The afternoon air hung heavy like a damp wool coat. Lucy wobbled on her bike, balancing her baseball glove on the handlebars and a bat under her arm. Leaning oaks touched their tops together over the dirt road. The still air, the cicadas’ mad buzz, the leaning tree shadows: if she squinted her eyes just right she was in a fairy tunnel on her way to Neverland.
Lucy had just escaped the thick tomato air of her mother’s kitchen after spending the morning helping Mom with the canning. She had chosen that chore over helping Daddy hoe the garden – at least the sweltering steam of the kitchen and the huge piles of tomatoes offered variety, better than the monotony of moving a hoe up and down long dirt rows and getting dirt mixed with sweat caked like brown paste on her legs. The tomatoes had to be washed, spots cut out, then dunked in a pot of boiling water followed by cold water in the sink. The papery skins peeled off so easy then, and the naked tomatoes made a squishy slurping sound as she pushed them into hot Mason jars. Mom had to stand on a wooden crate to be tall enough to see into the canning pot, making sure the boiling water covered the tops of the heavy jars. Mom frowned into the steam, her hair falling out of its hasty hairpins. At ten, Lucy was already taller than her mom, whom everyone called Pinkie. But the delicate operation of extracting the heavy jars out of the boiling water with long tongs and setting the jars down on folded flour sacks lining the kitchen table required strength the pioneer’s daughter had and the town-bred Lucy didn’t. Different strengths are required of women at different times. So while the tomato jars cooled in the dark kitchen, Pinkie saw no reason why Lucy couldn’t just go play for a little while. Lucy practically tripped herself running to get her bike. Now she only needed to find somebody with a ball.
Rounding the bend in the road, Lucy saw several boys playing baseball on the sawdust field. Her lucky day! She watched a while to see how hard they played. She saw she could hit farther than two of the littler boys and throw almost as good as the short one, so she lay her bike down in the grass at the edge of the road.
So far the boys had ignored the dark-haired tomboy on her bike. But when she started walking toward home plate, the boys, some her age, some a little older, watched her with sideways glances. Lucy stood behind the catcher and started swinging her bat a little. That was the last straw. This little intruder must be dealt with. The current batter up, the short sandy haired boy, spoke up first.
“What d’you want, baby?
“I want to play.”
You’re buggin’ me so move back.” Lucy took a step back and stood there staring at him, tilting her chin upward at being called something she knew she was definitely not. The boy faced the pitcher and slowly swung his bat, testing to see if she was far enough away. Deciding she wasn’t, the boy turned around and glared at Lucy.
“Move back more.” Lucy took one tiny step back, keeping her eyes steady on the boy.
Another tiny step.
“More!” The boy dropped his bat and started toward her. “Keep going till you get home, you girl! Go play with dolls!”
“I can hit better than you! Let me play!” She stood her ground. He got closer. The boys from the field by this time were yelling “Come on, Jimmy! Let’s just play!” But Jimmy wasn’t going to give up this staring contest. He gave his most menacing face and turned red for emphasis.
“Hey, Jim, slow down. Why not just let her play for a few minutes? Then she’ll go away.” Lucy gave up her stare to look at who had spoken. A lanky boy with such closely cropped blonde hair he looked nearly bald, with huge ears that stuck out from his head, took off his catcher’s glove and put his hand on Jim’s shoulder. Jim swung around and looked up at the boy, who laughed and affectionately shoved Jim’s head.
“But she’s just a gross girl, Bob!”
“It’s OK. Hey you girl, go stand in left field. You can be on my team.”
Lucy looked at him. She had seen him before at church. He looked different here, with dust and sunshine all around him. Although he was one of the ugliest boys she’d ever seen, his green eyes smiled at her and she ran to her spot. Her new teammates kept waving her on “Go back, more. Further back, you.” She took left field and stood punching her fist into her glove, ready for anything.
After a couple of hours of never getting a ball hit her way and always staying at the end of the batting line, she finally got on her bike to ride home. She waved thanks to the skinny boy who let her play. He ignored her. His name is Bob, she told herself.