Mitch sees a man in the patch of yard between the apartment buildings banging his head against the wooden lamppost. He’s not leaning into it. It’s like he’s testing it, thinking about hitting his head harder, trying to get used to the pain bit by bit. With each strike the gas flame on top flickers, the lantern casing wobbles.
“Hey,” Mitch says. “Need some help?”
He cocks an ear at Mitch and hits his head against the post again. The gas flame dances.
“Why?” he says. “Do you have a better way of doing this?” He’s blond and medium handsome. He doesn’t seem crazy. He’s in a sweated-through, pink Izod shirt and khaki pants. Perfectly normal. Too normal, maybe.
Mitch sits on his steps and fires up a Camel. After all these years, there’s still a hint of that first inhale the neighbor kids dared him to take. He was twelve, on the school bus. He got suspended, sure, but he’d shown who had the guts.
“I can get a bat,” Mitch says to the man.
“Would you do that for me?” he says. “Because that might be what I need.” He goes down on one knee, sits Indian-style against the post. Blood trickles onto his pink shoulder. Real blood mixed with sweat looks like fake blood.
“It’ll cost you.”
Mitch flashes fingers on both hands five times.
“How much is that? It’s hard to concentrate.”
“That’s a goddamn deal.” He gets up and sticks out his hand. “Call me Adam.”
Mitch punches through the radio stations until Adam comes out of the bank. The tellers have given him paper towels for his head. He opens the door and throws the wad on the dashboard. Bright blood seeps into the quilted pattern.
He pushes cash into Mitch’s hand, a newly minted picture of Grant, and cranks the car. Mitch holds it under his nose and closes his eyes smelling the otherworldly ink. It reminds him of the ballpark where he sold cokes, hotdogs, snowballs, nachos. Counting money at the end of the night, straightening bills. The ping of baseballs off metal bats.
Back in the apartment, Adam stands in the hallway as Mitch rummages through a closet, pulling out knee pads, helmets, gloves, racquets, and finally a thirty-three-inch, Eastland baseball bat. He grips it with both hands and whiffs it through the air.
“Beautiful!” Adam says.
They go out to the parking lot. People are walking dogs around the doggie-track section of the complex. Adam kneels down, khaki knees on the asphalt. Mitch grips the bat and takes a few practice swings.
“This is going to do the trick,” Adam says to the pavement between his hands, smiling. “I can feel it.” He sticks his neck out to provide a cleaner target.
Mitch grips the bat. He widens his stance and crouches like he did in the batter’s box so many years ago. He looks at Adam, dried blood in his hair. Dried blood on the side of his face, his neck muscles tensing.
He drops the bat. It rings and rolls to the curb. He sits on the pavement and lights up. Maybe, somehow, he lost his guts.
“What happened?” Adam says.
“I thought I could do it,” Mitch whispers. He looks at his hands like things are slipping through his fingers.
Adam nods and stares at Mitch’s apartment. “Mind if I use your bathroom?”
After ten minutes of staring at the bat, his hands, his happy neighbors with dogs, Mitch goes into the apartment looking for him. He finds the pink Izod and the khakis. He looks outside beyond the cracked patio, half expecting to see naked Adam hiding in the trees. He checks back at the lamppost. He walks around the whole complex, peering behind hedgerows and even the back fence where everybody tosses dog poop.
At the end of the night, when Mitch empties his pockets, the fifty-dollar-bill is gone too.
The next day Mitch feels unlike himself. Something is missing. He puts on the stinking pink shirt and khakis and goes outside to the lamppost. He feels dull and slow since Adam disappeared. He believes the man’s name was Adam but can’t be sure. He stares at the post. Seems there’s nothing to do now but hit his head against it.
The impact seems to jar something loose inside, a flash of what it feels like to waterski, the wake, wind, and sun. Holding his body rigid against the pull of the boat. A little more shakes loose when he does it a second time. The summer his family went to Pickwick Lake and he got so sunburned it itched under his skin when he showered and there was no way to scratch.
It hurts to hit his head, but the hurting helps.
The girl from the apartment next door, the waitress with the lip ring and neck tattoos, sits on her stoop, smoking and watching him.
Mitch feels blood trickling behind his ear. It’s not bad, just bloody sweat. He hits the post and remembers his grandmother’s face, how cold her hand felt on his feverish forehead.
Something’s important about these flashes of memory. He can’t quite get the full picture, the meaning and feel of them, but he can’t bring himself to hit his head against the post any harder. Hitting it harder, though, might help everything shake loose at once, everything he’s been tucking away and losing little by little.
“Hey,” the girl says, flicking ashes. “Need some help over there?”
Max Hipp is a teacher, writer, and musician living in Mississippi. His work has either appeared or is upcoming in Black Warrior Review, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Bridge Eight, New World Writing, Pidgeonholes, Unbroken Journal, and Five 2 One. Tweets @maximumevil.