Tina Aitken could not believe that jackass from Pathology, Dr. Billups, was crowding the plate. Didn’t he understand that home plate was hers, a rhombus-shaped piece of blue shag carpet you did not fuck with? Tina spun the softball in her glove. Didn’t Billups realize there was a reason she was the only woman in the history of the Lester County Medical Examiner’s Office invited to play lunchtime softball and that reason was because she’d never let someone take what was rightfully hers?
Tina stared in at her catcher, Dr. Jenks. He patted the left thigh of his Dockers, shot two fingers into his crotch. Riser, high and tight.
For a long time she wished these men would stop testing her, accept her as their equal, but she knew they never would. In two years of working at the Medical Examiner’s office, pushing around stiffs and mopping up lakes of blood, she’d thrown a handful of no-hitters, hit for power and average, fielded her position like a crazed wizard. It was not enough, it was never enough, no matter how badly she dominated these dopes, they thought everything she did was a fluke.
Billups pushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes. He inched his Rockports toward the plate. Fine, fine, Tina thought, have it your way, welcome to my world, a world where I throw lightning bolts at the ignorant and unjust.
A few years ago, Tina had been recruited by a couple of Division-I schools to play softball. That was before her mother got sick. Her mother pleaded with her to go to one of bigger colleges, somewhere out of state. In the end, Tina chose San Jacinto, a junior college two towns over, close enough to shuttle her mom to her chemo and microwave her soup. When her mother got worse, Tina dropped out of college and moved home to care for her. After her mom died, she never went back.
Tina started her windup, rocked her shoulders back, cocked her hips. Dr. Grande was umpiring from a lawn chair about 10 feet behind the plate. His leg was still in an air cast. They’d needed to reset the “Days Without a Workplace Injury” placard back to “Zero” after Tina hit him in the leg two weeks ago. Maybe Billups believed the rumor that Dr. Gosford had spread, that Grande’s bones were brittle from all the candy he ate, that when Tina’s pitch shattered his kneecap, it wasn’t caused by velocity but by diet. However Gosford and the rest of them wanted to spin it, Tina knew the truth. Before she threw the pitch she visualized Grande’s leg breaking into a million pieces. Then she’d chucked the ball and it had more or less happened.
Tina shifted her weight and her arm rifled forward. She planned on plunking Billups in the shoulder, leaving him with a two-week strawberry, but instead, she watched Billups’ head lurch into her pitch. It missed him, luckily, sliding right under his chin. A chorus of loud “ooh” and some “hey there’s” came from under the big oak that served as the dugout for both teams.
“Ball one,” Grande called out. “Watch yourself, Tina.”
Jenks tossed the ball back and Tina circled the mound, kicking imaginary dirt. The mound was not a mound, just a circle marked on the pavement with blue painter’s tape. She spit onto the blacktop again, the spit a little orange from the bag of Cheetos she’d eaten for lunch.
Tina turned around and—Jesus Christ—there Billups was again, totally unconcerned about her warning salvo, inching even closer. He was nearly standing on top of the carpet square now.
Jenks gave her the signal for a fastball, low and away, but Tina shook him off. Look at this bastard, she wanted to yell at Jenks, the toe of his loafer is nearly touching the goddamn plate! Tina shook off Jenks until he gave her the sign for another riser, high and tight.
Tina reared back and chucked the ball at Billups’ shoulder again, imagined it smacking him so hard his arm would fall off. As the ball flew toward him she watched Billups do the same exact thing he’d done before—move his head toward the path of her pitch. This time it didn’t miss. There was a loud pop as the ball nailed Billups in the cheekbone and he crumpled to the ground.
Look away, Tina told herself, look at the clouds, look at the strange shapes they form. She remembered what her high school coach, Mike DiGidio had said the first time she plunked that Mill Valley shortstop in the ribs and the girl rolled around in the dirt, first screaming no, no, no and then screaming why, why, why.
“That’s the contract they sign when they step into the batter’s box,” DiGidio told her. “That’s not for you to worry about.”
Now Tina noticed a white dot shining on the black top halfway up the first base line. While everyone crowded around Dr. Billups, her first baseman, Dr. Wallace, scooped it up with his glove.
“It’s his tooth!” he yelled.
Everyone called it an accident because it was easiest to call it an accident. Tina found out the next day that Billups’ wife, Sharlene, had left him for an internist at the county hospital. Dr. Wallace had also told her Billups was acting strangely over the last few days, that one of his autopsies had gone missing only to be found sitting out in the parking lot under the noonday sun.
“The way he moved his head toward your pitch was a call for help,” Jenks told her. “Anyone could see that.”
Jenks was the only one of the lunchtime game who was remotely friendly to Tina. Mostly he was friendly because none of the other doctors liked him. He always smelled like embalming fluid and had thick hair growing in his ears. He never took off his wedding ring when he sliced open corpses, which Tina thought was horribly disrespectful to his wife.
“C’mon,” Jenks said. “Let’s go buy him a balloon bouquet at the hospital gift shop and see if he wants to talk.”
Tina did not want to go to the hospital, but she thought it would look bad if she refused, that people would start to remember this accident differently if she didn’t act contrite, that she would bear some fault even though it was not even remotely her fault.
“Fine,” she said. “Let’s get it over with already.”
Billups was in a metal halo, his jaw wired shut.
“How are you holding up?” Jenks asked him.
Billups picked up a small whiteboard from his bedside table and scribbled “Much better” on it.
The hospital room reminded Tina of her mother and how near the end she would slip in and out of consciousness, lucid for a couple of sentences but the third always gibberish. Tina stood there silently while the two of them talked about the bus crash that had occurred yesterday and how many of those bodies had been sent their way.
“We got nine of them,” Jenks said. “You picked a good day to be gone.”
Billups looked out the window. He scribbled on his white board, held it up to Jenks and Tina.
“Can I talk to Tina alone?” it said.
“Of course,” Jenks said. “I’ll grab a sandwich.”
Tina sat down, watched Billups write on his white board. This was a fucked up way to talk to someone, but she hated the regular way too: figuring out the give and take of words, stopping your thought to give someone a chance to speak, not butting in excitedly when you had an important point to make.
“I’m sorry,” he wrote, “I was going to take some pills, but then your way presented itself.”
Tina stared out into the parking lot below here, at the cars circling around waiting for a spot to open up. Billups was selfish, like all of them, taking advantage of her anger. Anger was something that should never bind two people together, but it had because she was standing here in front of him, waiting for him to finish scribbling.
“It wasn’t my idea to come here,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Jenks I wouldn’t have come at all.”
She stared out the window. This was the kind of day her mother called a “gold star day,” a day where you shouldn’t be cooped up inside. Billups scribbled on his whiteboard, held it out to her.
“I’ll pay you to help me end it,” it said.
Tina stared at the writing, shook her head, stood up.
“Wait, wait, hold on,” Billups motioned, but she did not. She grabbed the balloon bouquet from his bedside and pulled it out in the hall behind her. She found Jenks outside, eating an ice cream sandwich.
“What did he want?” Jenks asked, but Tina didn’t say anything. She let the balloons go, watched them float away into the sky.
Billups returned to work a month or so later, a noticeable dent in his face. Two months later, he died after driving his car off a bridge.
Lunchtime softball had petered out by then. It was fall, turning colder. Someone set up a basketball hoop in the loading dock.
On the weekends when it was still warm, Tina walked over to the park with her glove and bucket of softballs and threw pitches at the metal backstop until her arm ached. She left her glove and the balls on her front porch one night and someone stole them. Tina thought about replacing them a couple of times that winter, but she got busy with other things, never did.