BATTLEGROUND • by Greg Mellen

PROLOGUE

Dew and shattered bottles sparkle on the morning grass. Dirt scabs the stretch of green in war zones at the bases, homeplate, the pitcher’s mound. A place of heroes and victims. The echoes of past conflict reverberate here. A battleground. A diamond where childhood is waged

***

One finger, or two?

Billy squats behind the plate, flashing a blur of signals.

Fastball, or curve?

You prefer the fastball.

One finger. Yours sounds like a bee, hops in mid-flight. It is merciless. But for hitters who stand in there and take their hacks, there is a doomed dignity.

Then there is the curve.

Two fingers. Deceptive, looping down and away. It is false promise, leaving the hitter off-balance, humiliated.

You decide their fate.

One finger or two?

You toe the furrow in front of the rubber a little deeper.

You were sent in to kill the rally.

If you succeed, they’ll love you.

He’ll love you.

Maybe this time, he will love you.

***

WINTER CANTO

A warm February day. Melting snow runs along sidewalks. Spots are hacked out to throw and hit. Muscles stretch like taffy. Throws bend across the outfield, grounders kick up rainbow halos. Footprints stitch a mad quilt in the snow. Ballplayers laugh, unaware a cold front looms.

***

Ambivalence. That’s what Miss Heath in English called it. Said it means you can love something and hate it at the same time.

That’s baseball. You crave the attention of the game. The adults say you can bring it. The way he could. They say you’re the same. He liked that.

You remember the whiskey rot of his breath. How you wanted to escape the smell, even as you thrilled at the feel of his calloused hands guiding you through the perfect throw.

Those hands could turn brutal too as they wrenched your shoulder, slapped the back of your head.

Love and abuse, pride and disappointment. You never knew which was coming.

Then one day he was gone. Off to join the bums who gathered beyond center field. You weren’t told why, left to wonder.

But his drive, his pride became yours. You wanted to please him and punish him. You wanted to erase him.

Ambivalence, like Miss Heath said.

***

SPRING CANTO

A boy lies in just-mown grass. The buzz and scratch of life everywhere. Perfect days to come. Head propped on a newly oiled glove, he gazes at funny-shaped clouds. He sees a calliope, sons and fathers, generations through the ages, circling the bases, forever fresh, renewed.

***

Billy comes out of his crouch. You wave him back.

He shakes his head and shrugs at the bench. Coach looks crazy. Everyone is in a frenzy. The ump yells “Play ball!”

You turn to the outfield to get your head in the game. Traffic rolls on the River Road. Cars piled with vacation gear. People going places. Fun places.

You see a smiling face in a minivan.

It’s Jack. Happy Jack, who always arrived to baseball in the spring with the flowers and warm weather. Looking so cool. You hated him.

Jack never practiced in the frosts of March. He waited until it was comfortable. Showed up with a smile and that pure swing.

When you first faced Jack, you couldn’t get the ball past him. He swung easy and hit it out over everyone’s head. The outfielders backed up. The harder you threw, the farther he hit. That smile never left his face.

You showed him, though. You became stronger, worked harder. Next time you blew fastballs past Jack. Corkscrewed him with the curve. This wasn’t a game. It was more. It mattered.

One day, Jack put down his bat. Said it wasn’t fun anymore and walked off.

Fun? What did that have to do with anything?

***

SUMMER CANTO

A game of catch. The ball loops back and forth, like string unspooling. Gradually the arc flattens as intensity grows. The boy strains to find something extra. He wishes he could return, but he can’t — he won’t. The ball becomes a blur. Not string but rope.

***

What’s the count? You ask the ump.

Irritated, he flips signs.

You hear something from the stands. A slurred voice in the crowd. Did he show up? You squint toward the sound. A blurred figure sucks from a brown bag. Is he cursing you?

You need to strike out the batter and get away.

 You wonder why people think being good at baseball would make someone happy. You come here to be safe. This is where you feel in control. In this act of muscle and tendon you find your true self. Here, you are free.

People say you’re a natural. Sure. But you’re the one who wore out your arm to get here. You’re the one with the stabbing shoulder pain in the last inning of the championship game. You’re the one who dragged friends to practice and wouldn’t let them leave. Even when it was dinner time. Even when they begged. Because when they left, it meant you had to go home, too.

You lock in on Billy as you cradle the ball. Everything else swirls away and funnels into this moment. The world narrows as you get that feeling and drift into the serenity the game sometimes brings. A tether binds you.

One finger, or two?

***

AUTUMN CANTO

Tinges of endings are everywhere. The world exhales. Leaves, yellow, red, ochre pinwheel to earth. The languor and joy of summer now only memory. The game has become experience and knowledge. Enjoyment is in shades rather than fiery flashes. The game turns with expectation — and regret.


Greg Mellen is an award-winning writer, who spent 35 years in newspapers to pay the bills before employers got wise and “downsized” him into unemployment. He now writes freelance. He has also returned to fiction, which was always his first love.


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