He Takes in a Ball GamebyRjThoughts©
He sat in the right field bleachers, halfway up. He was wearing a plain blue t-shirt, khaki shorts, and black Nike running shoes. His sunglasses were flipped on to his head: The sun was playing peek-a-boo for the last hour. He had a large cup of Pepsi on the seat to his right and a half-eaten hot dog in his hand. To his left were a leather-bound notebook and the game program. He looked like any other fan who had arrived early to watch batting practice, waiting to catch a batting practice baseball. Even in our small city, in our independent league stadium, people still want baseballs.
"What ya looking at, kid?" Vic Flowers asked me, standing with me next to the batting cage, his large arms folded across his chest. Vic was the team's pitching coach, though he wasn't much older than most of the players. He had a long cup of coffee in the majors - "I had coffee and a piece of pie", he often told us - but injuries derailed his career. He was one of the few highly educated professional athletes; he had several college degrees.
"That man in right field," I said. I pointed to him, but it wasn't necessary: he was the only person out there. "I've seen him before. I swear, Vic. He looks familiar."
He squinted as he looked. Though he processed a superior intelligence, he was quite vain. Often, he refused to wear his glasses, an action that I often remarked as to being rather non-intellectual of him.
"If you had your glasses on, you could see better," I snarked. He looked down at me and I expected a glaring look. He just shook his head.
"You sound like my mother, Charlie." He reached into his back pocket, removed a leather case, and removed his glasses. "That's better." He looked to the man, who was now writing in his book as the team's slugger stepped into the cage. "Yeah, he does look familiar."
"You wear glasses, Vic?" the team's starting shortstop Gil Childress remarked. "I would have never guessed." The sarcasm wasn't lost on Vic or I.
"Funny, Gil. As funny as those three E-6's last week in Springfield." The coach removed his glasses and returned them to his pocket. "Charlie, it's funny. I've seen him a few times, but can't place him specifically. I do know I haven't seen him around the park before."
"Or in any other?" I quickly added. I don't know from where that question came, but it was something I felt necessary to ask.
His expression change, as if he came to a sudden realization. "You're right. I've seen him someplace other than baseball stadia. I can't place my finger where, though." He sighed heavily and returned to leaning on the cage.
"You could ask him where you've seen him," Vic said without facing me.
"Yeah, I could," I mumbled, unsure if he heard me. But he was right. If I wanted to know where I've seen the fan before, asking him would - should, could - give me the answer. I turned and headed off the playing surface. First pitch wasn't for another hour and a half so I had plenty of time to talk with the fan.
My usual pre-game routine was to stand by the batting cage and watch our team's entire batting practice before going to the press box and distribute player information, updates on the team's hirings, firings, trades, and statistics to members of the media - both local and from the opponent's market. Once I put the information packets in front of each chair, I would walk to the umpires' locker room, check to see if they needed anything, whether it was more soft drinks, food, or towels. That finished, I would grab three hot dogs, two cans of Pepsi, and make my way to the announcer's room and have a bite to eat with Mr. Carnes, Canal View Park's long time stadium voice.
This day, however, things changed. I felt almost compelled to meet this man in khakis and ask him where have I seen him before. I walked past the grounds crew - two retired college professors with nothing better to do and three college students on summer break - and headed left, away from the front office and towards the right field bleachers.
"Charlie, are we going to win today?" Pops English asked from behind his little stand. Pops was the team's - the entire ball club from the owner down - unofficial grandfather. A lifelong resident of Schenectady, his home was purchased by the Stadium Authority in order for the ball park to be built. He made a cursory fuss over it - he told me later that he had voted for the ballpark funding even knowing that it would cause him losing the home he and his late Emily raised their five children - but he had already planned on moving into a smaller place in the suburbs. "I only need one extra bedroom, in case a grandkid or two want to stay overnight with Gramps," was his explanation. He was a lucky bastard, made good money off the sale of the home and land, had a generous pension from both the State and General Electric. He worked in the park selling programs before each home game for free, then would take a seat out in right field with the other G.E. pensioners, sipping on his one beer until the seventh inning stretch, when he would switch to something softer, the beer finished or not.
"Yes, Pops. We swept them last week in Springfield. I don't see how they can beat us in our home."
He laughed and nodded quickly. "No way in Hell are the Rifles going to beat us," he said before noticing a small boy shyly looking at him, a dollar bill tightly held in his small hand. "What can I do for you, sir?" Pops asked in that perfect grandfather tone which made the kid noticeably relax.
"I'd like a program," he whispered. I smiled and returned to my journey.
"Where," I mumbled to myself, passing the hot dog and beer concessions under the stands. I waved to my friends; I knew each of the food vendors by name, even though they weren't employees of the ball club. My heart was beginning to race, not from the exercise, I was a soccer player, but from nerves.
Another part of my job was to speak publicly with groups, whether they were children at a summer day camp or businessmen looking to invest in the club. I learned quickly to overcome my fear of strangers, to become outgoing and engaging. Talking with one fan should not make me feel uneasy but, something in the back of my mind was making me nervous, and for the life of me, I didn't know why.
"Looks like a great day for a ball game," Bert Timmons said. He was a man in his early 80s, a man that worked with two of my mother's uncles at G.E., the plant as they old men called it.
"Yes, it is, Mr. Timmons."
"Only things that would make it better would be a doubleheader and free beer." He chuckled and patted my back. "I don't see anyone giving away beer."
"No, sir, neither do I." He shook his head and pulled himself onto the cement stairs, holding onto the recently replaced handrails. He moved his cane to his left hand and leaned heavily on his left leg. I found out later that summer that he was having a difficult time with diabetes and was in the process of losing his right foot.
I stood rooted at the base of the stairs, watching the old man make his way up to his seat. I wanted to move, to rush into the bleachers and ask the fan my question, but my nerves were getting to me. I took a few deep, soothing breaths and closed my eyes, cleansing my mind of all thoughts. Then it popped into my mind. I remembered where I had seen him before.
And what scared me more was not where, but that I wasn't fearful of him, no more was I nervous. Remembrance had brought me peace, an ease that I had those times when I saw him. I smiled and made quick work of the stairs.
I looked towards the fan in the plain blue t-shirt. He had finished the hot dog and was now writing something in his notebook. I stood and waited for him to finish. The sun came out from its hiding spot, causing the man to flip down his sunglasses. He leaned back and appeared to be enjoying the last of the Chivalry's batting practice: pitchers hitting or trying to in a designated hitter league was always funny. I approached him, my body at ease.
"Sir," I began confidently. I took a few steps closer and saw that he removed his sunglasses. His eyes matched the color of his shirt, and his smiled was welcoming and had a hint of recognition. "On behalf of the Schenectady Chivalry Baseball Club, if there's anything you need, a better seat to watch the game or more soft drinks, let me know. My name..."
"Is Charlemagne Duquesne," he interrupted. His voice was pleasant, his tone professorially. "You are the team's public and media relations intern," he added. "Part of your job to make sure that scouts from the Majors are comfortable."
I was surprised; he knew my real name, not the one that appeared in the program or any piece of mail coming out the front office. Only a few people knew Charlemagne Duquesne, most were familiar with Charlie Caine. "Yes, sir, you're right. Is there something, anything you need?"
"No, Charlie," he said. "No, I'm no scout, if that's what you think, but thank you for that mistake." I didn't have an answer for his comment. I stood there in right field looking like a dumb-struck teenager, which I was.
"Here, sit," he said, standing and offering me the seat next to him. I should have refused, but I thanked him and sat. I looked at this man, the one with the matching eyes and t-shirt, this man that knew my real name.
"I'm no scout," he repeated. "I'm just a fan, like everyone else that will come here today. I like hot dogs and ice cold Pepsi. I love baseball, have always. It's one of the very few pleasures I allow myself to have." A sudden chill ran up my arm which was nearest him. I noticed a quick change in his body, a physical move from middle-aged baseball fan without a care in the world to an old man that has seen far too much for far too long. His eyes had darkened to that of moonless night. And as sudden, it returned. The blueness returned and his smile warmed me.
I swallowed hard and looked at him in his eyes. "Where have I seen you before?" I asked quickly, afraid that I needed to say the words before I changed my mind. His expression never changed, warm and pleasant.
"Charlie, you've seen me many times," he begin. He never looked around, never worried if anyone else could hear our conversion. "You saw me was in Ellis Hospital, three years ago, when your great-uncle Kazimieirz past away. You were sitting in the ICU waiting room with your sisters on the verge of tears. He was your favorite relative, was supposed to be your Confirmation sponsor last year.
"You saw me when you were seven. You were brought in to see your father's mother one last time. She wanted to tell you that it was your responsibility to record the family myths and legends, but you weren't allowed in her room. Hospital rues. Your father told you later what she had said. And I might add, great job collecting them." He patted me on the back.
"And, unfortunately, you saw me at that party," he began. He stopped; he didn't need to explain further on which party, and I didn't want to think about it, either.
"Who are you?" I asked. It was my nature to ask questions when I didn't understand or wanted to know something. It was a curse, my mother told me. I had a great need to know so much and, "if I wasn't careful, my head would explode," she warned me frequently.
His smile broadened, his widened, his eyes twinkled. "I'm glad you didn't say what. I am asked 'What' when I am recognized."
I had half expected him to bow his head and tell me who he was like a child that had been caught red-handed doing something his parents forbade him from doing, but he proudly and clearly answered me without further hesitation.
"Charlie, I'm Death."
"Death? Really?" I was shocked. I didn't know what I had expected the personification of death to be. The Halloween Grim Reaper - long black flowing hooded robe and a sickle - perhaps, or a man dressed in black, like those television representations I watched on late night cable movies.
"Yes, I'm Death."
"But what are you doing here? In Schenectady, New York, at a baseball game." I had a sudden fear that one or more of the players, or fans, or both, would be taken. I inhaled deeply and audibly.
"No, Charlie, relax." He put his hand on my shoulder like a parent calming an upset child. "No one's dying today, not here."
"Then why are you here? I thought you were present at everyone's death."
"That would be impossible, even for a being like me." He chuckled and shook his head. "No, I have minions, spirits is a better word, that attend each person's passing. They help escort souls to their after-life, whether it is Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory."
"Then, why are you here?" I knew once the words came out of my mouth I had offended him. But, to my surprise, he laughed.
"Charlie, even Death likes baseball." He smiled at me, his hand still on my shoulder. "I love this game, have always, since it's creation back in the last century."
I had so many other questions to ask, but they, for a lack of a better explanation, died on my lips. Death looked at me and smiled. "I think you better return to your duties." He stood and shook my hand. "You can tell Vic that he's seen me in those book publisher magazines he reads on the road trips, that I'm just a director of a Masters of Arts program in Vermont, here for a wedding. He'll believe it and be happy with it."
"I will," I said before turning to leave. I stopped and turned back. "Enjoy the game, sir," I said loud enough for the gathering crowd to hear.
"I will, Charlie," he said. He flipped down his glasses and picked up his program, returning to his guise as just another baseball fan.
I left him, Death, in the right field bleachers to enjoy the independent league baseball game between the Springfield Rifles and the Schenectady Chivalry, on a beautiful summer day in upstate New York, with the smell of beer, hot dogs, popcorn, and freshly cut grass in the air.
A perfect day.