The Exploding Heads of Mesmerson County
The old man sat on the porch of the old house and rocked in his chair. One of the townspeople strolled by, a teenage boy named Bobby Steepleton that Arthur happened to recognize. Bobby had with him a bat and a glove, and glanced in Arthur's direction as he passed. On his way to the big game against the Richmond boys, who were supposedly bigger and better and...well, Bobby's shoulders were slumped and he didn't wave. But then, no one ever waved. The people of Mesmerson County couldn't see him. The girl scouts passed Arthur by, as did the mailman, and only once in a while would the Keatons' dog wander into his yard and look around, confused, before leaving again. The only real visitor he had anymore was Oscar.
Oscar was just as old, and maybe older, than Arthur. Outwardly, he liked to pretend he had a limp. His eyes were milked over to make people think he was blind and a mischievous grin usually spread itself over his wrinkled dark brown skin. He was no more an old black man than Arthur was an old white one, but the parts they played had become routine. Like their visits, their conversation, and the cane. Oscar would arrive unannounced, usually with a paper bag to drink from and a new cane. When he left, he'd most often leave the cane. Arther would hang it on the coat rack just inside the door like always, and in a day or two the cane would be gone.
About a minute after the Steepleton boy walked past, Oscar hobbled through the front gate and grinned up at him. Arthur nodded.
The cane was made of bamboo this time, with a grip made of tightly-wound reeds. Oscar tapped it up the steps of the porch and leaned it against the house and began to sit. The chair that made itself beneath him was a white wicker rocker, and the old black man let out a sigh that matched his age as his body folded into it.
“I hear there's a big game today.”
Arthur grunted. “Richmond. For the Valley Championship. Our boys are nervous.”
“How does it turn out?”
“Wouldn't you rather wait and see?”
Oscar raised an eyebrow. Arthur sighed, nodding.
“Gonna be close. We'll be down a couple runs, right up to the end, but we pull through. Last at-bat.”
Oscar snorted. He took a swig from his paper bag and gave Arthur a toothy grin. “That the best you can do, old man? Give them a walk-off win? Gee, ain't you a fun guy. So exciting. When you ever gonna mess things up? Throw the Mesmies for a loop?”
“You think they should lose?”
“It would be a start, way things go around here. Always looking bad before turning out okay. Your style is getting old.”
Arthur chewed at his bottom lip and thought. He was getting old.
“I mean, when's the last time you gave anyone cancer? Called up a car crash? Authored a killing in the heat of passion? Hell, when was the last time you made a tornado? Thunderstorm even? You let them off easy every time.”
“Can't help it, Oscar. I only think of the good things. Optimistic, I guess.”
“Not realistic, my man. None of it.”
Arthur shrugged. Bluebirds chirped and a warm breeze played through the willows. From next door, the smell of lilacs made it to him, along with the aroma of the sun-drenched strawberries in the patch across the street. There was nothing he loved more than summer, with its lazy days and its little dramas. Its games. Baseball, now there was a game.
Oscar had grown restless beside him. “Hey, hey,” he whispered, like he had a secret, “Old lady Henderson up the road is cooking a pie. Let's say when she goes to pull it out, she slips on the linoleum and goes headfirst into the thing. Roasts herself. Freak accident. Think about that for a minute.”
Arthur looked at Oscar out of the corner of his eye. “I like old lady Henderson. She's a fine lady. What happens instead is that she's for-gotten to set the timer. In an hour or so, she remembers that she's forgotten and panics, thinking she must have burned it. But it's fine, it's not burned at all. What's more, it's the best pie she's made in months.”
Oscar sat back. “You really are the most boring keeper I've ever run into. Most of those I can at least persuade.” There was amusement in his voice, like there always was, but there was something else too. Arthur thought it was disgust.
“I'm consistent. Not boring. And you can't tell me to think about something and have it happen. Doesn't work that way."
Oscar sighed. “Never hurts to try. Been workin' on you for more than a century now. You don't remember them old days, when we had some fun?”
“That sort of thing doesn't do it for me anymore. You go anywhere else, any other county, and find chaos. Things happening without reason. Left up to chance. I like Mesmerson—I like that it's different than other places. It's better. I don't understand why you keep coming back, Oscar. It's not as if I let you work your mischief here.”
The old black man waved his hand. “Been everywhere else. Only place left to mess with is this place, and you got a grip on it. I respect that, you know. Keeps things interesting, having limitations.”
“Still, you tell me I'm boring.”
Oscar shrugged and drank some more. “The way you run this place is. You, I've liked you ever since I met you.”
Up the road, at the ball diamond, the Mesmerson boys had taken the field. The umpire had just finished brushing off home plate and had signaled for the game to start. Though they couldn't see the field, or hear the umpire's throaty “Play ball!” it wouldn't be a problem. Not for Arthur and Oscar.
“The game's about to start,” Arthur said.
“About time. Those boys in the red outfits, batting first—which are those?”
Arthur thought about it. The Richmond boys were fiendish baseball players, and their coach was the type who pounded winning at all costs into them with such force that nothing else ended up mattering. As a result, the Richmond boys never seemed to lose. The Mesmerson team, who Arthur had watched every year since they'd started competing in the area little league tournament, did just as well, but always with a scrappy tenacity that gave them wins with close plays and clutch hits. It was strange to see, and even the Mesmerson coach didn't quite understand it—none of the kids on the team ever seemed to hit over .300, and the pitching always hovered around average. This was all Arthur's doing, of course. Winning was good for the kids and good for the town. Some of the older folks had even started down to the park on weekends to watch the games and cheer on the boys. It was good to see.
The Richmond boys scored twice before the first out came, a strikeout, which was followed by a walk and a groundout double play.
“Don't think about those Richmond boys, Arthur.” It came as a casual remark, but its tone was serious. Arthur looked sidelong at his companion.
“What? What are you on about, Oscar? I'm not thinking about them—they're doing it all themselves.”
“Just don't, that's all I'm saying.”
Arthur bit his lip. He started to think about the Richmond boys. Their cleanup hitter was a tall muscular boy named Howard Wendelmann. There was a rumor going around that he was fourteen, and therefore too old to be playing. He was also their pitcher, and he threw the ball at seventy miles an hour. The first two batters struck out on three swings each, and walked away shaking their heads. Batting third was Bobby Steepleton.
“Don't think about that Wendelmann boy, Arthur.”
Arthur thought about him. The boy was fourteen. He was also the recipient of a generous crop of facial hair which his coach made him shave away every day. And the coach, the coach knew Howard's age and still played him. Arthur didn't get angry much anymore these days, but he was a slight bit annoyed, and so he thought about Howard Wendelmann and the fourteen-year-old boy's next pitch.
Bobby Steepleton put it out of the park. The crowd went wild, and even down the road they could hear echoes of the roar. Arthur smiled a bit.
“You thought about him, didn't you? Even though I told you not to.”
“Couldn't help it.”
Arthur didn't see it but it was Oscar's turn to smile. He took an excited gulp of whatever was in his paper bag and licked his lips. Arthur thought about the Wendelmann boy again, and was satisfied to know that the shot had shaken him. His confidence was decimated, partly because of the home run but mostly because of the pitch. It was supposed to be a fastball but had ended up a fifty mile-per-hour floater. Right down the pipe. He walked the next batter before getting the last out on a line drive headed right for his face, snow-coning it in his glove just inches from his right eye. Arthur frowned a little – he hadn't meant for that to happen, not really. That was too close. Wendelmann hadn't been hurt, but still... He supposed he was getting a little too excited. He sat back in his rocking chair and took a deep breath, filtering the sweet summer air through the hair in his nostrils. Oscar sat beside him, dark fingers bridged, thumbs resting on his lower lip. The cane lay forgotten against the side of the house.
The game went on, Arthur orchestrating bits of it, and finally it was the bottom of the seventh inning, with the Richmond boys up by two. The final half-inning. The first two Mesmerson batters walked, and the Wendelmann boy was tired and nervous. His pitches had been erratic, and every time he thought he'd gotten his control back something odd had happened. A slow pitch, a pitch way outside, some that looked as if they might hit batters. He couldn't figure it. The Richmond coach was upset, and Arthur could feel that he was worried about losing. Not this game, the coach thought, not this game.
The next batter struck out, but on a pitch in the dirt so the two runners moved up to second and third base.
Oscar grinned. “Was that you or him?”
“Him.” Arthur smiled.
“Listen, Arthur,” Oscar said, leaning forward and putting a hand on the other man's knee, “This is important. You can't think about any of the Richmond boys. Don't do it. Not the third baseman, the shortstop, the second baseman, the fat first baseman, or any of the outfielders. Don't think about that Wendelmann boy or the coach.” Then, as if realizing he hadn't done his math right, Oscar added, “Don't think about the catcher either.”
“Why not?” Arthur asked.
The next pitch was to Steepleton, who socked a blooper up the middle, right over the second-baseman's head. The Mesmerson third base coach was waving his arms and the boy on second base was rounding third base and going home. Arthur was, of course, thinking about each of the players on the Richmond team. Nothing specific, but the stage had been set.
“Don't think about any of the Richmond boys, and whatever you do, Arthur, don't think about any of their heads exploding.”
Arthur's mouth dropped open, and so did Oscar's, into the widest grin he'd ever made.
Steepleton's hit would have been an in-the-park home run to win the game, but instead, Bobby quit running after rounding the bag between first and second and started screaming.