“They’re monsters,” Miles told me, but I didn’t believe him because no one believes in monsters, even when they’ve seen them before.
We were getting ready for his first game. This was just after Miles’s father left. No note. Gave Miles his old baseball glove, but the webbing was torn out, which was Rick right down to the worn leather.
I’d heard of the Monsters already, but I thought they were just big kids. Last year, there’d been a pitcher for the Summerfield Rattlers who was already shaving. He looked to be seventeen, at least. Miles is twelve. You can’t put a seventeen year old pitching against sixth graders. They grow so fast those few years, and change so much. Their voices deepen. They start shaving. It’s a serious disadvantage.
But from what the other Little League mothers had told us, the opposing teams were already at a serious disadvantage. The Monsters had won their first four games by an average of fifty runs. None of the games went past the third inning before the umpire invoked the slaughter rule.
Of course we heard this from the other mothers, because most of the fathers didn’t make the practices. They’d be there for the games if they could, but never the practices. Rick used to come to T-ball games, and when he wasn’t depressed he would play catch with Miles in the back yard, but at practices it was mostly us mothers sitting in the hot sun fanning ourselves.
“There’s a team,” Judy McGruder said, when the last cool days of May hadn’t yet melted into July, “that is made up of monsters.”
“What do you mean monsters?” Sarah Smith-Canton said.
We had been talking about the men who’d left us and maybe she meant monsters in that way. Or she meant big kids, like how late in the year Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham pool all the best players for the Little League World Series.
“Monsters,” Judy McGruder said. “Vampires, werewolves, mummies. Picture Lon Chaney or Bela Lugosi.”
Lisa Larsen said monsters couldn’t be any worse than the men she dated, and we all laughed, then went back to watching the shadows of our boys stretch out, making them seem smaller than they were.
Miles heard about the Monsters from the other kids, who heard about them from the men who won’t even come to practice. He told me this sitting at the kitchen counter with a glass of milk and a PB and J. His glasses had fogged over after coming inside from the heat. His hands were so smooth it hurt me. The house was empty without his father there, and I wondered where Rick had gone, if he was trying out for some Single A team again, knowing he wouldn’t make it. Sometimes at night I listed the names of towns he might be in. I wondered when he might turn up again.
“Mrs. McGruder said one of them can fly,” Miles told me, “and Ms. Smith-Canton said even the ones who don’t play are bigger than I am.”
I reminded myself to have a talk with Judy McGruder and Sarah Smith-Canton.
Coach McGruder—Judy’s husband, and you bet his son Gary starts, even though he sits out in right field and picks his nose—called a parent/player meeting after the next practice. He said, “I know there are a lot of rumors going around about the Monsters.” He glared at his wife. “But I’m sure they’re no different than normal boys, and I know if we work hard we can beat them and take this thing all the way to State. Now get in here.”
The kids put their hands in the middle, and on three they all shouted “Kill the Monsters.”
I felt a chill then, but I’m sure it was a cloud crossing the sun. It was only 94 degrees that day.
* * *
The Monsters worried Miles. He is not a large child. I do not know if he will be a large man like his father. If he turns out more like me, he will be five-five, and weigh 130 pounds. He will have a small job and a small house. His children will be small, and I do not know if they will ever play summer sports because of all that has happened.
“Real monsters,” he said on the day we saw the Monsters for the first time. His mouth was full of waffle. “Their pitcher is a werewolf. He can throw a 120-mile-an-hour fastball. He hit some kid from Hickory and left a hole in his leg.”
“I don’t think that’s—”
“Their outfielders are vampires. They can fly. And sometimes people go missing after the games and they find them later with all the blood sucked out of them.”
“I’m sure we would have heard something about—”
“And their catcher is a frankenstein and he doesn’t even wear a glove. And there’s a fury—” I didn’t know what a fury was “—and a centaur and an ogre and a ghoul and—”
I’m not sure how long he went on before I realized he was shaking. I went around the counter and pulled him to me. I could feel the thin bones of his shoulderblades.
“Those things don’t exist,” I said.
His heart was like a hummingbird.
“Everyone says they’re monsters.”
“Monster,” I told him, “can mean different things,” and when his heart stopped hammering I felt like I knew what this mothering thing was all about, until I thought of Rick. He had played in the Little League World Series, had lettered four years in high school, and had received a full scholarship to NC State as a pitcher. When I went to his college games I thought he was a monster. He’d scowl at the batter and then fling a fastball at his head to scare him before striking him out. He won five games his freshman year and seven his sophomore. By the time he was a junior the big leagues were looking at him, but when he came home from failing try-outs he got so drunk he careened off the walls while I huddled in my room, afraid of the shadow he threw.
* * *
I got Miles to go wash his face—he had cried a little telling me about the monsters—and we drove to the field.
The other mothers were already there. A big crowd had formed. Miles went to stand with his team. I couldn’t see past the crowd, but I heard Miles say “Holy buttballs,” then cover his mouth quickly, but I forgot about his cursing as soon as I saw them.
I almost said Holy buttballs myself.
Most of them were over six feet tall. A couple were close to seven. We’d later learn these were the vampires. They played the outfield and no one ever hit a fly ball past them. Then again, no one hit a pitch when we played them.
Their pitcher did look like a werewolf. He was somewhere around 6’4”. He had a full beard. His fingers and the backs of his hands were hairy. His shoulders were so muscular they hunched up around his head. He was warming up on the mound, throwing the ball so hard we could hardly see it. Even squatted, the catcher was taller than Miles. His complexion was green. He had stitches running across his forehead, and bolts protruding from either side of his neck. His catcher’s mask was fastened to the bolts. Like Miles had said, he didn’t wear a glove.
The first baseman had to weigh 300 pounds. His eyes were so close together they looked like one big eye. He had a wad of Big League Chew in his jaw, and when the umpire—thinking it was tobacco—went to tell him to spit it out, he turned his face to the umpire and the umpire swallowed what he had been going to say.
The second and third basemen were both Bigfoots. The shortstop was a satyr. They whipped the ball around the infield so fast you couldn’t follow it, then, as if to remind us they were only children, the third baseman made a fart noise with his hand under his arm while the satyr splashed through a puddle behind the dugout.
I don’t remember much of the game because the Monsters’ parents sat in the stands. The werewolf’s father had eyes as wild as the deep woods. He looked like the cover of a fantasy novel when he tilted his nose skyward to sniff the night air. The mother was even hairier than he was. The only way to tell the difference between them was the six nipples we saw when she stood up to scratch. The catcher’s father had been stitched together. When he clapped it sounded like dry thunder. His skin was the green tint of sky when storms boil up out of the west. The vampires wore long capes and pale white faces. They hung from the highest row in the stands.
The boys’ first at-bat they stood shaking while the werewolf whizzed the ball past them. No one even swung. He struck out the side on nine straight pitches and then the Monsters scored seventeen runs their first at-bat. The werewolf pitcher hit one so hard we lost the ball in the lights. He jogged around the bases faster than our boys could sprint. The inning only ended when some signal came from the dug-out and the next three batters stood watching the pitches slip by until the umpire called them out.
Somewhere in the sixth inning Judy McGruder stood up and yelled that this was unfair and she would be calling the commissioner. We were down 56 runs, which would have been 556 if the Monsters hadn’t deliberately struck out to end each inning. She was still screaming when the Monster’s coach came out of the dugout.
He was the biggest creature I have ever seen. He stood close to nine feet tall. His head was the size of home plate. It was covered with black fur, and great horns sprouted to either side. His snout was the size of a soup bowl. He turned his big head up toward Judy McGruder and we all fell silent. Our pitcher threw the next pitch and the second baseman Bigfoot hit it so hard the cover came off the ball and the insides unraveled. The coach clapped, and we saw his hands were hooves.
After the game, the boys got their free cokes from the concession stand and they laughed like they usually did, but we all knew our season was over. As they shook hands with the Monsters, I shuddered, as did the other mothers. The werewolf tried to smile, but it seemed more a snarl. The vampires were pale, with bloodless lips, and they did look like they might suck the blood out of someone as they went down the row slapping hands and saying “Good game,” again and again.
Before we left, Miles got a picture with the werewolf. Other people had lined up as well. I took a picture of Miles with the werewolf’s arm around him, hairy paw clutching Miles’ chest as if he meant to carry him away. Miles made me promise we could come back so he could get a picture with the rest of the team.
* * *
The league had to move the next game to the Grasshopper’s stadium because the Little League field was too small. People leaned out the windows of the apartment buildings surrounding the stadium. They set up lawn chairs on top of the new Whole Foods across the street. I didn’t know it then but Rick sat at the bar just past the left field fence.
The Monsters won by sixty-seven runs. The first baseman broke out a window of one of the buildings downtown, three streets away. The pitcher threw a perfect game. A writer for the local paper wrote that this was the best Little League team ever. He said they could all play pro as soon as they turned sixteen.
“Duh,” Miles said, when he had finished reading the article. He had gotten two more pictures after the game, with the satyr shortstop and the minotaur coach. Looking at that picture now makes me wonder why Rick never volunteered to coach Miles’ team, why he couldn’t find a way to be around the game without standing on the mound, staring batters down.
On the second Saturday in June, league officials scheduled eight games, to run consecutively, the Monsters against eight different teams, hoping to wear them down.
The stadium filled three hours before the first game. Coach McGruder bought a skybox and we all crammed into it. I overheard Lisa Larsen whispering to Sarah Smith-Canton that she wondered if the minotaur coach was married. When she saw me looking at her, she said “Oh, tell me you haven’t thought about it.”
I hesitate to tell this part of it. I’ll only say one thing: that Lisa Larsen was right. I kept coming back to the picture of the minotaur with Miles. He was close to nine feet tall and probably weighed ten times what Miles did, but I didn’t think he’d be a monster at all. I imagined them playing catch in the backyard. I imagined him not running off like Rick had after he didn’t make the roster of the Burlington rookie-level team, after finally deciding he wasn’t good enough to make it anywhere. A man with a bull’s head would be good enough, and he wouldn’t run off when I wasn’t good enough to make him stay.
When the Monsters took the field, the entire stadium stood. I thought the applause might bring the walls down. Here’s something I’ve learned—we can love anything, if we try hard enough. We can also love someone so much we fool ourselves into believing they love us back.
The Monsters won the first game by fifty-five. The second by sixty-something. By the fourth game everyone knew the plan to beat the Monsters would not work. They didn’t sweat. A few panted in the dugout, but no sweat. No wiping their faces with cold towels. They didn’t drink Gatorade or any other sports-energy drink. They substituted a few furies in the fourth game and an imp in the sixth inning but otherwise did not tire. Nor did they seem to mind the sun, the heat stabbing down, the dust raised by their cleats. They were, I thought, immortal, like all the stories about them say.
The Monsters won the last game by 117 runs and the crowd stormed the field. Fireworks went off from right field and the scoreboard lit up. Judy McGruder and I were jumping up and down, hugging one another, and Coach McGruder was shaking hands with his assistant coaches as if we were the ones who had won. After we finished shaking hands and jumping up and down, we all looked at one another. Even before the kids came running up to ask, we all knew where we were headed.
* * *
I called in sick to work for the week. Perhaps some kind of mind control had come over me, but I didn’t care. Miles had pictures with most of the players now, but he wanted to see the Little League World Series, and I had to take him. Because of his small shoulders. The way his glasses fogged over and kept him from seeing. I knew his eyesight would get worse and worse, like mine had. That he’d eventually end up in an office with beige carpeting and a wife who’d tease him a little too much about his thinning hair. You can’t see the future, but some things you can.
I had to take him because of Rick. Miles never talked about his father much, but I knew, when he was out in the backyard throwing fly balls to himself in his father’s jersey, that he was thinking of him. It occurred to me that Miles might be projecting something of his father onto the Monsters team. Rick talked about monsters all the time—the men he admired in the majors, the men he wanted to be. Barry Bonds was a beast. Mark McGuire was a maniac. Even the men he had tried out against were monsters, meaner and stronger than he was.
I don’t know what a boy sees when he looks at his father, or what he thinks when his father won’t stay around.
So near the end of July the kids all crowded into Coach McGruder’s van and headed to Easley, South Carolina, where the Monsters were scheduled to play in the first round. We stayed in the same hotel and the boys lingered in the long halls hoping to meet the Monsters. All the mothers sat in the same room drinking wine and worrying about what was happening to our children, if they were becoming too much like their fathers. Most of us didn’t even like baseball. We liked to watch our children play, but we didn’t enjoy the game, and here we were five hours from home, drinking wine in a hotel room and worrying. Such is the way with mothers, I suppose.
The Monsters beat South Carolina by thirty-six and Georgia by forty-five. The werewolf pitched every inning. The sun hung overhead like a bad dream and sometimes I got so hot I wondered if it was all a bad dream: my husband lying around the house in deep depression and finally leaving. Me enrolling Miles in baseball so he might hold onto something of his father’s, to keep him from folding into himself and becoming lost, to keep us both from sitting in the little house listening to sounds that weren’t there, wondering how a wife and child had not been enough to keep Rick here.
From South Carolina we went to DC, where the Monsters beat Maryland by twenty-seven and DC by only eighteen. We heard later the DC team—the Capitols, of course—had government money and congressional approval and that was why they were so good, but they still couldn’t overcome the Monsters. July had settled into white-hot August and we sat sweltering in the heat while the boys clung to the fences and shouted for the Monsters to rip the other team apart. I want to say the Monsters had instilled some violence in them, but maybe that violence has always been there, passed down from the men who made them.
We reached Williamsport in mid-August under a sun that seemed as if it might fall on us. As if all our days have ended, and that’s what I thought as we sat watching the Monsters play. That our days here have ended. Maybe there’s premonition in the world, if there can be monsters. Maybe I knew what was coming.
Judy McGruder said the Texas team the Monsters faced in the first round had been playing together since T-ball. They had strength and conditioning coaches. They went to spring training and summer camps.
The California team had computer-generated video games to improve their hand-eye coordination. They had batting software in their playrooms. They went to a private baseball school where they studied in the morning and practiced in the afternoon and only came home on weekends.
None of that mattered. The Monsters beat the Triple Texans by twenty-one, and the San Francisco Circuits by seventeen. Texas scored two runs. San Francisco scored one. The werewolf pitched both games and he howled when they hit him, but otherwise the games were the same as any we had seen. The ogre first baseman hit a home run every time he batted. The werewolf did the same. The satyr shortstop hit ground balls in the infield but still got doubles because he was so fast, and then he stole third base and home. The vampires looked at the pitcher and he visibly quailed, lobbing soft arches toward them that they blasted over the left field fence.
After each game the crowd grew. There was a restlessness there. We could feel excitement building in the air. This is what good sport does—it builds tension, a waiting for what is going to happen. That’s why people sit on the edge of their seats. We all need some excitement, something different than the days we find ourselves going through.
Between games we wandered around the facilities at Williamsport. It’s a great thing they have for the kids there. Young boys, just developing into the men they will be, learning what it is to win. Even if you have to devote your entire life to it. Like being a parent, I suppose, though some devote more to that than others. Like waking up an hour early to cook breakfast or staying at work an hour late to pay for braces. Like doctor’s and dentist’s appointments and reminding them to brush their teeth and trying to instill values in them to make them better human beings. Like not having your own identity, how you don’t know where you end and your child begins. My husband would know what I’m talking about, though he devoted his life to something other than parenting.
* * *
The team from Taiwan, who had won more World Series than any country, was not as big as the Monsters nor as fast, but we could see in the way they whipped the ball to one another while warming up that here was a team who knew how to play. Their bats were made of some kind of cold-fire laser—they looked like lightsabers from Star Wars. They all wore monocles that were really computer screens, giving them wind speed and relative humidity and the history of the person pitching or at the plate. They knew who couldn’t hit a curve ball, who had trouble with sliders on the outside edge.
They beat Venezuela by nineteen and Canada by twenty-nine. At the same time the Monsters were destroying California, the Taiwan team was shellacking San Lorenzo and we all knew how it would end. Or we thought we did. We think we have our lives planned out, but we never do.
* * *
You can’t believe how hot it was that last day. A high-pressure system had settled over the East and we sat sweating into our shoes, but we stood when the Monsters took the field. They had new uniforms and cleats and they looked a little unsure of themselves. Despite their size, they looked like boys. I thought of the ogre who wanted to chew tobacco-gum but also liked making fart noises with his hand in his armpit, and I remembered they were just children, even if they were over six feet tall. There’s a metaphor there, one about height not equaling manhood, which made me think of Rick, and the Monsters standing in the stadium lights with the TV cameras on them. Everyone was saying the Monsters could all go pro, but what if this was the best they would ever be? I knew how much it hurt when you realized you weren’t good enough. The werewolf snarled and scowled and kicked at the mound, but I thought he was scared, and at that moment they all looked small to me.
The werewolf’s first pitch went high and tore a hole in the safety netting, but luckily no one got hurt. His second pitch dug dirt about three feet in front of the plate and the catcher made a motion with both hands for him to calm down. The Taiwanese batter just stood there smiling. His eye-computer blinked and twitched. He stood still for the next two pitches and then walked to first base.
The werewolf walked the next two batters to load the bases and all of us in the stands felt something like fear growing in our guts. We had given ourselves over to the Monsters and now wondered if they might not be good enough.
That was what Rick had let define his life. He spent three years in the Minors, playing for the Giants, then the Devils, then the Dragons. When he couldn’t even play for the Royals, he knew he was never going to make the Majors. I think, now, that he never coached because he wanted Miles far away from the hurt not being good enough can bring.
I thought we were good enough when the werewolf finally settled down. He got the next batter to hit a grounder to the satyr shortstop, who flipped it to third, who flipped it to second, who fired it to first, and the Monsters were out of the inning on a triple play. And I forgot about it during the bottom half of the inning when the Monsters scored eight runs. I didn’t think about it again as the werewolf struck out the side in the second and the Monsters scored nine more runs in the bottom. The Taiwan team was beginning to unravel. Their pitcher kicked the ground when the werewolf hit his second home run, and he squatted with his glove over his face when the ogre broke out a stadium light with a high fly.
By the third inning, about the time I saw Rick in the left-field stands, the Monsters were well ahead. I watched Rick through the third and fourth innings, while the Monsters pulled further away and Taiwan shook further apart, wondering if he were coming back. I imagined him coaching Miles’ team next year. I imagined the two of them in the backyard, playing catch.
When the Taiwan pitcher threw a fastball at the werewolf’s head and the werewolf charged the mound, I grabbed Miles to protect him. I guess I realized then the thing I should have known every night as I watched him throwing fly balls to himself in the backyard, narrating a game in which he catches a deep fly in the top of the ninth and then drives one over the fence in the bottom. The thing I’ve known since those first practices, listening to the other mothers talk about their horrible husbands with something like love in their voices, seeing the boys stare up into the stands for the approval of fathers who won’t even come to their practices.
I’ve always been afraid I wasn’t good enough.
Rick must have been in the stands at the other games, following Miles’ every move. In the great crowds the Monsters drew I simply didn’t see him, but Miles must have.
On the field, the Monsters charged. They came swarming out of the dugout and all over the Taiwan team. The werewolf had the other pitcher in a headlock and was throwing hard short uppercuts. The vampires had their teeth bared. The ogre was swinging his meaty fists like clubs. Some of the lurches had flown over the safety netting and were in the stands. We were all screaming. The werewolf’s father howled. The frankenstein began to climb the fence. Miles was shaking beside me, or I was shaking him. I thought him so small, so scared. Everyone was screaming and running and—
I still don’t know how Miles got away from me. But he had run out on the field, in the middle of the Monsters, and that’s when I saw my husband coming for him. I tell myself he only ran out there to protect Miles. I repeat this often when I sit alone at night listening to the house settle and waiting for the phone to ring, for the police to tell me they’ve found him.
Judy McGruder and Sarah Smith-Canton are here. They saw it all. So did the video cameras. But Miles is still gone, to whatever small town Rick has him hidden away in. I imagine them playing catch in a motel parking lot in the light of a streetlamp. I stand in the shadows, watching them. I ask Miles why he ran onto the field. If he was running away from me, or toward his father and some perceived sense of strength. But Miles doesn’t answer, only hurls the ball back at his father, who catches it bare-handed.
Paul Crenshaw’s essay collection This One Will Hurt You is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press in spring 2019. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by Houghton Mifflin and W.W. Norton,Oxford American, Ecotone, Brevity, North American Review, and Glimmer Train, among others.