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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

The Zen Grace of Catch
By Jay Bates

Forgive me. I shouldn't be telling this story. It isn't mine. It belongs to my older brother Kevin, who once told me that he hated baseball for a bulk of his youth.

As for the cause of his hate, well, that was obvious—even to me. Oh sure, Kevin might speak of a string of unfortunate circumstances in baseball dating back to an insensitive T-ball coach who planted him in right field to hide his glove, but I like to think my brother's aversion was more firmly established several years later, on a hot summer evening when he was thirteen years old. He and I were playing a game of catch in our backyard four weeks after our dog, Patches, whelped a litter of pups. The light had softened to something barely weaker than dusk. Kevin's toss was undoubtedly the evening's final throw.

I could see it was high coming out of his hand. I leaped, or at least I meant to leap. I don't know which. Either way the ball landed a good twenty feet behind me and struck a wandering puppy squarely in the side of the head. I heard a yelp and then a scream from my brother. I should have caught the ball, he said. It was not his fault, he said. It was all me. He was adamant, insistent, nearly hateful in his speech. Especially two days later when the puppy died of its injuries.

 

For years I have tried writing this story, toying with various angles, but I have always struggled in my attempt to strike the right mood, project the right tone. Perhaps it is the sheer absence of delicateness in the central event that makes the telling of it so difficult. Strike a dog—no, a puppy—flush in the ear with a thrown baseball and you'll find there is nothing delicate about it. It is a collision of distant opposites—the puppy, weak, a runt no less, still in need of caring, still nursing; the ball, hard, without conscience, only the law of physics directing its fate—and the impact of that collision seems so unreal and so melodramatic it could only be the product of a cruel imagination. The few times I've tried to tell this story out loud people have laughed at it. A puppy hit in the head with a baseball? Oh boy, that's a good one. It's as though the mere thought of such an occurrence is too outrageous to take seriously. And that, more than any other reason, is why I wish to this day it had never happened. I wish I had caught the ball. I wish I could have jumped however high I needed to snatch the ball in my old stiff catcher's mitt. If for no other reason than to keep this story from happening.

Our dog, Patches, was a homely mutt terrier. She gave birth to a litter of seven healthy pups and one dead one that summer when I was eight years old. My mother discarded the stillborn pup while my brothers and I took up the duty of building a doghouse constructed entirely—ceiling, siding, and floors—out of scrap two-by-fours and a handful of galvanized nails. When it was finished, the thing weighed somewhere in the vicinity of four hundred pounds, but it was concrete, sturdy. Not even a hurricane could thrash that thing to kindling.

As the weeks passed, the puppies would gather outside the doghouse looking for their mother. Patches, we liked to say in our family, was too good of a mother. She loved her pups too much. She had a horrible habit of over-nursing them and twice had to be taken to the veterinary hospital for dehydration. On the evening Kevin and I were playing catch, the runt of the litter—we'd named him Dusty—had wandered astray behind me. Dusk prevented my brother from seeing him.

The throw was high.

It had to have been high. How else could it have traveled twenty feet beyond me and not hit the ground? Kevin wasn't trying to scare me by throwing the ball hard. We were just playing a game of catch. The throw had to be errant. It had to be wayward. It had to be E-Kevin. I would not have missed it otherwise, not that badly anyway.

But Kevin's blame was sour. He scolded me, the way only an older brother can, and told our mother it was all my fault. I replayed the throw in my mind. Could I have caught it? Did I try to jump? Or did I just stare at it, the way a right fielder looks up at ball obviously slugged into the upper deck? The more I thought about it, the more I started to believe my brother, and why wouldn't I? Older brothers have this gift, I think, of helping younger brothers reexamine details and alter the image of truth to something that—strangely enough—bears a denouement that ends in the older brother's favor.

"We were just playing catch," Kevin explained to my mother. The way he told the story, it was like he was trying to minimize the damage, decrease the possibility that our puppy would die of his injuries. I looked at the puppy, lying on his side in the grass. Dark brown markings, mixed with some black. Soft ears, like velvet. Maybe nine ounces.

My mom cupped the pup in her hands as though carrying an injured bird. She went inside the house, intending to do what, I didn't know.

"Jay should have caught the ball," Kevin said, following Mom into the house, "but it hit the pup."

He bounced. I saw the puppy bounce. To the baseball's action, he was the reaction, equal and opposite.

But Kevin continued to deny physics with his recounting of the story. "I don't know why the pup was out of the doghouse anyway. This shouldn't have happened."

Kevin was right; it shouldn't have happened. Not just because it was a traumatic accident that could have been avoided had we taken necessary precaution and made certain the puppy—that all the puppies—were safely in their doghouse, out of the way of boys playing ball. But necessary precaution is for adults, not a thirteen-year-old boy and his little brother. And certainly not while playing a harmless game of catch.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2004 issue.

—EFQ

JAY BATES is a high school English teacher living in Puyallup, Washington, with his wife, son, daughter, and yellow Labrador retriever named Duncan, who refuses to play fetch. He writes essays, fiction, plays, and a humor column for the local newspaper, and his work also appears on his website, www.apomm.com. His brother Kevin is a Lutheran minister living in Everett, Washington, with his wife, two sons, and Samoyan husky. They are all avid Mariner fans.

© 2004 Jay Bates

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