Top of the ninth, one out, men on second and third. I have a chance to redeem myself for my fielding error last inning that gave Binghamton the lead.
I set my stance in the batter’s box, working the bat, keeping my fingers loose. Two balls. Two strikes. On the mound, Lang bends down, glove covering his forward knee. He squints, taking in the catcher’s sign. I wonder if he needs glasses. I know the umpire does after that last call. If that ball even grazed the black, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.
Settle, I tell myself. Relax. Morton’s on third and our speedster, Jimmy Jackrabbit, on second. All I need is a ground ball to the right side, just roll my wrists over and pull it. Morton will score easy. Tie game. But, man, wouldn’t a single be cool right now. No way any of these outfielders have the arm to gun down Jimmy at the plate. A ground ball makes me that guy people remember in the morning, that guy who did his job and tied up the game. A single makes me the guy people can’t forget. Who am I kidding? I need the single; hell I need a home run. I’m 26 and still playing double-A ball. There aren’t a whole lot of chances left for me to impress.
Lang starts his motion. My grip squeezes tight. Fastball, I think. He’s not going to want to go 3 and 2 on me. He’s not going to nibble either. The ump owes me a call after that last one. It’s going to be a fastball and it’s going to catch the plate. All I have to do is swing hard, lift the ball. Here it comes.
I feel the grunt pushing from my stomach, the spring releasing from my legs and hips. I feel the bat swinging through its arc, tracking the ball. If I hit it, it’s going at least a mile.
“Steeerike three!” the umpire bellows.
Changeup? I think numbly. Who the hell throws a changeup on 2-2 with the winning run on second?
“Two down!” the catcher bellows, stepping past me over the plate with two fingers held high. Two down. “Don’t get too down,” I hear my father’s voice whispering in the back of my head. “Paint it black.” He always told me that when I was growing up. Paint your mistakes black, blot them out of your mind and move on. The best memory is a short one. It’s how you succeed in a sport where even the best fail two out of three times.
I walk back to the dugout and carefully slide my bat into the rack.
“Get ’em next time, Billy Boy,” the field coach coos. My name is Jeremy, I want to tell him yet again. Groenig, our manager is less tolerant. His slicing glare says it all. Ground ball, Walker. How many times I got to remind you to think a situation through?
I did think it through. The larger situation. My situation. I need press clippings and praise, not routine ground balls. Paint it black, I tell myself, as Simmy pops out, ending the game. Our sixth straight road loss.
“Paint it black.”
At the hotel, I’m waiting for the elevator when a slender woman seems to pop out of the dim corridor like a flash bulb. I startle. She’s wearing a yellow dress and holds a matching yellow fan in one hand.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”
“I watched you tonight,” she says, fanning her face. “I watch you every night.” She has a pretty face, blonde hair, blue eyes, a petite nose and mouth.
“Flattered,” I say. “May I return the favor?”
She laughs and extends her hand. We shake. Her grip is much firmer than I expect. I evaluate her body beneath the dress, which hangs a little loose. Her shoulders are broad for her frame, there’s hints of bicep in her arms. An athlete.
“So,” I say, “tell me why a beautiful woman like you would watch my sorry ass play ball.”
She twists her hand so that the back side of the fan shows. On it, printed in black block letters: I’M A FAN.
I laugh outright.
“You have potential,” she says. “I’ve always known that.”
“Glad one of us does.”
The elevator dings. I hold the door for her. Inside, the ceiling light flickers.
“Floor?” I say.
“Down,” she says.
I frown. “This is the lobby level. There is no down.” The door slides closed.
“There is now,” she says, and presses the Emergency Stop.
My body tenses. I lift my hands defensively. But she only laughs and throws the fan aside. She wriggles out of the loose dress and stands naked before me, her firm body going in and out of focus in the flickering light.
Later, we cuddle in my bed. I’ve never been much about cuddling, but she brings it out of me. She’s a refreshing change in my routine, especially after tonight. I find myself relating the experience of that final at bat, telling her about my father’s cancer, the long year of watching him waste away, holding Mom close at the funeral, how I couldn’t cry.
“I guess I painted it black.”
“He was wrong about that, you know,” she says.
“It helps,” I tell her. “It keeps the pain from getting so bad, you know? It helps me to focus on baseball.”
“No it doesn’t,” she says. “How can you expect to learn from a past you refuse to remember?”
“I learn,” I said. “I’ve learned plenty.”
She strokes my face. “You’ve learned to absorb,” she says. “You haven’t learned to project.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ve watched you for a month,” she says. “You caught my eye in that Erie game. That single in the first inning, the way you made your turn at first, that sliding catch you made later. My breath caught, watching you.”
I grunt softly. “If potential mattered, I’d be in the Majors now.”
“Not potential,” she says. “Passion. Love for the game. Lust to experience something greater than yourself.”
We lay silent for a time. I hear a television through the thin motel wall. I wonder if they heard us making love earlier. I wonder if we’ll make love again. I like making love to the yellow woman. I haven’t asked her name. I think I’m afraid to.
“When you obliterate a bad memory,” she says, finger making gentle circles around my nipple, “you also blind yourself to the future. Do you see?”
“No.” I kiss her hand.
“Your father was right in a way. It is about painting, only it’s not the past you must paint, but the future.”
“You make my head spin, woman.” I try to pull her on top of me. She resists.
“Hear me out, okay?”
“The future is black to us, right?”
“Think what might happen if you were to concentrate on painting that blackness with vivid color. Instead of waiting for the future to happen to you, paint it with possibility.”
“You mean, visualize? I’ve been through all that. In Single-A the coaches drummed it into us. Visualize the pitch. Visualize the bat making contact. Visualize the situation before it happens.” I sigh. “I did that tonight, as a matter of fact. I visualized a fast ball over the plate. He threw a change up.”
“Why didn’t you visualize a change up?”
“What? Why would I–”
“That was wishful thinking, Jeremy. I’m talking about painting futures, not predicting outcomes. I’m talking about painting the black with fastballs over the plate and changeups and curveballs in the dirt. I’m talking about imagining possibility so fully that no matter what comes, you’re ready to seize the moment.” She kisses me, a long, lingering connection of lips. It releases something in me. I feel suddenly out of breath, on the verge of vertigo.
“I’m talking about releasing the past,” she sighs into my ear. “Let it go, don’t just black it out.”
And suddenly I’m standing by my father’s coffin, seeing his placid face, no more worry creases, no more inspirational speeches, no more hands squeezing my shoulder, no more hugs before I go to sleep at night. No more.
A sob shakes me. Tears roll from my eyes. God, how I wanted to hold him. I wanted to kiss his cheek and tell him how much, how much. How much. Memory flickers into focus. For just an instant it’s real, the lips pressed to mine are his.
In the morning, the yellow woman is gone. I lay naked in a pile of sheets and blankets, the pillow case still moist from my tears. A shudder runs through me, a feeling of intense loss. My instinct is to paint it black.
I fight it. I fight it hard.
She left something on the other pillow, a red card with my image photoshopped within a yellow-bordered triangle. A baseball card. My baseball card. I turn it over. The back is blank. I imagine it filling in with numbers, Major League stats, home runs and RBIs, OPS and Stolen Bases. I imagine her face smiling from the stands as I slide home with another winning run.
Stephen V. Ramey’s short fiction has appeared in various places, from The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and Bartleby Snopes to Daily Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. He co-edits the annual Triangulation anthology of speculative fiction. Find him at http://stephenvramey.wordpress.com
To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page