The Smell of Spring
I remember that first game like it was yesterday. The middle of March
was an ugly time for
baseball in the Midwest. The high temperature was thirty
degrees and it snowed
so hard at one point we had to stop the game for fifteen
minutes. No matter
how many pairs of socks you wore, it was always hard to feel
We didn’t fill the five thousand seats at Collingston County Stadium, but
there were a good
five hundred Silver Streak faithful braving the elements that
day. There were a lot
of old timers that never missed a game. Most of them had
probably been alive
when the damn thing was built and for one reason or another
just couldn’t stay
away. Then there were the students, people like Jack and
Brunno, who wouldn’t
pass up a free opportunity to make fun of opposing teams
and yell degrading
comments. And there were the parents and girlfriends of
players, people who
didn’t give a shit about baseball, but would be damned if
they’d miss their
loved one making some great play. All of them were bundled up
like Eskimos and sat
practically cheek to cheek for warmth.
Joliet Catholic was our opponent that day, a private school powerhouse that
always had a strong
program and finished high in the state tournament every year.
Johnny shut them down
for four innings, allowing only one base runner on a walk.
We were up by four
runs thanks to a two out bases loaded triple by yours truly.
And then the snow
came. The umpire let us play through it as long as we could but
decided to clear the
field when he
couldn’t see anymore. It was soft, wet snow,
with huge flakes that
you could almost hear plop when they hit the ground. The air
was thick and white
for a good fifteen minutes.
Most of my teammates huddled in the bottom of the dugout during the
delay, rubbing their
hands together and in some cases jumping in place for
warmth. Roman sat on
one of the benches at the end, positioned with his hands in
his baseball jacket
and his legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles. Demera and
Grouse argued about
whether Johnny the Killer was going to take the mound after
the break or if they
should bring someone new in. Grouse usually lost these
battles, but I had a
sneaking suspicion that Johnny might go back out. I stood at
the top step and
scanned the crowd in the stands. Most of the time I was so
focused on the game I
couldn’t tell you one person in attendance. It was kinda nice
to be able to look at
The majority was massed together just behind home plate. It was the best
view in the park and
also the least windy. Carl sat off by himself, drinking out of a
can wrapped in
newspaper. The elements had still not swayed him from his drink
of choice. Mr.
Buttworst had his camera strung around his neck, snapping pictures
of what he would
later call “baseball in the snow.” Carl left his seat briefly to talk
to the good teacher,
undoubtedly asking him questions about his camera and his
Heather sat in the middle of the crowd—pink earmuffs and all—leading her
in stupid little chants and cheers that ended up in laughter.
Sally sat a couple
rows in front of the main group with her coat pulled up around
her neck and slouched
down in her chair. Frenchy had his puny little arm around
her with a thin
jacket on and no stocking cap. His nose was as red as Rudolph’s
and even from that
distance I could see him shiver. French Boy was definitely not
dressed for the
occasion, and I bet he wished Sally had her arm around him instead
of the other way
around. Good. Maybe he would turn into a pasty white French
popsicle. Ma and Pops
sat up toward the top of the stadium, wrapped in their
Johnny took the mound again in the fifth. The snow shower had done
minimal damage to the
field. The only evidence of a delay was the wisps of white
snow here and there
on the infield grass. It reminded me of the lightly frosted fake
Christmas trees of a
department store. The dirt was damp but still solid on account
of it probably being
As good as Johnny was in the first four innings, he was that bad in the
fifth. He threw his
first pitch five feet over my head to the backstop and walked
two hitters on eight
pitches in a row. I glanced over at the dugout to see Demera
shooting Grouse a
piercing “I told ya so” glance. Coach Grouse shook his head
and in seconds the
two were arguing again, hopefully about whom they were going
to bring in. I called
time and walked to the mound, not really to talk to Johnny, but
to buy some time.
I saw Roman take his jacket off and head for the bullpen as I got to the
Killer. “I’ll be
fine. I just need to get warmed back up. I think my arm is fuckin’
frozen,” Johnny said.
“You’re done, Johnny. We just have to buy some time to get Roman
warmed up. If Coach
doesn’t take a trip, make sure you take a lot of time between
“We’re bringing in the goddamn janitor? Shit! I can get these assholes out.
I’ve done it the
I continued to act like I was listening to Johnny’s rant, but all I could hear
was Bill Wright’s
mitt popping in the bullpen down the left field line. The umpire
broke us up in time
to save my rebuttal to the Killer.
Batter number three of that inning reached base on an infield single.
Johnny made a good
pitch—an inside fastball at the knees that sawed the hitter
the ball rolled past the pitcher’s mound and slowed so much
that Pick Bryant at
short had no play on it. The only thing he could do was hold
the ball. Although no
runs scored, the bases were now loaded and the tying run
was coming to the
Coach Demera called time and came to the mound—a snail’s pace replaced
the usual giddy-up in
his step. People that don’t know the game get upset when all
this time out and
talking shit happens, but that’s just ’cause they don’t know what’s
really going on.
Demera was doing the same thing I just did. He was using his
free trip to the
mound to buy Roman some more time to get warm. I don’t
remember the exact
conversation on the mound between the three of us, but it had
nothing to do with
baseball. Johnny kept trying to convince Coach that he could
get out of the jam,
but Demera kept commenting on the weather. He stood out
there until the
umpire broke us up, and when he got back to the dugout he called
time again, stating
he’d changed his mind. He told the umpire he wanted the man
in the pen.
Demera retrieved the ball from Johnny’s hand and rubbed it in his palms as
if to warm it. Johnny
said, “I think you’re making a mistake.”
“You threw a good game Johnny, but that’s why I make the big bucks, so
you don’t have to do
things like think.”
Johnny walked reluctantly off the mound, grabbed his first baseman’s mitt
from one of the subs
that ran it out to him, and took his spot on the infield.
Roman sprinted from the bullpen out to the mound, his skinny frame unable
to fill out the
uniform that clothed it. He didn’t look like a ball player. But I
reminded myself he
also didn’t look like he could whip an army of thugs in the
Hollow or at Freddy’s
Demera handed Roman the ball. “It’s thirty degrees out and you don’t have
on any sleeves
Swivel. You hot blooded or something?”
I answered for Roman. “The cold doesn’t bother him none Coach.”
Demera just shook his head and smiled. “In case you haven’t been paying
attention we’re in a
real pickle here, bases loaded, nobody out, and the tying run is
at the plate. Are ya
“Don’t be, this isn’t your mess. My job as a coach is to find out what
you’re made of and
apparently there’s no time like the present. We’ve got the
corners in, just try
to keep the ball on the infield,” Demera said and headed for the
Roman looked at the ball like it was going to share some confidence with
“Look,” I said. “Johnny was getting these guys out before his arm froze
up. It’s cold and you
throw hard, let’s live on the inside corner. Sound like a
Roman’s first warm-up pitch flew over my head and hit the backstop. The
whole Joliet dugout
was smiling like Hyenas, before the kill. His second pitch hit
the plate and bounced
over my head. The third pitch was right down the middle
but with no zip.
Pitches four through eight were on the inside corner and
elevated in velocity. Roman’s last warm up stung my hand, and the
popping sound of my
mitt put a silence through the stadium as well as the Joliet
dugout. They didn’t
look as anxious to step in the box as before.
The hitter stepped in and the umpire yelled, “Play.” Roman stood on the
mound with the ball
in his mitt pointed toward home. The only part of his face I
could see over the
mitt was his eyes. Those brown spheres were full of
concentration and for
the first time my friend—the warrior genius janitor—was an
actual ball player.
He was a pitcher. I gave the old number one with my finger
and Roman started his
windup without shaking his head. He lifted his left leg with
perfect balance to
the point of his knee almost hitting him in the chin. His long
arms swung like a
pendulum, he took a fluid stride to the plate, and in a fraction of
a second the ball hit
my mitt. The batter looked back with raised eyebrows in
stadium was as silent as I had ever heard it. The umpire made no
call. I held the ball
there waiting for him to signal something. Finally the word
“strike” came from
his throat, but it was choked with amazement.
The crowd’s disbelief ended on strike three, when the batter took a swing
after the ball was
already in my glove. At first a few claps came and then they
escalated to an
all-out cheer. Grouse was smiling from ear to ear and paced around
in the dugout, unable
to stand still from his excitement. Roman was all business,
stepping back on the
rubber every time I threw the ball back to him.
Coach Demera’s wishes of a ground ball to the infield were far exceeded—
Roman finished the
game, striking out the side in all three innings throwing only
The opposing team touched the ball only once—a foul ball that
would have killed
somebody on their bench if they hadn’t scattered.
During the clean-up, guys were all over Roman, doing what teammates
do—pounding him with
compliments and making him feel like Cy Young. Roman
only concentrated on
the dirt he was raking on the mound. From time to time a
smile would break
free and a “thank you” might fly, but Roman shrugged off the
praise. In his overly
modest way he reminded the team that he only played three
innings and that they
already had the lead when he came in. Of all Roman’s
talents, being a
teammate might be his greatest. The spark of life he had energized
people around it.
Mr. Buttworst and Carl made their way down to the fence by our dugout
and caught Roman as
he was putting his rake away. The teacher had his coffee
mug in hand but set
it aside to shake Roman’s hand. He held up his camera with a
cheesy-ass smile on
his face. “I’ve got some good shots of you for the yearbook,
Roman. Just when I
think you’re all out of surprises, you go and make a state-ranked
team look like the
Bad News Bears.”
Carl jumped in before Roman could say a word. “Say guy, you threw the
ball well eh? Had
them bastards scared you did. How do ya throw the ball so
The question almost overloaded Roman’s brain, not because it was
because there was no answer. After seconds of deliberation Roman
told the truth. “I
don’t know Carl, I just can.”
“Ha! That’s the first time Carl has ever heard you not be able to answer.”
“I’ll second that,”
Roman just shook his head.
Mr. Buttworst reached in his coat, pulled out an envelope, and handed it
over the fence. “I’ve
been meaning to give this to you. Read it when you get
“What is it?”
“Just read it when you get home.”
“Say guy, you want to come over and have a celebration brew ?”
“Thanks Carl, but I think I’m just going to relax at home.”
“That means reading eh?”
“Eh,” Roman replied and laughed.
“Well take care,” Buttworst said as he walked off. “See you tomorrow.
Carl, let me give you a ride; it’s on my way.”
“Carl will make your trip even shorter, Bill. Just drop me off at the
Roman stood and watched the two as they made their way to the exit—two
men who had become
unlikely friends, two men who were each in their own way
as close to a father
figure as Roman would probably ever have.
I caught up with Roman in the dugout after all the field equipment was put
away. We were the
last people left in the stadium besides Demera and Grouse.
“You need a ride a home?”
“I think Heather’s waiting in the parking lot, but thanks.”
“You guys want to grab a sandwich or something?”
“I just want to go home I think. This pitching stuff is stressful.”
“Yeah, not allowing a ball in fair territory, striking out nine in a row, real
Roman grabbed his equipment bag, patted me on the shoulder, and walked
toward the gate.
Heather stood there waiting for him.
As good as our start was, as good a game as I had, as happy as I was that
Roman was a Silver
Streak and did so good, something was missing. I just felt a
little empty inside.
I felt alone.
As much as Roman disliked Heather’s driving—the non-slowing at turns,
the constant riding
of the bumper in front her, the running of yellow almost red
lights—he never said
anything. It was just something he got used to and now he
read the contents of
Mr. Buttworst’s envelope despite the jerkiness of the ride.
Roman read both pages in seconds and looked out the window with a blank stare.
“What’s wrong?” Heather asked.
“Mr. Buttworst apparently sent my transcripts to Northwestern. This is a
letter from the
admissions office accepting me into the college of mathematics with
a full scholastic
“That’s great Roman.” Heather looked over noticing Roman didn’t share
her excitement. “I
got my acceptance letter last week. Wouldn’t it be great to go
to the same school?
In a couple of years we could get a place together. We
Heather stopped at the glance Roman was giving her. Even if the NN
stopped hunting him,
they would always haunt his dreams she imagined. Heather
rode the bumper of
the car in front of her, but instead of slowing swerved to the
passing lane and
accelerated the Mustang. Roman put his hand on the dashboard.
“How long has it been since you last saw him, six months? The way you
talked, it sounded
like Agent Johnson cared about you or at least respected you.
Maybe he’s just going
to let you live your life.”
“Even if he wanted to let me be, he doesn’t have a choice. He doesn’t
make the rules. He
only follows orders.”
Heather swerved from lane to lane, bypassing the slower vehicles and
making her own route.
“To hell with Agent Johnson and his orders. Maybe it’s
just time to take a
chance and move on. Are you going to spend the rest of your
life waiting on a guy
that may or may not show up?”
was always a short trip with Heather, and the Mustang pulled up in
“Maybe you should come in and convince me some more.”
Roman Swivel, what kind of girl do you think I am.” Heather batted
her eyes and laughed.
A serious look came across her face a second later. “I
planned on convincing
you all night but only if you teach me to fight.”
Roman laughed as he opened the car door.
“Come on Roman. You keep blowing me off and you promised you’d
teach me to fight.”
“I feel like I’m being propositioned here. I’ll have to think about
it,” Roman said as he
unlocked the front door.
“Think about it too long and you’ll be thinking alone.”
The Pinto was the last vehicle left in the Stadium parking lot. Demera and
Grouse had even left
by then. I walked to the car with my head down and the gray
clouds overhead as my
only company. Their gloomy presence conveyed the same
feeling that lived in
the pit of my stomach.
Sally stood next to the Pinto. She looked about a hundred pounds heavier
with all of her
winter clothing on. I smiled, but couldn’t tell if she returned the
gesture on account of
her coat collar covering her mouth. Only her eyes peeked
through. They were a
lot prettier than I remembered.
“Do you mind giving me a ride?” her muffled voice asked.
“His name’s Jacques and he left with the others before the game ended
because he was so
“Why didn’t you go with them?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. Something made me stay and talk to you. I
wanted to tell you
what a good game you played. When you got the triple, I felt all
warm inside, like I
was there running the bases with you. Like a part of me swung
the bat too.”
“No offense Sally, but you haven’t watched a whole game of baseball in
your entire life and
now you think you’re hitting triples.”
“That was before I met you.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there and stared at her.
“So can I have ride or what?”
“I’m sorry,” I sat down my equipment bag and unlocked the door for her.
The Pinto fired on
the first turn of the key. The heat even worked now
thanks to Roman, and
Sally unzipped her winter coat and took off her gloves. “I
don’t think I’ve ever
been this cold,” she said, holding her hands in front of the
vents on the
Sally was good looking, always had been. It was hard to keep my eyes on
the road while trying
to sneak a peek every couple of seconds. There was
about her though. It wasn’t her hair or make up. She still had
the same perfume. Her
lipstick was the same.
“Did you do something different with your hair?”
“Nope, I’ve worn it the same way since school started. Why does it look
“No, no, just seems like there’s something different about you that’s all.”
Sally pondered the question for a moment. “Nope, nothing different.”
There was a long silence between us; so long in fact I drove north through
the entire city of
Collingston before another word was spoken. I had plenty of
stupid ideas bouncing
off the walls in my head.
I pulled in her driveway reminiscing about the fall day that her father came
home and how bad my
luck had been with her in the sex department. I wanted to
speak volumes as she
opened the door and stepped onto the street, but only one
question came out.
“Why are you with him?”
Without missing a beat, like she’d known the question was coming, in that
eloquent way the
female species can put the opposite sex in their place time and
time again, she
answered. “Because he treats me like a woman. Thanks for the
With that the Pinto’s door closed and Sally walked up to her front door,
gave a brief wave,
and disappeared into the house.
I put the Pinto in
reverse and headed for home.
Gina opened the double doors of the Hawthorne mansion. The man stood
there in a brown
Carhartt jacket, hands in his pockets, and eyes fixed on the
ground. He raised
them reluctantly to meet his new employer. He was only ten or
so years younger than
Gina, a rather handsome man with beautiful blue eyes. If it
weren’t for the
hideously obvious hairpiece, Gina could see one of her single
friends dating him.
“You must be John Smith. Please come in. I’m surprised that you were
able to work me in so
quickly. Mr. Flowers said it might be a couple of weeks.”
John Smith only gave
a shy nod and walked into the foyer.
“Can I take your coat?”
“No, thank you.”
Gina brushed off the man’s odd behavior, but there was something about
him that she couldn’t
put her finger on, something that was amiss. Maybe he was
just tired. “Let me
show you my problem.”
Gina turned and walked up the staircase and pointed out the two stairs that
months before Roman
had commented were off a couple of degrees. John turned
his head trying to
see the flaw but in the end just took a small level off of his belt
and sat it on the
stair. The bubble in the middle moved slightly to the right.
She led him back down
the stairs into the dining hall, where she motioned
to the wall and began
to describe the fixture she would like to see adorn it. She
would leave it up to
him on the details, for she had already seen his craftsmanship
first hand at
The Lone Rose.
She went on and on about how drab her mansion’s
dining hall had been,
and how there wasn’t a single day she passed up the stairs
that the two
off-kilter ones didn’t make her burn with anger. Eventually Gina’s
babbling was drowned
out by another voice, a voice that John Smith hadn’t heard
in a good while, a
voice that emanated from the depths of his soul. The voice of
Look at the dark brown hair. Isn’t it lovely? She’s very beautiful isn’t
she? Look at the way
her breasts fill out her top, the way her ass fills out her
pants. Not the ass of
someone her age is it John? What could you do to that?
What would you make
John Smith grabbed the necklace that hung around his neck, searching with
his thumb until he
held the charm on the end of it. It was Saint Jude, a gift from
the priest down at
St. Thomas’s. John rubbed the charm between his thumb and
index finger, as if
the friction would erase the evil voice in his head. Gina
continued her woeful
story, a tale that could complicate only the lives of the rich.
Crimson red lips, full and wet. Her face smooth, not a blemish on it. How
soft is that neck?
John rubbed the Saint more rapidly.
beautiful eyes, you can see her soul through those eyes. And what
would that soul look
like as it trembled in those precious pupils…
must go,” John interrupted her. “I’ll be back tomorrow to start the
“Oh, okay,” Gina said and walked him to the door. “Is everything all right,
John looked at her but with Max’s eyes. “Just a little under the weather.
I’ll be back
John sprinted down the driveway to his truck after Gina closed the door.
stopped and gasped hard for air, not from the run, but from the person within
choking him. John
stood at the truck door, arguing with the voice in his head, on
whether to leave or
go back in and do what Max wanted to do.
After ten minutes of talking to himself out loud, John Smith got in the truck
and drove off.
Heather had given up on her calculus and now she stretched out on the
couch and put a
pillow behind her head. She propped the soft cushion so she could
look at Roman as he
read in his rocking chair. She watched as the pupils in his
eyes sped down one
line of his book and then shot back to the beginning of the
next. It was like
watching the mechanized structure of a typewriter at high speed.
There was a slight wrinkle in his forehead, a sign of concentration for most,
Heather wondered if
Roman’s was more than that—did his line magically transport
him into the pages of
the story? She watched as his serious face morphed into
brief glimpses of
frowns and smiles, joy, and sorrow. His arms though thin were
defined and his dark
hair was still wet from the shower. Heather now found
herself thinking of
how truly handsome he was—a thought that had built over
time. She thought
back to the locker row at school when she’d dropped her
statue to the floor. The janitor with his ugly gray uniform
and his shy
personality was hardly attractive that day. It was amazing how the
inside of a person
transformed the outside. A smile came to her face. There was
no doubt she was in
love—very seldom does one get enjoyment from watching
another person read.
It was peaceful. Heather imagined she could watch him
Roman’s eyes unlocked from the page for a brief yawn.
“Is it that boring?”
“Actually I can’t put it down. I’m just tired,” Roman responded.
Heather got up,
walked over, and pulled back the book to see the cover.
“To Kill a Mocking Bird. You haven’t read it before?”
“Amazing isn’t it. Somehow I missed this one. You remind me of Scout.
Sure she’s a lot
younger than you, but you’re both strong, smart, and unsettlingly
“I’ll take that as a compliment. Speaking of stubborn, when are you going
to teach me to
“No don’t Heather me, you promised and you keep putting me off.”
“Why do want to learn to fight so bad?”
want to be able to do the things you do. I want to be able defend myself
against people like
Bobby Dukes. I don’t want to be the helpless damsel in
“I would hardly categorize you as a damsel in distress. I should be worried
about the rest of the
people in the world, not you.”
“Quit making jokes. You know what I mean.”
Roman knew when he was beaten in arguments with her—unsettlingly
stubborn might have
been an understatement. “Fine, but know this. The only
reason I can do the
things I do is because I spent everyday of an entire year in a
padded room fighting
against some of the best in the world. Some things you can’t
“Just the basics then. Show me how to defend myself.”
“Help me up.” Roman stretched out his hand and Heather grabbed it. In a
second Roman was on
his feet with Heather’s arm behind her back. Roman’s other
forearm was snug
against her neck.
Heather tried in vain to pull free. She tried to slip out underneath. She
tried to kick him in
the genitals with a back swing of her leg. She even tried to bite
his arm. All of her
efforts ended in failure.
“By the time you try all those maneuvers you’re out of oxygen,” Roman
whispered in her ear.
“I’m pulling back so why are you trying to go forward?
Which way should you
Heather stopped her struggle for a moment, gathered her thoughts, and took
a deep breath. She
stepped back against Roman, grabbed the forearm around her
neck, flexed her
shoulders forward and angled down. Roman rolled over her and
slammed against the
bad,” Roman said.
“Wow. I can’t believe I just did that.”
the next hour Roman showed Heather the basics of combat—the rules
from Ninja echoing in
the caverns of his mind. He taught her how to step into a
punch, what the most
vulnerable points on her opponent’s body were, and a few
joint locks that
would bring the biggest of men to their knees.
Their combat session ended with Heather pushing Roman backward onto
the bed, with Roman
telling her that this particular fighting style would be an
with Heather silencing the last of Roman’s lessons by putting her
lips against his.
The winds of March blew themselves out eventually, turning the indecisive
weather into a ritual
of semi-daily rain showers and a constant climb in
temperature. This was
April, and though the moisture came in mist and sometimes
sheets, while the
trees started to bud and the grass became green with life, Silver
Streak baseball was
also on a crescendo to fever-pitch levels.
Roman was moved into the starting rotation because of his performance in
the snow that first
game. He took the mound every fourth day and annihilated
every batter and team
that stepped into the box against him. Teams tried to scout
him, but it was
useless. After all there wasn’t much to scout—Roman threw the
ball over the plate
at ninety-plus miles per hour. He didn’t have a certain way he
pitched you or some
magic potion he took before the games. Sure he would
change speeds and
throw an occasional off-speed pitch, but there was no need to
slow the ball down
for their bats. The magic was in his arm, either you could hit it
or you couldn’t. Most
Roman made my job behind the plate very easy. If no one ever got on base
it was hard for them
to steal. A sore hand the next day was the only trouble I ever
had. And while Roman
was sending batter after batter back to the dugout, I was
sending ball after
ball flying. I hit over six hundred during that first stretch,
pounding out ten
doubles, three triples, and two homeruns.
Johnny the Killer found success as well. With Roman facing the tougher
mowed down the abilities of the second tier teams. He was
more relaxed and
didn’t erupt one time on the mound. Johnny was a very strong
number two pitcher,
maybe the strongest in the state. Instead of being jealous of
Roman taking his
spot, he seemed to like his new role, and supported his former
enemy in every aspect
of the game. There was some kind of unspoken respect
growing between the
two of them. Maybe they would never be friends off the
field, but both were
competitors, and both became very close teammates.
Pick Bryant at Short and Scotty Jakowski at Second were near flawless up
in the middle. I
never really trusted middle infielders. They were liars—a mold
that fit Pick
perfectly—deceiving runners and worrying more about how pretty
they looked than the
actual outcome of their actions. But I tell you they were
something to behold:
their soft hands and lighting-quick actions turned the art of
the double play into
Sam Peterman tracked down many a fly ball in the outfield, gunned down
runners trying to
stretch singles into doubles, and got his share of hits, but still
struck out way too
much, especially with runners in scoring position. Roman
continued to throw
him a good half-hour of balls in the cage after every practice.
The small mass of people bundled behind home plate that first game had
grown steadily with
each victory. Now every home game was sold out to standing
room only. They came
to watch the skinny kid from Iowa chuck the pill at high
velocity. It seemed
every strikeout added more people to the crowd. Our local
Collingston Current, covered every game, home or away. The
radio sent a
pitch-by-pitch rundown over the airwaves. It didn’t take long for the
sports reporters to
find that Roman was on pace to break just about every pitching
record kept by the
state athletic association. After ten games we were undefeated,
ranked third in the
state, and only one game went more than five innings on
account of the
ten-run rule. Roman had not given up a single run.
Agent Johnson sat in
the back of the cab as it rolled by the Washington
Monument. No matter
how many times he strolled through the nation’s capital, a
sense of pride always
fluttered in his stomach seeing its monuments, buildings, and
memorials. It was
that pride that had kept him at his job this long. Those
structures were more
than just granite and stone, they
were America. And America
still stood in large
part because of contributions he made to its security.
wouldn’t be long now until he reached Andrew’s Air Force Base. He
would board the cargo
plane with his luggage because ghosts couldn’t fly with
military or not. In umpteen hours he would be in Baghdad meeting
informants that were
close to the enemy. He would extract their information,
determine if any of
it was credible or relevant, and report back. A menial
assignment such as
this didn’t bother him. It was just part of the bigger battle and
someone had to do it.
It was a slow month for terror if there was such a thing. If it
assignment would be quite a bit more difficult.
His cell phone rang just miles away from Andrew’s and Johnson flipped
out the all-important
device. It was a call from someone with the NN.
“You might as well turn around. There have been some developments,” his
long time partner
“Did you do a search with Bots awhile back?”
Johnson thought a
moment and then responded, “Yes; why?”
“They turned up something about a day ago. Do you have your laptop with
“Turn it on. I’m going to download some pictures our satellites took as
“Thanks.” Johnson shut his phone and unzipped the bag next to him. He
opened the laptop and
accessed the NN’s search engine via satellite link. The
results came in
The screen read: “12 query hits for Roman Swivel.”
Johnson clicked on the links, noticing all were web links to the same site,
Current. He didn’t read, only scanned for the most relevant
words that stuck out: Roman Swivel, Collingston, and Illinois.
Johnson opened his
email to find Stenworth’s pictures already in it. The chance
that this was the
wrong Roman Swivel was put to rest by the images that now
shown on his screen.
They were Roman walking in front of school, Roman in a
yard in front of a
house with a girl, and finally Roman standing on the mound in
his uniform ready to
deliver a pitch.
“I’ll be damned,” Johnson whispered to himself. “You couldn’t stay
hidden after all.”
“Did you say something?” The cab driver asked.
“Turn around please, there’s been a change of plans.”
It didn’t take long for rumors of Roman’s arm to spread—not only was it
all over the media,
but the baseball world as well. It started with a coach from the
college to see the second time Roman took the mound. A few
weeks later every
baseball person from the University of Illinois to the New York
Yankees was in
attendance. All of them to get the once-janitor to sign on the
Roman was uninterested at first. He wouldn’t even speak to the scouts and
coaches. I’m sure it
was too farfetched for that genius mind of his to grab hold of,
not because he
thought he couldn’t perform at those levels, but because just like
every dream he dared
to conjure, in the background was Agent Johnson always
there to stop him.
Eventually the scouts’ insistent pursuit wore Roman down. And
he did talk to them,
but never committed to anything. He told them that he wanted
to leave his options
The hysteria Roman’s arm created was evident the day we played our
Bloomington. The Purple Raiders were ranked fourth in the state, and
we were now second.
They had a lefty on the mound who threw in the mid-eighties
with a great
change-up. The scouts were foaming at the mouth at the
There were more of them than I could count on brief glances to
the stands on my way
to and from home plate. All I could see was a sea of radar
guns pointed toward
the mound, a wall of people from the top of the bleachers that
overflowed from one
side to the other, and camera flashes from our fans who knew
they were witnessing
something at Collingston Stadium that they might never see
Neither pitcher failed to disappoint. In six innings, Steve Minks,
gave up no runs, five hits, walked two, and struck out ten.
Roman was even
better, matching the blank score, giving up one hit, walking none,
and striking out
had only struck out twice all season up until that game. Minks sent me
back to the dugout
three times. I grounded out once and struck out twice, both
through that change-up of his.
were scoreless after six, and Roman took the mound again in the
seventh. His pitch
count was low and he had only allowed one base runner.
Bloomington was at
the top of their order and although they looked hungry, I knew
deep down they
weren’t anxious to see an arm that still had not dropped in velocity
since the first
Roman hit the leadoff man in the head, knocking his helmet off, and damn
near killing the poor
bastard. Even though the guy was Bloomington’s best runner,
they had to put in a
sub because after several minutes he still didn’t know where he
was. The second
batter attempted to move the runner over to second by bunting.
This time Roman hit
him directly in the chest as he squared. There was a hollow
thumping sound that
silenced the crowd into fear of fatal injury. Another pinch
runner was entered. I
called time and ran out to the mound. Coach Demera was
standing in front of
the dugout with his arms crossed thinking of taking a trip
“What the hell’s a matter?” I asked. “All of the sudden you got control
problems? Your arm
Roman took off his hat and rubbed his forehead like he was trying to get rid
of a terrible
headache. I could see his fingers trembling. “My arm is fine. I just
There’s someone in the stands…”
“You’ve pitched in front of big crowds before. Even if you lose this game
the scouts are still
going to want you. A strikeout and double play and we’re out
“You don’t understand. Agent Johnson is in the stands.”
I turned and scanned the mass of people under the roof of the stadium;
there were thousands,
and even if I did know where to look, I had never seen
Johnson before. My
job as a catcher was to keep my pitcher focused and that
instinct kicked in
automatically. “Even if he is up there Roman, he’s not coming
after you in front of
a couple thousand people during a baseball game. Let’s get
out of this thing and
go hit. Don’t let him screw this up for you too. Right?”
“You’re right.” The nervousness was replaced with the competitive face I
had grown accustomed
Coach Demera walked out to the mound. “Everything all right?”
“Just a little setback Coach, he’s fine,” I said.
“Sorry Coach. I’m okay.”
“That’s good, just don’t let there be anymore setbacks or we’ll be down a
couple of runs.”
he three-hole hitter hadn’t touched Roman all day, and as we suspected he
attempted to bunt.
Roman threw the first pitch hard chest high down the middle of
the plate. The batter
fouled the ball straight up. I caught it and fired the ball to
second base because
the runner failed to get back to the bag. Roman struck the
next guy out on four
Sam Peterman led off the bottom of the seventh. Even though he had
struck out three
times already Demera let him hit. Peterman took two of the ugliest
swings I’ve ever
seen, but with two strikes on him he worked his way back to a full
count. Minks threw
the payoff pitch just outside and Peterman walked. Pick
Bryant attempted to
bunt but was called out after bunting the ball foul three times.
brought me on deck, and Scotty Jakowski to the plate. I looked at Roman
who was standing on
the top step of the dugout looking into the crowd. “You all
Roman smiled. “I think my imagination just got the best of me out there.
I don’t see him
anywhere now. Do me a favor and end this thing so I don’t have to
go back out.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Demera tried to hit and run with Scotty Jakowski, but he lined out deep to
the right fielder.
Luckily Peterman was able to get back to first without being
came to the plate with two outs, tie ballgame, and the winning run on
first. There was no
way Minks was going to strike me out again, not this time.
took the first pitch at my knees. It was low and away but the umpire
called it a strike.
Minks made a mistake with the second pitch and threw it right
down the middle. It
surprised me since he had been so good all game. I just
missed it and fouled
it straight back behind me. I wish I
could have that one back.
You gotta protect
here, two strikes on ya. Protect but don’t chase.
back and popped the
third pitch up there harder than the first two. It was high and
I took it for a ball.
Throw me that change-up again. I’m
not going to swing
through it this time.
I’m gonna wait and knock it off that right center wall. Throw
me that change-up.
Minks delivered, and just as I guessed, a change-up on the outside corner. I
waited this time…and
The ball jumped off my bat, a frozen rope to right
center. The right
fielder dove for the ball but missed. The center fielder picked it
up as Sam Peterman
reached third. Demera was waving him all the way. The
launched the ball like he had a cannon for an arm. The ball was low
to the ground on a
straight line, passing over second and then the mound. The ball
bounced. Sam slid.
The catcher tagged him just as he crossed the plate. The
umpire looked at the
play for a second. “Safe!” he yelled. “Safe!”
Our dugout emptied and jumped first on Peterman at the plate and then on
me at second. There
was a pile of bodies on top of me, and for a few brief
moments we were a
single mound of pure joy. The Bloomington Purple Raiders
looked on with sullen
faces of envy as they waited to shake our hands. The
excitement and the
crowd slowly dwindled away and after about an hour it was just
Roman and me, sitting
a couple rows back in the stands, watching a guy mow the
outfield under the
Carl joined us in the bleachers just minutes after we sat down. He carried a
twelve pack of beer
and smoked his pipe. “Mind if Carl joins you fellas?”
“Sit down and pass me a cold one,” I said.
Carl threw the can through the air; it looked like a knuckle ball because it
had no rotation as it
traveled. It was a maneuver that Carl had undoubtedly done
many times over. “Say
fellas, that was one hell of a game you played there.”
“Thanks,” Roman said and smiled.
“Sitting with the two heroes I am, future major leaguers.”
“Maybe Roman will, Carl; there’s really nobody beating down my door
“Stupid bastards they are then.”
“Thanks,” I said and slammed my beer into Carl’s. He sat down behind us
and leaned forward
between our seats.
“Beautiful scene in front of us, isn’t it, Carl?” Roman commented.
“Aye, ’tis my friend, beautiful indeed.”
thin fog formed just above the freshly-cut grass and swirled around from
the south breeze,
like the essence of a ghost dancing over the floor of a haunted
mansion. The air was
still warm and the smell of lilac was almost overwhelming.
The stadium lights
bounced off the wet blades of grass, casting a supernatural glow
on our ball field.
You could see the perfect rows made by the lawn mower that
made a crisscrossed
pattern in the outfield. The moon shone overhead, but unlike
that night in the
Hollow, it was warm and full of life.
took in a deep breath, bringing in the smells of lilac, warm wind, and old
fumes of peanuts and
beer. “My granddad used to call it the smell of spring.
Something you just
couldn’t describe, but everyone knew what you were talking
about. It made your
heart skip a beat, just to remind you that hope is never a bad
thing, he’d say.”
Roman shook his head and smiled. “Give me one of those beers would you
“Ha! What’s gotten into you?” Carl said and opened the beer for Roman.
Roman threw back his head and took three swallows. He let out a sigh like
he just drank the
nectar of the gods. “If there was ever a time to drink a beer this
would be it. It’s all
over for me now. It won’t be long before Agent Johnson
stumbles across my
name somewhere in a paper or on the Internet. Ironic isn’t it?
I managed to hide
myself for a couple years and then by just playing the game I
love, I sealed my own
“That’s the thing though about a baseball field,” I said. “No matter how
bad your life’s
going, no matter if you’ve got problems, if your bills aren’t paid, or
your dog shit on the
carpet, this place makes all those things go away. For a few
hours every day all
that matters in the world is that little white ball and all the
sounds, smells, and
battle scars that go along with it. For a little while we’re
immune to everything
outside these walls.”
Roman shook his head again and smiled.
“Well put guy.” Carl said and chugged his beer. In a second he popped
another and looked up
at the moon.
“Carl’s time is almost up here as well. The full moon is back and I can feel
watching me more each day. If they came for me tonight, surprised
I wouldn’t be.” Carl
took a long drink and smiled. “It matters not. I’ve lived a
good life, I have.
Not giving a goddamn what people thought of me, or intruding
business. I woke everyday and tried to be happy and make other
people happy and
that’s what a person’s supposed to do. They’re supposed to live
their life not sit
back and watch it go by.”
Roman raised his beer.
Carl’s moon watched as we toasted as friends. It would be our last toast
Heather opened the wide double doors to her family’s home, exposing the
staircase that her mother had insisted on having fixed. Gina rose
from her relaxation
room and met her daughter in the foyer. To the left, Heather
could see into the
dining room, where her mother’s hired help was grinding,
sanding, and cutting
the wood that would eventually be a giant mural covering the
entire west wall of
the room. Heather could also hear music in that room, the
many voices of a
choir singing hymns from the speakers of a small portable CD
“Home so soon, dear? I thought you would be out celebrating after the
“Roman wanted to hang out at the stadium with Tony for awhile. Some
kind of male bonding
thing I guess. I have a lot of studying to do anyway. What’s
with the gospel
“John likes to listen to it while he works. He says it helps him concentrate
better. He’s an odd
man, but very nice and well mannered. Handsome too if it
weren’t for that
hairpiece. I was thinking of fixing him up with Cynthia.”
“Why would you
do that to the guy? Cynthia would drive him mad. I’ve
got to get a bite to
eat before I study.”
“The kitchen staff has already retired for the evening, but I could whip you
up a sandwich or
something if you don’t mind my company.”
“That’s fine. Peanut butter and jelly with some Fritos. Actually make it
two PB and J’s.”
John Smith worked with his back to them but he knew they were there. He
could smell their
perfume as they sat at the dining room table several feet away.
mother did most of the talking. It must be nice to come home and have
someone actually care
about how your day went. The soothing sound of
Grace” flowed through the room and for a moment as he sanded, John
Smith felt like he
was at home.
You didn’t think that awful music would keep me away did you?
ignored the voice in his head and continued to sand, seeing the words
of the song in his
head, and rubbing St. Jude with his free hand.
Ignore me. I don’t care. I want to do the talking anyway. I know you can
smell them, that
sweet innocence just glides through the room like it was meant
only for you. The
daughter is more beautiful than her mother is, don’t you think?
Too bad we don’t care
much for blondes. I think we could make an exception, a
two for one deal?
Imagine it, having your way with the daughter, while mommy is
tied up in the
corner, begging you to stop.
John walked over to his CD player and turned up the volume, drowning out
the voice in his head
but also the conversation at the dining room table. He noticed
as he walked back.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to disturb your conversation. This
song is just a
favorite of mine.”
“It’s quite all right John,” Gina said. “My daughter would like to eat
instead of listen to
her mother rant and rave anyway.”
“Hungry, John? Do you want something to eat?” Heather asked.
“No. No thank you.” John turned back to his saw and began to cut along
the fine curving
lines he had drawn on the wood earlier. The music of his new
master sang, the
women talked, the saw made its chaotic noise, but still he could
hear Max’s voice.
Don’t you know what you could do to them? How you could pit their love
against one another?
How they would beg for it, if you would spare the other.
How their fearful
eyes would tremble at your power. Fuck the daughter first and
then watch the
mother’s eyes as you choke the life from her child.
“No stop it,” John said out loud. At that instant the saw strayed off its path
and nicked the top of
his free hand. John let out a grunt of pain and grabbed his
arm, dropping the saw
to the floor and knocking the cord from the CD player out
of its socket. The
music was gone, the saw was off, and there was a brief silence
until Gina and
Heather ran to help him.
Blood dripped from his hand and the crimson stain already made its way up
John’s long sleeve.
He held his injured arm with his other hand. Heather pulled
out one of the chairs
from under the table, turned it around, and sat the carpenter
down. To Heather’s
surprise John had no scowl on his face or wince of pain. He
only breathed hard.
the med kit and a wet towel,” Heather said to her mother.
“Shouldn’t we take him to the hospital?”
will, just get those things first,” Heather said as she pressed down on
the top of John’s
hand. It was hard to know where to apply the pressure—the
wound was covered in
blood, like John had dipped his hand in a bucket of crimson
as fast as she could to the bathroom closet down the hall on the
south side of the
house. The trip was quick—nothing she didn’t experience in her
Gina was back in a matter of moments.
Heather took the wet rag and wiped the blood away, exposing a one-inch
cut that must have
severed one of the veins in his hand. “It’s just a tiny cut, but it
looks to be pretty
deep. We should call an ambulance.”
hospitals, just do the best you can with it,” John responded.
need stitches, maybe vascular surgery.”
bothers me tomorrow, I’ll go. For now just do the best you can with
“Just do as Mr. Smith wants, dear. I’m sure he’s had accidents before.”
Heather shook her
head and dabbed up more of the blood. When she had
the area halfway
clean she pressed down a cotton ball on the open wound and
wrapped a bandage
around the entire hand as tightly as she could. John Smith did
not show any sign of
Satisfied with her bandage job, Heather began to clean up more of the
blood that had made
its way up John’s arm. She unbuttoned his cuff and began to
role back the sleeve.
John tried to pull back.
“It’ll only take a second, I’m almost done.”
it were any other time John would have fought her, but he was injured
and felt a little
lightheaded. Besides she was like a beautiful angel from above,
taking care of him.
Heather wiped away the now dry blood on his arm. With each swipe she
uncovered more of the
tattoo that decorated it, like the excavation of a relic
brought back to life
by the fine strokes of an archaeologist’s brush.
The full image was apparent now, the naked beautiful form of a female in
the middle of a
spider web. Heather was transported back to the night of the
hollow, when Roman
told his story. It was Roman’s words she heard now in her
There was a tattoo of a spider web with a
naked woman in the middle of the
arm that imprisoned
my father. I see that tattoo every time I shut my eyes. His
eyes wide and open,
blue as the ocean.
Heather swallowed hard and took a deep breath, trying to maintain her
composure and not
panic. She continued to wipe the arm as if nothing was wrong.
She couldn’t help but
look up at his face.
There, looking back at her, were the piercing blue eyes of Max Sheehan