by Alan Swyer
Having bailed early from work due to a last minute call from his ex-, Bruce Littman raced halfway across Los Angeles so as to drive his younger son Kenny to baseball practice. There he took a seat in the stands with the expectation that he would divide his time between watching and catching up on emails.
Those plans ended quickly when he saw the coach, paunchy Bob Benton, gather the players around him for a scolding.
"This is an embarrassment!" Benton bellowed, causing not just the kids, but also the moms in attendance, plus one lone grandfather, to cringe. "Seven players! Seven goddamn players are all that bother to show up for practice with the first game less than a week away! What in hell is wrong with you guys?"
Seeing Benton start to pace, Littman hoped the tirade was over. That, however, proved not to be the case, for once again Benton started berating his team. "Ever heard of team spirit?" he screamed. "One for all and all for one and all that shit?"
"Whoa!" said Littman, rising and pointing a finger at the coach.
"What's your problem?" snarled Benton.
"You're yelling at the kids who actually came for practice!"
Suddenly there was a chorus of "Yeah!" "That's right!" and "Absolutely!" from the players' moms.
Turning beet red, Benton glared at Littman. "Know what? You coach the fucking team!" he yelled, pulling off his Dodgers t-shirt and throwing it to the ground. "I'm outta here!"
A moment of silence gave way to spontaneous applause from both the kids and the mothers. Then suddenly all eyes turned to Littman.
"Will you?" asked a red-headed mom named Jenny Wald.
"Will I what?"
"Coach the team?"
Littman glanced at the beseeching mothers and the one grandfather, then at the kids, all of whom seemed hopeful, with the possible exception of his own son, who looked uncertain.
"Tell you what," Littman said. "I'll consider it if I can get some help."
"I'll get my husband," said very pregnant Angie Garcia.
"And I played pretty good softball," added Monique Jackson, who had braided dreads.
Once more Littman eyed Kenny, whose shrug seemed to signal begrudging acceptance.
"Okay," Littman said, walking toward the team while beckoning for the adults to approach as well. "Here's my what's-what about why we're here. The way I was taught, it's called playing baseball, not shouting baseball, screaming baseball, or temper-tantrum baseball. Understood?"
Kids and grown-ups all nodded.
"It's a game I was taught to respect and to enjoy. So while we're working at skills, plus developing teamwork, we have to remember that it's first and foremost a game. And know what? A game's supposed to be fun. With me?"
"Okay, time for me to get to know you better. But will you all do me a favor?"
Still more nods.
"Tell your teammates who aren't here today that we're starting over."
During his older son's Little League days, Littman used to joke that throughout the first season the other parents were mildly amusing. By the second season, they were borderline annoying. But by season three, the appropriate term was justifiable homicide.
Except for helping occasionally, Littman chose not to do much coaching for a reason that was even more important than the amount of time required. Despite Joey's prowess, he didn't want to be the one placing his own son at shortstop, or batting him third, or putting him on the mound in key games.
Kenny, in contrast, was far from as gifted as his big brother. Though he liked baseball, and did fine at the beginner levels – T-ball and coach-pitch – he didn't live for it, which is why he winced when people asked if he switch-hit like Joey, or could throw as hard. Because Kenny was by nature a loner, Littman assumed that any post-Little League athletic involvement would likely be in an individual sport like swimming, where Joey not only displayed some natural talent, but would also escape from his brother's shadow.
Still, as father and son bade goodbye to the others, then climbed into Littman's Toyota, Kenny looked far from jubilant.
"You okay?" Littman asked.
"I wish Mom had taken me to practice," Kenny said softly.
"Hey, I was trying to stick up for you guys."
"I know, but –"
"Want me not to coach?"
Kenny frowned. "That'd probably mean we won't have a team."
"So tell me what you want."
"Sure you want to know?"
"I'm a big boy," said Littman.
"For you not to turn everything into such a big deal."
Littman tried his best to mask his sigh.
Aware that Kenny was the one most effected by his recent divorce, Littman spent the evening pondering how best to proceed. All the while, he expected a phone call that seemed inevitable, yet failed to materialize until nearly 11 P.M.
"So much for just letting things settle," were the first words out of his ex-wife Claudia's mouth.
"If you want to lecture me, go ahead."
"I know you meant well."
"You do?" asked Littman, not bothering to hide his surprise.
"And I think deep down Kenny does, too."
"Just go easy, huh? Not only on him, but on everything."
"And remember," added Claudia, "for some 9-years-old, this is not just about baseball. It's about life."
Littman took a breath. "But tell me straight, does he really dislike me?"
"I'm the one who dislikes you," answered Claudia.
"What a shock."
"He just blames you for the divorce –"
"Even though I've told him it's not entirely your fault."
"Not entirely?" said Littman through gritted teeth. "Thanks loads."
The following morning, while getting ready for work, Littman got a call on his cell. "This is Sheila Sullivan," a voice announced. "Connor's mom. Hope you don't mind my reaching out, but I thought you should know that Connor would love to play first base."
"Thanks for the tip."
"Can he what?"
"Play first base?"
"Tell you what," said Littman. "Let me check his skill level, then we'll see."
With every player on the roster present, plus Joe Garcia and Monique Jackson helping, the next practice was in marked contrast to those run by Benton: lighthearted yet organized, effective but fun.
To diminish time wasted standing around, Littman divided the team into three groups, rotating each from station to station. While some kids took grounders, others fielded fly balls in the outfield, and a third bunch worked on bunting and hitting in the batting cage.
All the while, Littman peeked occasionally to make sure that Kenny seemed comfortable.
After supervising a session with pitchers and catchers, Littman then took to moving kids from position to position in the field while throwing three quick rounds of batting practice to each and every team member.
Lugging equipment bags, Littman was headed with Kenny toward the parking lot when a tall brunette came charging his way.
"Coach!" she yelled. "Sheila Sullivan. So what's the chance of Connor playing first?"
Littman nodded to Kenny, who stepped a few feet away, and only then did he answer. "Have you seen the arms on some of these kids?"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"They throw pretty hard."
"I don't want to be responsible for Connor getting some teeth knocked out. Or a broken nose. Or black eye."
"W-what are you saying?" Sheila Sullivan asked.
"He doesn't catch real well."
"So what do we do?"
"Guess it's time for his dad to throw with him every day."
"Damian's behind bars," said Sheila Sullivan sadly.
"I'll do what I can," offered Littman. "But no promises."
Rejoining Littman, Kenny watched the redhead head off before speaking. "You asked for it," he then said.
"Tell me about it."
Before they could reach their car, a woman with a stroller came chugging along.
"Got a second?" she asked, as Kenny once again distanced himself. "I'm Bree Cooper, Timmy's mom. I just wanted to let you know that Timmy's a special kid."
"And you want?"
Bree Cooper smiled. "Special treatment?"
"How about first you tell me how he's special? We talking gifted? Or handicapped in some way? Or –"
When Littman hesitated, Bree jumped right in. "Special in his own special way."
"Let me tell you how I see things. To me, each and every kid is special in his own special way."
Gesturing to Kenny to join him, Littman continued lugging the gear toward his car.
"Want to grab tacos?" asked Littman as father and son were pulling out of the parking lot. "Or pizza? Or –"
"We could hit that sandwich place you like."
"I should get home."
Littman tried not to wince too visibly.
While chomping on take-out moo shu chicken that he picked up after dropping Kenny off, Littman got a call on his cell.
"This is Jodie Pierce," stated the voice at the other end. "Rory's mom. I'm not sure if you noticed me, but I'm the blonde who was wearing a UCLA sweatshirt. Anyway, Rory's self-conscious about not having a man in his life since his deadbeat dad bolted. So I was wondering if maybe after the first game you and your son would join us for a bite."
"That's really nice, but –"
"How about we play it by ear?"
"Okay, but no promises."
"Fine. But if it's all right with you, I'm gonna send you something."
A moment after the conversation ended, a text arrived with a photo of Jodie Pierce in the skimpiest bikini imaginable.
That was soon followed by another text: Say the word and I'll send you some you might like even more.
Littman chose not to reply.
Though he spent a fair amount of time fretting about how his team would fare in their first real competition, Littman's worries proved to be for naught for a simple reason: their opponent, the Reds, turned out to be a ragtag assortment who looked like they'd rather be on their computers, bowling, or anywhere except on a baseball diamond.
After the second inning, with the Dodgers already ahead by seven runs, Joe Garcia ambled over to Littman. "Are we better than I thought?" he whispered.
Littman gestured toward the Reds dugout. "More like they're worse."
After a post-game session slapping five, Littman was bagging catchers equipment, helmets, and other gear when he was approached by an attractive blonde whose pink blouse emphasized impressive cleavage. "I'm Jodie," she proclaimed.
"Sure fooled me."
"So about that dinner?"
Littman was about to decline when Kenny approached together with Jodie's son. "Rory says there's a place with burgers and a great arcade."
After wolfing down their meals, Kenny and Rory made a dash for the video games. "Looks like there's some talent on the team," said Jodie, once she was alone with Littman,
"Depends how you define talent."
"You don't think some of the kids are prospects, or whatever they call 'em?"
"How honest do you want me to be?"
"I'm a big girl."
"The key word," explained Littman, "is attrition. Right now they're in what's called the minors. Several will drop out before they make the Little League Majors."
"Trust me. Others'll quit before Pony League or Babe Ruth. And others before high school."
"And of the ones who wind up playing for their high schools?"
"Only the most talented and motivated will ever make it to college ball, let alone a pro contract."
"That's sad," said Jodie.
"Sometimes life is sad," responded Littman.
"Which is why I bet I can liven up yours. Want to come over once Rory's asleep?"
Trying not to allow his gulp to be too apparent, Littman shook his head. "Guess who's got work that he should have done this afternoon."
Saturday morning found Littman seated in the stands at another baseball facility, watching his older son's Babe Ruth game.
"So how's it going with Kenny's team?" Joey asked in the aftermath as he and his father strolled toward the parking lot.
"It's an adventure."
"Parents rooting for the shortstop or centerfielder to break a leg so their kid can get a shot?"
"If only that were all," grumbled Littman.
"Kenny says some mom is hitting on you."
"Somebody's brother doesn't miss a trick. Pizza? Tacos?"
"How about a Persian place in Westwood?" asked Joey, drawing a stare from Littman.
"What do you know about Persian?"
"I went there with my friend Mehrdad and his family."
"Fried missionary on the menu?" Littman asked with a laugh.
"Dad!" Joey replied in mock horror.
Bright and early on Sunday morning, Littman was surprised by a call from Kenny. "I know this is Mom's weekend," he began. "But any chance you could hit some grounders this morning? Or we could go to the batting cage?"
"You bet. What time do you want me to come by?"
It was Claudia who answered the door when Littman arrived. "Hope you didn't have plans."
"Like bringing peace to the Middle East?"
Before the conversation could go on, down the hall came not one, but two kids with baseball gear: Kenny and Rory.
"Ready?" Kenny asked.
"Can't wait," Littman replied.
"Am I the only one who's hungry?" Littman asked after a fielding session, followed by batting practice in the cage.
"Can we go back where we went after the game?" Kenny wondered aloud.
"So that you guys can wolf, then play video games?"
"And so my Mom can meet us," added Rory.
Jodie Pierce smiled as the two boys, having downed their burgers and fries in record time, bounded toward the arcade. "Being with Kenny – and you – has doubled, maybe tripled, Rory's interest in baseball," she told Littman. "For which I thank you."
"Glad I can help."
"And I hope you don't think I'm being too pushy."
Littman took a breath. "I can't say I'm looking for a relationship."
"Did you hear me use the 'R' word? My kid's having fun. And frankly, I wouldn't mind a little myself. No pressure, no ties, no complications, no fuss."
"You're making it pretty appealing."
"I'm trying," said Jodie. "Call it coaching with benefits."
"So what's this Jodie like?" Claudia asked Littman when he dropped Kenny off.
"In a good sense? Or –?"
"She just called to say she'd like to take the kids to a water park tomorrow."
"On a school day?" asked Littman.
"It's one of those pupil-free days. Since he and Rory seem to get on well –"
"And he usually spends so much of his time alone –"
"Too much, if you ask me –"
"Then water park it is," said Claudia. "I know I had misgivings –"
"I'm glad baseball's working out."
While sitting in a boring meeting on Monday afternoon, Littman found his mind drifting to conversations with Jodie Pierce. That led to thoughts about her proposition, which in turn made him think of Hamlet, with the difference being that instead of To be or not the be, his dilemma was more To hump or not to hump.
Before his fantasies could progress toward lasciviousness, into his office came his assistant, Joann, who handed him a note that read: Call Claudia ASAP.
Excusing himself from the meeting, Littman stepped into the hallway.
"I need you!" shouted Claudia when he reached her.
"Kenny took a fall."
Littman tried to minimize his gasp. "Is he okay?"
"Hopefully. I'll text you the hospital info."
While breaking land and sea speed records, Littman couldn't help but wonder whether Kenny's accident wasn't in some way his fault. Should he not have encouraged him to play? Should he not have stepped up as coach? Should he have squelched Jodie's overtures right from the start?
Only when Littman reached the hospital did Claudia give him the good news: there appeared to be no concussion, nor was there even the slightest indication of brain damage. But, having slipped while running on a wet surface, Kenny did have a broken bone in his right arm.
"Guess you won't win the batting title," Littman joked when he was brought in to see his son, who in addition to a cast on his arm also had two black eyes and a bruised forehead.
"Or play for the real Dodgers," Kenny joked.
"So," said Littman with a sigh, "I guess your season's over."
"I can maybe coach first base."
"You want to?"
"Yeah," Kenny said. "If it'll mean being with you."
Littman felt tears forming in his eyes. "That's what you want?"
"It'll mean being the one-armed wonder, waving runners on with your left arm."
"I think I can manage."
"You're my man," Littman said happily as he gave his son a hug. "You are my man!"
Bio: Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel 'The Beard' was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.Bio:
by Bill Vernon
Frank Alafin shook his head, then stared at Ethel Salyer until she noticed. He raised his eyebrows, and she did the same. Ethel and he thus acknowledged that their guide was loveable, or as Ethel would have said, given the chance, cute. Later, the two would probably have nailed down the idea, i.e. discussed the guide's round, undeveloped face, his old fashioned politeness, and his overly enthused manner. Welcome surprises to both of them.
As the group followed their guide out into the barnyard, Frank imagined just such a conversation. It'd take place over snacks at a luncheon break, on that limestone patio they'd crossed to enter The Settler's Creek Preserve Office. Frank imagined sitting in one of those white Adirondack chairs by one of the dining tables there. He'd first point out the guide's youth and the boy's stentorian voice. He'd insist that it was the youth's nature to speak loudly, but with some dramatic intent as well. Maybe the kid was assuming that old people were hard of hearing, and Frank would grant that such a stereotype was true, certainly, in Frank's own case. But he'd also refer to the boy's hyper-stepping pace, like a colt unable to contain its energy, the way he pranced ahead, turned back to let their group catch up, then impulsively turned and forged ahead, separating himself from them again.
Frank imagined his description of the kid as a soliloquy, explaining that such behavior signaled the boy's desire to share something he loved, to make his audience hear something he knew about, something he thought everyone should be aware of. His rushing forward and waiting occurred, at least in part, because the youngster thought his speed might stimulate the five people he was leading. Frank would also swear that this teaching strategy had worked. Hadn't they indeed walked faster than normal. The kid was a born teacher.
Frank couldn't escape the facts that, after all, his group's ages ran from 62, Ethel, to 78, Frank, and this was their monthly daytrip. But that was only backdrop, landscape, the given.
The kid was Frank's focus, the main character. Although camouflaged in olive uniform with shiny badge and Smoky Bear hat, whistle on a new leather thong around his neck, Tommy Newsome (the nameplate on his chest said) from the start uncovered things inside Frank. The guide had met them in a hallway and introduced himself too personally, as if asking the group not to expect very much. This was, he explained, his initial guiding assignment with donors of the Preserve. He was a newly hired State Fish And Wildlife serviceman, 22 years old (though he looked to Frank about 13), a recent university graduate with a BS in Environmental Studies, an intern last summer with this new park, which a unique stand of virgin sugar maples or rock maples, acer saccharum, distinguished. He'd take the group to those trees first thing.
After this longer than necessary hello, Tommy had said, "Come on, let's leave the lodge and get with it. Ask me anything, anything at all." But he never stopped talking long enough to let anyone ask anything without interrupting him. Further amusing Frank. From the start the boy seemed overly impressed that he was instructing five retired high school teachers, whom the boy seemed to respect simply because of their age and vocation.
Crossing the barnyard, heading toward the forest, the kid said something like "Pavo crista Tus," and pointed so that Frank saw three peacocks running off. Then he'd recognized another idiosyncrasy of the boy. He was draping a Latin name upon existence as if the sound of his voice expressing those names created the living things. As if the boy were the father gazing with love at his children while teaching them how to say words and associate those sounds with real things. Also, though, as if he were implying, Look how smart I am, look what I learned in my schooling. This thought was, frankly, disappointing though understandable and familiar. Frank had been that way himself as a youth. Maybe still was. One's ego is complex and mysterious. Frank was really never sure he understood himself very well.
Frank watched the birds spread their tail feathers. The colors were almost dazzling in the sun, but a building they ran toward had a shadow that subdued the stunning display. A piercing cry rose from this darkness and, thank God, quickly ended, but its effect on Frank was so chilling, he shivered. He remembered Flannery O'Connor in one of her stories teaching him that the peacocks' call was the sound that souls make when they are banished into hell.
Frank became aware that he was lying on his back on the dirt, in the dust. The sun's glare made him turn his head aside. This is the way the world ends, he thought. A shadow intervened, and someone was gazing down at him. It was his own face from many years before. No, it was the boy-guide. This young person who had so delighted him today. Whose intelligence, talent and personality had given Frank hope for the future. The boy was saying something.
"Good job, Tommy," Frank grunted. "Where's Ethel?"
The boy moved away, and there was Ethel. She held Frank's hand, leaned forward so he could feel the heat of her breath and smell the peppermint gum she was chewing. She said something about relaxing, an ambulance coming, he'd be all right.
God, wouldn't he miss all this? Tears welled up and flowed over his cheeks. Frank squeezed Ethel's warm fingers and palm. "I'm sorry to leave you this way."
Bio: Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies.