The girl had no time to react. Faster than the ball was pitched, the ball fouled straight back struck her in the forehead and caromed almost all ten rows back to the field. We were in the same row, only fifty feet away—Stan on one side of me, and my wife Karen on the other—but I was the only one of us who’d seen the ball come off the bat. We were behind the dugout, and she was at the place where the protective netting ended and open space began.
Her parents on either side of her did not notice until she screamed. They’d been busy looking at the mascot, or dealing with their hot dogs, and the girl hadn’t seen the ball coming either, even though when the ball streaked toward her she was looking straight ahead.
A medical team was there quickly, and a small crowd leaned over her, and then she was taken away. I looked at their empty seats long after they were gone, still hearing the sound of the ball against her forehead.
Stan and I had brought our gloves for a foul ball, but now they were for protection, at least until Stan forgot what happened and talked to me or looked elsewhere as the action on the field continued. But I watched every pitch, at first leaning forward and inching my glove up as the ball was thrown, then casually sitting back and holding it open and ready. I wondered at my own reflexes. Maybe there wouldn’t have been much time for me to react to a bullet struck almost straight back, even though I was usually quick enough when a fly came my way, with a talent for clobbering some of them in mid-flight sometimes, and I had almost always been ready to stop a swinging door from smacking my forehead.
Still, I wondered at the odds of a ball hitting a person in a ballpark. Others around me seemed unconcerned, especially the mother of five children in front of us. Her kids, from ages two to maybe seven, seemed to have two different fathers, who were both at the game, sitting rows apart. The kids stood and they sat, and they wandered and returned. One girl, about the same age as the little girl who’d been struck, stood in my line of sight, her back to the field, so that if a ball came our way she would have been smacked in the back of the head, or obstructed my view of the ball long enough to get me or Stan or Karen clobbered. A six foot Independent League player flailed at an eighty mile per hour pitch, and I frowned at the girl, and at the mother of the five kids, who had turned around to deal with this or that toddler, and I rolled my eyes about the newer husband, who guzzled a beer, oblivious and bleary-eyed and occasionally eyeing the other husband dully. Maybe in his state he wouldn’t have even felt a foul ball that caught him full in the puss.
“How come balls never hit people like them,” I muttered to Karen, who shrugged.
Maybe the odds of getting hit with a ball were very low, but then the little girl had been hit. Maybe if something ever happened at all, then the odds were good.
On the way to the stadium, for instance, we’d stopped for pizza in a small town. Karen went off looking for napkins or something, and Stan and I sat outside at a small wood table and downed our slices. An old man, parked next to us, approached his car. I watched him struggle to get into it, and struggle to reach into the glove compartment, and struggle to get out of it again, and then struggle to walk down the sidewalk, and I wondered at my chances of getting that old. Maybe I was on my way already, judging by one creaky knee and a bad elbow, so unless I croaked early I was sure that I would hobble around like him someday, and that no one would ever imagine I was ever young, and that I wouldn’t believe it either. I brooded at the certainty of it all, but cut the daydream short when Karen returned. She looked around for her slice, and Stan and I looked at each other, confused. Then I realized that what I’d thought was extra cheese at the bottom of my own slice had really been her complete slice stuck to mine. I was mad then. Too much cheese was inside of me, and the pizza had been oily, so it was clogging up my vessels, and I’d be like the old man struggling toward his car sooner rather than later, except for additional wheezing.
“I never eat two slices, ever,” I said.
I fumed as the old man returned and struggled back into his car. When he started it, a whistle blared. I thought there was a fire somewhere and looked around, but Karen covered her ears and gestured with her chin to the front end of his car. There was an enormous deer whistle on it.
She shouted to me that we should just leave, because the old man was taking such a long time just swinging his leg into the car. I barely heard myself growl.
Soon we reached the highway, and I asked Karen for water so I could flush the two slices of greasy pizza out of me.
“What are the odds of seeing a whistle that size,” I said to Karen, but she told me to be careful. The car in the passing lane next to me was being tailgated by another car, and I eased off the gas in order to shake them. Then the trailing car swung around to the left, onto the grass, and passed the other car, skidding and swerving as it darted back onto the road ahead of the 65 mph slow poke.
“How can someone do that?” I said. “I’ve been driving for thirty years, and I’ve never seen that. Holy crap.”
“You’ve been driving for thirty years, Dad?” Stan said from the back, and I got quiet.
As the game went on, I was forced to watch the woman with her two husbands and five kids. They stood in front of us, then sat again. Then one group of kids and the mother went off somewhere, and then someone the ex-husband knew came by and the ex-husband got up and hugged him, and they talked while standing up. The word “joint” kept coming up, so odds were that “joint” was jail, but then “joint” could have been a bar, or it could have been whatever they smoked or sold at their leisure. It seemed that three of the kids were his, and that the two younger ones belonged to the bleary-eyed husband/boyfriend in the first row. What were the odds, I wondered, of these husbands having come to be there accidentally, or of each being struck with separate foul balls. I leaned over to Karen. “Remind me never to become an ex-husband.”
“Knock on wood then,” she said.
A pitch was fouled over our heads. I hadn’t seen it come off the bat.
The oldest little girl stood in our way, talking to her real father, the cool cat who sold joints or had been in one. Her back was turned to the field, of course.
I panned the stadium, from the lower left field stands all the way to us, and then to the lower right field stands. “Not one person is standing up, except for these idiots,” I said to Karen.
“Let’s go home,” she said.
Finally the whole crew left at around the sixth inning, and I had a clear view of the players at last, but then I half-hoped that the double family would return and block my way again, because the players didn’t run hard to first base, and one player hit a home run and stood at home plate admiring his work.
“This is the Independent League,” I said to Karen. “These guys suck. What’s there to pose about?”
“Let’s go,” she said, and I sat back, mad because I’d missed another pitch and hadn’t had my glove up.
Soon Karen went to get ice cream for Stan, and I relaxed a little, because a lefty batter was up and wouldn’t foul a ball our way unless he was a total spaz and swung his bat toward his own head and was lucky enough to connect with the ball. I rested the glove in my lap.
When Karen returned, she had Stan’s ice cream and a newspaper, which she told me she’d picked up off a bench under the stands.
“You stole a newspaper?” I said.
“I saw the first page,” she said, frowning. “Look.” A pitch popped against the catcher’s mitt and I raised my glove too late.
“Look,” she insisted. “Right here.”
I read. Someone from our neighborhood, from our block, Walter Something, had crashed into a pole. Alcohol had been a factor. Speed had been another factor.
“I don’t want to see it,” I said, and missed another pitch.
“He had two kids,” Karen said, pouting.
I held my glove up for the next pitch. It was popped to the outfield. “That stinks.”
“What are the chances of this happening,” Karen wanted to know.
“Good chance if you’re drunk and going fast.”
“What are you mad at?”
“Stupid people who take chances. Remember the guy driving on the grass?”
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you’re smart or careful,” she said. She rested her head on my shoulder, and I thought about the old man and his deer whistle.
Stan leaned against me too, and I was glad because I wouldn’t have had far to reach left or right for a screaming foul ball.
The beer guy came around for the hundredth time and stood in front of us, his back to the field. “This guy’s gotta be another one of her husbands,” I muttered to Karen. “Do you want to drive? I feel like a beer.”
But she was still upset about the man from down the block.
“Dad, don’t have a beer,” Stan said, stopping my arm when I reached in my pocket.
“Don’t have a beer, Dad,” he said.
“They’re seven dollars,” Karen added miserably.
“Seven bucks?” I sat back. “Forget it, then, I’m driving.” I dismissed all future beers with a wave of my hand, and Karen seemed a little happier. “Right lane all the way for me,” I went on. “And I won’t drive on the grass like everyone else does.”
A foul ball whistled over our heads, bounced off the crowd behind us and down the stairs next to us. Stan made a dash for the ball and had it in his hand for a second before a woman reached down and tore it out of his hands and flipped it to her daughter.
He sat back down and fumed, and soon he was crying. I elbowed him. “Odds are we’ll have another chance at a ball. Or maybe next game.” He didn’t want to hear it.
We left, passing the empty seats where the little girl’s family had been. I still had my glove ready and watched each pitch, but Stan grumbled at me, still crying, that there was no point in even bringing our stupid gloves.
Safely downstairs, I bought him a new ball at a concession stand.
Lou Gaglia's short story collection, Poor Advice, received the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for Short Story Fiction. His work has appeared recently in Menda City Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Blue Monday Review, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. He is a long-time teacher and T'ai Chi Ch'uan practitioner, first in New York City and now in upstate New York. Visit him at lougaglia.com