By Lucas Shepherd
Buzzcut season: hot and sticky. We were playing the Red Oak Warriors, our division rivals, for a chance to go to state, and my son was up to bat. He played right field, shortstop, and even caught when need be, a regular utility man. I would’ve loved having him cover short for us, turning one-hoppers into double plays, but he wore a Red Oak jersey.
“Go Demons! Go Demons!”
The home crowd’s exorcism-like chant grew as Sean tapped his cleats with the barrel of his bat, standing just outside the batter’s box and mean-mugging our ace pitcher, Clyde Cope. Sean played terrific defense, but somehow that never translated into hitting the ball well. Before the divorce last year, before he went to live with his mom in Red Oak, I worked with him every day. For a while, I thought he simply wasn’t trying, upset at his parents for fighting so much. But that wasn’t it at all. When it came to batting, he just plain sucked.
As a team, the Red Oak Warriors also sucked. A terrible ball club, they lucked into an opportunity to go to state through mere circumstance: forfeits, rain cancelations, and the second and third place teams in our division being disqualified for a benches-clearing brawl that left one kid with a busted clavicle.
Our ace pitcher, Clyde Cope, shot me a look from the mound. I shuffled out more sunflower seeds even though my stomach hurt. The assistant coach, Jonathan, laid a hand on my shoulder.
“CC getting nervous about state, Big Mike?” he asked.
Jonathan was a clueless man of around twenty-eight, happily married, with two small kids that ran around the adjacent park. He volunteered because as a high-school senior, he’d led the Heritage Demons to great success. His name was on a banner draped underneath the press box windows. I wouldn’t consider him a friend, but he was the only adult that had asked about my divorce. I told him the same thing I told Sean: I didn’t really know why. These things just happen. Jonathan said, and I remember this as clear as day, “You always think you chew your food properly until one day you see whole kernels of corn in your crap.” It struck me as something equal parts profound and nonsensical.
“Clyde’s fine,” I said. “That’s my son up to bat.”
“Right, right,” he replied, blushing and checking the scorecard.
It was the top of the seventh, and Sean would be the final out, effectively ending the game. The few Red Oak fans that had traveled down to Heritage stood up, folded their lawn chairs, and tossed trash into an overflowing fifty-gallon drum. Only my ex-wife, Heather, stayed seated, her eyes hidden behind gaudy sunglasses. Heather wore a Warriors jersey with her maiden name on the back. Whenever she thought no one else was looking, she’d flip me off.
Red Oak had a decent starting pitcher, the sole reason they’d won a few games that season. We’d pegged him for three runs, two in the first and an insurance run in the sixth, and that was more than enough. It was 3-0. I almost felt sorry for Heather, who sat through many games, home and away. Red Oak truly never had a chance to win.
I gave Clyde hand signals: pitch it down the pipe, something hittable. No reason Sean should be their final out of the season. A nagging thought of Red Oak rallying back fluttered through my brain; every coach has doubts like that. I chased the unrealistic notion away.
The first pitch sailed across the plate. Sean chopped at it like he was hoeing weeds.
Clyde shuffled his feet and chewed his gum. He squinted at Sean, who, bless his heart, retained the fierce, steely gaze of his mother. My boy was thin; if he leaned against a house, you’d mistake him for a ladder. He had a tender heart, too. In sports, you have to be a killer. Eye black streaked down his face like thunderclouds gushing rain. I hoped it was from sweat and not tears. The Iowa afternoon attacked two-fold, with heat and humidity, the kind of day that makes you feel like you’re drowning in a whirlpool.
Sean missed another gimme, a half-speed pitch right across the plate.
“Time!” I shouted, jumping up. Sunflower seed shells piled on my lap sprinkled across the gravel floor.
I made for the pitching mound, hyper-aware of my gait because I felt my ex-wife’s eyes upon me, judging me. Heather said I walked like a caveman. This was during the fallout, but it still made me self-conscious.
Clyde nervously wiped his throwing hand on his jersey. Gum stuck to his braces in gray flecks. He started to speak but reconsidered.
“One more, Demons!” someone from the crowd yelled. “Strike ‘em out.”
Of ten thousand townsfolk, maybe fifty sat in the stands, mostly parents. No one cared much for baseball anymore; it was all football, football, football. Soccer’s a real up-and-comer. Basketball games sell out, because what else are you going to do in the depths of an Iowa winter? Part of me wished we sucked just so people would take interest again. It was funny: the men of Heritage only got fired up when they felt something was out of their control.
Clyde placed his glove over his mouth, concealing the lower half of his potato-shaped face. He looked like a train robber in one of those old Westerns my dad loved so much.
“Sorry, Coach Mike,” he said, voice muffled behind the glove. I could smell the oil and leather. “I’ve been pitching it to him just like you said, but he couldn’t hit a beach ball. No offense, Coach Mike.”
“I’m never offended by the truth,” I said, a meaningless platitude that felt forced. I sighed. “Just…get him on base, Clyde. Okay?”
“If you have to,” I said. “Cripes.”
I returned to the dugout, waving off my assistant coach as he tried giving me the sunflower seed bag.
“CC okay out there, Big Mike?”
I grunted affirmation. Four wild pitches later, Sean was on first base.
“Good eye, Sean!” my ex-wife called out. She bought it hook, line, and sinker. I thought perhaps Clyde was being too obvious, but it didn’t seem that way to Heather. Or maybe belief is a willful sort of beast.
Clyde’s next pitch struck the Red Oak batter’s helmet, a plunking sound that echoed all the way in the dugout. I cringed and ran out, but the batter was okay. In fact, he looked rather pleased with himself: I took it like a man!
“First base,” said the umpire, helping the kid to his feet.
The ump turned to me. We knew each other, but I could never remember if his name was Phillip or Peter and I was afraid to guess.
“What are you trying to pull, Big Mike? You’re up three in the last inning. Okay, walk your son, I get it, but another bean ball and I’ll toss your pitcher. I’ll toss you as well.”
“Geez,” I said, “so he let one slip. Calm down. We’ve been to state four years running; we’re not putting that on the line.”
“Let’s not let things get out of control,” he said through his webbed mask.
I frowned and went to discuss things with Clyde. He insisted that he’d momentarily lost ball control. The implication, laid on thick by Clyde, being that he couldn’t find his pitch because I’d thrown off his rhythm with my intentional walk request.
“I’m fine now,” he promised.
“You made your point,” I said, a little pissed since I didn’t 100% believe him. I figured he was just spiting me. But weird things do happen in baseball. I’ve seen it all. A hawk dive-bombing a surefire home run, mistaking the ball for a pigeon, and turning the homer into an easily caught popup. Games called on account of rain, but when you get to the parking lot, the bus and all the cars are bone dry; it only rained on the field. One season, we played a private school near Des Moines whose fans had crafted voodoo dolls of all our players. Whether the effects were physical or mental, their sorcery bugged us so badly we lost ten-zip and vowed never to return.
“I could get Benson warmed up,” I offered.
“Benson sucks,” said Clyde. “Ever since he got laid, he doesn’t care about pitching.”
“Priorities,” I said, trying to provoke a laugh. But my joke made us both uncomfortable, and after a couple spirited go-get-’ems and whatnot, I returned to the dugout.
“What was all that about?” asked Jonathan. He tossed a thumb down the row of Demon players, where Benson sat at the far end. “Wanna warm up Benson?”
“No,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it all under control.”
Clyde walked the next two batters. Sean, triumphant as he stomped on home plate, immediately ran to hug his mother. She burst into tears and kissed his forehead.
By the time I got Benson in there, it was too late. They took the lead on us, 4-3. Our three batters, the heart of the Demon lineup, were too shocked to do anything about it in the final half inning. Two paltry grounders, and then Sean, covering right field, caught the final out. The smack of his glove punctuated our defeat.
“Hell,” said Jonathan.
He was poleaxed. Probably I was too; it happened so fast. A few heckles murmured from the crowd, but nothing overly vicious. I suspected the parents were all satisfied to have a moderately successful Heritage Demons baseball season in the books. Now their sons could concentrate on football, a real man’s sport.
Before I could reach my Silverado, Heather cut me off. She stood up on a concrete parking bumper that crumbled like old cookies. With the boost in height, we stood eye to eye. Her red hair shone in the late afternoon light. I wondered where Sean was, but didn’t ask.
I scraped some concrete chunks with my sneaker. “Here to rub it in?”
“Mike,” she said, her voice filled with an excitement I’d not heard in over a year. “You’ve changed, Mike.”
At first, I thought she was needling me. I searched for clues: chin tilted up, hand on left hip, dry skin on her bottom lip curling out like flower petals. She was a difficult woman to read, which was why I loved her.
“We could all go out for pizza tonight,” she suggested. “Paul Revere’s has a special. Buy one, get one half off.”
“That’s a pretty good deal,” I said, “but I’m sure Sean wants to celebrate with his team. They’re going to state, you know.”
She winked. “So I’ve heard.”
Paul Revere’s had great supreme pizza, but it was a helluva drive to Red Oak. Oh well. Jonathan said sure, he’d console the team. He was a good friend, or maybe just a decent assistant coach. I followed Heather and Sean. Sean drove her rusty red Corolla; it seemed like Hot Wheels to Driver’s License occurred in the blink of an eye.
I wondered if I’d changed like Heather had said, because I certainly hadn’t made any effort. Who knew what change even meant in a town as stagnant as Heritage. I used to play baseball for the Demons when I was Sean’s age. I was good, not great. When we had a man on second or third, no outs, the coach would signal me to hit a sac fly to deep left and bring the runner home. Occasionally, I’d get a good crack and the ball would sail over the fence, bounce a few times, and roll to a stop.
Lucas Shepherd’s creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, Aldous Huxley Annual, Colere, Rockhurst Review, Buck Off Magazine, Little Village Magazine, Daily Palette, Neon, and Sliver of Stone. He is an MFA student at the University of New Mexico. Most recently, he was the 2015 fiction judge for Scribendi’s Western Regional Honors Council Awards. He is now completing a novel, West by Midwest, about demolition derby and redemption.