I Killed My Best Friend

This is baseball: I'm 10 years old and pitching for the Yankees of the Downey Junior Athletic Association. I shouldn't be pitching because I have a weak arm, which is why in the past, I've always played second base. But we have new coaches this season who don't know this, and one day, they tell everyone to throw one ball from the mound and somehow . . .

First game of the season: I'm pitching against the Angels, a star-laden team with a particularly notable player named Brian who is enormously gifted as an athlete mostly because he's enormous. He's the kind of kid whose body far outstrips his mind, the kind of kid who spoke slowly and carried a big stick. Not a bad kid, though you certainly respect the fact he can kill you. Really. He's that strong. It wouldn't be like he wanted to; he just could kill you. Like Lenny with the puppy in Of Mice and Men, Brian would be awful sorry he snapped the little feller's neck, but you'd still be dead.

Baseball.

So I take the mound against the Angels, and very soon, my arm is tired, and it's taking all of my strength to arc the ball to the plate, and Brian slams one of those arcs over the left-field fence for a homer. I'm being pounded in that exquisite Puritan ethic that is baseball's. Strike out with the bases loaded? Go stand out in right field silently, and think about it as you drink in the taunts of your teammates and the fans. Give up a homer with the bases loaded? Stand in the middle of the field on this raised hill so if anyone walking by wonders why the Angels are creaming the Yankees, your presence up there will tell them: "Over here! Here's the puss!"

I am feeling shame, performance anxiety, hatred and self-loathing. My arm is so tired that the ball is bouncing on or before the plate. Naturally, I blame my catcher, Jeff, who is also one of my best friends. I begin to yell at him to move up, move up; if he would just move up, the ball wouldn't bounce so much. He keeps moving up. Brian comes to bat again. I throw a balloon that moves so slowly the wee breeze takes hold of it and scoots it past him. Swinging from his soles, Brian corkscrews all the way through so that on his back swing, his bat meets the back of Jeff's head with a resonant thud, a dull axe laying into damp wood. Jeff goes down-not flailing around the way ham actors do when they get shot, but straight down, a sack of dropped feed, down, no movement whatsoever, the way real dead people go down.

So he's dead. Blood is pouring out of the back of his head, and it's left to me to ponder whether this would have happened if I hadn't kept telling him to move up. As the paramedics-were they called paramedics in 1971?-wheel him off the field on a stretcher, with his mother crying and clutching his hand, he rises, points a finger at me and yells: "'Move up! Move up!' Hedid this! 'Move up!' He did it! He did it!"

The game resumes. I have given up 18 runs in three innings and been accused of reckless endangerment by my catcher. Naturally, the coaches leave me on the mound, concerned that a sliver of self-esteem may still survive. Fools: it all died when they asked for volunteers to be my catcher, and the surviving members of the team burst into tears. Brian steps back into the batter's box, but now he's batting from the left side. I only notice this in passing, my mind perusing the good times Jeff and I had shared before I killed him. I blow a pitch in the air. Brian hits it. He hits it over the right-field fence and over a fence that lay beyond the one that lined the parking lot. Did I mention that Brian was not left-handed? He had turned to bat from the left because he felt so bad about what had happened. Even Brian, in his simple way, knew it wasn't appropriate to pile it on any further with the score what it was and a dead catcher and all. But now, with bald-faced superhumanism staring back at him, he flails and jumps around the bases; at one point, he even turns cartwheels between second and third bases. Looking back, how could you blame him? He was big, yes. But he was a kid, a kid who had just done something remarkable in a game that jealously guards against that eventuality. Yes, he had contributed to the knocked-in skull of one 10-year-old and the restless nights of another. But baseball, they say, is a game of redemption. So his joy was deserved, appropriate even. The 10-year-old boy crying on the mound didn't see that then, but I see it now. Brian deserved to celebrate. He deserved every cartwheel, every hoop, every holler. He deserved it. The fat fuck.

 
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