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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

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Jonathan Messinger

"Being the eldest of nine children (seven boys and two girls), I've lived through a lot of problems many children live through, and I find these problems excellent examples to include in my books." --Matt Christopher, author of Look Who's Playing First Base and The Year Mom Won the Pennant

The shortstop, Corey, hates chewing bubble gum. Instead he keeps a wrinkled plastic baggie of sour jelly beans in his back pocket, between his batting glove and his butt. He puts at least six in his mouth at one time, and his eyes roll with water and his neck turns crimson. Yet, when the ball fires, hops, or rolls near him, his glove finds it and his twiggy arm slings it to first base. By the time the ump cries Out, he's swallowed all of the beans. He always asks out girls, but they are disgusted by his snuff-colored teeth.

The left fielder, Darby, studies karate. He stole second base in a game last week and when the shortstop applied the tag to his face, the glove's lace whipped and split Darby's lip like a seam unraveled. The scab that formed on his lip, so say the kids at school, looks like a dried, bloody booger. Darby practices his axe kicks in the mirror at home.

The second baseman, Drew, builds a character based on himself in his baseball video game at home. When the team goes for ice cream, he orders the same sundae, but with a different professional team helmet each time for a cup. He chomps on huge wads of Big League Chew and he wears thick wristbands that look like handcuffs and eye black that runs with his sweat. He has no friends on the team.

The catcher, Brian, has tried to be friends with Drew, but since Brian shares none of Drew's enthusiasm, the two have a difficult time finding things in common. They usually just end up daring each other to leap from higher elevations in the arc of the park swing. This bores Brian, however, now that he is 12.

The centerfielder, Jesse, just started wearing his glasses. In the past Jesse's astigmatism -- he called it "stigmata" -- kept the ball always three feet out of his reach. Jesse called it a problem of "depth perfection." His glovework was getting strong until he got benched for getting Ds at school.

The first baseman, Alex, recently took a throw from Jesse on a grounder up the middle. The batter was a rotund kid from the White Sox, the blue, red and white "SOX" banner stretched thin across his belly so the S looked like a snake. The ball bounced and skipped twice, spinning as if controlled by an evil intelligence. But Alex did a split and snagged it in the air, the netting of his glove heavy, and the fat kid near tears from embarrassment. Two batters later, Jesse tried the same thing, and Alex just barely knocked the ball down before it scudded into the White Sox dugout. His teammates forgot the first play immediately.

The third baseman is a silent kid who stopped pitching because he once gunned a fastball off a batter's kidney. Corey caught the ricochet after only one bounce.

The pitcher, Matt, dispassionately watches all of these things unfold behind him. Matt has an undiagnosed learning disability and this makes him a frustration to his parents, teachers and coaches. Still, it makes him a terror to the opposing batters. The average pitcher, down 3-0 on a batter, would throw a fat fastball down the middle of the plate to keep from walking the guy. But Matt can't remember it's 3-0, or at least he can't forget about other things long enough to focus on the fact that it's 3-0. He'll throw a hammer curve that forces the batter to turn away in horror before the ball wings over the plate for a strike. The crowd goes nuts for it. But Matt, Matt just thinks about Animaniacs.

I am the right fielder. My name is Walter, and I have been banished here because I laughed when my assistant coach told me I played "lackadais-eee-ally." I don't tuck in my shirt, and if you look at the team picture your eyes will be immediately drawn to the middle finger I dangle nonchalantly by my hip. My teammates love me in the dugout, but no one talks to me at school.

Jonathan Messinger lives in Chicago, where he's the editor of THISisGRAND, an online journal featuring stories of the Chicago Transit Authority. His work has been published at McSweeney's, Pindeldyboz, and various other journals.