The lights, which had been paid for through a hard-earned grant from the South Dakota Parks and Recreation Department after years of campaigning, were too short and too bright. The softball players had to keep hats on when playing, especially at night when the glare from the lights was almost too much to bear. They twisted the handle of the metal bat, keeping their focus and also keeping the padding strip from unraveling.
On Thursday night, the two teams in the loser's bracket had a head-to-head. The employees of the town video store played the Reservation Housing Authority. Half the town gathered under the unforgiving lights. Ted Eagle's wife, Kelli Eagle, ran the concession stand with grace and kindness, calling everyone by their name and adding in a “honey" with every pack of M&M's, just for good measure. The softball field was a button of harsh white light in the poorly lit town, illuminating the road that ran beside it but leaving the rest of the town in darkness. The game was too noisy an ordeal for anyone to hear the quiet whisper of the surrounding prairie grasses waving and shaking hands. Nor could they hear the lower mutterings of prayer from the inmates swearing behind the tribal jail. Low sounds hovered, unheard, below the chatter of the game.
The Housing Authority was losing worse than the video store, and they sent out Michael Traversie to bat first. He was fat and dark-skinned, with thick fingers and heavy wrists; his wide chest stretched his white cotton t-shirt tight. His lower lip bulged with tobacco and he sent a stream of brown spit near home plate as he took a couple of practice swings. Sweat dripped slowly from underneath the bill of his red cap, underneath which he hid his dark, recently shorn hair.
When the first pitch came toward him, Michael Traversie swung hard with the strength of many generations and missed the ball. The force of his swing turned him halfway around on the spot and he stumbled away from the plate. Michael was part of the oldest Indian family on the reservation, but the blessings of his ancestors would never help him at softball.
“Isn't that Nita's brother?" a woman from a different reservation asked her friend as they sat together in the meager wooden bleachers.
“Yeah," the friend answered darkly. “He's been falling apart ever since she died. Been wearing that same t-shirt for the past two months since it happened."
Indeed, the t-shirt was fraying and stained on the edges and under the arms. The navy cotton was thinning in the places where it rubbed against itself. His mother, Rita Traversie, had sewn on several patches over some moth holes. She made patches for his t-shirt and made tacos for his lunch. She mourned the loss of her daughter when she made her fry bread without yeast.
Michael Traversie spat again, prayed to his ancestors, then swung two more times and struck out. His arms dangled as he walked heavily from the field back to his teammates on the bench, none of whom said a word to him; Louis Hawk Eagle clapped him once on the back and lit a cigarette.
“Who's that, up next?" the woman from Rosebud asked her friend as someone new stepped up and gripped the bat. He was quite the opposite of Michael Traversie: tall, very thin and lighter-skinned with a long, dark and greasy ponytail resting on his neck. His clothes were baggy, like extra skin that he had yet to grow into.
“That's Jason Hepperlee," the friend said back, her left cheek full of sunflower seeds. She spat several shells out into the sand in quick succession. “He's the son of James Hepperlee."
“Yep. James Hepperlee is the one who rallied so bad for these lights to be on the field."
“So he's the reason I gotta wear sunglasses at night on your rez, huh?"
“There are only three things that make a softball game genuine in this town— sunglasses, a dirty ball, and a drunk pitcher."
The two women laughed together, and Jason watched his ball come toward him. He stared it down, made no move to swing. It was a bad pitch, landing on the outside. Jason Hepperlee stared down every ball and watched them all curve too far or too low. He dropped the bat and walked to first base. The crowd cheered.
“Good move, Jay, good move. Watch them balls," said a woman who paced behind the fence with the roster on a clipboard. She was an older woman, Jason Hepperlee's mother, the one who had given him his hooked nose and slight frame. She was also Rita Traversie's younger sister, and one of Nita's aunts. She made a brief mark on the roster she was holding.
“I'm surprised she's still married to that James," said the woman with the sunflower seeds. She spoke thickly. “After he pushed so hard to get that Manny Circle Eagle off the hook. Even though he was drunk when he killed Nita, it was still manslaughter, you know?" She spat several more shells to the ground beneath the bleachers.
“I heard he wasn't really drunk," said the friend. “I heard he was sober as a stone when he hit that car. Isn't that what made it so surprising?"
“He had to have been drunk," said the other woman. “Who runs into a parked car on the opposite side of the road when they're sober?"
The brief rumble of a revving motorcycle ghosted over from the highway, past the barley field behind them and to the softball field, where only a few people seemed to hear it. James's mother looked up and quickly back down to her clipboard.
Bobby Farlee, who had sold his old Yamaha to Manny Circle Eagle last year and was up to bat, frowned at the soft rumble and gritted his teeth as he stepped up to the plate. He thought of the small wreath of flowers which hung on the side of the highway there, thought of the negative energy that Manny had brought upon his cherished bike. It needed a good smudging of sage or flat cedar, but Manny wasn't that kind of Indian and the bad energy would remain. The thought unsettled Bobby and with it he swung a triple, sending Jason Hepperlee home and scoring one for the Housing Authority.
As the game progressed, more cars began to drive into the sandy parking area, which snaked a semi-circle around the field. Yominy Circle Eagle, seventeen years old and the younger brother of Manny Circle Eagle sped into the dirt behind the bleachers where the two friends were sitting. He was riding his brother's Yamaha, Farlee's Yamaha. The bike shone like the barrel of a polished rifle. He treated it well. Almost everyone turned to watch as Yominy spun to a precarious stop behind the bleachers, dismounted, and promptly leaned over and vomited onto the ground.
“Drunk," muttered the pitcher.
“His brother's bike," hissed the friend with the seeds.
“Son of a bitch," said Bobby Farlee, and left the batting hole to stride over to the scene. He was a big man, and his feet seemed to leave prints in the dirt that were deeper than necessarily normal. He sidestepped the pool of sick as he approached the boy and the bike. The two women, and the rest of the crowd on the bleachers, turned to watch, clutching at the sleeves of one another's t-shirts.
“Yominy," Bobby barked, and the boy jerked around. He was already pale and quickly attempted to arrange an expression of cool defiance.
“Whatchoo want?" he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“What the fuck you doing with my bike?"
“Not your bike anymore, motherfucker, my brother's bike." His voice was low and gurgling, as if it was coming from the very back of his throat.
“It was my bike again the second your brother killed with it. Murder voids the fucking contract, Yominy."
“That's bullshit," Yominy growled, and put one hand on the bike's handles. “My brother paid good money for this bike."
Bobby stared at the boy for several seconds; he let the bright white light from the field bore into his pupils, didn't blink. The two women held their breath. Then Bobby pulled back his right arm and punched Yominy full in the face. For a moment, Manny Circle Eagle who sat on a cement bench in the tribal jail, heard the faint whistling of a feather arrow released from a bow, but then it was gone and he stuffed his fingers into his ears. For a moment, the Traversies heard again the rumble of the Yamaha, even though the engine was off. The grasses near the highway stirred.
Yominy's nose began to bleed instantly, and he fell to his knees in the dirt besides the motorcycle, the metal of which shone brightly under the glare. He seemed to hover on his knees there, held up by invisible puppet strings even though Bobby's blow had already clearly rendered him unconscious. Someone in the crowd felt like laughing, but suppressed the urge, and all was silent except for the sound of the town breathing slowly. Yominy finally fell over backwards and the people watching seemed to exhale a collective breath. His arms were spread at odd angles and he had narrowly avoided falling into his own vomit.
“Jesus, these lights are bright, enit?" said the lady from Rosebud quietly to her friend and they exchanged dark looks. The lights from the softball field created a harsh glow whose fingers reached almost to the highway, but stopped short of a small wreath of flowers and a dangerous, unlit curve in the road.
Bobby stared down at Yominy whose eyelids were still slightly open, a slit of white visible between them. The job was done, but Bobby dropped to his knees next to Yominy and pulled back his fist, landing a punch on the side of his face, and another, and another until his own knuckles were bloody and throbbing and each punch made his fist feel like a meat hammer pounding on a thick cut of steak.
“He's gonna kill him," said the Rosebud woman. Each time Bobby punched Yominy in the face, Yominy's head bounced to the side to kiss the dirt and then back up again.
“His father just died," whispered the other woman, her hand partially covering her mouth.
“He's really gonna kill him," said the Rosebud woman again.
Then at the same time as a woman yelled “Stop it!" from the bleachers, Kenny Brings Plenty stepped over from where he had been standing near his car and grabbed the back of Bobby's t-shirt, pulling hard. The neck of the shirt ripped, and Bobby didn't seem to notice. He landed one more punch before Kenny grabbed him around the neck instead, then took hold of the punching arm and yanked him away from the boy on the ground.
“Get the fuck off me," Bobby said loud enough so the ck in fuck rang and bounced off the bleachers and the hoods of cars.
“You need to take control of yourself, cousin," said Kenny, who, as he watched Bobby, had been thinking of the hard punches his dad used to land and the painful bruises they would leave, how a beaten face could often look like a forgotten piece of fruit.
There was silence for a moment and a tiny river of blood streamed out of Yominy's nose and down the side of his face to make a puddle in the dirt. Bobby stood without moving but breathed heavily through his nose, stared at his feet, then at his hands, which were spotted in blood.
The two friends in the bleachers looked at each other as Kenny shook his head and let out a sharp whistle, motioning toward his cousin Frankie who walked over from Kenny's car. Together they lifted Yominy up off of the ground, Kenny with the feet and Frankie with his hands under Yominy's armpits. They carried him back to the car, dumped him into the backseat, then drove across the street and two blocks over to push him out and roll him onto his front lawn where his mother would wake to find him.
The town muttered amongst itself in the bleachers and Bobby Farlee returned to home plate where he again picked up the aluminum bat he had dropped. The pitcher looked at Bobby, over to where Yominy's motorcycle lay in the dirt, then back to Bobby and made the pitch. Bobby's knuckles turned white through the blood that was drying on them and he swung hard at the crooked pitch. The metallic sound of impact rang out, into everyone's ears, and Bobby dropped the bat as though he had been burned. The ball soared across the field like a crow, seeming to gain height and speed instead of dropping. The town, still entranced by the flight, watched the ball make contact with the face of the nearest stadium light. It bounced off of the protective steel cage and plummeted toward the ground, but the impact shattered the bulb inside and, with a shower of sparks, the light went dark.
There was a beat, the zzzt sound of an angry current, and the rest of the lights flickered and died. The field was plunged into darkness. Women shrieked. There was an uproar of sound. The two ladies in the bleachers found and grasped one another's hands and were lost in the waves of bodies jumping to the ground. Bobby stood frozen on home plate and looked down at his hands in the darkness. Yominy did not stir. All of the game spectators and players wandered around haplessly in the dark until someone found their way to their car and turned on the headlights. Slowly, every parked car blinked on its lights and revved its engine. They began to inch toward the exit.
In the confusion, somebody backed over the bike. There was a flurry of panic and confusion as the driver felt the bottom of his stomach drop, thinking that he had backed over a person. He jumped from his car and, upon seeing that it was not a person, but a conglomeration of metal and rubber, got back inside and backed over it several more times before driving away. Angry tears fell fast from his cheeks onto the dirty old t-shirt he wore.
Yominy was still, but in his stupor dreamt of horses. Blood dripped softly from his face to the grass, congealed. Rita Traversie pulled her bedcovers up over her head and secretly wished that Yominy were dead, though she would never admit it. She relived Nita's death over and over in her mind, and the terrible images made her head swell. Manny Circle Eagle ran his long-fingered hands along the painted cement wall of his jail cell, wishing that there were something to grasp, to hold, to keep from falling, but there was nothing. Nothing at all. The grass along the highway stirred with memories.