By Jason P. Reed
Stepping into the batter’s box at Bengal park had a way of transporting Colton Lacomb to Little League in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he first made a name for himself. Never mind that he was a 21 year old freshman. And never mind that the pitchers he faced clocked in the high 80s, or that Colton had only been out of jail for going on four months. Everything was exactly as it always had been. Nothing mattered but the ball in the pitcher’s hand. His ball. The ball he was about to slap into left field to kick off the bottom of the first inning.
He had only been with the team a few weeks when Coach started saying “when Colton goes, we all go.” And that made him feel good, proud of his role on one of the most successful but still obscure junior college teams in the country. It was a lead off hitter’s job to get on base any way he could, to create the spark that could ignite a rally. And Colton was good at it.
They called the field at LSU-Eunice “Bengal Stadium” in the game day program, but really, that was an overreach. Colton thought of it as a ballpark. The word stadium might’ve been a stretch, but it was still the nicest ballpark he’d ever set foot in. You wouldn’t know you were at a little community college in South Louisiana, that’s for sure. The perfect green carpet of the grass, the flag waving beyond the center field fence, the fine pebbles of the warning track and the scoreboard and the dugouts. The covered batting cages next to the field house. It was all big time shit, a field that Coach said rivaled any minor league park in the country. And Colton didn’t doubt it.
The start of a game had always felt electric, almost pre-ordained to Colton. There was magic and the power of potential in that first pitch. Baseball is a game of rallies, of swelling momentum that perpetuates itself, becomes contagious. And Colton took great pride in being the one to unleash that torrent of kinetic power. There was a lot riding on him on both sides of the line, but as unsettled as he felt to be in school again and living with people he didn’t know, when he put on the uniform all of life seemed to simplify. He was in total control when he stepped up to the plate.
From Little League on, he had pretty much always been the best lead-off hitter in the league–a guy that almost never struck out. And he was fast too. Colton had the wheels to turn a routine ground ball into an infield hit. The Little League field where he had played his baseball growing up didn’t look anything like Bengal park, which really was a field of dreams. But the feeling was exactly the same . . . a sensation only sharpened by his incarceration.
The outfield fence of his youth was lined with brightly colored advertisements, carefully painted four by eight sheets of plywood bolted to the hurricane fence. It gave the park a real big league feel. On game days an army of dad’s in blue jeans and work boots would prep the field: cutting the grass, dragging the infield with a harrow behind somebody’s four wheeler, chalking the foul lines from home plate all the way to the outfield fence.
Any hurt he felt because his dad wasn’t around to help was drowned out by the praise he got from the other parents. Colton was a ball player, and in South Louisiana, even at 12 years old, that earned you respect. However complicated things were with his folks or at school, or with the older kids in the neighborhood, baseball had a way of making all that shit go away.
When he stepped up to the plate as a kid–especially when his Cardinals were the visiting team–Colton wasn’t thinking about anything but the glowing white game ball in the pitcher’s hand. There was something about the newness of it all that was like an invitation. In those situations, with the field absolutely perfect–green grass against the brown of the infield, the thick white of the chalked lines, fresh uniforms and a new ball–he couldn’t miss. Inevitably he would swing at the first pitch, the gleaming white of the ball impossible to resist, cracking a single into the outfield that nine times out of ten he stretched into a double.
One of the signs lining the Little League fence was for Popeye’s. If you hit a homerun over it you got a gift certificate for a free bucket of chicken. It was always a big deal when a hitter marched proudly over to the official scorekeeper’s table where Miss Sandy sat with her pencil and her scorebook behind the plate. Everyone would watch as she wrote out a little note for the player to take to the concession stand, where they kept the certificates that somebody important had to sign.
That second year of Little League Colton had managed to hit just one homerun, on a hanging curveball from Randy Courville, but it went right over the Popeye’s sign. And the chicken him and his mom had that night had never tasted so good. Sitting there in molded plastic and bright lights of the restaurant after the game, a big grass stain on his pants and a thick white ring of dried sweat on his hat, Colton had felt like a man. His mom was so proud of him.
But he didn’t get his invitation to walk on at LSU-E for his power. In fact, that Popeye’s home run was the only long ball Colton ever hit in a game. By the time he was 17 he had plenty of power to put the ball over the fence. And in batting practice, when the coaches put every lazy pitch right in his wheelhouse, he could drop them over the left field fence pretty much on command. But as good as that felt, the real rush for Colton was scanning the outfield for gaps and slapping a base hit in the hole. He could almost do it at will, and that was the shit that charged him up.
Before he got into trouble the first time his on base percentage hovered around .420. He was only a high school Junior, not even 17 years old, but scouts from as Mississippi and Texas had already started to show up. They pretty much all represented ju-co schools, but still. His grades were below average and baseball was pretty much the only school activity Colton had anything to do with. He had never expected anything grand. He just wanted to play.
And Colton could play–he was a total package, just as reliable in the outfield as he was at the plate. Whether it was center, left, or even right field, which he actually liked to play because it gave him a chance to catch guys lollygagging to first base, Colton had a way of getting to balls that everybody else in the park, fans included, had given up on.
A lot of players around Lake Charles had big dreams about making it to the pros. As a kid, at the end of the season when they picked the All Star team, Colton would spend a few weeks playing with kids that dreamed of the Show. They tended to have a new bat every year. Their own helmet in their fancy baseball bags . . . and not just good cleats and a good glove, but all kinds of other stuff like weighted practice balls and little parachutes you tied to your bat to increase bat-speed. Even wristbands! Colton’s brightest memory of his first Pony League All Star practice, when he was barely 14, was how the whole infield had shown up to the first practice with matching wrist bands!
Most of those next level players–the top two or three players from each team in the City League–talked about next year a lot. It was always about the great stuff they would do next year. That attitude never set right with Colton, but he didn’t exactly know why. All he knew was that playing the game was the best feeling in the world. To get a jump on the ball right from the hitter’s bat and track it into foul territory or into the gap and feel it land in the pocket of his outstretched glove . . . that was the shit. Playing the game was where the magic was. It wasn’t next year. It was now.
He had picked the general studies major at LSU-E because that’s what four of the other six incoming freshmen had done. They all joked in the group chat that they were majoring in baseball. And they were right. There was only one reason why a ball player moved to Eunice, a town barely big enough to support both a McDonalds and a Burger King.
The scouts from Baton Rouge had never come calling, which was disappointing but not really unexpected. LSU was a national powerhouse. They could draw talent from all across the country. But he did get letters from UL at Lafayette, Nicholls State, Northwestern, and pretty much every other school in the state. Of course it all disappeared when he got in trouble for the second time.
He would always remember the day he met Tina because of the song thing. He was still so damned excited for his second chance at baseball that he got to the park an hour early for practice. He was just standing there admiring the field when someone behind him said “Whatchyou want for your song?”
Colton looked back to see an older man in a purple Bengals hat, just standing there waiting for an answer. He had seen the guy around that morning in Coach’s office when him and the other freshman had their first meeting, but there weren’t any introductions.
He had been in Eunice just long enough to check into the little apartment he would share with a couple of Juniors, a pitcher from LaPlace and the second string shortstop, a dude named Clint. Coach had said he put Colton with the older players because if he was rooming with the freshman they would ask him to buy their beer. It was only the second time Colton had lived under a different roof than his mom. The first time being the three months he spent in the Calcasieu parish jail.
It took him a second to remember about the songs. The other freshmen were all excited about it, sending Spotify links back and forth and going on about how the girls in the Stands might respond. Colton hadn’t even bothered to listen to any of the tracks. Just based on the names alone he knew he wouldn’t like any of it. His tastes ran more towards the guitar rock his mom was always blasting in the car or on the big-ass, old school speakers they moved from apartment to apartment when Colton was growing up.
“Yeah, I’m not for sure yet,” he said. And then when the man didn’t say anything, he asked “is there like, a list or something I can pick from?”
The man–Colton had just put it together that he ran the press box–just shook his head and laughed. “Nah bruh. To tell you the truth, most of these guys . . . their song is pretty much the first thing they wanna talk about! It drive’s Coach nuts.”
“So, I’m earning points then?” Colton had asked.
The man’s face went frosty and when he looked away, Colton had the feeling that his trouble with the law wasn’t a secret anymore. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” the man said, and just walked away.
That night his new roommates took him to a bar in Eunice called Cecil’s. The only part of Eunice Colton had seen at that point was the Sonic on the main drag and the little convenience store near campus, which was isolated on the edge of town. Lake Charles was like New York City compared to Eunice. There was a beat down quality to the town. At least that’s how Colton saw it, coming from one of Louisiana’s larger cities. Which was fine because he was there to play baseball. At least until his mom got the cash together to move back from Houston and maybe find a job in the area, so they could room together.
There were a few trucks and a junky old car with bumper stickers in the gravel parking lot of Cecil’s. The bar was on the main highway through town, right across from Ace Auto, a parts house with an old Honda three wheeler suspended from a chain way up in the air. Colton could tell it was a rowdy place before they even got inside. And when the smell of the place–beer, cigarettes, and bleach–first hit him, he knew it was trouble.
He told himself he would’ve left right away if he had a car. And maybe he would have. But that was before he saw Tina behind the bar. Clint had made a big show when they walked in, throwing his hands up and announcing “play ball!” like a goddamn rookie. Colton knew from experience that was a good way to get your nose broke in a place like this.
She had dark, full hair like you’d see in a shampoo commercial, and later on Colton would come to love the way it fell across his face when she was on top of him, narrating her pleasure in intense whispers. But in that first moment there was nothing but cold appraisal in her look. Her eyes burned through Clint, skipped over the six foot pitcher everybody called Snick, and settled on Colton. She was drinking him in, and all of a sudden Colton was thirsty.
They usually had live music at Cecil’s on Saturday nights, but it was all that old school Cajun music that Colton just couldn’t get into. The stuff where it sounded like somebody had the singer’s nuts in a vice. And anyway, things got pretty rowdy there on the weekends, Tina said. The dude that owned the place–people called him “Teetsie” or “Teet-C” or some shit like that, Colton never quite understood what it was–had a vibe about him that put Colton on edge. He was a fat dude, but he carried himself like a player–not a ball player, but a player–and he didn’t dress in the country style that most guys his age fronted. Teet C was like a fat rapper. Or rapper wanna be, which was even worse.
Coach had a list of off limits places that he handed out to all the freshmen the next day, and of course, Cecil’s was the second name on it. Colton could still smell the cigarette smoke from the bar in his hair, and by then he already had Tina’s number in his phone. He could almost hear himself pleading his case. “She just grabbed my phone off the bar Coach!” Which was true. He had just answered a text from his mom and set the phone down when she reached over and grabbed it up, punching in her number.
At the time he was a little surprised that he’d had the courage to say “Can I add your picture to the profile?” But he was glad he did. A lot of things seemed to come together for him in that exact moment. A funky song had just come on the jukebox, an old sounding song, the baseline automatically reminding Colton of his dad for no particular reason at all. “When I get off a this mountain,” the singer went, “you know where I wanna go. Straight down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.” The way Tina looked at him when he snapped the picture was an invitation to possibility, and he damn sure wasn’t thinking about baseball in that moment. “To Lake Charles Louisiana, little Bessie girl I once knew. She told me just to come on by if there was anything she could do.”
It was something like four AM when he laid in bed, still damp from the shower and the animated memory of Tina on his hand, that he remembered enough of the lyrics to look up the song. He fell asleep listening to “Up on Cripple Creek” on a loop. The band’s name was The Band. Colton couldn’t decide if that was brilliant or the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.
They had a scrimmage that evening–starters against the B team, Coach called them. And that didn’t sit well with Colton, never mind that he had just got there and nobody knew him from Adam, his baseball history pretty much replaced with a single word. It didn’t matter if the word you wanted to use was jail, or incarcerated if you were a lawyer. Trouble. Drugs. Or maybe bad luck if you wanted to use two words. What mattered was nobody was gonna give him the benefit of the doubt.
Or maybe that was exactly what he was getting now. A chance. Nothing promised and nothing given, but still a chance. So when, as he stepped up to the plate during the scrimmage, the old dude up in the pressbox played about five seconds of “Up on Cripple Creek”, testing out the song Colton had told him he wanted, it triggered something. Exactly what, he couldn’t say. The singer had a kind of high whine not that different from the old Cajun music that Colton didn’t ordinarily like. But the way he sang “from Lake Charles Louisiana” pronouncing it in that country way . . . it seemed somehow defiant. It was like I’m here, and you will have to reckon with me.
The first pitch in the scrimmage was a note of chin music, a cutter running high and inside. A couple of the other B team guys in the dugout made a low sound. Colton appreciated that. Not because he needed proof that the pitcher, a big-eared dude that was supposedly going to Mississippi State next semester, was brushing him off. That was plain as day–the guy looking to see what Colton was made of–but he still appreciated the support from his new teammates.
He guessed the big country son of a bitch on the mound would try to paint the inside corner on the next pitch, so he took his time getting back in the box, setting up just a hair further off the plate. The fastball was right where he expected and Colton connected so sweetly he was worried the ball would either clear the left field fence or hook foul. Worried because a long ball wasn’t enough. He needed to show his speed, to release the swell of energy that had built up. The ball hit in the middle of the padded wall in Left with a thud that sounded like a sucker punch. He was coming up on second base when the left fielder tried and failed to grab the ball cleanly with his bare hand and so Colton accelerated for a couple strides, just enough to show he had another gear, and then coasted in to Third with his B team brothers banging the ceiling of the dugout. And then he thought of Tina.
He went two for two at the plate in the four innings they played. And in right field he robbed the number three hitter of a double and on another play almost caught the left fielder, the one Colton already had pegged as the weakest of the three starting outfielders, sleeping after a weak single to Right. The only reason Colton didn’t get the force at first was because the first baseman was sleeping too. But it didn’t matter. He had already announced himself. After the scrimmage, all Coach said after was “way to be Lacombe”. Because that’s all he had to say.
He didn’t want to meet her at the bar, but she said she couldn’t leave. So he promised to buy the first round if Snick would drive them there. Him and Tina ended up grinding against each other in the dark alcove that led to the bathrooms, her leg riding up against him while he caressed her neck with the tip of his nose, breathing her in.
She was different. At least that’s how he felt about it in those first few weeks when every aspect of his life took on an electric charge. He was the only freshman who got to dress out for their first game against Alexandria. By the second game, when they played Monroe College up at their place in the northern part of the state, he pinch hit in the seventh inning, driving in the tying run on second base and staying in Right to finish out the game. Then five weeks after joining the team, Colton made his first start.
Tina worked a lot and so he ended up at Cecil’s way more than he wanted to, and even though it was getting to be pretty much an open secret on the team, Colton wasn’t too concerned. Some of the guys might’ve been jealous when they dropped him off at Cecil’s to wait around at the bar until Tina got off–and his roommates were definitely jealous from the noise they made deep into the night– but the team was winning. And Colton was on a streak. And when you’re on a streak, you don’t change anything.
And anyway, Tina was different. And not just because of the total sexual abandon in bed. Though really, that was just incredible. All the other girls Colton had been with until then had always held back. It was like they wanted to do it, but they never quite surrendered to the experience. Or couldn’t. It was like how sometimes you’d see a muscular dude at the plate who swung with just his arms, not really knowing how to use his lower half.
Colton only met Little Cecil–he refused to call him“Teet-C”–once, but by then he already didn’t like the guy. And not just because, the way Tina talked, he was an asshole of a boss. Colton wasn’t the least bit surprised about Tina’s story of him coming onto her one Sunday afternoon when the bar was slow. The way she looked in her faded jeans and boots, it was a miracle the whole damn town of Eunice wasn’t at Cecil’s every night.
No. It wasn’t that. There was something else about the dude that put Colton on edge. Something in the way he looked you over, about the way he dressed. About that stupid name that Tina guessed he probably gave himself at some point. The guy was trouble, the one thing that Colton was supposed to be avoiding.
But with everything flowing so well–baseball, Tina, his roommates, even his classes–he just didn’t think that much about it all. His mom had found a job in Lafayette. His name and his face was in the game day programs, and everybody on the team had started calling him “Colt 45.” So when Tina called him up to say she was about ready to quit tending bar at Cecil’s, to maybe go back to school or at least get a job at the casino in Kinder, he of course asked her if there was anything he could do.
“Actually, yeah,” she said. Just the way she breathed into the phone was enough to turn him on. “Do you think you can borrow Snick’s car?” He didn’t ask why. He just told her yes. “Good,” she said. “I just have to go to Beaumont and pick something up. Then Teet-C says he’ll cash me out. Free and clear.”
Bio: Jason P. Reed is a writer from Eunice, a small South Louisiana town in the heart of the Cajun Prairie. He is the founder and principal author behind New Bayou Books, a small press established to bring a new, inventive brand of Louisiana literature to the world. Tattoos and Tans and All Saints Day of the Dead are his first two books. He is currently at work on the third offering from New Bayou Books, a turn of the millennium era love story called The Asian Cajun. Jason keeps a little bit of home with him everywhere he goes, sprinkling Cajun spice across the globe–from Mongolia, West-Texas, Germany, South Korea, Washington D.C., and Belgium–as he performs his duties for his Uncle Sam. If you dig his writing, support the cause at NewBayouBooks.com and follow him at Goodreads.com.
His books can be purchased through his websites above, through Amazon, and located in our Bookstore.