Moses ‘Fleet’ Fleetwood Walker was the second African-American baseball player to participate on the major league level. He played 42 games as catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings during the 1884 season.
Baseball was a phantom limb. Sometimes he couldn’t sleep for the ache of it. But tonight, Fleetwood dreamt of things he could never forget. A chain-link fence. Black faces dripping with sweat. White faces set apart in the sparse stands. He punched one fist into the other, swollen since the first inning, and dropped a sign. The pitcher let go, the batter swung, and Fleetwood walked a step behind back to the ground field dugout. It was on that night he hit his first triple.
Slurs flew at him like fastballs as he approached the plate. Home or away, every game he learned a new invective and prayed his uniform was enough to keep it from spiraling into more. Sometimes he wondered how far he would have to walk to stop hearing those words. Maybe the end of the earth. Staring at the man in the red stockings 60 feet and inches from him, Fleetwood allowed his mind to blur into nothing, a tactic his mother taught him long ago, before they were free. A blank mind felt no pain, no humiliation, no fear, no sadness. A blank mind could walk blind past spitting mouths, and a blank mind could swing a bat into a ball without ever really seeing it. This is what Fleetwood did now. The leather ricocheted off the ash up, up, up until it was even with the sky. As the ball cleared the outfield, the silence that had been building broke into voices, a single entity, then a messy jumble without accent or color. As Fleetwood strode towards third and two came home, his heart did not stop as he thought it might. It went on beating. But there was a lull.
When hands clapped him on the shoulder, heads nodded, and even a few smiles opened for him, the thing that weighed heavy on his back, urging caution and always distrustful of hope, slipped for a moment. His fists stopped hurting, his mind filled and he was young and strong and skilled and exactly where he deserved to be. The black face he kept turned down, the pride he did not show, the thrumming red heart that beat fast, pumping blood throughout him and fluttering his soul, rose up and shone heedlessly. He was feeling safe and lucky and well-loved and exactly himself. He wanted it to last forever. Knew it would not. And hoped anyway.
Fleetwood woke up covered over entirely by sunlight. The curtain had fallen down again. A rum bottle was broken in two beside him. His door was open with a message scrawled in haste tacked to it. His eyes could not read the words. His eyes could not see much of anything. There was nothing to see. Some time during the night he had reverted back to an old man, but one who had not always been. One who remembered. One who knew, once, he was so young and so good at something it seemed the whole world fell into a conspiracy against him. But once, once there had been something. Fleetwood spent a moment staring up, where God was, and the things he had wanted, always fingertips away. Grasping the edge of the bed, pushing the rum bottle to the floor and hearing it break, he rolled to his side and looked down. Little shards of glass caught the light and winked. They had been with him while he slept. Maybe they caught a glimpse of him before, when his blue stockinged legs jumped and ran with a dozen other blue stockinged legs, so fast you couldn’t see the color underneath. Fleetwood winked back, and let his head loll over the mattress. It felt like the very end of the earth. The thought pleased him. It was somewhere he’d been meaning to go his whole life.
Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art. She resides in Graham, NC with her two cats, Charlie Chaplin and Janis Joplin.