THIS ISSUE’S FURIOUS PEN STORY ON THE THEME SECOND CHANCES
by Donald L. Vasicek
The man who looked like Ernest Hemingway shot the blond woman with braces on her teeth, in both eyes. The skin on her forehead wrinkled into five lines, like sentences in a sonnet. “I have a seven a.m. appointment. It’s seven-ten,” Ernesto Jesus said. His aching molar drove a wood screw into his persistence. She kept her look on the sign-in sheet. “What’s your last name?”
The antiseptic smell of the dentist’s office and playful laughing in the other rooms hacked at Ernesto. “Jesus.”
“Oh, we’re working on the wrong Jesus,” she said. She smacked out of there like a high-tailing lynx.
Then, Ernesto found himself in the dental chair. A light cork-screwed into his eyeballs. Doctor Chumlach, a slight man with bangs, pasted a liquid over Ernesto’s molar. “You know the only Don’s that get any respect live in Italy,” he said. “Hope you’re not mad anymore.”
Ernesto’s molar hummed “Morning Has Broken.” “There’s only one Don who gets respect,” Ernesto said. The man who looked like Ernest Hemingway shot Chumlach in the eyes.
Chumlach smiled. Ernesto smiled back. “I never was mad.”
The smell of garlic was heavy around second base. It’s not that it was overbearing, just that it was there. I kicked at the dirt, hardened by an unusually hot Denver summer. I watched some of it bolt up and drop on the stark white base anchored in the ground.
“Hey, Coach, whatcha doing that for?” I looked around at Tim, a string bean of a kid. He was 13 and smart as the relentless sun beating down on us. A whiff of garlic the size of a watermelon exited Tim and engulfed me.
“Just loosening up the ground a bit,” I said. I looked at Carl, a dark-headed kid with buck teeth and a smile that lit up the softball diamond. Carl pitched the softball to Jake, a 17-old kid the size of a Humvee. Tim was now cleaning the dirt off the bag. “Tim, heads up,” I said. Tim looked up. He pounded his glove. Dust smoked out of it. He bent his knees and cupped his hands on them.
Jake swung and missed. Carl’s red baseball cap flew off. Carl’s grandfather, standing just behind him to shag balls for him and instruct him about pitching, sneezed. A whiff of air the size of a hurricane swept up dust off the diamond. It boiled into clouds and rolled towards us.
Soon, it engulfed us and passed on out into centerfield. I looked at Tim. His face was grimy with dirt. “Hey, Coach,” he said, “you look like that old guy on the Survivor show.”
“You mean, Rudy, the ex-Navy seal?” “Yeah, except he didn’t have dirt all over his face.”
Tim started laughing. It sounded like a distressed squirrel. I laughed. Soon, everyone was laughing, all thirty-six of us, and that included the other coaches and parents.
Carl wound up. Jake hunkered over the plate. Carl’s grandfather barked in Carl’s ear. “Throw it high so it’ll come down over the back of the plate, that’s the Special Olympics rule.”
Jake swung and missed. The ball skipped passed the catcher, little Carpie, a Down Syndrome boy, who was dwarfed by the catcher’s mask, chest, knee and shin protectors. It bounded all the way to the backstop where it thunked to a stop.
“Charge the ball if it’s hit at you, Tim,” I instructed. I was more out at second base to protect him, than to coach him. I’d noticed in earlier practices that he didn’t pay attention to what was going on. He was always fooling around with his glove. Or turning his back on the playing field and gazing into the outfield. Or talking with someone.
Little Carpie threw the ball back to Carl. It bounced three times before it got to Carl. Carl scooped it up and prepared to throw the next pitch to Jake.
I looked at Tim. He was down on one knee. He had managed to clean the second base bag of dirt. Now, he was smoothing the dirt out around the base with his hands. He was a sitting target for a rock hard softball that could bash his head to smithereens. Just at that moment, Carl threw the ball to Jake.
“Tim, heads up,” I said. Tim looked up. Jake swung the bat. He smashed the ball. The ball cracked off his bat like a rocket.
I lunged over to get in front of Tim. The ball climbed high into the air. It shot for the leftfield wall, some 300 feet away, then curved and went foul at the last moment.
“Coach, you’re in my way,” Tim wailed. I stepped away, relieved that the ball didn’t hit Tim.
“Step over here, Tim.” I motioned to several feet off second base. I walked over and crouched facing Jake. I pounded my glove. “This is where second basemen like you play. They cover the area between first base and all of second base.” Tim strolled over.
He went into his crouch. He pounded his glove. “Hit the ball to me, Jake,” Tim said. He pounded his glove. He leaned and cupped his hands on his knees. “When it comes to second basemen, it gets no better than right here.”
I gawked at Tim. He looked so vulnerable. Skinny, like a weeping willow tree branch, he was developmentally disabled. A softball hit by Jake would shred him. I nudged up closer to him.
“I got it covered, Coach,” he said.
“Okay, I’m just making sure the dust doesn’t get in your way.” He looked at me and grinned. His teeth, like a straight, white picket fence, gleamed back at me. Then, I heard the crack of Jake’s bat.
I glanced at Jake. On a line, the ball screamed right for Tim. “Tim, the ball,” I said. Tim looked. The ball fired for his face. Whump!
I stuck my glove out and caught the ball. The ball hit my hand with the force of a small sledge hammer. The bones danced like everyone of them was going to break. The palm of my hand felt like someone had just snapped a whip on it. It stung and burned.
I flipped the ball to Carl without batting an eye. I looked at Tim. His face was ashen. His marble-like eyeballs peered at me in shock. “You okay, Tim?” Tim continued staring at me. I put my other hand on his shoulder since my glove hand felt like it was missing from the wrist forward. “Tim.”
He swallowed. “You have tears in your eyes, Coach,” he said.
I felt a tickle on the side of my nose. I scratched it. It was a tear. “Well, you would’ve caught the ball if dust hadn’t gotten in my eyes, huh?” Tim nodded.
Summer Special Olympics softball moved forward after that night at practice. Tim continued playing second base. And he caught every ball that came his way, whether in the air or on the ground, even when dust was blowing his way.
Perhaps it was the touch. You know the kind. Sort of a gentle tug like a puppy would yank on your pant leg. Playfully, but with purpose. With design, but loving. I looked around. It was Elsie. Elsie was stocky, particularly for a middle school student. “Coach, coach, you know what happened in school today?” she said as she pushed some French fries into her mouth.
“You passed the math quiz,” I said. Her hair was styled and cut at about the ears like a pageboy only her bangs were curled. They danced about like springs and disguised her age. Possibly her face too, which was round and more wide than long. She came into view as an old soul of twelve years particularly when I gazed into her eyes. She cuffed my arm and giggled like a girl of her age. “No, silly, I beat Marty in the spelling test.”
I gawked at Marty standing at Elsie’s elbow. Strange thing, they were one year apart, Marty being older, but Elsie was two hands taller. Marty blinked her dark eyes at me in a “so what” manner.
I smiled. Marty’s raven hair glowed from the lights in the cavernous gym at Aurora, Colorado North Middle School. Her ruffled dark eyes pecked at me like a chicken.
“What’s wrong, Marty?” I said as a roar swelled in the brimming stands at one end of the basketball court. Parents, relatives and friends cheered our team, the Jaguars. It was tournament time. The smell of sweat, cologne, hot dogs, potato chips, cherry cola soda, mustard, pickles, onions, M&M’s, berry licorice ropes, popcorn and a host of other concession goodies rode the wind and no one was going to miss out.
Marty actually was quite small for thirteen. Her peers spiraled over her. Somewhere within her mind though, I suspected, height meant nothing to her.
“He’s pushing me. He hit me. He won’t let me shoot the ball. I hate him.” Tears puddled in her eyes. “Who?” I asked. Her arm and finger shot out like an arrow. “Him.” I followed her point of the compass to a male kid about six feet with dusty blond hair that looked like rats got into fight in it. With very little body fat, if any, his boxy shoulders made him appear powerful and intimidating. Just then, he pushed a runt of a kid, Little Carson, we called him, to the floor.
I straightened out as Little Carson’s big, round brown eyes, actually, out-distancing his emaciated face, woofed at the bully.
“You pushed me.” The big kid laughed. He didn’t know that Little Carson was developmentally disabled. Actually he probably wasn’t really that aware that he was also developmentally disabled, as were all of the kids on his team and our team. He was playing in the Colorado Special Olympics Basketball Tournament, and that’s what mattered to him. Little Carson was in the kid’s face, or in fact, looking up at him like he was peering at a redwood tree.
“Little Carson,” I shouted. Little Carson seeded his hands to his boney hips. He formed the word, “but”, when the ball popped him in the chest. He grabbed it and started dribbling it around and around in a circle; a beetle bug in the middle of a bunch of kids of all dimensions trying to chase him down.
“See, see,” Marty said. “He hurt Little Carson and I hate him.” Marty’s eyes spit out the feeling of disappointment. Elsie hauled on my arm. This time it had more urgency in the touch.
“Put me in, put me in, coach.” A basketball rolled out onto the court from behind me. I looked at Sara who sat on the bench with Dustin, a gaunt autistic kid, intelligent, but who could only spit when he tried to speak and Jarod, an inky-haired kid with a face that emerged like one side of it had been run over by an SUV. Sara toyed with her hands like they belonged to someone else.
I grabbed the ball just as the teams, like a tidal wave, swept down the court after Little Carson. I glanced at Sara. If it hadn’t been for her Down Syndrome disability, I could’ve sworn she was grinning at me.
I squatted by Marty. I placed my hands on her shoulders. I looked her squarely in the eyes. “Marty, you don’t hate him. After the game’s over, I want you to congratulate him on playing a good game. Okay?”
I looked at the scoreboard. Jaguars 4 Vipers 32. I shot a glance at Little Carson. Tall Vipers swarmed him.
Elsie chewed on her fingernails. She moved about like she had to go to the bathroom. “Put me in, coach, put me in.”
Then Jarod was at my arm. And Dustin. Jarod spoke first. “I’m a pro, coach.” Dustin spewed drool at me. He held his folded hands down, his arms crossed. Then, I noticed he had wet his basketball shorts, or at the least, spilled water on them.
“There’s just a few seconds left.” I investigated each kid like I wanted to give them everything they desired and more. They only wanted one thing. To play basketball.
And Marty was quietly crying. “It’s not fair,” she said. “I could’ve made the winning shot.”
“So could I,” Jarod shouted as he mimed a shot.
And now, Dustin, crossed his legs like he really had to go to the bathroom. “Dustin, do you have to go to the bathroom?” He stared at me. Right through me. Then, his father appeared. A tall, skinny, distinguished looking man of about 40, took Dustin’s hand and they headed for the bathroom.
The horn blared the end of the game. Little Carson continued dribbling the ball. I watched Marty as the two teams walked single file past each other high-fiving. When Marty got to the big kid with the boxy shoulders, she whispered something in his ear. He nodded unremarkably.
The gym had emptied out. I had managed to collect all of the Jaguars’ basketballs and put them in the net bag. I was heading for the exit when I heard someone call out, “Coach.” I turned. Marty beckoned me with her pint-sized finger. She stood right in the center of two full-sized courts. They absorbed her like a sponge.
I walked over to her. She turned and indicated the route of the grandstands. We faced them. She installed her arm around my waist. “That’s my Dad.”
I looked at a broad man with a head of hair like a male lion’s mane, step out in front of us several feet away. “Okay, Dad,” she said. He directed a camera at us. Marty took my hand. She held it. Her dad snapped several pictures.