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The Numbers Game
by Penny Perry
Cotton Valley, California, June 1963
Charlie’s tan face and blond hair bring sunlight and ballpark smells into this dark little room. One hug is all he has time for and then he’s digging into his gear bag, pulling out his glove and two packs of Doublemint gum. “My surprise for you is in here somewhere.”
There is only one thing I want – an engagement ring.
Ten days ago I left school, my job, my cozy room in a boarding house to come to Cotton Valley with Charlie. I was so in love I couldn’t see past his dusty dashboard. But sitting here alone while he’s been on a road trip has helped to blow the dust away. Even though I’m still technically a virgin, Charlie and I are shacking up. If my mother were alive, she’d kill me.
“You’re all in white,” he says. “As if you already knew.” He’s grinning like a psycho. He must be new at giving presents. He pulls out a purse. It’s white and shaped like an envelope.
“It’s lovely.” I hope my chirpy voice hides my disappointment.
I unsnap the purse and pull out sheets of paper.
“My score sheets,” Charlie says. “They read almost as beautiful as Shakespeare. C. Fain. Four for four, first game at Modesto,” he says.
He spreads the sheets with the filled in diamonds on the table. “You’ll never guess what my average on the trip was -- .555. I’m sizzling.”
“Congratulations,” I tell him. “I’m glad things are going so well for you.” I look out the window. The small houses were probably pretty ten years ago, before the earthquake. Now, porches sag, paint peels. It will take me five minutes tops to fold my clothes, grab my books and walk to the Greyhound bus depot.
“Things are going so well for us. My overall average is .430,” Charlie says.
“That’s wonderful. I’m happy for you.”
“Be happy for us. They have to start me now. I could be a jerk out in the field and they still have to put me in the line up.”
“I’m pleased for you. I really am. Now that you’re doing so well, it’s time for me to go home. I can use the grocery bags to pack my things.” I start toward the closet.
His crazy grin gets bigger. Maybe he really wants me to go.
“Today’s my day off.” Charlie unwraps a piece of gum, tilts his head and studies me. “If you have nothing better to do I thought we could get married.”
I stare at him.
“I know I put you through hell.” He looks around the rented room, the bed where I sleep, the couch where he tries to shrink his six foot two frame to five feet, eleven inches. “I couldn’t ask you to marry me when I only had a .196 batting average. Plus, I was a total jerk in the field.”
My brain feels like cotton candy, but those Fourth of July sparklers are going off inside me. “Do you mean if you were hitting better you would have asked me sooner?”
“I didn’t want you to be stuck with a loser.”
“Your batting average was what made you sneeze when the word marriage came up?”
Charlie nods. “I needed safer numbers. So, do you want to get hitched?”
My answer is a hug.
Rolly Wynn Stadium, the Class A minor league ballpark, sits next to oil fields, cotton fields, and a trailer park, smack in the middle of the San Andreas Fault. The air smells of hot dogs and popcorn. The opposing team, the Manteca Butchers, wear red and white uniforms. They look like huge, angry Santa Clauses.
Charlie grabs my elbow. He steers me past old men in Dodger hats, and women with wrinkled elbows and laps full of yarn. He nudges me toward a group of women. “You should be with the others.”
“The others?” I ask.
“The other baseball wives.”
A broad-faced girl with freckles rocks a stroller and eats a corn dog. A sallow faced woman in pin curls reads a movie magazine. A pretty blond with Sandra Dee bouffant hair polishes her nails.
Alice, my mother, wouldn’t have liked these baseball wives. “Don’t eat, do your nails, or wear curlers in public,” she once told me. Her rule of female etiquette: a woman should always be well nourished and well groomed. How she got that way should remain a mystery.
These wives won’t like me. My hair is too short to put into pin curls. I have no baby or movie magazine to hold. It’s almost as if they can see me for the fraud I am – a new wife who flunked her wedding night, a wife who cried because no one had ever told her what to do, I dig my sandals into the scratchy soil. “I’d rather sit in the bleachers behind first. There’s a guy named Walt, and his friend Hugo. See that old man with goop in his eye? They live over at the trailer park. Big Picker fans and they think the world of you.”
Charlie squints. “How old is this Walt?”
Charlie nods, finding comfort in the number. “Don’t you get along with other girls?”
“They treat me as if losing a mother was catching.”
He bends down and kisses my forehead. He looks sad for me. So, I don’t tell him the rest. Girls can smell my starved dog neediness. Girls feel guilty they still have their mothers.
“But you’re a baseball wife now.” Charlie points to the broad-faced woman. “She’s Big Tank’s wife, Mary Beth. Little Tank is her son.” The stroller has a blue and white Picker flag waving in the hot air. “The blond lady sitting next to her who looks like that movie star – Sandra Dee? She’s…”
“Of course you’d think she’s wonderful.”
Charlie pretends he hasn’t heard the grumpiness in my voice. “She’s married to Steve Willis, our first baseman.”
Sandra Dee and the mother of the year are staring at me now. I clutch my copy of Pride and Prejudice as if it were a teddy bear. I tell Charlie, “Girls ask too many questions.”
“But we’re married now. You’ll have good answers.” Charlie snaps his gum and cracks his knuckles. He’s worried about me. He could lose his concentration.
“I’ll sit with the wives.”
He smiles his relief.
“I’ll just freshen up first,” I say.
I promise myself I’ll only be with them for one inning.
The woman wears a black armband. She is leaning over the bathroom sink and pulling down her lower lip. “Gum disease,” she says.
She blinks at me. “You’re new. You’re…”
“With the second baseman.”
I look at myself in the mirror. Skinny. Pale skin. Wet-hay colored hair flattened by the sun. When I was younger I would never let myself dream about being a bride, but if I had, she wouldn’t look like me.
“Do you have a name?” the woman asks. “Or is that it? ‘With the second baseman?’
“Pam. Pamela Carey. I mean Pamela Fain.”
“Well, Pam, nice to meet you, I think.” She takes out a small round case from her purse. The case looks like a wheel. Each spoke has a date and a white pill. Neatly glued fake eyelashes flap at me. “Vitamin C. One for every day of the month.”
I step closer. “Are those birth control pills?”
“Insurance.” She flips her red ponytail. “I’m the catcher’s wife. But I don’t want to get caught.”
I look at the pills. Amazing. Pop a pill in your mouth, swallow, and your body changes. You don’t have to make babies if you don’t want to. Maybe if I had those pills I wouldn’t be so scared of sex.
“Where do you get them?” I ask.
“Just ask a doctor for a prescription.” The catcher’s wife smiles at herself in the mirror, and puts on white lipstick. “I’m Mrs. Kahlil Gibran. You can call me Mrs. G. for short.”
“You mean after the prophet?”
“Folks, we have a live one here,” she tells the air. “My husband’s name is Barry Silver. They call him Gibran because he reads The Prophet in the dugout. They’re not used to seeing anyone read anything. You do read, don’t you?”
Mrs. G. likes to make people feel small.
“I read…Gibran,” I tell her.
She nods as if saying I have skillfully answered her attack.
“Do you have a name?” I ask. “Or is that it? Mrs. Barry Silver Kahlil Gibran?”
“I’m Raquel. Have you met the nasals?” she asks.
“The wives. The M.H.H.’s.”
“The My Husband He’s.” She holds her nose, “My husband he was swole up so bad. My husband he tore a ligament. My husband he spit up his Swiss cheese omelet.” She stops smiling.
I am having my first conversation with a baseball wife. Who could have guess she would have turned out to be as sarcastic as my mother?
She twirls a silk parasol with splashy roses printed on it. “Ah, hell. We got a game to watch.” She opens the bathroom door and flaps her lashes at the bright light. “And it’s a thousand degrees.”
Then, she’s stepping close to me and puffing smoke from her brown cigarette past my ear. “You look a little pale,” she says. “You sure you’re all right? People die in this weather.”
“I’m fine,” I lie. The hot air feels as if it’s full of cactus spines. I miss Santa Monica’s ocean breeze. I follow her over the grass. She stops just short of the bleachers, points to the wives, then stage whispers, “Look at them huddled together. Primitives. It must be wash day at the river.”
“The armband,” I ask. “Who died?”
She snickers. “Me. We interrupt this life, this marriage to bring you the nineteen sixty-three baseball season.”
Mrs. Kahlil Gibran, alias Raquel, points to me. “Ladies, this is Pam. She’s relatively alert.”
Even before my mother died, I had trouble fitting in with other girls, especially my Brownie troop. My mother called Brownies, “Little fascists in little brown uniforms.”
But maybe Charlie’s right. I’m a baseball wife now. Maybe these women and I can be friends.
The woman with three pin curls on her forehead looks up from her magazine. The magazine’s cover shows Marilyn Monroe’s face shrouded in a cloud. She is smiling down from heaven at Joe DiMaggio. The woman reading about Marilyn’s haunting of Joe gives me a sour look. She hates me already. “You’re the Magnet’s wife?” she asks.
She points to the players on the field. “Does that second baseman belong to you?”
Next to her, Sandra Dee looks embarrassed. Great. One person hates me and one person feels sorry for me and I’ve been here for one whole minute.
“Someone called Charlie a magnet?” I ask.
The freckled-face young mother rustles through diapers and bottles. Handing me a newspaper she says, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Fain.”
My eyes scan the words: “Now you see it. Now you don’t. Something happens when the ball crosses Charlie Fain’s, the newest Picker’s magnetic field. The ball never comes back into play. The ball never leaves second base. Check the numbers. Another inning. Another error.”
I give the newspaper back to the young mother. “That’s cruel. Charlie makes a lot of good plays.”
At my elbow, Sandra Dee says, “Greg gives everyone a hard time at first. But then he’ll ease up.”
“Don’t believe Pollyanna,” Mrs. Khalil Gibran says. “Greg eats Little Leaguers for breakfast.”
The woman with pin curls stares at the field. “The scorekeeper’s hung over again? How are we supposed to know what’s going on?”
“We’re supposed to watch,” Raquel says.
A bat cracks. A ball sails over the fence toward the trailer park. At least the sportswriter can’t blame Charlie for the homerun. The woman in pin curls is shaking her head and glaring at Charlie. “Who does he think he is? A parking lot valet?”
Charlie is swinging his arm, waving the Manteca Butcher runner past second.
“You have to understand the psychology of the game.” This is how I got in trouble in Brownies. Someone said something and I let them know how dumb they were. “Charlie is just trying to keep the other team off balance.”
I think I’m going to make her scowl bigger but instead the lady with pin curls honors me with a smile. A new batter steps to the plate. “Your hubby is cute,” she says. “What is he? Six one?”
“Your Charlie could be a movie star, like my Rusty.”
I never knew it was so easy to belong. All I had to do was land a talented, blond second baseman for a husband and suddenly I’m one of the girls.
“Rusty is the third baseman,” my new friend says. The big man at third has orange hair and the dustiest uniform I’ve ever seen. “Rusty is handsome done you think? Of course we all think our husband’s are the cutest.”
Raquel mutters to herself.
Rusty’s wife scowls at her. “You shouldn’t use His name in vain.”
“Norma, if Jesus were playing for the Pickers you’d be telling everyone how cute He is. ‘Ooh, look at those curls.”
“Jesus doesn’t have curls,” Norma tells Raquel. “He has straight hair, with just a little wave. If you’d go to church once in a while you’d know that.”
“Your hubby has one.” The pretty blond nudges me. Charlie catches the ball. The batter is out. But the runner from first keeps coming. Doesn’t he see Charlie standing near the base? Charlie turns, points the ball, but the runner doesn’t stop. Before Charlie’s foot tags second, the Butcher slides into him and knocks him down.
I get to my feet and start for the field. Raquel and the blond girl both grab me and pull me toward the bleachers. Raquel’s fingers squeeze my arm. “He’s all right.”
“He’s flat on his back,” I say.
The ball dribbles out of Charlie’s glove. The runner is safe. Charlie stands. Fans boo. Someone in the crowd shouts, “Aint you never heard of a pivot?”
I free myself from Raquel’s grip. “I’ve got to see if he’s all right.”
“He’s just embarrassed,” she tells me.
“We don’t go on the field,” Mary Beth, burping her baby, says. Orange juice dribbles down Little Tank’s chin onto my shoulder. “The players don’t like it.”
“It’s kind of an unwritten law,” the blond says.
“They see themselves as soldiers on a battlefield.” Raquel’s smile is contemptuous. “They’re out there fighting the good fight. They don’t like their women folk around.”
Norma, pulling bobby pins from her hair, mumbles “Magnet. Greg is right about the numbers – another inning, another error.”
Then, she’s staring at my hand. “No ring. Are you sure you’re married?”
“Of course she’s married,” Raquel says. “You think anyone would watch that second baseman’s performance voluntarily?”
I look at my empty ring finger. Charlie has promised me a wedding band when he gets his first paycheck. If he gets his first paycheck.
“The sportswriter is going to have a field day with Mr. Magnet,” Norma says.
So much for Norma and me being best friends. “He must be a frustrated athlete, some puny little guy with glasses who can’t hit a softball.” I lean back in my seat. What’s happening to me? I’m starting to sound like Charlie – dividing the world into wimps and jocks. “Where is he?”
“In the beach chair,” the blond lady points, “behind home plate.”
Next to a card table where a thin, said looking man sits and plays with a sign that says “Picker Booster Club,” there’s a yellow and green striped chair.
“What would happen if I talked to the sportswriter? Or don’t we do that either?”
“Greg is just doing his job,” Raquel says.
“They don’t like it when we try and stick up for them.” Mary Beth tucks Little Tank into the stroller.
“It gives them the idea that we don’t trust them to solve these things for themselves,” Sandra Dee says.
The heat makes me lightheaded. My mouth is dry. This is a horrible place. Even the oil wells are sighing. If Charlie reads those articles, his numbers will go down. I shade my eyes with my hand, step through the crowd and walk toward the card table.
The writer isn’t a wimp. He has broad shoulders and a broad back. He could be an ex shot putter. Maybe he wanted to be a shot putter and couldn’t make it. His blond head bends over a notepad. He’s writing something down then looks up toward second base.
“Why are you writing all those bad things about my husband?”
The man spits and cleans his glasses. “Come again?”
“The second baseman, you’re picking on him.”
“You think I’m being too tough?” He fights a small smile.
“Another inning, another error?”
“ Mrs. Fain. This is the Major Leagues.” He looks down at his notes, then up at me again. “You’re right in one way. I’m much tougher on the guys who I think are truly talented. And he’s a little weak in the legs. Maybe that’s why he’s not making the pivots. Some jumping jacks wouldn’t hurt.”
“So you believe in Charlie?”
“I wouldn’t take the space to write about him if I didn’t.”
I reach down and shake the awful sportswriter’s hand.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Raquel tells me.
“You have so much courage.” Sandra Dee offers me a Coke with ice. “I’m Bonnie, by the way.”
Ice slides down my dry throat. “Thanks, Bonnie By The Way.”
I’m not used to girls looking at me with admiration. To get them to stop staring, I open up Pride and Prejudice -- a book that my mother Alice and I used to read together.
“Fat book,” Norma says. “Is it good?”
“Very good,” I say.
“What’s it about?”
“Pride and prejudice,” Raquel says. “What do you think?”
“I was hoping it was a romance,” she says with an angry sniff.
“It is,” I say. “It’s about pride and prejudice and romance.”
Norma gives Raquel a “See I was right” look.
Raquel grabs my book and slams it near my toe.
I raise my foot. “You could have hit me.”
“Fire ant. He was going to bite you. They’re nasty.”
“Remember three years ago, that girl, Holly, who almost died from a fire ant bite?” Norma says. “Then, her husband crashed into the cement wall past center field. He knocked himself unconscious. ‘Course he wasn’t going to make the team anyway.”
I slap the dust from my book and set it next to me.
Norma says, “You must be smart. All I read is these things.” She points to her movie magazines. “You could probably be a teacher.”
“Well, I hope to be someday.” My voice sounds phony, stilted. To make up for not having a mother, I became a smart girl – the girl who raised the bell curve and made everybody hate her. But Norma is smiling as if she’s proud to be sitting next to someone who can read a fat book.
“So you put your career on hold to be with Charlie?” Raquel says.
“Yep, I left school for love. Dumb huh? But it was summer school and only six units.” Suddenly I can feel my smile. “It was so impulsive. Charlie asked me if I would come with him and I just ran to Old Chartreuse.”
“Old Chartreuse is the name of his car. Somehow, I thought it would all work out.”
“And it did,” Raquel says.
“Yes, it did.” I hear the surprise in my voice.
“What did your mama say?” Norma asks.
“My mama?” Alice would never forgive me for calling her that. She used to say, “I’m more than just your mother. I’m a whole person. That’s why I insist you call me Alice.”
“My mother didn’t believe in early marriage. I’m eighteen. She wanted to be more than just a housewife. She died two years ago.”
I can feel that little wave that always happens – the change of energy when people start looking at me differently. And then they’ll inch away. “It’s been hard,” I say. “But meeting Charlie helped.” Now, my voice is prickly again.
None of the wives has moved an inch. If anything, their bodies are swaying closer to me. Are they trying to comfort me? Keep me safe from harm?
“How long have you been married?” Bonnie asks me.
“Poor thing,” Norma says.
“Norma,” Raquel says.
“Well how would you like to be married only three days with no mama to talk to?”
“It would be hard,” Raquel says.
“Remember when Holly got married and we gave her a little party?” Bonnie says. “Maybe we could do that for Mrs. Fain.”
Did the wives give Holly a party before or after her husband ran into the wall? Still, the idea of a party is sweet. It would be strange to have a party just for me. My mother’s voice sings in my head, “Bridal showers. Primitive rituals. Grown women waving little nighties in the air.” But I can almost taste the Hawaiian Punch and those oatmeal cookies. “It sounds nice,” I whisper. And for some reason that big hollow lump that has been inside me for so long now feels the tiniest bit smaller.
“A lot of women don’t want to be just housewives,” Raquel says. “There’s a new book about it, The Feminine Mystery or something.”
“We’re lucky,” Norma says. “We’re baseball wives. We don’t have to stay home all day.”
Bonnie’s husband hits a double. Bonnie writes something on a notepad, then leans over to Mary Beth and whispers, “Three thirty three.”
Mary Beth giggles.
“What’s so funny?” I say.
Both women have pink cheeks.
“They always have their private little jokes,” Norma sniffs. “We don’t care. do we Raquel?”
“Nope,” Raquel looks up from her paperback edition of No Exit.
“Three forty six,” Mary Beth whispers back to Bonnie.
“Give me that.” Norma grabs the notepad.
Now both Mary Beth and Bonnie’s faces are the color of strawberries.
“Tell us the joke,” Raquel says.
“It’s not a joke,” Bonnie says. “It’s science.”
“Our own little Kinsey Report,” Mary Beth laughs so hard she jerks Little Tank’s stroller.
“Science?” I ask.
“Anything under a .300 batting average and our husband’s don’t feel romantic…”
Raquel slaps her forehead with her hand.
“Three hundred to three hundred seven, maybe a… well, think of it as a quick, uh, frozen TV dinner with those centers of chicken gravy and little pockets of icy peas and carrots.” Mary Beth puts her hand over her mouth. “I swear my mother can hear me clear from Visalia.”
“Three hundred and ten to three twenty,” Bonnie says in a pseudo-scholarly voice. “A nice appetizer, potato chips with the new sour cream and Lipton onion soup dip, a meatloaf dinner and a dessert.” She tilts her head. “JELLO. Or even peach cobbler because it’s peach season. But once you get over the mid-twenties, that’s a whole different ball game. A grand slam homerun. That’s caviar and fancy cheese, a Waldorf or Caesar salad, filet mignon and chocolate mousse.”
“You guys actually like sex?” My words are out like a flashy dress hanging on a clothesline in the California sun.
We are so silent we can hear Little Tank breathing and the sounds of a ball slapping into a glove.
Bonnie touches my shoulder. “A man can go from start to finish as fast as he can round the bases.”
“But women,” Mary Beth swallows hard. “We need more time than it takes to boil water before we even get warm.”
“But what do you do about the pain?”
Norma clucks. Raquel stares out at the clanking oil wells in the distance. She sings, “How dry I am. How dry I am. Nobody knows how dry I am.” She tilts her head and smiles an actual smile. “That’s why I like Ripple wine. Kind of loosens me up.”
“Even Marilyn had trouble warming up at first,” Norma says. “I read it in ‘Confidential.’ You’re doing something new like riding a horse for the first time.” Her eyes widen. “No wonder you’re husband can’t make the pivot for the double play.”
“Norma,” Raquel says.
“Well, they can’t play when they’re upset.” She pats my knee. “Get some Ripple.” She lifts her hand in the air. “His numbers will go sky high.”
Charlie made three errors in the field. Now he has a chance to redeem himself. The score is Manteca Butchers four, Cotton Valley Pickers zip. The bases are loaded. Charlie is the tying run.
“Is your hubby a clutch hitter?” Mary Beth asks me.
“I hope he doesn’t choke,” Norma says.
“Back in Santa Monica he was so much better than everyone else,” I say. “He never choked then. But now fans boo him and writers call him names.”
“Strike,” the home plate umpire says.
Norma’s head swivels. She glares at me. “He didn’t even swing. My Rusty is at third and he didn’t even swing.”
“Pam’s not at the plate,” Raquel says.
Butcher fans clap, cheer. They love to see the parking lot valet fail.
“He’s going to choke,” Norma says.
“You’ve been picking on him for five lousy innings,” I tell her.
Her face sags.
“I’m going to watch the rest of the game by myself.” I hand the Coke to Bonnie and step down the bleachers. I can feel the wives watching me.
My feet kick sand. I step over an ant hill. It looks like a volcano about to erupt. I edge through the crowd and get as close as I can to the fence behind home plate.
At the plate, Charlie is watching the ball. His blue eyes look determined to hit the ball out of the park.
He’s such a fighter. I take a deep breath. That’s what he said about me. He calls me Rocky after Rocky Marciano. He says I never stop swinging. So, why am I so quick to opt for being alone? I almost left Charlie right before he asked me to marry him. Now, I want to give up on being friends with the wives just because one of them says something tactless. I’m going to wind up like my mother. She never wanted to “hear the hum of the neighbors’ little minds.” So, all day every day she was alone. Then, she complained about being lonely. I should give myself and the wives a chance.
I turn and step back toward the bleachers.
Raquel is running toward me. Her ponytail flaps in the breeze. “Don’t be so hard on Norma,” she pants. “Coach says if Rusty keeps being a chicken and stalling on the bases, Coach will have to cut him from the team.” Raquel makes a motion of slashing her throat.
There’s a loud thwack. Raquel bumps into me. I look at my feet to see if the earth is moving. Fans clap and yell.
“Grand slam,” someone shouts.
Picker fans stand. My Charlie has hit the ball out of the park. Norma and Bonnie and Mary Beth with her baby, run down the bleachers and grab me.
Norma kisses me on the cheek. “That’s for your Charlie. I’m sorry I got so worked up especially you being new and with your mama and all. I’ll try to do better.”
“Me too,” I tell this strange chatty woman who some day might actually be my friend.
“We got to stick together,” Raquel, the Sartre reading, Mrs. Kahlil Gibran, pats her purse. The outline of a wheel is visible. “There’s safety in numbers.”
“Your husband’s average is .400,” Bonnie says.
“Chocolate mousse and caviar,” Mary Beth laughs.
Charlie rounds third. At the card table, the sportswriter is nodding.
Penny Perry is a six time Pushcart nominee in fiction and poetry, Perry is the author of an honorable mention chapbook "What Women Do" for Earth's Daughters, and a winner for the west coast poets for Persimmon Magazine. She is a co author of the chapbook "Maiden, Mother, Crone." Garden Oak Press published her poetry collection "Santa Monica Disposal and Salvage" in 2012. She was a screenwriting fellow at AFI. PBS funded and screened a film she wrote from her own short story. Her first novel "Selling Pencils and Charlie" was published by Garden Oak Press in August 2020.