R E A D Y P O S I T I O N
ou are twelve—thirteen, whatever—essentially nondescript: a confusion of hormones and dread. You are in right field.
Right field: that exile of the inept, that purgatory of the poltroon. How embarrassing, how ignominious it is to be a right fielder. And second to last in the batting order, too, right behind Marty Feezer, who whiles away the tense gradual bench-shift to the batter’s box reading dog-eared Spy vs. Spy
paperbacks, about which activity no one, not even the coach, seems to have a problem. Oh are you embarrassed, oh are you racked with shame. You’re not supposed to be here, alone in right field. You’re a big kid, second tallest boy in your class, funny and clownish and popular, you suppose, within the narrow confines of your own set. King of the Dweebs. You’re also blond, suburban, blue-eyed, and—even you realize it—overwhelmingly privileged. You have no reason to complain. Yet you would trade it all, this entire treasure chest of blessings, for a weathered pouch of athletic grace. Engage in a test of wills and you collapse into selfconsciousness.
To this day you cannot play tennis without fearing vaguely that the fluid in your ears will tip like water in a bucket and send you and your racket sprawling across the court. You are also ruinously myopic, with thick wireframe glasses and, now that you are twelve and a responsible young man, new soft contact lenses. All of which explains why you have no hand-eye coordination. If the exercise involves only your body and empty space, you can be as graceful as Roger Bannister slicing the tape at Oxford. Introduce into that space an orb of any sort and you enter a ponderous gravitational drift, your limbs careening every which way.
Your baseball coach that season had two steadfast rules: stand in a “ready position” at all times and never go swimming on game days. Firmly convinced that prolonged exposure to chlorine impaired vision, he didn’t want his players fielding fly balls wrapped in auras and radiating fuzzy halos. Whereas you broke the latter rule constantly and without guilt—you wore goggles, anyway, which somehow corrected your underwater vision—you followed the first rule with blind obedience. You loathed the stigma attached to the outfield. You hoped that by ostentatiously following the coach’s advice you might score a spot at first base or shortstop. But no matter how ready you looked (at all times), you would remain in this inane position—bent over, legs shoulder width apart, hands on your knees—for seven solid Little League innings and never once touch a baseball. The ready position wasn’t exactly kneeling, not quite, but it was close.
The point is, you thought about God constantly that summer—God and sex, to be more precise, though not always simultaneously—and as such you felt His presence most keenly during baseball games, with your left hand sweating inside your mitt and your rear end facing the woods, which stretched out beyond the home-run fence.
In the chiaroscuro of your memory, you are simultaneously you and not you out there in the grass: you
because you remember the moment in a vague, sensory sort of way, which is to say the person who took in the evening air that night feels like you; not you
because the cells change every seven years. Since then, you’ve grown a whole new skin.S
o there you are, in right field, in the ready position. It is nighttime in the suburbs, solemnly and politely quiet. You are alone and bored under the outfield lights, fighting the gnats. A boy is at bat, but he is very far away. You can barely detect the infield chatter—Hey batterbatterbattersuuwiiingg!
—while the progress of the game comes to you like the plot of a movie you’ve been watching all night with the sound down. You don’t even know the count. Behind you in the woods, some younger kids on motocross (MX) bicycles have constructed a ramp out of a fallen log and a discarded piece of the home-run fence. The board bears the friendly orange Burger King logo, but the kids—a ratty bunch of smart-alecky suburbanites in football jerseys and iridescent running shorts and knee socks—ride right over it, a resistant marketing demographic even then. You can hear them better than you can hear the game in which you are allegedly involved.
Beside you in centerfield, Marty Feezer has taken off his mitt and placed it open-palmed on his face. He stretches his arms out wide as if the mitt has fallen to him from some great height: an ungainly bird swan-diving to its death, right on Marty Feezer’s face. You outfielders are a secret society. You share in each other’s fear and humiliation as you stand alone in the high outfield grass, sit at the end of the dugout bench, catch fly balls all day in practice. Marty Feezer’s glove falls off his face. With a nimble kick of his foot he catches it before it drops into the murky grass. Behind you a kid wipes out on his MX bike.
There is nothing to do in the outfield is what you’re getting at. It is July. The year is 1978. Marty Feezer is a hopeless dweeb who doesn’t care much about baseball or anything
as far as you can tell. Although at the time you say to yourself that you admire Marty’s blithe insouciance, you now realize you could not possibly have thought any such thing, since you’ve only known the meaning of the word insouciance
for three or four years, if that.
The kids behind you are rearranging their ramp. You can smell damp grass and the sweet sugary tang of Bazooka bubble gum. You feel against your skin the thick weight of summer air. You are all by yourself in right field.
So what you do is that stupid-kid thing where you say to yourself, What if I’m not me?
It’s one of those experiments you try on yourself, like when you walk several miles home and just when you see your house emerge in the distance you say, What if I were back at the beginning of the whole journey?
just to see if maybe, just maybe, it will work, and you’re even kind of afraid it will
work, that you’ll be right back where you started from, with the whole walk ahead of you again, and it’s kind of exciting, this tempting Time or Fate or Existence or God or whatever, but nothing ever happens. You’re still there on your street with your house well within sight. It is a leap of faith to believe the journey will start all over again; after a while, you just get tired of experimenting with yourself and start actually talking to girls.
So anyway, you’re bored out of your skull there in right field and just to do something you sort of test your existence by asking yourself, What if you’re really not you?
and for a suspended second there it really works. In a delicate, uncanny sort of way, you don’t feel like you. You have, no shit, this out-of-body experience
—an extremely tiny one, the merest edge of a second, tops—where you feel like you’re simply some kid you only know pretty well
. Even the flesh against the chafing Little League uniform doesn’t quite seem like yours. Under the vast openness overhead—the Not You—you feel like you are not you. Somehow in your mind this moment becomes proof of God’s existence, or proof of life after death, or maybe just the fleeting possibility of transcendence (which is not to say you needed proof then: it’s only now you see this incident as a fragile, if also fraudulent, instance of “proof,” whereas then it was just part and parcel of something you never doubted), and at this exhilarating moment you pop a boner. It’s one of those sexless in class erections, nothing more, really, than dumb hormonal energy in search of an outlet. The body, that elusive entropic system, sometimes mixes its signals. St. Augustine cites the unwilled boner as proof of Original Sin, and he may have a point. On the other hand, since it (the erection) arose out of an abrupt affirmation of immortality and the divine, perhaps it was also evidence of life everlasting, since sex is the body’s way of affirming its right and need to continue living. Or maybe it was just a boner.
And all at once you hear the solid ping! of a baseball hitting an aluminum bat. The bleachers swell with communal awe as you look up to see arching your way against the flat blue evening sky that Little League rarity: a perfect pop fly. Although you are, for all intents and purposes, utterly alone here in right field, you fear your erection will be detected. As a Believer, you mix sex with shame in a benign Protestant sort of way. You are afraid to stand up and move toward the ball, which has already begun its downward descent. So you stay just where you are, immobile and terrified, in the ready position. Hunched over with a rigid prick, you feel God’s presence as well as His judgment as you reach up into the immense air and open your glove. You enter a pocket of timelessness amid the rise and fall of human events. You close your eyes, though not necessarily out of religious faith. As your coach keeps telling you, your hand-eye problem stems from the fact that you don’t keep your eye on the ball
. As a transparent paisley swims across the inside of your closed eyelid, you hear and feel the ball smack perfectly into the pocket of your mitt. Inside your baseball pants your penis softly melts.
When you open your eyes again you look in astonishment at the nest of your mitt. A scuffed white object lies nestled there. More round than oblong, like a tiny globe, and for the most part smooth except for a winding seam that has no beginning and no end—an infinity symbol unwound—the thing seems to radiate in your glove. It throbs there, quiet and indifferent, emitting warmth and mystery and something else, and then quickly cools and clarifies into an obdurate fact. It becomes, miraculously, the third out.T
he catch ended the inning. The infielders trotted nonchalantly to the dugout, Marty Feezer scooped up his outfield mitt, the crowd broke for snow cones. And now, as you crouch here on the outskirts of this experience, in the ready position, you discover something even more important, even more miraculous. You discover you knew the count all along: sixth inning, two outs, man on second, three balls and a strike. The batter swung with three balls, one strike, and even a right fielder knows you don’t swing with three balls and a strike. It’s so obvious
. What’s less obvious—and here’s the real mystery—is what you do after the bat goes crack. Run to the ball or let the ball come to you? There’s a riddle for you, and now here’s the solution: it doesn’t matter, son, so long as you’re ready.
Excerpted from Trouble with Girls by Marshall Boswell. Copyright © 2004 by Marshall Boswell. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.