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Designer Uniforms
by Will Carroll

            Jenny might understand all this now. I can only look back with regrets. The dead can't dance, someone once said. Listen for a moment and let's start a legend together.
            I know in my heart that a person and their life can be measured by moments. What's the word … apogee? High point. Moments are not something like a second or a year; it's not a very measurable thing. One never looks down at your watch to find out how many moments are left. No, instead they are a unit of intangibility. Yeah, that's it. Moments are intangible themselves, therefore they are the right tool to measure intangibilities and impossibilities.
            Rather basic, right? Kind of abstract? Let's think this thing through: Moment of truth. Moment of conception. Is this all coming through? Trust me, there's a point to all of this crap. Just bear with me a minute, a moment, and it'll all come together, I think.
            So if a moment can be used to measure a person, and also that person's life to the same degree, then can the reverse be true? Does this thing work both ways? If we can use inches to measure a board, somehow we can use a board to measure inches … or can we? Let's pretend that we can. Then you and I can understand a person better through a moment. The quick, snappy action of a singular, unsettling instance defines this man or this woman or anything, much better than we could ever do.
            Perhaps the proper tool is a bit further though. It is in the memory of those defining moments that a person can define himself. Only in hindsight will the importance and the significance be found and the lesson learned.
            Anyway, let me give an example. I'll as be brief as I can.
            Just listen. There in the distance of a woman's memory lay the foundations for every action of her life. I hear the crickets chirping outside her window and, squinting through the glass, I can even see her again. I think she still loves me, though I am never as sure about these things as I once was.
            Hello there, Jenny. I still love you. 

            The rain has fallen all night and all day and now is starting into its second night. The curtains open just a bit and a part of a head peeks out, looking at the rain. The rain is acknowledged grudgingly and the curtains fall back, swinging for just a moment before returning to their function.
            Behind the curtains and dry under the roof, Jenny Johnson is sitting restlessly, playing along with Jeopardy! on her old color Trinitron TV. Her cat is staring at her from across the room and Jenny continues to ignore it, as she does most of the time. The cat's name is Gucci. Jenny would cringe at the name and thinks many times about changing it. The cat is old, as old as her dreams of Gucci and Versace and those foreign, expensive names. Years ago, when the cat and the TV were new, and Jenny was younger and prettier, those names held a magic and seemed so dreadfully and painfully close. Today, they just taunted her and her bygone fancies.           
            Jenny Johnson is still a pretty girl. She is only twenty-four after all. Some men find her very pretty. She is a natural sort of girl, one who looks perfect even though she has just woken up. When she was in college, she could wake up just ten minutes before a class and still make it. When she thinks about that, and she does not think about those days very much now, she will smile. She does not smile much now. Her long legs are folded under her and she plays with the strap on her sandals. When she walks the loose, broken strap of her favorite sandals flicks against the bone of her ankle. She is ticklish there and at times, just walking, she will laugh. She will try to hold it inside, but there are times when, for seemingly no reason to the people around her, Jenny Johnson will laugh out loud.
            The grey day outside suits her mood. Even this afternoon’s ball game has been rained out and she cannot sing along during the seventh inning stretch. One conversation point will be taken away if Tom comes over tonight. Guys seem to like it when Jenny talks about baseball. They all act surprised that a girl, especially a pretty one, can talk about baseball. Mostly, she thought, girls just watched the guys in their tight uniforms, but Jenny, she can talk averages and RBIs and pitching matchups. She doesn't like football or any other sports really, but baseball is hers. It always will be.
            Tom is nearly late. Not late yet, but well past time to be early and she likes guys to be early. Not real early, so that she isn't ready, but early just the same. She learned this from Dex. Dex had taught her about baseball. Dex had taught her who Roger Maris was; this was her first baseball memory. Dex had taught her how to pass English 205 and he had shown her how to let go of her inhibitions. Dex had been her lover for almost three years and thinking about him made Jenny not care whether Tom even came over or not.

             Dex and Jenny lay in bed side by side. Dex was smoking another of his foul Lucky Strikes, the one she let him have after sex. He always tried to quit, but could never quite make it. She was happy that this was the only time he smoked around her. Thank the lord for forceful mercies. He would wash it down with a Miller in a glass bottle and only then could he kiss her. The beer would make the smoky taste go away and any self-respecting sorority girl would take alcoholic kisses before ashtray kisses.
            "Did you get USA Today?" she asked.
            "Yeah," Dex answered quietly. He blew a little smoke out his nose, which she still  thought was funny. "It's over in my room."
            "So did the Cubs win yesterday?"
            "No."
            "Score?"
            "Don't remember, Jen. It was close."
            "Any home runs?"
            "Dawson hit one."
            "What does that make for him?"
            "Thirty-one or so." He blew smoke out. The cigarette was almost gone. She wanted it to burn away so she could be kissed again.
            "Think he'll get forty?"
            "Just short of fifty." He nodded a second, almost as if he was trying to nod to himself. "Maybe fifty. Who was the last to do that in Wrigley?"
            Another damned trivia question. She thought real hard for a second and threw names threw her head, trying to make one fit. Finally she answered.  "Ernie Banks?"
            "No." He allowed a smile to escape from his cold exterior.
            "Who then?" He liked it when she was wrong, but it made her mad. Dex knew so much and he was a year younger than her. She had known it was a mistake to date a Freshman when she was a soph, but those parties had made fools out of girls better than her. He had walked her home and put her safely in her room. She was drunk and she asked him if he wanted to come inside. He had almost seemed offended at first. He was polite in declining however. But she wasn't able to get that out of her mind when she saw him the next weekend. Some relationships start out in funny ways like that. She had a friend that always dated the best friend of whomever she had just broken up with. That always seemed perverse to Jenny. Dex didn't like that girl.
            "Hack Wilson. 1930. Hit 56."
            "Okay. The RBI guy." She put that in her file. Hack Wilson. 56 home runs. RBI guy. Didn't he have small feet or something too?
            Dex moved a little bit. The Dead's American Beauty had stopped playing on the disc player. "My foot's asleep."
            "Gonna be up all night," she replied and they both laughed at the joke.
            "Hack Wilson was from West Virginia," he said.
            "Around here?"
            "I don't know. Where's Martinsburg? That's not where you're from, is it?" He turned to her, suddenly making a connection between her and Hack Wilson.
            "No, Dex. Martinsburg is over on the other side of the state. In the panhandle. Between Maryland and Pennsylvania."
            He sat back and tried not to look disappointed.
            "Dex, what did their uniforms look like then?"
            His brow wrinkled as he thought. His eyes went a bit dreamy as he stared at the ceiling fan going around and around. She  loved it when his eyes did that. She had never really seen any other eyes do just the same thing. She wondered if his eyes went all dreamy when he thought of her. Probably not, but maybe. He leaned over, took a final drag, and put out the smoke. He took a quick swig of the beer. 
            "Flannel," he finally said. "Baggy."
            "Same design though?"
            "No. No real design. Just kind of enough to figure out which team was which. No designer uniforms." He smiled when he said this. No matter how much Dex loved baseball, he loved baseball's past even more. The figures that rattled around in his head proved that. Who else knew about Hack Wilson? Or Ernie Banks? Or Shoeless Joe Jackson? He had millions of names like this, people that had been superstars of the game and today _ well, today they were just gone, just memories in Dex's head and maybe no one else's.
            "Like your Black Sox hat?"
            "Close. No emblem." He had an old 1919-style White Sox hat that he wore sometimes. Sometimes it just sat on his radio. His Cubs hat was dirty and banged up and had a funny smell to it, but he loved it all the same. He was always asking people if they had a dishwasher so that he could clean it. He never explained that.
            "Why no emblem?" she asked, running her hand up and down his leg. She could feel the scars, but they didn't bother her anymore. Not like they had.
            "I don't know. Maybe they didn't know how to sew 'em on then or something. When did they start sewing like that?"
            "I don't know." She was supposed to be the fashion expert. She had no fashion history trivia. There were no Hack Wilson's of fashion. Just old worn out styles. Like bell-bottoms.
            "I don't like emblems," he said. "Not at all."
            "Why?"
            "I don't know. As long as they stay basic, like the Cubs red 'C'. I guess that's okay."
            "What about the Red Sox?"
            "That's okay too," he said after picturing their hat in his mind.
            "What about Baltimore?"
            "No. No. That bird is stupid. Any bird is stupid."
            "I don't like birds either."
            With no clue that he was going to do anything, he pulled her over on top of him. He kissed her a few times, then brushed her hair back. "Enough baseball for now."
            She agreed.

             The cat yawns. It sits and watches Jenny as she daydreams. She thinks less and less about Dex as time goes on. He had said it would be like that. There was so much he said that was right. So much. Only the things he hadn't taught her had gone wrong and that was a lot. He was no good at math either and never said a thing about credit cards. He never said anything about jobs. Not once did he talk about real life. As a matter of fact, he avoided it altogether. She could hear him say, "Look, Jenny. I came here to escape all that. Just let me be here in the middle of nowhere a while. Just let me dream about baseball for a couple of years. What do you want? I love you _ or something like that. If you want all that outside junk, just leave me here." He would say the same thing every time, like it was a recording that clicked on. When he said that, Jenny would get quiet, as quiet as it was in her apartment now. Just the rain rattling on the gutters outside the window breaks the total silence.
            She walks over to her stereo and drops in her Pink Floyd tape, the one that she had recorded with "Wish You Were Here" on it. That is her favorite song by them and they had played it in concert last year. That and Dex's favorite, but she can't remember what it is without looking at the tape case and she didn't know where it was. The house is a mess, except for the front room. Her bedroom, the only other room in the miserable house she really lived in, looks quite the part of an artist's pad. Tapes and clothes are strewn about the floor in search of their proper place. The largest pile lay near the window, away from the glass table, the one that doesn't fit with anything else there. She keeps a few strange books there, ones by Fitzgerald, Vachss, and DeFord, and stacks of grainy snapshots. Dex and her in a million poses, the shots taken by thousands of unremembered friends in hundreds of unremarkable locations. Earlier that day, she remembered flipping through them, stopping at what had recently become her favorite. Dex was seated at the edge of McGowan Pool, water streaming down his body. Streams of light that must have come through the trees lined his face. Dex had hated that one; he said even the light wanted to lock him away.
            Jenny smiles to break the haze of nostalgia and glanced, frustrated, down at her watch. Maybe Tom would come. Or maybe he wouldn't.

             Jenny sat on the edge of Dexter's unmade bed, sipping the last beer from the six-pack they had the night before. Dex sat across the room, head in hands, agonizing over one of his many papers. Jenny called them papers, like all her friends did, but Dex called them projects, and would get angry with her if she didn't call them that also.
            "Damn," he whispered, almost inaudibly.
            Jenny said nothing, though she wanted to. Her desire to speak was almost uncontrollable. Instead, she curled up in to a tiny ball, like an unweaned puppy, and kicked her shoes off, each landing with a thud that echoed.
            "Jen?" He turned sharply. He stuffed his unlit cigarette behind his ear. It made him look something short of ridiculous, though Jenny could not quite decide then what it was that made it so.
            "Mm-hmm?"
            "Why do I put myself through this? I wait and I wait to do these. It's your damned procrastination. I think it's catching or "
            The harsh, chirping ring of the phone interrupted the beginning of what was sure to become a temper tantrum. Dex stared at the phone, his scrunched up eyes as tight as they would go, holding in a scream.
            "Want me to get it?" Jenny asked, pulling herself out of her ball a touch.
            "Fuck no!" he snapped back. He rocked up to his feet, turned the volume down, pushing the radio station back into the air where it came from. He pulled the phone's antenna up quickly and growled. Suddenly, his features softened and the muscles of his legs tensed, just as if he were about to sprint out of the room.
            "What the hell do I have to do?" he asked, almost in a whisper. It was the first time that Jenny saw absolute blankness inside Dex's beautiful eyes, but not the last. At first, his gravelly voice sounded almost like that of a child, but as suddenly, his fists clenched into hard little rocks of hatred, tight and evil. She backed up against the wall, her legs curling under her on the bed.
            He spat at the phone words she had never heard. "I'm sorry! Damn it, what else can I do? That girl isn't coming back!" He threw the grey phone across the room. As it hit the paneled wall, she fully expected it to blast into a million pieces, like it did on TV. No, it just let out a feeble sort of ring as it hit, then again as it hit the cold, hard floor. Dex stared at the phone with a look that lay between hatred and resignation. Jenny looked at Dex with a look between love and disillusion
            They sat like that for what must have been days. Jenny swore that from the corner of her eye, she watched the sun move. There were sunsets and rainstorms and distance between them, things that had never been there before.
            Jenny was on the edge of tears - that or screaming. Dex had just sat back down in front of the computer, typing furiously. The keys rattled louder now, each strike from his fingers like a shot to her gut. "Dex?" It came out sounding tiny. Not at all how she had intended.
            "Don't ask." He never turned around, but she knew he was crying.
            She stood slowly, unsure of her legs, and walked to him she slid her arms around him. She did it slowly, letting him feel them. "You can talk to me." This time it was what she had wanted to say.
            "I said don't ask me, Jenny. Just promise me you'll always forget the past. Like it never happened. Remembering it, holding on to it so close that it feels real or making any moment seem any more important than any other … It can kill people."
            She never had expected this. Dex wasn't one to get nostalgic, but he lived for the history of baseball. "What do you mean, hon?"
            "Let's just leave it with this: I've made mistakes in my life. I guess we all have. Sometimes, people won't let you forget." He paused. His body unclenched. "They don't forgive either."
            He turned and held her tight. Jenny and Dex stayed like that for hours, not nearly long enough.

             They sat on the edge of the pond. It would have been beautiful, but the pond was covered with a sort of green slime. The leaves were just beginning to turn and in a few weeks, they would be a million different colors. Dex and Jenny had ridden around the countryside on his Harley last year just to look at leaves. There were leaves of every shade, from red to brown to yellow, pastels and fluorescents. She thought that most guys didn't do things like that, then looked at the pond beyond Dex's untamed hair. The pond slime stayed green all the year round. If you looked at the pond from the window of Dex's room, the green slime would move around. It would be in a different place each day, as if it was alive. Some days it would be gone or up against one side. Today it was everywhere and the skies above were grey everywhere.
            "I have to leave here someday," Dex said quietly. "I don't think I can hide out here much longer. I've tried for so long to deny that there was anything out there past the River or over past the golf course. God, was I wrong! Even in a place like this, all blessed and forsaken all at once, things have a way of weaseling in. So if I leave"
            She cut him off, dreading every word he said. "Soon?" she asked. She tried not to sound - not to sound like, like anything. He had never mentioned leaving before. Leaving scared her, because it meant he would be leaving her. There were no illusions about that left. Dexter Grey was not a guy that fostered illusions.
            The days they had spent together after that phone call had been strange. No, that wasn't it, but the word wasn't there. It might not have been in existence.
            "I don't know." He threw a pebble across the pond and the green slime gobbled it up and no ripples were created. The water stayed totally calm. "I hope not."
            "How long has it been since you left here?"
            "I went to Wheeling the other day with Scottie. We got my bike that new coil."
            "You know what I mean."
            His fingers involuntarily ran through the curls of his hair. "Two and a half years."
            "Summers included."
            "Right." He had stayed here in this deserted college hamlet every year. Everyone else would leave and Dexter Grey would stay. All the kids would pack up and their parents would come and pick them up in minivans painted pastel colors. Dex managed to convince Miss Nick, the Dean of Housing, Education, and Leisure, which conveniently abbreviated itself to HEL, that he could make himself useful enough to keep his room open. She made him live next door to her, in the girl's dorm. That was okay by him; he managed to splice her cable and he could watch baseball. He told her stories about it when she would come see him. Jenny only lived an hour away. Those summer days Dex was almost the only person in town. She visited him one night and they walked all over town. They were holding hands and they didn't see a sign of life anywhere. They had made love on someone's front porch.
            "What do you do during the summers?"
            "Mostly, I clean stuff. Whatever they need. And cut lawns. Rake leaves if they fall. Do a little maintenance on the park and the elementary school. Sometimes we clean gutters or paint. The first year I was here, I got sent up to Taylor's place to get bats. Not like baseball bats - no, old Taylor must've had a gazillion little vampire things flying around his place. They would swoop down at me and Taylor would just sit in his chair, reading some crap while I killed these things all around him. One would hit the floor wounded and he would maybe glance down. It was a riot, looking back on it. Good anecdote, bad reality."
            "And what about hanging with Bubba. I'm sure you spend no time in that bar drinking, eh?"
            He snickered. "Yeah, hang out with Bubba. Put away significant quantities of Beefeater gin."
            "You hate gin."
            "Bubba drinks Beefeater gin."
            "So?"
            "That's all he has in the summer, so it's Beefeater gin, overpriced beer from the store, or sobriety."
            "So you would opt for the gin then?"
            "Exactly."
            He turned their clasped hands so he could look at his watch.
            "This place is so beautiful." Dex looked to his right, towards the rolling hills that jutted up between the higher mountains. "And it can be just nowhere."
            "Nowhere?"
            "Like there's nothing else. Not a world, not people - nothing." He put his Lucky out and stuck the butt in his pocket. He always did that. He never would throw anything on the ground around Campbell. Jenny thought it was sweet, but hated trying to get the ashes and stain out of his laundry. "Now it doesn't. Not anymore."
            "Does it seem closer now?"
            He tilted his head back. "No. It seems like it went away. Like it was never here at all."
            "Will you go back?" she asked.
            "I'll have to." There was a pregnant pause. "We all have to atone for our sins someday."
            "Will you be okay?"
            "No. I won't."
            She turned to him. "Then don't go."
            "I'd rather see lights on top of Wrigley."
            "Dex, they're building lights there now."
            "But I don't like them. Not at all. Remember when we talked about uniforms? You asked about designer uniforms or something stupid like that? Sorry, you're not stupid, but anyway, it's like that. Sound good, but it's stupid and wrong. I hope it rains out every night game there ever."
            "Don't go back there, Dex."
            "I can see the Cubbies play live again. I can see Wrigley. It's like being able to just visit Heaven for just a bit. Everything can stay outside those big grey walls and inside it will always be 353 down the foul lines and the grass will always be green." His eyes were a bit dreamy again, but they had lost something in the last few months. Maybe she was just getting accustomed to that happening and it wasn't so special anymore.
            "Jenny?"
            "Yes, Dex?"
            He looked away from her and out at the pond. The green slime was moving a bit, she thought.
            "Jenny, will you always remember me?"
            "I guess so, Dex. I love you."
            "See, people remember Ernie Banks. They remember Frank Chance. They'll remember Ryne Sandberg. Me, I'll never be remembered by people. I just would kind of like to think that maybe somebody would remember me. It's stupid, I guess."
            Jenny thought for a moment that that was the most romantic thing she had ever heard. "No, it's not, Dex," she whispered, so softly she wasn't quite sure she had said it. The tear was allowed to run all the way down the side of her face, tracing lightly over her half-faded freckles, and falling away.

             She remembered all the details about Dexter Grey. She had gained so much from their two and a half years together. She should have known that day that he'd be gone soon. The letter he had left for her was in her desk drawer. The letters he had written and the poetry were there too. She keeps the envelope inside his copy of "The Baseball Encyclopedia". He had left that for her. She knew when he gave her that book how much he had loved her. He had left behind his memories and his heroes. He was going to be leaving the past with her and moving on, atoning for his sins, as he had so plainly stated. He would be going to see the Cubs in Wrigley. Looking it up in USA Today, she wondered if he had timed his leaving to coincide with the Mets coming to Chicago. She wondered whether he went to that game. She never knew, but kept the clipping of the box score like an obituary. It summed it all up quite poetically. Cubs 6, Mets 5. Ryne had lofted one over the ivy and onto Waveland for the win. It was his twentieth of the year. Jenny Johnson likes to think that Dex had made it to the game and that the Cubs had won that game for him, that Sandberg tipped his cap to Dex as he passed him. They didn't win many games in 1988, but she figures they owed Dexter Grey one game for all he had done for them.
            She could never give him anything like that. The only thing she knew to do was to remember him. She always would.
            There is a soft knock at the door. She realizes that it must be Tom. He is only a couple minutes late. The cat slides down off the chair and follows her to the door.
            "Hi," she says, as she lets him in.
            Tom smiles as he comes in. "You look nice."
            "Thank you. Let me hang up that raincoat." He slides it off and she puts it on the little rickety coat rack that hides in the corner.
            "How was your day?" Tom asks, not sounding like he meant it.
            "The game was rained out."
            "Too bad. Cubs looked okay the other day. Bell keeps hitting the ball out like that, he'll set some kind of record."
            "I don't think so."
            Tom looks kind of surprised. "Really? Why not?"
            "Know who holds the record for most home runs by a Cub?"
            "Andre Dawson?"
            She tries to smile, but she knows this is her last date with Tom.

(C) 1999-2001 William Carroll

 
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