Who designed these benches? Wooden slats that imprint your back, the rest of you slipping through. It’s like they wanted to remind you that you’re uncomfortable, that there’s as much emptiness as wood, that if one slat breaks everything becomes more dangerous. And this is a bench, something that’s supposed to be a place to rest, to watch, a serene spot above the field.
Out on the diamond, the chunky boy for the White Sox, the kid who plays catcher, lines a single over the shortstop’s head. He rounds first and watches the ball come back to the infield, then turns back to the base and stomps on it, satisfied. He should be. That was a nice hit. Hard. It must have felt good.
People who haven’t played don’t understand the feeling of hitting a ball solid. They think the ball comes in so fast it must sting the hands if you whack it, that it must take strength to turn the ball around, send it back faster than it came, and yes, if you don’t hit a ball square, especially in cold weather, your hands can feel like they’ve been electrocuted, but hit it solid, square? When you get the ball on the bat’s sweet spot? It’s magical. Your body follows through so easily, the bat finishes the swing itself. It doesn’t even feel physical, just a rightness, like watching the sun rise, or the way a few notes, strung together in the right rhythm, make you want to cry. It just is.
The next batter, a little waif probably a third the size of the catcher, fouls two balls off weakly, then strikes out looking. He jogs back to the dugout. He’s so small. He’ll probably always be small. Unfair. To go through life sensing that everyone else is bigger than you, that you’re disadvantaged. To always be looking up. Then again, he could be a great jockey.
A passed ball to the next batter, and the boy on first lumbers down to second. Such is the nature of mistakes. You mess up, others take advantage. It’s a simple lesson, but one that’s also simple to forget.
What am I doing on this bench? Waiting for Callie. Who used to be Calvin. Who used to be my brother. Who is my sister. Who told me long ago, in the dark of our shared bedroom, that she was a girl: “I feel like a girl. Do you ever feel that way?” she said.
“No,” I’d said. I was fifteen. He was thirteen. I didn’t understand. It was 2004, the year that Massachusetts was debating gay marriage. In my health class, the one class where we actually talked about things, I agreed with the girls who argued for marriage equality, but I kept quiet. That night I thought that Calvin, maybe, was gay, and I felt sorry for him. And, maybe, a little sorry for myself.
The batter, a lanky kid with an inside-out swing, grounds to first, and the team in the field jogs into their dugout, like bees angling into their hive, or water descending to a drain, and the team that had been at bat fans across the field in a pattern that almost seems organized, a lovely conic outline, and the warm-up balls start flying lazily between the players. Someone who isn’t in the game stands on the right field line, warming up the right fielder, while the centerfielder and left fielder toss together. Does that kid like doing this? I can see now that it’s the little guy, the one who struck out. Of course he is on the bench for half the game, and of course he is a kid who would help his teammates warm up. He just wants to be part of the team. He can catch the ball fine, though he always looks surprised to discover it in his glove. Oh, joy. You come in such small packages, but you’re no less real for that.
Why meet here? Back in…it was 2001, Calvin and I were on the same team, the Cardinals. He was a ten year old in his first season in the majors. I was in my last. Coach Frank was our coach. None of the players liked Coach Frank. He’d pick on kids; “my sister throws harder than that!” he’d shout for the whole park to hear. I still remember his voice: “Justin! What are you swinging at? That pitch was over your friggin’ head.” Frank was a good coach, though. That’s what we were told, anyway. He made us practice things that none of the other teams practiced—pick-off plays and trick steals. He had numbers for different plays—15 or 21 or 23. I still remember 23 because it meant the catcher would try to pick off the guy at first, and I was the first baseman, so I’d sneak behind the runner after the pitch. We must have tried the play twenty times that year. A couple times the throw went into the outfield. Once—just once—the play actually worked. Small joys.
Calvin was a tough little ten-year-old, one of the better ones in the league. He didn’t get a lot of hits, but something in him refused to strike out, and he wouldn’t swing at bad pitches. He’d stand up at the plate, a stocky righty, and only swing at the good ones. Usually, he’d swing a little late—it’s hard for ten year olds to hit the twelve year olds—and he’d foul it off. I remember sometimes seeing him wince after the ball glanced the bat. Those could sting. But he’d get right back in there for the next pitch. That year he must have walked more than anyone on the team. Patient, determined. And then in the playoff game against the Cubs he got a big hit that put us ahead for good, a bouncer up the middle. I wonder if he—she—remembers that. I sure do. Calvin stoic on first base as our team went wild in the dugout, rattling the fence and screaming his name. I loved it that he didn’t smile.
Three up, three down. That White Sox pitcher is good, overpowering. And that was probably the bottom of the order for the Indians. Quick inning. The strong against the weak. The twelve-year-old pitcher against the ten-year-old batters. All part of the game. One inning until it’s over says the scoreboard. The White Sox ahead by three. They can smell the win. They jog into their dugout. How can I tell they’re happy? I can tell they’re happy.
All those years ago, we’d lost to the Indians in the City Series. Those uniforms can’t be the same ones, but they look the same, with that stupid grinning red Indian on a navy background, a single feather sticking out from its headband. Racist. Yes, I learned something in my history classes. That face seemed to be laughing at us after we lost. It’s hard to forget it; I saw it so much during those charged, dramatic games, the bleachers crowded with parents, the park full of curious kids whose teams hadn’t made it that far. After every play there was cheering, like what we were doing meant something.
That Series was painfully close. Our best pitcher, Randy, broke his arm the day before the last game, and their third baseman made some unbelievable plays—I want to say lucky. After we had lost, Frank gathered us all around the big tree beyond the right field fence. Some of us were crying, including me. I remember that Callie—Calvin—wasn’t. “I know this was disappointing, but there’s no crying in baseball,” Frank said, as we wiped away tears and kept our heads to the ground. “You can give me your uniforms now, or on Family Day.”
Calvin has been Callie for almost a year now. We shared a bedroom, with bunk beds, for years, until I went off to Framingham State. When I’d come back summers, he’d be off with a few friends, down at the little beach on the other side of this park, the one that looked across the harbor to Marblehead. You can’t see it from the field. You can’t really even see the ocean, though it’s only a couple hundred yards away. Calvin had made new friends at the high school, people who worked backstage crew for the school plays, misfits.
Baseball was long forgotten. Once he met that group, Calvin and I rarely even played PS3’s Major League Baseball game anymore, something we’d been doing on rainy afternoons since elementary school. He’d try to get me to play the games he’d gotten into—Marvel: Ultimate Alliance or Genji: Days of the Blade—and I’d play some, just to hang out with him. To be honest, they seemed like too much of a commitment, and I was busy with all those senior year parties and looking to get away, to go off to college.
I’d forgotten baseball, too. At Framingham, I studied history education, which is part history, part filling up classrooms for Education professors. I’ve got another one-year gig at Salem High this fall. With budget cuts, it’s hard to imagine it becoming permanent, but it’s good for now.
One weekend when I was home from college, I went to see the high school play, and Calvin texted me from backstage, asking for a ride home. When he got into the car, his lips shone bright red. “You’re wearing lipstick!” I’d said.
“Oh shit! Do you have any Vaseline?” I just looked at him. I couldn’t help it. “Never mind,” he said. He opened the car door. “Give me a minute.” He ran back into the school and when he returned, his lips were clean.
“What was that?” I asked.
“I—” he went silent, and the look on his face made me stay silent. I started the car. A few seconds later he said, “I just like to wear it sometimes.” For a moment, it was only us two and the breathing of the car’s heater. The whole city disappeared.
“Oh yeah, me too,” I said. I wish I hadn’t joked about it like that. I was trying to let him know that I was cool with whatever, but I wish I’d said something else. I wish he’d known he could have talked to me.
The bench sags. “Hey, Justin.”
It’s Coach Frank, in his shiny red Cardinals windbreaker. I haven’t seen him for years, but he looks the same, hefty and tall, his face ruddy and impassive. When he wasn’t fuming he was impassive.
“Hey, Coach.” I notice the Cardinal players hanging over the outfield fence. They must have the day’s second game. “Nice weather for a game. You gonna win?”
Frank shrugs. “Who knows? We got a young team.”
“The Cardinals are always good,” I say. I mean it. I talk to the kids at the high school. The boys remember the Cardinals. Like me, they remember Frank. The Cardinals still win a lot.
“We’re all right,” says Frank.
A pop up. The first baseman calls for it, loud, just like he’s supposed to, and puts it away.
I stand up. No sense having Callie see Frank. No sense having him see her. She never liked him. I never liked him. Did anyone like him? She’s got enough going on today, leaving for Austin. “Why Austin?” I’d asked.
“Someplace new. Good music.”
“But it’s Texas.” I’d said.
“It’s not Texas. It’s Austin.”
Another pop up. A weak one, and the third baseman takes two steps into foul territory and catches it easily. The batter, who didn’t leave the box, pounds his bat on the ground. He must be a hitter, someone who knows he could have done better. Sometimes that confidence can carry you as a player, believing in yourself. Sometimes it can just make failure more painful.
“What are you doing down here?” Frank asks. “You know someone who’s playing?”
“I’m meeting my sister.” How easily I say the word “sister.” It’s been less than a year since she told me, but once she started wearing skirts and make-up, it wasn’t hard—or as hard as I thought it would be.
“Your sister? I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“I do. She’s moving today, to Texas. She wanted to come by here for old times sake.” Callie had texted me half an hour ago. Her car was packed. She was stopping at Hobbes to bring a few bags of popcorn to the park—what’s more Salem than Hobbes popcorn? We were going to go sit on the beach, her high school haunt, before she hit the road.
“Hey, Justin,” and standing there, just the other side of Frank, is Callie, in a lime green dress that stops just above her knees, a bag of popcorn in each hand. Her legs, of course, are shaved. Her hair is straight and comes to her shoulders. She’s squat, like he—she’s?—always been, but the dress makes her seem more curvy. She started the estrogen five months ago, and she told me that she’s noticing changes. To me, she looks a lot like Calvin in make up, a girl’s hairstyle, and a dress, but what do I know? I knew Calvin for a long time. I wonder what Frank sees.
“Calvin?” says Frank. The corner of his mouth jerks.
“Callie,” says Callie. “Hi, Coach.”
Frank’s eyes take in Callie more fully. I can see that she feels him appraising her. “It’s a new look,” she says, and gives a quick smile—at Frank? at me?
Beyond us, there is applause. The inning has ended. The Indians come jogging in for their last at bat.
Two Cardinals run up to Frank. One’s grey pants are snug around his legs, outlining them, the other’s are baggy, sagging to the ankles. Their red caps and red shirts, and the way they flitted over, make them seem a bit like cardinals. “Coach,” one says, “who’s pitching today?”
“Not you,” says Frank. He gives a little smile.
“I’ll tell you when I tell you. Don’t ask again.”
The two stand there for a second. One notices Callie and studies her as if trying to solve a math problem in his head.
“Jonelle, tuck your shirt in,” Frank says to the kid.
Jonelle breaks his gaze and tucks his shirt in, then they both dash back to their teammates.
Frank leans forward on the bench. His eyes stay on the field, watching the White Sox pitcher fire his warm ups. “Justin says you’re moving to Texas.”
“Austin,” says Callie. She’s looking out at the field, too. They’re not looking at each other, but it’s not avoidance. It’s something about rituals, about what we’ve been taught—why we follow the speeding ball from fingers to bat to glove, why we note that the first baseman’s too close to the line, the left fielder is chewing on his glove, unready. The ocean, in all its sunlit splendor, roils just beyond the leaf-heavy trees, but we’re here, watching children in uniforms trying to do what they’re supposed to do.
“You driving?” Frank asks.
“My car’s packed. Right over there.” Callie gestures beyond the outfield fence. Frank looks over. “Texas is a long ways from here.”
Callie walks in front of him, across his line of vision, to my side of the bench. I see Frank follow the swing of her dress, her sandaled feet. Callie hands me a bag of popcorn. On the field, the Indian batter hits a high fly, and the few fans “ooh” at its arc. It doesn’t clear the fence, but the leftfielder misjudges it, and it lands behind him. There’s the frenzy of action, and then the Indian batter is standing on second base, straightening his helmet with both hands. I feel happy for him, even though he’s on the Indians.
“We should’ve beat the Indians that year,” I say.
“That was a tough one,” Frank says.
“If Randy hadn’t gotten hurt…” I say.
“Yeah, and then their third baseman makes those two diving catches. The little shit hadn’t caught a ball the whole season.” Frank shakes his head.
“I know, I know…” and that last catch replays itself in my mind. Everything seemed wrong about it, like it should never have happened. The kid tripped over his feet, but that just made him dive toward the ball. And were his eyes closed? And now I see Calvin after the game ended, standing in front of me as we’re in line, a head shorter than I was, slapping the Indians’ hands. “Congratulations,” he kept repeating in his ten-year-old voice. And suddenly I’m biting my lip, trying not to tear up.
Callie laughs. It’s a laugh that’s new for her, one slightly higher pitched, and one that feels, somehow, honest. Frank can’t help but look at her. I can’t either. She taps my shoulder. It’s time to walk to the beach. Callie shakes her head, swishing her hair.
“You two,” she says, smiling, “You know there’s no crying. Not in baseball.”
Frank and I look at each other. I was about to cry, and now, suddenly, I can’t help but grin. “She’s right, you know,” I say, standing.
Frank strokes his chin. Was that a smile? “You know,” he says, turning back to look my sister in the face, “you always had a better eye than your brother.”