by Ben Jackson
“Love in the Cheap Seats” placed first in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2019 Fall Fiction Contest.
On the last day of October, Al Fine sat with his wife in the shadow of the Budweiser sign. He had first purchased these tickets, high in the bleachers of Fenway Park, in the summer after he came back from the Pacific. For eighty-one days every year, they sat pressed together in the ever narrower confines and cheered on their Red Sox.
Slumped and wrinkled and gray, Al could no longer see the ball leave the pitcher’s hand, but he didn’t care. The roar of the crowd told him of the hits, and the despondent moans of the misses. He was home in these seats, their hard wooden slats as familiar to him as the stoic, silent presence of his wife Joanne to his left. She nearly never spoke during the games, content in her role as his good luck charm. Walking home after the afternoon games—a walk that took longer and longer as the years went on—she would open up again, remarking on the game and the crowd, and slowly turning the topic to matters more important.
It was on these walks that Al learned to love her.
“Do you remember that first game in forty-six, Josie?” he asked her.
On a late April afternoon in nineteen forty six, Al sat for the first time in the seats he would come to love. It was the day after his homecoming, having served out his enlistment patrolling the Japanese coast in a battered old cutter. Those months after the war ended were some of the loneliest. It seemed everyone had mustered out except for him, and by the time his orders finally came through he was itching to get back to Beantown. The very first thing he wanted to see was his Sox put a hurting on the Yankees, who were traveling from the Bronx on the same train that finished Al’s long trip home. He managed to keep a civil tongue in his head, but he made a point of heading to the ballpark earlier than usual to make sure he could get in.
Al pressed his dress whites, cocked his cover at the jauntiest angle he could manage, and winked at every woman he saw as he walked down Commonwealth Avenue from his family’s Brighton home. Some of them even winked back.
He was glad to be home.
Approaching Kenmore Square, Al marveled at the size of the Citgo sign dominating the skyline. It had been erected in the year before the world went crazy, and the lights blazing from its hundreds of bulbs had been the talk of the town. Before shipping out, he had kissed his now forgotten girl in its commercial glow. He was glad to see it had not lost its ability to amaze him; that the years on the sea killing a distant foe and waiting to die had not robbed him of his ability to marvel at the wonders of home.
When Al made the sharp right onto Brookline Avenue, Fenway loomed in her green majesty. Her famed left field wall—they had taking to calling it “The Monstah”—towered over the saloons and souvenir shops on Lansdowne Street. Thousands of his neighbors packed the streets, jostling each other as they made their way to Gate A behind home plate. Some few were still in their uniforms, but most had been home for months at this point and reverted to civilian clothes. Al stood out, and was happy to shake a few hands of people welcoming him home while waiting to buy his ticket.
After shelling out his quarter for the bleacher seats, Al entered the gate and made his way up into the stands. Bright sunlight shined down into the seats, a drifting haze of smoke shimmering in the rays. The mellow scent of the cigars mingled with the odors of roasting peanuts, steaming hot dogs, and the excited musk of the assembled masses, ready to claim the top spot in the American League.
It had been a rough start to the year, with the Bronx bombers jumping out to a quick six game lead over the Boston boys, but the Red Sox had come back on a tear. Ted Williams, in his first year back from flying fighter missions over France, was hitting the ball like Hitler’s face was painted in the seams and the Yanks lead now stood at only one game. Sliding down the row to his assigned spot, a blowhard was spouting to his date that Jolting Joe was going to make sure the Sox never got closer than that one game.
Al took his seat next to the bewildered woman and boldly stated “When the Red Sox win, I think you should ditch that guy.”
The Sox did win, and that afternoon was the first walk Al and Joanne took together.
“You were always the best part of coming to these games,” he told her. She remained silent, but Al knew she was listening. This was simply her way.
“Remember when Junior tried to take your seat?” he chuckled, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you so angry. It was Dom DiMaggio’s last game, that day—if ever you were going to leave me for anybody, I think Dom would have been it. I could hardly blame you, mother, he was a heck of a ballplayer.”
A teenager in a yellow shirt came up the aisle with red cooler of beer. A large blue button on his chest read “$7.00.” Shaking his head, Al asked Joanne if she remembered how much they paid on their twentieth anniversary, while raising his gnarled hand and signaling for two beers. “Seventy five cents,” he said, shaking his head. “Seventy-five cents, and the beers were draft. Not these giant cans.” He slowly counted out three crisp fives from his billfold, and passed them to his right, watching the beers pass hand to hand in his direction. When the first arrived, he popped the tab, his knuckles groaning in protest at grabbing the small, cold metal. He placed the open beer in his wife’s cupholder, and repeated the process with his own.
“Cheers, mother,” he murmured, clinking his can off of his wife’s.
The crowd roared, and chants of “Papi! Papi!” reverberated in the stadium, shaking the concrete under his feet.
“Ortiz is up,” he told his wife. As one, the audience rose to its feet, a cheer building in intensity and slowly falling into a collective groan.
“And Ortiz is out,” he finished.
His disappointed neighbors filed out around them, sad eyes pointed at the old man and his wife. A woman who owned the seats behind him placed a gentle hand on his shoulder as she passed behind. Soon they were nearly alone in the park, the grounds crew rolling out the tarp over the storied infield.
“Well, that’s that,” he told her, a hitch in his throat.
“We lost so much, this year, mother.”
A tear rolled through the folded flesh under his thick glasses. The green of the bleachers, warm and bright in the early days of spring now seemed dark and forlorn. He reached into the inner pocket of his team jacket and pulled out a small spoon, emblazoned with the 2004 World Series logo.
With cold and swollen hands, he gripped the top of the small canister on the seat beside him, and gave a twist. It opened in its hand, revealing the gray powder within.
“We all lost so much,” he whispered.
As the lights went out over Fenway Park for the last time of the year, Al Fine scooped ash into his spoon, and let a small bit of his wife drift away on the breeze. She blew around the stands, coating the seats from where she would watch the boys of next summer, and all the summers to come.
With a trembling hand, Al closed the lid on the urn and nestled the spoon back in the folds of his jacket, and for the first time in more than sixty years walked alone out of Gate A, talking to his wife and wishing for an answer.
Category: Competition, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student