Fiction | June 01, 2002

Standing at the plate, fouling off pitch after pitch, I’m trying to give a place and a name to this lanceur. I remember vaguely that I failed him in the course I used to call “English for Intermediate Morons” before I realized that teaching English in France was no laughing matter. I can still hear him struggling with the s of the third-person singular, as if a crab louse had leaped from his scalp to his tongue and refused to be spit out. And here he is now, bearing down on me from the plaque du lanceur, revenge soaping itself up in his spitball, and me prevented from hitting one out of the park and teaching him a lesson in character by this lingering ache from my most recent prostatic massage.

Once again I swing and hear the umpire shouting “fausse,” while the ball skids back to the cercle d’attente des frappeurs, where the next batter waits impatiently. I’ve struck out swinging twice already, calling upon myself not merely the collective scorn of my students but the silent, head-shaking sarcasm of my colleagues, standing on the sidelines of what they like to call la troisieme base here in Provence, most likely wondering why I’ve chosen such a splendid day on which to make such an enduring fool of myself. And it won’t do any longer to brag at my students, as I have all week, that I was playing sandlot shortstop (sorry, arret court!) long before De Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic—and probably before most of their parents were even conceived—because I haven’t had serious wood on the ball all afternoon and am showing myself to be, in effect, a seemingly lame connoisseur.

This morning, when I announced to my kine—my physiotherapist—my intention to accept my students’ invitation to play, her reaction was the familiar “Ah bon?” which harbors the most pregnant question mark in the French language and may equally stand for: “Do as you like,” “It’s nothing to do with me” and “Pull the other one.” With my legs in a leather brace above my head and my neck strained to its maximum in what Meziere physiotherapy calls “conscious spine-stretching,” I could well understand her concern. Would my back hold out? Would the chronic tendinitis return to my arm with every swing of the bat? This was not the Good Fairy looking out for the survival of her wayward boy so much as the unhappy prospect, for her, of adding to my already excessive therapeutic sessions on her floor mat.

I let this next pitch slide under my knees.

Prise!

It takes me several beats to register this word. It derives from the verb prendre, to take. Une prise is also an electrical plug, which “takes” the full force of the current. You can have a prise de conscience for your moral well-being or prise de sang to find out if you’re carrying any microbes in your fleshy baggage. In 1789 there was la prise de la Bastille; cocaine can be snorted with benefit of this term, fish can be caught and your queen knocked off in a game of echecs.

But I’m hard-pressed here to fathom its connotation with regard to what is quite clearly call-strike three, and I turn my full force of skepticism on the arbitre, whom I remember from my intermediate class of last year. On her final oral exam she had broken down in my office, insisting that a sweatshop was a place that made sweatshirts, or what the French call “sweets,” and, when I demanded further clarification and precision, she began to bawl, telling me I was trop dur comme prof, that I couldn’t expect them to pronounce th’s after a mouth’s lifetime of living without them and that it was all a matter of tone, that French and English were spoken in differing frequencies and were fundamentally incompatible for ears on both sides.

I look at her now, behind her umpire’s mask, as if for the first time. She has one of those saccharine French names like Amandine or Capucine or Eglantine, and she is someone who will tell you to your face that your English is wrong because you’re an American and that French high school English teachers don’t recognize American English as a valid language, or that she once heard some Liverpool rock idol pronounce this or that word otherwise. She is also one of those who wears low-cut blouses and sits in the first row of your class, leading you to believe you are being coyly courted when in fact you are only being led by the nose by your own inflamed amour propre.

I sneer the obligatory sneer at her, surprising even myself in my rudeness. Still, I don’t argue the call. Nobody ever argues a call here. It doesn’t appear to be part and parcel of the esprit de jeu. They’ve turned it somehow into a gentleman’s sport, and I’m having a tough time swallowing this, despite the fact that everyone here knows me as mild-mannered and soft.

Time to play the field. I’m at premiere base, insisting as I have on the length of my stride, the extent of my arm’s reach, knowing full well it’s really because I haven’t the stamina to run after a hard-hit grounder to third and risk tendinitis throwing to first, much less chase a fly out there in le champ exterieur. I’m safe here on the right side of the infield, and I can still manage to catch a ball thrown to me. That much at least. And so far I’ve been lucky. There are no southpaws among these kids; their parents are of that modern generation that weaned them away from a natural use of the left hand, seeing it as a lifetime handicap. So there have been no sharp-bounding balls in the hole between first and second, no screaming line drives inside the baseline to leap at and prevent a right-field double, no, I’ve even once put the tag on some brat trying to sidle behind me at the limit of the foul line.

We’re getting trounced. Badly. The kid who’s pitching for our side doesn’t even go into a windup. He just seems to aim at the bat as if he were playing darts, and the others are circling the bases in a perpetual square dance. Between innings I’ve tried to wise him up, diplomatically, but he understands as much about pitching as he does about the past-perfect tense in English. These boys have soccer in their genes, let’s face it; it’s all in the legs, they’re brought up to flick a ball from one toe to the other. And to move constantly back and forth. They cannot follow a game in which you basically spend seventy-five percent of your time waiting at rest.

When I first arrived here twenty years ago they hadn’t even heard of baseball, didn’t know a balle papillon (knuckleball) from a balle tire-bouchon (screwball). Now they’re organizing national teams and planning to have a go at the Olympics. In all this time I’ve watched them slide down the gourmet ladder to the subterranean level of McDonald’s and lived to see them adopt and celebrate Halloween from early October until late November, but I’m at a loss to comprehend this French fervor for the diamond. It simply goes against nature.

Look, here’s the evidence. An easy double-play grounder, the shortstop takes his time tossing to second and then has to remind the second baseman to throw to me. Way too late. Safe at first. And so I’m yelling at these guys in French with a subliminal Bronx rage in my belly, and they stare at me like the extraterrestrial I have become since four o’clock this afternoon. But even this doesn’t faze them. No reaction. Zero. Nine innings without even once kicking up dust? In the middle of a soccer match their natural killer instincts are aroused, but they play baseball with an indolence I suddenly find downright indecent.

Here’s a pop-up, I gotit, I gotit. Or do I? Ever since my lower back began being disloyal, I get vertigo when I lift my head too suddenly. Added to that, there is this dazzling Provenal light blinding me even through my sunglasses. Van Gogh came a thousand miles so he could paint his sunflowers in it, but he never had to catch an infield fly, or rather, une chandelle interieure, on the foul line between first and home. And now I’m wondering: Why do they call a fly ball une chandelle? It’s the ancient word for candle in French, and it’s a lob in tennis or an up-and-under in rugby. But I can’t see what it has to do with the dynamics of a ball hit in the air that has not yet bounced.

In any case, I’ve lost it. It’s somewhere up there, where I don’t dare look anymore because my head is turning, and the pitcher comes crashing into me in order to bag it. I’m down on the turf, and he extends an arm to help me up. I’m not hurt, but my physiotherapist has made it plain: From a prone or sitting position I have to take my time getting up or risk tearing a disc cartilage again. Rock onto your knees, a few breathing exercises and slowly, ever so purposefully and with full consciousness of your spine, raise yourself to upright. To do all this now, with Eglantine the umpire staring down at me, would be the ultimate in trivial humiliation. On your feet.

Ouf.

I trot back to my position, as close to the bag as possible so that, in the event of a grounder between first and second, it will have to be the second baseman—the one who had to be reminded what a double play was—who chases it. It’s then that I notice that the runner from first has advanced to second, although the infield pop-up was eventually caught. I wave to him to get back, but he blithely informs me qu’il a rMssi une tentative de vol. He stole that base fair and square. When? During the pop-up. But the pop-up was caught by the pitcher. Et alors? Get back to first, buster.

He shouts to me that I should learn how to play the game before opening my trap. He also speaks like that in class, they all do in France, they talk back to their professors, talk openly and loudly to each other during the session and won’t hesitate to tell you what they think of you and your teaching ability. Twenty years ago I took this for the spicy, anarchic charm with which French arrogance is often confounded. 1 have always turned a deaf ear to it, not wanting to make waves; I’m in their country after all, and they are ultrasensitive to Americans coming here and imposing alien moral codes on them. But suddenly, inexplicably, I’ve had a spleenful of it, and I’m going for the kid. The others are calling me to get back to my position, they’re impatient to get the game over with and return to their glue-sniffing and unprotected sex, but I’m walking that baseline. Don’t know the game? Me? Listen: I was in the upper deck in right in the Stadium in 1955 when Mickey hit one 535 feet. Was I there? I caught it! (And dropped it, for some snotnose to steal under my feet.) This was my game before the Cosmic Spermatazoa even put you in their starting lineup, bub, I saw the Philadelphia Athletics play, the St. Louis Browns, even the Washington Senators, I saw Whitey Ford strike out Ted Williams (I think I did) …

Where am I going? Am I really walking toward this kid to strong-arm him back to first base? My colleagues in the Communication Department think I’ve lost it. They’ve never seen me like this before. Twenty years ago I was their token foreign English teacher, hired because sooner or later they had to stop pretending they could teach the language themselves on their obligatory fifty words and expressions.

But I never asserted myself in all that time, never flaunted even my natural superiority in speaking my native tongue, just made myself part of the drab French university system guided by remote control from Paris. These other teachers have never seen me flare up at a faculty meeting. I’ve never even complained that my status has remained “temporary” after twenty years or that I receive my paycheck six months after the teaching season has ended or that they find administrative ways to sneak a student through after I’ve failed him. I’ve become part of their languid landscape.

Yet the Jekyll of decorum is now stalking Hydian flesh in this Provenqal afternoon, transformed by the deadly potion known as Nine Innings of Baseball. Character traits long lost to decades of exile are revving up their ghostly motorbikes in my soul, preparing for wipeout.

I’m ready for you, jerk. Anytime you like, says the kid. He’s suddenly using the familiar “tu” form, unheard of in this country from student to professor, his way of reducing me to his level. I could fail him for this alone and no one would blame me, but I’m far beyond administrative solutions. I try to remember my last fistfight, somewhere up on Gun Hill Road, in the northeast Bronx, some forty years or so ago—although I cant be sure that this isn’t part of some well-amended autobiographical script I’ve been carrying around in my private luggage. How far apart are you supposed to place your legs? Do you strike knuckle-first or open-palmed?

Eglantine the umpire is standing between us, telling me to get back to my position or be ejected from the playing field. It’s come to this after a lifetime of serene academia. I have to explain to her that in the rules of baseball, as conceived and written down by Mr. Abner Doubleday, a runner may only advance a base on a flyout if he tags up and runs after the ball is caught, not before. She says I may have a point, which can be discussed by committee later on, but everyone is waiting for the game to progress. This is not a philosophical debating point, I tell her, this is Scripture. Perhaps this particular rule has not crossed the Atlantic, she proffers; maybe the guidelines have been adapted to suit our purposes here. Yes, I think, like certain English words—”parking,” “pressing,” “look,” “feeling,” “shampooing”—which are pale third cousins of the original in French mouths.

The chairman of the Communication Department ambles over to me. We’re not meant to rile the students, he tells me privately. Me, not rile them? Did you hear the way that punk addressed me? We’re supposed to ignore any provocation, I’m warned. Yes. I know. True, this is not quite yet an American campus, where a student can take me to court for a bad grade or a smug grimace, but the Minister of Education in his Parisian ivory tower has decreed that the accent this year is on liberté, egalité, fraternité.

So of course the next batter lines one up the middle (un coup en flèche), scoring the other little punk from second. I’m livid, but I’m exercising my sang-froid, as we like to say here, although ask me to translate that term into my private vernacular at this moment and you’d need to have your ears flushed with caustic lye.

Here’s the pause-exercise de la septième manche. As there is no real home team, I fail to see why the stretch tradition is respected here. Back in another life I would have yelled across the multitudes for a “boxa Crackajacks” and moved my limbs from left to right along with thousands of others, listening to the Hammond organ pound out its kitschy music, but in this context the period between the two halves of the seventh inning becomes like the obligatory pause between noon and two in Provence, an excuse not to work masquerading as a good health practice.

My physiotherapist is in the crowd. She threatened to come toward the end of the game if she could get away, not on my account of course but because her son is le receveur, the guy squatting behind the plaque de but, waiting for the ball to be pitched into his glove. He’s the only member of her family she ever talks about, and I’ve been subtly sounding her depths these past months to elicit the word “husband” from her, which, happily, my efforts have so far failed to produce. She’s about my age; no, let’s be clear, nobody is, but she’s not so young as to be indifferent to the potential of what is known in these parts as un homme mur. And she’s got hands of silk, which know how to hurt you just at the right moment. I must remember to greet her son warmly when it’s my turn to bat.

Which it isn’t. In fact, before me, there’s going to be a frappeur d’urgence, quite literally an “emergency batter,” “pinch hitter” being quite untranslatable into any language, English included. And, naturally, how would you expect these faraway people to integrate the notion of “designated hitter” (which, by the way, I’ve never accepted to this day), whose legal status even the two major leagues cant agree on? So they’re going to compromise and let Player B bat for Player A exceptionnellement, and Player A is going to take the field again in the latter half of the manche (literally “sleeve,” but it will have to do for “inning”) as if nothing had ever happened.

Not only that, but Player B turns out to be une ‘tappeuse” d’urgence, whom I recognise as my most ambitious student; she’s the one who proudly showed me a tourist menu she’d translated herself into English for her uncle’s local eatery, inviting one to dine on “goat’s cheese on his green bed” and a starter called “mixed crudeness” (the plate of raw vegetables we know and love as crudités). And us down five runs in the last of the eighth.

As I’m in the cercle d’attente (which is, lexicographically, just one short base from the dentist’s waiting room), I go up to her and try to indicate how it might help to put her two hands together on the bat, choke up rather than keep them twelve inches apart. And even as I do this, I know I’ve crossed into the red-light zone; alarm bells are going off in the eyes of my Communication colleagues on the sidelines, especially as I’ve got one of the girl’s shoulders in my paw. She just as quickly extracts herself from my goodwill grip and lets me know that we are not now in les cours d’anglais, that she is perfectly capable of batting for herself and that I have “deconcentrated” her.

Bien, I tell her, I’m sure she can hit as well as she can speak English and, if I’d stepped forward to slightly nudge her batting stance into acceptable posture, this was as well meant as if I’d been correcting one of her essays beginning with the phrase “I have been born in the year 1981.

Even as I’m swaggering back to my own bat, her two divorced hands spank a line-drive single to center field, and she’s bobbling down the first-base line, encouraged by the crowd, united in their special delight of seeing me proved wrong. Yet, as I move back to the emplacement du batteur, a.k.a. le rectangle, to take my turn and maybe even drive the girl in as a means of making up for my faux pas, I notice she is still running. Running toward second base in the same spirit of complacent adventure with which French motorists approach traffic lights, although the ball has long since come in from the outfield and sits in the glove of the second baseman, waiting with good-mannered patience to touch her gently on her shoulder—as if she hasn’t had enough of that already.

So instead of batting anyone in I’ve got to play the field again, and, I must admit, I’m bearing my cross in this Calvary mount toward first base. Never did nine innings seem so much like nine months of pregnancy. I look over into the crowd at my kiné and shrug smilingly at her, my innermost voice whispering: Take me home with you after the game and work my tendons till I squeal.

It’s almost over. Three more outs, one more at-bat and a hot bath with a rum chaser. On the third-base side, my head of department is staring at me, most likely imagining a replacement teacher for next semester. He’s seen a Me today who does not suit his timid notion of running an academic team. Up to this moment he’s been willing to tolerate my being his token foreigner precisely because I didn’t act like one, because I forced myself to fit in. But here, now, in the howling jungle of the Diamond, he’s seen the Goof-Off beneath the masquerade of le bon comportement.

Well, I’m giving him le bras d’honneur, a full-arm French version of the Finger, along with my insolent smile, surprising myself as well as him. I’m back in a thousand movie reruns, thinking the old one-liner: “You can’t fire me, I quit!” when, out of my depth of perception and the terrible crack of the bat, I sense a screaming liner making its supersonic run at my head. Someone has actually hit the ball to the right side, and I’m its sitting target. In a flash of self-preservation I’ve thrown my glove at the ball and thereby deflected it into the air, turning it into a lazy pop-up. Which lands just as inadvertently in my bare hand, outstretched in a gesture of mortification. I acknowledge the scattered applause at this feat with a thrust of my head, as if to say, that’s the way I’ve always done it, from sandlot on down: if the ball refuses to come to the glove, send the glove in hot pursuit.

The thrill of my accidental exploit is short-lived because this other team is piling up one run after another. What’s needed is surely a lanceur de releve, but we’ll have to wait for the next Marshall Plan before this alien thought crosses the French border. There doesn’t even seem to be a piste d´éhauffement where a spare pitcher, even if one existed, might warm up. And this is a massacre.

But why should I care? Why do I care? This is the nonevent of the decade. I shouldn’t even be here; I should be marking their essays (also a massacre) or just marking time. Going to the local Turkish baths or going into executive session with a bottle of cognac. Anything but this. And yet I’m acting as if career and ego and life and limb depended on it. It’s the chromosomes. Even in these circumstances, even in this meadow with the sun dropping its rainbow over Provence, even here, I cannot not take a ballgame seriously.

We’re finally at bat again, and for the last time. The other team has got about twelve insurance runs; nobody’s even counting anymore. Only good sportsmanship requires that we play the last of the ninth. I’m the frappeur de terrasse, waiting on deck while the opposing pitcher warms up. Moseying into place, I remember to greet the catcher and compliment him on his stamina, then quickly pop a glance at his proud mom. It’s as if I can still smell the tiger balm on her hands and feel them glide down the edge of the crevice between my moons. I dedicate this coup de circuit to you, Madame. Watch it go out of the park.

Prise. ”

Eglantine is at it again. Every swing and miss is a revenge for this or that exam grade; every out is a triumph of youth over the dead weight of years. I’m not going to give her the pleasure. Or the others. Not again. Not this time. The game’s lost ten times over, but there is still the question of honor to be addressed. All I want to do here is start a rally, get on base, go around the bags when someone sacrifices me, and the ultimate: score. Touch home under the tag of baby-kiné, slide in there, make every last out count.

But I can scarcely lift the bat. My left arm has forsaken me altogether, and where would I find the legs to make it to base? I’m dreaming of a pinch runner from home to first, a new institution for geriatric sluggers who can still rip the ball apart while resting frozen in swing position like Greek statues. Let the slaves do the running.

Fausse. ”

This means “wrong” or “false.” Have I done “wrong” by fouling one off? There’s nothing “false” about not hitting the ball fair. Instead, savor the word “foul” with all its subliminal context of “putrid,””acrid,” “badsmelling.” To “foul” someone is to do him a soul-injury. To be “foul” of a boundary is to exceed a socially determined limit. This is serious business, it is not merely “false.” And so, after eight and one-half “sleeves,” I realize at last that the French have swallowed my game whole without tasting its poetry. Their translations are literal, descriptive, flat, terreà-terre. Where’s my “bullpen,” where’s my “dugout,” where are my lovely “bleachers,” a “balk,” an “inside-the-park-homer,” a “forkball,” a “switch-hitter,” a “squeeze play”? And the loveliest word in the whole baseball canon …

I’ve basically got one swing left and I know now what I’m going to do, even as the lanceur goes into his windup. These guys have the legs, they have the energy reserves, but I’ve got the Knowledge. They’ve brought me to this impasse with their vitamin-powered constitutions and left me to hang in it with their sarcasm. My afternoon is fast deflating in self-derision. And so they can scarcely believe their eyes when I incline my bat laterally at the fastball, slide my right hand out of the choke and lay one down, fair at my feet inside the third-base line. Silence. They think I’m joking, that this is some kind of imperial mockery, some arrogant assertion of long-lost copyright on obscure game rules or ultimate cynicism. No, les gars, this is a Bunt, an elegant gesture of dynamics for which there is no French translation and never will be. They are so perplexed by its wondrous mystery that not one single infielder has made a move, and I’m coasting to first like Icarus on the runway. Only the receveur, the physiotherapist’s boy, has finally made the connection and pounces on the dead ball. But I’m finding legs (I’ll pay for this tonight) and I’m going, I’m going, I’m gone. By the time he’s thrown his peg, and by the time the first baseman has understood the curious metaphysics of the moment—enough to cover the bag and receive the toss—I’ve crossed it.

Of course, no applause, only an awestruck undercurrent. As it should be. No gladiator’s triumph, this, only sleight-of-wrist. Subtlety flashing its teeth at Overbearing Might.

And suddenly, inexplicably, existentially, I’m bending over—ow!—and dusting off my cuffs—although there is nothing but grass beneath my feet—in a private gesture not one soul here can fathom, and which comes as naturally as hormones replenishing themselves in the face of the inevitable.

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