The Over-Thirty League
Jesse told me about the over-thirty softball series some of the neighborhood guys had set up, but he wasn’t going to play and wouldn’t budge about it. “I’m thirty, not over thirty,” he said to me in front of my building. “You shouldn’t play either. You just turned thirty.” He scraped the sole of his sneaker against my stoop. “You’ll be picking on old guys.”
“Hey, one second after my birthday started, I was over thirty,” I said. “I’m playing.”
“With that kind of thinking, Time has no meaning,” Jesse said sourly, kicking at a step. “That’s no good.”
I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, only that he was wrong. He should have played alongside me like a good friend would, instead of being a philosopher and passing on the opportunity to be in the best of five series with both friends and enemies, to be played across from Smith Park right in our very own Brooklyn neighborhood. The teams were to be split pretty evenly and even umpired by my father’s friend Mr. Bennati, who ran the diner. Jesse had been a good outfielder on our high school team, and a good hitter too, but he wouldn’t listen to reason.
“Even thirty’s too old,” he said. “My bones get cold easy.”
I didn’t answer him. It had been hard enough each day when the summer sun was out and the sky was blue. Karen came to my mind most often then, especially during break times at work at the garage on Canal Street, or around my neighborhood. It had been weeks, and nothing—especially not the sky—could stop the memory of us sitting in that Chinatown park on Chrystie Street three weeks before. She had whispered a question in my ear, and I’d tilted my ear to my shoulder.
“You gave me goose bumps.”
She’d leaned into me and whispered, “Goose bumps,” and I squeezed my ear to my shoulder. It felt strange to hear my own laughter.
This was the day her parents saw us together walking along Grand Street, a day when the sky was blue too and it smelled like spring, even though all around us was concrete and buildings.
I gave up trying to convince Jesse to play and headed for Court Street. Cal would be at the OTB or in the deli across from it, and he’d know who was on which team and when the games would start. I wanted to think about baseball and only baseball, even though it was softball. It was to be my game again, ten years after having given it up to play pool. It was my chance to be back, because on the field nothing else mattered; and maybe the sky, when it was blue, wouldn’t bother me so much.
A block from the OTB I looked at the noon sky again, open and clear, and remembered when I found Karen’s apartment, a week after she’d disappeared from her job and wouldn’t answer the phone. I’d dressed up, not in my gas station clothes, but in a button-down shirt and regular pants. Karen stood off to the side in their small living room while I asked her parents to give me a chance, but her mother, sitting on a small stool, wrung her hands, and her father looked at the wall with knit brows. Karen gave up translating to say miserably, “They don’t know English,” and I finally turned and trudged down the six flights of their tenement’s stairs.
Her old boss at the take-out place wouldn’t tell me where she’d gone to work next, so I circled her neighborhood every afternoon for a while.
“What did you expect,” Cal told me in Smith Park one night. “A Chinese girl ain’t going with you, not for real. Nothing personal, it’s just a whole different culture.”
“So what? I’m a different culture, too.”
“She’s just a girl, though. What is she, ten years younger than you?”
“Eight. She’s twenty-two. So what?”
“So what? You think they’ll let their precious daughter marry an old white guy who works at a gas station? Those marriages are all prearranged.”
“No they’re not.”
“Maybe not, but you’re standing here, and she’s somewhere else—away from you, buddy. What’s wrong with Maureen at the deli? She’s pretty hot.”
I looked away from him then, through the park and past the bocce court, at the row of brownstones.
Now I found Cal outside the OTB.
“Tomorrow night, baby—game one. You’re on the other team, so stay away from me,” he headed inside because it was post time, but then caught the look on my face and turned back. “Still thinking about that Chinese babe? She’s fresh from China, man. What were you thinking? Her parents ain’t letting her marry some guy who can only fix fan belts, so get over it. How many times I have to tell you?”
I pointed in his face, “I am going to kick the shit out of you.”
He laughed, “Play ball! Tomorrow night, six o’clock. Be there, baby.” I glared after him and pointed at his back as he turned away. He was going to be on the other team after all, and I imagined what I would do to him if he got in my way on a base path.
Carlo, the shoe guy who somehow elected himself to be manager, stuck me in right field for game one, and we lost 9-4 as ground ball after ground ball got through Henry at shortstop. He couldn’t keep his damn glove down and even turned his head on the couple of dribblers that he actually fielded. Meanwhile, mid-way through the game I made a long-running catch in foul territory on a high fly ball and ran into the fence, my knee somehow hitting the edge of a pole. Still, I ran all the way to our dugout and didn’t look at Carlo as I grabbed my bat.
We were already losing at that point, and the lead-off guy, who I didn’t even know, had reached first and hollered out to me to keep the damn inning going, like I was some failure already. I stepped away from the plate, gave him a twisted look, and waited for him to shut the hell up. The umpire, not Mr. Bennati from the diner after all, but Joe Bemini, Mr. Newspaper Stand himself, told me to get in the box and hit, and I gave him the same twisted look. Then, after I did step in to hit against O’Doyle, Bemini, and the catcher, Cannizaro did nothing but talk about hockey for the first three pitches.
“I’m trying to hit here,” I said, not looking back, and there was silence for a moment.
“Oooo, you’re trying to hit,” Cannizaro said.
“Right, so shut the hell up.” I still didn’t look back.
“Don’t tell me to shut the hell up.”
“Shut the hell up Cannizaro, I’m trying to hit.” I’d beat the hell out of him in junior high school and would do it again, I thought, but he came out of his squat and belted me in the face with his mask while I was still looking out at O’Doyle. I dropped the bat and turned to him, and my team rushed out after Cannizaro, but their team crowded in front of him. Cal, who’d been playing third base for them, grabbed me from behind because I was all jelly legs. I tried to get at Cannizaro anyway, but Cal walked me away from the crowd at the plate.
“Man, you’re going to have some shiner,” he said and pressed his finger right into my sore cheek. I jerked backward.
“What the hell are you doing?”
When the game started up again I was still hitting, and Cannizaro said sorry, then said sorry again after I fouled off the next pitch from O’Doyle. My cheek stung just to swing the bat, and so did my knee when I strode, so I stepped away from the plate at last and bent over. Cannizaro said sorry one more time. Maybe he was thinking of my father and my father’s buddies, who were all nuts, but I told him to shut the hell up and forget about it. Then I thought twice and turned to him, ignoring Bemini, who groaned at me to let it go or leave the game.
“First you whack me when I’m not looking, then you still don’t shut the hell up.”
Bemini told me to calm down and hit.
“You too, Joe. Shut the hell up.”
Cannizaro smirked and I dropped my bat, but Bemini was already in front of me and threw me out of the game. Carlo and the team came running out again, and Bemini told Carlo to get me the hell off the field and get another hitter up, that I was done. “Send him home,” Bemini said, while Cannizaro looked around at everyone, as if to say “See? See what a nut he is?”
That was game one.
Afterwards I asked Carlo to put me at shortstop for game two because that was my position.
“Game two? You can’t even walk on that knee, are you kidding? And look at your face. Go home and ice.”
“Put me at shortstop tomorrow,” I told him. “That’s my position.”
“Go home and ice, Tommy,” he said, and put his hand on my shoulder, and so I went.
I limped up Union Street and looked at the darkening sky, thinking of all the guys from the game, some of whom I’d known for years. There were those from both teams that I hated, and those on both teams that I liked. Carlo was all right after all, I decided, and even though Cal was an ass for pressing into my face, he was my buddy and always would be. Jesse had not even shown up to watch, but he was my buddy, too. He had his reasons for staying away, maybe.
But Cannizaro was my enemy and would stay that way. I was smart in junior high school when I’d beat the crap out of him at recess for a good reason that I didn’t even remember.
Jesse wouldn’t turn his car around right away, even though he knew from past experience that I would never again stand under his second floor porch, after his mother had accidentally—maybe—let slip a watermelon that crashed into my back when we were in high school.
“I can’t concentrate on your stupid spark plugs over here,” I said.
“My mother’s not even home.”
“Turn it around, Jess. Come on.”
Because it was such a tight squeeze between parked cars, he made a big deal about having to pull the Buick into the street, and then back down the driveway again. I stood against his little yard gate and waited until he’d situated it perfectly where a watermelon couldn’t reach me.
When I limped to his car, a safe distance from the porch, Jesse pointed to my knee, “Told you so.”
I shrugged, noticing the gray hairs near his overgrown temples, and I felt at my own little bald spot. “I’m not in the mood, Jess,” I said, and popped the hood. He stood over me, blocking the sun when I leaned over the engine to inspect the plugs; then he poked his finger into my sore cheek, almost the same way Cal had. I jerked my head back and swatted his hand away.
“That’s a bad bruise, man. You’re too old for this,” he said. “Skip tonight and we’ll whoop it up, see a movie. The hell with it.”
“See a movie…”
He peered at the engine and pointed to where he thought the trouble was, but I backhanded him aside. “I’m playing, and you better play too.”
“I’m done,” he said. “That’s all in the past. I’m a working man now. Nine-to-five, and weekends off. That’s it.”
Jesse’s mother stepped down the driveway from the sidewalk, carrying a plastic bag of vegetables, but I didn’t say hi right away. “Cut the crap and play tonight, stupid.”
“No. Anyway, I’m not the stupid one,” Jesse sighed, took the bag from his mother, and headed inside. So I was forced to say hi to his mom, exchange pleasantries, and explain away what had ever happened to that nice Chinese girlfriend of mine that I’d stopped bringing around. She just had to friggin’ bring it up.
On top of the steady drizzle that began in the third inning of game two, Carlo put me at third instead of shortstop, where Henry let two grounders scoot through his legs with men on base. We were down 6-1 by the time I got my first hit of the series. I turned first base hard, almost running into Cannizaro, who was playing there, and he fake-tagged me on my way back to the base.
“Don’t do that,” I said, not looking at him. I watched the ball make its way back to the pitcher.
“Do what?” he said, backing behind me into position.
“That fake-tag shit. I hate that shit.”
“You hate everything. What are you talking about?” he said.
“I hate you, I know that.”
Marty was up, and he fouled one off. I returned to the base.
“Maybe we can change that,” he snickered or something.
“Change what? You going to sweet talk me now, honey?”
“Go to hell, Tommy.”
“Go get your mask, Cannizaro. Sucker punch me now, you bas—”
Marty whacked the ball against the top of the fence, and I hobbled all the way around to score.
Later we were down 11-3, and Carlo was yukking it up with Bemini, Mr. Umpire Himself, between innings.
“Why don’t you go out there and kiss him, Carlo,” I shouted from the bench.
He looked at me sadly, like he pitied me, and I threw my glove against the dugout fence.
In the top of the seventh inning, they scored three more runs, two coming on a grounder through Henry’s legs and the last coming when Cannizaro barreled around from first on a double and stomped on my foot instead of the base on his way around third. I hopped around and called for the ball, then stepped on the base and hollered at Bemini, but he shook me off and wouldn’t call Cannizaro out. I cursed him, and he threw me out, making a heaving motion with his arm like the Major League umpires do.
“What the hell is that?” I said, and made the same motion right back at him on my way to the dugout.
“Don’t even come back tomorrow, Tommy,” he barked at me.
I fumed from the bench, glaring past Bemini into the park. Jesse was near the Bocce courts. He leaned into the fence and watched the old Italian men play. Once in a while he kicked a little at the ground.
The game ended 15-3 or something, and I limped home the back way right after the last out, without shaking anyone’s hand. At home, when I finally peeled off my sock, my big toenail peeled off along with it.
On the way down Court Street, close to the Bergen Street subway station, Jesse told me he was sure he’d live to be a hundred, if only he did everything in life exactly opposite from me.
“You leave yourself open all the time,” he said. “Me, I see danger at every corner, and I anticipate it. Even in my dreams I—”
We crossed against the light in front of an oncoming Camaro.
“I can’t live like that,” I said.
“You better live like that if you want to see forty.”
Cal came out of the deli across from OTB, where red hot and luscious, mean-spirited and stupid Maureen worked. He held a paper bag, and I knew then that I wasn’t going to work. I would call Pete at the garage on Canal and tell him about my stomped-on foot and my sore face. I’d roam around Elizabeth and Grand Street all day instead. I imagined Pete blowing a gasket about it over the phone, and me shrugging.
“Two–zip, baby,” Cal said. “This thing is over. You got no pitching, no fielding, and no hitting. What do you got?”
I stared at him and shrugged.
“You got a purple face, that’s what you got.”
“Only on one side, shut the hell up.”
Cal laughed and elbowed Jesse, “They need you, man.”
“I’m too old,” Jesse said. He looked past Cal across the street. A woman dressed for work had stopped at the corner to wait for the light. Her face was expressionless. I looked down to my sore throbbing toe.
Jesse headed for the subway, leaving me with Cal, who carefully unfolded the wax paper that covered his bacon and egg sandwich.
“I’m telling you, Tommy, you guys should just forfeit the rest of the series. Stay home. I just told Carlo the same thing, but he told me to go scratch my ass.” He laughed and took a big bite. I watched the woman cross the street. She wore a skirt and boots and a light vest, and her brown hair was done-up. Her skin was slightly tanned, and I followed the smoothness of it as it curved around her jaw and along her neck. She took long confident strides, but glanced at me briefly as she finished crossing and headed down Bergen Street.
Cal, almost finished with his sandwich already after three bites, talked with his mouth full. “Seriously, you shouldn’t play. You’re all banged up, baby.”
“I’m playing, leave me alone.”
He frowned. “I went four for five last night. Five RBIs, pal. Two doubles, two singles, and four runs scored. That’s sixteen total bases. Beat that.”
“Stupid, you don’t count every base you touch. A double is two bases, a single is one, so that’s six total bases.”
“Well… that’s a dumb rule, then.”
“Go study your horses,” I said. “The papers are out already. I have to go to work.”
“I’m betting every race to ‘place’ today.”
“It’s smart.” He pointed to his temple. “The hell with safe, it’s smart. And you’re not going to work, I can tell. It’s too late already. You’re standing here, trying to think up some excuse. It’s all over your purple face. You think I’m stupid?”
I shrugged. “What are you, my mother?”
“I’m better than your mother.”
The heavyset Chinese Super of many buildings along Elizabeth Street struggled by the vegetable stand, his clunky set of overlapping keys dangling from his waist belt. He rocked from hip to hip as he went. The first time he’d said hello to me, I was waiting for Karen to get off work at that same corner of Elizabeth and Canal. Several times afterward he kept me standing while he went on about Mayor Bloomberg and the Russians and city water and Con Edison. Hours before Karen’s parents had seen us that day, his stuttering rant kept me from pacing until Karen appeared beside us after work and took my hand. She said hello to him in Chinese and told me that she needed to get home and change first. Then she looked closely at his face and asked him something, and he answered in English, “I have a fever for three days now. It’s a little better.”
She pointed us to a little bakery on Elizabeth and went off, so the Super and I obediently squeezed into its tiny steel tables. Sweat rolled down his face, and I sat sideways and listened to him go on about his ailments—his heart problems and bad knees and bad hips.
“My father has a heart problem,” I said at last.
“You know what I do now, and it works, because I haven’t had a heart attack since. If I eat something, you know… heavy, with a lot of cheese, like lasagna, or pizza, or any kind of heavy meal, then I drink one… small… glass of red wine. That clears out all the cholesterol away from your—your limpets in your—in your—your capillaries. You’re still young, but when you get older, that is my advice.” He held up his spaced thumb and forefinger. “One small… glass of red wine.”
Karen appeared at the door and waved us outside. She held out to him a large plastic container of soup with vegetables and talked to him in Chinese for a long time, giving instructions. She made motions with her fingers raking down her own face, as if to tell him he’d sweat to death. Meanwhile, I looked at her dark brown head and her bare raking fingers and wondered about her goodness, that it was the goodness in her that I loved, in a city with millions of women everywhere. And when we left him and went to Chrystie Street Park to sit, I was quiet for a long time before she asked me why I loved her. “I’m not pretty, I’m not smart, my English is no good…so why?”
We’d leaned into each other’s shoulders then, and I watched the leaves of the big tree in front of us and the people walking past us along the stone pavement, and the bright blue sky. “I just do,” I said finally.
“Yes, you’re everything—opposite of what you said.”
She gave me the goose bumps then, when she whispered, “Really?” in my ear.
Later her parents saw us together on Grand Street, and she was quiet; and along Elizabeth Street she slid her head into my chest as we walked back toward Canal Street.“You’re good,” she said, and then sobbed, “It’s impossible.”
Now the Super headed up Elizabeth Street, and I walked slowly behind him from the other side, then crossed the street into a small bakery with only Chinese writing on its awning. Karen had warned me away from that bakery once. I waited a while until a young pregnant woman with a low cap on her head came from the back room, kick-kick-kicking a crate of milk ahead of her. Behind her, I saw a rat hurry across the narrow hallway. I asked an older woman, maybe the pregnant woman’s mother—her back to me—if I could use the bathroom. She turned slightly and shook her head.
“Why not? Why can’t I?”
“No bathroom. Water no good,” she said, wiping down the coffee machine and not looking at me.
“Broke,” she said, making a disgusted face. I saw a Chinese man step into the bathroom and slam its creaking door.
“I can’t use the bathroom, right? But they can, right? Right?”
The young pregnant woman looked over, and I glared at her before walking out.
Outside, the Super, passing on his way back down Elizabeth Street, stopped and said hello.
“Do you know they didn’t let me use the bathroom in there?” I spat out to him.
“What happened to you?” he said. “Do you see your face?”
“Your cheek is broke.”
“No, it’s just purple, it’s all right. Do you know they didn’t even let me use their damn bathroom?”
“Oh, of course not,” he laughed. “They think you’ll call the health department on them. Are you kidding?” And he went on about which restaurants and bakeries let people use the bathroom, and which ones didn’t.
“I hate that crap.”
“Oh, no, no—that bathroom’s dirty anyway. Try the hair-cutters over there. They always let you use.”
I looked away from him, and my sore face trembled a little. “I hate that crap. I get this crap in two neighborhoods. My girlfriend’s parents—them too…”
He took a step closer to me and showed his palms. “Your girlfriend…she—she is like—like gold, let me—let me tell you,” he said.
A phone at his belt rang, and he reached for it, but he pointed at me with his other hand.
“If you give up, then you—you—” The phone kept ringing in his hand. “—you lose—you lose…” The phone stopped ringing, and he put it to his ear. “Hello?”
After using the hair-cutters’ bathroom, I went to the same park and sat on the same bench. Game three would start in only two hours, but I sat there anyway. White clouds were bright against the light blue sky, and the branches of the trees above were still. A mother gripped the hand of her toddler before pulling him the first step down the Grand Street subway stairs; and Karen’s breathy “really” sank so deeply through me that I imagined insisting to Jesse later, while he scraped his sneaker against my stoop, that he was wrong about everything.
Jesse was in the park across the street again, not watching the men play bocce this time but sitting on a bench behind the basketball courts and facing our way. I raised my fist to him during my warm-up catch with Marty, and he briefly lifted his coffee or tea to me.
Carlo drifted over and wanted to know if I could pitch.
“What for? Put me at shortstop, Carlo.”
“Your mobility is limited,” Carlo said, “with your knee and your foot—”
“Knee’s fine, foot’s fine,” I said, throwing the ball back to Marty. “Put me at short.”
“Then there’s your face…”
“I don’t run on my face,” I said. “Put me at short, Carlo.”
“No, I want you to pitch. Start throwing underhand. Squat, Marty!”
“Don’t holy crap me, Tommy. You’re lucky you’re playing.”
“I’d play no matter what you said.”
He gave a little laugh and walked back to the bench.
Soon Bemini called both teams together and made a big deal about everybody playing a clean game without any more nonsense.
“If I get indigestion, I’m going to blame you guys,” he said and glanced at me. I stared down Cannizaro, who smirked.
We scored three runs in the first inning. After two singles in front of me, I doubled on a one-hopper off the fence in right field, and then Marty singled me home. Cannizaro, playing catcher again, briefly blocked home plate without the ball before I raced by. I turned and warned him to keep out of my way.
I struck out the first guy, some friend of Cannizaro’s, because he swung at anything I threw, like he couldn’t see. Then the second batter, Santoro from my block, came up, and we nodded to each other. I put spin on the ball and he popped it up to first. Then it was Cannizaro’s turn. He stood too close to the plate, his bat high, and looked at me like a wild man. Beyond him, Jesse stood against a tree, watching. I buzzed my first pitch near Cannizaro’s chest and he had to get out of the way.
“That was a strike, Bemini,” I called. He waved me off, but I stepped halfway toward home. “He’s right on top of the plate. Move him back.” Bemini waved me off again.
So I zipped the next one right into Cannizaro’s ribs. He dropped his bat and glared, but I ignored him and held my glove up for the ball. The guys on Cannizaro’s bench hollered, and I laughed.
From first base, Cannizaro pointed. “You’ll get yours,” and memory roared through me: limping lamely through Chinatown all day; sitting in the park without her; looking at the bright blue sky like there could be some hope; hearing the Super tell me not to quit; snarling at the old bakery woman and glaring at the young one; and squeezing out thin breaths when her parents wrung their hands and looked at their walls.
I stepped toward Cannizaro. “Come here, you—”
“Stop it,” Carlo shouted from the bench, and I scowled at his twisted face before turning to face Cal at bat. I threw the first pitch outside, off the plate, but he hit it hard right back at my head. I flicked up my throwing hand and the ball hit me square on the thumb and caromed away. Both runners were safe, and I bent over and tucked my hand under my armpit. When I got the ball back I couldn’t squeeze it, so I took off my glove and grabbed the ball with my left hand to pitch. Carlo called time out before I could throw, and he came running out to look at my hand. “You’re out, you’re out.”
“No,” I groaned.
“Your thumb’s broken, you’re out.” He pulled at me, but I stood my ground.
“Put me in the outfield. I’ll play lefty,” I said, and he rolled his eyes.
He let me play right field, and it wasn’t long before we were losing again, 10-3. One single came out to me, but it turned into three bases when I threw the ball wildly left-handed. Meanwhile, the pain got even worse, and I placed my glove over my thumb when I could, as if to protect it. Jesse had drifted over from the park and stood behind the backstop.
After the inning ended, Carlo was there to meet me.
“You need to go, Tommy,” he told me. “Jesse’s taking you to the hospital.”
Jesse drifted behind the fence near the bench, waiting, and I shook my head.
“It’s broken at the joint, Tom. I can tell,” said Carlo. “Go.”
Jesse toed at the ground, but I slid my glove on and glowered out at the field. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him still hovering there, frowning, and I hoped for his own sake that he left me the hell alone—until the game was over for real.
Lou Gaglia is the author of Poor Advice and Other Stories (Spring to Mountain Press, 2015). His short stories have appeared recently in Main Street Rag, The Writing Disorder, Forge Journal, Eclectica, Blue Monday Review, and elsewhere. He teaches in upstate New York after many years as a teacher in New York City, and serves as an assistant editor with Bartleby Snopes. http://lougagtcc.wordpress.com/