I’ve been here a few years now. I know people think I’m dumb. I know I’m a little slow at figuring things out, but I get it eventually. And just because my voice is a little syrupy and thick, it doesn’t mean I’m ignorant. Just a little slow on account of being in the war.
The kids here are pretty nice to me. Some of them say, “Hi, Hank,” when they pass me by, and I’ve gotten to where I remember some of their names now. Others make fun of me. I know that, but they’re just kids, junior college kids, and it doesn’t really bother me like it used to. At least it shouldn’t. I know that.
I live close by in a halfway house, but I don’t like it much there. I don’t like the others who live there. There’s one fellow, he’s kind of nice, but the rest of them I’d just as soon do without. So I spend a lot of my time here in the dugout at night. It’s real peaceful and quiet for the most part. I like to sit here and have a smoke or two, drink a soda. They don’t let me have beer no more. Said it messes with the pills they give me, and I don’t want to make any more of a mess than I have to. I like looking across the baseball diamond, watching the sprinklers shine in the moonlight. You can hear crickets singing, too, and I like that.
I like the smell of the place, too. The smell of baseball gloves and cut grass and dirt. I have an aluminum bat I keep with me and sometimes I go out to the batter’s box and take a few swings at the air.
Sometimes, some of the kids will sneak on the field at night to drink beer and smoke weed. Sometimes they’ll make out in the middle of the field or in the bleachers. I don’t pay them much mind, and half the time, they don’t seem to know I’m even there. I’ve scared more than a few kids in the dugout, their pants down around their ankles, humping each other the way kids these days do. I don’t mean to scare them, but I don’t really feel like waiting for them to finish just so I can have a smoke, and all it usually takes is for me to clear my throat, and then they run the hell away like I’m some kind of ghost or something.
Some nights, the boys will come out here and give me a twenty dollar bill for keeping quiet when they have their initiations, but I’d probably keep quiet for just a ten.
The other night they brought out this kid wrapped in a dirty shag carpet. I could hear him trying to scream, but it wasn’t doing him much good. There were about ten of the boys, and they set him on the pitcher’s mound and all took turns throwing baseballs at him. Some of them could throw pretty darn hard, and I even winced at a few of the zingers that hit the carpet. He stopped screaming after a few of those.
After the boys left, I unwrapped him, and he was barely breathing. He looked pretty near like every bone in his body had turned to mush. His skin was all blue and purple and black like an eggplant, the kind some folks put on their salads.
He tried to tell me something, but I didn’t pay him any mind. I could already hear the ambulance coming - the boys are thoughtful that way. So I left him there and gathered up my smokes and soda and walked up to the top of the bleachers and watched the doctors work on him. They didn’t see me up there. They never do.
I know the difference between good and evil, and the world is full of both. It’s like they’re two sides of one of them old fashioned scales, the kind in the movies where they’d weigh the prospector’s gold on. And on one side is good and the other side evil. And they have to stay in balance. If things get too bad, something good is going to happen. And if things get too good, something bad is coming along shortly. These boys, as far as I’m concerned, were just trying to keep the scales balanced.
Like in the war when I was a prisoner for four months and they poked out my left eye and threw it against the bamboo cage and about a hundred rats jumped on it and fought over it. I was weighing down the bad side of the scale so there could be some good done somewhere else, is the way I see it.
A few weeks ago the boys came down and had a new pledge with them and they had him stripped down to his underwear. His hands were tied behind his back, and they laid him out on the pitchers mound. One of the boys sat on his legs so he couldn’t get up, and another boy squatted behind him, holding his mouth open. The other boys took turns peeing in his mouth. I could tell they’d been drinking beer because they came over to where I sat watching, and asked if maybe I felt like taking a leak. I told them no thanks; I’ll just take the twenty.
Sometimes I see them during the day when I’m working and they’re jogging around the track for phy-ed. I see them jogging and sweating just like everybody else, and they won’t look at me or say “Hi, Hank,” they just keep their eyes ahead like I’m invisible, and I don’t pay them any mind. Sometimes I feel like sticking out my foot and tripping them just to get their attention, but then I think why would I want to do that? It would just get me in trouble and their parents would complain and I’d be out of work again, and maybe they wouldn’t even let me stay at the halfway house, they’d put me back in the hospital.
One night though, just last week, they brought out another pledge who I recognized because it was one of the kids who would always smile and say, “Hi, Hank,” to me when he passed on by. Not only that, but he’d sometimes stop and talk to me, ask me how my day was going, how I was getting along in life. A real nice kid.
They had him wrapped in duct tape all the way up to his eyes, and I was wondering how he could even breath, but then I saw they’d poked a hole for one of his nostrils. His eyes looked scared as shit, and they laid him out and started smoking cigarettes, laughing and joking, and this boy all laid out on the pitchers mound looking like a gray piece of wire. Then when their cigarettes were almost sucked down to the butt, they put them out on his forehead and in his scalp, and you could smell the skin burning, but the sound of the sizzle was swallowed up by the crickets. They came over to where I was in the dugout smoking my own cigarettes, drinking my soda, and handed me a twenty-dollar bill.
“I can’t take that,” I said.
“What? Why?” they asked.
“No,” I said. “Not tonight.”
“Are you getting greedy?” one of the boys asked. “You want more money?”
“No,” I said, looking at him with my good eye. “You pay me to keep quiet and I don’t feel like keeping quiet about this one.”
“Are you crazy?” the boy asked. “You can’t tell anyone about this.”
“I don’t know, I just feel like telling someone, is all.”
The boy turned to the others, but they all shrugged. He pulled out a fifty dollar bill. “Take this,” he said. “And shut the hell up.” He tried to grab my hand, but I jerked it away.
“What’s your problem? You want us to send you back to the loony bin? You know we can do it.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to go back there.”
“Then take the goddamn money and shut the hell up.”
“He was just a nice boy is all,” I said. I looked at the twenty-dollar bill in his hand. “No,” I said. “You keep your money.”
“I’m serious,” the boy said. “You say a word about this, and we’ll get you sent right back to the crazy farm.”
I thought about it for a moment. I didn’t want to go back there. No way. But I also couldn’t take the boy’s money for hurting the kid like that, the same kid who always would say “Hi, Hank,” and smile, and ask me how my day had been. Like I was part of his family. I couldn’t take that money.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m not taking the money, but I won’t say anything to anybody.”
The boy looked at me like he didn’t really believe me, but then he nodded. “Have it your way. But remember who we are and what we can do to you.”
I looked away. I didn’t look up until I could hear that they’d left.
I sat back down in the dugout watching the kid lying there on the pitcher’s mound. His body was hitching up and down like he was still having trouble breathing. I could hear the ambulance in the distance, and then the sprinklers went on. The kid squirmed on the mound as the water came down upon him.
Sometimes you have to do your own balancing of the scales. Sometimes you have to adjust a little here, a little there. It’s hard to always know, though, which way the scales are leaning.
I decided to unwrap his face. Let him breath a little easier. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time, because the ambulance siren was getting pretty loud by now.
I had to tilt the scales back so they were even. I leaned down, the sprinklers soaking me through, and gently pulled the tape from his mouth. He sucked in a lungful of air. I could see the burn marks on his forehead, the singed strands of hair.
“Thank you,” he said.
“No,” I told him. “Thank you. Thank you for being so good to me.”
I pulled the aluminum bat from behind my back and beat him into the ground, tipping the scales back into balance.