by M. Bennardo
Illustrated by Galen Dara | Edited by Brian J. White
Cubby walked onto the front porch of the boarding house and blinked into the sun. It was only ten in the morning, but still the light beat down with a vengeance. The pitcher of water began sweating in his hands, leaving cool fingerprint marks on the smooth glass in between dribbles of condensation.
Mrs. Garver was sitting on the glider, her eyes closed and her face full in the sun. As the screen door wheezed shut on its spring behind Cubby, she neither jumped nor turned. She just looked straight ahead into the sun and said, “Ain’t gonna be no rain-out tonight.”
Cubby looked out at the cloudless white sky, as if all the blue had been sizzled away. “No, ma’am.”
“That scout from the Dodgers still coming?”
“Coach said he was coming in on the noon train today.”
Mrs. Garver smiled and leaned back into the glider. “Well, I hope you do real good.” Then, as Cubby leaned down to set the pitcher of water on the edge of the porch, she turned her head and frowned. “What’s that I hear sloshing and clinking?”
“Just a pitcher of water, ma’am. I figured I’d make up the sun tea my momma sent me.”
“Sun tea,” said Mrs. Garver. “Hm. Never made that myself. Sitting out on the porch all day, anything might get in it and I couldn’t see.”
“Say, you want some ice for that, you shave it off the block in the icebox. I won’t mind.”
Cubby wiped his hands on his shirt. “Thank you very much, ma’am. I might just do that, but first it’s got to sit for a while.” He took out a packet of dried herbs and dipped it down into the pitcher, watching the water color with clouds of red and yellow and brown sediment as the flavors leaked out. “This is a special blend my family grows.”
“I thought you had corn up there?”
“We do,” said Cubby. “Corn when it rains, soybeans when it’s dry.” He stirred the water with a wooden spoon, the colors swirling into a dull golden shade as the hydrated herbs sank to the bottom of the pitcher. “Momma keeps a separate garden for this, but we never get much of it.”
Mrs. Garver sniffed the air suspiciously. “What is that? Flowers? That doesn’t smell like any tea I’ve ever had.”
Cubby colored slightly. “I said it was special, ma’am… Anise seed, deerstongue, eyebright, honeysuckle, lilac… I don’t know the whole recipe.”
“Hm,” said Mrs. Garver again as she leaned back into the glider.
Just after lunch, Cubby went down to the icebox to shave some ice off the block. He carried the cool shavings in his bare hands, dancing up the cellar stairs as his fingers numbed under streams of cool water. Cubby imagined glaciers thawing, milky streams of meltwater flooding endless plains of waving grass.
Mrs. Garver was out on the porch again, her nimble fingers plowing through a bowl of stringbeans, feeling for the fibrous ends and snapping them off with crisp motions. “I expect that scout is here now,” she said placidly. “I thought I heard the steam whistle.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Cubby. He dunked the ice shavings into the pitcher and banged back into the kitchen for a glass. In a flash he was outside again. “Game’s at four this afternoon. I better get down to the field soon. Warm-up might be the only chance I have to get noticed.”
“Won’t they play you?”
Cubby shrugged and stirred the ice into the pitcher. The water had taken on a bright golden hue over the past few hours, luminous and clear, like a flawless liquid gemstone — citrine or golden beryl, with a touch of deep honey amber. It was like a pitcher of sunset on a cloudless eve.
“I’m a fireman, ma’am. Short reliever. The game’s not going well if they need to play me — but they will if they have to.” Cubby poured out a glass of the sun tea. “Boy, I sure wish you could see how pretty this looks.”
Mrs. Garver cackled. “Tea ain’t made to be looked at,” she said. “Don’t be a fool and give me a glass.”
Cubby blushed and looked over at Mrs. Garver. He held the glass of sun tea up to the light and then looked down into pitcher. There was probably enough left over… “Of course, ma’am,” he said, handing her the glass.
A moment later, Mrs. Garver made a face and shook her head. “Well, it’s got one virtue,” she said. “It’s cold and wet enough on a hot day.”
But Cubby had the pitcher tipped back against his lips, draining it dry down to the dregs, and had no chance to answer.
The game crawled by slowly. Sweat pooled in the small of Cubby’s back under his woolen jersey, just from sitting on the bench. He tried to take the game easy, chaffing the other players on the bench and cheering his side as they went up and out into the field. But through it all, Cubby kept glancing over at the fellow with the notebook sitting in the bleachers on the third base line.
In recent years, some of the major league clubs had started setting up their own private farm systems for recruits. There were fewer and fewer scouts making the circuit of the unaffiliated minors, and Cubby was getting too old to be taken seriously at open try-outs like the Cardinals were holding. It had been his bad luck to get lost in the switch between systems, and he wasn’t sure he had a lot of chances left. Cubby didn’t exactly want his team to do poorly, but neither did he want to sit on the bench the whole game.
So it was with mixed feelings that Cubby felt the familiar funny itch in the back of his mind during the sixth inning. Mitchell, the starting pitcher, had kept a comfortable lead through the game, and Cubby’s side was up 5-2. But as they trotted back to the bench in the middle of the sixth, Cubby had a hunch that Mitchell had been in too long.
The feeling kept getting stronger and stronger, and after a little while Cubby was certain that Mitchell wouldn’t last the next inning. The sun tea had been brewed strong — real strong. Maybe the herbs were more potent than usual that year, or maybe it was the intense brightness of the sun. But Cubby could suddenly see it clearly in his mind.
Top of the seventh, two outs. He saw Mitchell walking the bases loaded and then the catcher calling for a conference. He saw the next batter stepping up to the plate — a hulking fellow called Georges. Then he saw Mitchell throw two more balls, get flustered, and send a fat fastball down the center of the plate.
Cubby looked to the coach. It wasn’t his place to say anything about this. Heck, he’d never had a clear vision like that before. He’d drunk the sun tea once or twice before a game back home, and he’d always only just had those itchy feelings. Hunches. He’d never actually seen things happen like that.
Three of the home batters went down in quick succession, and Mitchell took the mound again. Top of the seventh. Mitchell was scuffing and pacing around the mound. Visions were barely necessary to see he was wearing out.
Even so, Cubby watched in amazement as the half-inning played out just as he’d seen it in his mind. The first batter grounded out, but the next one landed a long low drive between center and right field. The cut-off man held him at first, but he advanced to second on a high pop fly that the left fielder caught easily.
Then Mitchell started getting sloppy and walked the next two batters, loading the bases. The catcher called the conference as Georges stepped up to the plate.
Cubby looked over at the coach and saw he was chewing hard on his thumb. Only one more out was needed — strike out, pop fly, ground out. Even a base hit would probably only put one man home.
The coach glanced down the bench at Cubby, but just as quickly turned back to the field again. How bad could it be? That’s what he was thinking. Even if Mitchell let another runner score, they’d still be up two runs. But if Mitchell could save the inning in front of the scout, if he could coolly get himself out of that mess he’d made with those sloppy pitches — that would be something worth putting down in that notebook.
“Needs technical work,” the scout would write, “but keeps his head in a crisis.”
And if the Dodgers decided they wanted to buy out Mitchell’s contract and bring him to the majors — that was money in the bank. The manager was going to let Mitchell play it out.
The first two pitches to Georges were balls, just like Cubby had envisioned. After the second one, the coach finally pointed at Cubby and he got up to start his warm-up. By the time he heard Georges’s bat connect with the third pitch, he was already drilling fastballs to the second-string catcher. He didn’t need the jeers of the crowd or the drop in the coach’s face to tell him it was a home run either. A grand slam.
Cubby took down the last batter in the seventh in three pitches. As the catcher, Tim Flynn, cycled through his signals, Cubby realized he only had to think about the pitches being called to see how each one would play out.
When the catcher called for a slider, Cubby could see in his mind that the batter wouldn’t swing and the umpire would call a strike. Barely believing it, he focused his mind and curled into his wind-up.
Thwack went the ball against the catcher’s mitt.
“Steeeee-rike!” called the umpire.
For the second pitch, the catcher called a fastball, but Cubby shook it off. He could see it would foul far over the first base line. A foul ball counted as a strike, but Cubby didn’t want the batter getting even a piece of the ball. He threw a forkball instead and the whooshing bat never even got close.
Flynn called another slider, and Cubby had a vision of a fat line drive drifting easily into the glove of the left fielder. An out was an out, so he nodded back and drew up tall over the mound, slowing his breathing and squeezing the ball in his hand.
Then Cubby remembered the scout. An out was an out — except when the Dodgers were watching. He flipped through his repertoire of pitches in his mind and settled on a curveball. The batter would chase it down into the dirt, giving him three strikes in three pitches. Much more impressive than a fly out.
With the inning over, Flynn gave him a half-dirty look as they headed back to the bench. “Why didn’t you go with the slider?” he asked. “If I hadn’t jumped on that one, it would have been wild.”
Cubby colored and shrugged. “I had a hunch, I guess.” But that was a lie. He’d really had a vision, and it had been no risk at all.
Cubby’s team tied it up in the bottom of the seventh, putting the score at 6-6. He took down the next three batters easily in the top of the eighth. Cubby was amazed — if anything, the visions were getting clearer and deeper. He started seeing two and three pitches ahead, and he realized he could put on more of a show.
Seeing more meant Cubby could confidently load up a full count, or let the batter foul off five times in a row. Certainly he could have struck out all three batters quickly enough — but he felt it was better to let the scout see him working for his outs. After all, he wouldn’t always have the sun tea to help him. He could throw the pitches fine, and he wanted the scout to see that. He just needed help picking which ones.
Cubby kept the kids on the scoreboard jumping, hanging strikes and balls, but his teammates started growing roots. Not a single ball made it into fair territory by the time the half-inning ended.
Cubby’s team wrung another run out in the eighth, so he took the mound again in the ninth with the score now 7-6. The stands had been electrified during the past half hour, and Cubby could see them all watching him nervously as he jogged into the infield. Kids were pressed against backstop fence behind home plate, their faces squeezing through the links in mixture of admiration and trepidation. Even the scout was on the edge of his seat.
The home team had the lead again, but the crowd hadn’t forgotten how Mitchell had blown their three-run advantage earlier. It seemed like anything might happen, but Cubby knew he could put the game away without even giving up a hit. Thanks to that tea, he was in complete control.
But as he slipped a fastball past the first batter, Cubby suddenly had a better idea. Mitchell had gotten himself in a tight spot in the seventh, but if he’d been able to get that final out against Georges, he would have looked like a hero.
Cubby realized he could do that. With the way his visions were stretching longer and longer, he could load the bases and bring Georges up to bat again — still without any real risk. He was seeing five, six, seven pitches ahead now. Longer sometimes. He could get the whole inning to play out exactly as he wanted, and then strike Georges out. He could bring his team to the brink of disaster, and save the whole game himself.
With his heart hammering in his chest, Cubby started executing his plan. Before every pitch, he stood stock still in the waning sunlight, mosquitoes buzzing unheeded around his sweaty neck, envisioning every permutation of every pitch. Only when he had it right — perfect — exactly how he wanted it — only then did he let the ball fly.
Cubby let two players take base hits. Then he struck out the next batter and walked the next. Bases loaded now. Georges up to bat. This was it. He could see it easy — he just needed to strike out the big man and let the next batter ground out. Then that would be it — a stunning finish to an edge-of-your-seat game, and a save by Cubby that the scout would never forget.
Thwack went the first pitch, Georges swinging loose as it whizzed by. “Steeeee-rike!”
Chunk went the next one, fouling off the bat. “Steeeee-rike two!”
Cubby drew up and watched Flynn cycle through the signs. He’d envisioned the pitch he needed half an inning ago — a simple off-speed changeup that Georges would mistake for a fastball. He’d go down swinging at air, and the next batter would ground out to first within two pitches.
But then Cubby saw something else. The vision went further. It went past the end of the game.
In his vision, Cubby saw the Dodgers scout writing something down in his notebook as his teammates jumped and whooped and lifted him onto their shoulders. It was Cubby’s name — it had to be. But then he saw the scout cross something out.
Cubby watched the vision a little longer. It went on and on — longer than any other he’d had that day. At the end of it, he picked a different pitch. A fastball.
Georges hit it out of the park.
It was twilight when Cubby made it back to the boarding house. Bats flitted about, chasing insects in the warm air, and Mrs. Garver waited on the porch, swatting her own share.
“Well, did you play?” she asked as soon as she heard Cubby’s footstep on the creaking step.
“And did you win?”
Cubby sighed. “No, ma’am,” he said. His voice was quiet and low.
“Hm,” was all Mrs. Garver said in reply.
Some time later, as Cubby sat on the porch, shoveling stringbeans and pork into his mouth, she spoke again.
“You know,” said Mrs. Garver, “a pretty funny thing happened to me this afternoon.”
“Did it?” asked Cubby, between bites.
“I went to put those beans on the range, and something told me I was about to burn my hand.”
Cubby stopped eating and looked over at Mrs. Garver. She hadn’t drunk as much of the sun tea as he had, but she’d had a full glass. “They say the blind have second sight sometimes.”
“Don’t be a fool,” scoffed Mrs. Garver. “I’ve been blind my whole life, and I never felt anything like that before. Just a sensation, up my arm and through my spine, into my brain. It just told me — don’t put your hand there, Betty, or you’ll burn your fingers. I practically felt the pain.”
A pair of fireflies traded flashes out over the dry lawn.
“The burner was on,” said Mrs. Garver. “I would have scorched myself for sure, had it not been for that tickle I had.”
“That’s lucky, ma’am.”
“Lucky, nothing.” Mrs. Garver was silent a moment longer. “You told me your family grows corn when it’s wet, and soybeans when it ain’t?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Cubby. He had set his plate down. His throat felt dry.
“And how do they know ahead of time how the weather’s going to be? How do they know if they should plant for wet or dry? A lot of folks around here would like to know the same.”
Cubby sighed. “Just lucky again, I guess.”
“What happened at the game?” Mrs. Garver asked, as natural as anything, as if all these questions were tied together. “Didn’t you want to win? Didn’t you want that scout to notice you? I don’t know what was in that tea you brewed, but you were saving it on purpose for this.”
“I wanted to win,” Cubby said quietly.
Cubby shut his eyes. He thought about that last vision — the vision of Georges striking out and looking like a lumbering fool. What the scout had crossed out in his notebook had been Georges’ name. If the circumstances were right, anybody could hit a grand slam off a flustered pitcher like Mitchell. It took power but no real talent to send that easy fastball into the stands. A quick strikeout at Cubby’s hands would have just confirmed that.
But the vision had gone on longer. Cubby had seen himself called for a try-out with the Dodgers, but he couldn’t see what happened to Georges. Did he get another chance? Or had he whiffed his only shot on Cubby’s slider? Cubby wasn’t the only one getting too old for the minors.
On the other hand, if Georges hit two grand slams against two different pitchers in the same game… hardly anybody had ever done that. The scout would have practically no choice but to make a good report on Georges. There wasn’t even any need to play the vision out to see how it would go.
“I guess I didn’t want to have my chance at the expense of somebody else’s,” said Cubby. “I guess it just didn’t feel right using my advantages that way.”
Mrs. Garver snorted. “Sounds like you’d make a better farmer than a ballplayer, son.”
Cubby looked up into the sky. The stars were starting to poke their way through the velvet blackness of the night. He had no visions now — the sun tea had worn off and there wouldn’t be any more herbs until next year. Would he be back on the ball field then? Or walking through dusty rows of soybeans?
“I don’t know, ma’am,” he said at last. “I can’t quite see that far.”