Writing

ROUNDING HOME

Chapter One

I loved baseball in the summer time.

It was two o’clock in the afternoon and sweltering hot in Dripping Springs Texas. I was sweating through my clothes. I had my starting lineups and walked toward the pressbox; it was right above the concession stand. There was a ladder inside the concession stand I climbed, then I hoisted myself onto the wooden platform where a folding chair and an old pine school desk awaited me. I laid out my starting lineups and surveyed the field.

Glancing down, I saw a catcher looking up at me, wearing a Viper’s uniform. His face mask was propped up on his catcher’s helmet. He was sweaty and grimy.

“Are you Ty’s sister?” He asked me.

“Yes, Ty is my brother.”  I didn’t recognize him.

“You look just like him.”

I glanced at my lineup and didn’t see his name.

“What’s your name?” I asked him.

“John Carlson,” he said, “I’m the new catcher. Nice to meet you.” then he pulled his face mask down, adjusted his chest protector and crouched behind home plate, as Ty stepped up on the mound.

I looked at the lineup.  “Tommy Kistler” was normally Ty’s starting catcher, but I didn’t see Tommy anywhere.  Where was Tommy Kistler? I erased Tommy’s name and put John’s in his place. My legs were sticking to the plastic chair. I pulled down on my shorts to stop that from happening.

John stood up and threw to second base. He was tall and had a good arm. He had an olive complexion, blue eyes, and short spiky hair. Most girls would swoon at a guy so big and masculine, but not me. Having a ridiculously good looking brother, his size and strength were something ordinary. And no, I didn’t look like Ty. Ty’s skin was golden brown, for example, and my skin was as white as a fish’s belly. He was six foot five and buffed; I was short and small boned. His hair was thick and coarse; mine was long and stringy. He was strong and athletic, and I had exercise-induced anaphylaxis, which meant I was literally allergic to exercise; too much running could kill me. Some people might resent being dealt such bad hand. I thought of it more as nature being predictable. We were like the bird kingdom. Male hummingbirds and cardinals had the most beautiful coats while the female versions were plain and drab.

“That was little outside,” John yelled at Ty.

When I was young, before I knew I had anaphylaxis, my goal was to play in the Major Leagues. I tried to imagine what it would be like to stand on the mound, higher than everyone else, surrounded by spectators, center stage. I would place my hands on my knees and squint toward home plate. I’d never told that dream to anyone before, then one afternoon in our backyard, I was pitching to Ty, and I kept missing the strike zone. I got so mad that I threw the ball on the ground and yelled, “If I keep pitching like this, I’m never going to make the Majors.”

“Women aren’t allowed in the Major Leagues.” Ty said and looked confused. “They can’t play on the same team as men.  They aren’t strong enough. They could get killed.”

That revelation on top of the anaphylaxis was the final nail in the coffin for a Major League pitching career, and a defining moment, which changed the direction of my life. From that moment on I decided I’d make my own place in the sports world, by being the best sportscaster I could be.  Someday I was going to be in the booth, one of the few women in history to call play-by-play for the Yankees, and it wouldn’t matter that I was flat-chested.

Ty’s coach, Mr. Veschek yelled from the dugout. “Alright. Five fastballs over the middle.”

I looked over at my parents sitting on the wooden bleachers.  Dad waved at me. Ty looked a lot like dad when he was young.  In the picture I had of Dad pitching in Double-A in Albuquerque,  he looked just like a Brad Pitt. Imagine a forty-seven-year-old version of Brad Pitt with thinning salt and pepper hair and twenty extra pounds around his midsection.

“Do you have the starting lineup?” Dad asked as he walked toward the concession stand and looked up at me.

“Yes, yes, I’m set up and ready to go,” I said.

“Okay, good.” My dad, became a lawyer after playing baseball professionally, but his career was just a means to end.  A way to make money, pay for his first love and the only reason for living, baseball.  Thank God he had a son to carry on the tradition.

I looked around; a few parents were sitting in the stands.  Others were lining the right field fence, sitting in lawn chairs and holding misting fans, and  draping wet towels around their necks to try and guard against this punishing Texas heat.   Select Baseball in the summertime was not a spectator sport. Nobody was out here unless they had somebody playing in the game.

“Play ball,” yelled the umpire.

I glanced at my paper lineup.  I began speaking in my best sportscaster voice.

“Small crowd here on hand. We are ready for baseball in south Texas as the Vipers take on the Young Guns. Young Guns second baseman, Darius Johnson, is set to lead it off.”

I glanced at Mom in the bleachers and waved. She smiled a resigned smile. Mom wasn’t crazy about me sportscasting. She was from the Deep South, her parents grew up in Mississippi and Alabama, so she had these Southern, traditional notions of how women should behave, like we were supposed to wear hats in the summertime and accessorize. We weren’t supposed to cuss, tell your husband what to do and never have strong opinions about anything. She didn’t get what I was trying to do here. I had accepted that.

I scanned through the Young Guns starting lineup and said, “Darius Jones is the Gun’s first batter.”

I looked down on Darius Jones, the Guns’ skinny left-hander, waiting at home plate. I looked through my binoculars at Ty stepped up on the pitcher’s mound. His freckled, baby face filled my lenses.  He had just shaved and got a haircut. With binoculars, he looked close enough to smell his after-shave.   I set the binoculars down on the desk.

“Ty Miller, 36 strike outs in 29 innings as a junior. He posted a 3-0 record with two saves and a 0.92 ERA.” I spoke into my microphone.

I grabbed my binoculars, and then I wiped the finger prints off the lenses with my t-shirt. I looked back out on the field at Ty’s uniform, white with blue stripes. “Vipers” was written in big blue letters across the front of his jersey. When Ty turned around “Miller” and “21” were written in blue across his back. I liked seeing my last name on his uniform.

“Darius is hitting .546.”

I watched Ty through my binoculars. He took a deep breath, concentrated and fired. Darius hit a grounder and raced toward first.  The short stop caught the ball and threw him out.

“A swing and a bouncing ball to short. Up with Graham. Throws to first. One pitch, one out and we’re underway at the Texas Field of Dreams.”

I glanced at John Carlson. He made great throws from the plate, and he was fast coming out of the crouch, notably faster than Tommy Kistler, Ty’s prior catcher.

“Michael Tucker, another left-handed batter right at the top. Three of the first four hitters are left-handed batters, and number three in the lineup is Garrett Cole.”

Michael Tucker approached the plate. He said something to John Carlson and laughed.

“Come on Tucker. You can get a hit off this kid,” a man yelled. “He ain’t got nothing.”

I narrowed my eyes, and I looked down at a bear of a man. He was leaning against the chain link fence to the right of home plate wearing a Young Guns tank and a farmer’s tan. He was breaking peanuts with his teeth and spewing shells. Great.

“Next up, we have…” The snow cone machine was whirring and crunching ice, so I had to speak up. What a  bad design, putting the pressbox above a concession stand.

I looked over the in the stands, and Dad was gone. He had a hard time sitting in the stands when Ty pitched.  He liked to pace around. Instead, some random guy was sitting next to Mom, which was not uncommon because my mom was pretty and thin and  built like a runway model.

I grabbed my binoculars and watched Ty as he took a deep breath, concentrated and fired. Tucker hit the ball to the second baseman, who threw another easy out.

“For God’s sakes, Tucker. You hit the ball right to him. I could do better than that,” yelled the man at the fence. Of all the places to stand, why did this guy have to stand near me. I hated hecklers.  I wanted to say something to him or tell him to go stand somewhere else, but I couldn’t. I knew he wasn’t going to listen to me.

“Ground ball to the right side, scooped up by Castillo. Thrown to first.  Two pitches, two outs,” I said as Tucker jogged back into his dugout, no longer laughing.

“How’s his velocity?” I turned and Mom climbing up the ladder. She was visible only from the waist up.

“I don’t know. Why?”

“That guy next to was asking.” Mom hoisted herself all the way up.

I turned off my microphone and looked over at her.  “He usually throws around 94-96 miles an hour fastballs plus breaking pitches. Who is that guy?”

“I don’t know,” Mom whispered as she sat in the empty folding chair next to me. “I think he’s a reporter. It kinda felt he was interviewing me.”

“Here comes Garrett Cole, who batted .667 as a junior last year with three home runs. His high school coach calls him the best hitter on the team.”

“Are you ready Ty Miller? He’s gonna knock your little pitch right out of the ballpark,” the man below yelled. I covered my microphone. He was so loud I was worried people were going to overhear him.   I didn’t know what to do. Man ,I wanted to say something to him.  If I were big like Dad and Ty, one mean look would shut him up; they were master intimidators. They got through life with force and enforcement. That didn’t  work for me. He outweighed me by one hundred pounds.   I looked at my mom. “I bet that guy farts when he walks.”

“Don’t worry about  him,” Mom said under her breath. I glanced at her. Of course, that was her advice, because she hated conflict and confrontation. Life was all unicorns and rainbows with her. Insults and bad manners rolled off of her, like water rolled off on a duck’s back, but not me; I had a fighter instinct, I had been trained to  settle scores and level attackers. Not sure when that seed got planted. Maybe in childhood when Ty and I started fighting, and Dad put us in 16 ounce boxing gloves, and turned us loose on one another in the backyard.

My heart rate was speeding up and my hands were starting to sweat. I resented big guys.  He had a lot more mass than me which made him tougher.  He could just drop a fist on me and hurt me. I wasn’t well positioned here. That guy had no idea what kind of turmoil he was causing in me. I tried to calm down by finding a focal point and taking some deep breaths. Ty’s face was a good focal point. He was talking to himself, but I couldn’t tell what he was saying.

“The Guns are bringing on Garrett Cole with 3 home runs, 20 RBI’s and Cole will make sure Miller has to work here.” I couldn’t let that heckler ruin my concentration. Hecklers were part of sports.

“Let’s go Garrett,” yelled the guy at the fence. “Come on. Ty Miller doesn’t have anything. He’s throwing meat.”

Breathe. Breathe. I’m going to ask him to please move.

“Strike,” yelled the umpire.

That sounded weak.

“Fastball over the outside corner,” I spoke into my microphone. My mind was getting jumbled. It was harder to concentrate. “Cole doesn’t swing. That was …a strike.” I couldn’t think of anything better to say, so I said, “ Ty Miller stands 6’4” weighs 215 pounds, 17-years-old, born and raised in Buckhorn, Texas. He…”

“I could have hit that,” yelled the guy at the fence. “That was a meatball.”

Breathe. Breathe.  That guy wasn’t going to respect “nice”.

Mom whispered, “What’s wrong?”

“He’s got nothing, you know it’s coming,” the guy yelled below. “You control the plate, son, step in there.”

“That guy is such a jerk,” I whispered to my mom, nodding to the heckler.

“Stop paying attention to him,” Mom said.

Come on Ty. You can do this.

Cole pawed the dirt like a bull. He hit the plate with his bat a few times then waited for the pitch.

“The wind and pitch,” I said.

Ty fired.

Cole hit a line drive to short stop and was immediately thrown out at first. The man at the fence yelled, “Oh come on.”

I smiled, “Garrett Cole, hitting phenom, out on first. Three up and three down. And the game is underw-a-a-a-y.”

As Ty ran toward the dugout, everyone on the home side of the stands stood up, so I stood up and clapped.

Mom nudged me, “Don’t.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you’re supposed to be impartial.”

“No one is paying attention to what I’m doing,” I said.

I looked down and did a fist pump at the guy at the fence, but he didn’t look up.  He was grumbling and walking back to the stands.

“Call your dad, and find out where he is,” said Mom.

I grabbed my cell phone and dialed Dad, but the call went straight to voice mail for the next six innings as Ty pitched an almost flawless game, no runs, one hit, three walks and five strike outs.

The Vipers won the game 8-0. And for the rest of the game, the peanut spewing man child sat in the stands, and I was able to call the game in peace without distraction.

“What an extraordinary performance by Miller.” I kept my eyes on Ty as his teammates congratulated him; they patted him on the back and shook his hand.  I picked up my cell phone and dialed Dad for the seventh time.  This time he answered.

“Yeah?”

“What’d you think?”

“He’s still got a lot of work to do. He didn’t throw any harder than anybody else. His fastball wasn’t moving, and his breaking ball- I’ve seen better,” Dad said and hung up.

Reading Retta

Honorable Mention-Austin Chronicle  Short Story Contest, 1998

by Amy Goodwin

The pediatrician blamed colic. The dentist blamed a nursery rhyme; a Wednesday’s child is full of woe. Her mother blamed herself for drinking wine while she was pregnant. Her father blamed her mother. Retta saw every doctor on her list of providers. They couldn’t help, so she saw a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, a psychologist and a nutritionist. Retta still hurt.

Retta first heard about the curandera at work. Sitting alone in the break room, eating her one a day Snickers, she often heard the Mexican women talk of the curandera’s readings. She predicted that Sylvia’s husband would leave. She knew Delia was barren well before she even had a boyfriend. If a reading foreshadowed danger, the curandera had an intervention potion to bring a husband home and herbs to make a woman fertile.

Retta had nothing to lose. All day she’d walked around too tired to live. The night before she hadn’t slept; too afraid she’d die. With every ounce of strength, Retta ascended the rotting staircase and knocked on the curandera’s front door. As she waited on the porch, she looked out on a yard, overgrown, landscaped with poison ivy. An old Ford truck sat stationary just right of the driveway, useful only to the goat that stood atop its hood, lording over his chicken and rooster subjects. The porch on which Retta stood swayed like a bad bed, boards warped by standing water. A surveillance camera perched above the front door was the only marking of modernity.

Retta looked anxiously at her watch, then knocked again on the front door. She looked into the camera eyeing her suspiciously and waved, “I’m here for my two o’clock appointment.”

The curandera opened the front door and studied her. Retta felt suddenly aware of her young, frail body.

“Come,” the curandera said in a thick Spanish accent, motioning Retta to follow. The curandera looked buxom and strong, but her eye-catching beauty had faded.

They walked through her living room, lace curtains dancing as a breeze ebbed and flowed through an open window. A television shouted a Spanish soap opera to two stuffed chairs. Four walls bore the family photographs, still-frame proofs of a life’s investment. Retta’s stomach growled from the smell of fresh tortillas drifting from the kitchen.

The curandera reached in an apron pocket, pulled out a key and opened up the door to what had once been a walk-in closet.

“Sit,” she said assertively as she entered, motioning Retta to a folding chair. Retta sat down obligingly.

Little packages of dried herbs hung from a clothesline, clipped with pink plastic clothespins. Extending his stigmata, a tapestry of brown skinned Jesus hung on the wall behind her. Brightly colored candles filled the bookshelves — red for love, yellow for courage, green for wealth and fortune. Retta wished that she was Catholic for a moment. She wanted the pretty glass Rosary beads that were draped on a stand in the corner.

Lifting the reading glasses hanging from a chain around her neck, the curandera squinted. “Hablas Español?”

“No,” Retta said, then wished she hadn’t. The disadvantage might affect her reading.

“It’s okay,” the woman said laughing, reading her thoughts. “I speak English.” She reached into her maple desk and produced a pen and paper.

“Write down five questions,” the curandera said, as she pushed the pen and paper across to her.

Retta had her questions ready. Would she ever feel better? Would she find love? Would she leave her parents house and find her own place? Would she have a real profession? Would she ever be able to sleep in the dark? She wrote them down, then looked when she finished.

The curandera reached behind her desk and opened the bottom drawer. With a big heave, she then lifted the biggest Bible Retta ever saw and dropped it on the desk, dust flying out like puffs of smoke.

“Open it and point,” she said. “Then read me the verse where your finger lands.”

The Bible smelled of musty leather. Its pages, matted together, required peeling rather than turning. For convenience sake, she opened the Bible near the beginning. Her finger landed on Genesis 19:8 and she read aloud.

“Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to those men, in as much as they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

This wasn’t a good sign. Retta wanted another reading.

“Hum,” said the curandera pensively.

What did hum mean? thought Retta. She looked at the curandera for a sign. The curandera gave no sign. Instead, she bowed her head, rocked back and forth in her chair, chanting in a low, monotonous tone. “Holy Spirit come down on me. Use me as an instrument of your Word. Holy Spirit guide me, direct me. Show me the way, the truth and the light.”

Then she opened her eyes and answered Retta’s questions.

The answers Retta received were surprisingly promising. The curandera even offered up her nephew Domingo as a possible date. The pain, however was a curse that only ten prayers, two anointed candles and eight more visits could reverse. A curse was just another name for the same familiar pain. To be polite, Retta bought the candles, took the prayers and paid her for her services. Then she thanked her, left and never went back.

Nothing helped. Pills didn’t. Books didn’t. Talking didn’t. The only relief that remained was daydreaming, imagining herself somewhere else. Her favorite place to visit was her own funeral. Hundreds of people sat crammed into upright pews. Plastic speakers piped her eulogy, accommodating latecomers overflowing in the annex. Retta kept a running list of attendees in her head and secretly recruited. That was the main reason she went out and made friends in the first place. Her parents said it was morbid making death a reason for living. Retta said it was just a different twist on things.

In the mornings over breakfast, while her father read Sports and her mother read Lifestyles, Retta read the obituaries. Scanning the casualties of life gave her a sacrilegious satisfaction. In the race with the moving finish line, where bodies just gave out, Retta prevailed. The accomplishment spurred her out of her breakfast starting blocks and into the drudge of the day.

Weeks later, Retta came across the curandera’s name over breakfast. At 72 she died, leaving four grown children and a husband. Her Rosary was 9:00 a.m. at the Catholic Church. A graveside service followed at the Mexican Cemetery. Retta thought about the curandera’s clients. Would they be notified or come for an appointment and find out she was gone? She wondered what would happen to her walk-in closet office. The classifieds held her answer.

As Retta drove to the garage sale, she imagined the garage sale regulars, scavenging through the curandera’s possessions, searching for bargains. Opportunists, they came to capitalize on an American tradition; forget the dead and move on. The image made her angry.

Like an onlooker at a bad accident, Retta knew she shouldn’t look. The urge was too great, however, she couldn’t fight it even if she wanted to. Something called to her. Perhaps it was the spectacle of death. She rarely knew the people in the paper. Maybe it was reconciliation, a chance to bring an enemy closer, or an opportunity to stand in the wake of death and feel its power. She talked herself out of the guilt by promising not to buy anything. She wouldn’t get out of her car.

Retta pulled up to the curb in her Toyota. The poison ivy was gone now for show floor safety. There in the curandera’s front yard lay her shrine dismantled, attractively displayed for inventory close out. To Retta’s surprise however, there were no scavenging regulars. Instead she saw Sylvia and Delia from work, and many other clients, expending considerable time and effort evaluating each of the curandera’s belongings. News of the curandera’s death had somehow spread. They’d come like a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to pay their last respects and purchase relics of their gone Messiah.

One of the curandera’s middle-aged sons stood in the yard, wearing an Allen Auto T-shirt, holding a fistful of money.

“I’ll pay you ten dollars for that candle,” said one woman to the curandera’s son, handing him a candle.

Another woman standing nearby overheard the offer. She too was considering buying the candle and the competition solidified her commitment.

“Mira,” she to the curandera’s son. “I’ll pay you twenty.”

Like a Mexican version of Christie’s, each item sold to the highest bidder. The curandera’s son took the twenty dollars from the second woman and closed the deal.

The urgency for a curandera keepsake infected Retta. She forgot the promise she made herself and left her car. Retta walked around the yard, trying to look discreet. A card table stacked high with books caught her eye. She liked books. Retta flipped through a few pages. She saw diagrams that made her think they were books on Santeria, what whites called Mexican witchcraft.

She closed the books. As she moved to walk away, she stubbed her toe on the corner of something jutting out from underneath the table. There camouflaged in steeping grass sat the curandera’s Bible. Like an undiscovered treasure chest, it waited, large, vintage, arduous to open, yet promising a wealth and richness if unlocked. The Bible needed a new interpreter to decipher its hidden messages.

Retta couldn’t believe her good fortune. Adrenaline rushing, she picked the Bible up almost effortlessly and headed straight for the curandera’s shrewd negotiator.

“How much for the Bible?” she asked. He paused and stared at her a moment.

“Five dollars?” He was unaware the Bible was one of his mother’s most cherished possessions.

Retta nodded. With a concerted effort she balanced the Bible under one arm and reached into her pants pocket for a wadded up five.

Out of the corner of her eye she felt another’s stare. A Mexican girl, no more than seventeen, pregnant with toddler in tow, walked toward her.

“I’ve looked everywhere,” she said desperately as she reached Retta, pointing to the Bible. “Where did you find it?”

Before Retta could answer, the woman interrupted. “Please Miss, please. It’s all I have,” she said, handing Retta a Zip-Loc bag chock-full of quarters.

Retta stared at the woman, sadly. She couldn’t understand how someone could trust another human being that much, give another so much power in her life. The woman believed in someone that now was gone. Retta imagined the fear she felt, and the feeling of abandonment. That she could understand. She handed the woman the Bible. She needed it more than Retta did.

In one afternoon the curandera’s life was scattered across the countryside. Her belongings were placed in new shrines of their own. As she drove, Retta thought about the curandera. No longer a channel to God from earth, she now sat face to face with Him and could speak on her clients’ behalves. She realized they could still believe; they could still have faith. Retta stopped worrying about the Mexican woman and started worrying about herself. Where was her faith? Where was her trust? Why couldn’t she believe?

At the next light Retta made a U-turn and drove to the local bookstore to buy herself a Bible, a small version with crisp pages, the kind that she could carry. The original book of answers went to someone more deserving, but it wasn’t too late for Retta. She could teach herself to read the Bible, interpret and discover its hidden meanings.

Retta has her own place now, a small garage apartment a few blocks down from her parents’ house. Her new Bible rests on her coffee table. Two yellow anointed candles are proudly displayed on her borrowed entertainment center. Every night before she goes to bed, she reads her Bible and the ten prayers. Occasionally, she even burns her candles. She thinks often [of] the woman that prayed souls to heaven, sat with sin and sorrow, kept life’s many secrets and looked into tomorrow.

Mexicans called her the curandera. Retta called her a friend.

As published: http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/annual/stories/98/hm.goodwin.html