the yankees bought babe ruth
Will stands above the casket. He rests his hands on the chrome railing, cupping one over the other, mimicking the wrinkled hands before him. Will hadn’t looked at his father’s body all day, letting the packed room make its rounds. Neighbors and relatives each swung over to offer a quick hug, a generic, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
But Will is looking in the casket now. He can’t do anything else but look.
Calling hours ended at nine. The remaining guests fumble with their jackets and keys in the lobby, dragging out farewells and prolonging their grieving, waiting to step up and offer a casserole delivery the next day or a drink at the closest saloon, toasting and celebrating sixty “good” years (the assumed gesture of ignoring the last five “bad” ones).
Will stares at the navy-blue suit hanging off his father’s frail body. The suit looks less Yankee-pinstripe blue and more Lake-Erie-in-July blue, after the water plummets six feet from the summer drought and boat engines stir up mud from the bottom of the lake, scaring off fish and turning the water some shade of algae-brown until first frost.
Marianne walks through the door, letting in the lobby noise. She cradles a sleeping Isabella against her chest with one hand, her other arm clenched, hand scooped under a sleeping Jeffrey, pushing him against her waist to keep from dropping him. Jeffrey rolls over and stretches down the top of Marianne’s black dress, exposing her cream-colored brassiere underneath. Marianne walked around half the night with her bra strap on display, between feedings and changings, burpings and rockings. Will never said a word, not since last year while standing in a pharmacy, nine months after Isabella’s birth, and three months into pregnancy with Jeffrey, and Will joked, telling Marianne to fix her top, or at least charge admission for the show.
“Who cares?” Marianne stared straight ahead at the diaper shelf. “No one’s looking. Who would notice now? They aren’t breasts anymore. They’re feeding troughs.”
Two children—both under two years old—represent the two times in three years he and Marianne went to bed and didn’t immediately go to bed. Anymore, he cuts his hugs short for fear of impregnating her a third time.
Marianne shoves two wadded-up diapers at Will, even after passing a trash can on her way in.
“I’m going home,” Marianne says. “When they sleep, I sleep.”
“Give me a few more minutes.” Will glances at his watch. “Then we’ll go.”
“Well I’m going.” Marianne trudges back to the door. “Hitch a ride home. Or take the keys, and I’ll get a ride. Or I can sleep right here on the floor. I don’t care anymore.”
Three years of sleep deprivation talking, Will reminds himself. He hopes so at least.
Marianne opens the door and stops, turning back to Will.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m sure he’ll come.”
“Who?” Will drops his head, not even convincing himself.
It’d been three years since he’d seen Jeremy. Jeremy would come, Will said to himself. Or he wouldn’t. Jeremy was good that way.
* * *
Growing up, Will spent his summers tossing the baseball around in the backyard with his father. The patch of grass from the back porch steps to the chain-link fence measured fifty feet, a full foot and a half less than the standard pitcher’s mound to home plate. Whenever Will asked about moving to a bigger house, Will’s father said, “Grass is just as green in another backyard. Why waste the gas money?”
Will’s arm strong enough, his bat with enough pop, they hoofed ten blocks to the city park with infield dirt giving way to an outfield doubling as a parking lot for the gas station next door. Positions divided up: Will at home plate, hitting; his father pitching; and Jeremy playing every position from first base to center field.
Jeremy lived one block over with his mother. Jeremy’s mother always said Jeremy’s father was two things at the same time—a “bastard” and “a son-of-a-bitch.” One of those reasons is why Jeremy never met him, but Jeremy never figured out which one.
The quiet one of the two, Jeremy let Will call the shots: who batted first, played catcher, and chased foul balls across four lanes of traffic, dodging cars steering into boys running in the street.
Big brother and little brother, with no shared bloodline, just a shared bed those sleepover nights, thunder sounding like the devil himself pounding on the walls, making Jeremy scurry from his floor sleeping bag up to Will’s bed. Will never told Jeremy he wanted, needed him in bed as well. Let Jeremy be the one to cower first, until morning, when sunrise erased the nightmares, leaving two boys looking for something to toss or hit until the sun set all over again.
“Life is baseball,” Will’s father always reminded them. The world sent you fastballs high and tight, curveballs that tripped you up. Start at home plate and get stranded, hoping to go home again. And hit just one home run from time to time, to show you still had it.
Most nights Jeremy tagged along with Will and his father to the park or to the living room to watch an old television rigged with a coat hanger twisted and bent to get in night games. On fun weekends when Will’s father saved up enough overtime, they bought tickets for bleacher seats at Jacobs Field to watch their beloved Cleveland Indians.
That’s what you did in Cleveland—you watched baseball. The city probably offered more to see, to do, Will’s father said. He just hadn’t found it yet.
“They’re going to win it all,” Will’s father always said, sitting between Will and Jeremy in the bleachers. “Mark my words. One day, we’ll be celebrating a World Series title, right here in Cleveland of all places. Can you believe it? Just got to be patient. Steady wins the race.”
Will’s father died, never seeing that promised World Series title. Was his father a liar, Will thought? Did his father die too soon?
Or was it that third reason?
* * *
Will feels a hand patting his shoulder.
“Sorry for your loss,” a voice says.
Will waits, not turning around at first. Then he gives in and turns around.
Jeremy stands there. His navy-blue, pin-striped suit almost matches Will’s father’s suit, but it’s a darker, deeper blue than anything Lake Erie ever had to offer.
“Diapers, huh?” Jeremy nods to the handful in Will’s hand.
Will squeezes the urine-filled wad of cotton. His father the past six months, plus his children for two years, Will can’t remember a life without wiping butts and changing diapers.
Jeremy slides off his jacket. He rolls a shirt sleeve up his forearm, stopping under the elbow. He turns to face Will, as if ready to speak, before turning back to the casket and rolling up his other sleeve.
“Traffic?” Will asks, breaking the silence.
“What now?” Jeremy asks.
“How was the traffic?”
“Brutal.” Jeremy shakes his head back and forth. “Wreck on I-80 backed up cars for miles. A bunch of cows got loose from some farm. Semi driver didn’t hit the brakes in time and plowed right through the whole lot of them.” Jeremy pauses. “Left a whole year’s worth of T-bones all over the asphalt.”
Jeremy pauses during conversations. After the pause he delivers a punchline, something everyone remembers. Like standing at home plate, bat on his shoulder, he points to the left field wall, calling his shot before smacking the ball out of the park, a home run right on cue.
One time in English class senior year, Mr. Santucci read some old poem in Latin, putting half the class to sleep. He read the line, “Carpe diem,” and asked the class what the line meant.
No one raised a hand, until Jeremy finally raised his hand and asked to be excused to the bathroom. Then he paused.
“I have a bad case of carpe diarrheaum,” he said.
The entire class laughed, and Jeremy got one day of detention. One day’s penance for a laugh to echo the school’s hallways for all time was a fair trade for any man.
Will can’t remember when Jeremy stopped being the quiet one. It was probably the summer the Indians made the World Series. Things changed that summer. A lot of things changed for a lot of people that summer, and then a lot changed back just as fast.
People still ask Will about Jeremy. Where’s the guy he used to hang out with? The one who always made people laugh. Doesn’t he sell cash registers now, or something? Isn’t he rich and driving a sports car?
“New York,” Will always says. “He moved to New York. He left.”
Jeremy turns to Will. “Work?”
“What now?” Will asks.
“Work?” Will shrugs. “Work’s work.”
A factory is a factory, Will’s father always said. Car engines or doll parts, it didn’t matter. You punch a clock, do the job, and wait for the retirement watch.
When Will’s father punched his last clock, Will took his spot on the assembly line. He even took over the same locker with the same last name on the nameplate. Less paperwork, his boss said.
Will sits in a chair. He stretches out his legs, pant bottoms creeping over his sock line. Cupping his hands on the back of his neck, he stares straight ahead.
“And you?” Will asks.
“You know,” Jeremy says. “It’s just work.”
Cash registers, Will thinks, not even making them, but selling them. That’s not work. A six-month summer internship in a local office fast-tracked the chance for an apprenticeship 700 miles away in New York. After two more years a possible sales position existed for quality candidates, fresh with a six-figure salary, plus commission and mileage. Jeremy now walks into meetings, negotiating his company’s machine to make the “cha-ching” sound in anything from a single mom-and-pop convenience store to 50-state-wide grocery store chain.
Will worked the same internship after high school. He sat through three months of lectures on selling. Never take no for an answer. Follow the ABCs of selling—Always Be Closing. It was an entire summer of more studying and test taking—the definition of cruel and unusual punishment.
They offered two apprentice positions at the end of summer. Jeremy got the first, and they offered Will the second. He turned it down, because apprentices can’t afford rent or car payments, he told himself.
He told himself another thing.
Will went on his first date with Marianne. He wanted a second date, hoping to see where things would go, perhaps as far as second base. He rounded third that night in the back of his Dodge Corolla and then got the go-ahead signal to head home, not stopping until he bought a ring, booked a chapel at the courthouse, and watched Jeffery come out nine months later—none of it in that order.
Jeremy falls into the chair next to Will. He wipes lint off his pant leg, humming under his breath.
“Did you hear?” Jeremy asks. “I got a contract with Yankee Stadium. Every drunk forking over twelve bucks for a beer, the money goes through my register. Without me, they don’t get their beer.” He pauses. “Hope they think of me when they’re standing at the urinals between innings.”
“No, didn’t hear.” Will crosses his arms across his chest. “Didn’t hear at all.”
An easel with a bulletin board stands next to the casket, packed with pictures. One snapshot shows Will and his father playing catch together. Another shows Will and Jeremy sitting together in the bleachers at a game, smiling with fireworks shooting off over their heads.
Will’s father had two smiles, real and fake. The real smile appeared after wins, the fake after losses. Will’s father showed his teeth smiling for wins. Losses, he forced the smile, mouth closed, teeth hidden.
Jeremy stands and darts to the easel. “I remember this game.”
“Which one?” Will jumps up. “Show me. What game?”
Jeremy points to a picture. “This one.”
The three of them are standing outside the stadium, arms around each other, wearing matching blue T-shirts reading, “1998 American League Championship Series: Yankees versus Indians,” printed across the front.
“Game three, right?” Jeremy nods.
Will nods along. “Yes, game three.”
“Great game,” Jeremy says.
“Yeah,” Will says. “It was a great game.”
The Indians had finished two trips to the World Series in the three years, but they never sealed the deal. All the core players remained: Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, and Sandy Alomar Jr. No one had closed the book on them yet.
The Yankees, their book told another story.
They finished with 114 wins to the Indians’ 89. The Yankees were loaded: Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Derek Jeter in his prime, and even both the David pitchers—David Cone and David Wells. They had better players, a better team, and a bigger payroll. Their starting infield made more than half the Cleveland team put together.
But on that night at that game, Jeremy, Will, and his father celebrated as the Indians hit three home runs in the fifth inning, all with two outs, to beat the dreaded Yankees.
Will’s father shows his teeth in this picture.
“Remember the guy next to us,” Jeremy says. “He drank ten beers and pounded on the bleachers for six straight innings. When he picked up his beer during the seventh inning stretch, he couldn’t close his hand. He was so hammered; he didn’t know he had broken his wrist.”
Will laughs. He reaches over and grabs the side of the coffin to brace himself, to stop falling over from laughing so hard.
“I remember,” Will says. “I remember him dropping the beer on the woman in front of him. The beer spilled in her eyes, and her eye shadow ran down her face. He drenched that poor lady.”
Jeremy grabs Will’s wrist. “Remember what your old man said.”
Will remembers but doesn’t say. Wants someone else to say the words, honor his father.
“Your pops looked right at the woman,” Jeremy says. “He said, ‘Bottoms up.’ I still piss myself today thinking about it.”
Jeremy laughs. He pats Will on the shoulder, leaving his hand.
Cleveland later lost to the Yankees in game six of the series. The Yankees went on to win the World Series, and the Indians team withered away, never sniffing the World Series again.
But those summers, the games, the three of them, those memories never died.
When they finish laughing it out, Will says, “Really a great game.”
“Too bad we lost,” Jeremy says. “Yankees won the next three, though. Then we won The World Series, thank God.”
Will stops laughing. He takes a step away from the casket.
We lost, he thinks. Then we won: the Yankees, not the Indians. Not us.
The two of them stand in silence.
Jeremy walks over and sits back down. He wipes more lint off his pant leg.
Will sits next to him.
“Work?” Jeremy blurts out.
“What now?” Will asks.
Will doesn’t answer.
Both men nod their heads.
* * *
Rain pours down at the cemetery. Will sits in the front row of the foldout chairs. Rain hits his hair and suit jacket because he forgot his umbrella.
The priest says prays over the closed casket. Will keeps turning his head to stare at Jeremy off to the side of the crowd, holding a navy-blue umbrella over his head. White pin-stripes line the umbrella. On one side Will sees the NY logo in white lettering.
“Can you believe him?” he whispers to Marianne next to him. “Can you believe his nerve?”
Marianne doesn’t answer. She cradles a sleeping Isabella against her chest with one hand, her other arm clenched, hand scooped under a sleeping Jeffrey, pushing him against her waist to keep from dropping him to the ground.
Jeffrey kicks and his foot snags down the front of her dress, exposing her cream-colored bra.
Will notices, continues anyway. “It’s about respect, really—respect for the family, for the departed.”
“Be proud of where you come from,” his father always said. Cleveland wasn’t Paris. No one would mistake smoke towers for the Eiffel Tower. Don’t ask for more. If you got more, what do you call it then?
Will told everyone he turned down the apprenticeship because Marianne was pregnant, but he made up his mind way before. One night, watching a game, his father yelled at the television set.
“Go to the bullpen,” he yelled, pointing to the manager in the dugout. “Go lefty on lefty. It’s the seventh inning for Christ’s sakes. What’s he waiting for?”
It was only the sixth inning at the time. One more inning before the manager needed to play bullpen roulette. Still, Will took the lapse as a sign his father was starting to lose it. He should stay close to home.
Jeremy took the apprenticeship, the job, and the salary—all of it.
In 1919, the owner of the Boston Red Sox was also the producer of Broadway shows. After a disappointing season, he traded his team’s best player to New York for money to finance an upcoming play—No, No Nanette. The play was a colossal bomb, and it took the Red Sox nearly 100 years to make up for one mistake.
That’s the third reason.
The Yankees went on to win four more World Series titles. They seized their destiny. The Yankees bought Babe Ruth.
They did all of that, Will thought.
Keith Buie’s work has appeared in Burnt Tongues, the award-winning (USA Book News, This is Horror, INDIEFAB) and Bram Stoker-nominated anthology edited by best-selling author Chuck Palahniuk. Keith’s work is also forthcoming or has appeared in Eleven Eleven, The MacGuffin, Sand Hill Review, Natural Bridge, Pisgah Review, Crack the Spine, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Rio Grande Review, Willard & Maple, Metal Scratches, and Drunk Monkeys. Keith is currently writing his first novel.