The Last Game November 11, 1920
They played ball on a dirt field that sloped up toward the railroad embankment in right field and dropped off beyond left field into a ravine. They always called it the Southern Pacific Field, because the railroad owned it. None of them thought it had ever been called anything else. Leafless fruit trees marked the foul lines, but the boys could not have told if the field had once been an orchard before the railroad bought and cleared it. They didn't know if it had once served as wheat field for Yankee, or grazing land for Spaniard, or vineyard for Franciscan, or, in times past, a seed meadow where Ohlone women walked and gathered and greeted each clump of trees and each large rock by its true name. The boys played in the endless present of the game, hit and ran across a field created, they had no reason to doubt, especially for them.
Harold Madison, the oldest and tallest of the players, watched a ball crack cleanly in the air toward him in left field. He circled in, the ball a high white mark in the dark sky, then knew in an instant he'd misjudged, It was over his head. He spun and ran with his back to the field, but he saw the ball land beyond him, bounce twice, and disappear into the ravine.
"Damn," Harold swore automatically. He hung his glove on the foul-line tree and spidered down to find the ball. The sides of the ravine were slick and leaf-covered, and putty-colored trees curved in toward the creek at the bottom, and everywhere the air smelled wet and rotten.
Then he stumbled over some rockand asha dead hobo fireand he heard a noise.
"You lost something? Or just lost."
An old man with leaves tangled in his hair grinned at Harold from across the creek. He held the baseball up, and Harold saw that the man was missing three fingers. Stumps, dirt-grained as old carrots, played across the seams.
Overhead, a freight train pounded slowly across the railroad bridge that leaped the ravine.
"Can I have the ball back, mister?"
"So, you did lose something," the man said. Harold figured that this was another crazy logger or teamster, left over from the lumbering days. The last redwood had been brought down the hill nine years earlier, when he was seven, and some men had never quite caught on anywhere else. They wandered through the prosperous valley like graying ghosts, and Harold had always been told to leave them be. They were dangerous, people said. Strays.
"What did you lose?" The man's yellow teeth showed in his smile.
"Please, mister." Harold didn't want to get any closer to him.
"Ho, ho, ho. Please!" He laughed, then threw the ball across the creek to Harold.
"Thanks." Harold turned and scrambled up the hill, and he heard the old man behind him.
"See you around, sport."
The trees thinned and the sky grew lighter as he reached the edge of the ravine, and the air was colder and cleaner, without the damp rotting smell. He pushed off one last tree and clambered up to the playing field. The other boys were waiting for him.
Paolo, the shortstop, waved for the ball.
"Come on. Rain's coming."
Harold signaled thumbs-up and threw in to Paolo, and their makeshift diamond grew alive again with game chatter. But Harold looked up to the sky, and he knew this would be the last day for baseball. Time was passing. After this holiday, the days would grow short and the rains would come frequently, turning the field to mud. This was Armistice Day, two years after the war, and he and the others, standing on the field under the gray sky, had decided to skip the flags and parade and speeches in San Jose and play one last time together.
Now the old man had taken him away from the game. He looked back to the ravine, half afraid he would see him rising out of the leaves, rank and enormous. He saw there instead a picture from his memory, a day in October, some years past.
From the yards a track switch clacked into place and a train whistle blew.