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Now or never

In Memory of Rev. Shannon O’Leary

Tammy pounded her fist into her baseball glove: once, twice. The boys on the other side of the chain-link fence were bunched by the dugout, laughing and joking together. No one had noticed her walk up to the field.

A whistle blew. “All right, boys. Line up in the grass!”

She watched as Coach Davis crossed his tanned arms across his chest. The silver whistle swung from a string around his thick neck. He wore a faded Atlanta Braves cap, tilted back on his head. His eyes narrowed as he scanned the players.

“It’s now or never,” Tammy whispered to herself. She opened the gate and hustled over to join the line of players who were already warming up. Like most of them, she wore a loose-fitting T-shirt and baseball pants.

Tammy stretched her hamstrings by reaching to touch her lucky blue cleats. The hot sun beat down on her bare neck, the exposed skin already beginning to redden. She was surprised by how much cooler she felt with her neck uncovered, her hair meticulously hidden under her ball cap. She pulled the brim low to shade her face, so no one would notice her. So her disguise would work.

Coach Davis blew the whistle again. “Jumping jacks and count ’em off. Ready?”

The other players trying out for the seventh-grade baseball team counted in unison, “One, two, three, ONE! One, two, three, TWO!”

Tammy kept her mouth shut. She didn’t want her voice to give her away.

Last summer, Tammy and her father had watched the 1976 Summer Olympics on TV. The two of them had watched a lot of television since Mama died. Baseball was their absolute favorite.

“I don’t want to watch gymnastics,” Tammy said, as the screen switched to a large arena.

“But some of them girls are your age.” Daddy smiled at her as he lit a cigarette and leaned back in his yellow upholstered chair, with marks from where Benny had chewed on the wooden legs. Mama hadn’t minded their puppy’s sins, but she really hated the three burn marks on the right arm. Daddy said that all plumbers smoked. “Part of my job description,” he explained, winking at Tammy. The way Mama had laughed at Daddy made her feel warm all over.

As the announcer introduced the athletes, Daddy adjusted the rabbit ears antenna on their old television. The screen came into focus just in time for Tammy to watch the girl from Romania get the first-ever perfect score in Olympic history. Whoever had designed the scoreboard hadn’t planned for a perfect 10.00 — there were only three slots for numbers. So the girl’s score was displayed as 1.00.

“Honey, this right here is history,” Daddy drawled as he dropped the cigarette butt in his empty beer can. Cracking open another Budweiser, he leaned down and tousled her hair. “The world’s changing, Tammy. A man can look after his daughter all by hisself now. Hell, I bet a girl can play baseball, too.”

Tammy had nodded. “I could, anyway. All I need is a new pair of cleats.”

After three sets of ten jumping jacks, Coach Davis barked instructions for the players to pair off and
play catch.

“Hey, kid!” Tammy froze as Mark Jefferson started walking towards her. She’d known him since kindergarten. “You new here?”

She nodded and stared down at her lucky cleats.

“Here, catch!”

Tammy looked up in time to snag the brand-new baseball in her mitt. Then she looked at Mark. His glove and cleats were new as well. His daddy was a lawyer, and they lived in a community surrounded by a tall metal gate. She threw the ball back to him. Mark caught it and fired back with another question.

“What’s your name?”

“Tim,” Tammy grunted in her deepest voice.

“Where you from, Tim?” Mark imitated the husky way she’d spoken.

“Saluda.” She named the first town that came to mind.

“Oh, yeah? I got family there. You know any Jeffersons?”

“Saluda, North Carolina,” Tammy clarified, hoping that there really was such a place, or else that Mark would believe her and stop asking questions.

Tammy’s arm loosened up, and she whipped the ball faster and harder. Just like playing catch with Daddy at the park. She thought of him sitting alone at home and felt a pang of guilt for lying — she’d told him she was going to a friend’s house after school.

But this tryout had to be her secret. What if she didn’t make it? She didn’t want Daddy to get his hopes up.

“You can do this,” she whispered firmly to herself.

Coach Davis blew his whistle again. “Over here, boys. Circle up.” A few players started walking toward him. “Get a move on, ladies! I ain’t got all day!”

Tammy broke into a sprint with the others, but as she approached the coach, she drifted off toward the back of the group. The assistant coach, Mr. Jamison, was standing next to Coach Davis. He had been Tammy’s science teacher in sixth grade. And, even in disguise, she was worried he’d recognize her.

Mama hadn’t usually walked their dog in the mornings. But Daddy was called out in the middle of the night when a water pipe burst in the gated community where Mark and his family lived. Daddy came home late, and Mama offered to take Benny out so Daddy could sleep as long as he could before he had to go back to work.

He and Tammy were eating Cheerios at the kitchen table when there was a sudden, sharp knock at the door. Daddy let the police officer inside. But before the man even spoke, Daddy’s face was already twisting with grief.

That police officer had eyes as blue as his starched uniform. “Honey,” he said to Tammy with a big smile, “isn’t there a doll or something back in your bedroom that you could play with? Me and your daddy need to talk.”

Tammy went into her room and pounded her fist into her baseball glove as the blue-eyed policeman broke Daddy’s heart. She later read in the newspaper that a teenager had taken a corner too fast in his father’s fancy car, killing both Mama and Benny. Her daddy never talked about the details. Not with her, anyway. “Maybe,” Tammy had thought, “men only talked about death with other men.” There seemed to be a lot of things that only men could do together.

After warm-ups, Coach Davis had all the players take positions in the infield. As one of only three lefties, Tammy got extra turns at first base. Mr. Jamison would hit a ground ball to the next boy in line, and that kid would scoop it up and throw to first. Some were definitely better than others. Tammy had to catch several low throws, but her tosses back to Coach Davis were right on target.

After all the boys took turns fielding ground balls, it was time for Tammy and her group.

“You can do this,” she whispered to herself again, pounding her fist into her glove. Mr. Jamison hit one hard and low toward the line. Tammy lunged to her left and reached out as far as she could. She felt the ball land solidly in her glove as she hit the dirt. She bounced to her feet and pegged the ball home. Right on the money.

“That’s the play of the day!” Coach Davis shouted.

“Lucky catch,” the boy in line behind Tammy muttered. She kept her head down to hide her smile.

The preacher had been so old he looked like he could have written the Bible.

Tammy felt the hot sun on her hair, which was combed neatly over her shoulders. She sat next to Daddy on a metal folding chair. He drummed his fingers on his knees as the preacher droned on. She knew he was wishing for a cigarette. Tammy kept expecting Mama to lean over and lace her fingers with his to keep him still.

Suddenly, there was cheering in the distance. Tammy snuck a quick look behind her. When they’d driven up in the hearse, she hadn’t noticed the baseball field down the block.

“Honey,” her father whispered out of the side of his mouth, keeping his eyes on the ancient preacher, “I betcha someone hit a homer.” He reached over and held her hand. His palm was big, and so tough that when Tammy was young, he played catch without a baseball glove. Until she got bigger and better. On Tammy’s ninth birthday, when he came home from the sporting goods store with a brand-new mitt for her and a used glove for himself, Daddy had laughed and said to Mama, loud enough for Tammy to hear, “Your girl throws pretty hard … for a lefty.”

Now Tammy squeezed her daddy’s hand as hard as she could.

After infield, it was time for batting practice. Coach had them count off into six groups of five players apiece. He explained that the groups would take turns hitting, while the rest spread out over the field to shag balls.

Tammy sprinted toward the outfield. She would have preferred to play closer to the action, but she needed to keep her distance from Mr. Jamison. Her former teacher was pitching.

“Hey, Tim!” Mark called. Tammy kept going. “Wait up, will you?” She remembered that she was Tim and paused while Mark caught up to her, panting.

“Hey … man …” Mark tried to catch his breath. “Good work there … at first base.”

Tammy nodded shyly, reaching behind her head to make sure her hair was still under her cap. Mark had been one of the best at infield practice. Daddy would’ve said, “The boy’s got a gun for an arm.”

The crack of the bat interrupted her thoughts and Tammy’s head swiveled up to the blue sky. “I got it!”

After she caught the ball, she scolded herself for yelling. She had been so eager to get away from Mark that she’d almost blown her cover.

“Be quiet,” she told herself. “Let your playing do the talking.”

Tammy had returned to school the day after they buried Mama. Daddy insisted. But he dropped her off on his way to work instead of making her ride the bus. He pulled up in front of the gym, a brick building covered in grime and dirt. Tammy listened to the truck’s engine idling and fought back tears.

“That building could use a good power-washing,” he said quietly. “Some things you can fix right quick. And some you can’t.” He reached over and opened the passenger door for her. “It’s now or never.”

After slipping through the side door of the school, Tammy hid in the bathroom until the tardy bell rang. She walked slowly down the empty hall to her first period. She expected Mr. Jamison to give her a detention slip for being late, but he continued teaching as she quietly took a seat in the back row.

When the bell rang, Tammy didn’t move. After everyone else filed out, she stuffed her unopened textbook into her backpack and stood to leave.

“Tammy,” Mr. Jamison called from his desk, “just a minute.”

Tammy crept up to his desk as her teacher started to scribble on a piece of paper. She figured he was writing her up for being late.

“Here you go.” He offered the note along with a small, sad smile. Please excuse Tammy’s tardiness. Mr. Jamison.

“That’s in case you want to wait here for a few more minutes. I have a free period,” he explained. “I heard about your mother. So sorry.”

“Thank you, sir,” she managed to mumble. She bit her lip. If she started to cry, she might never stop.

“You can stay for as long as you’d like, Tammy. It’ll be between us.”

Tammy was the very last player to hit. Coach Davis had taken over pitching. The sun was low in the sky, and it shone in her eyes as Tammy took a few practice swings outside the batting cage. She didn’t see Mr. Jamison until he stood right beside her.

“I know you,” he said in a low tone. “You’re from last year’s first period.”

Tammy dropped her bat in surprise. Her hands flew up to her cap to check if her hair had fallen out from underneath. “Please don’t …”

Mr. Jamison shook his head. “Just between us. Remember?” He gave her a thumbs-up. “Go show ’em how it’s done.”

Tammy nodded. The pressure was on.

She stepped up to the plate and dug in with her back foot. Just like Daddy had taught her. Coach Davis wound up and fired: too high. She let the ball sail pass.

“You can do this,” she told herself. “You can do this!”

Coach threw again. This one came in a little low, but she swung anyway. Crack! A solid line drive into the outfield.

“Atta-boy!” Coach Davis yelled. She heard Mr. Jamison chuckling behind her.

Tammy hit several more line drives. Finally, Coach Davis held up the last ball.

“Great job, son. Now run this one out.” Tammy dug in with her lucky blue cleats. The ball came in nice and low. CRACK!

She dropped her bat and sprinted as the ball arced far and high. As she got to first base, she saw the ball bounce just short of the outfield fence.

“Go for two!” Coach Davis hollered. Tammy raced toward second base as Mark picked up the ball and threw it back to the infield. It was a good throw, and Tammy saw the player on second base reach for it. She dove headfirst and slid into the base.

But the force of her slide knocked off her cap. Her hair tumbled out for everyone to see.

The second baseman stared down at her.

“He’s a girl!”

Tammy wanted to leave the ballpark as fast as she could, but she had to get her glove from the dugout first. By the time she got it, all the boys had come in from the outfield. Mark shouted, “Hey Tim, you know you’re really good … for a girl.” Everyone started to laugh.

Coach Davis blew his whistle. “Y’all take a lap. Get a move on!”

Tammy gritted her teeth as she walked away, pounding her fist into her glove. She’d wanted to surprise Daddy with good news for once. Better not to tell him anything. Better for him to never know than to be disappointed for her.

She was almost at the chain-link fence when she heard someone calling her name — her real name.

“Tammy. Wait up!”

Mr. Jamison was jogging behind her. Tammy kept going and slammed the gate behind her.

“Tammy! Wait, just a second.” He ran the last dozen yards. When he reached her, he said, panting, “You did good out there today.”

She glared through the chain-link fence and said, sullenly, “Not good enough.”

“You understand, right? I mean, you’re a girl.”

“Oh, I get it,” Tammy snapped. “Life’s not fair.” There was nothing else to say. She turned and walked away.

When she arrived home, Tammy stood quietly outside the kitchen door. Once again, she studied her blue cleats.

The cleats had been Daddy’s gift last Christmas. She knew they were coming, but the color was a surprise.

“Why’d you pick these?” she laughed.

“For good luck.” He had grinned. “You like ’em?”

“I do like them. And I love you, Daddy.”

Now there was dust covering the blue cleats. Tammy balanced on one foot, then the other, rubbing each shoe on a leg of her baseball pants. Like a gymnast. Through the open window, she could hear the baseball game on TV.

She rattled the door. It was locked.


No answer.

“Daddy!” Tammy hollered.

She heard his smoking chair scrape across the floor as he pushed himself up. Then the sound of his heavy footsteps as he hurried through the kitchen and flung open the door.

“Honey, you all right?” His forehead was wrinkled with worry.

“I’m fine.”

Relief flooded his face. He looked her up and down. “Why you all dressed up to play ball?”

“I just wondered if you wanted to have a game of catch.”

Her Daddy smiled. “Well now, just let me get my glove. You know you throw pretty hard … for a lefty!”