Fiction   Essays   Poetry  The Ten On Baseball Chapbooks In Memory

Zack Pelta-Heller

Getting Loose

"I’m scared," Robbie whispered to Harry.

Under the black metal park bench, his words lingered in the cold air like ghosts. Feet crunched in the nearby woods, wheels squeaked through the grass. Robbie glimpsed leaves scraping and skipping along the forest floor until they touched down in a shadowy puddle. This park’s all too familiar, like Pennypack but with greener grass. The sweet smell of the damp grass that cushioned his knees wafted into his nose, making him shiver. The footsteps were growing louder.

"What are we going to do Har—? "

Four legs were coming right toward their bench: two white, two green. They were pushing a small gray wheelchair through the grass, with several straps clanking restlessly against its metal armrests. They don’t seem too dangerous, Robbie tried to reassure himself, though he knew they were.

Harry turned to Robbie and cocked his furry feline head curiously. Robbie looked down at him, and put his finger to his lips to make sure Harry would keep quiet. Wet sandpaper suddenly rubbed against his nose. He moved to touch it, but Harry bolted from underneath the bench.

"Don’t!" Robbie shouted.


Robbie jolted up in bed just in time to see a dark image darting from his room. Bleary-eyed, he wondered how Harry, his cat, could have crept into his dream. He wiped his eyes with the back of his knuckles as he took a quick inventory to make sure everything was still there: his posters of The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Paul Simon that covered every inch of white paint, and his cherry roll-top desk that sat across from his matching dresser, staring at each other liked he’d just walked in on their private conversation. Still hanging in the corner was the Mexican mariachi marionette Aunt Lynn brought back from her trip to Cancun, which surrendered a red plastic bottle of something in one hand and a silvery gun in the other. A film of dust covered his sombrero and black moustache.

Robbie wiped the drool from his chin and his nose where Harry’d licked him with his rough tongue. Across the hall, he heard the unmistakable creaking of his parents' bed as they were briefly wrenched from sleep.

Mmeh-cheh-heh. His father cleared his throat in three stunted coughs, and everything from the night before came roaring back to Robbie, including his stomachache. They had just gotten back from the Blair Mill Inn, where everyone had been dancing late into the evening at Josh’s Bar Mitzvah. Dad got so emotional. Just so proud, Robbie thought at first. But then Mom started crying hysterically. It happened so fast. Everybody sat down around the teardrop glass coffee table in the living room, Dad with his arm around Mom as he took off his glasses. He said nothing was going to change, that they’d still do everything together as a family, but that the doctor said he had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Wouldn’t be going to Ireland in the summer though—that had changed—because Dad had to start getting treatment.

Now Robbie laid back down and rubbed his feet together under his sailboat comforter until they were comforted from the lasting fright of his dream. Could Dad be dying? Was cancer better without Hodgkins? The thought made his posters start spinning in a dark psychedelic whirl. Robbie looked over at his alarm clock radio and tapped it a few times, until the last red digit flickered back on. Still a couple of hours, he thought, rolling over to press his aching side up against his ripped Hey Jude poster. The wall, cold from central air, numbed his stomach.

Mom had offered to buy him a new poster—it was ripped, and besides, The Beatles were all staring off in different directions—but this was a Chanukah present from Pop Pop. He watched the oak branches sway out his window, swordfighting with the power lines. Contorting his body until his pillow was nuzzled under his left arm, Robbie pressed his face down against the cool, firm mattress. This was how sleep was best recently—cushion-deprived with an arm draped over a pillow like he was proud of it—ever since Mom said to put Mousey away on the shelf in his closet. He could only see the tips of the branches now, soporifically swaying against a gang of gray clouds. Did they mean rain? If only, if only. The tree branches surrendered, blurring with the power lines, the windowsill, and, at last, sleep.


Robbie stretched and turned over, pulling his blanket over his head to block out the light. The clouds, those little liars!

"Psssst! Wakey wakey."

Robbie knew who was standing there without opening his eyes. He could hear the greh-reh-reh of juicy orange pulp being squeezed through Mom’s juicer in the kitchen. He could smell the bagels getting brown and crunchy in the oven. It was Sunday morning, and that meant only one thing: his Dad would transform into the mighty Mr. Baseball.

Robbie opened his eyes to see his Dad standing there in his dull yellow shirt with the words "Padres Coach" in brown cursive across the front, tucked neatly into his ridiculous white polyester stretch pants with the royal blue stripes racing down the sides. Capped off with that cheap yellow hat he refused to break the bill of -- it made Robbie sick with embarrassment.

"Who goes with Fergus?" Dad beamed, his beard stretched wide to accommodate his extra Sunday morning baseball enthusiasm, revealing a few gray strays.

"Nobody," Robbie yawned grumpily.

Noise and breakfast smells spread upstairs as Robbie pulled on his uniform, pausing to remember the games when it had acquired its grass-stained mileage. In the kitchen, his parents talked quietly about Josh writing "thank you" notes. Dad was right; so far, nothing had changed. The only room that was quiet was Josh’s, whose door was shut in newfound manly independence.

He was mad last night at the party, Robbie thought, as he walked past to the bathroom, when Sandy Kallish was dancing with me, his more handsome younger bro. Said he didn’t care afterwards, but I bet he did. Robbie brushed his teeth with a swishy-swish, thinking of Josh dancing with Rebecca Ronsankowitz instead. Robbie slid his sock drawer open and dug around for his plastic triangular cup. He put it on and shifted in his pants. It’s never...comfortable. Can never stride properly towards home with this stupid thing. It looks like Jason’s freaky hockey mask is eating my nuts. Better leave it. Nuts to the rules. Ha! What’re the chances a ball hits me in the balls? A ball on balls instead of a base on balls!

"Free eats!" his father yelled, as Robbie descended the stairs, two at a time.

With a reekyreekythump, the rickety railing and the hardwood floor announced his arrival downstairs.

"You loose?" his dad asked.

Robbie nodded, not looking Dad in the face as he reached for his cleats.

"Put ‘em on in the car. We don’t want you making more dents on the parquet floor."

Robbie dropped the cleats on the cloud-colored carpet instead, and sat down at the kitchen table. The plastic-covered chair deflated. Its wooden legs vibrated through his red-striped knee socks and right up his spine as Mom pushed him in.

He wanted scrambled eggs with lox, what Mom and Josh would be having. Instead, he got his game day meal: Raisin Bran with milk and a sliced, nauseatingly mushy banana that brought back the dull ache in his stomach. No one else was eating yet. Mom had her back turned, peppering a bowl of beaten eggs as she listened to Charles Kuralt prattle on about some soldiers who’d come home from the Gulf but were now getting sick with some new syndrome.

"Who goes with Fergus?"

Who the hell is Fergus? Robbie wondered as he combed the wooden floor with his big toes in search of cleat marks. He finished his freshly squeezed juice, which had turned tepid but still tasted like nectar, as Harry leapt onto the windowsill. Just look at him over there, taking a sunbath and having his morning nap after a long night of haunting my dreams. Grabbing his glove and hat, Robbie trotted down the six carpeted steps to the garage, his cleats keeping the rhythm as they swayed from his shoulder.

The door of the garage was already open, and Robbie got into the Accord with a whenk. How the pinstriped plush seats always felt refreshing after a night in the garage!

They coasted backwards down the driveway in neutral, Dad still tying his cleats and not paying any attention. He turned the key at the bottom of the driveway, the ignition caught just before they had to turn onto Laramie. Always does it, just before I’m worried enough to say something, Robbie tormented. But what could I say? Uh, Dad, did you know that you’re drifting in reverse here or what?

That would probably get a Relax or, at least, a No shit, Robbie. And look at Richard Liss across the street there, hunched over that damn lawnmower in his ironed white tee and cutoffs. Must be out there four times a week at least. What did Josh call him the other day? "Dick-Liss."

"Ha ha."

This one came out louder than Robbie’d intended, but his Dad was too busy fumbling with his shoe flaps and attending to the wheel at the same time.

Dick Liss was a poster boy for Northeast Philly. He moved into his house nearly ten years before, when Robbie was one, and never left, except to go down the Shore once a year. Dick Liss’s house stood out on Robbie’s block of identical duplexes because of all the time he spent on his yard. Robbie’d caught a glimpse of the inside once too, on Halloween, and wasn’t remotely impressed. A lot of fake crystal birds and ugly little statuettes, flying nervously above a green carpet that looked like the astroturf at Veterans Stadium. To top it off, he had the nerve to give Robbie a pencil for Halloween. A lousy orange pencil.

He’d become Dick Liss after he yelled at Robbie and Josh for playing in the street and their wiffle ball dinged his precious vintage Buick. Dad also hated him—God knows why—but that was good enough. Dick got so much meaner after his wife died. She was the nice one, always bringing tins of cookies over. Would our home be invaded by crystal animals and astroturf? Would Mom get meaner? No, nothing was going to change.

"It must be early," Robbie stretched his arms as they turned onto Alburger Avenue, "even the houses are yawning." His Dad thought for a couple of seconds about this, and smiled as he noticed the uniform row of duplexes open their garage-sized mouths in unison, spitting out cars into the once quiet street. Robbie caught his Dad’s thin grin and smiled to have a foot back in the spotlight again; Josh had been such an attention hog the past few weeks.

Feeling a little proud, he turned on 98.1, "W-O-G-L F-M. We play your favorite oldies," that woman always sang like she was a back up singer for The Supremes. "Help me Rhonda, yeah." The Beach Boys, his favorite. They always came on when Robbie was in the car. "Because of my California blonde hair," Dad said.

"Sorry we’re not going to Ireland this year, Robbie, I know you’re disappointed." Robbie had spent every Sunday afternoon in the March offseason planning that trip with Dad; he really got into it. Figuring out how far you could drive in a day, what sites you could pack in along the way. They were going to pet every sheep and inspect every castle between Dublin and Cork. They’d even planned to catch a rugby match.

"It’s okay," Robbie said, trying to decide if he was more disappointed than his Dad. "It's more important that you get medicine now."

They dipped down Alburger as Dad shifted into second. Robbie could sort of see his school, blurred by the trees as they whizzed past.

"How’s that arm feel?"

"Hurts a little at the bone." Robbie winced as he masochistically touched the tip of his sore right elbow the way he tenderly squeezed peaches in the bowl on the kitchen counter to see if they were ripe.

"You won’t pitch back to back innings today...but I am gonna start you."

He was going to say something, but Dad looked like he was zoning out, with his furrowed forehead. His skin’s as tan as mine, Robbie thought, he doesn’t look sick.

Alburger became Welsh Road and his Dad shifted into third, forgetting to hit the clutch and sending a vibrating gehrrr right through Robbie’s cleats. It sounded like an old man coughing. That stupid rule at Max Meyer’s: can’t pitch two in a row. Wasn’t that way at Bustleton Bengals, when he and Josh were on the same team. That was the best year, Josh at first and him at second. No one stopped Joey Kesselman when he pitched two in a row, in the championship.

Robbie sat up when they cruised by Rita’s Water Ice in the Krewstown Shopping Center and up the hill toward the Boulevard. Would Dad stop for water ice on the way home? If he played hard (or if they won)? He would get a medium lemon, because he wasn’t allowed to have cherry. Dad said that maraschino cherries weren’t real. They were filled with food dye and were bad for you. But did that even matter anymore? In his parents' wedding album, Robbie'd even seen the picture of his parents eating their fruit cup appetizers; the cherry sat alone on the side of Dad’s plate.

Waiting for the light at Roosevelt Boulevard, Robbie ran his fingers over the name inside of his well-oiled glove. Mike S-c-h-m-i-d-t. He traced the Rawlings R that was stitched over the thumbhole: embroidered in white and stranded in a circle of soft red. Got it that last year on the Bengals. Dad said it would help catch grounders, even though Robbie’s hand swam in it.

Wonder how you even spell "lymphoma?" This is the worst intersection in the country, Mom said she heard on Action News, because it has so many lanes. Sixteen altogether, with those stupid grass islands in between each group of three, and no lane to turn. Always keep a ball in your glove. Was that true? A left onto Conwell Street. Dad said so, because it gives it a good shape. Around the bend of row homes, Field 5 came slowly into view. Robbie’s heart sank like a busted balloon. The butterflies in his stomach were back. This is the way he always felt before he pitched a game, but this time the butterflies were biting.

Whenk! Robbie shut the car door and tied his cleats, carefully flipping out the Pony flaps across the laces. Dad had Robbie’s red graphite bat slung over his shoulder. That was Bull, the bat Robbie hit a homerun with last Sunday. This is the spot where the ball must’ve finally hit the ground, Robbie reminisced, as they neared a gravelly patch next to the parking lot gate. I’d never hit one before—Dad said it was OK because pitchers aren’t supposed to be big sluggers—but man it felt so good, what a whack! And then I saw him coaching on the third baseline when I rounded second, but he wasn’t smiling. He just yelled, "Run Mary, run!"

Robbie and his Dad began to cut across right field from the parking lot; the water on the outfield grass was already making its presence felt in Robbie’s shoes and socks. Things suddenly shifted inside of him, he felt it... the mushy banana! That’s what put him over. "I don’t feel too good."

Robbie turned to his dad, one hand clutching his stomach sort of like when he recited the pledge of allegiance in school. Josh said he didn’t want to, and Mrs. Williams threw him out of the class. Made him stand in the hall while the rest of the class did it in the morning. Mom was so mad when she found out it’d been going on for a whole week. She went to speak to Mr. Romanelli and oh...

Prrfweehprrrrfweeeh. He let out a much-needed fart. "Aw Robbeerrt! Why didn’t you go before we left the—" sensing this was going nowhere, Dad added, "Go on up and see if you can use the clubhouse."

Robbie walked slowly on the concrete path that cut between Fields 5 and 6. Up the grassy hill. "Pass it. Pass it. Foul. Foul. Foul!" Robbie passed the sweaty men who religiously played basketball on Sunday mornings. His face felt cool and sweaty, his arm hairs stood up and did the wave. The pain came in such intense flashes that he pinched his thigh through his stretch pants to think about anything else.


Robbie clenched his butt and let out a couple more wet farts as he walked along the y-shaped, tree-lined path to the clubhouse. He was walking as quickly as his painful cramps allowed.

Robbie pulled the door, incredulously. Locked! It’s locked?! The rusty handle coated his palms a reddish brown. How the fuck can it be locked?!? How the, ooh...Maybe back over at 2, maybe Coach Brenner is there umping. He could have the keys.

Click and clack along the path, his spikes hit the concrete. The shadows from the trees, a cool breeze. Pass pass! Click click. Foul, foul! Clack clack. He tried not to think so much of the pain. She danced with me last night and not Josh. It didn’t mean a..a..…anything. Robbie pinched his leg even harder to get through a tidal wave of pain. And Josh was so mad. Her dress felt soft where I kept my hands on her hips when we danced. Did she think I was cute? Maybe not now but in a couple of years, maybe, like Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Tom. And then we got home, and Mom started crying and...hey, there’s Reid Linus going to the clubhouse.

Robbie hobbled back toward Reid, a former college baseball player who never turned pro and was now a fat, scruffy little league coach. Holding an army green equipment bag in one hand, Reid jangled a set of keys in the other as he strutted down the path whistling, what Robbie thought to be, the worst rendition of Fogerty’s "Centerfield" he’d ever heard. Didn’t matter, he was relieved. He would have run to Reid and hugged him if he could have. We could go to Ireland next year, Dad said it was possible. And maybe Josh will let me come hang out with him after school, and maybe she’ll be there. Sandy Kal…aaal…lishhhhitt!

The day after Josh’s Bar Mitzvah was turning out to be the worst day of Robbie’s young life. It was the first day of June, and the air on Max Meyer’s playground was thick with the promises of summer. Inside the dank clubhouse bathroom, Robbie held his breath and held back tears. Lesions of rust peeked through the chipped green paint. He wiped his pants without gagging too much. With his other hand, he wiped the cold sweat from his forehead. His left shoulder pressed against the corroded metal door to keep it closed, because the lock was broken. Between his stench and the equally disgusted look he thought Dad would make if he ever found out, Robbie reeled with embarrassment. If anyone ever knew!

The worst was over, or was it? Was Dad really gonna die? Robbie stumbled out of the clubhouse. He moved his hand to rub his eyes and thought better of it. Held it outstretched instead, like it was highly explosive. The rusty sink had splittered, splattered, and spluttered, but never did its job. Got to get down to the field, he thought desperately. Oh, to be home helping Josh write "Thank you’s," or rained out, this morning under the covers. Or with Mom and Grandmom shopping at the Willow Grove Mall. Or, fuck -- two weeks and he’d be eleven, two years and it'd be his turn on the bema. But he had just shit in his pants. He never felt so far from manhood.

Robbie floated down the knoll, past parents wearing sunglasses on blankets, and coolers overflowing with flavor ice and juice boxes. No one could tell, or they would’ve moved. No more shadows, the sun was right over, casting only hot judgment. And then Robbie saw him, standing tall between the batter’s cage and the gray chain-linked fence that ran along the third base line: Mr. Baseball, looking out into deep right-center with his hand over the top of his big round glasses to drown out the glare. He didn’t look like someone who was dying from cancer.

On the other side, his team was warming up, bouncing around in the sunlight like the atoms he was learning about in Mr. Robinson’s science class. One ball made its way in triangles around the infield, another around the horn of the outfield. Strays and latecomers warmed the bench, and there was a noticeable absence on the mound. Was he serious? Was he sick in the head? Or just sick?

"I can’t throw."

"Sure ya can." Mr. Baseball asked unconvinced.

"C’mon, get out there and get loose."

Just did that! Robbie thought, his stomach still gurgling.

"I just can’t, seriously Dad." Robbie wished he’d laid low in the foul bathroom all game.

"Vince!" his Dad turned back toward the field. "When I’m doing this," he frantically waved an arm over his head the way the Ocean City lifeguards call in strayed swimmers, "it means move the hell in!" Robbie thought his Dad looked like a fucking lunatic—the yellow bill of his cheap cap perfectly parallel with the ball field—and he knew he was interrupting Dad’s pre-game show of repositioning players a few feet over based on the first batter’s stance and whether the kid was a righty or a lefty.

Robbie caught Vince flipping Dad the finger as he headed for his new patch of grass in left. The kids all hated him at the beginning of the game, and then loved him when they won. Like a couple of years ago when he moved Glenn Eckstut twenty feet over, just in time to catch the line drive that won the championship. Robbie’d thrown his glove up in the air before they all jumped on each other, and then Dad took them all to Custard’s Last Stand for ice cream.

Dad turned back to his son. "So, you gonna get loose, or what?"

Robbie wanted to pitch today, partly because of Vince and everyone else who made fun of Dad when Dad pretended not to notice, but mainly not to let Dad down. He rubbed his stomach and thought things over, forgetting which was the offensive hand for a moment.

"Just get out there to second," Dad said, erasing Robbie’s name from his clipboard. Muttering a note of disappointment to himself, which Robbie pretended not to hear, Dad waved to Jason Weiss to move over from second base to the pitcher’s mound.

Thank God for Jason, that scrub with a mullet. I pitch harder, but who cares? Maybe I can get through this at sleepy second. I have to, Robbie thought, as he trotted toward the gap of dirt that Jason left between first and second base.

The first batter for the Max Myer’s Phillies is such a pipsqueak, Robbie thought, sizing him up as he stepped to the plate. He looks like a ballet dancer with his whopping maroon shirt tucked into his tight blue sweatpants. They always bat the scrawny ones first. Get ‘em on base early cause they’re the fastest, that’s what Dad says. Robbie took a short practice grounder from the first baseman and threw it back, as his Dad howled to the right fielder from the other side of the rusty batter’s cage.

The air was so still that Robbie could hear their catcher, "Ducklips" Shapiro, ask the pipsqueak if he believed in reincarnation. Ducklips always tried to distract the batters because his lips were much bigger than his baseball ability. Robbie moved two steps to his left as he was told, opening up the gap between him and second. So the pipsqueak was a lefty; Robbie was a righty. That is, he pitched with his right hand, ate with a fork in his right hand, and wrote with his right hand too. Robbie looked at his hand as he tossed the infield warm-up ball back toward the dugout. It stunk now. He once asked Dad how you know if you’re a righty or a lefty.

"That’s easy Robbie," Dad grunted through his toothy grin, "it’s the hand you wipe your ass with."

If he only knew.

Robbie didn’t know this batter from school or anything, but he sort of empathized with him because Robbie batted lefty too. Strange, definitely, but Dad said it would help him get out of the batter’s box quicker. Used to make him run down the driveway at home from the left side of that stupid yellow home plate he painted for wiffle ball. It confused Robbie that he had to be a lefty for that and nothing else, just for a few head start steps to first.

He mimicked the ump, who crouched behind his black, dust-covered foam board the way Robbie had behind the trees next to the clubhouse. Knees bent, Robbie still felt like shit, like when Dad sped over the short bumps of Moredun Road on the way to Custard’s Last Stand. But he had to play, he thought, had to after last night. Maybe he could just get through the game unnoticed at second base. Thank God he wasn’t pitching.

His dad was still motioning furiously for the left fielders to move away from the line as a metallic clenk fired the ball from the pipsqueak’s aluminum bat. It roped along between the pitcher and the Phillies’ dugout. Get down, get down. Don’t let it by or between your legs. Was it the first pitch? Didn’t matter; the sound of the ball hitting the bat triggered a Pavlovian response. Get in front. "Don’t be a bullfighter," like Dad says.

An ashy flash skipped through the trimmed green grass right toward him. Robbie bent his left knee towards the ground. The dirt was damp and muddy. He extended his glove in front and shut his eyes, praying for the best. The ball became a white magnet. But just as it crossed over from the grass to the mustard dirt, it hopped, above his glove, with a blur of red stitching; Robbie caught it, with his right eye.

Ugh! Robbie stumbled backward, clutching his eye with his shitty smelling glove. The searing pain made him stagger in small circles, but he didn’t fall. People were yelling; kids were banging on the chain-link fence.

Ugh! Where’d it go? Maybe I can still...He could barely make out the pipsqueak dancing safely into first.

I’m going to have such a black and blue mark. And then, from the darkness of the bleachers, came the piercing cry of none other than Mrs. Fucking Ducklips Shapiro.

"Oh my Gawd, he’s bleeedinngg!"

That was all it took. Robbie’s last thought as he hit the dirt and blacked out was of the smear of dirty dark red in the web of his glove. Everything was dark and hazy. Robbie could hear crunching in the grass coming toward him. If only the pipsqueak had swung a second later, if Jason had only pitched a little harder, if only the groundskeeper hadn’t smoothed out the pebbles on the dirt (or if it had rained like it was supposed to), if only Dad hadn’t welled up after Josh’s Bar Mitzvah, hadn’t sat them down in the living room. The once comet-like ball lay lifeless in the dirt nearby, as if nothing had happened.

©2004 by Zack Pelta-Heller

Zack Pelta-Heller is a recent graduate of Brandeis University, pursuing a writing career. For the past two years, he taught first and third grade in a Manhattan private school. Currently, he spends his days ensconced in crosswords as an Assistant Editor for Dell Puzzles Magazine.

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