Safe at Home

Andrew Zembles


 

Ren Hayworth sat on the 7-UP sign painted on the roof of the first-base dugout. It dawned on him that the boards had been freshly painted for the World Series, and he worried briefly that the seat of his pants might be turning green beneath him.

     Three hundred and fifty-one feet down the newly chalked left-field line, paperhangers pasted new beer and candy ads to the outfield walls beneath the 65¢ bleacher seats that would go for $1.25 this time tomorrow.

Front and center, two grounds crewmen struggled to seat the new pitching rubber into the mound.

“Synthetic, of course,” a voice said from the box seats next to Ren’s dugout perch. “The real stuff’s off to war, along with the rest of the damn game.”

Ren knew without looking that the voice and the cigar smoke belonged to Mel Durocher, sports scribe for the St. Louis Globe.

A breeze blew the smoke toward home plate and ruffled the red-white-and-blue bunting hanging from the upper decks.

“This is as good as it gets, kid. And it ain’t gonna get this good again.”

Ren stayed silent. Thirty-six thousand empty seats surrounded him; there was no way out of this conversation.

Mel set his cigar on the dugout roof and slipped a sheet of folded paper from his coat pocket and opened it.

“Sneak preview of tomorrow’s column,” he said. “‘The moment no one’s been waiting for has finally arrived. Wartime baseball is now in such a beleaguered state that even the Browns, with an all 4‑F infield, somehow whiffed their way into the fall classic against their cross-town rivals, the Cardinals, who, despite holding on to starters Musial and Marion, are a far cry from the ’42 world champion Redbirds. Frankly, I’m not convinced either team is capable of winning the Series.

“‘The only real missed opportunity at Sportsman’s Park this week is the long-gone chance at a rematch of the greatest pitching duel that never happened. In the spring of ’41, Ren Hayworth, now of the bumbling Browns, was the senior starter at St. Joe Central, set to face Savannah sensation George Cooper. Their season-long rivalry on the mound (and on the make for young beauty Nella Gray) was to culminate in the state championship game, until Hayworth--’”

“Enough. You rode that story all the way from the boondocks Daily Graphic to the big-time Globe-Democrat. Can’t you give it a rest for one night, Mel?”

 

“Look here, son. Smile for the camera.”

Ren did as he was told and added a wink to boot.

The photographer for the St. Joseph Daily Graphic ejected the burnt flashbulb onto the gravel driveway and left it there.

“That’ll be a real sharp picture, Ren,” Lillie Carson said and looked down at her saddle shoes. She’d been Ren’s nearest neighbor since they started kindergarten together.

Ren agreed with his mother that Lillie had gotten cuter over the school year, but he thought maybe Lillie’s blonde hair came from a bottle of dye from her father’s chain of drugstores.

“You think you got another no-hitter in you?” Mel Durocher asked. “Georgie Cooper and those boys over in Savannah have been on the stick all year.”

Ren looked at Lillie and shrugged before answering.

“I just hope to sit enough of ’em down to win the game. I can’t promise anything beyond that.”

Ren hadn’t heard the car pull up, but all of a sudden Nella Gray was working her way into the circle of folks gathered at the end of the driveway. Her dark hair was all done up and she wore more make-up than usual. The white cotton dress was doing everything for her figure that it was designed to.

“Word has it the scouts will be in the stands on Saturday,” Mel said, “and it’s winner-take-all between you and Cooper for a contract with the Cardinals. You got anything special up your sleeve to impress the big boys?”

Ren adjusted his ball cap and winked at Nella.

“It’s like I always say, Mel. I don’t know why they sell seats when I’m pitching, because nobody uses them. The Cardinals won’t have any trouble spotting their next star--that’s for sure.”

The photographer motioned for the girls to stand next to Ren for a photo.

Nella elbowed her way in front of Lillie. “She’s not the story here.”

Lillie patted Ren on the shoulder and walked off toward home.

“All right, Miss Gray,” the photographer said. “Lean in and kiss the boy, just like you did with Cooper.”

Ren looked at Nella. “You kissed Georgie for the paper?”

“Look at the camera, darling,” Nella said and kissed Ren on the cheek. As soon as the flash popped, Nella turned to the photographer. “Call me the moment they’re developed.”

Mel approached Ren and nodded toward the girl. “Careful what you wish for, son.”

Ren rubbed his eyes and looked down the road for Lillie. All he saw was the lingering flash from the bulb.

 

Ren steered the tractor and looked back over his shoulder to Arnie, who was stuffing the freshly cut hay into the baler.

“Did you really mean all those braggin’ things you said in the paper about being a star?” Arnie said.

“Nah, that’s just so the girls will kiss you when you’re getting your picture made.”

     Arnie’s weathered face turned red like the Massey-Harris baler he was feeding. “I knew it,” he said. “I known you all your life since I been working this farm with your pa. I didn’t really think you turned all conceited on us. You’ll be the star at the game tomorr--ahh!”

     Ren dove from the tractor and shoved Arnie from the mouth of the machine. The baler’s pickup grabbed the undone strap on Ren’s overalls and pulled him in.

     Ren awoke in a white room that smelled of bleach. His feet touched a footboard. It wasn’t his bed. He squinted in the light and looked around the room. Lillie sat in a chair against the wall, flipping through the pages of the Reader’s Digest.

     Ren tried to sit up but could only grunt in pain.

     Lillie dropped the magazine and stood at the bedside.

     “What happened to me?” Ren asked.

     “You’re a hero. You saved that man’s life.”

     “That man? Arnie. Oh shit, I have to get to the game.”

He tried to sit again. Lillie rested her hand on his bandaged shoulder. “The game was two days ago.”

“No. No, that’s impossible.”

“Just rest now.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing happened. It’s over.”

“God damn it, what happened at my game?”

“Georgie won the game.”

“And?”

“And he walked off with the scout from St. Louis and the girl in the picture. Okay? But you’re alive and you’re going to be fine. And you’re a hero.” She looked down at her shoes and shrugged. “My hero anyway.”

Ren tried to lift his pitching arm but couldn’t. Maybe the bandages were too tight.

“You sure scared the daylights outta me,” Lillie said.

He tried to make a fist. The hand was numb.

“It’s kinda gotten me thinking. There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about for a long while...”

Ren forced himself up and fought to remove the bandages one-handed.

“Oh, don’t do that,” Lillie said. “The doctor says they have to stay on for--”

“Either help me get this off, or get out of here.”

“But the doctor said--”

“Out!”

 

Ren coiled his body and unleashed the best fastball he’d thrown in a year. The pitch hit Georgie Cooper right between the eyes. Well, hit a photo of Georgie Cooper right between the eyes anyway. The image tacked to the barn door accompanied the Daily Graphic article telling the story of the local boy who, after a measly eighty-seven games in the minors at Rochester, won the World Series with the Cardinals. The photo showed George and Nella riding in George’s new Cadillac convertible, given to him by a St. Louis auto dealer. “Waste of a damn fine car,” Ren thought. “That son of a bitch could never drive a tractor straight.”

He wound up another heater and let it fly. The ball stuck in the wood of the barn door. The impact obliterated the photo, but the clipping clung to the door.

“You’re the one’s gotta replace those boards,” his mother said from the kitchen stoop. She came down the stairs and walked to Ren’s mound of empty feed sacks.

“You’re behind on your reading, son,” his mother said. “That article’s a year and a half old. You know as well as I do that George signed up with the Marines right after the Series. He’s probably on the other side of the world by now.”

Ren walked to the door and yanked the ball free. The article still clung to the splintered wood.

“Lillie called for you,” his mother said. “She’s on her way over. I think she wants to talk some more about her father’s offer to have you on at the drugstore. Might be college in it for you someday, too.”

Ren pulled a wrinkled yellow note from his jeans pocket and handed it to her. It was a telegram from St. Louis. FILLING OUT ’44 ROSTER NOW. TICKET FOR YOU AT ST JOE STATION. COME STRAIGHT TO CAPE GIRARDEAU. LUKE SEWELL MANAGER BROWNS.

“These are the same Browns who rejected you at tryouts last spring after you’d spent forty dollars getting there and back?”

He pointed to the barn. “I’m a year stronger now. Look at that door.”

His mother shook her head and handed the telegram back to him.

“The ticket’s free this year anyway,” Ren said. “And they sent for me this time.”

His mother didn’t say anything.

He rubbed the ball into the web of his glove and looked at her. “I have to go.”

“Why do you have to go?”

“Because I love it.”

She pointed to the ruined boards in the barn door. “That’s not love, son.”

Ren looked into his glove and stayed silent.

“Well, you think about it some,” his mother said. “You keep chasing what you lost and you’re liable to miss out on what you got.”

The ticket they’d sent him wasn’t an express. The train made stops in Atchison and Kansas City before heading clear across the state to St. Louis, then down through Perryville and Jackson before pulling into Cape Girardeau on the river. But, the Pullman car had reclining seats, which it hadn’t last year, and the team was asking for him, which it hadn’t last year.

 

Ren cupped his hands and blew into them to warm his fingers enough to run through his pitches.

     Mel Durocher dropped his cigar into a mound of snow in the shadow of the dugout and blew his ashtray breath into the biting air.

“If this were a couple years ago, your spring training debut would have been under the palm trees and blue skies of sunny Florida. But, the commissioner can’t have ballplayers lolling around in the tropics while the whole country sacrifices for the war. So, here we are on a frozen high school field down by the river.”

     “I’d a shown up at the North Pole, Mel. Why are you here?”

     “The Graphic sent me down to see if our little corner of the world could get another local boy in the bigs. You made it just in time, too. Of course, the Brownies held off starting training so the players could work a while longer at their war plant jobs, but everyone seems to be here now.

     “Let’s take a look at your roster. That’s Sandy Boyd stretching by the backstop. He hasn’t played since after the war.”

     “After the war?” Ren said.

     “The last war. He’s damn near fifty.” Mel drew a fresh cigar from his overcoat and pointed across the frozen brown diamond. “There’s Joey Vauxhall. Like you, he was a high school star. Only he’s still in high school. That’s his mother in the parking lot, signing his contract for him on the hood of a Buick. Don’t feel left out, though. There’s a total of 18 4‑Fs such as yourself on the squad. There’s the other new left-handed pitcher. Come on over here, Petey.”

     A slender kid, mid-twenties, jogged across the infield with both hands tucked in the pockets of his brown canvas jacket.

     “Pete Barber, meet Ren Hayworth, another southpaw slinger,” Mel said.

     Ren extended his hand, and Pete reached across with his left to shake. Pete’s empty right sleeve stayed in the jacket pocket. Pete caught Ren looking and jogged on.

     “That’s right,” Mel said. “The son of a bitch you’ll be in the bullpen with has got only one arm. What do you think of that?”

     Ren winked at Mel and tossed him a ball. “I think I like my chances of starting a few games.”

 

     Ren hung his spotless uniform in his locker, straightened his necktie, and slammed the locker door shut.

     Outfielder Al Zarilla came over, flashing his half smile and smoothing his black hair. He slapped Ren on the back and gave his shoulders a shake. “Buck up, rookie. They won’t sit you on the bench forever.”

     “Easy for you to say, Zeke. You’ve been starting every game since June.”

     “Yeah, and up to then I was riding the pine with you and the other scrubs. Besides, I hear Sig’s got a sore arm. You’ll get in soon.”

     Zeke put his hat on and pointed to the clubhouse exit.

     “Come on, rook. Tex is hot for some gal from your neck of the woods. He’s meeting her at Maxie’s on Grand. Some of us are going along in case she’s got friends.”

     “What girl?”

     “I don’t know. Quite a looker. Nancy...Nellie ...”

     “Nella Gray?”

     “Could be.”

Ren and a group of players walked across Grand from the stadium toward the restaurants and nightclubs along the boulevard. From behind, a woman’s voice called his name. It was a familiar voice. It had to be her. He stopped and turned.

Lillie Carson stood on the curb near the clubhouse door, holding a small suitcase and waving. She wore a brown-and-white gingham dress and a small straw hat with a large black bow.

Ren waited for a trolley to pass and walked to Lillie under the falling sparks.

“What are you doing here?”

“It’s real nice to see you, Ren,” she said and set the suitcase down. “I saved a bit of money from working at the drugstore, and took the train to come see a game.”

“The game’s over.”

“The train was late. I came to the stadium to see about a ticket for tomorrow.”

“We leave on a road trip to Cleveland tomorrow.”

Lillie twisted the belt of her dress around her finger and looked down at her white leather shoes.

“Maybe we could have dinner, or something,” she said.

Ren looked back at his teammates waiting for him on the far sidewalk. He looked past them to see in the front window of Maxie’s. A brunette in a red dress was talking and laughing with Tex Shirley at the bar. Her face was hidden by Tex’s ridiculous cowboy hat, but Ren knew it was her.

Zeke waved and called from across the street, “You comin’, rook?”

Ren turned back to Lillie. “I’m sorry you came all this way. You should have written first.”

“I wanted to surprise you.”

“We’ve got this team meeting after every game. I have to go. I can get you a room at the Chase Hotel. You can catch a train back in the morning.”

“There’s one headed home in an hour or so. I always liked riding the train at night. You can see the fireflies in the fields.”

She picked up her suitcase and leaned toward him and rubbed his shoulder. “I’ll see you again real soon, Ren.”

He turned and jogged across the street to join the players walking into the restaurant.

It was her. Nella Gray held a highball in one hand and a long, black cigarette holder in the other. Four players thrust Zippos at her. She leaned to Tex’s lighter and turned to Ren to exhale.

“Well, my,” she said. “My old hometown sweetheart.”

“It’s real nice to see you, Nella. How about I buy you a drink and we catch up.”

“I’ve got a drink, darling, and it was bought by a starter. I’ll tell you what. If you get off the bench, you look me up.”

Tex Shirley laughed and tipped his giant hat at Ren. “Get along, li’l partner. The lady’s with a ballplayer.”

Ren pushed his way to the door and out onto the street. He looked up and back for a taxi on Grand Boulevard but saw none. He ran down to St. Louis Avenue. It was deserted. There were no cabs on Madison, Jefferson, or Washington. He was running out of presidents--and time. On Olive Street he slumped, soaked with sweat, into the back of a Checkers and called for Union Station. He trotted through the granite arch doorway and read the board in the cavernous Grand Hall. The 7:10 to Kansas City had already pulled out of the station.

***

“That’s two outs and one on in the ninth inning if you’re scoring at home, or even if you’re alone. It’s five to two in favor of the Browns over the Yankees here at Sportsman’s Park. Always a hot time in town when these teams tangle, but especially in this final game of the American League pennant series.

“On the mound is rookie sensation Ren Hayworth. For a late starter off the bench in July, this young man has distinguished himself as the pride of the Browns, leading the league in every pitching statistic tabulated by those inclined toward the numerical nuances of the game.

“Third baseman Oscar Grimes is at the plate for New York. He also answers to Ray or Frank. Take your pick when you run into him at Maxie’s on Grand, the official eatery of the St. Louis Browns and all visiting teams.

“Hayworth gave up a single to Etten, but not before Linden knocked one to the right-field wall. The Browns’ pitcher has been rubbing his left shoulder between batters in this final stanza. Don’t know if there’s any real trouble with his slinging arm or if it’s just been a full day on the mound. With 3–2 the count, Hayworth is one pitch away from calling the game.

“All 35,500 in attendance are on their feet. I don’t know why they sell seats; no one’s using them. Here’s the windup. And the pitch. High foul ball toward the Yankee bullpen. McQuinn is under it. He’s watching it. He’s got it! He’s got it! Pandemonium in the park. St. Louis clinches the pennant, and the new pitcher clinches his place in the hearts of the Brownie faithful.”

 

“Boo-hoo,” Nella said over the fake pouty lip she always had at the ready to get her way. “We’re out of champagne. Be a dear and go get us more.”

Ren rolled on his side to face her in the bed of the suite she’d convinced him to take at the Chase.

“I was thinking maybe we could talk a bit, Nella.”

“About what? More champagne, I hope.”

“About us.”

“Why don’t you go get us more champagne, then come back to bed and I’ll let you steal home again?”

Ren buttoned his shirt and walked across the hotel lobby. Mel Durocher sat on the circular sofa smoking a cigar and whistling. Ren recognized the tune “If You Can’t Make a Hit at the Ballgame, You Can’t Make a Hit with Me.”

Ren tried to pass, but Mel straightened his long legs to block the way, still whistling.

“That’s her national anthem, kid.”

“Well, I’m leading the league, so she’s with the right guy.”

“It’s a shadow league, son. And she’s playing the field.”

“You’ve been on me all season, Mel. About the game, the players, the girl. Why do you care what my dream looks like?”

“Because I was there that day. I saw what your real life could look like, and it’s better than this shit.”

“What day?”

“The blonde neighbor girl wishing you luck before the big high school game you never played. Wishing she was the one kissing you, regardless of whether it got her picture in the paper. The one upstairs will leave you as soon as the next hot player comes along.”

The elevator doors opened. Nella ran out, shoes and purse in hand. She crossed the lobby to Ren and Mel and gulped air between sobs.

“Georgie’s coming home from the war. He’ll be back in time for the World Series.”

She turned and ran barefoot out of the hotel and into the street.

 

     The stadium announcer was testing the PA system, and his voice boomed in echo through the empty stands. “Now batting... batting...batting... For the Browns...Browns...Browns...

     “For someone about to play in the biggest dream-come-true in sports history, you’re looking pretty glum,” Mel said.

     “It would have been a hell of a pitching duel,” Ren said. “I missed the first one and poor Georgie’s gonna miss this one.”

     “You know, don’t you?”    

     “I didn’t believe her, what she said in the lobby about George coming home. I followed her to Union Station and watched the Zephyr pull in. I watched them unload the casket from the baggage car, draped in a flag that looked just like the bunting hanging from the stands here in the park.”

     “I was there, too,” Mel said. “The commissioner asked the papers to hold the news until the Series is over. I guess it doesn’t sell seats when the hero of the ’42 Cardinals is rolled off a train in a pine box.”  

Ren took out a yellowed newspaper clipping from his coat pocket and unfolded it. The wrinkled sheet showed twin pictures of high school boys being kissed for luck by the same dark‑haired girl.

“I hear you got an offer to play down in the minors next year,” Mel said. “What do you plan on doing?”

Ren looked across the park to the blonde girl standing alone in an entrance ramp, waiting for him with her little suitcase at her side. Ren wadded up the clipping and tossed it over his shoulder. A passing janitor swept it away.


“I’m going to pitch in the World Series, Mel. Then I’m going home.”




Andrew Zembles is a writer living in California.


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