There were only four kids on each team, and when someone hit the ball it wasn’t fielded until the hitter reached second. They all wore baggy jeans and t-shirts; one had a cuss word printed in large font on his back. But they were running, sliding, jumping. The kids’ shouts rang high over the bus’ engine as it idled at a stoplight. He thought of getting off to sit down on a bench to watch, but the light was green before he could make up his mind, and he had to settle for a parting glimpse of a big kid hitting a deep fly ball that sailed over the lone outfielder’s head.
The next day Austin rode the bus again as an excuse to check out the field, but it had been empty.
“I mean,” said Chuck, his voice squirming in the absence of an immediate response from Austin, “it’s nice to hear from you, but I think the last time we saw each other I was in high school and stopped by the park to see Tommy play.”
The words brought back memories of a little tow-headed kid with big feet.
“Oh, Tommy. He was a couple years younger than you.”
“Three. Sometimes I’d get off my shift at the burger stand before the game ended and catch the last inning or two.”
“Yeah, your brother was a darn good pitcher, wasn’t he?”
“Better than me.” Chuck’s voice loosened up. “Did you know he played some minor league ball?”
Austin pretended he remembered. “Right.”
“He gave up after a few years. He didn’t throw hard enough fastballs to make pro.”
“Is that what he said?”
“It’s what he told me and dad.”
“Tommy threw a good curve, though.” Austin was winging it. “He didn’t need a fastball.”
“He’s selling insurance now.”
“It’s too bad I never got to see him pitch in a stadium.”
“That was a long time ago.”
Austin remembered driving the kids down to the park in the bed of a big pickup truck one of the fathers let him use. They would get there a couple of hours before game time and do stretches and sprints, pepper and catch. He would listen to the pop of the ball in the kids’ gloves as he sat on the bench with a scorecard on his knee, scribbling the batting order and deciding who would start. He would peek up from time to time and tell a kid to bend his knees a little more or the grounder was going to go through his legs. Tommy might have been on the team that made it to the city championship game, not Chuck. No matter. He could generalize a fondness from his memories.
“Can I help you with anything?”
“I don’t know.”
“I have a lot of patients this afternoon.”
“I’m sorry. I—”
“Don’t be. We haven’t talked for 40 years, right?”
“I haven’t seen anyone from the team for 23 years.”
“You miss coaching?”
“I didn’t coach for very long.”
“You seemed like you’d been a coach forever.”
“You didn’t speak much, but you were Mr. Baseball, as far as we were concerned.”
“Any coach seems that way to a kid.” Chuck’s questions had stolen him away from his nostalgia, and he didn’t feel like answering any more of them.
“I have to confess, though,” Chuck continued, “I don’t remember a whole lot.”
“Stern. You looked stern, not angry but private. Disciplined.”
“I liked to run a tight ship.”
“Weren’t you in the military or something?”
“No. I was a mail carrier.”
“You didn’t have any kids on the team.”
“You were married?”
“Yeah, but now I’m alone.”
Austin attended Sunday high mass on the anniversary of his wife’s death just after Labor Day. The priest announced an opening for a coach of the school’s seventh-grade boys’ basketball team, and the memories of his years as a coach reminded him of the helpless weeks at his wife’s bedside and his inability to do anything but watch. The guilt had smothered his sorrow, and when the day of the funeral came there had been no tears, just empty sobs like dry heaves.
The same feeling of smothered sorrow was with him after the priest finished the announcement and moved on to others. Austin exited the sanctuary’s big walnut doors after the final hymn, his steps dragging as he walked through the vestibule, his eyes focused on the stairs to ignore the husband and wife at the fold-out table who solicited parishioners to buy World’s Greatest Chocolate bars for two dollars each, serve at Wednesday’s soup kitchen, and coach ball teams. Their gaze bore through his neck as he passed them and limped down the stairs to the tiny side exit. He thought of explaining he was too old, his joints ached; his wife had been barren and he couldn’t bear being around kids any longer.
Austin tried to think of a way to get off the phone without seeming impolite. But the concern in Chuck’s voice seemed genuine.
“My wife died three years ago,” Austin said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s long enough ago that I hardly remember who she was. I can look at pictures, but she may as well be a stranger.”
Chuck didn’t say anything.
“We were married 58 years, and I can’t remember what her salads tasted like or how her voice sounded. She used to complain about my coaching.”
“Is that why you didn’t keep on?”
“I didn’t think I’d miss it. It took up so much time in the evenings.”
“I wouldn’t have thought you’d remember me.”
“To tell you the truth, I took out a few of my old rosters and went down the line looking up people and calling them.”
They both laughed.
“You were the first one to call back,” Austin said.
Chuck laughed again. “Are you going to call any of the others, Austin?”
Austin considered it for a moment.
“I don’t know.”
“I hope you do.”
“It was good talking to you, Chuck.”
“You, too, Austin.”
Austin hung up and made his way back to the living room couch. A wedding photo of his wife was on a bookshelf next to the window. He looked at her curly sandy hair, over-rouged lips and white teeth, the thin eyebrows that became more angular over the years as she surrendered her youth. He folded his arms and stared at her until the light grew too dark to see.
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By day, Paul Bachleitner works as the director of a national network of philanthropic groups that pursue more equity for diverse communities. By evening and weekend, he has been pursuing creative writing—on again, off again—for over 10 years. He was a finalist for the Chicago Tribune’s 2003 Nelson Algren award for fiction and received honorable mention for The Loft Mentor Series Poetry and Creative Prose Competition. He has also served as the host of the Thursday evening news for a Minneapolis-area radio station and as a radio and print film reviewer, correspondent, and talk show producer.