I am a bad mother. I’ll be the first to admit it. Take Little League games. Can’t stand them. All these blonde sorority moms, pushy or prissy or both, and black-haired, tattooed me, cheering on our little darlings. Please. I wouldn’t even be here if Mom hadn’t signed Noah up at Dad’s insistence while I was “laid up.” That’s what she told everyone—that she was keeping an eye on her grandson while her daughter was laid up. Like I had a bad flu or broke a leg. Skiing would have been the preferred means, or a nice, genteel car accident, instead of what I really was: puking my guts out in detox.
“I haven’t seen Mrs. Gallagher at the games lately,” Yvonne, the coach’s wife, says, meaning Mom. She uncrosses her ivory smooth legs, then crosses them the other way. She is perfectly at home here, enthroned in one of those canvas sports chairs with its own umbrella for shade and drink holders sewn into the arm slings. I doubt she’s that much older than me, but she’s from another world—Mom’s world, the proper daughter she always wanted. A sun visor nests in her bottle blonde hair. Her yellow shorts are creased like a marine’s, and it’s a toss-up what’s been subject to more waxing—her legs or SUV.
“I’ve got Noah now,” I say, gruff in my ex-smoker’s voice. I touch my nose ring for reassurance, then brush the barbells in my eyebrows. I haven’t worn them much since I moved back to Mom and Dad’s, but I make sure I have them in for the games. I also wear a tight black tank and skintight jeans, shredded at the thighs to show off Benny, my python tattoo. He was drawn crawling up one leg then down the other, leaving the middle to the imagination. I thought it was fucking brilliant when I got it one night high on Molly. It serves its purpose now, though, as the dads pay more attention to me than the game. Can you blame them? I’m surprised the moms are even talking to me, but I guess the lust for gossip outweighs the lust in their husbands’ eyes. Who knows. Maybe they bang their brains out when they get home. You’re welcome.
“Nice lady,” Diane, another mom, says. The golf/tennis type: big, muscular legs, broad shoulders, sitting in a chair like Yvonne’s but without the umbrella. She’s the team’s scorekeeper. While she talks, she keeps her eyes on the field, makes a little mark in her book when anything happens. “With everything she did. . . .”
The phrase hangs out there, an accusation. What has Mom been telling them? Like I have to guess.
“Still does,” Yvonne throws in. “Didn’t you move in, too—after?”
After. After what? After hell. “Noah loves it there,” I say, my face burning. I raise my hand to my mouth to drag on a nonexistent cigarette. Whose idea was it to give up everything at once? Fucking therapy. “I don’t want to move him again just now.” Plus the fact I’ve got nowhere else to go. Mom and Dad paid for rehab, and now they think they own me. And who wouldn’t love it at Mom’s house. For Noah it’s a five-star hotel, complete with room service and a pool. Mom plays up the doting grandmother—Mickey Mouse pancakes, chicken nuggets, pizza, and trips to Razzle Dazzle whenever he gets bored. She didn’t do half this shit when we were kids, or even a quarter. She doesn’t just want to show me what a bad mother I am, she wants me to feel it to the bone.
“What that boy went through,” Yvonne says, shaking her head.
It’s just what Mom says, I realize, and with the same tone of sturdy disapproval. I don’t say anything. There’s nothing I can say. What Noah went through is no one’s business but mine, his, and maybe the shrink’s. Sure, Mom took care of him for a while, but it wasn’t like I was dead. “Nonresponsive” was the term they used, and by the time they got me to the ER, they had brought me back. That was the last time I had anything stronger than Advil. I can’t say it’s been easy, and hanging with these princesses doesn’t make it any easier. But I’m going to do it. I can’t let her take Noah, as much as she thinks that’s what would be “best for all concerned.”
“Jay’s up,” Yvonne says breathlessly, leaning forward and turning her head toward the batter’s box. We all do the same, as if on command. Her son. He’s a good-sized boy, athletic, tan, one of the better players on the team. Which is only right, considering how much they’ve spent on baseball camps and private lessons.
Jay doesn’t swing at the first pitch, called a ball by the acned ump crouched awkwardly behind the catcher. “That’s the way, Jay. Good eye,” Yvonne says for our benefit rather than Jay’s. Jay can’t hear her. She’s talking in her normal voice. He takes the next pitch, too, but this one is called a strike. “Not your pitch, Jay. Not your pitch. Wait for your pitch.” To us she says, “In his last session with his hitting coach”—she names a local player popular ten years ago— “they worked on plate discipline.” She hesitates on “plate discipline,” as if quoting a foreign language.
The next pitch comes in, Jay swings, and fouls it into the backstop. This pitcher’s actually getting the ball over the plate, which puts him notches above three-quarters of the other pitchers in the league. “Good cut, Jay. Now straighten it out.” The next pitch is a ball, high and inside. “It’s working, see? The hitting coach says he’d be one of the best young hitters around if he just learned plate discipline.” Then to Jay she calls out, “He’s gotta come in now, Jay. Be ready for it.” You have to hand it to her. She’s got the patter down.
He swings at the next pitch and hits a looping line drive into the outfield—not a bad hit, but no more than any halfway decent little leaguer could do. The left fielder snatches at the ball on the bounce, but misses. There’s polite excitement from our side of the field, and by the time the centerfielder chases down the ball and heaves it into the shortstop, who bounces it to the pitcher, Jay is standing on third base with the coach patting him on the helmet. This is not his father, who is currently coaching first base and talking on a cell phone. He points to his son but doesn’t interrupt the call.
“That’s what I’m talking about.” Yvonne squeezes her fist in a dainty pump, then sits back smugly in the chair, as if she’d hit the ball herself. “Who’s up next?” she asks, glancing at me. “We need this run.”
I cringe, but say nothing because I know who’s up next and so does she. This is Noah’s first year on the team—his first year playing organized ball at all. Like I said, Mom signed him up when I was in rehab. I could’ve told her he wasn’t ready. We had been a little busy, what with his father in and out of jail, sometimes for drugs and sometimes for going after me with whatever—a mop handle, a belt, his fists and hands. I was no better. At first I got high because it was fun, then I got high to pretend it wasn’t coming, and then to deaden the pain. We never quite got around to having a catch in the yard and signing up for tee-ball.
“Noah,” Diane, the scorekeeper, calls out. “Noah’s up. Then Griffin, Brendan, and Antonio.” She points at each name in the scorebook with the eraser of her pencil. “But there’s two outs.”
With this news, the collective disappointment is palpable. The catcher reaches for his gear; other players lean their bats against the dugout fence, take off their batting helmets, reach for their mitts.
“Maybe you’ll be here for his first hit,” Yvonne says to me, but with the same tone she would use to announce that Big Foot was coming out of the woods to ump the next game.
Noah would be the first one voted off the island, I know that. He’s gangly, slow, and uncoordinated, though I did stop using as soon as I knew I was pregnant. His swing doesn’t even look like the other kids’. It’s all loopy, with the bat held low, like he’s watering the lawn. But he’s my son, no matter how bad a mother I am, and without even planning to, I yell out, “Woo, hoo, go you, No-ah,” then let out an ear-splitting finger whistle, one of the few things my ex left me that I care to remember.
Everyone looks at me in wonder. I scowl, just barely holding back from flipping them off. Noah steps away from the plate, confused, then he spots me on the sidelines. His face shuts down, like he’s going to pretend he doesn’t know me. He holds it just long enough to make his point—yes, I am a bad mother—then flashes me his crazy kid grin from before things went bad again, the way he used to smile as he grabbed the bar at the top of the slide and launched himself down the chute, screeching in delight. He steps back into the batter’s box, gripping the bat tightly, cocking it above his shoulders, if not like he’s been coached by a retired pro, then at least, for the first time since I’ve been home, like he means to do some damage.
An editor, writer, and poet, Charles Grosel lives in Arizona. In addition to TIMBER, he has published stories in Western Humanities Review, Red Cedar Review, Water-Stone, and The MacGuffin as well as poems in Slate, The Threepenny Review, Poet Lore, and Harpur Palate, among others.