This story first appeared in the November 2010 issue of Joyful magazine.

 

Mike Burns climbed the aluminum bleachers and sat on the fourth row, one down from the top. It was a beautiful summer evening, sun ducking below a nearby tree line providing shade to the small gathering on the third base side of the ball field. The slight breeze and low humidity enhanced the comfort level.

“What inning is it?” he asked a rather large lady sitting a row below and to his left. It looked like she was wearing a housecoat and slippers, strange attire even for a little league game Mike thought.

“Fifth,” she said as though annoyed, “can’t you see the scoreboard?”

He looked in the direction she pointed. “Oh yeah, sorry.”

She just made a tsking sound and shook her head.

“Seven to one huh?”

“That’s what it says.”

“So what are these kids about eight or nine years old?”

“S’about right.”

“C’mon ump,” said a man on the top row, “that was way outside.”

“Shut up,” said the lady, “that ump is just a boy himself.”

“Aw kill the ump.” Said the man, eliciting a laugh from the crowd, even the lady.

Mike wasn’t sure why this was so funny. He looked at the umpire behind the plate and figured he was in his mid teens. Typically there was a liberal strike zone at this level to keep the game moving. The poor kid was the only ump working the game so had to make calls on the bases too. Tough job.

“So which is the home team?”

“The ones in the field,” the lady said still annoyed.

Mike nodded looking out at the fielders in their black shirts and hats with white lettering, and gray pants. The other team had powder blue shirts and hats, dark blue lettering and white pants. “I guess the home team still has time to catch up, they play six innings right?”

The lady let out a hearty laugh as her head went back. “Yeah, that’s right,” she said still laughing, “they play six innings.”

Mike heard giggles from elsewhere in the stands, but was distracted by the ping of the aluminum bat hitting the ball. He watched as the ball was popped into the air toward the third baseman. The tyke staggered under the ball and stuck his glove out at the last minute. Mike couldn’t tell if the boy closed his eyes, but it sure looked like it. The ball fell into the glove for the third out. The team came running off the field at full speed as the sparse crowd applauded.

“So you got a boy playing here?” Mike asked.

“We all got something to see here,” she said staring at him for a second before going on. “You see that boy playing second, he’s my boy.”

Mike nodded. “Good looking kid.”

“Yeah, I sure miss him,” she said wistfully.

“Game’s almost over, you’ll see him then.”

“I hope so,” she replied.

“Hey, they got stuff to eat here?” Mike asked breaking her mood.

“There’s a cacession stand over there behind the backstop. They gots all kinds of stuff, burgers, dogs, freeze pops, you name it.”

“Can I get you something?” Mike said as he stood up.

“No, I ate already.”

“Okay, save my spot will you?”

She looked at him as if he was crazy. “Ain’t saving no spot,” she said shaking her head back and forth and making that tsking sound again.

“I’ll bring you back a freeze pop.”

“Don’t want no freeze pop. Don’t worry ‘bout your spot, your spot will be here, just go.”

Mike smiled at her as he descended the bleachers and headed toward the concession stand. As he stood in line, he saw the umpire call third strikes on outside pitches to the first two batters. As he walked back to the bleachers after getting his hot dog and coke, he heard the ping of the bat striking the ball and looked up in time to see the lady’s son field a grounder and throw the runner out at first.

“Hey, your boy made a nice play,” he said to her as he climbed the bleachers while munching on his hot dog.

“Sure did,” she beamed.

“Hey,” he said as he swallowed the last of the dog and just before taking a sip of his coke, “aren’t we going into the top of the sixth?”

A hush came over the small gathering in the bleachers as the lady turned to him and said, “It’s always the fifth inning here.”

Mike looked at her as he sipped the drink through his straw, not knowing how to react to that. “What does that mean?” he said between sips.

“It means what I said.”

“But the home team was just up in the bottom of the fifth, the scoreboard should change to the sixth now, where’s the operator?’

“Scoreboard ain’t gonna change ‘til it’s ready to.”

“What are you talking about?’

“Look son,” she said warily, “do me a favor. Put down that drink and go over into the bathroom over yonder behind the cacession stand.”

“But I don’t have to go to the bathroom.”

“Just go, go on now. I’ll hold your drink, go on.’

Mike got up and looked at her for a long time before he realized the others in the stands were watching the two of them. He shrugged his shoulders and headed toward the men’s room. He opened the door not knowing what to expect to see, but looking around for some sort of revelation. No one was in the tiny bathroom, just a urinal, a small stall with a toilet, and a sink with a mirror over it. He looked in the stall to make sure no one was there, looked around at the ceiling and floor, graffiti on the walls, anything that might enlighten him about why the lady sent him here.

As he was about to leave, he glanced at the mirror and gasped as the breath came out of him. He saw himself with blood dripping down his face. He touched his face and looked at his hand, but there was not a trace of blood on it. He faced the mirror and looked at his chest, which was sunken to an unnatural concave. He lifted his hand and watched its reflection in the mirror sink into his chest, yet when he looked down he saw his hand touching his quite ordinary looking chest. A chill went down his spine as he stared at the ugly image in the mirror before he could tear himself away and bolt out the door.

He walked slowly back to the bleachers, trying to absorb what he saw. When he got back the lady offered him his drink. He could only shake his head, no longer thinking about eating or drinking.

“Is that some kind of fun house mirror in there?” he asked hopefully.

“Ain’t no funhouse that’s for sure. You seen what is.”

“But how could that be?”

“Let me ask you,” she said patiently, “do you remember drivin in here?’

“Well no, I just remember walking toward the bleachers.”

“That’s what most of us ‘member.”

“So what is this place?”

“Lord knows,” she said laughing.

“You mean that literally don’t you?”

“’Spect I do,” she said. “All’s I know is that it’s been the fifth inning ever since I got here. Same for most these folks I reckon.”

Mike looked around and saw nods of agreement. “But will it ever end?”

“I think so, when it’s ready to end.”

“Then what?”

“Then we go to whatever’s next is my guess.”

Mike sat in silence thinking about this for awhile, trying to comprehend but not really being able to, not yet anyway. “But why here, why this game?”

“Proly different fot each of us I ‘spect. Look around look and see if there’s some reason for you.”

Mike looked at the field, the surrounding area, looked at the players enthusiastically taking their positions. That’s when he saw him. He stared out at the boy playing second base, took a long hard look. No doubt about it, he was looking at his younger self. His mouth dropped at first as he watched the boy get into position, bent over slightly at the waist, oversized glove in front ready to field whatever came at him. Cap down over his eyes, chewing Double Bubble gum, blowing the occasional pink bubble. Mike smiled at the memory playing out before him.

He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted “How about some chatter out there?”

“Hey pitcher pitcher,” he began to hear from the infielders, including his younger self. “Chuck it in there babe, c’mon babe, hey babe.”

Mike smiled as he watched his younger self falling in love with the game, a love that lasted a lifetime. He saw his younger self throwing the ball around the infield, joking with the other boys, jumping for joy when a good play was made or throwing his glove to the ground after an error.

“See it dontcha?” interrupted the lady.

“Yeah, I think I do. Not a bad place to be I think.”

“For some of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“That guy what yelled at the ump,” she began.

“Up there?” Mike said motioning with his head toward the man on the top row.

“That’s him. He hates the game, ain’t no good place for him.”

Mike glanced over at the man, who looked miserable. “That’s not a good sign for him is it?”

“Now you gettin it,” she said. “I ‘spect this is a waiting room kind of thing ‘til we go to a perm’nent place. We like it here, and that’s a good sign as I see it. That guy, I ‘spect he’s in for a tough time.”

Mike didn’t know whether to believe her or not. He didn’t really know what happened to him, or what would happen to him. He just knew that he was enjoying the moment, the smell of the grass, the mild summer evening, the sound of the ball hitting the bat, the smiles after getting a hit or making a catch, his joy was equal to his younger self out there on the field. He didn’t need to think about whatever happened, or what would happen, he just wanted to recapture, through his younger self, one of the happier times of his life.

“Still the fifth huh?” he said glancing at the scoreboard.

“Sure ‘nuff.”

“That’s okay,” Mike said as they smiled at each other. “C’mon guys, heads in the game,” he shouted and leaned back against the row behind him settling in for what could be a long game.

 

The End

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