The crowd did what it always did – it cheered. On this day, it cheered like opening night. Crowds have moods within moods, like people do. Sometimes joy is rageful joy, and sometimes it’s delirious, sometimes serene. The crowd cheered with the joy of relief, after a long off-season of waiting.
For a moment, Ray lost track of whether he was still suiting up in the locker room, or was running for the outfield, or had taken a ball to the head. Sometimes you had those moments where you were lost in your thoughts, forgot which way you turned or from which way you came. It’s when the mind is talking back to you, facing you with something important.
In the shadow of those thoughts, at the edges of the light of a beautiful day, with fans thronging the stands, the man he always felt within him was the shape that stood before him. Ray and Ray Senior and Ray Junior were the possibility and sometimes the reality of one and the same man.
He saw the trousers and the suspenders. It was still a time when three generations wore the same things. He smelled gin. Not the kind you sip in restaurants, but the gin that only comes in brown paper bags. He saw the bat. It could be the hickory or the maple – the old ones were stronger, but not as light. The man that held it was just between Ray and the light, in the narrow corridor that was whatever way you wanted to go.
When you were a boy and you wanted to make a bad dream feel less real, you closed your eyes hard, and held your breath, and you counted ’til it went away. Ray kept his eyes open and counted voices in the crowd. He didn’t know if he held his breath, or whether it was defiance or fear. It could have been both.
He looked at the individual bricks beyond the man. He looked where the light was brightest. And then he raised his eyes to the shadowed face and made himself look through it, not into it. To keep from going in, you had to go through. Life was like that, and the things that happened to you in life. Or the one thing – the thing that stood between you and the welcome of crowds.
You maybe never got past it – it would stand between you and what you needed to go on, every time. It would rise from the dust on the plate. It lived in the field, and it followed you with its eyes when you turned your own eyes to the sky. You didn’t get past it, you got through it. Or you didn’t.
Ray had been in that narrow passageway all his life. He had gotten taller. The shadow stayed the same. It wasn’t enough to look through. You had to walk through. Your body did – the thing that propelled you in steps, in sprints, in leaps – sometimes for the delight of others, and sometimes out of the bare need for survival.
A woman could take you through. She could move you, make you move – touch you, and no corridor could squeeze you into nothing. You could dance your way through, or sometimes drive through – if you drove fast enough. Sometimes, though, you had to do it yourself, on your feet, from a dead stop, and it was always harder that way.
Ray looked through the shadow of Ray, all the possible Rays, all the Rays he might have been and could become. He exhaled. He fixed his eyes on the light beyond. He spit once on the ground, not even turning his head. And he stepped into the darkness and past it to the light.
He remembered where he was. And when his number appeared, people jumped to their feet, and waved, and called “go”. He grinned from under his cap, and he went. Some wind up swings with his right. Some stretches. Checked his shoes. When the anthem was sung, the first pitch thrown, and the words came, “play ball”, he knew who he was and where he was. He wouldn’t wonder again until the next time. It was always like that – one next time after another – but you got better at it, even if the game always started the same way.