In a clear blue sky, the moon watched over a baseball game in small town America. James gripped the bat between his hands, twisting and squeezing his fingers. His weight shifted from one foot to the other; his hips wiggled back and forth. The pitcher eyed the signs behind home plate and shook off the first two before nodding at the third, then slid his fingers along the seams of the ball in his leather mitt. Beads of sweat rolled down James’ face from his soaked baseball cap as he readied himself for the pitch. He rocked back and forth at a slow, even pace, jaw clenched, waiting for the ball to be delivered.
The pitcher began his wind up, his left foot kicking up into the air as his body twisted to the right. James squinted, searching for the first sign of the ball. The pitcher’s hand came down sharply over the top, releasing the ball with an intense spin. James’ eyes picked it up immediately and watched it rocket toward him. Down the center the ball came, it was his last chance. His eyes fixated on the tiny ball as it rapidly approached, he swung.
Solid contact. His eyes never left the ball, continuing to follow it. The pitcher, now on the left side of the mound, ducked as it whizzed by his head. James continued his follow-through, then dropped the bat and began his run to first base. It was short-lived. The second baseman didn’t even have to move and caught the line drive with ease. James slowed his run as he heard the umpire yell, “Game over!”
James turned, dejected. He shuffled to the bench and was greeted by his catcher, Paul.
“Good start to the season I would say.”
James kicked the dirt as he entered the dugout, his shoulders sagging, arms hanging limp. He took a seat next to Paul and aggressively flipped his bat to the ground then reached down for his cleats. His hands dug hard into the laces as he untied them.
“Would have been better if we won,” James responded.
“Yes, but these guys won the championship last year. Only losing by three isn’t too shabby,” Paul replied.
James didn’t want to hear any of it. The game was over and they lost. Not only that, there were two men on base; he could have tied up the game! James struggled with his competitive nature and this was one of those times. He continued packing his bat and glove and heard a sweet voice call his name. He glanced up to see a pretty brunette running toward him from the stands.
“James, James!” she called. “You did so well, 3 for 4, I believe, your hit in the fourth inning tied the game!”
It was his girlfriend, Carol. They’d grown up together, but were never really friends. Once girls stopped having cooties though, he felt much differently about her and they’d been dating for a few years now.
“Still lost,” James responded, putting his head back down to concentrate on what he was doing.
“I know what will cheer you up, what say we go into town and grab a milkshake?”
James couldn’t stop himself from smiling back at Carol’s glowing face. He rested his forearms on his knees as he answered, “Sure, I could go for some ice cream.”
He finished removing his cleats and slipped on his hardy, brown leather boots.
“See you tomorrow at school,” Paul said as he waved goodbye.
“See you at school,” James replied, climbing out of the dugout and taking Carol’s arm.
The two walked away from the field toward James’ pickup truck.
“Strawberry, I think I’ll get strawberry today, I’ve decided that’s my favorite,” Carol started. “What are you going to have James?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, still thinking of the outcome of the game.
He had a tendency to dwell on such things. His eyes stared, unseeing, at the ground as they approached his old beat-up 1940s pickup truck. He escorted Carol around the back of the truck where his tailgate lay open from the recent work on the farm. A few wheat stalks still remained and multiple well-used tools lay on top of them. They continued around to the passenger door. James opened it and the door made a squeal as the metal hinges rubbed on each other.
“Thank you, James,” Carol stated, arm still interlocked with his.
She pulled him closer, then ran her finger up his chest to his chin and slightly lifted it. Their eyes met, and James forgot what he had been thinking about. Wow was she beautiful, with her pretty green eyes, soft tan skin, and light brown hair. He felt lucky she would put up with him, especially when he was acting like a child.
“You played well, I enjoyed the game today, now let’s forget about it and go get one of Sam’s yummy shakes.”
She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. She was a bit shorter than him, most people were. At 6’2”, he was the tallest kid in school. He gently helped her into the truck as the seats were hard and worn from years on the farm.
“Chocolate, I think today is a chocolate day.”
“That’s better,” Carol beamed. “I like seeing you happy.”
James shut the door then walked around the front of the pickup.
He really needed to fix up this old rig. A pretty girl like Carol shouldn’t have to ride in such a jalopy. James opened the driver’s door, which also squeaked, then hopped in.
“Anyone else going to Sam’s?” he asked.
“Yes, I believe Missy, Margo and Barbara said they were going.”
“Barbara, huh? That means Rich will be there.”
Rich was the typical popular high school kid. His father was the mayor and Rich felt that his father’s power trickled down to him. He wasn’t necessarily mean or rude to James in particular, but his attitude was difficult to be around. James had been raised by two hard-working wheat farmers and understood what it took to run an operation their size, long grueling hours of work. But Rich had everything handed to him and expected everyone to pander to him. They were both on the baseball team and James felt that he spent more than enough time dealing with Rich’s ego on the ball field, let alone outside of the park.
James started the truck. As usual, it took a few attempts, but soon they were headed into town. The high school was on the west side of town and Sam’s Diner was clear across on the east. It wasn’t that far though. It was a small town, but James liked the size. He felt too many more people would make everything seem overly crowded. He was most content in small groups; crowds really made him feel uncomfortable. Carol, on the other hand, was the type of girl who loved everything and everyone. That was one of the things that attracted him to her. She always lit up the room and knew how to make sure everyone had a good time.
They proceeded through town, past the grocery store, the leather shop and the newly built Sears. The town had about twenty large buildings, but nothing taller than the Grand Hotel which towered five stories over Main Street. The streets were all cobblestone with small sidewalks on each side. As a kid, James loved going into town and riding over the bumps of the cobblestones. His father’s truck didn’t have a great suspension and would bounce like crazy.
Today that feeling came back to him. His father had given him the truck to make the trips to school and handling the farm easier. James was starting to take over the farm as his father’s health had taken a turn and their operation was one of the top producers for the town. Not only the town, but the whole county. Each year, more than three quarters of their wheat would ship out of town. No one wanted to find out what would happen if their farm struggled.
James continued down the road, past the local theater where he and Carol had gone on their first date. After months of getting up the courage, he had finally asked her out. It was your typical dinner and a movie. They ate at Giovanni’s, a local Italian restaurant, and then went to see a horror flick that he couldn’t have cared less about, but it got him closer to Carol.
“I guess we are the last ones here,” Carol said as she noticed their friends’ cars at the diner.
Sam’s Diner. It was a neat little place that started its life as a railroad car. The current owner, Sam, bought it dirt cheap and converted it when the rail lines stopped. It was the local hangout for many of the high school kids, a great place for a burger and fries on the weekend. James pulled his truck into an empty spot next to a bright yellow Chrysler Windsor Highlander. James’ eyebrows tightened as he saw it. He knew exactly who drove that car. He half thought of hitting it, but knew that no good would come of it.
“Oooh, its Rich’s car, isn’t it so pretty?” Carol chirped. “I really like yellow, it’s my favorite color.”
James’ eyes tightened even more, then Carol grabbed his hand.
“We should get in there, I’m really craving that strawberry milkshake,” Carol smiled up at James.
He quickly snapped out of his thoughts. “Sure let me get your door,” he offered, jumping out of the truck. He made his way around the back, gallantly opened the door and gave a bow.
“You’re so silly James, that’s why I like you,” Carol tittered at his overly embellished act.
He took her by the arm and they walked toward the door.
“Great game today. You almost had ‘em.” Will, one of the locals who loved baseball and watched every game, was standing in his usual spot outside the diner. Nobody really knew what he did for work, but you were sure to find him in one of two places, the ball field or the diner. He slipped a cigarette between his lips, pulled out a metal lighter, lit up the cigarette and offered one to James.
“No thank you, Mr. Will,” James replied. That was another thing, no one knew Will’s last name. Or at least, none of James’ friends did.
They walked inside to a big “hello” from the man behind the counter sporting a soda jerk hat. Sam always worked Saturday nights and took pride in welcoming each customer. James glanced to his left and spotted their friends all sitting between a couple of booths. The girls wore twin set sweaters and below the knee length skirts. Margo’s was smooth with a small black and white checkered pattern while the other girls’ were solid and pleated. Their saddle shoes kicked in time to “At the Hop” on the jukebox.
“James!” one of the boys called out. “Good to see that you finally made it. You played really well today.”
James clenched his jaw. Carol had helped him put it out of his head momentarily, but now it was back.
Jason, their left-fielder, was very quick and batted above average, but he knew baseball as a career wasn’t in the cards, he was more of a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. He was about 5’ 9” with dark brown hair and a slim build. He sported a light blue button down shirt and pleated trousers with a brown leather belt hugging his hips. James and Carol approached the table.
“You know I don’t like to relive our losses,” he stated. “I had just put it out of my mind.”
“Sorry boss,” Jason replied.
He could get away with slips like that. Jason had been his best friend since they were ten and they’d been through a lot together.
“Yeah, too bad you couldn’t get on base. I would have driven in the winning run.”
It was Rich, and James had known there would be a comment of some sort coming from him. He shrugged it off and just shook his head, acting like it didn’t bother him. He executed it poorly and everyone could tell. Just then, Sam walked up.
“Can I get you ladies and gents anything?”
The orders came flying in; a few burgers, fries, a couple of milkshakes and they were all set.
“How’s the crop looking this year?” asked Tommy. He was very stout, short and stocky and, as the only lefty on the team, he naturally played first.
“It seems to have been a wet spring,” Barbara piped in.
“Why do you care?” sneered Rich.
He had been dating Barbara for a couple years now, but never treated her very nicely. James suspected she was trying to endure it for the prestige of dating Rich.
“Yes, it’s been wet which means—”
The door of the diner swung open and they heard Sam belt out his friendly “hello”. In walked three teenagers that James and his friends would rather not have seen anytime soon. The newcomers scanned the room, saw James and his friends and started heading that way. They were dressed in jeans and varsity jackets with a large “C” on the left side. They were part of the Colton Baseball team, the team they had just played. The reigning champions. They continued to walk toward the booths.
“Seems like you guys got a little better over the off season,” stated the tallest one, who stood slightly off to the side.
Rich stood up and faced them. “You bet we did. Wait until next game; we are going to clobber you.”
The big one, who quite frankly gave the impression that he spent all day lifting train cars and not a lot of time reading, gave a slight chuckle and pointed at his chest with his thumb, “We were only playing at half speed. There is no way any wheat farm boys from Eggerton are gonna beat us.”
While none of them wanted to admit it, he did have a point. In the last five years, they had never beaten Colton, not once.
“Just you wait. This will be the year,” Rich retorted, starting to get a little heated. “You guys are so famous I don’t even know your names,” he continued.
The three stopped short of Rich, eyeing him from about a foot away.
“Are you going to let your girls play?” scoffed the third Colton player, a smarmy little pretty boy. “They could probably play better than you.”
Rich’s anger intensified, he was known to be a hothead. His hands formed into fists.
“She could hit a home run off of me,” he winked at Barbara.
Margo gasped. Rich cocked his fist back and began to swing, but James was too quick for him. He’d guessed what was about to happen and had the wits to make a move. He found himself behind Rich and quickly grabbed his arm.
“No need to get switched off over him,” he reassured Rich.
Rich rounded on him, eyes bulging, lips pressed so tightly together they’d paled. He shook off James’ grip, but knew that James was right and tried to calm himself down.
“You had your fun, you beat us on the field. Why don’t you head on out before something bad happens?” James suggested to the three.
The pretty boy just snickered and turned to walk out, “Let’s go boys; let them cry in their shakes. There’s better food in Colton.”
The three left the diner without another word, though the tall boy looked like he genuinely wanted to stay and talk about baseball.
“What were you thinking? Someday that anger of yours is going to get you in trouble,” Jason admonished.
“What were they doing here in the first place?” Carol asked. “They knew you would be here, why would they come by and try to start trouble?”
“You know how the corn farmers are; think they’re better than the rest of us,” Rich answered. “They are just looking for trouble, and one day, I’ll give it to them.”
“Sit down,” said James, fed up with Rich’s shenanigans. “You would just get yourself switched off. You almost got yourself switched off today.”
“Yes, you should be more careful,” Barbara began.
“Oh give me a break, Barbara. Nothing would have happened to me. I’ve seen people switched off, it’s only temporary.”
With that, the food arrived. Sam brought it all out on a large silver platter and began setting each item on the table.
“Who had the strawberry shake? I believe it was you, Miss.” He slid the large, clear, Y-shaped glass across the table to Carol.
“Oh, it’s perfect, I love the cherry on top,” she brightened and immediately forgot about the altercation.
After the food arrived, the boys did very little talking. They were beat from the game and just thinking about getting their energy back. The girls on the other hand, started talking to each other about school, dresses and other trivial things. The boys did their best to ignore them and paid more attention to their food. Then Carol changed the conversation.
“My science teacher says there is a meteor shower tonight, should be fun, anyone want to watch it?”
“No, I’m too tired from the game,” Jason replied.
“We are catching the new monster flick at the theater tonight,” Rich announced, expecting a reaction as it was opening night and tickets were hard to come by. Reactions were faked or nonexistent because everyone knew he acquired them with his father’s help.
“Rich got Margo and I tickets as well,” stated Tom, their shy short stop, who hadn’t said a word through the entire ordeal.
“Looks like it’s just you and me kid,” James said to Carol.
He was beat from the game, but knew she was really looking forward to seeing the stars; it was all she’d talked about on the drive to diner. As the meal wrapped up, everyone went their separate ways. James escorted Carol to the truck and helped her inside. He knew exactly where he was going to take her, far away from the town lights and the sky glow, where the stars shone much brighter.
He started the truck and they headed down the road. Carol leaned over and put her head on his shoulder while they drove down the bumpy street. He smiled down at her and enjoyed her arm around his. No words were exchanged, they just drove.