A Stonecutter’s Chorus
by Chris DeWitt
By the time the bus pulls up it’s a hundred degrees in the parking lot, and I’ve sweat through my hat and shirt, but I refuse to do anything but stand there cool as a fucking cucumber in my Top Gun shades and jeans just to show those assholes in the office that even after all this pounding they couldn’t get me to crack.
I stomp my way down the aisle and find a seat in a middle row and slam my bag under my feet like a bratty child. I know the only eyes I’m getting are from the other guys who are also being sent back to the Minor Leagues and the brass doesn’t give a shit, but I can’t resist a goddam tantrum sometimes. Imagine you spent months or years kissing both ass cheeks of every manager and pitching coach and goddam bathroom attendant, working harder than every guy in spitting distance so you can pitch like the Hammer of Thor, hoping you get called up to the Majors only to get called into some pencil neck’s office at the end of Spring Training where they tell you We’re keeping you at Triple A, Pete. So you spit on the floor and they tell you, hey, it could be worse, you could’ve been demoted to a lower league, so you spit again and they tell you to watch it, and then you flip a table on the way out and they yell and holler and tell you to be grateful you still have a spot somewhere, that they could’ve just cut your ass and you’d never get to play ball for a living ever again. Well, I tell you if you were me, you’d flip a table or two, every time. And you’d probably act like a brat on the bus. Tell me I’m wrong.
It’s all desert between Arizona and the Texas Panhandle, just rocks and scrubby trees, and after a couple hours it’s too dark to see anything. I click on the overhead light and pull a ratty paperback from my bag and stare out the window through my reflection. I’m not a big reading guy, but these days I’ll take anything to get the Baseball Gods back on my side. I flip to a dog-eared page and immediately fall asleep. I jerk awake as the bus brakes, and I squint into the early morning sun. I wipe the drool from my mouth and look at the book in my lap, the line with a thick black box around it.
You’re the sculptor, I’m the stone.
We stop for gas at a truck stop with a Snax Max convenience store. The sun casts a crystal glare on the long, straight interstate.
“Where the hell are we?” I ask the younger guy I recognize from training in the seat ahead of me.
“New Mexico still,” he says. “Another few hours.”
I tuck the book back in my bag and fish out a ratty twenty dollar bill, the last cash money I’d seen in a while. In the Minors, if you’re not playing, you’re not making any money, and even when you do make any money it’s usually not enough to do anything with. Most guys get a job to pay the bills in the off-season to help stop themselves from digging into more debt. I’ve mopped floors, driven a forklift, sold, at various points, cars, shoes, acid, coke, and weed, and I’ve bagged groceries. I’m usually just about breaking even, so getting to March twenty bucks in the black is a damn win.
I take my twenty and get off the bus to look for breakfast. I walk the aisles of the Snax Max and grab a couple protein bars, some hot Cheetos, and a big ass bag of Skittles when I see this little kid stuffing a pack of Now and Laters down his pants, which are already bulging with loot. He sees me and his eyes bulge thinking he’s a goner, but I just put my finger to my lips and look behind me to the register. There’s one cashier behind a thick plexiglass window playing on her phone.
I look back over to the kid. He grabs another pack and bolts past me down the aisle towards the register. This little fucker has his pockets filled like a damn chipmunk stashing nuts in his mouth, knocking into shit left and right. The cashier looks up to see what the commotion is about and I yell, “Hey!”
The kid whips around and freezes. We lock eyes and I give him a little wink.
“Excuse me, ma’am, looks like y’all are out of sunflower seeds,” I say, loud enough for her to hear me across the store.
“Huh?” she says, looking up from her phone. “Hold on, lemme check.”
As she’s coming around, I crouch down behind the rack and hand the kid my Skittles.
“Now you stand up straight and walk outta here nice and slow,” I whisper. “And don’t eat that shit all at once.”
“Sorry, sir, what were you looking for?” the cashier says.
The kid backs up and walks out just like I told him to and the cashier doesn’t notice a thing. I grab a bag of seeds from the rack and say, “Never mind, found ‘em.”
Back on the bus I stash my feast in the backpack and crane my neck out the windows to try and see where that kid went. Maybe there’s some broke down minivan somewhere with a family and a bunch of brothers and sisters sharing their first meal of the day, I don’t know. But the kid’s nowhere to be found. The parking lot’s empty. I get my book out and wait for the bus to rumble on.
* * *
I never wanted to do anything but play ball. And sometimes it’s more of an obsession than anything else, like a compulsion. It’s not fun, it’s not a game. I keep at it because I have to and because of that I end up turning my back on everything else. That’s the only way. Weddings, funerals, holidays. I haven’t seen my folks in years. They used to come to games in high school, but this job pays less than minimum wage, and it’s hard to get around to places if I’m not on the damn club bus. My brother has like three kids I’ve never met. Maybe it’s two. We used to be close, then I missed his wedding for a summer series in Roanoke and we haven’t really talked since. Took me a while to realize how much I needed a family until I was too far away for it to matter.
I went from being Big High School Baseball Star to sucking at rookie ball and having no friends in a matter of months, and that really bent me out of shape. Couldn’t throw for shit, couldn’t hit for shit. Everyone else threw too fast, and I threw too slow. My head was all over the place and nowhere good. So I clamped down. I didn’t talk to anybody, I barely ate. All I did was sleep, lift, and pitch.
No surprise, that routine didn’t last. After a couple years I found myself staring at the water-stained ceiling of the dorm in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we were supposed to play an early season series against the IronPigs. A freak blizzard hit the Lehigh Valley and snowed us in for a week. We couldn’t leave, so we just hung out in the junior college dorms watching TV and shivering. On about day three, I just lost it. I lost it and I just kept losing it, wasn’t right for weeks, just sobbing and snotting all over, running to the bathroom to weep a couple times a day at least. Guys thought I was puking, which I let them believe because it felt less shameful than crying like a goddam baby, but there you go. Couldn’t explain it to you. I broke all the damn way down. Barely got out of bed some days. I just kept imagining my parents dying while I froze to death in Pennsyltucky wondering what in the hell I was doing with my life.
The snow had just started to melt when I called my brother for the first time in years. I figured if he picked up at all maybe he could help me get my shit back together. He sounded like nothing really happened, like we had just hung out last weekend.
“What’s up, Pete, how’s it going?”
“Oh, you know,” I said. “Hanging out. Usual.”
“Cool, cool,” he said. The line was quiet for a minute.
“Hey, listen, I’m sorry about the wedding and shit.”
“Dude that was five years ago, I get it,” he said. “You know you’re an uncle now? Gotta meet your nieces and nephew someday, man.”
“Yeah, totally, cool,” I said. I just stared at the wall, clenching my jaw, trying not to lose it.
“So,” he said. “What’s up? What can I do for you?”
“I’m having a hard time,” was all I could squeeze out.
“Ah, gotcha,” he said and chuckled a little. “You’re not interested in catching up, you just need something. What is it? Money? Bail?”
I closed my eyes. Usually at this point I’d chuck the phone across the room and punch a wall, but I was too tired for that.
“I’m serious,” I said. “I need some help.”
I unloaded on him. I wept and he listened. Afterwards he said his professional opinion was that I was “depressed as shit.” We talked for another hour and when we were done, he told me to call again, it was good to hear from me. He said he wanted to stay close, he wanted his kids to know me. He told me mom and dad wanted to catch up, too, and he said he’d tell them I called. I said I’d try.
When the team finally left Allentown and checked into the next place, the desk clerk said I had a package. It was from my brother; he must’ve called the club or something to see where we’d be. It was a book called Prayers of Relinquishment, real Jesus-take-the-wheel type shit. Let-go-and-let-God-type shit. Bunch of garbage mostly, but one part of it stuck with me. The Stonecutter Prayer, they called it a “Stonecutter’s Chorus” in the old days when they sang everything. They say that when they were building the cathedrals and churches in France or Europe or whatever that the guys making the statues, the gargoyles and angels and shit, said the prayer before picking up the hammer and chisel every day:
Lord, I am an uncut stone.
With a steady hand you carve me how you want.
Lord, though I hold the tools,
You are the sculptor, and I am the stone.
Carve me how you want.
Believe me or don’t, the Stonecutter Prayer saved me, for a while anyway. After a spring in the gutter, I had a long break in July, and I said the Stonecutter Prayer every day. Less a prayer than a hex to get my mojo going again. Sure enough by September I was back on an even keel. I struck out eleven of my next thirteen batters, and for a while I thought I was back in business. But the end of the season came and I didn’t get called up anywhere. They just traded me somewhere else.
I still carry around that damn book wherever I go. I don’t read it, just kind of hold onto it like a lucky charm that’s out of juice.
* * *
Saltwater, Texas is a speed trap with a Dollar General on the high plains. It’s also my home again after surviving another Spring Training slaughter, where guys either get called up to the Majors, head back to their Minor League teams like me, or have to find another job.
I keep reminding myself that the Minors is just a pit stop, if an extended one. The Big Leagues are within pissing distance and I got a bladder full to bursting. Right out of high school, the Giants drafted me, and I spent half a season as a Flying Squirrel. I only threw three pitches because like I said, I was going through some shit. So far I’ve been traded and tossed around more times than I can count. In addition to being a Flying Squirrel, I’ve been a fucking Mudhen, a Cypress Knee, a Zephyr, a Yard Goat, a Loon, a goddam Mosquito, and now I’m with the Saltwater Irrigators (Home of the Fightin’ Sprinklers, no joke), which means I’m technically a Chicago Cub, waiting on word to come up and join a Major bullpen, at which point I will joyously relieve myself all over the goddam Windy City. Figuratively.
The bus finally pulls into town mid-morning. I get off and the familiar cow shit smell is so thick I feel it on my tongue. We’ve gone over seven hundred miles but everything’s the same—same heat, same dust, same scrubby plants, except now I look like I got ridden hard and put away wet. A few guys grab their shit and head over to the clubhouse. I throw my bag over my shoulder and head to the Squat, the shitty apartment the club lets me and a couple other guys stay at when we’re playing home games. And once again here I am, strutting down the dusty road like it’s the goddamn Magnificent Mile.
The Squat is near the bus station, which is near the stockyards, where, if I had to guess, a million cows come and go every day on endless trains on their way to becoming burgers. In my two years in Saltwater, I’ve noticed there’s a pen in the yards with some cows that don’t get moved. I stop by there so often on the way to and from games that I’ve given them names. There’s Colonel Mustard, Heinz, Pickles, and Wendy, the small black and brown one in the corner. Good news for the cows is they’re not on my plate yet. The bad news is they’re still in line.
“Hey, ladies,” I say. “Missed you stinkers.”
I continue down the dusty road leading across the train tracks to the Squat. It’s the last door of a long low cinderblock building facing the tracks. You get the best of everything—constant clanging from the trains and constant stench from the cows.
I close the door and look around. Nothing’s changed since I left at the end of last season. Same concrete floor, same cobwebbed corners, same scummy kitchen sink with dishes that have probably been “soaking” since September. Paint is chipping off the walls.
My room is in the front. I close the door behind me and plop myself down on the twin bed by a buzzing window A/C unit and stare at the water-stained ceiling. I don’t notice the shit smell anymore—not because it’s gone but because after a few hours back in town I just get used to it. There’s a 7:00 a.m. call time in the bullpen tomorrow morning, so I try to get some beauty rest, but I’m not sure that’s in the cards.
* * *
The problem with prayers of relinquishment is that you don’t always know what’s the sculpture and what’s the stone. It’s not up to you to decide. But that’s how they get you. Make it sound easy as shit and then all you end up wanting to do is take the tools and start hammering away yourself. I’m a goddam ball player! You might say. But you don’t know. You can’t know. That’s the whole point.
* * *
“Hell I am.”
“Shit I have.”
“Son of bitch!”
“You walk off this mound, and you’re back to single A faster—”
Great way to shut up a pitching coach is to throw a triple-digit four seamer down the middle. Coach checks the meter and uncrosses his arms and scribbles something in the little notebook he keeps in his breast pocket. I throw a few more to stay warm until he approaches the mound.
“Listen, ass bag. You think you can hammer your way to Chicago with a bad attitude and a good pitch here and there?”
I shift my feet a little and adjust my hat.
“You’ve got some stuff but you’re inconsistent. You go on a run and then shit the bed. At fucking best, you’re a career guy.”
“Hell I am.”
“Yes, you are, ‘cause you’re a pain in the ass.” He turns to spit then squints hard at me. “And you’re not gonna like it, but I’m gonna tell you because you’re too dumb to see it yourself. You’re a career guy, LeBlanc, a Minor League Lifer, and what I say next may save your life. Let go, son. Let go.”
He isn’t red in the face, which makes it worse because he isn’t saying this shit out of anger. I just stand there stone faced and steely-eyed because I’m not trying to let on that I know he’s right. I just stare down to the plate and take it.
* * *
After practice, everyone heads to the showers, but I stay in the bullpen with a bucket of balls and a rock in my throat. I throw until my arm hurts, then I throw until it’s numb, then I take a bat and beat the shit out of a Gatorade cooler.
I’m still in my gear when I finally walk my ass back to the Squat and all I can think about is why any Big League manager would take a chance on my ass when there’s a hundred nineteen-year-olds behind me ready to pucker up and take my spot.
* * *
It’s the day before our home opener and after practice, as is our custom, me and the guys try to drink the most beer we can find for the littlest possible money. And in Saltwater, that means Mangroves.
Mangroves is a little shack off a state highway with a couple windows overlooking a large patch of dirt and gravel with some picnic tables in the front. There are no trees in Saltwater, so the name of the bar is a cruel joke because the only shade in town is under your own hat. The inside doesn’t have A/C, so they keep the doors and windows open and have a couple fans going, but it’s always hot as hell. I like my bars like a sauna though, something about sweating doing nothing appeals to me. And the food and the prices are stuck in the 1970s, so you can get a pretty economical buzz going.
We get to Mangroves a couple hours before sensible people start drinking, so the inside is mostly empty. I sit at the bar and the guys, all younger and dumber than me, get beers and immediately go outside to bird-dog. I pull out my phone and type then delete texts to my brother and my dad.
“Seen y’all before,” the bartender says. She looks about fifty, which in Saltwater means she could be twenty-five or sixty-five. The sun and wind do cruel things to faces.
“Been here before, once or twice.”
“You’re with the ‘Gators?”
“That’s where I know you from,” she says. “Y’all about the only thing to do on a Tuesday night when you’re in town.”
I nod and sip my beer.
“Wednesday’s my day off,” she says.
She turns around and fishes a generic bottle from the shelf and pours a couple doubles.
“This one’s on me,” she says and takes the shot in one go. I smell it first because I’m not a lunatic and it burns my nose like an off-brand Fireball. I knock it back.
“Y’all did all right last year.”
“Long season,” I say, still shaking off the burn. And then, “Highs and lows.”
“So when am I gonna see you in the Big Leagues?”
“No calls yet,” I tell her. I lean back and fold my arms. “I’m not dumb enough to hope but I ain’t giving up yet.”
“Name’s Stephanie,” she says.
“Pete, Pete LeBlanc.”
We shake and she says, “I’ll be looking for you on SportsCenter.”
I laugh and gulp down the rest of the beer, then get up to piss. When I’m across the bar she calls out, “Now you know where to send some free tickets, Pete LeBlanc.”
* * *
When I get back, Stephanie’s busy at the other end of the bar flirting with some biker type, leaning over and feeling the fringe on his jacket. I know she’s just doing her job, but I want her to keep talking to me, keep asking me questions. And I want to tell her to come out to the game tomorrow, tell her I owe her a drink. Tell her about the kid in the Snax Max and my nieces and nephews. Tell her to take me home with her, that I’ll quit baseball and never leave her, that I’ll make her breakfast in the morning.
“Need something, hon?”
I just stand there for a minute, I don’t know how long, with a fist-sized fireball in my chest.
“Hey bro,” the biker says.
“Fuck you want?”
“I’m good,” I say. Then I grab my balls over my jeans and say, “I got your free tickets right here.”
Outside it’s getting dark and there’s a bunch of bikers revving their engines and churning up dust and smoke. The guys are all gone. I wobble my way back to the Squat and everyone’s already sawing logs. I climb into bed, but the fireball keeps me up for a while.
* * *
The next night it’s our first game of the season. The park has that special dollar-beer-night roar and stale piss smell and even the kids heckling us over my shoulder don’t register. I’ve got my eyes shut and my hat pulled low. I imagine the season is over. I imagine I’m spending the off-season driving a truck between Saltwater and Odessa on a fake CDL with a rented truck. The morning mist is gently burning off as the sun rises over a flat landscape. As I get to my turn off into a warehouse or refinery or whatever I don’t slow down, I don’t turn. I gun it. I’m hell on wheels, I’m free, I’m unstoppable, a goddam forty-ton chariot on fire. I imagine I get a call from the club and they want to call me up, bring me in as a closer for the Cubbies for more money than God but I don’t answer. I imagine throwing my phone out the window to splinter on the cold hard highway and I drive until everything melts away and my eyes are closed so tight tears are welling up in the corners and for the first time I’m really, actually praying.
About Chris DeWitt
Chris DeWitt is a writer, musician, and educator based in Austin, TX, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and two dogs. Previous work can be found in Smokelong Quarterly and Barren Magazine.