“The Bloody Nose” by Emily Dressler

02Feb09

Helen took the first pitch. She hated doing that, but it was a ball anyway.

            “1-0 count,” the home plate umpire said.

            She stepped out of the batter’s box and took a lazy practice swing. It had been a long six innings and she was tired. They were finally in the top of the seventh. Bonnie was in scoring position, on second because of an infield error and they didn’t have any outs yet. Her team was behind by two.

            She glanced down at Gerry, the third base coach, to look for a sign. There wasn’t one, which meant hit the ball the hell out of there. Helen took her stance and the pitcher called time. Sighing, Helen stepped out of the batter’s box again. The sun was going down and the sky had clouded over but the air was still as thick and humid as it had been at noon. Helen’s hair stuck to her neck and her black uniform pants were hot against her legs. The first inning felt like days ago.

            Gerry, a stout man with a mustache, met her halfway between home plate and third base. Helen was eleven years old and almost as tall as Gerry.

            “You got this one, kiddo?” His mustache bobbed up and down when he talked.

            “Yeah.” Helen took off her helmet and handed it to Gerry. He held it while she adjusted her ponytail.

            “Looks like rain.” Gerry smoothed down the edges of the number on the back of the helmet before he gave it back to Helen.

            Helen spit, then spread the dirt around with her cleats and pushed her helmet firmly onto her head. She bent down to tighten her shoelaces and stared at the circle of wet dirt by her feet, thinking how she wouldn’t care if the game was rained out. She stood up, wiped off her bat handle, patted her gloved hand on her thigh, then licked the fingertips on her other hand and spit again. She wiped her fingertips across a clean spot on her shoulder. Gerry watched her and smiled. His mustache stayed a straight line. At the beginning of the season, his mustache was a dark brown, but the summer sun had lightened it to the color of an autumn leaf.

            “You’re a real pro, kid.”

            Gerry toed a clump of green crabgrass on the field until it was uprooted. Helen bent over and picked it up, rolling it between her fingers like clay. She tossed the clump of grass behind third base and smoothed the dirt where the grass had been.

            “Shut up, Gerry.” Helen held her bat underneath her arm like a folded newspaper.

            A red and orange hot air balloon passed above them, floating slowly over centerfield. Helen tilted her helmet back on her head to look at the people in the basket and wondered if the softball game looked like spots of red and blue on a brown field. Helen wanted to see the game from far above in a striped balloon that could float around slow as it pleased. It would look like they were having fun.

            “Them your folks over there?” Gerry pointed to a man wearing a tan windbreaker and navy blue ball cap. He stood next to a woman in a flowered sundress and peach lipstick. The woman looked uncomfortable.

            Helen looked over and waved, glad for the small shadow her helmet cast over her face. They were late, the game was almost over. “Yeah, that’s them.”

            “You look a lot like your old man,” Gerry said, still studying her father, whose hair stuck out the sides of his ball cap like a scarecrow’s.

            “I know,” Helen said.

            Helen’s dad always said she must take after his father, who played semipro ball on a Triple-A team for three years. He was called up to the majors and would have made it, Helen’s dad always told her, but a shoulder injury ruined his pitching arm. Helen’s dad couldn’t play at all, but Helen wasn’t sure when he last tried.

            The catcher walked back to home plate, put on her mask and nodded at the umpire.

            “Looks like your dad done spit you out ’stead of your mother.” Gerry walked back to third base and folded his arms across his chest.

            Helen smiled over her shoulder at Gerry before taking her stance. Ever since she started playing when she was six, she had crowded the plate. It bothered most pitchers, so she never opened her stance. Her parents worried she would get hit one day, and her mom said sometimes she had to turn her head because she was afraid. Helen liked the high and outside pitches, and when she was lucky enough to get them she thought pitchers lofted them over the plate as though they were trying to throw hot apple pies without making a mess.

            Helen was one of the best hitters on the team, third in the lineup. Helen’s dad said the third batter had to be a well-rounded player, someone the team could always count on. Helen’s mom said she didn’t know why she couldn’t bat fourth. Gerry said Helen messed things up for Melinda, the team’s cleanup batter.

            The second pitch was low and inside, barely in the strike zone, but Helen swung anyway, sending it into foul territory. It hit an aluminum fencepost, making a dull sound like distant and muffled thunder. Helen didn’t look at her parents, her mother would be frowning.

            “1-1 count,” the umpire said.

            The umpire probably would have counted it as a ball if Helen wouldn’t have been so impatient to swing.

            “This ain’t golf, Hel,” Gerry said.

            The next pitch was lower than the first. It hit the ground before the catcher could get it and Bonnie stole third, making it in plenty of time.

            Helen tapped her cleats with her bat and saw her parents on the sidelines, talking to Bonnie’s mom and her new boyfriend. The next pitch was so high and outside that Helen couldn’t have reached it with a broom.

            “Let me hit it,” she muttered, holding her bat over home plate before bringing it to her right shoulder.

            The catcher lifted her mask. “She’s afraid of you.”

            The next one was perfect, seemed to get fatter as it came over the plate, and Helen swung hard, almost losing her balance. It went into foul territory again, toward her parents. Her dad tried to catch it, but the ball bounced off his fingertips and hit her mom in the nose. Her mom’s nose started to bleed, smearing the peach lipstick into a frown.

            “Full count,” the umpire said, and handed the catcher a new ball. Helen’s dad put the bloody one in his windbreaker.

            Before stepping into the batter’s box, Helen yelled over to her parents. “Sorry, guys.” She shrugged her shoulders.

            Helen’s dad smiled weakly and her mom tilted her head back, a tissue pressed against her nose. Bonnie’s mom helped her sit in a small spot of shade underneath an oak tree.

            The umpire brushed home plate off, and Helen coughed as the sticky air filled with dust. The infield was quiet except for the swish of the umpire’s broom and the propane burning from the hot air balloon. Helen watched the balloon and frowned because she thought the freshly swept home plate would still show streaks of dirt if she were up that high.

            Helen dug her right toe into the dirt and tapped home plate with her bat, leaving a small half circle of dirt on the clean plate. Part of her wanted to wipe it off again. She looked at the pitcher and could tell she was tired. She might walk her; throw a wild pitch because her arm was working like a noodle now. The pitcher pounded the ball into her mitt, and puffs of dust stuck in the air and drifted in front of her face. She waved them away and brought the ball to her chest. Helen realized she didn’t even know the girl’s name. For a moment, she felt sad for the pitcher and wasn’t sure why. When the pitcher released the ball, Bonnie started from third and Helen swung at it to make it break, sending the ball into centerfield. She watched it slice through the humid air as she made for first base. She went straight to second without slowing down or even looking to see where the ball was. When she got to second, the centerfielder was throwing it into third, but Helen went anyway, slid headfirst, and knocked the third baseman’s leg with her helmet. She dropped the ball and Helen was safe.

            Helen stood up and smiled. She brushed off her chest, wiped her mouth on the dirty sleeve of her uniform and spit, but the dry taste of dirt stuck to her lips.

            “Nice hit, Hel,” Gerry said. He smiled and looked toward the outfield. “Thought you was aiming for that hot air balloon.”

            Helen nodded. “Think I was.”

            Melinda was up to bat and Gerry gave her the sign to take the first pitch.

            “She’s not gonna take it,” Helen said, her back to Gerry. She stood with her knees bent, ready to run. “She never takes the first pitch.” Helen dangled her arms and let her fingertips brush against the dirt. The dirt stuck underneath her fingernails and made her shiver.

            Gerry shrugged. “Maybe she’ll give your mom a black eye to go with that bloody nose.”

            “It was an accident,” Helen said.

            The pitcher glanced at Helen, then back at Melinda, and threw a low pitch, barely in the strike zone. Melinda swung, digging in low to reach it. It was a foul ball, a hard grounder down the third base side. Gerry jumped and didn’t even try to catch it. Helen watched the ball go all the way to the leftfield fence without slowing down.

            “0-1 count,” the umpire said.

            “Maybe she’ll give you a black eye,” Helen said and relaxed her legs.

            Melinda was a switch-hitter, batting left handed for this game. She was big for an eleven-year-old, would have been big for a sixteen-year-old. There was a rumor on the team that she ate raw eggs to keep her strength, but no one could prove it.

            “Time out, Blue,” Gerry said to the infield umpire. The third baseman went to the pitcher’s mound and Gerry, Helen, and Melinda stood between home and third.

            Melinda towered over them, but sulked like a child. “What’s the time out for?”

            “To throw her off,” Gerry said, nodding toward the pitcher’s mound.

            “She wants to walk me,” Melinda said.

            On the sidelines, Helen’s dad was resting his arms on the fence next to the player’s bench, and her mom sat alone in the grass. She looked careless and out of place as she took a bloody tissue out of her nose and added it to a pile beside her.

            Helen sighed and wiped the sweat from her forehead. She bent down and picked a blade of grass, put it in her mouth. The taste reminded her of the mint iced tea her mom used to make.

            Gerry pulled at his mustache with stubby fingers. “She won’t walk you with the tying run on third. She wants an out.”

            “She’s not gonna get an out, and she won’t give me a strike with Helen on third either.” Melinda held her bat between her crossed arms and the aluminum hit her chin when she spoke.

            Helen took off her batting glove. She had forgotten to take it off earlier and her hand was sweating. “I’m going to steal home.” She blew on her hand and wiped the sweat on her shirt. The blade of grass stuck to her lip and she spit it out.

            Gerry took off his hat. “You want to?”

            “Yeah, I can do it. If she keeps throwing wild ones, it’ll be easy.”

            Melinda nodded and her helmet bobbed up and down. “I’m gonna swing anyway.”

            Gerry rapped Melinda’s helmet with his knuckles. “Knock it all the way to kingdom come.” He nodded at the umpire and walked back to third.

            Melinda went back to the batter’s box and tapped her bat against the plate. Helen stood at third and tried to look calm as she put her batting glove in her back pocket. She knew it wouldn’t be easy; hardly anyone stole home when a left handed batter was up. No one was expecting it, so she was counting on that to make it easier.

            The ball was high and outside, too far for even Melinda to reach. Helen started from third the moment the ball rolled from the pitcher’s fingertips. The catcher had to leap to the side and was able to slow the ball with her glove, but it got past her. The pitcher had seen Helen coming and was already rushing for home plate. Helen hit the dirt hard and slid across home, standing up just as the catcher tossed the ball to the pitcher. She was already safe.

            Gerry clapped from third, and Helen hit Melinda’s hand before walking off the field. She took off her helmet and sat on the bench.

            “Way to go, honey,” her dad said and sat down next to her.

            “Thanks, Dad.” Helen was short of breath and took a long drink of water. She wiped her mouth with her wrist. “Is Mom okay?”

            “She’ll be fine. A little blood never hurt anyone.” He patted her forehead, and when he drew his hand away, a piece of her hair stuck to a hangnail on his thumb. “I stubbed my finger trying to catch that foul ball.”

            “Sorry,” Helen said, and looked away. Her mother was sitting under a tree, and with her back resting against uneven tree bark and her head tilted back, Helen couldn’t tell if she was asleep or awake. She waved, but hoped she was asleep. Her mom raised her head and waved back.

            “Good job, Helen,” she said, pinching her nose still. Helen could hardly hear her, so she turned back to the field to watch Melinda.

            The pitcher had almost given up, but was trying not to, or at least not to let it show. On the mound, she looked like a paper doll, the team behind her like scraps of paper, too tired to field the balls hit off her weakened pitches. She wound up, her arm moving mostly by momentum, and sent a changeup over the plate. Melinda swung too soon and missed. The pitcher hadn’t meant to throw a changeup and was as surprised as Melinda, who hardly ever missed a ball in the strike zone. The next pitch was level with Melinda’s knees, and she swung hard, grunting with the effort. Helen’s team rose from the bench and cheered as the ball went clear over the centerfield fence.

            They were in the lead, and four runs later, the other team forfeited. Their relief pitcher was injured and the starting pitcher was throwing the softball like it was as heavy as a cannonball.

            Helen sat on the bench, and when her father went to talk to Gerry, she rolled up her pant leg, wincing when she saw the scrape. She poured water into her cupped palm and pressed it to her knee, watching the water make clean lines on her dirty skin.            

            “Here, let me,” her mom said. Her voice was soft, like the receding daylight had wrapped around it. She dabbed at Helen’s knee with a napkin, holding it by the corner so her hands wouldn’t touch the cut. Her nose had stopped bleeding but Helen could see dried blood above her mouth. A spot of blood on her dress had turned a dark brown.

            The sun was going down over right field. If it had been a hit ball, it would have been a base hit. Helen shivered and looked at her mother’s head, ignoring an urge to wet her thumb and wipe the blood from her face.

            “Does it hurt?”

            “No.” Helen watched as her mom washed the dirt from her knee with an alcohol swab. The small pink scrapes were bright against her clean skin and she clenched her jaw when the air cooled the fresh cuts.

            “All done.” Her mom smiled and covered Helen’s knee with Band-aids.

            Helen pushed her pant leg down. “Thanks, Mom.”

            The sun was sinking below the horizon, and Helen thought it looked like a fat peach. She thought she would like to play a night game sometime, stand in the cool night air when she should be asleep, and pretend she was a shadow brought to life.

            “Did you see the hot air balloon earlier?” Her mom’s voice cracked, like it wasn’t used to speaking.

            Helen nodded, and saw that her mom was staring at the ground. “Yeah,” she said. Her voice cracked the way her mom’s had.

            “Do you want to get ice cream with the rest of your team?”
“I don’t feel like it.”

            Helen thought maybe it was something about the night that made it easier for her mom to talk. They hardly ever had conversations, but Helen wasn’t sure they had anything to say. Helen knew she should at least apologize for the foul ball that hit her in the nose. It would be easier in the dark, with only the outlines of their features visible, but she decided not to say anything.

            “Here comes your father, we’ll see what he thinks.”

            “Mom, I said I didn’t feel like it.”

            Helen’s dad approached with Gerry, and her mom smiled at a point behind Helen’s shoulder. Helen knew her mom was only pretending to smile at her, so she smiled back, her eyes focused on the chain link fence behind the backstop.

            “Mrs. Hamilton, I was just telling Richard what a damn fine ballplayer you got here,” Gerry said.

            “Thanks,” Helen’s mom said.

            Helen’s mom shook Gerry’s hand. She was taller than Gerry and stooped her shoulders to make up for it. Helen thought it made her look like an old woman. She put her hand on Helen’s shoulder, it was damp and Helen could feel it through her shirt. “Sometimes we wonder if Helen wasn’t supposed to be a boy.”

            Helen looked away, wished she was on the hot air balloon, miles away by now.

            Gerry laughed politely. “Hope your nose doesn’t hurt.”

            “No. Thank you.” She took her hand off Helen’s shoulder.

            “You guys going out for ice cream?”

            Helen shook her head at Gerry.

            “Sure, Gerry,” Helen’s dad said.

            “Dad, I’m tired. I don’t want to.” Helen bent the bill of her hat and put it on backwards.

            Helen’s dad shrugged his shoulders. “Guess not. Maybe next time.”

            Gerry shook his hand. “See you next week.”

            “Good game, Helen,” he said as he walked away.

            They walked toward the parking lot together and no one said anything. Their shadows stretched across the grass like stalks of corn and Helen remembered a story her grandmother used to tell about a girl whose shadow would change color and shape. Sometimes, it was the color of butterfly wings, or a field of rye, or even butterscotch pudding. Whenever the girl was happy, her shadow would dance, all on its own. Her shadow would sulk or break into pieces when she was sad, and it wouldn’t be whole again until she had shed one hundred tears. Helen was glad it was only a story—she knew how their shadows would look.

            They reached the concrete and the sound of their feet against the sidewalk surprised Helen. She walked in her cleats and dragged her bat behind her. It hurt her ears but she didn’t want to stop.

            “Sorry we were late,” Helen’s dad said. “Your mother had a meeting.”

            “It’s okay,” Helen said, and handed her bat and helmet to her dad when they got to the car.

            He unlocked the trunk and handed Helen the blood-stained softball. “Put this in your mitt. I don’t want it rolling around in the trunk.”

            Helen tossed the ball in the air, but missed it in the dark. She held her breath and tried not to look at her mom’s face as the softball rolled toward her feet. Her mom looked down at the ball, smudged with her blood, and picked it up with two fingers. She didn’t look at anyone as she dropped the ball in Helen’s outstretched glove.

            Her dad hung his arm out the window and whistled through his teeth while he drove. Helen stretched out in the backseat, using her glove as a pillow. She held the softball on her stomach and wanted to throw it out the window. Leaning forward, she spit on her shirt and wiped off the softball, but the blood had already stained it, so she dropped it on the floor. She put her hat over her face and lay down again.

            “Mom?”

            Helen’s mom was leaning against the window, her hands pressed against her thighs.

            “I think she’s asleep,” Helen’s dad said. “Did you need something?”

            “I just had a question.”

            Helen’s mom shifted in the front seat. “I’m not asleep.”

            “Oh.” Helen breathed heavily into her hat. Her face was warm, and she could taste sweat on her upper lip. When she moved her hat, the air was cool against her face.

            “What were you going to ask?”

            They were pulling into the driveway. “Never mind.”

            Helen’s dad stopped at the side door. “You two can get out here. I’ll put the car away and take care of the dog.”

            Helen took her bat and helmet from the trunk and walked next to her mom. She looked down at her mom’s leather sandals, then at her own dirty, untied cleats. She felt clumsy.

            “Do you remember that mint iced tea you used to make?”

            Helen’s mom was searching for her keys in her purse, but she paused and looked at Helen. “Sure. Why?”

            “Could you maybe make it again this summer?”

            “The mint plant ate half the garden last year. It was too much to take care of, so I got rid of it.”

            When she pulled her keys out of her purse, one of her tissues was stuck to the keychain. She shoved it back in her purse.

            “Oh.” Helen held the screen door open for her mom.

            “I could make it with mint extract, if you want.”

            “No, that’s okay,” Helen said, and walked into the dark kitchen behind her mom. She dropped her softball gear on the floor and turned on the lamp by the phone. Helen’s dad walked into the kitchen with Bandit, a yellow Lab. The screen door banged shut behind them.  

            “Dog smells like cat shit,” Helen’s dad said.

            Helen moved away from Bandit and watched him lick the back of her mom’s calf. Her dad laughed and snapped his fingers at the dog. The dog sniffed Helen’s helmet and glove, pushed the softball across the linoleum. Helen’s mom picked the ball up, stood next to the sink, and opened the window. She moved the white-lace curtains aside with her free hand. Helen’s dad held Bandit by the collar.

            She swung her arm back in an awkward movement and Helen could see beads of sweat on her mom’s temples. Helen’s dad let go of the dog and grabbed her arm. She didn’t struggle, but he had to peel her fingers from the ball. He took the ball, and Helen’s mom let her hand drop to her side. She narrowed her eyes and looked at him, then reached her hand out. Helen’s dad shook his head and gave the softball to Helen. He stood next to his wife and closed the kitchen window. Helen could see his hands shaking. Her mom closed the curtains and let her hands linger on the lace. Her summer dress brushed against Helen’s leg as she walked past.

            Still holding the softball, Helen went to the bathroom by the kitchen. She left the light off, turned on the sink and held the ball under the cold water. When she heard her dad open the screen door she turned off the water and dropped the ball in the trashcan before she went upstairs. She took off her shoes in the dark, lay down in her dirty uniform, and tried to go to sleep.  

   

Emily Dressler is a recent graduate of the Northeastern Ohio Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. She currently teaches writing courses at the University of Akron. Her story “The Bloody Nose” was an honorable mention in the Atlantic Monthly student writing contest. She currently serves as a fiction editor at the Barn Owl Review.

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Notes from April Galarza, Associate Editor
The thing that drew me to “The Bloody Nose” was the subtlety. Here is a girl clearly in a awkward situation with her family, but it’s not what is said about them, but what isn’t. I love the sub-textual sadness coupled with excellent imagery.

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Comments on this story by Tammy Lynne Stoner, author of “Racing Josephine”
This story is gorgeous in its understatement – a girl batting at a softball game, her confidence against the coach and distance from the other players, her alienation from her mother who doesn’t want her to be this kind of girl, and the father who is close to her in their way. There is a desperation to every character here. Instead of writing the scenes that could give us drama (an argument, etc.), Dressler creates this dance and allows us to understand the emotions in the life of this family, which unfold beautifully in everything that’s not said.




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