Boy's World

Derek Zumsteg

Prologue

In a baseball field in the hop fields of Eastern Washington, where the whole infield was dirt and the outfield was dead, someone had removed the bases and the sun shone straight down the peg holes. The block concrete buildings of the high school were crossed by only a sliver of shadow, and the sunlight was a weight on anything wandering outside.

On the infield stood a pack of boys, freshman high-schoolers, all, prone to doing things like pulling down each others' shorts and grabbing their own crotches just to, well, grab their own crotches.

And a girl. This was new to the boys, who weren't really sure if this meant they should do more shorts-pulling, or less.

"You looking to start a game?" Karen asked.

"Um, no," Jon replied, looking around at his friends, who nodded.

"You just standing around and pulling your puds, then?"

"Um, yeah," Jon said, smiling.

"Are you done?"

"Um, no."

Karen looked at them, put her bat on the ground and leaned on it. "I'll wait."

"Yeah, we're going to play. You want to watch?"

Karen looked at Jon for a long, long minute. Sweat rolled down the side of his face. "Want to play," said Karen.

"We're not going to play softball just for you," Jon said.

"Didn't say I wanted to play softball."

"Didn't know girls could play hardball." He looked at his pals, they nodded.

Karen stood in the sun, looking at the piece of shit they called Jon, and worked through her possible retorts. "They used to say that about blacks."

"That's different," Schmidt said. "Black people are like natural athletes."

"What about black women? Could black women play?"

Schmidt and Jon looked at each other, having not had to think it through before.

"How come women can't play baseball? Come on, I'm waiting to hear this."

"Because they don't."

"Girls are forced to throw softballs, play on a different field, learn a different game. If they could play, how would anyone find out? You want to play or stand around and bullshit?"

Jon shrugged. "You want to play, alright, we could use more players."

They picked her last, which Karen had expected. She was more tired of the batting cage, pepper games, and pitching practice with her parents; team boredom was almost exciting. Her team immediately fell to arguing over who would pitch.

"I'll pitch," Karen said.

"Bullshit you'll pitch," her captain said.

"Let me try. I get shelled, I'll play third base all day."

"Steve's third," her captain said. "I'll put you at second. You bat last."

"Fine." Karen set her stuff down and sat on the bench while her team batted, managing a hit and nothing else. She played second as best she could, which was better than anyone else, and ended up making two of the three outs on a graceful double play as her team was battered at the plate.

The next inning was better. Josh popped up, as usual, Ron spanked a single, Roy popped up, and Ron sprinted to third on a long single by Eddie. Karen smiled and stood up off the bench, two men on and two outs, up to bat.

"Hot damn," Karen said, tugging on her batting gloves. She walked to the batter's box, tapped her bat on the center of the plate, took her short swing. She looked at the mound, where Schmidt stared at her. "Come on, Schmidtee," Karen said. "Let's see you throw me that weak-ass shit."

Schmidt shook his head slowly and went into his bent windup and delivered a ball two feet off the plate. Karen didn't even move. Schmidt shook his head and then did it again.

"Come on, Schmidtee," Karen said. "What are you afraid of?"

Schmidt shook his head even wider now and gave Karen the kind of fat hanging pitch only true, talented scrubs can, a pitch intended to curve, or break, but doesn't. Karen stepped through, her swing short and true, turning the wrists, hips parallel to shoulders, pulling through the ball, a massive crack of wood and cheap leather, and she brought the swing around.

No one moved, watching the ball leave the field. No one chased the ball: it would never be found, not by one of them. It was so far beyond the limits of the outfield it would in all likelihood be next seen when it was processed with the crop of hops.

Karen took her first three steps slowly, tossing her bat aside, and jogged the bases. She stopped to walk across the plate, where the two runners she'd driven in waited to slap hands and smile at her. None of the fielders had yet reacted at all, and suddenly snapped out of it, heckling the next batter, as if they hadn't just seen Karen drive a home run out of any park they'd seen or heard of. The next batter hit a weak grounder.

Karen's team was being shelled again when Karen's captain walked to the mound and motioned to her. She jogged in.

"You pitch as well as you hit?"

"Yup."

He handed her the ball. There were boys on first on second, and the previous pitcher hadn't managed even an out. Karen turned the ball over in her hand and looked off to the soccer fields, where she would almost certainly spend a season this year. Karen was not as strong as they were, but she was better, her movements were fluid, didn't break apart, her muscles worked together instead of against each other, and she knew she was a better pitcher than anyone playing. Karen scratched her shoulder as she stretched. Under her tank top and undershirt, in tiny sans-serif lettering, she had "Title Nine" tattooed in a column. Her parents had approved, and in fact paid for it. It hadn't even been her birthday.

Jon, who fancied himself a white, talentless Kenny Lofton, led off, already up again and smiling his wide, toothy grin.

Karen fed him a straight fastball, which he watched scream past him. He put his bat down, started to laugh.

"You throw like a girl!" Everyone else thought this was hilarious.

Karen smiled, thinking of plunking Jon in the head with the same fastball. It was her game, could be her game, but she was going to have to fight Jon, fight both teams, fight not to play softball, the mock voting before suffrage, fight all the way to a tryout for a skeptical Giants scout, years and years down the line, and for what? To throw like a girl?

They were still giggling. Throws like a girl, that's funny. Karen could plunk him, charge the plate, beat Jon down, but then where would she play? Plunking Jon could wait, but she would remember. There were enough fights left for her; she would tire of it by the time she reached the minor leagues, and there would be plenty of lawsuits between here and there.

Jon had recovered enough to stand up and wave his bat. Karen gave him the same fastball, faster than anything anyone else threw -- but then, their parents weren't ex-ballplayers and pitching coaches -- and Jon started to swing way late, embarrassingly late. He blushed a little, looked down and kicked the dirt.

Karen gave him her fast slider, a pitch that looked for all the world like a fastball and then dropped off a table, and Jon swung into it, and tied himself up so ridiculously trying to follow it down that he fell over and ate the much-spat-in dirt in front of the plate.

Karen smiled. That would do nicely.

To Chapter One

about the author
Derek Zumsteg won a Pulitzer for his last work of fiction, a heady action-adventure novel entitled, "I Walk with Kings: The Lenny Dykstra Story."
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