Leaving Early

By

I spend enough time on treadmills to know I walk at nearly a fifteen-minute-mile pace, just under four miles an hour. An hour’s walk has always been a pleasant thing, no matter at what clip. A walk toward baseball is even better, and that’s what I was thinking last year on a Thursday night in early April. I’d planned a round-trip walk from an academic conference beside the Savannah River to historic Grayson Field for the Savannah Sand Gnats’ opening day game. The air was heavy, southern-wet and cool from an all-day rain, but the game was still on for the Mets’ single-A club. It was the first live baseball I would see that season, and the first game of the year can never come soon enough. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember, waiting for that harbinger of spring, when the snow’s still falling in my part of the country. No matter the forecast, baseball brings the promise of high summer, lazy heat, quiet nights melting into July sleep as the west coast games wrap up, the room filled with Here’s the pitch and Two away and That’s the ballgame, shaded with crowd noise and the solid, sweet sounds of wood and leather. That sound is my January dream. What the announcers are saying doesn’t really matter; I love best the rocking rise and fall, the cadence of the sport itself, that pure aural comfort. I tucked an umbrella into my backpack and got ready to sink in and listen. 

I was also walking to this game for a sense of connection—not to anyone I knew, but to someone I knew of, a promising young Mets prospect who happens to be from Wyoming, where I was living then. We were both two thousand miles from our sparsely populated state, so it seemed right to do.

I carefully mapped out the most direct route to the ballpark because the skies could split again at any moment. When I left the hotel parking lot, rain (or a win by the visiting side) were the worst that could happen.

*

North Savannah, near the river, is heavily touristed, the streets thick with slowly milling families taking photos of every gothic clump of Spanish moss or the gas lamps posted in some doorways. The lush squares, dotted here and there amid the buildings, were beginning to flush with white and lavender azaleas, and sourwood blossoms perfumed the air. My route skirted the edge of the historical district, and as I passed a bus stop, a group of men paused their chatter, and one, who must have been near sixty, said, “How are you, young lady?”

His voice was kind, unassuming, and it is normal for people to say hello to passersby, no matter that it always unnerves me, especially to hear a conversation stop just for that purpose. In Wyoming, people do the same, and where I grew up in Pennsylvania, one could expect a nod, at least, an acknowledgement to say we’re both here. Friendly.Weber_Rumpus_1 The problem is mine, not theirs, that I don’t like to be addressed at all while I’m on my way. In my mind, while I’m walking, I seldom count as present, anyway; I’m thinking somewhere else, I’m writing in my head with each step. I can’t not. And while I tried not to feel startled and strangely interrupted and tried to accept the man’s greeting in the spirit it had been given—of a piece with southern hospitality—it also raised an issue I tend to forget, or that I willfully ignore: I am visible as a lady and as a young lady, though I’m past thirty now. I concede that I am smallish and I have a middle-schooler’s haircut, and so perhaps I am youngish-looking. But lady. It shouldn’t surprise me, but it does.

The act of naming is a powerful and intense act of recognition, and to begin there—the first way of seeing being gendered—woman—rather than as walker, rather than as visitor, rather than as anything else, strikes me as strange because that’s not how I think to name myself, no matter that it’s most of the world’s go-to marker. Pragmatism says that young lady trips more easily from the tongue than, “Howdy, stranger,” “How are you, person?” or “How are you, sidewalk-stepper?” and is more easily assigned to the correct person—I was the only person marked as such in the vicinity, so young lady means me and the greeting is for me and let the kindly communication be received by the intended audience. I was on my way to a baseball game, too; why not open my ears sooner?

In The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common, Alphonso Lingis writes, “We rationalists perceive the reality of being members of a community in the reality of works undertaken and realized; we perceive the community itself as a work” (5). The heart of Lingis’s book is the shared experience of death—the ultimate commonality—but the early chapters lend themselves so easily to sport: where else but in a concentrated, willful choice to clap and cheer for matching shirts, for logos attached to the bodies of people we don’t know, for people who will retire or be traded and whose careers don’t span the fullness of a fan’s lifetime, can we see so clearly—so facilely, so joyfully, so without tangible reward—the idea of the community itself as a work? I can think of nothing so created, and created for its own sake, and that intentionality, that deliberateness, is what I name and how I name myself. Sports fan. Sports fandom is interesting, to like-minded people. It’s safe, generally, as an arena for communication. If we’re named more particularly—Phillies fan or Sand Gnats fan or supporter of Cheyenne American Legion Post 6 baseball—it’s because we’ve branded ourselves with a hat or a t-shirt or the first thing we say. How about this Wyoming kid? We show each other how we would like most to be called, and if we’re all part of that community—so easily created from strangers simply because we’re sitting in the same stadium or we recognize the colors on each other’s hats and agree that they mean something—how can we be alien, alone?

Lingis says later, too, that “to recognize the other is to respect the other” (23). That’s largely been my experience. In baseball, that extends even unto the fans of teams I dislike because there’s still the sport itself; they—we—all share that. In the way of the man at the bus stop—the speech of strangers on the street—my luck has been good, too. Most interactions have been similar, basic and kind, but I know part of that is, to use the baseball statistician’s parlance, an issue of small sample size. When I walk to campus in Wyoming; I don’t pass strangers on the sidewalk. The children had already gone to school and the grown-ups drove. The people I sometimes see I already know: one other professor on my block who also walked, students moving from on-street parking to the campus interior. I have no equivalent experience to those who walk and ride crowded buses and trains in larger cities everywhere, but I read. I listen. I pay attention. When my first reaction is to startle when someone calls out to me on the street, I know why. It doesn’t matter that the worst of it has never happened to me.

*

I did say, “Fine, thank you,” to the man at the bus stop, with a little glance over my shoulder as I waited at the crosswalk. Still, I didn’t want to stay there, holding in my head the greeting that was for me, the greeting that reminded me of how I am seen and how I do not wish to be seen, a thing that had nothing to do with the baseball ahead.

Crossing asphalt, I kept looking for some scrap of Sand Gnats’ green, and I saw nothing. Every other time I’ve gone to a sporting event on foot, the veins of fans feed in, like team-colored rivers to the sea, and this was opening night. Surely, in a few more blocks, I’d find at least a few fans on the same path.

*

When I started my walk, I imagined talking to people near me about Wyoming, about the strange status of baseball there—no high school teams, one recently lost minor league club, a fledgling collegiate summer instructional league—and about the weather, so completely opposite of this Georgia spring. Weber_Rumpus_2As the sidewalks disintegrated and punctuated themselves with broken bottle spray and the windows boarded over nearly equaled those with glass, I started to wonder if my tongue would even work were someone to speak to me. But it was 6 p.m. on a Thursday and the streetlights weren’t even on yet and I was on my way to a baseball game. I named my apprehension silly. I was only a mile and a half from the stadium. Still, the air seemed colder.

Further on, on the far side of the street, there were three men standing outside of a building, its old, plastic Pepsi sign unlit. And in describing them, I’ve named them by gender, did the thing I don’t like, because all at once I was thinking of it, because I couldn’t think of anything else, because some people see lady and say how are you? and some say something else. I didn’t turn my head to look as I passed, seeing them only in the periphery, my gaze pitched for the oncoming sidewalk breaks, to be aware of people without eye contact, because a good answer never trips off my tongue when I’m asked What are you looking at? The four of us were the only people for at least two blocks. The early evening was so, so quiet.

*

I wasn’t looking at them, but I felt I should have been. It’s an act of bravery, to see and be seen, isn’t it? A way to connect? And wasn’t I, just then, needing to feel something like brave? Something like connected? I had been so prepared to speak, to make community with the people I hoped to find walking here; surely at this moment, a thing I could do was raise my eyes and see, this whole width of street between me and those someones else. Lingis writes, “One exposes oneself to the other—the stranger, the destitute one, the judge—not only with one’s insights and one’s ideas, that they may be contested, but one also exposes the nakedness of one’s eyes, one’s voice and one’s silences, one’s empty hands” (11). Lingis implies risk in communication, but the risk wasn’t even that much; it wasn’t like what I would do the next day at the conference where the whole concept is the sharing of ideas, writing, self, and then accepting questions and critique. That’s risk. That’s something that can bite to the bone. This was two lanes, two sidewalks, no promise even of speech. But still I thought—I think now—about my empty hands.

*

I raised my chin, my eyes still ahead, not aside, and someone made a kissing sound with his mouth, like you’d use to get the attention of a dog. The same mouth made a pss-pss noise, the sound so quick on the heels of the first, as though to call a cat, but there were neither cats nor dogs here. Just me. Just me to whom these noises could be addressed, only me on the sidewalk toward which the man turned, then leaned, jackknifed at the waist, pushing air between his lips.

*

There is a familiarity in ballparks. It’s more than the regulations that dictate ninety feet between the bases, sixty feet, six inches from pitching rubber to the plate, but those help. The rules are fixed and easy enough to learn, and they apply to everyone: no one gets a fourth strike for trying hard, no one can be penalized with an extra out. I never thought about these things as a child. I simply listened—staticky AM radio crackling in Harry Kalas’s pineapple voice, all rough on the edges and fronded as the signal slipped but sweet and comforting underneath, even when the Phillies were losing, as they often did. My dad drove slowly over the not-quite-two-lanes of our rural roads, and we counted deer picking their way from the trees to feast on soybeans and growing corn as we listened. Sometimes we sat, the engine off and the radio soft. I fell asleep, a ball on the pickup’s bench seat, summer-sweat-sticky on the vinyl, the effortlessly total sleep of the child—of baseball summers still—until my dad woke me somewhere near home to look at one more deer, a doe standing on the road, stock-still, eyes as reflectively bright as stadium lights. He kept the truck paused, the headlights low, until she loped back into the fields, her body a lulling rise and fall with the post-game.

*

I know I can walk almost five miles an hour without having to change to the jogging stride. As my legs churned and my stomach, too, there came words, silent, internal. On the pages in my head, I could make sentences, wrapping text and language around experience, the way I intended to do with the baseball game itself, which I was going to write about; the piece-to-be-written had a waiting home. On the pages in my head, everything was fine, was process, was remembering Lingis’s book that I read nine years ago, was everything my rabbiting heart was not. The process carried me the rest of the way to historic Grayson Stadium, which sits inside a green, be-fountained park beside Victory Avenue.

As soon as I stepped onto the concrete that leads into the park and saw the stadium lights behind the tree canopy, I told myself to feel better. I’d arrived at my destination, and the destination was baseball. I did feel better that there weren’t more fans trickling in along the same path, and that was wrong.Weber_Rumpus_3 I’d come here to be with people, with my people, baseball people. I forced my steps slower, shins aching, but I felt eyes on my back and sweat pooled awfully between my shoulder blades, in the dense place between back and backpack. All I could smell was my jacket’s damp leather and the water-too-close-to-the-surface scent of the South, but I felt like I stank, fear souring in my pores, blooming at the sides of my nose and across my forehead. Standing in line outside of the stadium, in line with everyone, I jumped every time someone jostled me, which was often. It was Thirsty Thursday for Opening Day, and fans were excited, wanted their ID bands, wanted to get into the stadium before the first pitch. Everywhere, my ears tipped toward distance: what sounds were those? What word was that? In the background, the stadium announcer was saying something, but I couldn’t hear it. I watched where others looked, barely glancing at the stadium’s heavy old bones that I’d wanted so badly to see.

I accepted my program and took up as much open General Admission bench space as I could. I sat in front of a father and his daughter, behind a mother and her toddler son, and beside a middle aged couple paying little attention to anything but the cheap beer.  I didn’t eke out a spot as close to the diamond as I could get, close enough to smell the dirt. I didn’t sit beside anyone just brimming to talk about the team, though I’d wanted—I’d been thinking of it for days—to know about these Sand Gnats. I wanted to know why the historic stadium was historic. But I said nothing to anyone, and there, in that stadium with so much to watch and hear and enjoy, I was invisible. When people said something, they said it to the people they brought with them. The only others alone were clearly working: a local reporter roaming the baseline seats, a scout behind home plate, a clipboard in hand. At my own seat, I took out my notebook and I tried to get down the details; I took a very few photos and most of them were blurry.

As I sat there, sweat cooling, the breeze cutting through the grandstand cut through me. I told myself that when the cold sweat dried, I’d be warm enough again. If I unzipped my jacket or even took it off, I’d probably feel better, dry faster. I didn’t. I put my gloves on. I crossed one leg over the other, tucked the top of my right foot beneath my left calf. It creates more contact, generates more heat, and it makes the body smaller still. If I could have folded completely into that green-painted bench, I would have.

I stayed through five innings. By the end of the fifth, it was fifty-five degrees, the sky still dove gray, the rain finished for the night. All around, southerners in t-shirts and shorts showed no signs of chill, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I still couldn’t hear the announcer, my attention on all of the wrong things. Breaking free of the stadium’s confines, nearly alone on the sidewalk, save a few families going to their cars, I felt better again. That was wrong, too. I was farther from the baseball, and my skin didn’t fit. I took a different route home, turning a six-mile round-trip into seven, and for the first mile, north on Victory Boulevard, I didn’t pass anyone at all. The palatial homes on either side of the divided street rang with silence, and I was, again, grateful and ashamed.

*

Lingis identifies one of the difficulties of communication as “extracting the message from irrelevant and conflicting signals—noise.[…] But there is noise internal to the message—the opacity of the voice that transmits it” (12). When I was a child, those baseball nights we stayed at home were a literal exercise in that. My parents still live in that house tucked into a creek valley; getting reception of any kind is miserable. When I was eight, I hovered beside the living room stereo’s tuning knob, fussing to find the least amount of analog hum and crackle. Some nights were worse than others, depending on weather, leaves, cosmic whim, but always there was the announcer’s voice beneath. Always there was something worth hearing, and I knew what I was listening for, nudging the dial a degree to the left.

In Savannah, what had I heard? I know the expected sounds had come to my ears because I had been at the game, and so much of it is predictable, constant, repetitious. There must have been the cheesy music in the stadium between innings, the clapping, the cheers, the whole delicate and fine scale of bat-on-ball and ball-on-leather, but I can’t remember it. I remember what came before.

What had I heard? Lingis says noise, opacity. They are neutrals, simply obstacles to communication, and communication is how one encounters (and respects, Lingis says) another. The opacity in the signal impedes clarity, as a theoretical construct. But I heard noise and it was perfectly, awfully clear.

*

The stadium sounds faded away quickly as I walked, the cement grandstand blocking the announcer’s call, the crowd, leaving me with only the echoing shout that I was running away. I was running away from something that hadn’t even taken place at the place I’d left, and what had happened was, I knew, a complete non-event on the scale of relativity that everyone judges by. I imagined trying to tell someone about it—there were two noises (not even words!) and now I was so unsettled I was walking away from the thing I love best, from baseball, from something that has only ever meant happiness to me—and I couldn’t even parse it myself. So much nothing. So much nothing—but I took a different route back to my hotel. Pragmatism again said I was simply not being stupid, but it felt like fleeing, like missing some opportunity to prove something to myself.

*

It could be said that I was lucky. Nothing really happened, and it really could have. Even in some scenario where this isn’t gendered, where I’m just a person—not lady—walking away from a baseball game, there is violence in this world. It doesn’t matter if one is half a mile from AT&T Park, where a Dodgers fan was fatally stabbed, or in the Dodgers’ parking lot, where a Giants fan was brutally beaten, or in any one of the too-many places people going to or from sporting events are subjected to violence. There is no numbering the rest of it, everywhere.

But those things didn’t happen to me. And it wasn’t an insignia on my hat or the color of my jacket that prompted what happened. I wasn’t beaten. I wasn’t stabbed. I wasn’t followed. None of those things happened.

What did happen is that my brain and adrenal glands and hypothalamus reacted to stimuli and created a combination of neurochemicals that increased my heart rate and invoked that fight or flight response. What did happen was that I walked fast and it was humid but cold and my body perspired, because of the weather, because of the activity, because synapses fired fear. The same thing happens to my cats at the vet: they shed handfuls of fur, they sweat beneath it, even though nothing actually bad happens on routine check-ups. It’s only stress, strange sounds, odd smells. They are fine after. But they are afraid, and I was afraid, even though nothing happened, but still someone put his lips together and said pss-pss. Puss-puss. Here, kitty. Pussy. Weakling. Female. Animal. Orifice. I kept walking. No one kept me from keeping walking.

*

The essay about the baseball game is done, and everything I wrote there was true. But it wasn’t the whole truth because that wasn’t the place for the events here. I felt the same way walking back to my hotel, when I called my husband, when I spoke with my closest friend. If nothing really happened—just some sounds, not even language—what use was there in mentioning it? In worrying them? In admitting I was unnerved? Even now, this isn’t a story I wanted to tell because I’ve read too many like it, too many that are more and worse and full of something happened.

But it’s been months and baseball season has drawn closed and open again and I am still thinking about it. I went to more games in my small Wyoming city and in major league parks, and my chest still goes tight. I walk, and even on mountain hiking trails, I glance over my shoulder.

I turned to theory to try to make sense of the narrative, to a book I remember hating reading for its refusal to ground itself in anecdote or experience, for its insistence on speaking in abstraction. Weber_Rumpus_4Usually, it’s the other way around: the narrative illustrates the theory. Isn’t that what I wanted, all those years ago? I wanted Alphonso Lingis to give more examples. I wanted anecdote. I wanted to see the ideas walking around on two legs; I wanted more humans communicating and what that sounded like—what do they say? I wanted detail, like the way I want better explanation for this bizarre and unsettling moment in my life, or I wish it were something I couldn’t explain at all. I wish it were the inscrutable puzzle of statistics and luck that I’d walked out that night to see, the narrative-resistant sport I can’t help but still try to write over with plot and character a hundred and sixty-two times a year.

That game I went to—the game I couldn’t stay for—didn’t give me some version of a happy ending, either. The Savannah Sand Gnats lost, as I found out when I returned to my hotel. I don’t know what I would have felt had I stayed for the whole game—I was only rooting for a young man whose name I’d heard a few times before, for skillful play that is a simple pleasure to watch. There were games that night happening elsewhere I ultimately cared about more, though there are none of those I can remember now, and still I am thinking of this one. But about the team’s loss? There’s only gray space. What I did feel was this: I left the game early. I remember that I don’t remember more. I remember how relieved I was to leave before the ending came.

In that context, the reason was causal, but it wasn’t in any way that I wanted to own. It would have been easier if someone had been angry about my fandom, if I’d been accosted because of a team logo I’d been wearing, if I’d felt like leaving because of something I’d chosen or something I said. What I chose was to give in to fear, to discomfort. I left because I was chilled in ways that defied the weather. I shook and I could not shake that. If this were a short story, every reader would see the this-then-that formula as causal. There are no other readings, and why I was so chilled I’ve already understood. To hear that pressed-lip squeak, that sibilant hiss, is to know, even without so much as a vowel to shape it into speech, if you are someone visible as lady.

*

I think of the deer again, whether she was afraid or simply confused by the headlights’ bright noise as she moved away, her ears cupping the air ahead, not behind. We’d seen her and she saw us and we all continued on. We drove slowly, carefully, watching for next glint of eyes, and I watch, too. It’s a new season, and we’re working again toward October, each series drawing the long winter closer. I watch more games, on television, and it’s good to see that young Wyoming ballplayer moving up. Cooler nights mean wearing that leather jacket again, and every time I pull it on, memory rubs my nose in old sweat, though the jacket doesn’t smell like anything. I’ve checked it against other noses.

There’s no evidence of any of it beyond memory, beyond the double-clutch thump of my heart when I see someone seeing me. The moment, in most cases, passes as we do, without any sound at all. I’m trying to walk slower, to listen, to stick around. That’s what I came here for.

***

Rumpus original art by Audrey Weber.


Holly M. Wendt's fiction and essays have appeared in Memorious, Bluestem Magazine's online quarterly, Hobart's annual baseball feature, Classical Magazine, and others. She was a 2013 writing fellow at the Jentel Foundation and a 2014 Charlotte and Robert Baron Creative and Performing Arts Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society. She lives in Pennsylvania and is Assistant Professor of English at Lebanon Valley College, and she serves as the assistant fiction editor for Drunken Boat: an online journal of art and literature. Find her on Twitter at @geatland. More from this author →