You Don’t Have to Be So Afraid All the Time

A sonic crack and the ball soars like a comet, like it might remain another white speck in the night sky, like it’s a guaranteed walk-off home run. Except that the left-fielder, who, till now, has appeared hobbled by the rumors of his impending free agency, is tearing towards the wall, not even glancing up to trace the ball’s trajectory. His only hope is to beat it there and wait, to pray it loses some propulsion. And it isn’t until he’s at the farthest possible point on the field that he looks up over his shoulder, still driving forward, only his cleats have leapt from grass to wall and his free hand is clutching its ridge and his glove is reaching so far upward that it looks like his arm is being ripped out of its socket, and his eyes are shut tight and his teeth gritted, and his hat has fallen off his head, and it seems like he’ll hang there for an agonizing eternity when his glove reflexively snaps shut with the weight of the earthbound ball, and the left-fielder, who has been battling a torn ACL all season and has a batting average of .239 and is maligned daily by every sports radio host in the state, returns to the ground and is consumed by the oceanic roar of the crowd.

The whole feat shifts into reverse—the ball escapes the glove and ascends into the sky, the left-fielder climbs up the wall, then back down again—before it plays out once more in slow-motion, no easier to comprehend, even when broken down into a scientific step-by-step. The SportsCenter logo spins in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. Kenny sits three feet from the TV on the living room floor, pulsating with excitement. He has to make that catch himself, move his young limbs with that same fluidity and strength, claim someone’s almost assured shot at victory as his own, imagine the charge of a stadium erupting for him.

It’s a lot to ask of an eight-year-old, but Kenny knows he’s the only one left to teach his brother these things.

And so his backyard becomes a makeshift ballpark. He shields his eyes from the sun with the frayed glove handed down from his father (the only thing Kenny can remember of him) and stands across from his little brother, Everett. Kenny has carefully instructed Everett to toss the ball up and hit it just hard enough that it will fly over the chain-link fence that borders their yard while still being catchable, but not so hard that it ends up completely out of reach. It’s a lot to ask of an eight-year-old, but Kenny knows he’s the only one left to teach his brother these things. Unsurprisingly, the first attempts either end up as dribbling ground balls or bombs that clear the fence completely and bounce across the street into the neighbor’s driveway. Finally, one connects perfectly with a satisfying, hollow sound, and Kenny follows it to the fence, head down and breathing hard like the man he wants to be; and it’s still hanging there as he plugs his feet into the gaps in the fence, and as he loses his balance and finds his face falling towards its pointed top, and as his upper lip catches one of these points and his body gives in to the gravity, and the pink flesh covering his teeth tears, sending a bolt of pain through his head and filling his mouth with the tinny taste of blood. The ball skips across the road and Everett is already crying loudly, bringing their mother into the yard, who, seeing her oldest son’s mouth split into two dangling flaps of flesh, runs back into the house and pounds out a panicked call to 911, whose operator promises to send an ambulance once the mother screams that yes she is already too drunk at eleven-thirty in the morning to ice her son’s mouth and drive him to the ER herself and would they for the love of God please come save her boy.

First, there are the sirens, then the flood of red lights, and then the ambulance itself, which blurs past Monica who has obediently pulled her Ford Fiesta to the side of the road. Unaware it’s speeding towards a sobbing boy whose mouth is in desperate need of stitching, she instinctually crosses herself—a remnant from her Catholic school days. And though it’s been over a decade since she’s voluntarily entered a church, she still can’t shake that ritual or the Hail Marys she speeds through when desperate to keep her mind off something stressful—like the biopsy she’s on her way to, having found a lump underneath her left breast last Tuesday. And as she eases back onto the road, she catches her lips shaping the words, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” She seals her mouth. It’s an embarrassingly stupid habit. Muscle memory more than anything. But it’s so much like the religion itself, a means of coping with our creeping mortality.

Todd Pendergras knew this better than anyone, even at twelve-years-old. A classmate at Sacred Sacrament for only one year, she hasn’t thought of him in a decade—he who never said a “Hail Mary” or an “Our Father,” never received the Eucharist or entered Confession. Somehow, it was common knowledge that his mother had killed herself two summers before, though the exact method was left to rumor (some said she slashed her wrists, others that she leapt from the roof of their apartment building). His father was a non-entity, so his grandmother sent Todd to get a religious education after his many outbursts in public school. Even at Sacred Sacrament, he punched dents into his locker and pissed all over the bathroom floor. Kids backed away from him the way you would a rabid raccoon that had stumbled into your driveway—Monica did too. The exception being the detention they shared—she had missed three math assignments; he had torn a page out of a hymnal for a paper airplane—where, while swabbing spirals into the dusty green chalkboard, Monica heard herself ask, “Do you believe what they say, that people who kill themselves go to Hell?” She then froze, letting the cold, soapy water trickle down her arms and into the rolled sleeves of her blouse. She didn’t know where the question had come from or that she was capable of such naked carelessness. But rather than pound his fists into the board or curse her out, he just looked at her with something that resembled pity and said flatly, “Monica, there is nothing after this. You don’t have to be so afraid all the time.” Then he turned and squeezed his sponge out into the bucket. They spent the next half hour and then the rest of the year in silence. He didn’t return in eighth grade. And as Monica pulls into the parking lot of St. Michael’s Radiology Department, moments away from the cold stab of the biopsy, trembling hands gripping the steering wheel, she wonders where Todd is at this very moment.

And as she eases back onto the road, she catches her lips shaping the words, ‘Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.’

The ping of the friend request arrives like a shot of dopamine, pulling Todd from his cave of blankets. A warm wave of familiarity washes over him when he reads “Monica Paisley.” A childhood crush. A quiet girl with frizzy black hair and a pleasantly plain face. And if her profile picture is to be believed, those formerly soft features have sharpened into something more striking. One arm absently reaching for the empty side of the bed where his now (he has to get used to saying it) ex-girlfriend normally slept, he clicks “accept.” The sadness that sits in his stomach like a boulder is a mundane one, compared to his life’s other losses, but it is still a sadness nonetheless. He scrolls through the details of Monica’s digital life: bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history from formidable universities in the Northeast, a museum job, no recent pictures with men; all while trying to ignore the realities of his own: dropping out of community college, failing to come up with his carpenter’s union dues, the apartment he can no longer afford because of the absence of a woman he never liked but now constantly misses. Shedding a layer of blankets, he opens a message window to Monica, then spends fifteen minutes staring at its overwhelming blankness. After fourteen years of mutual silence, he can only wonder what her request means. If she is as lonely as he is now. Regardless of the several states that separate them, his response can determine the trajectories of their future, can coordinate them to some mutual point or cause them to recede back into nothing. He focuses on a dark stain on his comforter shaped like an oven mitt, then returns to the debilitatingly vacant screen.

The sun has now set, and the room’s only light is the soft glow of the TV in the corner, flickering with baseball highlights. The home team’s designated hitter, a bear of a man, connects with a ball that looks like it’s exiting the stratosphere. Three years before Todd’s mother died, she took him to see the Marlins play the Orioles, his first and only baseball game. He never showed much interest in sports as a child and still doesn’t, except as the occasional background noise. He can’t recall which team won or even whom they had rooted for. He does remember the crowd rising to do “the wave,” the intoxicating smell of hot dogs, his mother arguing with a vendor over the price of beer. He remembers too the mass exodus from the stadium—every fan thinking they’d be the first to reach their car and beat the traffic—and his flapping lace getting caught beneath his shoe, his palms catching the pavement and stinging with blood and gravel, the blows of unseen feet against his ribs and even one stepping across his back, a rippling of gasps and his mother’s screams—That’s my son! You’re trampling my son!—and being lifted by his shirt, his collar strangling him, and then swept into her arms and squeezed like a life raft, covered in kisses, apologies breathed into his ear: I’m sorry, baby. Mommy’s got you. You’re safe with me. I’m never going to let you go.

His screen has dimmed to sleep, and so he wakes it. With a steady clatter, he types, “Monica, help me to not be afraid again.” He clicks “send,” then, as if trying to trap the message before it can escape, snaps the laptop shut.

 

Douglas Koziol received his MFA from Emerson College, where he currently teaches in the Writing, Literature, and Publishing department. His writing has appeared in The Millions, Crack the Spine, and Driftwood Press, among other venues. He is at work on his first novel.

 

Photo by Meg Kiley