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FICTION

Part of the Game
By Roy Andrews

Carlton clipped apple tree blossoms while his son threw a baseball against a pitchback. Short and muscular, Carlton would tilt his head back, study the lush white blossoms overhead, then jab the clippers upward and sever the one he'd selected.

White flowers littered the ground when Carlton stopped pruning and stood watching his lanky thirteen-year-old son, Tyler, pitch. Tyler's body, though gangly, seemed to coalesce when he pitched. His high leg kick and loose, rubbery arm motion snapped in unison like a powerful whip. Anyone could see that his pitches had exceptional velocity. Repeatedly he slung the baseball and hit the strike zone, a box formed by red ribbon woven through the pitchback's elastic webbing. Each time the ball trampolined back he caught it.

Tyler seemed not to notice his father, so intense was his concentration, so smooth his rhythm, so complete and self-contained the dance of his pitching, until he became a little too nonchalant about catching the rebounding ball and dropped it. As he reached down for the ball, he saw his father watching him.

"Want to try and hit it?"

Carlton shrugged. "Guess I shouldn't."

Tyler smacked the ball in the pocket of his glove. "Scared?"

Carlton narrowed his eyes. He expanded his already large chest and said, "Scared you'll cry again like last year."

Tyler tugged his hat brim low, kicked the grass. "This year's different."

"You think so?"

"This year I'll overpower you."

Carlton grinned. "Big talk from a big boy." He tossed the clippers to the ground, in Tyler's direction. "Guess I can't walk away from that."

"I'm ready," said Tyler, though anyone could hear the quaver in his voice.

Carlton sauntered to home plate and picked up the aluminum bat beside it. He waved the bat like it weighed nothing, then took a gigantic practice swing. "Feels like the same bat I used last year."

Tyler frowned and turned away. He wiped his pitching hand on his gray sweatpants. He stretched his pitching arm upward.

"Ready, beanpole?" said Carlton. "You'll be pointing like that in a moment after I hit the ball."

"A pop-up?"

Carlton smirked. "Maybe we better close the shutters on the house. Maybe we better put a board over the top of the chimney."

"What are you planning to do, Dad, throw your bat at the house after I strike you out?"

"Give me your best stuff, kid. I can see you've improved."

Tyler held the ball in his glove just below eye level and stared at the pitchback. His hands lifted together over his head, his leg kicked high, and as his leg glided down, his pitching arm whipped forward. The ball shot past Carlton at chest height. Smiling, Carlton swung low and late. The ball trampolined back to Tyler, who caught it and scowled.

"You're not trying," said Tyler.

"Sure I am."

"You missed on purpose."

"I think your pitch overpowered me. You look good, son."

"And you look pathetic, Dad. You look like a geriatric trying to swat flies."

"Hey! What kind of talk is that? Careful, boy, or you'll rile me up."

"I could strike you out with my eyes closed."

Carlton licked his lips. "We'll see about that." He tapped home plate with the bat, took a ferocious practice swing, and crouched like a great lion ready to pounce.

Tyler wound and pitched, and his father's body seemed to explode—arms, legs, torso, twisting and driving, his head steady, everything focused on the incoming ball. But the baseball, searing in, rose at the last instant, and instead of colliding solidly with the bat, it ticked lightly and jumped upward and back into the leaves of low-hanging tree branches.

"Strike two," said Tyler in a blasČ voice.

"You were lucky, kid. I had a bead on that one. I could have hit it over the house."

"Sure, Dad. Could've, would've, should've."

"And will. I've got your pitch figured now."

They searched for the ball in the woods, and Carlton found it nestled under a log.

Tyler took extra long lining up his next pitch. Carlton took many small half swings, crouching at the plate, tense, ready, his eyes glaring with ferocious intensity. Tyler pitched and the ball was high and fast again, but not over the plate. Carlton collapsed, and the ball shot over him, right where his head had been a split second before. It missed the pitchback, skipped on the grass, and rustled into the woods.

"What the hell was that?" Carlton shouted, scrambling to his feet. He took several menacing strides toward Tyler, the bat cocked threateningly. "You could have hit me in the head."

Tyler shrugged. "If I wanted to hit you, Dad, I would have."

"You little punk!"

Tyler scratched his neck. "You don't have to get all bent out of shape, Dad."

"You ratty little punk."

"It's just part of the game."

"Like me coming out there and pummeling you with the bat?"

"If you don't want to play anymore, we can call it a draw."

"A draw?" Carlton scrunched his face, spat on the ground. "Can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Baseball never ends in a draw."

They searched for the ball, stomping through dead leaves under enormous maple trees, and Tyler, crawling under a young evergreen, found it.

"One ball, two strikes," said Tyler when they were ready again.

"I know the count."

Tyler stared in at the plate for a long time, while Carlton, red in the face, waved his bat in anticipation. Carlton finally put up a hand and stepped back.

"How about pitching sometime before Christmas?"

Tyler shrugged. "Pitcher sets the pace, Dad. That's what you taught me."

"If you don't pitch, you forfeit."

"I'm going to pitch."

"Sometime this century?"

"When I'm ready."

Carlton stepped back up to the plate, dug his feet into the lawn, crouched, and waved his bat. Tyler stared in over the webbing of his glove. Tyler wound and pitched, and Carlton began to swing high, where the earlier strikes had been, but instead of exploding with a powerful full swing, his face contorted as his body seized up in a desperate attempt to stop the forward momentum of the bat. The ball whizzed past him at his knees.

"Strike three!" shouted Tyler.

"Low," said Carlton.

"What?"

"Two and two."

"No way, Dad. That was a strike. Strike three at the knees. And you swung."

"I checked my swing."

"Oh, come on! You went all the way around and some."

Carlton wiped the sweat from his eyes. "A little low, kid. And I checked my swing. Two and two."

"Strike three, Dad. I overpowered you with my fastball."

Carlton wiped the sting from his eyes. "Are you going to pitch, punk, or whine and forfeit?"

"But I struck you out."

Carlton banged the plate with his bat. "Almost doesn't count in baseball, punk. Now pitch the goddamn ball."

"I know I struck you out."

Tyler, eyes squinted, lips quivering, turned away from his father and stared at the apple tree, the bright white blossoms on its highest branches, the many blossoms littered below it, or maybe beyond the tree to the little white house. His head bowed, his shoulders slumped, his face contorted, and then he was perfectly still for a moment. All signs of distress left him. He turned back to his father and with a lazy, careless motion lobbed the ball at the pitchback.

Carlton, taut and focused, trembled as he waited for the ball to reach the plate. When it finally arrived, he grunted as he swung. The aluminum bat chimed loudly as it connected with the baseball. The ball seemed to jackrabbit off the bat, then shot over Tyler, then sailed over the white blossoms on the apple tree's highest branches.

"Gone!" shouted Carlton. "Out of here!"

The ball landed on the roof of their little two-story house.

"Good-bye! Home run! Even farther than last year!"

The ball bounced high, then bounced again low, then rolled down the dark shingles and dropped into a lilac bush.

"Did you see that ball fly, kid? Did you see the way I clobbered it? That's the way to hit a baseball. That's power hitting. And hey, punk, that's what you get for all your cocky talk."

Carlton pointed a finger at Tyler to drive home the lesson but lowered his hand when he saw his son hiding his face in the webbing of his glove.

"Damn it!" said Carlton, and all signs of jubilation faded from his face.

He walked to his son, who turned away as he approached. He put a hand on Tyler's shoulder and said, "Hey! kid! Don't worry about it!" and he gave his son a shake and several rough pats on the back. "And for God's sake don't cry about it. Every pitcher gets beaten. That's part of the game."

Tyler lowered his glove. His face was deadpan, his eyes clear and bright, his cheeks dry. Instead of the distraught look of a pitcher who has just been beaten, there was the hint of a smile on the edges of his lips.

"You little punk!" said Carlton. "You little condescending punk! I should smack your bare bottom right now!"

"Good power in that swing for an old man," said Tyler, and when his father suddenly pushed him, he stumbled back, but just half a step, before regaining his balance and grinning.

—EFQ

 

ROY ANDREWS's short stories have appeared in various places, including The Larcom Review, The Adirondack Review, and broadcast on New Hampshire Public Radio. He lives in central New Hampshire, where baseball games are remarkably intense—some say because the season is so short.

© 2003 Roy Andrews

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