Tolstoy at the Ballgame by Kristen Zory King
A hollow crack surprises the air as the bat hits the ball with full, round force. I look up at the noise, watch as the ball moves perpendicular to the sky, towards the open glove in left field, not weightless perhaps, but with a grace that seems effortless, mathematical. The ball is easily caught, signaling the end of the inning: our boys run from the field to the dugout, taking care to dust sharp-heeled cleats in the reddened dirt to make up for such a lackluster play. No one wants an easy catch.
Summer clings to everyone: sandals loose in grass impossibly lush, green, and littered with peanut shells and popcorn, twin stains of ketchup on chin and streaked sunscreen on blushing, exposed skin. The other team—big boys, farm kids from a few counties over—assembles onto the field, the pitcher turning his body toward first base to make a brief, curt nod to his teammate, announcing the beginning of a new inning, a fresh chance at victory should they remain defensive. The batter, centerfield from our team, walks to the plate, his eyes never leaving the pitcher as a growl builds in his throat and a thick ball of mucus makes a firm line from his mouth northward towards the mound just beyond. The spit stirs me back into the afternoon and I close my eyes against such abundance, smell the grease of meat on hot grill, hear the soft buzz of insect wings furious against the humid air. I turn my attention away from these boys, young and hungry, the families growing sweaty and stale in the sun, back to my lap where a large, red, fraying hardcover sits—War and Peace, my summer reading assignment.
I have taken the book with me everywhere for the past few weeks, determined to finish all 1351 pages before the start of the fall semester, to translate the French by hand, to not miss a single theme or motif. It is my short-hop, my curveball hit, a win made sweeter by the strive. I read in my rusty Honda before work at the local preschool, arriving an hour early to curl up between the window and steering wheel, coffee cooling in the cupholder, the curled paper rim of the cup soggy and impatient. I read during naptime, exhausted by the dark room, the operatic lullabies we play over the stereo to quiet each tiny, energetic body. I read during each fifteen-minute, state-mandated break, sitting on a shady stoop out back between the cigarette butts from the women on break before me, the dark smell of after-smoke as heavy as January in St. Petersburg.
I read after writing emotion-worn letters to my college boyfriend, spending his summer as a camp counselor four hours away. I do not love him, have mistaken the loss of my virginity for something more significant, but this is not something I understand yet. I read before bed, buzzed in my childhood bedroom from poorly rolled joints, sitting near the open window hoping for a breeze, a washcloth wrung with cold water hanging from my neck. But mostly I read during baseball—in the afternoons and dusky evenings, during weekend double headers or, if there isn’t a local game, in front of the television, my family screaming encouragement or insult to the screen. I read through homerun and foul ball, arguments with the ump and the soft murmurs of mothers disagreeing with the coach. And I read here, at a Saturday game an hour away, my brother’s body curled in catcher’s stance, the backs of my thighs red against the silver, sun-scalded bleachers.
It is an unlikely backdrop but it fits like a glove. In War and Peace there is love and suffering, family and tradition. Baseball, too. As the summer grows, the two tangle in my mind: the big red book against the bright green fields, Natasha and me, our yearning, Pierre and his search for meaning, these sweaty, dirty boys and their desire to win. I am party to the drama both in the dugout and on the page, to each silent car ride home after a loss, to each raw throated howl of victory. It is the summer of Tolstoy, of pinch hits and fly balls, of more wins than losses, of sunsets and mosquito bites. Inning by inning, we wait for something that will stretch the limits of our faith, unite us in a moment framed perfect in silt and sunlight. Play by play, we hope for victory or, at the very least, an ending we’ve earned.
Kristen Zory King is a writer and teaching artist based in Washington, DC. Recent work can be found or is forthcoming in Tiny Molecules, Emerge Literary Journal, Rejection Letters, The Citron Review, and mac(ro)mic, among others. Learn more or be in touch at www.KristenZoryKing.com