Empathy Project – Part 1

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Session #15: Michelle is Brent describing the game against the Royals

We all know at this point I don’t want to engage in this lame institutional stupidity anymore, but if my wife is still insisting it might help I guess I’ll say the action picked up when Todd, Coach Jim’s idiot spawn who wouldn’t let anyone use his special helmet, whose tanned and pearly-toothed family would only eat salad and drink unsweetened iced tea at the pizza parties, hit an opposite-field single that was really just sticking the bat out and slapping the ball six inches to the left of a first baseman who had the body control of a newborn giraffe, a three-legged rhinoceros, a marionette controlled by a drunk puppeteer. But we cheered for the little bastard, even as he cuntily clapped for himself while standing on the bag and pointed at the dugout with both hands. You have to cheer you know, it’s part of the game.

In the next at-bat, Rob walked. Then Steven walked. Then manatee-physiqued Richard took a fastball to his gelatinous left thigh and crumpled to the ground and started screaming. Here we go again, I thought. We all knew the Hollywood treatment was coming, or at least I did, the moment the ball made that fleshy thock sound and he paused and looked down.

As he writhed in the dirt with thespian affect the coaches converged on the batter’s circle like EMTs, meanwhile Richard’s drunken lush of a mom Shelly stood by the fence on the first base side with her thermos and camera, smiling, taking pictures, not disturbed in the slightest by her son’s ridiculous theatrics.

After Richard was up and sniffling and on first base, we cheered (applauding really that it was only five minutes this time), Brendan crossed the plate, and the Nationals pulled to within one with the bases still loaded.

In the next at-bat, Alex, the Pattersons’ ring sour weanling, was called out on strikes, squandering a golden RBI opportunity, and what’s worse the last strike was a rainbow that landed with painful soundlessness in the catcher’s mitt. When the umpire took a step back, acted he was starting a chainsaw, and said “Threeiiiahhhh” in a pro-wrestling voice Alex dropped his jaw and his bat and looked up at his parents at the top of the stands. “Oh come on,” said Frank, who’d been keeping score and now had to pencil in a backwards K by his son’s name.

Some of the Royals parents spoke up from their side. “Relax,” said one dad, dragging the word out. “Two strikes anything close, huh?” said another, leaning back with hands locked behind his head and a smile on his face.

“Wasn’t close, chief,” Frank said.

“Bullshit.”

At that, the home plate umpire took off his mask and turned around. “This is a warning, to both sides,” he said, pivoting back and forth between the stands. The Royals dads protested with upturned palms angled at the Nationals side. I almost got involved at this point, but my wife’s grip on my forearm, coupled with a sense I didn’t have enough status to say anything, kept me from doing so.
The umpire put his mask back on and pointed at the pitcher and the game resumed. Next up was wussyboy Porter, whose sweater-shawled parents sent him to a private school in Camarillo. They sat apart from everyone, and were closed off, quiet, with this air about them like the whole affair was primitive bloodsport, something beneath their foo-foo sensibilities and J Crew costumes. They showed no reaction when Porter, without taking the bat off his shoulder, drew a walk on five pitches and another run came in, tying the game. But the rest of us cheered. “Good eye Porter! Let’s go Nationals!” my wife said, joining the chorus of parental positivity.

One of the Royals coaches emerged from the dugout. He put his Oakley Radarlocks on top of his hat, and looked at the pitcher (who was holding the ball like it was made of lead), clapped his hands, nodded, pointed, clapped his hands some more, put the Oakleys back on, got down in a crouch. “Just throw strikes,” he said, moving his head back and forth slowly. “Just get it over the plate.”

This coach knew our roster well – next up was the league’s most proficient rally-killer, the momentum-destroyer known as Gregory, a twitchy and preoccupied child with two creepy new-age psychologist parents who were rarely seen (he always showed up with Coach Jim’s family). Gregory, looking like he was walking into his own execution, got into the batter’s box and hoisted the bat up onto his shoulder (a mere formality). He looked at all the runners on base, then the pitcher, and scrunched his face up several times in rapid bursts. Then he did something we didn’t expect: before the pitcher could start his windup, he put the bat down, and ran toward Coach Jim in the third base box.

The umpire stood up, took his mask off. Called time.

Coach Jim took a knee and looked at the boy. They spoke for a moment and Coach Jim stood, and with a hand on the kid’s shoulder, walked Gregory to the dugout. We didn’t know what to do. An uncomfortable silence that came off as disappointment prevailed.

“Should we cheer?” my wife said. I didn’t answer, partly because I didn’t know, and partly because after talking to the umpire and scribbling something on his lineup card, Coach went to the dugout and kneeled in front of Michael.

Right away, I got a feeling. Pit of my stomach.

Michael rose, parted a sea of inquisitive teammates, asked Todd if he could use his helmet, and when Todd shook his head no in true idiot fashion, he put on one way too big for him and grabbed a bat and walked toward the batter’s circle. My wife said, “Let’s go Michael. Woo. Come on, Michael!” Other parents said one version or another of the same thing. As for me, I was too wound up to do anything but watch. The kid was in the game. Finally.

And on the first pitch, a nice chest-high fastball, Michael let loose and drove the ball, really drove it, really just drove it, into the left-center gap, over the extended glove of the leaping shortstop and between two outfielders who sprinted toward one another and then the fence.

I stood up and screamed without making any words. Frozen rope, motherfucker! With a shitty helmet on no less. Why wasn’t this kid a fucking starter?

He ran down the basepath, helmet wobbling furiously. Heading for second, he tripped over the bag and tumbled in the dirt, but three runs scored before the catcher, while retrieving the ball from the backstop, was alerted by screeching Royals parents that a

National was down in the middle of the basepath.

Michael lay motionless as he was tagged out. We thought he was hurt, maybe an ankle, an ACL, his knee, but he sat up, thrust out his arms and smiled, so big we could see his missing front teeth.

“Yeah Michael!” “Great job, woo!” “Alright yeah wooo!” “Yeah Nationals!”

What a moment, I thought, watching him jog back to the dugout with no sign of injury and give high-fives to his teammates. The best moment. Sports as transcendence. Dirt on the uniform. My heart pounded. Sweat poured. It’s been said baseball is a concert of individual performances, and clearly the kid had nailed his solo.

In the bottom of the sixth the Nationals took the field (Michael included, out in right) with the sun beating down on the bright emerald grass. Brilliant slivers of sapphire sea could be seen behind a curtain of eucalyptus trees beyond the left field foul pole. And more drama was in the air than sunshine.

The inning’s first eight at-bats were fraught with tension. Richard, who’d recovered well enough from his hit-by-pitch, was on the mound. He dealt out two walks. A strikeout. Three more walks. A strikeout. Two more walks, which made it a one-run game, with two out and the bases loaded. On a full-count, the next batter swung at an eye-level, six-inches-off-the-plate lob and missed. Nationals! Game over, pal. The lead held up, meaning Michael’s bases-clearing hit was the difference. The game winner.

The Nationals stormed the mound with busted-piñata energy and jumped up and down. We cheered and yelled with hand-cupped mouths, looking over intermittently at the Royals’ defeated parents who were packing up their things and getting ready to tell their kids don’t worry, they did great, it’s only one game. I volunteered to go get the tray of sodas from the snack shack and smiled at any Royals dad who’d look at me as I passed by. Big game, I thought, as I worked the fountain. Hard fought. Climactic finish. And a significant win, in that it put us right at .500. Not good enough to make the playoffs, but respectable. Not losers.

At the pizza party afterward parents came up to Michael and congratulated him on a job well done. Coach Jim patted him on the back. “Great job, kid,” he said. “How’s it feel to come in and get the big hit?”

Michael merely shrugged. I laughed. I was itching to tell Coach that Michael ought to have a larger role for the final games, but we’d been down this road before, so I ate my pizza, buried my opinion of Coach’s roster management, trusted Michael’s performance would speak for itself, watched muted sports on the TV, didn’t ask what the hell happened with twitchy Gregory, suffered trivial banter with other parents the way you were supposed to do. I had to accept these things, like it or not. They were part of the game.

Session #16: Brent is Michelle describing a father-son-dog walk

On Sunday morning Brent took Michael and our old boxer Bailey out to the beach. I was nervous and said be careful before they left, because Michael is very precious and nothing bad can ever happen to him, ever. Bailey either. I was sure my husband would take care of them, but sometimes elements of the real world are very dangerous and hard to predict and, well, I’ve never really been under pressure to negotiate those things as a child-of-privilege / woman’s studies major / manager at BevMo. It makes me uncomfortable to think that my little baby boy and lovable dog ever, ever would be. And so I was very nervous which probably wasn’t good for Michael to comprehend but there you have it.

Brent, still athletic because of his job as a lifeguard and his general commitment to a robust outdoorsman’s life, was a little frustrated with the boy, who struggled to keep up as they ran around on the wetpack. Michael fell further and further behind, and eventually just sat down on a small incline of sand and watched his dog and father. He was tired, unable to fully participate in the activity, and Brent was supposed to understand this wasn’t the behavior of a weakling or a lazy kid – it was Michael coming to terms with his limitations in ways that didn’t result in self-hatred. It was something healthy.

After running Bailey around some more and throwing a stick she kept chasing, by the water, in the water, all over the sand, Brent came up to Michael at the top of the sandhill. The girl was close by, huffing, smiling with her tongue out, ready for more.

“How you feeling?”

“Good,” Michael said, squinting up at his father.

“How’d you like the game yesterday?”

He shrugged.

“You’re way too good to be on the bench, you know that right?”

He nodded.

Bailey shook herself, rattling her collar, spraying water, went back to staring at Brent huffingly.

“You did a great job staying focused. I’ll tell you that. Coming in cold and getting a hit like that’s not an easy thing to do.”

“Do you think I could ever be on the Dodgers?”

Brent laughed. “Well, you’re good enough to be a starter on your Nationals,” he said. “That much I know.”

“Yeah,” Michael smiled, and to his father’s delight, got up, grabbed the stick from him and threw it over the head of Bailey, who dutifully chased it down.

The dog’s mission of retrieval brought their gazes to a waist-high wall that divided the beach from a bikepath and a long row of houses. A policeman had come through an open section in the wall, and was walking toward them.

The policeman put his hand up. When he got closer, he said “Hey there,” in that voice tinged with an officer’s tone of reprimand.

Bailey cast a brief, curious glance at him as she galloped past him with the stick in her mouth.

“Hi,” Brent said.

“Beautiful dog.”

“Sure is.”

Michael gave the officer a blank look, took the stick from Bailey, threw it back out.

“But she can’t be out here. Is it a she?”

They watched the beautiful she-dog chase the stick down, clamp it, shake sand from her face, lumber back with an exaggerated gait.

“Can’t be out here? What do you mean?”

“No dogs on the beach.”

“No dogs on the beach? Since when?”

“This week, a new ordinance was passed. Don’t you read the news?”

“The news?”

“We sent flyers out too. We’re about to put signs up.”

Brent looked at all the houses, their patios, decks, tinted windows, satellite dishes. No one was outside any of them. The only people he saw anywhere were joggers on the bikepath, a group of cyclists who whizzed by in their spandex.

“An ordinance, huh?”

“It’s pretty technical, lots of legalese. I don’t quite agree with it, frankly.”

“Huh.”

“These residents think this place is like Malibu, that the beach is their front yard. Private property. Somehow they were able to get dogs banned. They’d like to get people banned too, but that’ll never happen. Or maybe it will. You never know.”

“Okay.”

“I sympathize,” the cop said. “I really do, but when these people put their money behind lawyers…”

“Yeah. I get it.”

The cop left them alone, a small token of respect and deference, and after one more toss of the stick they led Bailey (whose unperturbed enthusiasm was kind of heartbreaking) off the beach. Walking back home, Brent set his mind to bottling up a rant about small-time politicians who’d enact unfair legislation for a fee. No dogs on the beach. Unfuckingbelieveable. This type of thing, the claiming of space by the wealthy, was happening everywhere in Ventura: over by the pier, a beach deli had become a sushi bar, and a pizza shack was now some gay bistro with glass-encased candles and linen napkins. And all around their neighborhood homes were getting torn down as children inherited them, turned them into condos and townhouses, and sold them off. That’d been happening for years now actually. The place was morphing into outer Los Angeles.

As they walked along, Brent noticed that Michael had fallen into a silence of his own, and was estimating frontyard foliage from a vague perspective, concealing the neural energy of his little private universe. Brent quickly backed off of the inferior position of wondering what his son was thinking and instead considered how Michael could gain strength by sinking into himself. It was something Brent had given to him, that tendency. Michael didn’t know this yet, but the attitudes of his father, who fostered self-sufficiency and toughness, were cultivating in him an internal space where he could operate according to his whims, so long as he was willing to fight to preserve that space. That was an essential element for survival in this world, for not getting pushed around, getting led this way and that by people. This no dogs bullshit was another reminder of why he needed that.

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Photo by Matt Stratton

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About Author

Zack O’Neill earned his MFA from the University of South Carolina. His work has been supported by two fellowships, the James Dickey Fellowship and the Houston Writing Fellowship. His work has appeared in The Oklahoma Review, Kudzu Review, The Homestead Review, and elsewhere. His novel The Blue Stoop was a finalist in the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. He currently lives in Sacramento, and works as an adjunct English professor.

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