Volume 16
An Online Literary Magazine
March 31, 2022


Shot in the War


Christina M. Guillen


My dad takes off his mask and pumps his fist.



’m sitting in the dugout, bottom of the first inning, with little chance of playing until the sixth, when Debra Endrizzi points at my dad, who has just called the third strike on our shortstop. “Who’s the new ump?” she says. “Why does he walk like this?” She jumps up and imitates him, stepping on the balls of her feet, making her legs stiff and jerky.


I look down at my cleats, which are boys’ size 9 and still shiny black, even though I’ve had them since the season began.


“It’s her dad,” Earl Steinhaus says, leaning over my left shoulder to answer Debra’s question. He chomps a wad of gum so juicy that saliva oozes from the corners of his mouth.


Debra lifts her cap to tuck in some wiry hairs that have escaped from her braids and glares at me. “That guy’s your dad?” she says.


I squirm on the bench and take a deep breath, feeling the elastic of my training bra stretch around my ribcage. I nod and wait for Debra to get in my face as she’s done before.


Debra’s the latest kid to move to the Air Force base that’s just up the mountain from Millburg. Her dad used to be stationed at McGuire AFB in Jersey. I know this because whenever she gets the chance, she brags about how much better her life was back at McGuire. There was even a movie theater on the base, where she got to see Jaws. Kids in Millburg still suffer through an hour’s car ride to catch an old Disney flick at a drive-in.


You’d think that being one of two girls on the A&P team, Debra would be a little nicer to me. This is the first year girls are allowed to play Little League in Millburg, so maybe that’s why I’m always stuck with her for warm-ups. She whips the ball at me as if we’re headed to the World Series over in Williamsport. Just this week, she’s beaned me in the ear, the left boob, and once between the legs. In case you’re wondering, us girls don’t get cups. I think Debra enjoys watching me in pain more than hearing the smack of my glove catching the ball.


“So what’s wrong with your dad, Grendzinski?” Debra says, purposely not calling me Maddie, as she paces the dugout like a caged badger.


I hold my breath for another few seconds and realize that no one has ever asked me about the way my dad walks, like his disease is understood around Millburg, but this bossy girl just moved here in June. I’ve been embarrassed about my dad before, especially when he’s fallen down in public and can’t get up by himself, but I don’t talk about his muscular dystrophy with other kids.


Debra stops pacing, leans down, and cups her hands over my knees, leaving handprints of dugout dirt. “So, why’s he a cripple?” She shifts her coal-blue eyes toward the batter’s box where my dad has just called a foul tip on our centerfielder.


Then the story I make up for Debra at that very moment comes flying out of my mouth. “He was shot in the war.”


Earl pulls on a strand of gum and says, “No he wasn’t.”


“How do you know?” I say to my fellow benchwarmer.


Earl looks up with pale green eyes that remind me of juice from an olive jar and then lowers them. He has orange freckles on his eyelids. His brows and lashes are almost see-through. “Thought your dad was just born that way,” he says.


Debra plops down on the bench and shimmies her hips closer to mine. “What’re you saying, Grendzinski?”


I swivel my chin in her direction. She smells like her unwashed uniform, with black licorice and hogweed mixed in. I fix my gaze on a daddy long legs sliding down the block wall right behind her and say, “My dad went to the jungles of Vietnam.”


“No way,” Earl says.


“Shut up, albino,” Debra says. I suspect she knows that Earl just looks paler than most people, but she still calls him a name that stings. “Go on, Grendzinski.”


Earl shrugs. “Yeah, Maddie, go on.”


I suddenly remember the TV news from when I was little and picture what I’m about to say. “He flew a helicopter, you know, to pick up guys on stretchers. He’d land in the jungle. Very dangerous.”


“Wow! Did he get shot down?” Debra asks, leaning into my right side. “My dad didn’t see any action over there.” Her lips pucker then droop.


“Yeah, shot down,” I say. “He was taking off with these soldiers and heard gunfire. Then bang, he got hit in the legs. Both legs.”


“What happened then?” Earl asks, now fixing his olive-juice eyes on mine.


“The helicopter crashed. Boom! He crawled out from the wreck dragging one guy on a stretcher.”


“With bullets in his legs?” Debra says.


“Really?” Earl says. “Did the enemy come and capture him?”


“No, he kept crawling through that jungle grass, and hid in there with the stretcher guy,” I say then add this quickly, “Another helicopter came along and saved them.”


“That could be a movie,” Debra says in a breathy voice.


Earl shakes his head, as if he’s trying to imagine the scene in his head with the soundtrack coming through a drive-in speaker.


Crack! A&P’s centerfielder hits a pop fly. The second baseman for Faust’s Hardware runs backward onto the grass. The ball tips off his glove, but he bends over to trap it in his soft middle.


“Out!” my dad yells, removing his mask and clicking his counter. He dabs his pink, round face with the hankie I gave him for Father’s Day.


“So he limps around like that? Wounded?” Debra asks.


“Yeah, sorta, but he can still play catch,” I say and remember when I signed up for Little League. Dad was so thrilled that he put his name in to be a substitute ump and started playing catch with me once the grass thawed in our front yard. It must have looked funny to anyone driving by. I’d throw a crazy one that Dad couldn’t reach and then run to get the ball for him. He’d toss an easy one to me that I’d likely miss and chase down before throwing the ball back to him. Dad would just grin until we had a few good catches between us, making me laugh between throws with the “Who’s on First” routine, until our fingers were numb from the wind and Mom was calling us to supper.


I now watch my dad make his way over to Faust Hardware’s dugout to hustle up a batter. Wearing a black T-shirt and shorts, he has lean arms and legs, almost like a boy’s, but his belly is round and soft, like his belt is holding up a jellyroll.


As I focus on my dad dragging his clunky shoes through the dust, I think of his muscles in a war, little army men under the skin poking him with bayonets. He has shown me the glossy scars where a doctor cut into his arms and legs when he was little, trying to find out why his muscles didn’t work right. The doctor told Gram he wouldn’t live to be a teenager. I guess to make up for the bad news, the children’s hospital gave him free orthopedic shoes for life that looked like they were made for Frankenstein’s son. When he made it to twenty, another doctor took Dad to meet Jerry Lewis, who interviewed him on TV during the first M.D. Telethon. I guess Jerry wanted to give some hope to kids with the disease. Dad’s sort of famous for saying that night, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Now every Labor Day weekend, I get to stay up late and watch Jerry sweat through his suit as he promises the cure is coming, when even I know there really isn’t one.


Debra stands and wiggles the fingers of her right hand into her glove. “Did your dad get the Purple Heart? I wanna see it,” she says and runs out onto the field. She passes my dad on her way to first base and waves with her throwing hand.


“Hello there,” he says.


The plump second baseman for Faust Hardware who just got the last out steps up to the plate and adjusts his batting helmet. There’s enough wind this evening to whoosh through the helmet’s ear holes and make whistling sounds. This has happened to me every time I’ve struck out, which has been nearly all my times at bat. Dad says the whistling helmet theory is just in my head, that I need to keep my eye on the ball. The one and only hit I did get, a grounder to third, sent me jogging toward first base with the bat in my hand. From the stands, I could hear him yelling, “Drop the bat, Maddie! Run, run, run! Run faster!” He kept cheering for my legs to pump harder, as if commanding his own muscles to work. But the first baseman caught the throw and skipped toward the mound to celebrate the last out with his teammates.


Mom wonders why I would stay in Little League when I’m so bad at baseball. One time she went to a game before her shift at the nursing home. When it was over, she followed Coach Steinhaus to his truck and yelled at him, wanting to know why I didn’t get to play until the sixth. That inning I dropped two fly balls in right field, let a slow-moving grounder roll under my legs all the way to the fence, and struck out trying to hit three wild pitches in a row. As Coach Steinhaus stroked his red-white-and-blue beard that he’d dyed for the Bicentennial, Mom called him a “shameless sexist” for benching a girl. It didn’t seem to matter to her that the coach put in Debra Endrizzi all six innings while Earl, his own pale son, sat on the bench with me until fireflies started blinking in the outfield.


Now Faust Hardware’s second baseman watches the fourth pitch go by and walks to first, where Debra says, “Hey, Poppin’ Fresh, go ahead and steal. A girl’ll never catch you.” With her glove, she taps his arm, his neck, and then his ear. He jumps off the bag and bends his knees, ready to run.


Watching Debra makes me think of that girl from Delaware who went on TV a few years ago and made a big stink about Little League being unfair. When I joined, I didn’t think that playing the game was about girls’ rights. I just thought it might be fun, maybe something I’d be good at. I stank at PE sports and couldn’t do the splits in Junior Tigers Cheerleading Camp. I still blew out my cheeks on my mouthpiece and had to write out the fingerings in Easy Etudes for the Euphonium. Just last Christmas, I got kicked out of the church youth choir for not paying attention and singing through the rests.


I wonder, though, if the real reason I wanted to go out for Little League was my dad’s love of sports, which he couldn’t play. He didn’t talk much about his high school days, except to say that he was Millburg’s biggest fan. This summer I snooped through some old MHS yearbooks in our storage shed, looking for him in the sports section. I could easily spot his round face in the black-and-whites. He usually stood in the back of the team photos, the only one without a uniform. Among the names listed, I’d find “L. Grendzinski, sc. kpr.” I puzzled over these letters and tried to say them out loud. “Sca-kupper?” It took a few minutes to figure out scorekeeper, but it made sense when I flipped back through the pages and found the school newspaper section. There was a close-up of Dad holding a clipboard while sitting on a bleacher with “Score Keeper/Sports Editor” typed underneath. I realized he had kept the scores and written the stories but never played the games. It all came together and made me think about my dad’s job. He’s been writing for The Tribune up in Scranton as far back as I can remember. He covers local sports teams when that guy with the crew-cut can’t get to all the games. Most days, though, he writes about school board meetings and dead people.


The next batter is Faust Hardware’s only girl, the catcher, who’s known for hitting line drives that scare infielders. The first pitch whizzes by her. Poppin’ Fresh makes a break for second. Our pitcher, Scabies, sees him from the mound and throws to Debra, who jumps sideways for the ball, but it bounces out of her glove. Poppin’ Fresh jogs to second, jumps on the bag twice, and says, “Ha-ha, bitch!”


Debra snorts and tosses the ball back to Scabies, who scratches the red patches on his arm with the stitching on the leather. He winds up and throws a floater that bonks the girl’s helmet. She shakes her head, clearly glad for the hard plastic protecting her skull. My dad asks her to take off the helmet and her cap. He checks her vision, making what looks like the sign of the cross in front of her eyes, and gives her a thumbs-up. She puts on her cap and helmet then runs to first base, where Debra is punching her glove and pacing in front of the bag.


Earl and I have scooted our butts onto the lip of the metal bench because we want a good view of the cleanup hitter for Faust’s Hardware. He digs his cleats into the dirt around home plate, kicking up a dust cloud that hovers over our catcher and my dad behind him. Scabies’ first pitch is straight down the middle, so Cleanup whacks a hopping grounder directly to our shortstop. And just like the infielders have practiced (but never so smooth), it goes down like this: tag Poppin’ Fresh headed for third then whip the ball over to Debra on first—a double play. Earl and I are off the bench, jumping, our fingers clawing the dugout fence. Then we run onto the field, clapping and shouting for A&P, high-fiving our teammates by home plate.


Even though he’s supposed to be all umpire-like, my dad takes off his mask and pumps his fist. Debra skips over to him. “What’d you think of that?” she says.


“Well played,” he says.


“Yeah, if we don’t win a trophy this season, can we get a medal or something for a double play?”


“I don’t know about that, but you will never forget it,” he says, taking his hankie out of his pocket.


Debra shoots me a look then leans closer to my dad. “Like you, you got that Purple Heart for something you’ll never forget,” she says.


“Sorry?” my dad says, dabbing the hankie alongside his ears.


“The Purple Heart. Your daughter told me all about it.” She laughs and waves at me with her glove, letting the game ball roll out past home plate.


“Huh?” my dad says and steps toward me, his leg movements even jerkier than usual, like the muscles underneath his skin are snapping rubber bands.


“She told me you were shot in the war, that you’re some big hero,” Debra says, her dark eyes slits in the sun. “That’s true. Right, Grendzinski?”


Earl suddenly appears. He makes his see-through eyebrows squinch together. “I think, maybe, she made it up.”


Debra spits into the dirt and says, “I knew that story was fake. Bullets in the legs. What kind of girl lies about her crippled father?”


Dad stuffs the hankie into his shorts pocket and glares at me.


I feel the blood swimming around my chest, forcing heat all the way up to my scalp, with enough pressure to blow the A&P cap off my head. I spot the game ball Debra dropped earlier a few yards away. I run over, pick up the ball, and wing it at her with enough power that I swear I hear a whizzing sound before it strikes Debra’s mouth, bloodying her lower lip. She comes at me, arms and legs turning like vertical propellers, and smacks me down into the dirt and lime. Blood from her mouth drips onto my face as she glove-whips me. I hear Dad shouting. Now he’s on his knees, trying to pull us apart. I wonder how he’ll get back up again without help. From my right side, I can see cleats and then some grown-up shoes kicking up dust. I feel Debra’s glove pressing down on my face and smell oiled leather stealing all the air. Slices of light shoot through the glove’s fingers. And then no light.



By the next inning, I have three Band-Aids stretched across my cheeks. Dad tells me it’s time to go home and get an ice pack for the welts.


“We’re throwing ourselves out of the game,” he says as he backs our van out of the grass lot behind the dugout. Through the windshield, we can see Debra closing the door of her brother’s hatchback and rolling up the passenger window, muffling Black Sabbath on the radio. When we start to pull away, though, we see the driver’s window is still down, giving us a view of Debra’s long-haired brother as he yanks one of her braids and pins her bandaged jaw to the dashboard. “You fucking idiot,” he screams. “I wasn’t ready to pick up your ass.”


Dad leans out his window. “Hey, stop!”


Debra’s brother shoots him the bird.


“I’m calling your father at the base,” Dad says.


“Go right ahead. He’ll deal with this little shit later.” He hisses through his teeth then drops the gearshift. The hatchback fishtails over the grass onto the dirt road, sending up dust tornados. Dad and I watch them spin toward the ball field.


“I’ll call when we get home,” he says, his mouth turning downward.


We sit there, silent. I taste dust and salt in the back of my throat. I think about Debra riding home with her mean brother and then facing her even meaner dad. My punishment would never be as bad, but I imagine being grounded for months and forced into the confessional every Saturday for my penance. I can feel the welts on my cheeks swelling and wonder how Dad will react. I drop my scraped chin and speak into the collar of my bloodied uniform. “I shouldn’t have said that thing about the war.”


“No, you shouldn’t have,” he says. “But I know why you did.” He breathes in slowly, making his soft belly rise. “Because it’s hard for me, it’s hard for you.”


My own belly jerks around inside and the sobs come.


Dad smooths down a Band-Aid on my cheekbone. “It’s okay.”


“It’s not okay,” I say, my voice cracking. Chin down, I let my eyes roll up and find his.


With his index finger, Dad makes a cross over his lips. “Shh. It’s over now.” And just when I think he’s going to hug me from the side, he reaches for the steering wheel instead. He swings our van around so that we’re now facing the diamond. “Hey, look who’s on first,” he says, and I think he’s doing the Abbott and Costello routine to save us from shame.


I raise my chin enough to see Earl Steinhaus in Debra’s position as he leaps to catch the ball, just in time to get the out.


“Yeah!” Dad says. Then he turns to me in a softer voice. “See. What did I say about the meek?”


His words hit my chest like bullets. He’s wrong. I know what the meek will inherit.



Christina Guillen's stories have appeared in Pearl, Ellipsis, Verdad, Evening Street Press, and Saga literary journals. Currently, she is working with an editor on a collection of short fiction that includes this story. A graduate of Penn State University and the University of Southern California, she taught creative writing at Long Beach City College for thirty years and worked as an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine.







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