Red light on his GoPro clicks on, and with one glove held in the air, signaling time out, Jay adjusts the bill of his hat with his other glove and steps his left foot back into the box, digging in on a 1-1 count with the mandatory courtesy ball and foul-strike each batter brings to the plate. Rising from his wide stance, the ump lowers his palm and points to the pitcher. The southpaw, who moves towards home like a flamingo slowly dropping a leg from its belly, releases the softball parallel to his shoulder and sends it spinning on a high arc towards Jay, whose pear-shaped head traces the ball’s path with the electronic Cyclops eye perched atop his hat’s bill.
Watching from the dugout, Mel sees that it’s clearly not worth swinging at and that, were it to land without an opposite force smashing into it, the miniature yellow sun would set snug between the catcher’s mountainous back and the ump’s ocean-blue shirt. And watching the arc of the ball’s path ride on its own melting, Mel also knows Jay will swing, especially with the GoPro on and his white-collar-athlete persona cranked up, and he does, connecting with nothing but the late summer air so violently that the ump issues his final warning about bat control to the team from RiverTech. The shortstop for Dyna-Stix Adhesives, a former starter at the University of Delaware, covers her face with her glove but not before Mel watches her chortle with the first basemen who opened the floodgates with a three-run double in the top of the first and then smacked a two-run homerun his second time at bat in the same inning during the after-lunch softball event at the Richmond Corporate Games.
“What time are you meeting her?” Gabby asks Mel after he gingerly squats down next to her on the bench.
“Ni-ice,” Gabby’s voice pumps air into Mel’s monotone responses.
Jay stirs up some dirt and chalk, shakes his black ponytail until it covers Hammer Time printed on the back of his jersey, steps in the box on his 1-2 count, and thrusts all his weight at the next pitch. Another big cut from the lead data architect at RiverTech. The ball squeaks off the handle, flips and flops, and stops a few feet outside the pitcher’s circle. Jay hustles down the line as much as his cubicle glutes and hamstrings allow. The lanky logistics coordinator for the area’s leading supplier of silicone adhesives picks up the ball and flicks it to first without breaking a sweat.
Mel sighs and looks at Gabby who shrugs her shoulders at him, the two of them the sole representatives from Finance. “She said she may stop by after she runs some errands,” he says, running his hands through the silver loops of his hair and then adjusting the elastic band around his glasses.
“Oh, that’s so exciting,” Gabby continues. “Maxine’s is a great place…or so I’ve heard. Doug has yet to take me there. The two Mikes went there for lunch last Friday.”
“Is that why they blew off our meeting?” he chuckles, massaging his left hand at the wrist.
“Yep,” Gabby dryly says to him before clapping when Ben, one of the app developers, smarts a ball towards the foul line, but another star player for Dyna-Stix dives and gobbles it up. “Mike H. said it was the best roasted chicken and sweet potatoes he’d ever had. Real, homemade marshmallows on top.”
“Smelled like they had a few drinks, too.”
“Hey…early happy hour.”
Mel stands up and shifts his hips left to right, but the pain clings. He tries ignoring Jay who, standing outside the dugout, turns towards him and gives a big thumbs-up after Kaitlyn, one of RiverTech’s UX designers, reaches first on an accidental bunt that surprised her and the opponents. Mel stares at the camera lens before quickly looking away. He knows that when the tournament is over Jay will edit the film and add a soundtrack that belongs in a 1980s action movie, full of snare-drum rolls, brass, and quick tempos. He has done this for the past two years Mel has been involved with the various rosters Jay has assembled and thrown into the athletic arena. “And then, I thought if things are going all right, we’d go for some ice cream at Short Pump Creamery,” Mel says, shifting on the metal bench to his right buttock.
“Is that all for dessert?” Gabby teases and winks, bumping his leg with hers.
“I’m old,” the fifty-nine-year-old chuckles.
“You never kno-ow,” she gleams, her voice lifting a tone higher. Gabby closes her eyes as she nods and laughs. “It’s exciting, Mel, and I’m happy you’re doing this. It’ll work out. It’ll be good.”
“Yeah…,” Mel flattens, his voice far ahead from what the rest of him wants to believe. He watches Jay tweak the camera on his bill.
“Good for you. Ah, to be swimming in the dating pool again.”
“Yeah, but I got twenty-five years on you,” Mel sighs again. “It’s a little different for us old farts.”
“Thirty-five or more,” she winks, “which puts me back at twenty-four, right?”
Laughing, Mel stands up to ease various pains weaving through him. September’s late-afternoon light wraps around and shrinks the widths of the tree trunks in the park as it had when the teams started playing in the morning. He sees Gabby’s son sitting with her husband in the stands behind the dugout. Mel nearly spits out his water when he looks at Dylan. “Holy cow, did he grow overnight?” Part of him wishes he were in the stands, away from Jay’s “coaching moments,” and sitting close enough to the stairs that he could slip away without having to say goodbye or hello. The kid sits on his hands as though he’s disciplining himself, or has been told to, but his knees pump up and down. Every few minutes his head twitches all over the place.
Gabby smiles and slides on her glove after the inning ends on a line drive to the centerfielder who quickly reloaded and fired a strike to first, catching Kaitlyn unaware. “I know. He’ll be a teenager by this time next year.”
“Wow, that’s right.” Mel stares at the awkward beanpole dressed in a wrinkled oxford, torn black jeans, and black Chuck Taylors. He can tell the kid doesn’t want to be here either. “Where have I been?”
* * *
A year ago, the cold water from the James River pricked his legs and arms. It had been a while since Mel last ran on trails and even longer since he had run for any reason other than to relieve stress or to get his mind off things. Wheezing and slobbering on his shirt with the number 867-5309 on it, Jay pulled back from the front of the group, not because Mel was slow, not because Jay was too fast and was being considerate, but because Jay scanned his GoPro camera down the line of his colleagues’ sweaty, muddy, and shivering bodies heading towards the tire run and, after that, the wall climb. “There they are,” he chanted and spit out the Chariots of Fire theme song from his chubby cheeks. Mel happened to be at the rear, not because he was slow and not because he didn’t want to go any faster. He simply wanted to run, but mainly he wanted to run by himself, as much as possible, even though Gabby suffered and laughed next to him, which he appreciated, even though he knew the feeling of shedding his own skin and floating outside his body, the effects of a runner’s high, was an illusion brought on by oxygen and blood pressing against the dark underside of his skull.
Confidence had ticked up that day like a baby bird on the edge of a nest for the Web-content creators and project managers during the team obstacle course. Jay had wanted to put on a strong show for their first-ever participation in the Games. His e-mails and bullet-point announcements at staff meetings in the months prior appealed to the weekend runners and gym-rats or those who had mentioned being active or wanting to reach that seldom-discussed New-Year-New-You. Mel waited until the last minute to sign up and feared he was too late, which might have been a relief, but Jay readily welcomed him to the fold, especially after he found out that Mel had joined a gym with the company discount, had PR’d in several races, and had even placed in a few. “Age group, top five or seven at most,” Mel emphasized one Saturday morning arriving late for practice, “not the whole thing.”
The first part of the course wound around the banks of the James and through the woods, crossing by the old ammunitions factory and its burnt, ivy-strewn shell, parts of which had been unearthed by archeology digs. The falls were nearby, where the Powhatan had fished and washed their clothes, using the rocks as scrubbers and the natural suds of the river. Mel knew this area well. He had run several races through here and had beaten his pace every time. But this one, he thought, the relay with his still-new colleagues, was starting over in many ways.
His sister and his wife’s family had wanted him to run The Komen in May. Gabby thought the same. “It might be good for you,” she said during a break in their cubicle. He didn’t tell anyone that he ran it. He showed up that morning, sunglasses on, Baltimore Orioles ball cap pulled low, and registered on the spot.
After the start gun, he tried running, tried reaching a familiar groove in his breathing and stride on the road and amongst the other runners. He never found it. It was foreign to him. His short run tapered into a jog that disintegrated into a walk, even though he had promised himself that he wasn’t going to walk, but by mile two, this evolved into a different and private promise he carried. He slowed even more halfway before the finish line and the crowd that gathered there was too thick and too observant of the runners, with their cheering and yelling, and took off his white shirt with the pink phrase In Memory Of. He had a plain runner’s top underneath. He folded the shirt at his side and, faking a minor injury, limped off the route. A few people stared at him, but no one asked any questions or intervened. The day and its cloudless blue sky, the spring sun over him, charged his emotions. His mind returned again and again to the bare fact that, at one point in their final months together, his wife no longer needed to wear a bra to exercise.
But he refused to stop during the obstacle relay, and it was near a bend thick with trees that his lungs and muscles burned the most, not from exhaustion or being out of shape but from feeling that he could push himself even more before he reached the transition area, its open field between obstacles. As some of the participants passed by him, Mel calmed his breath until he heard nothing but the water churning and felt a cold patch of air near the building’s foundry and the pit where Union prisoners were forced into labor. Small daubs of yellow and pink wildflowers grew within. Gabby looked over her shoulder and jogged in place as the rest of the team sprinted for the tires. Jay tripped on a second row of tires and planted his face in the mud. Watching the amiable bowling ball pop up, throw two stern rock-devil-horns in the air, and wipe off his GoPro kept Mel motivated and his legs moving. His watch beeped, signaling that his pace had dwindled. Arms in a V, Gabby finished the tires. Several members from other teams, including staff from a service provider to assisted-living communities, and, as Jay called them, Voodoo Economics, loaded with MBAs from the brokerage and investment firm Decker & Morrison, chugged past him with effortless syncopation. Mel inhaled, and running faster to make up time, caught up to where he had been in the pack, and as the last one, he was the first to help his teammates scale up the wall until the rope was free for him to pull himself up and over, scrambling and sliding to the top.
Afterwards, Jay knew of a restaurant downtown where specials for the corporate athletes awaited them. Mel opted not to celebrate the better-than-expected, nineteenth-out-of-twenty-two finish for the team. When he slipped off the monkey-bars portion of the obstacle course, nearly straining his back and hip muscles, nearly chipping his molars, lying prone in the mud, he planned on dropping out of the remaining events, which included an egg toss, team spirit, and tug of war, the grand finale. He told Jay he needed to help a friend with something. He couldn’t tell if the camera was on. Jay answered him with affirmations pulled from pop culture and kept lowering his head so the camera’s grey credit-card-sized face leveled on Mel’s. Gabby convinced him to stay.
And so they rolled into Penny Lane Pub to replace the carbs they burnt crawling through pipes, swinging on ropes, carrying large logs overhead, canoeing a section of the James, and running the equivalent of a 10-K. Mel limped around the pub and stopped in front of a plaque commemorating Liverpool FC’s European Cup win in 1984. He used to have a moustache and curly-permed hair like the player hoisting the bulbous silver trophy over his head. Mel squinted at the club’s badge and the motto crested in green above a red bird holding a branch in its mouth. You’ll Never Walk Alone. He didn’t know much about soccer, but he knew just about every piece of Beatles memorabilia crowding the walls. The albums, the magazines, the toys, the songs on repeat in the speakers over him and seeping back into his head, the fights with his sister over sharing the record player. Mel liked the way Ringo tossed his head on an off-beat and the way Paul and George could sing and play when sharing a mic. He later understood why a smirk like John’s could simultaneously pull in and push away.
“Damn it,” Gabby exasperated, looking at a text. “That little…,” she grunted, stopping herself and tightening her lips. “Dylan is up to no good again. I got to run.” She grabbed her purse and told Mel goodbye and high-fived Jay and a few others on her way out. “See you Monday,” the chorus responded.
Mel sat by himself at the back of the group. No one paid any attention to him. After a few minutes, he took one last sip from his pint, slipped a bill and enough for tip under the glass, and stepped outside into the courtyard designed to look like the entrance to a pub that the Fab Four would have played in their hometown, complete with signs for streets and the Underground, which neither weather nor time had sliced down, these authentic and irrevocable details, full of voices familiar back then and, once again, now.
* * *
His bitterness about his dismissal from his previous job, the timing of it, and thoughts about suing for wrongful termination had faded. Mel heard that his replacement was part automated and part human, the former being software, the latter a woman fresh out of college. He felt he was let go because he was old and pricey, the topmost of middle management, settled, comfortable, not skilled enough, not diverse enough, in more ways than one. But he had found RiverTech on his own time and research, and had, he felt, earned the position based on skills and experience, which briefly boosted his morale, given that, during a follow-up interview, he re-emphasized with Gabby and the HR rep that he welcomed this chance for a new opportunity and new challenges, that he could bring more than what he had to condense on his résumé.
He first met Dylan at the holiday party after he had just been hired at RiverTech. Dylan was determined to destroy all the desks and computers and kick over all the trashcans he possibly could before his mom grabbed him by the scruff. Mel noticed that the energetic ten-year-old had a particular affinity for slamming expensive ergonomic chairs into padded cubicle walls, often tearing down project schedules and calendars, and for treating staplers like pistons on an assembly line of reports and charts.
As Gabby, white wine in hand, introduced Doug to her coworkers, Mel spied Dylan sneaking into the kitchen. Dylan’s dad was tall. Square jaw. Thick eyebrows. Rigid. The complete opposite of the compact ball of energy jamming his cake-crusted fingers onto keyboards and quickly flicking on and off floor lamps and surge protectors. The Navy officer had recently adopted Dylan, months after marrying Gabby. Captain Fernandez asked Mel if had kids. Mel shook his head no. The captain asked if he was married. He shook his head yes.
Excusing himself, Mel set down his beer near a laser-jet printer and walked the long aisle between management offices and the chairs and desks arranged too neatly like dividers in boxes of chocolates. Too quiet, he thought, as he reached the trashcan and recycle bin sitting outside the kitchen. “Whatcha doing, buddy?” he asked, leaning against the doorframe. The kid spun on his knees and faced Mel. He had found matches in one of the drawers. Bottom lip pushing out, eyes tearing up, the kid frowned. Mel put one of his wrinkled hands on the kid’s mop of chestnut hair and, with the other, reached into the top cabinet and pulled out an ordinary off-white candle. “I knew they forgot to get one of these out for the party.” He looked down at Dylan. “Good thing you got a light.”
The junior pyromaniac tightened up, knees to chest, arms hugging knees. Red, teary eyes looked up at Mel.
“Just one’ll do,” Mel nodded. An Incredible Hulk shoe toed the box of matches a few inches towards Mel’s thick brown loafers. Sniffles and long stares hardened from the kid to the new accounts specialist.
Mindful of his back, Mel leaned over to pick it up. He fumbled with a few of the matches, unable to strike them. “Well, poo…I need some help. You know how to do this?” He made sure Dylan saw him run cold water from the kitchen sink on the used matches.
More sniffles and a stiff shrug from the red-and-green-striped shirt, snot drying on one of the sleeves.
Mel motioned Dylan his way. Loose khakis stood up, sniffling, nearly falling, but managed to stumble to the countertop. Mel nodded and passed out one match as smoothly as his arthritis allowed. “You got a steady hand…more than me.” Little brown eyes lit up with the quick burst of sulfur.
“Lock and load!” Jay yelled, bumbling his way into the kitchen, beer in hand. He had started growing out his hair and looked like a well-fed possum squeezing all he carries in the midsection into a camo jumpsuit that could only be zipped up one fourth of the way. Dylan scampered off, and Mel lifted the candle up and set it on the counter. “Hey, we’re going to Lazer Tag in a bit. You should come. It’ll be h-u-g-e.” Jay flashed his hand signals. “The Goonies win every year.”
The party shuffled down to where they were, as many colleagues appeared with empty glasses and plates and congregated around them. Gabby rolled her eyes at Jay and his recruiting. “No, you can’t miss this,” she laughed with Mel. “I mean…really? Right?”
Mel followed the caravan of cars to a large industrial building up the hill from the old farmer’s market and the river’s floodwalls, this voluminous building filled with inflatable walls and barriers and fake shelters and lights and sounds assaulting his senses. “Tango-and-Cash time!” Jay yelled to a production assistant that Mel had seen a few times but did not know. He only knew Jay and Gabby, one by name, the other he felt he could trust. He held the plastic gun in his hand, stepped through the dry ice pumping into the first octagonal room, and found a crow’s nest where he was left by himself to pick off the other team, if he wanted, which he didn’t, or to defend himself, if he tried, which he didn’t. What am I doing here? he thought to himself amongst the ribbons of laser beams. What am I really doing here?
* * *
Gabby takes a final practice swing. In the late-afternoon light, she catches eyes with Mel, whose knees creak and hands fumble for a bat near the on-deck circle. She sends the ball on a ride that, for the first time today, puts a runner in scoring position, thanks to a solid double over the head of the unassuming and former Delaware Blue Hen shortstop.
“Bring her home,” Jay claps and stares onto the field, rotating his tri-eye head over the city park.
Mel settles in. The pitch from flamingo lefty floats and floats, and the experienced part of Mel’s brain can tell it’s a ball, too high, consistently like the others, but his quick-reward system, fueled by pride and distraction, overrides and fires a signal. He has a rip at the air. Strike two. “Hey, hey! Wait for your pitch, wait for your pitch,” Jay chants. Grumbling to himself, Mel shrugs off his decision and rewraps his hands around the handle. The pitcher steps forward from the mound, but this time, his elbow locks against his ribs, causing his release point to be far below his shoulder. The ball emerges from the pitcher’s left knee and revolves along a straight line. The barrel of the bat connects. Mel drives Gabby home and stops halfway between first and second before retreating after the right fielder fires to second base. He clenches his hands and hopes the swelling and pain will simmer.
With one run in, Jay is pumped, as is the rest of the team. No shutout today. The optimism, however, fades away when, corporate athletes as they are, RiverTech’s roster, thick with advanced degrees in the humanities, the arts, and computer science, splashes one super-sized bucket of cold reality onto everyone. Natalie from Marketing grounds them both out in a double play, thus portending an imminent flood of offense from the two, three, and four batters on Dyna-Stix, two of whom Jay has christened Hall and Oates On Steroids.
And without delay, in the top of the next inning, Oates blisters a double to center right. His lower back flaring as he bends over, Mel bobbles the ball, which pops off his chest, but, keeping an eye on the runner, fires to the infield and stops Oates from advancing. “That’ll leave a mark,” he says to himself, rubbing near his collarbone. Mel grimaces as the pain in his throwing arm matches the spreading fire and tightness just above his sacrum. Approving his effort, Gabby smacks her glove. Mel nods to her and clenches his jaw a little more. Dyna-Stix’s shortstop singles, moving Oates to third, and sets up Hall, the first baseman who sends a three-run shot, his second of the day, so far over center left that Jay stops galloping towards the fence and watches it land near the duck pond and playground. After a few more solid hits and runs, Dyna-Stix ratchets up a 9–1 lead and builds pressure on the ump to invoke the lead-by-ten mercy rule before the fifth inning.
“You’re going to have fun tonight. Knock her socks off…or whatever she wants knocked off,” Gabby elbows Mel in the ribs as she flops her glove on the bench. His smile sits halfway between apprehensive joy and physical pain. “What does she look like?” she asks when the bottom third of RiverTech’s lineup, and last chance to keep the game alive, goes to bat.
“Uh…,” Mel scratches the side of his throat, “long hair, high cheekbones. Nice skin. Really well preserved for a fifty-something woman. She said in her profile that she was half-Korean. Born in South Carolina. Her dad taught at Clemson. Astronomy, which I think is pretty cool.”
“Fifty-something? She doesn’t say, or you don’t know?”
“No…no, she had fifty on there.”
“She lied about her age.” Smiling, Gabby stretches her dirty legs.
“Really? You think so?”
Three slow whiffs at the ball, and the first RiverTech batter strikes out. Jay calls for a pinch hitter. Mel rolls his eyes.
A woman drifts by the first row of the stands, hands on her leather purse like holding reins, her eyes darting around the field and between the dugouts. She asks a stranger something. Her teeth are immaculately white, her clothes stylish. She smiles at the answer and finds an open seat in the middle of the stands. Mel lowers his hat and sinks back against the bench, blending in with the other blue uniforms and grey shorts. Julie, a project manager, axes a nasty chopper into the dirt and is able to leg it out for a hit, keeping this little rally alive long enough for Mel to ask Gabby her plans for the rest of the weekend, how everything else is going. She bobs her head left and right. Groceries. Some house chores. Probably will check work e-mail. Catcher Rick from HR scrapes out a single, moving Julie to second. Jay wants everyone to stand up. It’s not over yet. Mel remains focused on Gabby’s news that counseling is going better than expected, even for having it on Monday nights, right after work for her and Doug. She sighs, then her inhale grasps as much air as it can when she tells Mel that her stress levels are improving, that it’s not the Patterson deadline, her smile mixing politeness and grimace. Dylan admitted he wants to burn things, simply likes burning things, but not to hurt anyone or anything, like a pet, ever, he promised, breaking down in tears last week. Just to watch, he said, and he doesn’t know why.
William Auten is the author of the novel Pepper’s Ghost. Recent work has appeared in District Lit, Oxford Magazine, Sequestrum, Solstice, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. www.williamauten.com
5 Questions with William Auten:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
WA: It started with various associations: corporate challenges (athletics, trivia, teamwork) that are popular nowadays; jokes that pop-culture references are abundant in those settings; and people who take that kind of competition very seriously as well as those who don’t but participate as best they can. The focus shifted from one employee who was brawn and brain and wanted the company team to win regardless of the activity to a co-worker who was starting over in various ways and trying to connect to new surroundings; this latter character became the centerpiece around which other elements emerged and propelled the story. It was the last story I wrote in 2015.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
WA: William Faulkner, John Ashbery, and once upon a time Chris Cornell.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
WA: Home because I have my spots where I can stand or sit, as well as control light, music, temperature, etc.
TD: Favorite word?
WA: It used to be prescience, but now grace seems to be passing it.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
WA: I make time at some point everyday to read.