Nick reached the Winter Haven exit off of Highway 301. If his sister had lived where most of her colleagues lived, he would have exited further up the highway to a high end district near Disneyworld. That suburb was affectionately known as the Teachers Mark. It was where most professors and educators lived in financial wealth. Each of the homes in that area were mansion-sized with vast areas of land in between. It was where teachers belonged. Some have said it was where teachers deserved to be all along.
Nick mentally rolled his eyes at the notion that Sarah avoided Teachers Mark on purpose. She certainly didn’t have to. Her avoidance of the area was her choice. If it were himself making that much in salary, he would choose to live in extreme luxury with definite financial security. But that life wasn’t his.
He rode the maze of streets where houses were a decent size but nothing fancy. There were all too close together for Nick’s taste. He finally reached his sister’s ranch style home and directed his Porsche into her driveway next to her compact electric car. The house was one of a few one-story homes on the block. He shut off the loud engine of his Porsche and reached for the wine he had promised to bring. It was just the beginning of dusk where the street lamps were still in the process of reaching full illumination. He walked toward the high porch that led to the front door.
“You ought to retire that piece of shit to the museum!” the voice cried out that startled Nick. He looked over to his left side to see Sarah’s neighbor addressing him. An older man in his sixties wearing shorts that no overweight man should wear. A faded and well worn Van Halen shirt combined well with what was at one time a full mullet.
Nick yelled back at him, “Yeah, ok! Hey, the Eighties called! They want their hairstyle back!”
The neighbor ignored him as he disappeared into his garage.
Nick proceeded to walk up the cobblestoned pathway to the stairs of the high porch. Once he was at the front door, he depressed the controls for the vid-cam. Sarah’s face appeared on the small screen. She looked busy.
“Hold on, Nick! I’ve got to cover the sauce so it won’t boil over. Be there in a jiff.”
Her face disappeared without her waiting for Nick’s reply. He stood around and waited amongst the many pots filled with plant life surrounding the front porch. He eased his way to the far end. He kept an eye on the neighbor’s garage just in case the man reappeared with a ball bat. Nick chuckled at the irony of that alleged situation. For two seasons he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. Yet a bat held by a vindictive neighbor would get its hits in with no problem.
He heard the buzzer that opened the front door. He turned to see Sarah pop her head out of the doorway. “Hey, stubatzah! You’re not thinking of suicide, are you? The edge of the porch there stands a whole four feet tall. Wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“Nah, I prefer death by mental abuse. Your neighbor might come after me anyway before that happens.”
“Are you bothering Mr. Caperelli again? You know he lost his wife a few months ago.”
Nick now stood in front of her standing in the doorway. “I can never understand it when people say that about a death. He didn’t lose his wife. He knows exactly where she is. Either underground or in an urn.”
“That’s not nice, Nick. Oh, wait, you were never nice.”
“Poor pitiful me.”
“Ah, so you found a title for your autobiography.”
“Yep. Stole it from Warren Zevon.” Nick waited a beat before he asked, “Are we dining out here in the jungle?”
Sarah opened the door wider and spread an arm to gesture an allowance for him to enter. Her movement reminded Nick of a game show presenter showing the latest prize. She then uttered something that was definitely not English.
Nick entered through the open door and said, “Show off. What language was that?”
As she shut the door closed she answered, “Latin. ‘Enter all who seek knowledge.’ Excluding present company. Come on in. Everything’s almost ready. Is that the wine?” He handed her the bottle. “Nick, this isn’t a red. It’s a chardonnay.”
“Looked red to me. Wine is wine.”
“Says the man with bourbon breath. Come on in, numnuts. I’ve got everything almost ready.”
That was how it was with Nick and Sarah Batch. They were constantly at each other’s throats verbally. It was a wordplay that only they could decode. It was often mistaken for true hatred towards each other on the surface. But there was a layer underneath the insults. An underlying current of compassion and grief that started to ripple after they became orphans. The playful insults were how they dealt with the loneliness that came with being strays. But that was only a small part of each of their ways. Nick had baseball and Sarah had her kids. When those were not available, they relied on each other to find their version of being close.
Nick followed Sarah into the kitchen. He admired the many framed photos on the wall from their youth. Along the long hallway was a wide doorway to the right that led to the main lounge room. A black faux leather sofa faced the opposite wall that housed the large TV screen inset inside. There was nothing unfamiliar in the room to Nick. Except what was on the side wall.
He knew it was a painting. It was a few feet wide and tall. The depiction was a mix of two rectangles of dark red with one random yellow line bisecting between them. Nick shook his head and called out to Sarah, “Is this a new painting? Or did one of your kids make this?”
“Funny!” she answered from the kitchen. “It’s a print of a Rothko. Isn’t it fascinating?”
Nick finally entered the kitchen where Sarah was at the stove with steaming pots. “Yeah, fascinatingly boring. I could have made that.”
“Do you know the difference between you and Rothko? Rothko actually took the time to actually paint it.”
“It couldn’t have taken much time. And a print? You couldn’t afford an original?”
“Are you kidding? Do you know how much an original Rothko would be worth today? Probably several million.”
“You could afford it.”
She scoffed. “Nick, for the umpteenth time, I do not make nearly as much as you think I do. Or that you wish I do.”
“And there’s the famous Sarah Batch self pity.”
“I learned it from you.” She nodded toward the refrigerator. “You can help yourself to a drink. Sorry, I only have beer. Nothing stronger than what your breath smells like.”
“Sorry, I had a rough day.”
“Oooh, a rough day at trying to hit a ball. I had to console one of my students today because his parents are separating.”
“Then teach him the reality of love.” He reached into the fridge and grabbed a bottle of beer. Instead of finding an opener, he used a section of the counter and slammed the top to pry the cap open. He took a large swig. “At least you buy the good imported beer.”
Sarah noticed his action of opening the bottle and said while rolling her eyes, “You are so mature. And between the bourbon and now the beer, it’s a good thing that artifact of a car you have doesn’t have an ADI unit or the engine won’t start detecting your breath.”
“I can handle myself without a built in breathalyzer in a car.”
“I just don’t want to see you hurt, little brother. Well, this is ready. Let’s eat.”
Despite their verbal blows of the evening, their dinner conversation was rather civil. Sarah divulged into the many antics of her fourth graders. Nick talked about his travel experiences through various cities he played in. He admitted that besides New York, Chicago, and New Orleans there were not many other places where he could do much after a night game.
Sarah repeated in a dream-like voice, “New Orleans. I’ve always wanted to go back there someday. Remember when mom and dad took us there for a weekend? I was still in high school and you were in middle school.”
“Yeah. I remember. It was on New Years Eve. That drunk came up to you and tried to hit on you.”
“Oh my god, yes! He saluted me when I refused him.”
“Remember when powdered sugar blew all over dad’s shirt at that donut place?”
She nodded. “Cafe Du Monde. Mom told him not to wear navy.”
“Maybe you could go back there on a vacation. I don’t recall you taking any in the past year.”
“Maybe you could go with me, little bro?”
“Sarah, you know what my schedule is like. We only get one or two days off a few times during the season.”
“Says someone who doesn’t work four months out of the year.”
“Which is spent rebuilding for the next season.”
“A lot of good that did this past off season. You’ve had all of two hits in the last month.”
“I’ll come around. Slumps only last as long as you want them to.”
“Of course,” she said before gnawing on a bread stick. “How long are you going to be doing this, Nick?”
“Do what? Play ball? Until I’m not able to, I guess.”
“What are you able to do now? Swing a bat? Catch a fly ball? When was the last time you dove for a ball?”
“I thought you didn’t follow baseball.”
“I follow you, Nick. I also hear how the locals talk about you on that guy’s radio show. What’s his name? Bear? He and his audience talks about you like your career is over already.”
“It’s not!” Nick suddenly shouted as he slammed his hand on the table.
A silence fell between them as Nick calmed down. Sarah reached over the table to replace a knife that fell off the plate from the hit that Nick gave the table. She sat back in her chair before she said, “I guess I hit a nerve. And for the record, I said Bear’s audience thinks your career is over. I never said that I did.”
“You implied it.”
“Only because I question if you believe your career is over or not.”
“Maybe you should be on Bear’s show.”
“Oh, that would be a joy. So, at the risk of losing my table to another fatal slam, I have to ask you. How much longer can you play? You’ve had an eighteen year career with fifteen in the majors. Three seasons nursing a knee surgery.”
“Two,” Nick quickly corrected.
“Oh, excuse me. An extra season really made a difference. Nick, you’ve been playing ball ever since we were kids. Remember that field behind our house that we made into a ball field? I used to pitch to you and you would hit those balls miles away.”
“I remember. I also remember you were a decent pitcher in high school too.”
Sarah shrugged. “We both had talent. Dad could see that. I just never had the passion for the game the way you do.”
“Maybe. It just hasn’t worked out for me these past few seasons.”
“Nothing ever works out the way we want, little bro. I thought we would be able to take care of our parents when they reached their old age. That wasn’t in the cards, was it? And I know exactly what you thought your life in the majors would be like. You thought your talent would be a ticket to an enormous amount of wealth. Like Grandpa Joe. You saw his lifestyle at the time and were lured by insane amounts of money.” She paused before continuing to say, “But a pesky Act of Congress courtesy of a nationwide petition was passed about the time you started in the minors.”
Suddenly, Nick pushed himself away from the table and stood up. He cried, “That’s right! That god-dammed Act ruined everything!” He then stormed out of the kitchen and into the lounge room.
Sarah frowned as she started to get up and go after him. Nothing changed with her brother . It was always the same thing. Her brother’s drive got him into the majors. His pride kept him from being more. Once again, she had the job of boosting his confidence. A position that had been previously held by their father. She entered the lounge room where Nick was still standing. Before she could say anything, he immediately started to rant again.
Nick turned to her and asked, “Do you know what that Act did?”
“I know exactly what it did. It took money away from sports and eliminated the greedy agents who controlled the money. In the case of baseball, it dissolved the union and made the sport public domain.”
“And took away a lifestyle,” he cried.
“Oh my god, are you that shallow? Is it really all about the money? We both know that isn’t true. Or it once was true with you long ago. You’re just complaining now because you’re broke until your next paycheck.”
“Which is something you never have to worry about. That Act sure made teaching a lucrative business.”
“Teaching was already a lucrative business, Nick. It just pays in something much greater than money.” She paused and then said, “You were too young to remember Grandpa Joe–”
“I remember him. He had the life. He owned that huge house in Jacksonville. He had two pools there. A freakin’ bowling alley inside. He had about six or seven exotic cars, including a sweet Lamborghini.”
“But he hit .209 as a career! He was embarrassed about taking all that money. Maybe I should have rephrased. You were too young to understand. Yes, he took the money. He bought all of those things and still had so much left over to give to charities. He was a mediocre player at best and he was being paid multi-millions of dollars. The system wasn’t fair, Nick. Grandpa knew that. I’m sorry if you can’t accept that. The people of America spoke and signed a petition to have the Soto Act passed. The government had to pass it.”
“Well, it destroyed my life!”
“Your life? How did it destroy your life, Nick? Or did it just destroy your disillusions of what a ballplayer should be? You want to talk about destroying a life?” Her voice started to break at this point. “Do you know who the Soto Act is named after?”
“Sarah, I don’t care! Whoever it is, they are a bitch or an asshole for creating it!”
Nick suddenly felt a whiff of air barely seconds before he felt the sting of a slap across his face. Hard. Nick almost fell backwards from the momentum of the hit. His hand went up to massage the redness now evident on his cheek. He looked at his sister with a shocked expression, which mirrored her own expression. Never had they been reduced to violence with each other. Their abuse always came at each other verbally. Until now.
Nick stumbled backwards and somehow flopped onto the leather sofa. He looked up at his sister and said, “You hit me.”
Sarah tried to sound casual but failed. “You noticed that?” The truth was that she didn’t know why she hit her brother. Or did she? Was it in defense of an inspirational hero? She slowly joined her brother on the sofa sitting next to him. She repeated in monotone staring straight ahead. “I hit you.”
“Yes. And I forgot how hard you could throw. That felt worse than a 90 MPH fastball.” He paused and said, “So...to what do I owe this fresh bout of pain? Surely, I offended someone.” Sarah stayed silent. “Ok, Sarah, I’ll bite. Who is the Soto Act named after?”
For a moment, Sarah stayed silent. She then spoke softly without looking at Nick and asked him, “Do you remember the Sandy Hook murders?”
Nick looked confused, not expecting the question. “Well, sort of. I was pretty young when that happened. What’s that got to do with the Soto Act?”
“Plenty. I figured you might not remember it much. You were barely seven years old and I was thirteen. It was so horrible.”
“I do remember mom trying to explain it to me.” He shook his head. “I always wondered how do you tell a child about the killing of kids their own age? Mom did a pretty good job.”
Sarah shrugged. “She just stuck to as much of the truth as she could. Editing out the really disturbing parts. Mom didn’t have to explain any of it to me. I had my own questions about it and other shootings at that time. I was old enough to understand.” She swallowed as she tried to speak with pure emotion. “There were six teachers that day who lost their lives, including the principal, Dawn Hochsprung. But there was one teacher who stood out.” Sarah took a breath and said, “Victoria Leigh Soto. Many schools and parks are named after her. She and the other teachers who died were given the Presidential Citizens Award posthumously. When the nation knew of this act that transferred the monies made from sports figures to the educational systems and teachers around the country, they honored it with her name. The Soto Act.”
Nick raised his eyebrows, finally realizing her reaction to his words. “This teacher who died...what made her stand out?”
“Well, not to deny the meaning of the other teachers’ sacrifices, Vicky Soto set herself apart in how she died.” She paused and went on. “The day when the shooter entered the school, he had already killed some teachers and a whole class of first graders. Vicky knew what was going on and tried to have her kids hide under their desks and the closet. The shooter entered her room and she tried to tell him that the kids were in the gymnasium.” Sarah’s voice started to break. “Some of her kids panicked and tried to escape. He shot them on the spot. Vicky stepped in between the shooter and her remaining kids, protecting them. He shot her dead and then left the room.” Sarah wiped the water building up in her eyes. “Five of her children lost their lives. Eleven survived because she sacrificed herself for them. Eleven. Think about that, Nick. That was thirty years ago. Those children grew up to be adults and they now have families. Maybe generations of families by now. Those generations would not exist if not for Vicky Soto.”
Sarah sat back on the sofa and Nick did the same.
“Wow, sis. I never saw you this worked up. That must have been terrifying to be there that day.”
“I remember thinking then about how much power that kind of passion can create. To be that dedicated to the protection of children who are not your own. So much that you are willing to sacrifice your life for them. It was beyond inspirational. Her actions that day made me decide to become a teacher.”
After a few minutes of silence, Nick muttered, “I’m sorry for what I said. I didn’t know. I never made the connection.”
Sarah’s expression lost all traces of reflection and turned stern. “That’s because all sports figures and agents denounced the Soto Act because it took away their rather large meal ticket. Nick, twenty years ago ballplayers were making salaries that were five times larger than some countries’ whole budgets. It was getting out of hand and the public became furious about it. Like most players at that time, you fell under the lure of the money before the Soto Act shut it down.”
“That’s not true, Sarah.”
“Maybe at one time. You were hitting my fastballs in that field before you were even in high school. Dad and I saw the passion you had for the game.”
“To be fair, you had talent too. You almost single handedly won the State Softball Championship in your Senior year.”
Sarah nodded in agreement, but said, “Yes, I had talent. But not the passion. You had both, Nick. Plain old fashioned drive got you a college baseball scholarship. And then into the minors and then to the Show. Now that passion seems to have turned to self pity because you don’t live in the luxury like our grandfather did.” She leaned in closer to him. “Do you know what your problem is?”
Nick chuckled. “How long do you have?”
“Seriously, Nick. You live beyond your means. You buy expensive things and live in high end places where millionaires live. And you’re not one. You want to live in a life of luxury that doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Oh, it exists. Just not for ballplayers. You have to become a teacher to be a millionaire now.”
“Is that your ultimate goal, Nick? To be so rich that you can sit back in your pools, drink expensive bourbon, and not have another care in the world? And no responsibilities. You have nobody to share that fantasy with. No children, that you know of. And you still keep that antique of a car as some kind of status symbol. A Porsche once stood for wealth. Forty years ago. What a life.” She paused a moment and then said, “Nick, do you ever consider becoming a teacher?”
Nick scoffed. “Sarah, I barely passed high school. I took the cake courses in college because of baseball. I couldn’t teach English, or the Hell of Math.”
Sarah let out an exasperating sigh. “Nick! Dummy! What was I just talking about? Your talent and passion for baseball can be taught, Nick. Do you remember that Father and Son Little League outing the Stars sponsored a few years ago? I went because I am your only living family.” He nodded. “You spoke to those kids about working hard and not quitting. You were teaching them your passion whether you realized it or not.”
“Those kids were more interested in that pop star making an appearance that night.”
“No, Nick. I was there. Did you notice their faces while you talked to them? They were in a trance listening to you. That’s when I realized that you could become a great coach, Nick.” She made another pause while he contemplated that notion. She then added, “You know, there will be an opening for the Springfield High School baseball coach next season. Coach Cave is finally retiring. And I can tell you it pays well. Much more than you’re making now. You may even be able to upgrade to a mansion in a few years.”
“Sarah, come on. I have the rest of the season to finish.”
“To do what? So you can be that .176 hitter you always wanted to be?”
“.209,” he corrected.
“Oh, yes, of course. You got that extra ground ball with eyes two weeks ago. Look, Nick, I know you don’t want to hear this, but you are approaching retirement age for baseball. The infamous forty years. You were a hot hitter for a good chunk of years. You got to play in the World Series. You were an All Star for, what, four years in a row?”
“Five. And we lost the World Series.”
Sarah dropped her head. “Always the pessimist.” She took his hand and said, “Those years are behind you now, Nick. That knee injury took its toll on you. You haven’t hit well since. The local fans are making you into a joke. Physically, you don’t have much left to offer. At some point you have to realize this. But you can pass down your knowledge of the game to other young ballplayers who need it now.”
Nick said, “I can’t leave, Sarah. I don’t know what I’d do without playing the game. I’d give anything to play like I used to again.”
“That’s what people say when they’re desperate.” She let go of his hand to leave the sofa. She went over to her desk in the opposite corner and sat down at it. She pulled out a checkbook from a small drawer and then asked Nick, “How much would you need until your next check? Twenty-five grand enough? Thirty?”
“Sarah, if you don’t feel comfortable with this, I’ll find a way myself.”
“Yeah, and that worked so well last year when you infiltrated dad’s old savings account. And did I say this money I’m giving to you today is free?”
“What’s it going to cost me?”
“A simple promise. I want you to at least promise that you will interview for the coaching job before the end of the season. I have contacts at Springfield and I can get you the names.”
Nick pleaded. “Sarah, please.”
“No, Nick. I’ve been handing you money for several years now and I have never asked for any of it back. Not that I needed it back. I think that was part of your problem. And your desperation last year. The access to extra money was too easy. Just ask big sister. In fact, since this will most likely be my last check to you, I’m willing to raise the amount to forty grand. That should last you a few months the way you blow through money.” She started writing the check and tore it from the book. She went over to him and began to hand it to him. When he reached for it, she quickly retracted her hand. “Now, I didn’t hear you say the key phrase that will get you this money. And please don’t chant ‘Show me the money’“.
Nick hesitated and said, “I promise.”
“That I’ll interview for the coaching job. But I can’t promise I can do it before the end of this season. I’ll have enough on my mind until then.”
“Fair enough. At the end of the season then.” She handed him the check and he grabbed it. “Now, was that so hard?”
“I’ll tell you after I scar a few kids for life.”
“You won’t be that bad. You may even surprise yourself.”
“We’ll see. Well, look, thanks for the dinner tonight.”
“Oh, so it’s ‘Take The Money And Run’ for karaoke tonight?”
“Not tonight. It’s getting late. I have an early practice for the game Friday night.”
“Don’t you have the day off tomorrow?”
Nick shrugged. “I’d like to get all the practice I can get in. Plus I have nothing else to do.”
“You are in Florida with beaches everywhere and you don’t have anything to do? And I’m guessing you’d be alone if you did find something.”
“Ah yes, the long list of groupies. Tell you what, call me after school if that doesn’t happen.”
“All right.” Nick got up off the sofa and made to leave. He stopped to hesitate what he was going to say. Or rather admit. “I want you to know that I have a new perspective on the Soto Act since you told me about Vicky Soto. She had to be one special girl.”
“She was a special teacher. Though she may have taught us more in death. And thou shalt see how apt it is to learn, any hard lesson that may do thee good."
Nick just stared at her vacantly.
“Shakespeare. Look him up.”
“Good night, little brother.”