CHIN MUSIC RHUBARB, a young adult coming-of-age novel, will publish on March 18, 2021 through Shanachie51 Press. It is currently available for a discounted price on Kindle Pre-order now if you follow the link HERE. Also, you can enter a Goodreads Giveaway HERE.
In the meantime, below is a free teaser chapter. It is the first chapter in the book. Hope you enjoy!
The sun was low, setting over the left shoulder of the right-fielder. In the 1986 Fall Ball season for fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys, there was no dugout to speak of, only a piece of rotted wood with rusty nails sticking out of it, long enough for six or seven boys to sit on. The infield had no grass, just a big orange mass of clumpy clay. Neither were there white lines to denote fair or foul. The outfield, where Layton O’Her played, was a landmine of sand patches and gopher holes that could snap the ankles of teenagers digging for a deep fly. No scoreboard, either. And the fence abruptly ended in both left and right fields. None of the players wore uniforms. One team wore red shirts. Green for the other. Without any field lights, the games had to be called at sundown.
But it was baseball. Old and true. Always there. Everyone respecting the rules. Holding dearly to the traditions. Remembering the names of the game’s legends and seeing their own day’s greats in the light of those legends. Even seeing themselves entering the light with them one day too. Some way. Some day. Dreaming of glory in the major leagues. But on this clay and dirt-patched field, Layton was simply here to play ball. He had no future in the game. Not even a nickname anymore. He had nothing but now.
Screw the rest, he thought. I don’t even care.
“This is it. The end of the line,” Dewey Hinch called from the bench to Layton, who waited in the on-deck circle. “Your last at bat in the last game of Fall Ball. Now you have to face facts, big time. When you take off those cheap cleats tonight, you’ll be just like all the other poor white trash losers in Pinebrook apartments. Oh wait, I mean Crimebrook apartments. Without baseball, what are you going to do with your life?” But Dewey answered his own question. “Probably take after your dad and be a deadbeat.”
Dewey licked three fingers and teased his blond, spiked hair while other players on the bench next to him snorted in laughter. But Sucio Hernandez, one of Layton’s oldest friends, didn’t. “Hey man, come on now,” he said.
Layton used to have a nickname. “Dance,” they called him, because he got into so many brawls. In reality, Layton was a terrible dancer. Too shy and angry to let loose and have fun. It was just one of those weird names that are given to little leaguers. But even though it had been two years since anyone called him that, Layton still loved to dance with his fists.
With one of those mean smiles Layton was once known for, he walked back to the rusted fence to respond to Dewey. “I guess it depends on your definition of a loser, because my definition would be someone who gets all the opportunities in the world to be a starting pitcher, yet still ends up in relief on a below-average high school staff.” Sucio laughed as Layton leaned on the fence. “A 17-plus ERA over 33 1/3 innings Dewey? Really? If two people tried out to be a starter, your odds would still be a thousand to one.”
The other boys on the bench turned to Dewey, who stood up and walked around the fence toward the on-deck circle. But when Dewey got closer, Layton threw a punch. Just as things were about to get out of hand, Sucio grabbed Layton.
The parents in the bleachers looked over as Sucio picked Layton up to get him away from Dewey. On the mound the pitcher had stopped in mid-motion, though the umpire hadn’t noticed the balk because he too was busy staring at the fight that had broken out by the on-deck circle.
“At least I play,” Dewey screamed at Layton. “You just quit. Quit on all of us! Right before the biggest game of our lives. The Little League World Series, and you just quit! Then you didn’t even try out as a freshman last year? Why do you even show up for Fall Ball if you don’t play for the high school team?”
“Because I revel in seeing you squirm.”
There’s only one thing boring-er than a rich townie—a rich townie who makes a good point, Layton thought.
As lame as it sounded, Dewey was right. It was Layton O’Her’s last game. It really was his last at bat. As the lanky fifteen-year-old looked across the diamond, he gritted back a tear and gripped the bat as hard as he could, smacking the end into the dirt as if he was trying to kill every ant in the whole world.
When Dewey retreated behind the fence, and the pitcher again went into his windup, Sucio held Layton from the side real hard and spoke with a Dominican accent into Layton’s ear, “You just love fighting, don’t you?”
“Yes.” The word boiled out of Layton’s mouth angrily.
“Why don’t you tell them what really happened? It’s a perfectly acceptable excuse. Just tell them why—”
“There are no excuses in baseball. Anyway, they don’t deserve to know my truth. I hate them with every single aching thought in my brain. I wasn’t born in Ellington, so they just think they can—”
“I wasn’t born in Ellington either,” Sucio interrupted. “And I get along with them just fine.”
Layton didn’t answer that one, because he couldn’t. “Let me go.”
Sucio released and play-punched him, “Bruh, I’ve known you for almost ten years but it’s like I don’t understand you. Like, how is it that you have the biggest mouth in Ellington, yet you keep secrets? And why do you still play Fall Ball? I mean, Fall Ball is for fourteen-year-olds who want to try out for the high school team and fifteen-year-olds who are already on the team, but you’re. . . Why do you still play?”
Layton blinked and looked at Sucio from under the broad brim of the batter’s helmet. “Because I’d walk in a gasoline suit to keep playing baseball.”
Sucio nodded and smiled. “You always got a comeback. Who said that, anyway? You’re quoting someone again, aren’t you?”
Layton looked toward Sucio with a sudden smile. “Charlie Hustle.”
“Of course, Pete Rose. Your favorite player.” Sucio laughed.
“He’s one of my three favorites,” Layton corrected.
Sucio looked away, then pointed with his lips toward the bleachers. “Coach Nick is here.”
Layton’s stomach turned as he snuck a peek at Coach Nicholson. His long shadow had loomed over Ellington for decades. He was like baseball royalty in this small town. And in this small town, he was the one man who had the power to give and take dreams away from boys.
And he doesn’t even know who I am.
Coach Nick was a disciplinarian with strict rules about everything. It was well known that if you didn’t try out for the high school team as a freshman, when he can best mold you to his demand, then it was too late for you. No second chances for sophomores like Layton. And no excuses. Ever.
“He comes to check on us,” Sucio said. “Make sure we’re not misbehaving, and scout the new freshmen.”
Even though Dewey Hinch was completely mental, he had made the Ellington high school baseball team with Sucio. All the kids Layton played Little League with made the high school team as freshmen last year, but Layton hadn’t gone to tryouts because his mother was sick and he was homeless and living at the Flop. But that’s another sappy story.
Who cares about sappy stories, anyway? Excuses are for stupid rich kids, Layton growled to himself, thinking of his teammates.
In reality, they weren’t all that wealthy. Middle class, mostly. But to Layton O’Her they were rich. And mega-rich in terms of having supportive families and a stable home life.
They don’t even care about what they have. It makes them lazy. Stupid rich kids.
As the waning sun warbled, having moved over the opposing pitcher’s head, Layton looked from the on-deck circle toward the hurler who stood on the rubber and leaned in like a silhouette or a statue. He hid the bruised baseball behind his back as he nodded at the catcher’s sign.
Pinky Roberts was pitching a no-hitter in the last inning of a 1-0 game. Layton had played for years with Pinky, who was on the high school team too. His long legs seemed even longer because he wore tight pants high on his waist and had red stirrups that started above his knee and disappeared inside his cleats. He had big-time movement on his fastball too. Almost as much as an old-timey screwball, down and away on left-handed hitters like Layton. And his slider was tight. Down and in. Everything Pinky pitched was down, down, down.
“Pinky’s twirling a gem tonight, papo,” Sucio said as they watched him strike another hitter out with a low change-up. “That’s probably why Coach Nick is here, to see Pinky strike us all out. You’re up, Layton. Coach is watching.”
“Left fielder, Layton O’Her,” a crackling speaker announced to sparse applause as Layton pounded the handle of the bat into the ground so the donut would fall off.
“Let’s go, Layton,” Sucio’s lone voice shouted from behind him.
Then the voice of Dewey from the bench: “We never liked you anyway, Layton. Good riddance. You think you’re so smart—”
“I’m not so smart, it’s just you’re as dumb as a bucket of curveballs,” Layton yelled back, which made some of the parents laugh aloud. “Thing is, I love this game and it breaks my heart to see dull people like you take it for granted. I’ve had to win games on my own and carry you and everyone else on my back since T-ball. Now I’ll finally be free of you dumb monkeys!”
The parents of both teams and even the umpire and Coach Nick looked back toward the bench for a response.
“Well, you can’t win this one even if you hit a home run.” Dewey laughs through the fence. “There’s two outs and it’s almost dark.”
“Oh yeah? I’ll tie it at least, you watch.”
“You’re gonna tie it all on your own?” catcher Bulb McLean said as Layton walked across home plate to the left side. “You’re a scratch hitter and it looks like your mom don’t even feed you. You were pretty good in little leagues, but here you can’t even hit the ball into the outfield.”
“Fat and skinny had a race, around the pillowcase,” Layton said as he got a few practice swings in. “Fat fell down and broke his crown, and skinny won the race.”
“Psh, whatever,” Bulb said.
It was true though. Layton had a hard time just getting the ball in the air lately. In little leagues, the outfield fences were much closer, but ever since they moved up to the big fields in Fall Ball, Layton had been in a continuous slump and became known for hitting bleeders to second base. The book on him was to pitch it outside because he’d try to pull it.
“C’mon, Layton,” Mr. Hernandez, Sucio’s father, yelled in a thick Hispanic accent from the third base coaching box. “Tiguerazo, get under it. He’s throwing those sinker-balls. Get under it.”
Layton gripped the metal bat with one foot out of the batter’s box and stared at Pinky Roberts, who smiled back. Before stepping in, Layton peeked back again to the stands at Coach Nick.
Let’s do this, Layton thought. If I don’t tie this game, these stupid rich small-town goobers will win and I really will be remembered as a deadbeat loser.
“Two outs! Nobody on! Outfield in! Come in!” Bulb yelled, then looked at Layton as he dropped the mask over his face. “You’re the last out.”
Pinky palmed and fluffed the hair that grew like wild weeds out of the back of his cap, then stepped back and held his glove high over his head, crumpled his body low as it swung round, then went high again and yanked a slider downward.
“Strike!” The ump blew in Layton’s ear.
Low claps came from the stands.
Pinky smiled. Layton had hit against him many times, and he always had this silly permanent smile. Not a happy smile, just a natural look on his face that made hitters feel as though they weren’t even there.
“Strike two!” the ump bellowed.
Layton thought it was inside, though it did have movement on it and hit the edge of the strike zone.
A low, tapping applause pulsed gently from behind as mothers gathered their children who’d been playing in the sand pit behind the metal stands. Fathers stood open-legged with arms crossed, watching the final touches of another Fall Ball no-hitter from a talented high school pitcher. The sun was obscured by the low trees in right field.
Layton choked up on the bat. Anything close, I have to swing. No choice but to protect the plate now.
“C’mon Layton,” Mr. Hernandez clapped from the third base coaching box.
Layton was the only one there without a parent in the stands. He hadn’t seen his father in a long time. His father had been gone almost his whole life. So that was that. And Layton’s stepfather, Stan? Well, he didn’t care much for baseball. He didn’t care much about his stepson, either. The worst part though was that Stan didn’t care about his mother, either, and was having an affair right when she needed him most.
Layton’s mother used to come when he was in little league, but she’d been ill again this year. Bedridden and alone.
“Stay under it. Under it!” Mr. Hernandez yelled.
Two years ago. . . Two years ago when everything changed. . . It was two years ago that she suddenly had a seizure and was diagnosed with brain cancer. It had recently spread to her lungs. Layton had been told that when it gets to the lungs, that’s it. Too late. Terminal. As if a grapefruit-sized tumor being removed from her brain wasn’t a clear enough sign.
I know what’s coming next, Layton thought. Everyone knows what pitch is coming next. Outside. Probably low and outside.
“Let’s go home,” Bulb McLean said from behind his mask, punching his mitt.
The ball came whirling from Pinky’s long arm and Layton reached for it awkwardly and barely tipped it on the end of the bat. Fouled it off to the fence.
Bulb grumbled and pushed with his hands on his knees to stand up, then turned around and walked to the backstop to get the ball.
“Two outs,” the umpire yelled, “The count is 0-2.”
“C’mon, Pinky,” Bulb called out. “Throw him a chair.”
Layton touched the metal bat to the bottom of his cleats and peeked back again at Coach Nick. He was standing now, next to the bleachers holding a bat bag over his shoulder with all the parents, who held their beach chairs and purses and rattled car keys in the air in preparation.
Layton wanted to whip the bat at the fence toward them all. He wanted to kick Bulb McLean in the face mask. He wanted to yell at the umpire, but he wasn’t sure he’d have a good explanation for doing any of that.
Don’t freak out, don’t freak out.
He took a deep breath. On the mound, a smiling Pinky Roberts wound and curled himself like a snake and hurled a sinker low and outside. Layton’s knees locked and his balance wavered as he swung weakly. He heard the tinkling sound of the metal bat touching the ball and watched it bound over Pinky’s head, a Baltimore chop that struck the plate after he hit it.
“No!” Layton yelled.
Loser! Deadbeat loser. You’re going to disappear forever if you don’t leg this out!
He ran with every ounce of pissed-off energy he had, grunting to make each stride faster and faster and harder. He pumped his arms like pistons to help gain speed, and watched the first baseman, who began to stretch in anticipation of a throw from shortstop. Layton pumped and gnashed to beat it out until he heard a deflating sound from the benches and the stands. The first baseman stepped off the bag and threw his hands in the air as Layton crossed first base, safe.
Even Mr. Hernandez seemed a bit let down that the ball had bounced off home plate, bounded through the air over the pitcher’s mound and landed directly on top of second base, redirecting the ball’s trajectory and scooting quickly under the shortstop’s glove and into centerfield.
“Base hit!” the umpire yelled as the parents in the bleachers booed, hoping it would have been ruled an error to save the no-hit bid for Pinky Roberts.
Layton smiled at their displeasure. That’s what you get, all of you, for being total jerks.
He chuckled when he heard a young girl complain to her parents, “I thought we were leaving.”
Scotty David, who was acting first-base coach, leaned toward Layton, “It’s 1-0. Sucio Hernandez is up. He’s a good hitter. We need a hit from him, but you can’t get picked off. Take a safe lead.”
“I’m stealing second.”
“No, don’t do that,” Scotty whispered so the first baseman wouldn’t hear him.
This is my last chance to burn them. Layton ground his teeth so hard that his jaw hurt. And leave them all with the taste of ashes in their mouths. Idiots.
Again, Layton looked over to Coach Nick, who’d decided to rest half a butt cheek on the bleachers after the no-no was broken up.
“I’m stealing second on the first pitch,” Layton said aloud and looked beyond his Scotty’s shoulders. “Sun’s almost down. Blue’s gonna call this game soon.”
“He’s stealing!” the first baseman called to Pinky Roberts. “I heard him say it. He’s stealing on the first pitch.”
Hunger rattled Layton’s stomach. He hadn’t eaten all day. Usually after Fall Ball games, Layton was fed by the moms in the concession stand with leftover hotdogs or hamburgers, but the concessions had been closed already.
Before pitching to Sucio, Pinky threw to first base to hold Layton close three times in a row. Now, in the stretch, he held the glove in his lap with one foot on the rubber and looked over to first base sneakily. And held there. Held it so long that Sucio Hernandez stepped out of the batter’s box.
Pinky stepped off the bump and threw the ball in his mitt, then looked at Layton frustratingly.
“I got his attention,” Layton said to anyone listening. “He’s not smiling anymore.”
“Don’t go,” Scotty whispered.
Pinky got back on the rubber in the stretch. He stepped inward and stood tall, again peering over his shoulder. When Layton saw that he was going to pitch toward the plate, he took off with a violent twitch.
“Going!” the infield yelled in unison.
I love running, Layton thought. Running and running and running hard. Harder!
Layton had been running for years already. The Flop is a place where homeless teenagers like him end up. The mother of the kid who lives there stays at her boyfriend’s house every night. There’s no food, but there are drugs and there’s always beer. Some kids were already sniffing stuff. They said they had to sniff it because they didn’t have needles, whatever that meant. There was a crackhead there too, but most kids just smoked pot. It’s better than sleeping outside, though. Way better.
“Safe!” the umpire yelled.
Layton dusted off his pants and stared beyond the pitcher’s mound while straddling second base. Stared down catcher Bulb McLean. Hard. Because he’s so heavy, he was slow in getting the ball out to second base.
Then Layton looked beyond first base. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon. The field darkened. Precious little time left.
“Man, you’d be out right now if the ball didn’t skim off the base after you hit it,” Shortstop Pizzaface Parker said. His face and neck were pocked with blood-red boils and white pimples. “I would’ve had you dead to rights.”
“Woulda shoulda coulda,” Layton said.
“Stay there!” Mr. Hernandez yelled at Layton from third base, throwing both arms into the air with his palms open. “Two outs. Run on the sound of a hit. Line drive, pop fly, ground ball, just run. You’re the tying run. Short lead off second. Don’t get too far off the bag.”
I’m stealing, Layton told himself, and looked toward Coach Nick again. In the twilight, it was getting harder and harder to see him, but he now had both cheeks on the bleachers and his bat bag lay in the dirt next to him.
“Going!” the infield yelled as Pinky threw toward Sucio at the plate.
The pitch was low and outside and seemed to take Bulb McLean off balance so that his throw to third was late. Layton slid in easily under the tag and the bench and bleachers jumped in excitement. Sucio stood with his mouth open outside the batter’s box and stared at Layton, his bat on the ground in front of him.
“Dance on those bases!” someone yelled. “Just like little leagues!”
Layton saw Coach Nick point toward him and ask one of the parents a question. Coach Nick nodded, then stuffed his arms underneath his pits and watched closely.
“Tying run’s on third,” Bulb McLean yelled toward the infield. “Everyone in! Everyone in!”
The infielders and outfielders came in close. The only thing Sucio had to do was hit it in the air and the ball would most likely get over the outfielders’ heads. Then Layton could score easily, and the game would be tied.
“Tiguerazo, if the ball is in the dirt,” Mr. Hernandez said, flustered. “You go.”
The next two pitches were strikes. Pinky Roberts had rallied from being down in the count, 2-0, evening it up, 2-2. As he slunk toward the pitcher’s mound after Bulb tossed him the ball, Layton took a small lead, then a longer lead after Pinky stepped on the rubber.
“He’s got one ball to throw away before going to a full count,” Layton whispered to Mr. Hernandez as his stomach grumbled in hunger and his legs shook. “He’s going to waste one in the dirt.”
“Careful,” Mr. Hernandez said as Pinky glanced at Layton from the top of the mound.
The sun was gone. The field was black. A couple parents had moved their cars to point headlights toward the field, but it barely helped. One of the cars was as big as a boat, reeked of gasoline, and had some terrible hair band blaring through the speakers.
“Turn that ridiculous music off,” Coach Nick yelled. “Now!”
Slowly the parent in the car turned the music down while staring at Coach Nick, who called out again, “And turn the car off, but leave those lights on!”
The umpire looked up into the dark sky, then behind him where Coach Nick shook his head and growled, “Play ball, blue.”
The umpire nodded, pointed toward Pinky, and crouched behind Bulb McLean.
The pitch was low. So low that it ricocheted off the plate, crawled up Bulb’s left arm and popped high in the air.
“Go, go, Tiguerazo!” Mr. Hernandez yelled.
Sucio stepped out of the batter’s box and waved Layton home, but he was already on the way. The crowd stood on the bleachers between the headlights and the field, shrouded by fog. A mother screamed. Both benches yelled as Layton sprinted down the third baseline while the ball was still in the air over Bulb’s head. As the catcher reached high for it, the umpire whipped his mask behind him and opened his legs while placing both hands on his knees and staring at the plate for the best view. Bulb stepped forward to block the plate as the ball fell in his glove over his head. Layton had no choice. The huge catcher was blocking the third baseline. The crowd panted and pitched and came to a crescendo as Sucio pounded both palms on the ground for Layton to slide. Players on both benches climbed the rusty fences bellowing as Layton tackled the big catcher with every ounce of anger and grit and disgust and hatred and jealousy that had been building inside him for two long years. With a shoulder into the chest, Bulb’s mask and glove and the ball exploded into the air in three different directions as Layton groaned and grunted, even screeched at impact, making the detonation even more explosive.
After the collision, Layton was left twirling on the ground in a circle on his hip, while Bulb had fallen backward and landed between the legs of the umpire, face up. Layton stopped himself from spinning, crawled toward the plate, and slammed his hand onto it.
“Safe!” The umpire threw his arms wide as the ball trickled away.
Before Layton could celebrate with Sucio, Bulb McLean had gotten up and pushed him. In the heat, Layton punched him in the face twice until the umpire picked him up from behind and dragged him away kicking and screaming. He pushed Layton up against the backstop fence amidst the chaos, where he directly faced Coach Nick, who sat on the bleachers watching. Noticing. He’d never forget what he’d just witnessed. The first time he ever saw skinny Layton O’Her was when the kid rabidly fought for a tie. Brawled for a single run.