Short Story: Ghost in the Machine

Story published in full by Directangle Press.

An excerpt from “Ghost in the Machine” – – –

Hank woke up to the sound of the Courier-Post’s delivery truck pulling away from the house that morning, like every Sunday morning. He couldn’t wait to run down and grab the newspaper off the stoop, but he was never up early enough to beat his father to it.

By the time Hank reached the bottom of the stairs, Dad was already at the kitchen table with the paper, a black coffee and half a grapefruit. He wore a plain white t-shirt tucked into his jeans, and his bare feet tapped to a Perry Como record playing softly in the living room. What was left of his white hair stood up in different directions. Since quitting smoking, he let a toothpick hang from the corner of his mouth most of the time. Hank hated the smell of the smoky kitchen when he was a kid, but now he missed it.

Hank poured himself a tall glass of orange juice and sat across from his father, a retired Linotype operator who still wasn’t used to a normal sleep schedule. Though Hank was about to turn 13, the tips of his toes barely grazed the wooden floor as he sat up straight in his chair. Neither said a word, and Dad didn’t even make eye contact with Hank as he handed over the Sports section.

The smell of the newspaper was intoxicating to Hank. It smelled like well-earned sweat, like new shoes straight out of the box, like a summer morning. The feel of the paper, too, was unlike anything else. Hank didn’t even have to try very hard to lift the ink from the page with his fingers. Hank was envious of his father’s fingertips, stained black under the cuticles from decades of working at the press. Hank made it a habit to simply hold the paper for a minute or two before reading just to physically absorb as much of it as possible.

That warm feeling quickly dissipated upon reading the front-page headline: GIANTS FALL TO DODGERS, 5-3. The reigning World Series champion New York Giants were trending in the wrong direction in late May of 1955, having lost five of six. Hank put his finger on the paper and scrolled down the box score, like he always did. Mays walked twice but didn’t have any hits. It didn’t look right to see his batting average below .300. Whitey Lockman hit his fifth homer of year. Hank liked him but knew that if a guy like Lockman was leading off, your team was in trouble.

Even in a loss, Hank loved reading box scores. There was just something about the symmetry of the vertical and horizontal lines that put him at ease. Names down the left side, numbers filling out the right. Hank knew exactly what to look for because it was the same every time, no matter what.

Hank always wondered what it would be like to have his name above Mays’ in the box score, but, unlike most of his peers, he never let his imagination run too wild. He had realistic expectations when it came to his baseball career. He knew that something as simple as making the high school team in a few years would be a stretch. Before he hung up his spikes for good, though, he wanted to see his name printed in that tangible Times Roman. That would be enough.

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