THE LETTERS came to Ada opened, and spoke of rare disease. They were typed, respectful, addressed to one of the three ballplayers with the highest batting averages or to the pitcher with the wickedest curve, and their authors always mentioned in the opening line that they were writing on behalf of a young relative who was suffering from a rare disease. Ada wondered why everyone chose the word “rare.” Why not “nasty” or “dread” or even “God-damned”? If someone would cuss in a cancer letter, she would send him a prize. But they weren’t interested in her, of course, and when they wrote their earnest letters they probably never imagined that someone like Ada would read them. Because she shouldn’t have read them; they weren’t for her.
But the ballplayers needed help with their mail. The letters poured in during the height of the season and a secretary skimmed them to determine whether they were simply teeming with chatty homage or if they had a more urgent purpose. The fan mail from children went to the Rockies Rookies Club manager, who would respond with a flimsy reproduction of a marginally recent black-and-white photo of the team and an application to join the kids’ club; the letters from vengeful kooks went to the head of stadium security; and the sick mail came to Ada, who was the lowest ranking employee in the community relations department of the Colorado Rockies Baseball Club.
You could practically chart how well a guy was playing by the volume of sick mail he received. Some of them got stacks of it, but still all the letters contained that word “rare.” Ada couldn’t decide how it was intended. Was the only acceptable way for the relatives to express their sublimated anger to point out how unlikely it was that this disease would strike anyone, and here they were, stuck with it, a cosmic hardy-har-har? Or was it meant as a comfort: don’t fear, it’s not an epidemic, it’s not contagious; none of the baseball players will catch anything if you do us this one kindness. There were so many letters that Ada wondered how they managed it in ball clubs that actually won pennants. The Yankees must have served as the locus of desperation for hundreds of sick children. Ada hated the Yankees.
Ada’s boss popped his head into her cubicle. “Is everything set for the Care and Share tonight? Who is it?” He liked to know what was going on, though he couldn’t handle meeting the sick kids. He had a new baby, and the illnesses of children spooked him. Instead he focused on the team’s program of building Little League fields around the state. He approved the plans, visited the sites, and selected the type of dirt, always trying to convince the players to donate more money so they could add Soilmaster red stabilizer to the brown Premium Diamond Tex infield mix on these fields.
“It was supposed to be a kid named Milo, but his dad just called and said they had to cancel again,” Ada said. “He’s sick from chemo.”
“Three reschedules? That’s pushing it.”
This isn’t a hair appointment, she wanted to say. “We’ve already picked another date.” They hadn’t set another date, actually. Ada told Milo’s dad that if he ever was feeling well on a game day, he should just call before they left and then come. She would work out the details. “I’m sure it will go smoothly next time.”
“There are plenty of kids who want to do this that will actually show up.”
Ada smiled and nodded. “What can you do?” she said.
There were tickets to distribute to charities and a letter to write from the centerfielder to a bedridden boy, and Ada was going to tackle it, but then Sherrie walked in. Sherrie was in operations, and they went to lunch together almost every day. Ada wasn’t sure how it had happened. It seemed as though Sherrie had appropriated her somehow, just after Ada had been promoted from ticketing and moved up to the second floor. Sherrie had stopped by on the first day to say hello and had immediately launched into a discussion of the private details of her life, revealing untoward matters of lust, finance, and gynecology. Ada thought her a disgusting piece of human filth, but when Sherrie asked her to go to lunch she said okay.
They went across the street to one of the fashionable restaurants in red brick warehouses that had sprung up when the new stadium opened, trying to look historic and chic at the same time. Sherrie was gorgeous, with thick dark hair halfway down her back and a gym-sculpted body. Ada felt like an anthropologist when she watched the way men looked at Sherrie. Dinger, the Rockies’ purple triceratops mascot, was the only man who ever looked at Ada that way. Men in business attire checked Sherrie out over ducked menus, and outside, the construction workers who saw her would holler like coyotes at a blue moon. But Sherrie wasn’t interested in them these days. She was trying to work her way through the entire team, married or no, and of course she wouldn’t succeed, because some of the ballplayers didn’t do that sort of thing—they had been Saved by Jesus or loved their wives, or suspected that Jesus loved their wives—but still Sherrie always had a development to report.
Some would say jealousy was what drew Ada to Sherrie, Ada thought, but she considered it a sort of clinical fascination. Ada knew she’d never be a red-lipped woman a man would want to steal away and tango with. Not someone you’d write a song about. In fact, there was a song about Sherrie. “Oh Sherrie,” Steve Perry howled, forceful and inarticulate. Ada wore pressed khakis almost every day and was built like a boy; all her motion was forward. She was incapable of flirting, simply didn’t know how it was done. She wondered what it would be like to have a summer fling. To feel young enough to sneak out of the house at night. But she had always felt old, or as though an old person had taken up permanent residence on her chest, making her think better of getting up and going out.
She’d never had a boyfriend. She was twenty-five and never had a boyfriend. Ada tried not to reveal this to people, because they always found it shocking. They would laugh a little and tell her she had to be joking. Because there was nothing wrong with Ada, nothing anyone could see.
But Ada saw it every day. When she undressed for the night, her eyes were drawn to the faint blue dots tattooed on her skin when she was younger so that the radiation treatments could be positioned exactly each time. When she was a teenager she tried not to look at them, shut her eyes rather than behold her body and its scars. She didn’t resist it anymore—she was accustomed to herself by now. No one but the doctors, her parents, and she herself had ever seen them. Ada supposed she continued to tolerate Sherrie because she never asked her any questions. She had too much to tell.
“Guess who?” Sherrie said, beaming.
“I have no idea,” Ada said. “I couldn’t guess.” Ada rooted for some of the players to hold out so that she could maintain her respect for them. Resisting Sherrie couldn’t have been much harder than hitting a knuckleball. But many of them succumbed, and the latest was the centerfielder.
“No,” Ada said. “He’s married. Please tell me that you made that up. He was good.”
“Damn right he’s good!” Sherrie said with unrepentant glee.
Ada sighed. She felt like every utterance she made around Sherrie was the setup for some sort of sexual pun. She wished she could click her heels together three times and whisk Sherrie back into a Jackie Collins novel where she belonged. As Sherrie divulged the gritty specifics, Ada chose a spot on her flawless forehead to stare at and tried not to listen. The centerfielder was Ada’s favorite because he sprinted to his position every inning, ran out even pitiful grounders, and always signed the children’s baseballs. During the last home stand, she brought a little boy with heart troubles down on the field to watch batting practice, and the centerfielder took one look at him and said, “Don’t go anywhere until I have a chance to sign his ball. I have to go get taped, but stay right there.” The boy was gaunt; he seemed all eyes and bones. He wore a white T-shirt, and his mother held an umbrella over him to shield him from the sun. His face was so solemn that he seemed unspeakably wise, and he accepted each autograph with Lincoln-like gravity.
The centerfielder returned, and whispered to Ada, “What’s the matter with him?”
“It’s his ticker,” Ada said.
The centerfielder ran down to the dugout and grabbed one of his bats from the wooden cubby, took the boy’s pen and signed it. Then he shed his warm-up jacket, signed the kid’s ball, and handed it all to him. The centerfielder wasn’t satisfied yet, so he peeled off his left batting glove and added that to the pile. The boy smiled as he struggled to hold it all. His mother said softly, “God bless you.” Ada was pleased. He’s good, Ada thought, he’s good.
That bastard. How was she going to write a letter from him to a sick kid now? She usually tried to match what she thought the voice of each player would be. She made the tobacco-spitting catcher—who seemed the sort of fellow prone to excessive use of exclamation points—say things like: “You’re going to clobber your disease! You’ll be socking them to the fence in no time!” In the letters from the Christian shortstop with the golden cross on a chain around his neck, Ada would usually throw in some Jesusy talk. When she wrote as several members of the pitching staff, Ada added Spanish phrases for authenticity—qué lástima, qué mala suerte—because none of them spoke any English at all.
She was so mad at the centerfielder that when she started writing the letter after lunch, she entered default mode. “I’m always sorry to hear that a fan of mine is ill. Your courage is an inspiration to me.” She fell into the language people used when talking about unlucky children, the Wednesday’s Child dictionary of sappy uplift and hope. There was an entire canon of treacle to direct at the families of sick kids. She’s a fighter. He’s a soldier. Ada had heard it all before and hated it, but she couldn’t say anything better because there wasn’t anything better to say. What banal tripe. Would she have bought this when she was a sick little kid, if it had come on a sheet of Kansas City Royals letterhead with George Brett’s unassailable signature at the bottom? This letter would be framed, Ada felt certain; it would be framed and hung on the wall next to this boy’s bed, or placed on his nightstand, and after he was gone it would remain in the room just as it was for years, becoming a part of the family’s shrine to their child’s memory. She was a horrible, horrible person, to introduce this fake letter into that scene. But which was worse, if the kid got no reply, or if he received a letter that wasn’t actually written by his hero but didn’t know the difference? Ada was the only one who knew.
When it was over, they’d called her a miracle, the miracle kid. For years afterward Ada had felt close enough to God to sense his breath. She thought about how in the Bible they never say what happened to Lazarus after he was raised. He’d been dead. How did he live with that knowledge? What happened to the blind to whom Jesus gave sight? Did they understand what they saw, or did they always have to feel something to know it? Did looking at something provide them with as little information as touching it in the dark? Did the couple that ran out of wine at their wedding live happily ever after? How did they handle themselves when Jesus wasn’t there anymore to save their asses?
She finished the letter and brought it to her boss, who would then take it down to the locker room and have the centerfielder sign it. Her boss read it and nodded his approval. “Is this kid too sick to do a Care and Share?”
“It sounds like it. He’s bedridden.”
“He can’t leave his bed? Then we’ll send Dinger over to visit.”
“I don’t know,” Ada said. The last thing she would have wanted to see while she lay in the hospital was a big purple dinosaur with stoned plastic eyes and a maniacal grin.
“Kids love Dinger,” her boss said reproachfully, playing McCarthy to her Bolshevik. “What kid wouldn’t love to have Dinger come for a visit?”
Ada wondered how her boss would talk about these children if he knew about her past. She took care that no one found out. A friend she’d made in the hospital had warned her about job interviewers who discovered his history and then declined to hire him without explaining why. Ada was careful to send her résumé only to businesses with large workforces, where health insurance was not an issue. She remembered everyone’s advice when she went for the interview with the Rockies: steer the conversation away from your past so that you don’t have to lie about what happened to you, about why you were so old when you finished high school, why you had to earn a GED. It hadn’t come up, and Ada got the job, and her parents were proud.
“You’re right,” Ada said, plastering on a smile. “Kids love Dinger.”
“Absolutely. Oh, and I managed to set up a last-minute Care and Share for tonight to replace the cancellation.”
Last minute? Ada wondered what this was. Sick kids and their families weren’t big whimmers. Their lives were ruled by chemo’s aftermath, doctor appointments, the need for sleep. Hey, I have an idea! Let’s go to the ballpark! was not something they said. Ada’s boss handed her a slip of paper with a name on it. “Corey Pearlmutter?” she said. “He’s been here before. Twice.”
“He’s thirteen years old and in a wheelchair,” Ada’s boss said, indicating disapproval with a shake of his head. “You’ll meet him an hour and a half before first pitch.”
She smiled. “Of course.” Her boss was right; her evil knew no bounds. Corey Pearlmutter was the only kid who had ever annoyed Ada. He was the victim of a debilitating disease that had left him paralyzed from the waist down but otherwise healthy and preternaturally chipper, plucky, golden-haired, cherubic. Just what everyone seemed to want in a sick kid. He was too casual from the start, didn’t evince enough awe as she led him through the secret tunnels under the stadium. “Here,” she pointed out with what she thought was sufficient bravado. “The private quarters of the umpires.” But that didn’t impress him at all. Not even the players’ daycare facilities or weight room elicited a reaction.
“Do I get to eat dinner with Dante Bichette? Or Andres Galarraga? Or both of them? I ate dinner with John Elway,” he informed her. Corey Pearlmutter had dined with Elway and Patrick Roy, served as poster child for thirteen different organizations, and had helped carry the Olympic torch twice. The road to public office seemed to pass through Corey Pearlmutter’s house—all major Colorado statesmen in Corey’s lifetime posed for a picture with him before being elected. The kid was a Portrait in Courage. No, he was the Godfather. She wanted to tell him: You’ll come out onto the field and stay in the designated area and keep your mouth closed while I ask the players to sign your ball, but only the bullpen catcher and the pitching coach will approach, and you’ll love it, kid. You’ll shut up and love it. She was evil; it was true. She had come to know this some time earlier. She could see it all revealed in a medical journal: “New side effect of radiation discovered: potential for blackened heart.”
So Ada hauled the Care and Share sign down to the front of the stadium and waited with a smile on her face for the arrival of Corey Pearlmutter. Last time Corey had brought an entourage. They’d only set aside six tickets for him and he’d shown up with twice that many people, and when Ada had told them that it was impossible, that the Rockies were playing the Cubs and the game had sold out months earlier, Ada’s boss had rushed down and found all the seats they needed, upgraded to club level. Somehow the whole thing was made out to be Ada’s fault. So Ada stood, grinning, next to the Care and Share sign. Care and Share. She hated the name of the program. She would have called it something else. The Wrecked Body Autograph Club. Pals of the Reaper. Dinger’s Kids.
“Hello Corey,” Ada said, smiling so much her face hurt, and realized then that Corey was her nemesis. That was something. Even if she didn’t have a boyfriend, she had an actual nemesis, which astonishingly few people had. He’d brought at least two dozen people with him, but it didn’t matter: the Expos were here, and he could have had the whole west stands if he needed them. They could all link hands and sway to “Oh Canada” together.
“Ada!” Corey shouted. “How’ve you been?”
Who was this kid? Care and Shares didn’t call her by her first name. They didn’t call her anything at all. “Peachy,” Ada said, trying not to snarl.
“I’ve brought some friends.”
“So I see.”
“I didn’t know if I wanted to come, seeing how the Expos are here today, but it’s a great evening for a ballgame. I was supposed to sign autographs at the Bonfils blood drive, but I decided to blow them off.”
“Well, I’m happy you could join us then.” Usually the parents did all the talking, but Corey was clearly the leader of his sizable band. She led Corey’s posse through the lobby to the elevators down to the stadium tunnels. She had to ride up and down three times to transport them all, swiping her ID each time. When Ada had finished bringing the last group down, Corey was regaling his people with a tale, something about the time he’d met Streisand at a benefit concert, and they were laughing. “Oh, Ada,” he said, “I meant to give you this.”
She took a piece of paper from his hand. “What is this?”
“It’s a list of players whose autographs I need. I’ve brought their rookie cards with me to get them signed.”
“Gee, Corey, I don’t have any control over which players choose to sign autographs on any given day. You see, they’re at work here, and some of them really need to concentrate on getting ready for the game.”
“Yes, you’ve told me that before. I’m sure you’ll do all you can.” Corey held out his hand to her. Ada looked down. He’d slipped her a twenty.
Ada marched them all out to the field. They came out in an opening behind home plate, and Ada sent the rest of Corey’s troops to sit in the nearby seats. She wheeled Corey out to the opening of the dugout, avoiding the freshly chalked on-deck circle. She faced Corey. “You know the drill by now. We wait here and watch batting practice, and as they come back to the dugout I see if I can snag them to sign your ball.”
“And my rookie cards.”
Ada didn’t say anything. It was not the best autograph day. Many of the players were friendly with members of the Expos, and they hung around behind the metal batting practice cage, spitting and slapping each other on the back. The pitchers were almost never around at this point, so at first Ada could only find backup infielders to sign Corey’s ball. She was wearing a sleeveless blouse, and the second-string shortstop brushed her bare shoulder with his calloused hand, saying “Excuse me, honey,” as he made his way to the dugout. Ada’s heart fluttered. But then Dinger came over, stole Ada’s hairclip and attached it to her nose, which smarted. Ada took it off and glared at the triceratops. He cowered theatrically. Corey was not the least bit amused. He asked her to try to get Dante Bichette’s attention while he was warming up for his turn to hit, but she told him she couldn’t then, not until he was through. “Look,” Corey said. “It’s Don Zimmer.”
She should have known that Corey wouldn’t want the autograph of a pudgy old-timer, but she wasn’t thinking right at the moment. While Ada tried to entice Zimmer to approach Corey, he wheeled himself precariously close to where Dante Bichette stood swinging a weighted bat and started chatting him up.
Ada stormed over. “Did I just see you try to slip Dante Bichette a twenty?”
“No, of course you didn’t,” Corey said with a wink, “because it didn’t happen.”
That was it. Ada started yelling at Corey, screaming at him until she could feel her face grow hot. “Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you should use it to get stuff. That’s all you think about, how you can work the wheelchair thing to score more loot, meet famous people, get somebody else to pick up the check.” She kept on yelling until she needed to pause for breath. “There are plenty of kids who are really sick, who don’t have enough energy to sit around scheming like you do.”
“What?” Corey said. He looked as though he had never been hollered at before, and his lip was quivering. “I don’t do anything like that. I wish I could run. I didn’t ask for any of this. The organizations always approached me. Why are you so mean?” He started choking up. “Nobody has ever been this mean to me before,” he gasped, then started to cry.
Ada felt like two cents. Corey was a boy too small for his thirteen years, with scrawny legs, confined to a chair, who had managed to cultivate a vigorous personality and make countless friends despite his deprivation. “Oh Corey,” Ada said. “I’m so sorry. I mean it.” But Corey didn’t hear her. He was rubbing his eyes with his fists, and his mother had rushed forward and was hugging him fiercely. Ada looked up to see the team’s owner sitting in the first row next to the dugout. His mouth was open and his jowls were quivering. She wished she could slink down into the dugout and cower under a pile of sunflower seed shells until everyone had left for the evening. The wood of the dugout floor was soft, cleat-nicked. She could have sunk right into it. She didn’t even try to apologize to Corey’s mother. She didn’t have the words. The centerfielder rushed over and signed Corey’s ball and then paused dramatically and looked at Ada, shook his head and snorted, stopping to whisper something to another player behind his gloved hand before he walked away. Ada realized that not only was she evil, she was also a raving nut.
Ada somehow led Corey back to his seats, trying to convince herself that what she had done wouldn’t turn out that badly—the owner, after all, wasn’t Steinbrenner, wasn’t Turner. He was a reasonable man. Ada went to her cubicle and sat with her head in her hands, shaking. A secretary came by and told Ada to report to her boss’s office, then quickly vanished after issuing the summons.
When Ada walked in his office, her boss was sitting with his chair facing the window.
“I just got a call from the big guy,” he said. “It seems he saw you yelling at a Care and Share.”
Ada looked at her boss’s head and bit her lip.
He swiveled around in his chair and faced her. “What part of Care and Share don’t you understand? Do you value your employment at this ball club?”
This was the time she should tell him everything, Ada knew. She should spill every detail of her past illness and save her ass. She should rip open her shirt and display the scars and marks so that the doubters could believe. She should tell her boss that everything could be traced to that, that the cancer had made her crazy, that it had made her mean. It was time for her to say, Look here, I have an excuse, a better excuse than you’ve got. Ada began to weep.
“You called him an ungrateful charlatan,” her boss continued. “His mother has already had someone at Children’s Hospital fax over medical records to prove his condition.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she said, feeling more pathetic than she’d ever felt.
The phone rang and her boss answered it. He looked at Ada and put his hand over the receiver, saying, “I’ve got to take this,” and frowning at her.
Ada walked back to her cubicle and sat down, resting her head on her desk.
“Ada!” Sherrie screamed as she peeked her head over the cubicle’s partition. “I thought you’d never stop caring and sharing. So, who are they from?”
“The flowers! They came the second after you walked down to meet the kid.”
Ada looked around and noticed the extravagant bouquet on the far corner of her desk. The daisies mocked her. “I don’t know,” she said numbly. Maybe this was the kiss of death, the owner’s way of giving her the axe. Flowers were easier to deliver than horses’ heads. Ada wiped her eyes with the back of one hand and reached for the card with the other. She had trouble opening the envelope, so Sherrie snatched it from her and took out the card. “They’re from Neil!” she squealed.
“Neil?” Ada said, trying to place the name. “You mean Dinger?” When he took off his plush head, Dinger’s name was Neil. His face was egg-shaped and his eyes were nearsighted. He had to wear plastic wrap-around glasses underneath the Dinger head so that he didn’t crush his usual frames, but they fogged over with sweat so Dinger ran into things without comic intention. When Neil wasn’t out mascoting around, he had other duties, and Ada now remembered that although he was stationed on another floor, he walked by her desk at least once a day. He always managed to find her in the stadium when he was working a game, and once he had come over and sat in her lap to amuse the nearby children. Dinger reeked, absolutely reeked with years of summer mansweat that couldn’t be laundered out because the plush costume was difficult to clean. Dinger had smacked her in the face with his stiff purple tail several times, and the children laughed.
Ada stood up and looked around to see if anyone else had received flowers from Dinger. He often distributed leftover promotional giveaway items—insulated lunch sacks with the team logo and an advertisement for a brand of vacuum cleaner silk-screened on the back, garish plastic checkbook covers with a portrait of the field on one side and a bank’s insignia on the other. Ada didn’t see any other flowers. If Dinger knew the true Golgotha of her heart, she wondered, what would he say? How would she tell him? I’ve held hands with the reaper and lived to tell the tale. It sounded like bad Judas Priest. Maybe she didn’t have any other prospects, but Ada was not interested in Dinger.
“Sherrie,” she said, “let’s go get a drink.”
It was comforting to have Sherrie nearby. Reflecting on their mutual depravity consoled Ada, as did Sherrie’s chipper gossip. Ada downed martinis and nodded and said, “No you didn’t. You did?” at the proper places in Sherrie’s stories until she could barely sit up on the stool and needed to take a cab home. Ada felt close to Sherrie that night because she made absolutely no demands on Ada’s heart.
There wasn’t a professional baseball team in Colorado when Ada was growing up, and her parents had driven her to Kansas City to see George Brett play on the anniversary of the end of her cancer treatment. By that time people no longer stared at her because her hair had grown back and she didn’t look puffy and freakish. She had glossy curls and a ball cap, too, a summer tan and a hotdog to eat, and when George Brett hit a homerun, the fountains behind centerfield sprang to life. Ada found it wonderful. Maybe, she had thought, everything would be better from here on. But that kid hadn’t known how hard it would be to start living a life once she’d kissed it goodbye. She wasn’t afraid of death after she’d fought it for years, so when her test results came back clean, it was like having a squalling foundling thrust into her lap that she had no idea what to do with. She chose not to think about it. She always figured the relapse would happen, any day now. In the meantime she put one foot in front of the other without deciding anywhere to go. She finished school. She went to the state college. She took the first job she was offered and kept it, simply kept it, making no further plans.
Milo finally showed up for a Care and Share at the next afternoon’s ballgame, before Ada’s boss had a chance to meet with the owner and discuss her behavior. Because they were so busy, firings almost never happened during the season, except for the sacking of managers who hadn’t chalked up a win. If she was lucky she probably had until September. Milo’s dad called from the phone in the lobby. “I’m sorry I didn’t call earlier. He was doing better today and I didn’t know how long it would last.” Ada rushed downstairs to meet them. Milo’s face had a green tinge, and he slumped in his wheelchair, too weak to respond when Ada talked to him. He wore the jersey of the leftfielder, a pompous man who never signed kids’ balls before games. Only Milo’s father was with him, a man whose sad eyes were shaded by a John Deere cap. That’s when Ada had the thought: last requests. Is that what she was fulfilling, last requests? She couldn’t remember being so young that her last request would have been so simple: to shake a ballplayer’s hand.
Ada led Milo and his father out on the field. Milo looked so sick that Ada didn’t know what to do. The baseball players bounded around them. They were miracles, prodigies of health, the products of training and discipline and genetics. Their muscles were audacious in formation, each attuned to perform a singular function. The players matched their wives, whom Ada had met at a charity function, unreal cat-suited women, golden and glowing. The first baseman’s hands especially amazed Ada: huge, shapely instruments that looked as if they had originally belonged to an enormous sculpture of a god that had never been scaled down to human size. She approached the players with uncharacteristic boldness, pressing them to sign Milo’s ball.
The leftfielder was taking batting practice, and Milo watched him avidly, without speaking, barely acknowledging the parade of other players who came up to him. “He’s not feeling good,” his father explained. “Thank you so much.” The leftfielder tipped a ball, and it careened out behind the batting cage, catching a lip on the field and smacking the bottom of Milo’s wheelchair. Ada’s heart thrummed fast, and she was relieved that it hadn’t hit him. She fished the ball out and Milo looked at it, then up at her, pleading. “Do you want me to get him to sign this ball?” Ada asked. He nodded so vigorously that his thin shoulders participated in the motion. Ada closed her hand around the ball and squeezed it hard as she marched off to corner the leftfielder.
National League RBI leader or not, that bastard was going to sign this ball. She had talked to him once before. He was dumb as a post. Murkily stupid, as though when you looked in his eyes and asked him a question he had to swim up through fathoms of algae-choked water to reach the surface to issue a reply. But he was Milo’s hero, and so Ada blocked the back entrance into the dugout and thrust the ball and uncapped pen toward him, saying, “Sign, please?” He blinked, then took the pen and signed the ball.
When she gave it to Milo, he cradled it at first, as gently as a soap bubble he never wanted to pop. Ada had spent so much of her life in the company of the sick that this was normal to her: immobile children hunched in chairs, bodies full of unimaginable medicines and chemicals, and this boy, clutching an autographed baseball with weak fingers nearly the same color as the ball.
Ada looked out at the stadium, the thrilling expanse of it, the plenitude of grass and good red dirt. She inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of hotdogs and popcorn and wet grass after light rain. She heard the happy pregame chatter all around her amplified a thousandfold and the sound of traffic in the streets outside. She looked at Milo, in the middle of it all, holding his signed baseball fiercely.
Ada knew that she wasn’t a miracle any more than this boy was a curse. They were accidents of their cells, and nothing more. She didn’t know what she wanted to do next, but she knew that it was not this. She could no longer shepherd dying children and beg autographs from the famous. She could walk away today, resign before her boss had a chance to fire her. And when she came to the ballpark, she would just watch the game. That was the privilege of the well.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.