Ghost Man on First
by Scott Richburg
It was a blank day, the summer heat having scorched away any defining features, including the puffy white clouds one expects in a painted rendering of such clichés. Instead, only the stolid outline of a little boy at the pitcher’s mound and the animated gyrations of an adult at home plate were visible. Each voice resounded like gunfire across a canyon.
“Play right!” the little boy said, his face twisted in a knot as he regarded the wild swinging and tapping of the bat. And at the inevitable, the infernal “Hey batter batter, hey batter batter” the man let loose in preparation of a base hit.
“Am playing right,” the adult at home plate said, grabbing himself in ridiculous locations just because it was the thing to do under the circumstances.
“See. Stop that stuff,” the boy said. “It’s distracting.”
“Ah come on, Nellie, loosen your girdle,” the man said, spitting over his left shoulder.
“Just cut it out, okay? And my name’s Nelson.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the man said, “just pitch already.”
The boy pitched the ball, a clean, crisp throw that split the banks of silence on either side of it.
“Ball,” the man said, matter of factly, a deadpan pitch of his own.
“Ball?!” the boy said, hurling his mitt to the ground. “Ball?! Are you crazy? That was a strike and you know it!”
“The ump saw it differently,” the man said.
“What ump? There ain’t no ump, just you.”
“Whatever,” the man said. “The ump said ‘ball,’ and I’m afraid we’ll have to go with his ruling.”
The boy shoved at the man’s big plastic bat. “That’s cheating!”
“Now, now, let’s play with good sportsmanship,” the adult said. “Sure is hot,” he said, tugging at his tie and removing his suit coat. “I always hated summer. You hear that: I always hated summer!”
“It was a strike, and you know it!”
“Fine, fine,” the adult said. “Hey, Larry, was it ball or strike?”
The boy looked off in the direction to which the man’s voice carried.
“See?” the man said. “Just like I told you: ball.”
The boy still searched the far reaching emptiness behind him, trying to cull out a face of some person named Larry. But no face emerged for him to challenge.
“There ain’t nobody out there named ‘Larry.’ You’re just making this stuff up,” the boy said. “It was a strike, and you know it.”
“Fine, fine,” the man said, resuming his exaggerated batting stance. “Have it your way. Ball. This heat’s burning my skin off!”
“Strike! It’s a strike! Now hush and let’s play!” the boy shouted.
The boy returned to the mound and wiped his brow with his glove. “One strike.” He wound up his arm and let loose another fireball blazing across the desiccated sky. The bat connected. A cracking explosion reverberated so much that the boy clasped his mitt to his ear. The ball went flying into the vast reaches beyond the boy’s hearing. Once he saw the man hobbling to first base, laboring under a dearth of breathable air, it seemed, the boy scrambled to recover the ball. It was somewhere hidden where a typical bush should have been, covered in the usual layer of brambles and snakes’ skins. But there it was, a giant pearl for him to seize.
“I got it!” the boy shouted. “I really got it!”
“Fine, fine,” the man said, struggling to catch his breath at first base. “Fine, fine. Ghost man on first.”
“What?” the boy shouted from the far edge of the field.
The man was trudging back to home plate, slinging his limp right hand toward the boy, a gesture both apathetic and disgusted at the same time.
“There ain’t no ghost men!” the boy said, now back at the pitcher’s mound. “You’re just making that stuff up.”
“Kid, kid,” the man said, “of course there’s a ghost man. How else could I make it back to home?”
“What?” the boy asked, straining to see the outline of some face or form now standing near the squished beer can that signified first base.
“I’ve gotta bat again, don’t I?” the man said. “I mean, there ain’t any outs or anything, and I do get three outs, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“So there you have it: ghost man on first,” the man said, resuming his absurdly distorted ballet of batting preparations. “Summer stinks. And this one’s perfect at it. Stinking hot!”
Then “Hey, batter batter!” broke out like frenzied cicadas.
The boy hurled the ball again, and another report echoed among the bare sky where tree branches ought to have been, enough of a shattering cataclysm that the birds, had there been any, would have found a nest of their feathers among the fallen acorns.
The boy already had the ball in hand and was exulting from down field, “I’ve got it! I can’t believe it! I’ve really got it!”
“Fine, fine,” the man, now slumped to the ground, clutching his knees to his chest, said. “Good, good boy. Ghost man on first and third.”
“First and third?” the boy said.
“Charlie managed to make it to third, if you have to know,” the man said. “That was a solid hit, if I do say so myself. Not too bad for an old codger like me who’s burning alive.”
“But...!“ the boy said. “But—!“
“All right, give me a sec,” the man said, his chest heaving as if recovering from a terrible fright. “It sure is hot. Just like I remember, dang it. Always so bloody hot on days like this.”
The boy threw his mitt to the ground. “You’re making this stuff up, and it ain’t right. You’re cheating me, is what!”
“Okay, I think I’m ready for the next pitch,” the man said, wildly gyrating the bat. “All that’s missing is those damn gnats that get up your nose. Now give me the next throw.”
Then the inane “Hey, batter batter” became a tiresome echo again.
The boy crossed his arms and glowered at the man. “I ain’t throwing nothing.”
“Ah, come on, Nellie,” the man said. “We gotta, right?”
“You ain’t playing right, and I ain’t throwing you nothing,” the boy said. “Nobody can make me.”
“Fine, fine,” the man said, lowering the bat to home plate, which was actually a cigar box covered in scribbled crayon. “What’s your beef now?”
“There ain’t no ghost man on third.”
“Oh, so you have no problem with a ghost man on first,” the man said. “Just with the one on third.”
“Yeah,” the boy said. “I mean, no. There ain’t no ghost men anywhere. Any blame fool could see that.”
The man looked up at what used to be the sky, at least that border land that established boundaries and separations, a sort of metaphysical peg on which to hang one’s metaphysical hat. “Fine, fine. Come on in, Charlie. Larry. Come on over here, Noose. Billy. The boy don’t believe in nothing. I’ve had enough.”
The heavy footed tread over dead leaves now surrounded the boy, who turned and felt the substance of what was not there. On either side of him. At his back. And there at his front, the man with the bat. They were all around him now.
“Come on, guys,” the little boy said feebly. “I was just fooling. Let’s play. Y’all here. It’s plain to see. We’re all here. Right? It’s sure now. We’re all here, right? There’s the ump over there and everything!” He cowered. “It’s always bullies! Always the bullies! They never let you play!”
The sound of the sharp contact, the bat meeting the ball again, made the missing hills gather their skirts together, hushed in awe at the cacophony of baseball on an absent day with no wind to tell.
“Ghost man on first,” the man said, a study in sweat and anguish, in an everlasting summer that knew no end. He jerked at his tie again and rolled up his sleeves. “And I hate baseball, Charlie. You know that? It stinks so bad I hate it. And look where I am and what I’m doing. It beats everything. All right, let it fly, kid.”
Nelson had heard this same speech before, a speech as familiar as the blacked-out stars. It moved on the dead air like a stone butterfly. He chuckled to himself. Yes, bullies.
He threw a pitch that blazed through the layers of heat, and he heard the voices all around the universe of the yard roar. They were his voices. They were his cheers. The way things had to be. The way the game had to be.
With great pride, and just a bit of mischief under his words, Nelson exclaimed, “Ghost pitcher on fire!” and the summer played on.
Copyright © 2019 by Scott Richburg