Angeling | 3: without death, life wouldn’t be half so precious

Old Baseball

“I’m going to kill that Grubinski kid,” Alaska muttered darkly.

“Wouldn’t that go against your Quaker beliefs?” Jonah asked.

Alaska wrinkled her nose. “I’ll convert.”

Alaska and Jonah were playing with Mr. Berning’s tabby cat on a sunny windowsill while they waited for seventh-period biology to begin. Jonah had heard somewhere that cats had a soothing, calming effect on people, but even scratching the purring animal behind the ears didn’t seem to be doing much for Alaska. Two hours after their little meeting with Mr. Pincer and Bull, she was still fuming.

“I can’t believe Mr. Pincer fell for Bull’s story! The little faker.”

“Yeah, well, it was his word against ours,” Jonah said. “And if you were Mr. Pincer, who would you want to believe—your star wrestling champion, or a couple of freshman nobodies like us?”

Bull’s version of events—which Mr. Pincer had relayed to them as they sat in his overheated office—had Alaska and Jonah swearing at Bull’s friends in Shakespearean English, leading to “an exchange of words” (Mr. Pincer’s term) that ended in Jonah shoving Bull back over Alaska’s outstretched leg. According to Mr. Pincer, Bull wouldn’t have complained to the administration, but he had gone to the nurse’s office for a headache, and the nurse had asked about the bump on the back of his head.

Alaska tried telling Mr. Pincer what had really happened, but she may as well have saved her breath. Bull had a bump on his head and a handful of witnesses—his friends from the bus—to back up his story. By the time the gavel fell on their little meeting, Mr. Pincer had judged them both guilty and sentenced them to after-school detention the following day, plus a call to their parents—a punishment he described as “going easy on you this time.” Alaska’s mouth had actually dropped open at the verdict. Jonah guessed she probably had less experience with the general unfairness of life than he did.

Now she scowled out the window broodingly. “Do you think Bull went to the nurse’s office just to get us in trouble?”

Jonah gave her a Well, duh! look. “You think a kid like Bull shows up in the nurse’s office for a little bump on the head? I don’t think so. He must have come up with the idea during that locker room brainstorming session Pelé overheard.”

“Well, it’s totally not fair.”

“Welcome to the story of my life,” Jonah said. “Don’t worry, after a while you get used to it. I just hope the detention hall here is half as lame as the one at my old school.”

The tone marking the start of the period sounded. Mr. Berning, decked out in a white lab coat, clapped his hands together. “Everyone gather around!”

“What were you in detention so much for?” Alaska asked in a low voice as they moved to the front of the classroom. but Jonah pretended not to hear her.

Mr. Berning was waiting for them with a huge smile, bouncing on his toes as he waited for everyone to gather and settle down. When the room had been silent for a long moment, he lifted a glass of cloudy water high above his head.

“I hold in my hand evidence of the most amazing event in the history of the known universe,” he said, bouncing on his toes. “The most amazing event in the history of the known universe. Anyone want to guess what it is?” He moved the glass slowly around for them all to see, but no one spoke up. “Try smelling it,” he suggested, thrusting it in the faces of two unlucky guys in front of him.

“Whatever it is, I wouldn’t drink it,” one said.

“I wasn’t planning to,” Mr. Berning responded.

“Smells exactly like first day of the duck season opener,” the other guy offered.

Mr. Berning pointed a finger at the boy, as excited as if the kid had just discovered a new species of dinosaur. “Yes! And why is that? Because it’s pond water—ordinary pond water. Or is it so ordinary? Take a closer look.”

He set down the glass and placed a slide under a microscope that was hooked up to the Smart Board. Strange little bug-like creatures appeared on the board, wriggling appendages and zipping around.

“Magnify a drop of that pond water one hundred times or so, and what do you find? Life. Protozoa, in fact, from the Greek words meaning ‘first life.’” Mr. Berning pointed at an oval-shaped creature. “I think I’m going to name this guy Fred, after the famous American cell biologist Frederick W. True. Say hello to Fred”—a few kids obliged—“and take a good look. Now, Braeden, if you had gone duck hunting in a primordial pond three point eight billion years ago, not only would you have not seen a single duck, you wouldn’t have experienced the lovely aroma of pond water, either, because Fred and company didn’t exist yet. This entire planet was completely devoid of life—a rocky, watery wasteland in a barren universe.

“But then—then! The most amazing event in the history of the known universe occurs: abiogenesis, the beginning of life. At first, organisms even more simple than Fred here. Then, one-celled creatures like Fred; then plants, and fish, and amphibians, and insects, and flowers, and bees,  reptiles, mammals, and—you! And you!” Mr. Berning was pointing enthusiastically at different kids.

He had been shouting, but now his voice dropped to a near-whisper: “Do you know how many times abiogenesis has happened in the history of the Earth—in the history of the universe, as far as we know? How many times in four billion years has life just popped out of the chemical soup?” He held up a finger. “Just once. Every single living thing on the planet, including you and me, can be traced back to that singular event.”

The room was silent. Whether everyone else was mesmerized by the miracle of life or Mr. Berning’s impassioned performance, Jonah couldn’t tell. He only knew that he was suddenly aware of his own heartbeat, and the way it seemed to keep time with the movement of the little animals projected on the board.

Mr. Berning snapped a finger, and Jonah blinked. “For the test at the end of this unit, I’ll be asking you lots of questions about Fred and company—their scientific names, the names of their different parts, what makes them tick, and so on. But there’s also going to be this essay question, which you may answer for extra credit: What is life? We don’t call the chemical soup that covered the planet three point eight billion years ago ‘life,’ but when we look at little guys like Fred, we say that they are very much ‘alive.’ Why? What is the essential difference between living and not living?”

He wasn’t bouncing on his toes anymore, just looking at each of them in turn, smiling. “And while you’re at it, ponder this: If the appearance of a one-celled creature is the single most amazing event in the history of the known universe, then what does that make each of you, my fellow talking, laughing, cogitating members of the species homo sapiens?”

Alaska raised a hand. “Mr. Berning?”

“Yes! Mirabelle! You have an answer to the mysteries of life already?”

“Um, no—I just have bad news.”

“What’s that?”

She pointed at the Smart Board behind him, where a life-and-death drama was unfolding as a large amoebic blob enveloped the oval-shaped creature.

“Fred is dead,” she said.

Everyone broke up laughing, and Mr. Berning threw up his hands in mock horror. “Fred, no!”

As the laughter died down, Mr. Berning shook his head regretfully.

“Rest in peace, Fred. Rest in peace,” he said. “Well, you know what the poets say: Without death, life wouldn’t be half so precious.”


~ ~ ~


By the end of the school day, Jonah was whipped. His whole body had been on high alert since the time he woke up. Now, as he stood at his locker filling his backpack with books and folders, he wanted nothing more than to go home, heat up some leftover pizza, collapse on the couch, maybe play a video game. If he didn’t actually fall asleep first.

He slammed his locker door shut and turned to make his way toward the buses out front. But as he thought about possibly facing Bull and company again, he hesitated. It wasn’t that he was afraid. That must be the silver lining to getting beaten up by Dad all the time when I was little, he thought. After a while, getting hit isn’t such a big deal.

He would have to take care of Bull eventually; at the very least, he needed to show the kid that he had no fear and wasn’t going to back down.

But do I have to do it now? he wondered. Even as he asked the question, his feet were taking him toward a side door. Dealing with Bull was a chore that could just as well wait until t0morrow.

He took a few long strides, slammed into the crash bar, and sent the door flying.

The athletic fields smelled of freshly mown grass, the sky curved bright blue overhead, the sun shone on his face. It would take half an hour to walk home, but he didn’t care.

“Hey! Jonah! Over here!”

Jonah looked and saw that it was Peter, waving him down from across the field, where a handful of guys were standing around throwing a baseball.

No, no, no, Jonah thought with a groan. He’d completely forgotten about his promise to show up for Peter’s unofficial baseball practice. I just want to get out of here.

His mind raced through possible excuses as he walked over to the field:

Sorry, the moving van finally showed up with our furniture and I need to let them in.

Sorry, I have to exercise my pet goldfish.

Sorry, my grandma just started playing World of Warcraft under the alias Duke Gruesome, and I need to take her to an elven guild meeting.

Peter jogged over to meet him. “You showed,” he said. “We’re just warming up.”

“I need to take a rain check,” Jonah told him. “I gotta go home.”

“Why?” Peter asked.

“Uh, because. . . .” Jonah said, quickly reviewing his selection of excuses. “Homework. I have a lot of catching up to do.”

Peter was carrying an extra glove that he tossed way up in the air and caught again one-handed. “Come on,” he urged. “You don’t have to turn it all in tomorrow. We could use an extra man to cover right field.”

“Maybe next time,” Jonah countered.

Peter shrugged and tossed the glove in the air again. “Yeah, all right.”

But Jonah had a feeling it was now or never. That if he walked away, Peter would still be friendly—he seemed too laid-back to be real cliquey—but not in that Slapping-Hands-in-the-Hallway sort of way. Not in that We’re-All-On-The-Same-Team way. It wasn’t like he could ever expect to sit at their lunch table, in other words, if he walked away now.

“Well,” Jonah said, “maybe for just half an hour. Here, give me the glove. Just remember I haven’t played since fifth grade.”

The well-worn glove that Peter handed him was for a right-handed player, and Jonah was left-handed, but he didn’t say anything about it, just slid it on and walked to the backstop to throw down his backpack.

“You met Rusty and Campbell, right?” Peter said, nodding toward the guys they had passed in the hall earlier in the day. They nodded back at Jonah. Rusty looked at Jonah appraisingly and spat. Peter quickly rattled off the names of the other guys, then directed Jonah to right field.

The ball traced quick, straight lines in the air as the guys threw it to one another; it landed in a glove with a thwack and an instant later it was gone again. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Their throws and catches were flawless, like a machine.

Jonah wouldn’t have been nearly as good even if he hadn’t been using the wrong glove. He could catch most of what they sent his way, but his throws kept going wide or high.

The others didn’t seem to mind chasing down the ball, but after a while Rusty looked disgusted. “Yeah, throw it to me. Over here, see? Throw underhand if you have to.”

“Let’s just keep it casual,” Peter said.

“I am. I don’t care if he throws underhand, as long as it gets to me.”

“Sorry,” Jonah said, a little put out. He’d told them he hadn’t played in years.

“Let’s hit a few,” Peter suggested.

Rusty arched his eyebrows at Jonah. “So, can you hit?”

“Yeah, I can hit,” Jonah said.

Each kid took a turn batting while the others fielded. Jonah caught a grounder and a couple fly balls that came his way, and Peter and a few others complimented him. They weren’t complimenting anyone else, he noticed, so it was a little condescending, like he was a little kid who needed fake praise, but what did he care?

Not a bit, he told himself.

But when it was his turn to bat, standing there in the batter’s box with every eye on the field staring at him, he found his hands were maybe a little sweaty.

Rusty was pitching. Jonah just watched the first ball zip past him at what must have been eighty miles an hour.

He cranked at the next pitch, but half a second late.

“Just keep your eye on the ball,” advised Campbell, who was catching.

Jonah glanced back at him. “Really? And all this time I was counting the outfielders’ freckles.”

“I can slow pitch,” Rusty called from the mound.

“No, no—it’s all right,” Jonah shouted back. “Your catcher says keep my eye on the ball, so I should be good now.”

That got a few laughs.

“I was counting the freckles on your nose before, see,” Jonah said. “I’ll just keep my eye on the ball now, though.”

More laughter, which proved the rule that you usually couldn’t go wrong making fun of yourself.

“I’ll pitch slower anyway,” Rusty said.

Jonah shrugged and squared up over the plate. Rusty kicked the mound, looked up, narrowed his eyes. He was just getting set to pitch when Jonah suddenly stepped back from the plate, out of the batter’s box. Rusty rolled his eyes and dropped his arms, but Jonah stared off past Rusty, past the other guys watching him.

It suddenly seemed really important to make contact with the ball right now. Even a tipped-back foul would do. It seemed like it might make a big difference in how things went for him in this new place, like it might be the hinge that the rest of his high school career turned on. How many hours had he spent in therapy? Counselors’ offices? Meetings with teachers? All those thousands of words poured over his head by well-meaning adults didn’t have anywhere near the power to change his life as much as getting one hit right now. Most of the kids standing out there on the green field wanted him to get a hit. All he had to do was swing an aluminum stick through the air within the fraction of an inch and within the fraction of a second necessary to intercept an orb the size of an apple as it passed by him at the speed of a small plane. That’s all.

His eyes found a flock of swallows catching insects in the outfield, and he thought of Mr. Berning and the most amazing event in the universe—things coming together magically, miraculously, just once. Just that once, and all of a sudden what might have been barren rock always and forever was instead a green field swarming with swooping swallows. He followed one as it rode the wind, arcing up and up and hanging there, suspended in mid-air, before breaking forth and bending back to earth, gracefully.

All of this passed through his mind in about ten seconds. Weeks and months later, he would wonder whether the hope borne in those ten seconds had weighed enough to somehow tip the balance in what happened next.

He stepped back into the box. Rusty didn’t waste any time getting rid of the ball. Jonah tracked it all the way to the plate, a plain-as-vanilla fast ball, and he swung the bat and crushed it.

“Whoa,” said Campbell, standing up to watch the ball soar way out into center field, way beyond the outfielders.

“Nice!” Peter called appreciatively.

Jonah stared at the gone ball for an amazed moment before remembering to jog around the bases. He couldn’t kill the smile on his face as he slapped hands with the first baseman, a kid named Luke, and then the hands of the kids playing second and third base, too.

That should have been the end of Jonah’s time at bat; Peter was already jogging in for his turn, but Rusty wanted another go. “I want a re-do. I slow-pitched that one.”

“Nah, nah—he nailed it, no re-do,” Luke said.

“He got lucky,” Rusty complained.

Jonah arched his eyebrows, picked up the bat and walked to the batter’s box. “One pitch?” he suggested to Peter. “Let him get his strikeout, and then it’ll be your turn.”

But Jonah crushed the next pitch, too, even though Rusty had thrown it harder than he had the first one. This time Jonah put more power in the swing, and the ball flew even farther than before.

There was a moment of silence on the field, and then someone laughed, and someone else swore.

“Hey,” Peter said warningly, but he was looking at where the ball had landed and then back at Jonah and back at the ball in a kind of open-mouthed wonder.

“I thought you said you hadn’t played since fifth grade?”

Jonah just shrugged and shook his head. He wasn’t sure how he’d just done that, two homeruns in a row.

Rusty had the ball again. “One more pitch,” he said, but now he didn’t look so much annoyed as curious.

Jonah was holding the bat out to Peter, but Peter waved it off. “Do it again,” he said.

Jonah almost opened his mouth to protest—there was no way he was going to get another hit like that—but he could see Peter wouldn’t hear it, so he walked back to the plate and got set. The swallows he’d been watching before were still skating over the outfield grass.

This time the pitch was a curveball, but it didn’t matter. It was like there was a magnetic attraction between bat and ball, and when Jonah connected, he hit a really hard line-drive into right field.

“That is crazy!” Campbell shouted, tearing his facemask off. “That is just crazy!” He walked up to Jonah and punched him in the shoulder before putting an arm around his neck.

“Ow,” Jonah said, grinning. Everyone else was talking and laughing, too.

“Don’t hurt that arm,” Peter joked. “If this were a real game, that would have to be some kind of record. Luke, run see if coach is around—he should see this.”

Jonah shook his head. “My arm is getting sore.” Which was partly true—his hands were still tingling from the last hit—but more than that, he was beginning to get a little self-conscious.

“Okay, you rest that arm while some of the rest of us hit,” Peter said, picking up the bat and looking at it as if it might be magic. He took a test swing.

Rusty was waiting for the outfielders to find the ball. “Hey,” he called to Jonah from the mound. “You were hitting left-handed. How come? You a lefty?”

“Yeah,” Jonah answered.

Rusty grinned and shook his head. “But you were using a right-throw glove. Shoot, if you can throw left-handed half as well as you hit, I take back everything I said before.”

While they were talking, someone threw the ball to Rusty from the outfield, but it soared over him, bounced past Peter in the batter’s box, and caromed off the backstop.

“I got it,” Jonah said, moving to grab it as it rolled past him. Before his hand got to it, though, his foot accidentally kicked it ahead of him.

“That was just like in The Natural,” Peter was saying. “That was pretty amazing, Wilder, but—”

Jonah wasn’t even listening, he was so focused on chasing down the ball; it would be ironic if he made a fool of himself in front of everyone now. He half-dove for it, grabbed it, nearly fell—

“—I got a feeling we ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Peter finished, taking another practice swing.

Jonah caught himself with his free hand and pushed up triumphantly, just in time to see the aluminum bat headed straight for his head.

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P.S. The description of the swallows was inspired by Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem The Windhover:

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

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