Ghostie on First – Simon Smith
The kids are in the backyard trying to pull off a game meant for eighteen players with only two. From where Mason Wilshire stands at his kitchen window, he can see his son, Aaron, and the neighbor boy skidding across the lawn, switching positions from pitcher to batter and back again. They wear slick brown tracks between the bases where the ground is still soggy from last night’s rain. Aaron, the younger one, is standing where an imaginary pitcher’s mound would be, doubled over, spitting onto the grass. He glances from the batter to an invisible baserunner standing on a bright blue frisbee meant to represent first base. His eyes swivel back and forth.
“Come on!” the batter says. “Hey, you! There’s nobody there. Let’s go! He’s not even real!” He slams his bat on the ground, smashing a large, moon-shaped divot into the mud.
The batter, Henry Bowen, is two years older and about four inches taller than Aaron. He’s round and thick with big red cheeks and a vulgar habit of blowing snot-rockets onto the ground after every at-bat. A couple of people, including his dad, call him Hank for short. The coincidence, one boy named Hank and the other Aaron, is not lost on Mason or the other parents; though the history behind both monikers, like the families themselves, could not be more different. Henry was named after his great grandfather, a man of mythic proportions who reportedly zapped more than his share of German soldiers in World War II, shot and killed a seven-foot black bear in Wausaukee, and later lost a hand at a sawmill over in Mondovi. The severed appendage is rumored to be packed away somewhere in the grandmother’s attic, floating inside a murky jar of formaldehyde. The head of the black bear, with its mangy fur and splintered teeth, still hangs in Henry’s living room above the fireplace. The rustic tale is not an exceptional one for the residents of Columbus, Wisconsin, the place where the Wilshires and the Bowens, and most others in town, have lived their entire lives.
On the other hand, Aaron’s name came straight from Hammering Hank himself. Growing up seventy-five miles west of Milwaukee County Stadium, Mason’s dad took him to at least one ballgame every year. Though he was born five years after Hank Aaron’s final season in 1976, it didn’t stop his father from recounting long stories of his legend during the ninety-minute drive down I-94. Baseball and Hank Aaron were about the only subjects Mason ever remembered his dad being passionate about, and because of that singular devotion, Aaron took on a Godlike presence in their house. When his dad died, the only thing he left Mason was a signed Hank Aaron baseball card from 1974. With its frayed edges and creased corners, its value was not monetary but emotional, forever conjuring the memory of his morose father on his happiest days. Mason’s wife, Kimberly, was supportive of the name and its history, more for the role that Aaron had played in the struggle for civil rights than for his epic homerun blasts, but she was also grateful for the joy that it brought her husband, a man who never asked for too much.
“I’m looking him back,” Aaron says. “You gotta give him a look. He’s gotta know I’m not playing around.”
“He? He who?” Henry laughs. “He’s not even there. Nobody is there, ya big retard!”
Christ, Mason thinks, the kid could be a jackass. He’d been listening at the open window above the sink. Though it angers him to hear such offensive language, he trusts that Aaron won’t follow Henry down the same toilet. His son’s no bully. Still, their clumsy mocking has a certain music to it. As far as Mason is concerned, there isn’t much better than the chatter of young boys outside on a summer morning. Standing there with his coffee, he’s nostalgic for his own childhood, one which looked and sounded quite similar. He bet his own father had experienced similar thoughts in his time. His father may well have stood at the same window. He’d have been posted right here with his own cup of coffee in one hand and a Camel filter in the other. Not so much had changed in the last thirty years, even if it did sometimes feel like a different planet. Some things were timeless, like baseball and youth, and it was those enduring reminders that Mason found himself clinging to more often lately when everybody seemed so bent on obscuring such simple truths.
Kimberly was from Milwaukee. Mason met her there in 2004 while both were attending Marquette University. Even though it wasn’t that far away, for most people in Columbus, Milwaukee was foreign territory. With its downtown clothing boutiques and cosmopolitan restaurants, it may as well have been Paris or New York City. For most folks in Central Wisconsin, the urbanites of Cream City, with their flamboyant dress, fancy beers, and wild body art, were a bunch of Nancies with weak stomachs. Kimberly thought all of that was horse shit. She’d spent time abroad in places like Rome and London. But she was also not the type of woman to flaunt her worldliness. It was important for her to fit in. She knew very well that she had been afforded certain luxuries in life that others hadn’t. She’d taken enough courses in subjects like poverty and isolation, and considered it worthwhile to adopt a modest lifestyle, which was one of the things that Mason loved about her.
“We want a pitcher, not a belly bitcher,” Henry taunts, wagging his butt in Aaron’s direction. “Come on, candy ass. Let’s see that candy arm, Candy Girl.”
Aaron straightens up. He drops his glove to his side and huffs. “That’s the lamest heckling ever,” he says.
“Whatever,” Henry says, “just pitch the damn thing.”
There were a few reasons that Kimberly had decided she was okay with moving to Columbus. One of them was that she appreciated Mason’s aptitude for mechanical matters. Kimberly was more artistic minded, while Mason was more practical. At Marquette, she majored in sociology and minored in something called “Gender and Sexuality Studies.” Mason, an aspiring electrical engineer, had never even heard of such a pursuit. His whole life he’d been good with things like power tools and automotive repair. On their first date, Mason displayed his usefulness. When he came to pick her up, she had him wait a few minutes in the living room while she finished curling her hair. As soon as he sat down on the couch, he heard the tinkling of water running in the toilet tank. He stood right back up and walked straight into the bathroom. When Kimberly came out of the bedroom, hair crimped to perfection, she found Mason hunched over the commode, placing the lid back on top of the basin.
“Oh,” he said. “I fixed your toilet. It was no big deal. Just a small chain and flapper connection.” Mason could see in her coquettish smile that she was both embarrassed and impressed at once.
Washing his hands, he joked, “It’ll just be a standard fifty dollars for time and labor.” When she laughed, she covered her lips with the tips of her fingers. Her movements were so elegant. When she batted her eyes, Mason detected a twinkle behind them. He could tell that the incident had been a bigger turn on than either one of them had anticipated.
Aaron puts the ball back in his glove and removes it from his hand. He wedges it under his elbow and waits. “You know,” he says, “You shouldn’t criticize a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
“What?” Henry says. “Huh? Why?”
“Well, that way,” Aaron says, “when you criticize them, you’re too far away for them to hear, plus you’ll have their shoes.” Aaron inspects Henry’s reaction to see if anything is getting through. When there’s no sign of recognition, Aaron hangs his head and sighs. “Never mind.”
“What’s your point?” Henry says. “I’d really like to know.” He plunks the bat down hard on the grass and puts his hands on his waist. “Are we playing baseball or telling jokes?”
“You don’t get it.”
“I just don’t think it’s funny.”
“Nah, you probably don’t know much about riddles. It’s okay.”
Henry straightens up, breaking his stance. “Don’t do that. Don’t pull that crap. You’re not better than me.”
“Okay, okay, calm down. I have another one. You’ll like this one. It’s funny,” Aaron says. “Trust me.” He swipes his hand across his forehead, sweeping the long, shaggy bangs from his eyes.
“It better be,” Henry says. His crewcut is straight from a military handbook, perhaps another ode to his gutsy great grandfather.
Another reason Kimberly agreed to settle down in Columbus was Mason’s easygoing manner and his willingness to appreciate her sensitive heart, bleeding as it was. After growing up in a household with an Evangelical father who viewed her boundless charity for all living creatures as some kind of deficiency, it was a relief to have a man in her life who not only looked upon her tenderness with admiration, but also had no ties to religion at all. He welcomed her thoughtfulness; considered himself lucky to have enticed such a sophisticated woman through such meager means.
Despite their contrasting backgrounds, they had a mutual respect for each other’s interests. For example, on weekends, Mason spent the bulk of his time under the hood of his Chevy or tinkering with a faulty thermostat, while Kimberly sat in the sunroom and read books like Invisible Child or The Broken Ladder about all the extreme injustices plaguing society. As it turned out, Kimberly had a real fascination for things like shoptalk and home repair, which helped her blend nicely into Columbus’s rural fabric. Mason’s newfound appreciation for things like feminism and socialism made him something of a Martian in his own hometown. He’d accepted his awakening as a gift from his scholarly wife, and hoped he’d find his own boorish way to repay her in time. They were from different galaxies, Mason liked to tease, but they both managed to put each other at the center of their universe. Jesus, he’d become such a cornball.
“All right,” Aaron continues. “Here it goes. You ready? You sure you’re ready?”
“Knock it off,” Henry says.
“Okay, here we go. What is a car’s favorite type of story?” Aaron asks. He’s already laughing, anticipating Henry’s confusion.
Henry hangs his head. He blows a burst of air at the ground. Aaron answers before he can respond.
“An autobiography!” Aaron says. “Get it?”
“Man,” Henry says, still looking at his feet. He kicks the grass with his shoe, tearing some up from the roots. “You know I don’t like to read.”
“Don’t like it, or can’t do it?” Aaron asks.
Henry raises his head just enough to look out at Aaron. There is weariness in his eyes, a genuine aching. He clucks his tongue, shakes his head.
It was a book that nearly drove them out of Columbus all together. Last summer, as Aaron was preparing to head into fourth grade, the Columbus school board voted to ban one of Kimberly’s favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time. Members of the board referenced passages about anti-Christian doctrine, and attacked chapters where one of the main characters, Mrs. Whatsit, sought salvation in the search for science and wisdom rather than religious redemption. This led some Columbus citizens to label the character a witch, and ultimately, it became the same insult flung at Kimberly after her plea to overturn the ruling was rejected. There followed several mild attempts by some of the more radical residents to badger them out of town. They popped one of Kim’s tires and tossed litter on their lawn. At first, Mason took a subdued approach. He considered moving someplace where people weren’t so mindless and hostile. But in the end, he couldn’t accept the prospect of losing his childhood home. Something about having to consider moving away from the place that had been his refuge all his life triggered a belligerent side that he hadn’t accessed in years, and when it turned out it might be someone they knew, he came close to losing it. There was evidence that one of the garbage hurlers was Caroline Bowen, Henry’s mom. The suspicion started because Caroline was the only person they knew who had attended the board meeting where Kimberly objected to the book banning. Also, some of the refuse chucked onto their lawn included a few conspicuous items. There were several Banquet frozen dinners and a couple bags of Funyuns, both of which the Bowen family were known to consume. He hadn’t told Kim, but he began contemplating a showdown with Caroline’s husband, Frank. Frank was twenty pounds heavier and put together like a hulking Mastiff, but there was a fire burning in the pit of Mason’s gut that made him feel that he could take him down. He wanted to “fuck him up.” Someone else’s voice had gotten inside his head. It kept him awake at night. Fuck him up…
About the time Mason decided to confront the Bowens, Frank Bowen made the first move. He dropped by and invited them over for a neighborhood barbecue. Mason remembered detecting a sideways apology in the proposal. There was back slapping and words like “pal” mixed in. There was also an aside about his regret at having to navigate an uncontrollable woman in “the throes of menopause.” He made a little show of saying it, jabbing Mason’s shoulder, trying to transmit his veiled concession across the void between them. As crude as the gesture was, Mason accepted it without protest. It wouldn’t help to press the issue any further. Mason wasn’t his pal, but with the Wilshire clan outnumbered something like 1,000 to one around the district, it was wise to bury the hatchet and move on. It was a good thing too, because the final reason Kimberly had agreed to move to Columbus was the opportunity for Aaron to have lots of space to run around and play games like baseball in a backyard.
Aaron, heeding Henry’s sorrow, softens a bit. He moves closer to Henry, as if he might lay a hand on him for comfort but backs off when he sees Henry bristle. “Okay, okay. I’ll cool it,” Aaron says.
Henry hoists his bat and takes another colossal swat at the soil. “Come oooooon,” he whines. “I’m going to clobber you.”
“I feel like I need to redeem myself,” Aaron says. “One more.”
Mason watches the interaction with concern. Henry has worked up quite a lather. It would be wiser for Aaron to back off. One more joke might push Henry over the edge into violence. But it is important to Mason that he doesn’t intervene. He wants to sharpen Aaron’s instincts. He should be able to infer the rules of engagement without Mason spelling them out for him. If he steps in now, Aaron won’t learn to navigate discomfort alone.
Henry does not respond with words. Instead, he extends one foot toward the back of the plate, digs his toes into the mush, and spits. Aaron somehow decides that this is a sign he is ready for another of his zingers.
“So,” Aaron begins. “This one is a thinker.”
“Oh my God,” Henry groans. He scoops his hand under his shorts and adjusts the position of his crotch, the way some boys do to act manly. He pivots his other foot into position and grinds it there.
“My girlfriend and I,” Aaron says, emphasizing the girl part for some reason, “laugh all the time about how competitive we are. But I laugh much harder.”
Mason can’t help but chuckle. Total cheese but decent timing. He has never heard Aaron tell jokes like this before. He wonders if Kimberly read them to him from a website or bought him some sort of gag book. He also wonders, seeing how Henry drops his bat and throws back his head, if Henry might snap this time.
It doesn’t help that Aaron is in complete hysterics – knee slapping and foot stomping, the whole bit. Henry stabs his bat into the moist ground beneath him. It goes in like quicksand. He’s got this look on his face like he’s been forced to sit in traffic for hours. For the life of him, Mason can’t understand why he’s so agitated. He understands Aaron is no Dave Chappelle, and he knows Aaron is his son, so he’s giving him the benefit, but come on.
“You don’t have a girlfriend,” Henry says. He points his bat at Arron, thrusting it toward him like a spear. “Cuz you’re a faggot.”
The word hangs in the air, the tone still reverberating after its gone. Mason feels the same surge he felt when the Bowens threatened to run them out of town. Rage floods his system. He wants to dart outside, grab the little prick by his collar, and shake him. He wants to scare him. Aaron is still for a moment. He sticks his thumb in his teeth and bites down on it. He shakes his head, as though he should have expected this reaction, as though he’s cataloging Henry’s remark, recording it somewhere in his mind as a reminder.
Henry holds the bat out in front of his chest. He grips it wide at both ends, and lunges from side to side. “Now, let’s go,” he says. “Enough is enough.”
Aaron’s head shaking turns to nodding. He takes the ball in his right hand and slaps into his glove a few times. He gazes down into his glove with great introspection, as if he’s working his way through some serious quandary.
Mason finishes his coffee. The anger is still there, but it’s cooling. He shouldn’t be surprised. He knows where Henry gets it from. He hopes that much like shaking off an error in baseball, Aaron can bounce back and pull himself together. One of the things Mason thinks is especially crucial to teach Aaron is resiliency. Shit happens in life. You have to dust yourself off and keep going.
By the time he finishes rinsing his mug and returning to the window, Aaron has taken to the mound again. He’s also back at his ghostie routine, pretending to stare down the imaginary runner on first base. Mason feels a gush of pride at how fast Aaron recovers. Henry is furious. He tromps around, snorting like an irate bull.
“What?” Aaron says. “I gotta keep him honest. You know I hate a sneak.”
“Sneak who?” Henry says. “He’s not real. He’s a ghost. Piss off!”
Mason smiles, noticing how similar Aaron’s motions mirror his favorite major league pitcher’s, Corbin Burnes. He must have practiced for weeks. He has the head nod down and the corkscrew hips. He’s even taken the time to curve the brim of his cap and tug it down low to hide his eyes from the baserunner.
“Baseball’s a game of patience,” Aaron says.
Mason taught Aaron the concept of “ghosties” in kindergarten. So many things Mason has taught him are based on the similarities between real life lessons and the ones offered by baseball.
“Ugh,” Henry groans. “The ghostie is going to kill himself out of boredom if you don’t speed up.”
“He’s not stealing a base off me. Not today, muchacho,” Aaron snickers. He’s a good three years away from a voice change, and his laugh is high and squeaky. Henry grumbles something under his breath. Somehow Henry had defied the laws of biology, passing through the gates of puberty around age nine. The other day Mason swore he was growing a mustache.
A ghostie is a pretend baserunner left stranded by a real batter. In this case, Henry stroked a ball past Aaron up the middle, but Aaron’s speed allowed him to snatch the ball and hold Henry to a single. This meant Henry was left standing on first base with no outs. Because Henry and Aaron were playing an unorthodox game of 1-on-1, Henry needed to come back up to the plate and bat again. A ghost runner took Henry’s place on first base. Now, if Henry hits another single, the ghostie will advance one base. If he hits a double, the ghostie moves to third, and if he slugs one of his towering homeruns, the ghostie comes home to score.
Aaron won’t budge. His chin, folded against his chest, keeps hinging over his shoulder, tracing his line of sight from Henry toward the vacant frisbee. Just like Burnes, he cradles the ball in his right hand behind his back. He worries it there in his palm as he ices his opponent.
Mason hopes he’s taught Aaron to worry about the right things in life. Henry’s dad, Frank, worries about nuclear war and government takeover. Last summer he built a storage bunker in their root cellar. He filled it with two dozen cases of water, fifty cans of beans, eleven pounds of beef jerky, and a giant generator. He also stockpiled more than just food and water. Locked away in a cabinet, squeezed back in a crawl space that Frank said he’d only shown Mason and a few of his hunting buddies, were several shelves of assorted firearms. Mason knew very little about gun models, so he couldn’t say what all of them were, but he did see at least three rifle-style weapons, and maybe five handguns. Frank referred to one of them as a “Beretta.” Then there was the one he called “baby.” He kept it in a velvet sack and handled it the way its name insisted. He told Mason to come closer and then, kneeling on the concrete floor, slid it from the pouch, revealing it one inch at a time until it was fully exposed. It was black and sleek with a small handle at one end, a phallic looking chamber in the middle, and a long-finned barrel at the other. It seemed odd how spindly it was, considering the destruction he knew it could create. He understood enough to know that he was looking at some kind of machine gun, or maybe they were calling it an automatic gun now. Whatever the terminology, the way Frank held it aloft, displaying it above his bowed head… Mason couldn’t fathom any situation dire enough to necessitate a weapon of that magnitude. He wasn’t sure if that was a failure or a triumph of his mind, but there was a growing part of him that was desperate to know.
“You only got one pitch, Wilshire,” Henry teases. “Come on with the fastball already. You ain’t got no curveball.” He grinds the bat handle in his meaty fingers, like wringing its neck.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Aaron says, licking his lips. Mason can see the way he’s playing to Henry’s phobias, leaning in. Rarely has he been this pleased with his son.
Kimberly believes in things like naturalism and eco-spirituality. A few weeks ago, to bring awareness to the gravity of summer solstice, she dressed as Sunna, the Goddess of the sun. She wore a golden dress, gold earrings and a golden crown with fake pearl buttons fastened along the band. For years she’d been talking about the power of the date, how the days surrounding the event affected people’s moods and sleeping patterns. To her the sacred balance of the earth and its constant evolution was the source of so much energy and consciousness, and yet so few people respected its monumental influence. It must be so strange, Mason thought, to walk around believing so intensely in something that so many others don’t even know exist.
Aaron uncoils his stance. He spreads his feet beneath him so that his entire body comes erect. He narrows his eyes, takes a deep breath, and spins the ball in his palm. This too he’s seen his pitching idols do on TV. He looks straight ahead at Henry, who has also tightened his posture. His elbows flex and his biceps pulse. He has the muscular arms of his father, Frank, the construction worker and volunteer fireman. Kimberly once commented that if she was ever trapped inside a burning building, she’d want Frank to be the one to save her. With his MAGA yard signs and his monster-sized pickup truck, Frank wasn’t the type of guy she’d invite over for dinner or ask to babysit, but he had the kind of self-possessed masculinity you’d want around during an emergency. Even though it hurt Mason’s ego to hear such claims, he couldn’t disagree.
“Here it comes,” Aaron says.
“Here we go,” Henry says. He moves his jowls around like there’s a wad of chewing tobacco inside. It dawns on Mason that Henry bears a resemblance to another of his boyhood heroes, John Kruk. He realizes that he has been trying to place the likeness for months and now he has it.
John Kruk. How a rumpled old galoot like Kruky could end up resembling a twelve-year-old like Henry, Mason wasn’t sure, but he knew that it mustn’t bode well for the poor kid’s future. The truth was Henry wasn’t the type of kid Mason would have wished to be Aaron’s friend, but he wasn’t about to do anything rash that would sabotage their bond. Kimberly agreed. They both believed in an exploratory, organic type of parenting where you let your child steer their own course. Mason knew that oftentimes the more a parent fought against certain risks, the more a child pursued them. There was a sort of reverse magnetism at play in these delicate situations, and the last thing Mason wanted to do was become one of those “helicopter parents” he’d heard so much about. The sins of the father were not always the sins of the son. It was important to give everyone a fair chance in life, treat them with dignity until they gave you a reason not to. A twelve-year-old couldn’t possibly do something unforgivable with such a short life.
Aaron rocks into form. Slowly, he brings his feet together. Then, starting with his left heel, he steps back and to the side, engaging his pitching motion. He swings his arms back high and angular over his head. His limbs and torso, in comparison to Henry’s, are anemic and brittle. He’s the Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd opposite Henry’s John Kruk…
And that’s when Mason sees it for the first time. The hole. He hadn’t noticed before how furiously Henry had been slashing his bat against the ground. He must have been going at it like a lumberjack. He’d done it long enough and fierce enough to open a sizable crater in the spongy dirt beside him. It was in the shape of a large cereal bowl, broad enough for the tip of a shoe to get caught inside and twist.
That there… That was something to be concerned about. Mason knew that for sure. This was a problem. He’d played sports all his life, long enough to see all kinds of gruesome injuries. He once saw Teddy Piles run headfirst into a goalpost at recess and knock himself unconscious. John Maxwell, the center on his high school basketball team, dislocated his knee in the middle of a game. It looked so grotesque, like a tennis ball smushed inside a gym sock. Mason almost threw up. The ditch beside Henry was the type of hazard Mason and his friends used to joke about being a “Piston Popper.” But it wasn’t so funny anymore. Things weren’t supposed to be as funny when you became an adult with kids and…
Aaron releases a bullet toward home. It’s absurd, but in the amount of time it takes the pitch to reach Henry, Mason’s mind cycles through a hundred thoughts. Henry plants his back foot, and Mason thinks about all the parents who would have gone racing out to stop the accident before it happened; the ones who’d have hollered from the window, “Watch out!”
Henry raises his front foot, striding toward the onrushing ball, and Mason thinks about how he has always wanted to be the type of dad who let his son make his own mistakes, the kind of dad who encouraged a healthy amount of failure so that he would learn what to do better the next time he encountered some danger, real or imagined. And as the bat strikes the ball with a crack, Mason wonders if he would have handled the situation differently had Aaron been the one up to bat, if his son was the one putting himself in harm’s way for nothing more than bragging rights and a phantom figure on first base. The answer would say something about not just his parenting skills but his humanity. And as the ball sails far above Aaron’s head, and Henry plunges his foot into the hole and a snapping sound echoes out across the yard, Mason thinks about how none of it should have made any difference at all. And yet somehow it did. How could it not? All the conflicts about governments and God and guns and genetics… It couldn’t help but cause a catastrophe. And maybe that was the real tragedy of human nature. It shouldn’t be, but it was. And as Mason shuffles out the kitchen door and makes his way toward Henry, who is now lying in the wet slush between home plate and first base, writhing in pain, he thinks about all the forces in the world, both pure and evil, about how so many of them are hidden in plain sight. It’s all so mysterious and yet obvious at the same time because in the end, if you really think about it, everyone’s bones, and even their hearts, break in the same way.
Simon A. Smith teaches English to high schoolers. His stories have appeared in many journals and media outlets, including Hobart, PANK, Whiskey Island, and Chicago Public Radio. He is the author of two novels, Son of Soothsayer, and Wellton County Hunters. He lives in Chicago with his wife and son.