Sean and I used to write messages to each other during baseball practice. We wrote with our fingers in the dirt, just to the left of the first base line. When it was his turn to play first, I would write to him, and when it was my turn, he would write to me. Our messages usually took shots at other people on the team: “Danny sucks at shortstop,” “Jake throws like my grandma,” “Coach Dave is a dick.” One day I teased Sean. I wrote, “You love Barney.” He replied, “You FUCK Barney.” The word “fuck” startled me. I knew what it meant, but no kid I knew had ever used it. It was a word used exclusively by Moms, Dads, and people in the R-rated movies I snuck on HBO after my parents went to bed. I never teased Sean again after that. I realized he was far better equipped for verbal warfare than I was.
Sean was also far better equipped for baseball. He was precociously tall, broad-shouldered, and long-legged. He could run faster, throw harder, and hit farther than any other kid on our team. He was the reason we won games. None of my teammates would have disputed that. Kids on other teams knew about Sean and feared him. They backed up in the outfield when he was up to bat. They trembled at the plate when he was on the mound. Players and parents alike talked openly about his talent and how he’d surely play D-1 in college and maybe even go pro.
When I wasn’t writing messages to Sean in the dirt, I was studying how he played, how he scooped up grounders and whipped the ball sidearm to third, how he dove into bases and sprung to his feet, how he lined up at the plate with his whole body leaning back and his Louisville Slugger dangling over his head. I tried my best to copy his style of play, to mimic his movements. I didn’t do this because I thought it would make me a better player. I knew I was mediocre at best and that nothing was going to change that. I imitated Sean because I wanted to be him. If I could have swapped places with him, I would have done it in an instant. I used to daydream about undergoing a miraculous metamorphosis, about going to bed at night as myself and waking up in the morning as Sean. I prayed to God that this transformation would happen. If it did, I promised, I would work harder in school, I would go to church every Sunday, I would be nicer to my sister, and I would stop sneaking those movies on HBO. I would be a goddam saint.
I never disclosed my secret wish to Sean. I thought it would freak him out. He would think I was weird and stop hanging out with me, and I couldn’t have that. Sean was my closest friend. I didn’t want to lose him.
Almost every Saturday, Sean biked over to my house, and we spent the afternoon together, playing Nintendo and climbing trees and staging epic G.I. Joe battles in the rec room. Sometimes my parents invited Sean to stay for dinner. They both liked Sean because they thought he was more polite than my other friends, and he was to them. He called my mom “Ma’am” and he called my dad “Sir.” He complimented my mom on her cooking and asked my dad how things were going at the hospital. After dinner, he even helped clean up—something I never did unless my parents bribed me or threatened to suspend my allowance. Then he hopped back on his Huffy and pedaled home.
Home for Sean was a four-room apartment in a rundown complex about two miles from my development. He lived with his father, a gaunt, perpetually frowning man who worked at a carpet store and never came to games. I only went to Sean’s apartment once. We stopped in to pick up his baseball cards. I had just gotten a baseball card price guide, and Sean wanted to see if any of his cards were worth anything. When we walked into the apartment, I saw Sean’s dad sitting in a ratty armchair in the living room, drinking a Budweiser and watching a baseball game on TV. He didn’t say hi to us. He didn’t even look at us. I followed Sean back to his room, a cramped cell not much bigger than my closet. In one corner was a dingy mattress and in the other was a large Tupperware container stuffed with clothes. There were no posters on the wall, no toys or game consoles, nothing that a boy should have in his room. Sean walked over to his mattress, lifted it, and pulled out a slim deck of cards. “Let’s go,” he said.
Back at my house we flipped through the price guide and looked up Sean’s cards one at a time. He had a Barry Bonds worth ten bucks and a Ken Griffey Jr. worth seven, but nothing else of much value.
“Guess I’m not getting that Cadillac anytime soon,” he said with a chuckle.
He got up from the floor, padded over to my pillow-cluttered, queen-sized bed, and flopped down. He put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. “I wish I was you,” he said.
I thought I’d misheard him. The notion that a kid like Sean would ever want to be me was too preposterous. “What?” I said.
He was quiet for a moment. Then he rolled over on his side and shifted a pillow under his head. “Nothing,” he said.
I left it alone. If he’d wanted me to hear him, he would have repeated himself. The remark had been a message in the dirt—something secret, something to be glimpsed and erased.
“Wake me up when that Barry Bonds is worth something,” he said.
“I will,” I said.
About the Author: Jack Somers’ work has appeared in a number of publications including Jellyfish Review, Literary Orphans, and The Molotov Cocktail. He lives in Cleveland with his wife and their three children. You can find him on Twitter @jsomers530 or visit him at www.jacksomerswriter.com.
Story Song: "Resurrection Fern" by Iron & Wine