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The Day We Buried the Tombstones
By John Hurst
"Thomas Jordan . . ."
It was a mild, breezy day with the smell of early spring drifting in the open window near my desk. Winter was gone. Summer was coming . . .
"Thomas Jordan come up here!"
I jerked around to see Mr. Bain's demented eyes staring at me.
"Come up here."
As I walked slowly to his desk, I tried to think of some excuse for gazing out the window instead of reading his assignment about tulip growers in Holland.
I have a headache? No, that's lame. Something's in my eye so I can't read? No, he might try to get it out. I already finished reading it? No, he'll ask what it said. . . .
"You're the best reader in class," he said, as I stood in front of his desk.
So how come I wasn't reading?
"Well, Mr. Bain, I was just thinking that . . . uh . . ."
"I want you to tutor Paul Florentino."
The Prof was a tall, skinny kid with a slow, methodical manner and a habit of peering over the tops of his yellow plastic-rimmed glasses, one lens of which was cracked and held together with Scotch tape. Despite his nickname, he was a failure as a pupil and had been held back so many times that he was older than anyone else in our class, even Rabbit.
When Prof was called upon to read or go to the board to work an arithmetic problem, I would squirm in my seat, embarrassed for him. He would stand in the aisle, squinting through his cracked glasses, his forehead furrowed, as he strained to pull each stubborn word from the page of a book. Or he would go to the blackboard and stand there, chalk in hand, his face red, his mouth partly open, looking at a problem with bewilderment while we all stared at him.
"You and Paul will sit at the back of the room every day at this time for an hour while you help him with his reading," said Mr. Bain, as he handed me a book. "Use this."
Prof and I sat down at a little table near the coat closet and I opened the book so we could both see the pages. I didn't have any idea how to tutor reading or anything else, so I just started at the beginning of the book, pointed at the words, and slowly, in almost a whisper, read what was on the page: "Benjamin Franklin, one of our country's greatest founding fathers, was born in Boston on January 17, 1706. Perhaps none of our early patriots was as talented in so many different fields as Franklin. One of his most famous accomplishments took place when he flew a kite in a lightning storm. . . ."
When I glanced at Prof, he was looking at the page, but his eyes were glazed. I had little sense of what I was reading, myself, but I plodded on for the rest of the hour. It was the same during our sessions for the next two days. But on the fourth day, as I started to open the Benjamin Franklin biography, Prof pulled a book from inside his shirt and put it on the table.
"Can we read this?"
It was a small volume entitled Keystone Kids by John R. Tunis, whom I had never heard of. At first I thought maybe it was a book about the Keystone Kops when they were little. I was wary because I knew Mr. Bain wouldn't tolerate a switch to comedy.
"It's from home. I been trying to read it."
I opened the book and saw that it was about baseball and knew Mr. Bain wouldn't like that any better than the Keystone Kops. But I thought I'd read a little bit to satisfy Prof and because I was curious. I figured we would switch back to Benjamin Franklin after a couple of pages, but I got interested and when I glanced over at Prof, I saw his eyes fastened to the page and his lips moving with the words as I read them.
Later on at recess, I was standing in the schoolyard by myself, waiting for Jake. He had stopped in to talk with Mr. Graham again, something my friend had been doing frequently since Mr. Bain sent him to the principal that day.
"The Cubs could be in the race this year." I turned to see the Prof peering at me over the top of his glasses. I didn't know much about baseball, but I knew the Cubs weren't very good.
"Yeah?" I said. "They didn't do so hot last year."
"Yeah, but if Cavarretta can hit three hundred and Nicholson can"
I didn't know about averages.
"What's three hundred?"
"It works like this," he said, in that slow, deliberate way of his. "If a guy comes up to bat say five hundred times, he needs a hundred and fifty hits to bat three hundred."
"How'd you do that?"
"I didn't do no arithmetic. I'm no good at it."
"Then how come you know how many hits the guy needs?"
"I just know."
"Show me on a piece of paper."
"I can't. It's just in my head."
I looked at him, confused, and then Jake came out and we all got into a ledge game.
The next day, when we sat down at our little table at the back of the room, Prof again pulled Keystone Kids out of his shirt. Reading Benjamin Franklin was no longer an option. Each afternoon, I anxiously watched the pendulum clock, hardly able to wait for tutoring time so we could get back to Keystone Kids and the adventures of Spike Russell, young shortstop of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his spunky younger brother, Bob, who played second base.
In a subplot of the book, the team's rookie catcher, Jocko Klein, must learn to deal with the anti-Semitism of other players who call him kike and Buglenose.
"I never met any Jews," I said to Prof at recess.
"Danny Levine's a Jew," he said.
I knew Danny Levine, of course. He was in our classroom. I looked around the schoolyard and saw him over near the back fence playing mibs. He was a big, chubby kid with blond hair, blue eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles across his pug nose.
"He doesn't have black hair and a big nose like Jocko," I said.
"So what, he could still be our catcher."
"I think we should get up a team."
From then on, I thought of Prof as Spike, the Keystone Kid. He would be the shortstop and manager. And I saw myself as his little brother, Bob, so I wanted to play second base. We'd get Danny Levine for catcher because he was a Jew like Jocko Klein. Jake, who had quick, sure hands could play third base, and then we'd just need a few more guys. Maybe Rabbit. And then a couple of kids from St. Barney's like Long Shot and Digger, who was good at all sports.
We finished Keystone Kids, but rather than go back to Benjamin Franklin, we spent our reading sessions making up lineups for our team.
On Friday, as we started to walk to the back of the room at tutoring time, Mr. Bain called us to his desk.
"How has he been doing?" he said to me without looking at Prof.
"Fine. Real good, Mr. Bain."
Then he turned those crazy eyes on the Prof.
"I'd like you to tell me what you've been reading."
"Pardon me, Mr. Bain?"
"What have you been reading?"
"Benjamin Franklin," I said.
"I didn't ask you, Jordan."
"Benjamin Franklin," said Prof.
"Good. Now tell me something about Benjamin Franklin."
"Benjamin Franklin, one of our country's greatest founding fathers, was born in Boston on January 17, 1706," said the Prof as he stared into space. "Perhaps none of our early patriots was as talented in so many different fields as Franklin. One of his most famous accomplishments took place when he flew a kite . . ."
I stared at Prof, stunned.
"I see you're making progress," said Mr. Bain. "Get back to work."
"How'd you do that?" I whispered when we sat down at our little table.
"Benjamin Franklin . . ."
"I just know the part you read me," he said. "Wanna hear Keystone Kids?"
"C'mon, let's see what ya got."
I figured that's what Bob Russell, the cocky Keystone Kid, would say. It was Saturday morning, our team's first practice, and I stood there swinging Prof's prized Johnny Mize Model Louisville Slugger back and forth as I stared hard at Rabbit.
We were playing at Little Wrigley over by the El station because the Rec Hall people had kicked us out of Columbia Field where they didn't allow hardball. They said they'd take our ball away if we didn't leave. It was an old ball, wrapped in black electrician's tape to replace the torn-off cover, but it was the only one we had so we couldn't afford to lose it.
Little Wrigley, like Columbia Field, was just a dirt lot with a softball backstop, but no one seemed to be in charge of it so there weren't any rules against hardball.
Rabbit stared back at me and grinned, showing his big front teeth.
Bob Russell bats against Bugs Bunny, I thought. Easy pickin's.
And then Rabbit reared back and threw the ball.
Prof had told me that a really good fastball doesn't travel in a straight line, that it moves around in its trajectory, but I had never seen one. I barely saw that one, but what I did see gave me the shakes. The ball actually hopped up and down in the split instant it took to travel from Rabbit's hand to Danny Levine's mitt. That's all I saw of it, the hop. But I heard it go by. Maybe it was the whir of the electrician's tape coming loose, or the fear roaring in my ears, but when that ball went past my nose it sounded like an El train. It hit Danny's mitt with a whapp and he stood there staring at it, bug-eyed.
"What the hell you trying to do, kill somebody?" I yelled at Rabbit, but then I heard Prof laughing and turned to him in anger. He just grinned at me and said, "I think we got a pitcher."
"Yeah," I said, handing him his Johnny Mize bat. "Now all you need is a batter."
"Who wants to hit?" said the Prof. Hitting is what we all liked to do best, but everyone had seen that pitch and heard it hit Danny's mitt. No one volunteered.
"I'll hit against him."
None of us had noticed Corky standing under the El watching us play. She was my age, but tiny. She was wearing jeans and a red and white striped T-shirt. The bill of her Cubs cap was pulled low over her forehead and a single dark braid hung down her back.
I had known Constance Dumas since kindergarten, so I had seen her agility and speed in games at school and in the neighborhood. But Corky was a girl. And this was a baseball team.
"Gimme the Goddamn bat. I'll hit against the fuckin' bunny."
That, of course, was Long Shot.
"Watch your language," said Prof. "There's a girl here."
"Yeah, we didn't invite no girl"
"Watch it anyway," warned Prof.
"It's all right. I heard it before," said Corky.
"My players have manners in front of girls or they don't play for me." The Prof was even taller than Rabbit and glared down at little Long Shot who had to tilt his head back to return the stare. The morning sun peeked over the El and glinted off both sets of glasses.
Finally Long Shot said, "You want me to hit or not?"
"Yeah, go ahead. Just watch your language."
With that, the rest of us went into the field, ignoring Corky. Prof went to short and put a kid named Moosie at first base, partly because he was big, but mainly because he owned a first baseman's mitt. He put me at second and Jake, who had a pretty good arm to go with his quick hands, at third. Digger Flanagan was the only outfielder. Rabbit was on the mound and Danny Levine behind the plate.
The first pitch went over the heads of both Long Shot and Danny and hit the backstop so hard, it stuck in the wire. The next pitch bounced a couple of feet in front of the plate, and the one after that almost hit Long Shot.
It was becoming clear that Rabbit had a great fastball but had no idea where it was going when it left his hand. When he threw another inside pitch, Long Shot swung in self-defense and caught a piece of the ball, popping it high behind the plate, up and up, and then down onto the El tracks. Our only ball.
We gathered under the tracks, our necks craned back, eyes straining. "There it is," said Moosie.
The ball was wedged in the rusty superstructure below a track. We could see it, but getting it was another matter.
First of all, access to the tracks was a problem unless you were willing to pay the fare to get past the ticket booth. One way around this was to wait for a streetcar load of passengers to transfer to the El and try to sneak in unnoticed with the crowd. If that worked, you could get up to the passenger platform, but you would still have to climb down on the tracksone of which could fry you if you touched itget the ball, and climb back up on the platform before a train came and ran you over.
But it was our only ball. We stood and stared at it.
"I'll get it if I can play."
Prof looked at Corky, dubious.
"Can you get it?"
"Can I play?"
Prof didn't answer.
"You only got eight players anyhow," said Corky. "You need one more to make a team."
"Aww, let her play. She cain't be much worse than the rest of us, don't you reckon?"
That, of course, was Jake. I saw Corky glance at him and smile, and felt mildly irritated.
As Prof looked at Jake and back at Corky, I worried about whether a girl on the team would inhibit my fantasy. Could I be Bob Russell, Keystone Kid, on a big league team with a girl? Finally, though, Prof gave Corky an almost imperceptible nod and she darted straight to the revolving iron exit gate, slid her small head through the bars, squeezed her skinny body through, and ran up the stairs and out of sight. We all stayed under the tracks, looking up.
"There she is," said Long Shot.
Sure enough, we could see her red and white T-shirt as she stood on the platform looking down at the tracks for the ball.
"Over here," yelled Long Shot. "Over this way."
Corky moved along the platform, but as she knelt and began to climb down to the tracks, the superstructure blocked our view and we lost sight of her.
Then we heard the train.
"Look out! Look out!" we all yelled at once, but our voices were drowned by the roar and rattle.
If she had screamed, we couldn't have heard her. We stood there in silence, our mouths open, our heads back, looking up. Finally, the train pulled out as passengers clambered down the stairs and through the revolving steel bars that Corky had squeezed through just moments before. We stood there looking up, unwilling to look at one another.
Finally, the low, sad voice of Digger Flanagan broke our silence.
"Holy Mary Mother of God, please protect her."
"I shouldn't have let her go," said Prof, pulling at the front of his hair. "I should've gone after it."
"Fuckin' El drivers," yelled Long Shot. "They don't give a shit. They'd run right over their own mother and just keep going."
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2004 issue.
JOHN HURST grew up in Chicago and worked most of his adult life as a newspaper
reporter on the West Coast, including twenty years with The Los Angeles
Times doing investigative journalism and feature stories for the news pages.
He now resides in Mendocino, California, where he spends his time writing
fiction. "The Day We Buried the Tombstones" is a chapter from his
novel Going to Elysium.
© 2004 John Hurst
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