It happened when Arnie and I were playing “Sammy Sosa” in the park down the street from my house in Morton, a small suburb outside Philadelphia. Arnie and I were best friends. It sounds cliché now. Now, at 19, I can’t even imagine trusting someone the way I did him—with complete conviction, without doubt. But back then, it actually meant something. And as much as I want to lie to myself, to forget what happened that day, I know it still means something to me.
We first met during fifth-grade at after-school baseball. We didn’t play against other schools, just each other—the formal baseball leagues didn’t start until sixth grade. I only knew a few things about him then: his parents were divorced, he always had a serious look on his face, and he was the only kid I could never strike out. I hated it when he would come up to bat, because no matter what I threw at him—curveball, fastball—he’d hit it every time.
We never spoke to each other. Our relationship was a silent exchange, him at the plate and me on the mound. Near the end of the year, we had our closest game yet. It was the last inning, and my team was winning by one run. I struck out the first two batters easily, but I wasn’t hopeful. I knew that Arnie was up next.
He came up to the plate, swinging at the air. He’d swing fast, then slowly with purpose, as if he were visualizing an instant replay on a jumbotron. I held my breath, feeling the air strain against my lungs. I fingered the ball carefully—it felt unfamiliar, like a glass figurine, in my hand. I brought it up to my glove, stared at Arnie hard, wound up the ball, then threw. It seemed like a quick succession, one pitch after another, but it also felt slow, like I was moving underwater. I didn’t even realize until a minute later, when my teammates rushed the mound and flew upon me in a crowd of smiles, that we had won. I had struck out Arnie for the first time.
While I was walking home after the game, I felt a timid finger tap my shoulder.
“Hey,” said Arnie. He smiled nervously, revealing a dark gap where his front tooth used to be. Arnie was really self-conscious about his gap—he only fully smiled when he was nervous or excited. I never got the chance to ask him how he had lost the tooth.
“Hey,” I replied.
“You’re a really good pitcher,”
“Thanks,” I said. “But I just struck you out,” I said. “Aren’t you mad?”
“Well, a little,” he admitted, still smiling. “But that just means you can make me better.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want you to help me practice. And,” he added, quickly, “in return, I could let you strike me out at least once every game, just so you don’t feel like you’re betraying your team or anything.”
“That’s pretty nice of you,” I said.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said. He brushed his long hair out of his eyes and looked at the ground. “We’ll be together the real baseball team next year anyway. So what do you say?”
Arnie’s dream was to play major league baseball. Since he was ten, when his father was still around to take him to games, Arnie had been planning. He hoped that by the time he got into high school, he’d catch the eye of a talent scout and from that point, he would start his major-league career. That’s what I liked about Arnie. He was always thinking, especially about the future. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I admired his passion. But I did question it at times.
“Arnie,” I said. We were searching for balls during one of our practices. “Could I ask you something?”
“If it’s about Catherine D’Olio again, don’t worry about it, Reg,” he said, picking a ball from one of the bushes. “She had a big smile on her face after you helped her pick up her books.”
“Hah yeah, I saw that too,” I said, blushing a bit. “It’s something else, though. Your baseball plan.”
“What about it?” he asked.
“Well, you’re a really good hitter. Probably the best on the baseball team.”
“Thanks to you, Reg.”
“Well, only a little. Anyway, you’re good. But, there’s a lot of other people who are too. How do you know you’ll get on a team?”
Arnie paused. His eyes were looking at nothing in particular, but I knew he was thinking.
“You know those high school kids we see sometimes, Reg? The ones that that hang out by the dumpsters?”
I nodded. Every town has a group of kids like them, the ones who never grow up, who become adults without knowing what that means. The ones who, even after they’ve graduated, still hang out with high school kids because they’re terrified of people their own age.
“I want to live a great life instead of talk about how I could have had one,” said Arnie. “I’ll do anything to get on a team because I need to get out of here. You should get out too when you can.”
“But I don’t even know what I want to do, Arn.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Something great, something that helps people. Maybe a doctor or something.” He bent down to pick up another ball.
Although Arnie never did, I found my way out of Morton. But I can’t say whether or not that was a good thing.
Every Sunday we practiced in the park. I’d pitch balls to Arnie, a few easy ones at first to get him warmed up, then moved on to faster throws. We only had five balls, so after they had all been pitched or hit we went out looking for them. During our last practice two months ago, my fingers were getting numb from the January wind. I called out to Arnie that this would be the last pitch. Arnie smashed it so far that the only way we knew that it had even landed was from the cries of a car alarm in the distance.
“Race ya,” he said, smiling with what was left of his teeth. He was halfway across the park before I even started after him.
“No fair,” I yelled between breaths as I attempted to catch up. He turned his head mid-sprint to grin at me, showing off his missing tooth. Just as he stepped onto the road a van rounded the corner, going way too fast.
“Arn! Stop—” My screams mixed with the screeching brakes. The van stopped, and for a second I thought Arnie would be okay. But then I noticed that he had stopped moving too—he was frozen in a strange position of still running. His one foot was about land while the heel of his other one was rising, preparing to push off. Only a quarter of an inch separated Arnie from the van’s fly-encrusted grill and the air around the tires was clouded with hanging specks of dust and rubber bits.
What was going on? I looked around and saw everything had stopped moving. I couldn’t feel the wind anymore, but I could still see dried leaves suspended in the air, bits of trash on the street halted mid-motion. No car alarms sounded, no lingering birds sang.
I ran over to Arnie and tried to pull his rigid body to safety. Maybe there was a reason why everything stopped. Maybe I was supposed to save him. But Arnie wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t move anything, not even his fingers. I kicked his legs, the van, the tires, and screamed at a God that I knew was laughing at me. There was nothing I could do. After maybe ten minutes (how can you count time when it’s stopped?) I gave up, sat on the curb, and waited. He was my best friend, and someone had to be there with him when he died. Eventually, time started again—like a frozen engine that you have to kick a few times. I watched as Arnie went under the tires, and I almost felt relieved that it had finally happened.