Saturday, August 25, 2012

FFF: "Don Sutton"

(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.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

FFF: "Don't Tell The Children"

(This week's Flash Fiction Friday theme is back to school, or as we call it in our house, the most wonderful time of the year. This story is called "Don't Tell The Children".)

The calculus of what to wear on the first day of school was always a delicate one. It was a sad moment, driving through the sudden 8:00 traffic, passing the brightly colored girls and the dark denimed boys standing in clusters at the various bus stops. You could see the hope and fear on their tiny faces. They weren't the only ones.

After ten years in, I had easy classes that bonded early and got along well, distant classes that were at loggerheads until the very end, and every gradation in between. It never got easier, it just got different. I spent the last week obsessing about my first day's outfit, starting with my new shoes, smooth looking bone colored flats, then plunging into the morass of choices for clothing.

Dresses can seem too formal and overtly feminine, but pants can seem uptight and bitchy. You have to have authority, to look like you're in charge, while not seeming unapproachable and mean. You can't overwhelm them, but you can't look dowdy. The whole process was frustrating, because it shouldn't matter what you wore, within reason, as long as you did your job, but it took me as much effort as any anxious middle schooler.

I had settled on a long dress in muted colors and a gentle pattern, tasteful jewelry and very little makeup. I was counting on Dennis, our rotund principal, to make some sort of a barbed remark as soon as he saw me. I could tell that it drove him crazy that I wasn't married and never admitted to having a personal life. It was always, with him, an overly broad compliment that I knew concealed a double meaning. He wanted to know what I was about, and I secretly delighted in not allowing him to see.

I parked in my usual spot, alighting from my car with my bag and my cooling latte. I walked up the steps towards the front door, the first few students making their way in beside me. Dennis was usually right inside the front door, booming out his greetings to one and all. I came up to the front doors, scanned my ID, and pulled them open. The lobby already smelled like fall- disinfectant, sweat, and fear.

Jim Reynolds was already there, the tall, thin, preternaturally calm assistant principal. One of the crueller jokes the faculty circulated was that, when he stood next to Dennis during an assembly, they looked like the number 10. He was engaged in a fevered conversation with Miss Peabody, the nosy blueblood school secretary. He half turned when he saw me come in.

" Hirsch, good morning. Have you heard?" It was a regular rumor around the building that Jim and I were having a torrid affair, being the two singletons on staff. And I hadn't dismissed the idea- he was classy and smelled good and looked strong. But we both imagined the complications and laughed off the idea.

"Heard what, Mr. Reynolds?" We tried not to use first names within range of little ears, but they all figured out our names anyway.

"Dennis...Mr. Gold didn't...he isn't....his wife had to call 911 this morning. She found him on the bathroom floor. He wasn't breathing."

I stopped short, my heart suddenly pounding. "My goodness," was all I could say. It wasn't what I wanted to say, but when I was in school mode, I disconnected my four letter word module.

"We're waiting on word from the hospital," he continued uselessly.

"We've decided not to tell the children," Miss Peabody put in. She liked to think she was part of the management team.

"Of course," I said, shocked, backing away as the two returned to their conversation. Dennis had hired me, new in town and fairly fresh out of school with very little experience to my name. He always had about him a clammy desperation, the kind of man who could be counted on to peek down the front of your dress if something fell on the floor and you bent to pick it up. I knew what he could say and do, and what he couldn't, and while he never violated any rules of any kind, I always had the feeling he wanted to. He was needy, and sweaty, and he stared at you too long. He never seemed to understand how to talk to women at all. I didn't dislike him, but I didn't really like him, either. He was my boss, and he was just so sad and lonely. It was impossible to think of him with anything except pity. I wouldn't miss him if he were gone, but I hated myself for that thought as well. I thought about him on the bathroom floor, perhaps still in his boxer shorts, his body huge, still and silent like a wall of sand, while his wife waited for the paramedics. Was she panicky with fear, or did the have the same tiny voice in her head whispering "finally" that I did? Unhappy men had to die just like everyone else, I supposed, but it seemed somehow unfair that he'd never get to see how cute I looked in these shoes.

SPE: "The Gentle Fog"

{For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, November Rain (k~) gave me this prompt: "Marshmallows in the snow". I gave Wendryn this prompt: ​"Whatever you want to do can be done before midnight...Nothing good happens after midnight." -Vanna White}

It was one of those days when the house was too small. Paranoid and claustrophobic, we all started snapping at one another, like wild animals packed too close together at the zoo. "She pushed me!" "She said something mean!" "She won't be quiet!", then my husband, hung over and irritated, rumbling too loudly, "Everyone be quiet!"

I tried to speak to him about it, but that just induced another battle, so I dropped it. Sulking in the kitchen, I listened to him speaking to them, attuned for the raised voice that would signal more discord. I felt wrung out, like a limp dishrag. Outside the kitchen window, it was snowing in a desultory way, like the sky couldn't make up its mind. I thought about drinking a glass of wine, ashamed of how appealing the idea sounded at 12:15 pm.

I was interrupted by our youngest, the bundle of love, noise, and exposed nerves called Angeline. "Daddy says....daddy says....," she began excitedly. When something wound her up, which was almost always, she stumbled over her words. "Daddy says he'll roast marshmallows if you go get the things!"

I focused on her eyes, cornsilk blue below her tangled brown hair. We were all in our Sunday best, which for us meant whatever we had slept in Saturday night.

"The things?," I asked.

"Yeah! The sticks! marshmallows."

"Daddy said that?"

"He DID," she said confidently.

I stepped past her, looking into the morass of half eaten breakfast dishes and sprawled family members that was surrounding the television, broadcasting a program about impossibly pretty teens and their madcap adventures that neither was watching.

"Is that true?"

"Yes," Harry said without opening his eyes. "I'll fire up the grill and we can have them after lunch. Angel wants to." If our younger daughter asked him for his right arm, Harry would start looking for the bandsaw.

"When is the last time we grilled?," I said. "Labor Day?" I hated to splash cold water on everything, but someone had to be the voice of reason.

"Trust me," he said, barely smiling. The last time I fell for that, I wound up pregnant.

"Alright," I said with as much authority as I could summon. "I want you two to clean up the breakfast dishes and brush your teeth and your hair. I'll come home with lunch and marshmallows. No treats unless you clean up first." My surly tween, Elizabeth, looked up at me from underneath her bangs. The older she got, the more I wanted to call her Violet, like Sarah Vowell's character in The Incredibles.  

"What if we don't want stupid marshmallows?," she said softly.

Angeline was underfoot, already reaching for a bowl with a few lonely Lucky Charms floating in it. "Marshmallows aren't stupid!," she objected immediately. That was the way they were. One would assert that water was wet, the other would immediately deny it. I saw the tension build on Harry's face. For some reason, he was absolutely intolerant of bickering.

"Easy," I said to them. "Be quiet, now. Less talking, more cleaning." I turned to leave, then stopped and turned back.

"You two will be good for your father?," I said.

"Yes, mommy," Angeline said in her singsong voice.
I pulled on some boots, pulled my hair into a ponytail, and drove to the store under scudding gray skies. I hoped they would stay calm for him. Leaving the three of them together always provoked a nervous prickle in my stomach. Harry was their father, but he had this inchoate rage, this uncontrollable fire. Suddenly, whether it was the drinking, or more stress at work, he overreacted to anything they did, screaming and cursing, a reaction way out of proportion to their actions. He promised he would try to control himself, but he never managed to.

When I got back home, the tires crunching over the hard packed snow, I was looking forward to finally eating something, and then gently, lovingly, falling into the arms of a first glass of wine. I could see it, the light reflecting off of the surface, the gentle swirls as I picked it up, the tart bite of it against my tongue and throat, and the gentle fog that followed, allowing me to drift into a slow nap to kill off the afternoon.

I had lunch and the marshmallows in one hand, with my other hand reaching for the knob, when I heard it. Elizabeth was screaming, her voice distorted and raw like on a bootleg concert recording. Her voice pierced me, my heart pounding, my muscles dissolving to jelly in seconds. She was saying something about how she hated him, and she would never ever do anything he said ever again. I heard his bass, rumbling with threat and menace, and along the edges, Angeline's high shriek of "Stop it! Stop yelling!"

I dropped the food and was through the door and moving towards the stairs, full of rage and guilt and the beginnings of a pounding headache. I separated the combatants, using all the strength I had not to scream back at both of them, then made my way back downstairs. Angeline had snuck past me somehow and was back downstairs, standing in front of the door, the cold outside air blowing through her still tangled mane. She was holding the bag from the grocery store, bits of snow melting off the bottom and falling on her tiny feet. She looked at me, her tiny face enormous and red and puffy now.

"Mommy?," she said before sniffling twice. "Mom-mommy?"

"Yes, baby," I said as sweetly as I could.

"You left the marsh-the-the-the marshmallows in the snow, Mommy."

"Yes I did, Angel. That was silly, wasn't it?"

"Yes, Mommy. That was silly," Angeline said.