After the Ball
Max King Cap
Reading Time: 6 minutes
"After the Ball" originally appeared in Issue 16 of Tahoma Literary Review.
This work of flash nonfiction, brief as it is, nevertheless strikes me as cinematic in scope. I can see "the candidate" and "the boy" and my heart aches for both as they hit their marks on this metaphoric stage. I can feel the love Cap has for his father and for the city of Chicago. The personal reflection hits its mark so effectively.
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The elevated tracks bend to an S-curve heading north from the ballpark—Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs; losers for over two lifetimes—bending left for half a block then turning right to run for four blocks parallel to Graceland Cemetery. Graceland is the end of the line for numerous notables; it holds the remains of both heavyweight champ Jack Johnson and modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Although they were contemporaries, it might safely be presumed that the two never met. Now they mingle eternally in a Chicago boneyard. It was along this stretch of northbound track where the boy was found. He appeared to be about eleven years old, certainly no more than that, and the candidate who lifted him to his colleagues did so effortlessly, gently. The boy seemed almost weightless. The skin on his left ankle and right shoulder was singed where swatches of his white sock and his striped green and black T-shirt had been burned away. Not far from the body was the softball he was hoping to retrieve.
The candidate, a Chicago term for Candidate Firefighter (in New York City they are called probies, or Probationary Firefighter), had not been long on the job. He had been given a very convenient posting not far from his apartment and he had been treated kindly by the instructors at the fire academy. That preferential treatment was due to his being a legacy, a firefighter whose father had been a firefighter who later became the protestant chaplain for the department. The candidate was even given his father’s old cap device and badge, numbered 3133. When asked which apparatus he would prefer, he answered, “Truck.” His father had been on a truck. He had been a tillerman on the hook-and-ladder. When two fire apparatuses collided during a run his father became pinned under the wheels of the engine. He spent nearly a year in recuperation. Ever after he carried tire marks across his chest and shoulder. The candidate began his training on Truck 66 in Uptown.
The rapidly gentrifying Uptown neighborhood is on the northside of Chicago. It had been intermittently posh and sketchy. Grand old apartment buildings in pristine condition stood side-by-side with their run-down twin, a Dorian Gray portrait of before and after. Some ofthe apartment buildings have glorious views of the park and Lake Michigan. Others, also built in the Jazz Age, before the crash in 1929, had become SROs, or warehouses for psychiatric outpatients. It had a large Native American population and a sizable contingent of Appalachians alongside Blacks, Whites, and Latinos of widely varying income levels. Yet the candidate only met most of those people after they were dead. An old woman frozen to her bathroom floor. A morbidly obese man putrefying in his bedsit. A decapitation suicide on the commuter line. A little boy electrocuted on the “L” tracks.
As expected, alongside training, a candidate is given a number of other duties. Cleaning was primary—bathroom, shower room, locker room. Sweeping out the handball court was another, although none of his crew on the third shift played handball. Instead, they played Strikeout, a baseball game confined to a batter against a pitcher with a strike zone painted on the wall. But mostly the candidate did not have time for that. He had to coil, then uncoil, then recoil the rope. He then placed it in a canvas sack with one end of the rope protruding. Presumably, the live end of the rope could be secured atop the roof and the sack thrown over the side and the rope would elegantly unravel allowing an intrepid firefighter to rappel down the side of a building. At least that is the way it worked at the fire academy. Every morning he went through a checklist of equipment on the engine and made sure of the number of pike poles (very medieval-sounding but having a greater resemblance to transom window hooks), testing the roof saw, and filling the hand pump. The hand pump was the worst. It was an ancient brass cylinder that held four gallons of water. At 8.34 pounds per gallon, that came to more than thirty pounds of water, plus the weight of the can. The candidate had to lug it on most runs, though he never got used to it. More than half of their calls were solved by the hand pump or less. A cigarette smoldering in the upholstery was common. Hand over the hand pump to someone senior then help drag the ruined loveseat out to the alley. Another common run was “pot-of-meat,” where someone had fallen asleep with something on the stove. Smashing through a door made for frightening wake-ups and very expensive hotdogs.
Had the boy been playing with children his own age? That must have been a powerful swing by an eleven-year-old; the “L” tracks are more than forty feet high. Had he hit the ball and that made him responsible for retrieving it? Had his mighty swing led to his death? How did he get up there? The Sheridan stop was at least fifty yards away. He would have had to cross Sheridan Road, pay the fare (unless his pals made a distraction and he snuck under the turnstile while the attendant was distracted), climb the stairs, walk to the end of the platform and down onto the wooden walkway between the northbound and southbound tracks, crossing Sheridan Road again and back to the sandy and weedy field that served as their ballyard. He would have been roughly in the same place he had been, only forty feet up, able to look down to where he took that mighty swing and made the ball disappear. Was he looking at the imaginary batter’s box down below, imagining himself in an instant replay? Perhaps it was this distraction, this moment of childish pride that made him trip and complete the circuit between the uncharged track and the electrified third rail. Was there a sound? Was there a flash? Where were his friends when we arrived? There was no one in the lot below. They had all vanished. Perhaps fearful and ashamed and complicit, the other children had run away because out of sight is out of mind is out of my control is not my fault is I’m glad it wasn’t me. The news had not spread in the neighborhood; there was no crowd of ghoulish onlookers hoping to have a peek at the genesis of some poor mother’s everlasting misery.
The candidate soon grew bored with the fire department. On the great majority of days nothing happened. Indifferent to public service but slightly ashamed of his indolence of obligation he had chosen to take the exam out of some notion of civic duty. The armed forces were not considered, too rigid. The Peace Corps was rejected as geographically inconvenient and possibly rich in discomfort. He already twice declined the fire department position. A third declination would have been a third strike. So, for three years he endured the tedium of the firehouse, the drinking, the prostitutes, the casual racism. He quit and went to graduate school, waited tables, worked in advertising and public relations, then got a job teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology, working in a building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
He never learned the little boy’s name. He never learned any of the names of any of the victims he’d encountered. They were bodies. The bodies of strangers. The candidate learned to expect a certain dispassion growing in him. He became indifferent. Weeping did not serve the dead. The woman in the sewer. The little boy who burrowed, then was buried, in the mound of sand delivered in spring anticipation of being smoothed onto the beach, expectant of the joys of summer. Although the candidate had become the adjunct associate professor he still couldn’t avoid Graceland Cemetery. It was on his way to the ballpark. He always glimpsed through the gates as he walked by, not at the grand funerary monuments but all the way to the back of the cemetery, past the crematorium, above the wall, up to the “L” tracks, where he cradled his first dead body. Where a dead body became a boy whom he never met but who had chosen him, and whose scant and temporary weight left a delicate but indelible trace in the arms of an indifferent candidate.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Cap had this to say about "About the Ball":
As a young man I became a firefighter. I interrupted graduate school, one class shy of completing my Visual Arts MFA at the University of Chicago. It was the third time the CFD offered me the position. I had frivolously taken the exam straight out of high school but if I declined again I would be removed from the roster of applicants. I took the position, fought fires, earned the missing credit through an independent project, and told no one of my other job, until now. One friend still doesn’t believe me, but, except for identifying names, it’s all true.
Max King Cap is a Chicago artist and writer who now lives in Los Angeles.