A Sneak Peek from The Call: Wes

PrintWes is one of my favorite characters in The Call. I love the way his mind works, and often his voice would circle around in my head, talking about numbers and odds and the universe and his many, many sisters. When I read an article about the physics of baseball, I thought of him immediately and knew he had to be in the story. Here’s an excerpt from the book, from when he and Margie met at the umpire academy:

—–

As Margie rounded the right-field corner, Wes Osterhaus fell in beside her. His wiry limbs matched her stride, his pale, freckled cheeks pinking from the exertion and the Florida sun. In their morning classes, Wes sat Catholic-school-straight in the chair in front of hers, bobbing his head at the instructor. He always had the right answers, and a hundred other questions. The instructors had been patient with him, but more and more they said, “Let’s talk during lunch,” or told him to go look it up in the academy’s library. The “library” was a dingy, cinderblock-walled equipment room that smelled of sweat and old coffee and contained two metal folding chairs, an old TV, and an erector-set bookshelf of manuals and videotapes. Sometimes Margie passed the room on her way to Big Al’s office and Wes would be sitting there alone, staring at the screen, scribbling notes on his pad. She felt bad for the guy. He was smart, that much was clear, and he was one of the few people in camp who would talk to her. She overheard a couple of trainees calling him “Oster-cize,” and she wanted to kick them.

“Nice day for a run, huh?” Margie said.

“Technically, no.” Wes said some stuff about dew point and relative humidity that left Margie’s head spinning. Then he trailed off, and on the left-center warning track he said, “Forty-eight.”

“Excuse me?” Margie wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand.

“Sixteen percent of three hundred.” He nodded toward the group of guys practicing on the field. “That’s how many candidates will get recommended for evaluation after we’re done. Fewer still will get minor-league assignments.”

She smirked. “I think you’re gonna do fine.”

He nodded toward Rocky Anderson, who was berating some guy until he hung his head. “But that instructor is lowering our chances. He’s doing it all wrong.”

Her eyebrows hopped up. “Whaddya mean, wrong?”

“Positive reinforcement has been shown to help long-term learning better than negative reinforcement.”

“You got English for that?”

“Okay, right,” he muttered, as if giving himself a reminder to dumb-down his vocabulary for the masses. “Your strike fist. If he said, ‘nice job’ when you tucked your thumb in, instead of making you do laps when you get it wrong, research says you’d learn better.”

“What, you saying I’m never gonna learn?”

“No, Margie, I believe you will.” He paused a moment and added, “Because you remind me of Doug Harvey. He’s the best umpire in the game.”

She grinned. “Really? Doug Harvey?”

“Yes. The way you make your calls. The way you know the rules.”

Damn. “You wanna race?”

“Not especially.”

She knocked an elbow into his arm. “Aw, come on. Race me to the on-deck circle. Loser picks up the beer tonight.”

“That’s negative reinforcement. And besides, I don’t drink.”

“Okay. Winner gets to pick the game tape in the library later.”

“See? Now I’ll do it,” he said. “Because you’re offering me a learning opportunity.”

He took off. She took off after him. For the first time in Margie’s life, a boy beat her in a footrace. Probably because she let him.

——

The Call will be live on Amazon on September 1, but you can preorder now. The print book should be out around then, too. Or possibly sooner.

Update on The Call

TheCall_IllustratorV2Just a quick message: because my team is so awesome, the e-book version of The Call will be ready two weeks early! If you preorder now, Amazon will deliver it on 9/1 to your reading device. Kind of like magic but without all the glitter and card tricks. Although if you want those, I know a guy you can call…

The Last Image

And now for something completely different, from this week’s 2-Minutes-Go. Maybe one week you’ll come write with us. Or just read a bunch of amazing writers.


The Last Image

“He’s still there.”

“What? Who?”

Her husband’s footsteps come up behind her at the window, his steady hand lighting on her bare shoulder. The surface of her coffee ripples. She’s afraid she’ll drop it, and holds it tighter.

“Blue SUV, across the street.”

The derisive snort is one she’s come to expect.

“You think I’m crazy.”

The pause is another number in his repertoire, one that started irritating her about ten years ago. Friends told her this happened after decades of marriage, but she’d always thought it would happen to other people, not them. That they’d be the couple toasting their anniversaries with champagne and witty banter—the conversation, while not Algonquin Round Table scintillating, would at least be there, no long, awkward silences where they would start wondering if this was all life had to offer. Start looking over each other’s shoulders for something better. It had been a comforting thought, at first.

“No,” he says finally, his voice a degree of calm that makes her want to jab her elbow backward. “You’re not crazy. You just…maybe think too much. You think every blue SUV is someone out to get us. You think every man with sunglasses is his secret police gathering intel. Maybe you’re watching too much Netflix.”

“I think we should leave.”

“Okay. Now I think you’re crazy. Why would you want to leave because some random guy in a random SUV is parked in our neighborhood? Maybe…maybe he’s watching someone else. Maybe he’s stalking his ex. We have no idea.”

She sets her coffee down so hard it sloshes onto the brickface of the mantel. “I’m going to ask him.”

“Honey.”

It’s another tone she hates, but she sucks in a slow breath, lets it out slower, tells herself she is in command of her own reactions.

“It’s not against the law to ask, is it? Or is that something else he changed while everyone else was distracted?”

“Probably not, but it still could be dangerous.”

She turns toward him, her lips parting. “Why? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

In the silence, her life slow-pans across the screen of her mind. The last image, their beautiful boy.

“Just go upstairs.” His voice is soft, but deliberate, which makes the hairs on the backs of her arms stand up.

“I will not—”

But he already has his hand on the knob. He stops. His eyebrows dip, face contrite. It’s a look she’d seen on their son’s face when he’d been naughty. “I’m on his enemies list.”

“You…” Damn him. She knew it. He hadn’t stopped. She’d told him the first time he got arrested to stop writing those letters, stop posting in that group. Stop stirring up trouble. He’d promised.

“This has to end now,” she says. “You know what happens to those people, you know what he does, we saw with our own eyes…” The words turn into hard knots in her throat.

“Which is why I’m going to tell him to leave us alone. You’re right. It ends now. In the name of the Constitution and the First Amendment. It ends now.”

This is what he cares about most? Some useless bits of history, and not their lives? How could she have believed that he had stopped? The good wife in her head, the good wife putting that champagne on to chill, the good wife making his supper every night, wants to say something like “I’m coming with you” or “We’re in this together,” but she doesn’t want to be together with him in this folly anymore. He’s already cost them too much. The legal fees being the least of it.

She lifts her hands. She walks away. Up the stairs. To the empty bedroom at the end of the hall.

The front door slams. She curls up on the small, narrow bed with the Star Wars sheets and closes her eyes. Imagining the handcuffs. The Miranda rights. And then the blue SUV driving away.

When she comes downstairs again, all is quiet. She looks out the window at the empty street. Then hits the number she’d been instructed to call. When the calm voice answers, she says, “Help me get to Canada. Please.”

Thunder

A storm was coming, and Hannah knew it was a bad idea to be hiking on the mountain, but Josh insisted, and in all the years of their friendship, he’d hardly ever insisted on anything. When the storm swept in, they scuttled for the shelter of a cave they’d hidden in before. He spread out his sleeping bag and built a small fire, boy scout style. By the dim light she could barely see the lurid bruise beneath his right eye and the swelling of his lower lip, leaving her the illusion of his face as its usual cute, undamaged whole. She didn’t say much; he said less. The patter of the rain and the crackle of the flames and the thunder, now a gentle roll in the distance, made her drowsy.

The next thing she knew, the storm had passed. They could have resumed their hike at any time, but it was nice in there, with the fire and the metallic smell of damp rocks and his regular breathing. Josh was still asleep, and she felt comfortable lying next to him, the rhythm of his chest rising and falling a kind of meditation. She ached to touch his lip, his black eye, to soothe away the pain. To erase the memory of his seeing her kiss Ben Thompson, the humiliation of losing the fight and getting punched not just once but twice. She didn’t mean for it to happen. The kiss, or having Josh see it, or Ben being such a jerk. Maybe she’d been nervous about what would happen to her and Josh at the end of the summer. They’d been friends since grade school, but aside from the occasional family trip, they’d never really been apart. Even when she had her appendix out, he’d come to visit her at the hospital, and they’d played card games and shared her Jell-O. Could they still be friends in colleges at opposite ends of the country? When the subject even brushed the edges of their conversation, they flinched, changing the topic. She was tired of flinching.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

His eyes flickered, and he turned his head to face her. “Why? You didn’t make it rain.”

But the silence filling the cave after his last word made it clear he knew what she was apologizing for.

“I’m sorry because it was supposed to be you. It was always supposed to be you.”

His mouth opened slightly, making the puffy lower lip look even more painful. “You could have told me that before I made a total ass of myself.”

The fire hissed and crackled, dancing shadows along the rock.

“It would have changed everything,” she said.

He appeared to think a moment, nodded, then, with what she hoped wasn’t too painful a smile, said, “Change isn’t always bad.”

“Try saying that again when we’re living three thousand miles apart.”

He rolled toward her, touching her cheek as if she were exotic and breakable and, possibly, imaginary. “We have now. We have the rest of the summer. We can figure the rest out later.”

He was right, and wrong, and the rain started up again. When thunder shook the ground, she flinched, and he pulled her tight against him.

Women in Baseball: The Umpires

I knew I’d never get to play second base for the New York Mets—when I was a kid, girls weren’t even allowed to join Little League—but it was fun to watch the games and dream. Sometimes I’d even pretend to be an umpire. I’d watch those “You Make the Call” segments on TV, where they’d break down a complicated play and show why the ump called it the way he did. But I didn’t think they’d let girls be umpires, either.

Many years later, I learned that in 1972, a few months before my eleventh birthday, Bernice Gera put on a mask and chest protector and became the first woman in modern history to umpire a professional game. She’d sued the New York Professional Baseball League for sex discrimination, fought for five long, hard years in court, and finally won her case. She quit after working just one game of a double-header, citing the incivility of the other umpires and the baseball culture in general.

Many, many years later, her story still intrigues me. Why would a woman fight so hard to get a chance to call a game and then never set foot on the field again? What was it like for the women who came after her? Women like Christine Wren, Pam Postema, Theresa Cox-Fairlady, Ria Cortesio, Shanna Kook, and currently, Jen Pawol, Emma Charlesworth-Seiler, and the indefatigable Perry Barber, one of the hardest working woman in amateur-level (but very professional) umpiring. And still, except for a handful of spring training and exhibition games, Pam Postema was the only one who’d made it to Triple A, just one rung below the majors.

It’s hard sometimes to believe that even as recently as 1982, there had only been three brave souls in professional baseball who had gone where no woman had gone before.

I wanted to know more. I wanted to know what it might have been like for them to work in the game. Beyond the headlines. Beyond the “official stories.” And when I want to know more, I start writing. That’s when Margie popped into my head, and she had a story to tell. I’m excited that I’ll be publishing The Call later this summer, and you’ll get a chance to meet her, and her twin brother, and the rest of her world.

I’ll be posting an excerpt soon and more about the players.

Happy trails!

Old Catchers Never Die

Happy Saturday! I wrote this for Friday’s #2MinutesGo. Loads of great writing going on over at JD Mader’s place. Maybe one week you’ll join us. Or just read.

—–

His hands are ruined, but that came with the job. Catching blazing pitchers, winging balls to second, getting knocked around by foul tips and bats on the rebound and runners plowing into him trying to reach holy mother home plate. These hands will never win any beauty contests, but each blown knuckle and callus and broken nail tells a story. He can point to one and talk about the day he threw out a Hall of Fame base-stealing legend—twice. He can point out another, always with a smile, because those rough-and-tumble days of bus rides and crap motels have become romantic over time, and talk about the beating he took from catching his first knuckleballer.

If he could still talk.

The nurses comment on his hands each time they come to check his vitals; one in particular, a young girl, visibly pregnant, pets his good hand like it’s an abused dog, sometimes cooing a few words in Spanish. They are beautiful words, and her hands are soft and soothing, and he says the words over and over to himself, embedding them in what’s left of his memory. She’s the type of girl he might have cottoned to in the bar after the game, the quiet and motherly girls, like his Gina, God rest her soul.

Today the older one comes, with her world-wise eyes and the limp she won’t talk about. “Morning, Pete.” Flo is the only nurse who calls him by his first name, which he prefers, because that mister business makes him feel every inch of his years. She’s the only nurse who picks up his hand and laughs and says “that’s one damn ugly paw,” and he likes that too. He can take that, from a woman like her, and if he could talk, he’d give it right back to her, and the smile in those weary eyes tells her she knows that. She checks his reflexes, his various bags of fluids, his numbers. With a grim attempt at a smile—only one side is working—he remembers the days when his stats were the numbers that mattered. Batting average, home runs, percentage of runners he’d thrown out. Now it’s blood pressure, oxygen level, heartbeats. Each heartbeat chattering across a digital screen. He’d rather be back there, jamming another finger trying to scoop a low, mean pitch out of the dirt, than in this damn bed, watching the measure of what’s left of his life.

It’s late when she returns; he can see that with his one good eye, the way the light is dimmer through his half-open shades. Maybe Flo sees the way he’s looking because she says, “Yeah. Lucinda called in sick, something with the baby.”

He feels surprise and worry do something to the side of his face that works, and god knows what’s happening to the other side. “Nah, she’s fine.” Flo checks his IV. “And aren’t you the lucky duck to get me pokin’ at you twice in one day.”

He wants to tell her that he doesn’t mind at all. Flo reminds him of another girl he knew when. She came right up to him at the bar after a game, nothing shy about her at all, and both of them knew what they wanted. He liked her honesty. It made things easier for him. He’d gotten good at reading signals and calling pitches, but it was frankly a relief to leave that on the field at the end of the day.

“Yeah,” Flo mutters, giving him a wink, “I know you love me. But we don’t want to make the other nurses jealous.”

He laughs at that, or at least tries to, and it comes out like a bit of a wheeze. Still, it gives him hope. When they first brought him here after the stroke, damn near nothing worked. The doctors told him he had an excellent chance of recovering most of what he’d lost.

Flo makes a few notations on his chart. “Not bad, Pete. They’ll be getting you into rehab pretty soon.” Her face softens. “You want, I’ll come visit. I know you got some good stories in you, especially about what happened to these ugly paws. And I want to hear every one.”

She wraps one strong, no-nonsense hand around his. The one on his bad side. Where he hasn’t been able to feel a thing. But her hand is warm, the pressure firm but not so much it hurts.

His heart monitor beeps and beeps and beeps.

Self-Publishing and Burnout

Once upon a time, I had an idea. It wasn’t like my other ideas. It was bigger and brighter and shinier. A whole imaginary universe went into motion when I sat with my notebook and pen and turned the key. I’d written stories before. Short ones, just a couple of characters, a quick resolution. None of those ideas were like this one. None of them had kept me awake at night; none of them had me leaping out of bed, eager to get the dialogue I’d dreamed down on paper. None of them had me in such thrall that I almost burned my house down, not once, but twice.

As I finished this first novel and wrote a few others, I cherished that joy. It sustained me through some of my darkest times. Nothing hurt when I was writing. My worries melted away for a while, and novel after novel piled up in photocopy paper boxes in my closet. Once in a while I’d dust one off and send it to an agent, and occasionally someone would get excited about it, but nothing ever came of that. So I kept writing.

Then, when self-publishing became an affordable possibility, I began to release them. Online friends helped me learn how to hit all the bases: get the website going, get an Amazon presence, and market, market, market and sell, sell, sell.

I marketed and marketed. I sold…sold…and then, not so much.

Approaching the five-year anniversary of “living the dream,” as we call it in Indie Land, I had a meltdown. I was sick. I lost weight. I was exhausted. I wrote, but I didn’t have the same verve. I keep a folder on my computer named “When I Feel Like Quitting.” Believe me, I dipped into that a few times.

I almost quit.

Then, at the end of 2016, I sat down with a big sketchpad I’d swiped from Art Husband and started sketching out my plans for the upcoming year. I’d been doing this for a while, inspired by Jim Devitt’s blog on Indies Unlimited.

That’s when I had my epiphany. I was in danger of letting everything needed to be a successful self-published author kill what I’d originally loved about the process: the writing.

And I knew that if I let it kill the writing, I’d be sunk. Writing keeps me sane; writing is my release valve; writing saves me from turning into a raging bitch.

So I made lists. A lot of lists. Things I needed. Things I needed to stop. I pulled back on a lot of my commitments, nearly everything that wasn’t related to paying the bills and regaining my health.

I’m ready to dip a toe back in again. I’ve already done a couple of small promotions, and I’m using that same sketchpad to make notes for my next book release, which will happen later this year. But maybe a little less frenetically and more mindfully than in previous years.

And yes. Writing is a joy again. You’re welcome.

Have any of you come out the other side of burnout? What did you do to get over it?