The package is wrapped in brown paper and it is soft, like somebody’s laundry coming back. It was delivered to the Admin building by the UPS, with Turley’s name on the address label. Sometimes Turley used to get a new pair of handle grips through the UPS, with his name on the label, but this is the first package he has gotten since the middle of the winter, when Mr. Parker died. He steps off the Admin stairs, thinking that he will take the package back to his room and open it, and then it comes to him that it is the new flag. He squeezes the package as he walks. They could have at least packed a new flag in a box, Turley thinks.
In his room Turley puts the package on his bed and then cuts it open with his pocket knife, being very careful not to cut what’s inside. He pulls the flag out by a thickness of stripes. The flag has a thin, slippery feeling to it, and it smells like something that Turley is not able to think of right away — maybe the thin white hair hats that the cafeteria workers wear. He unfolds a part of the flag and holds up some of the stripes to the light that comes in through his window. He can see the shapes of things outside through the white stripes and the light even comes through the red ones. Turley does not like the flag. He lets it fall in an unfolded pile on his bed and then looks at his watch, turning away. Then he turns back to the bed to fold the flag properly. Even a thin crispy flag is due respect.
Back outside Turley glances down toward the diamonds, where he put the old flag up at dawn. That flag is torn between the second white and third red stripe from the bottom. It happened in the big storm that caused drifts up to six feet on parts of the grounds, and paralyzed the hospital for a day and a half before Maintenance could dig it out. People said it was that storm that killed Mr. Parker. He had just turned 62 when the storm hit, and planned to retire in the spring. He got sick during the storm, and the day after Turley told him about the rip in the old flag he died. He had been Chief of Grounds and Maintenance for 35 years, since just after they sent him home from World War II. And it was Mr. Parker who hired Turley in 1956, when Turley was 15 and they wouldn’t keep him in school anymore because he was too tall for the sixth grade again. Turley has done the flag every day except six since 1956, and as he heads toward the number Four maintenance building he wonders what Mr. Parker would say if he knew they had sent a thinner flag. The old flag, now moving softly over the big green field that runs along the main road to town, is a good flag, up and down the pole since late ’77. Turley gets a chill when he thinks, all of a sudden, of Mr. Parker sending off for the flag back in the winter. And now in the spring it is here with Turley’s name on the address label.
As he goes toward Four Turley passes a basketball game. The players are doctors and administrators and other bosses. They are younger and thinner than their years in the morning light when they are supposed to be working. They are playing on a smooth black court, with bright yellow lines running at all angles. Turley used to trim boxwoods at around this time of year, in the place where the basketball court is. Mr. Parker didn’t want the court there, but some higher-ups sent in some bulldozers one day before they could even transplant the boxwoods, and Mr. Parker blew up. There was an official apology from the Director of the hospital, and they said it was a mistake not to save the bushes. Now there are men who should be at work playing there, not thinking about boxwoods. Turley does not like something about the thinness of the men. It irritates him in a vague way, reminds him of the crispy thin flag. As he walks from the game, Turley hears the morning coal train, screeching and straining to get around the big turn at the far end of the grounds. Back in the Sixties there was big talk about trying to get the tracks straightened, or moved, so the trains wouldn’t be so loud for the whole hospital of veterans trying to get over Vietnam. But it died down. Turley has not been over by the tracks for perhaps a year, but every morning he checks the noise of the train with his watch, as a part of keeping up with the world around him.
Turley’s mower is a two-year-old Dayton with a 22-inch-cut. It is way in the back of Four. The big riders are all parked along the wall, in a line that looks like a new car lot. Turley is the only one who knows it is first mowing day. He knows it by the movement of the grass in the breeze — the same way he knows to be on the lookout for dandelions. There are some garden hoses and a scythe piled on top of his mower. He puts them up on a long shelf above him and then pulls the Dayton back through the building and out through the big wooden doors. As Turley closes the doors and walks away from Four, he thinks of Mike Herrington. He does not like Mike, and does not want to see him now. Mike used to be inside with the boilers, but when Mr. Parker died he came outside to take over Grounds and Maintenance. He is not at all like Mr. Parker. He puts up schedules and bulletins and memos when he knows full well Turley can’t read much beyond his own name. Once he sent Turley a special notice — just to Turley — and Turley had to take it inside to Dr. Crandall to get it read. It said something about not taking government property back to personal quarters. Turley had taken a scythe back to his room to sharpen it while he listened to a Spring training game for the Atlanta Braves, and Mike Herrington wrote him a special notice. Turley blows air through his teeth every time he tells somebody about that notice.
When he is outside and has not seen Mike, Turley feels better. He cocks the Dayton back on two wheels and rolls it down past Admin toward the diamonds. There is a strength in Turley’s fingers that is brought out by the mower. He does not mind the snow blowers or the shears, or even a shovel or a rake — they are all good tools and turn out good work when you use them properly — but there is nothing like rolling the Dayton down toward the twin diamonds at the beginning of springtime. It is the most important thing Turley does all year long. Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties, when the local guard units and VFW chapters had teams, he used to have to do a lot of work just to keep the fields playable. There were six or eight games a week on each field, and Turley kept up with it almost single-handedly, turning in his sod orders to Mr. Parker about two weeks before he would need to put it down. Now the fields don’t get as much use. The American Legion teams use them sometimes, and once in a while the Class A team from town will ask to use the west field for practice, because its drainage is so much better than the field they play on. You can play on the west field at eight o’clock on the day of a big afternoon thunder shower. Mr. Parker used to call it a genuine big league diamond. And Turley has cut the grass on it for a quarter of a century. All over the rest of the grounds there will be men up on riders that cut to dirt in some spots and leave four inches of grass in others. Turley’s Dayton runs smooth and even over every blade.
He starts near the pole. It stands in a direct line between the two home plates. Exactly 450 feet from each plate, in dead center for each field, was the way Mr. Parker used to explain it to visitors. Nobody has ever reached the pole from either field on the fly, but Turley once saw a game when Dave Nicholson bounced one off the concrete circle that surrounds the flagpole. That was when Dave Nicholson was in Class D, and everybody said he was a cinch to be the next Mantle. As Turley stands on the edge of the concrete circle and pulls his starter rope, he almost laughs at that. One big fly ball and they think you’ve got it made. Turley makes his first circle around the pole and then pauses to check the cut. He likes the grass a little taller in deep center, especially this early in the year, and though he remembers that he set the blade back in the fall for this first cut, he kneels to check and feel anyway, to be sure he is treating the spring grass right. When he is satisfied he stands and starts the ever-expanding circle that leads toward the foul lines and the infield skins. The sun is warm on his face as he guides the Dayton, and the scent from the grass on his shoes — he will not use a bag until well into May — is as sweet a smell as any Turley knows.
By lunch time the big circles of cut have almost reached the dirt behind second, and on the east diamond arch out into shallow right, where a line drive would begin to take off for the alley. He walks a ways toward the cafeteria and then pauses to look back toward the diamonds, to make sure he has cut in a true circle. The grass looks thick and green even where he has cut. It has been a good wet spring. As he nears the cafeteria he sees Mike Herrington coming toward him. Turley looks down at the ground as Mike comes down the walk.
“You mowing?” Mike is pointing at Turley’s grass-flecked shoes.
“I’m going to lunch right now,” Turley says softly.
“Who told you to mow?” Mike has his hands on his hips. He wears the same green clothes every day, as if he were still in the army.
“I always do the diamonds the first warm streak after the spring rains,” Turley says, still looking down. He looks up when Mike does not say anything right away. He looks into Mike’s eyes. They are narrow and gray, like a squirrel’s.
“You remember you don’t own them ballfields,” Mike says, as he is walking away from Turley.
Turley walks on toward the cafeteria. After he has gone a few steps he hears Mike again. “You on a rider?” his voice comes from the walk.
“I’ve got my Dayton,” Turley calls over his shoulder.
Turley sits at his favorite table, near the back window of the cafeteria. He has beef stew, two rolls, a green salad, and orange jello with carrots in it. He has the newspaper folded over to the Scoreboard page, which is filled with line scores from Spring training. Long ago, Mr. Parker taught Turley how to read the box scores as well as anyone — even before they took out the little letters for pinch hitters and pinch runners. Turley knew all the names of teams and players by heart from the radio, and so he figured them out quickly on paper. He never told Mr. Parker, but usually when he could not read a name, he could figure it out because he knew the team’s batting order, and so he would just count down to find out who it was. In the Spring the paper has only line scores, and Turley is not as good with those. They are not as clear as the box scores, not as important, but Turley looks hard at them every day at lunch, as if he is warming up for the boxes in April. He is worried about the strike. The people he hears on the sports call-in shows say it is sure to happen. The players are just as greedy as the owners. Pete Franklin, from Cleveland, is disgusted with the whole thing, and yells at people on the radio about it. And most of the big league broadcasters Turley hears at night on his big portable Sony sound the same way. Turley can’t see it. He thinks that ball players already make enough money, and blames the whole thing on George Steinbrenner. Mr. Parker used to call him a pennant-buying son-of-a-bitch that could take one of his ships and float the hell out to sea. Mr. Parker was a Baltimore Orioles fan. He told Turley that them winning the pennant in 1979 was the best thing to happen to baseball since Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak.
Turley is much slower when he is cutting in toward the infield. He stops cutting in big wide circles to cut along the grass edge between the bases, so the cuttings will be thrown out onto the outfield instead of in on the skin. Then he tilts the mower back on the rear wheels to go across the skin to the infield grass. He starts the same way he does with the outfield, but this time his circle starts from the edge of the mound and works its way out toward the bases. He does the east diamond first and then lets the mower rest while he pushes it back across the outfield to the west diamond, where he takes his time. This is Field Number One — the finest baseball diamond in the state. Perfect drainage. Not a bad hop in the whole infield. A grandstand that will hold two thousand. This is the most important job that Turley does, and he thinks about that as he moves toward it. This is not just any infield he is cutting. At least 14 major leaguers played on it on their way up, and not one of them ever complained, even when he booted a ground ball. As he moves the mower slowly over the grass, Turley is aware of the history of the field.
When he is sure he has the west infield just right, Turley turns the Dayton off, and parks it in the space where the first base coach’s box will be lined off. He goes down into the first base dugout for a rest. Later in the summer, when the grass has passed its thick, full stage and is beginning to thin under the August heat, the first base dugout will be the only place on either diamond with any shade at this time of the afternoon. Now, in late March, it is cool in the dugout, but he is not a man to break a pattern of duty. When his rest is completed he pushes the Dayton silently back across the outfield, passing under the flag. It is too early to take it down just now. He will come back for it later. He pauses on the slope toward the main buildings to look back on the diamonds one last time.
As he is parking the Dayton at the back of Four Turley hears someone coming in behind him. He knows before he turns around that it is Mike Herrington. He walks up to Turley and hands him an envelope. It is not the brown envelope that holds Turley’s paycheck. This is a white envelope. Mike Herrington doesn’t say anything. He just holds out the envelope until Turley takes it, and then he turns and walks back out of Four. Turley looks at the envelope and then puts it into his back pocket, thinking about if he will be able to find Dr. Crandall in the evening. He closes the big wooden doors and then goes up to Admin for a long drink of water from the coldest fountain on the grounds. From Admin he walks back to his room for a little rest before he goes down to get the flag.
Turley likes a still afternoon for taking the flag down. No whipping or clanging to put up with. Just a soft warm flag coming down toward him as he judges the sun’s sinking through the mesh of the west backstop. By the time the regular season starts the sun will still be well up in the mesh at this time of day, with a big jump up to above the backstop on daylight savings day. Now the sun is a red half-ball slipping behind the far mountain as the flag comes down, carrying its leftover warmth. As it hits Turley’s hands, the warm old flag makes him think, for the first time since the morning, of the new flag. He sees it lying in a heap on his bed, and his face warms with the shame of having treated a flag that way. The old flag settles over his arm. The tear between the stripes is no longer than it was in the morning. In fact, it has not gotten worse since the snowstorm, and as he folds the flag Turley is only vaguely aware that he is praying for the old flag to somehow heal itself. He jostles the flag into a balance over his forearm and starts back toward Admin, where the flag cabinet is. The smell of just-cut grass is still strong in the cool twilight, and Turley is not in a hurry. He likes the feel of knowing that he sent that smell all over the grounds, as if he is announcing Spring. When he has put the flag away he goes back to his room. He will take a bath and then go to the cafeteria to look for Dr. Crandall.
In the cafeteria Turley has lost the good strong feeling he had after he took the flag down. He is not particular about his food now, and does not joke with the ladies who serve it to him. He has already seen Dr. Crandall at a table with some other doctors. Though he does not want to, Turley stops by the table to tell Dr. Crandall that he has something he needs help with some time. Dr. Crandall, who has gained a lot of weight and looks even bigger in his whites, nods slowly and goes back to his food. He has been helping Turley read important things since back in 1967. Turley takes his food back to his table and unfolds the paper to study the line scores some more.
After a few minutes, when Turley is not thinking about him, Dr. Crandall sits down at the table. “The Giants don’t have anything again this year,” he says, slapping with the back of his hand at Turley’s newspaper.
“The pitching will be better,” Turley says. He has loved the Giants for as long as he can remember, because of Willie Mays. It rook him a long time to get over the move to San Francisco, and he had been able to do it only because Willie McCovey did not seem to mind, and he played back in the Polo Grounds one year.
“They always play over their heads early,” Dr. Crandall says. “Just wait ’til August. They’ll be down there with the Braves. If they play at all.” Dr. Crandall says this with a big smile, as if he is partly teasing Turley.
Turley hands the envelope to Dr. Crandall. “Mike Herrington gave it to me this afternoon,” he says.
“A memo from Mike,” Dr. Crandall says in his teasing voice, and then pushes a finger into the sealed part of the envelope. “To: Vernon R. Turley, Maintenance Crewman,” he reads. “From: Mike Herrington, Chief of Grounds and Maintenance.” Dr. Crandall clears his throat. “Effective immediately, there will be no further use of the non-riding equipment on areas other than the garden walks. In that this includes the lower entry area and the ball diamonds, and in view of your years of service to the V.A., you are hereby given a choice of either using a riding mower on your current assignment, or accepting re-assignment to the garden area, where the non-riders are more efficiently applied. Please keep in mind that such a choice is outside of policy, and I will expect your decision by tomorrow morning.” Dr. Crandall cleared his throat again.
“Is that all?” Turley says.
“Yes. He seems to want . . .”
“He knows I don’t use those things,” Turley interrupts. “I never have.”
Dr. Crandall does not say anything else. Turley gets up from the table, nods his thanks to Dr. Crandall as he takes the letter back, and carries his tray over toward the cans. He lets everything except the silverware and the plates slide off into the big can. The special notice from Mike Herrington was sitting on his napkin. Turley sees it down in the can, with a green bean sitting on top of it. He puts his tray on the pile near the cans and goes out of the cafeteria. He is back in his room in time to hear the 6:10 sports on the radio. “The vote was nine hundred ninety-seven to one,” the sportscaster is saying while Turley sits down on the bed next to the new flag. “But, they’ve decided to wait until May 23rd to go out, and to skip the rest of Spring training for good measure.” Turley sits up straighter, looking at the radio. He wants to hear the sportscaster say it again, so he can be sure. No more Spring training. No more baseball.
Turley turns off the radio. It is a while before Pete Franklin will come in from Cleveland. The faraway stations do not work on Turley’s radio until it is dark, as if they have to sneak in. Turley sits back on the bed, thinking about what he will do until that time. He picks up the flag in the bag and then puts it down again. He gets up from the bed and goes over to his dresser. On top of it is a picture of his mother, who died in 1968. She is standing outside her house in town, with all the flowers in bloom behind her. Next to the picture of Turley’s mother is a picture of Mr. Parker. It is just his face, and the picture is signed over the chin. Best of luck to a good friend and worker, it says. After he has looked at the pictures for a while Turley goes back to his bed. For a long time he lies very still, as if he is just relaxing. Then he sits up. He decides in that moment that he will not use a rider. “Old Turl just ain’t no driver,” he can hear Mr. Parker saying one summer day years ago. Next, Turley decides he will not hang the new flag over the ball fields. Turley decides these things all at once, the same way he decides everything. Then, without deciding, he reaches up onto the top shelf of his closet to get his suitcase. The last time he used it was in 1972, when he went to visit his sister and to watch the Pirates play. His sister has never invited him back to Pittsburgh, but she sends birthday cards and Christmas cards at the right times. Turley puts the suitcase on the bed and opens it. The loud click of the latches snaps at his ears. He pulls open the top drawer of his dresser and then he stops to think about why he has taken his suitcase down. He needs to think about where he will go. He does want to go to his sister’s without an invitation. He thinks about going to see Commissioner Kuhn in New York City, to tell him that there shouldn’t be a baseball strike. Or try to find out where Willie McCovey is. Turley cannot decide, but he keeps packing until he is ready for at least a trip.
Outside he walks toward the back grounds, away from the diamonds. He has not been out that way since the snowstorm. He passes D and G Buildings. They are mostly dark already. Then he follows the narrow path out toward the Norfolk and Western tracks. They are the shortest route into town by foot. Turley used to follow them years ago when he walked into town to visit his mother. Just before the tracks is C Building. It is lit up all five stories high. C Building is filled with shell-shocked soldiers going all the way back to World War I. Turley has never been inside C Building, but he has seen some of the men close up and they have odd, lost looks in their eyes, and their favorite thing to do is to gather at the windows to watch the trains go by. Turley has heard people say that if the men in C didn’t have the trains to look at; at the same time every day, they wouldn’t have anything. Turley makes a big circle around C to get around back to where the tracks are. It is bad out there. The weeds are tall in the flat area between the end of the grounds proper and the little rock-covered slope up to the tracks. For a moment Turley thinks he should go find Mike Herrington and tell him about the weeds between C and the tracks. Then he hears the first noise of the eight o’clock train, still far down the tracks. After a few seconds Turley sees the light of the train coming toward him, and then it is only a short time before the huge noise of the train is around him. It is a coal train. Each car is huge and black, and shaped exactly like the one before it, with the same big “N & W” on the side. Toward the end of the train, the cars appear to be newer. These have “NW” in white on their sides. Turley hopes that the train will never end, that the noise and the sameness of the cars might last all night.
When the train is finally past Turley looks up at the windows in C. There are still men in many of the windows, but they do not see Turley. They seem to be still looking at the tracks, as if they did not want the train to end either. Turley stands still for a long time, listening to the silence after the train and smelling the hot oily smell that it has left behind. He watches C Building as the men disappear from the windows, one by one, until no one is left to watch over the tracks except Turley. He puts down his suitcase and opens it up and takes out his windbreaker. It will be a long time before the next train, and Turley knows enough about a cool Spring evening to prepare himself for the silent, creeping dew that will soon fall over the whole grounds.