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BRIAN PETKASH

 

 

 

 

Brian Petkash

Brian Petkash was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, a focal point of many of his writings. He's a graduate from the University of Tampa with an MFA in creative writing. Currently living in Tampa, Florida and working as both a marketing professional and a teacher of high school literature and creative writing, Brian’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in El Portal and Midwestern Gothic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flood
Shortlisted in the 2014 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition

 

 

 

            Derek was a helluva shortstop. At ten he only spent one year in the intermediate level of the Beaverdale Little League (which came after pee wee and the minors). At eleven, he was in the majors and competing with and against kids two and three years older. I was one of those kids and I got to witness his greatness up close.

            Derek’s range at short was incredible. He could move left or right, fill the holes and gaps, dive behind second to save a hit, leap high to save a run. His arm impressed too in both its unorthodoxy and its strength. He threw submarine style, his sidearm motion flicking the ball so quickly it was hard to pinpoint its release and so hard it made Matty’s hand sting as the ball popped into his glove.

            And then there was his bat. Eleven years old, mind you, and, boy, could he hit. Fastballs, curveballs, change-ups, the pitches didn’t matter. He might let a ball or two go and slap into the catcher’s mitt, might miss once or twice, but those were elements of his strategy; he was measuring, gauging, judging, lining up his single to right, or his double to the gap in left-center, or his triple down the line. Derek told me he’d once read that Babe Ruth could read the label on a spinning record. Derek, inspired, would spend hours in his bedroom shuffling his albums, blindly placing them on the turntable one at a time, turning them on to spin – first at 45 then at 78 – and he’d stare and follow and track until he could read every single word of every single spinning record (he had sixty-seven of them). That practice – it took him almost a year to complete – he said allowed him to see the seams of the baseball spin his way at the plate, allowed him to accurately guess the pitch a split second before he needed to swing, telling him where he’d need the fat of the bat to enter the plate’s plane.

            Of course, he didn’t hit 1.000 or anything. He wasn’t perfect. But I sometimes wondered if those rare occasions where he struck out or grounded into a double play or flied out to center were intentional, as if he wanted to keep things interesting—not to himself, but to the growing mass of people who gathered for each one of his games.

            When Derek first came into the majors at Beaverdale Little League Park, vaulting past two additional years of intermediates, there was a curiosity among the other team’s players and coaches, among the parents who had heard but not seen Derek’s talent.

            In his first at-bat, anticipation ran high. Everyone expected him to knock the cover off the ball or something equally Herculean. He struck out on three pitches, swinging wildly at the third pitch, a ball high and away. I saw a few of the parents who had gathered drift away from the fences, shaking their heads and smiling, as if they knew all along this kid was nothing to speak of.
            I later figured Derek struck out on purpose. In his next four at-bats, he hit four solid singles and he seemed to command both their speed and their direction.

            After the game I overheard my mom talking to other parents, some of whom had been the head-shaking smilers who left in the first inning, and she marveled at Derek’s prowess and the parents who missed it mourned their absence. “Don’t worry,” Mom said, “he’ll be doing this all season.”

            And she was right. Mostly.

            For two months, Derek racked up three and four hits a game. There was a brief period when opposing coaches intentionally walked him. But it wasn’t long before the screams and berating from the crowd, and eventually the intervention of the Beaverdale board, forced the coaches to have their pitchers pitch to him. Derek logged putout after putout in the field, his whip-like submarine throw beating runners by six, seven steps and causing coaches to throw their hats down and yell to his team’s bench, “Stop hitting to him.”

            And for those two months, the crowd grew. The bleachers were fuller than I’d ever seen, and people gathered four deep behind the home plate fencing and down the short fences that lined first and third. Parents whose children played at other fields abandoned watching their own children – whose limp swings and ball-between-the-legs errors devastated – to watch Derek play.

            As a team, we could have been jealous of Derek, the attention he drew. But we were as caught up in his gift as everyone else. From left field, I’d watch his effortless moves, his anticipation, and while the year before I’d fielded a lot of grounders and liners in left, this year my job became his. He cut off every grounder, stabbed every liner. He was marvelous to watch. Plus, winning feels good, and we won. A lot.

            And then Derek disappeared.

It started when he didn’t show up for practice. He’d never missed before, but we figured he was sick or something. When our team’s coach, my dad, got a call later from Derek’s uncle—we never knew, even in those growing crowds, that Derek’s parents did not exist, too caught up in his on-the-field exploits to truly care about his world outside of baseball. Was he at practice? Had you seen him? What about your son? My dad repeated each question and responded no to each one. When he hung up he shoved a flashlight in my hand and pulled me along to the car as he instructed my mother to get over to Derek’s, help his aunt.

            Dad and I, along with Derek’s uncle, Matty (first), Ted (catcher), and Jason (center field), searched what his uncle said was his usual bike route to practice. When we found nothing, we headed to the ball fields, climbed over the barred gate, and our flashlights scanned the gravel drive and the woods that surrounded the eleven fields.

            Beaverdale sat in a flat depression about two miles from our neighborhood. Adjacent to the river, I later learned it used to be a small trading port, catching traffic from the manmade canals and Lake Erie during the 1800s. Trains made the port obsolete and in the ’60s it was repurposed as the ball fields, a generous donation by the relatives of Marcus Hanna. There was one other reason it failed as a port: it flooded several times a year, the depression (bound by a natural levee) filling to the brim with rain engorged river water. If a flood happened during the season, players, coaches and parents of the affiliated thirty-six teams converged on Beaverdale when the waters receded and cleaned the fields of debris, the detritus of the river, the garbage bins, and the overwhelmed concession stand. (Once, Derek and I had found three arrowheads embedded in Field 6’s second base. Mr. Regan, Pee Wee coach and history teacher, said we’d made the find of the century. “Who knows? You might have found equipment once belonging to Blue Jacket himself.”)

            On the night of our search, the fields dry from a months-long drought, there were no arrowheads. And no Derek.

            Police became involved. Searches continued every day for two weeks, news bulletins ran nightly and signs were posted in every storefront, restaurant, gas station and school.

            But Derek was gone.

            We’d canceled six games over those two weeks. The opposing coaches could’ve demanded our forfeiture, the rules stated, but out of an understanding of our deep loss, they merely asked we reschedule.

            In practices, we were listless. Originally, Dad asked me to take over at short, but after four straight errors he tried out Jason, then Matty, then Doug, then Ted, but none could make the right moves, could capture the ball in their mitts, or capture the weight of their duty.

            I remembered once watching an air show at Lakefront. Five planes flew overhead, then one peeled away, leaving a gap in the formation where it had once flown. When Ted walked away from short, leaving only Matty at first, Doug at second, and Robbie at third, from my vantage in left field the gap made sense.

            Dad brought the team together and pitched my idea: we would play the last eighteen games with an honorary opening for Derek, ready for him when he returned.

            The league said we had to field nine, but my dad could be persuasive when he needed to be, and by the end of the board meeting he even had the other coaches agreeing how fine an idea this was, how it showed respect for one of its own players, perhaps the best player the league had ever seen.

            We shifted, of course. You can’t leave shortstop empty, not completely. Robbie eased a little away from third, Doug edged a little closer to second, and I played up a little.

            But it wasn’t the same. And we lost. Game after game after game. At first, scores were close, whether because we competed beyond our ability or because the other teams showed sympathy and uncertainty, I never knew. Maybe we lost because we had loss, that loss made clearer whenever Derek would have been on deck or up to bat; we’d leave the on-deck circle empty for him, hoping he’d emerge from out of the woods – his quirky grin on his face, flipping a ball up from his right hand into his mitt – and he’d grab a bat, step into the box and will us to victory. But as each at-bat and each game went by, his spot remained untenanted.

            The season ended – we didn’t even make the playoffs – and two years passed. In that span I moved from middle school to high school, I quit baseball (Dad quit coaching too), and the city suffered one of its worst droughts in its history.

            Derek and his disappearance never went away. The anniversary led to two-page articles reliving his on-the-field antics and of expert and not-so-expert guesses as to what had happened to him. Some said he ran away, tired of the spotlight, and lived on the streets in downtown Cleveland; others said his father returned and took him to exploit his talents for personal gain; and students in Ms. Krolokowski’s tenth grade English class, after reading The Natural, didn’t doubt that the temptress who killed athletes at the top of their game emerged, whole cloth, out of the book to strike Derek down as punishment for his beyond-his-years talent.

            When the rains finally came, they were unrelenting. It rained for seven days. First, the poorly drained streets flooded, then the dryness and hardness of the ground and dirt couldn’t absorb the fast-accumulating water and eventually caused citywide flooding. Every neighborhood, every open field, every park, and every yard disappeared under the deluge. To make matters worse, the river eased to and then rushed over its embankment. Some neighbors found it simpler to use canoes and rafts to get around, but there wasn’t much to get around to—everything was closed as first the mayor and then the governor declared states of emergency.

            It took a week for the waters to lower, the ground and the river reclaiming what belonged, ultimately, to them. For weeks after that families dealt with their flooded basements and first floor family rooms, dining rooms, and kitchens whose walls were now, seemingly permanently, marked with a moist black line that ran at a steady height two feet off the floor.

            Matty called, said he and a few ballplayers were heading to Beaverdale to begin the work of cleaning up the fields. Floods of years ago had taught me that a team or two could collect twenty to thirty garbage bags of refuse—Pepsi cups, napkins, chip bags, score sheets, straws and straw wrappers, wax paper, half-eaten hot dogs (their buns missing or sometimes only a few feet away from their companion), old baseball hats, lost balls (home runs or foul balls never recovered after they floated into the woods, the river), popsicle sticks, candy wrappers, old shirts and socks—and the occasional historical artifact.

            On that day, only about nine people were able to help (so many were still dealing with their own personal losses), and we split up, each assigned to a particular field. I got Field 8, the field on which Derek awed hundreds, the field to which he’d never returned.

            Before I’d even got to my assigned field I’d filled two garbage bags. Two fields away, Matty had left several bulging bags in his wake. It looked like a discordant cemetery, haphazardly placed and poorly designed tombstones poking through the earth.

            I made my way behind the home plate fence and picked up papers and cups that had plastered against it, pulling a few loose sheets through the chain link, and moved to the right, into my old dugout, duck walking to snatch each and every scrap of trash and shoving them in the bag.

            It was hard work and the week of rain had given way to a thick humidity that caused sweat to pop on my brow, my arms, my legs, my chest, my back. I sat on our dugout’s bench, took my hat off, and wiped my arm across my eyes and forehead. As I replaced my hat I saw through the dugout fence a rumpled pile of garbage, and its size, larger than any scrap I’d picked up before, caused an odd feeling in my stomach and a catch in my throat.

            It was Derek, I knew. He had floated, perhaps from out of the river, bobbed from field to field during the flood, and as the waters receded, he had found his way here, to this field, his body looking like it had attempted to slide head first into the pitcher’s mound. I would have thought, if he’d ever come back, that he’d end up on deck or at home or at short, reclaiming what was once his. Or maybe his ending up at the pitcher’s mound was a final, lost claim to how he had owned all who had pitched from that particular piece of land.

            Police investigated, coroners came, news trucks arrived, journalists reported, and gawkers gathered behind the yellow tape that now surrounded the field.

            I was the center of attention for a few weeks (The Boy Who Found the Star), as was Derek’s uncle (a suspect two years ago, a suspect again). But, as before, it all died down. And once the funeral was over – a real one this time, with an actual body in a casket – life returned to normal. Speculative certainty gave way to misguided guessing which gave way to insoluble mystery.

            Thirty years passed. I now tended to these very same fields—mowing, raking, sodding, fertilizing, watering, lining, preparing. It was therapeutic, what I did, especially after my son’s accident.

I often reflected on that magical half-season where Derek’s talent propelled him to stardom and where, perhaps, his talent contributed to his death. His virtuosity sometimes made him wink at his own perfection, made him incautious. (After one game he’d journeyed into the woods, drank from a six-pack he’d lifted from the neighborhood’s EZ Shop, shared it with older boys who idolized him. Another time he threw match-lit sticks into the Cuyahoga. It had only been a few years since the infamous fire of ’69, and I think he hoped he’d catch the river again, but the oozing river had lost its chocolate brown and rainbow-slicked flammability. The burning sticks landed in the river with an ineffective whisper.) Over the years I convinced myself, perhaps unfairly, that Derek brought what happened to him on himself, that people with untainted talent often think they are invincible, that no sin and no ill luck can befall them.

But I learned then, and I know now, that there is no insulation from tragedy, that perhaps it is that very excess of skill that calls tragedy down upon the innocent and the not-so-innocent alike.

I finished lining first and third. I repacked the front of Field 8’s pitcher’s mound, the mound where I had found Derek those many years ago. Clouds passed overhead, glided over the fields and the city equally. They ignored no one.

 

©2015 Brian Petkash

 

 

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Read Brian Petkash's 'Up in the Sky' in El Portal

Midwestern Gothic

 

 

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