Strike One

by Martha Phelan Hayes

It’s the summer of 1989, and I am thirty-five years old. My son is twelve. He just finished his all-star baseball season. I worried (I am a young mother who’s yet to learn the futility of such angst) that he wouldn’t make this highly competitive team. I should have known better, for he is a talented athlete, well respected by his coaches. Naturally I want everything for him, though it will be years before I know what everything means. Right now I think it’s baseball.

My son has loved baseball since he was able to stand on his own two feet. One of his first words was “ball,” one of his first teammates I, his mother, who, even in summer’s smothering heat, growing more and more pregnant with his brother, could not deny him backyard ball-tossing afternoons. From those meager beginnings his path to the all-star team was without incident. Young boys as passionate about the sport as he, with hands designed to grip balls and fling them across a lime-streaked field of green, replaced and relegated me to the sidelines, a place I accepted with grace and, to be completely honest, some relief. I handed my son, my most precious possession, to his coaches, strangers with official team hats and an enthusiasm for the game unmatched by the twelve restless kids they had promised to turn into ball players. This year’s all-star coaches are so committed that even after the series has ended, they have devised ways to extend the season, savoring the team’s solidarity and their own guy-group thing with a mother/son softball game.

Bluntly speaking, I stink at baseball, but I am ready. I’ve sweated through Jane Fonda aerobics, danced since I could walk, and pushed strollers for miles and miles. This summer I’m running. I’m not a fast runner, more of a jogger, only marginally beating my fifteen-minute mile walks. And I’m no long-distance runner, sticking rigidly to a carefully mapped out three-mile route. But I’m consistent and I consider myself strong and fit. I also have been working on my tan. I don’t tan easily and before my first pregnancy the effort only turned my deadly white skin beet red until time returned it to a more freckled ivory. But the pregnancy hormones altered enough of my pigment so, if I’m careful, I can escape the burn and achieve a light, flecked (albeit evanescent) brown. I am thrilled. Overall I think I’m pretty hot for a 35-year-old mother. Of course it will be years before I realize how young thirty-five is, years before this boy of mine is thirty-five and I watch his son play baseball, years before I challenge the growing terror of age with yoga and cartwheels and a determination to punctuate my daily walks with intermittent sprints. For now, though, I think I’m winning.

My son and I are not without tensions typical of mothers and their adolescent boys. At times I suspect we are competing for the one household slot open for hip and cool: I cling to my youth, hoping I still am, while he reaches for his independence, hoping he can be. I wash fresh words out of his mouth; he chides me for my unconventional (in his eyes) social life. He yearns for a mother who bowls Tuesday mornings with his friends’ moms, not a college-student parent (I started late because I had him instead) whose social engagements include after-class dinner soirées with her intellectual friends. Regardless of these growing pains, we are okay. At least I think so.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon when we arrive at the sun-drenched field. My other children tag along. My ten-year-old son takes a seat on the bleacher, ready to ridicule my attempts to play this game he and his brother have mastered while I’ve been in the kitchen frying chicken cutlets, and my six-year-old daughter pouts because the candy stand isn’t open today. My all-star son is a little subdued. I wonder if he might be harboring some last-minute reservations about this event, about his mother playing. Perhaps he is experiencing some sort of premonition. Nevertheless, I’m excited. Dressed in my pale-yellow running shorts and a white t-shirt—colors I’ve chosen to highlight my tan—I’m full of vigor and ready to get out there and play. I’m already imagining a good hit, an athletic run around the bases.

Bottom of the last inning, the boys are in the field. My son, a left-handed second baseman (and I worried that he might not make the team), takes his position, his legs in a semi squat, his hands on his knees. He adjusts his cap, chews on the gum I bought him on the way to the game, and yells something like “let’s go.” A mother gets up to bat, and she gets a good hit, but the boys have been playing all year, and they are all-stars, so her prize is in a glove before she can leave home plate. One out.

Another mother takes her place. She is afraid of the ball, I can tell. She keeps backing off just as it whips across the plate, earning her two strikes. On the next pitch her bat finally sails through the air, hitting nothing. Two outs.

It’s my turn. I should be nervous but I’m not. I’m feeling like a winner. I take my position, dig my white running sneakers into the soft dirt at home plate, swing my hips like I watched my brothers do for years, and take some practice swings. On the first pitch I swing. Strike one. Okay, just a warm-up. I’ll wait for the next one. I swing again. Strike two. I wait for the next pitch. I’m getting nervous because I only have one more chance. I don’t want to walk, and I will be humiliated if I am called out. I want a hit that will send me sailing around the bases, make my son as proud of me as I am of him. And then I see it coming, the perfect pitch, a white orb cruising toward my bat. I swing with all my might and connect, wood and leather, all mine. I dribble out a mere bunt but I don’t care. I take off.

And I run. I run like a glazed pebble let go by a slingshot. My legs, my powerful, tanned, runner’s legs, pound down the base line. I am soaring, one leg, then the next, following the white lime line, my heart set on a single, and just about to touch first base. Just about, because abruptly, without warning, without even the slightest pain or lag in energy, without cramp or strain, my legs suddenly give out, collapse, and with them I go down, down into a pile on the soft, dusty earth, dirtying my yellow jersey shorts, my hard-earned and equally inflated image of myself corrupted.

I spring to my feet, brushing off my shorts, hoping to convince myself that it didn’t happen and everyone else there is no harm done. Across the field my son’s coaches, the men he has idolized all summer, run toward me. Their legs seem to take the field with them, as if it is a light cotton blanket they are kicking out of the way. They suspect a broken bone, I know, or a bleeding gash, but there is nothing of the sort. Just the last out. The inning is done and, with it, the game.

And then I spot my son. He is walking in from the field, surrounded by his teammates, his chin to his chest, his hat pulled a centimeter lower over his eyes, his hands by his side, and his face, that face I love, frozen in an expression of complete dismay and humiliation as he slowly moves his head from side to side in an oh my God, you didn’t do that to me, you who thinks she is so cool kind of way.

I won’t know for years how often I’ll tell this story, how it will make my students laugh, how time will exaggerate and embellish it. And I won’t know how precious this day is. How, on the brink of my middle age and his adolescence, my son and I are meeting on a baseball field to lose a bit of innocence neither of us knew we had. This is the summer my son will cease to revere me above all others. And I suppose, by the time September and school roll around, he will view the world in much the same way. Flawed, imperfect, set to disappoint.

His loss of innocence, for he is no longer the small boy picking me dandelions or sitting on my lap to watch Sesame Street, is a loss for me as well because it’s the last summer this child will be mine. I will soon have to share him with the world, with its prescriptions and proscriptions, with all its bountiful pleasure and bitter discontent I will no longer be able to shield him from. Years later, when he marries and I am full of joy for his adult happiness and the start of his own mature life, I’ll know I’ve accepted this. But for now I am unaware of the changes taking place and how this incident, this last out, is a symbol of all that is to come.

I swallow my pride, gather my children, and head home. There is dinner to make, dirt to wash off, and a husband who will want to hear the story of my fall from grace. I have some years left to rear this child, and I am sure that we will challenge each other again. This is only strike one. I am not out yet.


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing