare from the mound – batter, catcher, ump ready. A crow calls twice from the hydro line like he knows I’m going to steal and a car horn sounds from the road. By now the pitcher’s tired of waiting. He steps off and we start again, nervously hitching our socks, touching our cap peaks, looking for signs.
I can see the catcher’s eyes through his mask as he gauges my lead. Too much chaw, I think to myself. He looks drunk. As if he heard me, he tilts up his mask and a thin brown stream re-wets a dark spot on the sand. The pitcher, a Mexican from Grand Forks, rubs the ball with boot leather hands as he looks towards home.
"Never know," says Kornelsen from the Coach’s box as I take my lead and the pitcher wriggles his glove back on. “You never know, Red,” he repeats.
Sure enough, the pitcher throws over. I am back in plenty of time and the first baseman slaps me with a high tag. Goddamn trapper; it’s like getting hit in the chest with a phone book. Okay. That’s fine with me, I got spikes on, I think as I throw him a look – stink eye.
The gravel in front of our bench is littered with sunflower seed shells. It’s like the high tide mark. First game lost and now we’re tied here, top of nine. Everyone is a little bushed – ahead of us, there’s still a long car ride home. The home whites are on the field; bleached sails that tack and reach as we come to bat.
Sun descending, barn swallows darting, a little kid laughs from a car parked behind third where the family picnics from a blanket spread near the open trunk lid. They have cold fried chicken and long neck bottles of White Seal beer in a galvanized bucket of ice.
"Like you can," Kornelsen shouts from cupped hands – big, meaty carpenter’s hands. "Like you can, Red!” The words echo off the whitewashed backstop.
I pluck at the starchy grey of my pants until the stiff cloth stands away from my thighs to catch an inside pitch. I’ll take a free pass if I can.
"Hey, Red, we’re aiming for your head, not your legs," the catcher says to me with a brown-tooth grin.
“Do it, buddy. I’ll steal home on you," I say back to him, secretly wishing for one of those new batting helmets.
"Just play ball, you guys," the ump says, "I gotta get home."
And then a funny thing happens. The air goes still and so do the crickets and frogs. It’s so quiet, it’s like my ears are ringing. A purple-black cloud is edging towards us out of the west and I hear a woman in the stands say, "He’s not coming back."
"Ball one," the tired umpire says, clicking his counter. Then he taps the catcher’s shoulder because the ball went behind my head. "That’s the last one like that," the ump says to him, mad.
I am still puzzling about the lady behind the backstop and I realize I hadn’t moved an inch. Just stood there and the catcher must have snagged it. But come to think of it, I don’t even remember the pitch.
I tap the plate and see they are playing me to bunt.
The guy throws hard and he’s all heart, but he’s fading. Nothing but high fastballs and I take the inside ones, sliding my hand up the barrel to keep that idea in their heads. I foul off the rest and get the count full. I’m looking for the payoff pitch.
The Mexican kid gets on the rubber and then kicks with his right foot twice – stabbing his toe in the dirt behind him. Kornelsen told me about that and I’m ready.
The left fielder and the shortstop both take a couple of lazy steps back and towards the line. I see the change-up coming big as a grapefruit and I wait so I can knock it by the meathead at third who is still at bunt depth.
"See, I don’t want to pull it foul," I say to the lady behind the backstop.
“Sure. You don’t wanna waste it," she says. She knows what I mean. “We’re almost there, hon,” she adds with a nice smile. I get what she means. Now I look back at the mound, stride and take my cut as the ball comes at me, right down Main Street.
Then a coldness rushes up my arm and I feel the rumble from that big thunderhead, just like we’re driving over a wooden bridge. I can feel it in the muscles in my back. And then my neck tingles as I connect and it’s dead-set solid right up into my chest. It feels so good – the bat slowed for the smallest instant by the impact then completing its swishing arc. The ball jumps into the night air, and then it’s floating above the lights – a white dove, heaven bound.
The earth trembles some more and something nearby rattles as I drop my bat. First base is so far away, and there’s that wheezing bastard Kornelsen jumping up and down and wind-milling his arm.
“Go two, Red! Go two!” he’s screaming as I hit the bag, arms pumping and head down.
They pulled in, one ambulance among the others now, outside the hospital. Robyn double checked the wires to the monitor. A persistent flatline dirge. She winced and glanced at her watch before flicking the toggle switch to Off.
The van door opened behind her, framing the face of an emergency nurse. On her features, a wordless question.
“Time of death, 19:55,” Robyn said.
“Okay. Too bad. How was it?”
“I’ve been administering for the last twenty minutes,” Robyn said, cleaning up the paddles; coiling the cords. She wrote the TOD down on a clipboard dangling from the side of the gurney. “It was peaceful. I’ve seen worse.” She signed the form and folded it neatly, trimming the fold with her fingernails, sharpening the crease as she gazed down at the man. Robyn handed the paper to the nurse who had climbed in and now sat beside her.
“The patient was coherent when we picked him up,” she said, trying for an impersonal tone. It usually worked best. Maybe not today.
“Then he fainted, and we put him in the van. The hot dog guy at the park said this fellow’s name was Red. It’s ‘Ambrose’ on his driver’s, but I like ‘Red’ better.”
The nurse reached to touch Robyn’s sleeve. “Me too,” she said.
“He regained consciousness once more, but he was not sharp. We talked about the game he had been at. He said the old ballpark here reminded him of the places he had played as a young man, back on the Prairies. I said to him, just before he went into arrest, 'I used to love the smell of my old catcher's mitt when I played softball. The musty leather, you know?' He said he knew..."
The nurse nodded and after a few seconds, unfolded the form and signed it, her pen scratching in the silence of the ambulance interior; the needle on a record at the end of a song.
Mitchell Toews lives and writes at Jessica Lake in Manitoba. When an insufficient number of, "We are pleased to inform you..." emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between the top of the water and the bottom of the sky or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin.
Mitch's writing has appeared in riverbabble, CommuterLit, Fiction on the Web, Best of Fiction on the Web (2018), Literally Stories, Red Fez, SickLit, Voices Journal, The Machinery, Storgy, LingoBites, Work Magazine, The MOON magazine, Occulum, Rhubarb Magazine, Digging Through the Fat, Fictive Dream, Pulp Literature (publication date, TBA), and Blank Spaces (June 2018). Details at his website, Mitchellaneous.com.
Mitch is currently hard at work on a novel.
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