Though Mercer had good speed at the leadoff spot, he struck out often and was a liability in the field, so it shocked no one when Coach Burgus benched him. Well, almost no one. His father leapt from his chair. He was one of those middle-aged hipsters with the soul patch and visor and frosted tips. His wraparound shades, synthetic tan, and artsy tattoos had all been ordered from some catalog of cool. That’s what we figured, anyway, those of us without access to any such catalog. He thrust himself against the dugout fence, barking at Burgus like a rabid animal while we smothered our smiles and stared straight ahead at the boys on the field. Eye contact with another adult might cause everything to unravel. “Who the hell do you think you are?” Mercer’s father screamed. “My kid does not sit out.”
Burgus, in lower tones: “Everybody sits. If you want to coach next year, be my guest. Until then, this is how it goes.”
“You smug asshole.” People like Mercer’s father had been stealing our girlfriends, giving us wedgies, and copying our math test answers for whole eras of the geologic time scale. The T-rex probably spilled beer on Triceratops and ridiculed him at drunken frat parties. People like Mercer’s father paid for high-class escorts. They caused financial crises. It was too much, a magnet, and we were all now swiveling to look. Mercer’s father had a handgun out, waving it around, crazed, like a bank robber. A ripple passed through the crowd.
Then Burgus was laughing. “You hunt hamsters with that thing?” He withdrew his own sidearm from the pocket of his baggy shorts. Extracting it seemed to take some time, like one of those magic acts where the handkerchiefs are all knotted together. The barrel was long, black, gleaming, and we contemplated the size of hole such a weapon might make.
Mercer’s father stopped yammering and stood open-mouthed in his designer flip-flops. His shirt sleeves were edged with glittery tinsel. It also appeared he was either hairless or clean-shaven, his arms and legs smooth as marzipan. If his kind went in for an all-over shave or sessions under the tanning lamp, no problemo, but when we tried doing stuff like that it got awkward in a hurry. “Is that...” he began. “That’s not a Dezzy, is it?”
Burgus beamed. “Nice call. Desert Eagle fifty-cal. Want to squeeze off a round?”
“You don’t mind?”
“Of course not.” Burgus handed the pistol over the fence to Mercer’s father, who’d stuffed his own firearm in his waistband and was now cradling the Desert Eagle in his hands like a golden egg. Some among us had risen from the bleachers or folding canvas chairs, weapons in hand. “Go ahead,” Burgus urged Mercer’s father. “Have a crack at it. But be careful, it’s not like that cap pistol of yours.” Without another word, the man took aim at one of the scrub pines separating the baseball fields from the subdivision beyond. There followed a deafening boom, and a tree branch became sawdust.
“Time out!” screamed the umpire, lifting off his mask and strolling toward the dugout, high priest of this particular church. The players stood waiting. More fans revealed hidden holsters. The air clicked with the sound of rounds being chambered. One old man, the second baseman’s grandfather, had unfastened the clasps on a black case and was withdrawing a Robar QR2 tactical rifle. Most likely an old Boy Scout, he’d come prepared for anything. Mercer’s father meanwhile turned back toward the field and appeared surprised that play had been halted, the spectators and players in a temporary deep-freeze.
The ump smoothed his mustache-goatee combo with one hand, rummaging under his chest protector with the other to locate the .410 shotgun pistol with the lovely etched cherry-wood stock. “I am going to whoop some ass,” he said, “if I hear another outburst like that.” But he spoke calmly, without malice, the trace of a smile on his face. He hadn’t seen a Desert Eagle in quite some time and was hoping to take it for a spin. Side arms were soon being passed around for inspection. Fans gathered in little clumps, admiring one another’s nickel-plated weaponry. A woman withdrew a marvelous SIG Sauer from her Gucci handbag and received commendations all around. The old man sighted in on a bird perched atop a distant tree until someone mentioned it might be a bald eagle. One of the town’s foremost tax accountants had strapped two bandoliers of ammo to his chest. The assault rifle he held once belonged to a Congolese militiaman.
Players sprawled in the outfield grass. The runner at second hopped up and down on the bag, releasing little clouds of dust until finally, fed up, he reached into his jock supporter for the Beretta 9mm he’d concealed there and fired a warning shot into the air. “Come on,” he cried. “Let’s play.” At this, mothers cried out in alarm, clutching their faces, necks, their husbands’ arms. One woman swooned and nearly bonked her head on the aluminum bleachers. A few people took off running, a few hit the dirt, while the bravest approached the boy slowly, crouching, palms down, as though addressing a strange dog.
“Just put the weapon down, son,” they coaxed.
“Jesus,” someone moaned, “he’s just a kid. What is this world coming to?”
“Where’d he get that gun?”
“His parents should be taken out and shot.”
Undoubtedly he was a troubled child. Once they wrestled the gun from him, the apologetic mother and stepfather led him away, apologizing profusely, lucky to avoid criminal charges. They were making phone calls even before they reached the car and drove straight to the office of a specialist in their HMO network who recommended, after nearly one entire session, that the boy be medicated into submission.