Pepper

Pepper 1920 1440 Sheldon Lee Compton

A dedicated fan would have recognized the smacking sound right away. It cracked across the trailer court at about two seconds intervals. Crack, one, two. Crack, one, two.

But Lulie Tate wasn’t a dedicated fan, and surely nothing close to resembling a solid third baseman or cleanup hitter. She couldn’t have known the sound was leather to leather impacting at high speed, ball to glove, over and over again. She could have, though, gotten a better idea if she’d bothered to look out the window of her trailer before storming into the courting lot already yelling.

Todd Restall gave a quick leg kick and fanned his glove the same way he had seen Tom Seaver do on television during his delivery. He wished some of his mom’s old boyfriends were here to see it. Those guys needed to know he had some power. As soon as the ball hit his mom’s glove, he heard Lulie Tate calling out behind him.

“Sounds like somebody shooting a gun out here,” she said when she finally saw Todd and his mom passing the baseball. “Bobbi! Bobbi, is that sound you all?”

Bobbi pushed several locks of blonde hair away from her eyes, tucked the baseball into her glove, and pushed her sleeves up. “It’s us, Lulie Tate.”

“Whateryoudoin?”

“Playin’ Pepper,” Todd said before she could answer. “We throw as hard as we can and see who quits first, you know, because their hand’s hurting. You can lose if you drop it, too.”

But Lulie Tate was already walking away.

 

***

 

Before he rang up well over three-thousand strikeouts as a Major League pitcher Tom Seaver made up for what he lacked in strength and size by developing extremely tight control of his pitching. This was in high school, before he joined the Marines, before USC grabbed him up, before he eventually landed with the New York Mets and went on to legendary status.

He worked for hours. He stared at home plate from the mound so long that seeing it thinned out on the short horizon became part of his ordinary field of vision. Right corner, left corner. A millimeter here, a readjustment to the grip, seams, fingertips.

Seaver’s commitment was so absolute many teammates and fans alike began to have frequent and colorful conversations about just what drove this young man. It can’t be confirmed but numerous catchers and pitching coaches reported that even after Seaver gained fame he continued a set ritual of one-hundred pitches from the mound, not in the bullpen, every evening, on the road or at home. Pure fabrication, of course, but what the teammates and fans and coaches were trying to explain to themselves, to each other, through this building mythology, was how a man could rise to such a high level with so little true heat. How did he not only endure, but excel, no matter the limitations?

What those who knew him couldn’t understand about Seaver, about young men like Seaver, was that hardship bore its own resolve.

 

***

 

It was late Tuesday afternoon, high summer, and the trailer court was mostly quiet, save Todd’s game of Pepper. It was less of a trailer court and more of a trailer driveway. Lulie Tate graveled half her front yard along Cherokee Creek and pulled in four single-wide trailers positioned in various spots and available to rent. A two-foot high Sears fence separated the trailer court from Lulie Tate’s modest home, a place that continually buzzed after nightfall due to the fact that she sold fairly good pot and bootlegged five dollar pints of liquor and vodka, the occasional case of Milwaukee’s best

Todd caught, set, and threw the sun into dusk and then dusk into the early purple of night before his mom begged off. Both were covered in a sheen of sweat. They both rubbed the palms of their hands while standing on the cinder blocks stacked under the front door of the trailer.

“Throbbing?” Bobbi said.

“Throbbing,” Todd confirmed.

She smiled and he eased her way up the cinder blocks and into the living room. Couch, small television, the room was wide open other than that. In the window was a box fan and Todd went straight to it and adjusted it higher. The new evening cool shuttled into the room and he took a seat beside his mom.

In 20-inch black and white, David Hasselhoff sped away from a generally bad pack of men in Kit, hardly more than a black blur moving off-screen left. Todd wasn’t as interested as usual and she noticed, got up and went to the rabbit ears antenna, began positioning and repositioning it. The screen blanked out to white fuzz, returned.

“Come turn the channel, Todd,” she said. “Your uncle showed me a way to pick up a pretty good picture of this new sports channel that’s on all day and all night. I guess it’s on cable right now or something.”

Todd did as he was told. He watched as his mom twisted and readjusted, twisted some more, curled in her fingers the antennas. The television went from a blare of static to quiet, muffled voices, another blare, and then finally clear voices talking about the Celtics and Lakers.

They settled back onto the couch. The cool air coming from the box fan lulled them both into a deep and satisfying silence after being in the sun for so long. Todd stayed awake until the anchors mentioned if the Reds won. He fell asleep picturing himself on a black bicycle with a red, pulsing light speeding away from men driving loud cars.

 

***

 

A pitcher, a high level pitcher or a little league pitcher, it doesn’t matter, has to focus a lot on control. Not location, but control. This starts with everything physical. Does he fail to get his arm up into a good cocked position at the time he plants his foot? This cocked position and when it occurs is vital. Are his fingers under the ball? Or does he hook his wrist as his pitching arm circles down? Coaches will watch for poor weight transfer, such as the body getting out ahead of the arm. The body, unlike the brain, can only operate a certain number of tasks at a time.

At the simplest level, it’s a question of whether or not he can he work through pain, adversity, turbulence, in less than ideal circumstances. The weather, for instance, is not always going to be cooperating with the game. It will be rainy; it will be hot; it will be hardly tolerable. Despite all this, he will always have other things to consider. Are his movements pure? Controlling his movements is the beginning of control, especially in these situations when circumstances are demanding the best of him.

To find control, a pitcher has to be ready to be honest with himself. If he pitches wild high, his stride might be too long; wild low, it may be too short. Close self-examination is crucial. For instance, he must always remember to lead with the front hip following maximum knee height during that first movement toward home plate. He must always have a definite target and has to be moving in that direction. This is the honing down of purpose before the pitch. And, full of expectations, he begins his stride.

 

***

 

Cab lived in the trailer directly to the right of Todd and Bobbi’s. In his early fifties, he was the oldest of any of the residents in Lulie Tate’s trailer court.

On Wednesday morning, before the sun baked everything to a low heat and the trees and grass still held dew from the night before, he started putting together what he called his inventory on a large folding table in front of his place. Fried apple pies, deer jerky, porno films taped to VHS, and miniature American flags. Inside, stored in a deep freezer, were various ice cream bars. Everything was one dollar, except the taped porno. Those were five each, three for ten. He had just finished setting up his items when a 70s model Dodge Aspen sprayed into the parking lot and came to an abrupt stop. From the Aspen came Vaughn Restall, Todd’s uncle and brother to Bobbi. He was a coal truck driver by night and a general roustabout during the first part of the day. Weekends, he often went missing entirely, never explaining his absence, but always showed back up on time for the first load of his shift. He was Lulie Tate’s best customer.

Todd adored him.

Vaughn stretched and walked to Cab’s table. “What’ve we got here, Cab? Ahh, I like these flags. One of them,” he placed a flag off to the side, “and three of these fine feature films.” He turned the VHS tape over and then over again. “Where’s the names? The titles or whatever?”

Already settled into his lawn chair, Cab said, “Whatcha need names for? One is the same as the other and the other and so on. You’ll lose interest after about ten minutes either way.”

Vaughn’s easy smile turned to full laughter. He laughed until he was bent over holding his stomach. Todd heard him from his bedroom and ran outside. Just as he got to Cab’s table and wrapped his arm around his uncle’s leg, another vehicle pulled into the parking lot. It was a muscle car. A man with curly brown hair down to his shoulders and a full, nearly black beard got out. He twisted a crowbar in his hands and tossed up gravel dust with steel toe boots. He moved toward them and moved fast.

“What’s going on here?” Cab asked. He now sat straight in the chair, both hands planted into springing position.

When the man drew the crowbar back and brought it down hard onto Vaughn’s shoulder, Cab grabbed Todd and spirited him into his trailer. He locked his front door and drew Todd with him to the living room window. Outside, all they could make out for sure was that the crowbar was no longer in the picture. The two men were into it with fists now.

Todd knew he’d be back. He sat beneath the window with his eyes squeezed shut, hands over his ears. He had ways of handling things at times like this. He made himself very small, inside his mind. With his eyes closed so tightly, he shrunk himself down inside that forced darkness until he barely existed at the outer edges of it. All that could penetrate through to him were muffled sounds, and most of the time those were overtaken by the swooshing sound of his own blood riding hard beneath his skin. In this way, Todd held mastery over all the world. He was better at this than Pepper.

It was a full ten minutes before the man with the beard hobbled back to his muscle car, gradually backed out of the parking lot, and drove away. Vaughn sat cross-legged on the ground in front of the fold out table. He held his face in his hands and when Cab and Todd emerged from the trailer to check on him he turned around and splashed blood across the row of VHS tapes.

“Good lordamercy, Vaughn,” Cab said.

He took the tapes into his arms, swiped at them two or three times with the hem of shirt, and sat them in his chair. He sighed heavily and then helped Vaughn to his feet. By this time Bobbi was walking toward them from her trailer. She crossed her arms when she saw Vaughn’s bleeding nose and mouth. She bent and gently examined her baby brother.
“What in the world was all that?”
“Just some coworkers I pissed off last week,” Vaughn lied. It was all he offered. He looked sheepishly at Todd and then back to Bobbi.
“With coworkers like that,” Cab said, and trailed off. To his credit, and surprisingly, he wasn’t complaining about lost merchandise. He quietly picked up shattered VHS tapes and broken flags without another word, occasionally shaking his head slowly and sighing deeply.
“He’ll be coming back,” Vaughn said. “Bad as I look I got the best of him there at the end. Popped him a good one in the sack.”
Bobbi scowled and told Todd to go into the trailer. When he started into Cab’s, she pointed down the parking lot to their place. He switched direction and walked toward their trailer with his head turned to watch his mom and uncle.
“Right in the sack, huh?” Bobbi said. Todd saw her smile and then quickly catch herself and become serious again.

“Yep, dead center,” Vaughn said, his own smile a slick, red gash.

 

***

 

Tom Seaver entered the big leagues with the New York Mets. But he came to the attention of young boys and their mothers in Eastern Kentucky during his time later with the Cincinnati Reds, a five-year period ending in 1982. This trade away from the Mets came after a strange occurrence. A gossip columnist, more or less, wrote a piece saying Seaver’s wife was pushing him to confront Mets management about money. She kept pointing out, the piece claimed, that Nolan Ryan was getting a far bigger salary with the Astros.

This type of concern, this preoccupation with something intangible like paper bills and struck metals, was far out of Seaver’s reach emotionally and practically. It was neither here nor there. He had the capacity, of course, for obsession, but money was not a worthy object.

The entire situation was a headache for Seaver. The more he worked, the more the problem grew. He finally left the Mets and went to the Reds. And, as happened across Eastern Kentucky, fans were born. It was the era of The Big Red Machine. Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and, though he wasn’t one of the great eight, Seaver, too. Multiple World Series were won. Bonuses were given. For a time, money was no longer an issue. But hardship had, by this point, been instilled within Seaver. What was control but victory over the impossible? What was the impossible but the backswing of success?

 

***

 

Todd sat in the floor near the trailer’s long hallway and watched his uncle. Vaughn wiped his nose and mouth with paper towels. When he was done the roll was gone and the living room floor was covered in white and red. His mom picked each wad of towels from the floor and took them to the kitchen garbage can. When she came back she had two beers and sat down roughly on the couch beside Vaughn. Todd was playing his quiet game. He often grew bored and would challenge his mom to see how long he could go without talking. A new challenge had started twenty minutes ago and, during that time (he could often go as long as two hours), his mom and uncle had messed with the rabbit ears enough to get a clear picture of the all day sports channel, which Vaughn explained was called ESPN. The anchors were discussing the basketball playoffs. Bobbi and Vaughn drank through these segments waiting on word of what Pete Rose was doing in Philly lately. The word had been that he might be going to the Expos. Cincy was getting farther and farther away.

As two beers turned into four and then to twelve, Todd eased himself backward, deeper into the hallway, until he was in full retreat to his bedroom. The sheet was gone from his bed, but a quilt was bunched up at the foot so he piled in and pulled the quilt over his head. In the dimness beneath the quilt he practiced grips on his baseball. Split-finger, slider, two-finger, curve. He turned his wrist, watched his grip placement as he went into the slow-motion turn. When he got tired of the different grips, he practiced regulating his breathing, stabilizing his nerves.

Hours passed.

When his mom came in to check on him, his chest and back, his arms and legs, were covered in sweat from staying under the quilt for so long. There was the heady and slightly pleasant scent of alcohol and then she gently tugged the quilt from him. She smiled in that moment and when he offered a sleepy grin she fell in a twist and lay beside him.

“Seaver is a magician,” she said. Todd heard the lilt in her voice, the easy slowness. “But, see, that’s the coolest thing. He’s not really. He’s just a hard worker. He’s not got that high heat like Nolan. What he gets, he earns through hard work, by painting that plate and some killer spin.”

When she said killer spin she emphasized the words with two quick pokes into Todd’s ribs. He nodded in agreement but didn’t speak. She joined him in silence for a couple minutes. Vaughn had turned the television up and now it was the eleven o’clock news.

“You know what Reggie Jackson said about Seaver?”

Todd shook his head. He was still steadying each breath. It was easier to focus this way, and, when he focused, his anxiety lifted up and away from him in small, hot waves.

“Mr. October himself,” she said, and let that sink in for a second or two. “Reggie said that blind men came to the games just to hear him pitch. Ain’t that something? What a thing to say about another ballplayer. What a great thing to say.”

 

***

 

Major League pitchers throw about sixty-five percent strikes. First pitch strikes drop by a little over five-percent, still well above half.

But that number falls off drastically and in direct relation to the level of fear the pitcher has of failing. He must screw up his courage under stress and keep challenging hitters, maintain his poise and, most importantly, his emotions. There can be no nibble here, nibble there, no pitches in the dirt. He must throw his very best pitch each and every time. Still, as with everything, there’s a balance.

Trying too hard or trying too much is the kind of bad habit a pitcher can develop if emotions aren’t kept in check. This watchfulness always helps him accept his own strengths and limitations, puts him on the right path to learning how to work around the things he’s not capable of and to, instead, pitch within himself.

 

***

Crack, one, two. Crack, one, two. Vaughn pulled air between his teeth and took the glove off, rubbed his hand.

“Doggone, bub. I want you to look at my hand, buddy. Might as well just dip it in boiling water. You are getting some speed goin’.”

His mom sat on the cinder block steps, a Reds cap pulled down over her eyes to shield midday sunlight. Vaughn fumbled a curve from Todd that had dropped out of the sky a foot before it reached him. He let out a gust and squatted to rub his hands together.

“Com’on, you can’t stop!” Todd smacked his glove.

Vaughn shook his head and leg kicked into his next pitch. He could never get spin. His pitches were basic two-seamers that flew wild. When they painted any part of the strike zone, it was only by chance. It had forced the rule that if a pitch is out of range it doesn’t count as a miss. Todd caught the pitch without issue and started into his long set up but Bobbi held up her hand, jogged to stand behind her brother.

“Let’s see how many he gets in the strike zone,” she said, and set herself in the umpire’s position.

Todd kept the strikes coming. He was near to finishing his third retirement of the side when behind him a car pulled roughly onto the gravel lot. He knew before turning that it was the muscle car. Vaughn stretched his neck, looked past Todd, and then dropped his glove to the ground and started walking.

Unlike the day before, Todd was relaxed and calm. He worked to steady his breathing and made himself settle down. He knew the man stepping from the muscle car wasn’t a coworker of his uncle’s. The man was one of his mom’s old boyfriends. At the start he had been nice, like all the rest. But within the month his mom stopped smiling. Her eyes were red all the time, and Todd could remember at least one quarter-sized bruise directly in the middle of her chin. This man had hurt everyone, and now he was here again on this hot day in this trailer court to do it again.

Lulie Tate’s lot became a coliseum in miniature. At the far end, Cab stood in the doorway of his trailer with the screen door propped open with his elbow. The only other bit of him visible was his face pushed between the screen and the doorway. From her house at the end of the trailer park, Lulie Tate stood on the porch with her hands on her hips. She wore her usual muumuu and seemed half-interested and half-concerned. Bobbi had retreated into her trailer in such a rush she had forgotten to take Todd with her.

“You get in there with your mom,” Vaughn said when he realized Todd was still outside. “I told you this was going to happen. I knew it was coming so don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried,” Todd said. “I knew it was coming, too.”

Now there were others standing in their doorways and windows. The entire world was the trailer lot at that moment. Vehicles traveling along Cherokee Creek, though only a few feet away, might as well have been silent and invisible. The spectators here in this new place, this battlefield of base gravel and trailer hitches, had gathered for a fight and so Vaughn didn’t keep them waiting.

Todd watched his uncle stalking toward the man and knew that today was different. There was the very real feeling of his old fears moving away from him, replaced by an unshakable courage. He ran to within about sixty feet of him and stopped, went into his windup. He was seven years old.

Header photography © Jason D. Ramsey.

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