On the Edge of Babylon

1.

Somewhere between Topeka and Wichita, Luke Deacon learns the latest news on himself, though it’s blurry exactly when he finally catches the transmission, ham radio style, crackling out of his car radio’s speakers, on another endless drive back and forth across the Great Plains.

Four hours plus on the pancake plate of America, alone with his thoughts and the local country music station broadcasting across the flatness.

And suddenly like a revelation, like a mirage at the end of the endless road, like a ghost on the grassland, it hits Luke like an eighteen-wheeler.

It all makes sense now. Goddamn.

2.

Wine country through and through, raised in a pretty picture, Joel Penrose was mothered like a vine. He’d launched balls at twisted trees all across the golden rolling hills that surrounded his parents’ blue-slatted single-story house.

Idyllic, rural, safe, it was all of that, it was hopping fences and stealing grapes and running through rows of lime-green vintage, playing hide-and-seek behind cypresses and sycamores.
Boring and lonely, it was also that, for frustrated teenagers dreaming of anything North or South of San Luis Obispo County.

But Joel wasn’t one of them. He was mild like the climate. Mild like the strawberries.

3.

Joel’s an uncut gem. Or at least that’s what they say. He’s a raw piece of amber, embedded in the tawny hollow of the Central Coast’s ale-colored slopes.

“There’s this kid.” they say. They don’t know what to do with him. He baffles.

So they make him a project, a lump of sandy clay to mold. They give him a pickaxe and sieve, and tell him to mine.
In Bend, between the high desert and the ski resorts and the looming Three Sisters, he discovers within himself a treasure of unexpected resources.

He makes like he’s been taught: subdued excitement.

4.

The giddiness never does leave his chest. It just keeps going, jittering eagerly like a fuse in his belly, drawing a perpetual smile on his face as he rides the bus leagues from Binghamton to Columbia.

The East Coast is unfamiliar and wet and blue, tails to his California’s heads, and he’s born again in baseball, a convert among natives. For the first time ever, he’s eating baseball for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, just like the rest of them always have.

So he widens his eyes and devours this brave new world he’s been dropped into, like a starving child.

5.

Objectively, Reading, PA, is a fucked-up place to fall for someone.

But Joel only ever sees the good in anything, the Amish Country lard donuts behind the railroadless railroad town, Springsteen’s Asbury Park behind the insipidity of Central Jersey’s Orthodox Jewish capital.

He’s never learned to be aloof.
It’s a sign of where his missionary education falls short of travel ball’s coded lessons in masculinity, coming to baseball like a prisoner comes to religion: nothing can wipe the wonder off Joel’s face when he sees handsome Luke Deacon and considers reworking the adage to say everything’s bigger in Kansas.

6.

Luke isn’t going to try and pretend it’s anything more than convenience when he lets Penrose drag him back to his hotel room after a preposterous amount of liquor.
Teammates or not, after all Luke doesn’t really know him beyond his (stellar) pitching stats, and he’s spent their whole surreal Bush League Does Playoff Glory trip hanging with the other hitters.

It’s disconcerting how blithely keen Joel is, kind of concerning, even. Luke feels like he must have missed the boat on some essential predications. When Penrose kisses him, Luke feels, sharply, that he’s going to regret it.

But hey-ho.

7.

They’re rare animals in the wild with telescopic lenses perpetually aimed at them like long-guns, as if Fort Myers even qualifies for the requirements of an urban jungle. Either way Joel can feel the all-seeing, prying eyes of the world piercing through his back like stigmata.

Because it snuck up on him, and suddenly he’s the great messianic hope of the Carolina Captains’ pitching and seven thousand at the ballpark is already a lot of people.

But there’s Deacon in the locker next to him calling him by his first name, gently teasing him with the reverence of kinship.

Confident.

8.

Luke doesn’t know what it is about Joel, because on a scale from hot to not, he’s forgettable at best. Butterfaced, ten-hair whiskers, ballplayer jaw. And Luke isn’t scared but he wants to be sure the chances he takes are worth it, and somehow placid, amenable Joel totally is.

He wonders if it’s the Great Plains kid inside of him, fascinated with the possibility of endless oceans, mellow winters, and pacific summers, benignity in all things.

It doesn’t really matter, though. When he catches Joel’s dewy-eyed beam, all the weight of Spring Training expectations melts down to nothing at all.

9.

They both teeter side by side on the edge of Babylon, the Show so close they could reach out and touch it.

They’re the same and also not, a game of spot-the-differences mirrored at the separation between their lockers. On paper, pitcher and hitter, apples and oranges; in practice, the same blue eyes, and whatever kind of fellowship it is that exists between them hanging wet and thick in the air, waterboarding Florida heat.

And Deacon should know better than to forget that’s how storms swirl in, when he grew up spun in tornado sirens and thundering Julies.

And yet.

10.

On summer mornings back in San Luis Obispo, sheets of fog would seep in between the jagged volcanic crags that swaddled the valley, and occult the omens of the day under their billowing blanket.

Joel thinks of the trajectory of his life like that of a breaking ball, a wild flick of the wrist, an unexpected path.
It’s baseball: it’s just like the San Andreas fault, there’s no telling what happens next.

Sometimes, though, when he looks down at his hand, he can almost read the seams’ curve like a life line and a heart line.

Waits for his earthquake.

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