There is no lonelier place in a city than a pitcher’s mound. Nothing grows there. The surrounding structure slopes and cowers away from it. There is nothing and no one to cling to.
He had tried to talk them out of Felipe Day this year, but it wasn’t much use. How could he tell them it wasn’t the bobbleheads or meet-and-greets he hated, but specifically the balloons? Those big helium balloons with his big stupid face on them. Last year, he’d watched as a kid dove into a bucket of popcorn with both hands, let the string slip, and wailed to the sky as Felipe’s clueless, dumbass, grinning likeness floated into oblivion. It terrified him.
Felipe was baseball, and had been for decades. It was as though all of baseball history was a skimmable prologue, a patient table-setting for his eventual mastery. He wasn’t absolutely perfect, which was fine by him. The story was better this way. By age 29, his career record resembled that of a disgraced former lawyer who gets it in his head to run for state senate every cycle: every two years or so he’d receive a call-up, self-destruct on the mound, and immediately be sent away to chuck his 91-mile-per-hour fastball in some brown-rivered town with a single skyscraper built by a regional bank.
A few weeks before his 30th birthday, Felipe reported to the double-A Stallions and struck out 17 men. The next start, he did it again over the course of a one-hitter. His third start, a perfect game, is the one most endlessly studied by baseball statisticians, academics, and eventually government agencies. With only 57 pitches, he mowed down 27 batters who represented a significant percentage of the attendance that night. He had cut them apart with nothing but a somewhat humble fastball and a suddenly Satanic curveball that fell right off the table.
He was immediately called up, probably for the spectacle of it as much as anything else, and finished his first full major-league campaign with an ERA of 0.97, the highest it would ever be over the course of his career. He developed a circle change, a slider, and, out of boredom, a knuckleball on his way to countless unanimously won Cy Young Awards. Five seasons later, he pitched 18 no-hitters, 14 of which were perfect games. Baseball games that didn’t involve him became mere performative fulfillments of the schedules they belonged to. He had authored baseball’s New Testament all by himself.
Everyone in the world — because, yes, his name was eventually known by virtually everyone on Earth — wondered how long it could last. He devoured opposing lineups well into his forties, and then well into his fifties. Today, a 67-year-old Felipe was making his 1,271st career start. His career ERA was 0.11.
If Felipe had simply told the truth, that he was visited by Satan and presented with a bargain, they might well have believed him. Satan, for his part, was somewhat annoyed when Felipe rounded the megachurch circuit and credited his nemesis for his success. But he reasoned that, after all, it was well within Felipe’s right to exercise his end of the bargain however he wanted.
When will it happen?
It wouldn’t be any fun if I told you. Not for a long time, though, I promise.
Will it happen to everybody?
No, no, don’t worry. Just you.
Will I die?
I’ll give you three guesses.
Felipe never regretted the bargain, but he did regret his failure to press for specifics. When it happens, will it happen gradually, like a glass slowly being turned over? Will it take a few seconds or a few minutes? Or will it instantly reverse at the flip of a switch? If the former, maybe there was some way out of this. Even if it happened at the worst possible time — on the mound, alone, with nothing to cling to — maybe he could sprint into the bowels of the stadium and ride it out. Maybe he could tumble all the way back to the outfield wall and find something to hold. No one would really understand, but maybe they could at least accept it, and leave an old man to his weird, quiet retirement.
Satan didn’t really seem to hate Felipe, but he was still Satan. Felipe doubted that he would be gracious enough to execute his fate while he was indoors somewhere. Regardless, he’d discreetly had all the furniture in his home bolted to the floor. Will the furniture come along with me? He had no idea. He really should have asked for details.
Over the years, Felipe’s perpetual fear gradually gave way to acceptance, only occasionally punctuated with short, sharp episodes of terror. The balloon, that did it. When that lady at the party last week said that adopting a second dog “turned her whole life upside-down,” that did it too.
He’s in the bottom of the sixth now, and he’s cruising. Thanks to an error he committed in the third — he only asked for the gift of pitching, after all — he’s faced one batter over the minimum. The old man sets, takes a slow breath, winds up, groans and heaves his unholy slider. It violently swings to the outside of the plate like a sparrow that sees the plate-glass window at the latest possible moment. It’s as beautiful as ever. The batter swings with the relatively workmanlike form of a game show contestant; he planned on coming up empty all along. The catcher leans and stretches his mitt across the vacant batter’s box. The ball glances off the tip of the mitt and bounces to the third baseman, who for years has been shifted all the way behind the on-deck circle for this very contingency. He scoops up the dropped third strike and fires to first. That felt wrong. The inning is over. That felt wrong.
It was not supposed to go upstairs. Shut up! Shut up. Felipe is merely angelic, not God-like. He is capable of missing his target, and his paranoia spikes whenever he does. He’s giving himself the same speech he always does: that his deal was to die once and once only, and to die a hundred times in his imagination would be to lose this bargain. Head to the dugout. Use your feet. You’re fine.
He once asked a NASA engineer why meteorites burn up when they fall toward Earth, but the space shuttle doesn’t when it leaves. He was reassured that the atmosphere isn’t a one-way door, and that the space shuttle doesn’t burn up only because of the way it’s built. Felipe would burn up and that would be it. The sky would still be blue at the very end. These are the things he’s thinking yet again, and he tells himself once more to be quiet.
But he doesn’t listen, because now he’s watching his …
He stops and then abruptly race-walks, and thinks to run, but his feet are …
Despair is a language neither thought nor spoken, only heard.
To the crowd, it appears as though he trips and falls, clawing loose clumps of dirt out of the grass by his fingertips. Then suddenly he vaults skyward with arms flailing, just as quickly as he would if he had fallen into a canyon.
Was he raptured? Was he chosen to ascend to heaven?, many will ask later. If he was, then why was he screaming?
The terror of falling into increasingly frigid air fades as he reached terminal velocity; it lends him a sense of stillness that allows him to perceive another, greater terror. He had always rationalized this moment away into something that would make sense to people. He’d have one last chance to explain himself, or they’d neatly compartmentalize his ascent as a myth, or they’d assume he was chosen by a God who was tired of being without him.
But did he scream? Yes, he did. He shrieked and tore into the grass and then he was gone, a fulfillment of a bargain understood only by an old man suffocating in the sky.
Will they still play baseball? Will they let their children outside?
I have ruined them all.
A few of his bones, in part or in whole, make it all the way out, spilling into the cosmos like broken wind chimes.
There’s an old black-and-white photo that was taken about 80 years ago; surely you can find it somewhere. A couple dozen men are standing in tall grass, posing matter-of-factly for the camera. Behind them are some tall trees, and at the top of one of the trees, there is a corpse of a stranded horse tangled in the branches. A flood of unholy proportions had hung it there, dead and lonely, and then washed away, leaving only the wordless language of evil.