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BASEBALL FICTION

Batting Cleanup
By Ben Greenman

The Orioles got President Clinton, the Braves got Hank Aaron, and at Comiskey, Robin Williams, who was filming a movie in Hyde Park, was preparing to bring down the house with a round of wisecracks and the time-tried fake-windup routine. But the Cubs were on the road, opening against the Mets, and in New York the ceremonial first ball was escorted to the pitcher's mound by a cherub-cheeked boy who smiled shyly and gingerly transferred possession to eighty-three-year-old Annelise Howard Kimball, the only surviving child of New York sportswriting legend James Thurman Howard. "Thank you very much," said Ms. Kimball, her voice scratchy in the loudspeakers. "As Papa loved to say, bring on the heat." And she brought it on, coughing the ball three feet, maybe four, in the general direction of the catcher. The public-address announcer gamely bellowed "Steeeeerike!" The Shea crowd roared. The season had begun.

"Have you ever read J. T. Howard?" Steven asked. He was standing in front of the TV, partially blocking Boyce's view. Anne knelt in the far corner of the room, surveying Steven's bookshelf. Her nail ticked across the spines.

"Sure," Boyce said. "Remember you gave me Deep to Right? And I also have that book of essays about the war years, Fresh New Uniforms."

"Once he wrote this very equivocal, very lyrical Opening Day column," said Steven, who wrote uncomplicated, hardly lyrical sports columns for a Chicago weekly. "It was from late in his career, the 1948 season, I think. I've never seen it in the books, but my father memorized it. Memorized it then, I mean. He was only twelve."

"Are you going to keep it all to yourself?"

"I said my father memorized it, not me. But I know a little bit. Let me see. Okay, I know how it starts. Don't expect Melville, or even Spellman. But it's good for a working newspaperman. Ready?" He cleared his throat theatrically. "ėThe rapture is in them all, the glazed-over eyes of children, the rolled-up sleeves fresh from the tannery, the dying men whose souls are draining out. And the spring air is rich with the bone of the bat, the blood of the swing, the breath of the ball through time. The practice before the first game is the longest hour on earth. First comes the pitch, then the agony, then the pitch, then the agony. Thunder takes forever. This is not impatience, but love. This is not vanity, but beauty.'"

On the telephone the week before, Boyce had tried, with less grandiloquence, to explain as much to Anne, or at least enough to convince her to accept Steven's invitation. "I don't see how we can not do it," he had said. "He's taking me to the home opener over the weekend, and I think he'd be insulted if we didn't go over there for dinner."

"Do I have to go with you?" she said.

"You don't have to do anything," he said, "but I know he'd love to see you. And I would like you to be there also. It'll only be my second day in town."

"I know. That's why I don't understand why you've committed us to be somewhere. And sports, of all things."

"Anne, it's not just sports. You know Steven's not that naive. Talk to him about painting. Talk to him about symphonies. Talk to him about Freud. He can take it." Finally, Anne had assented, but without any promises of enthusiasm, and soon after they had arrived she fell asleep in a corner of the worn white couch, a biography of Giacometti open beside her.

The Cubs had stumbled to one of the worst records in baseball the year before, and though the new third baseman they had bought from Pittsburgh looked promising, no one was picking them higher than fourth. Never a club to exceed expectations—"poster boys for perennial mediocrity," Steven had called them in his season preview, which forecast a fourth-place finish—the Cubs folded early against the Mets. Trachsel surrendered a run in the first and another in the second, loaded the bases after a two-out error in the third, and then stood and watched like a condemned man as Todd Hundley hit a homer into the teeth of the wind. "Wonderful," said Steven, scribbling notes. "We should wake up Anne. It's rude to sleep at a funeral."

"I'm up," Anne said. "Who's winning?" She rubbed her eyes and ran a hand through her cropped white-blond hair, which was as even and vertical as comb's teeth.

"The Mets," said Boyce. "By a lot."

"The Cubs will probably open at home without a win," said Steven glumly. "Are you coming to the game Saturday, Anne?"

"No."

"When are you going to come with us to see a game?"

"Never."

"But the Giants will be in for a series the week after next, and then the Braves."

"I don't care."

"It's no use, Steve," Boyce said. "She really doesn't care. I was in San Francisco with her last summer and she didn't even know where the stadium was. Bury a Rodin in fifty acres of shaving cream and she'll find it, but mention baseball and she goes blank."

"Fifty acres of shaving cream?" said Anne.

"I'm just making a point," said Boyce.

For the two hours and twenty-nine minutes it lasted, the game was torture for the hapless Cubs. A line drive to the shortstop ended up rolling slowly into the outfield, as did a pickoff attempt from the catcher in which the throw sailed wide of first. The Mets scored their tenth run on a solo shot by Gilkey, and their eleventh on a hanging slider that Olerud cripple-shot over the left field wall. The TV announcers exhausted "rout" and switched to "shellacking." The fifth Cub pitcher, a rookie hopeful, tore his rotator cuff delivering a slider that was ripped to the wall for a double.

"Cub luck," Boyce mused. A black rubber plug in Steven's phone had come loose, and he was absorbed in the difficulty of extracting it from the seam of the armchair.

"This game is so sad," said Steven. Anne was asleep again, only ten pages more familiar with Giacometti. "Sadder than Cheever. But that's why I love it."

 

The same could be said for Boyce's relationship with Anne. When you haven't been paying attention to how much freedom you have, sometimes it comes as a shock. His January bank balance, thirteen thousand dollars to burn not including the three thousand in bonds that lay fattening in a bank in Baltimore, was the key to the whole tinderbox. He had decided to quit his reporting job and move to Chicago, where he could live with Anne and work on his fiction. Anne took to his plan enthusiastically. But he knew it wouldn't be easy to move in with someone, no matter how often he tried to set his mind at ease, no matter how often she did. She would have habits. He would have needs. Things would take time. He reminded himself of this repeatedly on the flight, as if the admission of certain collision would armor him against the impact.

Chicago was a huge brain, dense, gray, and powerful. Boyce had never been there before, but he felt as if he had, largely from his family's stories about a crazy relation who had bolted from Baltimore in 1926 to find his fortune in the Windy City. The young newspaperman had spent the train ride memorizing the downtown streets and the players on both ballclubs—Gabby Hartnett, Charlie Grimm, Sloppy Thurston, Bibb Falk, Pid Purdy—and with the names still swimming in his head, he patched together a new identity for himself. He would conquer the city not as Ray Divitsky but with the decidedly less ethnic (if comically front-loaded) moniker of Robinson Day. When Robinson's letters back to Baltimore began to report some success as a man about town and, as incredible as it must have seemed, a poet, Boyce's grandfather—then an eighteen-year-old auto mechanic starstruck by his glamorous city-mouse brother—had become Herman Day in homage. And when Robinson Day died drunk ten years later in a condemned West Side apartment, his poetry forgotten and his output reduced to hack feature-writing, Herman, who was more sentimental at twenty-eight than he had been at eighteen and would continue in that mawkish direction his entire life, not only kept the name Day but added the middle name Robinson and made a special trip west each year to put flowers on his black-sheep brother's gravestone. Boyce's own middle name was Pentz, after his mother's haberdasher father, and no matter what his fate in Chicago, he had no smitten brother to pay him tribute, only his kind, diffident sister, who was still in high school in Maryland, studying science and dreaming of doctorhood. He had recited this history breathlessly to Anne in a phone call the night before he arrived, shoehorning in a brief soliloquy about his final week of work and his plans for his first story, which would tell the tale of a quietly psychotic man dying as the millennium dwindled. "Is there any way you can call me back late tonight?" she had asked. "I hate to be rude, but I have to get out to the studio to do some work, especially since I have to take off the next few days."

"No," he had said, making no effort to conceal either his hurt or his guilt over that hurt. "No problem. Of course. I understand. I'll see you when I get in."

Anne's apartment was a fourth-floor studio in a quiet, leafy neighborhood. "It's only twenty-five minutes to downtown by bus," she said, "and I have a great supermarket just around the corner." Inside, the place was cluttered but spirited, exactly the way Anne's apartments always had been, with pages ripped from art magazines mounted on the walls alongside handwritten notes and enlarged Xeroxed fragments from favorite books. One of her paintings, a nude woman in a bathtub viewed from above, sat on the mantelpiece.

"Take a look at the presents I brought you," Boyce said. With a randy laugh, Anne reached for his belt. "No," he said, "in the bag." His voice emerged pinched and shrill.

"Sorry," she said. "I guess I jumped the gun. At the gun, actually." So they sat on the bed, Boyce with his unanswered questions and Anne with her antic eyes, and they opened the gifts: a bottle of Chateauneuf-Du-Pape burgundy, a pair of hand-carved ivory earrings, and a black silk scarf from Florence.

That first afternoon, they did not make love, just lay sideways on the bed, legs locked like the opposing blades of scissors. "This reminds me of an Ernst painting of two birds I once saw," Anne whispered. "It was in the National Gallery in Washington. They were kissing one another at the tips of the beaks." Boyce and Anne fell asleep breathing shallow welcomes into each other's mouths, and when the alarm clock jangled half-past seven, they felt lighthearted and content. They ate dinner in a Swedish cafe ("Making the exotic as bland as possible," he had joked) and rode the bus to the warehouse-like Et Gallery, where Anne's friends and rivals passed before Boyce in such quick succession that he later remembered nothing. While Boyce chatted amiably with a slender brunet printmaker, Anne, her eyes going liquid again with the complimentary rose, argued with a small man in a brown corduroy cap over Alex Katz. His work, she said, began with a flourish but ended in mid-boast. If they were cars, they'd rust out. If they were birds, they'd fall out of the sky. The man listened with a messy smile, stirring his wine with an index finger. From his vantage—he was standing inconspicuously in the shadow of a sheet-metal elephant—Boyce marveled at her. She wore her red dress like a fire. He explained this to her on the way home. The wine had gone to his head. "Mine, too," she said, as she unbuttoned his shirt in the elevator. Her dress was up around her waist while they were still in the hall.

Some women's contours direct you to their eyes, others to their shoulders and sloping backs, others still to the wide parentheses of their hips and the unspoken phrase contained within. Anne's rather angular features led outward, to her arms, and finally to her hands. The idea of her painting, this fascinated Boyce. He could not connect the short, solid girl beneath him—breasts large and low, pubic hair that crowded her crotch like golden filings massing round a magnet—with the majestic canvases that hung in her studio. Heavyset businessmen clutching cigarette lighters in pathological fists. Demure children absently, innocently, skimming uninitiated fingertips over their own smooth bodies. "All these people are inside me," she had told the small man at the opening, by way of explaining that while she painted from photographs, the works were not portraits, and in addition to finding the depth of her conviction admirable, Boyce had experienced a strange twinge of sexual jealousy, as though the man sitting on the bed or the girl lost in a swirl of vague green intended to box him out, to keep him from her bed. But as wistful as he felt beside her that night, deaf to whatever ghosts animated her hands, it was nothing compared to the emptiness of idly sitting around her apartment the next day, making indentations in the pile rug with the end of a Budweiser can, rereading the comics time and again as if intense scrutiny might reveal a fantastically satisfying subtext, turning on the television from boredom and turning it off minutes later for the same reason. He had started to scribble preliminary notes in a sketchbook Anne had loaned him, but after ten minutes he couldn't concentrate. His idea for the story seemed thin. He switched to another idea, one about a circus clown who loves a woman in the acrobatics troupe but despairs that she won't take him seriously as a suitor. "Just be patient," he said aloud. Things took time.


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2000 issue.

BEN GREENMAN is a writer and editor at the New Yorker. His fiction and journalism have appeared in a number of publications, including the Mississippi Review Web edition and Miami New Times. He lives in Brooklyn.

© 2000 Ben Greenman

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