Play Ball

John Broussard


Celia Fleming waved good-bye to David, her eight-year-old, as he went through the schoolyard gate. The return wave from the small figure bundled up against the cold was a half-hearted one. She shook her head in exasperation and tried to concentrate on the job she was headed off too - potentially a very profitable and satisfying one. The client was Di Sawyer, wife of billionaire J. T. Sawyer.

Celia had finally branched out into her own interior decorating business, and this was her first chance to really prove herself - an eight-room apartment to be completely remodeled. She took a certain smug satisfaction in how quickly she'd moved from designing drapes and suggesting furniture to full-scale planning. Her ex wouldn't believe it, especially as he'd sneered so openly at her first tentative attempts at entrepreneurship. Not that she really cared what he thought. It had been five years since he'd left, after gambling away his savings and as much of hers as he could lay his hands on. The only good part of the whole matter was that she had easily gotten sole custody of David. His father had made no attempts to contact him - not so much as a birthday card.

But that was what was troubling Celia. David didn't have a father. Sure, there were single mothers all over the place who were happily bringing up one or more children on their own, but those mothers were different. Gina Tracy, for one. Strong, capable Gina. Her husband had deserted her over six years ago, leaving her with Leslie, who was growing up to be as strong and capable as her mother. Gina was a good friend, too, who volunteered to take David to his soccer games when Celia had been struggling to keep her business alive.

When Celia confessed her admiration, Gina grinned. "Celia, you're probably the only person in the world who admires me. I've managed to screw my life up royally, and here you've started up a successful business all on your own, got rid of a worthless husband with little effort, and you have a great kid."

"Maybe it's because he's a boy, but I seem to be losing rapport with him more and more," Celia lamented.

Gina looked thoughtful. "There is something to that. So far as I can see, Leslie's doing OK without a father, but maybe David needs one. Let's face it. You're just too darn feminine to be raising a boy alone. I know you can't stand soccer games, and you probably can't tell the difference between a football and a hockey puck. Those are the kinds of things David's interested in, and he needs someone around he can talk to about them. Your interior decorating talents don't have much appeal for him. And there's no point in you trying to fake an interest in sports - or cars, or motorcycles. David would see right through that, especially as you're happy driving around in that old Dodge van."

Celia nodded. "That's true, but what can I do? I hate to keep pushing him off on you all the time, but he seems happiest when he's out there on the soccer field with Leslie and the other kids and with you along."

"I'm not the role model he needs. Nor is that soccer coach David admires. He's really nothing but a mindless jock. No, David needs a father."

"Am I supposed to go out shopping for one?" There was no mistaking the skepticism in Celia's voice.

"C'mon, Celia. With your looks, you know you don't have to do any shopping. I've seen men flock around you."

Celia grimaced. "Jock types - like the one you described. I'm not sure there's a man out there I can stand who would be what David needs."

"You never know."

The conversation with Gina still reverberated in her mind, but Celia had to concentrate on negotiating the icy streets and on the work ahead. Di had said she'd be there, and the security guard would be alerted to Celia's arrival. He was, and friendly and helpful as only tip-conscious guards in luxury apartments could be.

Dark-haired, movie-star gorgeous Di welcomed her warmly, grasping Celia's hand in both of hers. A man hovered in the background. Celia vaguely remembered what J. T. looked like from his news photographs, and this man didn't fit the picture. Much younger, much more attractive. She slipped her heavy shoulder satchel off and was beginning to look around at the surroundings she was eager to transform when Di beckoned to her companion and introduced him to Celia.

"Meet my brother, Anthony Morelli. Anthony, this is Celia Fleming, who is going to change this hovel into a palace."

The smile was pleasant, the handshake firm and warm. Celia decided his features were too rugged for him to be called handsome, but they certainly weren't hard to look at - though she was peering up from her barely five-foot height at someone more than a head taller.

"Anthony and his ex-wife lived here for about three years, so he knows the place better than I do. It was three years, wasn't it, Anthony?"

Anthony nodded. "Yes, but it seemed much longer."

Di guffawed. "As you might guess, Anthony's memories of his marriage aren't the happiest. Anyway, if you have any questions, he's the one to ask. But if he gets under foot, just kick him out. In the meantime, I'm off to rescue J. T. from a business meeting he doesn't want to go to."

Celia had difficulty picturing Anthony getting under foot. "I'm sure I can use someone to hold the other end of the tape measure, but I'll be mostly taking pictures today. Serious planning comes later."

With her digital camera, Celia photographed the apartment from every conceivable angle. Her mind was racing with color schemes, wall changes, completely different furnishings. Anthony was pleasant company, and his occasional suggestions made sense. The two of them spoke little, since she was wrapped up in her plans, impatient to get to the computer so she could manipulate the photos into images of the apartment's potential future.

Satisfied finally with what she had stored away in her camera and her brain, and with the morning almost gone, Celia was packing away her equipment when Anthony suggested he make them some coffee. She accepted somewhat reluctantly, then smiled at his fumbling attempts to operate the unfamiliar coffee maker before taking over the task herself. He gave an answering, rueful smile. "The kitchen is obviously not my strong point."

"What do you do?" she asked, more to make conversation than from any genuine interest, as she was busy resurveying her surroundings, calculating where a new Sub-Zero would fit, and deciding on the dimensions of a center island.

"I play baseball."

Celia wondered how any rich playboy could have a hobby that required knickers. But then she admitted to herself that Gina was right. She knew nothing about sports. Maybe baseball for the nouveau riche was now the rage. In any event, she'd escaped it all in high school by putting her physical prowess, such as it was, into swimming. College - actually design school - was as far removed from sports as she was.

She caught a strange, quizzical expression on his face as she frowned and said, "No, I mean, what's your occupation?"

Anthony broke into a smile. "That is my occupation. I'm a baseball player." "Oh." The conversation slipped off onto other matters.

Celia glanced at her watch, and Anthony took the hint. "You really are devoted," he said. "I can see you want to get back to work, so I won't hold you up."

Embarrassed by her eagerness to leave, Celia still managed to escape gracefully with the promise that she would return with her remodeling contractor on Monday. She encouraged Anthony to be there with suggestions.

The photos were fantastic. The new software program even more so. Celia wondered how anyone did remodeling before computers and digital cameras. As she fed data in, the machine produced the virtual surroundings at the touch of a button. Keying in possible changes also brought up a running total of costs. Not that costs were important this time. Di had as much as told her the important thing was results and that J. T. would cover anything and everything she wanted.

Even so, as she flashed the variations across the screen of her laptop for Di's benefit the following Monday, she felt obliged to call attention to the scrolling amounts in the lower left-hand corner. Di laughed and said, "You can shut that off. J. T. spends that much on smuggled Havana cigars."

"By the way," Di continued, "Anthony has a bachelor pad that needs reworking. If you're interested, I'll let him know. But you have to finish this first. I'm not going to let my kid brother steal you away before you're through here."

"Contractor couldn't make it today, but he'll be here tomorrow," Celia said, only half-digesting an offer she would have jumped at prior to this major job. Anthony's arrival, the unexpected absence of the contractor, and the impossibility of any significant planning in his absence led Celia to accept Anthony's invitation to at least look at his apartment.

Several blocks north of Di's, and three rooms smaller, the apartment was every bit as luxurious and perhaps even more of a challenge for Celia's talents. But it was obvious that Anthony's interests lay elsewhere than in Celia's decorative skills. While she would have preferred to get back to the shop to work on some small, unfinished jobs, it seemed only civil to accept his offer of lunch. Besides, there was something to be said for basking in the admiration of a not-unattractive male.

It was at that lunch that Celia began to evaluate her companion. A brief sketch of his life came out after a good deal of prompting. Celia rated that in his favor. Too many men seemed incapable of doing anything but talking about themselves, with no prompting whatsoever. Her own career as a designer and single mother of an eight-year-old boy was exchanged for his brief description of growing up in a poor Italian family, of getting into college on a baseball scholarship, and of majoring in architecture - only to be enticed away by his success as a ballplayer.

The architectural background explained Anthony's knowledge of and interest in design. His wealth needed much more explanation, but Celia wasn't about to pry. Her mind toyed with various possibilities. Perhaps some lucky investments in the stock market. Or was he sponging off of his rich brother-in-law? His relationship with his sister was obviously a comfortable one, but was it comfortable enough to account for his luxurious life style, his outlandishly costly apartment, the London Fog raincoat he'd carelessly draped over an empty chair at the table, or the rest of his casual but obviously expensive clothes?

Then it struck her. Where and how would a poor Italian boy fall into what looked like a sizable fortune? The Mafia, of course! Celia had become almost totally convinced her guess was correct when she heard him ask, "If you're not doing anything this evening, could I persuade you to take in a Broadway show? Your choice."

It took her a few moments to respond. David was a good excuse to avoid the invitation - last-minute babysitters and all. "Some other time perhaps."

Anthony didn't disguise his disappointment as they rose and he helped her on with her coat. On the way to the parking lot and her van he said, with good humor creeping back into his voice, "I'm not going to give up that easily, you know." The tone of the good-natured warning forced a smile to her face, and already she was beginning to reconsider the Mafia connection.

The next few days were filled with repeated visits to Di's apartment, with Anthony showing up only once and then staying discreetly out from under as the contractor went over each proposed change. On Friday, the first hammer was taken to the first wall.

That evening, Anthony called. "Any possibility of dinner and that show this weekend? Name the evening. It will include an iron-clad promise to get you home before the babysitter gets bored with TV."

The offer, the pleasant voice, were difficult to resist. David would be only too pleased to spend Sunday night with Leslie and Gina. Why not?

The evening went surprisingly well. Anthony was attentive, spoke intelligently about music and art - Celia's first love. Between acts at the theater, Celia excused herself to go the ladies room. As she came out into the crowded lobby, she could see Anthony surrounded by what were obviously adoring females. She hesitated as she caught a glimpse of him handing something to one of his admirers. At that moment, he looked up and saw her. Excusing himself, he broke free and crossed over to her. In answer to her unspoken question, he smiled and said, "Fans." The casual non-explanation annoyed her momentarily as the chimes announced the next act.

Anthony did get her back to her apartment early, and she toyed with the idea of inviting him up, then rejected it. She was attracted to him, but she realized that the situation was far too complex to launch abruptly into an affair with someone she still knew so little about.

Without naming names, Celia decided to sound out Gina's opinion. At the very least she owed Gina some satisfaction of her curiosity, since it was unusual for Celia to ask her friend to house David overnight.

"What's he like?" Gina asked when Celia called from work.

"Nice. Not a groper. He hasn't pushed."

"That might be good or it might be bad. Single, good-looking, and nice? Sure he isn't gay?"

Celia burst into laughter. "Why would he want my company if he were gay?"

"Maybe he just likes company. Any sign he's lusting after you?"

The answer to that took some thought. "I think so. It wouldn't be hard to find out."

"So find out. You're a big girl, now."

"I might just do that. But there's still something that really bothers me."

"What's that?"

"Money."

"Ah, hah! You're going to be his sugar mommy. He's broke - just like your ex. They say women are attracted to the same kind of man over and over again. Looks like it works with you."

"Wrong! He's rolling in the stuff and that's the problem."

"Hah. I'd like to have that problem. Why is it bothering you?"

"I don't know how he makes his money - or made it. He doesn't seem to have a job. No office or anything. But his credit cards go through without a peep, his apartment must cost a fortune, and he sure isn't buying his clothes from a thrift shop."

"I still don't get it. What's the problem?"

"He's never told me how he makes his money. It could be illegal. Drugs or something. How can I find out?"

Gina sounded exasperated. "It's none of your business. If he likes you, and if he isn't going to sponge off of you, what difference does it make how he's come by his money? Besides, you aren't living in a Hollywood movie. Legitimate fortunes are the norm. Maybe he was one of those lucky ones who invested a thousand dollars in Amazon.com when it first went public. Who knows? Besides, drug dealers go around with bodyguards, most certainly don't live alone, and they don't court eligible women. They make use of high-class call girls, instead. Grab him!"

"There's something more serious than that. David!"

"I thought we settled that. Didn't we decide David needs a father?"

"Well . . ." Celia sounded dubious. "He did say he likes kids."

"There you are. What more do you want? He has looks, money, likes kids, isn't gay, sounds very masculine, and would be a hell of a good role model. So, again: What's the problem?"

"Will David like him?"

A snort at the other end of the line. "Easily resolved. Take David along to dinner. It's a good test to see if your boyfriend really can tolerate kids. And David's initial reaction should tell you reams."

Anthony seemed genuinely pleased at the prospect of a threesome when Celia called him later that day, but she still had misgivings - so many that she proposed taking a taxi to the restaurant with David rather than having Anthony pick them up. If the atmosphere became too charged, she could gracefully exit without him driving them home. And, she warned herself, the worst could happen. David was becoming even more withdrawn and almost sullen with her.

When the two of them entered the restaurant lobby, Celia immediately caught sight of Anthony talking to the receptionist. Full of trepidation, she walked toward him. He turned.

Horrified, she felt the small boy at her side suddenly tense up. It was going to be a disaster. She had the impulse to excuse herself and David on some pretense and leave immediately. But introductions were necessary. "David, I want you to meet Anthony Morelli." Before she could go any further, she heard a small voice, full of disdain, saying, "Anthony? Mom! This is Tony Morelli."

The boy's disdain turned to awe. "Gee, Tony, you mean you're going to eat with us? Wait 'til Leslie hears about this! And the kids at school!!" The words came tumbling out, followed by an accusatory tone as he turned to Celia. "You never told me we were coming to see Tony Morelli. He hit over three-eighty for the Mets two years in a row. And that backhanded catch you made in the series, Tony. That was fantastic."

Celia had no problems eating her dinner, but David needed a lot of urging, as food took second place to all of his questions. Celia's own questions didn't need asking. Even with her scant knowledge of sports, she was aware that a star major-league baseball player made a Mafia-like income, didn't work in the winter, and could serve as a superb role model for an eight-year-old boy.


© John Broussard

John Broussard has published about two hundred short stories. He is the author of four books: Mana (Pulsar Books), Death of the Tin Man's Wife (Coffee Cup Press), The Left Hand of Death (Coffee Cup Press), Death of a Developer (HandHeld Crime), and two that are forthcoming: A Method to Murder (HandHeld Crime), and "Fifty-Minutes" Flaherty & Murder at Milltown Junior College (Boson Books). He is also the author of "Bye, Bye, Birdie," which appears in Moxie's Family, Friends & Lovers section. Descriptions of his work can be found at www.fictionwritings.com.


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