Big Guy Lefty and Christmas at Sulphur Dell

Cold snow covered Monroe Street as Guy Leftowich pulled his front door tightly shut and slowly shuffled down the porch steps, being sure to hold on to the black wrought-iron rail. Christine always insisted he hold on even when it was clear as a bell outside because as he had grown older his balance was not what it used to be. He was still strong, his broad shoulders and narrow waist giving him an appearance of someone who had either been an athlete or was simply a chiseled picture of good health. At the age of 68, he was both.

He stood 6’6”, and at 225 pounds the left-hander had been an ominous presence in his Nashville uniform 20 years ago. Standing at home plate with his 40-ounce bat at his first spring training, Pete Johnson, manager of the Nashville Vols ballclub, took one look at him and said, “You’re a pretty big guy, Guy” and when other players heard that he was forever known as “Big Guy”. Teammates shortened his last name to “Lefty” after lovingly teasing him as teammates do: “Hey, which is it Big Guy? Leftowich? Rightowich? Or Which-away?” Always present was a gleaming smile on his face. He loved to play baseball, so it didn’t matter much that his buddies teased him like that.

His real name was Abner Ulysses Leftowich, but his dad had called him Guy since he was born (“Hey, look at the big guy”). Neither his father nor fellow players were going to stand for calling him Abner or Ulysses, so “Big Guy Lefty” it was.

Before venturing out of the house he checked the temperature from the gadget he and Christine had placed outside their kitchen window when they first purchased the bungalow in Germantown. A fan of the team had given it to them as a housewarming gift, a handmade contraption in the shape of a baseball bat on top of a baseball, the thermometer inserted inside the bat and a round clock face inside the baseball. It showed 12 degrees, but the clock hands were frozen at 7:11 PM and he knew that wasn’t right.

That must’ve been the time when the temperature dropped below freezing, he thought.

When he reached the sidewalk, he could see the entire neighborhood was covered in at least eight inches of pure white snowfall. The smooth surface of the road told him no one had been bold enough to drive their automobiles this morning, and since it was already 9:30 he doubted many would risk getting out at all today.

“I probably should have broken tradition and gone yesterday,” he muttered to himself. He and Christine had a ritual of going grocery shopping every Christmas Eve morning. They were alone with no children to visit them during the holidays, and both would spend the rest of their day in the kitchen. Christine had kept his mother’s recipe cards, and in the morning,  they would go through them together and pick their favorites to make for lunch on Christmas Day. They would sip eggnog spiced with rum and snack on Christmas treats in the evening.

Christine passed away nine months ago, it was a long time for one to be ill like that. She was never sick a day in her life until her energy, vitality, humor, friendship, companionship, and lastly, her breath went away. For 45 years Guy and Christine had spent every waking moment together except when he was playing ball for Gadsden, Tallahassee, Buffalo, or Nashville. They loved Nashville. It was their favorite city of the ones they had lived in, and the home where they chose to spend their golden years together was only a few blocks away from Sulphur Dell where he had roamed the outfield hills for nearly 20 years.

The grocery was not far off, only two long blocks, but he continued to waddle threw the snow, certain Ethan Fisher would have his store open at Sixth and Taylor.

“Good morning, Ethan. Merry Christmas,” he told the shopkeeper as he kicked the snow from his boots and entered. The old man with the apron was standing near the counter, his right elbow on top of the cash register and his other hand on his hip, his diminutive body wrapped in a woolen sweater that was much too big.

“The merriest of Christmas to you, too, Big Guy,” he said. “Need some help with your list?”

Guy handed him the piece of paper with things he needed scratched on it in pencil. Christine always kept a notepad by the telephone, and he had written everything down as he checked the pantry.

“Let’s see: a dozen eggs, butter, flour, sugar, cloves, ham, a quart of milk. Is this everything?” asked the proprietor.

“I think so. We still have brown sugar and powdered sugar left from last year,” he answered.

The grocery man gathered the things from the list and placed them in a brown paper sack while curiously searching his customer’s facial expressions. He was looking for sadness, or self-pity, or sense of loneliness so he could console the retired ballplayer, but Ethan did not see it. He knew it was Guy’s first Christmas alone, and the entire neighborhood had wondered among themselves how he would react.

“Here you go, that will be $3.49.”

Guy handed Ethan exact change and took the bag. He headed out of the store, turning with a high wave toward the man in the over-sized sweater who shouted, “Merry Christmas! ” to him. The shop’s screen door smacked against the door frame, and as Guy balanced the sack in both arms, he noticed the streets were still empty. Two ruts the width of a car had cut their swathe down Sixth Avenue, with a few wavy ones where the icy mix had kept the driver from navigating a straight line.

It took him about ten minutes to return home as he stopped to say hello to two neighbors who were clearing their sidewalks with shovels. Another was attempting to conquer the white powder with a broom without much progress. Two dogs came bounding through a drift near a car sitting in a pile of snow, and Guy lurched to get out of their way and nearly went tumbling, grocery sack and all. He managed to maintain his poise and his groceries, then turned the corner towards his house. He paused to see the beauty of their cottage and how it  glistened in the sun, peeking through the billowy white clouds.

Entering the house, he hung up his coat, put the grocery sack on the floor near his feet as he sat down on the bench in the foyer. He untied his boots and kicked them off, returning them to their place of rest under the bench, and made his way to the kitchen. Setting his bounty on the counter, he folded his big arms across his chest and peered at the thermometer once again. This time it said 17 degrees. The time had not changed.

For the first time in many months sadness overcame him. The walk alone, the return to the house empty of the giggles of his sweetheart, and the cold and snowy day outside cast a pall over the wonderful home he and Christine had shared.

The idea came to him to build a fire to warm the dreariness of the damp air and his sad thoughts at the same time.

He went through the door at the back of the house and gathered firewood and kindling in his arms to make the fire in the living room fireplace. Down on one knee he set the wood on the andirons, checked to be sure the flue was open, and reached for the matchbox on the mantle. Taking a match and lighting it, he moved toward the newspaper wad and lit it, watching the first plumes of smoke make their way up through the chimney opening. The little flames soon became a blaze, and he stared at the burning wood. He thought he could see Christine’s face in the glow. “But it couldn’t be,” he said softly.

And that is when she appeared to him. The word Christine immediately came to his lips.

She nodded without a word, smiled at him, and gazed directly into his eyes. He did not need for her to say anything, for he felt her words in his heart. She was telling him, “I love you, I am near you, and I care for you. Don’t be afraid, someone is coming.”

He had been afraid. The love they shared was like a rock they could stand on, something they could cling to. But without her, he had not felt that in nearly a year, and he had secretly, passionately longed for it.

Her image began to fade. Wanting her to stay, Guy began to cry. Dabbing at his tears with the sleeve of his flannel shirt, the one she gave him the Christmas before, he looked up to see she had disappeared.

Once he recognized she was no longer there, he felt the warmth from the fireplace and how the room began to lighten. The curtains, the bookcase, the ceiling fan, and the coffee table, everything in the room began to radiate their own warmth, and he felt Christine’s presence even more.

For over an hour he remembered, and prayed.

“It’s time to cook!” He surprised himself with the sound of his own voice, as if he was calling to her from downstairs to rouse her from her nap. He began to pull the bowls and cookware from their hiding places in the cupboards and spent the next four hours busy, but alone, preparing a meal fit for the king and queen who happily resided at the house on the corner of Monroe and Sixth Avenues.

In the evening after a long nap he washed and dried the dishes and tucked them back into their places in the cabinets. Taking a loaf of cranberry-banana-nut bread and cutting two slices, he placed them on the Christmas plate Christine loved, then one her grandmother passed down to her, then added some cashews and peanuts, and a few pretzels, poured a cup of eggnog spiced with rum, and settled in his chair in the living room. He had to get up twice to put another log on the fire and stoke it, but he felt peace while watching it burn, sipping on the eggnog and eating his Christmas snacks as usual on this special night.

Because Christine was there. He felt her presence, and he was happy for the first time in a long while.

The next morning, he stuck his head out the front door and saw that much of the snow had melted. The sidewalk in front of the house had patches of bare concrete, so he checked the temperature and it read 32 degrees.

He and Christine usually took a stroll through the neighborhood on Christmas morning unless the weather was too cold or snowy. Often, they would manage to visit the old ballpark where they spent so much time. Guy wanted to make that journey again today. He laced up his boots and put on his coat and headed out the door.

Only once did he have to step into the street because the sidewalk was frozen. The sun was shining, and the air was warming, so it was a pleasant walk to Jefferson Street and Fifth Avenue to Sulphur Dell’s entrance. The outside of the stadium took on a picture of an oversized bird house painted in a cheap green and white. That conception was not too far off, as pigeons roosting in the eaves of the rafters left markings on the side of the building and on the street and sidewalk below.

Sulphur Dell was famous for the peculiar configuration of the outfield, as the distance from home to right field was a short 262 feet, and if the right fielder was standing at the base of the right field wall, his feet were 22 ½ feet above the playing surface. The streets in this part of the city had been built up long ago because the area was prone to flooding, but Sulphur Dell was left as a low-lying ball field and the entire park resembled an oversized wash basin. That, and the sulphur spring nearby, helped to explain the ballpark’s name.

Most ballplayers hated to play there, but Guy handled the outfield hills like no other, traversing the rolling outfield no matter his massive frame.

The front gate was open, and he stepped inside, making his way through the concourse. When he stopped and took in the expanse of the field, a rush of energy came over him, making him feel young and excited and ready to play once again.

He barely heard the tender voice from above and behind him.

“Hey mister,” the boy said. He had been crying, and he had something around his mouth that looked like the residue of cotton candy.

“Well, hello,” he replied. The youngster appeared to be eight or nine years old, dressed in ragged jeans, a sweater, and woolen jacket. On top of his head he wore a blue baseball cap with a white “SO” on the front. Everything he wore was tinged in black soot as if he had crawled through a coal chute.

A shout rang out from a row of seats four sections over . “There you are, you rascal!” said a policeman. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

The boy cuddled tightly into the stadium chair he had chosen as a hiding place and muffled his crying with his bare hands over his mouth. Guy recognized the officer, one who was security guard at the ballpark since 1927 when the grandstand was moved from one side of the block to the other.

“What’s the story on him, George?” Guy asked. At first the old policeman did not recognize him.

“Hey, aren’t you Big Guy Lefty? The one who hit a home run every Sunday game played at Sulphur Dell the entire season in 1948 and led the league with 65 homers that year? The one who was the only player to wear number 13 in the history of the Vols? The one who…”

“I suppose that’s me,” he interrupted. “It’s both an honor and a pox to be recognized sometimes. Don’t remember me?”

“I’ll just tell you, sometimes my memory lapses, Lefty. I think you are just about the best baseball player to hit this town since Roy Pomeroy,” the man in blue responded.

“Well, thank you, but I was no Roy Pomeroy,” he said. “What about the kid?”

The policeman returned to his reason for being there and told Guy that earlier in the day the Stratton Orphanage brought a group of boys to the ballpark for a Christmas outing to run the base paths and sled down the snowy inclines of the outfield. Peppermints and oranges had been given to the boys, too. When the group returned to the home, this one had been missing.

“What’s your name, son?” Guy asked.

“Hector,” the boy replied sheepishly.

Guy inquired further. “Hello, Hector, it’s nice to meet you. You can call me Lefty. How old are you?”

“Nine,” the boy answered.

“What are you doing here? Are you lost? Did you forget you were supposed to go back to the orphanage with the other boys?”

“Naw. I didn’t wanna’ go back there. I just want to live at this place.”

Guy stared into the boy’s face for a few moments, then turned to the officer. “Do you think you could wait here with Hector while I run home? I need to get something, and I’ll call the headmaster at Stratton to let him know we’ve found the boy.”

“I guess that will be okay,” said the officer.

Guys legs moved as fast as he could get them to, which was just short of a ramble. Soon he was home, opening the front door and searching through his bedroom closet without removing his coat. He found his old ball glove, one of his bats, and a couple of baseballs. He faced the front door before he realized he had not phoned the orphanage.

“May I speak to Mr. Denning, please?” he said to the person who answered. Denning immediately came to the phone.

“Mr. Denning, this is Guy Leftowich. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too. The old Nashville ballplayer?” asked Denning. “I remember you, you were terrific!”

“Yes, it’s me, and thank you. Hector has been found, safe and sound at the ballpark, and he is with George, the security guard at Sulphur Dell. Would it be all right if I stay with the boy at the park, just for a little while? I’ll be responsible for him and bring him to the orphanage in about an hour. He needs a friend, and I could use one, too, and I’d like to spend a little time with him, maybe toss a ball around for a bit. George will stay there with us, too.”

“I suppose that will be all right,” was the reply.

“Thank you,” said Guy as he hung up the phone and left his house, bounding down the steps and running down the sidewalk as fast as his 68-year-old legs would let him.

For the next 45 minutes, Guy taught Hector the orphan boy how to throw the ball, to swing the bat, and to catch fly balls and grounders. George sat in the stands and smoked his pipe, remembering how the outfielder used to smile so big that fans on the back row of the grandstand could see his wide grin from there.

Today Big Guy Lefty was smiling just like that.

© 2018 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction

One response to “Big Guy Lefty and Christmas at Sulphur Dell

  1. Oliver Odenbaugh

    Skip:

    Great story, my friend. Beautifully written and really touched my heart.

    Wendy

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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