fiction by Savannah Sipple
When Catch threw a softball, you could see the chain reaction in her body. From her legs to her hips to her waist to her shoulder to her elbow to her hands, her muscles moved like one rolling wave. It was beautiful. How could someone built like a brick wall be so fluent? She thought three steps ahead, knew the right time to slide into base, didn’t back down for anything. She got at least one concussion and three black eyes from various softball injuries. When she played catcher, other teams didn’t even try to slide into home. You couldn’t get through, around, or under her, and you couldn’t knock her down. That’s one thing none of us truly appreciated about her: Catch was steadfast.
We thought we were grown. It was our last year of the Ponytail League for girls thirteen-sixteen years of age. There were three of us who were sixteen: me, Catch, and a mouthy girl named Emma Sue. The rest of the team were fifteen and under, which meant we were in charge. I was first baseman. Catch was, well, catcher. The only time anyone else would do it was when Catch had caught two games straight, and Coach had to threaten them to do it then. No one wants to put on twenty pounds of pads and a helmet and squat in the heat. Catch didn’t seem to mind it.
That summer we dominated every tournament we played in, but it was also the first and one of the few times in our lives we got a glimpse of something that could take Catch down. We all knew her dad. Folks said he was meaner than a striped snake, but we thought he was just hard on Catch. He wasn’t one of the coaches, but he was at every practice and game. He’d sit in the front row of bleachers on the first base side, close to home plate so he could bark orders at Catch. I can still see the way he’d lean forward, elbows on his knees, a twenty-ounce Pepsi bottle between his feet for his tobacco spit. He was always wound tight, ready to jump up at any play, prone to cuss each mistake Catch made. He’d try to keep his language under control and limit it to words like ass and shit and damned, but every once in a while, he’d let loose a goddamnit motherfucker aimed at the umpire. Little League regulations wouldn’t have tolerated him for very long, but by the time we were teenagers, we were well-versed in swearing. And Catch never paid him much attention. He’d yell, and she’d pull her mask over her face, plant her cleats in the dirt, and squat behind the plate like he wasn’t even there.
The fact was, our parents came to win, and we’d been learning how to deal with the stress of their dreams ever since we picked up a bat. It wasn’t any easier because we were girls, either. Our fathers had hoped for sons, which meant they often treated us like boys, especially when we were doing “manly” things like playing sports. But no one was treated like a son more than Catch. I’m not even sure why because she actually had younger brothers. He even bought her a rifle when she was eight years old, although all she’d wanted for Christmas that year was a pogo stick. The man never looked prouder than when Catch would bang a homer over the center field fence. She was actually good at a lot of other things, but only her mom came to academic awards night and our debate competitions. Her old man never missed a game, though.
There came a point that season when the pressure started to get to all of us. Oh sure, there were a lot of things that contributed to it: practices four days a week, tournaments every weekend, exhibition games on most Wednesdays, the fact that it was the hottest Kentucky summer in over three decades. Each of us had moments where we were either starting to crack or were just plain exhausted. We also started to get on each other’s nerves, and the heat didn’t help.
One practice was particularly horrid for the simple fact that we all kept fighting. The youngest girl on the team damn near caught my arm as she was practicing swings on the wrong side of the dugout. And during warm-ups, Emma Sue kept teasing Catch about turning down Josh, Emma’s cousin.
We’d heard rumors about Catch flirting with girls from other counties, but she’d never said anything to any of us one way or another about whether or not she liked girls. . . . We all knew what happened to the gay kids in our school.
“Come on, Catch. Ain’t many boys gonna wanna date you.”
“And why’s that, Emma Sue?”
“Cause you may as well be a boy yourself.”
Catch rolled her eyes, but her face flushed hot. “That don’t mean I have to date your dumb cousin. The boy doesn’t even read.”
“Are you sure you even like boys?”
Catch stopped her warmup and turned right to face Emma Sue. She growled, “What did you say?”
The slap of balls against mitts slowed quick. We were dead in our tracks. We’d heard rumors about Catch flirting with girls from other counties, but she’d never said anything to any of us one way or another about whether or not she liked girls. And we never brought it up to her. We all knew what happened to the gay kids in our school. Catch usually let things slide off her back, but this time Emma had pushed a button and we could tell.
“You heard me. Or do you want me to spell it out?”
“Mind your own damn business.”
“Oh, come on, Catch. Just tell us: are you a lezzie or not?”
Emma Sue was a fool for running her mouth while she was within Catch’s reach. Catch took in three deep breaths. Catch took one step towards Emma. I thought she was going to reach out and deck her, but instead she said, “You think anyone that hasn’t slept their way through the basketball team is gay. Why don’t you worry about which varsity player you’re going to blow next instead of trying to turn the rest of us into hoes?”
Emma Sue must have realized how close to death she was because she muttered, “Whatever,” and we all went back to throwing like we hadn’t just heard every word of what they’d said.
The day only got worse from there. Coach had brought in the All-Star girls from the Little League to scrimmage us, and the game had gone south from the very first pitch. It was 102 degrees outside, and we’d played in a tournament over the weekend that had worn us out. We’d won, but we took the long route to get there: we lost a game. It was double elimination, so we were able to gather the forces and rally, but we had to beat the same team twice to win the entire tournament. We were tired and wanted a break. And now Coach was making us play the younger girls.
We managed to keep up with them, but Coach was getting pretty angry because we weren’t winning. A tie wasn’t a win, no matter who tries to tell you differently, and our best pitcher had already worn herself out. It was so hot, it seemed like breathing stirred up dust. Catch was behind the plate, in full gear, and she was struggling by the time the sixth inning rolled around. Coach put in Emma Sue to pitch somewhere during the fourth inning because he thought it would be good experience for her. She was pretty good, but the heat and the exhaustion wore her down quickly, and it was starting to show. She was giving Catch a good workout, and Catch was not happy about it. After one especially rough batter where Emma threw five pitches, three of them wild, there was a pop-up foul that in any normal moment, Catch would have caught with her teeth. But she was tired. We could all see it. She slung the mask off and was on her feet but didn’t get under the ball in time. Her face was sweaty red, her jaw tight. She was pissed. That play would have ended the inning, and we needed it to be over, but we knew Catch well enough to know that she’d give herself hell, so there was no need for us to say anything other than “shake it off.” Her dad, though, must not have liked her hustle because he sprang up, waving his arms and spitting tobacco juice in every direction. “What in the hell is the matter with you? You should have had that one! Get up off your dyke ass and catch that ball!”
By this point, Catch had picked up her face mask and was near the fence where her father stood on the other side, cussing up a storm. Catch heard his rant, squared her shoulders, and her entire body cocked. Before any of us could fully register what he’d said, Catch slung her mask at the fence and the crack of the plastic helmet hitting metal chain link smacked silence around the field. She pointed at him, and said, “You shut your damned mouth!”
Thank God there was a fence between them. If there hadn’t been, that mask would have hit him square in the face, and he already looked like he wanted to tear through it to get to her. All of our parents were hard on us from time to time, but he’d never said something like that to her, and we couldn’t ignore what he’d said or the timing. Catch never gave a shit about anything her dad said. She matched him in size, too, so there was no telling how we’d get them apart if they really lit in on each other.
The inning ended and we squeaked by in the scrimmage to win by one run. Emma Sue looked like she wanted to hide in a pool of water, but the rest of us kept one eye on Catch and her dad to see what he would say to her. As we gathered our gear, he stood outside the dugout, arms crossed over his chest, face blank and waiting. She had a lot of equipment to pack up and he usually helped her carry some of it, but when she came out of the dugout, he just said, “You get your ass in that truck. I’ll deal with you when we get home.”
We watched Catch, and I think we all expected her to back talk him, but she just slung her duffle bag over her shoulder and picked up her bat bag with her free hand. She loaded her gear and got in the truck, her eyes empty, her jaw locked in a way we hadn’t seen before, like she was hell-bent on holding something in.
Savannah Sipple is the author of WWJD & Other Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), which was included on the American Library Association's Over the Rainbow Recommended LGBTQ Reading List. A writer from east Kentucky, her writing has been published in Salon, Go Magazine, Southern Cultures, Split This Rock, and other places. A professor, editor, and writing mentor, Savannah resides in Lexington, Kentucky with her wife.