The lilacs left me that year
and none of it mattered.
I’d get high before breakfast
and drink in the afternoons.
Jake moved to Pittsburgh
and would drive on weekends
to watch Cleveland baseball
from the bleachers with me.
We drank overpriced beer
and screamed the names
of players the teams had
traded or cut. It was only funny
because neither of us were bitter.
Teams paid players to be
replaceable, to pack their lives
into suitcases and trade states.
We watched, game after game,
collecting new names to shout
into the diamond. And in
the parking lot, after Jake had
started his long drive home,
I shout your name
at empty cars. One lights up,
drives off into the night.
Love turns accident into gold
over time, with the kind
of concentrated responsiveness of
a physical therapist or a baseball
coach—does that hurt, hold the bat
here, like this—and there’s no
substitute for this tender
guidance, no way to go to sleep
and wake to a solved world
from the back of the book; when
you turn there, you’ll find
a long index of first lines, like
a batting order your broken foot
let you dodge to study alchemy.
image: Zoë Blair-Schlagenhauf
image: Ed Himelblau
Tian says tennis is beyond human comprehension, which is why he likes it: the spin, the warmup suicides, the fact that nobody makes a tennis ball that doesn’t fluff up and die after thirty minutes. Pro players switch for new balls every seven or so games, but Tian and everyone else only open a new can for each match. They have a finite number of brand-new balls. Tian claims real pros are skilled enough so that the ball dying doesn’t affect them as much. None of them are pros though, and I can’t tell when the ball needs to be replaced beyond when its yellow felt dulls although Tian insists there’s a huge difference—he has to swing much harder to hit winners with the used balls. It’s because I’m whacking all the pressure out, Tian says although it looks exhausting to me regardless of ball pressurization.
They’ve been replacing the balls less and less frequently because the Penn stock is nearly empty and the only place to get more is from the sporting store half an hour away. We don’t bother with our chances since nearly all the stores have been looted empty.
I suck at tennis. When I’m trying my hardest, my forehand sends the ball into the opposing side’s service court and no further, and my backhand is a crapshoot. Tian insists I can do better, but I prefer watching from the sideline. The one time I manage to hit the ball to the other side’s baseline is because I’m high off adrenaline, running to the courts to confirm with the others that their houses had also been swallowed up by the sinkhole, my pent-up anxiety released through the racket.
Tian and I played tennis together growing up, but he was always better because, according to my parents, he worked smarter while I needed dumbed down, repetitive movements. Even so, I insisted we play although the more we played, the more our skills diverged until I was just wasting his time fetching missed balls on my side of the court. Now we don’t play together, but I sit on the bench outside of the courts, listening to the whir of the racket and the thumps of the ball hitting surfaces. We’d normally walk home together, but now the courts are the only places untouched by the sinkhole and it’s too risky trying to walk out. I ask why they insist on playing since it’s not like we have unlimited snack packs of almonds and dried tofu, and they’re getting sweaty and wasting energy that could be spent finding a way out. Tian tells me there’s no point.
My parents think Tian is a role model child, but I think Tian is blockheaded. He once nearly jumped off the stair railing to prove he could fly and I had to bribe him down with a free pint of strawberry Haagen-Dazs. He insists I’m the blockheaded one after I walked a mile to 7-Eleven at 2 am alone, without pepper spray. I had been proud of myself, managing to leave my room without triggering the infrared sensor my parents had installed outside of my door. I covered my body with a cardboard moving box wrapped in foil, a trick I considered ingenious until Tian berated me for leaving in the first place.
I sleep on the bench and the others sleep in the courts with their jackets draped over their stomachs. They doze off quickly, but I stay awake to watch the bugs buzz around the light posts. Tian sits beside me on the bench and I nearly kick him in the thigh when I hear the bench squeak under his weight. From here, with all the light posts in sight, we can see the cracks in the ground, marginally spreading to the areas around the court, like earth is ready to implode quietly, gently, before we’re awake enough to register that we’ve never used up all the new tennis balls.
I ask who won the match but Tian doesn’t know. He says they’ve stopped keeping track of points. Tian has never cared much about points. I’ve always been the numbers person: eyeballing receipts for mischarged produce, computing minimum grades required to not affect cumulative GPA, tracking nutrient density per dollar for the different brands of Shin ramen Tian loves. He believes in the whole best-effort thing which must be easy for him to say, with all his natural intelligence.
We manage to stay awake, watching cracks in the pavement creep closer. We turn it into a game: who can notice where and when the cracks encroach around us. It’s like watching cilantro grow.
Does it matter? I ask. But Tian stares at the cracks and then tugs my sleeve, pointing to a crevasse that had, a moment ago, only made it to the oak tree and now had crept up to the light post. I saw it! He whispers, one hand thrumming against his thigh, leg bouncing up and down like he’s made a life-changing discovery, which, I suppose he has.
An Ode to the Line-drives as They Curl to Drop Thirty Feet Beyond the Second Baseman Over & Over Again in My DreamsDarren C. Demaree
You can tell me
it’s the same
as moving a chair
from one corner
of my mind to another,
but I only know
how to peg a fastball
on the inside black
while I’m looking
for a pitch away.
My hands hold a flood
for the weak spot
in the riverbank.
It doesn’t matter
that I don’t hit it flush,
I round first
without a catch
in my knees.
The water is smooth
in my quick-twitch
I wait months for it
to roll me bare
into the crop
of my youth. I am
still the bloom when
I describe the bloom.
image: Ed Himelblau
Strange, the flare of envy
to watch them play, old
enough to be their mother,
though the outcropping
of parents clustered along
the sagging chainlink
knows I am not one of them,
though one might think it
want, the small part of me that fills
in this and other obligatory desires.
The boys’ shirts, emblazoned
with the local tire shop
in place of their names, almost neon
in the glare of the tall lights,
bunch and balloon at their waists,
small wrists bending under
the weight of gloves, their little hands,
small shoes, overly-Velcroed
hats. Their catalogue of smallness.
How exhausting those gloves must be.
The tree frogs swell and bats chirp
their metal joy through the air.
The parents swap secrets,
how often they’ve fished
out gum and seeds, little twists
of tape from pockets, saved things.
They are wiser than I’ll ever be.
This team, these friends enshrined
in the carwash lobby, over the deli counter—
how much the world will take from them.
Another ball lops off into the night,
clouds of mosquitos moth-thick,
and another round of ribbing peppers
pitcher, then batter, then volunteer ump.
Back in the dark house the same game,
announcers’ low voices, silences warm
and alive with the ballpark’s background,
and I am standing here, stranger to these
mothers and fathers and boys, watching
another endless game join the endless
families and coaches, dogs both rowdy
and old, all the patient siblings
more interested in the dirt, whatever’s on
the screen, benevolent, beatific gift of glow
bracelets. I’ve watched it all from here outside
the fence; farther back among the irises, heavy
hydrangeas like ghosts in the dusk; farther still,
the porch threshold, ducking
wildly around the wren house
as it comes upon me in the dark.
I’ve watched it all, known them all
in this faraway way, loved them even
for their littleness and all their lives hold.
Once I thought my life could hold so much.
How can it be that I’m still standing here?
image: Zoë Blair-Schlagenhauf
In a nation of water
drawing on edges
the outfielder stands—artist
touching up his piece, latest
young man to deign east
his private gift, unto death.
he mixes media:
charcoal, watercolor, new
events on paper, guided
but bleeding beyond
his strokes—graded wash, windblown
fly, runner picked off, cutoff
misaligned, stumped streak:
imprecise events, arrayed
before him, every agent
free—there is the rub
of mixed media unbound,
sombré, cardinal to crimson
and back, unresolved.
Curt Flood knows this is his piece—
the soft drafts in Denmark—
shaping at remove
his undiscovered country,
moving, becoming himself
the movement, the tracked
fly, the cutoff man turning.
Water like despair holding
with its promises
its danger, he follows through.
image: Norman Jung
The pitcher returns to the mound
after Tommy John surgery. I mean
immediately after—he’s out there
arm-in-a-brace gritting his teeth
in an empty park on that hill
of dirt that has defined his life
since Little League. The doctors
chased him into the parking lot,
his teammates and manager begged
in a flurry of all-caps texts
but he drove GPS-silenced
to the stadium after midnight,
finding his way by starlight
the way indigo buntings do
to get to Poughkeepsie
or wherever after a winter
in the tropics, maps stitched
on their hearts, no hurricane
or skyscraper shall stop them
spring after spring, damn it all—
They don’t sing for you!
They sing for themselves!
We heard it
pull us under
the silent earth—
collapsing the stadium
in bricks and steel
as if it were
we ran beneath
image: Ed Himelblau
Eighth grade, final game of the season
and I’m starting on the mound.
Little time passes
before the shellacking begins: I’m giving up
double digit runs, so much so the yips appear
and now I can’t find the plate.
The other team smirks as I walk the full side
but still Coach won’t relieve me.
I step off the rubber. Cry to the bench,
“Please. Take me out.”
After the game, my brother, who had never hit me,
did not hit me.
Captain of the high school team,
All-Division starting pitcher,
kept track of his strikeouts with pen-marked Ks
on the inside brim of his cap.
(For every hit batter,
a tiny R.I.P. tombstone).
We ride in silence from ballfield to driveway.
His no-words worse than any punch or body slam.
Up the hill, and then, the car powered down,
before I’ve opened the door to flee, he says,
“Don’t ever do that.
Don’t ever ask to be taken out of a game.”
Even through the terrible times –
The breakups, the layoffs, the booze, and pills –
I somehow kept it close.
When grief and regret were my sun and moon,
and loneliness felt like a life sentence.
When I couldn’t be bothered to shower or shave.
When I couldn’t leave the house.
(True story: I stood at the lip of a bridge).
(Epilogue: I stepped back).
Fifteen games out by June and still
I insist on watching every inning
as if to prove devotion outlives discretion.
Do us both the favor and turn
the volume off, you say though I pretend
not to listen. Outside on Georgia Avenue,
street wet enough I can hear the reflections
through the wall, comes the sound of a car
passing—only the car never passes.
Never slows, never stops. Leaves only the sound
of going and going without receding.
How I have hung in your life, uneasy
in that strangest way: familiar. How our pitcher
on the TV, crested with the salt of defeat,
describes pretty much the worst curveball
I ever threw: knew it was out of here before
it ever left my hand. He looks to go on, but doesn’t
say it—how could he, in front of all
these people, even just the one. I watch
him wiping his brow, as he resolves,
next time, to hold on the whole way home.
Instead of hand and glove
and jockstrap and thigh, the animal
meld of body to uniform,
in Garfield Park, there is a mother,
wearing frayed jeans and Converse,
trying to teach her pre-teen son
how to throw a baseball, to plant his back foot
and crane his hand like a cobra’s head,
using the momentum of his hips
to push the ball toward its target
like a bullet meeting the crosshairs
of a scope.
She is the stand-in for a man
off forming barbed constellations
on a daydreamed map of the California coast,
his body now accustomed to only
furtive forms of tenderness, and after
all the other families have headed home,
she takes the boy and their single mitt
to an unpolluted part of town, recalling
what little she has learned from watching,
that the spin will follow the seams of the ball,
and this could help him make new friends,
a pastime that keeps kids busy at night
and will remind him of something
that lives in his belly, his father
dragging himself from the third base bleachers,
slipping his fingers through the dugout fence,
angry that his son won’t say hello.
image: Jack Buck
—1996 Olympic Gymnastics Team All-Around Competition, Atlanta
after Gabrielle Grace Hogan, and for my sister
Kerri stands at attention—a young soldier—ready
to serve at the pleasure of the public. Our beloved
VHS tape whirs tired as she sprints down the runway
toward ruin and glory: her rippling legs spring
and soar weightless, outstretched body
reaching, arms crossed tight against her torso,
and for a brief moment we forget about gravity.
Kerri isn’t granted this luxury. Patriotism is heavy:
the ground approaches fast, refuses to be ignored
and by the time the rest of us remember,
Kerri has already fallen. Her bangs—having floated
carefree on a self-made wind—wilt
back onto her forehead, shocked
by their own weight. But oh, how we long to mimic
her flight!—our soft approximations tumble
across plush furniture, blue carpet, and
collapse to the floor in awe. Rewind,
watch again how she rises: stoic, determined.
The announcer notices her limping
and remarks, Kerri Strug is hurt!, feigning care.
Her coach, Bela Karolyi—infamous
then for excellence and now for abuse—shouts
from the sideline, You can do it! You can do it!
but no one bothers to wonder if she should.
The announcer reminds us again of the stakes:
It all comes down to Kerri. She needs a 9.493 to ensure
victory over the Russians, although
the scores say otherwise. She could not
vault again and her team would still win. Reader,
spectator, please, hear this: it was decided, long before
Kerri was born, that she would vault again
on this day, broken ankle or no, because
glory has always been worth more than one girl.
So there she balances, toes tipped, on the brink of breaking.
Tears tumble from our eyes now, a brackish
mix of propaganda, spectacle, sick nostalgia: all U S A
and oh say can you feel the Cold
War lingering? We cry every time
the announcer says, she knows what to do, she will go
when she is ready, because oh, reader, what if she didn’t?
What if she turned to her teammates, who recognized
in her the crumple of defeat that comes
when failure is the only alternative
to excellence? What if they rushed to her, pulled
by their magnetized knowing? Their bodies
would whisper hushed confessions, hold each other
close, take Kerri into their sculpted arms,
and carry her home—magnificent.
image: Francisco Muñoz
The feel of a hand just below
Slowly turning the world
Buzz of hospital lights like radio static, like
my grandfather listening as
the Pirates go into extra innings in
his middle age
His body shaped like mine
Center of the empty garage
on the edge of the Pines
When you faint your spirit halves like
a creek diverging in two
You abandon the turning inside
I’ve taken a pitch to the face and I know
what it’s like to be forgotten
Does God really remember what man cannot
When I came to the Heartland I abandoned
Two parts of myself
The first was my love for the game and the second
is something I cannot tell you
By the time the huge spots
of pigmentation on the road turned out,
after a series of laboratory tests, to be
bubblegum spit, the cats that had licked
that patch of asphalt were singing, the dogs
whistling, the occasional cyclist swerving
to avoid this hot pink scab that lit up the eyes
of toddlers passing by, their mothers amused
and peering hard at this street art, their fathers
wary if this was a joke but clicking photos,
the stimulus the mighty flick of a tongue or two
printing a feature of topographic delight
in the way a consequence is beyond
reach and still close to a fickle choice, just like
the ant in your kitchen making a last ditch
effort to wriggle past the scourge of your
careless toe, another ant— trapped in the
feathery bristles of your broom—dancing
in despair to taste air, its revival heroic
like a boxer bouncing off the ropes after being
struck on the chin, back to hugging the opponent’s
body to get some crucial downtime,
a smart ruse to catch a sliver of falling
breath, such reflexive embracing perhaps
an understated human dream and though
there is nothing pugilistic about the evening
today, the long neck of your mop snaps
into two & lathering the floor on all fours
while wiping its weeklong grime
with an old ragged t-shirt you once loved
wearing to the gym, your hands dripping
with disinfectant, you’re wondering
if you’ll ever enter the ring again.
I’ve always swung from tiny town: a grain silo
standing just beyond centerfield, oftentimes rained out
because we didn’t have money for a tarp, a cattle panel
hung high over a short right field, pickup trucks backed
up against left, charcoal smoke blowing and all their
radios gracing the field with a chorus of Cardinals
baseball. We lost almost all the times we played, often
by the grace of the ten-run mercy rule. Of us, two boys
could pitch, and I kept close by at second base, a
once-broken-collarbone growing into a squirt-gun-arm
so that they couldn’t keep me far from where all the
losing was. Away games were tough, it being real hard to
drive three hours knowing a loss in four innings was
waiting there. One of the last games I played, I wound up
on a mound in Missouri, pitching because it was too early
for the mercy rule to apply, and we were down already by
eighteen runs. I threw sixteen straight balls only because
somebody had to do it. Now some nights behind the
checkout counter, I look around and listen, still waiting for
that umpire to emerge from the backroom and grant me a
strike a decade too late, or better yet, pull off his face
mask and call the whole game off on account of mercy.
image: Zoë Blair-Schlagenhauf