From Ice To Fire
Adorned in a mask and several pounds of protective gear, I crouched down behind the plate inside the makeshift batter’s box he created on the biggest dirt field in our hometown of Adnet, Austria.
“I’m gonna make it you know,” he shouted, as he stepped off the pitcher’s mound for a second. “Everyone laughs, but Erick Muller will become the first Austrian high school athlete to win a baseball scholarship to an American University.”
I frowned and glared.
“And since when am I no one,” I snapped.
He kowtowed, smiled and put his hands together as if he were praying.
“Sorry,” he said. “You aren’t no one, you’re the only one. And, I do appreciate it.”
“Just promise,” I said. “You’ll go to a school with a warm climate.”
As he minced back to the mound, I arose and lumbered towards a dingy, grey Adidas duffel bag leaning against the backstop and removed a catcher’s mitt, as well as a thick, padded, black glove designed to provide my left hand added protection. He gave the thumbs up sign and went into his ritual of kicking the rubber three times, making The Sign Of The Cross and spitting. Again, I settled down and pounded the mitt. He went into the wind up and hurled. I caught fastballs, curves and off-speed offerings for more than an hour and was even instructed on how a catcher properly gestures finger movements to call for specific pitches.
Around five o’clock, we hopped into my blue VW bug. Smiles dissipated as I pulled into 128 Wilhelmstrasse’s long, gravel driveway about ten minutes later.
“Before we go in,” I said, as I placed the stick shift in neutral and shut the engine. “Mom’s cooking tonight.”
After inching his head to the left, he stared at me and ran both hands down his face with force. My heart thwacked as sweat drenched my forehead. He flung the passenger side door open and leaped out.
“Oh then,” he snarled. “I take it Dad’s gracing us with his presence.”
I lifted my head up and lowered it down.
“Shit,” he responded.
He slammed the door, stormed to within a few feet of Mom’s manicured rose garden and paced. My hands quaked to such an extent it was difficult to remove key from ignition. With legs now shuddering, I managed to kick the door open and slide my way out.
“And what was Stefan’s mood this morning?” he asked, while I paused to admire the sight and aroma of the blooming red flowers.
As soon as I moved away from the garden, a wave of nausea hit. I dry heaved a few seconds later.
“The usual,” I answered.
“Fuck,” he said, as he made a left handed fist and punched his right palm.
I grabbed his left arm.
“Just ignore it okay,” I said.
His hissed like Das Auto’s radiator when it crapped out last summer.
“Can’t anymore,” he said, as his face grew redder than Oma Traudl’s cabbage soup.
“Please,” I begged, now crying.
He stomped his feet.
“My buttons have been broken,” he answered.
My cries escalated to sobs.
“For me,” I pleaded. “Just tonight. Can we enjoy one damn dinner as a family?”
He jolted his head back and smacked his lips together.
“Depends on them,” he snorted.
Though I’d stopped crying upon entering the center hall, my eyes again watered and nose burned after inhaling the odor of chopped garlic and onion. Erick and I ambled to the kitchen and watched Mom remove a tin container from the fridge. He snatched a bottle of water just as she shuffled towards the counter. Her hands quavered as she uncovered the Emmenthaler. Erick and I held our noses.
“Wow that reeks,” Erick said, as she dissected several big slices into small slivers and tossed them into a large, green, ceramic bowl filled with steaming spatzle.
My heart pounded with greater intensity when I noticed Mom’s trembling grew more pronounced while she stirred the melting cheese.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
As she plodded towards the table, she dropped a dinner plate, which shattered upon contact with the black tiled floor.
“Nothing,” she whispered.
Tears came to her eyes. She covered her face. I grabbed a broom from the pantry and swept several ceramic pieces off the floor, before dumping them into a rubber garbage can under the sink.
“Everything,” she yelled.
Erick settled down in the first of two seats on the table’s right side. About thirty seconds afterwards, Stefan rolled in. A Beck’s beer was situated between his legs, as he directed the wheelchair to his usual seat at the table’s far end, opposite Dad’s head spot near the living room’s entrance. The bottle tipped over, soaking the pair of the ripped, blue sweatpants he wore. I snared a fistful of paper toweling and rushed towards him.
“Don’t need your help,” he screamed, as he ripped the four sheets of Bounty from my hand and launched them airborne. “I can’t feel it.”
Erick ascended and trudged in the direction of the living room.
“Where ya going Babe Ruth?” Stefan asked.
Erick halted, veered around and glared at Stefan. Every nerve in my body jumped. I staggered to the counter and gripped its edge to prevent myself from falling. Erick moped into the living room.
“Yeah, that’s right all-star,” Stefan belted. “Run away. Pitchers aren’t afraid of confrontation. Wuss.”
Mom darted to Stefan and raised her hand and placed it in slapping position.
“Stop it now,” she ordered.
Stefan, who’d gained thirty pounds from heavy drinking and the self-imposed inactivity of avoiding physical therapy over the past year, smirked and chugged the remainder of the bottle.
“Take Me Out To The Bellgame,” he slurred, mocking Erick further. “Buy Me Some Peanuts And Cwackerjacks.”
Mom tugged on her bleached blonde hair, surrendered to her knees and wept. I viewed Stefan and stomped towards him.
“Shut the fuck up already,” I yelled. “Why won’t you leave him be?”
He wheeled away from the table.
“No one in this family’s got a fuckin’ sense of humor,” Stefan answered, while emitting a belly laugh.
The second Stefan reentered the living room, Erick exited without facing him and gaited around the kitchen floor several times, while Mom sobbed and rocked to and fro. I offered a hand and lifted her upwards.
“Lower the flames,” she instructed, before bolting towards the stairs.
I returned to the stove and followed her instructions. Erick tapped my right shoulder.
“And to think, I still feel bad for him,” he said, as water streaked down both sides of his pale face.
Ten minutes later, Dad’s six foot three inch frame barreled through the door. Mom hightailed it downstairs and each of us raced to occupy our seats at the table. Before Dad swallowed the first sips of his Beck’s, the kasespatzle was served. Dad sorted through the mail prior to sitting down. At the top of a stack of envelopes and periodicals tied together by a rubber band, was the latest edition of “Baseball Weekly.” Erick and I studied one another. Dad ran the fingers of his right hand through his thinning brownish-grey hair, held it up, shook his head and laughed.
“Now that’s a pitcher,” Erick said, as he pointed to the cover, which featured Los Angeles Dodgers star hurler Clayton Kershaw.
Stefan fidgeted and observed Dad. I felt a strong wave of nausea hit again.
“Hope I’m not paying for this,” Dad snickered.
Erick made a fist and struck the table with moderate power.
“Don’t worry,” Erick snarled, as he raised his hands. “Paid for the subscription using my camp counseling money.”
“Good,” Dad responded.
“If it was a ski mag, you’d pay for it,” Erick muttered, in almost a whisper.
“That’s right I would,” Dad snapped back. “That’s what most normal Austrian teenaged boys are interested in.”
Dad glimpsed up and glared at Erick. Erick boomeranged Dad’s stare. Mom quaked as she cleared her throat and inched her south end onto a wooden chair. Seconds later, we dined on the pasta and cheese appetizer. No one spoke and everyone’s eyes remained transfixed on their plates. Seven full minutes of quiet was broken only by the legs of Mom’s seat squeaking across the ground as she arose and rambled towards the oven. I followed her lead and the two of us soon served wienerschnitzel and veal fleischkknodel. We continued the meal in silence.
“Anyone coming home for dinner tomorrow?” Mom asked, when all our dishes were almost clean.
“Well, you know I’ll be here,” Stefan said, after draining another healthy gulp of suds.
“Got training in Salzburg tomorrow,” I said. “Won’t be home til late.”
“Sorry,” Dad said. “Meetings til nine.”
Erick kept his head down, attempting to go unnoticed. Mom reached out and gripped Erick’s hand.
“No,” he said, in a voice so low it was difficult to hear him. “I won’t be home.”
“Your mother wants to know where you’re going,” Dad baited him, in a loud, sarcastic tone.
Erick sighed, placed his hands on the table and stared at the floor.
“Also to Salzburg,” he replied, several seconds later. “Meeting with Coach. Want to see if there’s any news.”
Stefan pounded a glass bottle down, causing a sizeable crease in the white table cloth.
“How much longer do we have to listen to this crap?” Stefan roared.
Erick pounced into the air and casted his chair half-way across the room.
“May I be excused please?” he asked, with his tone growing in volume and intensity following every word.
Mom shifted her head to the left.
“Go ahead,” she whispered.
“Come on Dad,” Stefan continued on. “When’re you gonna tell him to stop chasing this ridiculous fantasy?”
Dad bowed his head and bit his lower lip. Erick leered at Dad and stormed out of the kitchen.
“That’s enough,” Dad told Stefan, as he placed his right hand out like a traffic cop.
“Guess I’m the only one brave enough to do it,” Stefan said.
Erick zoomed back towards the table, lunged towards Stefan and grabbed a portion of his Red Bull Salzburg jersey.
“I may be a dreamer,” Erick screamed. “But at least I’m not a damn gimp.”
Stefan launched one of three empty glass bottles at Erick, but missed. It shattered after landing a few feet from the dishwasher.
“That’s enough,” I howled. “Both of you.”
My heart raced faster than my idol Anna Fenninger sliding down the slopes of Solden. I intervened and stood in between them. Mom and Dad remained silent and didn’t budge.
“Sorry,” Erick said. “But you all know he deserved it.”
Stefan and Mom were now crying. Dad glanced in the other direction. Erick ascended and again glared at Stefan. It appeared the battle would resume.
“Don’t,” I begged.
“Not gonna hit him,” Erick said. “I promise.”
Erick leaned forward, stuck his head out and came within inches of Stefan’s face.
“Sorry your athletic dreams died on that mountain,” he said. “But don’t get in the way of mine. Any of you. I’ll win that scholarship.”
Erick clomped towards the front door.
“Even if it means having no family,” he yelled, as he ripped open and thrashed it shut with such strength windows rattled.
I disappeared to my room, tossed on my iPod and listened to the Joni Mitchell tune “Help Me” at least thirty times. After lying in bed until well after eleven o’clock, I tiptoed downstairs for a glass of water and noticed the garage door was ajar and light shone through the crack. The odor of marijuana was prevalent.
“Ah shit,” I mumbled, as I inched the door open and found Erick sitting down with his back leaning up against Dad’s Audi with a joint in his right hand. “Not again.”
He glanced up just after inhaling another hit.
“Couldn’t have heard me,” he said, as he entered into a hysterical giggling fit.
“I smelled you,” I said, as I dug the nails of my right hand into the left one’s palm. “What’re you doing? Haven’t you had enough of this already?”
He stumbled to his feet. I rested against the open door with my left bare foot on the cement step separating garage from home.
“Don’t tell me you don’t feel it,” he responded.
“You know I do,” I said. “I hide and ignore it.”
He placed his right arm outward, held the blunt up and sucked in more weed.
“Well, I don’t have that choice,” he snapped. “So, you’re looking at my escape.”
I stepped back inside.
“Had this conversation before,” I said. “Won’t try to convince you otherwise anymore.”
“That’s another reason I love ya sis,” he stammered.
I left the door open a little, but proceeded further down the hall.
“Look, um,” his voice grew louder, as I disappeared from view. “Since you’re headed to the Burg tomorrow. Think ya might be able to give me a ride to Coach’s?”
I smiled and exhaled as I sauntered back towards the garage. Erick had his faults, but I was proud that he wouldn’t quit.
“What time you have to be there?” I asked.
“About one,” he said, as he gulped some bottled water. “Leaving school early.”
“Sure,” I said. “Don’t have training til four.”
“Danke,” he said.
I approached and placed my left hand on his right shoulder.
“Ya okay?” I asked.
He remained still.
“Yep,” he said.
I retired to bed.
After sleeping until noon, I threw on ripped jeans and a white t-shirt with the word Osterreich written in black lettering, hopped in the car and left for the Adnet Gymnasium. I parked by the field and noticed Erick alone, firing pitches against a brick wall. His face was flushed and the Derek Jeter t-shirt I’d bought him the previous Christmas was soused in perspiration.
“Okay?” I asked. “Look exhausted.”
“I am,” he said, still attempting to catch his breath. “Spent two hours in the weight room before classes this morning. Trying to get to the big ‘Two C’.”
As I faced him, I wrinkled my forehead and squinted my eyes.
“What does that mean?” I wondered.
“Two hundred pounds,” he laughed. “That’s what Florida, Florida State and UCLA want recruits over six feet to be.”
“If you say so,” I said.
A half-hour later, we arrived at a dilapidated, grey building on Kirchestrasse that housed the offices of the Salzburg Stompers, the team Erick competed for. Coach Kurt Hagendorf’s office was the size of a cubicle and was furnished by a desk, an outdated Dell desktop computer and Epson printer. Erick rapped on the door. A chair screeched and within seconds, the chiseled, six-four, brown-haired, thirty-five year old inched opened the door. He smiled. I enthusiastically threw one back.
“Hey Erick,” he said. “Come in.”
Erick snared one of three folding chairs lying against the hallway wall, entered the office and sat down.
“Anita,” Hagendorf said. “So nice to see you. How’s the training going?”
“Moving along,” I said, as I gazed into a pair of eyes that were greener than the Aruban waters I swam in during the Austrian National Ski Team’s trip to the Caribbean last spring.
“Congrats on your win in Vail,” he said, as he motioned me inside. “Can’t wait til 2018. You’re gonna be a big star in South Korea.”
I nodded and crossed my fingers.
“Thanks,” I said, as I grabbed another one of the chairs and set it down outside the door. “If you don’t mind, I’ll let you guys speak in private.”
“No problem,” Hagendorf said. “We shouldn’t be too long.”
I peeked inside. Erick glanced over. I crossed my fingers again, this time for Erick’s sake.
“Good luck,” I mouthed, as I shut the door.
Hangendorf’s chair once again squeaked. I sifted through my purse and yanked out a grey iPod touch.
“Wish I had better news,” Hangendorf proclaimed, in a booming voice, just as I was about to place the earbuds in position.
I hated to eavesdrop, but had already heard too much. The door popped further ajar. Erick wiggled in his seat.
“How bad?” he asked.
Hagendorf squirmed, causing his chair to squeal again.
“Nothing, I’m afraid,” he said, as he grimaced.
Erick leaped into the air, paced and then slapped the wall with his left hand.
“Can’t believe this bullshit,” he shouted. “I’ve averaged two hundred strikeouts, an under one ERA and tapped off at ninety-six the past three seasons?”
Erick lifted the chair high above his head. Hagendorf moved his hands up and down.
“Can’t relax,” Erick bellowed. “Love to see any of those American boys do better.”
Hagendorf arose and tossed a pencil onto the desk.
“Yeah,” Hagendorf said. “But those American boys are American. You, I and those recruiters know baseball’s not our national pastime.”
Erick released a large burst of air, set the chair down, stepped toward the wall and kicked it, first with his right foot and then the left.
“Gonna figure out a way,” he said. “They’ll notice me.”
Erick pushed the door open. I jumped up.
“Everything okay?” I asked, trying to pretend I didn’t hear the unpleasant developments.
“Yeah,” he answered, as he snorted, slapped his left palm against his forehead and ran the fingers of his right hand through a head of thick, curly, brown locks. “You go ahead. Gonna stay for a while and toss a few out back. Coach’ll give me a lift home.”
Three hours of weight training left me too sore to sleep in the following morning, so I maneuvered out of bed at seven-thirty. Before I hobbled to the bathroom, my iPhone chimed. It was a text from Erick saying: “meet me in basement.” Dressed in only a night shirt, I donned white shorts and a pair of Skechers slip-ons, took three minutes to wipe the blur from my eyes and wobbled down two flights of stairs. Erick was plugging a video recorder into an outlet under Mom’s old, dust covered mahogany desk.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
He titled his head like our two-year-old German Shepherd Maxi.
“The next step in getting noticed,” he said.
“Good,” I said. “But, how does it involve me?”
He flipped the on switch. Red and white lights shone into my still fuzzy eyes.
“You’re gonna play director,” he said, as he placed the Sony apparatus into my left hand.
Atop the desk were several large, informational anthologies like “American Colleges and Universities” and “The Sporting News Top Fifty Baseball Schools.” In addition, several open notebooks were scattered about. My eyes widened.
“What’s all this stuff?” I asked.
“Research,” he said.
He minced forward and examined the camera. I observed him.
“Okay great,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“Remembered to put a tape in,” he responded.
“Impressive,” I said. “When’d you think of all this?”
“Yesterday,” he answered. “Not long after I left Coach’s office.”
My arm was getting tired. I placed the camera down on the ground.
“What’s the plan?” I asked.
“Keep the camera focused on me,” he said.
I picked it back up.
“Action,” I said, right before I entered into a laughing spell.
Erick swigged from a plastic bottle.
“Hello,” he said, while gulping more Voslauer Mineralwasser. “My name’s Erick Muller and I’m interested in becoming a student athlete at your university.”
I breathed deep in an attempt not to giggle. When I noticed he wasn’t smiling, I gripped the camera tighter and focused in.
“There’s more to me than strikeouts and fastballs,” he continued. “Yes, I’ve got an under one ERA and more than a hundred K’s in ten games this year. But, I’m also an honor student with a three nine GPA, work as a camp counselor during the summer and volunteer at our local church.”
He stuck out two fingers, put them towards his throat and moved them back and forth. I heeded the prompt and hit the off switch.
“Got some more time?” he asked, as he reached into a drawer and removed several huge yellow envelopes, before positioning them inside and zipping the outer compartment of a black briefcase.
“I guess,” I responded. “Why?”
“We’re headed to the park,” he answered.
Again not understanding, I squinted my eyes and shrugged my shoulders.
“What’s there?” I asked.
“Part two of the production,” he said.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
He glimpsed up and smiled, but didn’t answer. I played along, raced up the steps and snatched my keys from the counter.
“Ready?” I shouted.
“Yep,” he said.
I heard clanking and banging as he ascended. Over one shoulder was the briefcase. Across the other was his Adidas bag.
“Not today,” I said. “My hands are too sore. I can’t.”
He dropped the bag and stepped towards me.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll throw against the backstop. You only have to hold the camera again.”
“Thank God,” I responded, followed by a chuckle.
Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the field. Erick unzipped the bag, extracted an almost empty packet of Big League Chew and tossed a wad into his mouth. He held up the bag of gum. I stared back and moved my head sideways several times.
“Not for me,” I said. “Stuff tastes like chalk.”
He packed it away and sauntered towards the mound.
“Just remember the camera,” he said, in a friendly, but sarcastic voice.
I hurried to the car and retrieved it. By the time I’d turned around, he’d already put on his cleats and was kicking the dirt. I flicked the camera on and waited for his signal. He kicked the rubber three times, made The Sign of the Cross and spit. I stepped closer. He whirled around and nodded. I zoomed in.
“In part two of this video,” he began. “I’ll show you that I can pitch.”
He went into the windup and hurled. The ball creamed the backstop, producing a clapping sound that made me jump. The second pitch came and made a larger imprint against the wall. The third one created an even greater indentation. When he was finished, I gaped at the wall. The poor, old, chipped, whitish-grey barrier had about twenty fresh marks on it. He tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to his face.
“Oh, right,” I said.
“That concludes my presentation,” he said, as he leaned towards the lens and smiled. “Thank you for taking the time to consider me.”
After returning home, Erick almost bowled me over en route to the basement’s entrance.
“Sorry,” he said, while opening the door. “No time to waste.”
“Where’re you going?” I asked.
“To reproduce the video,” he answered, as he clumped down the stairs. .
The next morning, several stuffed envelopes addressed to universities such as UCLA, North Carolina, Florida State, Florida, Miami, USC and Louisiana State sat in a huge box on the kitchen table.
“Unbelievable,” I muttered to myself.
The peace of that day disintegrated into the usual family conflict upon my return home from a three-week promotional tour in North America. Mom paced in the kitchen, as I dumped my luggage onto the floor. A lit cigarette rested in one of two Radio Salzburg ash trays on the counter.
“Well, I see nothing’s new,” I snarled, as I pointed to the other one filled to capacity with Camel butts smoked by a woman who claimed she’d quit the month before.
“Nope,” Mom said, while she inhaled and expelled a cloud of smoke.
“Stef again?” I asked.
She took another drag and shook her head.
“Erick?” I asked, in a loud and surprised manner.
“Hasn’t left the shed for the last two days,” she said.
I rushed outside and into the backyard. The door of the little red tool house was closed, but unlocked. The smell of marijuana filled the surrounding air. I snaked forward, turned the knob, inched the door open and peeked inside. Erick had a lit joint in his mouth and held a half-full bottle of whiskey in his left hand. A double shot glass with the L.A. Dodger logo sat on a wooden stand with dried liquid in it. As I entered, he glimpsed up and placed the Bourbon between his legs.
“Bad news on the scholarship front?” I asked in a whisper, knowing for sure it had to be.
He reached under his chair, lifted two white, standard, business envelopes off the ground and held them out. I grabbed them. One was from UCLA, the other Florida State.
“They’re quick when they don’t want you,” he said, as he dropped the joint to the ground and extinguished it with the sole of a blue sneaker with the Nike swoosh on it.
“Shit,” I said. “Sorry. Someone will.”
He chugged from the bottle.
“Maybe it’s time to take up skiing,” he said.
I placed a hand on his right shoulder.
“Don’t say that,” I said.
He unscrewed the bottle and swigged a healthy amount.
“Please go,” he said. “Need to be numb for a while.”
I whirled my head sideways.
“No,” I said. “Hand me the bottle.”
I stared at him for ten minutes. If need be, I was prepared to capture it from him, even if it meant a physical struggle. Fortunately, my peaceful strategy worked. He tossed me the bottle and stomped towards the house.
“Okay,” he said, with a strong suggestion of sarcasm and anger. “I’ll go in.”
I followed him inside. A few hours later, Mom knocked on my bedroom door and pranced in.
“Thanks,” she said, as she smiled.
“For what?” I asked.
“He’s in his room reading from the baseball magazines again,” Mom said. “Somehow, you’re able to reach him. Always could.”
I expelled a tremendous burst of air.
The next morning, I was awakened by a repetitive thumping noise. After glancing out my window, I witnessed Erick hurling the ball at a makeshift wooden target he’d created in the backyard. As I was about to hop back in bed, I was astonished to see Dad set out a lawn chair, sit down and observe. Seconds later, I was even more flabbergasted to witness Stefan wheel himself out. I continued to stand transfixed, as they watched Erick until he completed his session, a full half-hour later.
“I don’t know how your shoulder can withstand that abuse,” Dad said, as Erick snared a towel from the Adidas bag and wiped the sweat from his eyes.
Erick moseyed by without acknowledging their presence. He repeated the process every morning for a week. Each day, Dad and Stefan watched, from the beginning of his session until the end. On Sunday, Erick started an hour earlier than usual in advance of our trip to church. That morning, the entire family witnessed Erick victimize this backstop. Upon completion of his workout, Dad again approached Erick.
“Uh,” he began, as he grimaced and fidgeted with his hands. “I’m proud of you and, if you want to go for the scholarship, I’m behind you.”
Dad opened his arms. At first Erick hesitated, but after several more seconds, relented and the two embraced. Mom and I bawled. Stefan wheeled over to Erick. The two eyed each other. Then, Stefan extended his right hand. Erick again showed initial reluctance, but eventually returned the favor. He had my respect for years but at last, and regardless of how anything else turned out, had earned theirs.
On the following Monday, my heart raced when I observed Erick poring over three more quite small envelopes from North Carolina, the University of Southern California and the University of Florida. He eyed me. We both knew what that meant. Instead of opening the correspondences, he tossed them on the kitchen counter, slogged outside and retired to the shed. I trailed and viewed his actions through a crack in the door. He removed a fresh bottle of bourbon from under a blanket and stared at it for a few seconds, before emptying the bottle and dropping it to the ground.
“Fuck it,” he said. “Sick of hangovers.”
I rushed inside and hugged him.
“I’m so proud of you,” I said.
Startled, he jumped back several steps and thrust me off of him.
“What for?” he asked.
I pointed to the bottle.
“Oh,” he said. “What’s the point? Ain’t worth the headaches anymore. Literally and figuratively. Have to face it I guess. It was a longshot.”
I closed in and placed a hand on his right shoulder.
“Please sis,” he begged, the second I was about to open my mouth. “No speeches or sayings today.”
I understood and kept quiet. He bowed his head, moped towards the house and disappeared. A couple hours later, we gathered for supper. A sense of queasiness set in when I noticed Erick wasn’t there. I stared at his chair.
“Don’t worry,” Mom said, as she squeezed my right hand. “He’s fine. Just tired.”
It was difficult for me to sleep that night. I visited the garage and shed at least four times. Luckily, on each occasion, both were empty. At eight o’clock the next morning, I peeked into Erick’s room and thanked God when finding him in bed, asleep. Upon returning to my room, my iPhone chimed. Ironically, it was a message from our Parish Priest, Father Heinz.
“Call me,” he said. “It’s very important.”
I trembled. My best friend Sissi’s Oma was very ill and I feared the worst. With quaking fingers, I dialed the church’s number.
“Anita,” shouted Father Heinz. “Thanks for returning my call.”
“What’s wrong?” my voice cracked. “Is it Oma Freidel?”
He cleared his throat.
“No, no, no,” he said. “Relax. It’s about Erick.”
He spoke with an enthusiasm I hadn’t yet heard in any of his sermons. However, I was confused.
“Erick?” I asked. “What is it?”
“There’s a man named Manny Quintero sitting in the rectory with me,” he said. “He’s the Head Baseball Coach for the University of Miami and he wants to see your brother right now.”
I dropped the phone, bolted into Erick’s room and jumped on top of him.
“What the hell are you doing?” he mumbled, with his eyes ninety-nine percent shut.
After flipping a New York Yankees blanket off his bed, I grabbed a pair of ripped blue jeans and the Los Angeles Dodgers t-shirt he often wore for good luck out of a drawer and launched the articles at him.
“Get up now,” I instructed. “We’re going someplace.”
“Where?” he wondered.
“Tell you later,” I said, as I almost tripped over my own feet while exiting his room.
Erick sat up and glared.
“Where’re you going?” he posed.
“Someone’s on the phone,” I said.
I raced back to my room.
“Father,” I said. “Still there?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Sorry,” I responded, trying to jump into a pair of grey sweatpants.
“I figured you’d give him the good news,” he said.
“What’s the plan?” I asked.
“Meet us at the field,” he said. “Herr Quintero wants to see him pitch.”
“Got it,” I said.
By the time the conversation ended, Erick was leaning against the doorway studying me.
“Drink some orange juice and get your glove,” I stammered, almost out of breath. “We have to meet someone.”
“Sis,” he said. “Did you smoke the rest of my stash?”
I grabbed my car keys and vaulted down the stairs. Erick stood on the top step and viewed the scene.
“You coming?” I shouted.
“Okay,” he said, as he placed both hands up.
He followed me outside. The car was already started when he slinked into the front passenger side. I shifted into reverse and slammed on the throttle. In less than two seconds, we were off. Erick clutched my right wrist.
“You gonna tell me now?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t believe me if I did,” I answered.
He sighed and closed his eyes. I sped to the field in under seven minutes. My abrupt parking job jolted Erick, who gripped the dashboard. He glimpsed up. We both noticed the six foot two inch frame of Father Heinz.
“Why’s Father Heinz here?” he asked. “And who’s that guy with him?”
My stomach tingled. It was unfair to torture him anymore.
“Manny Quintero,” I responded. “Head Coach of the Miami Hurricanes. He flew out to see you pitch.”
“Bullshit,” Erick said, as he shoved the door open with his right foot.
Father Heinz brushed back his wavy, dark, brown hair, saw us and moseyed over. Quintero followed. He had a crew cut and was muscular, but I was most impressed with his beautiful bronzed skin tanned by the southern Florida sun. Erick cleared his throat.
“Shit,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“He’s wearing a Miami Hurricanes windbreaker,” his voice cracked.
“Told you,” I said.
Father Heinz and Quintero eyed us. I grabbed Erick’s hand.
“Do it,” I whispered, as I pumped my fist.
As we closed in, Quintero smiled.
“Herr Coach Quintero,” Father Heinz began, in his always formal, Germanic way of making introductions. “This’s Erick Muller.”
Quintero extended his hand and Erick shook it. Erick viewed me. My heart pounded. Erick paced and fidgeted with his mitt.
“Indeed it is,” Quintero continued.
Father Heinz and I retreated a few strides.
“I was impressed with your video,” he said, as he faced Erick. “Think you can repeat some of that now?”
Erick nodded his head fast and raced to the mound. Quintero, Father Heinz and I followed. When we reached the hill, Quintero moved forward. We stayed behind and observed. Erick glimpsed back and viewed Quintero.
“I’m ready son,” Quintero said.
Erick entered into the now familiar routine of kicking the rubber three times, making The Sign of the Cross and spitting. He went into the wind up and let one fly…right into the dirt, a few feet short of home plate. Quintero jerked his head back. Father Heinz and I observed each other. I stepped forward.
“Coach,” I said. “Could you give us a minute?”
He nodded and stepped back a few feet. Erick was panting. I snared his arm, glared at him and took control like I was the Dodgers pitching coach, trying to calm a rattled Kershaw down after relinquishing a home run in a playoff game.
“Listen,” I said. “You’re Kershaw. You’re facing San Francisco. The NL West title’s on the line. Take us home.”
I play punched his right shoulder and strutted away. He slapped his glove and peered at Quintero.
“Okay Coach,” he said. “Ready?”
Quintero locked in. Father Heinz clutched my hand. I lifted up a crucifix necklace, kissed it and muttered in silent prayer. Again, Erick pitched from the windup. This time, the lefty hurled a fastball that not only made it to, but created another mark on the backstop. About halfway through Erick’s session, Quintero offered a smile, which grew wider with each pitch. Finally, after about fifty tosses, Quintero stepped towards the mound and flailed his arms.
“I’m invoking the mercy rule,” he shouted. “That poor wall. I’ve seen what I needed to. Congratulations Herr Muller. I’m offering you a scholarship to the University of Miami.”
I jumped into Father Heinz’s arms. Erick leaped into the air and exulted.
“Yes,” he screamed. “Fuck yeah. I’m going to the U baby.”
“Ahem,” grunted Father Heinz, as he eyed Erick and laughed.
“Forgive me Father,” Erick responded. “Heaven yeah. That better?”
Father Heinz gave the thumbs up sign. Quintero faced Erick, who settled down to where he ceased jumping, but not grinning. The coach again extended his right hand and Erick shook it with force. Quintero reached into a backpack, pulled out a Miami Hurricanes hat and presented it to Erick. Tears came to both mine and Erick’s eyes when he donned it.
“I’d like to meet with your parents,” Quintero said.
“I’ll take you there,” said Father Heinz. “Let the recruit celebrate.”
While Quintero and Father Heinz shuffled towards the parking lot, Erick gaped at me.
“Is Miami hot enough for you?” he asked.
“You bet,” I answered, as we embraced.