Children of Mars
In the stadium, the lit clock made circles around itself; the rim was all neon, blonde neon, and Leo, the base umpire, calculated with this being the top of the Eighth, they were still in for a snafu. The odds demanded it. The light went around the dial again, as he waited for the pitch. The smell of the grass was strong. They had lucked out—the thunder storm broke early, leaving the town of Carleton Park fresh and initially wet but not enough to dampen the game, which came, as usual, at 7:15. Today the yards and the field had dried out under an August sun which, because of the storm, didn’t reach eighty-five degrees until four, and now at nine o’clock, it was down to seventy-eight. Another changing sign on the field, under the flying red horse of Mobilpower, said so.
Stationed between First and Second, but of course further back enough to be out of the way, he bent down to watch the pitch, knew that he looked good, from his shoulders to his tight butt, because his boyfriend Royce, having come to some of the games last year, always said so.
“You’re better to cruise than the players,” Royce had told him.
The Devils, the visitors, were trailing 4-1, but they now had two on base, with two out. Leo could see the concentration go into the back of the Carleton Park pitcher—pin-striped white and green—twenty-two-year-old Smitty, who was a left-hander from Florida. He was eyeing the next batter, who just happened to be the designated hitter. There was something about this strong, well-built man (small for the team) which reminded Leo of his boyfriend—he could have sworn he had seen Royce last night, when he had been going back to the Carleton Hilton, just a flash by in the car driven by someone else—
All of a sudden the designated hitter was pounding a grounder to the second baseman, who caught the ball and threw it to First, who gloved it, but full wide of the bag. Leo, still dizzied by his recollection of Royce’s driveby, just stood there, somewhat stunned, feeling uncertain about the call. Well, no call at all, he decided. But obviously everyone in Carleton Park thought the designated Devil was out. Like a prong of lightning, chaos hit the field. The two red Devils who were on base continued to run them, while the Carleton Park Invaders broke formation and headed toward the dugout.
A thunderous boo filled the field while everyone, Leo included, stood at a standstill.
Rootman, the Carleton Park team manager, was instantly coming toward Leo, like a locomotive in a green cap. His face was swarthy and intent. “That man was out. Why didn’t you call it?”
The bill of his cap was nearly touching Leo’s forehead. The “s” in “was” sprayed Leo in the eye. Leo heard himself shouting because the booing was getting even worse. “There was no need to call it. It was way wide of the bag.”
“Open your eyes, Ump,” someone yelled. “You’re missing a good game!”
“If you had another eye, you’d be a Cyclops!”
“Then why didn’t you call it safe?” Rootman asked.
“It was obvious,” Leo answered. “There was no attempt to tag, and your first baseman—Kelly—was two miles away from the base when he caught it from second.”
Why did he have to defend himself? He knew he was right. He felt the blood draw up from inside him, excited, irresistible, reliable.
One of the Devils who had been running the bases was already in. The second runner had reached Third. A small contingent from Leavenworth near the garden stand was shaking a collection of red-hell hot pom-poms, riling the Carleton Park mob like a mad bull.
“Fuck”—and this time the spit hit both Leo’s eyes—“Don’t you get it? A thumb over the shoulder for ‘out,’ hands across you for ‘safe’?”
Meanwhile, Herringbone Fred, also known in the league as “Black Fred,” was running up from home plate. He was Leo’s loyal partner umpire.
“Let’s take it cool now, here,” Fred said, staring at Rootman. Rootman was a muscular sixty if he was a day, and he was six, three, if he was an inch. He was a creased man—creases in his lightly anguished face, creases in his pants and green short-sleeved sport shirt. And it was common knowledge that he had already been through one heart attack already. There were details scattered around that he had a son who was Heisman material but who had turned out gay.
While the clock continued to turn in blonde circles, and the temperature registered a rise in two degrees, when it had been seventy-eight just minutes ago, some belated firecrackers went off—Leo saw the sparks—and now “Open your eyes! Open your eyes!” went into a litany.
“Tell your buddy here,” Rootman said, “that Civic Stadium isn’t a Lighthouse for the Blind!”
“Go ahead and say so”—and Leo remembered he had used a similar phrase with Royce—“go ahead and say so. There is no out, period.”
Rootman tossed his cap—a green blur—to the ground.
“All right,” Leo heard himself saying, “you’re out of the game, Sir.”
And when the fans saw Rootman leave the field, fury took over. The game programs for that night came sailing out on to the field. Green-T-shirted ushers were suddenly in evidence in the stand. Some smashing was heard behind the concessions, and a couple of hunkering, long-bearded assholes in green feed caps were being escorted out. Even a few women were hooting at the ushers.
As the Carleton Park Invaders resumed their formation, Leo could hear someone shouting, “Fuck the fairy ump!”
Black Fred stayed on for a private check-in. His mask was on his head. For some reason, Leo thought of the frogs you put in vases so that the flowers stand up straight. “Hey, Man,” Fred told him, “next time something like that happens, you call it anyway. Better safe than sorry!” And even though the booing had finally died down, he added, “Better safe than smashed!”
By the end of the game, the Carleton Park Invaders had lost.
* * *
Next morning, Leo borrowed Fred’s Honda and drove up to Salem—just for the day. It was his home when he wasn’t umpiring. He’d be back for the game in plenty of time that evening. Things had to get settled between him and Royce.
For some time, he had known that Royce had been slipping from him. He himself had not been able to get back to the house—since they were traveling all over—but he knew Royce had moved out on him. Notices had been forwarded on to him that the mortgage installments had not been paid. Before the season had begun, Leo had authorized Royce’s signature on his checking account, so their home would be covered, but Royce had obviously bailed. Now Benjamin Franklin Trust had set an appointment to meet up with both of them, but Leo most emphatically doubted his lover—former lover, he supposed—would be there.
Nevertheless, Royce was waiting for him at Benjamin Franklin when Leo came into the air-conditioned lobby with an armload of payment notices. The place was a done-over Carnegie Free Library, very plush now. The stained glass windows had been retained. The loan officer they got, Leo knew, was easy-hearted. He felt grateful, because when she drew up the account on her screen, he saw they were within days of foreclosure. Leo knew she read Tolstoy on the weekends. Thank God for that.
Helen was heavily jeweled and in her forties. “The bank’s going to want a reason,” she said cheerfully. “Illness, death, extenuating circumstances. I know there’s been a lot of death in your family. Also injury—your brother. What an article on him!”
“No, I don’t have any excuses,” Leo said magnanimously. “But I’m willing to cover the late payments.”
Already he had his checkbook out.
“I’m his excuse,” Royce said. “I just flaked out. He’s been gone, and couldn’t pay. I was supposed to send the checks.”
Helen was making notes. “Who’s going to be paying after this?”
“I am,” Leo said quickly.
Royce smiled for a moment and then went back to his frown. Almost a grimace.
Helen—marvelous blonde silver hair—gave out a wistful sound that seemed very hip. “So there’s not to be any co-signing on this mortgage? If I understand right, it just remains in one name?”
Helen smiled knowingly at them. “It’s very hard these days to figure out what people’s domestic arrangements are, without getting too nosey. Nevertheless, the bank needs to know where its next check is coming from. Who its next check is coming from.” She considered, in a friendly way. “Or is it ‘whom’?”
The light through the stained glass windows got denser suddenly. But dots of red also accentuated the floor. Getting a detail of the damage, Leo wrote out a check for $2,000. More than his monthly salary. Five hundred dollars more.
Helen went to get a paper initialed by a manager.
“Those penalties,” Royce said in her absence. “I’ll pay for them.”
“I know that, too,” Leo said rather irritably. “But it isn’t necessary.”
Helen returned and had Leo sign about six forms. The house was retrieved. Next payment, September 1. Although Leo would be umpiring in Port Townsend then, he’d cover it by phone, and made arrangements now to do so.
Both of them shook hands with Helen. “I see you’re going to be in Angels in America,” she said to Royce, using her locally famous photographic memory. “Congratulations on pushing that envelope. We need it here. And so,” she said, by way of goodbye and smiling while taking them both in, “between the two of you we have Angels in America and Angels in the Outfield.” Leo laughed not because he thought it was particularly funny, but because he wished the whole world could be like Helen.
In the next moment, they were in the parking lot. Leo was about to shake hands to get away, while Royce got a call saying that if his ass wasn’t ready to take this next assignment on his new tow-truck job, he could consider his days with Tony’s Tow over. The answer came quickly that he would be right there, but obviously he was having second thoughts.
“I’ll send you money soon,” Royce told him. “$500? Right? For late penalties?”
“In fact, I’ll put it right through the mail slot of our—your—house.”
Leo was surprised at himself. He actually was going to accept the money. “So how long have you been gone from the house?”
“Since July 15. I just decided I needed to launch out on my own.”
At first Leo thought he said “lunch.” Launch? Royce had never used a word like that before.
“Where are you now?”
“At Brightman Apartments. Just a few blocks from here.”
“What happened to you?” Leo asked. “Have you taken up with someone else?”
“Not exactly,” Royce said.
“What do you mean, ‘not exactly’?”
“I got involved in theatre.”
“You remember I ushered for Angels in America in Portland the year we met?”
“Well, they’re doing it here in Salem. It’s a bold step for the community here, like Helen said, but they’re doing it. And I tried out for the part and I got it. Between the tow truck and the rehearsals, this house just fell through the cracks. And I decided to move out.”
It was a lame excuse. It was another man all right.
The asphalt was now silvery with heat. “Were you in Carleton Park yesterday?” Leo asked.
Royce was startled. “Yes. Duncan has a friend at the University who directed a production there. He agreed to have dinner and give us some pointers.”
“Yeah. He’s in the play, too.”
“What’s his part?” Leo asked.
“Joe the Mormon.”
Impossible! He couldn’t imagine Royce memorizing two lines. And here he was the centerpiece.
“When does the play start?”
“Next week.” Royce looked at his watch. “Look, Leo, I’m sorry. You know what a ditz I am. Especially about money. If you can’t get out of this mess, I’ll pay you back, month by month.”
Leo just stood there, heard the fans bawling at him from the stands in his mind. Saw Rootman throw his hat down. He didn’t want this to end; he was just getting into it, just like with his hated one-on-one of the night before.
“Well, I have to go.” Royce’s blond hair was in a bowl cut, almost like the Beatles’ in the early years. Instantly Leo felt that hair touching his cheek, as Royce came over and lightly kissed him. “You’ve been very sweet to me,” Royce said. “You deserve better than what I came up with. I won’t let you down, but I just have to go.” With his face so close to his, Leo thought back to the time last night when Rootman had not been just within spitting distance—it had been spraying range. There was something almost erotic about it. Now he could see the small pock marks along Royce’s strong jaw line—very subtle, Leo had only noticed them when they had been making love—the few remaining signs of an adolescence struggle with acne, which had cost his parents thousands in dermatological bills. It was the first thing they had brought up when he had been ungrateful and petulant enough to tell them he was gay.
Royce now pointed to the truck parked in the bank lot. “You can reach me through Tony’s Tow anytime.”
“Well, at least give me back the key to the house.”
Sweating in his jumper, tanned Royce fished in his pockets and drew out the mahogany door key. He looked reluctant, handing it over, but then was gone.
Leo started walking toward his car, but heard no rumble in back of him. Looking around, he saw Royce standing beside the locked tow truck, scratching his head. Royce looked at him with the eyes of a rabbit, before it’s about to dart under a car. “The keys are inside.” He struck his head. “What did I tell you?”
“Do you have an extra set?”
“Yes. Duncan has them.”
“So you are living together.”
“No. They’re just in his custody, as he calls it—as my ‘top’ boyfriend, to use his words. I kept losing them so often, he had a set made for himself.” Royce took out his cell phone and tried Duncan. He’d be there right away. “Runs his own print shop,” Royce said. “So he can do that.” He looked at his watch. “The boss is going to shit when he finds out how late I’ve shown up for this call out on Lancaster.”
They just stood there, looking out over the warming pavement. Several sprinklers at the mall across the street had started up. The red and pink roses and grass were like jewels over there.
“You don’t have to stand here with me, if you don’t want to,” Royce said. “This is my fuck-up, and I’ll be out of here soon.”
Leo stayed silent a little longer. “This is so goddamned not O.K.”
“You walking out like this,” Leo said, staring at him with deliberateness.
“Yeah? I just got tired, Leo, of being in your care all the time. Having you fight my battles for me.”
“So what do you do?” Leo asked, on a surge of that reliable blood again. “Hook up with someone who takes charges of your keys, like you were in nursery school or jail.” He remained there, frozen. He felt so tightly bound, he didn’t know what else to say.
At this point, Duncan pulled into the bank lot in a red Honda Accord.
The man who got out definitely did look the part of Joe in Angels in America. He was on a large scale, not exactly a Marlboro man, but six foot three at least, without an ounce of fat. He wore a tight yellow polo shirt, chest stretching the cloth, finishing the impression Leo had caught of the muscular arm in the car. He might have been thirty-five, meaning that if he was serious about Royce, he was definitely courting a child bride.
“Duncan, this is Leo.”
Duncan just nodded vaguely in Leo’s direction, and, with ink-soaked hands, took the duplicate set of keys from his pocket, and opened the tow truck.
“You don’t know how many times per week this happens,” Duncan said, looking at Royce paternally and then back at Leo as though he would understand. He stood there with perfect posture, almost in military position.
“Maybe I do,” Leo answered slyly, and instantly regretted it.
Duncan took him in for the first time. His eyes narrowed into a mischievous glint. “Well, maybe so.” He then turned to Royce, who had already hauled himself up into the driver’s seat of Tony’s Tow. He was not happy with this discussion about him.
“Did you ever get the payments square on this house?”
“Yes,” Royce answered. “Leo and I just talked about that. Leo’s going to handle it, now that he’s here.”
“Well, it seems to me”—Duncan was directing his glance to Leo—“Royce ought to help you. If he’s fucked things up.”
This kind of humoring directive threw Leo off. In the large, wide tow truck, Royce looked something like a baby in a high chair.
“I can handle it fine,” Leo told him and felt suddenly like giving him a push.
Royce furiously started the engine—“It’s none of your fucking business”—and, before throwing the truck in reverse, demanded Duncan give him the duplicate set of keys. Leo felt grateful no one else was in the lot, because afterwards Royce backed out without looking. Gigantic and statue-like, Duncan stood beside his car, hands on his hips, as though he were a colossus observing the departure of a ship in a harbor. Leo could feel he was attracted somehow, the way one is attracted to standing bears.
“This wasn’t necessary,” Leo said.
“Oh, yes it is,” Duncan answered, heading back to his Honda, which was nearly the twin of Fred’s. “That boy needs to learn some responsibility.”
Leo actually had his hands up, ready for fists. “I can handle my house my own way.”
Duncan gave him a disdainful look, then cut him off by getting back into his car.
* * *
Charlie’s (his brother’s) Auto was up in the northern part of the city. It was three by the time he got there. He had to be back on the road by five. When he opened the door to the little office, there Rootman was, Manager Rootman of the Carleton Park Invaders, talking with Leo’s brother.
Charlie was a little schizy in social situations. It was Iraq, working its magic. Charlie had been in the medical corps and had sent men out into the dunes to die. Charlie had gotten chummy with Rootman through the Vet’s Memorial Hall down in Carleton Park. Rootman, a survivor of Vietnam—and you could tell—hung out at that place a lot, and Charlie went there just to escape Salem and cavort. Leo understood that Rootman used to lament with Charlie over his gay son.
“Rootman here tells me you’re a faggot,” Charlie said.
“No I did not!” Rootman insisted.
“That’s what you were implying anyway,” Charlie retorted. “And I told him”—he was eating a banana from a late lunch. “So what the fuck else is new?”
Shocked they had been talking about him rather than the son, Leo went straight up to the man who was dressed, wholly out of character, in a red pin-striped shirt and tan slacks. Rootman was definitely a little drunk. Probably had a few with Charlie, who, to ease the PTSD, sometimes brought a six-pack in to finish a job.
“Hey, calm down, Leo,” Rootman said. “I didn’t imply anything of a kind.”
“Right,” Charlie laughed, and literally backed himself into some customer’s open trunk. He was fixing the tension rod so the lid would close. Charlie looked sallow and huge-shouldered—he would have dwarfed Rootman and matched Duncan any day—and it was a relief to have his spectacled King Kong face disappear.
“I can’t be talking to you anyway,” Leo said. “Not until you’re back on tonight. And even then it’s just on the field.”
“You don’t have to be reciting the rule book to me,” Rootman said, and wavered a bit as he stood there. Then he smiled. “You’ve got to be good to me. I’ve got a daughter who’s going to do summer graduation this weekend. Down at Oregon State. Her mother and I just took her out to lunch at the Ram’s Head today.”
“With plenty of help from the bar” came the muffled sound from the trunk.
“Charlie, I have to go,” Leo told him. He was aware of the two other cars on hoists—a Lexus and a sport Celica. They reminded him of two people strung up, hung. The smell of oil mixed with the smell of beer. “I can’t hang around if a team manager is here.” Interestingly enough, he was still standing within confrontation distance of the man.
“Hey, come on”—from the trunk again. “Why be anti-social? He didn’t say you were all that gay.”
“I didn’t say you were that at all,” Rootman protested.
“Then why”—Charlie came out of the trunk, with the tension bar a success—“did you make a point of coming in talking about the ump who likes a bat up his ass?”
“I didn’t say that,” Rootman insisted.
Leo just stood there with his fists doubled. He felt as if he were completely covered over by spider webs.
Rootman blinked. “Man, I couldn’t have said that. How could I? I have a son whose career may be ruined because he’s gay.”
“So you’re trying to jerk my chain,” Leo said to Charlie.
Charlie smiled. “O.K., O.K., it was me who said it.”
“I need to leave,” Leo repeated.
“Hey,” Rootman said, trying to call Leo back. “Maybe after the season is over, you could talk to me. About my son.”
“I would be willing,” Leo answered.
* * *
That night, it was well into the bottom of the Ninth, with two out for the Carleton Park Invaders, when Leo, all dressed and padded, felt himself getting ready to fight again. That is, he squatted there, as plate umpire, feeling on tilt. He congratulated himself that he actually did have a thick skin after all. He considered all the hundreds and probably thousands of butts he’d seen from this position—like this one coming from The Carleton Park Invaders’ catcher, round and full and inviting a bite the way a great green apple invites a bite—and he’d just watched and never done anything else. A brilliant evening star was climbing above the field, and it was as if he could feel the gravitational pull of his family. His father, dismissed and shamed as an ex-policeman, had fought in barrooms until he had found this cult where they had all agreed ultimately to combat the modern world by taking koolaid spiked with cyanide in Brazil. When growing up, Leo, on his way out the door, would be constantly confronted by his father, who would say, “Be a man” from the breakfast table. And his mother would follow up with, “Yeah. Be a man, but don’t get hurt.” Nevertheless, she had found herself in the Martian scheme, too.
He wasn’t any better at battle than she was, really.
“This isn’t you,” his friends would tell him. “You’re a painter, not an umpire.”
As a matter of fact, using oils, he would catch tonight’s moment as carmine red blurs of light, beneath the dial and the three towers of white flood lamps, eight bulbs to a pole. Before going to Umpire School in Florida, Leo, with the death of his parents, had come into some money, which had allowed him to go to Cascade Community College. Slowly through a series of art workshops, his paintings had emerged as wet, splashy, and promising, capturing the Oregon landscape in tones of browns and green, with fallen oaks and pines crossing back trails in the Cascades, accentuated by delicate-looking frogs and clusters of wild pink rhododendrons. The instructor said he had talent, but he was also drawn to something else. The thrill of battle. He knew his ass was on the line right now. He knew that if there had been a scout in the stadium last night, that might have meant his job. Also Fred almost never criticized him, meaning that last night Leo was getting close to the edge. No surprise—he still considered himself a rookie umpire, twenty-six years old and in his second year. He was late to the profession and still doubtful about being here anyway. But he kept on. The tension drew him in.
Connolly, the Ranger catcher, was at bat. The score was Two-Two, with two men on, and there could be no more outs. Leo felt he could resist all the cat-calls up until now, but if he flubbed on this one, they would have his ass. All right. Let them have his ass. The day still hadn’t played itself out.
Speedstick James, the relief pitcher for the Devils, fired the ball down at nearly 100 miles per hour. Connolly swung straight through and missed. A beautiful miss, as though coming from a Grecian discus. “Strike One!”
Speedstick threw again, and the ball went, beautifully, into Redskin Randy’s mitt. A straight shot that even the crowd didn’t question, even though Connolly didn’t swing. “Strike Two!” Leo called, and at that moment, looked over and saw Royce seated near the Player Tunnel. Duncan distinctly was not with him.
And then the third pitch, which went screaming into Randy’s mitt, but, in Leo’s estimation, grazed the ground, before getting there. Remembering last night, Leo raised his right arm and closed his fist, but with Royce’s face framed just below, he allowed the ball to be live. Connolly was obviously on the same wavelength, because he hurled his discus body toward First while Hector Villa hoofed his way to Second. Meanwhile, like last night, the Invaders were breaking formation and coming in, while Randy rolled the ball across the luminous grass out to the mound. Chaos hit once more, as the whole game became suspended midair. No one knew where to go. Fred came running toward him, but fortunately said, “You thought the ball was live, Man? Is that it? I’ll back you. It look like it was in the dirt to me, too.”
“Yes,” Leo said, feeling dizzy. “Rule book says, the ball is live, even if the man has three strikes.”
He had to repeat this to Rootman, who was twice the locomotive he was last night. He looked like a model for an anatomy drawing, with the veins out all over his neck and forehead. He seemed to be ashamed of asking for help this afternoon.
“You say that ball hit the dirt? No one saw the ball hit the dirt.”
“You weren’t plate umpire, either,” Leo said, now feeling the full force of this afternoon.
“I’ll have your job for this,” Rootman said.
“Then it will be both our jobs,” Fred said, “because that’s the way I saw it, too. Your men stay on base. This inning isn’t over.”
“And you’re out of the game again,” Leo said. “For making threats.”
He exchanged a glance with Fred, who nodded and was much more with him than last night.
“You should have said ‘No catch,’” Rootman told him, as he turned away. Obviously, the cowering look served to inflame the crowd even more. “You should have said ‘No catch’!” he repeated over his shoulder. Seeing him ejected again, the people put out a boo such as Leo had never heard before, and with it the faint refrain, “Homo ump. Homo ump,” which sounded like “Homo up.”
It was five minutes later when Speedstick was hurling another ball straight down the middle, but this time the designated hitter connected with it instantaneously, and the white dot, comet-like, went sailing straight over the neon clock. From the little band of Red Devil fans came “Thunderstruck!” by AC/DC on a amazingly loud ghetto blaster—which, traditionally, Carleton Park played throughout the stadium for every home run. They lost by 5-3. No song could have riled the crowd more, and Leo felt, at last, he liked the melee.
* * *
Later, he went to the motel room Royce had booked for the night. He and Fred were due to leave for Vancouver, B.C., at five in morning, so he would have to be back soon at the Hilton room the Clubie had gotten for him and Fred.
They sat on the bed, and he held Royce against him. There was a kind of tawdry light over the orange bedspread. Nevertheless, the lamp was beautiful on Royce’s hair.
“I heard what they called you,” Royce said. “Somebody knows about you. It’s just a matter of time now.”
He had a habit of speaking into Leo’s ear just at the moment they were hugging.
“I’ve known that,” Leo answered, whispering back. “Especially now, that I’ve thrown Rootman out twice.”
“What will happen then?”
“They’ll use my last two controversial calls as reason to give me the ax.”
“But that won’t be the real reason?”
“No,” Leo answered. “You know that.”
Royce was bared at the shoulders and chest, too.
“Fred will go on, he’ll continue. He’s got the looks. They want Hollywood style, now.”
Royce gave him a glance, and then hugged him. Now they were skin to skin. “If they’re going to fire you anyway, why not quit now? You can take up nursing again, or do your painting, and we could live back at the house.”
“What about Duncan?”
“Fuck Father Duncan.”
“Well, I’m not ready to go yet,” Leo said. “I have to live this out until it’s finished.”
They made love in the shabby room, and then, giving Royce the keys back to the house, he returned to Fred and made ready for tomorrow.
Henry Alley is a Professor Emeritus of Literature in the Honors College at the University of Oregon. He has four novels, Through Glass (1979), The Lattice(1986), Umbrella of Glass(1988), and Precincts of Light (2010), which explores the Measure Nine crisis in Oregon, when gay and lesbian people were threatened with being made silent. His stories have appeared in journals over the past forty years.