Dirt

By Sean Williams

It was July. The sky resembled living watercolor; dark blues and soft purples slowly consumed the fiery streaks of sunset. The air was thick enough to taste, yet cool enough to breathe. The smells were vivid, damp grass, fresh dirt, and the unmistakable scent of sulfur. A congress of strangers assembled into patches around the perimeter, their voices mixing with the music coming from the PA system, a conical melody, like a radio held up to a megaphone. John Fogerty. I was dressed in red and white, with thin blue pinstripes. My cheeks were black as burnt corks. My mouth was filled with pink chewing tobacco; the pros did it, and so did I. After all, I was a pro. I was a twelve-year-old professional, with thick eyeliner and gobs of shredded bubblegum in my mouth. I felt my legs growing under my stirrups. Put me in coach. I’m ready to play.

“Williams,” my coach shouted, “centerfield!” I smiled and sprinted out into the lights. I was fast. I was amped. I was a starter in the Little League All Star Championship game. Since we had an undefeated record in the tournament, we were given home field advantage.

While warming up with the right fielder, I scanned the area before every return throw I made. I absorbed my environment for all its wonder. The field was seemingly brand new. “Built for this game,” I thought. The dirt in the infield was unmarred by the footprints of the last losing team. The grass felt like fur under my cleats. The base lines were fresh and perfectly drawn, as if drafted by a giant with a giant ruler. The crowd reminded me of a stocked supermarket shelf, for both the assortment of faces as well as the condensed seating arrangements. Among the colorful merchandise, my cheering section.

“Alright Sean!” my sister yelled with an unbridled attempt to turn my cheeks red. She succeeded. Next to her was my Mom, quiet, confident, and proud. She gave me a quick nod. It was just enough to inspire greatness. In between them, my kid brother. My Dad and my uncle Jack sat next to each other in front of my Mom and sister. Ghost with his big frame bifocals and yellow-gray hair combed back under his Yankee cap, tossing spent butts between the bleachers before lighting up again five minutes later, swigged Pepsi from the bottle. My uncle next to him, feathering his chin length hair back with his fingers, focused on the field through sunglasses, most likely hiding his eyes from the field lights, and his booze from the other fans. I wanted to impress them. Their combined composure was of intense confidence and concentration, as if trying to transmit focus and drive to me telepathically. I welcomed the pressure. It drove me to my limits. At least that’s what I had imagined for myself.

I have always had an unspoken respect for Ghost and my uncle. They taught me the ways of the world with an unorthodox approach—sarcasm, humor, and a freedom of speech that would rival any historical example of exercising the first amendment. The freedom to speak without censorship was greatly appreciated in my house. Over the years, I watched those two trade laughs, profanity, and pills. They called each other bitch. “Want some coffee, bitch?” my uncle would ask from the kitchen. “Yea. Thanks, bitch,” my dad would say lying in his bed watching Tom and Jerry. These exchanges galvanized my heart, coated it with iron values. I didn’t understand why other kids’ families weren’t like mine. My family spewed profanity into the air like it was their job and laughed as if they knew their days were numbered. The balance between sensibility and frivolity was surreal. I envied their methods, their attitudes, their interesting parenting skills. I could joke around with my dad every day, but if I brought home a C, he’d be upset. He would never punish me though. His disappointment in me had a much stronger effect than grounding me ever would. My uncle was the same way. Neither one of them graduated, and because of that, I respected them as men who knew better the importance of school—as if the wrongs they’d done in their lives somehow produced the knowledge of how their kids could do the right thing. They were strong, respected, admired, and loved—I wanted that. 

Standing virtually alone on the field, the world faded to silence. My mind opened up its memory vault and withdrew some moments of anxiety—coming home with my first C, breaking the neighbor’s window with a poorly thrown baseball, “accidentally” pushing my little brother into the kiddy pool in our back yard. All my thoughts had one bright, echoing similarity: What’s my father gonna say? Out there, in the outfield, the question came piercing through once again, calling upon my sweat glands as if they were millions of microscopic firemen that were summoned to extinguish my nerves. What if I don’t win? What if I strike out? What if I suck?

As our pitcher finished warming up, our team threw our practice balls in and subconsciously smiled in unison. “Comin’ down!” the catcher called as he threw the ball down to second base, ending our pregame warmup. The night’s anticipation burned itself into adrenaline. Sweat formed on my lip like a water mustache. My toes curled inside my socks. My left hand was a sweaty mess inside my glove. I took my right hand, stained with black smudges from wiping the sweat off my cheek, and shaped the brim of my hat into a perfect crescent over my eyes, bending my horizon to focus on the game—it was a professional technique.  

“Here we go, guys,” I encouraged my fellow outfielders, shrouding my own anxiety.

“Let’s bring it home boys!” one of our fans shouted.

“Now batting for the visitors,” started the announcer in his metallic voice, “Second baseman, number five…”

“Oh boy,” I thought, “maybe those pre-game chili dogs weren’t a really good idea.” My stomach began to bubble with unease—even the butterflies had butterflies. My insides were swaying in circles like a greasy tire swing. Breathe.

“…Trevor Mackenzie.”

The rival fans roared in support of their leadoff batter. The cheers were loud and almost threatening. Their precious Trevor Mackenzie was at the plate. Trevor Mackenzie? What kind of name was that? I laughed at the thought of his parents naming him after their favorite soap opera character. But, who was I to judge? Ghost once told me that I was named after Sean Connery, the best James Bond ever. Well, at least I was named after a promiscuous super-spy instead of a character prone to amnesia, comas, or other ridiculous plot points. My subtle amusement definitely pacified a good portion of my anxiety.

“Let’s go Dennis!” Jason, our shortstop, encouraged our pitcher. His attempt to counter the call of the bleacher creatures—the other team’s fans—did not go unnoticed. The rest of our team joined in on the support, then our coaches, then our fans. It was an audible war. Praise and applause was the artillery. The night lit up with excitement.

Dennis readied himself on the mound. He kicked grooves into the dirt until he was satisfied with their depth. He took his hat off, wiped his forehead, and fastened the escaping locks of red hair back behind his ears. His hair came down to his chin, too short to put into a ponytail. Without a hat, it fell recklessly over his freckled face. Spinning a half circle away from home plate, Dennis returned his hat to his head, rectifying his composure. He looked down at the mound and bent the brim with one hand. When he lifted his head up, he was emotionless, determined—a machine built to win. We, as a team of twelve-year-old boys, believed that bending our brim to the perfect arc gave us super powers. We were young and naïve, but damn, were we focused.

Dennis stepped on the rubber. The first pitch always set the tone for the rest of the game. A strike: we would win. A ball: we would win, but it would be close. A hit: we would lose. A home-run: we would walk off the field and cry to our mommies. It happens. We did that to the first team we played in the tournament. Poor fellas.

My confidence in my team was unflinching. As Dennis threw his first strike, my ego climbed to a higher pedestal. My relief was hidden behind a tough exterior and an unaffected bully persona.

“No batter!” I yelled loud enough to sound like an angry seventeen-year-old—a seventeen-year-old girl. But it didn’t matter. I was proud of my pitcher, and I was going to use my inherited trait of speaking my mind.

The next pitch, however, was hit to left field. It was a short fly ball over the shortstop’s head. It plopped down about ten feet in front of our hustling left fielder, Bobby-Jo, the only girl on our team. She was really pretty…off the field. But, in uniform, she was just another grimy kid with dirt under her nails. She belonged to our squad. Her appetite for winning was remarkable and her dedication to the team was inspiring. I was happy to play beside her. One team had poked fun at us because we had a girl on our team.  Big mistake. After taking a 9-0 lead against them, our coach put Bobby-Jo in to pitch. She was removed after hitting four batters in various body parts.

Bobby-Jo retrieved the ball and threw in to Jason to hold the runner on first.

“Dammit,” I thought out loud.

Dennis recuperated from that sissy little blooper and reclaimed the mound. He attacked the next batter with three screaming strikes. No swings were taken.

Bobby-Jo:  “Yeah, sit down!”

Jerry, the second baseman: “Maybe next time he’ll throw it underhand!” We called Jerry Jelly Donuts. His last name was Donates. He hated it, until he loved it.

“One out!” I raised my finger and yelled to both corners of the field. It was my job as the centerfielder to remind my teammates of the number of outs. D.J., the third baseman, was a hyper, loud kid. He always assisted me by calling out the outs until everyone got the message.

The third batter to come up was the chubby catcher. He was a plump kid who walked to the plate like he had bad knees and a heart condition. He was breathing like he just ran here from a pizzeria across town. But, appearances tend to deceive. If he could hit anything like our chunky catcher, we would have been in trouble.

Our catcher was Serrano—his name was actually Alvin, but his last name was so much cooler than Alvin or Al, so Serrano it was.  He was a bear of a kid. He, like their catcher, always seemed out of breath. But, when he stepped up to the plate and hit the ball with 170 pounds behind the bat, you just knew he was meant to play the game.

Dennis knew that some catchers were dangerous like Serrano. He pitched him a little outside at first, one ball and one strike. Then, knowing the batter was anxious for the next pitch, Dennis threw a curve inside. He swung and connected. It was a fast ground ball. Jason gloved it, flipped it to Jerry, and Jerry hurled it over to Mike on first base for the double play. Nice.

It was our turn. We hustled off the field to the sound of cheers echoing off the invisible walls around the stadium. It felt like the big leagues. Inside the dugout, we slapped hands and sparked each other up as if our palms were jumper cables connected to our ambition. Mr. Hulse, our head coach, was just as energetic.

“There’s going to be a change in the batting order tonight,” he said.

“No big deal,” I thought. We were all at the top of our game. He could have reversed the order and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

“Williams.”

“Yeah, Coach?”

            “You’re up first.”

            What?! First—as in lead off? I started off the tournament batting eighth. I admit I did get progressively better with the bat; I moved up to sixth, then fifth. But, first?

            “I want you to bunt,” my coach said delicately. “And by God, your ass better reach first base.” Not so delicately. “Go put your helmet on and get in the game.”

            Oh great. Those irritating butterflies are back. I walked through a barrage of high fives and helmet taps on my way to the plate. I think I got a “good game” from Bobby-Jo. (good game 1. n: a quick tap on the backside with an open hand; usually used after a good play to express positivity, joy, or encouragement.  2. vb:  to good game someone. Ex: Bobby-Jo good gamed me after I made a diving catch in centerfield.)

The announcer blasted echoes of my name through the air. I felt important. “Playing centerfield, number seven, Sean Williams.” It all made sense to me, the lights, the fans, the announcer, even my last name. Williams, like Bernie Williams, the leadoff batter for the Yankees in 1993, also played center field. I was the leadoff hitter now. I glanced towards my family as I walked up to the batter’s box. They were as shocked and excited as I was. Their faces were painted in supporting, inspirational caricatures. I focused in on my Dad, making sure I made eye contact. He gave me his silent and stern nod. I was ready. I was Bernie Williams in the lights, or better yet, lightning fast Rickey Henderson, the “Man of Steal,” who holds the records for the most stolen bases in history with 1,406, and the most leadoff homeruns. He was a Yankee for a couple years. Come to think of it, my uniform had pinstripes. And I loved stealing bases.            

My coach was down the first base line. I knew his methods all too well. He only had two signs: a fist was the sign for take a strike or don’t steal; the horns—index and pinky—was the sign for bunt or steal. He loved giving me the horns. I was fast. My uncle, after watching me steal a couple bases, said to me, “Damn kid, you’re a fast little shit, aren’t ya?” I must have been, because sure enough, there they were, the horns, pointing down at the ground as if casting a whammy on the other team. I was the whammy, their fastest secret weapon. I used to believe that that was my coach’s way of telling me to “rock on” and do what I do best. Run and steal.

I had watched the pitcher warm up. I timed him and noticed he had good control. I stepped into the batter’s box, holding my hand up to the umpire for time while I dug my cleats into the dirt for proper take off. I let my right hand fall and completed my batting routine by making a slow counter clockwise circle in front of me with the bat. Then, I clenched the bat tight enough to crush the aluminum in my fists. I waited, poised in a take no prisoners stance. The pitcher took the first step of his wind up. My guts bubbled no more. My stomach was filled with strength, confidence, and dead butterflies. Professional.

The ball left his hand in slow motion—just like the movies. My eyes oscillated to the rhythm of the spinning red stitches on the ball. Before I could brandish my bat in a bunting stance, I realized those spinning red stitches were honing in on a target other than the strike zone—my head. The ball was barreling recklessly towards my face. I hated when a pitcher hit me. It was always so unnerving. Either the ball would strike one of the few fatty locations I had on my body, like a leg, or, and more times than not, it would ricochet off one of the unprotected bones that comprised my pipsqueak frame. But regardless of where the ball hit, it always led to tears. It was never the pain that called forth the crying. It was the reaction and the unwanted attention and sympathy from the grown-ups. It was just like when a baby hurts himself. Most of the time, he would only cry if someone were watching. It was so embarrassing. But, not this time—not during the championship. No way.

I dropped to the ground like I was on fire—no second-guessing, no time to think, just act. I ate the dirt, figuratively and literally. I felt a small cloud of dust transform from a gas to a solid as the particles attached themselves to the sticky skin of my cheeks. Perfect. The pitcher’s trying to feed me a fastball and my mouth tastes like I just licked home plate clean. I was furious. But, I wasn’t the only one. The stands on our side lost it. And when I say they lost it, I mean it was like witnessing a bad call at Yankee stadium while they were playing the Red Sox. The verbal threats upon the pitcher were almost frightening.

“Come on, you little jerk!” one fan shouted.

“I will go down there and kick your ass for you!” my sister offered.

 I’ve never heard anyone speak so abrasively about a kid’s mother before. It was unnecessary—funny, but unnecessary.

I stood up and regained my composure, dusting myself off and eyeballing the pitcher. I was angry enough to hurl the bat at him, maybe split his nose open or take out a knee, but I resisted, as I was just a little twerp with an over-dramatic imagination. I just assaulted him with my colorful mental images of tween on tween violence. He seemed unaffected by my telepathic violence and positioned himself once again on the mound. The crowd’s outbursts dissipated into silent intensity and anticipation for the next pitch. Time stopped for me then, as if the universe paused the world for an infinite second and said, “Sean, this is your time, your moment. Make it count.” Sounds ceased, except for my breath and the leather friction from my batting gloves; smells faded; bodies froze. I looked over the pitcher’s head and into the blackness that hovered indefinitely outside the preternatural aura of the field lights, over the motionless crowd, over the engrossed players. Out there, past centerfield, over the wall, darkness brewed. The moon was low, a little bit left of center, just another ball; everyone expected me to hit it out of the park.

They always expect me to hit the moon. I wondered if Rickey Henderson smashed that record-breaking leadoff homerun in slow motion, or stole that last base because the stars allowed it, or if Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle had all made illegal deals with father time, selling their souls to be the best, to be famous in these lights, in their moments of history, when the universe stood still for them.

Bernie Williams made $150,000 in 1993 playing centerfield for the Yankees. Over the next 7 years, his salary would increase steadily, topping off at $12,357,143 a year for the following 6 years, which brought his total career earnings to $103,100,001; this was over the course of 16 seasons: 2,076 games; 9,053 plate appearances; 2,336 hits; 1,212 strikeouts; only 147 stolen bases; and he was hit by a pitch 39 times.

At the plate, I was twelve, with grease under my eyes, family in the bleachers, and teammates in the dugout believing in me with their young, scarless hearts. It was the lights and the cheers, the smell of grass and sticky black cherry soda, the feeling of memories being recorded to a highlight reel I’d replay for years. The world came back on and I laid the bunt down. It dribbled down the third base line, and I took off, cleats purchasing the dirt. To the catcher behind me, I must’ve been a nimble blur of ass and elbows. The chalk base line zipped by underfoot, no sounds, no breath, nothing but legs moving faster than time would allow, faster than their pitcher, their catcher, their third baseman. It was like cheating. It was almost unfair. How could they catch me if my reality was faster than theirs? I was chosen to do this, to run, to dazzle and sparkle. Henderson. Mantle. DiMaggio. Williams. It was never about the money for any of us.

I was safe, at first.

***

My father looked at me with his graying irises, studying my 18-year-old mouth, reading it for signs of fear, a tremble of childlike emotion. It wasn’t there. I was a man, or at least I feigned as much. He handed me the bottle of pills and I left the house, closing the door behind me like the cover of a book I’d never read again. My mom knew nothing of our misdoings. Ghost told me he’d kill me if she ever found out that he had entrusted me with his business. Missy would’ve flipped her shit if she discovered that Ghost lied to her. By bringing me into his dealings, he knighted me a criminal—a rite of passage from king to prince in a palace built on Percocet. Put me in coach. I’m ready to play.

My first job was to deliver 100 pills to Randy, a grimy plumber who lived an hour away. All I had to do was take a nice sunny drive down the shore, trade the bottle for $500, and come home, and I’d make a hundred bucks. Ghost purchased his supply of pills by the hundreds, paying two bucks each, then selling them for five. So, I hopped in my obnoxious car with the tinted windows and unnecessarily loud speakers—I was a douchebag—and hit the parkway. $100 for essentially cruising around for a couple hours? You got it.

I drove alone. I had to. No one was supposed to know what I was up to. It was just easier to keep it between Ghost and me. I was riding with drugs in the car. I was dirty. If the cops had pulled me over and questioned the prescription drugs, I was supposed to tell them that they were my dad’s, as his name was on the bottle. I wasn’t sure if the dates matched or even the contents, but I didn’t care.

Randy’s van was an ugly blue monster, dented and rusted and horrifying. We met at an IHOP parking lot off the highway. I called him up and told him I was parked a few cars away. It was lunchtime and foot traffic was heavy around us. I didn’t care. I couldn’t. If you act like you’re doing something wrong, you probably are. I pulled up to his car with my music on full blast.

“What’re’ya nuts, man?” Randy asked rolling down his window.

“What?”

“You’re gonna bring attention to us. Cops around here don’t play.”

“Have you looked at your van lately? It has baby toucher written all over it. I hope you don’t bring that thing around playgrounds.”

Randy laughed. His face was round and Italian, chubby at the chin. He was an alright guy, considering. I threw the pills at him through the window while he was laughing; they dropped in his lap. “What the hell man?”

“What?”

“What if someone saw that?”

“Randy, you didn’t even see that.”

“Good point. But what if I drove away without paying you?”

“Ha. You’d lose your best supplier and probably your front teeth,” I laughed, hoping he would wonder if I was serious or not.

“I’m joking, man. Your dad is a good dude. I’d never do that to him. He’s helped me out a lot.” He flipped the money at me.

“Okay, dude, I’ll see ya next week?” I said, throwing my car into gear.

“Probably.” I nodded once and drove off, counted the money on the highway. It was all there. I let the bills fall through my fingers for about thirty exits while I thought about the dangers of it all, the drama, the elation, and adrenaline. Insignificant things, these thin pieces of paper. But somehow, I felt strong then, with the music pounding, the streaks of sunset painting my path home. I had some money, some power. My heart shifted that day on the highway, twisted into a sharper shape, something green and greedy. My pupils carved themselves into dollar signs as I smiled at myself in the rearview. I reassured myself that Ghost would be proud of me when I made it home.

***

I stood on first base, got a quick good game from my coach, and shot a brief smile towards my mom. Jelly Donuts was up next. As he took his practice swings, my coach looked at me and dropped his eyes down past his red beard to his right hand. The horns. He smiled. He knew I loved it. He knew if I made it to first, I’d almost definitely make it home. This was why we were undefeated; we took no prisoners. Go big or go home. 110 percent all the time. And all those other inspirational mantras that engulfed my soft red heart in flames. Jerry stepped up to the plate, kicked a hole in the batter’s box. I planted my foot on the edge of first base, lined up my chest with second. I closed my eyes, embraced the silence until my nerves tightened themselves around my muscles, mercury veins through my legs, turning my bones into steel, my calves into rockets.

Little League rules for stealing a base were different. Rickey Henderson used to make it halfway to second before the pitcher even threw the ball, but I didn’t have that privilege. Leading wasn’t allowed; we couldn’t leave the base until the pitch broke the plane of the plate. In other words, I had to be fast as shit to steal. The pitcher glanced at me over his shoulder. He didn’t know. How could he? Who would steal a base during the very next pitch? I would, me, with my “imaginary” powers, my gasoline socks and flint cleats, my ability to control time. I tightened my eyelids and watched the pitcher without turning my head away from second base, counting my breaths until he started his windup. I froze the world again. I’d make it home, for my team, for my family, for my uncle Jack and my mother, for my brother and sister, and for Ghost. The ball left the pitcher’s hand, a slow moon in an empty sky.

***

I got home around 7. Ghost was in the yard sucking up fleeting sunrays, counting planes and smoking his cigarettes. He wore tank tops in the summer, guinea tees he called them. His Yankee hat had collected sweat stains along the edge. I walked up to his lawn chair, almost kicked over his Pepsi. “Hey,” I said, already digging in my pockets for the money.

“Go inside, Sean.”

“Oh. Okay.” I walked inside. He followed. No one else was home. I sat down in the living room, the center of the couch caving in under my ass as it always did. Cartoons were playing on the TV as they always had. The coffee table was a comfortable mess of remotes, mugs, and junk mail strewn about like coasters stained with coffee rings as it always was.

“Well…” Ghost hovered in front of me, “…where’s my money, bitch?” He rubbed his dry fingers on his right hand together, the sign for money, sounded like dead leaves on trees. A smile came to his face. It was always unpredictable to me, his smile, like a tricky detour away from what was real.

“Yea, sure.” I reached in my pocket and handed him the cash. All of it. I figured that I’d get some points with him if I let him pay me rather than take my own cut. He took the money, stood in front of me and counted it. He looked at me. Something strange glazed his face, a new look, something I’d never seen before—well, at least not in a few years.

***

The catcher caught the ball and threw it as hard as he could toward second base. He was too late. I had already started my headfirst dive into the base. My helmet bounced off my head when I landed, my body sliding on the dirt senselessly; I had no concern for my limbs. The grit burned the flesh off my exposed elbows, matching holes, left and right. I wrapped my gloved hands around the base as my chest barreled into its edge. He overthrew the ball. It was somewhere in the outfield. “Run!” Either my coach or my conscience, I’ll never know. I got up, helmetless, and reengaged the boosters in my legs. I ran towards third base, letting go of all the pain in my elbows, leaving behind gravity and my helmet. I was dangerous. I glanced at my coach near third base. His mouth moved at one tenth the speed of real time: “Go.” His left arm made a huge windmill motion while his right hand pointed home. I hurled my bones around third, stomped on the corner and pushed off toward home. The catcher positioned himself, straddled the plate and prepped to catch the throw from the outfield. I couldn’t be stopped. Run Rickey. I dove again and stretched my arm out as far as it would go. I ate some more dirt, tore more flesh from my elbows, and finally felt the edge of the plate, like a speed bump under my gliding palm. The umpire stretched his arms out like a plane. Safe.

I stood up and I was in a quiet room; the cheers faded into mumbles. I looked at my dad before the moment escaped. It was just him, as if under a spotlight. He smiled at me, that elusive smirk, and he was damn proud. I made it home, Dad. I’m safe. Safe at home, where my dad smoked truckloads of cigarettes and drank gallons of Pepsi, where the walls were stained yellow and the couch was broken. It was where I ran, and where I dove, and where I scored. It was where Ghost handed me my first hundred dollars for running and making it home safely. Home wasn’t always about the money. But it became so easy. It was like I stole it.


Bio: Sean Williams was born in Newark, New Jersey and lived a fast life. After spending three years in prison he attended Union County College at age 29, where he received his degree in Graphic Design after two years before moving on to study Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Currently, when he isn’t running a busy restaurant 50 hours a week, he writes. He is working on a memoir as well as a collection of fictional short stories. He lives near a lake with his fiancé.
He self-published a book of poetry and prose called “Incendiary Words: Sean On Fire,” which was reviewed as raw, dark, vivid, and cerebral.
His book can be purchased Here, and in our Book Store.

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