Empathy Project – Part 3

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Session 20: Brent and Michelle collaborate to describe the final game
The first place, 14-1 Yankees had some big kids out there – and their fathers all looked like corn-fed steroid muffins. Probably were cops and construction workers. These were the dads who took their kids to Raiders training camp in Oxnard, who made their sons punch their open hands, who bought them eyeblack at Big 5. During warmups they sat around joking, watching things on phones together, eating hot dogs and fries, acting like the whole thing was mere recreation. This, to them, was a tune-up for the district playoffs. No big deal. We were the scrub JV team giving varsity half a workout before the real competition. For us it was a bigger moment obviously, a chance to finish with a winning record, defeat a powerful opponent, measure ourselves against the best. Many of us felt that tension the moment the Nationals took the field.

Not all of us did though.

Fine. Noted.

When the game started Michael got some action right away, backing up Todd who botched an easy grounder and let it roll into right field. He did a nice job fielding it, throwing it back in. A feeling of relief came over us. He looked focused, comfortable, not out of place at all out there.

This error, we’d soon see, triggered a rally that would more or less dictate how the game would unfold. Not getting too much into the gruesome details, let’s just say when the first inning ended, we were down 3-0 and damn lucky to be that close.

Richard led off our half of that inning. On the second pitch of his at-bat he got a fastball up and in, which sent him off-balance and onto his ass. A plume of dust rose around him and chuckles escaped the parents but they quickly turned into fake encouragement when he got that look like he was about to have another one of his bitch-ass meltdowns. Over at the fence by first base, of course, was Shelly, drinking from her thermos, taking pictures, smiling.

“I’ve been telling Michael not to let the pitcher knock him out of the box,” Brent said, as Richard got up and dusted himself off.

“What’s that mean?” Michelle said.

“It means hang in there, don’t be intimidated.”

“What, so he’s supposed to let himself get hit by the pitch?”

“You turn your back and take it. That’s what I was told.”

Jesus what a stupid game, Michelle thought.

Richard grounded out to third. After that, Todd whiffed. With two outs, Rob hit a grounder to short and was safe on a bad throw to first. He even took second on the error. How un-Yankee-like! We cheered and looked over at the Yankee parents, who didn’t seem the least bit concerned, still looking at phones, talking to each other, hardly minding the game.

With Rob in scoring position, Alex walked, and Porter got a single up the middle and we had something going, but then Steven swung beneath three collarbone-high fastballs and the inning was over. When the Yankees reached the dugout, the coach gathered them around and started pointing at all of them aggressively, going back and forth and looking at all of them as he spoke.

As for Michael, he struck out in the second, and again in the fourth.

By the end of the fourth, they had us 10-2, and it had become all too clear that our fate was to get clubbed worse than a baby seal surrounded by starving Eskimos. Beefy child after beefy child sent Richard’s cantaloupe-sized fastballs into orbit. Hanging sliders too. One home run hit the scoreboard in center field. Another bounced off of a dumpster way beyond right field – Michael didn’t even try for it, just stared at it like it was an eclipse. And these little pricks were doing pirouettes as they rounded the basepaths, shooting at people with their fingers, high-stepping with straightened arms they moved up and down, pointing up to God when they crossed the plate. And all the while, the Yankees parents kept playing on their phones, gossiping, enjoying their hot dogs, Frito Boats, Sno-Cones. No adrenaline. No excitement. Just satisfaction and sagelike superiority to go with their snack shack cuisine.

In the bottom of the sixth, with the Nationals down 11-3, Michael came up for his last at-bat. His game line was 0-for-2, two strikeouts, but no errors in left field (no caught flies either, just a double chased down, homers observed, a single neatly fielded). In his last chance to put a highlight into the mix, he smacked a knee-high pitch between the third baseman and diving shortstop into left field. He rounded the bag, waited a beat like he was supposed to, trotted back. Brent stood up. “Yeah Michael!” he said, pointing at him on first base. He put his hands up, fists clenched. Michael smiled back, and put his hands up too. Brent looked down at Michelle and she was smiling. The other parents were clapping and watching Brent intently. The Yankees parents looked over and smirked. Well, fuck them, Brent thought, sitting back down. They didn’t realize how much the kid had had to improve in a short period of time to get his hips turned and wrists rolled and bathead out so he could drive an inside fastball like that.

Any hope of an amazing comeback was snuffed out by Gregory, who twitched to himself in the batter’s box until three strikes went by. It was official: game over, sub-.500 record, no playoffs. The end. If only the Braves dads hadn’t started shit the previous week, there might have at least been a chance for an even record. And, maybe, if Michael’d had more of a role from the get-go, they’d have had a shot at the postseason. We had all this to ponder while the Yankees celebrated and their parents sat smiling, calm, unsurprised.

At the pizza party afterward, some dads speculated on who’d get chosen for the league-wide All-Star team that would compete in the district tournament, which was different from the regular playoffs (moms found this topic insensitive and tried to shush them). Jim’s kid was a lock of course. And Manatee Richard, temper tantrums and all, was too. The kid could flat throw strikes, even if good hitters would endanger bird life when he left something out over the plate.

Brent had as little enthusiasm for this conversation as the moms did. At one point he whispered to Michelle if Michael’d had more playing time and worked as hard the whole season as he did this past week, he’d have been a possibility. Right, she thought. If if if.

Coach Jim came by, carrying a tray of salads.

“End of the year!” Brent said.

“How long until summer school?” Coach Jim said from one side of his mouth, not breaking stride. Brent laughed.

A little while later Richard’s mom Shelly loped over. With the tension-creating ethos of the publicly drunk, she told Michael, “You were so good out there today honey.”

Her tone almost sounded post-coital. Brent and Michelle feared that moment where you have to tell someone maybe they shouldn’t drive. Or call some sort of protective service, or be that service themselves. Was it some kind of liability if they didn’t do something and she took off and drove herself and Richard into a tree?

Michael looked at this woman with a blank expression.

“He’s a great kid,” she said to us. “Really great.”

“He’s got a little hitting streak going,” Brent said, rubbing Michael’s back. Shelly looked at Brent like she had no idea what that meant. To everyone’s relief, Coach Jim came over at this point and she loped off silently.

“Good game today,” Coach Jim said. “Way to get out in front of that fastball, Michael.”

“Heh heh heh,” said Brent. “He really turned on it, didn’t he?”

“Hey, I’ve got a proposition for you,” he said to Michael. “We’ve got a summer team starting up in July. Assuming our All-Star team isn’t still playing then, we’re gonna tour the area, play in a couple tournaments. Just for a few weeks. We were wondering if you might be interested.”

“Wow,” Brent said. “What do you say, Michael? What an honor.”

Michael chewed pizza, smiled.

“Sound good?” Coach said.

He nodded.

 

“All right,” Coach said. “We’ll be in touch with the details.” He turned to Brent and said, “Maybe you could help out with some of the practices. Maybe get in the coach’s box and help out a little on the first base side for some games?”

Brent beamed.

The dads shook hands.

Why would Coach Jim say that? People were still giving Brent the chilly treatment for the Braves game. Were they desperate for people who could do it?

The passion. And the parents weren’t that pissed, because if you remember Brent told them he’d sit down with league officials and Braves dads and sort out all the hard feelings.

Whatever.

Whatever? Are you saying Jim wants me to help turn everyone into a meathead that fights? That we’re not bullheaded enough? That that’s what baseball is about?

No. Why would I say that?
Anyway, when Michael was off playing video games, Brent and Michelle bantered about meaningless things with the other adults and ate pizza and watched ESPN on mute. Eventually Steven’s family left, then the Pattersons, and soon Brent and Michelle were alone at the table.

“So,” Brent said, “we’ll split when he runs out of quarters?”

“Brent,” Michelle said, “can we afford a summer league? Do you know how much it costs?”

“What? We’ll be fine. Of course we can.”

“But you don’t know how much it costs.”

“I have an idea.”

“Alright,” she said.

A college game was on the big screen. Some lanky kid threw down a windmill dunk and people watching went ooohhhh.

“Look,” Brent said, “it might help him make friends.”

“He’s already got friends.”

“Really?” Brent said. “What friends? Which ones are his friends?”

“He’s got friends!”

“How many of them come over to play? Who does he visit? Who does he go out and do things with?”

“Well if he didn’t make friends this season what makes you think he will in the summer?”

“Michelle – ”

“Brent, I’m just saying it might be something he doesn’t want.”

“Doesn’t want?”

“I mean, who really wants it?”

Brent gave her a stare. Then he got up and went over to the arcade games. He found Michael, who stopped playing his game right away. A few of the other kids looked over as Brent took a knee, Coach Jim style.

Michael nodded. Nodded. Nodded.

Brent pointed at Michelle. Michael glanced at her briefly.

He nodded.

Brent gave him a dollar, patted him on the back, came back and sat down and grabbed some fuckin pizza crust and bit a hunk off and chewed it and stared at the TV.

“He’s fine. He’s into it. He wants to play.”

Michelle folded her arms, watched the stupid game.

Last Session: Joint Epilogue that is honest yet ends amicably
On the car ride home, Brent was thinking a summer league would be good to get Michael out of the house, interacting with other kids, enjoying the outdoors, not vegetating in front of the TV killing zombies or driving carts or vaporizing ghosts, and Michelle was thinking he’s going to get dragged out of his space, into those of other people’s, and suffer their agendas and maybe he should just learn to accept that; Michelle also thought Brent, deep down, knew that us little people in our little spaces had to acquiesce to those more powerful than ourselves and seek out moments of tiny victory so we could tell ourselves at least we didn’t get crushed all the time, and Brent thought that deep down, Michelle was thinking, I would rather cling to some vague, defensively-constructed notion that retreat wasn’t cowardice, that not playing was somehow overcoming the rules, that optimism and self-belief and toughness were alpha-moron qualities.

One thing they could agree on, as they exited Seaward and went left toward the water, and saw sunlight bouncing like new pennies on the sea surface, old, unkempt palm trees, the new tall and skinny ones infesting remodeled suburban blocks, strand cruisers, BMWs, and manicured lawns, you had to enjoy Old Ventura while you still could. The beachspace, the sleepy-hamlet troposphere, what was left of it anyway. Old Ventura was a footprint in the sand, washed away more and more with every new wave, and New Ventura was the tide, pushing smelly seaweed onto the shore, fouling everything, ruining what made the place so great. Just ask Bailey, for Christ’s sake.

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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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