Carl Oberst and Marie Carmichael were having an affair.
They thought nobody knew, and the feeling of having an illicit secret made their meetings even more exciting as they slid and slithered over each other in the back of a car in a secluded corner of the baseball diamond parking lot. They also sometimes fucked in the disabled bathroom which was on the other side of the power shed and so just hidden enough for them to enter and depart without being seen. They even had a secret knock, and would grunt quiet obscenities at each other as they rutted. They were having fun.
But there are no secrets.
Even David felt, as he looked up into his coach’s face at practices and during games, that something funny was going on. David played first base and left-field, but mostly found himself sitting on the bench during games. He wasn’t coach Oberst’s son, you see. Nor was he Mrs. Carmichael’s son. Mrs. Carmichael’s son, Jordan, was skinny and blond, with blue eyes and a charming dimple in his chin. He wore a little gold hoop earring in his left ear, and was by all rights a pretty cool kid, apart from being a bit gangly looking and physically awkward.
You see, Jordan also played first base and left-field. He wasn’t bad at either of these positions, but his mother was fucking the coach, so it didn’t much matter that David was better. Except, of course, to David. But David didn’t know about Marie and Coach Oberst’s affair, and wouldn’t find out for another 20 years. What David did know was that someone he was better at baseball than was always on the field while he was always on the bench. So he began to wonder, if I’m good at baseball but I’m also not allowed to play, then what else must be wrong with me?
But not consciously, of course. He was no more aware of this question than he was that he was also finding answers. But not consciously, of course.
The most convincing of these answers was, ‘I just think I’m a good first-baseman and left-fielder, but really I’m terrible. So really, people are just being nice to me by letting me be on the team and come to practices because they pity me for being so bad.’
Wait, where was I?
The team did very well, generally. All of the boys on the team had their respective talents; some were fast runners, some could throw the ball prodigious distances, and some could hit it even further — and coach Oberst used these abilities wisely and developed a strategy which helped them win the majority of their games. They played in regional tournaments, and if they didn’t win, they almost always made it to the finals, which itself is no mean feat. It was strange to wonder, though, 20 years later, as David looked at a photo taken after one of these winning games: why did he alone, standing on the edge of the small crowd of proud and elated boys, look so terribly unenthusiastic about the little plastic trophy he held in his hand? There, for example, was Jordan, blond and beautiful, a sumptuous grin spread across his face, laid out across home plate with his head propped up on one hand, looking a bit woozy, but nevertheless happier and prouder than any kid could possibly look. And it wasn’t until the next week, when over dinner David’s mother told him about the “relationship” between Coach Oberst and Marie Carmichael, that the penny dropped. And as he contemplated this thought that evening after dinner, he realized something of monumental importance.
But I digress.
One clear-blue-sky sunny day in July, just an hour after the emerald green outfield had been mowed and the air was thick with the heady sweetness of eviscerated grass, the ball was pitched, and hit. It arced wide out into left field. Jordan was there, ready. He saw the ball coming his way, lost it in the glare of the sun, found it again, and began to run. He kept pace, eyes on the ball, running in that odd way that only outfielders have to – body turned away from home place, head craned up and back over their shoulder. The ball passed its apex and began to descend quickly, with Jordan striding apace underneath, looking like he might just get it. But alas, it scooted over for a home run, just an inch above the top of the fence. Jordan, on the other hand, hit the middle of the fence at top speed. He fell hard to the ground, got up almost immediately, took a few steps, stumbled, and fell again. Coach Oberst and the rest of his team rushed over to help Jordan, who, once revived, wobbled woozily back to the bench, arms over the shoulders of two supporting teammates.
It was clear that he wouldn’t be able to play again that day, so Coach Oberst turned to David, who as usual had until this point spent the whole game on the bench, and said, “You’re in. Left field. Let’s go.”
This was it. This was his chance. Finally.
Churned up and spurred on both by the confusing brutality of his teammate’s violent and painful accident, and his own excitement that he was at last getting a chance to play in a game, David’s heart ra-ta-ta-tatted with a strange energy as his feet thump-a-thump-thumped him out across the grey gravel of the diamond and into the left corner of the outfield.
He turned towards home plate and hunched forwards in a half-crouch and rested his forearms on his thighs, as only baseball players do. He dug his cleated shoes into the soft grass and pounded his fist into the palm of his leather outfielder’s glove, as only baseball players do. He was so ready to show that he deserved to be out there. All he had to do was wait for his chance, the one pitch that the batter could really get his bat under and crank it out in David’s direction. It was going to be great.
The inning ended with an easy grounder and a strikeout and only as he was trotting back to the bench did he realize that Jordan was supposed to have been next up to bat. Which meant that David was next up to bat, right here, right now, at the top of the last inning of the game. And it was only as he stood in the batter’s box, his bat up, waiting for the pitcher to begin his windup that he began to feel nervous. The pitcher leaned back, pulled his leg up and twisted away, cocked his arm, untwisted, and threw!
The ball was past him before David could even start his swing. Strike one.
His hands began to sweat and his knees to shake. Again the pitcher stepped, twisted, threw, but this time David saw the ball arcing away out of the strike zone and checked his swing just in time.
One and one.
The next pitch was another fast one, straight down the middle, but somehow David saw it through the defocused haze of his nervousness and managed to get his bat around far enough to clip it out for a foul ball.
Two and one.
The bat seemed to squirm in David’s hand like a de-thawing rattlesnake. His teeth chattered. The mixture of the dusty batters box and the oppressive cloying stench of mutilated grass displaced all of the oxygen in his lungs. The eyes of the people in the stands, on the other team and on his own jabbed and stabbed and drilled into him from every side. Only the sound of the ball hitting dead-center in the catcher’s glove and the umpire’s “Three strikes. You’re OUT!” were enough to break him out of his anxious daze. He saw the triumphant smirk on the pitcher’s face; he saw his coach’s hand-over-face-dropped-in-shame, he saw his teammates’ irritated glares; and felt that feeling in his chest for which he knew no description except that it always came right before the tears came pouring out of his eyes.
David walked to the bench, sat down, put his bat back into his bag, and cried.
He cried through the rest of his team’s round at bat. He cried as his feet thump-a-thump-thumped him out across the grey gravel of the diamond and into the left corner of the outfield a million miles from anywhere he wanted to be. He cried through the rest of the inning and the end of the game.
His team had won, but that didn’t matter. He had proven to himself and everyone else that he was exactly as useless as they all had known he always had been. All of the time at practices, all of the tickets bought for blue jays games, all of the baseball cards he had collect, it was all for nothing.
Eventually, the tears stopped, and David, puffy eyed and dejected, walked with the rest of his teammates back out to home plate where they shook hands with their opponents and then lined up to have their pictures taken with their little plastic trophies. He barely noticed the excited chatter of his teammates and coaches around him. He hardly registered the flash of the camera.
There was nothing inside him but the will to get away.
Finally the team dispersed, each kid gathering up his various bits of gear, and then came the parents, gathering up their various children. David was eventually found by his mother and bundled into the car. The sun had just come down to tickle to top of the treeline as David and his mother pulled out of the parking lot for the last time and never came back.