The stack of lumber behind my feet in the batter’s box let Coach Connor know that I stepped away when I should have leaned into the swing. That I was scared of the ball. Collapsed two-by-fours meant three laps or twenty push-ups, red grit dusting my lips and teeth as I hustled around the baseball diamond behind the Blockbuster off Air Depot. Dead fescue in the outfield stuck to sweat-soaked cotton while I breathlessly counted sit-ups for fumbling the fundamentals, boys, the fundamentals. Mid-summer heat of the southern plains reflected off the baseball bats so an aura shook in the air around the steel like jelly. The leather glove was uncomfortable when I wore it out of the sporting goods store. I threw a baseball into the web until it wore down and merged with my hand.
There is no God on the southern plains, but if there was it would be ball. Any kind of ball, really. Football, baseball, basketball anything but soccer and tennis—the queer sports. Behind young athletes there’s a trail of ambition—ghosts that leak out with every lost game, every strike out, every fumble. You can clash with a vision of your future self on this flat horizon so your whole sense of identity explodes. You were never gonna get drafted. Never gonna go pro.
Coach Connor died in a floral patterned armchair last month. He died quietly. His wife didn’t notice until she nudged him and he slouched over, shoulder blades collapsing, and slipped to the floor like empty clothes. Coach Connor’s son, Austin, was the short stop and the best player on the team. I think Coach was tough on him when he didn’t play well. I think he hit him.
Coach Connor was a postal service cop. My cousin Ben played second base, and he destroyed a few mailboxes with the same Louisville Slugger that he used on the field. He was fifteen, drunk and stoned with Luke Carter. Ben and Luke were taken into custody on federal charges for tampering with people’s mail. Coach showed up and put in a good word for them. They were released that evening and called all the baseball parents to tell them they were really sorry, even though they went on to pack pistols, and Ben always asked me to stash his weed when the drug dogs roamed C Hall.
Before the state championship, Ben walked slow and unconcerned through the outfield, through the hellish heat, through young, hopeful ball players warming up and taking practice swings as their parents watched and lived vicariously. The field sounded like a small windmill. Maurice Powell accidentally clocked Ben in the back of the head and knocked him out cold. He collapsed and started wheezing. The Oklahoma sky was big and blue and clear that day, and from where I stood it looked like Ben was drowning on the ocean floor. The dead, brown grass like drifting sand rising in stiff threads. Ben’s head was cracked open, leaking onto the practice field. He was meaner after that. It rattled some anger loose. He’s grown up since then. Ben’s a nice man now, just a little short-tempered.
In ‘94, Coach Connor almost died. Of course he didn’t, because he died last month. But he almost died. He was taking his morning coffee in the kitchen near his office on the second floor of the Alfred P. Murrah building. Coach Connor liked his coffee cheap and black, and he poured the day’s first cup as a man named Timothy sat in a rental Ryder moving truck lighting a fuse to ignite a bomb built from diesel fuel and fertilizer, causing an explosion that blew the building in half, killing 165 people, and sending a piece a drywall through Coach Connor’s left eye. After a minor surgery, some gauze, and a roll of medical tape, he was back in the dugout shouting and slamming his hat in the dirt.
Some years after the bomb went off, after they built a memorial with a reflection pool and placed an empty chair for each of the victims, a journalist interviewed Coach Connor. The interviewer asked, “How can Oklahoma City move past the collective pain of the April 19th terrorist attack?”
Coach Connor responded, “Well, it’d help if pansies like you quit bringing it up. That would be a start.” He just didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to tangle with that trauma. But he taught me how to swing a bat. I could send that kid-pitch sized Rawlings clear over the centerfield fence. Head down, eyes on the ball, tighten my grip, and step forward so I can hear the hallowed crack. Every weekend, Coach Connor got kicked from our games for blowing his lid and getting in the umpire’s face about a strike that looked like a ball or a ball that looked like a strike or a slide that was safe but the umpire called an out because he needed to visit the god damn optometrist for his fucked up eyes.
Eventually, I got into metal and anime and the occult. Skateboarding became my new baseball. I saw Coach Connor for the last time when Austin played college ball at Oklahoma State. I watched him play at the field by the pools. I was crazy-stoned on edibles and couldn’t find my eye drops. I panicked thinking Coach Connor knew I was high. I squinted my eyes to hide the bloodshot veins covering the space around my pupils like webs of red velvet. We sat in the shade, but I squeezed my eyelids together like the sun was blinding. Coach Connor must have thought I was unhinged—baked, covered with piercings, and wearing a Throbbing Gristle shirt. The crack of the bat found a hold, ringing in a cavern on the bottom of my ear drum that I didn’t know existed. It stayed there for a while like an Ohm while the baseball diamond became geometric and crystalline.
The last time I stood in a diamond, I snuck into the baseball field behind the high school where Coach Connor had kicked up the Oklahoma dirt until he disappeared inside it. The red earth took him. I hopped the fence with Dejuan Hershel and Tyler Spinoza, and we played homerun derby. There was a stack of invisible two by fours behind my feet as I zeroed in on the ball, perception bogged down by schwag and cheap vodka, but I dug my shoulder in and I heard that crack. Flashing red and white spun through the ocean sky, falling on the far side of the fence, and rolling through the dead fescue. I felt something rising from the dirt as I trotted around the bases. Memories held loosely before they left, drifting over the foggy mess of my more debased predilections. In the swing of the bat, the throw of the ball, there were no abandoned spectral suits. No ghosts on the diamond. No ghosts in the outfield. Just a small phantom between second and third that I passed through so that it sat inside me briefly before dissipating into tiny droplets, and then a small buzzing in my follicles, a touch of bliss. I was empty space being filled by the sense of wind on sweat. I stretched my hands upward and laughed until I choked, still feeling hollow as I ran down the home stretch.
When my uncle called to tell me that Coach Connor died, it seemed like he was expecting more of a reaction. Time puts space between people, and their loss doesn’t mean so much. My uncle went to the funeral, but none of the players from the old ball team showed up. He sounded surprised. I wasn’t surprised at all. I had some water on the table. I drank it. The only thing in front of me was a glass. It was empty, but I felt full.