Do you remember that moment in time when you, as a little kid of 10 or younger, realized the full implication of the fact that your parents were alive and had a life — a real back story — before you entered the world? That time of life has such poignancy.
It’s what I wrote about in my new story, “The Big Game.” Here’s an excerpt, which I read at New York’s An Beal Bocht the other night. Enjoy and please share and comment as you wish.
THE BIG GAME© – excerpt
By Martin Kleinman
“Good eye, baby, that’s the eye, good eye!” the Rotstein’s team chanted, as Dad, who was batting third, picked up three bats and went to the on-deck circle to warm up. I heard his knees snap as he bent over to get the bats and again as he straightened up. He swung the bats tentatively, and I knew he was babying his bad back.
As he slowly moved the practice bats through the hitting zone, I thought for sure I detected more wrinkles on his face and less hair on his head and my heart sank. With Uncle Max out, the team was counting on Dad and Ducky to win the game. We simply HAD to win the game. There was no other way around it, for the outcome of games, along with the health and well-being of our favorite players, were of life and death importance to us, as kids and for years to come. Just the year before, Stevie burst into tears, out of pure emotional relief, when the Yankees won the World Series.
Just then, we spied Uncle Max, who walked, slowly, back up the drive, a bulky ice pack taped around his right eye. His left eye had swelled and turned blue-black, but was already partially open.
Joel looked over at Max and smiled, as the Rotstein’s supporters gave him a comfortable seat and patted his back.
Mustache rubbed up the Clincher, looked over at first base, and fired the ball home. Joel hit it right on the button. The ball screamed back to the mound with such velocity that it hit Mustache right smack in the forehead before he could raise a glove in self defense. Myron’s big lead allowed him to scoot all the way around to third base, with Joel easily making it to second base before the pitcher was able to compose himself, find the ball, and check the runner at third.
An angry pulsing knot formed on Mustache’s brow. He turned to Joel, who idly kicked second base, and pointed his gloved hand. “You’re a dead man,” he said. “You watch. See what happens. Just watch.”
In the on-deck circle, Dad took his last practice swings, throwing aside one practice bat, and then a second. He gingerly stepped to the batter’s box. Second and third, nobody out.
Mustache turned to his outfield, raised his hands over his head and waved them back. “Keep going, keep going,” he said as his teammates jogged backwards to the outfield perimeter. “This guy can hit.”
Stevie and I looked at each other, shook our heads and sighed.
“What’s the matter?” asked Butchy.
“I’m afraid,” said Stevie, his head down. “I think I’m gonna puke. I can’t look.”
“Me neither,” I said. In fact, I had never fainted, but the way I felt at that moment, lightheaded and unable to focus, I figured that this MUST be the way you feel right before you faint.
Stevie held his eyes with both hands, peeping through his grubby fingers, like he did watching Vincent Price’s “The Tingler” at the RKO Fordham. I looked over at Dad. He tapped his black high-top Keds with the barrel of his bat, loosening clods of dirt, and took a few easy practice swings. Then I looked over at Mustache. His face had transformed into the essence of mean. He turned to his infielders and grimly nodded. The infielders returned to their normal positions; the shift was off.
“C’mon Bobby baby, c’mon, you can do it,” Uncle Max screamed at the top of his lungs. As the entire Rotstein’s contingency picked up Max’s chant, Dad tightened his grip on the bat and readied for another blazing fastball from Mustache. Mustache peered at his catcher, began his now-familiar windmill windup, and let the ball fly.
Only, instead of the usual heat, Mustache used the same fastball motion but uncorked a floater that seemed to take forever to reach the plate. In his anticipation, Dad swung far too early, and wildly, nearly corkscrewing himself into the Swan’s batter’s box.
The torque of the swing caused him to shout out in pain.
“Dammit!” he screamed, as his brother Max did earlier in the game. “Dammit to hell,” he shouted, dropping his bat and clutching his back.
Mom bolted from her aluminum folding chair and ran to her husband. “Honey, your back? Is it your back?” she cried.
Dad looked at her and cringed.
“I’m OK,” he said, still rubbing his lower back, backing away from the batter’s box. “I’ll be fine.”
Mom picked up his bat and handed it to him. He swung it gingerly as the Swan’s team began to razz him.
“C’mon, play ball, ladies,” fat Seymour screamed from right field.
“Cut the crap already,” Mustache said. “Batter up!”
Dad slowly bent backwards and side to side, testing his back. Mustache turned to look at his infielders while, on base, Myron and Joel started to chatter as they took aggressive leads.
“You got him, baby,” Myron said.
“C’mon, baby, c’mon, Bobby boy, you can do this,” Joel said.
Dad stepped back into the batter’s box, as Mustache rubbed up the ball, figuring – as we all did – that Dad’s bad back was no match for his heat-seeking missile of a fastball. Mustache gripped the ball and went into his motion. His fielders inched forward on the balls of their feet.
I have never seen anything like it since.
As expected, Mustache reared back and fired his fastball, intent on causing Dad to scream out in pain, miss badly and strike out, humiliated, after an errant second swing.
But Dad, ready for the heater, swung beautifully and powerfully, lofting a high, deep, arcing shot that caused both teams and their supporters to tilt their heads impossibly upwards, their eyes wide at the majesty of this positively Ruthian blast that easily cleared the ramshackle cabins forming the outfield boundaries. Myron jogged in to score, followed by Joel, his gangly arms high overhead as he trotted in. Dad, oblivious to his pain, danced around the bases, tipped his cap provocatively to the opposing players as he rounded the infield, jumped high, and stomped with authority on home plate, greeted by me, Stevie and Butchy, Mom and a good 20 of the Rotstein’s fans, all screaming deliriously.
Predictably, Stevie burst into tears. “We did it, we did it, we did it, we did it,” he screamed, pogoing up and down, tears streaming down his dirty face. “Oh man! Oh man! Oh man! OH MAN! My daddy WON THE GAME!!!!”
(Note: for more stories of this type, you may wish to check out “Home Front,” my recent collection of New York-centric short fiction, www.sockmonkeypress.org.)