The First Inning
Winston Browne knew he was dying. He couldn't explain how he knew. He just did.
He removed his crumpled brown hat, exposing his prematurely white hair, and looked at the clear sky. He wondered what was up there. Behind all that blue. He sat on the hood of a truck, sandwiched between two men, listening to a tinny radio voice talk about strikes, inside pitches, and home runs. But his mind was on the big blue stuff above him.
The Floridian sun hung high over center field. The sky was empty and cloudless. What was up there? Was it friendly? Or the better question: Did anyone go there when they died? Or did they just become food for worms?
Winston lit a Lucky Strike cigarette and drew in a breath. He'd been smoking Luckys since he was ten.
The truck was parked in the left field grass, doors splayed open, grown men sitting just above the engine, leaning backward on the windshield. The Dodgers game was coming straight from New York, via WWLA in Mobile.
It was a good day, and good days had been hard to come by ever since the doctor started running Tests on him. Tests were just another name for systematic torture involving two-foot-long needles thicker than milkshake straws. The doc shoved these needles into his ribcage and removed plugs of pink lung matter. They called that a Test. In any other era, they would have called it medieval punishment. And even though the doctor hadn't come out and said it yet, they don't run Tests on people who aren't dying.
"You wanna beer?" said Mark Laughlin. "I got some in the cooler."
"No thanks," said Winston. "Technically I'm on duty."
"Aw, you're always on duty," said Jimmy Abraham, lifting a brown-bottled Dixie from the tin Dr Pepper cooler in the back of the truck. "You ain't in uniform, Saint Francis."
Winston hopped down, walked to the tailgate, reached into the ice and removed a bottle of Nehi orange, then popped the top using the edge of the truck bumper.
The three older men in sweat-laden T-shirts and jeans listened to every play with open ears and closed mouths and slippery longnecks in their hands. The game ended with pure elation. The small dashboard speaker crackled beneath the strain of the announcer's voice:
"Dodgers beat the Giants, folks! The Bums beat the Giants!"
There was nothing a Dodger man loved more than hating the Giants. Every game against them was a crucial one. The rivalry ran deep. Last year the Giants had squeezed the mustard out of the beloved Bums to win the pennant. And it wasn't the first time the Dodgers had been clocked by the Giants. The Brooklyn boys were the best losers in the National League. Sometimes they seemed to be better at losing than at winning. Nothing incites more loyalty among fans than losing.
Winston, Jimmy, and Mark all hollered after the win. The hollering was a necessary part of being a Dodger man. It was a temporary release of tension. It was decades of losses, wins, near-wins, season disappointments, and always being this close to the championship, but always blowing it. It was joy laced with the fear of more losses.
But for Winston, the yelling was simply to remind himself that he was still alive.
Only a Dodger man living in the miniscule town of Moab, Florida, could know the frustration that went along with his lot in life. It wasn't just the losing. It was the powerless feeling a man had when he realized the game did not involve him. No matter how much he rooted, no matter how much he cheered, it was all happening twelve hundred miles north, in some New York borough, which might as well have been the edge of the world to someone from a one-horse town like Moab.
Winston could hear the clanging of pots and pans in the distance from various houses in Moab proper. More Dodgers fans. Then he heard a few bottle rockets. No shotgun blasts—those were reserved for pennant races. He even heard a faint trumpet, probably played by old man Pederson, who was crazy as a run-over cat.