New Mexico does not have a professional sports team. The folks here are spread too thin to fill a football stadium and are too busy chasing flying saucers to pay much attention to baseball. Those who want to follow sports must settle for the Albuquerque Isotopes, a minor league affiliate of the Colorado Rockies who lose more than they win and who only sell out Isotopes Park once a year, on their annual “50¢ Hot Dog Night.”
The tickets were my mom’s birthday present to Logan. He’s an Astros fan, but more than that, he’s a fan of baseball, so when he opened the envelope and saw the receipts he grinned bigger than I’d ever seen before. My mom leaned back in her chair to see him smile like that. I like that look she gets when she finds us just the right present or remembers our favorite foods, all proud and happy––it makes me feel like we are survivors of a shipwreck who finally stopped treading water only to discover that we were on dry land all along.
We find our seats behind the third baseline. Because Logan insisted, we’re here early enough that the opposing team, the Midland RockHounds, are still hitting long home runs off a pitching machine in batting practice. I see an inflatable version of the Isotopes mascot, an roundish orange creature named “Orbit,” rising in left field as if from the dead. I tug on my mom’s arm and point in that general direction.
“Can we go over there? Please? I think I see a merry-go-round!”
She sighs and unscrews the cap of her plastic water bottle.
“I’m pretty settled in here. Logan, why don’t you take her? You’ll be back before the game starts.”
Logan slouches in his seat.
“I want to see the players warm up.”
“I can just go over there by myself,” I interject, feeling our precarious peace tipping off-balance. “I’m almost ten years old, anyways.”
My mom takes a long sip of her water. She swallows, then dries her lips with the back of her hand.
“Are you sure you won’t get kidnapped?” she asks.
“Obviously,” I say, already sliding out of my seat and starting up the stairs to the main concourse. It is a prickly-warm summer evening and, while not quite full, the stadium is loud with bodies that move in a cacophony of directions. Vendors shout offers of lemonade and hot dogs and a booth near the stadium’s front entrance sells Navajo tacos. I pick my way through the throngs of people, staring down at my shoes as I walk. They’re Heelys that I begged my mom for last year. I never learned how to keep my balance while riding the wheels and eventually took them out to make walking easier.
A hand grabs my shoulder. I gasp and spin around, only to find myself face to face with Logan. He pushes past me, walks a few steps, and then turns around when he sees that I’m not following him.
“Come on,” he says. “I don’t want you to get snatched by some stranger.”
I jog to catch up. We walk hand in hand the rest of the way to the Fun Zone, where the bouncy castle and merry-go-round are. Logan’s palms are sweaty with the cotton candy he’s been eating, but I don’t mind. I’m just glad to have him next to me to keep me from getting lost in the crowds of shifting grown-ups.
By the time we reach the merry-go-round, I’ve lost interest. It’s smaller close up, and mostly populated by kids much younger than me, three and four years old. I’m about to tell Logan this, but he’s already handing the teenager who operates the ride two dollars for our tickets, so I climb onto the back of a wooden zebra and wrap my hands around its gilded pole. Logan swings a lanky leg over the saddle of a wooden camel to my left. He leans his head on the pole and looks away from me, down towards the field.
“Thanks for taking me over here,” I say to his back. He turns and lifts half of his mouth into half of a smile.
“No problem,” he says, and then he looks up and blinks at the candy-striped ceiling of the carousel, his eyelashes so long and dark that I can easily imagine them flecked with snow. I wish I was older, old enough to say something wise to pull him back into the here and now, but my age is still in the single digits and he is still always slipping into himself. The music starts. It’s a merry, twinkling song like a jar of pennies spilled down a staircase. Our animals move up and down, orbiting the mirrored center pole as if trudging through snow, and the sound of people chattering in the bleachers is drowned out by the music and the gleeful screams of toddlers.
I catch my own reflection a few times in the mirrors at the center of the carousel. I look proud atop my zebra, I think, like a princess or a captain leading an army into battle. I straighten my back. I smile. Logan makes eye contact with me in the mirror and smirks; I roll my eyes and turn my attention forward to the wooden rump of the horse in front of me, which has begun to look blue in the fading light.
When the ride is over, the two of us clamber off of our animals and stumble onto solid ground. Logan asks me if I want to ride anything else or if we can return to our seats. I let my gaze travel over the Fun Zone, over the drop tower and bouncy houses and arcade basketball games, over the children eating and dropping ice cream cones and begging for one more ride.
“We can just go back to our seats,” I say. The merry-go-round was disappointing, anyways, and my mom says arcade games are designed to steal your money right out of your back pocket.
Logan shoves my shoulder. Sometimes when he pushes me he means it in a friendly way, almost like I’m one of his guy friends and I just made a joke or something. I smile. It feels good to feel in on the joke.
“Do you want to sit in right field for a while?” he asks. “We can sit on the grass and catch the homers the players hit in batting practice!”
I nod and follow him farther away from our seats, away from our mother. We stumble down a grassy slope and find ourselves places to sit between the picnic blankets of people who planned better than we did. I squint to see if I can see our mom behind the third baseline but even in this small ballpark, the faces are far enough away to blur together, indistinguishable, under the white glare of the stadium lights. I lie back on the grass.
“Sit up, Naomi,” Logan says. “If you don’t, a ball might come flying at you and you won’t even see it coming and it’ll hit you right in the eye. That happened to a girl in my class and do you know what happened? She died!”
I shoot up like a springboard. He laughs.
“Are you lying?” I ask.
“Of course I’m lying. But seriously, Naomi, you should keep your eyes open. Balls will come our way.”
They do come our way, eventually, showering the groups to our left and right with home runs. It’s the Isotopes’ that are practicing now. A young guy in a goatee hits homer after homer while the rest of the team stretches and tosses balls back and forth in the outfield. Logan told me before we came that the Isotopes would lose this game. He knew it as a fact, and he said the players knew it too, and the opposing team, and the vendors, and the fans. I guess it’s hard to tell how good or bad a team is when they’re just hitting fastballs in batting practice.
I fidget. I should have listened to my mom when she told me to wear pants instead of shorts, not because of the slowly dropping temperature but because of the grass, which scratches the bare backs of my thighs.
“When does the game start?” I ask as the sound of another ball cracking off of a wooden bat resonates through the ballpark like thunder. Logan rests his chin on his knees, which he keeps curled to his chest in fetal position. He doesn’t take his eyes off the players when he talks to me.
“Well, the first pitch is supposed to be at seven o’clock.”
I glance up at the scoreboard. The time flicks from 6:45 to 6:46. Logan leans back on the palms of his hands and stretches out his legs. He looks up at the sky, at the bleary grays and blues that have amassed above the stadium like an angry halo, and his face twists into something funny and foreign, like he was made out of egg instead of skin and somebody just scrambled him with a fork.
“Unless it rains,” he says. “If it rains, the game could be delayed, or even canceled.”
And because we have begun to cross into that dusky world where our words are solid things that almost buckle under their own weight, a fat raindrop hits my forehead just as he says this. I look up, and a second one catches in my eyelash; I blink, and rainwater runs down one cheek like a teardrop. This is the kind of rain that comes quickly. There is no time for drizzle, just dry skies and then downpour, and then Logan and I are running hand in hand back up the grassy slope of right field, back up to the main concourse. We huddle under an overhang near the men’s bathroom and curse the idiot who designed Isotopes Park without any roofs or even tarps to shelter us. I ring the water out of my long hair and he unsticks his shirt from his stomach, cursing.
“Fuck,” he says, as if I am not right here, still nine years old and in need of sheltering. He digs his cellphone out of his back pocket and turns his back to me and the rain alike to check something without getting his phone wet. “Okay,” he says, finally, and slips his phone back into his pocket. “It’s only supposed to rain for ten or so minutes. They’ll probably still play the game.”
This is when I realize that we are here for different reasons. Even as we run from place to place and ride carousels and make jokes, he is only waiting for the real show to start, to break out his notepad and golf pencil and begin his diligent work of tracking boxscores, something he’s been doing in front of the television in our living room since he was five or six years old. And I am not here for baseball. I am here to lie back in the grass. I am here to kick my legs into the dry mountain air and eat tacos and cheer and chant with some ten thousand people who are so similar and so different from me.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask. Logan leans back on the cement wall we’ve been cowering against.
“About what this rain is going to do to the field, and if the wet grass is going to cause any errors tonight,” he says. He says it in a smiling, jokey way, like he knows that it’s just the sort of thing he would say, and then he sighs and smoothes his now-dark hair back against his skull. “I really hope the game starts again. You know Mom is going to be super disappointed if it doesn’t.”
We are not so different after all.
I lean against the concrete, too, trying to do it just like he does, with all the cool-as-a-cucumber detachment of a teenage boy. We stand like that, side by side and not quite speaking, as the rain comes down around us and ballpark employees sprint by in yellow bomber jackets, carrying tarps and shouting instructions to one another over the wind. We stand and we wait for the world to end.
The world does not end. The rain tapers off, eventually, and the crowds emerge from their various makeshift shelters like worms in April. Everyone is wet; our hair sticks to the backs of our necks and we shiver under the white sliver of moon that now peeks out from behind the rainclouds. Logan and I file back to our seats, where our mother is chewing on her angry red cuticles. We were never in real danger from a little rain, but her whole body relaxes with relief when she sees us and she squeezes each of our arms as we slide past her to our seats, as if to say, I am glad you are here, and, I am scared when you are gone.
The national anthem is sung by a local woman who just got back from some war or another. Her voice is not good, too wobbly at the high notes, but I see a few grown ups wipe tears off their cheeks. They are in love with America or with this woman or maybe just in love with the idea of sacrifice. When she is done, the players take the field. They throw and catch and hit long fly balls, and Logan notes these developments on his notepad while I jump up and down in the tidal wave of other cheering bodies.
A funny thing happens, in the end. The Isotopes win by a score of 1-0, and when the home pitcher throws the last strike of the ninth inning, we leap up from our seats and high five each other, and we do not care that this is just minor league baseball or that our butts still don’t look good in blue jeans or that our parents are never quite what we wanted them to be. The Isotopes have won a game for the first time all summer and we will all sing along to our car radios on the slippery drive home.