Base Hit to Center

by Paul Stenis
Arnie and Louise stood alone in the elevator. Arnie said getting rid of it was the only logical move. Arnie said there was no other choice. The “it” was a baby. The baby was in Louise’s body, and Arnie had put it there. Now it was her problem. This is what he was saying.

His shoulders relaxed underneath his winter coat. He wasn’t at all ready to settle down. Louise had deluded herself about that fact for months now, and now the baby belonged to her and her alone. Arnie pushed his black-rimmed glasses up his prominent nose, stepped toward the closed elevator doors, and examined his teeth in the blurry reflection. His shoes made a hollow sound against the floor.

“These things happen, Louise,” he said. “You’ll get over it.”

“This has happened before?” She supposed this was something he could easily deny.

He said nothing.

“That’s wonderful,” she said. She took a cigarette and a lighter from her purse. “That’s great. I can’t wait to hear what the office thinks.”

“If you’re willing to embarrass yourself that way, be my guest,” Arnie said. Then he focused that penetrating look of his on her cigarette. “You can’t possibly expect me to believe you were going to keep it.”

She put the cigarette away, embarrassed. Pulling them out in the elevator was an old habit. She hadn’t smoked since the positive results of the urine tests—three of them in a row—that she had administered that morning. Ironically it was Arnie’s air of competence and calm in times of stress, his cool head when the pressure was on that she had so admired. Fuck logic, she thought. Fuck cool heads. But he was right. She should probably get the abortion. She should probably pretend this had never happened. And she also probably loved Arnie too much to embarrass him. How many conversations had Arnie had just like this one?

They reached the ground floor. They walked briskly through security and out into the city. The sounds of traffic shuddered in the cold. Everybody’s breath looked like smoke. Arnie didn’t wait. He strode toward Park Avenue where he would turn south and walk to the Trevi Deli.

“So,” Louise said, speaking loud enough for others to hear. He stopped, turned his ear toward her. “That’s it, then?”

He did not hesitate. He nodded. He continued on. She watched him walk all the way down the block and disappear around the corner. Louise closed her mouth, and then she turned on her heel and headed into Madison Square Park, away from Arnie and away from the shitty publishing job she didn’t want anyway. She put a cigarette to her lips, flicked her lighter but stopped with the flame less than an inch from the tip. She held it there until the wind blew it out, then threw the lighter and cigarette into a trash bin. She dug the pack from her handbag and threw that away too. What was she doing? She didn’t know.

She thought wistfully of one of their good days, perhaps their best. They had spent a Sunday afternoon walking off their hangovers in Prospect Park and happened by a slow pitch softball game. In the field were a bunch of twenty-something guys in matching T-shirts with “Stashes” across the front. A paper banner pinned to the backstop proclaimed how they had grown mustaches for charity. She remembered their gold-rimmed sunglasses, their socks pulled to their knees, their pitcher warning of a wicked “splitter.” The team at bat was a high school girls’ team. They wore tight black uniforms with “Tigers” in bright orange letters over their breasts.

The Tigers were taking the game seriously, but the Stashes weren’t, and the girls soon realized, within minutes of Arnie and Louise showing up, that they were being messed with. This wasn’t serious. Their coach sipped a beer and joked with one of the Stashes in the bleachers. The Tigers’ captain, a husky girl, spotted Arnie and Louise behind the backstop and approached the chain link fence. She motioned Arnie over and whispered in his ear.

“Nah,” Arnie said. “I couldn’t.”

“Please?” the girl said. “These guys are dickheads.”

Then they heard the pitcher say, “This one’s sexy.”

Next thing Louise remembered, Arnie stood on deck with a black and orange T-shirt over his periwinkle button-down and an aluminum bat in his hands. The Tiger at the plate shot a grounder between short and third for a single, and Arnie strode to the batter’s box, handling the bat like he was born with it. The Stashes were at a loss. They shifted their outfielders, played him to pull. Arnie bent his knees. He held the bat high and loose, rotating it slowly and deliberately. His head was completely still.

The pitcher lofted the ball high, high in the air. Louise was amazed by the pitch, its height and accuracy. A throb of excitement filled her chest as the ball reached its peak, then started back down. Arnie waited. Oh how he waited on the ball. Just when she thought it was too late, the bat exploded into movement, arcing round like a helicopter blade and hitting the ball with an abrupt, high-pitched ring.

She wouldn’t have seen the ball at all had the center fielder not thrown his glove in the air and ducked as it accelerated by. It seemed to pick up speed as it bounded beyond the field of play, now well past the flailing outfielder, and showing no signs of slowing down. A family of picnickers looked up from their lunches, too surprised to scatter. The Tigers screamed in delight. So did the Stashes. Arnie admired his hit, the aluminum club near his face, that Clark Kent grin brightening his features. He strolled around the bases.

--

Her fifth-grade year she changed her name from Jennifer to Louise. There were four Jennifers in her class, so she decided to go by her middle name for a change. Her last name was Schermerhorn, pronounced “skimmerhorn,” and she hated hearing the name out loud. People always said both names when they saw her. “Well, if it isn’t little Jenny Schermerhorn!” But after she changed it to Louise, they said, “Hi, Louise.”

Her father Larry was kind to a fault. He taught medieval literature at the University of Oklahoma, where he had hoped to one day lead the graduate program, but for reasons Louise wasn’t privy to, this didn’t happen. That September, he quit the university and took the open AP English position at Norman High. He would be her teacher seven years later. “Hey! That’s Dr. Schermerhorn’s kid!”

Her mother didn’t work and always seemed bored, and fifth grade was also the year she left them for Joel Ackerman, a probate lawyer in Oklahoma City. Louise had been driving the seventeen-mile stretch between Joel Ackerman’s mansion in Oklahoma City and her father’s apartment ever since, whether on weekends in high school or holiday vacations thereafter. Louise adapted to these changes quite well.

--

Louise went to the edge of Madison Square Park where she could see the Flatiron building and the dog run. She was twenty-eight years old, and she was calling her father on her cell phone to tell him she was pregnant. He was always the first one she thought of in times of stress.

“Louise you would never believe it.” Her father never said hello. He worked you in to the conversation. “Stephen Endersby has discovered the magic of Shakespeare. His paper on Hamlet is excellent. I’m submitting it to an essay contest. You remember his awful writing from last year? Well, he’s turned it around!”

“Are you in class?”

“Planning period. You know your mother called the other day. We wondered if you would visit this summer. You left some clothes here at Christmas. I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon.”

She told him she was pregnant.

“Congratulations, sweetheart. Forgive me, but for once I have reason to pry. Who is the lucky father?”

Louise burst out laughing. Her dad didn’t know about Arnie, and she wanted to keep it that way for the moment. She told him the father didn’t consider himself so lucky.

“Well what do you know? I’m feeling like the lucky one. It’s I who will come to New York. I can’t believe it. Little Jenny’s having a baby. Sorry. Louise. It is Louise, now. I will try to remember that. You’re not a little girl anymore.”

--

Louise didn’t go back to work. After talking her father out of coming to New York—she would be going home to Oklahoma—she phoned the office and left a voice message. “This is Louise. I hereby tender my resignation, effective immediately.”

Her flight left the next morning. If she delayed, she’d only talk herself out of it or confront Arnie in a less than friendly way. She boarded the plane with drinking straws and barf bags. She threw up once in the bathroom near her gate, but her stomach settled after that. She chewed the straws for nicotine withdrawals. This did not help.

When she boarded the plane a polite teenage boy helped her load her bag into the overhead bin and she took a seat by the aisle. It was an early-morning flight, due to take off just after seven, and the crew bossed the passengers around cheerfully. It would not be a full flight to Dallas, Texas, where Louise would catch a connecting flight to Oklahoma City. The stewardess forced a smile when a blind man refused to give up his aisle seat a few rows in front of her. He had been assigned the window seat. He did not want a window seat. The other passengers were just about settled and the plane filled with the sound of the engine and hissing air and nervous laughter.

The blind man wouldn’t budge. The stewardess didn’t see a problem with him moving. After all, she said, this isn’t a full flight. An obese woman with a walkie-talkie and an official-looking vest arrived on the scene and took charge. She said very loudly so the entire plane could hear her: “Sir. This isn’t your assigned seat.” She repeated this three times, interrupting the blind man whenever he tried to speak. Louise craned her neck and saw a man standing behind the obese woman. He was slender, well-dressed, and handsome. A blue light blinked from a device in his ear, and he was carrying on a conversation about the blind man with someone no one else could see. The things he was saying about the blind man were rude. The blind man was in his aisle seat and sure as hell wasn’t going to give it up.

Louise stood and walked toward them, intending to give up her seat for the handsome, rude guy, but when she opened her mouth she said, “Excuse me. I need to use the toilet.”

“The restrooms are at the rear of the plane.”

When Louise returned, the rude guy sat in the blind man’s seat shaking his head. The blind man was gone.

“What happened?” Louise asked a nearby woman.

“Security.”

After the plane took off, Louise thought about Arnie. The morning after Louise slept with him for the first time, they took the subway from Greenpoint to Park Slope. The G train was out of service and they had to make an unusual transfer at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop on the blue line. Louise joked, “Look, they named this stop after me.”

“Louise Hoyt,” he said. “I didn’t know that.”

She waited for him to play it off as a joke. They had worked together for six months.

--

Who was Louise? That’s what she had come to New York to find out. Her senior year in high school, she had labored quietly under her father’s wing and got a perfect score on her AP English test. She earned a full ride to Columbia, but her father had to force her to board her flight to New York. She wanted to go, but she had underestimated how hard it would be to say goodbye. He told her later that he had immediately headed back to the car, unable to bear the sight of her departing plane.

Louise loved New York, but she got bored with school, earning straight Bs her first semester to her and her father’s dismay. It was only when she fell in love with the possibilities of New York, understood that there was more to life than academics, more to life than Oklahoma, knew that she was making it, even thriving, that she quit sweating her grades and rode that B average all the way to commencement.

Significant to that journey was her discovery of men. She didn’t just date the college boys she courted on that campus. She engulfed them with love. It was always love that she felt, or (as she would put it later) it was always love that she thought she felt. She held Dwayne’s head to her chest when he was cut from the swim team. When Tyler was kicked out for cheating on a computer science exam, she packed his room and handled his moving arrangements. For wake-and-bake Wendell she did dishes and laundry every weekend for the nine months they dated.

Louise had a pregnancy scare because of Wendell, though he never knew about it. The day they broke up, they made frenzied, unprotected love among the cardboard boxes full of his things. Her devotion to the pill leading up to that breakup had been sporadic.

When her period didn’t arrive on time, she got so scared that she stayed in her room for three days, living on books, soup, and hot tea. She thought of what it would be like to be a mother, to possess a child, push a stroller down Broadway as others looked on in approval. Beyond that, her sense of responsibility was vague. After her parents’ divorce she had spent far less time at Joel Ackerman’s than she had at her father’s apartment. She had rarely witnessed motherhood in action. And when she had, she hadn’t been paying attention.

When her period arrived, she felt relief and disappointment. Relief because she wouldn’t have to tell Wendell. Disappointment because the thought of taking care of a child appealed to her. She liked the idea of someone who would accept her abundant love. But she wasn’t ready to admit that disappointment to anyone. She didn’t want to admit it to herself even. The sheer volume of her love seemed shameful. It made her lovers uncomfortable. It made the friends who knew her best smile and exchange looks.

Not once had she ended a relationship; Dwayne, Tyler, and Wendell had ended them. The reason behind each of these breakups, at bottom, was the same. They weren’t ready. As plain and clichéd as it was, they simply feared or shunned commitment. So Louise decided if they weren’t ready, then she wouldn’t be ready either. If they could avoid commitment, then she could too. For a while that worked out just fine.

--

As the second plane rose over Dallas and turned toward Oklahoma City and her father’s waiting bear hug, Louise resolved never to speak to Arnie again.

--

She settled into the spare room of her father’s apartment in Norman like a feather after a long fall. Her friends at the New York office hooked her up with enough freelance work to keep her busy for months, and there was more where that came from. She appreciated their help, the sympathy in their voices. She hadn’t told them, so Arnie must have, a scene she imagined with pride. The work was something as she coped with the nausea that woke her at ungodly hours. She liked keeping her mind busy, and thinking about her coworkers’ dismayed expressions when she hadn’t come back to work.

It was before the first ultrasound appointment at ten weeks, when she had to sit in the waiting room by herself, that she missed Arnie. She thought about him a lot, of course. It was impossible not to. But this was the first time she had missed him. Her father had meant to come, but his substitute was a no-show and he had to rush back to school.

The nurse took her back to an exam room, explained that her blood work looked fine. She met the doctor, a nice enough guy in his forties with gray hair and a friendly face. He rubbed her abdomen with a clear jelly and touched it with what looked like a paddle.

On the screen something moved. Not quite a body, really, more a kidney-shaped blob. When she saw the little beating heart, a new feeling filled her body. She saw years stretching out ahead for this, her baby. She saw life looming like a vast morning sky for this, this thing. This “it” Arnie hadn’t wanted. Louise felt the new feeling explode inside her. She thanked the doctor. She thanked herself.

When she got back to her apartment she called Arnie’s office. She hadn’t gotten around to deleting the number from her phone. It rang fives times before he said, “Arnold Lincoln.” She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. What did she expect? That he would come running to Oklahoma? That he would marry her?

“Hello?”

She hung up. She remembered that the phones at the office had built-in caller ID. Shit. Surely he would call back. She figured he would. He would want to know how she was doing.

She remembered the good times. The time he sent a cactus to her office. The time he brought her an everything bagel (with cream cheese) and clam chowder when she had a cold. The time he washed her dishes when she had too much wine at dinner; the time he bought her plane ticket to Oklahoma when she’d maxed out her credit cards. The time he’d taken the blame for an editing mistake that she had made. He could care when he wanted to.

But the phone continued its uncanny silence. The truth was, he had seemed to want to care until the defenses she had built up finally lowered, until he knew that he could have her whenever he pleased. That’s when he got bored and she got depressed, recognizing the first downward spirals. That’s when she knew her sporadic attention to birth control would backfire. That’s why the pregnancy hadn’t been particularly surprising, though the constant ache in her heart now was.

Arnie didn’t call back.

--

Louise named her baby Audrey Lorraine Schermerhorn. She was born on a warm May day on the cusp of summer in Norman, Oklahoma. Her father Larry was at the hospital along with her mother Lorraine and her stepfather Joel. Her baby slept and ate and slept and ate and they took her home after three days. She was in good health. She was a big baby, weighing in at nine pounds one ounce.

Audrey was easy. She rarely cried, and she always had a smile for anyone who held her. She had an s-shaped birthmark in the center of her chest and her hair was the same color as her grandfather’s.

Louise and Audrey moved into their own apartment that September as Louise continued her freelance work with the publishing house in New York. Her work had shown a remarkable new focus and dedication according to her contacts there, and many of the authors requested her by name.

Louise spent most of her time sitting in front of the computer. She got involved with a social networking website where she posted pictures of Audrey for her New York friends. It also allowed her to share her baby with her mom and Joel without having to leave the apartment. She had dinner with her father on Sunday nights, but beyond that she rarely engaged in social activities beyond a once-a-month book club. Most people in those parts looked at her funny when she confessed to not attending church; others seemed to judge her for being a single mother. She missed New York.

One day, she got a message from a man named Frederick through one of her online haunts. She had never posted a photo of herself online unless Audrey was in it too, so he certainly knew about her daughter. He worked at the university, but it was unclear in what capacity.

His profile photo also included a child. Frederick and his boy were both stocky. The father was completely bald on top, fortyish, handsome in a square jaw kind of way. The kid was probably about eight. Louise couldn’t get past the kid’s terrible haircut and wondered if Frederick had cut it himself. She liked to think that he had.

They agreed to meet at a café near campus. Audrey was about a year old now, and she decided to give her father his first babysitting duty, which he welcomed with great delight.

Frederick was far less handsome in person than in his picture. For one thing he was even balder now and he had a frown that lingered on his face no matter what. He kept looking sidelong at the floor as though there were a shiny object there that he wanted to pick up, but out of politeness or embarrassment he just wouldn’t do it.

She let him buy her a cappuccino and they sat down. His initial appeal for her had been the clarity of his writing, and she wondered now if that was the best way to judge someone. It was probably better than going soft over a pick-up softball game.

The date went fine. He taught four sections of Introductory Latin at OU and wasn’t shy about complaining about it. He clearly loved his students, though, and he went on at great length about them. He was considerate; he asked her about herself. Her job. Audrey. He covered the bases.

“So what about your son?” Louise said. “He’s quite a looker!”

Frederick laughed. That was his nephew. Louise humored the guy for about ten more minutes and then made an excuse to leave. Frederick frowned at his lap but said he understood. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt tremendously disappointed that Frederick had no child of his own. She knew this wasn’t fair, but she couldn’t bring herself to fake it. She missed Audrey. She gave Frederick her number, but she screened his calls and didn’t return them.

--

Eighteen months later the publishing company offered her the head position in their production department. It paid more than she had ever made, but the increase would be necessary to cover the cost of living in New York. She knew enough about that already not to be tempted by the salary alone. They would also reimburse any expenses associated with her move to New York. She would have her own office.

“Let me ask you something,” Louise said. “Does Arnie Lincoln still work there?”

The secretary on the other end coughed. “Yes, Ms. Schermerhorn, he does. He’s the one who recommended you for the position.”

She paused long enough for the lady to ask: “Ms. Schermerhorn?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Let me ask you something else. Is Mr. Lincoln married? He’s an old friend, you see, and it’s been a long time.”

“Why yes, he is married. He’s married to me. I’m Mrs. Lincoln. No kids yet, though. Forgive me for saying so, Ms. Schermorhorn, but I don’t remember seeing you at the wedding.”

“I’ll have to think it over.”

“Excuse me?”

“Please tell Mr. Lincoln I’ll give him my answer in the morning.”

“Of course.”

“Congratulations on your marriage.”

Louise hung up. It had taken every ounce of restraint not to tell Mrs. Lincoln where she could stick her husband’s job. She’d sounded young too. Early twenties, fresh-out-of-grad-school young. But Louise wanted Audrey to know her father. Granted, Arnie’s behavior to his point didn’t exactly inspire grand visions of him pushing Audrey on a park swing, but he was the only father she had. The only real father anyway. If there was even a slim chance that Arnie Lincoln could be half the father Larry Schermerhorn was to her, Louise had to make it happen. That’s what she told herself anyway.

--

The next Sunday, she told her father about the phone call as he bounced little Audrey on his knee. Louise had long since told about Arnie and how it all fell apart, so he was no longer a stranger to the whole story.

“I hope you told him where he can shove that job of his,” he said. “I probably made you think I wanted to come to New York to take care of you, but what I really wanted was to kick that man in the teeth.”

“Shouldn’t Audrey know her father?”

“You’re telling me this isn’t about revenge? Or missing New York? The first thing you’d do is march this beautiful little girl past that secretary’s desk so she could see this Arnie Lincoln’s beak on my granddaughter. Listen. It’s tempting to think he could be a father to her, and maybe I’m thinking like a selfish old man, but I like to think she’s got a better father figure right here, and besides—” He paused until she would look at him. “You haven’t exactly looked very hard for a replacement.”

But she went against her father’s advice because the offer was so sweet. She took the job. She researched private schools. She found an apartment in Manhattan. For the move, she squeezed every penny out of the company that she could.

At the airport, Audrey threw a tantrum at the security check as Louise tried to remove her shoes. In seconds, tears streamed down her flushed face and she let every muscle in her body go limp. Louise carried her like this to the gate. As they arrived, the other passengers were shuffling forward in line. An airport worker was already scanning tickets and sending passengers through. Louise squeezed Audrey and made shushing sounds. Audrey calmed for a few breaths but then picked up right where she had left off. The passengers at the back of the line, a twenty-something couple in trendy jackets, leaned toward Audrey and made soft sympathetic sounds.

“Oh,” the woman said to Louise. “You’re alone.”

Louise wanted to slap her. Instead she smiled. “She needs a diaper.” With that she steered her toward the restroom.

“You better hurry.” The twenty-something man zipped his jacket.

“Shut up,” the woman said. “She has plenty of time.”

In the restroom, Louise set Audrey on a brown plastic table and changed her messy diaper. She didn’t hurry. When she was done, Audrey smiled and began tugging at her shirt.

Louise heard the final boarding announcement but carried Audrey into a stall, secured the door behind her, hung her bag on a peg, and settled onto the U-shaped toilet seat. Audrey latched on eagerly as Louise took deep breaths. A helpless, peaceful feeling filled her as she listened to her name called over the airport loudspeakers. She held her cheek to Audrey’s forehead and closed her eyes. In her mind, she began to compose letters of apology.
Paul Stenis lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Olivia and his son Henry. His favorite band is Ride, and his friends never get tired of hearing about them.

© 2012, Paul Stenis