The Thick of Things – by Chuck Teixeira

(c) Chuck Teixeira, 2015

The only gloves were those Mark brought to the game, equipment his older brothers had left when they moved away from the collieries, gear that usually guaranteed Mark a spot on the team of his choice and a turn at the plate no matter how choppy his swing or how often the bat sailed farther than the ball.

Easter had not yet arrived and no one expected the good weather to last; but since it had held to the weekend, amid sportscaster talk about grapefruit and cactus leagues, Mark hauled his stuff to the rough baseball diamond that neighborhood jocks had cleared in the huge field not far from the last street with wooden houses.  Beyond the diamond, the field spread a mile or two below hills of shale toward the Company Town where disabled miners lived in tarpaper shacks.

As Mark approached the diamond, excited talk arose from a game that had already started between teams already picked.  An older kid that Mark didn’t recognize was walking toward the pitcher’s mound.  He signaled for Mark to come closer, then asked him to play Super Deep Left to retrieve any balls headed toward the abandoned shaft beyond the low rubble marker for home runs.

“I’m Gerry,” he said, bright green eyes smiling from deep brown skin. “Let’s not waste one of the few remaining days in the life of your old mitts.  Give them to the infielders.  And make sure my cousin, Pearl, gets a one.”

“Why,” Mark said.

“Because you’re more likely to throw the glove at a fly ball than use it to make a catch.  That’s why.” Jerry winked and tapped Mark between the legs.

Mark blushed as he walked obediently toward Pearl.  She seemed surprised when Mark offered a glove to her, but not surprised enough to say thanks.  One of the toughest girls in the neighborhood, Pearl liked playing First Base, a real position, and batting near the top of the order. “Easy out!” she shouted over Mark’s head toward the plate, her spittle grazing his face.

In conversations Mark had overheard a few weeks earlier, Pearl dropped hints about Gerry.  He was 19 years old, almost twice Mark’s age, and a hot-shot from New York. He even attended Yankee games when his life of crime allowed.  Right now, his life of crime had him lying low. Pearl had been vague about who was after Gerry and about how long he might stay in their small town west of Wilkes-Barre.

Just overhearing Pearl talk about Gerry had excited Mark.  He was from the part of Pearl’s family that had married Caribbean.  Now, actually here, he was bigger and darker than any of the talk about him.  Super Deep Left was still boring but less so with a clear purpose for being there and a clear view of the pitcher’s mound and Gerry’s graceful delivery.  Fortunately, no balls came anywhere near Mark that inning, which saved him the embarrassment of trying to throw them back.   When Gerry had retired the side, Mark went in to take a turn with one of the bats he had carried from home.

“Put the bat down,” Gerry said.  “You have to retrieve balls for both sides.  Get back out there.”

“No fair,” Mark said, “First my gloves, now my bats.”

Gerry stooped, put his arm around Mark’s shoulder and his mouth against Mark’s ear. “So you bat worse than any girl.  Big fucking deal.  So Short Stop and shallow Center aren’t right for you.  They’re not right for any fat guy.” He put his hand firmly on Mark’s belly, held it there a moment, and said “We’ll find the perfect position for you.  Let me work on it.  And while you’re a little distance from immediate action, give some thought to how best to help me, how best we can work together.”

Mark had trouble locating his breath. He looked around as though for a piece of equipment he had carelessly dropped.  Then in rapture and trying not to waddle, he walked quickly toward the shaft — his ears ravished with the way Gerry had mouthed “fucking” — real close, real nonchalant, not like the rickety training-wheel profanities that local toughs were starting to try.  Mark’s mind began to pulse with thoughts that Gerry might be around through the rest of spring, maybe deep into summer, maybe even move into town.  And about working together, Mark could be the back-office brain behind Gerry’s business savvy and good looks.  Gerry was someone Mark could change for.  No more threatening to take his equipment home if he didn’t get picked for a team or had to skip a turn at bat.

Then Mark caught sight of his surroundings, and all hope fled from his future.  Apart from his own desire and Gerry’s encouragement, most things in the neighborhood worked against their partnership.  Even the trees were ugly.  Many were covered with caterpillar tents, huge nests like the white fur muffs girls had worn to church that winter.

This wasn’t the first year Mark had seen moth infestations.  But Gerry was from the Big City and must have found them weird.  So far the plague had not reached the maple that rimmed the field where they were playing or the birch and elm clustered on the hills beyond the mine shaft.  But in the line of choke cherry and crab apple on the path to the Company Town, where Gerry must have been staying with Pearl’s family, armies of mummies stirred to life.

They frightened Mark.  Once, he’d been teased into close contact with them.  Then suddenly and clearly, it occurred to him. These were the thickets where he would hide Gerry if anyone tried hunting him down. Sure you could suffocate and die if the larvae swarmed into your nose and mouth; but he would protect Gerry as best he could and hope the pursuers would be too scared to enter.


 

 

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More stories from Chuck Teixeira

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