The Red Sox-Angels game out in California had just ended after a 12-inning pitchers’ duel. Jon turned up the volume on the TV as highlights flashed across the screen, scattering colors around the otherwise dark room. He lay in the twin bed with the paisley, flowery hotel blanket pulled up to his armpits, and his farmer-tanned arms flopped out on top of the covers, the only part of his body exposed below the neck. It was so frigid in the air-conditioned room he could see his breath.
“Ha!—Ha ha! The Sox lost!” he shouted with glee. He looked over at Sean, who was in the other bed dozing off. Jon whipped a pillow at his head.
“Hey, bitch. Wake up. Your team lost.”
“What.” Sean blinked open his right eye and looked at the clock. The left half of his face was sunken into the down pillow. “Jesus Christ, Jon, it’s almost 2:30. What the hell do you want?”
“I said, Boston lost today.”
“Fantastic,” he said dryly. “Who threw?”
“Wakefield, but you know, he tossed a pretty good game. Didn’t even give up a run till the sixth and then he just got hammered. You never know what you’re gonna get with him when he throws. You just never know with knuckleballers.”
“That can happen to anyone. Shit. Did the Yanks lose?”
“No, they buried the A’s, like, 12-1 or something. Clemens got the win,” he added with a big grin and a single nod of the head.
“Dammit. What are the Sox now, five games back?”
“Yeah, and they could have pulled ahead of Oakland in the Wild Card standing if they’d won.”
“Pssh. Five games back and it’s only April. What a shit day.”
A low roll of thunder rumbled in the distance. Rain had drizzled all day and now it began to pour in thick sheets. Wind whipped fat droplets against the room window, a soft percussion that lulled Sean back to sleep.
“There’s that black cloud that follows us everywhere!” shouted Jon suddenly, sitting up and pointing emphatically out the window. “God is pissing on our team.”
“There is no God,” mumbled Sean, half-asleep. Jon slumped back down, defeated again. He looked at the sportscast on TV. They were showing the Mets and the Dodgers brawling.
With the club far out of contention, Sean and Jon knew this trip to Maryland would be it—the final games of their college careers, at least, on the road. The following weekend would bring Monmouth up to the Connecticut shore for a pair of meaningless matches, and that would be that. While the top teams of the Northern and Southern divisions would spend the month of May competing for the league crown and a trip to the championship series in Omaha, Sean and Jon would be out looking for jobs. They’d be relieved to hang up their Bears caps, grateful to put their final miserable season in the books.
“I can’t believe that in four years we never made it to the playoffs, not once,” Jon said while riding south on the chartered bus. They were somewhere between Newark and the Delaware Bridge, and had been sitting silently for nearly 45 minutes. “Fucking bullshit, man! That’s four years of bad coaching! We should’ve made it, at least once. We had talent. I swear, ballplayers come to this school to die—fucking coaches. It’s like, like—” and he shook his head and shifted in his seat.
“I don’t care,” said Sean, without looking up from his book. “Look around the bus, look at these assholes. It’s a few less weeks that we need to be around them.” He meticulously folded a page corner and slapped his book shut.
“Hmm.” Jon looked down and shook his head again. He shifted in his seat. “Yeah.”
It was cold in Maryland. The first game of the weekend was a single nine-inning battle on Saturday against Baltimore, and the teams struggled through late-inning rainstorms, patches of black mud, and sudden chills that often come with spring baseball—one minute it’s a bearable 55 degrees, the next a 35-degree wind is whipping into the tobacco-stained dugout, swirling dust about like dirty snow. Baltimore handled the Bears with ease, dropping them by a lopsided score of 17-4. Sean and Jon were handed mop-up duties. Jon tossed two-and-a-third innings and surrendered the last five Baltimore runs. Sean notched the last two outs in the bottom of the eighth, but not until a bases-clearing double allowed the three runners Jon had stranded to cross the plate.
Baltimore’s pitcher pumped his fist as he fanned the final batter in the top of the ninth on a curve in the dirt. The win sealed their place atop the Southern division. As the teams packed up their gear, a cheery voice announced over the loudspeaker:
“Please be sure to join us tomorrow at 12:30 for a double-header between the 5-32 Bears and your Division Champion Knights!”
The two clubs lined up and shook hands. Sean stared blankly, saying nothing, checking out girls stretching in the stands, the oriole on the backstop, his cleats scuffling dust.
Jon walked ahead of him, “Good game, good game, nice job, yep, guhgame,” he said to each player. After the last pleasantry he turned to walk back to the dugout. He adjusted the ice pack wrapped around his shoulder.
“Fuckers,” he mumbled under his breath, looking at the grass.
“Look at this, Sean. Sean—look,” said Jon, nodding at the television screen. “Man! Four weeks into the season, and the Mets have been in, what, six brawls?”
“Like two, maybe three,” replied Sean. “Hey, sorry I let your runners cross the plate. If only I’d gotten that first kid out, those runners you left wouldn’t have scored.”
“Yeah, well, Peterman’s a tough out. He’s, like, third in the league in average,” Jon responded, tugging his blankets.
“Still, that was a stupid pitch for an 0-2 count. Goddamned stupid! Fastball on the inner half of the plate, belt-high. I should’ve been low and away with a slider, see if he’d chase it.”
“Eh, he would’ve seen a breaking ball coming.”
“Well, you can blame me if your ERA got pushed over 8.00.”
Jon was briefly silent, mulling the statement before clasping his left hand to his forehead and saying, “Oh, fuck!” and he leapt from bed and headed to the bathroom.
“It’s damn cold in here. Aren’t you cold?” he asked when he came out, closing the door behind him, yet forgetting to shut off the light.
“Not really. It’s damn cold on that field all day, though. Even when the sun is shining I always shiver and I can’t figure out why. It’s as though my blood stops pumping. Remember three years ago, that freezing game on Staten Island? We stole coach’s jackets and wrapped them around our legs and hid the number on the sleeve so he didn’t realize it was his, and he pissed and moaned all game. Goddamn, it was so great!” he laughed. “I always think about that.”
“I always think about that game I had freshman year, I think it was my first game in fact—”
“Seton Hall, down at that Florida tourney.”
“Yeah…I was good, huh? Seven innings!”
“That really was something, Jon. Seriously, that was great. Too bad we still lost.”
“But man, I was on. It’s like, I came in to relieve when we were already losing by 10 runs, but I didn’t even care. It was like I could do no wrong.”
Sean turned over on his left side to face Jon.
“That was something. You’ve still got it, too. It’s just, something—something small has been off for you this year, and no shitty coach here will ever catch it, you know? It’s not your fault.”
“Well—” started Jon.
“And think about it, your first game,” continued Sean. “Shit! You remember my first one? I got lit up, and all the older guys on the team were so hung over from the night before they couldn’t catch a fucking thing.”
“Sam pitched well that day, though,” said Jon. Sean’s eyebrows relaxed; his brow unfurrowed. He paused and thought.
“That’s right—he did, didn’t he? I forgot about that. We both made our debuts that day.”
“Ha! Yeah, and he was so nervous, too!” laughed Jon. “He was always so nervous! I never saw a kid throw four wild pitches and four walks and get out of an inning unscathed. So fuckin’ lucky!”
They both laughed and went silent as the rainfall regained dominance of the room’s acoustics. They stared at the ceiling as they both realized that it had already been a year.
It was a Friday morning. Sean burst into Phillips Hall in a hostile whirlwind, late, as usual, head down. It was the warmest day of the year, a Friday, and the sun caught the back of his neck as the door swung shut. In retrospect, he thought, it was the warmest the sun ever felt, or would ever feel from that day forth. He got that familiar sinking feeling of trivial dread over his CJ 101 exam. Thirty feet into the building he caught the eye of his oldest and best friend at the school, who rushed up behind Sean as he turned to walk up the first flight of steps.
“Sean I don’t know if it’s true,” said Jon with panicked excitement as Sean placed a foot on the first step, “but I just heard this crazy rumor just now that Palmiteri didn’t wake up this morning.”
Some other guys on the ball team stood around, leaning against the wall, indifferently conversing, goofing around. Sean looked into Jon’s eyes, unblinking, silent.
“I don’t know what that means, man. What—what the fuck does that mean?”
Jon opened his mouth before any sound came out. “They found him in his bed this morning and he wasn’t breathing.”
“What, I don’t understand it. I don’t know what you’re saying. …They revived him, right?”
“No. Sam’s dead.” He shook his head and looked down.
Jon shut off the TV. The two boys lay shivering and silent, pulling their blankets up under their chins; their silent ruminations lingered heavily, as perceptible as the ghostly fog of their breaths dissipating into the blackness, made blacker still by the thick layer of steam coating the window, blocking the orange streetlamp glow.
“I remember the day coach cut him from the team, sophomore year,” said Sean, breaking the tenuous silence. “I skipped fall tryouts that day because I couldn’t be around to watch. I knew he had it coming. Coach had it in for him. I had to visit him that night.”
“It was ugly,” replied Jon, quietly. “Even he knew it was coming. I never saw anything like it. If he had lost any more of his composure, I swear he would’ve started crying out there on the mound. Every pitch he threw in the dirt, bounced off the plate…shit, he even let one fly to the backstop…” and his voice trailed off as he offered a sad “hmph.”
“It was,” said Sean, “like a premonition to everything that happened. I’ve never seen such shame as I saw in his eyes. He kept saying, ‘I’ll never face my father again, my grandfather, too, everyone’s going to be so disappointed in me. I can’t face up to them.’ The kid couldn’t face up to anyone. He couldn’t talk to girls he liked, always worried what the guys on the team thought of him.” Sean sat up and placed his hands in his lap, and stared at the wall. “I swear to God if you ever saw him look in the mirror, you could see the shame—he hated himself.”
“No, man, he didn’t hate himself,” said Jon. “He just couldn’t control the way he was. He wouldn’t have died if we were with him that night.”
“What he did was suicide!”
“No, he just didn’t know when to stop. He didn’t know any better.”
“It was like suicide…it was like he wanted to die. But he was unsure of that, too.”
Coach cut six eligible returning players in the fall of Sean’s sophomore year. The night after the news was posted on the locker room door, the six expatriates gathered at the field at midnight. They shattered the lock on the storage shed; a bucket of practice balls, home plate, and all three bases were dumped into the nearby river; the rolled-up field tarp was inscribed “Fuck You!” with a pocket knife; the batting cage was demolished with a rake and a spade. The L-screen was cut and a player was nearly killed a week later when a batting practice line drive rocketed off his skull from 35 feet. Someone took a shit on the mound.
“But that’s just how those guys dealt with it,” Sam explained the next evening. Sean nodded slowly, sitting in a folding chair in Sam’s bedroom. “All I could do was just watch, and even though I’m angry…and sad…it’s nobody’s fault but my own. What good would it do? It’s over. I feel like I’ve died.”
“Jon…after the funeral you pretended like Sam never meant a thing to you. Seemed like everyone at the school—all those assholes who didn’t give a flying fuck about Palmiteri—they all acted like he was their best friend. You didn’t even think about him.”
Jon moved uncomfortably under his blankets and kept his pensive gaze fixed to the ceiling.
“I think about him a lot,” he said, finally. “I didn’t like how thinking about it made me feel, so I shut it off. And, one day, I realized I couldn’t pretend any longer. I knew him well—I mean, I didn’t spend too much time with him the last couple years, but for a while it was us three…you know, until he got cut from the team.”
“Sad how those things go.”
Jon didn’t seem to hear.
“I really did know him pretty well. He stayed at my house in Brooklyn and I talked to him every time I saw him wandering around campus. I talked to him the day he died. I have dreams about him sometimes, and he’ll be the same old Sam, only I’ll know, in the dream, that he’s dead and that even though I’m talking to him—even though I’m listening to him—something is very wrong, and only when I wake up do I realize what it is.”
Sam couldn’t convince the pretty waitress to serve him a beer. Sean couldn’t care less. It was Sam’s idea to drive down to Milford for dinner, to try and take Sean’s mind off the girl who’d broken his heart that day. He sat silently ignoring Sam’s jokes and pointless chatter.
“You know, Sean,” said Sam, matter-of-factly, “when I first met you I thought you were a real asshole.”
Sean looked up, surprised. Sam finally had his attention.
“Yeah…the first week of fall baseball, out of all the new recruits, you were the last one who ever talked to me. You were always quiet and serious-looking and you never smiled. And I just thought, man, that kid is a total dick. You acted like you thought you were better than anyone else.”
“Hm,” grunted Sean.
“But then I got to know you…and you’re my best friend on the team.”
Sean slowly nodded, a sour frown frozen on his stone face. Sam continued, undeterred by his friend’s non-response.
“I don’t get it, man. I don’t know why she ditched you like that. I don’t understand why you have such a bad time with girls. You know…you’re a good guy. Not a scumbag like me. Not like all the guys I live with. You’re a nice guy, Sean. You know that. You’re quiet and smart, and, you know…you’re just a good guy,” and he spoke embarrassedly, looking downward at his fingers as they twirled a straw wrapper, visibly startled by his own candor.
Sean looked at him and nodded. “Fag,” he said under his breath, and the two quietly laughed, waiting for their plates to arrive.
Sean kicked the quilts off his bed and swung his legs over the edge, shivered, and inched toward the window to the air conditioner. He shut it off, violently flicking the switch. Jon didn’t notice. He had fallen asleep and breathed in a steady, even pace, oblivious to the hour of the night, the icy air, the puddling street water. Sean smeared his palm in a circle on the windowpane, wiping away the steam, and stared out into the early morning.
The city of Baltimore beamed in the distance; orange effervescence defying the sheets of water that fell by the tubful from the empty heavens. Rain everywhere.
We’re going to be trapped in Baltimore another day, thought Sean. The field is likely flooded through and through.
“Hey Sean, did you see Allie today?” said Sam with a sly grin. “Boy, she sure looked pretty. I wish I could talk to her.”
It was a storm that had engulfed the entire seaboard. That’s what they’d said on the news. At that moment, at 4:46 a.m., rain was driving into the Boston Harbor, pelting the Prudential Building and the Fens; it was glistening on the tollbooths in Delaware and the endless suburban tracts on the New Jersey coast; it was soaking cattle in Plymouth, Vermont and old farmhouses in Harrisonburg, Virginia; just miles away it engulfed the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, and beyond that the alleyways of Manhattan, and surely, surely it was crushing into a lonely, lifeless cemetery in Long Island, running down the length of the blades of grass that grew six feet north of Sam’s head, seeping down through the soft loam, lurking towards his well-dressed and stone-cold body.
Sam hated the cold. The time they stayed in Florida for the baseball tournament, all he could say was how much he hated Connecticut and New York, how great Florida was. But there was that winter weekend trip to Vermont. Racing together through the pine trees on snowmobiles, there was so much contentment in his face. The cold wasn’t the problem.
I can’t sleep, panicked Sean, and I feel though I may never sleep again. At that moment, a motion in the corner of his eye drew his attention to a utility shed in the back of the hotel parking lot. A mangy cat that he’d give a scrap of his breakfast sandwich to that morning was desperately circling the shack, searching for a way in to stay warm and dry. Sean noticed the corrugated cap atop the shed.
The tin roof! There is no sound like the sound of rain on tin. I’ll surely be asleep soon.
Sean ran his fingers along the bottom of the glass, trying to open the window so as to let in the hypnotic sound of rain on tin. The window was impressively soundproof and fully sealed shut.
Defeated, Sean breathed out a heavy breath and looked out the window, up to the sky; the jet black ink had faded to early morning navy, the first foretelling of the sunrise to come; Jon lay motionless, peaceful; Baltimore glittered silently and orangely and beautiful, motionless, sparkling wet; streetlamps reflected along the length of the shiny blacktop streets; the cold, unloved cat had vanished; the tin-roofed shed, plainly in sight, played a tranquil opus for no one to hear.
“I’ve got no one else to talk to, Sean,” cried Sam, shit-faced, on the verge of tears. “You’re the only person I can trust.”
“Goddamnit!” moaned Sean, but his words were choked in his tense, convulsing throat. He leaned into the glass. Raindrops fell from the silver eaves of the utility shed like silent tears.
Jackson Ellis is a former Division I collegiate pitcher, a co-founder of Scissor Press, and is the publisher and editor of Verbicide Magazine. His work has previously appeared in Broken Pencil. He lives in New England and can be reached at email@example.com.