A Stone's Throw

Paul Silverman

      A mile from the madhouse, burning in the sun, lies a minute but vast plain called Hancock Field. Its vastness comes from the density of everything that surrounds it, a jungle of wooden three-decker tenements so bunched and yardless they seem to sweat together in the August broil, pooling the glands of Jew and Black, Black and Jew alike for an Atlantic Ocean of sweat. The only sign mentioning the name of the field hangs on the front of the creaking streetcar that stops there, disgorging the boy with his broomstick and pack of cigarettes. He steps onto the cratered sidewalk, looks left and right and sniffs the air, a two-footed antelope scenting for predators. But this is broad daylight and all he finds not of his pallid color and stripe, the talith stripe, is an old flat-nosed man wedged in the gutter, unconscious, his dark skin and rags soaked in a kind of cloying chloroform of urine and wine. In the sticky air hazing above the field the boy catches notes of boiling pig guts and freshly koshered cow's tongue, the only racial integration there is in this neighborhood, the integration of battle smells. From his ninth grade classes he remembers the Boer word veld, and he stares into the shimmering heat and thinks of this place as Hancock Veld, where the Jewish antelopes graze by day and the Black panthers hunt by night.

      On the field of cooked grass and cigarette litter is the ragged outline of a baseball diamond gone to hell, pitted and weed-strewn. Behind the broken backstop three trees, withering in DDT, provide a miserly splatter of shade. Here the boy lights a Lucky, drags deeply and feels the sucked fumes push his stomach up to his throat, making him seasick on this driest of dry land. He gags in dizziness and drags again, his fingers corpse-cold in the boiling heat, determined to practice inhaling smoke until it's as easy for him as breathing air.

      He fights the cigarette down to its last smoldering half-inch and grinds it into the dust with his sneaker, bitterly savoring the puke-breath from his Pyrrhic victory over paper and shredded tobacco. With his broomless cudgel he takes a couple of swings at the air in woozy imitation of Ted Williams. Then he finds rocks, picking them out of the straggle of bottlecaps and glass shards. One by one he tosses them in the air and flails at them, connecting now and then but poorly, so that the rock he hits raises a little dust and scuttles a few feet from where he picked it up in the first place. Only once does he hear the resounding woodslap that satisfies the wrists and tells him, whether he looks up or not, that the rock is on a trajectory, on its way to points unknown in the outer veld.

      Behind him, a streetcar makes a sound like chalk scraping a huge blackboard, and now there are five more dust-kickers, all wet-lipping a single Lucky. They give Jack the last drag and he fakes the inhale.

      From the gutter the wino rises and panhandles the six young Jews. Geld, geld, he says, showing off his beggar Yiddish, drawling the word and mispronouncing the last consonant, which is supposed to sound like a "t" —so he seems to be saying the first syllable of gelding.

      With their desert-nosed, Slav-eyed faces—Russki, Litvak, Galicia—the six boys seem to be from a different planet than the wino. He drawls in Sunnyland at them and they turn away and babble at each other, flinging their hands into an imaginary circle, unrolling their fingers and shooting them like dice to choose sides for some alien game, some Diaspora soccer improvised on Ellis Island. The wino thinks he's hitting up apprentice jewelers; even the dungarees and sneakers seem like costumes to him, a masquerade by juvenile pawnbrokers who should be wearing black suits and hats; offspring of foreigners who peddle rags and cheat on diamonds.

      A broomstick, a pink rubber ball, three on a team instead of nine; somehow it all works and the boys sink into the illusion that Hancock Field, strangling in the rainless August oven, is in reality green and glistening and thundering with spectators, a microcosmic Fenway Park. They applaud their own droopy line drives and lazy catches as though their faces and numbers were already immortalized on baseball cards. Jack drinks the big-league feeling the way the wino gorges on his Ripple. He stands in the high fever of the outfield waiting for the ball that never comes, letting Fenway roll over him, letting the gush of ballpark prowess fill his veins and push the bile of the madhouse day out of every sweating pore.

      The teams change places and he waits in the shriveled archipelago of shade for his turn at bat, watching an old Chinese woman alight on a buckling park bench. She arrives noiselessly, head shrouded by a white hairnet, but instantly she has a cyclone of pigeons at her feet.

      To the annoyed stickball players, the head-veil signifies the old woman as a kitchen worker from one of the three chop suey houses in range of the field. She bends forward and dips her right hand into a grease-darkened paper bag. That movement alone doubles the number of pigeons who attend her, the jade goddess of birds.

      The woman fishes around in the bag and dredges up bits of chewy sesame candy, rips it into even tinier pieces and casts the pieces to the clucking, fluttering horde. With each toss she cries "coo, coo." Jack hears her cry the same "coo, coo" again and again, until the couplet seems like cartoonspeak, Looney Tune words, not even close to the chortling sound pigeons actually make. But the birds keep coming and landing, squadrons of them emerging from the high steam-hot haze and swooping in from every possible angle, until they cover the sidewalk in a burbling, liquid mass that spills over the curb.

      "Hey fuckface, wake up. You're up."

      The boy turns from the woman and the pigeons and trundles himself to the plate. He takes the broomstick from Savitz, son of the druggist nailed for the under-the-counter Nembutal—for making the yellow capsules as easy to buy in his pharmacy as lemon drops.

      "Don't ever go there, Jack, you'll never survive; not a pussy like you," Savitz once said of the horror-house bastille, the notorious state prison where his father sat in an interminable night of stone, locked in with killers and a reeking slop bucket.

      Nate, the pitcher, runs in from the mound, eyes burning red as his hair. "Give me that thing," he yells, and once again snatches the broomstick from Jack's hands. "This is for the birds," he says. "Time fucking out."

      Wielding the stick like an axe he charges the sea of intruding pigeons, the only crowd he has drawn. "I can't pitch with this shit."

      The old Chinese woman runs from Nate as she would from a Japanese soldier bayonet-charging in a newsreel. The pigeons escape the ground in a solid upward stream, incongruously majestic in flight—doves erupting at a coronation—and disappear into the scalded sky.

      In place of the feathered commotion comes another intrusion, this one so welcome it halts the game. Three girls step onto the field. In the shimmering heat one of them, Ayla, comes at Jack like a mirage. She was born, in fact, in a desert, a Sephardic child. He has known of her since the first grade, when she came to this country with her DP family. Her eyes, even then, struck him as biblical; almond oasis eyes, destined to seduce kings.

      But today she wears shorts so short he can see the hills of olive skin, and she wants him to see.

      Never, ever, has Ayla come within ten feet of him. Or even indicated she knows his name.

      "Come sit with me," Ayla says, and pulls him to the bench where bits of sesame candy are still strewn around the rails. She makes him sit down first and swivels onto his lap. She uses her bare arms as though they were another set of thighs, trapping his face in them. Plumes of her scent cloud his head; he drinks Ayla's musk out of the air and begins to writhe under the joyous, squirming weight.

      Then, as abruptly as she came to him, she gets up and leaves. He sits glued to the weathered bench like a moth to a light bulb, as though pinned against it by a gale, watching her slow, bold walk through the infield to the peak of the dusty diamond. A part of him stalks her, dancing on the echo of her giggle, chasing the last wisps of her smell. She moves past second base at an angle that takes her into left field, on a course that will bring her to the avenue and the stores, and she begins to sink into the vapors of the day.

      "Hey, Jack, fuckface," yells Nate from the mound. "You gonna play with us or with yourself?"

      He hears and gets to his feet, but his eyes stay locked, like a gunsight, on the shape dwindling in the outer veld.

      "Cockteased the shit out of you, sucker. Get your ass to the plate."

      Jack's sneaker brushes against a rock sticking out of the dust. One of the rocks he'd been swinging at before the others showed up.

      "How'd you like that broomstick up your ass? Play ball."

      He reaches down, claws at the dust and digs out the rock. In his palm the feel of it is surprisingly smooth; the size compact, the energy compressed and explosive. He rolls the rock around his hand and assesses it ballistically. In the tension of his arm and the heft of the stone he finds loft and distance—and a message to Ayla—pleading for release.

      He narrows his eyes on a bump of torn turf about ten paces behind her, a spot close enough to get her to turn around when it smacks home. This he makes his mark. He draws his whole body back, tight as a slingshot, and lets the rock go.

      In all his life he has never thrown an object this far. The rock makes a Goliath of an arc and only misses its target, the bump of turf, by overreaching it and slicing to the left—a stupendous union of prowess and error. And the rock comes crashing out of the opaque air into the top of the girl's head.

      At this distance he can't hear either the thud of the rock on her skull or the scream. But he sees both in the cringe of her back and shoulders, the violent arching of her torso that suggests a turtle shielding its exposed neck from an attacking predator. He gapes in horror, watching her stagger and stop dead in her tracks. In the instant he spends waiting for her to sink to the ground his mind goes amok, glimpsing the inevitable consequences, the pain and the doom. He pictures the lockup with the billy clubs cracking his teeth, the handcuffs tearing his wrists, the torment in the courtroom holding cell, the slam of the gavel, the lifetime of hell in the dungeon where Savitz's father sits for a mere eighteen months. He feels the mountainous walls closing in on him and winces from the teeth of the gnawing prison rats. He begins to concoct alibis, glaring accusingly at his own right arm; he vows to sever it, chop the arm off with an axe; to do that and more if only the arm could face the murder music on its own—so the rest of him could stay free. And then he sees how sealed his fate really is; how even his five ball-playing friends—and the wino as well—have turned as deadly as any policeman or judge. In the blink of an eye they now stand on one side of damnation and he on the other. They are one race and he is another. They have become witnesses.

      Ayla falls and Nate leaves the mound, moving towards Jack, his face blazing with rectitude and rage.

Paul Silverman

Paul Silverman has worked as a newspaper reporter, sandwich man, olive packer and advertising creative director. One of his commercials won a Silver Lion at Cannes. His stories have appeared in The South Dakota Review, The North Atlantic Review, The Pedestal Magazine, The Front Range Review, The Jabberwock Review, The Adirondack Review, The Paumanok Review, and others.