The steam was already up; the crack of the bat against the ball was a foregone conclusion, known and felt before the fact. All parts of the body laboring in unison, a blessed event which comes without effort of will, but with much concentration, to a player perhaps once in a game. Drew knew that his perception of self traveling raster than ball was in a very real sense true, though bearing no relation to the physical fact. While aware of his sweat and pumping legs, he did not worry about beating the long arm of the center fielder to third. In a few applause-washed seconds he was there, watching the indolent ball float in to be off-handedly snagged by a disgusted third baseman. He could see Tim Hardin, his predecessor, trotting from home toward the dugout. The crowd stood. Those who disdained public displays of hysteria were forced to stand if they wanted to see over the heads of the frantic true believers. Thus Marge Patterson had two reasons for getting to her feet: her son, the Mustang star, had once again brought glory to the name of Trumansburg Central High. A small tear dwindled down from her right eye. "What did I do to deserve these allergies?" blurted automatically from inner-voice to her mind's ear.
The crowd had ceased shrieking and was subsiding to a dying rumble as it sat down collectively. Marge saw she was standing alone and quickly sat.
This run had put the Mustangs back in the game at 2-2. The game was secure in Marge's mind even though the next two batters flied out. As the fielders ran in toward the backstop, she picked up her purse and edged along the bleachers, scraping backs of calves on fronts of knees. This repetitive sensation gave rise to a nominal irritability.
On her way down the rickety steps and across the pea-gravel toward the car her thoughts turned inexplicably to an art contest in which her parents had entered her in junior high. Ugly old Mrs. Bremer had had to tell them she had "artistic talent". She recalled a chain of windy October nights at the kitchen table after dinner, the flickery kerosene lamp reflecting sickly off the oilcloth under the expensive art paper her father had bought with a part of that week's grocery money. She remembered passing a fingertip over its richly rough surface, a slight shiver creeping up her arm from that finger. She heard her father shouting, "Draw!... Not good enough! When in hell are you going to start living up to your potential?" Then she saw Andy rounding second again. "Kid doesn't know how lucky he is," she muttered, and jammed the key into the car's door lock.
These new little cars were a pain in the neck, or in the gut, depending on how you looked at it. They're making them so chintzy now that you couldn't even sit on their crummy cloth seats without getting impaled on the steering wheel.
Finally settled, she yanked the door shut with her left arm.
"Ow!" she yelped. Stupid noise escaped her throat before she knew it was coming. No good yelling, your arm is still going to hurt.
It really did hurt, too. Must have pulled a muscle or something; it felt like somebody was drawing a knife from shoulder to wrist. She rubbed it, which accomplished nothing.
The pain seemed to be fading out when she heard the hammering on the passenger door. Startled, she drew breath and looked over. An impossibly large kid in an ice cream suit? No, a baseball uniform was draped good-naturedly over the door and roof, a flawless grin blazing out from amongst a small thicket of pimples. She was shocked that she had not instantly recognized her son.
"Let me in!" he was hollering. "Picking up hitchhikers is good luck! Allow me to enter your vehicle, and within the next ten miles you will find your fortune on the road of life!"
Marge leaned, with effort, across the seat and flicked the latch. Then she braced her arm on the seat and heaved herself upright again. The barely bearded monster got in.
"Save your golden tongue for the younger girls, hot-shot," she chuckled. She started the car.
"Mom, words are wasted on those chicks. What they want is action."
The edge in her voice was a fine thing, and practiced. A stranger would not hear it.
"Think before you act. And if you must act, why not act on your trigonometry book?"
She half-heard him chuckle in that smug adolescent all-knowing way as she made a tricky left turn out of the lot onto Forest Road. When would they put that light in the Town Council was always yammering about?
"I don't need math, Mom. I am a baseball star! Besides, these tough courses have a way of taking care of themselves."
"You mean your teachers know where their bread is buttered and they take care of you." That fine edge remained and was honed by use.
Doggedly, Drew responded. "Yeah, I know it's true. It's kinda like when Tones Jones the music teacher gets his prize piano prodigy Dan Dimalio out of Phys. Ed. so he won't hurt his precious fingers. Hey, school's a place where they get you ready to make a living. We can't all be scientists. We make trade offs to stay in the game, or for the sake of art."
Marge realized she'd missed the red light in just enough time to stand on the brakes and keep the car's nose behind the stop-line. She got the wheel in her ribs for her trouble. The squeal of brakes co-existed with Drew's bellow as his upper body threw his head dangerously close to the dash.
"Jesus Christ, Mom!"
Marge's ribs ached. Her head was beginning to ache. The bright edge was as thin as Occam's Razor in her quiet voice.
"I don't like that kind of language, and I don't like your attitude. You know you're getting away with something. Those people at school are sliding you through, treating you with kid gloves because you're such a big star, and you're proud of it."
The green light followed the red as day follows night, and she stepped on the gas, smoothly accelerating.
Drew's face assumed a glassiness, of mirrors as opposed to windows, an he turned his head to look at her, his voice oblique but equally quiet. "Sorry, Mom. Not proud. Not smart, either, though. Just aware of the realities."
"You're aware of yourself, I know."
Some side streets were passed. The houses grew younger and larger outside the windows. The frequency of traffic lights declined.
"I suppose you won," she said eventually.
The grin reappeared. "Of course! The boy is hot, and an inspiration to the team. Holfield went three-up, three-down in the last inning, and we scored two more runs without trying, which makes us six and one for the season and, naturally, still in first."
"Well good for you. Baseball comes easy to you, doesn't it?"
Drew tried to explain why that wasn't true. He attempted to show that talent didn't necessarily make for ease of accomplishment. An inspiration flooded him; he had recourse to the Biblical parable of the master who distributed talents to his three servants, and the mess two of the three had made of the gifts.
"Talent is worthless by itself. You got to work to make something of it."
Marge made a smooth right turn onto their street. "Funny you should be speaking in parables. When was the last time you went to church? But anyway, where's the work come in when you've got the entire faculty of Trumansburg High School covering for you?"
Drewshifted his long torso abruptly and looked intently out his window. There was an acrid tremor in his voice. "Can't you just once tell me I played a good game?"
When Marge pulled the car into the garage Drew was out, into the house, and behind the closed door of his room before Marge could drop her purse on the kitchen counter. Soon after she heard the shower start up, but she didn't see him again until the next morning. Adolescent craziness, she shrugged. Rampant hormones. Good thing he'd grabbed a sandwich before the game.
Tom was in the family room in front of the TV. "Yankees losing two-nothing," he called cheerfully as she brushed by him on her way to the sofa.
"Can't we watch something besides baseball?" she muttered, and eased herself down onto the heavy, scratchy upholstery. Boy, she'd really pulled something when she slammed that tinkertoy car door. The knife seemed to be cutting into her chest adjacent to her left shoulder, as well as slicing another ribbon out of her arm. She grunted involuntarily.
Tom turned his head to look at her. A slight smile split his grey-stubbled face. "What's the matter? Mustangs lose?"
"Are you kidding? With our son the next Mantle at the bat?"
Tom returned his gaze to the TV. "What do you want to watch?"
"I don't care."
Tom sighed, and punched the remote control. News. Another ball game. Commercial. A beauty pageant. "Whoo! Lookit them knockers! Miss Missouri gets my vote!"
"If that's all you're going by, my dress dummy should get your vote."
"She's nice," Tom said placidly, "'Course, she was made after you. I remember those days."
"A thin grin momentarily visited youth on Marge's face. "Remember the Mercury?"
"That old thing?" Tom laughed aloud. "I remember the bubble gum we used to keep the fuel line from leaking." He looked at her. "Oh! Yeah! The Mercury. The back seat of the 1959 Merc!"
"Why don't you come on over here and tell me what you remember?"
"I can do better than that," he said as he rose from his chair.
Tom's arms were old familiar things. He was comfortable that way. Even in the way he kissed, first a little peck, then that slow, delicate nibbles at the outer edge of her lips, then his tongue... No surprises, few disappointments. She held him tighter then.
And heard that strange adult's voice, modulated like a child's, yelling, "No! Stop!" as from an incredible distance, but piercing. The almost-real voice caused nearly-physical pain in her mind's ear. Tom's stubble scratched her upper lip. She felt a cramp in her back from leaning into him. She withdrew. "Why don't you ever shave?"
Tom slowly sat back, his face expressionless.
"Hon, I shave every morning. I've got a fast-growing beard."
"It's like kissing a Brillo pad."
Tom laid a huge hand softly on her right arm. "I'll go shave. I'll be right back." He started to get up.
"Don't bother. I guess I'm more tired than I thought."
Tom's cement-mason's body appeared to hold too much moisture. Like a poorly mixed batch of concrete, it puddled forlornly into the cracks between the couch cushions. A barrel of air hissed out as his chest deflated like a child's beach toy which has sprung a leak. Then it filled again suddenly. "Cock-teaser," barely escaped his lips.
Marge tensed. "I don't like your language, Tom."
He jerked his head around to stare at her. "What did I do to you?"
"Nothing. You never do anything."
He stood up. "Well, it's not for lack of trying!" His hands quivered, hanging down at the ends of long arms. "You're damn lucky I still try! Your body isn't what it used to be, you know."
The knife edge in her arm, in her voice. "Neither is yours, my man."
His pain seized him in the groin like a physical thing. If he were a woman, he would cry. "I do my best, Margaret. But any man would have trouble if he tried to shove himself into a fat roll of greasy rubber like you!"
Then he left the room and took the stairs as his son had before him. As he reached the landing he heard his younger son, Dave, coughing in his room. And as he opened his bedroom door and smelled his wife's jasmine pillow cachet, certain new knowledge confronted his mind with the scent. "She got me," he said aloud in wonder. "She got me again."
Downstairs, Miss Missouri made semi-finalist. Marge wept silently, without wondering, and without words.
The baby crawled across the wide-planked, rough-sawn floor. She stopped momentarily as her head entered a brilliant bar of white light focused on the boards by the one window in the front room. She smiled toothlessly and continued crawling through the bright, living bar, and back into shadow again.
Margie watched her pensively as she stood upon two old Sears catalogs to stir the soup. She loved the smell of pea soup, even if they couldn't afford a ham bone to put in it this week. Daddy hadn't been able to get more than a day's work in the last two weeks.
Despite her pleasure in the smell of soup, she worried about the baby. That rough floor, and no money for a rug or even a linoleum mock-carpet. She'd get splinters for sure. Why, she was always getting them herself when she got down on the floor to play jacks or tiddly-winks with Daddy, and she was a big girl. Babies' skins were softer. And then she'd have to get the tweezers and pull them out herself. Mommy couldn't help her. Mommy was afraid of blood. Oh, it would be so nice if Daddy could get a job, and they could have money for a nice rug!
She stirred the soup. Mustn't let it burn. Mustn't! Daddy would be terribly mad if he had to eat burned soup. If it started to burn, Mommy would smell it and she would wake up and come out and try to help her save it, pour it into a new pot so Daddy wouldn't find out. And Mommy needed to rest. Mommy was so much nicer when she got her rest.
The baby was coughing. Margie looked up. The baby's face was very red.
"Oh no!" Margie screamed. She ran to the baby, but it was like going through mud. She couldn't get there fast enough. The baby's face was turning blue. Oh, no! She hadn't been watching. She'd been daydreaming again. Always daydreaming, Margie, you're just a dreamer it was just like mud I can't get to her oh Lord her face's gone black....
Mommy heard the first coughing, though now the baby wasn't making much noise at all, really, just wheezing. She'd come out of the bedroom and now she saw the black baby and she screamed, "Oh, God in heaven! My baby!! My baby's dying!! Margie, Margie, Margieeeee!!""
She was trying. She was getting closer but the mud was sucking at her calves and thighs. The baby wasn't making any noise or moving at all. And the soup was burning. She could smell it.
Margewoke up sitting in the bed. She was drenched in sweat. The dream was with her, all its sights and sounds collapsed to one instant and raging before her mind's senses. Then Tom jerked and mumbled something unarticulated. Marge began to shake, and the reality of the dream melted away. She held her head in her hands. Which baby had that been? It was a girl... but Marge had only five brothers, no other sisters. Did the dream-baby have a name? She couldn't remember.
She lay back down, and rolled over to put an arm around Tom. Poor Tom. I was mad and took it out on him. good old Tom. Always there when you needed him. He was warm, and solid, and sleeping quietly again. He had always been a sound sleeper, unlike her. He'd been an only child, too.
The pain that was like a surgeon's scalpel sliced her left arm again, and went right into her shoulder and on into her chest. And now the scalpel turned into a serrated steak knife, then a butter knife, and somebody was cutting her from breastbone to fingertips with an old-fashioned can opener, the kind she'd used as a kid to open the beans when Daddy was on the night shift and Mommy couldn't seem to get out of bed.... She couldn't help it. She screamed.
"It's called angina, Margaret," the doctor said, "and it's a symptom of heart disease. Now, I can give you pills to take when you feel it coming on, but you're going to have to start taking care of yourself. You're gong to have to lose some weight."
"Ah, Doctor. Really, I feel a lot better than I did last night. I don't think I really needed to go to the emergency room at all. I just pulled a muscle yesterday at the baseball game, and I must've just slept on it funny..."
"No, Margaret," the doctor said. He scratched his head where the temple of his glasses was beginning to cause a sore behind his ear. Then he sat down on his little round rolling stool.
"The EKG shows abnormal rhythms, your blood pressure is up. There's no inflammation in your arm. This is a heart problem, and if you don't take care if it, it's going to kill you."
Marge looked around the room. Glass jars full of swabs, tongue-depressors, bandages glinted in the sunlight from the examining room window. There was a reproduction of a painting of field-hands, women, harvesting grain on the wall opposite her. Her clothes hung from a hook on the door. She felt small in the hospital gown. "I can't afford to buy all that diet food just for me."
"Who said anything about diet food? What you really need is exercise, and just eat a little less of what you've been eating."
"Oh, come on, Doctor! When am I going to find time to exercise? Between housework, chauffeuring the kids to baseball practice and music lessons, shopping..."
"Margaret, 15 minutes a day would do it. Wait! You said you have a kid who plays baseball?"
"Yes. He's a real star on his high school team."
"Well, then. Here's what you do. You take him to practice,a and you stay there, and you do calisthenics and laps together."
Marge burst out laughing. "Oh, man! What do you think I am, a kid? If I'm going to have a heart attack, that's where I'll have it."
"Nonsense! You won't be doing any two-mile runs or anything for a while. You start slow and easy. I'll give you a list of exercises. What you need is the companionship, somebody to exercise with, to keep you motivated."
*Right, with a bunch of pimply-faced kids standing around laughing at me."
"Better they should laugh at you than cry over you."
"Mom, you look great. Just like Bruce Jenner," Drew said, eying Marge in her maroon sweatsuit and sneakers. Tight-lipped, she handed him the car keys.
"You've got a learner's permit, haven't you? Shut up and drive."
Drew got into the driver's seat, started the engine, and drove to the field, all in silence.
While her eldest son did push-ups, sit-ups, and jumping-jacks at a frantic rate, she followed her leisurely program of stretches and leg-lifts. Later, they ran around the track together.
"Hey, pick it up there Patterson," the coach yelled at him.
"Hey, Coach, that's my mother you're talking to," Drew yelled back, and stayed in step with Marge. "That was some dream you just told me, Mom. did that really happen?"
"No, I don't think so, Drew," Marge rasped out between breaths. "I think maybe I thought it happened, once."
There was something to this running business, she thought. Here she was, tub of lard, trotting almost like a young kid. Picking 'em up and putting 'em down. After a while, you developed a rhythm. Already, she felt lighter.