PLAYING BALL ON THE BORDERLINE
Sadie Hasgrove dreamt of being a ball player. A dream a girl could have before she was told she couldn’t.
When she was nine, she inherited a glove from her stepfather. A 1960’s Spalding mitt, with Mickey Mantle’s signature stamped into the leather. It was a well-made glove—once best in the field—with laces still tightly criss-crossed even after the pocket was broken in.
Next door to Sadie and her family, lived Marco Poverelli, a retired baseball pitcher who played pro in Italian leagues. When his arm left him, then his career, he turned to selling tennis shoes for an American sneaker company. Already a slack-arm, has-been when he moved into the brick and vinyl-sided ranch, with his wife and one-year old daughter, Mia, it came to Sadie’s attention he was a man casted above all the rest. A Roman Adonis with a chip on his shoulder.
The two families lived side-by-side in the suburban outreaches of Pittsburgh, where everyone had either Italian or Polish in their bloodlines. Where last names were passed down as nicknames pressed into jerseys. And where being loyal to the city’s sports teams fell somewhere within the same institution as devotion to being good Catholics. It was a city of hills and rivers and steel constructed bridges. A place of immigrant nobodies, built up as legends. With legacies of hard work, legacies of familial genes.
Baseball was an admired pastime in the Hasgrove household. In her grandfather’s market, there hung photos of him posing with Roberto Clemente years before his plane went down. And in the family album, there were images of her great Aunt Mary Robinson, the one who lived with her cat and no one else—standing in the dusty bowl of the road with a wooden bat resting on her thrown back shoulder, jeans tightly rolled to her knees.
Aunt Mary Robinson was Sadie’s favorite. They both shared the same fish hook curl to their smiles, and dark come-hither eyes that challenged anyone.
Sadie practiced her stance out by the honeysuckle and compost piles behind the house, swinging the second-hand bat her real dad had picked up for her at an athletics swap. Swatting at wasps with unwavering follow-through. Or throwing the ball high into the air, to land right smack back down into the glove she had named Lemon.
Occasionally, the ball would get away from her, and roll down the grassy knoll through the slight coppice of trees that led into Marco’s backyard. The first couple of times this happened, she was too shy to go after it, and would let the ball lie there for the rest of the afternoon, or sometimes even days. Until Marco would come across it, starting up his lawn mower or letting their dog out, and would knock on the Hasgrove’s door. Where Sadie waited, hoping to be the first to answer.
“Thought you’d be missing this,” he’d say, dropping the ball into her hand. Her sweaty palms closing over the dents and scuffed up gashes, as her fingertips caressed the dirty red stitching.
“Thanks,” she would say, flushed and fixated on the perfect line of his scalp— his side-parted hair. His teeth like polished seashells she’d heard of from the Amalfi Coast.
So badly she wanted to invite him to a game of catch, or to ask him for pointers. But there was a sadness to him that told Sadie he didn’t want to be bothered. That he had lost something he felt he could never replace, and she didn’t to burden him with her eagerness to learn what he knew.
“Don’t let your hopes get too high, we come from a bunch of bordello owners and polygamists,” Sadie’s relatives would remind her at picnic reunions, as a ballgame of cousins and uncles would be underway. And there she’d be sitting with the last-picked females—the ones who’d be pitched to underhanded—with Sadie knowing deep-down she was better than them all.
Marco’s wife had a temperament. “You want us to be poor like bastard P’vrelli’s?!” She would scream at him from windows. Rarely setting foot outside, embarrassed by where they lived. Sadie hardly saw her face through the mesh screen that blurred out by her anger. Only shades of her red lips coming through—a wide O of blood orange furiousness.
The one time Sadie was invited inside their house, was when Sadie’s mother mentioned to Marco in passing that Sadie needed new cleats for her first season of Little League. But her mother didn’t want to spend the money, just in case it didn’t pan out: “If she keeps at it, it’ll be a miracle,” her mother insisted.
But Marco assured her of a warehouse deal he could get her, and told Sadie to come by after school so he could measure her feet.
She considered telling him about Henrietta, her crazy best friend with a crush on their CCD instructor—who believed her only competition for their teacher was God, and that it was something mental for her to take on.
But then Sadie noticed the crucifix that dangled beneath Marco’s t-shirt, as he leaned over to help her with her socks, and thought better of it, and offered up instead that her classes were just ‘fine’.
Sadie was surprised by how sparse their home appeared—still packed up in boxes and tape even after a year of living there. Clearly his wife’s point of not wanting to stay put in the suburbs for too long. Though she half-expected to hear his wife in her stiletto heels clattering around in their kitchen, or slamming dishes against the countertops to make her presence known.
But instead the house was strangely quiet on the inside, just Sadie and Marco—cradling the soft pads of her bare feet.
It was the only bar left on the planet with a jukebox. The letter and numeric buttons yellowed from when they still allowed smoking inside such establishments.
Sadie was becoming a regular. Too pretty she stood out, and some people talked about her as if she had a side business with the clientele. Loggers and truckers mostly, passing through to the Northeast Kingdom to Canada.
Sadie had followed a ballplayer this way after college. Had thought she was in love—more with the game than him—that’s how it was, really. When it came to ball players, she just got weak.
Noel played a couple farm teams near Ottawa City, but it was short-lived. Died in a camp fire, while on a hunting trip with some buddies. They’d been living out of hotels and motels, and didn’t own much. He’d emptied the mini bar in the room before he left. Said he needed a break—she’d thought he meant: A chance.
She watched the majors on the kitty-cornered TV beside the Snack Rack. No one seemed to notice she’d better wearing the same rotation of clothing for the last couple weeks. Noel had left her with nothing except a stack of baseball cards he’d kept in his luggage for good luck— superstitious when came to anything out his control. Wrapped with a rubber band, he’d been collecting them since he was a kid. Only she knew about the cards, and they’d be her ticket home.
“I bet I got something that would interest you,” she said to the man sitting next to her, not taking her eyes off the screen. She ignored the NO SOLITATION sign that was posted in plain view. The batter caught a foul ball and had to walk back home.
“Is that so?” spoke a voice, older than she expected. And she turned to the octogenarian of tobacco gums and no teeth, and said, “I think so,” as he let out a cackle, and his glasses rocked loosely on the bridge of his nose.
At her side beneath the bar top, she fanned out the cards: “What do you think of these?” she asked.
Pinching the frame of his spectacles to keep them from sliding from his face, he bent his bald head to view the display against her left thigh.
“Honey, I thought you were talking sex.”
“Trust me, this is better. Worth it—more valuable. You won’t be sorry,” she promised, noticing the age spots on the backs of his unremembering hands.
“I don’t know. I had this girl once…” the man rambled on.
The crowd cheered over the TV announcer. A fly ball caught against the stadium wall.
And Sadie reluctantly put the cards away, turning her attention back to the game.