Rounding the Bases: A Short Story

Here’s another previously published short story. I decided I would try to post one each Sunday for a number of weeks. Last week, it was Slices. This week, the story is entitled “Rounding the Bases,” and it was published in 2010 by Midwest Literary Magazine.

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“Rounding the Bases”

August 1978

With autumn chasing hard, summer slipped away like the Red Sox’s lead over the Yankees in the American League East. Something else faded that summer—my mother and father’s marriage. She was fed up with his drinking and he couldn’t deal with her coldness anymore. Most nights she’d drift off to sleep with the sun still burning, while Dad would slouch in the E-Z chair, crack open a Pabst Blue Ribbon and stare at our fuzzy TV set. It was actually kind of peaceful; last night was the exception.

My mother’s shrieks seized the night and awakened me. “Tomorrow the papers come, and I want you out of this house,” she yelled. My father responded, “This is my house. It’s in my name and if anyone’s leaving, it’s you.”

I pulled back the sheets and snuck into my little sister Angela’s room, located closest to mine in the hallway. She was already sitting up in bed and motioned for me to come closer to her. “Please get on the bed, Scott,” she whispered. I walked across the hardwood floor, trying not to make any of the boards creak. I sat on the edge of Angela’s bed and whispered, “It’s OK, we’re used to this by now.”

Down the hall in the master bedroom, I heard Dad say, “Marie, we promised the kids we’d go to Cooperstown for the day. This summer’s been hard enough on them already.”

“Take them yourself,” Mom said. “I’m not riding anywhere with you.”

By six o’clock the next morning, Dad had the gray Impala loaded and ready for the road. Still groggy from having her sleep cycle disrupted, Angela bowed her head and rubbed her eyes as she strode toward the car. I, on the hand, could not contain my excitement. I hopped into the car and immediately began smacking my fist into my oiled Wilson infielder’s mitt. My father, who was now sitting behind the wheel, said, “Take it easy on that glove, Scooter. You’re giving me a headache.”

I couldn’t believe we were actually making the pilgrimage to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I envisioned the hallowed halls, the souvenir shops with mint-conditioned cards and the specialty batting cages that fired curve balls, knuckle balls and sliders—along with a batting practice fastball. My father and I had planned the trip during a snowstorm one February night, I guess just to give us something to look forward to in the spring. Now something—or rather the absence of someone—threatened to sour my enthusiasm; the front passenger seat, usually reserved for my mother, was vacant as sheets of rain pelted the car. Dad clutched the steering wheel and stared out the windshield.

National Baseball Hall of Fame logo.

“Are we going, Dad?” I asked.

“Hold on,” he said, gritting his teeth. “Your friggin’ mother makes everything difficult.”

Dad pulled the keys out of the ignition, stepped out of the car, and held his arms in front of his face, trying to block the rain as he hurried across the driveway, up the front steps and on the porch. He then went inside. “Here we go again,” I said. I looked over at my sister, waiting for her reaction. But she was sound asleep with her head propped against the backseat window.

From inside the car, I couldn’t see my parents arguing, but I could hear their muffled voices rising. It sounded like they were in their upstairs bedroom. A few minutes later, my father stormed outside and walked to our car, this time ignoring the rain. Once inside the vehicle, he whisked away the moisture sopping his gray-speckled hair and started the car. “It’s just gonna be us three,” he said.

“That’s fine with me,” I said. But a short time later, just as Dad checked his rearview mirror and started to put the Impala in reverse, I saw my mother emerge on the front porch. I yelled, “Wait, Dad.”

Dad looked up, noticed my mother, and put the car back in park. Mom was carrying an umbrella in her right hand and a brown paper sack in her left hand; the bag contained our Polaroid camera, which Dad had left behind on the kitchen table. She opened the umbrella while still on the porch and headed to the car with deliberate steps, letting us know she would not rush on our behalf.

“Well Scooter, I guess we won’t be alone after all,” my dad said. My mom finally reached the car, opened the door, and slid into the seat without uttering a word to anyone. She then sat there and just stared ahead, apparently keeping her eyes focused on the intermittent movement of the windshield wipers.

Dad tried his best to alleviate the tension. “Everybody ready?” he asked. No one said anything, and so I chimed in, “Let’s go, Dad.”

“All right then,” he said, and pulled out of the driveway, drove along Stanwix Street, and made a right turn onto Black River Boulevard.

And so our mini day vacation was underway. By about 7:30 a.m. we exited the New York State Thruway and drove southbound on Route 28.

“Hey, Scooter,” Dad said to me as he navigated the winding, hilly road, “that orchard on your right is where we’ll pick apples in October.”

Angela, who was now awake, piped up and asked, “Can I come too?”

“Sure honey, you can taste them to make sure they’re not rotten,” Dad said. Angela held her little belly as she laughed. My mother turned her head slightly and snuck a peek at Angela but refused to add anything to the conversation.

By 10:30 the rain had stopped, and a patchwork of surrounding farmland welcomed us to the outskirts of Cooperstown. About five minutes later we turned onto Main Street and entered the village founded by the father of The Last of the Mohicans’ author James Fenimore Cooper. We parked about two blocks away from the Hall of Fame, and as we got out of the car, Dad said, “Let’s eat breakfast before we visit Ted, Mickey, and Willie.

“Who?” Angela asked.

“Geez Angela,” I said. “Don’t you know anything? He meant Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays.”

“Easy,” my dad said as we walked along the sidewalk. “She doesn’t know.” He put his arm around Angela and said, “They’re just famous ballplayers honey.”

“Oh, OK,” Angela said, smiling at us. My mother trailed a few feet behind us, and we waited for her to catch up before we all went inside the Short Stop, one of Cooperstown’s most famous eateries. We snagged a booth, and I gazed around the restaurant. Framed black-and-white pictures of old ballplayers adorned the greasy, yellowed walls. Dad and I ordered the Triple Play—two eggs, two pancakes and ham (or bacon). Angela ordered a chocolate malt and a cinnamon donut, while Mom sipped a cup of black coffee and
puffed on a Salem. “You sure you don’t want anything, Marie?” Dad asked when our food arrived. “If I wanted something, I’d order it,” Mom said.

And then practically everyone in the restaurant—with the exception of my mother and perhaps some Red Sox fans—let out cheers when one of the Short Stop’s waitresses, a college-aged woman named Rose, stood on a stool behind the counter and announced, “Good news everyone, in case you haven’t heard, the Yankees beat the California Angels four-to-three last night.”

“What do you think, Scooter,” Dad said, “are they gonna catch the Sox?”

“I don’t know, Dad, but at least they’re making it a race.”

We finished eating and Dad paid the bill. Then, on our way to the museum, we made a quick detour to one of the souvenir shops. With the money I had saved from helping Dad around the house that summer, I was planning to buy an official Yankees home pinstripe jersey, preferably with the number 44 on the back (Reggie Jackson’s number); however, I ended up with a 1977 Yankees World Series champion pennant, a Pete Rose Cincinnati Reds warm-up jersey, and a paperback book about Yogi Berra. Dad bought Angela a Yankee hat that was about two sizes too big. It looked adorable on her and Dad and I both chuckled when she yanked it down over her ears.

“Oh well,” Dad said, “don’t worry honey, you’ll grow into it.” As we left the souvenir shop loaded with our packages, I realized that my mother had been sitting outside the entire time. Dad said he’d run the bags to the car so we wouldn’t have to carry them with us inside the Hall. Angela and I started walking with him, but he turned around and said, “No, wait here.”

So we sat on a bench next to our mother, who pretended not to acknowledge us. Because it was a weekday, there were hardly any people on the sidewalk. I turned my head away from my mother and looked across the street at the small shops on the opposite side of the street. And then I heard Angela ask, “Mom, why aren’t you talking to anyone?” I whipped my head around and covered Angela’s mouth with my hand. “Forget it,” I whispered to her. My mother responded, “That’s right forget it. What difference does it make now?”

Just then Dad came back and said, “All right guys. Let’s go to the Hall of Fame.” The purpose of our expedition was then made complete when we paid the admission fees and entered the gates of the Hall. And maybe it was just the air conditioning revving at full blast, but a chill prickled my skin. It’s as if I could feel the ghosts of America’s pastime had been roused from their repose for our benefit alone and now their spirits oozed out of their neatly constructed memory vaults.

Our eyes shifted rapidly from one icon to another on the first floor of the museum. First the lifelike wooden statue of Babe Ruth caught our attention; then we were captivated by a Norman Rockwell painting—“Game Called Because of Rain” (also known as “The Three Umpires”). My eyes and brain felt overwhelmed by the thrilling visual stimuli. And even my mother was taken aback while roaming through the exhibition and gallery spaces on the second floor. “Scooter, look,” she said to me, “those are the spikes of Ty Cobb.” I don’t know what surprised me more, seeing the lethal spikes of the “Georgia Peach,” or hearing my mother actually complete a sentence without anger in her voice.

And with each satisfying image—Ted Williams’ bat, Joe DiMaggio’s number 5 pinstripe uniform, Jackie Robinson’s cap and glove—the game’s glory sank deeper into my soul.

On our way out, we spotted a glass-encased statue of the late Pirates star Robert Clemente. We glanced at it briefly as we shuffled past it, but Mom stopped us because she wanted to get a closer look. To my mother, Clemente’s humanitarian work made him practically a saint, but I must admit I had never heard of him. That’s because my dad said he died in a plane crash in 1972, when I was only three years old.

My mother pulled out the Polaroid camera and asked one of the museum staff to take a snapshot of the four of us in front of the Clemente statue. In the photo, she let my father hold her hand, but neither of them offered smiles; however, anyone looking at the image would have thought we were a relatively happy family. I knew better and in fact, it would be the last picture my parents ever took together.

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Before piling into our car for the return trip to Oneida County, we strolled over to Doubleday Field. By now, the sun felt warm on my shoulders and a slight breeze swept across the dusty brown infield dirt. The dugouts of Doubleday Field seemed just like the kind the Big Leaguers had—since you had to go down a few steps to reach the bench; there was also a real water fountain at one end, ready to quench your thirst. I took a seat on the bench inside the home dugout and stared out at the field. Angela and Dad were right next to me, while Mom remained standing along the chain-link fence on the other side of the gate.

“Wow Dad,” I said, “this is amazing.”

“I know, Scooter,” Dad replied. He shook his head and added, “This is the real deal son.” He also told me some local American Legion teams played games in the ballpark during the summer months, and it definitely looked like it was used frequently. A lineup card was still taped to one of the side walls and sunflower seed shells and Gatorade cups littered the dugout floor. A sticky concoction of tobacco juice and bubble gum also gripped the rubber soles of my white high top Chuck Taylor sneakers.

A few minutes later, Dad, Angela, and I ran out on the field. Dad more or less humored us by taking part in an imaginary baseball game, while Mom climbed a few steps leading to a row of green bleacher seats just above the home dugout on the first base side. She sat down, lit a cigarette, and watched us make fools of ourselves.

Angela straddled third base and hollered, “Mom, you’re coach, flash me a sign.” For a couple of seconds, my mother remained motionless, like a wax statue, then took a puff of her Salem and tucked a few unruly strands of her long black hair behind her right ear. And while it wasn’t a “steal” sign, it was good enough for us.

My father stood behind the plate in the catcher’s position and tossed me an imaginary pop fly to center field, where I was roaming. As I “faked catching” it, Angela took off from third to tag up, with her fat little legs motoring and the oversized hat flopping down over her ears once again. I threw the “air ball” to Dad, who swept the tag on Angela just as she slid into home.

From my outfield spot, it had seemed like a close play, and I wasn’t sure if Angela’s foot had touched home plate before Dad applied the tag. Silence befell Doubleday Field as neither my dad nor I wanted to make the call. We looked to Mom in the stands, and Angela yelled, “Mom, Mom, am I out or safe?”

My mom flashed a less-than-enthusiastic safe sign, but a safe sign nonetheless. Angela leapt to her feet and raised her arms in the air. “Ha, I knew I was safe,” she screamed. Dad doubled over in laughter and scooped up Angela in his arms. And as I hustled into the infield, I noticed even Mom was laughing, although not as exuberantly as Dad.

My father looked up at my mother in the stands, nodded his head, and smiled. It seemed like he wanted to hold on to the moment and to the fleeting image of this woman he loved—a woman who, at this point in time, remained his wife.

Of course, that would change. My parents separated a week later and made the break official when they signed the divorce papers in early October.

But I still can’t help but believe baseball’s immortal heroes—Ruth, Clemente, Satchel Page, and Lou Gehrig—looked down us that late summer day in 1978. They gave us a memory I would cherish forever, an experience shared by a family unit that, although unraveling, was still a family of four.

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Short Story Sunday

I am in the process of moving from an apartment unit to a small ranch house in Syracuse. As such, I’ve been going through plastic totes, digging up old manuscripts. And this has inspired me to search through my digital archives, the literary treasure (or trash) I have collected over the years and stored on my computer and external hard drives.

I decided I would start posting some previously published short stories. Pull them up on the computer, do a quick edit in Word and re-release them on my blog. I’ll try to post one every Sunday for a number of weeks.

This first one is a flash fiction piece entitled “Slices.” It was published by Emerge Literary Journal in the summer of 2013. Although the story is set in Toledo, Ohio, a Famous Ray’s Pizza shop in a sunbaked shopping plaza on Bell Road in Phoenix, Arizona, served as the inspiration. I used to go there for slices when I resided in the Valley of the Sun from 1998 until 2006. The owners were transplanted New Yorkers, and I loved seeing Yankee pennants and New York-themed photos scattered throughout.

Famous Ray’s Pizza in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Jackie Mercandetti.

Fiction is not my primary genre, and I don’t know if this is a good short story or not. However, what I love about the story is that the character of Hilde came to me with her authentic voice, demanding to be released. I did not write this story, but merely served as a portal for Hilde to come into existence.

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“Slices”

Hilde wears her jeans low on her hips, letting her love handles fold over. She doesn’t care. She knows what men want. She knows they don’t need slim hips and flat tummies to get off.

And she’s willing to let them use her body for a few minutes at a time. But they have to pay; they all pay. She doesn’t give away shit for free.

She’s eating a slice of mushroom pizza at Ralph’s Italian Pizzeria on Reynolds Road in Toledo, Ohio. She’s sipping a Coke and staring at a black and white photo of Al’s great-grandparents hanging above the counter. The place is called Ralph’s, but Al is the owner; his father was Ralph.

Hilde needs to finish eating and pick up her son Carson at school. He’s in second grade. She comes to the pizzeria every day after working at her house, which is located just down the road off Airport Highway. She looks forward to eating slices of pizza after she finishes for the day, like it’s a reward for spending all the time on her back, letting men do what they need to do.

She likes the satisfaction of eating food paid for with money earned through her body. She knows God didn’t give her much, but she has smarts and her body works in all the right places. And the men find her. She doesn’t need to advertise on Craigslist or in the back pages of weekly newspapers.

She earns enough to have a nice house and provide for her son. She’s happy. She can’t complain. She’d rather fuck every day than be one of those snotty bitches carting kids to daycare in a Lexus, putting on makeup at a stoplight and teasing their hair so their pervert boss may give them a promotion.

She watches as Al shoves a Sicilian pizza into the oven. The phone rings and he answers it. At this time of day, he starts getting early dinner orders.

“Who?” he barks into the receiver. “Who you looking for? Hilde … no she ain’t here and don’t call back.” He hangs up the phone and steps out from the counter. He points at Hilde with his thick right index finger.

“Goddammit, Hilde, what did I tell you? I don’t care what you do with your life or how you make your money, but don’t give your clients my number. I mean it.”

Hilde takes another sip of her Coke. “Yes, Al, sorry, Al, you’re right, Al.”

“I fuckin’ mean it. I’m not running a whorehouse.”

“All right. I get it. But I didn’t give out your number.”

“Don’t you have a cell phone for Christ’s sake?”

“Yeah, but word gets around that I stop here after …”

“Yeah,” Al says as he walks back behind the counter. “They want another kind of pie.”

“Don’t be gross, Al.”

“Just don’t let it happen again.”

“Well, I can’t help it if people call looking for me.”

“Yes you can. Stop making it so obvious. If it happens again, I won’t serve you.”

“Come on, Al, don’t be like that. We’re buds aren’t we?”

“No we’re not. Look I have no problem with you, just don’t make things hard on me.”

“I gotta go,” Hilde says. She takes the last bite of her crust, opens the top of her soda cup and swallows some crushed ice. She wipes the crumbs she made off the table and onto her paper plate, and then stands up and tosses the plate and her soda into the garbage. She walks to the door and with her back to the counter says, “I’ll see you, Al. Watch that blood pressure.”

“Watch your ass,” Al says. “It’s getting big enough.”

Hilde opens the door and looks back at Al. “Yup, and I like it. It means more money for me and more slices for you to sell.”

“Get the fuck outta here,” Al says. He shakes his head and smiles at her.

“See you tomorrow,” Hilde says and goes outside.

Al turns to his sister, Ann Marie, who is standing behind the counter and making trays of antipasto. “Can you get over that girl? She comes in for two slices every day after she finishes screwing guys for money.”

Ann Marie lifts her head from the prosciutto, provolone cheese and assorted olives spread out on the tray and says, “Well, a girl’s gotta eat, doesn’t she?”

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Purging Paperwork

Here are some remnants from the second draft edit of my work-in-progress memoir.

I’m in the process of moving, and it felt good to purge these pages from my “working” tote. I’m taking a little break from the project in hopes I can go from a “shitty” first draft to a “not so shitty” second draft to a “totally mediocre” third draft—and down the line until I arrive at “somewhere near decent.” I’m afraid that could take me some time. But I will persist.

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Searching for Christopher

Pick your cliche—a “shot in the dark” or a “needle in a haystack.” I have no false hope here. I don’t expect this post will result in useful information about a missing Central New York teenager. But I saw this flyer posted on a corkboard inside Marshall Square Mall in Syracuse, and the child’s smiling face and wavy hair evoked pity in the form of a gut punch.

Missing teenager Christopher Pierce.

The paper displayed photos and biographical data for 14-year-old Christopher Pierce of Theresa, New York, in Jefferson County. He stands about five feet nine inches tall and weighs about 160 pounds. He was last seen on Nov. 1 at 550 Harrison Street—a medical complex near Interstate 81 in Syracuse.

I can’t imagine the horror his parents are enduring, replaying their worst fears as more time passes and he fails to appear.

If anyone has information, they can call the Syracuse Police Missing Person Unit at 315-442-5233.

I also couldn’t help wondering what type of kid Christopher is. Who is his favorite musical artist? Does he play sports? Does he ride dirt bikes or go snowmobiling in the Tug Hill plateau? Does he have siblings? What are his favorite pizza toppings? All the mundane little details that add up to a life. And in a case like this, good thoughts and prayers prove futile. They can’t bring the kid home to his parents. But a few aimless prayers also won’t cause any damage.

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What Does it Mean to be Successful?

While on location at the Whitman School of Management at SU for a video shoot yesterday, I spotted this easel pad with some bullet points around the topic, “What does it mean to be successful?” I imagined a group of young entrepreneurs huddled in a brainstorming session throwing out ideas, prompted by their professor. It’s a good question to spark personal reflection. I think “leaving world better place” is the most important goal to pursue. I think if you can manage that, you may achieve all of the other goals on the list.

What does it mean to be successful?

 

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Real Bedford Falls Doc Airs on WXXI

For friends in the Rochester, New York, area, our Emmy-winning documentary, The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life, airs Thursday, Oct. 20 at 9:30 p.m. on WXXI.

Photo by Stu Lisson.

The film was produced by Honest Engine Films and distributed by American Public Television and Virgil Films. It’s also available on Amazon Prime and Apple TV. Tis the season for George Bailey and Mary Hatch!

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The End of the Weekend

Am I the only one who feels the actual weekend never lives up to the promise or anticipation of the weekend? In no time you go from the Thursday night high to the Sunday afternoon doldrums. Then a new week and back to work.

A couple of poems on the subject:

Weekend

Another Saturday night
in a lifetime of Saturday nights,
leading to a succession
of dismal Sundays.

Early Sunday Morning (1930) by Edward Hopper. Whitney Museum of American Art.

Sunday Blues

Sundays always depress me.
I wish we could pull
them from the calendar,
make the weekend
Friday and Saturday,
and then skip
straight to Monday.

Sunday (1926) by Edward Hopper.
The Phillips Collection.

And of course—the best expression of the “Sunday Blues” is Johnny Cash singing “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” with lyrics by Kris Kristofferson.

 

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Sidewalk Discoveries

One of the joys of walking to work is making discoveries along the way. People, nature, art, and inanimate objects capture my attention as I stride toward downtown Syracuse.

This morning, I saw a pile of clothes and some plastic trash bags strewn on the sidewalk near the intersection of South Crouse Avenue and East Genesee Street. I walked past the pile, then backed up and snapped a picture. I was filled with pity as I surveyed the situation, and I wondered what happened to the owner of the clothes—likely a female. Obviously, I don’t know the reason why the clothes were dumped on the sidewalk, but there must be a sad story behind it.

Clothes on the sidewalk. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Later in my foot-powered commute, I found some medical notes and records on the sidewalk near Upstate Health Care Center, close to the intersection of Harrison and Townsend streets.

Being a medical records junkie, I grabbed the papers and stuffed them in my bookbag. Later when I reviewed them, I was intrigued by the doctor’s handwriting and the medical terminology listed. I hope and pray the notes refer to more than one patient, because if one patient has all of these issues, that person is in serious trouble (or could be dead by now). Words that stood out for me: hypokalemia (low potassium), neurosurgery, pancreatic cancer, cerebral aneurysms, craniotomy (opening the skull), renal cause, liver and palliative consult.

Handwritten medical notes.

Along with the handwritten notes, there were a few computer printout pages. They detailed the hospital admission of a 56-year-old man with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and a history of hypoxic hypercarbic respiratory failure “who continues to smoke few cigarettes a day.” The records state “the patient has been losing weight despite good appetite” and has “severe protein calorie malnutrition.”

The patient’s BMI (body mass index) was calculated at 14.4, which would make him very underweight. But the good news—he was discharged with prescriptions for oral steroids and other medications and “will continue on his routine respiratory neb (nebulizer?) treatment regimen w/ Budesonide and DuoNeb (inhaler).”

Medical records.

Both the clothes on the sidewalk and the patient’s records reminded me just how harsh, fleeting and fragile life can be. It doesn’t take much for us to have our shit tossed on the street or end up in the hospital.

I remember my sodium and potassium levels crashing in the past, sending me to the ER, so I can relate to the male patient’s distress. He was probably scared as he underwent a battery of tests and was examined by multiple doctors. I wonder if he’s resting comfortably at home, eating enough food and breathing without difficulty.

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