Nothing that happened the night Nelson killed the raven was funny. Especially not what happened to me. Started happening, I should say. The mystery was why I kept laughing. I thought if I figured that out, I would know what I was supposed to do. For the record, Nelson did not mean to kill the bird.
Nelson Pacheco was the Hilltoppers’ catcher. He was having a terrific season, batting .285 and making some killer plays at the plate. Somehow he managed to connect with a vicious curve ball delivered by the opposing pitcher. The ball popped up over the third-base dugout at the exact moment the bird happened by. They collided, the bird came down dead, a few morons in the stands laughed, and the ump called a time-out. Everybody thought it was a crow, me included. But there was some sort of professor at the game that night. He recognized the dead bird for what it was. Eventually the play-by-play guy announced it wasn’t a crow, and the ump hollered play ball. Our guys went on to win by a run and hold on to second place in the standings.
From what I read, later on, we didn’t have all that many ravens in our area. Knocking them off with foul balls couldn’t help.
I loved baseball. I loved our stadium. It sat on a hill on the west edge of the city, and from just about any seat in the place you had a knock-out view of the Blue Ridge mountains in the distance. Summer nights, the sun going down softened the scenery. It glowed, and the glow made you feel like you had stumbled into a significant moment. You sat there sipping a cold brew as your eye swept from infield to outfield, over to the scoreboard and up over the fence to the trees, and finally to the mountains in the distance. You wished you could stop time because there it was, right in front of you, the American Dream.
Nelson, the catcher, was living in our basement, in Pete’s old room. Single A ball did not pay much, unless you had a signing bonus. In that case nobody expected you to stick around long⎯they bumped you up to a Double A or even a Triple A club pretty much overnight. One way the players got by was living with families when they were in town. Most of the host families were pretty well off. Realtors, car dealers, that kind of person. The guys who stayed with them had a good thing going. A big comfortable room of their own, sometimes a private apartment. Nelson did not have it that good, staying with us. I was a welder. My wife worked at Big Lots. Luck of the draw, Nelson’s and mine. Ginny Elizabeth and I tried to make up for not living in a showplace by feeding the hell out of our ballplayers.
We had been hosting players a long time. We got free season tickets out of the deal, but that was not the reason we did it. My wife liked baseball, although not the way I did. It had something to do with the solid feeling you got, making a contribution. In my experience, most people like doing something generous. No one puts a gun to their head to force them to do it.
The night Nelson killed the raven, Ginny Elizabeth was out playing spit-in-the-bucket with her friends, but our daughter, Carrie, came with me. That surprised me, her wanting to see the game. From Carrie’s point of view, baseball was nothing but embarrassment. It meant a strange guy staying in the windowless room her brother fixed up for himself in the basement back when he was a teenager and wanted to get away from us. She knew how the other host families lived. But she was a month away from turning eighteen, and there was not much I understood about her, so when she said she was coming with me, all I said was Great. In the bottom of the second inning, she got a text from a friend on the other side of the stadium and moved away to sit with her.
After the game, I went looking for her. Found her where I did not expect to. She was down on the field staring at Nelson. He was swinging a bat with a doughnut on it like he was warming up. He was staring back at her.
That was all it took. What made fathers so dense? My daughter was growing into her looks. She was not the kind of girl you were going to see on a magazine cover, but there was a freshness about her. Ginny Elizabeth said Carrie was earnest, and earnest was attractive. After a three-month bout with blue, she had let her mother’s wonderful auburn hair grow out again the way it wanted to. The pouty air she had been cultivating through her senior year bugged the hell out of me, but I knew better than to make a big deal out of it. And I was not naïve⎯I also knew it had something to do with sex.
“You going home with me?”
I was talking to both of them. I guess this is the place to say that Nelson was from the Dominican Republic and spoke English with a pretty heavy accent. And had brown skin. People are going to climb all over me for mentioning that. All I can say is, it was relevant.
“Thanks, Mr. Boggs,” he said. “I’m going out with the guys. Home later.” He dug in his pocket and brought out a key ring with a neon orange fish head, held it up. Ginny Elizabeth had given him a house key once we decided we trusted him.
He smiled. It was a smile you could imagine seeing on a baseball card some day. He was handsome in a sports-hero way.
The ride home with Carrie was not one of my finer moments.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.
“What am I thinking?”
“That me and Nelson are going to…do something.”
I won’t repeat everything we said. My part came down to, Nelson was too old for her and wasn’t going to be around anyway. Her part was accusing me of being a racist.
“He’s living in our house,” I said. “He sits at our table. Tell me what’s racist about that.”
She pounded the dashboard in frustration. It was her way of telling me I didn’t get it. At home she flounced off, made herself scarce. I watched a little TV then went to bed. Six a.m. came early. By the time Ginny Elizabeth came to bed, I was sawing serious wood.
It must have been fatherly intuition that woke me in the middle of the night and sent me to the window. When I looked out, there was my daughter dancing with Nelson on the flagstone patio I’d laid myself three years ago. Dancing, and no music. There wasn’t much light, either, just a couple of lanterns on the picnic table.
Ginny Elizabeth sat up in bed and said What’s wrong, Patterson? I didn’t answer. I tore downstairs and outside and broke up the dance party. To his credit, Nelson knew he had crossed a line. He hung his head. Meantime, Carrie was furious, spouting every kind of nonsense about me not trusting her and her having the right to live her own life and…fill in the blanks based on your own experience.
“Get out of my house,” I said to Nelson.
It was two o’clock in the a.m. He had no car. There were no buses in our neighborhood. He might or might not have had enough cash on him to cover a hotel room. But he went.
“You’re mean,” my daughter moaned when he was gone. “You’re a racist pig.”
Well, I was mad, but I took it. What choice did I have? Harder to take was Ginny Elizabeth’s analysis of the evening’s events. She said I overreacted. After a while, I put a pillow over my head and did my best to sleep.
At Cushman Machine & Welding the next morning, my head was pounding like it used to when I drank too much and got hangovers. Not enough sleep⎯it brings out the darkness in a new day. My friend Randy Bullock and I were working on a rush job for the foreman. The customer had invented a machine for sorting gravel by size. The novelty was how the shaker connected to and moved the sorter tray. He needed a working model to try and sell the idea. It was a kick-ass concept, and normally I would have enjoyed working on it. But the incident with Carrie and Nelson had me rattled.
“It’s simple,” said Randy.
For Randy, everything was simple. He spent way too much time listening to the hotheads on talk radio. There was gray in his beard now, and he’d been walking with a limp since he took a spill on his brand-new Yamaha, taking a curve on one of those mountain roads meant for scenic cruises, not daredevil bikers past their riding prime. He lifted his mask and prepared to lecture me.
“This country was started by guys with names like Patterson Boggs and Randy Bullock. Am I right or am I right? They’re turning it into a country that caters to guys with names like Nelson Pacheco and Ali Baba. They sneak over the border and look for a sign called Easy Street. They park their ass and stick out their hand. Before you and me are in our graves, they’ll outnumber us, and the whole thing is over.”
My friend’s immigration theory did not make me feel better. I did not regret throwing Nelson out of the house. He had betrayed my trust. But I liked the guy. And now it was going to be hell, getting through the rest of the summer with Carrie. In the fall, if everything went the way it was supposed to, she started college. To make that happen, Ginny Elizabeth and I were taking out a humongous loan. Which, be it said, we were more than happy to do. I didn’t give a shit what she studied as long as she studied.
After work, I drove to Hilltoppers Stadium and hunted up Will Abbott. Will handled community relations for the team, including which players stayed with which host families. I found him in the grass outside his office having a smoke. He was a long drink of water with hands like grandma’s spaghetti bowls. Way back when, he used to play third base for the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Never made it to the big leagues but handled defeat better than most of them. He was leathery now. The baseball life will do that to a person’s skin.
When I filled him in, he shook his head, let out a mouthful of smoke. His voice rumbled like a gravel sorter. “Too bad. Pacheco is a decent kid. But they know the rules. No fraternizing. Never mind, I’ll find someplace for him to stay.”
“Ginny Elizabeth and me, we’re happy to take another guy.”
He shook his head. I didn’t know what that meant. He told me, “‘Course, you hear this all the time.”
“Guy’s got a future in the game.”
“You got scouts looking at him?”
He wouldn’t say much more. Team management held that kind of information pretty close to the chest. They had their reasons. But it stabbed me in a soft place, thinking about Nelson moving up. He had a consistently hot bat, he had the command of the field of play a catcher had to have. It would be sensational to watch a ball player who had eaten your meatloaf and mashed potatoes rise through the ranks. Nobody that stayed with us ever got beyond Double A. The best was, one time a guy they called Skinny Pockets hit a grand slam in a playoff game while he was with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies.
Driving home, I kind of wished I hadn’t kicked Nelson out of our house. Not so much because he might make it to the bigs but because, as a person, he was one of the nicest we ever hosted. Polite, soft-spoken, and you got the impression he didn’t mind a bit staying in a welder’s basement. But by the time I pulled into the driveway I was facing a fact I did not particularly want to face.
Think of it as a movie trailer, and here’s the plot: Dominican kid makes it to the majors. Bam, he’s a star, a fence buster with a slugging percentage to die for. The baseball world gushes, look at those XBH numbers. Cameras follow him home, where his young wife is waiting to hug him. Welcome home, sweetie. She’s got stunning auburn hair. A couple of kids are horsing around in the yard. They’ve got light tan skin, a color a lot of people considered cool.
Watching the trailer, feeling a twinge when the ball player’s wife hugged him. Did that make me a racist?
The team was away for a three-day series against the Mosby Raiders. At home, we managed to keep the peace by talking about anything that wasn’t Nelson Pacheco. Carrie went around the house looking like I had run over her dog⎯on purpose⎯but if I asked her a question she answered, and I figured time would smooth things out.
The next home game, I told Ginny Elizabeth I’d meet her at the stadium and went early. I had no plan, only a hunch. I ate a hot dog and watched the team warm up. There wasn’t much of a crowd. The weather was hot and muggy, and our guys were playing the team in the cellar, who played like ice hockey was their sport. Not much drama.
My brain took notice of the atmospheric conditions. It slowed down, the way you imagine a bear’s brain does in hibernation. Ginny Elizabeth texted me that she was taking an overtime shift at the store. In all the years we’ve been together, neither of us has ever said no to overtime. That’s part of the American Dream, too, but don’t ask me to explain how, it just is.
So I watched the game by myself. Nelson had another good one, smacking a three-run homer. He also made an impossible catch at the plate, body stretched out like a ballerina’s, foot on the bag. Out. It felt strange, cheering my lungs out for a guy I had booted out of my house. Live an adult life long enough and you’re guaranteed to feel something similar.
After the game, the guidance from my slow brain was to stick around and spy. Aye-aye, Captain. I stuck. What I spied was Nelson getting into Carrie’s car and the two of them driving off laughing like a couple of hyenas. He’s only nineteen and a half, she had huffed once in a moment of exasperation. Meaning not too old for her.
I could have followed them. I didn’t. Not because my noble nature stopped me. Hill City was small by anybody’s yardstick.
First time Carrie looked in the rear-view mirror, she would see my F-150, which was both old and purple. Also, I thought I might do something stupid if I caught up to them. If I was going to do something stupid, it needed advance planning.
All the planning I was capable of that night was getting smashed, something I had not done in maybe ten years. That was the one drawback to Ginny Elizabeth’s overtime shift. It left me alone. I found the bottle of Jack we kept for company and did some major-league damage to it. I fell asleep on the couch. When Ginny Elizabeth got home from work, she shook me awake and told me I smelled like a brewery. She meant distillery. I didn’t correct her.
I paid for it, next day at work. Randy and I were really pushing to get the gravel-sorter done on time. That morning, however, I did not hold up my end. Which Randy found highly entertaining. His color commentary made my head pound worse. He kept yakking on that I had to have it out with Nelson. The kid had to know there would be consequences if he didn’t leave my daughter alone.
“What about Carrie?” I said.
“Ginny Elizabeth is talking to her.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“What makes you so dumb?”
Everything was worse because I had drunk the Jack with Coke. On the rocks would have been smarter.
That was when I started laughing. I had no idea why. Randy gave me a look like I was going soft in the head. When we pulled our masks down and went back to work, I was still smiling.
I laughed when Ginny Elizabeth told me Carrie was AWOL.
“What’s funny about that, Patterson?”
We had been together a long time, since two years before we got married. We sagged more than we used to. We told old stories. We saw more yesterday than tomorrow in each other’s faces. None of that was bad, it only meant we had to be deliberate in the way we touched each other.
She asked me again what was funny.
“The situation, I guess.”
She shook her head. I didn’t understand me any better than she did.
Carrie was working at the Sonic on Ward’s Road for the summer. She left a voicemail on our land line saying she was calling in sick and, by the way, she was thinking about taking a year off before college. Rich kids did it all the time. They called it their gap year. There was no law said you had to be rich to do that, was there?
The message hit both of us hard. At that point, we’d have broken our arms and legs and whistled Black Sabbath tunes in a nudist colony if it meant she went to college. We were devastated. And she wouldn’t pick up her phone, she wouldn’t answer her mother’s texts. The night was long.
“She’s in Keysburg,” I said.
“Count on it.”
“Then why are you laughing?”
“I’m cracking up. In a good way, maybe.”
The Hilltoppers were playing an away game against the
Keysburg Mighty Mice. A two-hour drive. The question was whether Carrie came home that night.
She did not.
Next morning at work, Randy told me it was time to play hardball.
“He’s a catcher,” I pointed out.
“But is he a U.S. citizen? Call the border cops. ICE, they call ‘em. I seen it on the backs of their jackets on the news. If he ain’t a citizen they can deport his ass right back to Taco Land.”
“You’re a piece a work,” I told him.
Which was objectively true. My friend and workmate was three times divorced. He believed he was sexy, down to the Colt .45 tattooed on his butt. He drank too much and thought too little. His favorite sport was telling me how to run my life.
The upshot of Randy telling me I had to do something about Nelson Pacheco was I spent the rest of the day building up a scenario in my mind where I had it out with the guy. You know how you can get carried away with an idea? I got lost in mine. Sometimes the scenario ended in violence. Sometimes it ended in tragedy, and sometimes it was black and bitter. But no matter how it played out, the scenario had me stalking the kid, tracking him down.
So it threw me that afternoon when he showed up at Cushman. Lisa, the secretary, strolled out to the work floor to tell me there was a Spanish guy outside wanted to see me. This was no sacrifice on her part. She came out on the floor on any flimsy excuse so the guys had ample opportunity to ogle her in her clean dress, her red shoes, sashaying across the crowded space where we did our dirty work.
“Now’s your chance,” Randy told me. He was looking up the ICE phone number on his phone.
“Forget it,” I told him.
“What do you mean, forget it? And what’s so funny?”
I found Nelson in the parking lot leaning against a red Hyundai he had borrowed from somebody. He was calm and cool, just like an innocent man. I asked him what he was doing there.
“I want to explain something.”
“I don’t give a damn what you want,” I told him, which was a lie. I really did want to hear what he had to say. I thought for a second about pleading with him to leave my daughter alone so she would go to Lynchburg College like she was supposed to. But the picture in my mind of me begging him was so pathetic I couldn’t open my mouth to try.
“It’s me, isn’t it?” he said.
“The way I look.”
“You look like a catcher. You’ve got the ideal build to play the position.”
He shook his head. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“The end of August, Carrie goes to college.”
“I know. She wants to study Spanish.”
“That’s news to me.”
“I don’t get why you’re laughing,” he said. His tone of voice was respectful. “It’s like you are full of anger and laughing at the same time.”
I was beginning to understand why that was happening. He was the last person I was going to explain it to.
“Last night,” I said.
He waved at me, not like I didn’t matter but like he was giving me his blessing, which of course he had no right to even think about doing. But that was all it took. It came to me on a silver plate, shining and new. From here on out, I had no control over what my daughter chose to do. That part of our life together was over.
“I won’t talk about last night, Mr. Boggs.”
I had two choices: tell him to fuck off, or turn around and go back to work. I turned around and walked away.
I stopped. I waited.
“I grew in a place called La Vega.”
He meant grew up; that was okay.
“We played a lot of baseball. Two years ago, a scout showed up. His name was Moseley. He brought me here.”
“Before I got on the airplane, he told me something muy importante.”
Saying the Spanish words was like taunting me. That was okay, too.
“Moseley was black. African American. He told me here in this country you have to go into every situation expecting to be treated bad. But at the same time, you must keep an open mind.”
“An open mind about what?”
“There might be a situation where the color of your skin don’t matter. If that happens, you take advantage of it. I just want a shot, Mr. Boggs. If they give me a shot, I can make it.”
That was it. All there was to say on both sides. He was behind the wheel of his borrowed car before I was halfway across the lot. Then I had to put up with more of Randy’s foaming nonsense. He had the ICE number up on the screen of his phone. His thumb, the one with a mangled nail thanks to a claw hammer and too many schnapps, was poised, ready to punch it. There was more like that until we finished the shift, lots more. But I had the laughing figured out.
I went to the next Hilltoppers game by myself. Since Carrie had come back from Keysburg, there was not a lot of conversation going on around home. Ginny Elizabeth had already figured out what took me longer to tumble to, that the girl was making her own decisions. But at that point none of us could take on a conversation about what came next.
We were playing the James City Night Hawks. The two teams had been neck and neck all season. This game mattered. If we beat the Night Hawks, we elbowed them out of first place. And there was another reason the game was significant. Scouts.
There were half a dozen of them in the stands behind home plate with their clipboards and velocity guns, their ground-out- to-fly-out ratios, their bequeathed runs scored numbers. I had mixed feelings about those guys. They were an important cog in the wheel of baseball, sure. But they were guessing, just like you and me. They had a certain power of death and life when it came to signing bonuses. Their recommendations to management carried weight. But often as not, they guessed wrong.
The Hilltoppers played a terrible game. By the end of inning four, they were trailing five zip. And Nelson’s game was horrendous. He whiffed every time he stepped to the plate, and behind it on defense he played like a Little Leaguer under psychological pressure from his asshole father yelling at him from the stands.
I felt bad for all concerned, but more for Nelson. Okay, it was not the only game where scouts showed up. And they had his stats. They knew good players had bad games. But if I had been one of those judges in short sleeves, I probably would have put a line through Nelson’s name and moved on to the next prospect.
I toyed with going over to where the scouts were sitting, engaging one of them in conversation, casually talking up the Hilltoppers catcher. But I was a nobody, and nobody was going to give me the time of day.
The game ended worse than it began. A botched double play in the eighth inning brought in three more James City runs, and we were humiliated, as in skunked. The scouts left at the end of the seventh, which I guess was some consolation. They didn’t see that double play disaster. On the other hand, they didn’t have to.
The stands emptied out, but a feeling of gloom kept me sitting there. I was done laughing for now. It turned out I had not been laughing at the situation after all. I was laughing at myself. Why? Because I was a crusty old dude with a bad attitude and no imagination. Because I’d been listening too hard to Randy Bullock for too long. Because I felt a chilly hand squeezing the secret space around my heart and decided the world was coming to an end. Because I didn’t know how to let my daughter go. Who wouldn’t laugh at a guy like that?
Eventually I stood up. I made my way to the parking lot, which had quickly emptied out. There was Carrie’s blue Focus, parked a couple of rows away from my truck. She was standing alongside the car, facing off against Nelson. I couldn’t not go up to them.
When I did, I saw tears in Nelson’s eyes. They were the tears of desolation. He knew exactly how bad he had looked to the scouts.
The sun was going down over the Blue Ridge in a pale gleam that seemed like a promise, although I could not have said a promise of what.
Nelson said, “It’s over, Mr. Boggs.”
A squad of crows started up from a pine tree and flew across the parking lot in saw-tooth formation. At least I was pretty sure they were crows. As it happened, I had two twenties in the pocket of my jeans. I dug out the money and held it out to him.
“Buy Carrie some dinner.”
That was worth doing if only for the look of amazement on my daughter’s face. She said something that did not quite come out in words. The sound was like gargling with salt water. I was prejudiced, of course, but she was beautiful just then. The pouty look was gone.
Nelson cautiously took the money. “It was the worst game of my life.”
I nodded. No use pretending it wasn’t.
“It’s all over for me.”
But he was wrong about that, and I told him so.
“What you need to see, Nelson, is that it’s only beginning.”
I hoped he understood what I was driving at. Because what I had in mind was, you might say, muy importante.
In addition to Delmarva Review, Mark Jacobs has published 133 stories in magazines, including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, and The Iowa Review. His stories are forthcoming in several magazines, including The Hudson Review. He has published five books. Among them are A Handful of Kings (Simon and Shuster) and Stone Cowboy (Soho Press). Website: http://www.markjacobsauthor.com.
Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review discovers compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Visit the website: DelmarvaReview.org. Obtain print or digital editions at Amazon.com or Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford.