Jazzy had first learned English by reading and her vocabulary could sound strange to my American ears. Words like suitor, betrothal, nuptials.
But when Jazzy meant love, that was the word she used.
As in her final message, just before the World Trade Center’s North Tower collapsed: “Joe! I love you and always will!”
Then, as if my upcoming birthday were the most important thing in the world, she said, “Your gift! On my desk under—”
It was weeks before I could finally go into Jazzy’s study. She was a financial analyst and, under a stack of prospectuses, I found an envelope with my name written in her careful hand. Inside was a brochure and receipt for a week at Wally Totah’s Arizona Baseball Camp for Adult Beginners.
Jazzy knew nothing about the game when we met in college. But after coming across a Jacques Barzun quote — “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” — she made herself into a decent player.
I’d never paid any attention to baseball, but Jazzy wanted me to learn, too. “This is our national recreation!”
“Pastime. National pastime.”
“Some speak of baseball as if it were a religion.”
“Count me as agnostic.”
But Jazzy wore me down, and on pleasant Sunday afternoons we’d practice in the park. I tried, but didn’t get much better. The Sunday before her final message, after I dropped an easy pop-fly, Jazzy smiled and said, “Maybe you just need a better pedagogue.”
The brochure included a picture and biography of Wally Totah. He was in his sixties, but still looked to be in good shape. Totah never had been a star, but he always gave the game all he had, which made him popular with fans. One hall-of-famer credited his success to Totah’s mentoring.
I laughed. For the first time in weeks. And then I trembled. With grief, because Jazzy wasn’t there to hug. And with rage, at the vicious bastards who’d killed her.
Two other men were in the camp locker room. We were about to introduce ourselves when Totah came in. Looking a little troubled, he said, “Guys, there were lots of last-minute cancellations. I hoped some of them would change their minds and show up. If you three want to stay, I’ll help you as much as I can. But if you want a refund, I have checks.” He patted his hip pocket.
We all decided to stay and followed our coach onto the field. Wally said, “We’ll practice the double-play. A little advanced. But in this drill, all three of you have something important to do.”
After some instruction, Wally sent me to first base, and the others to shortstop and second. He hit a soft grounder to the shortstop, who bobbled it before making a decent flip to second. But the second baseman threw wildly, way over my head.
Wally took another ball and trotted to the middle of the infield. “Second baseman,” he said, “watch the way I set my feet when I throw.” Then, to me, “First base! After I step on the bag, it’s coming your way!”
I hung on to Wally’s throw. But it came in so hard I took off my glove and shook my hand to get rid of the sting.
Wally said, “Way to stay with it, Joe! Everybody, let’s try again.”
He turned to the shortstop. “Tariq, just like before, you field the grounder and flip to Bandar. Bandar, you fire it to Joe.
“Joe? Hey, Joe! You with us?”
In that moment, on a ball field under the Arizona sun, I wasn’t. All I understood was that men from another desert place, where names like Tariq and Bandar are common, had killed my Jazzy.
The others came to where I stood. Bandar said, “Is it your hand? I’m a doctor. Let me have a look.”
He reached out, but I pulled my hand away.
Foolish. My Jazzy — Jasmine — had come from that part of the world, too. And this Tariq, this Bandar — they’d had no part in her murder. I held my hand out for Bandar to examine.
As I wiped my eyes with the other hand he said, “Did that hurt?”
“No. I was just thinking. This camp. It was my wife’s last gift to me. She died on 9/11.”
Bandar closed his eyes and shook his head. Tariq clapped me on the shoulder. Wally said, “I’m sorry, man. Is that why you came to camp, despite the publicity?”
“Publicity? I’ve been staying away from the news.”
“I’ve always called myself Wally. Easier for most people than my given name, Walid.”
He spat on the ground. “Anyway, a couple of weeks ago somebody wrote about my given name on a sports website: What’s Totah Trying to Hide? The baseball message boards lit up. Everybody who signed up for camp cancelled. Except you three.”
Bandar said my hand seemed fine and Wally promised softer throws. Tariq gave me a thumbs-up.
I was awash in good feeling for these men, my coach and teammates.
Tariq and Bandar spoke quietly to Walid, who said, “Go ahead, I’ll be right there.”
“Prayer time,” Walid said to me. “I set up a space in the locker room. Won’t take long.”
Suddenly as it had descended upon me, the good feeling departed. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t get it back.
I said, “Wally, my hand’s still bothering me. I’m going to find an urgent care place. If everything’s okay, I’ll come back.” Then, trying to sound positive as possible: “Either way, though, thanks. I’ve learned a lot in just a short time today.”
“Joe, you’re not coming back. And you haven’t learned a damned thing.” He stuffed a refund check into my pocket and walked away.
Ted Lietz writes and lives in a semi-secure location somewhere in Michigan. His work has appeared in a number of online publications. Ted read that author bios should be in third-person, even when written by the author. Ted doesn’t like rules but, for reasons best known to himself, decided to follow this one.
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