It is not a proposal of marriage when my nurse applies a wet sponge to my genitals. I understand this. Norman, the man in the bed next to mine, does not. And unlike my roommate, I have neither forgotten the peculiarities of my past, nor misplaced the core of my personality. I tend to refer to my life in the past tense, it’s true, but I’m confident that enduring ten decades of it more than justifies nostalgic tendencies. Mine was a charmed life, not necessarily the stuff of fat biography, but a passage consistently graced with traveling partners who furthered my progress from scene to scene, act to act, base to base, all the way home. But I never thought my travels would end here. Friends knew I preferred an elegant snuffing to passing my final hours in a place like this. But I outlived my friends. And institutions these days aren’t what they once were, thanks to flourishes that turn a hospital into a home: orchids, skylights, entertainment systems, oak-finished furniture, Mozart piping softly through the carpeted halls. And for those who need them, parrots and hamsters and bunnies and ferrets caged in the lobby: distractions from the fact that this is the last place we will ever live.
Not that I’d prefer to be anywhere else. Considering my condition, here is as good as could be. I’ve spent more than enough time in a hundred places to call each one home. I traveled a lot. Never married. Played minor league baseball. Pitched for as long as I could, bounced team to team, woman to woman. Even after baseball, I did more than my share of traveling, always entwining business and pleasure, a little of this, a little of that. But now my traveling days are done: in bed, nearly too weak to move a muscle, my body worn down from too many times in too many places with too many people. My nurse, the latest in a long line of female companions, is the first partner I’ve had to pay.
“Nancy,” I said.
“Yeah?” she said.
“It’s a curveball.”
“A curveball, huh?”
“A curveball’s coming.”
“A curveball, yeah?”
“The voice told me.”
“The voice told you what?”
“It told me it likes my curveball.”
“I’m sure it does.”
“That’s what it says.”
“This voice, it’s a man or a woman?” she said.
“Neither,” I said. “A sound.”
“Saying I like your curveball?”
“That’s what it’s saying: I like your curveball.”
One thing that’s hard to avoid as you get older is talking about what was. I’ve told Nancy the same stories over and over, and she’s heard me tell them to others. I know what I do. I have a shtick. I admit I don’t have all that much going on these days. And I realize Nancy hears a lot of delusional talk. But I hope she knows me well enough to give me the benefit of the doubt when I tell her about the curveball. I know she’s heard most everything I could say about pitching. She knows I had problems with my fastball, but could throw a good curve. She’s heard about how fastballs should run in or away from batters, bounce and dip and sail, but mine had very little movement. The whole thing came straight down the pike, delivered with enough consistency and speed to lend the feeblest swing extra distance. None of which was very good for my pitching career. On hot days, when fast things travel faster through air molecules spread farther apart, my fastball was like a high school science experiment inadvertently proving the old baseball adage, the faster they come in, the farther they go out.
Thankfully I had the hammer. A great looping curveball. A thing of beauty. The only thing that kept me in the game for any stretch of time. The sort of pitch umpires howl for, calling the third strike, sending batters back to the dugout with egos extracted, skewered, flayed, served on a stick. The hammer fell off the table; it was like a duck shot out of the air; a black hole sucking everything around it until there was just the whiff and thudding pop of round object going 75 to zero miles per hour in an instant, followed by the umpire’s exaggerated stab of innocent air.
When I yanked a really good curveball, my hat would fall off. I’d replace it civilly, ceremonially, after strikeouts in particular. Befuddling batters was what I lived for, what I did for fun. I remember once, when the hammer was dropping harder than usual, the field umpire told me you keep that going, it’ll take you places. He called it the nastiest curve he’d seen, at any level, in twenty years of umpping. All this was in high school, a hundred years ago.
The geriatric psychiatrist introduced herself as though I’d never seen her visit Norman. She asked how I was doing, said she heard I was hearing a voice. I said I was worried she thought the voice I heard was delusional. She assured me everything would be fine. She prescribed something. It wasn’t in me to argue, let alone fight back. When breakfast came the next morning, my pill cup included two new additions. I swallowed them and waited for the effect, waited for the voice, waited to tell Nancy that it wasn’t a delusion, but something real, or at the very least, something my brain was doing to get a little exercise, a sort of movement without moving.
The first day on the medication, I closed my eyes and it was like a switch had been flicked: a fuzzy light at the end of a long tunnel, and as it got closer it rose and became clearer and I could see the 12-to-6 rotation, count the seams on the ball like I’d learned in Little League: keep your eyes open and really see the ball coming at you, slow it down, try to stop its movement until you can count the stitches across the leather. I could see each rotation sending it down, cutting speed and height until the accumulated torque forced the ball to drop, as though a conspiracy of physics hijacked its flight, sending it down, nearly in a nose dive.
But I didn’t hear a voice this time. No one asked “How’s that?” The ball lay at my toe, still, like a present from a prankster uncle: it would surely explode into foam serpents when touched. But I picked it up and the ball warmed my hand like an egg heating a hen.
I threw the faintly glowing baseball back in the direction it’d come: it streaked through space, illuminating what seemed to be a narrow corridor for a few moments until it bounced, to my surprise, on grass.
Then I heard the voice tell me “Thanks.”
A second later I saw the ball coming again, seemingly shot from a batting practice machine. Another perfect curve. I caught this one, and although I was barehanded, it didn’t sting.
“I think I’ve got it now,” the voice said after a few tosses, and that
“Really the best I’ve felt!” I told her.
If only I could have raised my arms around her! I hugged her with a smile?my darling Nancy!
“Maybe you’re feeling too good there,” she said, running a sponge down what once were my thighs, looking me over. Did I have an erection? Was it possible? Did they slip something else into my pill cup?
“How can there be a too good?” I said as she moistened and dried what was left of me, “I’ve never felt so good.”
I saw Nancy as my roommate Norman probably sees her: a blushing bride, her nurse’s cap as bright and as beautiful as a wedding veil pulled back for the ceremonial kiss.
“You’re beautiful, Nancy,” I gushed.
She patted me on the chest, and I swear I could almost feel it. Or maybe
I heard the thud reverberating through the narrow cavern of my torso, and
with it came a sense that all was not over, that my body, what was left
of it, still had a chance for one last moment of feeling.
She ran across the canyon between the slight lengths of my legs, climbed over my crotch, blushing a little, then resettled on my soft, centenarian belly. She didn’t seem a day over twenty. Not an inch over six. But gorgeous. Curvaceous. Without fault or blemish, the way a photo reduced in size seems clearer. Stunning, with little bits of baseball shell still in her hair. She cozied into me. I could nearly feel her, as though the memory of touching and tasting were released from cold storage in the tips of my toes, and by pressing her tiny feet along my skin, the memory was accessed, and with it, every feeling I haven’t felt since the withering switched to high gear: the fluttering touches, the rough embraces, the inadvertent abrasions, the indecipherable language of our physical talk, the way she moved and I moved and we arced together, wrestling, dancing, taking what we wanted from the other’s body. Adela ran the heel of her tiny palm from my sternum in a gradual westward arc that swooped to my navel. She had nearly drawn half a circle, when she methodically returned to the middle of my chest, lifting her hand after a semispherical curlicue in the direction of my right armpit. After a series of such movements, she paused a second, gave me a frustrated look, then drew two parallel lines with a diagonal running between them. Only then did I realize she was writing letters. But it required too much from me to figure out which were which.
Once Adela realized ghost spelling wasn’t working so well, she contorted her body into letters like a cheerleader. She curved her small self into Cs and Ss and others I couldn’t catch. She was doing an X, I think, with her legs spread wide and arms opened, tucking her head down into her torso to accentuate the upper V of it, when Nancy came in, and Adela, noticing my quick change of focus toward the door, dove from my belly, pressing down on my fat like a springboard, resolving a quick flight with a forward roll that came to a halt near my kidneys, where she tucked into the fetal position, no bigger than a baby squirrel.
Nancy didn’t look as beautiful as she had the day before. Not that she looked bad. Just that she was matte instead of glossy, and there was a sort of distance to everything, as though I were seeing her through a gaudy picture frame.
“So how’s the curveball, Trooper?” she asked, sliding a tray table in front of me for lunch.
“No more curveballs,” I said. “That’s over for now.”
“No more curveballs,” she confirmed, laughing a little like the words tickled.
“You miss ‘em?”
“They’ve been replaced.”
“Oh yeah, by what?”
“Can’t say,” I said.
(Adela pinched me.)
“I’m afraid to say, Nancy.”
“Why afraid? We’re friends, no?”
“Yes, friends. And no, not friends. I tell you one little thing, they drug me to la-la land.”
“Eat up,” said Nancy. She spoon-fed me mush, then dabbed at my chin.
“Coast’s clear,” I said, and she gave me the cutest little thumbs up, then motioned to the area behind my hip, dramatically pulling her tiny hands to her bikini-top a few times in succession. Before long she was joined on my belly by another miniature bathing beauty, who I recognized after a moment as one of my first long-term girlfriends, one of those people who teach you everything you know about the dynamics of love, who put you though the motions. My first real darling, beautiful Brenda, finger-combing remnants of baseball shell from her long Asian-straight hair. She wore a modest one-piece, strapless and black, her upper body partially concealed in a nearly translucent silk robe, not quite a kimono, but something with just enough class to lend a decency and maturity so clearly lacking in Adela’s outfit.
Brenda, always the melodramatic type, the kind who fainted upon seeing a spider rappel from the ceiling, stared at me as one would watch the snow suddenly melt from Mt. Kilimanjaro, with her big beautiful eyes like twin stars becoming supernova above a faint galaxy of freckles. Unlike Adela, Brenda did not try to communicate with me. She just stood there, breaking my heart.
Through the curtain that separates me from my roommate, I see Norman sit up in bed, stand, and face the window. I see a silhouette, one that speaks, a shadowy thing that makes noises, agrammatical sentences I’ve long ago learned not to puzzle over: words that simply share our airspace for a moment before disappearing without impact. Poor Norman, his family used to visit him every few days when he first arrived: his daughter-in-law, son, grandson. Norman would ask for money to pay the toll takers at the end of the hall, he said he thought he needed to pay to get outside. His daughter-in-law told me that Norman walked ten miles a day before he came to the home. Now he thinks the hallway is ten miles long and mostly underwater, mistaking tracklighting reflections on uncarpeted stretches for ocean and sky.
What confuses Norman now, however, are the women on my stomach. He turns from the window, his wide silhouette narrows then disappears as he shuffles in his slippers, peeking at me around the curtain then standing full frontal at the foot of my bed. Adela and Brenda pause and turn, their eyes angled up at him. I imagine running an extended finger down Adela’s lower back, pulling her bikini elastic over either cheek. (Such is my state: relegated to the mental molestation of six-inch women I haven’t seen in nearly eighty years.) Norman stares at Adela and Brenda, his mouth open as if about to speak. I’m half-afraid that, with his mouth opened like that, Norman will inhale one of them. Or that one will take a running leap from the knobs of my knees and land in his mouth. I am terrified that one of them is about to end up in his mouth.
But there’s nothing I can do. Norman winds his way closer to me. As though hearing my unspoken fears, he leans along the side of the bed, occasionally bumping the room-dividing curtain so it ripples and ghosts and more or less seems to breathe. Then, with a vigor I’d never seen in the home, Norman snags Adela and pops her headfirst into his mouth. Brenda shrieks, stumbles over into the recess of my crotch, then makes her way over my thigh to the otherside of the bed away from Norman.
“Nancy!” I scream as loud as I can.
“Nancy!” And Norman’s face goes berserk as though I’d just snipped off one of his toes. But all he does is stand there, transferring weight from one foot to another, rocking side to side like he has to pee.
“Nancy!” I scream, checking to see if Brenda’s OK, but then, just as I find her hiding face down, the whole length of her tucked to the line where my thigh meets the bed, I see Courtney, then Doris, then Eudora, then Flannery, Giselle, Ha, Iris, Jhumpa, Katie, Loni, all of them, cracking through the scuffed shells of baseballs that land in my lap. From the foot of the bed, all of them, Maya, Neve, Olivia, Parker, Queen, Rosie, Susan, Toni, pulling themselves and helping each other out of their shells, scuttling up the bed, then, when Norman reaches out and devours Uma, the ladies start screaming, diving for cover, as the near-darkness of the room goes bright with the overheads as Nancy rushes in: “What the hell’s going on in here?”
Norman backs away from the bed.
“Nancy, he ate . . . ”
“He ate what? What he eat?”
“Two of them,” I said. “Uma . . . and,” then I realize.
“Uma?” Nancy says, her eyes open, skeptical now.
“Nevermind. Nothing,” I say. “He was just bothering me.”
“Now what are you saying?”
“Nothing. No one.”
“Nothing. No one. Right.”
Had they come to bring me back with them?
They huddled for a few seconds, then bounced apart, each hurrying to a different spot, where they got down and stretched on their backs. Once they settled, it was clear that their formation spelled the word YES. And when I asked when? they rolled around and traded places and managed to spell the word NOW.
A second later I am in the tunnel, the ball coming at me. I anticipate its drop, scoop it as it bounces at my feet, fire it back into the darkness. And when the ball comes back, I rush it, with full energy and spring in my step, catch it before it breaks, gun it back, still rushing ahead, trying to find whatever it is I’m playing catch with here.
This was once published in Duck
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