Fly Balls and Alcohol
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Orbit"
Originally featured on 09-26-2007
As part of our series "Alternative Universals"

Dear Mr. Calegeno,

Please forgive the effects of this letter on you. I fear that the writing of this letter will cause you great pain. Greater than that is the fear that my writing is another selfish act on my part. An act that I will have to atone for — like the rest of my sins, when my final judgment comes.

I managed the ground crew in charge of NASA Launch 223. The launch was my responsibility from start to finish. When the launch finished as it did, taking the lives of your two sons, I was to blame.

I remember the weeks leading up to the launch as a sort of fuzzy nightmare. The nightmare began when I received a letter much like this one.

The shuttle carrying James and Edward exploded on the morning of September the 2nd. The night before I had gotten little sleep. This was not unusual. In fact, for months leading up to that day I had gotten at most two hours of sleep a night. I worked anyway. This is the first thing that I must apologize for. But work was my only refuge, my only distraction from my pain. Please believe me when I say that work was the only thing that I thought kept me from tearing myself apart. You see, five months earlier, my own son died in the street in front of my house.

Jerry Jr. was ten years old. We were playing catch on the front lawn. I had coached his little league team in years past but couldn’t that season because of work responsibilities. At that time, I was putting in quite a few hours in the hopes of being chosen as the manager for Launch 223. I felt guilty for not coaching as I had the previous three seasons. Guilty — as well as jealous of his new coach. I had never been a good athlete and my son naturally was. I had always feared that as he grew older he would begin to see other men as his father figures. I thought he would bond with his coaches in a way that he could never bond with me.

Jerry was my only son. My marriage to his mother had fallen to pieces soon after he was born and I knew that he would be my only child. So I became his coach despite not knowing or caring much about baseball. I became his coach so I could really be his father.

The day we were playing catch, I was overtired and Jerry had just come home from practice. I feel obligated to say that I had been drinking. Jerry was talking so much about the new things that his new coach, Coach Richards, had taught him. Brutus Richards and I had attended high school many years earlier. Brutus bullied me often. One of the most embarrassing moments of my life was when he forced my head into one of the toilets in the girl’s bathroom. Needless to say I hated him. He was an athlete and just sort of person I didn’t want my son to look up to — not instead of me.

I dragged Jerry out to the front lawn and demanded that he play catch with me. So that I could “make sure that Richards was teaching him the right things.” Despite the lack of room, I was throwing pop flies for my son to catch. This is what they had worked on in practice. He was catching the fly balls remarkably well. Much better than he had been able to under my instruction. I threw them higher and higher. I remember saying, “let’s see how good you are!” I threw a pop fly as hard as I could. He ran under it for a few seconds, tracking it down, and then followed it towards the street. I had thrown out my arm and was holding my shoulder, not watching, when I heard the scream and the car horn. Then I saw Jerry laying in the street. Jerry bleeding. The man driving the truck got out and helped me carry my son off of the street. He yelled at me to call an ambulance. I ran inside while he waited by my son’s side. I phoned an ambulance and when I came back out the man and his truck were gone. My son sat there, glove still on his hand, laying motionless on the grass.

I poured myself into my work after that. I worked tirelessly despite the wishes of my co-workers and friends. I needed to distract myself. A month later, I got the promotion to act as the manager of Launch 223.

The promotion did not change my work habits. I hadn’t begun to deal with Jerry’s death and relied wholly on distraction and denial. I feel obligated to tell you that your sons were always so generous and kind to me. They seemed to know about my grief, perhaps from others telling them, perhaps because good people like your sons seem to naturally sense pain and ease it with their compassion.

On the evening of August 1st, I received a letter in the mail. It did not have a return address except for the name “Jacob.”

I opened the letter and stepped into a hole of misery that I may never come out of.

Jacob was the man who had killed my son. He was the driver of the truck. He was the coward who ran away and let my son die alone. In his letter, he told me why.

When he killed my son, he had just come from a bar. Before going to the bar, he had buried his own father. His father died at the hands of a drunk driver as well. He wrote that when he saw my son dying on the lawn, he had crossed a line. He had abandoned my son out of fear. Fear and rage. He wrote that he was sorry and that he was willing to do whatever I wanted. He told me to meet him at the baseball field one month later. He was prepared to meet whatever punishment I decided to give out — even death.

The letter added new pain to my life. Rage that was foreign to me. Until then, I had blamed myself for Jerry’s death. In the back of my mind, in my dark hours, I had known that if I wasn’t trying to compete with an old rival, then my son would still be alive. I had felt that Jerry died because of my pride and ego. But suddenly, I began to blame. I blamed Jacob. I blamed the drunk driver that killed Jacob’s father. I wished every horrible thing on them. I wished hell on them and was preparing to send Jacob there myself. Rage consumed my every second.

I went to a gun show. I purchased a pistol. I re-read Jacob’s letter in the gun range parking lot after work and then practiced shooting him.

My blame didn’t stop there. I also blamed my job and the world. Once I started looking for things to blame, they formed a circle around me.

I blamed the hours I spent at my job. I blamed the hours that my job took me from my son. Time I’d kill to get back. I resented the people I worked with. I resented the demands they placed on me. I blamed them for me being tired that day — for the drinks I had to unwind from their pressures.

In the weeks leading up to September 2nd, the day of the launch disaster, I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t. Horrible images of Jerry, and of Jacob and of me shooting Jacob waited for me on the pillow. I began to drink whiskey to get through the nights and coffee to get through the days. I woke up from two hours of being passed out the morning of September 1st and that night I would kill Jacob. I went through my day in a dizzy state of purpose. I left work early to read his letter one last time and to practice with my pistol.

I was to meet him in the Visitors dugout of Field #3. I walked down the steps with my finger on the trigger of the gun. He wasn’t there. I saw a bum laying on his sleeping bag in the corner of the dugout but no Jacob. The bum heard me and got up. He saw my pistol and began to gather his things. I told him that I wasn’t a cop. I told him that I was there to meet someone. He walked slowly towards me. Then the bum said, “I’m Jacob. Are you going to kill me?”

The man I remembered was muscular and plump. This bum was emaciated. The man I remembered was clean cut. This man was dirty and had long scraggly hair and a bushy beard.

I put the gun in my coat pocket. I told him to sit on the bench. I couldn’t explain it to anyone but I didn’t feel angry. I might have just been numb. I began to talk to him. I asked him questions.

I asked him why he wanted to meet me at the same field my son played baseball? Was it to make me angry or to remind me? He told me that he had been living in the dugout since he’d become homeless. He said he didn’t know that it was my son’s home field. He said he’d come to that field with his father as a kid. It had been his home field as a kid in little league.

I asked him why he was homeless. He told me that he couldn’t eat or sleep after what had happened. He worked construction and one day he got dizzy and fainted on the job. People got hurt. He got fired. He told me that he still barely ate, still barely slept. He told me that he wanted to die. Or to go to jail. To be punished.

“Keep living like this, you deserve to” is what I said. I left him there at the dugout.

My mind was racing. I couldn’t think. I went home and thought about going back to the field to kill him. Then I thought about calling the police. I thought about how his life in jail would be better. I drank whiskey all night, showered and then left for work. That was the morning of the launch.

After the explosion, there were many inquiries into what happened. It is still strange to me, but I slept for the first time the night after that disaster. I think it was because I knew I had work to do. I had to find out what went wrong.

During the next two days, I poured myself into all the data. When the inquiries came, I presented those investigating with information about faulty equipment. I presented a scenario that was without a scapegoat.

The information that I concealed — the information that is in this envelope — presents the other side of your sons’ deaths. The mistakes that were made, both on the morning of the launch as well the month leading up to it. I am responsible for these mistakes — and the deaths of James and Edward. In the five months since then, I have resigned my position at NASA.

When I discovered that my drinking and selfishness had led to their deaths, I crossed a line. I concealed the evidence of my negligence out of fear and rage. I’m sorry for everything I’ve done. Please believe me when I say that I’m prepared to meet with any punishment.

Please meet me at the Visitor’s dugout of Field #3 exactly one month from today with your final judgment.

Sincerely,

Jerry

Read More By Doug Dean

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