Sunday, September 30, 2007

End of Summer

This summer has been one of my craziest yet. An avalanche of work started in June and is finally subsiding now, at the end of September. And even though I'm still "booked out" with my agency, they keep sending me out. I have an audition for a commercial on Monday and had one last Friday for an IBM print job.

I ran into Bruce Locke at the print audition and we had coffee and walked around the neighborhood. He wanted to know what was new and good in my life and I told him I think I may be getting married next year. Bruce has known me since I moved to L.A. 15 years ago, and he says he's envious of the way I've matured.

We talked about leaving the single life behind and getting beyond our "adolescent" phase, which in L.A. can last until well into your 60s. Or at least until the Botox no longer looks natural. (Does it ever look natural?)

We talked about wanting to marry this or that girl, but somehow it just didn't work out, and why didn't I go out with so-and-so while I had the chance. Regrets, and learning not to have any. I think that's the key.

End of Summer is a common literary title and one that I used for a short story I wrote a few years ago. I'm adding it below, for your enjoyment. Depending on where you are in life, you may feel differently about it. This story, by the way, was rejected by The New Yorker, but I'm happy to say I at least tried. Here it is:

The End of Summer
(©2007 L.T. Goto. All Rights Reserved.)

Albert, a young kid with dreams big enough to fill a baseball field, went up to bat and hit the first one — a low and outside pitch hardly meant to be more than a warm-up to feel out the batter — into a deep gap between center and left field. He ran the bases better than anyone he knew, or who knew him, and by the time the ball was retrieved and thrown to the catcher at home plate, the boy had already ran the bases, hit a round of high-fives, taken off his baseball cap, drank a mouthful of rusty water, spit it out and proceeded to sit down on the old bench with the various marks etched in and rubbed over from all the years.

After the game, he talked to the old timers who came around to catch a look at the young’ns coming in — the next generation of major league dreamers. It was a wonder to watch the cycle of baseball players go through the seasons year after year. The old ones retiring, getting their Hall of Fame placards, the new ones entering little league and the All-Staters who led their high school team to first in the double or triple A league of their local school district. Autumn, winter, spring, summer. For some, it was a mesmerizing act of nature to witness. For Joe “The Leaf” Withers, it was fast becoming an act to lament, for he was at the only part of the season where man and nature don’t agree with: the end of summer.

“It’s the saddest time of the year,” said Albert, contemplating having to go back to school and end his summer of three little league practice sessions a week, two games on the weekend and one on Wednesday nights. “Now I gotta be locked up in some classroom with a buncha geeks breathing Cheetos breath from the desk behind me.”

“School ain’t so bad, kid,” said Joe. “It’s when the brain stops wanting to learn when you got to start worrying.”

Joe was trying to be careful with the kid, but depending on his mood and how his body was aching that day, that line of care was drawn with a gray marker from day to day. Joe had been volunteering for the local little league since he was a major league second baseman. He was never an All-Star, never even made the ballot, but he had a decent head on his shoulders and thought volunteering was the right thing to do. It also got his mind off things once the divorce finally settled in, his ex taking the house, the cars, the kids and the dog that he named Scruffy after finding him dirty and alone and abandoned on the streets one afternoon.

Now that Joe was being trained at both third and first in the farm league, he was starting to think that “School ain’t so bad, kid. It’s when the brain stops wanting to learn when you got to start worrying.” Truth is, he had stopped wanting to learn — a long time ago.

Albert, at five-three, looked up to the six-two Joe in more ways than one. In baseball, just getting to the major leagues is the big time. Being a star, well, that’s up to the god of all baseball gods. Albert knew this, even at 13 years of age. He was a solid young man with solid young dreams — no lofty ideas that went to the point of having to experience a miracle.

“Joe, what’s it like to be in the majors? You think I got a chance?” asked the kid.

Joe looked at him with his weary, tired eyes. He knew there were scouts on that baseball field, scouts from high schools, scouts from farm leagues, even on occasion a scout from another country, taking notes on anyone with potential.

He knew the struggle of having to maintain a certain level of academics when all you could think of was playing baseball and getting into the right school with the right coach with the right team and right teammates, none that outshone you, but ones that fit right in with your game.

He knew about kissing up and also not kissing up, when the timing was right. Sometimes playing the guy “who don’t want no help” can be a disguise for getting attention by a coach looking to break down a wild horse and build him back up.

He knew how many cities you eventually forgot how to appreciate — after playing a hundred and fifty or so games a year all across the country. If you liked to travel, it was because you had a girlfriend waiting for you in every city, and they didn’t care a thing about who was waiting for you in the next city.

He knew about the workouts and skipping the workouts, because in baseball, as long as you can hit the ball and run after one in the field, as long as your eyesight wasn’t going away, as long as your mind wasn’t taking your vision off the ball, you were okay, and working out wasn’t the most important thing in the world. From time to time, some player would talk about this new herbal remedy you can’t get in stores — “at least outside a Chinatown” — that would give you extra energy and speed and power, just after one dose. He knew that sometimes it wasn’t the remedy that did it but the idea that the remedy could do it. Anything could help. But thinking anything could help was even better.

He looked at the kid, saw that his hands were kind of small, his feet a bit narrow, his eyes not quite fierce enough like a hawk’s, his shoulders narrow and his overall disposition just too sweet and innocent. And then he said, “You know, kid, this game’s just a game. It’s fun to go out and hit a home run, but when you come right down to it, it’s just a stupid…” At that point, Joe started to catch himself. “…game.”

But it was already too late, for Joe anyway. His attitude had gone sour, his game had become less than average, even his posture had begun to look like a bunch of yesterdays all rolled into one.

Trying to get back what was once good wasn’t such a bad thing. It’s when you know the best is all behind you and the worst is yet to come — that’s when the posture starts to bend, and Joe “The Leaf” Withers was starting to bend.

“It’s alright, Joe,” said the kid. “You’ll get another shot. It’s just a stupid game, anyway, right?”

Joe had been given another chance, at least to make things right with the kid. Joe thought about something he never quite realized before: a kid’s optimism can go a long way. It was probably why he kept volunteering with the little leagues all through the years.

“You know what?” said Joe.

“What, Joe?”

“I got a feeling you gonna be one helluva second baseman.”

“You think so, Joe?”

“Absolutely,” he smiled. “You got a great swing, good eyes, the speed, the lateral motion, I mean, who wouldn’t think you could fill at least a few positions in a team. You’re at least three or four of them right there.”

“You really think so?”

“Of course I do, Albert. And the best thing you got is right there in your head. A good attitude.”

Albert beamed brightly and it lit up the shadows from the late afternoon sun. The weather was still warm but the days were getting shorter already. It was something you didn’t need a watch or a calendar for. You could just feel it, happening right before you, right before your eyes, in the still air of a baseball stadium, on the worn wooden benches where the kids sat waiting for their turn, in the dirt covering home plate.

The saddest time of year.

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