A BANG BANG PLAY
by Jack Neary
Eddie Sheehan, umpire, thirty-nine, Irish Catholic, married thirteen years and prone to fantasy, looked out on the hill and quick-scanned the five-foot-five inches of breathlessly lovely womanhood packed inside that Spandex Jericho Tavern softball uniform and did what he had to do.
“Strike three!” he called, though the phrase that actually came out of his mouth was “Heeeiiike, yes!” as he lifted his right arm to the sky, grabbed his fist closed and yanked it down as if he were pulling the chain of some difficult to manipulate ancient toilet. The next ninety seconds were close to the most frightening of his life. The batter, dubbed “Boulder” by his Sharkey’s Saloon teammates, had taken two steps toward first after the three-two pitch before leaping headlong into Eddie’s face at the call, threatening him with decapitation. All the Sharkey’s players were on their feet, verbally offering varied methods of inflicting pain and/or death on the umpire. The Sharkey’s wives and girlfriends seated on lawn chairs and car hoods behind the bench made the bloodiest suggestions, which was understandable because it was they who would suffer most in the beer-soaked aftermath of a Sharkey’s loss. Eddie stared straight ahead and focused on the exquisite smile of the Jericho pitcher and told himself it was worth it. Besides, she had tossed a terrific game to this point. She had earned the close call. “Boulder,” the asshole, shouldn’t have been taking anything that close in that situation anyway.
The score was four to two, Jericho. Two outs now, bottom of the seventh, which in this bar league was last of the last. Runners on first and third. The Sharkey clean-up hitter, a small building named Devens, represented the winning run at the plate. Classic.
The luscious pitcher’s name was Gloria and Eddie was told before the game by the base umpire, Dick Something, that she was the best hurler in the league. She was also the only female player in the league. That’s how good she was. And this was real softball. Fast pitch. None of this medium-fast-has-to-have-a-three-foot-arc bullshit. Real, whip-action, arm-slinging, mitt-popping, if-it-hits-you-it-welts fast pitch. Gloria had given up only three hits in six and two-thirds innings. One of the hits, a bleeder that fell between the right fielder and the second baseman, accounted for the guy now at first. The runner at third had been nicked by an inside fast ball and took his life in his hands advancing two bases on the bleeder by guessing it would fall in. It did.
The other two Sharkey hits were home runs.
Both by this small building, Devens.
He had hit the homers on 3-2 pitches. Since it had been a close game throughout, Gloria obviously felt she had to come in to the guy on the full counts the first couple of times around. He’d been sitting on both pitches and had lined each knee-high fast ball over the left-center field fence. Ropes. Gone in milliseconds. The on-deck hitter had fanned after each home run. Clearly, the Jericho coach would call to walk Devens intentionally this time. Gloria, in fact, looked into the bench for the sign. The coach, a humorless six-footer everybody called Ray who was chugging cans of Budweiser between innings, remained humorless.
“What are you lookin’ at?” he yelled out to the gorgeous Gloria. “Get him!”
Devens stepped into the right-hand batter’s box and dug himself a miniature canyon for his back foot. He glanced at Eddie and seemed to smile.
“Good call,” he said, referring to the strike on Boulder, and spit on the plate.
“I thought so,” Eddie responded, not knowing or caring whether the guy was sincere. He just wanted to get in his car and bolt the premises. He made a mental note to tell Poppy--Armand “Poppy” Pare, the Umpire’s Assignment Secretary--that he wouldn’t accept any more out of town games. He preferred to have friends in the stands to walk him through the parking lot after less than hospitable contests.
Gloria looked in to the catcher and heaved a mammoth sigh appreciated, Eddie was certain, by each and every male with eyes in the vicinity. She raised her arms, ball in the left hand, glove in the right hand, brought them together over her head, then thrust them to her waist where her ball hand swept out of the bundle and into the windmill delivery. Her right leg jumped forward and the rest of her body followed. The pitch flew at the bottom of the whirlybird arc, cannoned out of her hand and exploded into the catcher’s mitt. Knee-high, outside corner.
“Heeeike!” Eddie wailed, far more confidently than he had ringing up Boulder. No argument from anybody this time. Devens had been taking all the way. The hulking batter dug in again as his teammates cheered him on.
Gloria took the next two pitches to his chin, working him high and inside, buying herself an inch or two on the outside corner. Her 2-1 pitch kissed the black on the outside, an exact replica of her first one. Eddie called it the strike that it was. Devens had yet to lift the bat from his shoulder.
“Good pitch,” Devens said, ostensibly to himself, though loud enough for Eddie to hear. A down payment on a favorable call, he obviously hoped, in the future.
Gloria’s next offering was offspeed, on the inside half of the plate, but low. Still, too close to take. Devens turned on it and ripped it foul down the third base line. The beer-gutted base coach barely danced out of the way in time.
“Babe, Devvy! You’re on it, guy! Get her again, Dev! Get her again!” The Sharkey bench was alive.
“Bust him, Gloria! For Christ’s sake!” Ray shouted from the Jericho sideline as he chucked an empty Bud under the bench. “Fuck the change-up. Bust him!”
The count remained two and two. Gloria took another deep breath, went into her wind-up, and delivered the pitch. It screamed to the center of the plate, cut it in two, just above the belt. A weak hitter would have gone for it-- the high, hard one--and whiffed. Devens was anything but a weak hitter. The ball slammed into the catcher’s mitt.
“No, that’s high! Count is full!” wailed Eddie. One fantasy strike per night is enough. He had gotten his smile out of Gloria. Now, she was on her own.
Anyway, she knew what she was doing. She wasn’t going to give this guy anything to hit. Yes, he represented the winning run, but the next guy up had K’d twice already. She had to put Devens on. In the corner of his eye, Eddie saw Ray walking to the mound. Eddie called time. He waited about thirty seconds before approaching the rubber to break up the conversation. How long does it take to tell your pitcher to walk a guy intentionally? As Eddie stepped closer to the discussion, he heard Gloria pleading.
“We gotta put him on, Ray.”
“We do what I say we do.”
“He’s on the fast ball, Ray. He’s a fucking tree. He’s got a hard-on for my fast ball, I’m telling you. I own the next guy. Come on. Let me put him on.”
“I’m sick of this shit from you, Gloria...”
Eddie intervened. “How we doin’, coach?”
Ray didn’t look at Eddie. He turned to go back to the bench. As he did, Eddie headed toward the plate. Ray spun around halfway to the foul line, stopped, and pointed at Gloria.
“You bust ‘im.”
Eddie repositioned himself behind the catcher as Devens dug in for the 3-2 pitch. Gloria stood, stunned, her arms at her side, staring at the besotted coach.
“I don’t know, Blue,” Devens said, referring to Eddie and his uniform shirt. “I think I walk me if I’m them.”
The catcher, who had remained remarkably quiet for a catcher throughout the game, said, “Our coach is a sick man.” It didn’t sound like a joke.
Gloria took two or three laps around the mound in a futile attempt to compose herself. Hoots and hollers from both benches blended into a cacophony of desperate vocal energy. Gloria stepped to the rubber, took another cavern-deep breath, wound up, and heaved the pitch.
She tried to bust him.
Devens was ready. Devens was on the fast ball.
His swing was perfect. The “whoop” became a “clang” with stunning precision. The moment he hit the ball, Devens dropped the aluminum bat at his feet and stood motionless at the plate, watching the smashed missile ride out of the park in straight-away left.
Eddie maneuvered his way to the pitcher’s side of the plate as the Sharkey players gathered at home to greet the triumphant Devens. Devens stopped short at the plate and leaped onto it with both feet while his teammates mobbed him. Eddie waited a moment to see if there was any kind of protest from the Jericho club. When there wasn’t, he slipped his ball/strike indicator into his back pocket and left the field. He glanced at the mound and saw Gloria still standing there, rhythmically kicking the rubber, letting it all sink in. Dick Something caught up to Eddie just before he reached his car.
“What were you thinking on that called third to Boulder? Man coulda de-nutted you with one swing of his bat and I don’t know if I’da blamed him. That pitch was bor-der-line.”
“I fell momentarily in love.”
“Ah. I see. She looked pretty good from the outfield side, too, let me tell you. Okay. I forgive you.”
“How do I get back to Lowell from here? Can it be done?”
Eddie was in Maynard, Massachusetts for what he hoped would be the first and last time in his life. Maynard itself was significantly rural, to put it gently, but this softball field was downright forsaken by God and most of Man. As usual, he had left his cell phone in the bathroom at home, so he couldn’t call for help. People kept telling him he should get a GPS, but until he knew what GPS stood for, he let that idea go. He’d had to drive off the “main” highway, wend through a significant number of unmarked roads, down a mile-long dirt path only to end up asking some sort of colorfully scary woods dweller where Busker Field was. It happened to be just beyond a clump of trees yonder, which was fortunate, because Eddie had been fully prepared at that point to spin his Civic around and head back to where people rarely married blood relatives.
“You got a GPS?”
It was a stupid question. Dick Something looked like the kind of guy who asked stupid questions. So he did. Eddie just shook his head.
“How about on your cell phone. GPS? Waze?”
Eddie told him about the bathroom. He hated telling Dick Something about the bathroom, but he did because he didn’t want to tell him he didn’t know what Waze was. He needed to know how to get home.
“Well, you gotta get a GPS for your car. Life savers. And they’re cheap. Okay, let’s see…
Dick Something looked like he lived to eat, mate and give directions. Eddie listened intently for about fifteen convoluted, minute-long seconds, then decided to try to go back the way he came, regardless of Dick’s confidence that his way would “knock ten minutes” off his trip. “Got that?” Dick said.
“Yeah. Yeah. Thanks. Maybe work with you again sometime.” And maybe I’ll give myself a colonoscopy when I get home.
“Ask Poppy to book you here. Great league. I love this place. Maybe you’ll get to call a few more close strikes for Blondie out there! Just give Poppy my name. See ya. Get a GPS.” Eddie thought about asking Dick Something what his last name was, but didn’t bother.
By the time he reached his mouse-gray ‘08 Civic, Eddie saw that most of the players had abandoned the parking lot. The celebrating Sharkeys were nowhere to be seen, and two cars carrying the sullen Jerichos roared past Eddie and onto the dirt road, outa there. Two green army surplus equipment bags remained on the Jericho bench, however. Eddie popped the hatch on the Civic, sat on the edge of the car and took off his cleats. He stuffed them along with his mask and brush and indicator into his gym bag. As he unbuttoned his parochial school blue uniform shirt to take off his chest protector, a huge Ford pickup screeched towards the Jericho bench from the auxiliary Busker parking lot beyond the right field fence. The Ford braked hard behind the bench, and dust mushroomed into the air. When it settled, Eddie, now unbuckling his protector, saw Gloria get out of the truck and walk towards the stuffed equipment bags. She lifted them one at a time, dragged them to the back of the pickup, and tossed them in. She slammed the gate closed and climbed back into the passenger side. Eddie then took a closer look at the driver. It was Ray. Coach Congeniality. When Gloria closed the door, nothing happened. Ray sat motionless, looking straight ahead, the truck idling. Eddie shoved the protector into his bag and buttoned his shirt. Still, the Ford didn’t move. By this time, the playing field was empty. Dusk had all but settled. Eddie’s Civic and the pickup truck were the only vehicles around.
Ray opened the door of the truck and jumped to the ground. He smoked a cigarette and guzzled another can of Budweiser. He walked around the Ford twice, each time kicking the passenger side door as he passed it. Gloria sat facing forward, not moving. Ray, on his third pass of Gloria’s door, didn’t kick it. Instead, he threw the beer can to the ground, climbed up the side of the truck to the hood, stood on it and screamed at Gloria through the windshield.
“YOU...FUCKING...LET...UP, GLORIA! HONK! HONK IF YOU AGREE WITH ME THAT YOU FUCKING LET UP ON THAT PITCH!”
Gloria remained immobile. Ray waited. Then he didn’t wait any more. He kicked his heel into the windshield in front of Gloria.
“HONK, GLORIA! HONK THE FUCKING HORN WHEN I TELL YOU TO HONK THE FUCKING HORN!!!”
He kicked. Kicked again. Finally, the windshield smashed. Gloria screamed and honked the horn. Eddie froze, having no clue what to do. Ray fell off the hood to the ground, got up quickly and rushed to the driver’s side. Gloria, who had been trying to lock the door, was still in front of the wheel. Ray opened the door, hauled himself to the cab, shoved Gloria in the face to the passenger’s side, and started the engine. Eddie watched, engrossed, as Ray took a red aluminum bat from somewhere in the front seat and cleaned out the shards of glass from the windshield so he could see as he drove away. Eddie watched as the truck skirted the edge of the outfield fence, heading towards the exit. Eddie shut his hatchback, rummaged for his keys, and got into his Civic. As he did, the Ford zoomed past him and onto the dirt road.
Eddie followed them.
He didn’t know why. Maybe it was that bangout smile Gloria threw him after he made that bush league call on Boulder. Maybe it was that “oldest child” thing that always made him feel immediately and inexplicably responsible for preventing any and all potential calamity. What if this guy ended up killing this girl? How could he live with that? Anyway, there wasn’t time to deliberate. Mr. Impulsive.
Ray didn’t concern himself with what the speed limit might be on the dirt road. The Ford truck took each bend and bump in the path with the kind of gusto usually reserved for test drivers on T.V. car commercials. Eddie did what he could to keep the truck in sight.
About a quarter mile into the ride, Eddie saw the passenger side door fling open and Gloria’s perfectly-etched Spandex leg swing out into the air. He then saw Ray reach with his right hand to pull Gloria’s fluffy blonde hair towards him. He yanked her back into the cab, and the door slammed shut. The speed and violence of it all took Eddie’s breath away. Literally. He’d never felt that sensation before.
The Ford pulled up briefly as it hit the end of the dirt roadway. The truck burned rubber and launched left out into the paved country road. Eddie came to a full stop, realizing that the road to Lowell, the road home, began with a right turn. At this point, it really seemed like the way to go. But he’d never been a hero before. When would he ever get a chance to be a hero again? He took the left. He would follow the truck until he was sure Gloria was out of danger. For the moment, he would involve himself. He would enter the fray, risking trouble and physical harm, to be a hero.
This was nuts. This was suicide. Why the hell did he want to be a hero? And what guarantee did he have the he would emerge heroic? He might emerge dead. His foot was on the brake in preparation for reversal of direction. Back to Lowell. Back to cowardice. Back to where he belonged.
Before he could apply the brakes, the pick-up veered sharply off the road and down an embankment. Eddie maneuvered his car closer and stopped to watch the truck roll down the steep hill towards what appeared to be a small pond. The truck smashed into a couple of rocks and changed direction before it came to a halt at the top of a steep decline which emptied into the pond. Eddie held his breath and listened. Nothing. Birds. Breeze. Nature. Nothing from the truck.
He didn’t want to approach the wreck just yet. He determined that his most useful contribution at the moment was to stay put and hope another car would come by, with a driver who didn’t leave his cell phone in the bathroom at home.
But no car came by. This was the most desolate of desolate roads, known only to in-bred Maynard, Massachusetts softball players and the unfortunate umpires assigned to work their games. Minutes passed. Dusk settled in. Eddie finally convinced himself he had to go down the hill. He’d go down there and look in the truck so that when the police questioned him he would know what he was talking about. He got out of the Civic, looked down the steep embankment and started to make his way towards the truck.
Then he stopped.
Because the driver’s side door was opening.
Not easily. The rocks the door had slammed against on its plummet had taken their toll. Ray--it had to be Ray--pushed three times before the door opened. As it did, two or three Budweiser cans fell out to the ground. Then Ray crawled slowly and carefully out of the cab and eased himself to the pebbly terrain. He took a couple of laborious breaths, then reached back into the truck. To help Gloria, Eddie assumed.
Ray emerged in less than five seconds without Gloria but with another can of beer, which he popped and chugged. He then tossed the can away, grabbed his head, sat on the floorboard of the truck, moaned, and dropped his head into his hands. He slumped over, motionless. If Eddie were to take a guess, he’d guess that Ray was now out like a light.
Then the passenger side door opened.
Gloria was even more tentative than Ray in her measured escape from the front seat. She held onto the door, clearly in pain, as she put her feet to the ground. She turned to look up the hill. Eddie slipped behind a bush, out of sight. Gloria bled from just above her eye. She wiped the blood on the sleeve of her torn softball jersey. She looked through the car to Ray on the other side. “Ray,” she called. There was no response. She made it more emphatic. “RAY!”
She walked around the truck to the driver’s side. She lifted Ray’s head. He groaned and shooed her away, then crumpled into a deeper repose. Gloria took two steps back and seemed to rear back before she screamed.
These were not people, Eddie surmised, with extensive vocabularies.
Gloria paced around the truck again. Then again. And again. Faster each time. After the fourth orbit, she stopped in front of Ray and stared at him for what had to be two minutes. Then she climbed over him into the cab of the truck.
Eddie watched, unseen, with useless fascination. He satisfied himself that being a witness was all he needed to be. When what happened needed to be recounted, he would be there to do the recounting. But, then, it might be safe to stumble down the hill and offer Gloria his assistance. With Ray unconscious, there’d be no trouble. Before he could make up his mind whether to make the move, Ray’s long, lean body lurched back into the truck. Gloria had the coach by the armpits and pulled him into the cab. It could not have been an easy thing to do. By this time, in his drink- and accident-induced stupor, Ray had to be dead weight. Nothing Gloria was doing made sense. The truck couldn’t be driven back up the embankment. It wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe she just put him back inside for safe keeping so she could go for help. Eddie thought about getting into his car and driving back down the road a bit to then appear by chance as a Good Samaritan to pick up Gloria when she started thumbing. Why, at completely inappropriate times like these, did he always think about how he could get the girl? Too many movies.
That’s when he heard the horn.
It was one, loud blast. Eddie focused on the driver’s seat of the truck. Gloria had managed to drag Ray to the wheel, and she had re-taken her place next to him. She grasped him by his lengthy, sandy-brown hair, and slammed his head into the horn and steering column. She did it with so much force she grunted. Before she bashed his head into the wheel a third time, she let out a low yelp that gave her a little more momentum. Then, for good measure, she lifted the aluminum softball bat and creamed Ray in the forehead with it, the hole in the windshield giving her all the leverage for the bat speed she needed. She then tossed the bat outside the truck to the ground.
Eddie didn’t move.
Gloria, her pummeling complete, crawled over Ray and stood on the floorboard outside the truck. She reached across Ray, started the engine, and slid the gear shift to another position. She jumped off the floorboard and ran, much more chipper now, to the rear of the vehicle. She then placed both hands on the bumper, girded her feet into the ground, and pushed.
It was a lot easier than Eddie thought it would be. Gloria barely had to grunt. Three shoves and the truck slipped from its perch over the pond and into the water at what had to have been a very deep area, because the truck submerged quickly. Less than a minute, and it was gone. Gloria stood on the ledge, her hands on her hips, breathing heavily. When the truck disappeared under the water, she threw her fists in the air, held them over her head and shouted, “Yes!”
Then she leaped off the embankment into the water. Eddie didn’t want to know why. He just wanted nothing more to do with Maynard, Massachusetts. He ran to his car, jumped in, fumbled for his keys, found them, shoved the ignition key in, tried to grab a breath, and turned the key.
God bless Honda. Reliable. Relatively quiet. He popped a U-turn and floored it. He looked back in the rear-view mirror, but all he saw was the darkening green of the trees by the side of the road at the top of the embankment.