“Hey! C’mon Seaton! You’re up!”
Leaping off the railing, Jimmy hustled over the sand toward the flattened piece of driftwood the boys called ‘home plate’. After searching the pile of bats on the ground for his favorite, he grabbed it up and bounced it on the sole of his shoe like he had seen the pros do on TV. Mostly, however, he did it because the bat was sweaty and sand stuck to it.
Settling in at home plate, he wiggled the Louisville Slugger behind his right ear and looked arrogantly into the outfield. All his friends, even Frankie Bishop, not really a friend but the best ball player in school, moved back toward the wetter, flatter sand. The last time Jimmy had been at bat, he sent the very first pitch sailing into the surf.
Facing him from the top of a slight sand dune the boys had formed earlier in the day, Marty Grundy wound up. Holding the ball close to his chest, he lifted his left leg and, in-a-flash, his right arm flew behind his head and then forward, letting the ball loose. Wiggling the bat once more, for good luck, Jimmy stepped forward a half step. He swung hard, eyes glued to the ball, and clipped a piece of it, not enough to hurl it into the sea, but enough to launch it toward the rickety stairs that climbed from the beach to the row of fast houses on the cove road.
Smirking, Jimmy smacked the bat against his shoe again, and then tugged at the bill of his cap, for added luck. He looked toward the stairs as Clark Morgan’s little brother ran after the ball; Joey was a good kid, but screamed like a banshee if the boys didn’t let him chase foul balls. Scampering under the stairs, Joey captured the ball, hands, then crawled out on his belly and tore across the sand, holding it aloft like the flame on Lady Liberty. Tripping, he fell face first onto the ground, instantly righted himself and took off running. “I’m okay,” Joey shouted every time he fell—and he fell every time. “I’m okay.”
While waiting for the game to resume, Jimmy stared around the field at his friends, boys mostly, though a few girls were good enough to play, that made up for the family he had lost, that family that lost him. It had been over three years since Harry left, and Renny had been gone…. well, she’d been gone as long as he could remember. So Jimmy turned to his friends for the sense of family he never knew; they gathered every Friday after school, and most Saturdays during the summer, for a game of baseball. The games were so popular that friends and relatives of the team would sit on the stairs, on the benches behind the fast houses, or bring towels to the beach, to watch them play. With no Little League in Beal’s Landing, these beach games were the next best thing.
As Joey tossed the ball back to Marty, Jimmy studied the fans that had come out that day. Most of them had heard, no doubt from their own kids, that Jimmy Seaton was the best ballplayer on the coast. He loved standing at the plate, or at shortstop, and hear the shouts from the cliffs—“Go Jimmy!” “Hit it outta here, Jim!”—but someone new was on the stairs today, working her way down to the sand; someone who never came to the beach games because she never, ever, left the house. Jimmy squinted at the fuzzy pale pink shape on the stairs. It was her, he thought; terrycloth slippers on her feet, housecoat flapping open to reveal the filmy nightgown she wore everyday and, now apparently, everywhere.
“Hey Missus Seaton,” Joey yelled, confirming Jimmy’s fears, as he raced back to the sidelines to await the next foul ball. All eyes turned toward Barbara Seaton; most of them had never seen her, though they had all heard about her; their interest was peaked. Jimmy couldn’t move; he stared at his mother, tottering uneasily down the jagged stairway. What was she doing…she never left home…Why would she…..
“Seaton?” Terry Shoemaker, the catcher, hissed. “You playin’ today or what?”
Nodding sickly, Jimmy resumed his stance, yet the sight of his mother coming to the beach so unsettled him that he forgot to tap the bat on his shoe like the pros; he didn’t tug the bill of his cap either. He hunched over the plate, trying to keep one eye on Marty and one on his mother, the bat jerking awkwardly behind his ears.
Marty wound up, ready to heave the ball at Jimmy, who couldn’t stop looking at his mother, in that tattered housecoat and see-through nightgown, nearing the bottom step. He felt the whoosh of the ball as it sailed right through the strike zone; the perfect pitch for him, low and outside. He could have sent that one sailing to 'Frisco if it weren’t for—
“Strike!” Terry shouted in his ear. “Strike two, Seaton!”
”I heard you, Shoemaker!” Jimmy barked. He turned back to see his mother step onto the last landing; it was a straight shot to the beach, just twenty steps or so and she would be among his friends. Closing his eyes, he tried to concentrate; he hunkered over the plate and waved the bat in the air, then brought it down solidly against his shoe. He jerked the cap low over his eyes and noticed the outfielders were moving closer …like his mother. Jimmy raised the bat and glared at Marty Grundy.
The next pitch was wild, veering away from Jimmy and floating high above his head and Terry Shoemaker’s outstretched arm. It rolled down the beach where the surf gobbled it up and hurled it back onto the sand. The pitch was wild because someone screamed just as Marty was about to let go of the ball. Everyone stopped, turning toward the shrieking, and Jimmy saw his mother lying in a heap on the bottom step. Dropping the bat, but unable to move, he watched everyone else race to her side; friends sped across the sand, parents raced down the stairs, strangers gawked from benches behind the fast houses. Other than Barbara Seaton, Jimmy was the only one not moving.
The crowd of the curious gathered around Barbara, crumpled on the weather-beaten wooden steps. Her housecoat was undone, her nightgown rose high on her thighs, exposing the fact that she wasn’t wearing underwear. Mothers shooed their kids away; fathers tried not to stare. One woman leaned down to Barbara, who lay there, with her eyes closed and her hands folded across her breasts, laughing.
Howling crazily, surrounded by Jimmy’s friends, and the mother’s and father’s of his friends, and the strangers who had driven over to the coast to watch the ball game and were now being treated to a show of a different kind, Barbara flopped lazily on the bottom step, half-naked, and laughing insanely, making no move to cover up. Befuddled, and unable to move at all, Jimmy stared from home plate; he studied her face, all contorted and red, and dripping with tears of laughter, then looked into the shocked eyes of his friends and their parents, the strangers, who stood beside Barbara, not knowing what to do.
Finally, one of the women, Jimmy would later learn it was Frankie Bishop’s mother because whenever she saw him in town after that day she would always look away, helped Barbara sit up and pulled the filmy nightgown down over her knees. The other adults now began to move closer, asking if she needed anything; should an ambulance be called? Did she need a ride back to Skeleton Road? The kids on the sand, their interest already on the wane, began to drift away, huddling in groups and giggling nervously.
Jimmy faced the mob of kids, his friends when the game started, but now drifting into an all-together different direction. Marty Grundy, back on the mound where everyone could see him, held his hand to his mouth, curling the fingers into his palm and sticking his thumb out; he titled his head back and began guzzling from an invisible bottle. Soon all the other kids were mimicking Marty, and their parents, the same ones who were helping his mother, reprimanded their children, even though they couldn’t hide their own smiles; they started to laugh along with the kids who were Jimmy’s friends only moments earlier.
“Quite a mother you got there, Jimbo!” Somebody yelled, and another voice, rising from the surf, agreed. “Nobody light a match near Seaton’s mother!”
“You on the sauce, too, Jimbo?”
“I guess that’s why he struck out.” Someone laughed.
“Hey Jimbo? Bottle up!”
“Jimbo…Jimbo…Jimbo…” The chanting commenced, drowning out the tide, until someone, one of his former friends though he would never find out whom, started shouting, “Jim Beam.” All at once, those kids who used to be his friends, who fought to have him on their teams, began calling him Jim Beam. In a matter of seconds, it became Beam.
“C’mon Beam,” Terry Shoemaker shouted as Jimmy…as Beam…headed down the sand toward home. For Jimmy, the game was over.