The men's room stinks so badly that Rick walks past it and out the open back door of the tavern. He's in an alley, a brick wall conveniently placed, so that he conducts his business in privacy. Today was the last day of play for the Waterbury Comets, and Frederick "Rick" Stanton has just spilled his good news to his teammates. Despite the C-league Comets' losing season, he's pitched well, and in the spring he'll report to the minor-league AA team, the Hartford Bees. It was surprisingly hard to say, and he was a little embarrassed to have gotten choked up, especially when they all raised their beer mugs and toasted his good luck.
He's finally going to be able to say good-bye to cobbled-together amateur teams, and all his years of hard work, from sand lot to high school to playing in college, have paid off. Sacrificing steady employment in a respectable profession like his father's, banking or accounting, in favor of menial jobs he has no compunction about leaving when practice starts up has been worth it.
Still, he'll miss these guys, the oldest among them the catcher, "Foggy" Phil Dexter; the youngest, a kid of sixteen who cheerfully takes all their good-natured abuse, lugging most of the equipment, always riding stuck between two bigger players, fetching for the rest of them, and enduring persistent razzing about the state of his virginity.
Finishing up, Rick feels the first drops of rain on his bare head. Those few drops are quickly followed by a complete cloudburst, but he stays where he is. It's hot inside, and the cool rain feels good. Rick raises his face to the sky and opens his mouth, taking in the taste of fresh rain. "I'm the luckiest man on earth," he says to the sky, and in that moment, he's pretty certain that he is. Well, he should get back in. Eat another couple sandwiches, toss back one more beer; laugh at a few more tired jokes. The season is over and no curfew tonight.
Thoroughly soaked now, Rick turns around and trips over something, nearly pitching headlong onto the brick pavers. That something yelps.
It's a puppy, and rather than running away after being tripped over, it stays put, and for a hard moment, Rick thinks he may have accidentally killed it with his big feet. In the weak light of the open back door, Rick sees the glint of life in its eyes. "Whoa, fella. Where'd you come from?" Rick squats down and the wet and trembling puppy inserts itself between his knees as if seeking shelter. It sits and rests its muzzle on Rick's leg. As quickly as the cloudburst started, it fades away, the rivulets trickling down the side of the wall, pooling in the interstices between the bricks. "Where're your people, little guy?"
The puppy shakes, spraying Rick with a thousand droplets. Rick scoops it up and heads back into the tavern. In the light, he can see it's a boy, silvery in color, with a darker saddle across narrow shoulders and along ribs that poke out like the bones of a chicken. His ears flop over at entirely different angles, as if they belong to two different puppies. Probably a German shepherd, or at least mostly shepherd. The bartender doesn't say anything when Rick comes in carrying a puppy, so Rick holds him up. "He yours?" The barkeep shakes his head no.
The barkeep's wife swings a new pitcher onto the table and considers the dog on Rick's lap. "Probably got dumped out back. You found him, you keep him. Don't leave him here."
The puppy has settled neatly on Rick's lap, gently taking the bits of meat Rick offers without nipping those important fingers with his sharp teeth. He can't keep a dog; he's living in a boardinghouse. In nine months, he'll be at training camp. In a year, with luck, he'll be pitching for the majors.
"Got to name him if you're keeping him." Dan Lister, their manager, spreads a gob of mustard on his third corned beef sandwich. "How 'bout Spot?"
Copyright © 2013 by Susan Wilson
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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