Michele Host’s story “Day Game” was the 6th winner of our annual Hamlin-Garland award. Contest judge Jesse Lee Kercheval, author of the novel Underground Women, said this about the winning story:
“Day Game” is a classic short story, one that elevates the ordinary, using a trip to a minor league ball game to let us into the vivid and painful world of a mother and her teenage son who are balanced on the sharp edge of their lives. I feel like I have lived this day and still find myself thinking about this very real family.
You can’t find the tickets.
This has been the story of your life since baseball started. Are the tickets in your purse? Paper-clipped to the free calendar you got from the bank? Were they mailed to you or were you supposed to print them out? Is there any paper for the antediluvian printer, and does the printer have any ink?
Standing in the entryway, you look from the basket of half-empty tubes of sunscreen to the Narcotics Anonymous schedule tacked on the bulletin board. Down the dusty hallway is the kitchen, with all of the things you should be dealing with today instead of driving to a minor league baseball game. The pan soaking in the sink after you resurrected an enchilada casserole from the freezer last night. The dishwasher that hasn’t worked in months. The stack of medical bills on the table.
Finally, you spot the tickets wedged into a corner of the hallway mirror. You grab them and run out the front door, tripping over the shoelaces that you forgot to tie. Because you wear clogs for work, shoes with laces make you a fat-fingered child.
It takes you so long to deal with the laces that you usually ignore them altogether. You pray that Jordan will still be waiting for you in the car. You know you’re no longer allowed to take your son’s presence in the passenger seat for granted.
Just seeing him hits you like a medicine ball to the chest. He’s looking down at his lap—at his phone—so he can’t see you standing still, watching. Committing the ridiculous length of his eyelashes to memory. Studying his bleached-out Snappers cap and his shoulders and his plate-sized hands. His seat belt is already fastened. That must mean he’s going to be all right. People who don’t want to live don’t bother buckling their seat belts when they’re sitting in the driveway.
Jordan looks up, and you pretend to be digging in your bag for the car keys. “Sorry about that,” you say when you fall into the driver’s seat. “Couldn’t find the tickets.”
Backing out of the driveway, you see Erica Bradford pushing her grandson in a stroller. You gesture at her to keep on walking, but she gestures at you to drive. Soon you’re waving at one another wildly, like friends who haven’t seen one another in ages rather than middle-aged women who switch aisles at the Piggly Wiggly to avoid each other. When Erica throws one manicured hand up—because she would never take two hands off the stroller—and walks behind the car, her pink sneakers slow their perfect heel-toe roll. She peers through the rear window at Jordan, as if by scrutinizing the freckles on the back of his neck, she’ll somehow understand what went wrong. You fight the urge to back over her. Of course, your Kia is so light, if you hit Erica you wouldn’t even kill her. A tank wouldn’t take out that gossipy troglodyte. She’s too mean to die.
Once Erica is down the street, probably texting her euchre group about who she saw, you pull out of the driveway. It feels odd to drive without asking Jordan if he wants to turn the radio on. “Just let him be for a bit,” the psychologist said, and you’re trying. Instead of asking what Jordan wants for dinner you’re just keeping the refrigerator and the pantry stocked with hamburger meat and tortilla chips and Gatorade. You’re doing his laundry and dropping him at his meetings and not asking questions. But when you saw that the Snappers had a home game, you thought you could make an exception.
And here you are in the car. Together. So close that you could reach over and take off his hat and ruffle his hair. It has always been thick; you kept it in a crew cut until he started to realize that more and more ball players were wearing it long. It’s a nice light-brown color, like the outside of an angel food cake that’s just about to burn.
Turning on Madison, the road down to the lake is lined with cars. The drone of outboard motors crescendoes as you drive, loud and grating as a guilty conscience. When you get home tonight, the noise will still be there, with the flatlanders drinking their evening wine coolers on their pontoon boats. But there will be an additional bass line from the drag races at the track on the edge of town. And still, even with the tourists and the jet skis, part of you wishes you were flip-flopping down to the beach with a towel instead of driving to a baseball game.
There were so many things to be mad about when Jordan’s father left that it didn’t occur to you to be mad about baseball. Steve spent Jordan’s early childhood indoctrinating the kid into this weird cult of statistics and hand signs and superstitions that you knew nothing about, and then he left you for his dental hygienist. He only went to the dentist because you printed out pictures of advanced gum disease and left them in his car, and then he moved out in the middle of Jordan’s little league season.
Steve’s absence only made Jordan’s heart grow fonder. Of baseball. So you buckled down. After a double shift at Wyndwood, you’d send your mother home and, still in your scrubs, read Baseball Today or fill out applications for camps and clinics. There were endless hours of lobbing Jordan ping-pong balls to improve his hand-eye coordination. Afternoons spent driving all over southeastern Wisconsin to find the best batting cages. Winter workouts. Tees and weighted balls and sitting for hours on the wooden floors of smelly high school gyms, where the nets hung from the walls like homecoming decorations weren’t always enough to protect parents from errant balls to the head.
When Jordan was a pee-wee, you swore you’d never be one of those baseball moms who brought her own chair to games. But after Steve left you bought the fanciest one you could find. Self-collapsing, with a sun canopy and two cupholders.
As you leave the fast-food restaurants and box stores at the edge of town behind, plots of soybeans and corn spread out along the highway, like squares of a quilt. The windshield wiper fluid is nearly empty. This shouldn’t matter, since it’s the type of blinding June day that leaves the sky looking acid-washed. But you plowed through a cloud of gnats on the on-ramp to I-43, and now the windshield is a bug graveyard.
“Have you talked to your dad lately?” You let the wipers screech across the windows a few times until Jordan shifts in his seat. Realizing he might hear a rebuke in the repetitive motion, since washing the car is one of his chores, you flip them off. “Have you?”
You snort, involuntarily. “It’s not the same.”
“It’s what people do now, Mom. When was the last time you talked to someone on the phone? Besides a robocall?”
A few days ago you did make a real phone call. To the high school, to ask whether Jordan would have to repeat his junior year. But now is not the time to tell him that he’ll need to repeat trig and write an extra history paper to graduate with his class.
“I called your grandmother last night,” you say, tapping the steering wheel with one hand, victorious.
“That’s because she’s the only person in the world who doesn’t have a cell phone.”
At least Steve could have gotten Jordan hooked on a cheaper sport. You began screening the mail and recycling the baseball catalogs before Jordan could leaf through them and ask for the newest bat or glove. You sold your wedding ring for less than the cost of the Instant Pot you’ve been eyeing. You worked so much overtime that Louise McDonald, who used to smoke Pall Malls with your grandmother at the bowling alley, joked that you were the youngest resident at the nursing home. You stopped buying new clothes for yourself and got everything at the thrift shop. Except underwear. You had to draw a line.
Of course, the financial problems of two or three years ago are nothing compared to the stack of bills sitting on the kitchen table now. Some people read novels or magazines, you read itemized hospital bills and try to find entries you can reasonably dispute. If you’d finished your nursing degree, you’d have more credibility when you try to persuade the billing people. If you had your nursing degree, the bills wouldn’t be such a problem anyway. Because you’d be earning an R.N’s salary instead of wheeling semi-continent old windbags to game show night at Wyndwood. (“We’re not a nursing home. We’re a home. With nursing.”)
Jordan is still texting. Giving the old thumbs a workout. You wonder who he’s talking to. Maybe Eddie. His sponsor, although it feels bizarre to call a twenty-three year-old barista someone’s sponsor. You asked Jordan to tell you about Eddie, and all you got was Eddie’s age, that he works at Karole’s Koffee, and that he grows his own tomatoes. Which you could have figured out, because Jordan brought some of them home after one of their lunches at Taco Bell. When you pressed for more details, Jordan informed you that Narcotics Anonymous is strictly confidential.
You were tempted to respond by threatening to tattoo the Serenity Prayer on his forehead when he was sleeping. But you refrained.
As you pass a silo painted in Packer green and gold, you realize you’re halfway there. The last time you drove to Beloit was for a tournament. An invitational. Right before bags of generic frozen peas showed up in the freezer every time Jordan stopped at the White Hen for a Slurpee. Before Jordan started crawling into your bed in the middle of the night, clutching his left arm to his chest and weeping.
When Jordan pitched, he would pull his right leg up and pause for a moment, and he could have been a giant heron in the center of some serene pond rather than a teenaged boy with a hole in the knee of his baseball pants. The intensity of his gaze and the tight coil of his wind-up always seemed to pull loose molecules of energy towards him and make him shimmer. But that invitational, that was something else.
As the afternoon wore on, fans started whispering about a no-hitter. By the seventh inning, the people running the raffles and selling candy to make money for bus fees drifted away from their folding tables to watch. With the attention and the motion, Jordan became some inscrutable other person. Not the boy who left his enormous smelly cleats in the middle of the living room without knocking off the clods of dirt outside. Someone magical. Separate.
When he struck out that last batter, throughout the bleachers arms flew to the sky as if in worship. You half-expected a gospel choir to materialize with robes and tambourines. But Jordan’s celebrations were muted. His teammates rushed the field but he did not punch the air or do a touchdown dance. His eyelids fell, as if after all of that fun, he might take a nap right there on the pitcher’s mound. Then, his team mates lifted him on their shoulders, and he finally smiled. When you tried to stand and clap, your legs noodled under you, wobbly and ineffective.
You turn the car radio on, and Tom Petty’s voice twists you into a swerve that almost corkscrews the car out of your lane. Your finger hits SEEK automatically, and a country station blares a honky-tonk/rap hybrid that makes Jordan wince.
“Why’d you change it?” he says, turning the dial back. You almost laugh, but he’s already tapping on his phone again and you realize that he is completely oblivious.
Ahead, a deer is sprawled across the road. Driving closer, you realize it’s a doe, and there’s no choice but to examine the terrible geometry of her legs. You wonder if, somewhere between the billboard for Farm and Fleet and the next exit, a fawn is searching for its mother.
When you took Jordan to his first appointment at the orthopedic surgeon’s in Milwaukee, the doctor looked at Jordan’s X-rays and rubbed the bridge of his nose under his glasses.
“Let me guess. He played for the Huskies when he was younger?”
“How did you know?”
The surgeon wore high-tech running shoes with his scrubs and some kind of fitness tracking device on his muscled arm. If you’d finished school, you thought, this is the kind of man you’d be spending time with. Not the laundry delivery guy at the nursing home who offered to take you to Dog n’ Suds for dinner. “I see kids from that program every year,” he said, finally.
He didn’t say more about the team, but he didn’t have to. You knew that, in some leagues, they were more serious about pitch counts. But Jordan didn’t want any of that. He just wanted to pitch. And he had gotten so little of what he wanted.
When you called the surgeon weeks later to request a refill of Jordan’s prescription, there was a long pause.
“I would rather not. At this point, he should be focusing on the therapy. Ice and Advil should be enough for the pain.”
“But he can’t sleep.”
The surgeon sighed, and you could picture those long fingers drumming his desk. The fingers that had cut into Jordan’s arm and re-strung the magnificent sling shot of his arm with a tendon from his ankle.
“I’ll give him one refill, but only if you promise me that midway through you’ll start cutting the pills in half.”
The mile markers flash by, and you remember the hours you and Jordan spent together in the car. Practices, tournaments, meetings with coaches, games, shopping for equipment. Last year you even did a few college tours. You shake your head, knocking that word out of your mind.
Jordan’s life was saved by a twenty-three year-old nurse’s assistant named Lauri. Inadvertently. Lauri begged you and the other girls at work to do this stupid lunch pact to try to save money. Normally, you don’t join in the work stuff. You don’t go to the Mary Kay parties or the husbands’ pig roasts. But Lauri’s boyfriend died a year ago when his semi jackknifed outside Duluth, and she’s raising her two-year-old alone in a trailer park outside of town. So you agreed. The day Jordan overdosed, you were halfway to work when you remembered the Tupperware of pasta salad in your fridge. So you cursed and hit the steering wheel and went home.
After it became clear that Jordan would make it from the hospital to rehab, you called the high school. Mandy Jansen inhaled at the sound of your voice, like you’d told her about a tornado plowing through a day care when you said, “It’s Melinda Railton. I need to talk to someone about Jordan.”
Without a word, Mandy transferred you to the Assistant Vice Principal. Which is a ridiculous job for a high school with 300 kids, but Dan Andresen’s father owns the funeral parlor, so someone was going to make up a job for him somewhere. Dan listened to you explain why Jordan wouldn’t be in school for a while. You eventually had to pause to find another tissue, since your phone was covered in your own snot from crying. He cleared his throat in the same way that he did in high school, as if to underscore the importance of what he was about to say.
“Kids need a father figure, Melinda,” he said. “We see it all the time.” You took deep breaths. It seemed like every waiting room you’d sat in during those horrible weeks had recommended deep breathing as a solution for life’s problems. Maybe not for opioid-addicted teenage sons, but definitely for anger. But the deep breaths seemed to be fueling your anger until your chest felt like the Hindenburg ready to explode, so you just hung up.
Maybe Dan was right. Maybe if Steve hadn’t followed his dick like a compass, things would have been different. Maybe you would have switched Jordan onto a different team where the coaches didn’t let kids pitch until their arms fell off.
None of Jordan’s teammates visited him in rehab. The parents sent an edible arrangement of mango slices and chocolate-covered strawberries, but they didn’t call. They didn’t even text. Clearly they all thought Jordan was contagious. Whether they were freaked out by his injury or the addiction, you could never figure out.
Gradually, fewer barns dot the landscape. Instead of fields of soybeans, there are fields of flimsy tract houses. Then you’re on the landing strip of road leading into Beloit, with seemingly every fast-food joint in the world spread out for hungry truckers and college kids. Just seeing the signs floods your mouth with spit like a sack of burgers and fries is already smelling up the car. You look at Jordan, but he’s looking at his phone. When he was little, nothing interfered with his fast food fascination. He ranked the chocolate shakes at all the different franchises. According to him, McDonald’s was the best.
“I know some people say that Wendy’s is superior,” he’d say. “But the Frostee is too thick to drink with a straw. And you should be able to drink a shake with a straw.”
You consider asking if he wants anything but decide against it. The other night you asked if he wanted meatballs or chicken for dinner and he blew up. So now you’re trying to avoid talking about food. You’re just making it available, like a convenience store.
As you turn down the leafy corridor that leads to the ballpark, you remember being dismissive when someone mentioned Beloit College to Jordan a year ago. Now you’d gladly serve up one of your kidneys on a silver platter if Beloit would take him. You look down at his hands, and he’s no longer using his phone.
Instead, he’s working a glob of pink goop with his left hand. You realize it’s Silly Putty.
That first horrible weekend Steve did drive up. He sat in Jordan’s room with you, neither of you saying anything. Just listening to the doctors, the nurses, the crying in the hallway. Someone’s television set playing last week’s American Idol. On Sunday afternoon you dozed off, but woke up when your arm got stuck to the vinyl recliner. As you pried your eyes open, you saw Steve sliding out the door.
He was unlocking his Corolla by the time you got to the parking lot. Even though his bumper was dangling from the chassis of the car like a sad piñata, he had it slathered with more bumper stickers than a college student. But none of them were from Jordan’s baseball teams, even though you’d mailed them to Skokie every year.
“Where the fuck are you going?”
A smarter man would have made up an errand. A coffee run. Or a stop at his mother’s.
“I have to work in the morning,” he mumbled, looking down at his sneakers, which were made of some knit material, like baby booties. He kept flipping the front of his hair from side to side, which was cute when he was eighteen, but at thirty-five, he had significantly less hair.
In the residential neighborhood surrounding the ball field, old trees canopy over smooth asphalt. There are no sidewalks, signaling, you think, that the city values these citizens so much that it wouldn’t presume to take even the tiniest easement on their property. Maybe if you’d raised Jordan somewhere like this, with neighborhood watch signs on stakes in well-tended flowerbeds, things would have been different. But you’re grateful, you remind yourself. He’s home, and he’s alive. He’s even started throwing a ball against his bedroom wall again.
You stopped sleeping for a while. You were so worried he would overdose in his sleep that you’d hover outside his bedroom door like a ghost. It took you back to when he was a baby and you’d lie on the floor next to his bed all night to make sure he didn’t stop breathing.
When you did sleep, you ground your teeth so hard that one morning you woke up with a crown rolling around in your mouth. Fixing it is many paydays off, so the tooth is still ragged and sharp, a junkyard wreck stuck on your jaw. The nerve below it is exposed, and your tongue is drawn to it like a magnet, shocking you with pain throughout the day.
You considered reinstalling a baby monitor in his room. The piles of dirty clothes would give you plenty of options for hiding it. But then you remembered that you sold your monitor in a garage sale years ago, and buying a new one for this purpose seemed irredeemably tragic.
You pull into the parking lot. Jordan is suddenly full of instructions. “Not there, Mom. Do you want the windshield to be shattered by a foul ball? Not there. There, over there, in the corner.”
You get so flustered that you tap the gas instead of the brake as you slide into the designated spot. For a moment the car is lurching forward. In the second before your foot clamps on the brake, your mind registers how absurd it would be to die in the parking lot of a ballpark.
But you don’t die. The car jolts to a stop at the curb, Jordan’s man-hands stretched in front of him to block the impact. The scar on his elbow catches the light as he inhales deeply.
“Jesus, Mom. You are the shittiest driver.”
He gets out of the car, and you rest your forehead on the steering wheel, unable to even yell at him for cursing. When you follow him, he is leaning on the fence, watching the players warm up. His backpack is slung over one shoulder, and you wonder if he brought his glove. Until he was twelve, he brought his glove to every game you went to, no matter how bad the seats were. “Mom, let’s go. You have the tickets.”
As you walk into the park, the familiar smells hit you like a slap. Popcorn, spilled beer, cut grass, roasting meat. The last nine months have been the longest stretch you’ve gone without seeing a baseball game since Jordan was a toddler.
Like the neighborhood around it, the stadium is overwhelmingly green. That must be what happens when a turtle is your mascot. You walk to your seats and notice a gaggle of kids loitering at the fence above the home team’s dugout. When Jordan was younger, he would have been down there too, jumping to catch foul balls and playing loud games of tag. At minor league games Jordan was always the eye of a kid-tornado spinning between dugouts, dancing to whatever pop song was the hit of the summer, and leaping for foul balls in unison. And at the end of the game, the kids all dispersed back to their families like dandelion seeds, usually without having ever learned one another’s names.
None of that today. But at least your seats are in the shade. That does nothing to protect against the humidity, though, which is on the border dividing sticky from swampy. You sit down and your thighs instantly adhere to the plastic bench.
Jordan’s phone has been put away, and he’s watching warm-ups. When he was little, you used to joke that he would watch any sport with a ball, and it was true. Women’s lacrosse, curling, ping pong. If ESPN televised it, he’d watch it. Getting him to school when the Olympics were on was harder than any decathalon.
“I’m gonna pee,” Jordan says, and swings his backpack over his arm. A few rows away, a blonde in a Christian Yelich jersey watches him lope down the aisle and smiles. He does not seem to notice her, but the idea that a girl with good teeth and shiny hair could express interest in Jordan is enough to relax your shoulders. At least for a few breaths of muggy air. Then your anxieties amble down the aisle and muscle into Jordan’s empty seat. Did Jordan really have to go to the bathroom? Why was he taking so long? Does Beloit have a drug scene? What was in his backpack?
Even though it’s the middle of the inning, you get up and clank down the metal risers. You backtrack to where you entered the stadium and don’t see him, so you follow signs to the bathrooms. Walking back and forth in front of the men’s room door gets creepy after fifty paces, so you take a long drink of water from the bubbler. When you straighten up again, you see Jordan’s navy T-shirt. He’s walking slowly with a black kid you don’t recognize. They’re leaning towards one another, and the slides from Narcan training flip behind your eyes as your right hand digs reflexively for the inhaler in your bag.
You sprint to Jordan, grab him by the shoulder, and spin him around. He throws up his arms in surprise, dropping something with a thunk. Something much too large to be drugs, unless they are being displayed in an ostentatious carrying case. You look down and realize it’s Jordan’s binder of his best baseball cards. You look at the other kid, also holding a binder, and realize he played first base on the team that eviscerated Jordan’s team at regionals two years ago. The Beloit Bombers. He’s wearing a purple LSU T-shirt.
“Mom, what the hell?” Jordan says as he kneels down.
“I’m so sorry,” you say, backing away. As you turn and walk off, the other kid says, “Mothers.” They laugh, and you fight the urge to run back and wrap the kid in your trembling arms. Instead, you walk and walk.
In addition to everything else, you’re a fucking racist. A racist with a drug addict son, and no one loves you, and you’re going to die alone. You don’t even have any pets to bark or eat the skin off of your bones. The corpse will just start to smell and eventually someone will call the cops about a foul odor. It will probably be that bitch, Erica. She’ll tell the story at bunko night until she’s in adult diapers.
You stomp up to the concession stand and order a beer and the biggest brat they sell, with extra sauerkraut. When the hair-netted counter guy brings every thing to you, he holds the brat for a beat too long, trying to make eye contact. You practically snarl at him before ripping the brat out of his hairy hands and stomping to a picnic table. The steaming meat turd almost chokes you as you gobble it down, but you’re saved by an enormous swig of beer. In the distance, a ball connects right on the sweet spot.
“Mom, did you get me one?”
Jordan is standing just outside the dining area, holding his binder against his chest. You put your beer down and try to smile at him, glad you’re wearing your sunglasses.
“Not yet, but I will.”
He walks over and sits down next to you. He’s working the Silly Putty in his left hand again.
“That guy, Khamel? He’s going to Louisiana State.”
You take a bite of your brat and watch Jordan’s hand. At the table next to you, the Snappers mascot has removed its head. Underneath it lives a sweaty brunette with mascara streaking her cheeks. A cigarette is burning in the ashtray next to her, and she has a beer in one hand, her phone pressed against her ear with the other. The pissed-off guy on the other end is yelling loud enough for you to hear, although, thankfully, you can’t understand what he’s saying. As she listens, she purses her lips and blows out a thin stream of smoke. She drains her beer in one vengeful swallow before hurling her empty cup into a nearby garbage can. Leaning back, she waves her free hand in the air. “Let me get this straight. You drove your motorcycle drunk into the American Legion hall and you expect me to come pick you up? You’re not the last french fry in the fat, asshole. Don’t call me again.” Her phone hits the table so emphatically that you wince for her screen.
Jordan looks at you from under the brim of his cap and starts to shake with suppressed laughter. Both of you know that to laugh openly at this woman would be a declaration of war, so you both gradually turn red.
Regaining control, you dig in your purse for a tissue.
“Let me get you that brat,” you say as you stand up.
“Cool. No sauerkraut, though. That stuff smells like feet.”
Another crack of the bat in the distance and an operatic cheer. Jordan’s head turns towards the field. “Hurry up, Mom. I think it’s a tie game.”