Athena Sasso: Throw Down

The weekend before the season started, my father decided the lawn by the bath house needed attention, and that’s how I came to be wasting my last Saturday morning before opening day at a sod farm in Semmes, testing how close to Charlotte’s heel I could fling a dirt clod. My father complained the chlorine streaming from Mr. Wilson’s skimmer tools had thinned out the grass by the bath house so it wasn’t thick enough to protect his feet from the acorns. We left Semmes with a ton of sod in the truck bed and I spent the ride home watching the load in the rearview. The full pallet weighed on the shocks and pushed us down Spring Hill, flattened the bridges over Mobile Bay where, at low tide, mud flats percolated above the surface and reeked like the inside of a camp boot. I tried to hold my breath all the way through the Bankhead Tunnel. In the darkest part, I stuck Charlotte’s thigh with a pine needle and she fought back with the palm of her hand and a declaration: “You smell like a polecat.” To Charlotte, I was a stinky, grotesque human being, but she was my twin sister and I loved her like mad.

 

Laying sod was a task my father never hired out and once I yielded to the grime and rhythm, I enjoyed the unaccustomed coordination of our labor. We placed and stomped and watered in, and when we had finished, the bath house stood taller, whiter in contrast to the new blanket of green at its feet. To demonstrate our success, my father, wrapped in a towel, carried his scotch with him and took his shower there. He didn’t wear shoes and boasted he didn’t need them anyway.

 

That season, our assistant coach was Chip Ford, a junior infielder on the University of Alabama’s disabled list. As a favor to Chip’s uncle, my father had spoken to the right someone so Chip could do his Secondary Ed student teaching to coincide with the season. It was a good thing, too, because by mid-season, Coach Gaffney’s cancer treatments had started up again and Chip Ford was pretty much running things.

 

Coach Chip told us we had talent and he didn’t drill us to death for no good reason. He never freaked on us, even when that squealer Charlie Cox ratted about the doobie Mitch hid inside his glove. Parents loved him. Charlotte swooned at the mention of his name. He was easy to talk to.

 

Coach taught us to think about our game twenty-four seven and to carry with us as a reminder an object. It didn’t matter what it was, he said, as long as it kept your head on the game. If it was a smooth rock, it should burn your leg through your pocket. If it was a necklace, it should rest heavy against your skin.

 

I chose for my lucky object the first game ball I got in Little League, signed by my teammates. While I ate breakfast, it sat next to my cereal bowl. When I went to the movies, I held it between my legs and nearly pulverized it when the stupid but heartbreakingly beautiful girl descended the basement stairs, followed close behind by the brutal psycho with the bloody ax. I even carried it into the shower.

 

It seemed to work. By the middle of the second game I had quit thinking about how awesome my ass looked to the girls behind the backstop. Mitch had pitched to me since JV. Denny played shortstop and Robert, second base. Mitch didn’t give up that many hits, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. We could turn two, run a player out of the baseline, or make the play at home. Hell, Denny, Robert, Mitch and I were the team. We were decent hitters, too, but like Coach said, you don’t have to make that many runs when your defensive game is tight.

 

Coach taught me how to pop up and throw down to second with my body and not my brain. Every day after practice he pitched to me and I threw the ball at a spot a foot above second base. Over and over, one more throw than my knees could stand.

 

“Forget about your target, kid,” he’d say. “When the pitch hits your glove is no time to hang back. Denny will be there, or Robert. You think about it, you missed it.”

 

Before long I believed him. A glove would be waiting when my throw shot in. I learned to tell whether a player leading off first was going to run or chicken out. It was statistical, sure, and some guys are just better stealers than others, but I threw out so many runners that season, they were stealing just for the challenge of beating me. They couldn’t resist, even when their third base coaches signaled a hold up. And Coach had been right, Denny and Robert were always there. When we didn’t make the play, it was on me. You couldn’t bet against me though.

 

For his object, Mitch chose something less concrete than a game ball: Warren Zevon, The Best Of, fed into his brain through sweaty earbuds. It was amorphous as objects go, but it was Mitch, who was himself a bit of a mystery, among the four of us the least likely to own up to pain or hunger. I wondered whether it owed to the thing that made him different from the rest of us, his family’s lack of means. He could save his words for something that seemed to amuse him, go for an hour without a peep and then, as soon as my bald father left the room, pick up with Zevon: “His hair was perfect.”

 

No one doubted we were playoff bound. My father loved a winner and he’d ask Coach over a couple of times a week. Sometimes they would go in the study and shut the door. Coach’s uncle was in charge of recruiting for Alabama, so it wasn’t too hard to figure out why my father treated Coach like a second son.

 

When Coach was at the house, he would flick up the bill of my cap, just like one of the guys. Father would stand between us and clap both of us on the shoulders, and we’d look at each other and pretend to agree with whatever he said. It was great, except for Charlotte acting uncharacteristically nice to me when Coach was around, which was just creepy. Mitch thought so, too.

 

On the night before the game with Foley, to decide who would advance to the playoffs, Mother placed before us one of her feasts, the perfect complement of starch to protein to pie and a timely diversion from the pre-game nerves that had settled in my gut. Mitch and I ate quickly, anticipating second helpings. Mother sat straight, her eyes darting, attentive to potential need. Charlotte leaned to her right, attentive to Coach.

 

“That was something you did in the Baldwin game,” Coach said to me. I sat across from him at the table. Mitch sat across from Charlotte.

 

“Damn right,” my father said. “Mitch, you hadn’t dove out of the way, he’d have laid you out. I swear, best damn throw down I ever saw. Quick like lightning.”

 

Charlotte started to roll her eyes and caught herself.

 

“It’s just muscle memory. Right, kid?” Coach winked at me, then glanced my father’s way. “Still, I thought the runner had that one beat,” he added.

 

Mother asked Coach if he would have another helping of snap beans and Mitch piped up, “I’ll have some.” Charlotte’s mouth knotted. She kicked Mitch under the table and he blurted, “Wha―?” as my father spoke.

 

“Hard to believe you boys’ll be going away to school in another year.” He looked at Coach and raised his eyebrows. When Coach didn’t say anything, my father continued, “Cub, you stay healthy and keep playing like this, we’ll get you a full ride. Ain’t that right, Coach?”

 

“Right, Mr. Cooper.”

 

The pronouncement pinged around the dining room. Mother’s hand went to the pearls at her neck. All their eyes settled on me like a huge searchlight. It took ten seconds to swallow my load of mashed potatoes. When I finally did, the first words out of my mouth were, “What about Mitch?”

 

Coach looked to my father for a sign and my father beamed. “Mitch, too,” he said.

 

 

My father was going to do what he always did, try to buy something that wasn’t for sale. He was going to make sure Cub Cooper played catcher for Alabama. It irked me that we wanted the same thing, but we could still disagree over how to get it. I could earn my spot on the roster. If he didn’t screw it up. I could feel it, he would get in the way, get a greedy recruiter in trouble and me, banned for good. There was no tack but keep making the plays.

 

Cub is what my father called me when he wasn’t ticked. When I raised his ire, he called me by my birth name: Howard. Howard Ellis Cooper the fourth. In a rare moment of collaboration, Charlotte and I had vowed never again to refer to ourselves as Coopuhs, though when my father passed, I found myself slipping back.

 

The day we clinched our spot in the playoffs, Coach’s uncle, Edward Sweet, was in the stands. He had come down from Tuscaloosa at my father’s invitation, so it wasn’t an official scouting trip, just one of those friendly accommodations, you might say. Still, he was Alabama’s head scout and we tried talking ourselves down while we dressed in the field house. That the game, once won, would put us in the playoffs was the important thing. That Edward Sweet could be sitting up there scribbling notes on a little pad wasn’t.

 

By the end of the first inning, Edward Sweet might as well have been on Pluto. I had no peripheral vision outside the baselines and I had to turn my head to see Coach’s signals. He mostly gave me the knee brush, which meant he was leaving it up to me. Coach Gaffney would never have done that. I could sense the coiled tension in each Foley hitter as he dug into the batter’s box, straining, the strength he needed for the swing seeping away while Mitch pushed the umpire’s patience with his wind-up.

 

Foley’s second hit came in the top of the ninth. We were up 1-0. Coach had not relieved Mitch, who, through eight, hadn’t pitched the quota and was better than any fresh arm in the bullpen besides. With one out, Foley had hit a double and now the runner led off second while Mitch pitched to the edge of a full count. On the three-two, I signaled heat and that for-shit hitter connected. The ball sailed toward right field where our weakest link, Sonny Robinson, ran to get under it. I knew from the look on Sonny’s face he had lost the ball in the sun and when it got there it skimmed the tip of his glove, bounced off the fence and died on the grass. He danced around it while the runner tagged up.

 

The runner was one of Foley’s fastest and his third-base coach gave him the Ferris-wheel, circling his arm as if to speed him up as he passed. I turned my left foot up the baseline so he wouldn’t take out my knee when he dove for the plate. Sonny threw hard. It would come in short. I lunged. The ball hit my glove. The ground under my feet shook as the runner pounded toward me. I tried for the tag and it felt as if my shoulder was a caught hinge that wouldn’t get down quick enough. I slapped at the runner’s hand.

 

The next thing I remember, Mitch was looking down at me, his face close, his hands on my shoulders. He made me tell him his name – “Arse-crack,” I said – and he sprang up and ran backwards with his arms in the air while Denny and Robert pulled me to my feet and dragged me into a writhing celebration in front of the plate.

 

In the field house, Mitch told me I had laid the tag down clean, but the runner had knocked me cold when he barreled at me. The hitter was getting the go-ahead treatment, and Mitch hadn’t seen the ball since Sonny threw it in. It could have been under me. Mitch ran to the plate praying for a miracle and got one. He dug the ball from my clamped mitt, turned open-chested and threw hard to third, where the best baseman on the planet that day made the catch and tagged the runner’s clay-caked cleat.

 

 

My father invited the team over for a party that evening. At four o’clock Charlotte leaned over the coffee table and smoothed pink polish over her nails. Mother had Mitch and me stuffing gold and blue napkins into the casual-cookout napkin rings and Mitch took a break now and then to flick one – table-football technique – into the sunken living room where Charlotte practiced her senseless personal preparations. I had developed quite a rhythm with the task at hand when Mitch nudged me and nodded toward the window. I could see Coach and his uncle getting out of Coach’s car.

 

“They’re early,” I said.

 

Mitch skipped over the step into the living room and slid down next to Charlotte. He leaned in and said, “Better not let him in,” right before the doorbell rang. Charlotte squealed and jumped up, blowing on her fingertips. Mitch bolted toward the door but pulled up short and waited gallantly for Charlotte to clear the area before he let them enter.

 

Coach and Edward Sweet walked in and Mitch pulled out his earbuds, an overt sign of respect coming from him. He even shook hands with Mr. Sweet. Mitch had grasped the situation before I had, and finally I caught on when my father entered, filling the room. They were not early but right on time. My father led them into his study and closed the door.

 

Mitch and I looked at each other across the wide living room. I shot him my game ball and he slammed it into the sofa cushions.

 

“You’re getting an offer,” Mitch said. “You’ll have to look surprised, man – they’ll announce it during the cookout, I know it.”

 

“You, too. You deserve it. Give me back my ball.”

 

“Yeah? I’d pull a faint. God, the pressure. I need a breakdown.” He said it with his flat voice.

 

Mother came in to check our progress and seemed not to notice Mitch throw the ball to me as the Bayside Caterer’s van, mother’s little helper, appeared at the end of the long drive. They would pull around the side, as usual, and for a group of young men who lacked the capacity for appreciation, Mother would make sure it all looked and tasted ideal.

 

During the party, Mother never let a platter go empty, though she did pause from her fussing to give me the mortified look when I climbed out of the pool and my shorts threatened to slide off from the weight of the game ball in my pocket. Besides event execution, her other big ambition was never to be embarrassed by her offspring. It was as if she could see only me and not all the other guys, already a little too loose, crowding the keg the way they might huddle next to the fire on a freezing campout. My father and Edward Sweet were right in there, too.

 

Mitch slouched in a chair under one of the umbrellas, his foot propped on the side of the table. As I hiked up my shorts and reached for a towel, he caught my eye, put his thumb and index finger to his lips and cocked his head toward the gazebo.

 

I passed the bath house and met Mitch another thirty yards down the slope. He looked over his shoulder at me as he held the joint between his knees and lit it. I waited while he took his time handing over the tightly rolled spliff. It was cooler there, closer to the bay, where the commotion of the celebration faded. The paper lanterns that Mother had turned on hours ago began to glow in the dusk. A line of them encircled the pool deck and floated all the way over to the bath house, casting pale circles of light onto the grass. As many times as Mother had employed the lantern trick, it always enchanted me. I tried to spin my game ball on my index finger. No go. I reclined on the lawn and closed my eyes.

 

“Right now, I don’t care,” I said.

 

“About what?” Mitch asked.

 

“About anything. About baseball, about Alabama, Edward Sweet.”

 

“Thanks for reminding me.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

Mitch said, “I can do that, too,” and he lay down and reached for the joint. “Right now,” he said, “right now” – he took a hit – “just for this instant, I don’t care about Charlotte.”

 

I opened my eyes and rolled up on my elbow. “Huh?”

 

“Yeah, man, right his minute, I don’t even care that she’s sucking face with Coach.”

 

I sat up. He sounded like he cared.

 

“Over there.” He nodded toward the dock. I squinted and in the dusk could just make them out, not involved in a lip lock, thankfully, but walking slowly up the grade toward the house. Now and then Coach would walk ahead a few paces and turn around and walk backward, grab Charlotte’s hand and make her laugh.

 

“Oh brother.” I lay back down. I wanted to be invisible. Mitch must have felt the same, and they didn’t appear to notice us as they passed near the gazebo. I heard Coach say I know you and Charlotte reply I doubt that.

 

Charlotte laughed loudly and I looked over and saw Coach put a finger to her lips to shush her. I couldn’t look away as he pulled her to the side of the bath house, out of sight of the pool deck, and twirled her in a circle. He stopped her where she was facing me and stood behind her, burying his face in her neck. He curled around her and swept his forearm down the front of her cover up. They were close enough I could see her stiffen. She tried to get away, but he stationed his legs wider and grabbed her down there. Quick, like lightning, I was on my feet, my game ball flying from my fingers. Only when I heard Mitch groan did I perceive the risk I had taken.

 

I blew Coach’s kneecap to smithereens. By the time the ambulance pulled away, my father had used up all his juice making sure no charges were filed. There’s a limit to everything.

 

 

My father died before another season had passed. You should have seen the funeral Mother put on. Mitch wore the navy jacket Mother had bought him for when the recruiters called. Mitch got his offer, and I got a letter from a no-name school in North Dakota. I couldn’t see myself training in the snow, so I applied to Troy State to try my luck walking on.

 

The service was at St. John’s, followed by a quick graveside ceremony and Mother’s reception at the house, which began at four and ran into the night. Charlotte seemed to like Mitch’s cleaned-up look, and his chances I guessed, and she let him console her. As father would have done, mother ordered a keg for the guys. After the somber service, the guests seemed relieved to return to the socializing for which they were better suited. A bourbon-breathed man stood in front of me with a hand on my shoulder and called me Mr. Cooper. He assured me I’d do fine without the man who’d always guaranteed I slid in safe.

 

When I had made my way to the edge of the deck I slipped out of the crowd and down the slope. I took off my shoes and socks and worked my toes into the grass, letting the bath house prop me up, whispering Mister, Mister Cooper while the lanterns on the dock blurred into halos.

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