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FICTION

Five O'Clock Lightning
By Max Everhart

 

When I got the call that Dad had skipped out on his third period Algebra class and was down on the baseball diamond, shirtless and pitching golf balls at the P.E. teacher's head, I was in the middle of a session. Mrs. Milner, one of five patients I treated for nicotine addiction and obsessive behavior, saw the phone line blinking red and offered to step into the waiting room for some coffee. I straightened my tie, apologized for the interruption, and picked up the phone.

"What is it?"

Principal Bingham sighed, relayed the news in a gruff baritone.

"Jim's been acting weird lately. Today is just the . . . culmination. You know what I mean?"

I didn't have a clue what he meant. I'd called Dad the previous Sunday, and he sounded chipper. His cholesterol was under 170, and he wanted to drive down to Florida for spring training, maybe do some deep sea fishing between Braves' games.

I said, "I'm confused. How long has he been acting ‘weird'?"

"Couldn't say. I've been a golfing buddy of Jim's for more than twelve years now, and he's not the type to just snap."

I considered the word snap. My eye wandered and caught the "Stages of Anxiety" poster framed above my bookshelf. Sunlight broke through the blinds, made the words look like an eye chart.

Bingham said, "Maybe this is a late mid-life crisis. Jim turned fifty-three last month. Remember?"

"I remember." Leaning back in my chair, I put Bingham on hold and studied the appointments on my calendar, one by one. I remembered Dad had called the office on the twenty-first and asked me "to give the loonies the slip for a day." He wanted me to drive to Lexington—more than eighty miles—and celebrate his birthday with chopped barbecue sandwiches and ice-cold Cheerwine. I declined, citing work as an excuse. Instead of visiting, I mailed him a hardback copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia. Weighing in at four pounds, three ounces, the book contained the statistics of every player ever to play in the major leagues.

In 1972, "Big Jim" Tate made $94 a week pitching in the Carolina League. With a knuckleball that danced and a 12–1 record as a starter, Dad could have ended up in the Baseball Encyclopedia. But things happened. Vietnam. A young redhead. An unwanted pregnancy. Too much blood loss. Too many white roses on the living room mantle.

I circled the name of my next appointment, pressed the hold button blinking red, red, red. "What do you want me to do?" I said, and heard a chair squeak followed by a grunt.

"I want you to come to the school, damn it. I can see him out the window right now, kicking the pitching rubber and scaring the hell out of poor Mr. Hooker. All the kids are going to lunch soon. Everyone will see him."

Blood pumped in my ears. Dr. Rosenblatt, the man who made me a partner at Rosenblatt & Associates six months out of graduate school, always told me that shrinks need shrinks. At that moment, I pictured my mentor in Bermuda shorts and black socks, sitting on the screened-in porch of his house in Boca Raton parodying a sixties doper: "Relax, man." I located "Stage Four" on the anxiety chart, fight or flight, and thought of the positive statements I repeat to my patients with panic disorder. Don't fight it. Allow your mind to clutter, your heart to race.

Bingham said, "Come now, Dr. Tate. Jim's a damn good teacher and a friend of mine. I'm sure as hell not going to call the law."

I allowed my mind to clutter. I pictured the four-time Davidson County Teacher of the Year in handcuffs, a chubby beat cop struggling to shove all six feet five inches of my dad into the back seat of a squad car. I pressed the phone against my ear, looked out the window. Mrs. Milner was wobbling down the sidewalk on four-inch heels—head down, teeth chomping a mouthful of Nicorette gum.

"I'm on my way."

Speeding past the strip malls and clusters of ticky-tacky and fast food restaurants along I-40 West, I rolled down the window. The crisp March air stung my nose and cheeks. Dad calls this "pitching weather," a nip in the air that slows a hitter's bat down just enough to keep him oh-for-four on the day, to keep him muttering to himself and praying for warmer weather. Entering Durham County, the traffic thinned, and my brain wandered off. When I was a kid, Dad kept the box score for every televised Braves game. Stretched out on the La-Z-Boy, he'd grade pop quizzes and count balls and strikes while helping me learn my multiplication tables, how to tell the difference between a slider and a four-seam fastball.

"Math and baseball," he used to say, "The two things every man should know."

My nose started to drip. I switched lanes without signaling, and the memory of sitting in UNC-Chapel Hill's cathedral-like library as an undergraduate reading about Ty Cobb and Cy Young warmed my goose-bumped flesh. After a childhood filled with sports failures, the thing I learned to love about baseball—the thing that made me a lifelong fan—wasn't the smell of the grass or the crack of the bat. It was the cold hard math, the mental toughness the game requires. Get a base hit three out of ten times, you're a hero. Throw a ball ninety-five mph consistently for strikes and you're a legend. By my junior year of college I knew that Hugh Duffy hit .438 in 1894 and that Ed Walsh had the lowest career ERA at 1.82. I also, finally, had something to say when Dad came to visit.


The sight of Lexington High School's entrance, a gate painted maroon and white with a metal Viking standing guard, quickened my pulse. I parked the Volvo on the street by the third base dugout and turned off the engine. I concentrated on my breathing—in through the nose, out through the mouth—and opened the door.

Everything smelled cold and woodsy as I made my way through the grass and onto the red-clay infield. The sun shone high and bright, and a bone-chilling wind rattled the chain-link fence surrounding the baseball diamond. I felt ridiculous in my sport coat and Italian leather shoes. I hadn't been on a diamond in twenty years, not since Dad bought me a chemistry set in exchange for playing right field for the Orioles, the Little League team he'd coached to a division championship the year before. According to my journal from June '83, I committed thirteen errors and reached base once all season, an accidental bunt single.

I spotted Dad on the pitcher's mound and walked over, pausing long enough to wave at Mr. Hooker, windblown and shouldering a Louisville Slugger in the batter's box. Just as Principal Bingham had said, Dad wasn't wearing a shirt. Or pants. He wore bright orange swim trunks and a pair of red cleats with white stripes. In the three months since I'd last seen him, Dad had shed at least twenty pounds of flab in the middle, replaced it with solid muscle. His arms—especially the left, his pitching arm—appeared cartoon-like, forearms as sturdy as tree stumps, biceps as big as softballs. I studied his work space. By the pitching rubber sat an imitation leather briefcase spilling over with brand new Titleists. I stopped short of the mound, watched the steam rise off his hairy chest.

"Couldn't you find your old uniform?" I asked. "At least a shirt?" I'd caught him in the middle of his windup, an unorthodox motion complete with high leg-kick. Dad dropped the ball and flashed his yellow teeth.

"Well now, Doctor Simon Tate. I figured you might show up to see me come out of retirement."

He threw his arms around me, nearly breaking my spine. Somehow, I managed to wiggle free and ask him what throwing golf balls at defenseless colleagues had to do with coming out of retirement.

"Ah," he said, picking up a ball and chucking it towards home plate. Mr. Hooker, who'd just packed both cheeks with Copenhagen, ducked a little too late. The ball struck him on the back of the head, making a sound like an axe blade splitting wood. Dad poked me in the ribs, drew me back into his barrel chest covered in salt and pepper hair. He smelled as musty as a basement.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2008 issue.

—EFQ

MAX EVERHART holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Alabama-Birmingham and teaches American literature at Jefferson State Community College. His short stories and essays have been published in CutBank and Slow Trains literary journal, and he was a finalist in Glimmer Train's  Fall 2007 Short-Story Award for New Writers. "Five O'Clock Lightning" was written for his father, Dennis.

© 2008 Max Everhart

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