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Edward Paige knew he looked as old as Methuselah as he sat—sometimes dozed—in the white wicker chair, an inherited, rickety contraption he should have replaced years ago. The weave of the birch creaked each time he shifted his weight. Though he had remained lithe through the years—no more than five pounds over his playing weight. He couldn’t afford any extra pounds; each ounce put him further at risk of recurring agony. Twenty years behind the plate had taken a toll: his knees were shot, his lower back had good days and bad days, mostly bad.
A dozen years in the minor leagues only lent credence to the old adage that the catcher’s gear, the mask, the chest protector, the cup, the shin guards, were “tools of ignorance.” With a .213 lifetime batting average, catcher’s speed, and a total inability to hit the curve, or a change up, for that matter, Eddie would have been wise to hang up his cleats earlier, but he had held on, always in the hope that the next season would be his season. To start out in Class A ball and close out as the bullpen catcher on a team in Nebraska in an independent league wasn’t all that wise.
From his front porch Eddie dutifully watched the neighborhood children play baseball in the street. Boys and girls, something he never would have expected years ago. He was struck by how much had changed since his earliest ball-playing days on this very same makeshift diamond; the gloves were now as large as Sasquatch’s paw—more like baskets with intricate webbing than tight-fitting Wilsons or Rawlings with good, well-worked-in pockets—the metal bats pinged, nothing like the loud crack of a Louisville Slugger. A few of the players wore their caps backwards like the hip-hop singers he’d seen on television, young girls defiantly dug in at the plate, unapologetically, with stances every bit as menacing as the boys.
“Mr. Paige, how are you today?” Martha Gutierrez, the mother of the shortstop, called to him from her front yard, next door.
“I guess I’m pretty good,” Eddie said. “It’s hot, but a good day for the game.”
The pretty woman smiled. The fullness in her round face gave hint of future problems with her waistline, but today she looked pretty good. “Efren would play day and night if I’d let him.” Her Spanish accent was something Eddie found charming.
Martha, still spry in her mid-forties, sassy from what Eddie could gather from listening to her get after her two sons, had lived in the house next door for nearly a decade. There used to be a husband, Ignacio, but Eddie hadn’t seen skinny Nacho around for more than a year, maybe two.
“Well, Efren looked pretty good at bat a while ago,” said Eddie. “He got all of one.”
The woman scowled. “If only he’d put as much effort into school as he does out there in the street. Hijole! His teachers say he’s smart… he just doesn’t try hard enough.”
“He’s a good kid. He’ll be fine.” Eddie wasn’t just saying that to placate the mother. Effie was polite and quick to offer help when Eddie mowed the lawn or unloaded bags of fertilizer or groceries from the trunk of his car. He really was a good kid. “Also, he’s got a good swing,” Eddie added.
“A good swing won’t get him through high school. He’ll be in the ninth grade this year and he still thinks he can get by on his good looks.” She laughed. “And, as you can see, he’s not that good looking.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about Effie.”
“You would,” she said, “if you knew how much time he spends on that stupid cellphone. When he’s not talking to some girl, he’s playing those games. And, oh my God, the music they listen to. The f-word here, the f-word there. My father would have killed me if he caught me listening to music like that.”
There was no genuine rancor in her voice; she was a mother with a teenage son. A projector inside Eddie’s head flashed frames of his own mother complaining about Elvis Presley, about how much time he wasted in front of the television screen, about Eddie tying up the phone line talking to Elizabeth Crowell or Denise Spencer.
Cheers and whoops erupted on the street; someone had made a good play or smacked the ball. Both watched, then awkwardly turned back to each other.
There wasn’t much more to say.
“Effie will be fine,” Eddie mumbled halfheartedly.
Ten minutes later, in her front yard, Martha and her older child, Luis, were engaged in some sort of heated discussion. Eddie gathered that it had something to do with the boy’s friends, from the little he could hear. Two-thirds in Spanish, one-third in English, the two were going at it. To Eddie it didn’t seem possible that the two could be related to each other; the mother round, soft-featured, the boy lean with a long, narrow face, a hawk nose, wiry, like his father.
Luis, in his baggy khaki pants, white wife-beater undershirt and black shoes, waived his hands in the air, not in anger, but in exasperation over whatever his mother was nagging him about. Martha, hands on her hips, wasn’t giving an inch. At eighteen, Luis probably was a handful. A cholo. His red bandana, his shaved head, the heavy jewelry that hung from his neck, his baggy pants, barely held up by some invisible restraint, made the young boy appear to be the poster child for some anti-gang propaganda on a middle-school wall.
The doorbell rang at five minutes after nine. Eddie, already in his robe and pajamas, had been snoozing, in and out, through a program about seals, or sea lions, or whatever, not terribly enlightening, but what on television was these days? His friends warned him continuously about his reluctance to move out of the neighborhood he’d grown up in. “Things have changed,” they told him. “You’d be better off living on the west side of town, in a more mixed neighborhood.” If they knew that he answered his door after nine o’clock, without a weapon in hand, they would have a fit.
“Effie, what can I do for you?” asked Eddie. His eyes struggled to focus on the boy on his front step. Effie had his mother’s round, broad face. A wide smile that always made Eddie feel instantly at ease with the boy. His eyes, dark as coal, reflected the light from inside the house right back at Eddie, a lighthouse that shone through the darkness of the summer night.
“My mother told me I should talk to you, Mr. Paige.” The boy smiled, that engaging, slightly mischievous grin that Eddie couldn’t help but want to return.
“Would you like to come in?” Eddie asked.
The boy nodded and stepped uncertainly into the living room. Eddie used the remote to turn the television off. He’d only recently mastered the device, after years of fighting with it. He was pleased to demonstrate his newly-acquired expertise.
“This summer I was supposed to write a report for school. Mrs. Lopez told us to interview someone about their job, then write a report about what they do.” The boy wriggled in the high- back chair, a chair he’d probably never seen the likes of, a relic from Eddie’s parents’ occupation of the house. “My mother told me to talk to you about your career as a baseball player.”
“It wasn’t much of a career,” Eddie told him, “I spent my life chasing a dream.”
“But you got paid to play ball.”
Eddie nodded. True, but he never got paid much.
“What I’m supposed to do is write questions then ask you about them,” the boy said. “It’s supposed to be like an interview. Then I write a report.”
Eddie bit at his lip and watched the boy. He knew Effie would rather be someplace—anyplace—other than an old man’s living room. “I guess we could give it a try. When do we start?” Eddie was pleased, somewhat. Boys like Eddie, with their music, their car-crashing movies, their gang-banging banter, needed to know a little about life, real life. Again, it seemed that Martha Gutierrez was doing a good job with her son.
“Since I’m late getting started, could we do it tomorrow night?”
“That sounds good to me,” said Eddie. “Tomorrow night. You bring your questions and I’ll try to bring my memory.”
At the door Effie shook Eddie’s hand and thanked him, again calling him Mr. Paige. Yes, Martha Gutierrez was doing just fine with the boy.
Effie showed up with a notebook, a pen, a pencil and a plate of empanadas his mother had sent with him. Eddie got a coke for each of them and they went right to work. Effie explained he wanted to do the interview over three nights; he’d prepared questions on three topics: why Eddie had chosen his profession, how he had trained for his job, and how Eddie felt about his choice now that he was an old man.
Eddie was pleased. The boy was prepared.
Effie’s questions and Eddie’s answers seemed pretty pat. Eddie told the boy how he’d started playing ball in the street, just like Efren and his friends. Then little league, high school ball, two years in college, where he’d hit .373. He had a good arm and was thought to be a real prospect. He was careful to make clear to the boy that he should have stayed in school rather than dropping out to go to spring training with the Cardinals. He shouldn’t have listened to the scouts when they told him to strike while the iron was hot.
“Did you get rich?” the boy asked.
Eddie laughed. “If I was rich, do you think I’d be living in the house I grew up in? No, Effie, I got by, but I had to work other jobs during the off-season to make ends meet.”
“But you were a professional ballplayer.”
Eddie folded his arms across his chest, smiled, then said, “Ballplayer, yes. Professional… somewhat. Effie, I think I enjoyed playing baseball out there in the street when I was your age a lot more than I did when I rode around the country in rattletrap buses hoping the next game would be better than the last. The difference between a two-hundred hitter and a three-hundred hitter is one hit a week. One more hit every week and you might end up in the hall of fame. Think about that, Effie.”
The boy looked down at his notebook, more than likely ashamed for the old man.
When Eddie returned from putting the empanadas on the counter in the kitchen, Effie stood in front of Eddie’s bookcase.
“Did you read all of these books?” the boy asked.
“Most all of them. I like to read. Don’t you?”
“Not that much.” Effie shrugged. He ran his fingers across the spines of the books on the third shelf. “When did you find that much time?”
Eddie laughed. “I have a lot of time. When you get old you realize it’s time to catch up on what you’ve let slide through the years. Reading’s a pretty good habit.”
In his hands Effie held the pocket watch that always sat on the bookcase. The boy examined it closely.
“That watch belonged to my father,” said Eddie. “It doesn’t work anymore, but I like to keep it there on the bookshelf to remind me of my father.”
“It’s a good one,” the boy said. “It’s a Waltham. My uncle owns a pawn shop and he keeps these locked up. They’re worth a fortune.”
“I’m afraid that one hasn’t worked for more than sixty years. But it has sentimental value, for me.”
Effie carefully placed the timepiece back on the shelf. When he left, the boy thanked Eddie and again the two shook hands.
After the youngster was gone Eddie sat and thought about the exchange; the boy was smart. Eddie was pleased with how well things had gone.
Eddie was startled to find both Effie and Luis at his door the following night. The younger boy explained that Luis was interested in what the two were talking about and wanted to sit in. Luis uttered something, barely audible, about his interest and assured Eddie he would sit quietly and listen.
Eddie returned from the kitchen with three cokes. They began, but Eddie felt more than a little ill at ease with the older brother in his living room.
“Why did you quit when you did?” Effie asked. “You might’ve made it to the big leagues.”
“That’s a good question, and I’m not too certain I have a good answer.” Eddie looked from Effie to Luis, then back at his interrogator. “I still loved playing, but I was thirty-three years old. When each season was over, I’d play ball in Mexico. One year I caught Fernando Valenzuela. Now, that was quite an experience. I think I quit because I was just plain worn out, plus I had nothing to show for all those years of playing ball.”
“You played catcher for Fernando Valenzuela?” said Effie. Both boys sat up in their chairs.
“I did,” said Eddie. “It was quite an experience. He was good. That was in the Mexican Central League. He was a kid, and I was a washed-up catcher. Yeah, I caught him. I didn’t speak Spanish and he didn’t speak much English, but we got along just fine.”
Both boys remained silent. Each gazed at Eddie through dark eyes. To Eddie it felt like representatives from two disparate civilizations had come in an attempt to make peace with an outsider, an intruder neither was too sure of. The pie-faced boy’s eyes were large like plums, the older brother’s, small black marbles through narrow slits in a dark fence.
“Did you play with any other players who became big leaguers?” Luis asked. “Did you even come close to the major leagues?”
Luis had promised to remain silent, but Eddie welcomed his interest.
“Some, quite a few, but I wasn’t good enough. I came close. But I spent my whole career in the minor leagues. If you can call what I had a career. That’s why you fellas need to study hard and go to college, or a trade-school. Don’t end up like I did. Working in a sporting goods store selling athletic underwear and tennis rackets.”
“Yeah, but you actually got paid to play baseball,” said Effie. “You must have been good.”
“Not good enough.”
After lunch the following day Eddie backed his fifteen-year-old, faded red Hyundai out of his garage. It started easily; he wasn’t at all certain that it would; he drove so seldom these days. It was a fifteen-minute drive to the community college, a bit of an adventure since he didn’t get out that much, especially if freeway traffic was involved.
Eddie woke from his nap more than slightly groggy; the drive to the community college and the walk from the parking lot to the administration offices had been, if not harrowing, a challenge. So many young people hurrying to and from classes, dodging the doddering old man who seemed lost. But the brochures on welding classes and auto mechanics were now where he wanted them: on the front porch of the house next door.
Efren held a jar of fideo in his hands when Eddie opened the door. Eddie loved the treat, but he was in no mood to be overly gracious. The afternoon had taxed him. Luis hadn’t come with the younger boy. Eddie was glad. It was probably the older boy’s presence that put him in such a funk. He didn’t completely trust the hoodlum.
“Thank your mother for me,” Eddie said, “tell her fideo is one of my favorites.” He took the jar from Effie and set it on the coffee table in front of the sofa.
Effie sat in the wing-back chair and smiled.
“Where’s Luis tonight?” Eddie asked. “Did he get enough of my lecturing last night?”
“He went out with his friends,” the boy said, “but he told me to give you this.” The boy pulled Eddie’s father’s watch from his jeans’ pocket. “Luis took it apart and cleaned it up. He said it had a bunch of gunk inside it. It works perfect now.”
“Luis can repair watches?”
“My uncle taught him. Luis can do almost anything like that.”
Eddie studied the watch. It was definitely his father’s. Except it shone like never before. “Well tell Luis thank you for me. I hadn’t even noticed the watch was gone.”
Effie grinned. “We hoped you wouldn’t. It was Luis’s way of thanking you for helping me.”
“I do appreciate it. I really do.”
“And he told me to thank you for the community college information, but he says he’s going to stick with Texas Tech.”
Eddie looked up from the watch. “What do you mean, Texas Tech?”
The boy again grinned, this time with a bit of playfulness. “He’s going to Lubbock next week. He’s got a scholarship to study physics.”
“Like I told you. Luis can do almost anything.” Efren paused, smiled, then asked “Don’t you think we need to wrap things up on my report. I’ve bothered you enough. Like I told you, tonight I’d like you to tell me how you see your future.”
Before they commenced the interrogatory, Eddie took the fideo into the kitchen and returned with two Cokes. When he returned, he handed Effie the cold bottle and stood back. He studied the boy, then sighed. “I suspect you might know more about the future than I do, Effie. I’m afraid I might be stuck in the past. I’ll tell you what little I think I know, then you can fill in the blanks.”
David Larsen is a writer who lives in El Paso, Texas. His stories and poems have been published in more than thirty literary journals and magazines including Cholla Needles, The Heartland Review, Aethlon, Floyd County Moonshine, Change Seven, Oakwood and El Portal.