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FICTION

Stephen to Cora to Joe (or the Truth as I Know It)
By Rick Wilber

On a Sunday afternoon in September that threatened a downpour, in the top of the eighth of the last game of the season, with no one on and two outs and things pretty much looking okay, suddenly I couldn't find the strike zone.

Control tells you the truth about yourself. You go along thinking you know exactly where to place the ball and you're always getting it in there, and then suddenly you can't find the damn plate. Sliders that had painted the black just the inning before started missing wide or were down in the dirt, and my fastballósuch as it isólost the corners, coming in so fat I had to quit using it or risk someone coming back up the middle with a line drive and taking my head off.

I walked the first guy in the inning on four pitches, two of them way wide and two in the dirt. He was their number seven hitter and I'd gotten him out three other times on easy groundballs. Now I'd walked him on four straight. Steve, back behind the plate, was not happy about that.

As the batter trotted down to first, Steve came clanking out, the broken metal clasps of the cheap shinguards I'd bought him at the used sporting goods store rattling loosely. There was an ominous rumble of thunder from a squall line out over the bay. I looked that way, took a deep breath, tried to think my way through my control troubles by looking at the scenery. A rainbow was just forming, a thin arc of color emerging in front of the charcoal sheets of rain. Just a bit south of that, a huge mass of low blue-gray clouds boiled, the sky running from pewter to dangerous shades of green and black.

"Looks quite mean and low out there, David, don't it?" Steve said in that Bronx jargon he put on for laughs sometimes. "But, hully gee, I don't think she's blowing our way." He slipped his catcher's mask up on top of his head and then held the ball out to me, nestled in that wide Rawlings mitt I'd bought him. "So, ya mug," he added, "how ya feeling?"

I looked over toward the stands. Cora was there, watching us, wearing a Rays cap in our honor, and sitting up straight on the bleacher seat so I couldn't miss the tight scoop-neck T-shirt, those glossy sports shorts she likes, and her granny sunglasses set up on the top of that blond hair. She looked gorgeous. She saw me seeing her, gave me a quick wave of her hand, and smiled. Next to her on the grandstand bench was a small overnight bag. That, I thought, was a good indicator.

I turned to look at Steve. "I'm fine," I said. "Just lost it for a second there, that's all. It's been a long day."

Steve had seen where I was looking. "David, Cora's a real looker, got a real shape on her, she does." He grinned. "She's got everything an old fart like you could want, including that ample bosom, but if you don't start worrying about your pitching, I'll lam the head off ya. Got it? We're two runs in front and this is the bottom of their order. Just throw the old pellet in there and let them hit it, right? Let your fielders do their job."

I nodded. "Sure. Let them hit it." That plan, I thought, gave our defense more credit than it was due, but I didn't say that. It was always hard for me to argue with Steve.

He leaned in close, stared at me hard, eyes narrowing. "Don't be rum, David. We don't have anyone in relief. It's your game, win or lose, all right?"

"I'm fine, Steve. Really. Let's get this guy." I was tense, and he could sense it. He was good at that. He smiled. "Loosen up," he said, "and just throw strikes."

He turned to walk back, stopped, turned back. "Did I ever tell you what my friend Joseph said about America's love for baseball?"

I smiled back. "Joseph? Conrad? No, you never did." Steve loved telling those stories about his circle of friends when he lived in England: Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, H. G. Wells, Conradóthey were all his pals there at Brede Manor down in Sussex, south of London, in that last year of Steve's life as he slowly died from the consumption that destroyed his lungs. Must have been quite a group when they got together on a Saturday evening to drink, smoke, and play cards and listen to the rattle of Steve's cough.

I wanted to hear the story, but then the ump walked out and made us break it up and get back to the business at hand. I walked the next guy, too, and then gave up a double and a single before finding my nerve and settling back down with us a run down. We tied it up on Steve's single in the ninth before the squall line hit and the rain came down and everything got very confused.

I never did get to hear what Conrad had to say about baseball.

 

Her Upturned Face

I first met Cora on a Monday morning as I walked across campus from my office in the Arts Building to Cooper Hall, where I taught a 9 A.M. class in Fiction Writing 402, Advanced Techniques for the Short Story.

She sat on the low brick wall that marks the path between the two buildings, reading a thin, little book. She wore a tight T-shirt that showed off her breasts, a pair of plaid walking shorts, and those platform sandals that are so popular with the coeds these days. She had broad featuresóthere's nothing delicate about Coraówith that wide mouth and her red lipstick. It was too much makeup, but she wore it well.

As I walked by, she looked up at me; that beautiful upturned face, her eyes wide, those lips pouty and full. "Professor Holman?"

I just smiled at first. I'd been teaching a long time, and you develop a kind of immunity to the sexual displays of the typical undergraduate. But then, I swear it, she said this: "The burnt sky thundered its rejection of Sean's entreaty. Nature, inimical Nature, arched her back and hissed at him. Her claws were out. He felt small, and still shrinking. Great cracks of fury pounded him, reducing him, until he was gone."

My jaw must have dropped. "Wow," I said. "You've actually read that?" It was from "Hide the Monster," the title story from my thin little collection, part of my Big Break five years before: a two-book deal, the short-story collection with the novel to follow. The collection got some nice reviews in places that matter and sold well; the novel I'm almost done with and my agent and my editor love what they've seen of it.

"I love that story," she said, and held out the book she was reading. It was the collection. "I've memorized whole passages from these stories. Will you autograph the book for me?"

I laughed. "Does rain fall from the cracked sky? Hand that over, dear."

And I found out her name so I could sign: "To Cora Taylor, A Beautiful Reader." She giggled at that when she read it, then thanked me, said she thought the book was the best thing she'd read in years and that she'd been surprised to find I was teaching right here on campus. I thanked her again, and we kept talking. She flirted. I flirted back, and then met her for drinks a few hours later and we wound up in bed.

It was all very simple, very effortless. Have you ever noticed how all the best things seem to just fall into your lap and that the things you try for the hardest are the ones hardest to get? It's always been that way for me, and Cora was a perfect example. A girl like that? Wanting to bed a tired, old writer like me? It was laughable until it happened, and then it all seemed perfectly normal, like I knew what I was doing, like I had it all under control.

Active Service

There was a time when I could really play The Game. Pitcher for the national champs in college at Southern Illinois, four years in the minors after that in places like Paintsville, Kentucky, where I met Emily, the perfect girl for a young pitcher; and then in Lakeland, Florida, and Medford, Oregon, where I could show her off along with my skills. And then came my cup of coffee in The Show when the Cardinals called me up in September with the expanded roster and I got my shot. It didn't take me long to figure out that I was good, not great, on a pitching staff that took the Cards to the World Series. My career stats: no wins, two losses, an ERA of 4.05.

I was on the big league roster for spring training the next season but couldn't stick. Then I went down to Triple A and couldn't find the plate. Same at Double A and while I kept at it for another year or two after that, the two truths I discovered were these: the downslope is a slick one and twenty-eight is an old man for a minor leaguer. So before I was thirty, I had to face doing something with the rest of my life. I thought I'd make a good college coach, and that meant getting some degrees, so I went back to school, got one degree and then another and then still another while I got interested in words and how they're put together, and I started caring about writing. Baseballóthat other lifeódisappeared into my past until finally, on the day I sold my first short story to the Mississippi Review, I didn't pay attention to it anymore at all. It was fifteen years before I came back to it.

 

Fast Rode the Knight

Steve rowed up to practice the day I met him. We were two weeks away from our first game, and I was running in the outfield, trying to loosen up some old tendons and build up a little endurance at the same time. We play in an over-thirty league, all very amateur; doctors and lawyers and teachers and mechanics and salesmen and even one politician, a city councilman who has his eyes on the mayor's office. We all just play for the love of the game, but there's some real talent around too. My first baseman played in the minors, same for the shortstop. All four of our outfielders played college ball, and our one other pitcher, like me, even made it to the big leagues for a half-season or so. So while we're out here for fun, we take it seriously once the ump says play ball.

It was at the end of one halfhearted wind sprint that I stopped for a moment to look out past the left field foul pole toward the little harbor there and the bay beyond.

It was an absolutely perfect blue-sky day, the way it can be in Florida in the spring, the sun hot but not as deadly as it gets in July and August. Someone was out there in a rowboat, I noticed. I was happy for any excuse to stop and look for a minute or two instead of running those interminable halfhearted outfield wind sprints. You get to forty years old and getting into shape isn't the fun it used to be.

As I watched, the rise and dip of the oars and the boat's forward motion spent out a series of small whirlpools that bordered a peaceful wake, the bright sun bouncing off the tiny wavelets. It was mesmerizing, and I kept watching as the boat reached the dock and the guy inside tied it off, stepped out, started walking from the dock across the two-lane street to where I stood at the ballfield's low fence.

"You're playing base ball?" he asked. He looked a little lost.

I nodded, added "Yes. We're a semipro team, just play for fun."

He was thin, under six feet tall, had a small moustache, wild dark hair parted right down the middle and then pulled back behind each ear. He brushed back that dirty hair. "You need a player?" he asked. "I play a pretty decent catcher."

"Well," I hesitated. We had a lot of guys who tried out for the team, but the truth of the matter is that most people just can't play the game. We weren't some fantasy camp, where they coddle wannabees and give them uniforms and a chance to pretend. This wasn't slowpitch softball where everyone's a hitter and anyone can play. This was baseball. Hardball. The real thing.

But, on the other hand, we could always use a guy who could handle himself behind the plate. Truth was, nobody our age seemed to want to put on the tools of ignorance for more than a few innings, so this guy was worth a look. "Sure," I said, "c'mon on in and give it a shot."

And he did. And within the hour I knew we had the new catcher we needed. He was a natural, with a bullet arm, a great glove; a singles hitter but he always made contact.

He called himself Steve Crane, and I thought that was pretty funny, rowing up in an open boat and all that.

And then I realized he really meant it.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2003 issue.

—EFQ

 

RICK WILBER, a journalism professor at the University of South Florida, frequently writes about baseball when he isn't writing college textbooks. His baseball mystery novel, Rum Point, is forthcoming from Wildside Press and his novel, The Cold Road, will be published by Tor/Forge in June 2003. "Stephen to Cora to Joe" is from his collection of short stories and essays on baseball, Where Garagiola Waits (University of Tampa Press), a finalist for the inaugural 1999 Dave Moore Award.

© 2003 Rick Wilber

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