Written by Lynnette Hager
Buddy Boone hated Hanker, Michigan. I hate Hanker more than I hate dresses, she thought this particular afternoon as she rode home. Every day she rode her bike to and from school… and every day she hated her town a little bit more. Have a hankering for Hanker! Buddy rolled her eyes as she read the town welcome sign. What does hankering even mean?
Buddy peddled through the bend in the road, coasting through the backside. The curve catapulted her onto an old dirt road. As pebbles scuttled and pinged around her bike wheels Buddy began to get a little excited. Although she’d never admit it, coming home was her favorite part of the day. She knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that after 90 Mississippi she would see the front gate of their land on the horizon and after 112 Mississippi she would see Pop standing on the porch of the house with a glass of lemonade for her.
87 Mississippi… he’s gonna be so proud.
88 Mississippi… he’s gonna whistle real loud.
89 Mississippi… he’s gonna dance like an excited squirrel.
90 the gate! She couldn’t wait to tell Pop about the three hits she’d got off of that mean Kenny Malone after lunch!
Like most ten-year-old kids, Buddy was concerned with only a few things in life. Lately her thoughts had been focused on two things: why couldn’t girls play baseball and how come Kenny Malone kept calling her Betty? Buddy had some notion that her name was unusual for a girl, but when she was little it had always made her proud.
Her Daddy had raised her with the help of his Daddy, her Pop. While her Daddy worked Pop would tend to her. She grew up on her Pop’s knee, listening to baseball games on the radio. Anything that needed to be taught could become a reason to listen to a game.
When she was four years old, Pop had her start keeping track of the stats of each game she listening to. She carefully divided the notebook page into two rows, then added nine lines to separate the nine innings. One strike! Two strikes! Ball!? That umpire must need his eyes checked, Bud Daley had an arm of gold. True aim in that man. When her Daddy saw her kiddie scratch all over notebooks he was furious! “Counting”, Pop said. “The girl can write and count to 10.” Pop never looked up from his newspaper, but that knowledge seemed enough for Daddy and he didn’t mention it again.
She learned to fold laundry when she was eight years old. She sat listening to the Yankees versus Red Sox game. The t-shirt she’d been practicing on was completely forgotten while listening to Tony Kubek hit his homerun in the 9th inning of the Yankees final regular season game of 1965… it would be his last major league game. She’d worked hard to get the seams right on that shirt, but you wouldn’t know it though cause Pop swooped her up and spun her around, knocking that newly folded t-shirt off of the ottoman.
When a suitable game couldn’t be found to listen to Pop would take Buddy into the yard to tend their garden. Sometimes when they were pulling weeds, Pop would tell her something. Her ten year old brain could tell that there was something special about what he had said, but most of the time it just sounded like garden talk to her. “This garden takes a lot of hard work, huh Buddy?” He had said the week before school started. “The things in life that will sustain you will take the hardest work.” She had felt his eyes on her face, hoping that some flicker of understanding would show itself, but Buddy just smiled at him and went back to the weeds… garden talk.
Pop had taught Buddy to play catch in secret. Her Daddy had said that it wasn’t little girl business to throw a ball. Pop wiped her tears and swore that if she promised to wear a dress, he would teach her the basics. On the afternoons that the plant stayed open later, Daddy would always take the opportunity for overtime. Those afternoons Buddy and Pop would spend hours in the backyard throwing the ball around. Pop had always told her that she could do anything. He told her that she was just as smart, just as strong, and just as fast as any boy he had ever seen. Buddy tried to feel like maybe her skirt was her secret identity. I mean, she thought, Clark Kent was superman’s, so why shouldn’t she have the skirt.
She was his little Buddy and she never questioned it. She wore the name proudly, until that pesky Kenny Malone had started calling her Betty in that stupid sing-songy voice.
That afternoon Kenny Malone had been particularly rude. In the lunch line he pulled her pigtail. When Buddy didn’t react he made that “humph” noise. Then he threw a piece of apple at her from across the table. It skidded inches away from her tray. Horrible aim, Buddy thought, and he made the baseball team. Kenny Malone seemed to realize that his silly antics weren’t working, so he started saying mean things across the table. When Buddy got frustrated and walked outside, Kenny Malone followed. She tried to keep walking away, but everywhere she turned, he was there. The entire school yard seemed to take notice and soon a small crowd had gathered.
“Hey Betty, I saw you last Saturday trying to play ball with your grandpa.” Kenny Malone said.
“I saw you last Saturday trying to play baseball.” Buddy replied.
“I’ll have you know I got on base twice at last Saturdays game.”
“Getting on base doesn’t really matter if you’re a pitcher who can’t pitch.” Buddy said. She knew it was wrong to be mean, but that Kenny Malone had been so mean to her today.
“I’m the starting pitcher! You wouldn’t be able to hit any pitch that I threw.”
“You never let me try. Let’s go out to the field right now and I’ll show you how well I bat.” Buddy could feel the eyes of her classmates on her. Their hushed whispers a sign that she had suggested something dangerous. Girls don’t play baseball… girls shouldn’t play baseball…
“Girls can’t play baseball.” Kenny Malone scoffed. A few of his friends had joined him and they giggled and wiggled their approval. “My mom said that if you’d have had a mother, you’d be normal. Normal girls play dolls not baseball, Betty.”
Buddy’s eyes stung at the mention of her mama… she’d never known her. She had seen that part of her in photographs that Daddy had placed on end tables and dressers, but mama had died at the hospital. That’s why Pop had come to live with them.
“My name is Buddy… it’s my Pop’s name too.” Buddy lifted her chin. “You squawk a lot, but all I hear is that you are afraid of a girl.” The school kids gasped. No one had ever talked that way to Kenny Malone before.
One of his friends came and whispered something in his ear. Kenny Malone smiled and nodded. “Ok, Betty, I’ll give you three pitches.” He turned on his heel and headed to the baseball field in the corner of the school yard. Kenny Malone’s friends walked with him, laughing and joking as they went.
Buddy’s mouth went dry, but she knew that Pop had taught her all the tricks. She walked as fast as she could toward the ball field. There is no way that I am letting that meanie get a ball by me, she thought. As Buddy approached the backstop one of Kenny Malone’s friends handed her a bat. She grabbed it, then bent over to pick up some dirt. She held the bat in her legs as she dusted her palms with the dirt, better for grip Pop told her. Kenny Malone was already out on the pitcher’s mound stretching his throwing arm, one of his friends was behind home plate to catch.
Buddy stepped into the batter’s box. She went over everything she and Pop practiced.
Feet shoulder width apart – Kenny Malone held the ball behind his back as he decided what pitch to throw.
Right hand on top of left hand with your middle knuckles aligned – Kenny Malone nodded that he had accepted his pitch.
Keep your eye on the ball and swing through it – Kenny Malone rocked back, beginning the motion of his throw.
Buddy watched the ball through Kenny Malone’s wind up, as it reached way back behind him, and as it sling-shot toward her. The school kids gasped, Kenny Malone’s friends snickered, but Buddy’s eyes narrowed in concentration. Buddy willed her arms forward. She kept her eyes glued to the ball that seemed to be flying in slow motion toward her.
Suddenly the school kids erupted in cheering and clapping. Kenny Malone looked like he’d been hit in the stomach and all his friends ran out to the pitcher’s mound. Buddy had hit the ball.
The rest of the day seemed to fly by.
109 Mississippi… I hope he has my lemonade.
110 Mississippi… I kept my eye on the ball the whole time!
111 Mississippi… Kenny Malone was even nice after that.
112 Mississippi… Pop!
Buddy saw her Pop standing on the porch, a big glass of lemonade on the rail next to him. “Pop!” Buddy hollered as she rode into the yard. “Pop!” Buddy jumped off of her bike almost before it had stopped moving. She ran up the stairs and into the arms that had been waiting on her. “Pop! He was so mean, but I did it! And then I failed my math test, but he was nice afterwards. And he said my dress was pretty cool, even if I can’t slide into third.”
“Buddy, Buddy, take a deep breathe girl.” Pop laughed as he talked, handing her the glass of lemonade. “Now wet your whistle a bit and then start from the beginning, but talk a little slower this time.” Buddy took the glass and sipped on the cool tart drink. “You know, I’ve lived in Hanker all my life and I’ve never thought I’d meet a lady who could talk faster than your mama… until you learned to talk. Haha!”
Pop had lived in Hanker, Michigan his whole life? Buddy was astounded by that thought. A smiled crept across her lips as she took another sip of her lemonade thinking, I guess Hanker isn’t so bad after all.