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Robert Shuster

Another Sign of June

Dominick's clothes, soggy, droop in the Kansas heat. Even his socks seem heavy. Words mix with dust that hangs everywhere. Stop that kicking, Sampson, you just make more of the stuff, he wants to yell, but instead, throat dry, his brain still half full of last night's whispered fragments, he reads the lineup: Tucks at first, Conner at short, Roy catching, who's he kidding? Roy is pathetic at the plate. But Dominick puts Roy third to quiet the kid's bleating goat-father and to please Ruth who thinks everyone should get a chance.

Fielding practice was pathetic, too, because that's when his wife Ruth arrived, wearing the cap he'd forgotten, lugging the beer he likes to sip after games, and suddenly he couldn't hit a damn ball past the infield dirt. The outfielders, a scrawny bunch, not one with an arm, except maybe Silette, looked surprised, even scared. Hey, Dom, we need practice, too, they finally said. He dropped the bat, said that's enough, and greeted Ruth at the backstop. Her feet, bare except for sandals, were already dirty. Domino, don't look like you just lost. Opening day. And she laughed, pushing his cap through the wire. He smelled the sun tan lotion on her arms. Wait, Dominick. She fished in her bag, pulled out a handkerchief, and wiped his brow. Lies, he thought, my head is leaking lies. You know, she laughed again, I might get drunk just tryin' to cool off. But I'll save you some.

In the dugout Dominick watches his players, slouching teenagers, shuffle out to the field. Run, look alive, he yells. Still low, the sun gives their white uniforms a yellow hue. The smell of Ruth's lotion lingers--on his cap?--a smell of freshness, of June, of beginning.

Muffled thwacks, Randy's warmup tosses. Randy's a quiet kid, sloppy, even his delivery is sloppy, but the fastball is speedy somehow. Ruth likes him (he's how I imagine you at that age, Dom), the kind of kid she thinks about having. Maybe in a year, Domino? He grips the wire squares, heart pounding. Beyond the outfield fence is an air strip. Planes, like cattle, stand in quiet groups. One can fly him to a big place--where can a science teacher lose himself?--Kansas City maybe, or St. Louis. Even the long stretches of wheat, of nine-inch corn look promising as sanctuaries. An escape from this dust fog, from the urges that brought him here last night. Odors rise again, this time imagined, but he sniffs his hands to make sure, brushes the bench, then sniffs again.

Batter up. The umpire crouches. On the mound, Randy pounds his mitt then looks over to the dugout. Dominick's fingers, caught being sniffed, make quick fists. Randy screws up his face, as if to say, I don't know that signal, Coach. His substitute players, kids he has to put in the game later, stand on the top step and start shouting the usual things. Thatsa way to fire. He wants a walk, wants a walk. Scorebook in hand, Dominick sits on the bench.

Dom, Teri laughed, the bench is too small--bending the last word, giving it another syllable almost, not the way an English teacher is supposed to sound. On his mind because of opening day, the dugout seemed a logical choice.

With a stubby pencil he blackens a diamond in the scorebook: one run. Randy looks nervous, his windup is stiff, he's aiming the ball. Stop that shuffling, Sampson, you put grit in my teeth. It sounds too stern for opening day, so to be nice, he says: you replace Stark in the fifth, OK? After an inning, the other team, Fortin's Supermarket, leads 1-0.

He needs to stretch his legs, loosen the nerves. Randy's in trouble again. Two men on, a good excuse for a walk to the mound. Tingling, Dom's knees ache. He emerges from the dugout, and when his eyes recover from the sudden glare, the crowd is right there, a bright, solid unit of T-shirts and caps behind the backstop. He looks down, crossing the foul line chalk. They stare, he imagines, examining every step, twitch, every moral atom. A mistake to come out, he's on stage. But they know nothing. He hears the goat voice: Thatsa way Roy, you talk toom. Roy pops his catcher's mask and saunters to the mound. A relief to have Roy here, too--takes a little eye-pressure off his back.

Dom, he's tryin' to throw too hard, Roy pants. Dom pushes some dirt with his foot. Settle down, Randy, he says, release the ball lower, push off from the rubber. Squinting, Randy rubs the baseball, adjusts his hat, nods.

The rubber. Dominick's heart flips. But he must've taken it. He turns to look at the dugout--ridiculous because he can't see inside from here--but, turning, he faces the crowd, and now their colors swarm, blues and whites, hands waving at him: they know it's there, know who used it. A motel would make me feel cheap, Teri whispered, holding him.

No no, they're fanning themselves. Caps flutter next to lolling red faces. Settle down. Yeah, I know, Randy mumbles and Dominick realizes he's said it out loud. He sees Ruth in the stands now, her arms held away from her sides, the way she looks when she's hot, as if she's trying to float. No hat to fan with, she rolls a beer can across her cheeks, smiles. Dom, she said last summer, let's move east where it's cooler, next to the sea. Better for a kid there anyway. Don't push it, he tells Randy, just go easy.

Back across the chalk, calmer, he remembers picking it up (These things look silly, don't you think? Teri said). In the dugout he doesn't even check but looks across the corn and wheat. The distance--how far can he see?--draws him. If he and Ruth leave this town, Ruth would not have to know. I'm entitled, he thinks, to one mistake. He gulps from a jug of water. The heat, the summer came too quickly. No more teaching for a while, no more lunches with Teri. Far off, three hot air balloons dot the sky, another sign of June. Each summer Ruth gets a dreamy look when she sees the balloons, orange against blue, drift above the fields. Dom, she said once, if you had a balloon, where would you go?

Teri--her name whispered, the dugout's first whisper probably--where do we go now? No, Dom, we both have to get back, it's late, we've each got someone waiting for us.

The substitutes start yelling again, Ran-dee, throw strikes.

I mean, Dominick said, still half-naked, what happens to us?

Come on, Ran-dee, zing it, zing it.

Oh, she said, pressed against him, her neck slippery with sweat, I don't know. We've got two choices, I guess.

A smack, bubbles of dust at the plate, an arc of white--near the fence Silette circles under the ball, his glove up, mouth open, and makes the catch, third out. Down 3-0. The players tumble into the dugout, a clatter of gloves tossed, bats gathered. With each inning a tiny renewal. OK, Dominick says, let's get some now. The order is Hewitt, Matson, Coles, got that? Give it a ride, Hew.

A ring of wetness lines his cap. His back is soaked, the shirt clings, his groin stirs. Your back is a river, Teri said, her hand under his shirt. But we should both be home.

He didn't plan it, just suggested they find an empty place--first near the river, but couples walked there. No one will be at the field, he said. In the car she took his arm. Dom, I'm not using anything right now. At McPherson's Drugs he bought the package. Is that OK? Sure, she chuckled, but I feel like I'm back in high school. His fingers--dustless last night--crept across her belly. At least put your jacket down, she said. Gawd, this is crazy. Their jeans slipped off with quiet zips, her panties luminescent. Her breasts prettier than what he imagined behind her blouses at the faculty lounge, at the cafeteria. English embraces Science, she said. Kisses made little clicking sounds. He smelled her shampoo, then just her. Maybe we have to get this out of our systems, she whispered.

Hewitt's on first--did he walk?--and the count's 3 and 1 on Matson. Players move to the top step, expectations risen. Another ball and now Matson's on, too. Coles shakes the weights off his bat and stalks to the plate. He goes through all the motions, things he probably saw on TV: spit on the hands, sprinkle dirt in the palms, put one foot in the box, make the pitcher wait. But he slams the first pitch, just clearing the fence, and Dom rises from the bench, lifted by that innate urge for winning. Cheers, like a breeze, seem to break the heat for a moment--he can hear Ruth's voice--and Coles, beaming, slaps hands as he jumps back down the steps. Thatsa way, we got 'em, Dominick says. Nice hit, Coles.

Tied at 3, Fortin's Supermarket looks shaken, their pitcher worried: he walks two more. Dominick hears Ruth cheering again--maybe she has had a few beers. Gripping his bat, Silette asks, What's the signal, Dom?

Bunt or steal, he thinks, looking at the field. Two choices, I guess, Teri said. Stop things now or we go somewhere far away.

Bunt the fucking ball, Silette. Jesus, look where the runners are, OK? Silette staggers back a little, hits his bat on the wall--Shit, OK Dom--then gets to the plate and drops a nice bunt. The pitcher scrambles, throws to third, and the umpire's fist loops downward.

No no, Dominick yells, starting up the steps, he didn't have his foot on the bag. The bag! He's across the chalk, dust on his tongue. His neck prickles with heat. Then over to third, close to the ump: What were you watching? His foot was this far, my God.

Hey, the ump explains, the ball got there--

Dominick stomps. No, his foot wasn't on the bag, can't you see?

Dom, I saw it and he was out. The ump separates his legs, crosses his arms over his blue uniform.

You're crazy crazy crazy. Dom waves his arms, he tries to see Ruth in the crowd, his chest nears explosion. I saw it, he was safe, safe, make me safe.

Dom, I ain't never thrown someone out of a game, but--

Kick me out, kick the hell out of me.

Just go back now, Dom.

I'm sorry, I'm sorry for it. Shaking, Dominick starts toward the other dugout, realizes it's the wrong one, and stops. Now he sees Ruth near the concession stand holding an ice cream bar. She angles her head and lifts her shoulders, a long shrug.

Dominick comes back down the steps and Sampson, leaning on a bat, says, Well, it was a close call, do I go in now? Yeah, Dom mumbles, next inning.

Dominick stands in the corner, away from the substitutes. He feels dizzy and dissolved, as if he's now part of the thick air and dust. Every so often he sips from the water jug to keep himself from falling. If we could just go to another country, Teri, stop the clocks for a while, get this out of our systems.

When his team wins (6-3, a rally started by Roy), Dominick is relieved rather than excited. The players slap palms, bang fists, and swear with exuberance. He gathers the equipment into the bag, stuffing bats, plopping balls. He hauls it up to the gate. The crowd is gone, the field bare except for a man raking the dirt. One of the planes on the air strip buzzes, then taxis slowly down the narrow runway.

Dominick, you won. Ruth hurries toward him, a bouncy step, takes his cap and pushes it over her hair. Did you see the balloons?

Closer now, against a few puffy clouds, the hot air balloons are lined up like bloated exclamation points. Ruth's freckled arm reaches into the cooler and pulls out a beer. You worried me out there yelling, she says, I've never seen you like that.

Dominick takes the can she offers, and it's moist and cold, a stunning, joyous cold.

Ruth, he says.

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