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Stories 3 Fall 2023


Stats Are For Lovers

       by Jon Fain


I played in an after-work softball league for a few years, and not long after the divorce I asked my ex-wife to bring the twins to see me play. My daughter brought her glove, and she and I played catch on the sidelines while we waited for the game to start, the other team to fully arrive. When we’d talked the night before, I told Sally the league rules said we had to have two women on the field at all times.

“Why only two?” she asked.

We tossed a softball back and forth. Her brother and their mother stood off by themselves, working their phones. Tim had discovered wins above replacement, a stat I’d heard of but couldn’t explain, so he was conferring with Uncle Google. I overheard enough of Ellen’s call to catch she was still dancing around her mother’s questions about lesbian life.

We were playing Kronos. They had a legacy business manufacturing time clocks, but had added software that spied on workers’ productivity. They’d just gone public, which made them all annoying with their prospective good fortune, and they turned out to have one especially obnoxious prick on their team. He was the reason the game started late. He arrived loud, coming down the hill to the field behind the middle school with a couple of teammates, yelling how they were going to kick our asses.

Stacie was pitching for us, with Carol behind the plate. Our two women. Once the game started, I thought both of them got rattled by the loud guy, obviously his intent. This was a laidback league full of software coders, HR bean counters, and market researchers. But you never knew what sort of delusional ex-jock might show up.

It took one to know one.  

Another hit loaded the bases, and I ended up with the ball at third. Stacie had her glove up, waiting for me to throw it. I went over to the mound instead, pushed the ball directly into her mitt. She pushed back.

“What’s she doing here?” Stacie said.

Things had resolved themselves so that my ex and I were cordial in a new weird way. But Stacie wasn’t talking about Ellen. She meant the VP, sitting on our bench, the first time she’d been to one of our games. Her son Eddie, working at the company on his summer break, was playing short, taking the place of the usual guy, who was out on the road that week.

“I hope she doesn’t think I’m going to let her pitch. Especially after how she treated us today.”

I doubted the VP was much of a ballplayer. She was still in work clothes. Black, sharply creased slacks, and a crimson blouse with a changing configuration that kept catching my eye. She’d done a swap-out to some new sneakers though. In the meeting earlier that day, I’d kept looking at her black high heels, thinking—how shiny.

She’d called Stacie and me into her office before lunch. She told us to cool it. She said two people hooking up at work was bad for business more often than not. We told her there was nothing going on, she was mistaken.

“Time’s up for Kronos!” I shouted, heading back to third. “Let’s get two!”

The next batter hit one to right. Beside me, the runner tagged up. Our catcher Carol had been not-catching almost every pitch. The only ones she stopped were the ones that came up short and bounced. She slapped her glove down on them like she was killing bugs.

As Jalen, one of our best players, moved under the fly, I ran toward the plate with my glove in the air. If he saw me coming he would give it some juice. The throw came in on a perfect one-hop. When I tagged the nerd from third he looked like I’d stolen his favorite password.

The VP yelled out, “I’ve never seen you run so fast!”

Which made no sense, since where and when in the office would this come into play?

“I’m your Dad’s boss,” she told my son, who was standing near the bench as we came off the field.

“Good luck with that,” said Tim, not looking up from his phone.

The twins were born so close together, the second held the first by the heel. So Sally was the one who had led from the beginning. She’s the one I started throwing balls to while they were in diapers, Tim toddling around with a load in his pants.

“Dad… you said I could pitch!” she said, before I went up to hit.

I’d suggested she bring her glove, nothing more. She went into her pout as I explained the “rules,” making them up as I did practice swings.

I’d wanted the kids to come to the game so they could meet Stacie. It was pretty new, but things were escalating. We’d been together every night for almost a month, after finally connecting on a client trip.

Each team scored at least three runs every time up. At the top of the last inning, out in the field, I looked from Stacie on the mound, to the VP, and Ellen, now on the bench beside her. I played better with women around; as a kid, played as much for the girls as anything. What else was there? It wasn’t to hang out with the jock-offs who came with the package.

“You must get tired of that guy,” I said to the Kronos player coaching third. He looked over at his teammate holding forth, due up first, and shrugged.

Loud Boy reached base with a squiggly hit. The next guy up slammed one into the gap between center and right. Loud Boy rounded second, and knew he had a chance to score.

I shifted into his line of sight and pretended a throw was coming in from the outfield, offline, on a bounce. I moved sideways, faked going down on my knee as if to block it, hammed it up, gave it an open-mouthed, goggle-eyed, oh shit!

The runner slowed and pulled up, the base coach yelling, “Go, go! What are you doing!”

By then the ball had come in from Jalen, Eddie moving from short to cut it off. Not-So-Loud-Anymore Boy pointed at me, tried to explain himself. I put on the blank look I had perfected in years of corporate meetings of all shapes and sizes, whenever blame was looking for a place to roost.

He never did score. We went in for last ups.

“Dad, I saw you… you cheated!” Tim said.

“Gamesmanship,” I told him.

Rather than asking me what it meant, he went to his phone, and I went over to his mother.

“You’ve been trying that since high school,” said Ellen, “but I never saw it work. It almost makes up for you cutting off your woman catcher so she couldn’t make a play.”

Like I said, mostly cordial.

“Thinking pizza back at my place… you’re welcome to come by, or I’ll run them back home after.”

“What about your friend?”

I hadn’t told her about Stacie, but Ellen had no doubt seen our interactions.

When we were married, she would get annoyed whenever I’d ask how many times she thought we’d had sex. So many times a week, times so many weeks a year, times the years. Factoring in the pre-kids and post-kids variables. To the virginal me, it had seemed such a long haul to the first one, first home run if you will, that any more than that was gravy. Lots of gravy as it turned out, although not everybody cares that much for gravy, surprisingly enough.

My wins above replacement re: Stacie had a ways to go. I remembered the meeting with the VP, and not just her shoes. She said her son Eddie, after his first day of work, had seen Stacie put her hand on my ass as we walked to our cars in the parking lot.

“She isn’t going to make it,” I said.

“Good,” Ellen said. “Spend some time with your kids.”

The game ended in a tie, as the mosquitos began to swarm with the dusk and suck out any desire for extra innings. Ellen talked to the twins before heading to her car.

Stacie and the VP were still near the bench, swatting bugs. Stacie’s voice was getting loud. I was glad to have an out.

“Come here, you guys,” I said.

I put an arm around each of them as we walked up the slope to the parking lot, Sally on my left, a little taller than her brother.

The twins didn’t like where I’d moved to, one exit up from the building where I worked. The first time they were there, Sally said it smelled funny. Tim gave the air a sniff and agreed.

I decided we’d eat at the pizza place, avoid my stinking condo. I’d text Stacie, to cover my bases, and if she showed up at the restaurant we’d pretend it was a coincidence. Then, we’d have a fine time, nobody being such a dick as to count how many slices we ate.

Bio: Jon Fain began publishing his work in commercial and literary magazines in the 1980s, and later in some of the first online literary sites in the 2000s. Some of his more recent publications include short stories in A Thin Slice of Anxiety and King Ludd’s Rag; flash fictions in The Broadkill Review and Reservoir Road Literary Review; and micro fictions in Blink-Ink, The Woolf, and CLOVES Literary. In 2023, stories of his will be in anthologies from Running Wild Press, Murderous Ink Press, and Three Ravens Publishing, and his chapbook “Pass the Panpharmacon! (Five Fictions of Delusion)” will be published by Greying Ghost Press. He lives in Massachusetts.


The Unintended Consequence of Invention

      by Jeff Burt

Age eight, I knew a breathy burst of on-the-spot invention might convince my perpetually skeptical Mom that the story that followed might be accurate, but if the train of truth had too many boxcars strung together with ease the freight was probably missing and the engine steamed on the rails of the fantastic. I had learned to run home faster than my older brother Paul, build a simple tale of elaborate harm or foolishness so that his subsequent tale required to be justified against mine, the way a second two-by-four gets justified against the first.

“Did you take the Powell’s blue ball, the one that’s sitting in back by the steps?” she asked when I rushed in from school.

“No,” I blurted. “The ball must have bounced over the fence into our yard,” I told her. “They always play with the dog. I did not steal it,” I said emphatically, a fib meant to cover myself and my brother.

She did not turn toward me, kept looking out the kitchen window at birds in the little maple tree.

“Our neighbors would come after their ball,” she said, her tone hard as steel. “Or perhaps you think their dog might have tossed it over the fence.”

I stewed, knew better than to stand, so sat in the most distant chair at the kitchen table.

My mother started slowly, “Your brother said the ball had been in the alley, in the way of your bikes, and you probably had just tossed it over your shoulder and it bounced over our fence into the backyard.”

So, from a long-held breath, I told the truth—my brother had stolen the ball to play foursquare at school. “He laughed,” I told her loudly, “he didn’t even play foursquare. He just took the ball yesterday and never returned it.”

Some lies are little, like a pinch. Some lies are large, like a punch. Some truths are like a lie, too, and this one was enormous. My mother looked like she’d been hit.

But a third lie placed against the plane of a second, like a board against board, might work, but more likely is sure to be tossed if it doesn’t align.

“He kept the ball because another boy wanted to poke it with a knife, let all the air out. Paul wanted to make sure it stayed, you know, round.”

I searched her face to see if the lie might work.

My mother washed a few forks and dried them. Her silence told me I had lost the argument.

My brother’s lie was better. I was sent to my room to think about the ball and to write a note of apology, and could not come out until I was done.

My brother knew to link the plausible with the impossible in a way that built a ladder of the probable until it reached the height of certainty, step by step altering his fiction into fact that my mother would believe and my fact somehow into fiction. The sheer invention of our bikes in the alley and careless toss of the ball out of the way of our riding our bikes, even if not true, seemed true, simple, believable.

Oh, I wanted to be older and practiced at a fib, own a fable that finagled me out of trouble, but, as it was, sat punished for what I didn’t do and punished for what I did, my mother chastising me, that I should have known, but what I should have known she didn’t say, whether I was dumb to try that hooey with her, or too young to develop the sober face that could deliver a winning pretense.

Somewhere on that ladder of lies, I knew, was a missing step, and if I told more lies and kept on trying, was bound to find it.


Bio: Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California. He has work in Williwaw Journal, Willows Wept Review, Rabid Oak, and Sunlight Press. He has a free chapbook available at Red Wolf Editions and another due out in the fall from Red Bird Chapbooks.