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Fiction #467
(published December 31, 2009)
The Favorite Pastime
by Lewis Manalo

Fucking baseball.

It was hot as hell. Sunny, too. Was it hot as hell, or only sunny? Anyhow, they hadn't seen a cloud for weeks. As far as they could tell, it was a country with all mountains that they had to walk up and down on, and explosions, and no clouds. Not a cloud for days in any direction. It was plain unnatural, there not being any clouds, seeing a blue sky, barely even any airplanes. The only planes they ever saw were theirs, and then it was such a rare thing, it was like Christmas. And the helicopters. A few guys lost their lunches riding on those. The FOB was really just a place for helicopters to refuel, that's why there wasn't barely anybody there. That's why they were allowed to take their DCU tops off and just play baseball in their brown tee shirts and boonie caps.

What the hell else was there to do? They didn't have the freedom to do anything really. Couldn't watch TV because there wasn't any TV to watch. Couldn't cruise for chicks because there weren't any chicks to try to impress. Couldn't take a walk unless it was up and down those damn mountains. When they weren't working all they could do was bullshit, write home to their women or their folks, lift weights, or play baseball.

Fucking baseball.


Bottom of the third and Second Squad's at bat. SFC D____ steps up to the plate, which is actually just a piece of cardboard with a rock on top of it so it doesn't blow away. SFC D____ looks across to the pitcher, SGT B____, squints through the sun to a man he doesn't like, feels uncomfortable with, trusts as a good soldier, but sees as a dubious leader. SGT B____ squints back, he's always squinting, always scowling, really, always angry. "Hate keeps me happy," he says. And he does hate. Everything. The Hajis, the desert, the mountains, mines, war, his own soldiers, everything except for baseball. He's there on the mound. He bullied out PV2 C____ who wanted to pitch. B____ told C____ he couldn't pitch. He could suck a cock was what he could do.

"Don't let Sarn't D____ scare ya," the catcher, PFC W____ hollers, joking, thinking he's funny, knowing that the ladies like his boyish charm, his blonde hair, only there aren't any ladies around, not out at the FOB, just two MP chicks, and W____'s married anyway. But his charm doesn't work on guys, not straight ones either, and nobody's more straight than a bunch a soldiers who've had to do without for six months. Besides, everybody knows PFC W____ shit himself during the last rocket attack.

"Shut the fuck up, W____," SFC D____ mutters, gripping the bat. He's always pissed-off, too. Just about everybody's pissed off all the time. If you seem too chipper, everybody gets pissed off at you, because why the hell should you be so chipper?

"Asshole," SGT B____ mutters to nobody except maybe the baseball. He cradles the baseball in his glove, the glove he made out of cardboard and 100-mph tape, his glove's all green and brown. The gloves were SPC M____'s idea, but he doesn't even play baseball. He just had a baseball from the CA guy who ran the Haji little league in Orgun. SGT B____ didn't come up with the idea for making gloves, but his glove is by far the best.

He pitches the ball, pretends that he's trying to throw a curve ball, uses that as his excuse to throw slow to SFC D____. SFC D_____ swings the bat SPC M____ carved out of a tent post, hits the ball. But the bat's too short, too hard, the ball too cheap, made in China, so the ball grounds out towards the short-stop, but there isn't any short-stop because, both teams together, there are only ten guys playing anyway, so the third baseman, SSG K____ stumbles after the ball that bounces all crazy on account of all the rocks—the field's nothing but rocks, not a plant for forever around, only past the concertina wire (three lines of it because every unit that comes to the FOB feels it has to rethink the wheel, I mean the security), only past the big ditch and the minefield are the plants, and then they're only little shrubs, barely green, mostly the same dust color as all of the rocks.

Panting like hell because of the elevation, because he hasn't gone for a decent run in about four months, SFC D____ practically sits down on first base, which is PV2 C____'s kevlar helmet. The third baseman/shortstop, SSG K____, who thinks he's funny, but who's known SFC D____ since he was SPC D____, starts laughing and pointing at him, saying, "What the hell's the matter with you?"

"I'm fucking winded."

"You only ran about ten meters!"

"I don't give a shit. Look at me, I'm fucking winded."

"It's the altitude. We're only at 5500 meters up."

"Fuck this shit."

SFC D____ stands up straight.

"Move those bases closer together," and it's an order. SFC D____ gives orders all the time. And the soldiers listen to him because if they don't he's only going to yell a lot more and only at whoever doesn't listen. He yells at all the soldiers till the bases get close enough that he won't get too damn winded when he sprints across the damn rocks to them, but they're still far enough apart that they're not pussy close. SGT B____ just stands there in the middle, ball in hand, staring at everybody shrinking the field. He doesn't care. He doesn't have as far to throw now.

Then PFC R____ comes up to bat, his BCGs (that is Birth-Control-Glasses, Army issue) on his face. He's practically blinding the entire field reflecting the sun with those goggles of his. He tests the tent post, swinging it out, trying to gauge its reach, which, like I said, is nothing. SGT B____ checks the runner on first, who's too damn winded to be thinking about stealing. He'll bother running only if PFC R____ can manage to hit the damn ball.

SGT B____ winds up, lets loose a fast ball. But the ball is weird and doesn't even go that fast. Still, PFC R____ swings a strike.

"C'mon, R____," SPC A____ hollers from the bench. He's encouraging. Other people make fun of him for being encouraging, but SPC A____ believes in the Army, even the idiot soldiers. "Just keep your eye on the ball."

Catcher PFC W____ chucks the ball back to SGT B____. SGT B____ doesn't bother checking on the runner on first this time. But he hollers out his pitch.

"Check this out," SGT B____ hollers. "This is my change-up."

"Like hell you've got a change-up," SSG K____ says from third base, snorting.

But SGT B____ does have a change-up, and it's beautiful. Even with the weird Communist China-made baseball, a country where baseball is in an entirely different language, even with that shitty, kiwi-shaped ball, the change-up turns out beautifully, and it dips just below PFC R____'s swing.

"Whoo-eeee!" PFC W____ throws the ball back to SGT B____. PFC W____ is an ass-kisser.

On first base, SFC D____ is not impressed.

"Just hit the damn ball, R____," he hollers. He's not winded anymore. He feels like running, feels like winning the stupid game, as if there was a point to it.

"I swear to fuck God, you're the only Puerto Rican who ever lived couldn't play baseball."

PFC R____ is embarrassed. Even SPC M____ got a hit, and he's Filipino. He hit the ball and knocked the cover off of it. They had to get another ball.

So PFC R____ tightens his grip on the tent post, swings it out to gauge his distance. Waits for the pitch.

SGT B____ squints down across the rocks at him, hating him just because he's there, because he wants to hit a ball that he's going to throw, because he's Puerto Rican or Latino whatever the fuck-all he calls himself. Because he's American. SGT B____ winds up and throws out his curve ball.

PFC R____ swings and makes contact, smacking the fake bat against the communist baseball with a sour "thud." For a moment, he actually thinks he's made a hit, almost starts to run, but he halts at his first step, watching the little speck of a commie baseball pop-up into the air, going foul over the first base line.

"Fuck! Get that, C____!" SSG K____ hollers, shielding his eyes from the sun with his cardboard glove, watching the commie baseball floating the wrong direction, that is, over the goddamn HESCO barrier, over the goddamn concertina wire, over and into the minefield.

"COVER!" SPC A____ yells from the bench as he and SPC M____ hit the deck. Other guys duck, but the ball lands in the minefield without incident, doesn't even really bounce, just hits a rock and ricochets off at an odd angle and rolls and bounces and stops, just out of sight.

"Fuckin' hell, R____", PV2 C____ mutters.

PFC R____ doesn't think it's really his fault.

The soldiers line up at the HESCO barrier, looking over it, through the barbs on the wire and the short blades on the hoops of concertina wire.

"That CA guy only gave us three balls."

"Broke the other two?"

"Yup. M____ broke one today, and I broke th' other yesterday."

"Game called on account of minefield," SPC M____ says.

"Fuckin' hell," PV2 C____ mutters.

"I can get it, Sarn't," PFC W____ says, all boyish and bright, like he was motherfucking Tom Sawyer.

"Like hell," SFC D____ mutters. He was tired of running anyway. "You go out there, get blown up, want me to tell your wife you got blown up for a fucking baseball? Shit."

He kicks the rocks. Not winning, but at least not losing.

"Game called on account of minefield," SFC D____ says.

The soldiers walk away from the wire, away from the ball, leaving it behind. It was a commie baseball anyway.

Lewis Manalo served two tours in Afghanistan as a combat engineer in the 82nd Airborne, clearing minefields and blowing up unexploded ordinance and weapons caches. He is the author of the novel The Sins of Swann Mercury, a frequent contributor to the film blog SplitEdit, and the buyer for Idlewild Books in New York City.

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