FICTION March 1, 2024

Home Run

Dad wanted to have me next weekend instead of this weekend, but Mom said, no way. “You can’t keep changing everything around,” she said. “I have a life.”

Dad thinks that she must have a date or something. He asks me about it on the way to his softball tournament. I just say that I don’t know and hope he doesn’t ask me again. If he does— like he did the day Mom took all her work dresses, still on their hangers, out of their closet and folded them over the backseat of her station wagon before driving off without leaving a note— I’m scared I’d tell him everything. Tell him about how I ran into Mom’s room in our new apartment and found her tangled up and naked with this guy named Kelly. Tell him that Mom wears her dangly earrings when Kelly comes over and that he comes over almost every night. Tell him that Kelly took me and Mom to a restaurant with real white tablecloths and that Mom drank her red wine from a slender glass in slow sips and not out of the green bottle like she does at home. I don’t want to tell him any of this because I don’t want to make Dad cry again.

We pull off the main road, and our tires dip into the rutted tracks that lead to the mowed-down meadow where everyone parks. The softball fields are in the open space next to the airport, and I can hear the screech of a plane landing. All around us, men in colored t-shirts pull their gloves and bats from their flatbed trucks and cherry-colored cars. Kids race across the field playing tag, but there are no other girls. It’s still morning, around ten o’clock, but already it’s hot.

Dad nods to people as we walk through the ballpark. I smell the vat of boiling hot dogs and the stink of Bengay. People are cheering for the teams on either side of us. I keep my eyes out for foul balls. I have my glove on and ready.

The fields meet around the beer tent with picnic tables and a concession stand. They serve beer and pop and nachos with cheese sauce. There are lots of candy bars, too. Dad’s going to give me money to buy something since we could be here all day. It’s a tournament, so his team plays two games today and then even more tomorrow if they win. Dad tells me that he’s playing on Field Six. It’s a long, dusty walk to get there.

Dad hasn’t seen any of his teammates yet and wants me to help warm him up, so we play catch together. He tells me, “Good arm,” when I throw the ball hard at him, but soon he wants to warm up with his friend, Cliff, who is on his team and has a better arm than me.

“She’s gonna be a great player someday, huh?” he tells Cliff, throwing him the ball. I take my glove and sit down on the bleachers.

Dad’s team is in blue shirts with “CREATIF ADS” in block letters on the back. His teammates wear long yellowing pants with dirt stains on the knees. The younger players have more stains than the older ones, who have knee braces on. My dad has a knee brace on. He is number four. The other team is wearing red “AL’S HARDWARE” shirts. Their bleachers are full of wives and girlfriends who scream at their men and our team and the umpire. They have three home run hitters. My dad is not a home run hitter, but he can get on base, and that’s why he’s second in the batting order. I cheer for him when he’s up, but I’m not as loud as the fans for the other team.

From the stands, I watch planes take off and land. I start counting them instead of counting the strikes and balls and outs. I’m sitting next to the lady who is keeping score for our team. Dad told me to help her, but she doesn’t really need my help. She is wearing a tank top and her flabby arms are turning red with the sun.

There is a pile of dirt next to the bleachers, and a couple of kids are playing in it. Dad doesn’t care if I get dirty, but I’m too old for that. One boy, with a red popsicle stain around his mouth, is using a plastic cup from the concession stand to dig a hole. Another boy keeps grabbing it away from him until Popsicle Boy starts wailing so loud that the moms can’t ignore them any longer, but the men on the field keep playing.

Men from other teams gather around the fence because they’re on this field next. They ask who’s ahead. Dad’s team is leading 5-3, which is good because he gets in a bad mood when they lose. I’m hungry, and I hope that Dad will have time to eat with me before his next game. I go through the concession stand menu in my head.

On the mound, the pitcher has his hat on backwards. He winds his arm up like a windmill and releases the slow, arching pitch. A bearded man from the AL’S HARDWARE team hits a double and two runs come in, tying up the game. I wonder if maybe we’re going to lose. If we lose this one and the next one, we’re out of the tournament, and then maybe we can do something fun tomorrow. Mom says that Dad doesn’t want me around, that if he did, he’d make time for me instead of always trying to change his weekend around. She thinks if he wanted to be with me, then he’d get a real house for me to stay in with my own room. But he doesn’t have his own place yet. He’s living with his friend, Jim, who plays the drums. Jim has the biggest dog I’ve ever seen, fluffy, white, and gray, and Jim says the dog has wolf in him, and if he was friendlier, I could ride him like a horse.

Dad’s game is over, and his teammates are swearing because they lost in the last inning. Everyone is grouchy with each other as we walk over to the beer tent. I tell Dad he played good, but he ignores me. He goes up to the counter and orders, but I’m not ready. I can’t decide between a hot dog and nachos. He doesn’t care if I get both. His teammates gather around the picnic table with the beer pitcher, and they fill up their plastic cups. The tent smells like men and sweat and beer and my hot dog doesn’t taste very good.

His team is playing again, on Field Four, and they need to win this one. Dad says that it was bad luck that they lost the last one. I wonder if maybe they lost because I wasn’t rooting for them with pure intentions. I don’t want him to be sad. I decide to give my one hundred percent focus and support this time so that they win.

I want Dad to be happy because Mom ruined his life. He tells me we were the perfect family until she cheated on him, and we all had to move. His new room is damp and smells like mold and doesn’t have any nice furniture in it. The house is all alone on a hill surrounded by trees, and there is no one to play with. There is a broken-down bus in front that’s painted rainbow colors. Dad’s room is separate from the house, and you have to go into the house if you want something to eat or you need to pee. I don’t like it when Jim is there because he doesn’t know what to say to me. He plays on the team, too. Most of the men on the team don’t talk to me and only remember that I’m around when they cuss.

I ask if I can be batgirl this game, but another kid already asked. The game starts, and I sit on the bleachers facing the sun. I pull my baseball cap down, but the sun stays in my eyes. The Popsicle Boy crawls up on the stands next to me. He is shirtless, and his skin is a creamy tan.

“That’s my daddy,” he says, pointing to a large-bellied man swinging two bats in front of us. “He’s batting next, and he’s gonna hit a home run. My daddy,” he continues, “is the best player on the team. He has the most home runs.”

“My dad is on second base,” I say. “He’s gonna score a run.”

“My daddy took me to watch the monster trucks at the fairgrounds. He has big wheels on his truck just like them.”

“I don’t care about trucks,” I say.

We hear the metallic crack of the bat hitting the ball and turn to watch as the ball hovers toward the sun, dropping on the other side of the left-field fence. “Told you so,” Popsicle Boy says, as his dad rounds the bases in slow motion, no need to sprint or dash the way my dad does.

With the home run, Dad’s team wins. The men on Dad’s team are rowdier than the Johnson twins at my school, who throw the kickball right at the first graders as they run from the building at recess. Dad’s teammates puff out their chests and ram each other in celebration. They high-five and holler. Cliff does a backflip and lands right on home plate, and I yell and hurray the loudest.

We all go to the beer tent to celebrate. Dad gets our table a pitcher of light-yellow beer, frothing like a root beer float. He is happy and he jokes with his friends as I hang off the edge of the picnic bench, my legs dangling. I pick the bits of chopped onion off my second hot dog. My hot dog, licked clean of the mustard, relish, and ketchup, is as smooth as plastic, and when I bite into it, I have to tug at it with my teeth. The men’s voices get louder as the other games end and more people come to the beer tent. I’m getting tired, the way I used to at Gambino’s Pizza Parlor when Mom and Dad were still together and I’d stuffed myself at the spaghetti bar and Mom and Dad were done eating but we’d stay while they talked and laughed and drank more because they used to be happy. I wish I was home now. Not home at Dad’s rented room or Mom’s empty apartment, but at my old house where everything seemed okay. I don’t want to be a good sport anymore and go along with Mom on her dinner dates or with Dad to his softball games.

“How much longer?” I whine, tugging at Dad’s sleeve.

It takes Dad’s eyes a moment to find me. “I want to watch the end of that game,” he says. He nods to a team in red uniforms standing on a field aglow with stadium lights. “Then we’ll know who we’re playing tomorrow.”

Dad takes one last gulp of beer from his plastic cup. I follow him to the field where the last two teams are playing. Dad has his fingers curled around the wire fence. He is concentrating on the batter, a big guy, boxy like the NFL players I watch with Dad on Monday nights. Dad says something to Cliff over my head.

“I kept score, Dad,” I say, trying to interrupt him. “Of the whole game. The lady said I was good at it. Maybe they should pay me.”

“Great,” he says. He doesn’t turn his head from the batter, who swings strong, like a major leaguer.

“I put all the bats on the fence, too, ‘cause Brad just throws them all out of order.” The count is now 2-1, and the batter has taken a step out of the box for a practice swing. He scratches himself like an ape.

“Uh-huh,” Dad mumbles. The batter swings again, too fast. He seems a little dizzy from his own strength. If I had swung the bat that hard, I would’ve twirled myself all the way around. Dad says it’s girly to do it that way.

It’s a full count and for a short moment, there is no sound at all, like when the TV goes blank for a second between commercials. I’m tired of waiting, tired of the softball tournament, tired of Dad not listening.

“There’s a guy named Kelly,” I say. “Mom sees him every night. She says he’s a gentleman and that he has a real job, not like you, and that he has potential, not like you, and that he’ll take care of us since you’re no good for nothing. He doesn’t really play softball, but he has a glove, and we throw back and forth in the front yard. He’s alright, I guess.”

The blue-helmeted batter swings and misses, the straggly-haired umpire yells, “Strike,” as loud and confident as a fire alarm. Cusses rise from the bench beside us like dust clouds. Dad looks at me. He’s angry. I feel mean and stupid, but also a little glad. Dad doesn’t care anymore about who wins this game or the tournament or his cussing teammates. He pulls off his dirty CREATIF ADS shirt and unwinds the bandage around his bad knee and we are finally leaving.

Kristin Walrod’s fiction has appeared in Blue Earth Review, Literary Mama, Buckman JournalPrism Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.