Tennessee Thumper by Tim Haywood

“Here in my hands, I hold a 32-inch tool of destruction.” Coach Arnie peeled the last stubborn piece of cellophane from the Tennessee Thumper and flicked it into the swirling infield breeze. Taking a slow, metered pace, he gripped opposite ends of the new bat like a prize steelhead. The team, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on the dugout’s splintered bench, watched Coach through the dull, grey chain link.

“It’s your truest weapon” he went on, “your trusted ally. And by golly, if things turn out this summer the way I think they will, this bat could very well be the best friend you’ve ever had.

“Scott! Listen up!” Coach Arnie stopped abruptly, kicking hard at the fencing that separated the two of them. Scott didn’t even flinch. He just sat there, reading the comics from one of the three sugar-soaked Bazookas he’d just crammed into his mouth. 

No one could piss off Coach Arnie like Scott, but then again, that door had always swung in both directions. I’d known Scott since his mom, Coach Arnie and he had moved in across the street from us, just before Scott and I started kindergarten. 

He’d made the first move; five-year-old Scott had just come over, knocked on our door and told my mom he’d heard there was a kid his age living there. In no time we began spending all our time together, running between our houses and playing with each other’s stuff. We’d walk backwards through the sprinkler and eat root beer popsicles, wrestle on the grass and laugh a lot. 

Meanwhile, at the ball field, I could tell Coach was trying to maintain his composure as he blew out large breaths and stared at the portable classrooms behind right center. Scott gazed at him through his usual droopy eyelids, slurping at his syrupy gum wad, then inflating and exploding a huge pink bubble down over his eyebrows. 

“Think of yourselves as artists.” Coach Arnie’s body sprung down into a batting stance. He took a short, right-handed chop of the bat into the fence and sent a rattling tremor down its length. A couple of us jumped; Brady Stephenson even yelped like a puppy. Coach chuckled and dropped the Thumper to his hip, digging at a bushy sideburn with his dirty nails. “This bat could be the brush you’ll use in painting your masterpiece of a season. Now,” He lightly tapped it against his palm and looked each of us in the eye. “Who’s ready to try this thing out?” 

We all sprang up at once, yelling and raising our hands to be first to take a swing. Well, everybody but Scott, who was still trying to drown an ant in a long rope of pink-tinged saliva. 

Like I said, during those years Scott and I were pretty much inseparable. He was funny and creative, sporty and adventurous, teaching me more than a few words I’d never heard around my own house. But here’s the twist: once every six or seven times we hung out, he’d sort of freak out and do something shocking. There was the incident with a steak knife, where he pulled it out of the drawer and waved it at me for talking during a TV show. Or the time he just grabbed a tire pump and bludgeoned me in the knee cap. I remember limping home, barking out a newfound string of profanities as taught to me by the very person I was vowing to never play with again.

But of course, I did. I never really thought with any depth about why Scott might be lashing out at me, his best friend, every few times we hung out together. There was just too much of an upside. After all, in that brown rambler down the block, Scott lived a massively unsupervised life, which happened to be an appealing proposition to me, an average eight-to-twelve-year-old in search of freedom. I don’t know what his mom’s deal was; I rarely saw her. According to Scott, she mostly lived in her bedroom, watching soap operas and game shows and smoking. 

Coach Arnie taught English and coached girls’ basketball at the high school, so he wasn’t around much except for during the summer. When he was home, he could be cool, playing Flyer’s Up with Scott and me in the street after dinner, or maybe a game of Stratomatic on a rainy July afternoon. Most days, though, Coach was occupied, with one girl or another from his team coming over to work on her game. He told us that the offseason was when champions are made, so he’d spend hours and hours shooting baskets and playing one-on-one with his best players in the driveway. 

Scott started stealing smokes from his mom in third grade, adding weed to his activities in fifth when he started periodically hanging out with Donnie, a seventh grader who lived on Dogwood Drive. Happily relating his exciting new learnings from the association, Scott taught me how to shoplift Luden’s cherry cough drops, in my opinion more delicious than any candy on the shelves of Frankie’s IGA, and how to kiss a girl if ever presented with the opportunity. 

He was dangerous and bold and no doubt would’ve been strictly forbidden had my parents caught even the faintest wind of his exploits. I now realize that it was probably worth their while to ignore Scott and all the unspoken weirdness that exuded from his house. A convenient playmate for me, Scott gave my parents a welcome respite from the youngest of their three kids, especially after school and on weekends. When Coach Arnie had volunteered to manage the baseball team, it tacked on a few additional hours of daycare for me, complete with transportation to and from.

As that season wore on, Coach had definitely proven himself right about the Tennessee Thumper. Everyone on the team, even Mikey Gunritter who ran from pitches like they were giant winged monkeys, had been spanking the cover off the ball. By three games into the season, the bright yellow letters that had spelled out Thumper down the widest part of the barrel would be dull and scuffed from the non-stop poundings the Kiwanis Club Broncos had put on any pitch thrown our way. 

We’d become a well-greased, hardball-playing machine, riding an eight-win, one-loss, early summer record. I was batting cleanup and hitting .470 with five home runs. Even Scott put down hit after hit and played some really solid second base. He seemed to enjoy bunting, mostly because it pissed off his dad, who’d forbidden the team from doing it on our own without getting the sign. Still, Scott was really good at it, constantly getting himself on base and usually stealing second for good measure. Ever since he’d started spending time with the junior high kids, he had seemed quieter, even sadder, so it was just nice to experience the old, hilarious Scott when he was on the baseball diamond. 

Coach Arnie launched a hearty stream of gum juice through the gap in his top teeth as he herded us into the dugout. “Listen up!” he yelled. Pudgy fingers brushing the brim of his Dodgers cap, Coach’s squatty physique swayed impatiently on the other side of the fencing while he waited for us to cram fifteen twelve-year-old bodies onto the bench. 

“Have a seat and listen up,” he shouted.”Let me see your eyes, Broncos. Good. Now, in case you all didn’t realize it, we’ve got a big game coming up on Thursday night.”

We did? At that point in the season, I didn’t even care who we played thanks to the Tennessee Thumper.

Coach spat again and went on. “You may have noticed that we’ve got a rematch with Cavanaugh Hardware.”

Cavanaugh Hardware had been the last—and only—team to beat us. Scott had bunted into a double play to end the game, directly disobeying Coach Arnie’s sign from the dugout for him to “hit away.” Naturally it hadn’t sat well with Coach, which is why I was so grateful my own dad could drive me home after that loss. A car ride across town with Coach and Scott would have been excruciating. 

Coach Arnie flipped the canvas bag upside down, emptying some bats and a few stray balls onto the dirt outside the dugout entry. “I was just thinking on the way here,” he said, hoisting the Tennessee Thumper and resting it on his shoulder. “We could all use a little fielding practice. Feels like we’re getting a little rusty.” He looked at Scott. “You’ve been booting your share of marshmallows out there at second, Scottie. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

He hated being called Scottie, especially by his dad. Scott snorted up a robust loogie and hawked it at the chain link. There was a lot of it; its tentacles gripped the galvanized wire, stringing downward and obscuring my view of the coach. 

Coach Arnie blew out a long breath, seething at the sight of the spit spider oozing down the dugout fence. His head jerked, eyes shifting to the other end of the bench. “If you all can’t handle a few hot cuts from this bad boy, you’re not going to be ready for Cavanaugh Hardware this Thursday night. Okay, everybody, take your positions. Let’s go, hustle!” 

I grabbed my mitt and jogged the fifteen or so steps to first base as the rest of the team ran out to their spots. Barry Sinclair, our catcher, stood at the plate behind Coach Arnie and tossed him a ball.

“Starting at third base!” yelled Coach. “Take your time, watch the ball all the way in, then fire it off to first. Be crisp, folks!” 

He floated the baseball at waist level and drove it down the third base line. Christina darted to her left, backhanded the ball and released a perfect rope of a throw, barely making me move at all to catch it and fire it back to Barry.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Coach Arnie chuckled. “That’s how a champion plays! Nice work, Tina! Alright, get ready, now Aaron.”

Coach laced a line drive to the gap between short and third, but Aaron timed it like a good goalie, diving sideways and catching the ball in mid-air. He landed hard on his side, letting out a faint “Oof,” but quickly bounced up and hurled it a little off-target toward me. I stretched hard to the right and backhanded it on a short hop. I straightened up and launched a strike back to Barry at the plate.

“Alright, alright, alright! Now we’re cooking with gas!” Coach was worked up, his face glowing red against his cap’s Dodger blue. “That’s how a real shortstop plays, ladies and gentlemen.” 

I looked at Scott, who stood near second base with his arms crossed. He was next.

Coach reared back and smacked a blistering ground ball to Scott’s left. Scott didn’t move an inch, the ball continuing into right center field where Justin casually scooped it up and lobbed it to Barry. 

“Scott!” shouted Coach Arnie, “Get yourself ready!”

Scott arms now hung limply at his sides, his glove almost falling off. He was hunched over in a semi-ready pose when the second screaming grounder came toward him. It looked to me like he’d positioned himself to field the ball, but then he raised his arms and let it sail between his legs, laughing as his head followed the ball through his improvised leg wickets. 

“Goddamn it, Scott!” Coach took a step toward him, Tennessee Thumper in one hand and a scuffed-up hardball in the other. “This is your last chance. Fuck it up and consider your ass benched for the season!”

Scott instantly stopped laughing and popped into the most serious fielding stance I’d ever seen him do. His back was straight, body perfectly balanced on the balls of his feet. Scott’s gloved side was a mirror image of his throwing side, elbows slightly crooked, hands relaxed and open.

Coach didn’t back up. He stayed five feet in front of home plate, tossing up the ball and smashing a laser shot that angled upward to Scott’s left. Scott leapt up so high it seemed like an optical illusion, cradling the ball half-in, half-out of his glove’s webbing like an ice cream cone. He hit the infield with a thud, then slowly stood and held the baseball out toward Coach Arnie. It almost seemed like a peace offering.

Taking a deep breath, Scott smiled as he addressed his dad. “Fuck,” he said, the single word coming out like a weird, nonsensical fragment. He turned and hurled the ball into center field, spinning around and pointing at his dad with his now-empty hand. I swear I could actually see the second word traveling from Scott’s mouth through an invisible tube and directly into Coach Arnie’s ear. 

“You,” Scott said, giggling lightly.

Coach dropped the Tennessee Thumper onto the powdery dirt and licked his lips as he silently, shakily, considered the situation. Everyone was frozen, waiting for either Coach Arnie or Scott to unfreeze. Finally, Coach’s soft, monotone voice broke the silence. “Everyone, back in the dugout.”

Nobody chose a path that went between Coach Arnie and Scott; we all took a nice spacious route around the outer infield line and back to the bench area. Once we were all in, I watched as Scott turned to join us.

“No, no,” said Coach Arnie, pointing a quaking finger at Scott. “You, you stay here.”

Every Kiwanis Club Bronco stood with our fingers gripping the chain link. I felt fidgety and scared, like I was waiting for some kind of poison to take effect. I’d seen Scott get under his dad’s skin hundreds of times, but this time was different; we were in new territory and I could feel it in the wobbles of my knees. 

Coach Arnie shuffled slowly up to Scott, dragging his feet as if he’d suddenly run out of energy. Without warning, he hurled himself toward his son, grabbing Scott’s t-shirt and heaving him into the air. No words were exchanged as Coach Arnie repeatedly slammed Scott against the ground and waited for his son to get up so he could throw him down again. A couple of times, Coach kicked or shoved or slapped him, yet Scott just absorbed it, showing no emotion, rising time and again to confront his father with his limitless stare.

Coach was wheezing and grunting and had sweat completely through his yellow windbreaker. Finally, as his filthy, dust-powdered son stood up yet again, Coach Arnie turned his back to him and trudged wearily toward the dugout. He picked up the canvas bag and started stuffing equipment into it while the rest of us quietly alternated our gazes between him and the kid he’d just beaten the shit out of.

Since all this had happened toward the end of practice, most kids’ parents were, fortunately, already waiting in the parking lot. Players quickly scattered to their awaiting cars, instantly able to put some welcome distance between them and the scene they’d just witnessed.

That wasn’t an option for me, since Coach and Scott had always been my ride to and from practice. I slid into the back seat of Coach Arnie’s car, squeezed my eyes shut and pretended I didn’t exist. All the windows were open in the car, but even with the summer evening breeze washing over us, the small Toyota’s passenger space permeated with only sweat and anger, dirt and fear. 

I wouldn’t allow my eyelids to open until I felt the car turning into Coach Arnie’s driveway. The damp, heavy silence pulsed as I unclipped my seatbelt and heaved open the door. There were no goodbyes, no thanks for any rides, I took nothing but long, deliberate steps without looking back. Behind me, I could hear the sounds of two car doors shutting behind me, then something else.

It was a familiar sound, one we’d all been hearing a lot that summer. It would’ve been laughably easy to place if it hadn’t seemed so—off? After a second or two, the hollow echo of aluminum hitting solid matter seeped into my consciousness and took shape. Of course that was it. Like Coach Arnie had told us, it was the stroke of an artist’s favorite brush, the welcome greeting of a best friend.

I stopped, turned and looked back at what was happening in Scott’s front yard. As the blood- spackled barrel of the Tennessee Thumper came down time and again on its target, making thick arcs of dark crimson against the western twilight, I realized that the glorious summer of the Kiwanis Club Broncos had come to an end.

A Seattle-area graphic designer and author of two middle grade novels, my short fiction has appeared in Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, Heater magazine and Firstwriter Literary Journal. In addition, since 2009 I’ve written a blog entitled, ‘Reflections of a Shallow Pond,’ offering my musings on parenthood, middle-age and his perspective as a tail-end Baby Boomer.

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