An excerpt from
Throw Like a Woman
Brenda Haversham’s father taught her how to throw a four-seam fastball when she was nine. The four-seamer is the go-to pitch when you need a strike. It is the heat, the pitch that makes batters tremble. The four-seamer should be gripped loosely, gently, to minimize friction between the hand and the ball and allow for the quickest possible release and maximum velocity. “You hold the ball like an egg, and it will fly out of your hand like a bird,” her father would say in his slightly accented English. Brenda believed him and dutifully followed her father out to the park every weekend. Her sinker sank and her curveball curved, but she never managed to make the four-seamer fly. Without a team for a girl to play on, there was no reason to make it fly. She didn’t find a reason until thirty-one years later, on a balmy day in March when Ed didn’t show up.
The day had started out promising enough. Andy and Jon were waiting for their father at ten to ten, loaded down with their baseball gloves, bats, and a bag of balls in addition to Andy’s ever-present mp3 player and Jon’s equally ubiquitous DS. In the kitchen, Brenda decided to get a head start on the bills. She had a few other chores to do before meeting her best friend, Robin, for lunch. Undying love for her kids aside, she welcomed the break every other Saturday. Their bungalow was small enough that she could hear Andy and Jon fussing with each other in the living room as they waited. She heard Andy say, “Would you quit it?” followed by the sounds of scuffling.
“What’s going on in there?” Brenda called. She didn’t need to look up to find the proper tone of voice that indicated she may or may not have seen who the initial perpetrator was.
Jon answered first: “Nothing,” he called. That meant he had thrown the first punch. Since the divorce—rather since the night Ed left in a manner not unlike the Colts slinking out of Baltimore—Jon had become a bit more aggressive and prone to tantrums than a nine-year-old should have been. Andy, at twelve, was generally a calm, almost indulgent older brother. Lately, however, his patience seemed to be wearing thin, and Brenda wasn’t sure if this was because he was getting tired of Jon’s trying ways or just hormones. She tried to pretend that Andy was still a little boy, but he’d be thirteen before the end of the summer.
With the boys quiet, she focused on making the perpetually tiny total in her checking account stretch in unnatural ways. She had moved on to unloading the dishwasher and cleaning the counters when she heard footsteps. She looked up to see Andy standing in the door to the kitchen, one ear bud hanging around his shoulder (his single concession to politeness, courtesy of Brenda), his pale blue eyes looking slightly red.
“Dad isn’t here yet,” he said.
The clock on the stove read 10:40. “I’ll call him, Andy. He’s probably just running late.”
“Let me call his cell and see where he is,” Andy said. “He’s gotta be on his way here.”
“I’ll call him, honey. Don’t worry about it.” Ed answered on the fourth ring. All he had to do was say “Hello” and Brenda knew the boys wouldn’t be seeing him that day. She could almost see him stretched out in bed, one hand making grabbing stabs at the telephone, the other running through his bristly brown hair, as though his brain needed to be massaged before it could begin functioning properly.
“Hi, Ed. The boys were wondering what time you think you’ll be getting here.” She chose her words carefully, because Andy and Jon were now standing in the kitchen.
“Wow, I didn’t realize it was so late.” Ed coughed, his voice sounded raspy and dry. She recognized it as Ed’s hangover voice. “I’m definitely coming down with a cold. Would you believe I just woke up?”
“Yes, I would,” Brenda replied, still trying to sound neutral.
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea for me to see the boys today. I don’t want them to get sick or anything.”
“I understand, but you should probably be the one to tell them that,” Brenda handed the phone to Andy before Ed could protest.
“Dad?” Andy said. “Where are you? What time are you getting here?” Brenda watched Andy’s face go from questioning to disappointed to concerned. He was actually concerned because Ed said he had a measly cold.
“Let me talk to Dad,” Jon said, trying to grab the phone.
“Wait a minute,” Andy snapped.
Before they resorted to a tug-of-war with the telephone, Brenda told Jon to wait a moment and asked Andy to finish up so his brother could talk.
Jon didn’t take the news that his father wasn’t coming that day as well as his brother had. After he hung up the phone with Ed, he stood by the kitchen just staring out into the backyard. Then he kicked the door and yelled, “It’s not fair!” again and again. Brenda counted to ten (which was also ten kicks) then went over and enveloped Jon in a bear hug. He resisted for half a second, then melted into his mother, crying and repeating “It’s not fair,” over and over.
“I know, sweetie. I know,” she whispered into the blond hair that was as thin and fine as he. After a few minutes, he calmed down and was pestering her for a snack. A few crackers and some string cheese later, Jon was placated but Andy was nowhere to be seen. She went down the short hallway to his room.
Andy was sitting on the edge of his bed, glove on, throwing a baseball into his mitt over and over. It made a certain satisfying thwump each time the ball hit the worn-out leather. He was moving up to the twelve-to-fourteen Little League division and would need a new mitt. He had used this one since he started in the nine-to-eleven group and it was too much of a little kid’s glove for this division, where the older boys were practically men. By the time his birthday rolled around, it would be too late for a new glove. She could possibly get Andy a new mitt by calling it an early birthday present and giving Andy’s old mitt to Jon. That might satisfy them both. She was so engrossed in momentarily planning how to keep both boys in decent sports equipment she didn’t even hear Andy the first time he asked, “So now what?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Now what? What are we supposed to do all day?” he said without looking up.
Brenda didn’t have to think—she just gave the first answer she knew would make her kids happy. She could do the chores later and reschedule lunch with Robin. “We’re going to play baseball,” she said.
After a few days, where the weather had teased and hinted at spring, the day had unfolded to full-blown perfection. The sky was the brightest blue it had been in months, and the last remnants of snow from another Cleveland winter had finally melted. The infield at Quarry Park wasn’t too bad, but the moment she stepped on the outfield, Brenda could feel her sneakers squishing into the soaked grass. Andy and Jon had their cleats and were kids besides, so it didn’t seem to bother them, but Brenda knew she’d be walking around in wet shoes and socks until they got home.
Brenda had always hoped both boys would inherit their father’s height. At this point, it wasn’t clear whether either of them would reach Ed’s six foot two. Andy was stocky, with a thick torso and hips and broad shoulders. His low center of gravity made him an ideal catcher, and that had been his position the past couple of seasons. Jon was slight and small for his age. He was getting ready for his first season with kid pitchers instead of parent pitchers, and the thought of some eleven-year-old throwing a baseball as hard as he could at her baby gave Brenda heart palpitations.
Jon wanted to hit and Andy wanted to get behind the plate, so Brenda was enlisted to pitch batting practice. When Andy said, “It’s okay for you to pitch to Jon. The younger kids don’t throw that hard either,” she tried not to be insulted. She just took the mound, threw a couple of warm-up pitches, and then Jon stood in the batter’s box.
Pitching to Andy without a batter wasn’t much of a problem. It was like playing catch with someone who happened to be squatting. It was only when Jon stood in that she wavered. She didn’t want to hit him. Of course, when she said this, Andy said, “It’s not like you’re gonna throw it hard enough to hurt him.”
She tried to focus on the general vicinity of the strike zone, that tiny space between Jon’s narrow chest and perpetually skinned knees. She could almost see the rectangle demarcating the strike zone, like they sometimes used on ESPN when analyzing a game. She tried to focus on it, but Jon’s presence made the rectangle shrink to almost nothing. After throwing ten pitches, all of which the boys called balls, she heard Jon, her darling little Jon, mutter to his brother:
“I wish Dad wasn’t sick. At least he knows how to pitch.”
“I know,” Andy replied.
Her sons’ words lingered in the dead space between the plate and the pitcher’s mound. The boys didn’t know that there had been no custody battle, that Ed had never once said, “I want the boys to live with me,” while Brenda had gotten an ulcer wondering if she could get full custody when she didn’t have a job. They didn’t know that Ed never checked their rooms in the middle of the night as she did, making sure that they were covered, that the rain wasn’t coming in their open window, that they were still breathing. Andy and Jon knew nothing of this. They didn’t even know that Ed wasn’t really sick today. It wasn’t fair that she got the arguments and the homework and the dirty dishes and the laundry and the chauffeuring and the tears and, frankly, all the crap and Ed got to sweep in every other weekend (or not) and play the good guy.
It pissed her off.
“Jon, stand in!” she yelled. “Andy, where’s that target?”
Andy squatted down with a sigh and lazily held his mitt in the general vicinity of the strike zone. Jon stepped back into the batter’s box with a half-hearted stance.
“Get the bat off your shoulder,” Brenda said. “Here comes the heat.”
She heard one of the boys mutter, “Oh please,” but she ignored it, instead focusing on the catcher’s mitt. She stared at it, transforming its brown leather pocket into Ed’s face. All at once, she saw that rectangle demarcating the strike zone, and it was as though she could see thin golden lines running from her right hand straight to the mitt like a tunnel. All she had to do was throw the damn four-seamer as hard as she could down the tunnel and into the mitt.
She heard a thwump and an almost simultaneous, “Holy shit!” from one of the boys (when did they start swearing?) and saw Andy fall backwards. She ran to him as fast as she could and bent down over her first-born. “Are you okay, sweetie?” she asked. “What happened?”
“Holy shit, Mom,” Andy said with a huge smile. “That was a great pitch.”
“Really? Thank you.”
“That was awesome, Mom,” Jon said, a little breathless at what he had just witnessed.
“I finally found the strike zone,” she laughed, surprised that she had actually done something her sons admired.
“That was a strike and it smoked,” Andy said.
“Can you do it again?” Jon asked.
“I can try.” She trotted back to the mound, wondering if she could indeed do it again. It had been a great pitch, that she knew. How to do it again seemed like a mystery. She stood on the mound, stamped her right heel on the muddy pitching rubber a few times, and tried to remember the invincible feeling that comes from being nine years old and making your father proud. She went into her windup, threw, and the ball hit the backstop far above Jon’s head.
“Come on, Mom,” Jon said. “Throw it like you did before.”
“Right in here, Mom, “Andy said, slapping his hand in his mitt. “Right here.”
Brenda tried to clear her mind, tried not to think about what she was doing. Thinking about her dad didn’t mesh with the rush of power she had felt when she thought about Ed. Focus. She stared down Andy’s mitt. Again she saw Ed’s face in it, this time with the falsely innocent smile that had, in the past, accompanied many a lie. She could hear the lame excuse about why he had to disappoint the boys today. The fucker. This time she didn’t think, just threw the ball down the tunnel. Again she heard a satisfying thwump and watched as Jon swung at the air.
“Wow. Nice one, Mom,” Andy said as he threw it back. She noticed he gave his glove hand a little shake.
“Do it again. I’ll hit it this time,” Jon said.
The second good pitch was a surprise because it meant the first one wasn’t a fluke. Brenda looked at the mitt, visualizing Ed’s face again. “Asshole,” she muttered, went into her wind-up, and threw. She threw about a dozen good, hard strikes in a row, none of which Jon touched, but he seemed too much in awe to care. Andy tried standing in, but Jon didn’t want to catch, so instead she pounded the backstop with another series of hard fastballs. Andy whiffed on all but one, and that one was a foul tip. At one point, Andy swung and missed so hard that he fell on his rear end. Jon burst out laughing. Andy sat in the mud and looked from his brother to his mother. Brenda ran over to the plate to see if he was all right. Jon was still giggling as Andy stood up. She tried to ask if he was okay but one look at her mud-covered son made her snort back a laugh.
“I’m fine,” Andy said then added, “Snorty McSnorty.”
“Snorty McSnorty!” Jon yelled, as though it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.
Brenda looked at Jon and said, “Giggles McDonald,” which made him laugh even harder.
Andy’s expression went from annoyed to a smile. “Muddy McDufus,” he said. This made Jon scream even harder with laughter, and he made an overly exaggerated fall in the mud. In a heartbeat, the three of them were chasing each other through the muddy infield. For a few minutes, the world consisted only of her and two dirty, laughing boys.
When they got home, she made the boys leave their shoes by the back door and herded them into the downstairs bathroom to get cleaned up. She brought their muddy clothes down to the basement laundry room and threw them in the wash. While she was down there, she saw that one of the boys had left the computer on in the adjacent rec room. It was a small room, but the glass block windows let in plenty of natural light. It was supposed to have been her studio, back when she still felt she had something to say as an artist. Now she couldn’t even remember the last time she had picked up a pencil.
Brenda went upstairs to her bedroom, which was the only place in the house where she could find a modicum of privacy. When Ed first left, the room had seemed cavernous, but now it felt cozy. The bed was still by the front window, but the dormer where Ed’s dresser had been now held a small bookcase, an old easy chair, and a lamp. After seven months, it was finally feeling like her space, not space that had once been occupied by Ed.
She was cleaning up in the miniscule half-bath attached to her bedroom when the phone rang. A few minutes later, she heard Andy yelling that grandma was on the phone.
Brenda grabbed the cordless phone from the bedside and plopped down on the easy chair in the dormer. It was only when she sat down that she realized how tired she was. “Hi, Mom,” she said.
“Weren’t the boys supposed to be with Ed today?” her mother said.
“He said he was sick.”
Brenda heard something that sounded like “Pfffft,” which clearly indicated what her mother thought of Ed’s excuse.“What did you and the boys end up doing?” Adele asked.
“We went up to Quarry Park and played baseball.”
“Your father always said you had a great arm. I remember him taking you over to Wildwood Park to play catch almost every weekend in the summer.”
“That’s because he wanted a boy.”
“No,” her mother said gently. “That’s because it was the only thing he knew how to do that you both liked.”
“I guess that’s a nicer way of looking at it.” Brenda wasn’t sure what else to say to this. Her father had been a silent man who worked as a draftsman for an engineering firm. He had rarely talked about his work or his life, just got up every morning and did what needed to be done. On Saturdays he would take his only child out to the park to play baseball. Brenda liked to think this was one of the few tasks that Janusz Puchall had not done out of duty.
Brenda and the boys went to the ball field as often as possible, even after Little League practices began. Through some strange natural law, it seemed as though Andy and Jon’s obsession with baseball and the Cleveland Indians grew in inverse proportion to the Indians’ prospects. From a disappointing spring training, Opening Day started with a loss and just got worse.
The third week of the regular season, Andy’s Little League team got discount tickets to see the Indians play the Tigers. Brenda went as a parent chaperone, and Jon went because he was the younger brother and would raise holy hell if he couldn’t come along. Even with the discount, tickets for all three of them, plus factoring in a hot dog and a drink each, put a serious dent in the entertainment budget. Brenda had made a “no souvenirs” rule for the outing, but when the boys saw the Test Your Speed pitching cage, they begged to be allowed to try. It didn’t help matters that every other boy on Andy’s team tried it, as did all five chaperoning parents and two other accompanying siblings. She hated caving in to peer pressure, but she didn’t want Andy and Jon to be the only ones not to have a go. She took some of the money she had budgeted for snacks (she didn’t really need a hot dog or a drink) so Andy and Jon could each take a turn. Andy was pleased with his top speed of 48 mph. Jon’s best try was 33 mph, which disappointed him. Carl, Andy’s coach, kept trying to tell him that 33 mph was great for a kid his age, but it didn’t help. Brenda saw the familiar pink blush spreading up Jon’s face. Jon’s tantrums hadn’t eased up, and Brenda walked the fine line between trying to be understanding and not wanting to spoil him.
“Let me try again,” Jon whined. “I know I can throw harder than that.”
Brenda put an arm on Jon’s shoulder and walked him a little bit away from the rest of the group. “If I give you the money for another turn, then I can’t buy you a hot dog.”
“Why not? I want a hot dog!” Jon said loudly, the tears in his eyes threatening to start falling any second. Brenda felt herself blushing as red as Jon’s face. “Why can’t I do both?”
“Sweetie, I’m sorry,” she lowered her voice. “You had one turn already and you did great, but I don’t have enough money with me.”
Carl wandered over and put a hand on Jon’s tiny shoulder. “Come on, sport. I’ll spot you another try.” He looked up at Brenda with a smile. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“You don’t have to do that,” she said.
“I want to,” Carl replied as he walked with Jon back over to the pitching cage.
“Thank you,” Brenda said. “I’ll pay you back,” she called after him, but Carl just gave a little wave that said, “No need to.” Carl coached his son’s Little League team and was always patient with the kids, even the benchwarmers. He was one of those men who seemed kind enough and decent enough that you couldn’t believe some other woman had gotten rid of him. Brenda wondered if Carl’s ex-wife ever called him a jerk under her breath or wished he’d be stricken with a bad case of crabs.
Jon was all smiles as he took the first of the three baseballs offered to him by the man running the pitching cage. He threw another 33 mph and then a 35-mph pitch. Jon was reaching for his third and last ball when he stopped and turned to Brenda.
“Mom, you haven’t had a chance to pitch yet,” he said.
Brenda tried not to get misty at her son’s gesture. “That’s very sweet of you to think of me, Jon, but it’s okay,” she said.
He turned and handed the ball to her. “It’s your turn, Mom.” Brenda heard a little “awww” from the other chaperoning parents as Jon moved aside. She was touched by his generosity and figured she’d just throw the ball and get the boys to their seats.
Ball in hand, Brenda approached the faux pitcher’s mound in the middle of the stadium concourse. A quick glance showed her that every kid on the team, as well as the adults and tagalong siblings (did she really just now notice that they were all male?), was watching her. A few people on the concourse had even stopped to watch, as if a forty-year-old woman with saddlebag hips couldn’t pick up a baseball without embarrassing herself. She stopped for a moment and focused on the image of a catcher painted on the electronic backstop.
The guy running the pitching cage said, “Anytime you’re ready, sweetheart.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him flash a condescending smile.
“I’m not your sweetheart,” she muttered. Without thinking, she threw.
She heard the familiar thwump and a small murmur of approval from the men standing around her. She looked up at the digital clock that displayed the pitch speed. It read 72 mph, which just seemed unbelievable. The guy running the game looked more than surprised, but just said “Not bad.”
“That was more than not bad,” Carl said. “That was great. Here.” He shoved a few dollars at the guy and handed Brenda three more baseballs. “Would you do that again? Please?”
This time, Brenda didn’t protest. She took one of the baseballs and faced the painted catcher again. She didn’t look around but could hear some of the guys talking about her last pitch. She would swear a few more people had stopped to watch. Fine. Let them watch.
Brenda’s next three throws were 79, 77, and 82 mph. She stared at the display for a moment, trying to figure out where that 82 came from. All the people standing around congratulated her. Some mumbled that the radar must be broken, that there was no way a woman could throw that hard. She saw a couple of flashes of light, like someone taking a picture. The game was about to start, and the boys started running to their seats. As she and the other parents tried to get all the kids situated without losing anyone, Carl mentioned that he played baseball in the local Roy Hobbs league and maybe Brenda would be interested in playing.
“Roy Hobbs, like Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs?” she asked.
“Yeah, The Natural. Great movie.”
“Never read the book. I’m not much of a fiction reader,” Carl said, as he gave a quick look around to see that they hadn’t lost anyone. “Josh! Ben! Stay with the group,” he called to his son and another boy who were dawdling behind. “I’m more into history and biography. So anyway, it’s the veterans league—thirty-eight and over, so you have a few guys who think they’re hot stuff and a couple of them still are—but mainly it’s just guys who love to play baseball. You’d be great.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t played hardball since I was a kid. And I can’t hit.”
“Don’t worry about it—we use a DH. Josh! Ben! Get away from the beer stand!”
Their conversation was permanently interrupted by the process of getting all the boys into their seats without losing anyone. Brenda ended up in the row in front of Carl, with Jon on her right and a stranger on her left. Andy was next to Jon, talking only to the boys on his right or behind him and trying to pretend that he wasn’t with his mom and little brother.
Once the boys had gotten their hot dogs and drinks, they settled down and were quiet for the first couple of innings, giving Brenda a little time to think. She considered the fact that she had thrown a baseball an improbable eighty-two miles an hour. She might have cellulite, a sagging rear end, and a stretch-marked stomach, but she had an arm. It was a satisfying thought.
“What are you smiling about, Mom?” Jon asked in between innings.
“Nothing much,” she said with a little smile. “Just happy to be here with you and Andy.”
“Mr. Fleishman asked you to play baseball with him, didn’t he?”
Brenda hadn’t realized that Jon had overheard their conversation. “Yes, he did. What do you think? Should I join a baseball team too?”
“Yeah, you should. You’ll need a new mitt,” Jon said sagely. “Your old softball mitt stinks. But I think it’s a good idea. Then everybody in the family will be on a team. Andy’s on the Bears. I’m on the Twins. Dad’s on the Beeraholics. And you’ll be on a team.”
Brenda actually snorted. “Dad’s on the what? The Beeraholics?”
“Yeah. It’s his softball team. Is a beeraholic somebody who likes beer a lot?”
“Like how sometimes you say you’re a chocoholic because you like chocolate?”
“The Beeraholics play on Monday nights, so we haven’t seen any of their games, but Dad and Darlene told us about it.”
Andy had evidently heard at least part of the conversation, because he turned to Jon and punched him in the arm.
“Ow! Mom, Andy hit me,” Jon wailed.
“I can’t believe you told mom about Darlene,” Andy snapped in what was obviously meant to be a whisper but was loud enough to be heard three rows away.
Jon started slapping at Andy, who waved him off with a laugh that only infuriated Jon more. As embarrassed as she had been in recent memory, Brenda managed to cease the escalation of hostilities by moving Jon to her other side.
Jon was silent until just after the seventh inning stretch, when he looked up at her and said, “I’m sorry I told you about Dad’s girlfriend.” He looked like he was about to cry, as though even uttering the name “Darlene” had been treason of the highest order.
Brenda put her arm around him. “It’s okay, sweetie. I didn’t know her name, but I figured Dad might have a girlfriend. He’s allowed to. We’re not married anymore—you know that. He’s allowed to date.”
“But you don’t have a boyfriend,” Jon whispered in a voice so plaintive that Brenda had to lean in very close to hear him over the noise of the ballpark.
“I live with the two greatest guys on earth,” she whispered back. “I don’t need anybody else.”