Dennis Vannatta: “Catch”

As he walked out of the parking lot and onto the empty field, Edwin Shinebourne put his glove over his nose and inhaled deeply.  “Ah!”  He glanced over at John Norman, walking beside him.  John had his glove over his nose, too.  They giggled like schoolboys and looked back at Tommy Boy Corcoran, lumbering up behind them.  Thomas saw what they were doing and put his glove up to his nose, too, but immediately lowered it and made a face.  “Pee-yu!”

“Don’t like that smell?  That’s un-American.  You’ve just lost your citizenship, pal,” Edwin said, and John said, “How can you not like the smell of glove oil?  It smells like . . . ,” and here John thought about doing the napalm-in-the-morning bit from Apocalypse Now, but he settled for, “It smells like youth.”

Not my youth, Thomas said to himself.  It’s impossible for an American boy to totally avoid being subjected to sports, but Thomas, slow of foot and sadly lacking in hand-eye coordination, had given it his best shot.  He hated all sports, baseball most of all.  The myth embraced in the English department at the urban university where the three friends taught was that in his younger years Thomas had been quite the man with the hickory stick.  This fanciful reputation arose from an intramural softball game, Thomas bullied into subbing on the faculty team for an injured history professor (hernia), during which with one miraculous swing (his eyes were closed at the time), he sent the ball onto the roof of the Science and Technology building.

That was twenty-odd years ago, but even today Jeremy Reese from the biology department and RichardKnox (marketing) would call out, “Hey, slugger!” when they saw Thomas on campus.  Thomas would roll his eyes (even though secretly pleased).

He refused all future invitations to play for the faculty team, casting his excuses in such a way as to imply that it would be unfair for the faculty to unleash his prodigious talents on lesser mortals.

Not many were fooled.  True, he had broad shoulders and was surprisingly strong.  (Once, helping a colleague move, he had grabbed one end of a refrigerator that had somehow wound up on its side, lifted it, then pushed it upright, no assistance.)  But one look at him tottering across the field on his tender ankles, hands fluttering like Aunt Pitty-Pat’s, and squinting behind bottle-thick lenses was enough to convince most that Thomas had no future—and surely no past—in sports.

He was a good sport, though, which counted for much more in his friends’ eyes.  Edwin and John called him Tommy Boy, not condescendingly as he suspected but affectionately, and had been including him in their annual game of catch for, oh, at least a dozen years now.

The single afternoon of catch replaced the intramural softball season, the faculty team having folded the year after Thomas’s game-for-the-ages against the fraternity bad boys for the league championship.  Alas, four runs up with one out left in the game, the faculty lost it on a hemorrhage of errors, the ultimate one John’s misjudged liner to dead center, which went over his head and rolled forever.  So the game that Thomas recalls with incredulous joy, John recalls with shame tinged with horror.  Edwin, though, doesn’t remember the error or the homer; he doesn’t even remember the game.

###

They preferred city parks and empty lots for their game of catch rather than the intramural field at the university because while throwing the ol’ ball around they liked to shout disparaging comments about colleagues and students.  Today they’d come to the field adjacent to the Blandings Corporation office building on the south side of the city.  If not in immaculate condition, it was kept mown, hence fine for their purposes.  “Better than the ball fields I played on as a kid, I can tell you that,” Edwin said.  “Cow pastures!”

Edwin had grown up in a small town in Kansas, the high school just big enough for  baseball, basketball, and eight-man football.  Six-three and over two-hundred pounds by his sophomore year, Edwin had torn through the competition and played football and basketball at Ft. Hays State.  Now in his sixties, Edwin is still an imposing figure to the eye but in reality is easily winded and flabby.  Since the death of his wife, Libby, two years ago, he has battled what most would call depression; but Edwin, a Renaissance specialist, thinks of it as melancholia.

Ironically (or coincidentally—Thomas used to know the distinction, but he has forgotten so much over the years), Thomas wrote his PhD dissertation on “Abraham Lincoln, Melancholia, and American Romanticism.”  His degree was in American Studies from St. Louis University, but he couldn’t find a job in that field and eventually applied for an opening in American Literature at the university where the three friends have by now been teaching for decades.  When he came for his campus interview, Thomas was all prepared to do a fast shuffle if someone pressed him on the American Studies vs. American Literature issue, but no one did.  He was the department’s third hire of the year, and Thomas sensed at that point they would have hired a trained monkey just to get it all over with.

“I’ll take the sun field,” John said and trotted off toward the east, turned, and looked back at Edwin and Thomas, silhouetted against the afternoon sun.  Once years ago, playing catch at Murray Park Thomas had by chance located himself so that he was staring into the sun and had taken a lob from John right on top of the head.  Edwin had almost fallen over laughing in that rapid huf-huf-huf-huf of his, like a lawn mower trying to start—this was back before Libby died, when Edwin still laughed easily—but John had felt bad for Thomas.  In fact, he was always protective of Thomas, whose life he imagined to be far worse than it really was—or at least a little worse than it really was.  Thomas hadn’t been injured or even much hurt by the ball to the head, but since then John always made it a point to take the sun field.

John glanced behind him.  The east end of the field was bordered by a ditch with an elevated railroad embankment beyond.  “Anybody throws it into the ditch, they have to go get it,” he called out.

“Agreement error!” Thomas sang out, and Edwin said, “E-9.  Isn’t that how you’d score an error on the centerfielder?”

John blushed, recalling his catastrophic error against the frat boys.  To cover his discomfiture, he launched in to a discourse on scoring, Edwin joining in, but neither could with confidence take it past shortstop, 6.  Thomas didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.

###

They arranged themselves in an equilateral triangle with John at the eastern point.  Edwin had a brand new ball he’d bought last week at Sports Authority.  He’d kept it in his desk at school, taking it out several times a day to smell it.  It had a more pungent smell than a freshly-oiled glove, but good.

He started to toss the ball to John, but John held his hand up.  “Wait.  Let’s do a little stretching first.  Being a youngster myself, I don’t have any worries, but you old codgers might pull a muscle if you don’t warm up.”

Edwin at sixty-three was a little over a year older than Thomas, who was a month older than John.

“Tommy Boy doesn’t have to worry about that.  He gives that right arm of his plenty of exercise playing pocket pool,” Edwin said, immediately regretting it.  Thomas had never been married and was painfully shy around women.

It was Thomas himself who saved the day, piping up before any uncomfortable silence could descend on the trio, “If that’s the case, I’d say all three of us are safe as far as the right arm goes.”

John, grateful that Thomas didn’t appear hurt by Edwin’s thoughtless comment, said, “True.  Painful but true.  We pretty much cover the bases on men without women.”  But, damn, that was worse than what Edwin had said.  Edwin looked off into the distance and then forced his eyes back, but John knew he was thinking about Libby.  But at least Edwin had had a wife, John, too, even if she was currently otherwise occupied.  Thomas had never even had a date that John was aware of, and he knew Thomas as well as anyone.  They had come to the department the same year, John a modernist, but he sometimes helped out with the American Lit surveys.  John’s wife, Sherry, who had been known to bring home stray cats, had virtually adopted Thomas.  To some it seemed that Thomas had been even more at a loss than John when Sherry left John for another man four years ago.  But they were wrong.

Edwin, trying to grin, said to John, “OK, Sarge, are you going to lead calisthenics?”

“Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em,” John, still upset with himself, said.  But what in hell did that mean?  He began to whip his arms in rapid circles and immediately felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder.  Goddamn, he’d injured himself warming up!

“Warming up here, boss,” Thomas said, lifting his knees in a bizarre mincing prance.

Edwin tried not to laugh—Thomas had a sly, occasionally wounding wit, but he wasn’t known to indulge in physical humor—but couldn’t stop himself.  “Huh-huh-huh-huh!”  John felt like laughing, too, but his shoulder hurt too much.  Could you tear a rotator cuff doing a windmill?  Son of a—

“I used to run in place twenty minutes every morning,” Edwin said.  “Libby made me do it out in the garage because she was afraid I’d wear a hole in the carpet.”

Edwin began to jog in place, tried to see how high he could lift his knees and suddenly felt a pain on the left edge of his breastbone as if someone had stabbed him with a hatpin.  He stopped jogging and stood very still.  The pain lessened but flared each time he took a breath as if the oxygen were feeding a little flame in his chest.  It wasn’t the first time.  He’d been feeling “the little pain,” as he called it, periodically in his chest and in the artery on the left side of his neck for some months now.  On these occasions he’d say to himself or God, or most likely to Libby, It’s OK, I can die now.  Now he said it again.

“Are you OK, Ed?” Thomas, who’d been eyeing him, asked.

There’d been a time when the two of them hadn’t gotten along well—or perhaps it was more accurate to say they’d been indifferent to one another.  Although he was older than the other two, Edwin had come to the department two years later because of his hitch in the Air Force during the war.  (John had avoided the draft with a low lottery number and Thomas with his bad eyesight.)  Edwin and John shared an interest in sports; their wives were friends and their children went to school together.  Edwin and Thomas, though, had little in common, certainly not personalities, Thomas shy and vaguely effeminate despite his broad shoulders and Edwin loud and gregarious and a bit of a bully, although a well-meaning one.  It was Edwin, in fact, who, speculating innocently but clumsily, had started the rumor that Thomas, still a practicing Catholic, had been in the seminary.  “I can spot a failed seminarian a mile away.”

Over the years they grew closer simply because, well, the years passed, and there they still were while so many of their colleagues had moved on, or retired.  Or died.  Still, even years after Thomas joined the annual game of catch, it couldn’t be said that they were really close.  Then one afternoon Edwin came home to find Libby sitting at the kitchen table, her dessert recipes spread before her.  She seemed to be frowning at them in disgust.  She didn’t move.  Edwin’s children all lived out of state.  The first person to come to the house after news got out was Thomas.  They sat at the kitchen table across from where Libby had died, and Thomas patted Edwin’s hand.  They were close now.

“OK, I’m warm,” Thomas said, resisting an urge to add, Let’s get this hell over with.  He hated and feared playing catch.  Back in high school he’d watched in horror as two boys played “burn-out,” firing the ball as hard as they could to each other, taking a step closer with each throw.  How could they do that?  He would rather fight a duel with pistols.  Now, he grimaced when John said, “Close it up a little, guys.  If we start throwing this far apart, somebody’ll hurt an arm.”  At a sufficient distance, Thomas could dive out of the way if necessary, but up close?

“I hurt my arm when I was twelve years old,” Edwin said.  “Until then I could really fire that apple.  But one day at practice—this was in Little League, when I was twelve—”

Mid-sentence he saw—thought he saw—John roll his eyes, and at the same moment he realized he’d told the story before, probably had told it every single year since they’d been playing catch.  He was a burden to his friends, he knew it.  Once he’d been a Hail, fellow, well met, the life of the party.  But then Libby . . .  He had contemplated suicide, tried to be rational about it, told himself that you only have one life and that if you could find anything at all about that life to enjoy, you owed it to yourself to keep going.  He’d always thought of himself as a person with a great appetite for life, loved to eat, to drink, to laugh, to play golf and softball and half-court basketball.  Well, he still liked to drink because it’d put him to sleep at night.  Food?  He had a hard time tasting it; he had to put so much spice on it that even to taste it blistered his mouth, or felt like it.  He couldn’t concentrate enough playing golf to remember his score, didn’t care.  Basketball bored him.  He couldn’t even name all the major league baseball teams any more.  He still laughed occasionally, but often when he did people would look at him like, What are you laughing at?  And he wouldn’t be able to tell them.  What he could not do without great effort was smile.  When he attempted it, he would be acutely aware of the energy it took, the musculature involved.  Generally, it was beyond him.  To whose face did he bring a smile?  Certainly not his children, for whom he was a worry and care.  Perhaps John and Thomas.  If not for John and Tommy Boy . . .

Edwin raised his arm and felt “the little pain” in his chest.  He tossed the ball weakly to John.  John lifted the ball, pretended to be trying to get a good grip on the seams but in reality testing to see if he could raise the ball above his shoulder.  A sharp pain warned him against it.  He tossed the ball underhand to Thomas.

Thomas did a little dance as the ball floated toward him but refrained from diving out of the way, caught it in his idiosyncratic manner, which involved lunging forward with his glove-arm extended like a running back stiff-arming a would-be tackler.  He envied and found utterly mysterious the way Edwin and John would wait until the ball was almost upon them before casually and gracefully flicking open the glove and—presto!—the ball would disappear into the pocket.  Sprezzatura, Castiglione called it.  Nonchalance.  Thomas had never had a nonchalant moment in his life.  At least half of his catch attempts ended in the ball thudding against his glove and falling to the ground.  “Aw, crap,” he would say and shake his head as if he couldn’t understand how that kept happening.

He could throw the ball fairly hard but in no certain direction.  Short throws, for some reason, were even harder to coordinate than longer ones.  He visualized a bull’s-eye on Edwin’s chest and shot-putted the ball to him on one bounce.

Edwin, a veteran first-baseman who’d scooped hundreds of low throws in his day, snagged this one on the short hop and prepared to sling it to John when the pain went up the artery on the left side of his neck.  He almost dropped the ball, double-pumped, and managed to get it to John.  I can die now.  It’s OK with me.

John had found from the experience of the first toss to Thomas that even an underhand throw hurt his shoulder.  And not just the pain—he felt he had no strength in his arm.  He grunted and winced as he slung it hard as he could toward Thomas.  The ball sailed over his head.  Thomas jumped—if that strange action could be called jumping—and rammed his glove straight up, and the ball smacked into the pocket.  Stayed there.

“You da man!” John said.

“Oh brave new world, to have such catchers in it!” Edwin said.  He’d thought of the pun earlier that day and had been waiting for an opportunity to use it, but the other two made no appreciative comment.  Edwin massaged the throbbing artery in his neck.

Thomas bowed from the waist, flattered and angered.  John wouldn’t have said, “You da man” if Edwin had caught the ball.  Only Thomas was so pitiful that catching a baseball was an occasion for celebration.  He threw the ball to Edwin, harder this time, short-hopped it off Edwin’s shin.  Edwin hobbled off after the ball.  He looked like an old man as he walked slowly back to his spot before tossing the ball to John, who underhanded it to Thomas.

And what’s this underhand stuff, Thomas thought.  They’d never thrown to him underhand before.  What was he, a little girl?  If John underhanded it to him one more time, Thomas was going to fire it back in his fucking face.

Thomas threw it to Edwin, who threw it to John, who concentrated as if trying to toss a bean-bag into a plywood clown’s mouth as he underhanded it to Thomas, who caught it and threw it hard as he could back at John, who was by then looking at Edwin, expecting to see him go for one of Thomas’s errant throws and instead heard the ball whiz by his ear.

It bounced and rolled across the field and into the ditch.

###

“My—” Thomas said, but “fault” stuck in his throat.  He was ashamed of himself.  He’d wanted to hurt John, his best friend, wanted to throw the ball back in his face.  His fucking face.  Thomas didn’t use that word.  That word wasn’t him.  Nor was he violent, ever.  And against John!  He was ashamed of himself, but he could not get out the word fault.  (He’d left the seminary when, one day, he had not been able to say “my most grievous fault.”  Fault stuck in his throat.  “I’m still a Catholic.  I still believe in God,” he’d told Monsignor Rose, who’d replied, “Yes, but what do you believe about God?”  Thomas still went to mass faithfully hoping to figure that out.  There were times when he loved God and times when he was resentful.  If God knew him in the womb as He claimed, well, then that was when He’d missed his chance to do something about it.  Something about Thomas.)

“My—” Thomas tried again.  No good.

John had a look on his face like a soldier who’d just heard a sniper’s bullet sing by his head.  He said, “Don’t worry about it,” and turned and started toward the ditch.

Thomas thought from John’s flushed face that he was angry, but he wasn’t.  He was used to Thomas’s bizarre efforts on the field and thought this was just one more.  In fact instead of Thomas he was thinking once more of the championship game against the fraternity and the misjudged liner that went over his head—two outs in the last inning!—allowing the winning runs to score.  Error on the center fielder.

He taught Catullus in World Lit and often thought of that great, tortured poet’s, “If a man can find rich consolation, remembering his good deeds and all he has done . . .”   But that was just it, a man couldn’t do it, certainly not Catullus who couldn’t get out even two more lines until here comes his Lesbia again, and the pain, the humiliation.  “And yet you do nothing but grieve, sunken deep in your sorrow . . .” The shame of it all.

Why did the pivotal moments in John’s life turn on shame and humiliation?  He’d been a good man.  He’d done his best.  He’d done things right, by God he had.  He was the fastest man on the softball team, that’s why they’d put him in center.  He’d snagged grounders and run down fly balls and hit .833 that season, fifteen for eighteen because he could beat any grounder to first base. He’d been the hero of the team, and it all meant nothing because of a misjudged liner.  If that were the only time in his life, but no, the high school play and he went on stage despite not feeling well because he didn’t want to let the side down, wanted to do it right, and then he vomits his supper up, stage center!  They had to lower the curtain and clean up his shameful humiliating mess.  Then there was the time . . .

But why these thoughts of upset stomachs and misjudged liners and the like?  That wasn’t the big humiliation, oh no.  Numero uno was his spending his life loving a woman who left him for another man.  If they’d been in their twenties or thirties, it would have hurt like hell, sure, but he would have had half a lifetime to recover from it.  But Sherry had left him when they were in their fifties and could see eternity toward which they were supposed to walk hand in hand together except she’d said, no, not you, John, him.  And right now, this instant, now most very now, not five miles away she was with him, not John.  With, with, with right now doing whatever he wanted with John’s sherry, and everyone in the world knew it, knew his shame, his humiliation.

When he got to the edge of the ditch, John couldn’t even see the ball because of the tears in his eyes.  He wiped them.  He didn’t want Edwin and Thomas, of all people, to see him like this.  If it weren’t for Edwin and Thomas, he wasn’t sure he could go on.

The ditch was much deeper than he’d imagined, a good ten, twelve feet deep with very steep, rocky sides.  The south end was closed off by a similar steep face, the north end the same but with a round opening:  a drainage pipe a yard in diameter.  At the bottom of the ditch running north and south was a shallow concrete trough, obviously to direct water through the pipe.

John heard someone coming up behind him and turned to tell Thomas not to bother, he’d go get the ball.  But instead of Thomas, there was Edwin.

Edwin looked left and right.  “Where’s the ball?”

“Damn these allergies,” John said, rubbing at his eyes.  “I don’t see it.”

“Must have rolled into the pipe,” Edwin said, then started down.  John said, “What the hell are you doing?  I’ll get it,” but it was too late, Edwin had already started to skid and threw himself around to claw at the ditch face but his feet went out from under him and then he was down on all fours on the concrete floor of the ditch.

“Are you all right, Ed?” John called down.

“Couldn’t be better.”  Edwin tried to locate the little pain in his chest and neck amidst all the other pains.  He heard a noise and stones started to rain down on him, and he realized it was John descending into the ditch, much faster than he’d planned, Edwin bet.

Somehow John arrived at the bottom still on his feet, but his left palm, which he’d used for a brake and now stared at in wonder, was shredded, bloody.  He pressed it against his Fighting Illini sweatshirt.

“Son of a bitch that hurts.”

“What are you two doing down there?”

It was Thomas.  He was standing at the edge of the ditch looking down at them with an expression of bemused disapproval.

“We’re holding an ad hoc meeting of the Old Farts Committee,” Edwin said.  He’d managed to arrange himself so that he was sitting instead of on all fours.  Much more comfortable that way.  John was blowing on his palm.

“Well, come up out of there.”

“Easy for you to say,” Edwin observed.  But he climbed to his feet.  Ah, there was the pain he was looking for, heart’s needle.  Nevertheless, he went to the side of the ditch and started to climb, got no more than a couple of feet before skidding back down, cum rocks.  He leaned against the side of the ditch, exhausted.  He couldn’t get to the top on an escalator.  “I can’t do it,” he called to Thomas, who frowned in concern.  Edwin didn’t look too good.  He looked old.

“You try it, John,” Thomas said.

John gave a little embarrassed grin.  “Don’t think I can make it, either.  Only have one operational arm at the moment.  Think I tore something in my shoulder throwing the ball.”

“There’s goes your pitching career,” Edwin said.

“Give it a try,” Thomas called down.  He felt very alone up on top of the ditch.

John did try, several times at different places on both sides of the ditch, once getting almost halfway up on the railroad side of the ditch before sliding back down.  He wasn’t sure he could make it with two good arms.

“Can’t do it,” he said, panting.  “You’re going to have to go get help, Tommy Boy.  Do you have your cell phone on you?”

No.  All three had left their cell phones in John’s Cherokee.  He threw his keys up to Thomas.  “Get on your cell phone and call Rod Chung.  Tell him to bring his pickup and a rope over here.”

“What if I can’t get him?”

“Damn, man, then just use a little imagination.”

“I’ll call 911.”

For a moment John thought he was serious and saw tomorrow’s headline, “Firemen Haul Cuckolded English Prof’s Worthless Ass out of Ditch.”  But then he saw that little twinkle in Thomas’s eye.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you, you son of a bitch.”

“The crown prince of shadenfreude,” Edwin said.

Thomas grinned like the Cheshire Cat, then was gone.

John sat down on the concrete, and Edwin sat down next to him.  They were both still breathing heavily.  John looked around as if admiring the scenery.  “Well, at least we don’t have any papers to grade down here.”

“I’d just as soon be here as anywhere else,” Edwin said.

John started to laugh but realized he wasn’t sure Edwin was kidding.  He was contemplating the implications of this when he heard a sound above him and looked up to see Thomas standing at the edge of the ditch, and before he could say anything Thomas had stepped off, skidded, scrambled at the ditch-wall, then was ass over teakettle as John and Edwin sprawled left and right to get out of his way.  Then Thomas was at the bottom of the ditch between them, palms and right elbow bloody, a rent in the knee of the brand-new blue jeans he’d bought for the game of catch, blood visible through the hole.  He had an oddly happy look on his face.

“What the hell are you doing?” John croaked.

“Did you get your cell phone?” Edwin asked, even though he knew Thomas couldn’t possibly have made it to the car and back.

“What the hell are you doing?” John said again.

“Came to help you look for the ball,” Thomas said, laughing.  “It was my fault, wasn’t it?”

John started to say something else but stopped.  What was the use?  Tommy Boy was Tommy Boy.  A friend.  Take him for what he is.  Don’t let a single instance, a single gaff, error, humiliation be the emblem for an entire life.  Don’t do that.

He reached over and gently touched Thomas’s leg just above the knee.  “You’re bleeding,” he said.

“Yeah!” Thomas said cheerfully.

“Well, how do we get out of here now?” Edwin said.  But, really, he didn’t seem to be much interested in his own question.

In truth, his two friends didn’t seem much interested, either.


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