Alex Barnett

            “I’m gonna pull the ol’ hidden ball trick,” Marco whispers into my ear. “Top of the 5th, ball’s comin’ my way. Slow roller right into my mitt, just you wait.”

             He whacks me with his mitt.

            “And you won’t believe what I’ve been keepsin’ in my here pocket.” Marco steps back, swivels his hips, and pats a lump in his dirty pants. We’ve barely played an inning and he’s already covered in dirt. Something smells off. His breath smells like fruit roll-ups and tonsillitis, but whatever he’s got stuffed into his pocket just smells off. We’re playing at the overgrown fields by the zoo, so there’s the profound musk of large mammals, but I swear he smells some unutterable blend of off. Like, vaguely fishy?

            “It’s a dead thquirrel,” lisps Marco, who lisps when he feels like it.

            I can’t with this guy.

            “Trying to focus up, man,” I say. “Let’s just play.”

            “Let’s just play,” he repeats. “But top of the 5th, I’m tellin’ ya.”

            He turns around and pesters Edgar and Katya. They’re on shaky ground right now. Maybe mutual irritation (re. Marco) will recoup some hurt feelings. 

            Thomas nods at me. I handled that well enough.

            Marco’s like the first act antagonist of some hardboiled paperback. Or he’s Al Capone’s schizoid son, accelerating through time just to irritate me and my friends. Nobody’s ever liked him. He’s a disruptive person. We wondered if he thought we thought it was funny flicking boogers onto Ms. Montoya’s desk. Or pissing on the bathroom floor in elementary school. He’s one of those kids who collapses in your memory as soon as he’s not around for more than a week, but that’s the problem — Marco keeps showing up this summer. We have no idea how he knows where we are. Even Maria started checking her Civic for tracking devices a few weeks ago, because it felt — or it’s been feeling impossible to figure out how, well, we don’t know anymore. And Maria’s pretty much brilliantly unflappable or unflappably brilliant and I’m hanging out with this group primarily for her because I might be in love.

            All we want to do is spend time with each other. We have one year left as a collective of friends, bound by school. Soon after we’ll be a lonely collection. And stupid Marco predicts where we hang out. Today we’re playing Winston’s older brother and his hometown friends. They’re all twenty-five-ish with fake-sounding jobs and inside jokes that half of them have forgotten. We’d planned to play at Edgley Field by the charter school, but my car was first to arrive and we immediately spotted Marco sitting by home plate spinning a splintered wooden bat over his wispy windswept curls. Without hesitation — not even the teeniest infinitesimal modicum of hesitation — I texted my friends and Winston’s older brother’s friends that Edgley’s sopping wet and those fields by the zoo are probs drier. Early afternoon becomes late afternoon. Everyone meets up by the zoo and there’s fucking Marco sitting in the bleachers. He doesn’t even have a car.

            It’s been like this all summer. We’ve learned that he’s way more annoying if we exclude him, because he lingers and giggles and makes this high-pitched gurgle for unbroken ten-minute increments.

            I stare through the protective fence, waiting for my first at-bat. Winston’s brother’s friends in the outfield are shallow since the grass is so unkempt. Probably for the best; there are a few good players on each team, but these afternoons are about having a good time. Short grass means quick grounders, doubles, errors, and too much running. I already loaded up on antiperspirant, but I’d still like to limit the amount of sweat I produce in front of Maria.

            “Hey,” whispers Maria. I am no longer considering my at-bat.

            She sits next to me and pulls out her phone.

            “We’re so close to the zoo and I can’t stop thinking about this spunky little otter,” she says, flicking through photos and landing on the cutest one. The otter, a wrinkly baby otter, stares through a pane of its translucent pen, eyes indignant, mouth open and studded with little teeth, tiny paws pressed against the glass. A silvery crack runs the length of the screen, a warped ripple through the otter’s slick brown coat. Maria’s been interning at the zoo this summer. I know she does clean-up in the reptile house (like Uncle Monty, she giggles), but year-round staff let her interact with the mammals, too. The otter is undoubtedly fantastic.

            “Wow.” I’m blown away. “What’s its name?”

            “Ottilie,” she says. “Ottilie the baby otter. Her keepers let me drop sardines into her pen, this morning. I’m forever a changed woman. Screw school — I’ll move to Alaska and become semiaquatic with Ottilie and all the baby otters.”

            “She looks flippant and derisive and hangry and sweet. And probably other stuff. I’m obsessed.”

            “Ottilie is whatever you want her to be,” smiles Maria. “That’s why I love her.”

            Within minutes, I smack a lucky double over the left fielder’s head, steal third, and jog home thanks to Winston’s sacrifice fly. I get a quick hug from Maria, I fist-bump my other teammates, and I avoid Marco altogether. His strikeout ends the inning. I am an AP student and said strikeout arouses schadenfreude.      

            As we jog into the infield, Marco giggles, “top of the 5th,” spraying a fine mist of spittle. He smells frustratingly weird. I ignore him and settle at second. We let Marco play short because we truly don’t care about the glory positions, or winning. We just want to have some fun. And a few Marco-led errors lead to laughs later.

             “Tttthhhh,” I hear Marco hiss. “Tttthhhh.”


            The top of the 5th. Beer Belly leads off and promptly pops up to Earl, the pitcher. I glance at Marco and immediately regret doing so because he’s just salivating at me. Then comes this huge dude I’ve never seen before with a stubby bat, but whatever because he strikes out. Earl managed to throw an actual in-game curveball on a full count. Earl’s pitching because Edgar’s coach told him not to. I’ve heard Earl either has it out for me or has a thing for me, which is pretty intriguing because he hasn’t been talking to me lately. One more out. The batter is Winston’s brother’s girlfriend. Her name might be Serena? I’m wondering if I should be concerned that she played D1 softball right when she cracks a screaming liner at my face. It takes a bad hop — I block the ball with my mitt just in time, but end up deflecting it fifteen yards into right field. Thomas, manning right, plays the deflection perfectly and whips the ball to Maria, at first, who keeps Serena (?) from turning my error into a double. Two outs, Serena (?) at first.

            “Eyes up, kid,” teases Maria. I nod and smack my glove, cheeks rapidly warming.

            I won’t look at Marco. I will not, under any circumstance, look at that guy.

            I look at Marco. He throws me a wink with lifeless eyes. He’s basically drooling. He wiggles his hips, and the lump in his pocket wiggles, too, like a jiggling calf muscle. Mud cakes his baseball pants. 

            “Motherfucker,” I mutter.

            “What’d ya say?” he leers.

            “Nothing,” I complain. “Just get ready for the next pitch.”

            Marco throws his head back and yelps. “Top of the 5th, I told ya. Gotta thquirrel ready for that little lady down yonder,” pointing at first base.

            Serena (?) turns to Maria to ask: “What did he call me?” but is drowned out by a chorus of “Shut up, Marco!” from everyone I know. Marco yelps and shuffles his feet. Earl looks annoyed. Don’t we all, Earl. He prepares himself for his 4th batter of the inning, Winston’s older brother, a big guy who played for the Orioles’ AA affiliate until rupturing his Achilles during a gnarly home plate collision and thereafter abandoned baseball for the LSAT. Earl must be intimidated, because I can see him gripping a breaking ball inside his mitt. Yep, he tries to spin another Koufax-esque curve; it sputters and dies five-feet behind Winston’s older brother, affording Serena (?) about a whole year to steal second. God damn, Marco’s really going to pull off the hidden ball trick, isn’t he?

            “Serena?” I test carefully.

            “What’s up?” she responds. Phew.

            “Heads up play,” I say. “Also, don’t step off the base. Our short stop is trying to pull some bullshit on you.”

            Serena grimaces at Marco. “You need to bathe yourself like the rest of your friends, dude.”

            Marco ignores her. “Don’t ruin the ol’ hidden ball trick,” he shouts at me, spit gurgling around the back of his throat. “I told ya it was gonna happen top of the 5th. Now the baserunner’s gotta bead on me. Gonna be real tough pullin’ a fast one on her now.”

            “Marco, nobody wants to pull any tricks. We’re just trying to have a good time and not piss each other off.” Winston’s older brother shoots me a what gives? but I’m rolling. “We don’t like you. You know this. When you hang with us, you’re not actually hanging. You’re loitering. You’re single-handedly ruining our summer, so I don’t give a shit if I ruin your hidden ball trick.”

            Maria stands by my side. We’re barely halfway through the game and the sun’s already begun its red-orange descent. “What’s the problem?” she asks.

            I point at the jiggling lump in Marco’s pocket. “He told me he’s got a squirrel stuffed in there. He keeps mentioning a hidden ball trick and I’ve been worried he’d throw something gross at someone.” At this point, my teammates and friends have left their respective positions and circle around.

            “Sounds like something he’d do,” says Katya.

            “He smells crazy,” says Winston.

            Lupine, Maria approaches Marco. “Marco, do you have a dead squirrel in your pocket?” she asks.

            Marco pats the lump in his pocket. “Yeah, I got a thquirrel, baby. Who says it’s dead?”

            “It’s not moving and you smell disgusting.”

            Marco crouches like he’s prepping for a grounder. He spits into the infield dirt and shakes his wispy curls. “Beautiful little tree thquirrel. Little cute one. Bushy tail, well, kinda. But it does smell like fishy and eats fishy, too, and swims in the pool with its pals. Agreed to pull the ol’ hidden ball trick with me.”

            I think we all furrow our brows. 

             “Say, darlin’,” Marco giggles, “I watched you at the zoo, this mornin’. How was work?”

            “Hey, man,” I start, but Maria holds a finger up. “Work was work, Marco. What about it?”

            “Oh, nothin’, it’s just nice and all that they let ya scamper out the reptile house every once in a while.”

            Winston, Winston’s brother, Edgar, Katya, Thomas, Beer Belly, Serena and I and unmentioned others all tell Marco to screw off, but Maria holds up a second finger. “Marco, what’s in your pocket?”

            He claps delightedly. “The fake ball! For the hidden ball trick!”

            “You said it’s a squirrel.”

            “It is a thquirrel, baby!” he exclaims. “It’s a little thquirrel from the zoo. Real cute. Swims in water. You took a picture of it and showed it to that one, there.” He points at me and guffaws. “And I rescued it and brought for show and tell and the ol’ hidden ball trick!”

            I walk over to where Marco stands and punch him so hard that my forearms want to contract. I kick him so hard that my metatarsals want to separate. I use my elbow and the funny bone stings. I’m not the only one. Maria tears at his eyes and pulls at his hair. Winston and Winston’s brother pull out his toes. Edgar and Katya flip while Thomas and I rip. Serena looks for her baseball bat. It’s almost dark out. It’s difficult to understand exactly what we’re doing. We rely on our sense of touch.

            And Marco limps away, essentially dead. “All I wanted was to pull a fast one,” he screams. “The ol’ hidden ball trick, with my friends. For my friends. I spend the summer with ya and ya kill me for it.”

            Marco rifles around in his pocket, throws something, and disappears upon reaching the dirt path to the road. The lump in his pocket, airborne, lands with a light thump. Nobody wants to look; Maria steels herself. She takes out her phone, closes the picture she showed me of Ottilie, and turns on her flashlight. We expect to find rumpled fur, glimmering blood, broken teeth, bent whiskers. Instead, we find socks. White socks, stained after years without washing. They smell awful.


            We finish the game because the field lights finally come on. No flashlights necessary. I’ve never hit a ball or thrown a ball or caught a ball so hard in my life. I play catch like I’m still fighting.


            We pack up our things and trudge the dirt path to our cars.


            Across the street, the zoo is closed for the evening. The brown entrance dances with white cartooned hippos and tigers and iguanas. As I labor the bats and cleats and mitts into the trunk, I hear the scream of an elephant. I hear the bleat of a mountain goat. I hear the roar of a polar bear. The stampede of the rhino. The rumble of the purring lion. The labored squeal of the wild hog. The murmured hiss of the cottonmouth.


            I don’t know what sound an otter makes, but I hear that, too.


Alex Barnett is a senior from outside Philadelphia, studying film, history, and creative writing.