This is one of the stories I didn’t want to tell you when we were living together. You asked over and over. You had ideas about what had happened there, before I met you and found some answers. You had ideas that were so defined, so clear in your mind but still, question after question. Did I have any friends? Did they make you go to church every day? Did I want to? They didn’t and I didn’t want to but yes I did anyways. Did you believe in God then? What did you do every day? What’s it like, living without cable? You would have never been able to see me there, at church and eating cereal in my underwear so I didn’t sweat all over the kitchen and never watching television because it’s hard to get service out there. I tried to explain that it wasn’t the kind of sand colored rolling hills desert you see in pictures. There was no oasis just beyond the horizon. It was flat and white and there were some bushes low to the ground. It looked like a huge parking lot that went on for miles. People lived in their trailers or small tin houses, some with thatched up roofs and flags waving with the likeness of Jesus. You asked a hundred questions about that. How hot was it? Did you wear sunscreen? Did you have a flag? Hot hot and no, no. I tried to explain the heat to you and it made less and less sense the more I talked about it. After a while of trying I realized that if it was unbelievable to me, it would be impossible for you. I thought that if I did tell you, the more I told the more you you would start to feel like you didn’t know me at all or where I had been and eventually one of us would move out.
There were only about a hundred people that lived in Sue. I was there because my grandmother was there and I couldn’t call my parents and tell them where I had ended up until I had the money to move, and I wasn’t really sure that would ever happen. My grandmother was always reading and washing my pillows. Her new teeth were usually in the drawer next to her bed but sometimes I found them on the kitchen counter or in the drawer where kept our shirts. She ate too many water and orange juice popsicles and would lie in bed at night, imagining what would happen with her ashes when she died. I would lie on my fresh pillows in the room next door and imagine what heartbreak would feel like and if it would be easy or hard. We both stayed up too late and sometimes one of us would call out that we should get burgers, but then it was three hours away and neither of us would move. I forgot all the time that she was old.
I wore the same thing every day, and did pretty much the same thing. Which is why this story is so great, because it’s short and not that complicated. This was about when I discovered that orange American cheese that you can buy in strips. It’s not important you were just always asking me about it and I know I told you my mom used to use it but really I found it there, at the grocery store. I say grocery store but it was really a small shack and someone would stock it about once a week. Cheerios, salsa, iced tea in bottles, some fruit, bread, the orange cheese. There weren’t enough people to need a real grocery store and people were constantly leaving and coming back and leaving again, so you could always get real good food the next time you left. It was so hot there that the film would stick to the cheese, so you had to slide your nail between the two unless you wanted to eat the wax paper. Which you can, it’s edible.
Everyone there thought I was my mother, and I never bothered to correct them. It seemed hard to explain that I looked like her and acted just like her but was not actually her. I looked older than my age and they had never seen her. I say everyone but there was really only one person who talked to me at all, and that was Fletcher. I’m not sure if that was his first name or his last name, but that’s what I called him. I knew him because he used to sit on top of his trailer in a metal beach chair, face and belly to the sun, narrating baseball games out loud, for himself mostly I think and his own entertainment. He had no television and the paper didn’t get delivered as far out as we were. So I don’t think he actually had any of the facts right but he knew all his teams. The Dodgers, the Braves, the Marlins. He was talking to himself one day, a real heated game, or as heated as baseball can get. Whose playing, I yelled up to him. I hadn’t spoken to anyone in the town yet and I had meant to shout but my voice cracked. I stood there trembling inside my body, like when you ask out someone you really like and you’re standing there waiting. The White Sox, he shouted back, twisting over the side until he found me, right below him.
I was working at the cactus farm on the highway, where people driving by could dig up their own plants for fifty cents a piece, and didn’t think they would miss me. They didn’t. The whole place was a sham anyways and they were basically letting people dig up the desert and pay them for it. All I did was sit in a plastic chair and make sure people dropped fifty cents in the bowl. Practically nobody drove by us and they never paid me so when Fletched invited me up, I went. I’ll never know how he knew all the names and none of the rules, but he knew none of the rules. He had been making them up the whole time. I don’t even know how he had chosen baseball. I had played softball in high school. I at least knew how many people were supposed to be on the field and where the mound went. That was how I got to know Fletcher. Come on, I said, I’ll draw it out for you. He was just baking up there like a sausage on that roof, his chair whining and creaking all the time. I could see that he had braided his grey hair into all these crazy little braids but he was bald down the middle so he looked pretty wild. No shirt, just old cargo shorts and a perfectly round half dome stomach. It looked like he had been putting oil on his skin for twenty years. It had started to crack and parch, like a salt flat but on a human being. I never went inside but the roof of his trailer was dusty and had another chair just like his, the kind you take to the beach and that sinks into the sand. Before me, I had never seen anyone sit in it and I didn’t sit in it often. I mostly crouched next to him, drawing out plays on leftover paper. Softball, he said, didn’t sound like baseball but he would trust me on this one because I looked like I knew what I was doing.
We started playing, every other day. There were no bats or balls out there so we made pretend. I marked out the edges of the field with sticks and smudges in the ground. Some things made sense to him, like that there are edges to the field. Some didn’t. He didn’t understand why you had to run from one base to another. It would be more fun, he said, and efficient, if you could run through the middle and criss cross, just as long as you had to hit each base once. I told him that would be a different game. Even though it didn’t sound half bad to me.
Fletcher went to church every Sunday, but we did not speak there. The Jesus Christ Life Center was held up on stints and had a sloping railway for wheelchairs. It was the only building around that could fit more than five people at once. Nobody I knew used a wheelchair or would have even known where to obtain one but still, everyone walked up the ramp, hand in hand and in twos or threes. The building was tin but was painted light blue with dark blue trim at the windows. It looked like a popsicle house to me, the two ends leaning in different directions. The sign was medium size but the type was huge and bold. You couldn’t miss it driving by. I believed in God but not Jesus then, so it didn’t feel like a complete lie. I guessed that he might have lived but I very much doubted he walked on water. I had never seen such a thing. Nobody had walked on water for me just yet. Thinking about water there was funny, since it hadn’t rained the entire time I had lived there and most of church was spent wondering out loud about when and if it would rain again. Everyone went on Sundays, even the little kids who spent the whole time petting their own hair and crossing their eyes down at their noses. I remember one day the priest got up there and talked for forty minutes about mandarin oranges. He was obsessed with them, the little slices that they stick in sugar water and can so that they last forever. The whole time he was talking all I could think was that yeah, those things were pretty good but they were a twenty minutes talk at most, and also if he was going to talk this much about food he should probably provide a snack or two. Even though it’s hard to get hungry in that kind of heat but sugar is sugar. Baseball didn’t exist The Life Center, so I spoke to nobody except my grandmother, who thought the priest was a genius and also loved those little oranges. The priest was actually the man who braided all those thatched roofs and fed all the dogs in the whole place.
On the days when we played, we practiced for hours. It was amazing watching him, swinging at nothing and jumping out of his skin when he hit a home run, screaming his joy into the desert. He would warm up just like I showed him, touching his toes and pulling his arms across his body to stretch out the shoulder muscles. He would pace and mutter before his first hit, waggling that bat in the air. Just like I had drawn out for him, the squiggly lines of the way a bat moves. Our air was muggy and extra thick but he wiggled away anyways. I would pitch, a slow wind up and perfectly down the middle every time. My hands would blister between the fingers. He was a cautious runner, always choosing to stay on base instead of risk it and make a run for third. But when the ball would soar and sink out past the outfield, he would sail through, carrying on without a doubt.
I was very competitive and I yelled at him all the time. Go faster, I would scream, pounding the ground with my feet. What are you, an old man, I would bellow. Come on! That was straight down the goddam middle! If he missed the ball I would scowl and pout. I was a mean coach, it turned out. Tough. The kind with big expectations and no patience. And he listened to everything I said, an old man running bases because I told him too. I bet that’s hard for you to believe now, someone doing something because I said so. But he did. If he wasn’t sure about if he was on base or not, he would look at me. It’s better than nothing I would say if he hit a foul ball. That’s not how they do it in the big leagues, I would mutter at him when he struck out. There were good days and bad days. Some days he would miss every ball and look like he was about to cry. He would throw his bat on the ground and walk off the field in shame, head down, sweat running off his bare shoulders. There were days that were glorious, when he sent every ball soaring. The sky would look huge on days like that. Some days we gave up on batting entirely and ran bases all day. Some days he would trudge along under the sun and I would stand on the mound, pacing and spitting and grinding the ball into my glove. Both our feet were bruised and covered in small cuts.
Time balanced on baseball practice. In the morning I would wake up, stretch first thing with my hands reaching above my head. Then I would pull on my shorts and go into the kitchen, grab a banana, fill up my water bottle. Protein and hydration, the building blocks of energy. Gotta stay healthy when you’re in training. I would kiss my grandmother on the cheek and leave. It was all very unlike me. Running over to the field I would do a few intervals and some jumping jacks, but not too many because it was a hundred degrees and I wasn’t the one in training anyways, I was the coach. On the days we didn't practice, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would wake up and sit at the kitchen table and then go sit at the cactus farm. I didn’t speak out loud those days. So every day that wasn’t a practice day was a waiting day.
Once, he missed every ball except the second to last. I was so happy or relieved or something that I burst out dancing in the middle of the diamond, like someone set me on fire. He stood and watched me, didn’t even run it out or anything just watched me shake my entire body and scream. It was the kind of day where it’s so hot and hazy that everything seems completely hopeless and all you can do is lie on your bed and wait for it to be done. It felt very, very far away from everything. I shook out one arm then the other then a leg and jumped up and down, my knees creaking and kicking up dust. When I calmed down I pitched one more to see if it would happen again. It didn’t but we didn’t care, the one seemed like enough for the day.
I was there for seven months. After that I moved to Los Angeles and then here. I don’t think you would have stayed anyways if I had told you all about it. It wasn’t the story you wanted it to be or even the story I suggested it could be. There’s no real pinnacle or point to it. But it might have been worth a shot. You seem very happy now and I remember you asked about a baseball game once, going to one or watching it on the television or something.
I told Fletcher to keep playing, keep practicing his swing. He nodded that he would but he wouldn’t. Baseball season was over. We just stood a foot apart staring at each other
He pinched my nipple through my shirt, really hard. Thin shirt.
It turned out that heartbreak was really hard and we gave my grandmother’s ashes to one of her artist friends, who mixed them in with her paint and then went about her business.
Beatrice Helman is from Boston, and was a Creative Writing major at Barnard. She lives in Brooklyn, and spends most of her time making zines about what it’s like to be a young girl in her 20’s, and she spends a lot of my nights taking workshops at Sackett Street Writers Workshop and Catapult/Electric Literature. She also takes pictures, has a pink rug and grows plants. She only does Instagram because she doesn't fully understand Twitter, and its @beahelman.