“Stepping Up to the Plate” by Brad Windhauser

Issue 10 / Summer 2017

 

The veteran relief pitcher worried the ball with his fingers, shaking off every sign the catcher offered. Soon, if this guy didn’t get something going, Roger was going to have to DVR the game. Fantastic. Littering his newish apartment, his boxes’ battered flaps beckoned. At least the TV was set up. Sure, he was living like a player who’d been shipped out at the trade deadline, but why bother unpacking if you thought your present team didn’t plan on keeping you? Sam could always change his mind.

The top of the eighth, game tied. Roger didn’t need this stress so early in the season. He also didn’t need Steven texting him: “Didn’t know your ‘kid’ was playing” when Roger bailed on watching the game together. Daniel—in that soon-to-be-a-teenager awkward, cracking voice—had invited him, and whether it was out of a sense of obligation or not, Roger wouldn’t miss it. Thinking about the stepson he hadn’t seen in six weeks now, Roger wondered how much the boy knew. Was he old enough to know about their underwater mortgage (now Sam’s problem), the car which needed a new transmission, the dog that would (perhaps if things didn’t change) need to be shuttled back and forth between two homes? At least Sam had waited to deliver those official-looking papers with their stupid highlighted Xs and arrows. Had he and Daniel had that conversation?

Now the catcher trotted toward the mound—seriously, how hard can it be to communicate with another human being when you have four—four—signs to run through? He thought of missing Dan’s first at-bat. Snatching the remote, he hit record, killed the TV, then grabbed his keys, the ones with the Lego Stormtrooper keychain Dan gave him last Christmas.

 

When Roger reached the field’s parking lot, his heart was racing. He opened his door and slowed his breathing. If he seemed rushed, he’d appear late, but, calm, he’d seem to have arrived when planned. Locking his car door, he heard the strike called. Dan’s little teammate was eyeing the plate as if he were gazing over the side of a skyscraper. Hopefully, no one in the stands was monitoring the Phillies, for he didn’t want the game spoiled until he had had time to catch up on his own.

Where was Sam? People were clustered in pairs all over the stands. There, on the opposite side, two rows up, leaning forward on his elbows. A loud aluminum bat ping followed by a ball floating over the first base fence toward the parked cars. A parent yelled, “You can do it, Jimmy.” Why not tell the kid to check his swing when the ball wasn’t near the strike zone?

In the dugout, the paunch-bellied coach spit sunflower seeds into the dirt. Players fussed with the straps on their gloves. In the on-deck circle, he just noticed, Dan was swinging. His baggy jersey rippled with each swing, his dirty-blond hair poking out of his scuffed helmet. Pull up those scrunched stirrups before getting in the batter’s box, kid. Roger cracked his knuckles and scratched at the annoying tan line on his naked ring finger. Sam made eye contact, and nodded slightly. Wonderful.

“Strike three!” the ump bellowed, then thrust his hand like he was starting a chainsaw. The poor kid sulked toward the dugout. Dan patted him on the shoulder as they passed. In the batter’s box, Dan hunkered down. As the pitcher wound up, Roger dashed up the bleachers and scooted across the row. “Sorry, sorry,” he said, though no one seemed to mind his intrusion, including Sam.

“Come on, Dan,” Roger called.

As the innings came and went, he wondered how the Phillies game had ended. Thankfully, Sam had been civil, even offering his bottled water between the third and fourth innings. He looked worn. Maybe he was thinking about the papers. Maybe he too was having second thoughts. In center field, Dan smacked his glove.

Then, in the top of the eighth, Sam roused. “I’m going for food, you want anything?” While his hands twisted a folded dollar bill, those eyes waited for an answer to a question he hadn’t gotten around to asking. His smoky brown eyes softened. Roger wanted to reach out and caress the coarse skin on the back of his neck, the place where Sam had always refused to put sunscreen. He smiled in that soft way when bad news is just around the corner. The sun suddenly felt blistering on Roger’s scalp. He should have worn the hat.

His stomach rumbled. “Yeah, actually, can you get me nachos? Please tell them to go easy on the cheese.” He winced, waiting for the eye roll. Can’t you just order the way it comes and deal with it? could not have been far from those lips. But he nodded and then placed his hand on his knee as he descended the bleachers.

“Ball two,” the ump called.

 

The night Sam’d kicked him out—fine, asked him to leave—Roger fidgeted on Steven’s couch like he was trapped in a straitjacket. The sad blanket suitable for a five-year-old left his toes exposed on the scratchy cushions, the ones so stained with beer and pizza grease they resembled kindergarten art projects magneted to the refrigerator. Which was why he’d kept his jeans on.

“I need to be with someone who knows what he wants, Roger,” Sam’s voice had announced, but his body language was telegraphing: Just tell me you’re up to this. And yet Roger just balked and stepped out the door.

Stephen’s backyard light kept turning off and on—Damn motion sensor. A cat trotted along the fence. Watching the agile cat nimbly navigate the uneven fence, Roger thought about his parents. His whole married life, Dad came home at a decent hour from his job at the water company. Mom worked at an airline corporate office. The house, always put together, food always ready at some point. In the fall, he and Dad would be in the yard. Work must get done before baseball. Dried leaves littered the grass but soon found their way into large black trash bags. Roger had done well in high school, college, worked hard to play ball and study. Eventually he recognized that his consistent-but-not-all-that-strong swing and average fielding weren’t good enough for the big leagues—some dreams are not practical. So he adjusted his life expectations. When he got his first sales job, he could cut back on his credit card spending, buy matching furniture, attend more happy hours. Adulting, as it were.

Then he met Sam at a summer party. With worn loafers, tucked-in polo, hair cropped close to stem the receding hairline, he was definitely older, perhaps more settled than Roger was looking to be. But he held his beer with only the tips of his fingers as if it didn’t matter if he dropped it, and seeing him reclined on that lounge chair poolside, the party in full-swing around him, Roger started a conversation. After their fourth date, as they held hands, walking the bike trail along the Schuylkill. Roger flinched when Sam turned his confident head and came right out with, “I’m Daniel’s father, but he needs a dad. The man in my life will fill that role.” He’d never looked sexier with his salt and pepper goatee.

There’d been a vague dream of parenthood for Roger, but he was wise enough to understand the many hurdles, roadblocks for someone like him. But here was this offer, with this wonderful man. Built-in family. So what if there was an eleven-year age difference?

 

“Take your base,” the ump barked.

“Come on, keep the ball down, son,” the opposing team’s coach ordered. His incessant clapping was irritating.

At the snack stand, Sam inched toward the counter. Why had he gotten so hungry all of a sudden? From first, Dan smiled and waved. Roger gave a spirited thumbs-up and Dan looked away. Great, he probably embarrassed his son.

His son.

 

Six-year-old Dan tugged at Roger’s arm. Relaxing in his first Father’s Day present—the brown, cracked leather chair from Restoration Hardware—he had been sipping a microbrew, watching the Sunday afternoon game. “Will you practice with me?” Dan had a blazing white ball in his little right hand. Roger smiled.

In the backyard, he positioned Dan’s back to the house—the last thing they needed was an errant ball through a window. Crouching, he raised Dan’s right hand, positioned the fingers between the ball’s stitches, and lifted the arm.

“Loosen this death grip you have going.” Dan giggled. “All right, now. The key to throwing is to know when to release the ball. You’ll wind up this arm here and, as you bring the arm down, you’ll let go of it once it’s about level with your shoulder. Make sense?” Dan nodded. “Give it a toss.”

He ducked. Thud against their wood fence. Dan retrieved the ball. A few smacks more to the fence and Roger grabbed his glove. By the kitchen door, Sam leaned against the wall, smiling, as if his tow truck had finally arrived.

Daniel’s first t-ball game, he tagged a ball past the shortstop and Roger’s heart swelled. He rounded first and slipped as he hit the brakes. Clutching Sam’s hand, he knew he couldn’t be responsible for the kid’s brains or his looks or his general disposition, but he could teach him the game. His ready-made family coalesced. “Nice hit, Dan,” he yelled.

Two seasons later, he guided Dan’s broadening-though-still-boney shoulders. “Here, set your feet like this.” The dried leaves squished into the backyard’s damp grass.

“Don’t fight it.” Roger jostled his shoulders. “That’s better. Now, pick up your bat.” The shoulders slumped. “This will help, trust me.” The eyes were hollow.

“My coach said I was doing fine. They wouldn’t have asked me to jump up to the Intermediates if I wasn’t good, would they?” The crimp in the voice stung. What about the pressure playing with those older kids, Sam had worried. Once he found his confidence at the plate, he’d be fine, right? He was only a year (okay, in some cases two) younger than the other kids, but the kid had talent. He just needed a little push, right?

“You are good. You could be even better. That’s all.” He stood back and lined the shoulders like they were a stubborn set of scales. “Okay, now, when you swing, you will carry your bat through the ball, rotating your hips with the swing. This is where your power comes from, down here.” He patted the hip. “Got it?”

He nodded the way kids do when they don’t but want you to shut up.

“Why aren’t we using a real ball again?”

“Because if you hit it right, you will either nail me or launch it into someone else’s yard.” Roger backed up ten paces. “Now, keep your head down, eye on the ball.” Roger lobbed the Wiffle Ball. As the ball drifted toward the little bat, which was moving too soon for the ball that was not close enough, he had a great idea.

Roger felt empowered using his credit card to buy their three Phillies tickets. Seeing as how Sam made so much more than Roger, he—as Sam repeated over and over—did not see why they should have to split expenses. They were a couple, and this was what couples did, he said, smiling, his tone soothing. Still, although Roger had been paying down his debt and student loans, he finally felt like he was contributing. The added benefit was being able to “surprise” Sam with the excursion, which even he recognized was a not-so-subtle way of getting around his permission. The smile he received when Roger announced the outing told him he had done good, though, and as they excused themselves to the middle of the third row in the 300s section of Citizens Bank Park, Roger couldn’t pretend he was more excited than he realized he would—or perhaps should—be. Dan had never been to a game.

The stands filled. In front of them, a family of four. The father moved his young daughter onto his lap, pointed to players in the field while her head nodded every so often right before his finger moved. Next to him, the mother smiled as she wiped the other child’s face free of chocolate. Roger remembered those rare times when his parents would bring him and his brother to a game, usually on a Saturday afternoon, spend the innings keeping track in their own scorebook, Cracker Jack residue on his fingers, popcorn kernel shells jammed between his teeth, his parents holding hands on the way to the car in the parking lot, sitting through traffic on their way home to Mom’s famous beer-can chicken and Dad’s lumpy mashed potatoes.

Roger grinned, and then looked at Sam, who wrapped his arm around Dan’s shoulders. For the next few innings, Dan followed every ball, occasionally tapped Sam’s knee and pointed at a great catch. Sam chuckled and nodded, and when the boy asked a question, Sam nodded toward Roger and said, “Ask your father.” Occasionally, Sam leaned over Dan and asked about why a player held onto the ball or a runner held at second when the center fielder fielded the hard bounce. Normally when a game was on in the den, Sam would leave the room. When the beer guy made his round, Roger ordered two Miller Lites, but Sam gave the typical look that communicated rather effectively: You must be kidding. Roger saved the second one for himself. He almost took out his phone to see if any of his friends were also in attendance, but when he watched Sam and Dan share a bag of peanuts, he didn’t bother. He also told himself he didn’t mind that, after the sixth inning, Sam leaned over when he raised his hand for another beer and asked: “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

 

In Dan’s game—the opposing catcher lunged for a wild pitch and saved it from the backstop, which sent Dan back to first, perhaps realizing that an attempt at stealing second would get him thrown out.

Roger wondered if things would have turned out differently if he hadn’t responded to that damn text of Steven’s: Get your ass to Chris’ on Friday night for cards. Standing in front of his open underwear and sock drawer that night weighing whether he should go or not, he had studied the straight line that would have made his geometry teacher marvel: his briefs, folded in crisp thirds, arranged so the waistband of one touched the opposite end of another. An engineering project for Sam, apparently. He almost didn’t want to pull out a pair, lest he disturb the alternating pattern. His ring itched.

So it was with a bit of uncertainty—as if he were touching a sore spot that might actually be an injury—that he watched Chris shuffle. “Gentlemen, a little five card stud to begin.” Twenties flew toward Steven, who returned chips. Roger dusted off the chair’s cushion, which Kory’s cat had tattered, and sat, oddly soothed knowing that Sam would have cringed at the sight. Roger tossed in a hundred, feeling a ping that he was spending part of his portion of next year’s trip down the coast. Budget or no budget, he’d milk this night as long as he could. Roger felt like he’d just been traded to a team headed for the playoffs. The cards were dealt.

The hours dwindled, the game wrapped, and Roger was sleepy. “Are we out?” Steven dished out cash. Roger got back $86. An Old City bar beckoned. Heartburn collected in his chest. Sam was probably crashed out, right? Kory tucked his polo into his jeans and Chris dabbed his wrists with cologne. The bar would be packed, alive with energy. He’d better head home.

As the gang laughed themselves into a Range Rover, a lot of “I told you he wouldn’t come” and “What a bitch” volleyed Roger’s way. The right decision nagged like a toothache.

At home, the dim hall light crackling overhead, Roger watched his son sleep. Gently snoring. His stomach pinched, and not just because of what was fighting to launch from his throat. Stumbling toward the bathroom, he was vaguely conscious of the effort to be quiet. Sam’d be pissed if he was woken up. In the bathroom, he slumped to the floor, jerked up the toilet seat, and when a whiff of vanilla bowl cleaner ambushed him, Roger emptied his stomach. He wiped the pretzel chunks and beer film from his mouth before drifting to the sink and then medicine cabinet. The cover to the ibuprofen bottle was being a son of a bitch.

He slinked into bed and Sam yanked the sheets like he were having a bad dream.

Should he touch his back? “I love you,” he whispered, and he smelled his own puke, his stale beer breath. Sam coughed and started gently snoring. The rest of the night he hated every imperfect peak and valley of that fucking cheesy plaster ceiling, though he wished it would stop tilting so god damn much. The longer he stared, the more it moved.

In the morning—okay, really afternoon—when he slunk into the kitchen, Sam didn’t look up from his paper. He eyed the clock. Then he looked closer. He’d slept through Daniel’s morning game. Sam turned the paper’s page and clicked his pen. A whole plate full of crispy bacon sounded critically important, but best not to ask if they had any. He eased into a chair.

“Uh, do you want to go the movies today?”

Sam shrugged, keeping his eyes on the crossword puzzle. The woodpecker working in his brain handed the duties over to a jackhammer. His stomach dropped.

“How about renting a movie and doing a pizza night?”

“We’ll see.” Sam’s head didn’t move.

 

Dan’s team was working on a rally. His teammate bunted a pitch down the base line, sending Dan to third. The catcher and third baseman followed the dribbling ball, which slowed halfway up the chalk. They watched it stop fair. Sam appeared behind him and handed him a basket of nachos smothered in cheese and jalapeños. “Thank you,” he said. Those poor drowning chips. “Dan might score.” The team had been down by a run since the fifth. They each grabbed a chip and chomped. He offered Roger a napkin, which he took.

“You know he loves when you come to these games.”

“I wouldn’t miss ‘em.” He still had a right to come to these games, right? A dab of cheese hung at the corner of Sam’s mouth, and when Roger swiped it with his pinkie, he flinched.

“Thanks.” He swirled a pocket of cheese then took a deep breath. “Do you think you will come to more this season?”

Roger’s heart raced. With a shaky voice, he said, “Yeah, I’d like to.”

“Okay.” His voice wavered. The next batter flied out to center and Dan trotted back to the safety of third base. Sam chomped on another chip. He swallowed and then took a deep breath. “Just so you know, I’ve been dating.”

There it was, the afternoon’s hanging pitch.

“Oh.” Roger felt like a batter who’d just watched a ball float down the middle of the plate.

“Yeah, so…” He bunched his napkin like it was a tissue at a funeral. “So.”

The next batter struck out, ending the inning.

 

Still as a losing team’s locker room, the apartment felt large. Gone. Dan. Sam. He plopped onto the couch.

He blinked. He swallowed. His eyes tightened. He bit his nail. He ran his tongue along the grooves in his bottom-row molars, stopping at his crown, probing the tooth to see if, against all logic, true feeling had returned, and then canvassed the top row. His eyes bounced between the boxes. The boxes. He stood.

He dug out family pictures—he, Sam, and Dan at the Phillies game. On Dan’s head, a green plastic Phanatic hat engulfing his little head. He walked it to the end table, swiped the dusty glass, and then situated the frame as if he was angling a mirror to catch sunlight. He returned to that same box, where he found one of Dan’s trophies—the one from Intermediates, the one season where his walk-off home run had won them the championship. He clutched the hard, cold plastic. He’d been just a little squirt trying to grow into his uniform. But he’d been the one the opposing team had foolishly pitched to like he was the pitcher. His eyes misted imagining Dan galloping around those bases. He’d run so fast he hadn’t even realized the ball had cleared the right field fence until he rounded second. Roger thumbed away the dust and then set it to the left of the TV. Maybe the rest of the recorded game would cheer him up.

Bases loaded with one out, bottom of the eighth. Bounding in from right field, the new reliever took the ball. What was Manuel thinking bringing in this guy? He’d never been in a save situation before. Roger fast-forwarded through the commercials. The new batter entered the batter’s box and the pitcher took his stance. Six pitches, one strike out and one ground out later, the pitcher pulled the team back from the brink. In the bottom of the ninth, the offense played small ball: the lead-off batter walked, the second batter whiffed at one pitch too many. The next batter bunted the runner over. With two outs, the eight-hole batter—in a slump all season—drove the ball to the opposite field, and the runner in scoring position coasted home.

Roger cried as the teammates poured onto the field and showered their teammate with manly hugs and high fives.

 

 

Originally from Southern California, Brad Windhauser lives in Center City, Philadelphia. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He is also an Associate Professor (Teaching/Instruction) in the English Department at Temple University. His work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Santa Fe Writer’s Project Journal, Ray’s Road Review, Northern Liberties Review, Philadelphia Review of Books, DOAB, and Jonathan. His novel The Intersection was released in 2016. Follow him on Twitter @virgowriter.

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