A Southern Boy Returns to the Midwest

On a blustery Tuesday morning late in November, not moments after the sun peeked over the Atlanta skyline, my seven-year old son and I hopped in the truck…

…and began our long voyage to northern Illinois.

The November chill had already conquered much of the southeast. The still-green leaves in Atlanta belied the fact temperatures had already scraped the bottom of the low-30’s barrel just one night earlier. Ill-prepared citizens hurried in hoodies and cargo shorts into their cars. Everyone had expected the usual late-year heatwave to hit.

And yet…

No such luck.

It didn’t much matter to me and the G Man. With a fistful of snacks and a fully-charged Nintendo Switch, my son climbed in the backseat, buried his knees beneath a winter blanket, and settled in for the long haul without complaint. His was the best spot from which to enjoy a road-trip, and he knew it. As for me, I began our little adventure steeping in the fumes of two hours’ sleep, no dinner the night before, and a headache straight out of Hades.

No matter. I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

And so we began.

Like a stone shot from a cannon, we tore up the highway.

We were flying, making great time towards…

…a huge traffic wreck just ten minutes removed from our starting point.

“Dad, what’s that?” the G Man looked up from his game.

“An upside-down tractor-trailer on fire beneath a bridge.” I stared at the awful accident.

“Oh. Neat.” G Man returned to playing Mega Man 11 (or 11-million, whichever.)

Well. I figured if he could be nonchalant about spending the next hour sitting in a huge traffic jam, so could I.

Traffic cleared. Cars moved. And after a long wait, again we flew.

  • Toward Chattanooga, TN, home of the best aquarium in the south (sorry, Atlanta.)
  • Toward Nashville, in whose Cracker Barrel my son proudly declared his disdain for country music
  • Toward Louisville, whose skyline looked stunning in the crispy cold sunset
  • In the dark toward Indianapolis, where the highways have no apparent traffic during rush hour
  • Up the dark roads to Chicago, whose mighty towers were invisible behind the high walls of Hwy 80
  • And finally to a little country town known as Minooka, only about ten minutes away from the very spot I was born

Twelve hours, we drove. Two pit stops. Two gas refills. One bag of Twizzlers. A giant orange Fanta. Thousands of slow cars passed in the pitch-black of the Indiana expressways.

And there we slept, in a neat, new Hampton Inn tucked away in the modest commercial heart of Minooka, IL.

Side-note: it’s only fair to mention that while I had mighty plans for the G Man and I to collide with family, friends, and entirely too much Thanksgiving food, I actually had a secret side-agenda in mind upon traveling to the north. We’ll get to that later. (This is what we call ‘a tease.’)

Day 1 Begins…

The G Man and I awoke late in the morning, feeling almost jet-lagged by the long drive. Sure, we’d gained an hour by crossing into the Central Time Zone, but who knew how exhausting sitting in the car for seven-hundred fifty miles would make us? A little spacey, a lot hungry, we jetted over to meet our much-beloved Aunt Patty for breakfast at a little diner known as The Crispy Waffle.

Ah, Aunt Patty. My favorite person in the-

But wait. What’s this? As we set off into the morning, it hit me. We weren’t in the south any longer. No, it wasn’t particularly cold. No, the wind wasn’t as vicious as we’d expected. It was something else entirely. It was the sky, slate grey forever in each direction. It was the stillness of everything, the endless fallow cornfields, the trees looking far more brittle than any southern boy could comprehend. It was…home. In the town in which I grew up (Joliet, a few minutes southwest of Chicago) entire autumns and winters passed in this cold, grey atmosphere. I took one skyward glance on our first morning, and I remembered.

At night in the Midwest, you can gaze across the fields and see lights from houses many miles away.

During late autumn afternoons, the world always feels five minutes from dusk. Whether it’s 1PM or 5PM, twilight is just around the corner.

And sometimes, if you step outside alone at night, you hear nothing. Not the wind. Nor a stray cricket. Nor the everlasting rustles of southern wildlife. You hear nothing. It’s both eerie and invigorating.

Minooka in winter. Actually, everywhere in Illinois in winter.

So…The Crispy Waffle. Five-thousand pancakes. Two-billion strips of bacon. Many hugs with Aunt Patty. It was G Man’s first encounter with this part of our family, and his usual shyness was absent. Our first reunion…a success. Aunts are wonderful creatures to be loved and cherished. And Aunts named Patty? Solid. Friggin’. Gold.

Our first afternoon, with bellies full of food, we drove through the cold. It seemed to get colder as the day aged. The wind picked up and the clouds gathered into great grey masses. Every moment we spent outside, I continued to recall the long days of my youth. I went back in time, so to speak.

But wait…where was I?

Oh…right.

After our pleasant-to-the-bone breakfast, the G Man and I treated ourselves to a movie – Ralph Breaks the Internet. To be fair, it wasn’t as epic as the original. But somehow, watching a movie with a laughing, smiling seven-year old makes ALL movies good. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Despite the near-freezing temps, we next visited a park. We were the only ones outside. Absolutely, the only souls in sight. Another silent moment hit us. Even Garrett felt it, standing there in the soundless dirt, hiding from me atop a four-story high slide…he knew it. I saw him understand the difference between Atlanta and Chicago.

Cool.

We left the park behind. And next came a truly heart-rending experience. See, not far from yon park lay a street – Lilac Lane. And it’s there on Lilac Lane I had once (thirty-five years ago) spent the most glorious days of my youth. I could write whole volumes of my love for that little street. (If you really want to read about it, go here.) I just had to take G Man for a drive-by, however brief, and look upon the house between whose walls I lived for many a perfect season. We drove slowly up Lilac Lane and crawled to a stop not twenty feet from the driveway I’d run up and down a thousand times.

But…

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stop and get out to look at the house. I couldn’t look upon it for longer than one fleeting moment. The G Man must’ve wondered what was wrong when I tapped the gas pedal and announced we were going back to the hotel ‘for a break.’ It was a moment…and then it was gone.

I can’t say more about that part of the trip except to note the house on Lilac Lane was once my grandparents’, both of whom are gone now, and both of whom I loved to pieces. It was a hard thing to do, stopping by for a look, and most unexpectedly it hurt.

So then…

Our first night was quite a bit less somber than the afternoon. We headed to an old, old friend’s house, the best of friends, and we sipped scotch, ate Italian food, and sat before a sizzling fireplace. At one point, my friend’s wife snatched up a glass of unattended (and powerful) 14-year scotch, and simply destroyed it. The world felt right.

And yes…it was good to be among friends again.

Day 2…

The plan was simple: Wake up late. Eat no breakfast. Head to Aunt Patty’s house for about ten hours of football, whiskey, laughter, and food.

And boy did we live it up. Despite the G Man waking up a bit groggy, we headed once more across the grey-shrouded lands and arrived at a house I hadn’t set foot in for decades. The G Man arrived to a box full of gifts (because that’s what family does to kids – spoil them) and I arrived to such hospitality I’d rarely experienced.

Scotch (which I love)

Mounds of turkey, dressing, buttered peas, ham-stuffed biscuits, pies, cakes, cranberry sauce…

Let’s be honest. Day 2 was a blur from which our stomachs will likely never quite recover. We were again reminded what it’s like to be among family. And while some families may war and bicker, on this day ours was at peace.

…except for that one time my uncle sucker punched me in the back of the head.

But whatever.

Day 3…

We knew as we awoke this would be our final day in the north.

And so we knew we had to enjoy it.

And yet…as I awoke, something felt off. See, long before hatching the plan to come north, I’d been thinking of a way to encounter…a girl.

Yes. A girl. My secret reason for driving so far in the cold.

A girl from the north.

A girl who happened to live in Minooka…not five minutes from our hotel.

I hadn’t told the G Man. In fact, I hadn’t told anyone. It was a long-shot from the beginning, a heart-achy plan half-baked over the course of what felt like centuries.

So…

Even as I dressed for our third night of trouble-making, I must’ve looked distracted. Torn. Absent from thought. And yet, it so happened my plans to collide with the heartache-inducing lady completely collapsed. Died on the vine. She either didn’t want to see me…or couldn’t. This is how it went, how it always goes, and how I knew all along it would go.

But as I stood there in the hotel room, padding myself in clothes to ward off the increasing feel of Midwestern cold, I made a choice:

Have fun tonight. It’s your last night here. Be present. 

And for the most part, I was.

Another Midwestern field. Wintered trees. Dry, brittle grass. Grey clouds in every direction.

And so, in a rare mood, we drove out to another friends’ house. It was a short journey, only minutes from our hotel.

A log cabin surrounded by fields.

A warm living room filled with laughter, bottles of wine (and juice boxes for the kids.)

Several friends I hadn’t seen in eons.

What a night it was. The finest fried chicken chef in the north stood not ten feet away, preparing buckets of chicken, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, rolls…and more. Someone kept topping off my wine. Someone else brought me a shot of bourbon…and delivered unto the G Man a fistful of sweets.

I ate more food than I’d ever eaten in one sitting. Afterward, with a beard tainted by pumpkin pie, I visited my friend’s father’s workshop. I discussed heartbreak with the ladies. I topped off one final glass of wine. And I distributed a few small gifts to the warmest crowd the world has ever known.

Sometimes, home isn’t home because of the place. It’s the people. And for one night, I thought nothing of grey skies, fallow fields, and daydreams of romance. I sat among my life’s best companions and remembered for one small moment what it felt like to be loved.

Day 4…the trip home…

We woke early. Too early. We wanted to drive fast and make it home in time for relaxation.

And so we did, blazing back down to the south using the exact same roads we’d used just a few days earlier.

We saw giant wind farms. Empty stretches of nothing. Old barns. Older churches. And cows…lots of cows.

Notes of our return trip:

In the Deep South, especially southern Georgia, there exist billboards by the hundred. Billboards for Jesus. Billboards for the Lion’s Den (a creepy truck stop with naked girls…we think.) Billboards for peanuts, pecans, and the end of the world.

Well…

In the Midwest, the billboards are much, much fewer. And so I think the journey though the north, while not exactly stuffed with exciting views, is better for it. Because really…who needs to see one-hundred consecutive billboards regarding humanity’s descent into Hell?

A few Southern billboard examples:

Thankfully the Midwest has fewer of these.

…though I’m not exactly sure why.

And so our Midwestern adventure came to a quiet end. At 8PM Saturday night, we rolled into our familiar driveway. The leaves had browned and fallen in great number during our brief absence, and the cold had moved in.

Our cats were happy to see us.

Our house was clean and warm.

The G Man, having never once asked ‘Are we there yet’ during twenty-two hours of driving, was rewarded with a movie.

As for me, I suppose I must’ve sat quietly for nearly an hour after arriving. The Midwest was gone again, and the skies were back to their familiar southern haze. I missed the girl, but I’ll always remember the family and friends.

Perhaps we’ll go back again soon.

And maybe it won’t be as huge a culture shock to return to the land I once knew and loved.


*

I write plenty of stories that aren’t about cornfields, clouds, and overeating.

Find them here. 

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When to Walk Away from the Game (And when not to)

I’m standing on a bump of red Georgia clay.

It’s muggy out here. I’m sweating beneath the stadium lights. The baseball feels slick between my fingers.

It’s the ninth inning, and the game is tied 1-1.

For a Thursday night game in northwest Atlanta, we’ve drawn a nice crowd. We’re playing a tight contest against the state champion Cherokees, and the fans have decided to stick it out to the end.

Cherokees’ fans, mostly, I figure.

That’s fine.

Before the first batter struts up to home plate, I scan the seats. Of the hundred or so spectators, I recognize only a handful. I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. My name’s not on my jersey. I’m here for me, not for them.

If there’s one thing that’s been consistent about my stint as a baseball player, it’s my anonymity.

I’ve embraced it.

I prefer it.

Normally I’d tune the crowd out, but it’s the ninth inning and I’m tired. Tonight I notice everything:

Jason’s girlfriend is loud. I smile to myself. Jason’s our catcher tonight, and he’s doing a damn fine job. For the last eight innings, I haven’t had to shake off his pitch selection even once. If anyone deserves cheers, it’s him.

Buster’s wife and kids hunker right behind the first base dugout, waving to him as he takes his spot at second base. Buster’s the only guy on the team older than me. He can’t hit a lick, but he hustles, and so everyone loves him.

I can hear Matt’s fiancé chatting with Ben’s brother and wife. Matt and Ben can’t hear a thing; they’re in the outfield awaiting my first pitch. I’m pretty sure Ben’s wife is still gushing about his first-inning home run.

As well she should.

Every other player on both teams has at least one fan in the crowd. They’ve invited friends, wives, and girlfriends. Several players’ kids zoom around in the bleachers, savoring one of their last free nights before the school year begins.

The whole crowd is a cacophony of support.

And here I am…on an island.

It’s all Jason’s fault, really. Last winter, I’d all but retired from pitching. My body felt great and my competitive fire was still intact, but I’d convinced myself to devote more time to writing and less to pursuing a baseball career that’d never go anywhere.

Because…let’s be honest.

I’ve never hurled a fastball harder than 85 mph.

The most home runs I’ve hit in a season? Three.

Baseball, like everything else in my life, was something I was good at, but never great at.

And then Jason had called me.

“Hey buddy,” he’d said with no shortage of cheer.

“Hey,” I grumbled. “Who’s this?”

“Jason,” he said. “You know…J.J. From the Muckdogs?”

“Oh. Right. Hey, Jason. How’s things?”

“Never been better,” he said. “I’m married now. Life’s great. So listen…I know you said last year was probably it for you, but I’ve gotta ask. One of our guys just went down with a shoulder injury. We need your arm.”

“I haven’t thrown a pitch in six months,” I told him. “You know that, right?”

To which he replied, “Then I guess we’d better get started.”

Jason’s butterfly wings fluttered in the breeze.

And here I was, dishing out a pretty good game against a superior opponent, closing out what was probably the best season in my career.

Go figure.

The inning’s first batter stalks up to the plate, and I shoot him a dirty look he probably can’t see. He’s already homered off me tonight. There’s nothing I hate more than giving up bombs. If this game goes into extra innings, it’s his fault.

And mine.

I strike him out with an impossibly slow curveball. He complains to the ump, then takes his seat with a few choice words in my direction. I’m never one to gloat, but I allow myself the world’s smallest smirk.

The second batter walks up. He’s no doubt the Cherokees’ best player. Standing a monstrous six-foot five, I’m pretty sure his bat is heavier than most of the players on my team. He’s already got two hits tonight.

Focus, I tell myself. I figure if I can somehow get the big guy out, I’ll retire the final batter and give my team a shot in the ninth.

He crushes the first pitch.

The crack of the wooden bat echoes in the night.

But…

He hits it dead-on at our center fielder, who flinches, but snares it in his glove.

Whew.

Two outs.

I breathe the warm night air. I feel comfortable, as at home on the mound as I am anywhere on Earth. I’m no longer aware of the crowd or anyone in it. If they’re cheering, I can’t tell whether it’s for my team or for the Cherokees’ next batter.

I admit to myself – I take a sort of grim pride in having no loved-ones in the crowd. In a strange way, it’s motivating for me to persevere alone. Sure, I have my teammates. But in my mind, in this moment, they could be anyone. I want to secure the last out and win the game, not for them or even for myself.

But because it’s a pitcher’s job.

The inning’s third batter is a stout, muscular, serious-looking guy. I like him already.

It’ll be fun to strike him out, I tell myself.

I get him swinging at a slow changeup for strike one.

He takes a good hack, but fouls off a fastball for strike two.

In theory, I have him where I want him. No balls, two strikes. He’s mine to toy with.

Jason calls for another changeup. The batter wasn’t even close to hitting the first one. A changeup’s the obvious call.

Jason’s an effin’ genius.

But…

In my narrow little mind, I’m just about to do the second dumbest thing in my life. It’s almost as bad as pouting about not getting a new video game.

I shake off Jason’s call for a changeup.

I reject his curveball and slider calls, too.

I want a fastball, I’m thinking.

I want to blow it right past this guy.

Jason looks confused, but he trusts me. I’m supposedly a wily veteran who knows what he’s doing.

I rear back and fire a fastball.

It’s got good velocity, but it’s up in the zone. And it catches too much of the plate.

Boom.

Home run over the center field fence.

I don’t even have to turn and watch it soar out of the park. The crack of the bat tells me everything.

Crap.

I retire the next batter, but it doesn’t matter.

I lead off the next inning with a triple, and it still doesn’t matter.

The Cherokees’ closer strikes out the final three Muckdogs, and we lose the game 2-1.

To rephrase, I lose 2-1.

After the game, my teammates are supportive. They remind me I’ve just pitched nine innings against a tough team and allowed only two runs. Some of the spectators approach me, smiles on their faces.

“Good game, man,” they say.

“That’s a tough team you played tonight.”

“Played your heart out.”

“It was you we were cheering for.”

I shrug it off. In my mind, the only thing worse than receiving a compliment for winning is earning one for losing.

And I’m deaf to anyone who says otherwise.

Later that evening, as I’m trucking home on the silent roads north of Atlanta, reality hits me.

I didn’t play my heart out. In fact, I played with no heart at all. I stood on the mound, arrogant, maybe even selfish, and I blew the game for our team. If not for my pride, we might’ve won a thriller against a tough opponent.

Instead I’m driving home in the dark, tired, alone, and defeated.

The closer I get to home, the more I awaken. I realize as the years have gone on, baseball has become a cerebral game for me. It’s all brains, no passion. All numbers, no excitement. The youthful love I once played with is now a cold, hard, competitive obsession.

I need a new hobby, I conclude. Something exciting. Something to reignite the fire.

Also, I owe Jason a beer.

Somewhere in my house, tucked away in boxes no one has opened in many years, the remnants of my baseball days lie sleeping. My old gloves are tucked away, doubtless in need of a good oiling. My collection of game-used baseballs sits in a musty corner, the seams loose in their decades-old leather. I’ve even saved my old uniforms, three in total, hidden away as keepsakes.

The Muckdogs, the Angels, the Yankees –

all covered in dust.

I wonder if they still fit.

Now and then, I crave to hit the field for one last season. It might be possible. For reasons I can’t fathom, I’ve worked hard to keep my throwing arm in shape. To this day, I leave baseballs at random around the house, which I fidget with and grip as if I’m about to throw curveballs. I even have a trio of game-ready, pine-tarred bats in my garage.

It’s strange, isn’t it?

I wonder what it might feel like to break out my gear and head out onto the mound again.

I sometimes think–

No.

I have to be honest with myself.

Those days are over.

After my game against the Cherokees, I never again took the mound. It’s not as if age caught up to me or the fire died in my heart. It’s just that the time had come. The once beautiful game had turned into an obsession. I spent more time training and keeping my arm in shape than I did paying attention to my life.

And once I discovered writing, the two tasks were at odds.

Most days, I’m at peace with giving up the thing I loved most. I look back at baseball with the same fondness I would an old girlfriend. We had our moments of glory, she and I. I’ll always think fond thoughts of her.

But I can’t go back.

Unlike pitching and writing, some things aren’t at odds with one another.

For example – writing and drinking scotch.

They’re like BFF’s, they are.

It’s a balmy evening, not unlike the fateful night I last took the field. Warm mist rises from the grass beyond my back door. Fireflies float between the trees, putting their lives at risk. The local bat population has realized my backyard is a feasting ground, and they’ve turned out in droves, gobbling up moths, mosquitos, and unlucky lightning bugs by the thousand.

The G Man and I like the bats so much we’re planning on building bat houses for them to inhabit. We’re weary of the mosquitos, and we figure a few friendly neighborhood predators might help.

As it turns out, flying bats are more interactive than wooden ones.

They don’t often swing and miss.

As a toast to the bats, tonight I’m soaking up several glasses of Balvenie 21-year. This scotch is the real deal. It’s another from Speyside, Scotland, aged in casks previously used for port wine. A girl I once knew gifted it to me as a surprise. I’ll savor it to the last drop.

Balvenie 21-year’s color is darker than most scotches, and its flavor unrivaled. As I pop the cork, I’m startled by the scents of rich soil, light smoke, and sun-warmed rain. If one could literally drink the sunset, Balvenie is what it would taste like.

I wish I’d had a glass after my final game.

It might’ve made walking away easier.

It’s a cool, damp night in early November, and I’m sitting in local Atlanta bar Kaleidoscope.

Used to be, I’d come here to chase girls, rare cocktails, and long, lonely evenings at the bar.

Not tonight.

Tonight I’m here for baseball.

Tonight, of all nights, I’m here to watch game seven of the World Series, in which my beloved Chicago Cubs face off against worthy nemesis, the Cleveland Indians.

I almost feel bad for the other people who’ve braved the night to be here with me. Jerry, a Cubs’ fan in his own right, isn’t prepared for my level of emotional commitment. I’m here to watch every pitch, every strike, ball, and tense moment in-between. Jerry likes baseball, maybe even loves it.

But me?

I’m a junkie.

Jerry thinks I’m crazy. And tonight he might be right.

Jerry’s wife Chan sees the look in my eyes. I’ve hardly touched my Long Island ice tea. Before the game’s first pitch is thrown, I’m knotted up into a nervous ball. Me, the guy who has trouble cracking half a smile. Chan’s not seen this side of me.

No one has.

And then there’s my date, who doesn’t know what she’s signed up for. Having flown into town to see me, she’s pretty much signed an oath to spend every moment by my side. I guess I probably should’ve asked her to come the week before.

Nope.

The week before, when we faced the Los Angeles Dodgers, was almost as bad.

Kaleidoscope is packed tonight. I chose this spot in particular because it’s not a sports bar, which means I won’t have to spend all night in deep discussion with fellow fans. I want to be alone with my angst. I want to gaze at the television all night, uninterrupted, unnoticed, and anonymous.

It’s only here I can do it.

…friends and girlfriends notwithstanding.

Play ball.

During the game’s first at-bat, the Cubs’ Dexter Fowler smacks a home run. My heart roars and my blood heats up to volcanic temperatures. I’m pretty sure someone else in the Kaleidoscope masses lets out a cheer, but I pay it little mind.

Cubs lead 1-0.

The second inning arrives, and the Indians tie the game. For as happy as I was fifteen minutes ago, I’m now just as gloomy. I’d hoped the Cubs would win 20-0. And now those dreams are dashed.

My second Long Island arrives.

I don’t remember ordering it.

“You really should relax.” My date smiles.

“Relax?” I say.

“Yeah.” She snuggles close. She’s as supportive as they come, and I love her for it. “Everything’s gonna be ok,” she swears.

“Not me. I’m not gonna be ok.”

And then a few glorious things happen. In the tops of the fourth and fifth innings, the Cubs pile on four runs. They take a 5-1 lead. Every part of my body begins to sing.

But then…

In the bottom of the fifth, the Indians score twice and narrow the margin to 5-3.

My hearts skips twenty beats. My muscles hurt. I’d probably feel better if I were out there pitching for the Cubs. At least then I’d have some control over the game’s fate.

In the sixth, the Cubs score another run on a David ‘Grandpa’ Ross homer. It’s his final at-bat in the major leagues, and he goes out in style.

“A home run in his last at-bat…in the World Series?” I shout to no one in particular. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Cubs lead 6-3.

Life as a baseball fan, hell…life as a human being just got better.

Two scoreless innings pass. The Cubs’ Jon Lester steps into the game and looks just as good as ever. After three solid innings of work, he steps off the mound.

And up steps Aroldis Chapman, he of the 101mph fastball.

I’m feeling good about where we’re at. A 6-3 lead late in the game. A third Long Island. The Kaleidoscope crowd gradually turning over to the Cubs’ side.

And then, with two outs in the eighth inning, disaster strikes. Chapman leaves a slower-than-usual fastball up in the zone, and Rajai Davis of the Indians hits a three-run homer, tying the game at 6-6.

Jerry looks at me, awaiting my implosion.

Chan takes the opportunity to ask for the check. She’s not interested in seeing my heart shatter and spill all over the floor.

My date, luckily not a baseball fan, shrugs it off.

“They’ll still win,” she says. “Just watch.”

“No…” My mouth hangs open. “No, this isn’t happening. One-hundred eight years, and we blow a lead to lose in game seven? No, no, no.”

“Relax, man,” offers Jerry. I’m envious of how tipsy he is. I probably should’ve downed my Long Islands before the ice melted. They’re mostly water now.

It’s then I make the third worst decision of my life. It’s not as bad as talking back to my grandma or throwing a fastball when Jason called for a changeup.

…but it’s close.

“I’m leaving,” I announce.

“What?” Jerry sits up. “You can’t just leave. Game’s still tied. There’s more baseball to play.”

“No.” I push my chair away. “I can’t do it. I can’t sit here and watch the Indians walk off the field with a win. I just can’t.”

I pay my tab and pull the car around. My date hops in, and we’re off. She doesn’t understand the significance of my leaving. She doesn’t know about 1985, when the Cubs had a 2-0 game lead and blew three games in a row. She wasn’t with me in 2003 when the infamous Steve Bartman reached for the ball and undid an almost certain trip to the World Series for my beloved Cubbies.

She doesn’t know and she doesn’t care.

Ignorance is bliss.

We pull into my driveway. It’s late, as in late, late. I’m a thousand-percent sure I’m going to walk into my house, check the score on my phone, and learn the Cubs gave up a run in the bottom of the ninth to lose the series.

But wait…

No…

I check my phone.

No one has scored since I abandoned Kaleidoscope. The game is tied 6-6 in extra innings.

Fuck.

I should’ve stayed. 

My phone rings. It’s Jerry. He’s still at the bar. He’s braver than I am.

“You watching this?” he asks.

“I can’t,” I groan. “I mean literally can’t. No cable here. I can’t— wait…I’ll listen on the radio.”

“Can’t believe you left, man,” he tells me.

“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

I hang up on Jerry and scramble to find a radio feed. I get lucky, and within moments the top of the tenth inning pumps through my living room speakers.

And there I sit, on the floor.

My shoes still on.

My heart pounding again.

My date smiling in the background. She gets it now, at least a little.

I listen to the radio feed as though I were a kid:

Ben Zobrist, a wily veteran with a penchant for big hits, slaps a double down the line. The Cubs go up 7-6. I start vibrating.

Miguel Montero smacks a base-hit to left field, lifting the Cubs to an 8-6 lead. I’m not just vibrating anymore. I’m quaking.

I only wish I could see the action, not just hear it.

And then, clinging to a one-run lead in the bottom of the tenth inning, the Cubs’ Mike Montgomery stands on the mound. I imagine his face as the Cleveland crowd roars all around him. I wonder if he’s as calm as I was.

Anyways…

There’s two outs.

Cubs are up 8-7.

Two men are on base.

The radio announcer goes silent for a split second. Montgomery bends one in, and the hitter rolls a soft ground ball to the Cubs’ third baseman, Kris Bryant.

I’m paralyzed. I can’t see anything. It’s all in my imagination.

Cubs win.

Cubs win.

Cubs win.

* * *

If you like stories like these, go here.

If you prefer red wine over baseball, try this.

J Edward Neill

Write Tipsy, Edit Sober

In his latest book, J Edward sips scotch, bourbon, and deep, dark whiskey with every chapter.

No topic goes untouched.

No cocktail is spared.

 Life & Dark Liquor

A tipsy memoir by J Edward Neill

Now available at Amazon.

Get a sample of stories and sips right here.

Life & Dark Liquor is the ‘sequel’ to Reality is Best Served with Red Wine.

Coming Soon – Life & Dark Liquor

Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

– Peter De Vries, Reuben, Reuben

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And so I shall.

At least two cocktails per chapter.

…to soften the senses and open doors long-shut.

*

Coming soon…

Life & Dark Liquor

‘Sequel’ to Reality is Best Served with Red Wine

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Having survived winter in the Chicago suburbs, J Edward Neill descends to Atlanta, where summers are mercilessly hot and every evening invites new adventures.

In the Deep South, he discovers new places, new friendships, and new cocktails.

Alternatively calm and stormy, exuberant and lonely, his latest bounce between bottles digs into the life of an ordinary author living in a strange and unpredictable world. Life and Dark Liquor is both a memoir and philosophical piece, ranging through topics both small and grandiose:

Single fatherhood.

Holding on to relationships.

Searching for creativity.

Marriage, divorce, and the hardest parts of being human.

And what’s more…

J Edward sips scotch, bourbon, and deep, dark whiskey with every chapter. No topic goes untouched.

No cocktail is spared.

 

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Life & Dark Liquor

Coming in August 2017