Mark Lee Taylor
FOUL TERRITORY SNEAK PREVIEW
Here's a free look at the first chapter of my upcoming novel. Keep in mind that this is a first draft, and could change. In fact, it almost certainly will change, but not in any substantial way.
The first thing I saw that morning when I logged on was another damned “friend request.”
I had enough “friends.” I didn’t need any more.
If Eleanor had been there, she would’ve said this was yet another manifestation of my inability to trust anyone, but Eleanor wasn’t there. She and I had broken up over my “trust issues” the previous night. Again.
“I can’t keep going like this, Keith,” she’d said. “Every time I go twenty-four hours without calling you, you think I’m out with another man.”
Look, I never denied it. I was an overweight, divorced, retired high school science teacher, and the first to admit that I was a bit jaded. She knew what I’d been through. She knew I’d caught my wife boinking the next door neighbor. After almost thirty years of marriage, that would mess with anybody’s head, and it had surely messed with mine. No one would ever do that to me again. I had thought she understood that going in.
Still, it kept coming between us. This made four times we’d broken up now, but unlike the previous three times, this one had a definite feel of finality to it.
Trust issues can be poisonous to relationships; I knew that as well as the next guy. We all have that little voice in our head, planting seeds of doubt, urging us not to put our faith in someone until we know more about them. Some of us are better than others at knowing when to listen to that voice and when to ignore it. Given what I’d been through, could anyone blame me if I tended to err on the side of caution?
That morning, the one after the night on which Eleanor and I had broken up for the fourth time, I woke up feeling hollowed out and purposeless. I didn’t have to work that day until four o’clock, and with no wife, no girlfriend, and two kids grown up and living their own lives, I was adrift for the day. The situation called for some mindless entertainment, so I decided I’d open up Facebook and see what new memes might be circulating. Coffee in hand, still in my pajamas, still bleary and reeling from the events of the previous evening, I sat down in front of the computer and logged on.
And there was that damned friend request.
I was new to social networking. I’d just set up my Facebook account a couple of months earlier. I was something of a computer dunce, but it wasn’t like I’d never heard of Facebook. In my previous life, I’d heard just enough about Facebook from my students to know I wanted nothing to do with it. That lasted until I met Eleanor, who was an IT professional, and she started extolling its virtues.
Eventually she wore me down. I gave in mostly to make her happy, but once I took the plunge, I was forced to admit (at least to myself) that I was enjoying it. I started by “friending” Eleanor, of course, then my kids. Then some old friends, and a few fellow teachers I hadn’t spoken to since my retirement last year. All that was fun and invigorating and healthy, helping me to fill the long solitary hours between seven in the morning, when I habitually rose, and whatever time I had to show up at the local Giant for my part-time job.
But then friends of friends started chiming in, wanting to be on my friend list, and friends of friends of friends for God’s sake, and that’s where my natural wariness kicked in. I didn’t need to share my life, as boring as it may be, with people I didn’t know. Sorry.
“Wariness” might not be a strong enough word. Eleanor had, on occasion, used the word “paranoia,” but that may have been too strong. I just didn’t feel comfortable airing my laundry on the Internet. Who knew where it went after it broke through that first circle of friends? You told one person, and they told three, and each of those told three more, and before you knew it people were talking about you in Saskatchewan. I didn’t want that. Was this a sign of pathology? I didn’t think so.
After the initial flurry, new friend requests had slowed to a trickle. Maybe word had gotten out that I was rejecting everybody. By this time, it’d been so long since one had come in, I’d been starting to think I’d seen my last.
Not that lucky.
“Russell Kiske wants to be your friend,” this one said. On first inspection, just another friend request from someone I’d never heard of, but …
Russell Kiske. Why did that name seem familiar to me?
There was a message, as well. I opened it.
“Hey, if you’re the same Keith Padgett I remember, we were on a baseball team together many years ago. The 9-10 Pirates. We won a lot of games that season! Remember when Mikey Kaufmann beaned you in the head?”
I barked a short laugh. How could I forget that? He’d thrown the pitch after I’d called time-out, and taken off my helmet, and left the batter’s box, yet he still managed to plunk me in the head. “Wild” Mikey Kaufmann had had the strongest throwing arm on our team, but he’d had no control over it. He might as well have decorated his uniform with little head silhouettes to commemorate all the guys he’d beaned.
But Russell Kiske, now. Who was that? I knew now why the name had sounded familiar, but I still couldn’t remember what he’d looked like or what position he’d played.
I peered at the tiny thumbnail of Russell’s profile pic. The face didn’t ring any bells. But then, why would it? Forty-five years had passed since that summer. People change.
I had an idea, and I picked up my coffee and rose from my seat at the computer.
As I’d grown up, my parents had framed every team photo from every year of baseball, from my first team at the age of eight, all the way up through high school. All those photos now adorned the wall in my club basement.
I raced down the hallway, past the old yellowing school pictures of my kids, and tromped down the stairs to the sports-themed TV room that Eleanor had facetiously dubbed the Fortress of Solitude. I found the 9-10 Pirates photo on the wall behind the leather couch, plucked it down, blew the dust off of it, and turned it over. On the back, written in my father’s hand, was a list of all my teammates. “First row, Donald Beucher, Raymond Mitzel, Chester Poole,” and so on. I found my own name, and Mikey Kauffman’s right next to mine.
Russell Kiske was second from the end in the second row.
I flipped back to the photo, and when I saw the face, I remembered him. He’d been our first baseman. I’d been second baseman, and I’d scooped up many a grounder and tossed them straight to Russell Kiske.
Or, sometimes, over his head. Or off to his left or his right. But still.
I also remembered that, on one occasion, Russell had come to my house to spend the night. And shortly after that, his family had moved away, to Virginia, if memory served. I’d never seen him again after that.
I took the photo back upstairs with me and sat in front of the computer again. I looked at Russell’s profile pic. Then back at the photo of ten-year-old Russell.
I opened his Facebook page, where I learned that he lived in Roanoke, Virginia. Yep, memory served. I checked out some other pictures of him, most recently from last Christmas.
Damn, he looked good for our age. Strong chin, high cheekbones, dimples when he smiled. He looked trim and fit. He had great teeth and still had most of his hair, which was dark, just starting to go gray. He’d turned out a lot better-looking than I would have guessed, based on what I remembered of him. I thought about my thinning grey hair, my big nose and small brown eyes and realized that he’d turned out a lot better than I had, too, the bastard.
I looked at the ten-year-old Russell once again. It was possible. There was no way could I say for sure they were a match, but unless your name was Alfred E. Neuman, chances were that forty-five years would do a number on your face. This guy, Russell, had probably already said the same thing to himself about me, only it was probably something more like, Damn, time’s been hard on Keith.
Eyes don’t change, though. Both the boy in the black and white team photo and the man on Facebook had brown eyes, so dark they were almost black. Ironclad proof it was not, but an eye mismatch would have ruled out the possibility that they were the same person, and that hadn’t happened.
I mentioned before that we all have that little voice in our head that whispers to us, and there are occasions when you need to listen to that little voice, and occasions when you can give it the bum rush.
Mine wasn’t whispering that morning. Mine never whispers. It shouts. It bangs its tin cup against the bars of its cage, and it screams, “Reject it, reject it!” It was doing that now, and ordinarily, I would have listened.
But Russell Kiske was an old baseball buddy.
Baseball was my weakness, and had been since the days of listening to Chuck Thompson call the games on my grandfather’s transistor radio. I loved the pace of it, the culture that surrounds it, the chess-like deliberation behind every move, every pitch. I admired the rare and specific athletic talent required to play it at a high level. I loved the feel of infield dirt, the sound of the crack of the ash bat or the ping of the aluminum, the smell of worn, dusty leather steeped in Neatsfoot oil. I loved the season in which it was played, and whether I loved baseball because it was played in summer, or summer because it was the season in which baseball was played, was up in the air. They were inseparable. Baseball was the soundtrack of summer, and summer was the soundtrack of baseball.
This guy, Russell Kiske, had known exactly how to hit me where I lived. On that morning, after breaking up with my girlfriend for the fourth and possibly final time, I was wounded and lonely. I wanted to talk to someone, I wanted to bring back old times, and the idea of talking baseball with an old teammate was even more attractive to me than the idea of spending the afternoon under a palm tree on a tropical beach, with a bucket of ice cold Coronas next to me. And that was saying a lot.
What the hell. I typed out a short and innocuous reply to his message, and I accepted his friend request.