As I rounded first base I felt a tear in my hamstring that shot up my leg with a stab of hot pain. It forced me to slow down, but I had to keep running because I was on the edge of the bubble and was afraid of getting cut from the team. I risked a glance to right field and saw that the ball would get to second before me. I tried a desperate hook slide into the bag, but the second baseperson blocked me and came down hard on my legs when she tagged me. A streak of fiery pain that made the hamstring feel like a tickle seized me in an agonizing grip and I writhed in anguish. I heard the second baseperson’s hoarse voice through the haze of shock: "Your season’s over, old man."
The team treated me as I expected: abrupt removal to a third level med-center, since I only had a tier three contract. I was very lucky to see an intern, since tier three didn’t entitle me to a doctor. The most I could normally hope for was a med tech. Tier three didn’t include x-rays, but after moderately careful manipulation the doc informed me that the anterior cruciate ligament was definitely torn. So second base was right. The team’s HMO representative had accompanied me to the med center to ensure that I didn’t exceed my benefits. He announced my options: laser surgery and three days care in the open ward, with appropriate medications, then departure by public transportation; or laser surgery, transport to my residence by ambujit and one week of home care by a licensed nurse’s aide. All veteran ball players knew what open wards were like, so I didn’t even think about it before opting for home care.
The HMO rep was already indignant that the team would have to pay for a doctor and had me sign various forms exonerating the team from any liability. I had to sign, or risk losing my meager pension. The HMO rep had more power than the coach. He tucked the documentation in his bizsac, authorized the doc to provide laser surgery and spoke into his comphone. A few minutes later a nurse’s aide entered and properly identified herself according to guild requirements. "Hello. I’m nurse’s aide Felicity, guild registration number 672, reporting for assignment. The HMO rep gave her the care restrictions. While she listened attentively I had a chance to look her over. She was tall, about 5’9", with an athlete’s body and looked as if she could handle any kind of emergency thrown at her. She was around thirty years old, but her untroubled face, bright blue eyes and blonde hair cut in the short lezzie style made her seem much younger. I had worse caregivers over the years.
Nurse Felicity looked at me reassuringly while she drew a hypo. The HMO rep hovered fretfully and verified that she used the minimum Demerol dose. He was beginning to annoy me almost as much as my aching leg. The injection started to take effect and although it didn’t remove the pain, it made it bearable. I had nothing else to do while I waited for the doc, so I began to take stock of myself. I was a thirty-eight year old professional ballplayer with a body going on sixty. I had lasted years longer than most players because I still looked young on camera, the prime career determinant now that ball games were no longer played in front of live audiences. If I recovered from this injury, if another team wanted me, if a little hair dye could fool the judgmental camera, I might eke out another marginal season. After that I didn’t know what else I could do.
It felt like centuries ago when I graduated from George W. Bush High School, in Amarillo, Texas, as a star football, baseball and basketball player. I wasn’t college material because of poor academic performance, so I opted for a professional sports career. Fortunately the pro teams will take anyone who can play well enough, despite the lip service they pay about the necessity for education. Then I made the most intelligent decision of my life. I knew even then that I couldn’t do much besides play ball, so I chose baseball, because it was less of a contact sport than football or basketball. I thought I might be able to extend my career longer, if I didn’t get knocked around every time I played. It turned out to be the smartest move I ever made.
I didn’t often think about the past. I had some good years as a right fielder, including five with the Hiroshima Dragons. I had been very popular with the local fans, who easily recognized a distinct American from afar. My only regret was that I didn’t learn Japanese so I could talk to people. It would have been fun to jabber away in their language, but I never could remember enough words. I did like their manners. They still showed some respect for others. I would have stayed in Japan for the rest of my career, but they got a younger, faster token American. After that I came back home and moved from team to team, sometimes on the field, sometimes on the bench. I hung on when younger and better players were cut, because I could play any outfield position and first base in an emergency. It also helped that I could still manage to hit close to .250.
So here I was in a grubby med-center with at least a season ending injury, probably a career sign off, with no ideas for the future. I didn’t have a nest egg. I never managed to save, despite a meager life style. I was an ancient journeyman in a young profession, without name or fame that could be traded in for civilian security. I had no skills, no credentials and no experience, except as a marginal pro ballplayer. I wouldn’t even be desirable in a low life sports bar, because I lacked sufficient celebrity. I guess I had to start thinking about what to do with my life, but I wasn’t well-equipped for making a life plan. Too many years of just being a hit and fetch ball dog had worn away most of my thought process. I sort of accepted whatever came along, without worrying too much about the future.
Nurse Felicity brought me back to the present with a gentle pat. "We’re ready for surgery now." She lifted me onto the gurney with surprising ease and wheeled me to the laser room. Despite all my injuries over the years that included broken fingers, toes, sprains, strains, as well as innumerable aches, pains and other ailments, I never required surgery. I was scared and it showed. Nurse Felicity crooned soothing sounds that were supposed to reassure me. The HMO rep kept getting in my face, babbling about how grateful I should be for receiving generous extra contract services. All I wanted to do was look at strong, shapely nurse Felicity, but the HMO rep kept blocking my view. I couldn’t insult him because he controlled health benefits, so I drifted into a fantasy, where I picked up my tungsten bat, swung for the fence and blasted the chub’s head clean out of the ball park…. I idly wondered why they called it a ball park.
Nurse Felicity looked at me as if she could read my mind. I instantly forgot about the HMO rep and tried to look innocent, because I wanted her to think well of me. I didn’t have a girl and it had been a long time since baseball groupies chased me. The thought of a week with a pretty nurse who could haul me around made me forget my fear for a while. At least until the doc came in. He looked too young to be an intern and I suspected they could be pushing a med student on me, but I didn’t dare say anything. If I offended the HMO rep he might cancel my treatment and I’d find myself on the street. So I carefully bopped my tongue stud on the roof of my mouth so it couldn’t be seen and didn’t say anything. A tier three contract didn’t allow piercings.
The procedure itself didn’t take long. Nurse Felicity curled me on my side, the doc adjusted my position with a clumsy hand that gave me a jolt of pain, then zapped the torn spot with a beam of light. He looked me in the eye for the first time. "Don’t put any weight on that leg for two months, then carefully begin to walk on it. I think we can give you crutches until then." He looked inquiringly at the HMO rep, who consulted his handbook, then begrudgingly nodded yes. "With any luck you’ll be good as new in six or eight months," the doc said. Right. Good as new. I wasn’t good as new when I was new. "Can you give me some pain pills, doc?" The HMO rep was there like a shot. "Your benefits package doesn’t entitle you to painkillers. You’ll have to manage with neurodumps. Now let’s conclude the treatment session and get you on your way." This chub was really ticking me off, but I didn’t dare offend the power structure, so I gave him the same conciliatory smile that had worked for me for years.
The doc condescendingly waved goodbye. I guess he was a little miffed at treating a lowly tier three patient. Nurse Felicity lifted me back on the gurney and we headed for the ambujit. The HMO rep had me sign the fair care release, the med center doors closed, nurse Felicity stowed me in the back of the ambujit and we pulled away from the curb. The ride to my crib seemed to go on forever. Every pothole reminded me of the current state of urban decay with a jab of pain. My only consolation was that at least the injury happened at a home game. If it happened when the team was on the road I would have really been torqued. I don’t know what they would have done with me, but they probably would have dumped me at the nearest tier three med-center and left me on my own. My only option then would have been a dubious appeal to the players union, which like most other American unions, had been worn down over the years, or bought off by the bosses.
The neighbors didn’t bother to look when nurse Felicity rolled me into my crib. They were more accustomed to seeing people carried out, than brought in. She quickly and efficiently organized the small space so I could get to the bathroom on my crutches and easily reach the kitchen unit for meals. She adjusted the couchbed so I could watch the large wall TV, my only luxury. She was the first woman who had ever come into my crib. Well I guess the landlady counted as a woman, even though I thought she was a nasty old bag. One of my neighbors, a rabid sports fan, once told me she had lost all her assets, except this building, in the big technology crash of 2001. Well, no wonder she was bitter, living in a dump like this, if she was used to better.
As I watched nurse Felicity do things around the crib, I had an unaccustomed feeling of well-being. I wasn’t used to a woman’s presence, especially in this little room that I never thought of as home. The last real home I could remember was a foster home when I was five or six. The ortho parents wanted a bright, artistic child to enrich their lives. Instead they got a morose brooder, who they quickly tired of. After that I shuffled from one group home to another, until I finally graduated from high school, where I was never the life of the party. In fact, except for time on the ball field, I was pretty much invisible for most of my life. Well it just made me feel worse when I felt sorry for myself, so I just enjoyed the treat of nurse Felicity fussing around, trying to make me comfortable.
She finished her chores and got ready to leave and a well of loneliness rose in me. I urgently snatched at a reason for her to stay a little longer. "Could you just show me how to make a freeezemeal?" She looked at me with an understanding twinkle in her serene, sky blue eyes and my heart raced. She knew I didn’t want to be alone. It only took a few moments to prepare the meal and she was ready to go again. I wouldn’t shame myself by pretending to be in worse condition and I couldn’t find another pretext to keep her with me, so I said the only thing I could think of: "Do you want to have something to eat with me?" She smiled sweetly: "No thank you." I got a pang of rejection. "Is it because I’m black?" "Oh no. Only the Chinese don’t like black people and you know they don’t like any Americans. In fact they have their own med centers and I’ve never even had one as a patient."
I was getting desperate for her to stay and asked plaintively: "Then why won’t you eat with me?" "I don’t really eat." "What do you mean? Everybody eats." She shook her head. "Enhanced sentients don’t. I take liquid nutriments." I didn’t know what she was talking about. "What’s an enhanced sentient?" "A flesh and composite being with A.I." I looked at her, uncomprehending. "You mean you’re not a real person?" "Of course I am, even though the nurses union wants to prove that we aren’t human in its class action suit. I don’t think much about it though. I’m too busy taking care of my patients." I was stunned. Was I being turned down by an android? After this what was I supposed to do, ask the ball boy machine for a date?
I was at a complete loss for words as she headed for the door. She turned with a bright smile. "I’ll see you tomorrow for your first day of home treatment." I felt like laughing or screaming, but I did neither. I watched her leave with a feeling of despair that plunged me into a pit of self-pity. The only thought that kept racing through my mind was that I couldn’t ever seem to connect with anything real.
Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn't earn a living in the theater. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 36 poetry collections, 14 novels, three short story collections, one collection of essays and seven books of plays. Gary lives in New York City. Gary recommends City Harvest.