Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.The sun hangs low and orange in the sky and casts long shadows off trees, telephone poles, and the associate pastor, whose severe lean toward home plate has locked his sweat-dampened butt in place six inches above his fold-up canvas chair. “Come on, Josephus,” he says, hands on knees, “let them have it!” He falls back into his seat like a keeling ship and jabs his hand into the sledge of an adjacent cooler. Sweat glitters on his scalp under thin hair formed into diaphanous spikes.
The “Josephus” in question is actually Joe Schmale, Pastor of Adult Ministries at Cable Road Church of the Nazarene, and he is presently narrowing his eyes at the figure about to lob a ball at him. He wears a skintight batting glove on one hand and has brought his own bat from home, where he has six bats. He wears a brace on one knee.
Pastor Ted from the Shawnee Baptist Temple prepares to pitch to Joe. Behind his back he turns the ball while tracing its stitching with the thumb and middle finger of his non-glove hand. After a moment he steps into action, his limbs beginning to turn like the arms of a clock face in an old movie’s time-travel montage: backwards, backwards, into the past.
The arc of the ball is long and bends toward the ground prematurely. Seeing this, Pastor Joe takes a completely unnecessary half-swing, locks the bat so as to avoid a strike, hops back, and stands hopping and squaring his shoulders as the ball rolls past. He’s kind of a tool, whispers center field to left field. These two chumps talk it up whenever center field wanders left far enough. They’re whispering now, hands on hips and elbows akimbo, which pushes their backs forward and their stomachs out and makes them look sort of like roosters. The boys of summer.
Pastor Ted thinks this as he surveys his outfield, hands on his own hips. He scratches his side and turns back toward home plate, not realizing that Dan, pastor of youth ministries, had been waiting to throw the ball back to him the whole time. Pastor Ted half-jogs forward with his mitt up. His armpit is dark with sweat.
He catches Dan’s toss back, jogs back to where he was standing before, turns, and looks at Joe again. Pastor Joe Schmale. Joe with that missing canine in the corner of his mouth. Joe whose kid wants to be a Marine. Joe who, homiletically, is really into war metaphor, really into illustrating his messages using clips from Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, and Enemy at the Gates. Pastor Joe also has a tattoo few have seen across his right pectoral. It’s of a majestic eagle that looks to be carrying his nipple somewhere. Pastor Ted only saw it once, through a soaked white t-shirt at the public pool.
His next throw recalls the easy athletic grace that once animated him, but in fits and starts; grace is all a-flutter and shaken up for him these days. But the toss is true enough, and it is about to cross over home plate when Pastor Joe clocks it just under its center point; the ball floats into the sky, its deceleration slow and indicative of a great power lifting it. It hangs at its apex for a moment, and when it begins to fall it comes down like death. Center field is nowhere near to catch it. Pastor Ted could have scooped it himself, decades ago. When Pastor Joe rounds the bases his gait is choppy and forceful. His breath is loud. Everyone is out of shape.Play continues as the shadows lengthen. The chain link quarter-dome behind home plate drops its variegated shadow over a growing portion of the field; dark stitching lies over player, grass, and dirt like ghost chainmail with an enormous gauge. Mothers and wives begin to scratch their forearms and calves and slap at their own shoulders. Over the cicada buzz an aerosol hiss becomes audible. Toddlers have started to whine with exhaustion. Leftover cans float in ice-melt slurry. Local people walk their dogs past, amused at the ragtag teams. It is so hot.
Play continues into extra innings. Play continues after the street lights start coming on. Play continues under the rising moon. Center field rolls his ankle in a divot and two runs come in for Cable Road. Shawnee’s outlook is grim. Shouts from the crowd have lost their encouraging tone and have taken on a purely instructive one. “Catch it!” “Get it to first!” “Quick, to Matt!” “Get him out!” Play continues under a barrage of directions.
At the changeover, Pastor Ted looks into the sky as he starts for home plate to bat. His clumsiness has been completely tapped for humor potential and now he’s left with little skill, a demanding crowd, and a game that is suddenly important to everyone. “Why, Lord?” He shrugs. He imagines that God shrugs back at him. He wishes that the Father would take this cup from him, but there is no one to shoulder his bat in his place.
Strike one. “Come on, Ted!” Who shouted that? He looks to the left and realizes it was his wife, her raised voice foreign to him. He can’t see her eyes through her sunglasses. Strike two silently falls past as he tries to remember where she got the sunglasses, and he watches her open her mouth in exasperation. One family is going already, their kids trailing behind, a little girl slumped over her father’s head as he carries her on his shoulders. Which church did they attend? Would they be back?
Strike three. Pastor Ted returns to the side and watches two other batters give up. The game goes to Cable Road. The players and crowd have already mingled into re-formed family groups by the time the last pitch crosses the plate. The patter of a few claps never catches, although Cable Road’s associate pastor calls out “good game, everyone.” Pastor Ted mistakes Pastor Joe’s fist bump for an open hand and clasps it in his palm while saying “Good game.” Coolers are heaved away, litter finds its way into bins. A baby cries. The aerosol hiss becomes steadier and fades with the families as they walk into the parking lot.A few linger to chat, but most of the crowd and players alike are too tired to stay. Their sweat soaks into cloth and leather seats on the drive home, and their kids become combative with each other. The surprise of the extra innings forces several parents to miss TV shows, and a couple families end up taking a right out of the lot in the direction of McDonalds.
Tomorrow night, which is a Thursday night, Shawnee Baptist Temple will face Tenth Avenue Second Baptist at Faurot Park. Pastor Ted considers the prospects as he lies in bed. He will be sore in the morning. He’s not sure if the Mathesons are going to be coming back this Sunday; they were the ones who left early. He thinks he might have tennis elbow somehow. He wishes he were not so embarrassed every time he throws a pitch short. He sighs over the ongoing whispers between center field and left field, thinks about Pastor Joe incorporating his church’s victory into his sermon on Sunday. He wonders what kind of good-natured joke he can make of Shawnee’s loss during announcements in his own service. He longs for the grace he knew those years ago when he could run and not grow tired. He resents his aching elbow. He wonders where his high school yearbooks ended up.
And he smiles with joy at the thought of tomorrow evening’s game.