by Sam Gridley

“I want to march around the field and sing again,” Lexie announced as she stepped into the living room. Meg gaped at her.

Outside, brick and concrete and asphalt conspired to multiply the heat of this steaming city Saturday in August, a day when Lexie of all people ought to take it easy, but here she stood with her official league T-shirt flopping loose over her scrawny frame. The sight of her in this getup—almost six feet tall and scarcely 130 pounds, jeans cinched round her shrunken middle—sent an ache from Meg’s heart to the fingers that gripped her coffee cup.

Meg remembered her partner’s earlier whine, two months ago, when the softball season started: “We’re missing the parade,” Lexie had complained then.

“You’re kidding,” Meg had teased, “that’s the part you care about? Not the screaming parents or blind umpires or the girls skinning their knees?” Lexie had turned pouty and refused to answer.

In Meg’s view these neighborhood sports rituals ranged from tedious to annoying to preposterous. The Millville Sports Association’s summer season opened with that parade in June, when all the players and coaches and umpires and supervisors and team sponsors—for dozens of teams involving girls and boys from six to sixteen—assembled in a church parking lot and strutted two abreast to the fields, led by a bagpiper, no less. At the introductory ceremonies local politicians spouted sentimentalities about building character in the leaders of tomorrow—the same speeches every year, Meg was certain. There were standard chants and rally cries and post-game ice cream cones with candy sprinkles. At the end of the season, the girls’ teams had their own awards gathering and a peculiar closing rite, with everyone marching in a circle around the bases singing a totally absurd ditty.

Lexie loved all this nonsense, and Meg loved her for loving it, but right now Lexie needed to stay home and rest. Instead, she tugged her cap on—with its script MSA logo that looked like a tangle of caterpillars—and cocked her head toward Meg on the couch. “Closing ceremonies, 10 o’clock,” she insisted. “I lost the whole season but I won’t miss this.” Set at a rakish tilt, the cap revealed the sparse gray-blonde stubble and the paler scalp beneath.

Just last week Lexie’s knees had buckled in the supermarket. The chemotherapy had wasted her more than either of them had expected—and far more than the cheery doctors had forewarned. Meg blamed those doctors for a long list of sins. Like, for instance, downplaying the length of the process, the ups and downs, the emotional burnout for both the patient and her partner. Like being too casual about the pain and debilitation after surgery, as well as the effect of nausea on a skinny person who couldn’t afford to drop 30 pounds. And most of all she blamed them for the fact that, after enduring eight months of torture masquerading as treatment, which had produced “progress” but not yet an all-clear, Lexie was still not Lexie, and might never be again. Look at her now, trying to be normal but alternating between a smirk (like an eight-year-old who’d stolen second base) and a grim rotation of the jaw.

“This is mad, you can’t go,” Meg objected. “It’ll be a hundred degrees out there, you’ll get dizzy again. And there’s a summer bug going around, we can’t risk another infection.”

“I’ll just sit in the stands. I’ll keep my cap on, and I’m taking plenty of fluids, see?” With a semi-ironic flourish Lexie brandished a bottle of vitamin water. “Besides, I’m still finishing up the antibiotics from the bronchitis, I’m protected.”

Meg grimaced. “See, you’re admitting how fragile—”

“No, I’ve stopped being fragile. I may drop dead but I won’t be fragile. And I’m stir-crazy, I’m telling you—too long in this fucking house!”

Meg flinched. Another time, she might have welcomed this fighting spirit, a trait of the old Lexie that had faded since the diagnosis. But not in this way—not coupled with recklessness.

Meg was shoeless and sockless on the couch, in the ratty shorts she wore only at home, newspaper on her lap, coffee cup in her hand, the remains of a cranberry muffin on the end table. Meg’s immobility, plus the slump of her butt into the cushions, made a statement for her: Let’s appreciate the wonders of air conditioning and a late lingering breakfast. This morning, there’d been no fighting about vitamin regimens or doctors’ appointments or whether to chance pepper on the scrambled eggs. Why not draw this moment out as long as it would last? Why not, Meg’s posture said, come sit with me on the couch and cuddle awhile? In the months since illness entered their life, and then spread until it consumed their life, such times had been rare.

The silent argument wasn’t effective, though, so Meg went on:
“Remember, Terry Pulaski is commissioner this year. Her awards speeches will take an hour. And her nieces are bound to get two or three prizes, like Best Snot Production or Hairstyle Most Likely to Clog Drains.”

“C’mon, our awards are for sportsmanship and leadership, that sort of thing. And I don’t mind Terry as much as you do, she’s worked for the league forever. She invented our spring cookie-bake fundraiser.”

“Yeah, I can still taste those leather wafers.”

Now Meg was edging toward the kind of banter they’d often fallen into during the past few months, a convenient cover-up. But Lexie wouldn’t take the bait. Practically on tiptoe, angled toward the front door, she persisted in a half-whisper, half-singsong, “So, I’m going now … ,” and Meg had to bark, “Wait! Shit! … Damn you, I’ll come. Hang on, I have to change my—”

“Hurry up, they’ll be starting.”

In the roasting-hot car (because ten blocks to the field was too far for Lexie to walk) anxiety clung like plastic wrap to Meg’s shoulders. It didn’t help that she remembered the dream that had returned last night for the tenth or twelfth time. Alone in a parked car that began to roll backward, she tried to grab the wheel and stomp the brake but she was barefoot, in the back seat, and she couldn’t stretch her arms or move her feet, and the car spun around and headed forward now, somehow dodging a child, a snarl of trucks, a tree—amazing luck!—but as it went faster and faster she knew a catastrophe was coming.

Meg clenched the steering wheel and gritted her teeth. A chance to finish her coffee would have cleared this muck from her head, but here they were at the field already—multiple fields actually, jammed into a grassy rectangle of park—with mothers and fathers and daughters milling on the sidewalk, no parking spaces of course, so she circled to the back street and managed to squeeze the Volvo into the last legal space before the fire hydrant. Lexie had gone silent in the passenger seat, staring out the side window.

As the two women cut a diagonal across the grass, Meg took hold of Lexie’s arm. Though they’d been legally married for two years now, they were discreet in public, not advertising their relationship in this neighborhood where gentrifying liberals mixed with traditional Catholic families of Irish, Polish, Italian, Ukrainian extraction. Not that they hid anything, but public displays would have drawn gawks from the more conservative folk, and in their early forties they were past the stage of flaunting. Today, however, taking no chance that Lexie would stumble, Meg put a lock on her forearm, her fingers wrapped tight around the taller woman’s wrist.

Both sets of bleachers were packed, and when Meg noticed people glancing at them she pictured what they saw. An odd pair for sure. Meg dark, short-legged, square-faced, strong regular features—not unattractive but kind of blockish, she always thought when she caught sight of herself in a mirror. Lexie so long and lean, blonde, a natural athlete, with a complexion that used to resemble heavy cream, and hair that once tumbled in such sparkling blonde waves it took your breath away. Now, with her skin blotchy and hair gone, she brought to mind a gawky heron out of water.

Seeing this, or imagining that others saw it, Meg felt a bristly heat in her face. Already she was sweating hard, and her arm was slick where it wrapped around Lexie’s. The sun smacked the side of her head, and the humidity stuffed itself like a wet sock down her throat. The main flush of heat was internal, though, and it got worse as Lexie squinted into the stands. Where were Lexie’s sunglasses—had Meg let her come out without them? Her eyes were chronically dry and red from the chemo, and in this glare … And sunscreen lotion for her erythema—hadn’t even thought of it! It’s not my fault, Meg argued to nobody, I wasn’t the one who came rushing out to this goddamn pointless—

“Hey, hi there … Good to see you … I knew they couldn’t keep you away … There’s a place here … It’s your coach from last year, honey … Move over a squinch … Easy does it, let me.…” Lexie grinned into the overlapping voices and gestures as people leaned or scooted to open a narrow path up the bleachers. Too late, Meg realized how difficult it’d be for Lexie to climb the narrow aluminum slats, but other arms reached to steady her when she bent and teetered. Meg stumbled behind, muttering “Excuse me, thank you, thanks” as her jolting handbag endangered ears and noses. They managed to flop safely onto the fifth of six tiers, between a large Polish grandmother with a kerchief and a twelve-year-old skinny blonde in a green team jersey that read “Wolverines” on the chest and “Jack’s Barber Shop” on the back. “Sorry,” Meg said to the man below her, whose back she’d crunched with her knee. “Hi, Noreen” (to a woman one row down, three seats over), “god, it’s suffocating, how long do you think this’ll take?” Lexie, for her part, nodded or called to a dozen people at least, breathing in short gasps between her teeth.

On the diamond in front of the bleachers, near the pitcher’s mound, the officials clustered around a long table filled with glittering cheap trophies. Meg turned to offer her sunglasses, but Lexie was already chuckling with the girl on the other side, leaning down to share the joke. Meg didn’t recognize this leggy kid who could have been Lexie thirty-odd years ago, and the sight of them laughing together brought a clog of mucus to her throat.

Half-closing her eyes to the glare, she imagined, for a moment, that Lexie would be given a lifetime achievement award today. It’d be fitting, for sure; Lexie had worked fourteen years in this league, coaching, organizing, officiating, and they all loved her. Not one doubt had ever arisen because of her sexual orientation. Lexie won people’s confidence that way—everyone just knew she could be trusted. Even her geometry students in school adored her, and what sensible kid ever liked geometry?

But if an award were in the works, wouldn’t the officials have called to make sure Lexie would attend? In an instant the fantasy turned to resentment. Ignoring Lexie after all she’d done for the league—these assholes!

Then came the same sensation as a few moments before, a flush that had needles in it. What was the matter—good god, was she starting menopause—now?

Being exposed this way—it felt like a violation. Since the chemo began, this was their first extended outing in the neighborhood, and it was too much, having all these people stare and cluck … Well, maybe they weren’t staring but they were looking, and speculating: I bet it’s all through her. Like a walking skeleton. She won’t last till Thanksgiving.

The woman behind them shifted a little and bent down to place her mouth close to Meg’s ear. “I’m so glad you two could come today,” she whispered. “She’s looking great.”

Who was this person, Amy, Abby, something like that? Meg crooked her neck awkwardly to respond to the lie—because it was a lie, surely, nobody could think Lexie looked “great.”

“Yeah,” she whispered back, “she had to come, nothing would keep her home. I’m worried about the heat, though, we’ve had some dizzy spells.”

Why was she sharing this with a person whose name she couldn’t remember? The woman went on, “She’s so strong, so brave, you must be proud of her. An inspiration.”

Meg gave the curtest of nods, put off by the platitudes. Seconds later she realized she might have been rude, but she didn’t care. “Proud of her,” sure, you bet, I’m proud that she’s stupid and stubborn enough to drag us into a sauna that’ll leave her sapped for a week.

She dug into her bag for the vitamin water. “Lexie, here,” she jabbed with her elbow; “drink this, you’ll get dehydrated.” People didn’t know, but there were chemo ulcers in the mouth lining that made it impossible for her to eat properly. Lexie took the bottle and sipped, giving Meg a wink, and then turned back to the twelve-year-old. Next Meg produced lip balm from the bag, which Lexie dutifully applied in two broad sweeps. “Am I OK now?” Lexie said with a smirk.

“Take my sunglasses.”

“Don’t need ’em, the cap shades my eyes. Can we relax now, Mommy?”

No, Meg wanted to shout, we cannot relax. Your skin is going to crisp like bacon because I forgot the sunscreen. And I am not your mommy, why are you making me act this way?

When someone on the field tapped a microphone, the chatter in the stands subsided. Terry Pulaski, a stout woman with an artificial blonde perm, began a speech thanking everyone for coming out today and thanking the coaches and umpires for their hard work and dedication and thanking the sponsors for providing such excellent uniforms and equipment and thanking the Parks Department for supporting the league through the use of these wonderful fields and thanking the volunteers who cleaned the area each weekend and thanking last but not least the players themselves for making this such a great season, the best, in her opinion, in the thirty-two-year history of organized girls’ sports in Millville …

Lexie bent forward, hands on her knees, a tight smile on her freshly balmed lips as if this empty ramble meant something to her. “Proud of her”—Meg was still mulling the phrase—yes, she’d always been proud that Lexie could get so involved.

A trust officer in a bank, Meg dealt daily with wealthy individuals eager to protect their assets—an urge that, she had long been aware, stemmed from the opposite of trust. In her moments of personal honesty, Meg sometimes felt that her work polluted her view of the world, making her too often the cautious one, the pessimist, the holder-back. The one who, instead of enjoying the goods, would lock them away. Or perhaps that was her nature and she’d gravitated to a job that matched her outlook.

If opposites attract, that old saw explained how Lexie had won her. Before they met, three years after college, Meg had dated a series of guys, wondering why none of them impressed her. Lexie had come into her life like a gulp of iced tea on a hot day. A relief, a kind of salvation. A miracle that such a person would not only notice Meg but fall in love with her.

So yes, she’d been proud, but when you watched the cancer warp an energetic personality into recklessness one day, desolation the next—when your lover became your irresponsible child, it wasn’t easy to, to …

As a late arrival climbed to an empty seat, the stands vibrated and Meg felt a small wave of nausea, a swooning, and for a moment she was in the car again, drifting out of control backwards, up a slope, careening left and right. Was Lexie driving? As she closed her eyes, the car arrived on a narrow trail in the woods where Meg tumbled out and gazed around, lost, till she spotted Lexie beckoning from the sunlight on the crest of a hill. “Hurry up!” Lexie called, “you’ll miss it.” “What?” Meg huffed, laboring upward with her short legs, “what’s there?” At last she reached Lexie’s side, and the tall beauty looped an arm around her shoulder and bent to kiss her on each eyelid. Before them, coiled on a rock to soak up the late morning sun, lay a glistening green snake, its back and sides brilliant as a ripe lime. When Meg shivered, Lexie assured her it was harmless, and they gazed for long minutes before kissing again.

Then Lexie slammed her palms together and Meg jumped in her seat. Everyone was clapping. They’d begun the awards, with the tiny tee-ball girls first, and a ponytailed brunette in a yellow Cream Puffs jersey held a trophy a third as tall as she was. Putting two fingers to her mouth, Lexie let out a piercing whistle.

“Don’t do that,” Meg muttered, “you’ll aggravate the sores.” Lexie ignored her.

Though Meg tried to listen, the dozens of honors were indistinguishable (what was the difference between “team spirit” and “sportsmanship”?), and soon the pulsating sun fuzzed her brain into a stupor again. Was that woods scene a memory—from last fall? Could they have been healthy and cheerful that recently? Or was her mind veering off wildly like cancer cells? She wiped her lips on the shoulder of her shirt because, for a few seconds, it felt like she’d been kissing the snake.

Clap-clap-clap, Connie! yay Connie!—Lexie shouting louder than all the rest. Chubby kid with dark bangs, top batting average in the seven-to-eights. Don’t get manic on me, Meg thought, and aloud she said, “Hey, let’s not overdo it, huh?”

Lexie, panting a little, winked conspiratorially at her. But what, Meg wondered, is the joke here? There’s already a red patch on your neck, do you know that?

Watching the giggly girls claim their prizes, smelling the sweat and perfume and hints of fried egg from the bodies around her, Meg despised all this health and happiness. She pulled out the vitamin water and drank some herself—how ironic if she were the one who passed out. She ought to have worn one of Lexie’s caps, though she looked ridiculous in them.

The ceremonies droned on. Some little kids crawled under the bleachers to enjoy the only shade available. Meg’s upper arms smelled like overripe squash, and her damp pants clung to the sticky metal seat. Had someone spilled soda here? When the girl next to Lexie hopped down to collect her own award, Lexie leaped up to cheer, and Meg jumped to grab her partner by the elbow. One of them wobbled, it wasn’t clear which, and both nearly pitched onto the spectators below, but they regained their balance in time for the famous Lexie two-fingered whistle and a high-five as the girl returned. Squeals, whispers, fist bumps, dippy grins.

These kids, Meg glowered, have something special with her. Something simple and charming, unrelated to cancer. But what gives them the right to endanger her with it?

“This is idiotic,” she said aloud without meaning to. “The whole damn business.”

Lexie turned with a frown. “What?”

“Nothing, nothing.” Meg shrank in her seat, hoping no one had understood.

“Hey, are you OK?” Lexie asked. “You almost knocked me over.”

“It wasn’t me! I’m fine. Except my brains are boiled like everyone else’s.”

With all the bellowing and whistling, it was time for Lexie to drink more water, but Meg failed to offer it, sagging into a numbness of perspiration and resentment. She’ll be sick after this. Her skin will blister. And they’re not even giving her the award she deserves.

Four hours later, or so it seemed, a mad scramble took place. The girls were deserting the bleachers, and when Meg reached for her partner’s arm she realized Lexie too was gone. It was a shock—how did she get away? The thorny heat rushed to Meg’s face again.

On her other side the Polish grandma beamed and clapped. A fragment of melody rode on the wisp of breeze created by the sudden exodus.

Years ago, someone had adapted a silly folk song as an anthem for the girls’ teams—

Oh the Millville girls are champions all
Polly wolly doodle all the day
They wag their bats and wallop that ball
Singin’ polly wolly doodle all the day
How I love, how I love
How I love my MSA
For nothin’s greater than mashin’ my taters
Singin’ Polly Wolly Doodle all the day

—and so on for five inane verses.

Nine-year-olds, teenagers, toddlers with their moms, proud fathers and grandpas, all brayed with gusto as they stepped around the bases to the beat. “Oh, this is so—” Meg grumbled to the grandmother, but the old woman, who perhaps understood no English—who perhaps thought “polly wolly doodle” was English—kept clapping in time, the knot of her kerchief bobbing under her chin.

Scanning the field, Meg couldn’t find Lexie in the crowd of marchers. She’ll crumple out there, they’ll have to call an ambulance, the sirens will come echoing down the street. It’s not my fault, I warned her!

But, you know, she wants them right now, not me.

This was true, and it stirred bitterness. OK, Meg granted, let them have her. And afterward … (the idea slowly uncoiled) … let them wait three hours with her in the emergency room. And then … maybe they should take her home with them, deal with all the consequences.

The sullenness fed on itself like a snake swallowing its tail. These people, Meg stewed, who think she’s the “brave” one, the “inspiration,” do they have the slightest idea what it’s like? To wonder if every cough or gasp is a symptom? To clean up the diarrhea on the toilet seat and the vomit in the sink? To nod and smile at the cocky male doctors and agree with their exaggerations about “progress”?

Because … because when you see what it’s done to you—your own life, your own love, hacked and sliced, bizarre hot flashes, fantasies like runaway cars, exasperations festering like sores—what do you say then about inspiration and bravery?

More sensations than words, these thoughts brought a shudder to Meg’s arms, a trickle of ice water under the sweat on her shoulders. “Goodbye,” she said to the Polish lady. “You should get out of the sun—that scarf is no protection.” As Meg stepped from the bleachers, she took a deep gulp of the viscid atmosphere, stumbled and pointed herself toward the Volvo.

She would wait there, she decided, till Lexie was good and done with this behavior. She’d put the emergency brake on tight so the car wouldn’t run away. She’d sit rigid behind the steering wheel with her hands in her lap, oozing from her armpits. She’d make Lexie come find her, supported by those silly prancing friends. Maybe this was childish of her, but so what, that’s how she felt.

But then Meg spun, in a fright, and trotted toward the crowd. She couldn’t see Lexie at all, just a mass of people marching two-, three‑, five-abreast in a ragged line around the bases.

The thorny heat swarmed into her face once more, worse this time. No, I didn’t mean it, honey, it’s not idiotic, not if you love it so!

Is that her? Where is she?

Let me past, you people! I can be stupid and brave too!

Round and round and round they went, or so it seemed, because a number of girls began a second circuit after completing the first. How I love, How I love, the chant rang out, and Meg lurched dizzily, inside the circle now, spinning in her own crazy arc over the pitcher’s mound.

At last she spotted Lexie between second base and third, arm in arm with a teenager and a six-year-old. Were her legs giving out? Were the girls helping her? As Meg ran to join the end of the row, breathless and lightheaded, she shouted polly wolly doodle with the rest of them. And for an instant, when Lexie sent a quick exhausted grin her way, she was elated.

About the Author:

Sam Gridley

Sam Gridley is the author of the novels THE SHAME OF WHAT WE ARE and THE BIG HAPPINESS. His fiction and satire have appeared in more than fifty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog and hangs out at the website