I don’t know how long I’d been sitting out there on the fire escape, feeling the grit of warm brick against my back
and the New Jersey afternoon sunshine beating down on my half-naked body, listening to the sounds of the kids playing
down in the street while smoking a countless number of cigarettes, flicking each one beyond the railing and watching as
they fell end over end to the alley below. The loathing I’d felt for myself while lying next to Cali Spezzo, the two of us
panting audibly in post-coital resuscitation and regret on sheets damp with sweat and rank with the musk of a muggy
afternoon fuck, was enough to drive me out her tiny bedroom window and onto the makeshift iron terrace in nothing but
my jeans. Sitting out there in the sun, it occurred to me that I wasn’t looking merely for an escape from the immediacy
of her Ogygian lair: I was looking for an escape from her, and from my newfound pastime, which seemed to consist
almost exclusively of wallowing in the hollow reflection of what might have been.
California Spezzo was my sometimes ex-girlfriend who I incessantly endeavored to pawn off as an evil seductress,
when the loosely veiled truth of it all was that I was just as much to blame as she, the both of us always simply too
uninspired and apathetic to tell the other “no”. There had forever existed an indifference between us, and this recent
development in mutual appeasement seemed like this indifference’s natural extension. And although people were always
telling me that such disinterest was a bad sign as far as relationships were concerned, it seemed a rather convenient
defining characteristic for much of our existence together. We never seemed to fight about anything worth fighting
about, and we were both content to let each other lead separate lives when they called for it; I’d never had the urge to be
with anyone else, and to the best of my knowledge, she’d never really gone looking elsewhere either. For a year and a
half, it seemed the perfect symbiosis. But lately, it had been dawning on me that maybe I should be looking for more.
That maybe the real thing was supposed to entail something better than this. That maybe the same apathy that had
always kept us from fighting and fucking other people was keeping us from developing any genuine or worthwhile
feelings for one another. When I brought this to her attention four months ago, she agreed just a little too quickly and
whole heartedly for my liking, and we’d been hating and trying to hurt one another while periodically engaging in these
seemingly meaningless rendezvous ever since. I hated myself for being here now, and I hated her for the fact that she
had opened the door for me in the first place. And although I would never readily admit it, it hurt me to think that she
probably no longer needed me in the way that she used to; or at least in the same way that I probably needed her.
During the time we were dating, we’d walked lifelessly through the unfeeling motions of a conspiracy we weren’t
even certain we’d agreed to, with the cold comforts of detachment passing for something approximating love, and the
habit of our relationship seemingly not even worth the breaking of it. But as I sat outside her window with the canorous
sounds of a fading summer echoing from the streets below, I had somehow convinced myself that it was no longer
worth even the thought of it.
I climbed back in through the window and grabbed my wallet and a pack of matches from the bureau littered with
earrings and hairbrushes and Blink 182 CDs. Opening the door on my way out of her apartment, I turned to look at her
one last time. She opened her eyes for a moment and moaned something about closing the door, and then rolled over and
drifted almost immediately back into an unforgiving sleep, leaving me nothing but her naked back and a year and a half of
emptiness to contemplate. I knew that she couldn’t give me what I wanted; had known it from the beginning. And I had
probably always known that this day would come, with me giving her this one last look goodbye. It was a closed
system, this love, if that’s what you wanted to call it. Something had been eating away at our quixotic relationship since
the beginning: slowly, meticulously, but undeniably. And though that something couldn’t be named, it had forever been
imperceptibly present in the dead air that had always existed between us, ultimately culminating in this inevitable state of
inertia. I always liked to blame it on the irreversible increase in entropy.
Standing there in the doorway, I was overcome by the realization that my ex-girlfriend had somehow become even
less than that to me. By the flick of some cerebral switch, the girl lying amongst those inadequately concealing sheets
had suddenly become just some girl I used to date.
Not certain as to whether it was out of courtesy or a fear of confrontation, I gently closed the door behind me on
my way out so as not to wake her. I had forgotten my shoes in her apartment, but it didn’t seem to bother me,
rationalizing that this was a small price to pay. With each barefooted step down the rubber-lined stairs, an immeasurable
feeling of joy rose within me until I emerged into the sunshine of Throckmorton Street, almost giddy with the excitement
that comes when you have just had an all-consuming, spirit-crushing weight lifted from your shoulders. Like impulsively
quitting the job you’ve always hated because you finally decided that you don’t need it and all of its bullshit, and that no
job is worth waking up everyday with that sickening feeling of dread in your stomach. Or the feeling you get when you
walk out of the gymnasium after finishing your last exam of the year, knowing that you have an entire adolescent
summer spread before you like a dew-soaked ballpark in the early morning. It was the feeling of absolute freedom.
Walking barefoot down that sunny street, I was smiling like one who has finally rediscovered what that type of freedom
feels like after far too long an absence.
As I turned the corner and walked through the alley beneath Cali’s apartment, I emerged into the game of stickball
that had been the background soundtrack to my ruminating while out on the fire escape. Growing up, this little back alley
one-way street had been the place to play ball, and it made me feel good to think that there still existed a few things that
“Hey Johnny” I heard one of the kids call out; “you think you can still hit it over McCormick’s?”
I couldn’t help but smile to myself, thinking back to the minor celebrity status I’d achieved among the ranks of local
stickballers back in the day after smashing one of Sally O’Sullivan’s famous hanging curves clear across Main Street and
three stories up, onto the roof of old man McCormick’s hardware store. Along the streets of Brooklyn I would have
been known as a three sewer man, to be sure, but it had been years since I’d last swung that broom handle, and I
doubted whether I’d even be able clip it past the first base dumpster today.
“I dunno boys, it’s been awhile.”
“Aww, c’mon Johnny,” they whined in chorus. “Just give us one knock. See if you still got it.”
I laughed to myself and shook my head. “Naw guys, sorry. I really gotta be somewhere…”
I kept walking, but one of them piped up:
“Whatsa matter Johnny? You too old for stickball now? Afraid of breakin’ those old man bones, or throwin out that
old man back of yours?” It was Matty Crowder: starting pitcher for the Freehold High JV squad, and more importantly,
Gordie Crowder’s little shit-eating fifteen year old brother. But I refused to be coaxed.
“You know you can’t hit my stuff...” he said, getting a laugh from a few of the other guys. I was tempted, but
managed to keep walking.
“…Or maybe it’s just that you’re too much of a fuckin pussy.”
That one stopped me dead in my tracks. I turned around to the stunned silence of all the guys standing in the street.
Looking Matty Crowder square in they eye, I pointed my finger at him and calmly said: “Bring it, cocksucker.”
All the little rugrats gave off an excited wail of approval, and I shook my head, wondering how I’d let my pride get
the best of me yet again, knowing there was no turning back now. I made my way to the manhole cover that constituted
home plate in the middle of the alley, sauntering-cocky and barefoot as I went, Casey at the fucking bat.
The other kids quickly ran to their places in the street, and I couldn’t help but laugh to myself as I stood there,
realizing just how much these little shitheads reminded me of my friends and me back when we were their age. Matty
Crowder, that cocky son-of-a-bitch with a million dollar arm, and his twin brother ScRonald, quiet and shy but the
funniest kid you could ever meet if you actually got him talking; you put these two kids together and I swear they were
Gordie Crowder at fifteen. There was Nicky Ashford, Muffy’s trash-talking kid brother down at third base, whose
mouth ran him into more trouble than his friends could bail him out of, exactly the same as Sal used to be. And then
there was Dicky Skinner, captain of the junior varsity baseball team and youngest of the Skinner boys, who, like the
elder Skinner, refused to believe in the reality principle and thus considered himself far too good for any girl that would
ever realistically want anything to do with him; an overestimation of his market worth that would surely result in the
lengthening of an already elongated list of failures in lust. There were a few others I didn’t know by name, but I’d seen
them all around, and I’d seen them all manage to get into and out of just about the same amount of trouble that we had at
They were kids being kids, just as we had been. They learned things the hard way by fucking up more than their
parents or teachers would like, but they had a blast while they did so. Because that’s what being fifteen is all about:
getting drunk in the park with a stolen bottle of your dad’s Wild Turkey, getting in fights with one another, taking your
parents’ car out for a ride without a license, sneaking out late at night during sleepovers, playing strip poker with a
couple of girls in someone’s basement, going skinny dipping up at the lake… You grow up with those things, and you
grow up with the people you do those things with. And when you look back in later years, you realize that the stuff you
grew up with is the stuff that matters, and that the people you did your growing up with: those are the people that matter.
But even with all of that being said, and even with the warm fuzzy feelings of nostalgia these kids instilled in me,
there was no way in hell I was gonna let any one of the little bastards zip one past me. Not in our fucking alley. Not in a
million fucking years.
As I dug in at the plate, Matty stepped away from what would normally constitute the rubber, and began to walk in
slow, distracted circles, looking down at his shoes, shaking his head, and faintly muttering, “you gotta be fuckin kiddin
me”. He eventually spat on the street and turned his back to me, staring off somewhere over the façade of McCormick’s
at the far end of the alley, trying to ignore the fact that his little girlfriend and her ninth grade coterie were sashaying up
the street behind us.
“Hiiiiyaaa Maaatty!” his girlfriend called out in that cutesy-schmoopy girlfriend tone that left us all cringing. I laughed
aloud as all of Matty’s buddies began to imitate her voice in a manner they’d all undoubtedly fashioned a thousand times
“Hi Steph” he obediently responded, tail between his legs.
“Now Matty, even though you didn’t call me this morning like you promised, I’m still going to stick around for awhile
to watch you play with your friends… Did you tell everyone about the poem you wrote for me?”
This had us practically rolling in the streets. Matty looked at her in absolute astonishment, as if he couldn’t even
comprehend how she could mention something like that at this moment. It was simply too much. I think I heard an
imploring for her to cut it out in the way he faintly whined her name, but the damage had already been done.
“Hey Shakespeare, I hate to interrupt buddy, but I gotta be somewhere. So if you could kindly save the lover’s quarrel
for later, we can get on with me knocking that weak ass shit of yours all the way back into your mother’s bedroom,
which is where it belongs, along with all the other balls in this town.” The echo of laughter rang through the alley, and I
remembered how great it used to be hearing one of the older guys taking the piss out of one of your buddies. It would
have been inappropriate for me not to do the same.
The three girls took a seat on the sweaty curb and waited for the action. That little Steph girl, far too cute to be
dating a mouthy prick like Matty, clapped her hands excitedly and gave her boyfriend a starry-eyed look before
breaching the ultimate code of girlfriend etiquette by calling out: “Do it for me, honey!”
I could only shake my head. It was almost enough to make you feel bad for the guy.
I dug in at the plate once again. My pitcher was obviously rattled to hell, and I was ready to knock him clear into
next week. One little at bat for a lifetime of respect and renown from these little bastards: it seemed way too easy.
Matty looked in for the sign from his twin brother and gave him a quick nod. Despite the fact that there were a
million different ways you could spin, cut, angle, or bounce a Spaldeen, everybody knew he was bringing the heat. He
pulled the ball to his chest and set himself. It was the classic confrontation. All was still and silent, and in that brief
moment with the two of us staring one another down, time seemed to slow to an almost imperceptible halt, with the sun
shining in my eyes and the weight of an adolescence I refused to relinquish on my shoulders. As he went into the
stretch, I spat across the plate, and just as time had been slowed only moments before, it now sped up exponentially as
the ball left his hand, and I could see nothing but the blur of his 80 mph fastball as it came whistling in at me in all of its
splendor and glory…..directly at my head.
I bailed out of the way like one of those cartoon characters you see slipping on a banana peel, dropping the broom
handle like it was a piece of iron in the fire, my hands smacking the pavement with a slap that rang up and down the
alley, the rest of my body not even touching the tarmac because in an instant I was back up on my feet, raging.
Nicky Ashford came tearing in from third base to try to hold me back, and ScRonald wrapped his arms around me
from behind the plate. There was a look of terrified disbelief in Matty’s eyes, as if he’d surprised even himself with how
close he’d come to hitting me, and the knowledge of his proximity to this fate and what would have surely become of
him had that ball even grazed me, left him smiling despite himself and half laughing as he kept repeating: “I’m sorry man.
Honestly. I didn’t mean it.” Matty was notorious for coming as close as he could to that line you’re never supposed to
cross, having been known to spit over it every now and then just to see how it feels, and there wasn’t a doubt in my
mind that that’s exactly what he’d done this time, if for no other reason than to impress his slutty little girlfriend on the
curb. But as much as I wanted to beat the tar out of him for it, you couldn’t help but feel a certain measure of respect
for a kid with stones like that, even if he was an arrogant little cocksucker. Or maybe because of that fact… After a few
deep breaths, some calming words by the little shitheads holding me back, and the realization that it was Gordie’s little
brother I was trying to get at, I reluctantly picked up my twig and went back to my place at the dish.
“You’re boyfriend’s got some setta balls on ‘em, ya know that?” I looked in the direction of Matty’s little girlfriend,
who refused to dignify my observation with a response.
I dug in just as before, but this time with more adrenaline pumping through my veins than was probably necessary to
hit a Spaldeen with the handle of a broom, feeling like I could drill that ball clear out of Yankee stadium if I got my pitch.
Matty once again got the sign from his brother and went into his windup, delivering a humming fastball right across the
heart of the plate.
Now, admittedly, there isn’t much of a sweet spot on a broom handle. But anyone who has played any kind of
baseball knows that it is absolutely possible to grab a hold of a pitch and knock the snot clean out of it. And even though
Crash Davis told us that this is a simple game, one of the great paradoxes of baseball is that one of the hardest things to
do in sports is to hit a perfectly round ball with a perfectly round bat, and when you do so, to hit it square. But if you get
your pitch, and you time your swing just right, you can crush that ball just the same as Slammin’ Sammy out in Wrigley.
When I unloaded with that hurricane fury which had been building up in me since being knocked back by that cocky
little bitch, and when I hit that perfectly placed pitch with that perfectly timed swing on that perfect part of the bat, I hit
that ball square. And I knew it the instant I made contact, because there is no better feeling in sports. And when I hit that
ball square, I knew that it was travelling with a kind of torrent velocity that would carry it five hundred feet, high above
and beyond McCormick’s, and that I would be a hero, a legend for having delivered in such conditions and under such
pressure. But when I hit that ball square, the ball didn’t travel the five hundred feet that I’d anticipated. Instead, the ball
traveled a mere forty feet… and hit young Matty right square in the nuts.
The sound that came from Gordie’s little brother was like that of a puppy having had it’s tail crushed beneath the
steel-toed boot of a chain-smoking, wife-beating, Portuguese construction worker, and he went down like…well, he
went down like a guy who’d just been hit in the nuts by a ball traveling 130 mph. There is nothing more democratizing
than a swift shot to that region from which life initially springs, and the pain can leave a man yearning for the same said
life to end. And not that I would ever belittle the pain a woman has to endure during childbirth, but no man will ever have
to undergo that degree of suffering, and the knowledge of our permanent removal from this miracle makes it
unnecessary, if not impossible, for us to even fathom that brand of pain, let alone empathize with it. But every guy has
taken one in the family jewels; and seeing young Matty rolling around on the ground, writhing in agony: that struck a
chord with each and every one of us. That blinding, indescribable pain is something we can relate to. It is something we
have experienced; something we understand. And we feel it vicariously each and every time one of our own has the
misfortune of succumbing to it.
We all groaned in emphatic empathy as Matty lay in a heap on the street, and after standing paralyzed in stilled
anguish for longer than any of the curb-sitting girls could begin to understand, we slowly and somberly made our way
towards him, hopelessly muttering things like, “Shit man, are you okay?” and “holy fuck, that was baaad”. I felt
absolutely awful about the whole situation: the poor kid was whimpering in a puddle of tears in the middle of the alley in
front of his girlfriend, and it was all my fault. And what for? Because he called me out? Because I wanted to garner the
respect of a bunch of fifteen year olds? Standing over the kid, listening to him wheeze and moan between choppy
breaths, his girlfriend rubbing his back in a futile attempt to assuage him, it hardly seemed worth it.
After a few minutes, Matty stood up and bravely gave us the indication that he would be fine. A little worse for wear,
but fine. “Go home and put some ice on it man” was all I could offer, along with: “Steph, I guess you’d better leave him
the alone for awhile, if you know what I mean.” As she continued to rub his back despite his silent pleading through
teary, bloodshot eyes, it was obvious that she didn’t.
“Alright guys, I hate to hit and run, but I gotta jet. Thanks for the game. And Matty, I’m really sorry dude.” There
was nothing I could do to make things any better, so I decided it was probably time to start heading for home.
As I began to walk away, it occurred to me that maybe there was something I could do. I stopped underneath Cali’s
fire escape and turned back, calling out to the guys to find out what they were up to later that night.
“Not much” Nicky said. “I think we might drink a few beers out in the park, same as usual.”
The plan sounded all too familiar, and I knew they’d jump at the chance for something different.
“Well listen, if you guys can somehow get out to Belmar, Frankie Dunner’s throwin this crazy little shaker tonight. A
party like you never seen. Tons of girls, nonstop tunes, stay up all night… you know the deal… The beers are on me if
you can make it out there.”
Matty’s dejected countenance changed immediately. He looked at me with the most hopeful eyes I’d ever seen. “For
“Yeah man. It’s the least I can do.”
They looked at one another in disbelief, before replying in feigned nonchalance that, yeah, sure, they’d try to get out
there if they could. I laughed aloud at their overzealous attempt to be cool, and told them I’d see them later. As I walked
away, I could hear the excitement in their voices as they immediately dove into the indeterminate details of how they
would get out there, what they were going to tell their parents, and how many beers and older chicks they’d be able to
wheel. As I walked barefoot through the streets of the town I grew up in, I couldn’t help but smile, remembering back
to how great it felt that first time I’d ever been invited out to play with the big boys, and august at the fact that I was
able to make those little shitheads feel the same.