The Lesson, by Fred Cheney

An encounter to last a lifetime

Terri shouldered her baseball bat and hung her glove on the narrow end. She walked to Mr. Niles’s front steps, climbed them, and rang the bell. As she waited, she looked back over her shoulder at the empty lot. She thought about how mad she was that the boys had all run away as soon as the baseball crashed through Mr. Niles’s front window. He had a reputation for being a grouch.

She listened for some sign inside the house that Mr. Niles was coming. Maybe he wasn’t home, and she’d have to come back. Maybe …

Then the door opened slowly, and there sat Mr. Niles in his wheelchair, with a baseball nested in the cup holder. He looked at her. “Where are the others?”

“They ran off … left, but it doesn’t matter. I’m the one that did it. I hit the ball.”

“You hit it, huh. From where? Where were you standing?”

Terri pointed. “Over there in that corner of the lot. See that big box? We use it for a backstop.”

“That’s a pretty long way from there to my window. Is that hubcap first base?” Terri nodded.

“It’s a long way, but it’s still a foul ball. Do you bat right or left?”

“I bat lefty.”

“Throw left, too?” She nodded. “I see. Show me your stance.” Terri hesitated.

“Young lady, let me see your stance, please. Pretend that you’re up to the plate, and I’m pitching to you.”

Terri slid the glove off the end of her bat and did as she was told, more or less.

Mr. Niles nodded to himself. “Take a swing.” Terri let the bat slide off her shoulder and make an arc in front of her.

“No. Swing the bat like you’re trying to crush the ball. Like that last ball you swung at.”
Terri began to understand that this was the way she might end up paying for the window she broke. She set herself seriously, got her weight balanced as she liked it over her feet, and took a good hard swing.

“That’s what I needed to see. Now the best thing you’re doing is holding your head steady, but you need some little adjustments to your left wrist, your right hand, your feet and hips, and your follow-through. We can fix this right here on the porch. Won’t take a second.”

Mr. Niles told her that her stance was too open. She was facing the pitcher too squarely, which combined with her strong left hand was pulling the ball foul. He had her swing the bat using just her right hand and pay attention to when the wrist rolled over. That, he explained, was the time for her to open her stance, not by stepping to the right, but by turning her hips that way. She practiced that.

He had her swing the bat using just her left hand and get used to rolling her wrist halfway through the swing, at the time of impact with the ball. She held the bat with both hands and realized she had to change the position of her right hand in order for both wrists to roll at the same time.

“We’re making some progress here,” Mr. Niles told her. “I don’t want to load you up with too much to think about, but I do want you to memorize, I mean I want your muscles to memorize what the proper swing feels like.”

The last part of the lesson involved starting out with her right cheek against her right shoulder, and at the end of the swing having her left cheek against her left shoulder.
“Cheek-to-cheek. Shoulder-to shoulder,“ he chanted.

Terri got lost in the lesson. She felt the smoothness of her swing. She repeated it over and over.

“You’re a good little ballplayer. Being coachable is better than being talented. Of course, I suspect you’re both. Now back up a step or two so I can come out there with you.”

Terri moved aside as Mr. Niles wheeled onto the porch. He positioned himself so that he was facing Terri, and the empty lot was across the street to his left. He cradled the ball in his hands. “Now take your stance, and I’m going to toss the ball up real soft. You use your new swing to hit that ball back where it came from. Okay?” Terri nodded. “First, we’ll check for cars. One broken window is enough for today.”

When Terri hit the ball, she felt the force of her turning shoulders, her straight right arm, and the heel of left hand flowing into it. The aluminum bat pinged deliciously, and the ball took off high and straight. She turned back to Mr. Niles to say something, she didn’t know quite what, but he was already on his way back inside.

“Mr. Niles, I have to talk with you about paying for your window.”

“The window will get taken care of. Fixing one thing a day is enough. Now, get those boys back here and give me some baseball to watch.”

And the door closed. ◆

This piece appears in our Summer 2021 issue of Parabola, “Young and Old.” Please consider subscribing to our magazine or purchasing the issue here.