By: Dan Yonah Johnson
July 1969, West Side of Columbus, Ohio
In the field behind the school, Julian DeCroix was fixing to fly his model rocket. Other kids huddled around. The rocket was an alternative type. It didn’t have a motor. Instead, it was launched by large rubber bands. What you did was hook the bands onto the rocket’s side fins while you held the launch pad down with your foot. The launch pad had a slot that held a pin on the rocket bottom. And the slot widened at its front end. So, all you had to do was just pull the rocket forward under the rubber band tension. When the pin hit the wide end of the slot, that’s when the rocket went flying. And boy, did it fly.
“DAAAAG!” exclaimed one boy as they all heads-up trailed the missile into a blue and puffy cloud summer sky. It went so high. And then. The side of it opened up and a parachute came out. Then the nose cone came off and another parachute unfurled carrying it softly, dangling left and right, toward the ground.
“GOD! How you do that Julian? How do you make them parachutes come out like that?” cried Rodney Fridenmaker—Julian’s best friend, as he marveled at the two separate pieces of the rocket still floating down.
Julian shrugged. “I just do it,” he replied. Actually, Julian had no idea how the parachutes came out. He figured that the scientific geniuses that made the rocket designed it in such a way that when it got to a certain altitude, the side opened, and the top popped off and the parachutes came out. Something like that. His mom was the scientist, not him. She was always buying him science toys, especially outer space stuff. Whatever. Julian didn’t care so much about the space stuff. He did like the sky though. He had just as much fun flying kites. The diamond-shape ones though…he could never figure out how the box kites worked. Julian was a diamond kite boy.
“Where’d you get that rocket Julian?” asked Rodney as they tripped out further into the field to collect the rocket parts on the ground.
“I dunno. My mom got it. She gets stuff through the mail,” replied Julian as he packed the parachutes back into their respective compartments and reattached the nose cone. He slipped the rocket into a pocket of his baggy gray work pants and tugged on his oversized green plaid shirt pulling the fabric away from his chest and chubby belly. The sun was full and high. It was really hot. Julian could feel the sweat creeping from his tight undershirt into his overshirt.
The other kids, seeing that Julian was done rocketing, fell off into other pursuits. There were a lot to choose from. The city ran a summer program every weekday on the playground and field behind Eakin Elementary School. College students were the supervisors. Julian and Rodney were there every day, especially easy for Julian as he lived on a street just a stone’s throw from the school. The street, one within a large subdivision, was in a horseshoe shape. Early-on, the house building company figured they should put in a pass-through from the street to the school grounds rather than make kids walk a much longer way to school…or cut through peoples’ yards. So that’s what they did. Right in the middle of the horseshoe bend, they laid an asphalt walkway between two houses and fenced it on both sides. You got to look into other peoples’ yards free and easy as you went through.
On the other side of the pass-through, it dumped out into the large field behind Eakin School which was on the right hand—to the south. At the far eastern end of the field was the sprawling Westgate Manor Apartments. Julian didn’t know how many buildings they had, but it was a lot. And they were all the same…three story brown brick rectangular boxes with flat roofs. The fire department was always running to one of them…it seemed like the sirens blared every day. And then to the left—on the north side of the field, lay the Westview Swimming Pool…which Julian never went to because he never swam. Not anymore. He was too big for a swimming suit. Kids would laugh at him…harder than they already did.
“Wanna play Home Run Derby?” asked Rodney as a matter of course. It wasn’t a question of if, but when. Rodney always brought his bat and glove. Julian always brought the ball and his glove. It was a game that could be played with only two. And usually, they were the only two. Because they were odd. Julian was fat. And Rodney really skinny with black horn-rimmed glasses.
“Sure,” said Julian. They took up their positions in the field not far from the edge of the school’s playground blacktop. They were between the two baseball diamonds on either side of the field—which were also close to the playground—leaving a lot of grass all the way out to the swimming pool fence. Julian and Rodney were aware that there were different ways that kids played Home Run Derby. They really didn’t care. They just made up their own rules. Who was to say they were wrong? So, they would just decide that a certain distance was a single or a double or a triple. If it hit the swimming pool fence on a fly or a grounder it was definitely a home run. One would field the ball from about three-quarters out to the fence while the other just self-batted by throwing the ball up himself and then have at it.
But Home Run Derby wasn’t the only baseball they played. Both Rodney and Julian played real baseball on an actual team that the city program ran. There were enough boys for the program to make three or four teams that just played each other in their own mini league. All the games were played in the daytime hours and were rather informal events. No hype. No large crowds. Parents weren’t there—fathers were at work. It was just boys and the program leaders as coaches and umpires. The other thing was the uniforms…sort of. Each team just had their own t-shirt donated by the local Kiwanis Club. Some summers you were a Cub. Others you were a Dodger or Red Sox. It said so on the t-shirt. No big deal. Except Julian always wore his t-shirt over his regular overshirt…and undershirt. That was weird. But that was Julian. It was just another thing for other kids to laugh at him about.
And then, daytime baseball wasn’t the only baseball that Julian played. He had joined a more formal traveling team, the Holly Hill Eagles which played evenings and Saturdays. It was the first year for the team—organized by some men in the Holly Hill Civic Association. Mostly, regular factory workers and Korean War vets—they were decent enough. They just wanted to have a team…to have a bunch of boys to coach. They didn’t seem too sure of how to do it…seemed like they were making things up as they went along. Okay with Julian. They promised all the boys who signed up that nobody would be cut…at least the first season. That was why Julian signed up. Why not? And you got to wear a real baseball uniform. Somewhere, the coaches found one big enough for Julian. That kind of told him they were on his side…at least for the first season. But there were other things too. The coaches had switched Julian’s position around several times…trying to find one that would be the best (or least damage) on account that Julian wasn’t quick at all—with his weight and all. Outfield was a no-go. That only lasted one game. Then they tried third base—they thought the short-stop would help Julian have to cover less territory. But there were so many line-drives down the third base line, Julian just wasn’t quick enough. So, then it was first base. That worked better. Hell, Julian actually participated in a double-play one game there…so, there ya go. First base.
The Eagles had a game that night. Julian didn’t know where…an away game. They would meet in the school parking lot at five o’clock and take off with their coaches. Julian kind of looked forward to it and kind of not. He didn’t like not knowing where he was going. Home field was always at least the devil that you knew. And all the fields were devils because thus far, the Holly Hill Eagles had lost every game. But…like everyone kept saying…it was only the first year. What do you expect? Well, maybe at least one win…but maybe not. Julian hoped it wasn’t his fault…somehow. Maybe he would make another double play. It could happen.
So, Home Run Derby with Rodney was kind of like practice for the real game. Julian took to the field while Rodney balanced the ball and bat in his hands near the edge of the blacktop playground. The sun was strong and the sky clear blue. It made Rodney’s bobbling of the bat and ball all the more noticeable. For some reason, sometimes, Rodney’s hands and arms shook…by themselves. But then he’d shake his whole body—arms and legs—like he was shaking something off. And then he’d be okay. He’d grit his jaw and his skinny frame would wind up. The ball would loft into the air. The bat would swing quick. Then the crack of a good ol’ time wood bat on a thud of a baseball. And the ball would join the sun. For a moment. Until gravity resumed its reign over all creation.
Julian and Rodney took their successive turns at batting and fielding a half dozen times. But then Rodney got tired. His right arm started shaking again. Julian could tell it pissed Rodney off. Neither ever referred to it. Rodney said he’d better get home. He had some work his mom told him to get done by the end of the day. The grass needed to be mowed and there were mulch bags to be spread out over the flower beds…after the weeds were pulled. Julian winced at the thought of Rodney’s arms on the vibrations of a lawnmower handle.
So, they said their goodbyes and Julian wandered into the school building to see what, if anything, was going on. Sometimes the rec leaders were doing crafts…which Julian liked. He liked making a thing. Didn’t really matter what it was. One time it was a potholder. They had some little square metal looms and a bunch of stretchy cords in different colors. The rec-leaders showed the kids how if you just weave the cord over and under each other and tie the ends in knots…all you had to do is pull the thing off the loom and you had a potholder for Mom.
The day Julian made his blue and yellow potholder, he took it back with him to his babysitter’s apartment on Doulton Court in the Westgate Apartments complex. Julian didn’t spend much time at his babysitter’s—Mrs. Purvis. A little in the morning…lunch at noon…and then a little in the late afternoon before Julian’s mother got home from her job.
Mrs. Purvis was pretty much a bitch. Julian could tell she had a multiplicity of personal issues, but he didn’t care because Mrs. Purvis was just plain mean. The day he came back with the potholder, she made terrible fun of him. Called him a little girl who made her mommy a potholder. She laughed viciously and threatened to make Julian a new summer dress. And then she dug in…she said she’d first have to get him a bra…referring to Julian’s chest which he strove to cover with his oversized outer shirts over a tight-fitting undershirt. Well, Mrs. Purvis was no beauty queen herself. She and her son Donald kind of looked alike—with bowl-shaped black hair in bangs—kind of like one of the Three Stooges. Mrs. Purvis was an unhappy soul without an ethic as to whom she might project her angst upon. Her husband was in the Air Force, stationed in Thailand. He wrote letters. Rousing patriotic letters to his only son Donald…saying that, one day, he too would serve the holy cause of…what? The flag…or something. Mrs. Purvis would read the letters out loud in front of Julian, and Julian would catch only about a third of the ramblings. He didn’t give a shit. Not about anything on Doulton Court or the Purvis apartment. This was his last summer with it. Julian’s mother, Dorothea, had agreed that after the summer—when he had entered junior high school, his days of having a babysitter were over. She would trust him with a key to the house…that is, the house he grew up in. Dorothea never let it pass for long about who paid the bills…especially since Julian’s dad, Waldon, died from lung cancer…apparently. It’s what Julian was told about the death. Waldon had smoked like a stack…and so, there ya go with that. Dorothea smoked the same way. Julian wondered how it would all end. Would Mom go next? Or Julian? Because…Julian DeCroix wasn’t exactly thrilled with life. From time to time, he considered his options.
So, Julian meandered back to Mrs. Purvis’ apartment to kill some time. It wouldn’t be long until the evening’s away-game. By the minute, Julian increasingly felt anxiety about it. Being taken away felt dangerous—absolutely no control. Then again, it was at an away game that Julian DeCroix made his famous double play. It could happen again. Worth a try. He guessed. Whatever.
When he entered the apartment, Julian found Donald lounging on the couch with the TV on. Strange. Ironic. Mrs. Purvis was always giving Julian shit about not getting enough exercise…and supposedly, that’s why he was so fat. But really. It was Donald that was always sitting on his ass. Donald was curled up in the corner of the couch with knees drawn up, sketching something on a pad of art paper. Julian had seen him thus engaged many times. Donald liked to draw comic book heroes. Julian shuffled over to the couch and hovered over the art pad. He dropped his ball and glove on the coffee table.
“What do you think?” said Donald looking up from a failing attempt at Superman in flight.
Julian nodded indifferently. “Leaps over buildings in a single bounce…or uh, whatever they say.”
“I got the S right on his chest, but I can’t get his legs right…flying through the air,” confessed Donald. You’re good at drawing Julian. Can you make the legs look right?”
“Nah. I don’t draw men’s legs.” After a long pause, Julian added, “I could do Supergirl’s legs, but not his.”
“Really?” replied Donald. “Show me. Maybe I can copy it and make it look more like a man.”
Julian shrugged and plopped down on the couch. He grabbed the art pad and pencil out of Donald’s hands. Immediately and without effort, Julian’s hand slashed the pencil out over the paper. Line, form, shape. It happened fast. There was a generous thigh. A curvaceous calf. Well-endowed breasts. Long flowing hair. A knowing face of piercing eye and softened contour. Flying. Reaching. To the sky. Away. Far, far away. Julian threw the pad and pencil back in Donald’s lap.
“God, Julian!” exuded Donald in an almost shaming breath. “How do you know how to draw a girl that good?”
Julian just shrugged. “Wanna go outside and play pitch and catch? I got a game tonight. It’ll give me some practice,” said Julian flatly.
“I don’t have a glove,” reported Donald in a tone that even if he did, he wouldn’t want to go out.
“You don’t have a glove?” Julian hadn’t figured on that possibility. Why wouldn’t he have a glove?
But then Mrs. Purvis burst from the kitchen. Pissed face. Her mouth pucker-gaped and blew, MAYBE DONALD DOESN’T HAVE A GLOVE BECAUSE HIS FATHER IS OVERSEAS DEFENDING OUR COUNTRY!… DID YOU EVER THINK OF THAT?… SURE! YOUR MOM WITH HER BIG FANCY JOB CAN BUY YOU ANYTHING YOU WANT AND ALL THE FOOD YOU WANT TO EAT…BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO RUB IT IN HERE…JULIAN DEEEEE…CROY…X…HOWEVER YOU SAY YOUR OH SO SPECIAL NAME. YEAH, YOU’RE SO SPECIAL…THAT’S WHY YOU DON’T HAVE FRIENDS…YOU SHOULD THINK ABOUT THAT…AND MAYBE LOSE SOME WEIGHT!”
Mrs. Purvis was still ranting as Julian retrieved his ball and glove from the coffee table. From the floor next to the table, he picked up his gym bag he’d brought in the morning. It had his uniform for the night game in it. Julian didn’t say a word, and just shuffled out the apartment door into the dusty hallway. The late afternoon sun flooded brightly through the open back door of the building at the base of the stairway. He could hear cicadas in trees, a buzzing plane in the sky, and the voices of other kids outside. Rambling down the steps and out into the late day’s sun—still strong, he looked up into the blue sky at the plane. He wondered if they could see him. Going out into a patch of grass, Julian kept his eyes in the sky. He lofted the ball up…high…and tracked it. It returned to his glove. His now, worn old glove. Worn with experience…the way a good ol’ glove should be. He had bought it himself…for two bucks at Rinks…with money he earned pulling weeds for old Mrs. Sarsfield next door. Whatever. Julian lofted the ball up again…and again…many times. Then he changed up and underhanded it against the side of the brick building…hard enough to produce something of a simulated line drive to be fielded. Then a clump of young kids half his age came up to him. They wanted to play, and Julian obliged. They weren’t too good at throwing or catching. But they, like him, were better than nothin’…at least that’s what Julian could think in that very moment. Other times, Julian wasn’t sure anything was anything.
Julian played with the young boys and girls a good while. But eyeing the descending sun, he figured it was time to head back over to the school parking lot where the coaches would load up the team. Julian said goodbye to the kids and crossed over Eakin Road toward Eakin School. He never looked back. A soft and easy resolve settled in him. He would never go back. It didn’t matter. The summer had only a month left. His mom could yell and scream or whatever…just out of wanting things to go along with her plans or whatever. But he wouldn’t be going back. His mom could kill him. It didn’t matter. Or even worse, if she just refused him a key, he’d just run the streets and playground all day. He could get some food out of the kitchen in the morning and just stuff it in his pockets. And he had almost five dollars saved. He could buy stuff at the little strip shopping center in front of the apartment complex. There were a lot of options there…a carryout, a drug store, a bakery, and a little grocery store along with non-food places…a barber shop, a TV repair place, and a hobby store. He liked the hobby store. It had all kinds of stuff—model trains, paint-by-number kits, all kinds of art supplies, model car and model airplane kits, coins and coin collecting gear, and kites. Sometimes he’d go in there and look at all the stuff and just buy a kite for thirteen cents and a ball of string for ten cents. Whatever. He could kill time. Whatever.
Julian got to the parking lot. No one was there yet. He wondered if the school building doors were still open. He should have changed into this uniform at Mrs. Purvis’ place, but…to hell with her. He tried the door, and it swung free. Entering the hall, he saw the rec-leaders dumping equipment into a closet…getting ready to head out. They waved.
“Just have to go to the bathroom…just be a minute,” called Julian.
They waved their okays.
Julian did have to pee. An almost empty building was better for it than some damn apartment bathroom where somebody could just bust in. Julian sat down on the toilet seat and drifted into meandering thoughts while he leaked. He thought about Rodney. His shaking was getting worse. What was the matter with him? No one would talk about it…not even Rodney. Julian understood the silence—he was used to it. It was the way of the world. There would never be any talk of his own thing…that of being part-girl…and that her secret name was Julia. Never. Done, he hitched up his underwear and unzipped the gym bag. In no time he was in front of the mirror inspecting his fine white and green uniform. He especially liked the green stirrups with white horizontal stripes. Didn’t know why. Just liked them. Maybe it was the colors.
When Julian exited the restroom, the rec-leader Jay was waiting for him and let him out the front doors.
“Have a good game Julian,” cheered Jay as he locked the heavy steel double doors windowed with thick chicken wire glass.
“Thanks,” replied Julian waving through the semi-opaque glass—genuinely grateful. Jay was one of the few decent souls around who meant what he said to kids.
Out on the front walk, Julian surveyed the cars and kids that had arrived. Looked like most of them. He spied Mr. Martin’s car—an old woody station wagon. Julian knew he was assigned to that car because it had more room. He always rode shotgun up front with Mr. Martin…which was fine. Mr. Martin was big too and sort of seemed to have an unspoken partiality to giving Julian a break here and there. It was Mr. Martin who somehow got a uniform together for Julian.
At the car, Julian met teammates Joe Clark and Marty Fields. They gave their hey Julians decent enough. They didn’t know Julian very well, but they never gave him shit either…not like some others. They were fairly popular boys in school. Known widely as among the better athletes around. Joe was good at all things baseball. Marty was an excellent catcher. Julian got some respect from Joe because Julian could hit pretty good…not as good as Joe…nobody could hit as good as Joe. But anyway, when Julian would hit a good one…it was initially good. But the thing was: Julian couldn’t run fast. He’d hit a whopper that should get a normal guy at least a triple, and Julian would do good to get to first base before getting thrown out. So, even if Julian did make it to first…and even all the way around the bases to home on other boys’ hits…scoring an actual run…he’d still get shit from someone: Is that all the faster you can run? And Julian just wouldn’t say a thing…maybe even for the whole rest of the game.
Soon they were on the road. Mr. Martin informed that they were headed south to Grove City. Ugh. Julian had heard others tell that Grove City was good. Damn good. Great, actually. But since the Eagles had never played Grove City…maybe the talk was just talk. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. They’d probably lose, but maybe…hopefully…not shit-ass bad. Along the way, Joe and Marty talked with a couple other guys. Julian and Mr. Martin talked a little back and forth…mostly about Julian’s daytime baseball team at the rec-program. They were called the Cubs. Wore blue lettered t-shirts with the Kiwanis Club logo on the backs. The Cubs had actually won several games…not as many as they lost, but it was something to say.
So, when they got to the Grove City field, Julian was instantly awed…and worried. The field looked great. Everything clean, new-looking, and painted up. The diamond dirt was finely raked and the chalk lines crisply demarcated. And there were real dugouts with sleek metal canopies painted in cobalt blue. The dugouts were actually in the ground with steps going down to the benches. Grove City was on the field practicing. Julian watched a Grove City coach smack a line drive to third. The baseman snatched and slung the ball to first with an amazing precision and casual arrogance that stabbed Julian in the gut. Shit. They ARE good. Shit.
Julian observed a number of fathers of the Grove City boys hanging around behind the backstop. Mostly he noticed them because they were so damn loud and ostentatious. They were braggarts. Loud guffawing braggarts. They’d snort…kick the dust…and tell another story about some damn great thing their son did a few games back. No one’s ever seen anything like it! The other thing Julian observed about the fathers was their clothes. High priced sports clothes. Like from a TV commercial or what you see on a TV golf show. And then their wives. They all sat along back from the third base line in lawn chairs in their sunglasses and sun hats. Their voices were sharp and fakey-playful for each other’s hearing.
The Grove City Patriots took to the field, and Joe Clark was up to bat first for the Eagles. That was good. Make a good first impression. Maybe it would help psych ‘em out. Julian watched Joe bounce easy and limber in the batter’s box. His confidence, at least on the surface, equaled that billowing off the entire Patriot team and entourage. First pitch. Sure enough. A crack. A moderate hit. The ball just clipped over the first baseman. The right fielder quickly scooped it and slung to first. But Joe was already there. Barely.
For the next batter, the Patriot chatter rose up like a cloud of locusts. Their coaches hand signaled for various adjustments in field positioning. The father-wannabe coaches behind the backstop were yelling all kinds of nonsense…about not allowing one more hit…shut ‘em down…they’re nuthin’. Their wives just made whoo-hoo and giggle mom noise from their lawn chair line. Sitting deep on the far end of his bench huddled in the corner of the dugout canopy, Julian observed one Patriot father prancing and pacing behind the backstop…yelling out at his son in center field. The guy knew he had to be loud for his son to hear him all the way out there. And it was clear he just didn’t give a shit how loud he was. For all Julian knew, the guy’s middle name was Don’t Give A Shit. Although he was at some distance, Julian could see that the guy was muscular and trim, had a buzzcut, and wore his sports clothes proper—a red richy-rich polo shirt tucked in behind gray golf pants and a white belt. His shoes…some kind of fancy sneaker…were white. Very, very white…like how-does-he-not-get-dirt-on-them? white. Julian figured maybe the guy was military…just back from the war or something. Maybe an officer or something. Whatever. The guy sure yelled like he owned the whole place. Even in the distance, Julian could see the guy’s veins popping out on his neck as he yelled out to his kid. Julian wondered what the kid thought about it.
The next two Eagles batters didn’t do shit. Both popped out. Marty Fields was up next, and Julian was on deck. Marty was short, but strategic. He was good at bunting. And that’s what he did…getting to first base…and sending Joe Clark to second. And that set off the generalissimo-daddy in white sneakers behind the backstop, big time.
“HEY! HEY!…BUCK UP! BUCK UP!…DON’T TAKE THAT DOG CRAP FROM THESE GIRLY-BOYS! GET ON IT!…GET ON IT!…COME ON MEN!” is what Julian heard blasting in his ear as he took to the batter box. And then…laughing…from behind the backstop…and then at a slightly lower level….
“Jesus Christ! Looky here! We got Junior Samples at bat! Jesus Christ! Look at that flab!” exuded White-sneakers as he kicked the chain-link of the backstop. Cackles from his cronies burst out…egging him on. And then, White-sneakers went deeper. Lowering his voice another notch, but somehow even more narrowed and directed at Julian in order to be singularly predatory, he seethed out at Julian’s back, “Hey honey! You got some serious titties there! You sure you shouldn’t be home playin’ with doll babies?!!! Huh, girly?!!!HuHjhhhhhhh” His buddies burst out again into hysterical snort-giggles.
Julian didn’t look back. Didn’t say a thing. Kept his eye on the pitcher. The umpire, though, turned and pointed a finger at White-sneakers. Gave him the eye. Didn’t say a thing. Just the eye. Julian didn’t know. He was busy tracking the windup of the pitcher…and the first pitch. It went wide to the outside. Ball. Julian held steady.
“GOOD EYE! GOOD EYE!” called Mr. Martin clapping his hands from his stand just off first base.
And a bunch of trash-talk fluttered up from behind the backstop. But Julian had already walked away from it in his brain. He had a ball to hit.
The second pitch was straight down the pike, and Julian availed himself of it. From the sound of the crack, everyone knew that it was a goddamn good one. The ball flew out…directly over the pitcher…up, up, out in sharp ascent…clear over the second baseman and the center fielder…dropping twenty feet behind the fielder—the son of White-sneakers. All the runners had time to advance a base—Julian getting to first, no problem even with his slower running pace. And the bases were proverbially loaded. The backstop erupted. Fists beat on the chain link amid the hollering of White-sneakers and all the Grove City men at their sons. Julian was oblivious to most of the actual words in all the yelling, although a couple times the word titties landed on his ear. But he had second to get to.
The next batter was Jason. Julian didn’t know much about him…quiet kid. Never gave Julian any problems. They just didn’t ever talk. Julian had the impression though that Jason wasn’t any kind of showboat…not one to take unnecessary risks. Julian admired that. And so true to Julian’s impression, Jason didn’t take the bait of any curve balls or trash talk. Jason was patient. The first two pitches were balls. The third was barely in the strike zone and counted as such. But the fourth and fifth pitches were balls and Jason walked…sending Joe Clark home for the Eagles’ first run. Julian was ecstatic as he advanced to second with the bases still loaded.
And the trash talk buzzed up like a black swarm all the more from the backstop, but only half-so from the actual defenders on the field. Julian noted how the boys weren’t really into the shit like the men. The boys just wanted to play baseball. That’s all.
Next up was John Davis. Interesting kid. Most liked him. Kind of jovial…didn’t take anything too seriously. Never gave Julian a problem. Didn’t pay Julian much attention either. It was a wash…but a wash was a pretty good thing as far as Julian’s interactions went. As for baseball, sometimes John was on. Sometimes he was really off. You just never knew. Couldn’t depend on him…as far as baseball. Otherwise, Julian just didn’t know. So, there John Davis was. From second, Julian could see his nonchalant grin under the helmet. John was feeling good. Real good. Julian could see it. First pitch…the Patriot pitcher wound big and dramatic…and let it go. And there was that crack. The one you know. The one you want to hear. HOLY SHIT!…THE GODDAMN THING….WAS GONE! No words were needed. The yelling from the Eagles side…just the noise…told the whole damn story. The ball was so damn far hit out, it was even laughable to worry about whether Julian would run fast enough to get home. He could have just shuffled home in a slow walk with maybe a snack break and a chat with his third base coach in between.
It was quite a party at home plate as the four Eagles found themselves having damn-done scored. Never before had the Eagles scored four runs in one shot. They were so happy. In the Eagles’ loud celebration, Julian didn’t hear the buzz saw of hate behind the backstop. But even if he had, in that particular instance, he wouldn’t have allowed himself to care. Because. For one shining moment, he was actually part of something good…with others. Not just by himself. But all such moments quickly pass into history…into legend…even if in micro. And as the victorious Eagle runners headed for their dugout, Julian heard White-sneakers snarl out, “YEAH, GO ON FATSO…GO ON BACK TO YOUR HOLE…AND LET YOUR BOY BABIES SUCK YOUR TITTIES! YOU DISGUSTING FREAK!” The umpire immediately bellied up to the backstop and muttered something seething and inaudible into White-sneakers face…and shut the fucker up. And the umpire kicked the dust and returned to his post, ordering, “PLAY BALL!” Julian didn’t see any of it. He marched straight to his dugout with his run…his point…his reason to exist yet another day…at least for that day. Who could say about tomorrow?
The next Eagle batter popped out. And Julian took to the field with his teammates. Although he tried to avoid staring into the backstop, it’s pretty hard not to from first base. You kind of see everything from first base. Especially when you have to concentrate on the batter. White-sneaker’s garbage-mouth blathered in sightline just behind the first Patriot at bat. Just by the spring in the batter’s stance, Julian could tell that the kid knew what he was doing. How long would their lead last? Crack. Probably not long. The ball arced over Julian’s head. The right fielder scooped it on a bounce fine enough and relayed it to Julian. But of course, the runner was already on base. The backstop went berserk. “NOW YOU SHOW ‘EM! NOW YOU SHOW ‘EM WHO’S BOSS!” And such. A garbage truck hauls a lot.
Things started to go downhill fast. The second Patriot got a hit. A single. And then it happened again. Bases loaded, and not even one out. Jesus. The fourth Patriot batter came up. It was the center fielder—White-sneaker’s boy. There was no avoiding or ignoring the bilge of backstop trumpery billowing up and polluting, yea deadening, a perfectly decent blue-sky day. And so, White-sneakers and son were locked together in a pitiless moment. Julian dead-eyed the boy. Julian could see that he was afraid…afraid of his father who was yelling. The boy was shaking…and shaking bad…in terror of his father and the first pitch. White-sneakers yelled all kinds of shit at his son, his neck veins popping, his claw-hands clenched in the chain-link of the backstop, pulling and thrusting the clinking metal. It was all kinds of things the maniac was yelling. And then, Julian heard one thing bellow out louder than all the rest. The asshole father gape-mouth-hollered at his trembling son in the batter’s box,
“GET A HIT…OR DON’T COME HOME…YOU WON’T BE MY SON”
Julian couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t. He was stunned. His competition at bat was even more got. The kid was shaking twice as hard as before. The first pitch came, and he swung. He chipped it back. It hit the backstop. Lucky for him that Marty Fields, the catcher, didn’t snag it. White-sneakers cussed a blue streak. And let out his damnable line again and again on his boy in a low seething menace…Get a hit…or don’t come home.
Joe Clark let the second pitch fly. It was a straight down the pike fast ball—no bullshit. The batter swung and met the ball. It was a hit…kind of. A high pop-up fly, its arc pinnacled only three-quarters the way out between home plate and first…thus, Julian’s to field. The ball joined the upper stratosphere with a soft grace…like it became a co-celestial body with the sun. And then its descent seemed equally soft. It’s weird how a short moment in time can be a long time. A long time to think. About the actual consequences of things…if you think about them. By the time the ball landed upon Julian’s glove, he had already made his decision. And Julian’s hand did not cause the leather of the glove to close around the ball…it bounced off the interior center of the open glove to the ground. By the time Julian scooped up the ball, White-sneaker’s boy was safe. As Julian set himself to track the next batter, he heard from his back-left, a low voice, “Thanks.” Julian kept his eyes on the new batter, tugged on his hat, and just nodded.
The game just kept going downhill for the Eagles, inning after inning. In the end, the Patriots won 10-5. And the winners had a big-ass party right on the spot. White-sneakers and his buddies acted like they were drunk. Their women shrieked. Julian shrugged. He was plodding by the backstop heading for the parking lot when he heard White-sneakers catcall him. The fucker actually whistled at Julian. And then called out, “Wimp on home, little girl. Wimp on home, you little snivel-bitch!”
Julian just stopped. And turned. And he went up to the backstop square in front of White-sneaker’s psycho-toothy grin…which kind of looked like Eddie Haskell’s dad looped out on weed and vodka.
“Can I ask you a question?” said Julian placidly, looking White-sneakers straight in the eyes.
“What, titty-fat? What you wanna know?” guffawed White-sneakers, looking round about at all his snickering friends.
“Were you in Vietnam…in the war?” asked Julian in a steady even-tone.
White-sneaker’s eyes glared. “THAT’S none of your fuckin’ business, fat ass!” he blew with a finger stab through the chain link.
“Oh,” replied Julian with a pensive nod and protruding lower lip. “So, you weren’t. Okay.”
“WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, FAT SHIT? YOU’RE LUCKY THERE’S METAL FENCE BETWEEN US TWO!” It suddenly seemed that White-sneakers was a wee-bit upset.
“Oh, okay,” replied Julian nonchalantly. “I’ll come around.”
White-sneakers was utterly shocked when Julian came around to face him, eye to eye.
“I have another question,” stated Julian, keeping a steady eye.
“NO! YOU CANNOT SUCK MY DICK…I KNOW YOU WANT TO…BUT NO!” erupted White-sneakers in tandem with his buddies’ snickers, hoots, and headshakes.
Julian was unmoved. He delivered his question, “I have a friend on another baseball team that we’re on. He’s pretty good, but sometimes he shakes real bad. I think maybe he’s got that disease that Jerry Lewis gets money for on that TV show-whatever…that they have…where you call in and donate money. So, my question is: Would you make fun of my friend if you saw him shaking real bad…when he has one of his spells?” Julian kept his eyes steady.
White-sneakers sniffed and jerked his head to the side. “Not my job to worry about your little defect girlfriend, tittygirl. Probably got bad genes like you, honey.” His buddies snickered him on. “It’s not the job of us normal people to take care of you gross defects!”
Julian nodded. “Yeah. Pretty much figured that. So, uh…Then. What would you do if you were born with a defect?”
“But I wasn’t born with a defect…none…not like you, fat shit,” glared White-sneakers.
“Okay,” nodded Julian. “So…just any other person…if they were born with a defect, what should they do?”
There was a vacant airy silence for a moment. But then the acid rain fell…
“Well, If I was born like you, fat-titty-freak, I think I would just fuckin’ kill myself. Like, hang myself with my mommy’s bra-strap or somethin’…,” ejaculated White-sneakers…looking for a reaction to his hit…while his buddies sniggled.
“Makes sense,” said Julian nodding matter-of-factly. Suddenly, there was another voice… behind them.
“Julian. Come on. Let’s go,” said Mr. Martin as he eyed White-sneakers.
Julian looked back and forth at the two men eyeing each other. Neither said a thing.
“Come on. Let’s go,” said Mr. Martin lowly.
They had been on the road a good while—Mr. Martin, the other boys, and Julian riding shotgun just looking out the window. No one had said a thing. But about mid-way home, Mr. Martin broke the silence.
“So…,” he said to Julian lowly. “…that ball you dropped…first inning…you do that on purpose?”
“Yep,” went Julian, just continuing to stare out his side window at houses along the road…different colored ones…different shaped ones…places where people lived and had lives.
“Well. Thank you for being honest,” replied Mr. Martin. “I give you credit for that. But you know, son…that’s no way to win.”
“I know,” said Julian, continuing to stare out the window.
No one said anything else the rest of the trip back to the school parking lot.
When Julian got out of the car and started for home, Mr. Martin bade him, “Take care, Julian.”
“You too,” replied Julian, not looking back.
Mr. Martin watched Julian shuffle onward and disappear around the corner of the school building…heading back toward the pass-through to the neighborhood. He never saw Julian again.
Dan Yonah Johnson is from Ohio, and he’s been a schoolteacher, social worker, and antiques dealer. Ohio writers Sherwood Anderson and Dawn Powell are Dan Yonah’s literary role models. He has lived in the childhood towns of both authors—where no one remembers them. A previous novel, Date of Birth Unknown, was released in May 2021 by Adelaide Books. A novel excerpt “What Happened” was published March 2022 by The Write Launch.