All I ever wanted was a worn-in leather glove for my right hand and a worn-out leather ball for my left. Give me a 32-inch Louisville Slugger whittled out of an old Maple tree and I could do some damage. Hitting came natural to me. Nobody had to teach me about stance or choking up on the bat or how to tell a fastball from a curve in the fraction of a second after the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. If baseball hadn't been invented already I'm sure I would've invented it, because I knew the game before I knew the game. Know what I mean? So now you're probably wondering why a girl like me would ever give it all up to stand on the sidelines. And not even the sidelines of my own sport. I wonder about that too.
There's no simple cause and effect series of events here, but there was a day when everything changed. At five o'clock, Dad walked in as usual. I didn't notice the front door open over the blare of the TV, but I heard those steel-toed boots he wore. They made a stomping sound on the linoleum. I was sitting in the living room with my older brother Dave, lost in thought and staring at the pattern in the wallpaper. This you'd have to see—thousands of yellowy-gold fireworks (maybe they're snowflakes) outlined in brown dots. I used to beg Dad to do something about that seventies vibe. But change wasn't in the budget.
Anyway, Dave turned down the TV when he heard Dad come in. After some small talk, Dad sank into the couch, unlaced and threw off his boots. He rested his feet for a few minutes, then got back to work in the kitchen. In half an hour the three of us were sitting at the dinner table eating the only thing Dad could cook—hamburger soup. If you look in our cupboard you'll see four or five cans of everything, like we're stocking up for an earthquake or the next depression or something. Hamburger soup is made from ground beef and potatoes, plus one can of every vegetable in the cupboard and extra cans of tomato sauce. Salt, pepper, garlic powder, you're in business. Get a glass of milk and all the food groups are covered.
We were about halfway through dinner when it happened.
"So Dad, I have a friend I want you to meet," Dave said. He took a big gulp of water from a plastic cup. "Well…more than a friend, really."
"Oh yeah?" Dad couldn't hide the excitement in his voice. Dave was about to turn eighteen and he'd never brought a girl home. "Sure, we'll barbecue or something, have her over. What's her name?"
"Allen? That's kind of a guy name, isn't it?" Dad was a little slow. So was I.
"Is she self-conscious about it? I mean who names their daughter Allen?" But as soon as I said the name I understood. Dad didn't.
"That's okay. There's a lot worse names out there. I work with a guy named Dieter. Poor bastard." He dipped a chunk of bread into his soup, let it soak up the broth, and jammed it into his mouth.
I looked over at my brother. His eyes begged for advice, asking "how the hell do I say this?" The look in my eyes said, "are you fucking serious? Why didn't you ever tell me?" It didn't take long for Dad to notice our silent conversation. Suddenly in the loop, his eyes widened on my brother, who nodded his head.
We all went back to eating our soup.
Between bites I tried to read their faces, but they just kept staring into their bowls like they'd lost something there. As soon as Dad finished eating, he cleared his plate and—without saying a word—walked to his room. He stayed there the rest of the night.
"So you have a boyfriend?" I asked, stirring my cold soup. "I guess you're having better luck with the boys than I am." That was my ridiculous attempt at sounding casual. Dave didn't hear me anyway. I sat there wondering why I hadn't seen it coming. But it's not like Dave was flamboyant or had a lisp or anything. He didn't even have a flair for fashion.
In the next few weeks he didn't say much and neither did Dad. They'd pass each other in the hallway without so much as a mumble,
and at dinner they'd break the silence only to say "pass the salt," and even that was directed at me. I played along for a while, but then I felt left out of all the drama and started ignoring them both.
"Pass the salt."
"Taylor, can you hand me the salt?"
But I just kept eating.
"Oh, funny Taylor. Real funny."
I was hoping one of them would eventually crack and they'd talk about it. But that's not how it played out. Instead, Dad focused his attention on me.
"I have a surprise for you," Dad said as he handed me a piece of paper, which turned out to be some kind of receipt.
"Look, here." He pointed near the top of the page: Roosevelt Wildcat Cheerleaders. "I paid the fees and everything. You pick up a uniform after the first day of school."
I assumed he was joking, so I laughed. Then I saw he was serious. "Dad, I play baseball. I have to train for that. That pretty much takes up all my extracurricular time."
"I thought you should try something new. Baseball's such a… It'll look good on those college apps." His eyes turned desperate, then irritated. "There are starving girls in China who'd love their fathers to pay for their cheerleading shit."
"Dad, that doesn't even make sense."
"Will you just try it for God's sake!" I knew the tone. He was really serious about this. And when he got serious about something it was gonna happen. See, Dad had this habit of running the family like a mafia boss (only without the money laundering and murder). You didn't want to cross him. There was more to it than that, though. After Dave came out, Dad was a complete wreck. And I know I'm making excuses here, but I was tired of all the silent fighting in the house. It sucked the life out of me. Out of all of us. So I figured, Fuck it. If it'll make him feel better, I'll be a damn cheerleader. Take one for the team. Besides, I considered it a temporary sacrifice. Dad would have to come to his senses eventually.
After the first day of school I walked into the gym, dragging my feet a little but moving forward toward a group of tables lined up across the room. I listened to the echo of conversations along the way and learned that Amy found the best hairdresser, like, ever, and that if you want to avoid a streaky sunless tan you really need to use Neutrogena. Duly noted. It was like I walked into a bad movie. No, a bad TV drama, designed for rich kids and middle-aged women who wanted to be eighteen again. We all had our roles. Before long I felt everyone's eyes linger on me, the intruder, as I stood in front of the table marked T-Z.
Under my breath I told the lady behind the table, "I'm here to get a uniform."
I heard a girl behind me ask, "Did she go to camp? Did she even try out?" And another girl respond, "They have to take everybody now. Some affirmative action thing, I think."
"What size are you, sweetie?"
"I don't know, around a ten I think."
"Oh, we didn't order any that large. I'll have to order you one." I heard snickering from the group behind me.
Size ten apparently means I'm a fat ass. Now, I've always considered myself pretty thin. My hips are wide and my ass is kinda big, but I don't mind because it helps my swing. Helps me drive the ball. What was so funny about having an ass? So I turned around and said, "Fuck off." (But I only said it in my head). After filling out a form I looked for a safe place to stand. Couldn't find one.
A girl who'd been laughing at me was the first to say hi. No, not just hi but an exaggerated "Hiiii! You must be new."
"Yeah, no shit." (In my head again. "Yep" is what I really said). The girl stuck out her hand and shook mine with force. As much force as her petite arms could muster.
She was a cute girl with small features and unusually white teeth. Her long hair was pulled back in a ponytail. They all kind of looked like that, but with different eye and hair colors. A few of them looked stronger than average, and I figured they'd be the ones at the bottom of that pyramid thing they do. Where was I going to be, I wondered. I didn't want to hold anybody up, but I didn't want to be thrown in the air, either. Maybe I could just do cartwheels while that stuff was going on. I could do cartwheels. But I'd be in a skirt. At this point the mascot gig wasn't lookin' so bad. Was this really worth it?
As I was about to make a run for it, another girl walked up and said, "Hey, you're Taylor, right? I'm Sarah." I remembered her. We were in Mr. Spencer's English class together the year before. We talked for a few minutes and she told me not to be nervous. Then I heard the squeal of a megaphone and loud instructions from a peppy, middle-aged woman.
"Good afternoon, ladies! Let's get started. It looks like some of you aren't appropriately dressed. That's okay this time, but you should all have your uniforms by next week. Now let's stretch those muscles." I looked down at my blue jeans and black Converse. A few other girls had shown up without uniforms, but they were at least wearing sweats. Mostly with words written on the ass. Why would you want somebody to read your ass? I was the only one not wearing grey Nikes to match the block letters on the front of the uniform. These girls could afford that kind of shit. Most of their parents were loaded. My face started to burn so I knew I was blushing. I didn't feel sorry for Dad anymore and I didn't fear him either. I imagined running home from school and kicking him in the shins. Then I thought about the way things used to be.
Eight years ago. Sunday morning out in a huge park across from my old elementary school. The grey metal backstop in front of a patch of dirt, not quite a baseball diamond but good enough for us. Dad lobbed a ball toward my brother, who was crowding the plate—an old square of carpet we'd brought from home. Dave brought his hands in and hit a ground ball right into my glove. Jammed him. Dave would usually give me a pretty good workout, scattering the ball all over the field. He hit the next one over my head. I tore after the ball, slipping on a patch of wet grass, falling on my ass and sliding a few feet. Dave stopped rounding the carpet bases to point and laugh at me, like Dad was doing. "Just wait 'til it's my turn to bat…"
But my thoughts were interrupted by that damn megaphone. "Ladies who know the routines, line up over here. Ladies who don't, line up over there." It was pretty even. "Okay, pick a partner. You know what to do. Once everybody learns the basic moves we'll come back together." The coach looked directly at me and said, "I'll walk around and help anyone who needs it."
Everyone rushed into pairs, rushed away from me, until this really tall girl with heavy makeup walked over and said, "I guess I'll have to help you."
"You don't have to. I could just watch."
Without enthusiasm, tall girl said, "Yeah. I do. I'm the captain."
So I saluted her and said, "Aye aye, captain." I thought it was pretty funny. She rolled her eyes and tilted her head back in one movement, and while her eyes focused on the high ceiling of the gym, I stared at her. Looked at her small frame, hair curled at the ends, perfectly pressed skirt, and thought to myself, this is the kind of daughter Dad wants.
Then the music started. It was that song by C&C Music Factory from the eighties, early nineties maybe, "Gonna Make You Sweat." No, really. I'm serious.
Right after the line "everybody dance now," the captain started showing me the routine. "Just watch the first time, then we'll go through it." I paid attention, but I just couldn't do it. I couldn't understand a movement without a functional result. I knew how to rotate my hips to get the best possible swing when it came to hitting a baseball. I had a Will Clark swing. It was pretty. There was something at stake in the way I swung my bat, the difference between a base hit off the sweet spot or a popup to the catcher. But I didn't know how to move my hips for the sole purpose of looking good. The captain's commands didn't help. "No, swivel. Oh my God. You're too jerky. Loosen up. Arms out, in, step, swing those hips, blah blah blah." She walked away and talked to the coach, probably saying she couldn't work like this. That I was hopeless.
When I got home from practice I collapsed on the couch next to Dave, rolling myself into a ball.
"Rough day?" he asked.
"Yeah, you could say that."
"What's wrong? Not getting along with the other girls?" His voice was over-the-top sarcastic.
"No, jackass, I'm not. Thanks for the concern, though."
"I'm sorry Taylor," he said with more sympathy. "Hang in there."
"Easy for you to say. You don't know what these girls are like."
"Sure I do. That's why I like guys," he said. "I can't handle you bitches." Dave's always had a knack for making me laugh, even when life was shitty. If only he could work his magic on Dad. They still weren't talking. Not a single word. And even though Dave kept cracking jokes and smiling, there was always this sad look in his eyes. It killed me.
By the end of two weeks I had my fat ass uniform and I'd learned the basic steps through repetition, but I didn't look good doing them. Coach pulled me aside before practice to have a talk. "Taylor, I'm glad to see you're trying and you've come a long way." The words were encouraging enough, but I could tell from her voice this wouldn't be a pep talk. "But if you want to perform with us—and you know, we have to be ready soon—you need to work a lot harder. You need to really feel the music." I wanted to tell her the music sucked. "You also need to present yourself in a way that does this school proud." I looked around at the other girls with their flat asses barely covered by pleated mini skirts, their bare stomachs, and their breasts on a platter like they were about to perform at the music video awards. Jesus H. Christ.
"How's that?" I asked.
"What about wearing some makeup? Of course, at practice you don't need to worry about it. Same thing with the hair. But when we're at a game..."
"What's wrong with my hair?"
"Listen, I'm not trying to tell you what to look like..."
"Sure you are."
She could tell I was irritated so she started drawing out her words and pausing a lot, as though saying it slower would make it less annoying. Go ahead and say something stupid as long as you carefully choose your stupid words.
"It's just that some of the girls...your image might not be...hmmm. I mean, maybe if you could get better at...as far as the dancing...other things could be overlooked. It's about the whole 'package.'" I couldn't believe she'd just used finger quotes.
"Don't worry. It'll just take time," she said, feigning concern and motherly warmth. Then she picked up her megaphone. "Okay girls, we need to get used to performing outside, so we're practicing on the field today." We filed out of the double doors and walked onto the long stretch of field. It smelled like the grass had just been cut. I've always loved that smell.
I stared straight ahead at the opposite end of the field. That's where the baseball diamond was. And by cruel coincidence, a group of guys had come to play. It wasn't even baseball season. Maybe it wasn't a coincidence, but fate's not so subtle reminder that I'd sold her out. No, it wasn't coincidence at all.
The boys were stretching on one end of the field, the girls on the other. I just stood in place, watching one guy lay out equipment while the others stretched and threw the ball around. They practiced catching pop flies and grounders, punching their gloves as they waited for the ball to drop or bounce.
I hadn't been watching long when one of the girls walked up and snapped her fingers in my face. "Hey," she said, "you can check out the boys later. If anyone here needs practice, it's you, honey." Some of the girls laughed, others nodded.
"Fuck you," I said. Out loud.
"Uuum, excuse me?"
The rest of the girls gathered around, hands on their hips and scowls on their faces.
Trying to keep the peace, Sarah stepped beside me and said, "Leave her alone, you guys. Let's practice."
Coach broke out her megaphone—a temporary fix. But a few of the girls kept giving me shit, just quiet enough so Coach wouldn't hear. They said things like "What are you even doing here?" and "You're pathetic." I started to walk away. What the hell was I doing there? But they weren't done. They had to throw in a couple more shots. "It's called a Stairmaster, sweetheart!" I kept walking away, walking toward the baseball diamond.
Then I heard the captain yell, "I hear your brother's a fag! Maybe he'd make a better cheerleader!"
Followed by laughter.
I quickened my pace, but my mission wasn't to get away anymore. I made my way across the field and went straight for the line of bats leaning against the backstop. I rummaged through the jumble of wood and aluminum and chose a medium weight Rawlings, made from White Ash. If the boys had any objections, I couldn't hear them. I couldn't hear anything.
I wasn't running, but my strides were quick. Deliberate. My face burnt red and my jaw closed tight. None of the girls noticed me closing in on them because the music was playing and they'd started their routine. None of the girls saw me wielding the borrowed bat until they spun around to the rhythm of the music and by then it was too late to get out of the way.
I went for the captain first. Not trying to kill her, I didn't use my homerun swing. She was too shocked to scream as I swung the wood into her gut, but the other girls were screaming. She crumpled to the ground and gasped for air. I was about to swing at her thighs when one of the other girls grabbed my uniform from behind. I swung around at my new target, grazing her abs as she jumped back. And then I was just screaming and swinging, no target in mind. Everyone backed off. Within seconds, I brought the bat to rest. It was quiet except for some muffled crying, whispers, and Coach calling the cops on her cell phone.
I walked back across the field. The boys stood motionless, staring with gaping mouths as I returned the bat to its rightful place against the backstop. "Thanks," I said.
It wasn't until I was about halfway home that the adrenaline wore off and I started to cry.
The cops didn't show up at my house for another hour. I heard them pull up at the same time as Dad. Standing at my bedroom window facing the front yard, I watched them follow him up the driveway. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. I couldn't keep my hands steady.
"Evening officer," Dad said as he stepped out of his truck. "What brings you down this way? I can tell you right now I haven't done anything. Or seen anything. If this is about..."
"We need to speak to Taylor, Taylor Williams. Is she here?" I had a good view of the two cops. The guy on the left was tall with a seventies moustache and his thumbs latched into his belt loops. The other one was short, stocky, and holding a clipboard. They looked like extras from an old TV cop drama. Seriously. When did the world become one big fucking sitcom?
"Taylor? What for?"
"It seems she attacked some girls with a baseball bat after school. Some girls on her cheerleading squad."
"What? No. No, she wouldn't do that. Had to be somebody else."
"Sir, we have statements from the coach and a dozen girls who were on the scene."
Dad looked over to my window. He must have seen my red face and bloodshot eyes. As soon as he saw me, he knew. "Aaah, fuck."
Anger management isn't so bad, but I'm not sure it's actually helping. Dr. Stanley says I should channel my anger into something useful. "Write
your feelings down," he says. "Take the anger out on the page," he says. "You can't attack people with baseball bats," he says.
I know he's right. I know these situations are better played out inside the head, but it's not that simple. And to be perfectly honest,
I'm not so sure I'm the crazy one here. The whole damn world is crazy, and if you're not careful you'll find yourself stuck at the bottom
of a people pyramid, or worse.
Like I told Dr. Stanley at our first session, "It wasn't my idea to be around those girls in the first place. It was my dad's idea. I play baseball."
Leaning forward in his leather chair, he put his hands down on the wooden desk between us and said, "But he didn't make you attack those girls. You have to own your actions. Take responsibility." He seemed to think he was being deep. He even rested his chin on his fist like the thinking man statue. When I didn't respond he said, "You didn't want to be a cheerleader?"
Thinking of how to answer, I stared at the wall behind him, painted a hideous minty green. I guess it was supposed to be calming.
"It's not the dancing to bad music that I mind. That's actually kind of fun. It's the idea of it. It pisses me off."
"Why is that?"
He was asking for it, so I let loose. "Because. I'm not supposed to play sports, but hey, I can shake my tits around on the sidelines. Make myself useful. It's bullshit!'"
"I sense a lot of anger there."
"You know what else? They're always smiling. Say the other team scores. You'd think they'd throw down their pompoms. Swear a little. But they just keep smiling and doing leg kicks. They're not even watching the damn game!"
Dr. Stanley didn't say a word. Even when I said, "Did I mention they're a bunch of homophobes?" he just kept this goofy half smile on his face and changed the subject.
"Let me ask you something, Taylor. What kind of a future do you think you'd have in football?"
"I don't like football. I play baseball."
"So what kind of a future would you have in baseball?"
"I don't care."
"What about softball?"
"I hate softball. The glove's too big, the ball's too big, and you can't block the plate."
The conversation went on like that for a while, with Dr. Stanley basically saying I should act like a lady and try not to get so upset. Thanks, Dr. Stanley.
The one good thing I can say after this experience is that we're all talking again. My family, I mean. I guess it helped us put things in perspective. Not that it started out that way. My brother was the only one who never—not for one second—looked at me different after the incident. Dad didn't know what to think at first. Of course he thought I should have found a less violent way to handle things. But since it happened he's apologized a good eight or nine times for pushing the cheerleading idea on me.
In fact, just yesterday after picking me up from therapy he said, "I'll make it up to you, kid. I'll take you to the batting cages as soon as you're allowed to hold a bat again."
An hour later we sat down together at the dinner table. Dad had learned how to cook something new—chicken and noodles. You take a whole chicken and boil it for half an hour, scooping out all the foamy fat that floats to the top. Then you add chicken bouillon cubes, chopped celery, and noodles. A little salt and pepper and you're good to go.
"Can you pass the salt, Dad?" Dave asked.
"Sure." Dad pushed the salt Dave's way. "Did you two hear Will Clark's retiring?"
I hadn't heard. "Will the Thrill? Really?"
"He had a pretty good year, didn't he?" Dave asked.
Dad had just taken a bite of noodles but he answered anyway. "Yeah, playin' some real good ball since he went to St. Louis."
"Never shoulda left the National League," Dave said.
"Nope. Still had a fine career, though. You kids know about his first major league at bat?"
"Of course," I said. "Homerun off of Nolan Ryan. God, he had a pretty swing."
Dad lifted his glass. "A toast—to Will Clark's swing." We joined him.
After he finished the broth from his bowl, Dad looked over at me. "So Taylor, how's that anger management going?"
"Fine." I answered. "I'm not angry today."
"That's good," Dad said. "Here's to progress." And we lifted our glasses again.
©2007 by Katie Ferrell