All over the city, kids throw baseballs through thawing spring, muscles slowly warming against the Lake Michigan wind and slush-gray everywhere. The lake yips and barks where the ice-skin folds, pinches, cracks, and the very air is an eager growl of melting. Leather pats leather, thumps and rolls it, and when all those arms finally loosen, finally merit saying back up and see how far, the baseballs soar like the geese winging their way north again. Some kids don’t even bother to stretch for it, just watch a ball fly, and drop, and not-quite-bounce, and roll, wetly, into the shadowy place beneath a hedge, or beside a dumpster, or under a broken foundation. When they part the branches, or edge around the garbage stink, or reach into the darkness, the ball is gone.
The coyotes are called dog too many times to count, all gray and blurred from the corner of an eye, but the speakers are starting to learn because no dog is so clever-thin, because a dog only gets on the train at the end of a leash and not in the middle of the Red Line with a stolen baseball in its mouth.
A zoologist on television estimates there are more than a thousand coyotes in Chicago. He says to keep an eye on small pets and small children, and maybe more than some cats and toy poodles go missing, and trash gets rifled, strewn, and the loneliest parts of the big parks fill with their singing under the great white lake of moonlight, and then parts less lonely. Coyotes, he says, adapt. But the zoologist never says anything about the baseballs as the days lengthen toward summer, the baseballs that go missing from gloves left on the stoop, and he never mentions that the gloves themselves aren’t exactly where they were left, like maybe—maybe—and other baseballs go missing from their careful hiding places beneath old tires. When word gets around, some kids put a ball out, an old one, just to see, and they watch for careful shadows in sundown red and sunup blue and they see nothing but the ball is always gone.
Esteban Mayor, because he got a whole bag of baseballs, brand new, all his own, and six of anything feels like the entire world when you’re ten, leaves out one of those. Only not completely new—he rubs up the waxy leather the way footpads and blunt claws can’t. He wonders: what’s it like on the tongue? The ball is smooth and chemical-bitter until the seams, which taste like red dye, like the grocery store frosting on the Cubs-hopeful cupcakes he gets on his birthday, which is in June, which is still early enough for possibility. He works with his palms and a little dust from the sidewalk’s sandy edge until the baseball tastes like summer, grit and hand-salt and a tang of leather from the glove where he pops the ball over and over, just to make sure it’s right.
He touches his own teeth with his tongue, their few fanged places. He tries to carry the ball in his mouth, which he can do if he bites hard enough. Throwing the ball up and catching it again, like he’s seen dogs do, like Josefina swears she saw a coyote doing in Graceland Cemetery two weeks ago, doesn’t work with human teeth. The only thing he gets is the sting of tooth and lip, a blunt smack from a few inches’ labored toss.
He sets the ready ball in the dry pinch where he got the dirt because he can see the place from his bedroom window. He falls asleep before he sees anything, and when the ball’s gone in the morning, it feels like a ball he lost, not like a gift accepted. But he’s got a glove and five more baseballs and Josefina and sometimes Robert and Lou and Danielle, and all summer long to spend Saturday at the diamond, where others congregate, too, until they’ve got a game, until they conjure their own crowd’s roar from the wind and the passing train.
One Friday night, it rains, and in the next-day right field mud, pawprints, blurred and claws hooked, like turning, getting the angle, dashing back, back, back.
The rooftops around Wrigley offer a view of the field, the grass and the dirt so soft for digging and all that play and longing. A doorman at street level mistakes some mottled stripe for a collar, and then screens are dislodged, a rooftop accessed. What cost is right for that ticket, for eyes sharp enough to see both the slight hobble in a pigeon’s gait and the fastball’s cut? An attendant finds stray tufts of fur, but there’s no way to police what scents stolen by a keen muzzle’s long planes, what joy and hum drawn in by ears cocked and pointed.
What more might be seen from inside Bill Veeck’s living fence, behind Wrigley’s ivy itself? The green thicket is the deepest den, full of waiting yellow eyes and quick jaws. There, where the fielders stand close enough to give off the perfume of pine tar and tobacco and their own musky sweat, the coyotes of Chicago wait. When the next long drive strikes the vines, one of them will catch it before it ever touches the ground. One of them will get the ball home.
About the Author: Holly M. Wendt is an Assistant Professor of English at Lebanon Valley College and a contributing editor at The Classical. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Memorious, The Rumpus, Footnote: A Literary Journal of History, and elsewhere. Find her at hollymwendt.com writing about writing and books and on Twitter @geatland, having too many feelings about sports.
Photo Credit: Nora Walker