James Lumley never understood the game of softball. Oh, he grasped the basics; his sister Kristy played it so well she was on the town's elite Hurricane traveling team, whose members almost always won college scholarships simply for being associated with it. What James didn't get was why girls like Kristy loved what was clearly, to him, a bastardized, deformed version of baseball - bigger ball, smaller field, a lot less hitting and fielding and a lot more whiffs at the plate - when in fact they could just play baseball. James didn't follow the American pastime with any sort of passion either, but it was better than a beer league sport. At seventeen he didn't have a girlfriend, and never had, and it was just like women to want to find something men didn't take very seriously and perfect it, as if to show it was worth taking seriously.

He recalled that one of the two years he actually ventured to play Little League baseball, the best player on his team - Randy Gordon's Auto Sales - had been the lone girl and catcher, ten-year-old Audrey Pascoe, who could throw and hit and run and even pitch when called upon, which was rare, since Randy hadn't bothered to draft another player who even owned a catcher's mitt, much less a desire to strap on hot leg and chest protectors.

James, who at ten was already growing a little thick all over, stumbled a lot and couldn't throw well; he never played while a game was in doubt, and was stuck at third base whenever he did, because Rudy, Randy's son, manned shortstop and basically called every ground ball, regardless of its speed or infield location, that came within Rudy's sprinting distance.

"A gazelle!" was how Randy described his son, and it seemed to James that, indeed, Rudy enjoyed running after a ball - his fat, loud breaths sounding like a woman in labor - more than he did actually making a play once he reached it. Third base, thus, was a plum assignment for James, who simply deferred to the oncoming dervish yelling, "Hot shot's mine!"

"If you like to run so much, why don't you play outfield?" Audrey asked Rudy once.

"Cause my dad wants me in the show," Rudy said.

Rudy tried hard to impress Audrey, as would have James, who indulged his first crush, had he much to show off. Audrey was one of a handful of girls in the league; young girls' softball came late to James' small town, and Audrey didn't want to play when she would be eligible the following season. "I'm good enough right here," she said.

Audrey was long and lean, she smiled a lot, and she'd play catch with James if they were the first two to show for practice. In Audrey, James first noticed women, how their hips held them differently, the poses they struck when frustrated, their high laugh, their smell.

He endlessly watched her ritual when she came to bat. She flipped her black ponytail under her helmet, and leaned on an old, cheap bat in the on deck circle before she discarded it to take the bat of Mike Walsh, who batted leadoff. She swung downward and hard just outside the batter's box, four times, before she stepped in. Bat in hand, she ran her right palm up and down the handle, then settled on a grip. The bat slightly wavered, then froze as the pitch was delivered.

As the season wore on, young hurlers simply walked her. But at the beginning, opposing coaches urged their boys to "groove em on in" and watched as Audrey sent baseballs on low, mean arcs to left field where they inevitably bounded over or past the poor scrub consigned to that weedy pasture. Audrey ran as a human antithesis to Rudy - her feet made no sound, her body stayed cool and out of contortion - and when she hit her final bag, often third and sometimes home, she steadied her helmet and shot a grin to the bench. James was hooked.

They went to different grade schools, but the promise of being paired up with Audrey again the following summer caused James to beg his parents for another season on Randy's team.

"That's fine," James' father said. "But we don't intend to watch Rudy go after all the grounders this year."

At the opening season practice James arrived first, then watched the rest of team gather without Audrey's black car emerging through the park. Nobody even mentioned her until James asked.

Randy screwed up his face. "Softball league, little man. You wanna try your hand over there? Huh?" The other boys laughed, and James laughed, as if in on the joke. Randy enjoyed the sound of his own voice and spent the rest of preseason and the first two games saying "Huh? Huh? Huh?" every time he passed by James on the bench.

James later discovered Audrey had actually moved to the city after Thanksgiving. His motivation stolen, James kicked more dirt clods than he did shag fly balls for two weeks, and by the fourth game of the season he was ready to quit, and equally ready to do something right before he did. So when Randy sent him out to stand and look ready at third for the final inning and a lazy roller approached him, James ignored Rudy's "I've got it with the bare hand!" yell and charged the baseball, until it became clear Rudy wasn't going to stop sprinting.

So James charged Rudy.

It was the first time that James, faced with a situation that had silently angered him for some time, boiled over into blows.

James laid a shoulder into the smaller Rudy, who shot back two feet onto the dirt.

The crowd gasped, and Randy bolted out of the dugout in his custom leather sandals.

From the outfield, a chubby teammate named Chris Cotter yelled, "Whale on him, James!"

James only got a kick in before Randy swooped him up, but the kick landed square on Rudy's upper lip. Blood burst, Rudy screamed, and the runner, bewildered but ever mindful of his coach's dugout howls, had rounded the bases and scored an infield home run.

Five minutes later, after the teen umpire had made a big show of throwing James out of the game, Rudy's mom was pressing a wet rag on her son's lip while James was in his station wagon, winding its way through the park.

"I hope a year of allowance was worth that four-game charade," his father said.

James never considered sport again. His parents didn't encourage him.

He tried other activities in high school and discarded them. Yearbook was too full of chunky girls eager to buy friends by pasting them all over the book. Debate was too fast and complicated. As a sophomore James joined a club that planned fake trips to Mars, then quit when he realized he'd joined a club that planned fake trips to Mars, and each of the club's members weighed approximately the same as three astronauts.

Since then, a disturbing trend had begun to take hold in the Lumley house; whenever James showed ambivalence, whether for schoolwork or his busboy job at Country Kitchen, his parents punctuated their lectures with murmurs of Uncle Ray, the family misfit. The first time had been the day of James' fight with Rudy.

Ray was James' mother's brother, a drinker, a brawler, a gambler and a wife beater. He was smart enough, everyone said, and he had a good job as a construction foreman. But James could tell he was disturbed, all the way up to Ray's death when James was twelve. Ray had had a heart attack in the parking lot of a work site. He was going home because his stomach hurt.

Ray died broke; he occupied only a dim one-bedroom apartment near crackhouses in the city and a summer jalopy trailer at the lake. On a scale of depression, Ray's funeral had paled to that of James watching his grandparents clean out the empty apartment, hauling out the four boxes that carried Ray's entire wardrobe, consisting mostly of jeans, long underwear and tattered work jackets. The load was one box less than that of the half-empty bottles of vodka collected from all Ray's drinking spots. He had stashed one in the cupboard under the bathroom sink, and several more in the front living room. In the refrigerator was an unopened fifth, which James imagined Ray would have enjoyed had he ever made it out of that parking lot.

James had only strange memories of his uncle. He swung his putter like a sword when he made par. He took James to The Lady and The Tramp and laughed so unreasonably the theater staff asked them to leave. He stole tomato soup out of James' pantry when he visited. At a family reunion he accused James' parents of turning the clan against him and retaliated by plundering their station wagon in full view.

"I'm gonna steal this fuckin suitcase!" Ray screamed, although it was only James' swimsuit duffel bag he clutched. He crouched low before them, ready to receive challengers, like a grappler or a cartoon villain. The family stood horrified, so Ray ran past them to his Nova and squealed away. When James and his father went to the lake to retrieve the bag, it had been left on the trailer steps. Ray was on his sofa asleep, a plate of eggs balanced on his thigh, poised to fall the moment he shifted himself.

"Jack of all trades, king of none," James' father said at Ray's grave the Memorial Day after he died.

"No," James' mother said with a chuckle. "He could really sew. You've never seen anybody better."