The Hope That Only Comes in Spring

It was a hot, windy day in the Arizona spring, but it felt glorious to Jesse Ramirez as he jogged out to his position at shortstop–getting the start today, his first start so far in his first spring training.  Just ten months out of high school, Jesse knew that while the games were just exhibitions, they were also auditions.  Every play that he made, every hit he collected brought him that much closer to the big leagues—to getting to play before thousands in parks that were like palaces, to being paid a king’s ransom for playing the game he loved so much that he would play it for free.

It was a Sunday and the park was filling up quickly with baseball fans decked out In their team jerseys and summer wear.  Jesse looked out at the grass beyond the outfield, teaming with folks spreading out blankets and lawn chairs, filling up every available space.  He had never played before a crowd like this.

They warmed up with throws to the first baseman, while the pitcher, Rich Davies, took his warm-up tosses.  Jesse marveled at the smooth field and the manicured lawn, a lustrous green, easily the nicest field he’d ever played on.  Even in spring training, the facilities were so much more deluxe than anything he’d ever seen.  His long, lean body felt loose and easy in the heat as he stooped to sweep up the easy grounder thrown to him, moved to his right and unleashed a bullet throw back to first.

Warm-ups over, he jogged over to the second baseman, Roberto Morales, to check on signs. Robbie was the team’s regular second baseman, a three-time All Star and last year’s batting champion.  Jesse felt starstruck with the idea that he was going to be sharing the same field with him for the next couple of hours.  Everyone in the line-up was, or had been at one time, a major league starter except for Jesse.  He’d been called up from the minor league fields when the regular shortstop went down with a leg injury.  He knew he was lucky to be there.

He and Robbie turned toward the outfield to go over the signs so the opposing team couldn’t see or hear them.  “Let’s keep it simple, kid,” said Robbie.  “If the runner’s black or brown, you cover second on the steal.  I’ll cover on the white guys.  OK?”

Jesse thought maybe he was being pranked and hesitated as he saw the smile in the veteran’s eyes.  “Relax, kid.  It’s just practice.  Let’s have some fun out here today.” Jesse breathed and tried to relax.

“Yeah, I’ll try to remember.”

Robbie grabbed him by the jersey, pulled him close and smiled.  “Hey, kid, the word is you’re good.  So, have some goddam fun and show me something today, OK?”  Robbie turned and jogged back into position as the pitcher groomed the dirt in front of the rubber and dug in to face the first batter. “Come on everybody,” he yelled to the team and the fans, “let’s play two!”

Rich went into his wind-up and fired a scorching fastball toward home plate, but the lead-off hitter was primed for it and lashed a liner to center for a single.  Davies stood on the mound, hands on hips and cursed as he waited for the ball to be returned.  Robbie grabbed the relay and tossed it to him.  “Come on Richie, shake it off man.  Get this guy. Show us some of that nasty stuff you got.”

Jesse marveled at Robbie’s easy command of the infield.  His words seemed to settle the pitcher down, who completely baffled the next hitter with his fastball, sinker, slider combination and struck him out swinging on three pitches.

The catcher fired the ball down to third on the strikeout and it made its way around the infield and back to the pitcher on the mound. “That’s what I’m talking about,” chattered Robbie.  “Now throw us a ground ball, Rich.  Jesse and I wanna turn two for you.  Double play. Look sharp, Jess.  Comin’ to you.”

Robbie waved him a couple of steps deeper into the hole at short.  The batter was the opposing team’s best hitter, and he took a fierce swing at a slider in the dirt for strike one.  Rich threw a high fastball for a ball on the second pitch, and then a tight sinker right down the middle of the plate.  The batter jumped on it, but the ball had faded down just enough that he got his bat on the top half of the ball and hit a scorching grounder up the middle headed for center field.

Even before the crack of the bat, Jesse could see that the ball would be headed deep to his left. He launched himself as he watched the ball come off the bat, and felt the game slowing down for him.  Without thinking really, he performed a quick calculation of where he needed to get to in the next split second, juggling what he could see, with the sound of the ball coming off the bat, the effort behind the swing, the initial trajectory of the ball.  “I’ve got this,” he thought. He could see the intense topspin of the ball and knew it was going to dive into the turf, pick up speed and likely skim the surface of the grass.  In mid-stride, he adjusted slightly and dove, his eyes glued to the ball now, seeing the red stitches swirling over the pristine white rawhide as he extended his long frame and watched the ball slide into the webbing of his glove.  As he rolled on the turf, he caught a freeze frame picture of the motion on the infield: the umpire moving into position, both Robbie and the runner converging on the second-base bag.  With no time for a decent throw and the ball still in his glove, he flipped it toward second base putting a tantalizing arc on the ball, like an alley-oop pass in basketball, sending it toward the empty base.

And in a blink, Robbie simultaneously snared the ball out of the air with his bare hand, tapped he bag with the toe of his cleat, leaping and turning his body in mid-air as if weightless before whipping the ball over to first.

The two umpires called “Out!” almost simultaneously and the crowd was on its feet delighted to see such an acrobatic, highlight-reel play before they had even finished their first hot dog.

Jesse popped up and dusted off his uniform as he trotted back to the dugout.  Robbie fell in beside him and they tapped gloves.  “Yessir, my man.  Now, that was something.  That was something right there.”

Jesse accepted the high-fives and fist bumps as he came in the dugout.  Most of the guys called him “kid” or “buddy” or “rook” as they congratulated him because hardly anyone knew his name.  He sat on the bench next to Robbie waiting for his turn at bat.  Robbie draped his arm around Jesse’s shoulder and leaned in closely.  “Today,” he said, “these boys don’t know your name.  But someday they will.  I can feel it in my bones and my bones, they never lie. These boys are gonna know your name.”

 

When Flowers Came to Desolation

This story owes a great debt to Jack Shaefer’s iconic western novel “Shane.”  My character, Slade, is based on Shane and I borrowed the names of the two combatants, Fletcher and Starret from the novel also.

The sun was straight overhead as I rode down the dry and dusty trail headed toward Cheyenne.  I was tired and sore after three long days of riding, but knew I’d have to stop for the night; I just didn’t know where. I hoped I might come across a town where I could get a bed for the night, after sleeping rough the last two. One more long day of riding before I’d get to see my girl, Jenny, waiting for me in Cheyenne.

Two hours later my hopes were raised a bit when I saw a sign made of grey, worn scrap wood that said “Desolation, Wyoming: Population 337”. Not promising, I thought, but around the name’s inscription, someone had added vibrant, red flowers in every corner. Green vines had been painted between each flower creating a border that belied the grim message of the town’s name. Odd.

I first passed a series of farms and ranches as my single trail turned into a two-track to accommodate the heavier traffic of the town.  The farmhouses were neat and well kept, the fencing tight and true.  The very first barn I saw had bright red doors, and the side wall had been whitewashed and filled with a painting of a distant snow-capped mountain, the very one I had been admiring as I entered the town.

In fact, as I rode through town, it seemed as though every farmhouse and cottage was trying to outdo its neighbor with color.  Some had painted every flat surface with vibrant blues, reds and oranges.  Others hung boxes from their windows, sporting flowers full of blooms.  Still others had turned their yards into gardens full of corn, squash, and sunflowers. It was, by far, the prettiest town I’d ridden through on my considerable travels, and yet carrying the bleakest of names.

I pulled Shiloh over to the hitching post nearest the saloon, watered her, and brushed off some of the dust that had accumulated on her once shiny coat. “Let’s see if we can bed down here for the night, girl,” I whispered to her as I brushed.  She blew and huffed and nipped at my elbow.  I rubbed her face between her eyes and fed her the last couple of sugar cubes I had left in my pocket.

I dusted myself off the best I could and headed toward the double doors of Smokey Joe’s Saloon. As I approached, I spied an old-timer sitting on a barrel just outside the door carving away at a small chunk of wood and as I got closer, I could see a collection of small animals that he had carved placed out on a small table within reach of his perch.

“Hey there, pardner,” I hailed him as I walked up.  “That’s some mighty fine work you’ve done there.”

Without looking up he said, “Help yourself, stranger.  I just make these to keep myself busy.  Kids in town seem to like ‘em.

I picked out what looked to be a mourning dove in flight, delicately carved, and pulled a couple of bills from my wallet.

“Naw, I just give these away.  You can keep your money, but if you’ve got a mind to bring me a cold drink, I wouldn’t turn you away. You look thirsty yourself, and I could use the company.”

I told him I’d be happy to oblige and went in and bought a couple of beers back outside to where my new friend had pulled up a stool for me and gladly took the longnecked bottle.

“Tobias Wolff,” he said, extending his calloused hand.

“Joe Sheridan,” I said.

“Much obliged for the beer, Joe,” he said taking a long drink before returning to his work.

“So, Joe Sheridan, I’m guessing that you are on your way to Cheyenne to see some girl you’re sweet on, and you decided to spend the night here in Desolation.  I’d recommend Missy Mae’s boarding house down the way if you’re looking for a nice, clean place to bed down.”

“Tobias, I haven’t said more than a dozen words to you yet.  How on earth did you piece all that together?”

A grin broke across his face as he looked up from the whittling he was doing and enjoyed my surprise. “Well, Desolation is pretty much a way station for any stranger headed to Cheyenne traveling east to west, so that part was easy.  You picked the dove out of my little collection, and it just looks to me like of thing that a woman would especially like.  Lucky guess on my part.”

I laughed.  “Well, you are as right as rain.  Besides this dove, I’ve got a ring I’ll be giving her tomorrow hoping that maybe she’ll have me for her husband.  Jenny is her name.”

“Well, good luck, Joe. Maybe we should celebrate with another beer from inside.”

I agreed wholeheartedly and paid the barkeep for four bottles and asked him to keep a couple on ice for me.  I was enjoying my time with the old man.

“Tobias,” I said as I passed him his beer, “can you tell me how this town got to be called Desolation?  I’ve been through a whole lot of villages on my travels and they are all pretty dusty and grey.  Desolation seems like a garden spot. I’ve never seen so many flowers and plants—they’re everywhere I look!  And the people here have painted every door, shutter, and barn wall as far as the eye can see.”

“Yessir, yer right. Desolation used to be like every other town.  Worse than most.  It was a lawless place.  Seems we’d have a killing twice a week over some squabble, and sad thing was, people appreciated the distraction.  We had a sheriff for a while, but he was just an orange-faced blowhard who didn’t know what to do, so we ran him out of town on a rail.  There wasn’t a spot of color anywhere and nothing seemed to grow, or maybe people just gave up trying.  A lot of folks were just hanging on, just getting by.

“That all changed the day that Slade came to town.  He rode in and hitched up right there where you tied up, and he was dressed up city-like, fine clothes, but worn, like he’d been on the move forever.  He was dressed all in black except for his brass belt buckle that shined like gold.  Might have thought he was a gunslinger, but he didn’t wear any kind of pistol.  Even though he was a stranger, he moved with a bright energy, walked down the street here like he owned the place, but polite-like. He tipped his hat to every woman that he passed and hauled open a door if he saw someone carrying their goods out the door.  After he made his way up and down the street, he settled in here at Joe’s for a drink, and by then everyone in town had an opinion about him.  Folks were flappin’ their gums about, “Slade, the bank robber”, “Slade, the outlaw”, “Slade, the do-gooder”.

Tobias’s throat had gone dry from all the talking and I hurried in to retrieve two more beers so I could hear the rest of the story.

“Thank you, son. So, Slade hadn’t been in town an hour before he was the main attraction and had become everybody’s friend.  The bar was full of friendly conversation like we’d never had before.  Bobby Joe, the barkeep, even found a clean rag to wipe down the counter and polish up the glasses.

“Well, it warn’t no time at all before these two ranchers, Fletcher and Starret, started getting into it over a fence line that they had been feuding about for years.  Everyone got tense and started to move for cover except for Slade.  He just sat there cool as can be and looked at the two fools who were facing off against each other.  “Ain’t nothing bad gonna happen here today, fellas,” he announced and offered to buy a fresh round of drinks for everyone.  You could feel the room relax and the crowd gathered around Slade once again.

“But Fletcher and Starret were having none of it. Starret called Fletcher a cheat and a liar. Without a word Fletcher drew on him and fired twice, two dry clicks, and the crowd turned in time to see two daisys fly from the gun and plunk Starret right in the chest.  I’m telling you God’s honest truth, Joe. And then, Starret raised his double-barrel, aimed, fired and showered Fletcher with an explosion of petunias! It was the damndest thing we’d ever seen.  They each grabbed a second gun and pretty soon the air was filled with bluebells and periwinkles.  The crowd at the bar was laughing so hard at the damned fools that they had no choice but to make up and join Slade at the bar for that drink he had offered.

“From that day forward, every gun raised in anger produced nothing but flowers.  All the town took it up as a badge of honor and that’s why you see vegetables and flowering plants in every single household.  We even sent a crew into Cheyenne to bring home a wagon full of paint for anyone who wanted to spruce up their house or barn or business.”

“Tobias, I’ve heard some tall tales in my time, but that is by far the tallest,” I said with a wry smile on my face.

“You can ask anyone, pardner.  Anyone at all.  Every word is true.  Changed every single thing about this town.  It’s when I started carving these gee-gaws.  I just wanted to have something to give away, to make people happy.” He seemed a little embarrassed by the admission.

“But the name. Everything changed except the name. Seems to me that this town is the opposite of desolate.”

“Yessir,” he said, “we talked about it. There were a lot of folks who wanted to change the name to Hope. Hope, Wyoming.  Had a nice sound to it.  In the end though, we decided to keep the old name so we’d never forget what we had been.”

“And, Slade?”

“Slade stayed for a month or so, helping people who asked for help.  Doing some painting here, some planting there.  Then one night, he packed up and slipped out of town in the middle of the night without so much as a fare-thee-well.”

I thanked Tobias for sharing his time and his memorable story with me.  He thanked me for the beers, and I left him as I had found him, carving away.  I pulled myself back in the saddle and eased Shiloh down the main street, such as it was, enjoying the gardens, the flower boxes and the brightly painted doors of the town on my way to Missy Mae’s boarding house.

I felt in my pocket for the dove Tobias had given me, pulled it out and marveled at the simple artistry of it.  I wondered if Jenny would say yes when I proposed to her tomorrow.  I wondered how she would feel about settling down in a small town with an awful name.

 

Survivor

Allie checked her watch as she adjusted her scarf more snugly around her neck. She knew it was 2:30 AM, give or take, because she had been waking up before two in the morning for some time now. Her daily routine had her at one or another hiking trailhead every morning.  Today, it was Colby Mountain, one of her favorites—a nice steep start from the trailhead, up to a series of long switchbacks, followed by a meandering traverse during which she could catch her breath in time for a rocky, tough ascent to the summit, 3 miles and one hour away if she jogged the traverse.

She snapped on her headlamp and slung her backpack over her shoulders and attacked the slope feeling the sweet ache in her thighs and calves.  She moved smoothly through the dark accustomed to negotiating the twists in the trails and the rocky footpaths in the flat light cast by the lamp.

She felt happily alone on the mountain as she inhaled the scent of the earth and the chaparral that surrounded her.  She was unlikely to meet another hiker on the way up and had become practiced at switching off her light and melting into the darkness if she saw anyone approaching her.

As much as she had become accustomed to avoiding people, she relished her contact with the wildlife. Her light caught the eyes of a roadrunner that froze on the trail as she approached and then fled into the brush. The eyes of birds looked like sparks in the trees when she happened upon them.  Once last week, she froze when she saw the glow of large amber eyes just twenty yards ahead of her on the trail, a bobcat or mountain lion. She approached slowly, curious and unafraid, but the animal slid off into hiding, wary of the light.

By the time she crested the switchbacks she was in a good rhythm and could feel the sweat begin to run down her face and her torso even in the cold morning air.  She stripped off her scarf and her sweater, comfortable now in her shorts and long-sleeved t-shirt.

She began to jog easily over the flat traverse but was brought up short by a warning rattle coming from the dense brush to her left. She stopped and picked up a broken branch that had been kicked aside and gently lifted the twigs that hid the rattler. She knew that with the cold, the snake would be sluggish and not anxious to attack.  She got close enough to make out the diamond-shaped pattern on her back and the reddish color of her skin.

“Hey,” she said softly, “sorry to bother you girl. I’ve never met a red diamond before. You’re a beauty.”

The snake’s head pulled back and settled into a fold of skin as if comforted by her soft words as Allie gently lowered the twigs and tossed the branch aside.  She checked her watch again and realized she’d need to push herself to get to the top within the hour.  She jogged hard for the rest of the straight-away and stopped just long enough for a long swig of water before tackling the final rocky stretch cresting the isolated summit, enjoying her racing pulse and the full sweat that streamed down her upper body.

She sat on a flat rock, pulling her sweater back on and grabbing a couple of power bars and her water bottle.  As she rested, she checked her smart watch once again.  The digital readout showed her that she had lost four minutes on the trail somewhere, not summitting in her usual one-hour flat, and that today was April 3, 2022.  Her heart rate was already back down to 94 bpm and it was a brisk 48 degrees out.  She didn’t used to be so obsessed by time and numbers, but the pandemic had changed that for her.

When it first had struck and she had to spend all of her time at home, she felt paralyzed and helpless.  As the months went on though, she found some comfort in breaking down her day into hour-long segments. She found she could do eight hours of work in only five hours. Figuring she would get at least eight hours of sleep a night, she just had to plan for 11 hours.  Reading, television, emails, Facetime, social media, food prep and meals, all just rotated through and around her work hours.  After a while, it all started seemed normal until the insomnia fucked it all up.

The anxiety that built up over time brought with it chronic insomnia.  She began to wake after only a few hours of sleep, leaving her body restless and her mind full of spiders.  It was then that she had become a nocturnal hiker. She hadn’t expected it to become habitual, but the sleeplessness was unrelenting, and after a while her body craved the release that exertion brought and the hard, physical activity calmed her mind.

This routine had also allowed her to avoid contact with people.  Even when the authorities assured the public that the virus had been eradicated, she found it impossible to go back to being in crowded spaces.  Her graphic design firm had discovered it was cheaper and more efficient to have everyone work from home so she no longer had to spend time with her work colleagues. She continued to order food on-line or do take out and limited her time in public spaces to no more than two hours a day.

Time’s up, she thought.  She allowed herself just a fifteen-minute break at the top.  She was ready for the easy walk down the mountain and back to her car.  With the time she’d make up going downhill she should be at the coffee shop right when it opened at 5 AM.  She liked to have her coffee on the patio there and enjoy the sunrise and the endorphin rush she got from the hike. God, she thought, I hope Tariq isn’t working the drive thru.  He can be such an asshole.

One hour and five minutes later, she was the first car in line at the coffee shop.

“Hey, Allie, how you doing this morning?” came the voice over the speaker.

Tariq.

“Can I get a large, black coffee with no room, please?”

“Oh, sorry Allie.  We’re all out of black coffee this morning. Can I get you a mocha frappuccino or maybe a nice chamomile tea?”

Humor.

“Goddam it, Tariq.  Will you just get me my fucking coffee?”

“Of course, Allie.  Anything you want.  I’ll see you at the window.”

She drove forward and just wished he would let her be anonymous for once–just one more drone on her way to work.

“Hi Allie,” said Tariq, who always managed to look fresh and cheerful even though he’d been working since an hour before the shop opened. “Thank God!  We did have some black coffee brewed, but hey, guess what.”

“Tariq, will you please just give me my coffee?”

“You see, this nice man saw you drive up and offered to pay for your coffee, but he said that I had to come out and bring it to you personally at the table where you always sit.  So, I said OK.  I hope it’s all right with you.”

“You,” she said, giving him the death stare, “are just impossible.  I’m going to report you for harassing me.”

“I understand, Allie.  I’ll see you out at your table in just a minute.”

She gave up and drove around the shop, parked, and settled into her favorite chair at a table in the corner of the patio, fuming at Tariq’s ridiculous efforts to engage with her.

Seconds later he backed out of the shop carrying not one, but two cups of coffee and sat down with them as if he had been invited. He was tall, and good looking, Middle Eastern maybe.  She guessed he was probably ten years older than her 25 years.  She tried to keep up her sense of fury, her sense of intrusion as he sat down, but the guy was just so goddam nice, it was hard not to like him. He passed her a cup of hot coffee and a chocolate croissant wrapped in a paper bag.

“Tariq, why do you do this?  You know I like to be left alone.  I sit out here in the dark and the cold for a reason.”

“I assumed it was because you really reek from that crazy hike you take every morning.  And I’m just on my break so I thought I’d sit outside too. Can you be alone while I’m sitting here taking my break?  I like the view of the sunrise from here.”

“You know, I dread seeing you every day,” she said with resignation as she pulled the croissant from the bag and bit into it, suddenly hungry.

“I know,” he said as he sipped on his coffee and looked out at the horizon. “It’s going to be a pretty one this morning.  Now quit bothering me, so you can be alone, with me here with you for now.”

Exactly six feet apart from each other, they sat and drank coffee and watched the sunrise without saying another word.