Around and About with Richard McCarthy: Naked softball game

Monday, July 11, 2022

I like to tell stories, which is a decided asset when you are a writer. More than that, I like to become aware of stories in any way that stories tell themselves to me. Sometimes that telling is as obvious as a game played out right in front of me, and sometimes it is as subtle as a scent of possibility, a whisper of budding romance, in the warm light of a May afternoon.

This past spring I went to the UMass campus to watch the Minutewomen play softball, as much to sit in the sunshine with others as for any other reason. I took a seat in the stands about 20 minutes before the scheduled start of the game. I often arrive early at events. Waiting for them to start is sort of meditative for me. Nothing to be done, just be in place.

In the front row of the section to my left was a woman with whom I assumed to be her two daughters. There is a certain amount of surmising in gleaning information from observation, out of earshot, and the way that the woman related to the girls certainly looked motherly to me. The three of them were wearing apparel from the college that was playing UMass. If I had to guess, I’d say that the girls were maybe 8 and 10.

The word that comes to mind to try to capture the girls’ energy is “exuberant.” Their exuberance took the form of their spiritedly popping up to go here and there, trying out different seats, and so forth. The only restraint on their buoyant antsiness was applied by the mother. She corralled them a bit, but without vexation, without acting as if she was beleaguered. All in all, the sense I had of them was of a tightknit threesome, one that worked, with no child having reached an age of rebellion or self-conscious separateness.

Enter the guy.

He stepped off the stairs leading up to the stands and began walking down the aisle. When he and the mother saw each other, they seemed pleased, but not surprised. It didn’t feel like they’d prearranged to meet at the game, more like both of them had an expectation that they might see each other there. After a brief hesitation, they gave each other a hug that I’d place on a continuum somewhere between “friends only” and romantic involvement.

I saw a dash of possibility in the hug, making me think I might be viewing the breaking wave of a budding relationship, with a capital “R.”

Because the woman was sitting in the front row, the guy was able to stand by her in the aisle and talk, while still leaving room for folks to get by. And talk they did, and did, and did, for the entire time before the game started. My read was that this was the first time that the mother and the guy had had such an extended, avid conversation, that they were breaking new ground.

While this ardent dialogue was going on, the girls continued their comings and goings, the only difference being that the mother was less involved with them.

I am quite aware I have leaned heavily on my sense of things in culling out my narrative of what I was observing, and that there were other possible scenarios of who the twosome was and what they were to each other. But that’s what a writer does — places bets on their perceptions and imaginings, passes their read of things on to be read by others.

When the game started, the guy smoothly transitioned from standing in front of the mother to sitting down beside her. Although “smoothly” isn’t exactly accurate, because before he sat down, as if the thought had just occurred to him that he should do something to acknowledge the daughters’ presence, he shook their hands. He did this with a warmth and naturalness not too far exceeding what he might exude shaking hands with an IRS agent who was about to audit him.

Meanwhile, the game on the field had started. So now I was watching balls and strikes, hits and outs, and at the same time trying to keep up with the drama involving the foursome on my left.

Then the play — the one in the stands that is — took a dramatic turn.

Somewhere in their conscious or unconscious, without my seeing any indication that they’d caucused on the matter, the two girls obviously came to the conclusion that things were just fine without this guy. What the girls did was assert themselves into the center of the picture, going from stretching the tether to their mother as far as they could to being all over her. The younger one sat on the mother’s lap, and then the older one took a turn doing so.

One of them and then the other inserted themselves into sitting between the mother and the guy at all times. Nothing subtle about it. And didn’t the two adults clam up and concentrate on (or give the appearance of concentrating on) the action on the field.

I am a person who tries to avoid regrets, but I do wish I hadn’t had to leave the game before it ended because I’d prearranged to be picked up for dinner. The ways that goodbyes were acted out by the foursome would, I suspect, have been a final scene that told the audience, me, a lot.

One of the disadvantages of viewing a relatively few moments of human interaction and weaving a theatrical tapestry from them, without benefit of sound, is that you are left wondering about the threads that led to those moments and the threads that will lead from them. All one can do is hope that some of the threads are silver and some of the needles golden as the characters spin the rest of the script.

There was a TV show called “Naked City,” set mostly in the South Bronx and Manhattan, when I was the older girl’s age. At the end of each episode, an announcer iconically said, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

There were at least several hundred stories at that softball game, and this has been one of them.

Amherst resident Richard McCarthy, a longtime columnist at the Springfield Republican, writes a monthly column for the Gazette.