Chris Solano_Untitled

Our ten year-old annual sponge ball game always ends the same way. Al wins. He switches around to bat lefty to give me what he would call a fair chance. He’s cocky even when he’s down 6-3 in the bottom of the ninth. He thinks his string of victories will go on forever, like DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak. He waves to his girlfriend, Amy, sun-bathing in the outfield.

“Stop waving and bat right,” I shout. I hate when he does this. She has no business being here. Al also leads in girlfriend stealing 1-0.

“You gonna throw strikes?” He spins little circles at me with the bat in his outstretched arm. He wants to swing.

“Don’t worry, you just bat right.” He switches back around.

Must be past noon now. The sun peeks around the schoolyard wall to my left. No more shadow.  No more shade. Concrete burns through the soles of my sneakers, and my hair is boiling in a stream of sweat running down the back of my neck. Schoolyard feels like a desert. Even the pigeons deserted the rows of windowsills for cooler perches. But, the sun’s in the batter’s eyes now. Just have to put it over.

I turn and watch three little kids zip across the basketball courts on miniature racing bikes, all candy-apple red. The first cradles a basketball carefully in one arm like it’s a giant dinosaur egg and steering one-handed, loops a trail of invisible circles that the other two follow. They dismount at the court nearest Amy.  Metals frames clang against the ground. Amy looks up startled and gives the kids an annoyed look.

I turn back and pitch. Strike. Not bad. First one in ten pitches, but not bad. Count is 2-1 with men on first and second. In the top of the ninth, Al tried to groove one by me and I took him downtown (downtown being past the foul line of the third basketball court that serves as our home run marker). The look of shock on Al’s face reminded me of Mike Torrez’s facial expression after he hung that slider to Bucky Dent in’78.

Next pitch. Another strike. Again, Al doesn’t swing. He’s still “taking a strike.” I love the expression. It has a nice rhythm to it if you’re whispering it to yourself while up at bat—taking a strike, I’m taking a strike. But, I’m not up at bat. I’m on the mound. Well, I’m on the white chalk mark I scratched onto the cement. In Brooklyn, that’s a mound, and the big crooked rectangle I drew over the graffiti-stained, rusty-red brick wall is a strike zone. Same rules of baseball apply here: three strikes you’re out, four balls a walk, etc. After that, the specifics of the schoolyard dictate what’s fair or foul. Might sound random, but every MLB field is unique too. Yankee Stadium’s outfield dimensions look like a stumbling drunk drew them.

Having rediscovered the strike zone, I quickly scoop up the ball as it rolls back to me. I bring myself set, about to pitch, when I hear a car horn shriek through the air. Across the street, I see the shadowy outline of Cathy Izzo’s bouffant hunched over the steering wheel of her husband’s new Cadillac, pressing both hands against the steering wheel. She rocks back into the leather interior for a second and peers out the passenger window, as if to see if the sound waves have pushed away the appliance delivery truck double-parked beside her, blocking her escape. Disappointed, she leans back into the horn. It echoes between the four-story walls that border our infield.

Nine years ago to the day, the hum of the downstairs bell droned through my family’s second floor apartment. Late morning, I lay stretched out like a corpse across my parents’ green and brown sectional, still in pajamas, ignoring The Partridge Family rerun playing on the television opposite me. I didn’t want to “Come On, Get Happy.” I knew it was Al ringing the bell, wondering why I hadn’t met him at this same schoolyard like I did every morning that summer. My mother must have buzzed him up because from above me I hear him ask, “You sick?” I pointed down to the morning’s Daily News, still resting where I’d dropped it on the gold-checkered linoleum floor. He read the headline, understanding washed over his expression: Mickey Rivers, my favorite Yankee, had been traded to Texas, along with three other players to be named later for Oscar fucking-giant-afro Gamble. I’d never again see him fly around the bases again or twirl his bat like a baton on a swing and miss. Or worse, if I did, he wouldn’t be wearing the pinstripes. I was crushed.

I sensed Al still looming over me and glanced upward.  He stood nodding like he was just told a secret. I mumbled that I didn’t feel like playing today. He wouldn’t hear any of it. He sat down beside me, laid his hand on my shoulder and asked me if I thought Willie Randolph or Lou Pinella wasn’t going to play today because a teammate was traded. Was Thurman Munson, the captain, going to drop his catcher’s mask and mitt and just sulk in the clubhouse all day? Of course not. Batter up. Let’s play ball! Eventually, I relented because I knew how stubborn Al was. He wasn’t leaving without me. On the way to the schoolyard, to make the game more interesting, Al grabbed a black marble notebook from his house, suggesting we keep a scorecard of the game. I was up 4-1 in the top of the third when I realized Al was lobbing his pitches. I yelled at him to play the right way. He denied the accusation, but went on to win 12-5. Still, I felt better, renewed.  My parents let me stay up late that night and I watched the Yankees win 9-1 behind seven scoreless innings from journeyman Don Hood. I went to sleep smiling. The game would go on. The next day Thurman Munson died in a small plane crash.

“I move, I move it,” screams a skinny Puerto Rican man in blue overalls who comes flying out the front door of the house next to Cathy’s, but she doesn’t let up on the horn until he pulls away. I stretch my arm and twirl it like a slow windmill blade to loosen up the shoulder as the Cadillac screeches away. I squint up to see the sun stretch yellow across the whole sky.

“Hey. Let’s get a pitcher on the mound,” Mr. Barello squawks, gravel-voiced, from the outfield side of the chain link fence that split the concrete of the inner schoolyard and asphalt of the basketball courts. The horn must have woken him up from his midday nap. He adjusts both pant legs and reclines back into his folding chair he carries from his porch across the street. A retired sanitation worker, he used to ump little league games. Sill has eyes like a fighter pilot but his knees are shot. If he’s awake and sees kids playing ball, he’ll amble across and plant himself behind the fence. Schoolyard rules are he has final say on any close calls. I give him a respectful nod and step back to the mound.

I wind up from the stretch, pitch, and Al is way out in front, smashing the ball off of the near wall (and our left field foul line). It ricochets across the infield just short of the opposite wall (our right field foul line). Still strike two. Can’t strike out on a foul ball, just like baseball. I jog after the ball.

This morning, Al was quick to remind me that this was the tenth anniversary of our game. Leafing through the notebook, he noted from the summary page he updated after each game that his average margin of victory was now 6.2 runs. He was also just three strikeouts short of one hundred, a milestone he’d reach in the third inning. He leads in every category except losses. He smiled his big cheesy smile at me and handed the notebook to Amy.

It’s not like we just played once a year. We played all the time growing up. But after Munson died, we made sure we played this game every year and kept record of the stats. It’s what we loved most about baseball, the records, the history of the game – its tradition.  Sure, Munson and Rivers were gone (Mickey’s still alive, my uncle sees him at the dog tracks in Florida every winter) but the game endures. The Yankees endure—Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio to Berra to Mantle to Munson, and now to Mattingly. Nothing says tradition like the pinstripes.

Next pitch. Crack. The ball zooms over my head towards right field and lodges between one of the diamonds on the steel-wired fence. Got to hit it hard to make it stick like that. Ground rule double. One run scores. Men on second and third, still no outs. But I’m still up by two. Three outs and I win.

Extracting the ball from the fence, damn, he crushed that pitch, I see Amy scribbling into the notebook. I can’t believe he has her keeping score. I taught her how to keep score for Christ’s sake. She scribbles in the last hit and leans back against the green and white plastic looped beach chair, arching her back, pointing her breasts straight up at the sky. She looks good.

Almost two years back, the start of our high school senior year Al and I were riding the B4 tossing baseball trivia questions back and forth to pass the time like every morning. We heard a female voice behind us call out, “Who has the most RBI’s as a Yankee?” We spun our heads around and looked down, eyebrows furrowed, at some girl, Amy, her auburn hair, red lips, legs crossed under a plaid skirt, tiny tanned knees. After letting us stare dumbfounded for half a minute, she repeated the question.

“Ruth,” Al blurted and I nodded in agreement. The “Sultan of Swat” was the all-time HR and RBI king until Aaron came along. Attractive girl, we both thought, but she should leave the baseball trivia to the men.

“Wrong,” she replied melodically. Al immediately started to argue. I watched her eyes slide back and forth, him to me, her lips tight together like she was trying to suppress a smirk. As Al started reciting the top ten RBI leaders in order, he was a savant with baseball stats despite almost failing algebra twice. I thought for a moment, and then smiled at her.

“Gehrig,” I declared.

“Smart boy,” she said, letting her lips stretch into a bright smile.

Al gazed back at me, his eyes shrunken into little black dots. I told him it was a trick question like what pitcher had never won the Cy Young has the most lifetime victories. Answer: Cy Young, of course. The award named in his honor didn’t exist when he was a player. Before I could elaborate, Amy added, “Babe Ruth had 224 RBI’s as a Red Sox and 12 with the Braves. Gehrig had 21 more RBI’s as a Yankee.  Al’s expression softened in admiration; His eyes rolling back, I could tell he was cataloguing the question to test others with another day. I wasn’t sure the question would be as tricky without the catholic schoolgirl uniform behind it. Her dark brown eyes sparkled as the bus made its sweeping turn onto Fourth Avenue as Al and I swayed clutching the silver support pole. Just under her left eye, below a thin layer of cover up, I thought I saw a faint purple and blue blotch that could have been a bruise.

Back on the mound and set now. Al flashes his “I’m gonna take you downtown” smile. People say Al is very handsome. I believe gorgeous was the word Amy often used. And he’s rich, well off at the very least. I’ve worked at his father’s restaurant with him since I was twelve. I wait tables, bartend, cook, clean, pick up inventory, part great bodies of water and perform whatever else is required. I fashion myself as kind of a utility infielder. Al’s lazy at work, which drives his father, Big Al, crazy. Big Al says his son has two speeds, slow and dead.

I miss with my next two pitches, one high, and the other way outside. That last hit threw me off. Al’s holding the bat like a club, biceps flexed. He has a hitter’s count, eager to crush anything close to the strike zone.

“Time,” Mr. Barello calls out from behind. Al slams his bat into the ground, shouts, “C’mon, you gotta be kidding me.”

Just coming into view from behind the wall are an elderly couple pushing their respective shopping wagons filled with brown paper bags stacked side-by-side three high bulging with groceries. With each shuffle of their feet, the wagon wheels roll half a turn. She looks like she’s 80 and he might be old enough to be her father. Both are zipped up in winter coats despite the ninety-degree heat. I sweat more just watching them. They hold up their hands in both a sign of thanks and apology and shuffle forward. I return the gesture, nodding they should take their time. They wave again, and shuffle forward. I wave back. Wave, shuffle, wave. This goes on for two minutes and they’ve only advanced ten feet. I smile hearing Al cursing under his breath facing the wall.

Turned out Amy’s parents had enrolled her in St. Helen’s high school to get her away from the punks she was dating in public school. The most recent was rough with her, but she wouldn’t tell me that until months later. The three of us rode the bus to and from school every day, talking baseball (her grandfather was a huge fan before he passed), ragging on Met’s fans who crawled out of the woodwork since they won in ’86— wow, two whole World Series wins in the club’s existence. Yanks won their first two World Series before my father was even born. After Al got his license, we’d ride to school in his new Lexus, a birthday present from his parents. Amy sat in the front passenger seat; I’d lean forward from the back seat into the space between the two until we dropped her off.

It takes me until late July, after we had graduated, to work up the courage to ask her out on a date. Al had been dating the same girl his cousin from Staten Island set him up with the previous summer. She was smoking hot but wouldn’t know a double play from a Double Stuff Oreo. I told him I was going to ask Amy out. He eyes widened. We debated the pros and cons like we had the Rick Rhoden trade, sure Drabek had some promise but the Yanks hadn’t made the series in five years. But was it worth risking the friendship for going all the way? I thought what would Steinbrenner do? The next day I call her and ask her out, clarifying, “You know, just you and me, with out Al.” There was a long pause, but she said yes.

“Let’s go,” Al shouts as Mr. and Mrs. Methuselah finally clear the field. His knuckles clench white around the thirty-six inch Easton aluminum. He wants to end it with one swing. I hear the Mr. Softee truck ringing up the block with its promise of sweet frozen vanilla custard cones and rainbow sprinkles. I want one. The truck pulls over by a fire hydrant and the little kids drop their ball and grab their bikes to rush home and plead with their mothers for some money. I pitch.

“Ball Three,” he shouts. Way high, I thought to myself, think strikes, throw strikes. I gaze over my shoulder into the outfield; see the sun glistening off her oiled shoulders, legs stretched out, bare feet rubbing together.

Into my windup and…crack, Al smashes it but the ball rockets directly into the faded leather pocket of my glove.

A disgusted look immediately twists Al’s face as he stomps around, flailing his arms like he was performing some exotic island dance. I smile at my glove. Love this glove. Al bought his glove the same day I did, seven or eight years back. We rode our bikes down to Joe Torre’s Discount Sporting Goods on Thirteenth Avenue. He bought the more expensive one, of course.

“You’re so fucking lucky!” He shouts, “Why don’t you open your eyes next time.”

“C’mon, Al. I had it all the way. You got to step into your swing more. Get some power into it, so you don’t hit me those easy pop-ups,” I chide. The ball almost took my head off. Regardless, one out, two to go. I jog over to grab a sip of orange Gatorade from the bottle sitting just behind the wall.

Four months ago Amy and I broke up. Maybe things had become strained between us. I was putting in a lot of weekend nights at work, trying to save for a car. She missed the attention, but who wouldn’t. She always complained about going out in my father’s old Buick. It was no Lexus, I guess.

Two months ago, I’m sorting vegetables in the walk-in fridge when Al entered and tapped me on the shoulder. He told me he broke up with his girlfriend and Amy and him had gotten together. It felt like I was trying to field a routine grounder, and instead of rolling into my glove, the ball flared up and hit be square between my eyes. I asked since when? He assured me it was well after we had broken up. I nodded silently then turned back to my box of peppers, fishing out the ones that had started to turn. Maybe it was always Al she was after and I was just practice, like spring training, something that didn’t really count.

Our friends anticipated a big fight. That’s the problem with Brooklyn people in general, always anticipating, always ready for a fight. I hated fighting, even in baseball, like when a batter charges the mound after getting hit by a pitch. You want to get even, hit a home run. Settle it on the field.

I’d lost girlfriends before. I’ll probably lose more than one more. So, I just ignore the wrenching in my stomach whenever I see them together; see him stroke her hair, her soft skin. What’s done is done. Not worth throwing punches over it. Friendships should be unbreakable, like Maris’ 61 home runs or Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive games played.

I walk the next batter on four pitches.

Al steps out of the box and studies the bat like a knight regarding his sword, spinning it in his grasp, sun glistening off its barrel. He’s swinging now. I have to be careful. Bases are loaded, so I can’t be too careful. I won’t walk in a run. Let him earn it. Into my windup, a white chalk cloud sprays a strike off the outside corner.

I have to cut my hair. It’s too damn long and curly in this humidity. Amy always bothered me about it. She’d say, “Short hair is in now,” as if that’s a reason to cut it. Sweat’s dripping down, stinging my eyes. I can live with it. The best is she has Al’s old JV Jersey draped over the back of her beach chair like a towel. I guess she packed away the Mattingly Jersey I bought her last Christmas.

“Let’s go,” Al shouts. He wants to end it with one swing. I pitch.

“Ball,” he shouts. That was way high. Think strikes. Throw strikes.

“Ball Two,” he says.

“I know.”

Al has the advantage of a decade plus of little league and JV baseball under his belt. His body still remembers most of the natural reflexes even if he hasn’t played real baseball in a few years. He snapped his ankle junior year coming down a staircase and that was that. Still can’t put his full weight on it for long stretches.

I played little league in third and fourth grade. I got my first hit in my first ever at bat and my second and final hit in my last at bat the second year. Went into a little slump in the middle. My father never had the patience or inclination to take me to practice, but he could sit for two hours studying the entries at Aqueduct.

None of that matters. Today, I’m gonna shove Al’s decade of sponge ball excellence up his ass and right in front of Amy’s face.

I pitch. Strike, right by him.

“Don’t hurt yourself out there,” Al says smirking. That was about as fast as I can throw, and I don’t think I can do it again.

I wind up and send one sailing about five feet over the box. My problem is mechanics. My shoulder doesn’t come through like it should. My foot doesn’t drag the right way. I’ve been told my fastball has some natural movement, whatever that means. Whatever skill I have doesn’t translate outside the walls and fences of the schoolyard.

Next pitch, he smashes a high chopper, but it’s just to my left and I field it cleanly. Two outs.

I glance over at Amy. She’s standing behind the infield fence now, fingers coiled around the silver diamond links. I miss those fingers.

“Let’s go,” Al growls. Maybe Al is starting to think this is the game I’ll take. Maybe he told Amy not to come and watch us play. Maybe he’s realizing that if a girl can dump one guy for another once, she can do it again. Whatever the case, it’s not my problem now.

My shoulder grates out the best fastball I have left, and Al swings over it. He’s too anxious. He should have clobbered that pitch.

Go inside on him now. You really don’t aim the ball or watch where you’re throwing. You just glance where you want it, go into your windup, and keep that spot in your mind. Works sometimes. Sometimes I break a second-story window.

The ball catches the corner. Strike. Al backs away from the box, paces, grunts, eyes bulging. He goes back into his stance.

“Oh and two,” I say with a smile.

“I know,” he replies.

I wish I had a curve. Al can’t hit a curve. I can’t throw a curve. Al can throw a curve.

“Let’s end this,” Al says. Stepping back to the mound, I feel Big Al approaching like the edge of a storm. His nose emerges first from behind the wall’s edge. Al and his father have the same nose. It juts out continuing the slope of their foreheads, extending to their protruding jaws. Big Al stomps through the recently clipped jagged opening in the fence—I don’t know why they even bother making doors—almost forgetting to duck under the support bar. He looks like he has something on his mind in a menacing way. I never actually saw steam shoot out a person’s ears until I started working for him. I thought it was only possible in cartoons. He’s a pretty good guy, don’t get me wrong. He just has a tendency to explode like Mount Vesuvius if someone drops a piece of bread on the floor.

His mouth opens, “What the fuck are you guys doing…It’s a busy week…We have a system…Get with the fucking program…Work comes first…” He’s pacing, cliché-ing, pouncing around all red-faced and bug-eyed. The sky goes gray, trees bend and sway, dogs and cats whine in the distance. He turns a step as if he’s done, then pivots and repeats the same verbal explosion. He looks like a gangster from an old Cagney movie. I could picture him in a pinstriped suit and fedora. He sees Amy standing behind the fence and points to his son.

“And you’re spending too much fucking time with that jeejee of yours. You can forget about Friday nights off.”

I know to remain motionless and just let the brunt of it roll off my shoulders. He’ll run out of gas soon enough and be all buddy-buddy again. Everyone knows to do that, except his son. I’m not even listening at this point, but from the deepening shade of red on Big Al’s face, I can tell Al just said something really dumb. After another minute of shouting, the crossfire fizzles, and I interject, “I just need one more out.” Big Al looks surprised. He’s a competitive man like his son. Made him a successful businessman, I’m sure.

“Okay boys, just come around when you’re done. I don’t like to yell at you two. I expect you both to set an example.” He always says that. He knew we had this afternoon off. Probably just needed to yell at someone, and we were closest.

He starts to walk away, but stops outside the fence a few yards over from Mr. Barello to watch the outcome. I bet he doesn’t think I can beat his boy. The stats back that up. He’d hate to see his son lose, bad reflection on the family business.

“Let’s play ball, you mutt-faces,” Big Al shouts. He smiles and waves a hello to Mr. Barello, who nods back. Both are intent on the next pitch.

Al gets under it, and the ball spins back foul. I miss the box with my next two pitches. I’m over-throwing.

He rips the next pitch hard, but he’s out in front of it. The ball bounces foul off the wall to my right and rolls to the fence. While picking it up, I notice three guys taking a shortcut through the schoolyard. Typical punks. They sway, pivoting their hips when they walk, their shoulders dipping with each stride. Necks weighed down by gold chains, they fashion themselves strutting sentinels of the neighborhood. Assholes.

The sour look on their faces turns my stomach. You can tell these three watched The Godfather too many times. That’s what I hate most about this place, everyone has an attitude— everyone wants to hit the other guy with a baseball bat. Neighborhood gets worst every year. I go back to the mound. They’re not worth a second thought.

I make a mistake and put the next pitch down the middle. Al’s all over it.

The ball blasts over my head and bounces hard off the threshold of the opening between the fences. I yell, “Single,” thinking it nicked the concrete infield first. Al shouts, “That’s a double,” positive it struck down on the blacktop.

Big call. I’m either up one or the game is tied. Tracking the ball, I see it skip up off a pebble or crack in the ground and graze the leg of the short punk who seems to be the leader of the triumvirate. He spins around like he heard a gun go off, cocks his head to one side, his lower lip hangs, ready to flap, “You got a fucking problem?” I look back at Al still shouting, “Double! Double!” We both look to Mr. Barello for the call.

Mr. Barello scratches his knees then cups them both in his hands. He tips his head back and regards the open gateway as if an invisible dotted line marked the ball’s trajectory.  My eyes dart back to the three idiots, still staring back at me like I threw the ball at them on purpose. Shorty’s right hand clenches in a fist, he scratches his crotch with the other. Punk like this would probably shoot me over this if he had a gun tucked away. Mr. Barello ruffles in his seat like a bird just trying to get comfortable in his nest. He raises his right hand, and holds up one finger. Single.

Al slams his bat into the ground. Big Al channels Billy Martin and starts screaming, red faced, at Mr. Barello, “What are you blind…that ball was past the fence…put on your goddamn glasses.” Mr. Barello springs out of his chair like he’s a teenager and gets right in Big Al’s face, “Don’t you tell me how to call a game, that ball was short…” and they shout and jab their fingers in each other’s faces while the three punks are still staring right at me, shrugging their shoulders like apes in the wild.

Big Al finally stomps away from Mr. Barello in frustration muttering to himself. Mr. Barello sits back down in his chair and dusts off his pants as if dirt had been kicked on him during the argument. Those little kids, back from their ice cream break, ride through again, and thankfully, the little red-headed one oblivious to the violence percolating behind him, circles the ball, scoops it up without dismounting, and fires a bullet directly into the ground. Eventually, it rolls back to me, and I wave my glove in thanks. One of the taller punks finally puts his arm around Shorty and eases him back towards their original direction. Shorty turns back for one last menacing sneer. I walk back to the mound.

Al is waiting by the box talking to his bat, “Goddamn ninth…I was getting hot.”

Big Al, just noticing the three punks now, grumbles over to Mr. Barello, “Lousy punks. Should be working, not gallivanting around the neighborhood,” in attempt to reestablish good community relations. Mr. Barello ignores him.

Set, I check back once more and see the three punks watching still from behind the opposite fence, not too far from Amy, checking her out. I see Shorty mouth, “nice tits,” to his friends who chuckle. I’m pretty sure Amy flashes a smile back at them. I must have been right, because when I turned back to the plate, Al looks like he’s ready to smash that bat against someone’s skull.

The score is six to five. Bases still loaded. Just need one more out.

Al strangles the grip of his bat. He didn’t expect this much competition. Didn’t expect it to be a game today. He stares at me, then his father, then over to Amy. I stare into the empty space inside the chalk rectangle.

Five quick pitches, no swings, and the count is full.

Al breathes in deeply through his nose like a bull. Sweat pours off me now. Air tastes like bus exhaust. Everything seems to be moving closer together, melting, swirling. I forget about never beating the man at the plate before. I forget about Big Al, the three punks, and Amy. I take a deep breath, wind up, pitch, and Al golfs the ball straight up into the sky. I peddle backwards watching it climb like a rocket. I squint, trying to shade my eyes with my glove. The pink balls streaks higher and higher, and shrinks into a black dot that dissolves into the blinding yellow and white glare. I see nothing. Its return path is invisible until it is falling just out of reach and I lunge back and fall right on my ass. Flat on my back, I reach my right hand inside my glove, wrap my fingers around the ball, and raise it high above my smiling face. I win.

I hear a roar of anguish from Al, like a pained animal, as I climb to my feet.

Big Al is the first to trot over. He pats me on the back and says, “Good job. That’s how you keep Al on his toes,” then he jabs his finger accusingly in his son’s direction, then at Amy. She consoles Al, strokes his arm. The three schmucks, having graced us with their presence for far too long, shrug and walk off unimpressed. Amy walks over to me, puts her hand on my chest, not looking up at me, and says, “You did so good.” Al finally trots over, having regained his footing in reality, shakes my hand and says, “Great game.” It was.

Big Al shouts walking away, “Good game boys—now get your asses back to work. Mutt-faces!” He laughs loudly and waves at Mr. Barello folding his chair to retreat back to his porch.

Al extends the notebook to me and says, “You want to do the honors of updating the won loss standings.” I say sure, why not?  He starts to stroll off with Amy, one hand holding hers, the other securing the bat slung over his shoulder like a recently fired rifle. He asks if I want to walk with them back to the restaurant for some lunch. I say I’ll catch up as they walk off.

Alone, I gently toss the ball in a high arc towards the strike zone, like I’m shooting a basket. It falls just short. I lean against the cool brick wall and open the notebook to the pages the pencil rests between. I trace the final score 6-5 with my finger. I flip to the back page where Al had scribbled, “Official Standings” in the top margin years ago. Grinning, I erase the zero below my underlined name, blow away the pink eraser shavings with a big puff, and proudly carve the number one into the page. I start to flip back through past games. Last year’s game was called after seven innings due to severe thunderstorms. Al was up by 5 anyway. Two years prior, I lost 7-3 but hit a line drive right smack back into Al’s groin. Our third game when Al wouldn’t accept my forfeit because I turned my ankle trying to chase a grounder. Limped home leaning on him for support, arm around his shoulders. We finished the game a week later. I flip all the way back to our first game and the first home run I ever hit. I can still picture that home run; I remember watching it sail high over the fence.  I don’t hear the rapid footsteps racing at me until it’s too late and the tallest punk crashes his fist into the back of my head. I collapse to the ground and try to focus as the world spins sideways. Sprawled across the concrete I look up through watery eyes and see Shorty pick up the notebook, fallen a few feet from me, propped open on its edges like a small tent. He stares at it blankly for a moment, like a Cro-Magnon discovering his first rock, then rears back and fires it at my head.

About the Author: Anthony Ausiello is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction at Fairleigh Dickinson University and is a reader for the The Literary Review. Anthony also received a BA in English from The Pennsylvania State University and was a winner of the Katey Lehman Fiction Award. Between PSU and FDU, Anthony successfully navigated through corporate America for almost two decades before departing to search for the Promised Land. He lives happily in Westfield, NJ with his wife, Talia, and children, Anya and Eli.

Artwork: Chris Solano