(This week's Flash Fiction Friday comes from, well, me. This story is called "Don Sutton".)
Baseball isn't a metaphor for anything, but there I was, laying on top of a rickety cot, staring at the peeling paint on the ceiling, thinking about Don Sutton. I saw Don Sutton pitch once. I was a kid in a Boy Scout uniform, running loose around the park in the dog days of one of those long Red Sox summers where the team is out of contention before Memorial Day. I realized you could stand right behind Sutton as he warmed up in the visitors' bullpen, so I went and stood there, awestruck as a major league pitcher practiced his craft no more than 10 feet from me. Sutton didn't seem all that fast, and compared to the greats, he wasn't, but it was remarkable to watch him throw, every toss with a wrinkle, a break or curve that would turn a mighty swing into a four hop grounder to short.
I didn't know at that time that Sutton was on the downside of a long career, no longer able to pile up strikeout after strikeout, instead relying on changing speeds and control. Guts and guile, the sportswriters said, replacing a young man's overwhelming power with an older man's knowledge and patience. I also didn't know then that Sutton had a reputation for altering the ball, nicking it or applying something to it to make the ball dive or soar. Throwing the ball over the plate, but from an angle they weren't expecting, at a speed they weren't ready for, baseball as Zen, the speed of a ball that isn't there. Looking back on it, I understand him. I feel like a veteran hurler now, looking for any tiny edge just to survive, looking towards the bullpen for relief but seeing no one warming up.
It was hard to reconstruct the path that brought me here. My memories felt like newsreel footage, scenes and fragments that I can't knit together into a narrative. I could remember whole scenes, like watching Sutton pitch, and I certainly remembered the big mistake, the one that made all the others possible. It was a nightmare that you can't wake up from- seeing the scene, knowing you need to make the substitution, to put yourself into the scene and change the decision you made, but you can't. In the dream, you keep screwing it up, again and again. I never should have answered the phone.
"Norman?," said Miss Donna, the mother hen who watched over us, from the doorway. The sacrifice she made, watching over America's unwanted, was staggering.
"I'm getting up, Miss Donna," I said. I pulled myself upright. When the weather was good, we had to be out of the shelter by 9am.
"Alright, Norman. You hungry?"
"No, Miss Donna. Thank you, Miss Donna."
"You're welcome, Norman."
Laura called me in the middle of the night. I came and got her, and we were driving with the back windows open, not going anywhere, just going. She was sitting there, her back against the dashboard so she could look at me, her long bare legs extending between the seats into the back. She took my hand off of the steering wheel and held it over her heart. I could feel the fluttering under her narrow breastbone, the pounding that told me she was alive, and that I was, too. I could have groped her, moved my hand left or right, playfully, and she probably would have laughed and pulled my hand away. But I didn't. I just left my fingers there, feeling the steady beat of her heart. It had a nice, easy rhythm to it, like a subtle jazz drummer. Then there was a lot of loud noises and flashes, all at once. That's all I remember.
Baseball doesn't tell you about life, or fate, or karma, or anything else. It isn't anything other than what it is. It's a child's game played by men for ridiculous amounts of money. Like in baseball, you have to scrape for every advantage in life, utilize whatever you have to get the job done. That's what I failed to do, what I couldn't manage. I never saw life as a game of winners and losers. I was always too emotional. And just like pitchers do sometimes, after the bloops fall in, lucky hits and errors, baserunners all over the place, I got mad. You get mad, and you fire a pitch in anger, too straight, and someone mashes it, and you're left alone on the bench, cursing your own stupidity. Balls can't be unthrown, and mistakes can't be undone.