"It's only for a couple days, maybe a week if we can all get along. My grandparents are afraid of dying soon so they want to get everyone together."
"Oh," Brad nodded, tossing the baseball back to Tommy on the mound, "Your family doesn't get along?"
"Nah," Tommy found a grip on the ball, his index and middle finger holding fast across the seams while his pinky and ring finger curled up out of the way. "My mother's side is far too dysfunctional. Three daughters and seven marriages...you do the math."
But before Brad could do the math, Tommy was into his windup and stride, his gun of an arm launching the five ounce piece of hide in a blur of kinetic energy. Brad didn't even have time to gulp as the ball rocketed in at him, aimed dead red at his unprotected chest. In his squat he squared himself away and prepared for the inevitable slice to the left he knew the ball had to take. It was the pitch Tommy had chosen, he could tell by the subtle tip of the elbow and the blinding spin of the balls red laced seems.
And just like that, within the time it took to position his glove, the ball hit home with a hard thud.
"Seven marriages, really?" Brad grinned, tossing the ball in an easy arc back to his friend, "That is a fucked up family."
"Yeah," Tommy shrugged, taking a gulp from the Gatorade bottle beside the rubber. It was sweltering out, even for late august, and on the diamond, without a stand of shade or the rustle of a breeze, Tommy Perezzi was sweating in the most uncomfortable places. The band of his cap was slick with sweat, so was the arm band he had slipped over his powerful forearm.
"You're not giving up are you?" Brad smiled from behind the plate, his bright smile so painfully visible in relationship to his dark skin. Especially with the sun at it's fiercest apex.
Tommy responded with another slider, though this one slipped to far off the plate and would have passed as a ball. He bit his lip and waited for the throw back. The two had been out here for just under two hours, tossing the ball and talking just as they had done for years. Tommy on the mound and Brad behind the plate. Tradition. That was how baseball was played.
They had though to avoid the day's heat by starting early in the day, but by eleven o'clock it was already climbing past twenty eight degrees.
"At least the reunions at a lake," Tommy said, "I don't like this fucking heat."
"I love it," Brad said, "A good sweat is the best thing for you the day before a game."
"If you love the heat so much, why aren't you wearing your gear?"
"What, you think your pitches will hurt me?" Brad taunted, "Our relief pitchers have more punch than you."
"Fuck off," Tommy said as he speared the next pitch uncomfortably close to Brad's knees. Brad's coordination was too great however and he snatched the bone crushing object well ahead of his crouch.
He tossed the ball back and called for another. This went on for minutes, until both the athletes bottles were empty of hydration Brads knees were stiffened up.
"Last one," Tommy grunted, "If you miss this pitch you're buying the beers tonight."
"Fine, but if you go wild you have to take me with you on your vacation. I want to meet your hot cousins."
"Whatever," Tommy rolled his eyes, knowing full well none of his cousins were the slightest lookers. He took his stance and his grip in deep pocket of his mitt, feeling the seams with his nails to find his hold as he gave Brad his feared stare down.
Whenever at the mound Tommy envisioned two things: firstly, his ball always hitting the catchers mitt just before the batters swing, and secondly, those cheesy Mexican standoffs in every western movie ever.
It was in this zone that Tommy forgot about the box scores, the errors, the runs, everything. All the chaos of the game shoved aside like the dirt of a grave under a diggers shovel. It didn't matter if he was in the hole or ahead of the count; all that mattered was the next pitch. And then he was in motion, his long leg curling up, his toe pointed at where the shortstop would have been crouching, his torso twisted up, ready to flex into a powerhouse of strength, the ball held firmly, but loosely away from his palm.
His great stride was deceptive, a trick he put into this particular pitch to con the batter into guessing fastball, the thrust of his thighs only another layer of the deception. The ball came out of his grip high and slow, on a slow spin that changed as the seams caught the wind. The ball was down suddenly and off to the left, than the right, the swoops and dives completely under the butterfly effect. Then it was on the ground behind Brad, having sailed just over his shoulder as such a deceptive arc would allow. The game was over and Tommy had won, even though that pitch would have stuck the batter on the elbow.
"Fucker," Brad cursed, "Where did that come from?"
"If you weren't so short you would have caught that," Tommy smile, unfastening his glove and trotting to the plate, "And you should have known that if I see an opening to get what I want, I'm going to take it."
Brad laughed, "You dirty kid; do you ever play fair?"
"When the ump is watching, sure," Tommy grinned while he stuffed his mitt into his bat bag, "but when nobody is looking..." he let out a whistling breath, "You wouldn't believe what I get away with."
"So when are you going to follow me down to Fairfax?"
No response. "Tommy!" She yelled again.
Putting down the half made sandwich she walked to the den where Tommy was sitting in the lounger, a bag of ice taped around right arm. "Jesus Tommy, put a towel around that, it's going to leak over the leather.
"What?" Tommy's head snapped away from the television screen to his mother's worried face. He followed her glare to his arm and nodded.
"Now," his mother said, "Are you coming down tonight with me, or in the morning?"
"In the morning, I have to meet the team at the Den to wish them luck for tomorrow."
Arlene, for all her college education and educational degrees, could not figure out why her son always wanted to hang out with that baseball team of his. It was not as if he played with them anymore, it had been a clause in his scholarship draft.
"I know," Tommy admitted, seeing his mothers' expression, "I just want to look after my roots, plus no one else on your side of the family even likes me."
"They would like you if you showed your face more." Arlene said, "It's not like were spread all over the country, if you wanted to you could visit everyone in the family in a couple of weekends."
"I know," Tommy grunted, realizing he had iced his arm for to long, "they are just a bunch of slags though."
"Not everyone," his mother said sternly. "So come to the lake tomorrow and be nice. Timothy and John already said they would share a cabin with you."
"Did your father give you gas money this week?"
"Yesterday," Tommy nodded. "Before his took off for L.A. with Tammy."
Arlene still shuttered when she heard that strumpets name. A year ago, when the divorce was just finalizing that name was a curse word.
Now however it was just a fishing lure, its barbed needles dragging up unwanted memories.
"Don't spend it all on booze." Arlene warned sternly, "And make sure you give your grandparents a hug when you arrive. They're going to die soon."
The drive out of Sacramento was smooth, despite the tendrils of a hangover that still reluctantly clutched at Tommy's skull. It was a good three hour drive to the Fairfax lake town and had the potential to be lonely. An hour into the trip Tommy stopped for gas and grabbed the biggest travel mug he could find from the shelf. The plastic cup was bright pink and had some lame local slogan on it, but it was the only one that would serve his hangover cure. He filled the monstrous cup half full from the slurpee machine and then, with a lazy eye half watching the store keep, wandered down the candy isle and dumped handful after handful of candies into the cup. He toped up the cup with the machine again and went to pay.
"Dollar fifty," the man behind the glass counter drawled.
"Hell of a deal," Tommy smiled, forking over the change. He noticed a map stand next to the register, "One of those too."
"I might need someplace to escape to," Tommy nodded, "I never liked family reunions."
"Going to Fairfax?" The clerk asked, finishing up the bill.
"Yeah, know any good bars in the town?"
"A couple good ones are on the map, other than that the only good drinking spots are the local ones."
Tommy nodded. He knew the real parties wouldn't be on the map, despite what the tourism board would like to have him believe. He would have to scout around for a local girl to take him out to a lagoon or beach party.
He had to pay the toll booth to get a weekend pass, which pissed him off. He had misplaced his reservation while packing. Whatever, he though with a grimace, just another bump on the road of life.
Despite his dislike for family and a poor attitude about communal gatherings (other than that of a baseball game) he liked Fairfax. It was a little town that was actually three smaller communities linked around a pristinely artistic lake. There were no real homes here, in the sense of suburbs, but rather a collection of beach houses, bungalows and summer cottages. He had never seen a school in his many trips up, but he supposed there must have been a couple tucked away into the forested side of the town.
It was a quaint town, well maintained with tourist money. The shops were cozy and personal, unlike the strip malls and shopping centers of greater California. Where there wasn't rolling grass parks and starkly black asphalt roads there was sand, white as sun bleached bones and fine as diamond dust. The lake itself was large and gorgeous, shaped (from and aerial view, for the volume of the lake was too large to fathom from the beach) like an eye, with a clear view from one point to the other.
The water clear was crystal and tinted with topaz, then sapphire, the further from the shore one went. Each small breeze set into motion the water witch captured the sun and sparkled it out like a herald of light and broken glass. It hurt just to look at the brilliance of it. A beach such as this truly deserved palm trees as its ever-present companions, but here in giant red woods and oak trees, centuries old (yes millennia younger than the lake) stood neatly manicured by time and nature. The lake and the trees had been the subject of many artists lenses and canvasses, found everywhere from cheep gift shops to high rise galleries.
For Tommy, who had always appreciated screaming objects of beauty, couldn't help but laugh. God must be a smug bastard to show off like this.
It took more than a few minutes to navigate his Ranger down to Crystal Ridge, the location of the complex his grandparents had rented out for the week. Every few meters he was forced to stop for a pedestrian crossing. He hoped Crystal ridge was a bit more excluded than the main drag.
"Good," Tommy's mom was beside his truck almost as fast as he pulled in, she held open the door while he stepped out, "What took you so long?"
"I had to stop and stretch my legs," Tommy lied, taking his duffle sack out of the box.
Arlene, fully Irish, was already starting to burn. She didn't share the same skin complexion Tommy had received from his Italian father.
"Well, at least you're not the last one here. We are still waiting to see Denise; she hasn't made it down from L.A yet."
"Where's my cabin?" Tommy asked, disinterested in the affairs of his mothers sisters.
"Go find Johnny and Tim, then go see grandma and grandpa."
Sand made its way annoyingly into the cracks of his toes as he took a walk around the grounds to find his two closest cousins. Closest being a relative term, occasionally, during high school Johnny and Tim's school would face off against Tommy's in a sporting event. His lack of interest in the two was not born out of personality differences, both were fairly laid back guys, but instead out of apathy.
"Hey," he nodded as he found the two brothers sun bathing on the porch of the wood paneled cabin. By measure of empty bottles at their sides Tommy figured they had been lounging there for quite a while.
Tim barley opened an eyelid in recognition. "You get the bottom bunk to the left."
Tommy shrugged inadvertently and found his bunk. There were for beds in the room, a pair vertically installed on each side of the room with a single handing bulb in the middle and a small counter with a polished sink.
The place wasn't so terrible.
"Hey," Tommy shouted out the door-less doorjamb when he noticed three sets of bed gear already set up, "Who's got the other bed?"
"Marcus." Tim said. Tommy noticeably cringed at the mention of that name. Even since he could remember Marcus O'Tool had been a terror of a human being, a wannabe rebel (the kind that conforms to a subculture to express his hatred of normal culture...fucking hypocrite) with more opinions than Tommy threw strikes in a season.
"Yeah," Johnny laughed, almost hearing Tommy's annoyance. "Our mother failed to mention that to us too."
"Come grab some rays, your not all Irish so they won't be wasted on you."
"Thanks but I got to make by rounds," Tommy muttered sarcastically, "My moms afraid the 'rent are going to croak before dinner and I have to put in some face time for my inheritance."
"You'll find us here, man," Johnny said, "Were going into town tonight to find some action."
"Right," Tommy said as he walked off, not looking like refried hotdogs you won't.
It was cool in the communal hall, which was welcome, despite the sloppy wet kisses from the female relatives and the enthusiastic, yet invasive bicep grope by the male ones. Tommy smiled through it all though, not the least bit amazed at how selfish he had become with his time, and made it out unscathed in any major ways just as Denise was walking it.
She didn't recognize him and walked right past in a blur of purses and handbags. Tommy raised his eyebrows in surprise; obviously his mother hadn't given her any family pictures with him in it.
The sun set slowly on Fairfax Lake, like sun warmed honey rolling down the side of a jar. The colors were spectacular and shifting, champagne flavored skies were hot and sweet with a landward breeze that watched the sky shift from orange hues to brilliant burnt oranges and yellows. Tommy watched it by himself a half mile down the private beach designated to Crystal Ridge. He rested back into the plush wells of the sand and forced himself not to close his eyes as long as the sun still shone.
He knew in the back of his mind this was where he should be, he knew his grandparents to be asleep, and the hot day really did them in. His mother was occupied with her sisters, not over a game of monopoly like some families might do, but instead on one of the most in-depth and incredibly nauseating gossip conventions know to the planet. Ex husbands, stories of friends and their lovers, secrets that they had sworn to keep...but what would it hurt to tell?
Tommy was only faintly aware of padding footsteps that were coming up to him, and by the time he turned his head to look a woman was already beside him. The sudden movement of his neck sent the woman into startled recoil, her hand clasped to the cotton folds of her sundress. Her startled gasp was thundering compared to the relative silence of the lapping waves,
"God, I though you were passed out."
"No," Tommy sat up and pulled his t-shirt back on, "just enjoying the show." He nodded out at the vast expanse of the lake, which by now was fading from its radiant mango glow.
"Oh." The woman's hands let go of their clutched fabric and she crossed their slender selves across her chest. "I wonder how it turns all those colors."
"I don't know." Tommy shrugged. "They don't cover those important things in school."
"I guess." The woman smiled delicately, almost timidly.
Tommy didn't say much in the following minutes, but the woman didn't move away, just stood their, stoically, her long neck developing deep shadows in the twisted cords next to the hollow of her throat. Here, in this light Tommy was captivated by this woman...almost sickly so. She stood bare footed in a confident stance that betrayed to him nothing short of confidence, her youthful, cavernous eyes in an expression of delicate wonder, which would eventually turn to disappointment as the sun sank fully over the horizon. She wasn't tall, but neither was she short, her bare shoulders were strongly shaped, toned not just by what could have been yoga, but also by favorable genetics. She was slender even, to the point that she made her sundress beautiful and not visa versa. Here on the beach she occupied so small a space physically, but her presence was almost equal to that of the setting sun, so raw and artistic was her beauty. From Tommy's position he could admire her profile, the strong cut of her jaw, the sharp, enticing angles of her hips, the purse of her textured lips...all of these lashed out at his senses like a train wreak, no matter where his eyes searched he found more beauty. He watched her like someone does a car crash or some eminent bar fight, wanting to look away but finding it difficult. So he watched her while she in turn watched the sunset until the water reflected only the palest of lights.
For the woman the show was over, and she turned and caught Tommy's staring gaze. With an oxymoronic (for so creature cut from Gods angelic patter could ever be a timid creature) shy smile she turned and walked away.
"Wait," Tommy jumped up from his natural chair, "Please," the woman turned and smiled,
"I have to go; I'm late for a party."
"Oh," Tommy had never felt more defeated than in that moment, even with all the games he pitched, or the lost chances his young life and dealt him. If this girl was allowed to walk away he knew God was not only a smug God, but also a cruel bastard.
If the woman saw the shattered expression of disappointment on Tommy's face, she didn't let on, but she did take a step closer, than another, and another, until she stood chest to chest with him.
As with disappointment, he had never experienced such pressure as he felt now. With this beach dryad standing just a breath away, her sun warmed skin bronzed and smooth as the ash of a new baseball bat, her lips, in a permanent pout, being nibbled lightly between her teeth, all of it...all of it intoxicated his youthful soul.
"Do you want an invitation?" her voice wasn't so timid anymore, but it was still unsure.
"I do." Tommy nodded.
"Then come..." she took his hand, almost like a child, the fingers not intertwined as lover do on long walks on the beach, but her touch...oh her touch was more than enough. Tommy was enthralled and charmed by her.
"My names Carmella," her voice was unearthly calm now, a peak louder than the wind and the waves, yet so much more beautiful,
"Tommy," he listened to his voice as if it came from a different throat entirely, surprised at the way her eyes smiled at the intimate introduction. She liked the name, just as he liked hers.
"The party is back in town," she pulled him back towards the start of her footprints, "I have a car we can take."
If Brad had ever asked the bars name, or the number of drinks Tommy had, or the time he left, Tommy would have stared blankly at him. It was a blur, and not all of it was intoxication, in fact none of it was.
He was a satellite orbiting the gravitating, charismatic mass of Carmella, trying hard not to crash and burn. It was all he could do to stay sane and not smother her so early in their relationship. God, he cringed at himself for using that word. He was lucky enough just to dance with her, to have her let him touch her, to be close.