Floodlights shined down on the baseball diamond. Jeff Duchesne and I stood on our respective trailers, each a few yards from home plate. A few yards closer to first was Ed, with Andy in the same position between home and third. Both of their trailers were loaded with hay.
The rules were simple. The hay was stacked in four tiers of ten bales, rotated in an interlocking pattern. Ed would be throwing bales from his trailer over to mine, where I would restack the bales in the same pattern. At home plate, there were two replacement bales for each team. If a bale was dropped or broken, either team member was free to jump down and get it or a replacement. There was no time penalty for this, but the time it took would more than likely mean a loss for that team.
My hand slid effortlessly into the soft leather of my work gloves. As I clapped them together, the brightness of the lights caused a cloud of dust to shimmer like diamonds in the air around me.
“Come on, Rock!” I heard a few people cheering me on, but it was impossible to see any of the spectators faces through the glare. I looked over at Ed. He was smiling with his usual cockiness, and I could tell he was more excited than nervous. I guess it helped not to have a baby on the way.
I could hear the announcer signaling for the contestants to get ready, but his voice seemed far away and slowed down. I was still watching the final sparkles of dust in the air and the grin on Ed’s face when the buzzer sounded.
The buzzer, like the announcer’s voice had a slow and faraway quality, but the bale of hay that rocketed from Ed’s trailer did not. Luckily for me, we had practiced so many times a day for so long that my body leapt into motion long before my mind caught up. As the bales came and my body stacked them, my mind was keeping itself busy with other things like watching drops of sweat fall from my face, brooding over the fact that I was going to be passed by for promotion yet again, and what the best baby names would be for a girl or a boy.
Ed and I stacked our hay from the outside in, with the last bale on each level being in the center. This gave us a sturdier stack, and it actually quickened the process a bit, because I didn’t have to kick any bales into place. It also meant that my mind had to snap out of the dream state I was in and focus on the task. I pressed the bale into place, and stood on it as I turned to grab the next incoming bale. A quick glance from the corner of my eye showed me that this had indeed bought us some time, as Jeff Duchesne was kicking the last bale of his first tier into place.
As we worked through the second and third tiers, our lead on the Duchesne brothers increased. Ed and I were working in perfect rhythm. I would like to say my mind was completely focused on the task, but to be honest, my mind was blank. I stepped on the final bale in the third tier and started catching bales for level four. Ed was throwing upward to me now, but we had gotten this rhythm down long ago. We were at least three bales ahead of the Duchesnes, and I knew we were going to win. Splitting the $500 prize money would go a long way toward helping with the baby.
It would go even further if I ever got that promotion.
My conversation with Jeff a few moments ago played through my mind. I wanted to believe that jeff was just trying to throw my game off, but what he said rang true. I found myself suddenly wondering how I would raise a baby with the money Jenny and I brought home. My mind raced further back to a cold October morning 3 years ago. The midwife standing at the foot of the bed holding my dead infant son in a towel between her hands. His skin was a deep shade of pink - almost red. She didn’t say anything, but turned to hand me the baby. I did NOT want to hold him! I couldn’t bear it. My hands opened reflexively and I pushed back - at the hay bale that was coming toward me.
My mind reacted, and I shifted gears, grasping for the bale as it slid over the edge of the top tier. I was able to get a few fingers under the twine, but my glove was pulled along with the bale, and over the edge they went.
My world was spinning. We were three bales from the end and the Duchesnes were halfway through tier four. Before I could think of what to do, Ed had already thrown the next bale. The twine should have cut into my bare hands, but the calluses I had built up over the years, the ones I had been so self conscious about only minutes before, gave me enough protection, and in the heat of the moment, I wasn’t feeling anything anyway. I pushed the bale into place as he threw the next. When he had thrown the last bale on his trailer, he leaped to the ground.
I’d never seen anybody move as quickly as Ed had that day, or with as much determination. My heart had already accepted that we were going to lose, but Ed sprinted towards home. I looked over the edge of the trailer. Sure enough, my bale had fallen apart upon hitting the ground. I went to the back end, where I saw Ed running toward me with the bale perched on top of one hand. He reminded me of a picture I had once seen in a book of a waiter with an enormous tray. As he neared the trailer, he jumped and threw at the same time.
I caught the bale and allowed the swing of my arm to continue, carrying it most of the way up to the top before I started pulling. It was up and over the edge. I saw Andy pick up his final bale and throw it to Jeff as I pushed it into place. Instead of stepping on it, I rolled over and laid on top. I was exhausted.
“We have a winner!” the announcer shouted, and the crowd went wild. I lay there panting for a few seconds before I realized that I still didn’t know if we had won or not. I sat up and looked toward the audience. With the sweat running into my eyes, I could see the people even less than before, but the loudening of their cheers, followed by a bunch of big hoots from Ed, below, told me all I needed to know.
We had finally beaten the Duchesne brothers. We were champions!
Pride was a feeling that I hadn’t felt a lot of recently, but it was long overdue. Ed and I walked with our wives through the fairground, each with his half of the $500 prize money. I knew that we should save most of it for the baby, but tonight was a night that deserved to be celebrated.
As we walked along, I told Ed that Jenny was pregnant. He offered me an extra hundred out of our winnings for the baby, but I turned him down.
“No, that’s yours.” I told him to put the money away. “You and Rayne aren’t any better off than Jenny and I. We’ll get by somehow.”
“Plus,” I added, not letting him know about my conversation with Jeff, “I’m due for that promotion, and after having won tonight, I don’t see how Duchesne can say no.”
“Ooh!” Jenny’s voice rang out. She was pointing at something. I turned to look, but didn’t have to. “Elephant ears!”
We ran over to the shop and I ordered two. Ed and I would split one, and Jenny could share one with Rayne. We spotted and empty bench and headed over so the girls could sit down.
By the time Jenny and Rayne sat down on the bench to eat their elephant ear, Ed and I had already split ours and wolfed down our halves.
“Rock, you wanna have a go?” He pointed to the archway leading into the Army’s attraction area.
ARE YOU ALL THAT YOU CAN BE?
The Army had the biggest attractions, the best prizes, and the lowest prices at the fair. There were various games to test your strength, your agility, and your aim.
“Rigged…” I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t know if the games were rigged to make it impossible to win, but the odds were definitely not in your favor. Still, the consolation prizes weren’t bad, and most games were only a dollar. There wasn’t a wife or girlfriend in town that didn’t have a couple of little stuffed animals from the fair.
“Shoot the star out to win!” A young private in fatigues called out. The prize hanging on display was a stuffed golden retriever that was at least life sized.
The rules were pretty simple. You get a rapid-fire BB gun with 100 BBs and have to shoot out every red part on the paper. This game had been my childhood nemesis. I’d gotten pretty good at finding my zero early on, and could stay centered most of the time, but there was always that loose hanging piece of star left on the paper.
Experience had taught me that the only way to win was to not aim for the star. I had seen the game won the year before, and the guy had shot a circle around the star, cutting out a circle in the paper. I was going get that dog for Jenny.
I walked up to the shooting gallery and put my dollar on the counter. The private handed me my BB gun.
I aimed for the top point on the star and ever so gently squeezed the trigger. About 5 BBs punched a hole in the paper just to the right of the rightmost point of the star. Mentally adjusting, I began shooting my way around the star in a circle. My aim was dead on. I was going to win this!
As I rounded 12 O’clock and started swinging back to the point where I had started, I ran out of BBs. The paper fluttered for a second, and teased me like it was going to fall off under its own weight, but there it hung, swaying in the breeze.
“Try again?” The private held another gun ready. I was tempted, but shook my head. He handed me a small stuffed fish from a box under the counter. It was bright blue and black, and not all that cute to look at, but I knew Jenny would love it just the same. If I showed up with three or four of them from repeated attempts at the same game, they wouldn’t be so cute.
“That was close, man.” Ed patted my shoulder. “Come on! Let’s try the ladders.”
The rope ladder game was not a game I particularly enjoyed, but it was always fun to watch. The objective in this one was simple; get to the top of the ladder and ring the bell. The ladders were at a pretty low angle, and the ropes converged into a sort of pulley at the top and the bottom. If the climbers balance wasn’t perfect, the ladder would flip over, and the climber would be tossed down to the mats below, which looked like a city street already half covered in blood. The attraction had a backdrop showing Citizen Tower in downtown Chicago, and there were posters on either side advertising the annual climb.
Ed paid the soldier his dollar. In no time, he had shimmied his way to the top and was ringing the bell. The soldier shook his head and laughed.
“That was amazing!” He handed Ed a giant bear that put my little fish to shame. “You oughtta climb the real tower.”
As we walked away, I asked Ed if He’d ever thought about doing just that.
“Loco, man,” He shook his head. “The game is rigged.”
I nodded in agreement, but looked at the poster for a moment, imagining what life would be like as a citizen in the city.
“Sure if you win, you’re a citizen," he said, "But think about what happens if you don’t. The climb isn't for family guys like us, Rock. The guys who climb that tower are guys who don’t think they have anything to lose.”
“True.” Still I wished that there were some way to a better life. “There’s always the cleanup crews…”
Ed shot me a look to let me know that even joking about that wasn’t funny. True, most guys could make more on a cleanup crew in one year than they could working their entire lives on a farm, but that one year usually could likely be your last, or at any rate wasn’t usually followed by many more. Guys who came back from working cleanup usually either ended up spending most of what they had made on hospitals or ‘doing the right thing’ and taking their own lives so that at their families wouldn’t end up both poor and fatherless. Ed’s uncle had been on one of the cleanup crews, but what came home was a very different man than the one who had left.
“Sorry.” I had forgotten about Ed’s uncle. I felt so stupid for having said anything.
“It’s ok, man.” He shook his head for a moment and then forced a grin, “Anyway. We’re celebrating!”
We sat for a moment watching two young soldiers try their luck at the strength-o-meter. Since this was really more a game of skill than strength, and they were obviously hammered, they didn’t stand a chance.
The first soldier swung the mallet and barely hit the mat.
“That was pathetic soldier! Give me twenty!” His friend barked at him. Dutifully he obeyed, and then roles were reversed. They went back and forth swinging the mallet and doing pushups. Ed and I just sat and watched, chuckling occasionally.
“You know what we should do?” the first one said, looking like he had just had an epiphany.
“More pushups.” I said quietly enough that only Ed could hear. We both laughed again.
“What’s that?” The second solder, the shorter of the two looked up at his friend.
“We should get some women and a bottle and go to a hotel.” He seemed pretty pleased with himself for coming up with what might be the oldest idea in the book.
“How are we gonna get a woman tonight?”
“Easy.” As an answer, he pulled out his wallet and fished out what looked like a few twenties. “Welcome to Hicksville my friend.”
“So where are the whores?”
“Everywhere! They’re all hard up for cash and willing to please.” He looked around, randomly waving his arm until he stopped, pointing. “I had that fine piece of ass over there a few months ago.”
Ed and I both froze. He was pointing over at the bench where Jenny and Rayne were talking. I felt so bad for Ed at that moment. I didn’t know what to say.
“Seriously?” His short friend asked.
“Yeah man, she was all shy and shit at first, like it was just about the money, but she knew what she was doing.” They started walking away from the strength-o-meter.
I cringed. I could see Ed clenching his fists next to me, and I realized that mine were clenched, too. This was obviously killing him. I was afraid he was going to jump up and chase after them, but we both sat, listening as they walked away.
“And, yes my friend, the carpet matched the drapes.” The two high fived each other as they walked.
The carpet matched the drapes… But Rayne had jet black hair. Nobody would ever wonder whether that was the same color as her…
Jenny! He was talking about MY Jenny! I needed to show this soldier some manners!
Ed’s hand was on my shoulder holding me down before I even started to move.
“Family, Rock. This is not the time to get yourself killed.” Even restrained, I was not about to let this stand! As I struggled to stand, I prepared to shout out to the soldiers, but Ed hopped down from the table and stood in front of me. Ed’s face came into view. “Just let them go.” His look was not commanding, but pleading. Ed was right about confronting them. There was no good that would come from getting into a conflict with soldiers. At best, I’d get my ass kicked, and at worst - well at least I wouldn’t have to worry about the problem anymore. As they disappeared around a tent corner, I turned and looked over at the park bench where Jenny and Rayne still sat talking.
"He was lying!" I was so furious.
"Of course he was lying." Ed tried his best to change topics. "Let's go get some cider."
"Jenny would never do anything like that." I'm not sure who I was talking to at that point, but the words kept flowing on their own, and I sat there, with Ed in front of me, listening to the words spilling out of my mouth. "But those sudden dress orders she got... always right when wen we needed them..." My brain had come to the conclusion that the soldier hadn't been lying. My heart, at receiving the news, suddenly felt betrayed and angry. "That Whore! How could she do this to me!"
I was fully prepared to have it out with Jenny right then, but Ed was still holding me back
“No, dude.” I could tell he was trying to choose his words carefully. “You can’t tell her you know. You just need to forgive her, and move on.”
“Forgive her! For whoring around behind my back? Are you joking?” I wasn’t about to just let this go with Jenny.
“Times are tough, Rock. Jenny did what she had to do. Do you think she’s the only housewife in town who’s gone down to soldier road when things got tough?”
“Screw that! We’re MARRIED. She made a commitment!” I knew that a lot of families had done a lot worse to survive. I’d even heard a story about a father who let some sick soldier take his daughter’s virginity. But I had always felt grateful and a bit proud that my family was above it.
I started to get up, but Ed held firm.
“Yeah, she made a commitment to you, to be a good wife, RICH or POOR, and you know what?” He looked me square in the face, “When poor came, she never complained, never even put the burden on you. She did what she had to do and kept that decision off your shoulders. You have to let this go.”
“But nothing! What’s going to come from you confronting her? Are you going to divorce her? Have your baby grow up even poorer than it would now and be labeled as a bastard?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just sat there.
“I didn’t think so.” He let out a long sigh. “This is one of those times where you just have to man up and move on. Because if you’re not going to leave her, telling her that you know will only cause more suffering for both of you.”
Tears were flowing down my cheeks. Ed was right. There was nothing I could do in this situation. I was going to have to live with this. I wiped my face with my sleeve.
“Of course, I’m right, Rock.” He grinned. “We both know I’m the smart one.” With that we both laughed for a second, even though neither of us was in a happy mood anymore.
“You ready?” Ed looked at me and over to our wives.
“Give me a second.” I stood up and looked up at the sky, wishing I could just fly straight up and away and never come back. But that wasn’t going to happen. A man’s got responsibilities. I walked a few steps to one of the garbage barrels next to the tent. It was filled with paper plates, corn cobs, and skewers from corn dogs. I wiped my face with the stupid black and blue fish I had won and threw it in.