First published in Sou’wester.
Included in the Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection, Silent Retreats.
Anthologized in Bottom of the Ninth: Literary Short Fiction About Baseball.
Phil Deaver is a natural storyteller, and that explains why a story like “Infield” can feel formless as you’re reading it. The narrator is casual, confessional, and precise, and you drift along with him as if eavesdropping. Then you hit that last sentence and suddenly everything snaps into place, and you realize you’ve just finished a cunningly crafted story. The first time I finished “Infield” I was at an outdoor cafe somewhere, and when I read that last line I actually, verbally, blurted out the words “son of a bitch!” As in, son of a bitch how did he do that? Many of the stories in Silent Retreats, like the oft-anthologized “Arcola Girls,” maintain this sort of formless form. They read like realistic dreams, until they’re over and you step back for a moment to see their curious and beautiful shape. I’m honored to be able to share a recently-touched-up-by-the-author version of “Infield” here with you. Just make sure no children are around when you get near the end. ~Ryan Rivas
I have a flash of Skidmore, playing first base, whose father played first base before him. He’s stretching to take my throw from shortstop, and the throw goes over his head, mainly because it’s thrown too high but also because he stretched out real fancy before he knew where the ball was going, then couldn’t get up to reach it, because it was high and not in need of one of his goddamned fancy first-baseman’s stretches. He was a form, rather than function, guy.
Baseball gets inside us, the old players. I still remember how it felt to snag a grounder. I remember the jerk in the shoulder from an overhand baseball throw, hard, from deep short and on the run, the rhythm of it, the whip of the arm crossing the body in the follow-through. These were great feelings. But there was pain in it too, for me anyway. Later I learned there’s pain in almost all good feelings.
“What kind of throw was that?” Skidmore’s making a scene, yelling at me to get the heat off himself.
The runner rounds first, tears for second. Skidmore’s standing next to the bag, his arms out. “Seriously, what kind of throw was that?”
The right fielder sees that Skidmore won’t be chasing the ball, gets it himself, and manages to stop the runner from scoring. Skidmore comes to the middle of the field, still looking at me. He’s fourteen. This is Pony League, and in those days we played in Levi’s and T-shirts colored to differentiate the teams.
“I need to know what kind of throw you think you’re making out here,” he says. “Jesus!”
I’m staring at him, standing at the far edge of the grass between second and third. The performance doesn’t require a response. Nor will it end soon.
“Let’s have it.”
The pitcher tells him to go back to his position. “I’m serious,” Skidmore says as the second baseman hauls him back to first base. “No, really. What kind of throw was that?”
He’s brilliant and can be very funny. His movements are gawky with a rough adolescence. For some reason I even liked him back then, but he had a terrible mean streak that used to rise up out of him like a second personality. In fact, it was a second personality.
In adult life, I’ve accused him of this in letters. I forget when, but it’s been just a couple of years ago he wrote me explaining that none of that in the old days was meanness at all. He said it was all irony and I just failed to catch it.
* * *
But it was Cliff Webb and Junior Guthrie who got me thinking about baseball, plus the fact that today was opening day for the Cubs up at Wrigley. Like Skidmore, Cliff was an old baseball pal of mine when we were all growing up in this town, and he and I ran into each other in a bar the night before, after all these years.
Then on this particular morning, hung over, I had decided to make a tour of our rental properties, to catalogue the repairs that were needed. My wife had been nagging me to get this done for two months—it was tax time. And, of course, on the day I finally got to it, because of Cliff, I had this headache, so I’d gone to the IGA to get some Extra Strength Anacin, even though it was too late (in order to avoid a hangover, you have to have the presence of mind to take aspirin and drink a really lot of water precisely at the time you have no presence of mind—one of many Zen perplexities).
Incredibly, on the way back to my car on my aspirin run I encountered Junior Guthrie, another old baseball crony, now with a big beer belly, meandering around out in the IGA parking lot wearing a yellow American Legion bowling shirt and a Chicago Cubs ball cap.
“Hey, pal, can you jump me?” he was saying. Something about the eyes, I could still spot the old Junior down in there somewhere. “Wha’d’ya say. I’m parked right over here.” He raised his arm and pointed so I could see how convenient his car was to mine.
I had a headache. I didn’t want to run into anybody or help anybody.
“Sure,” I said. “You have cables?”
He laughed. “Pal, you got a car like mine, you carry jumper cables.” He was herding me to his car, big gestures. “It’s just right over here, no problem, won’t take a second.”
The gravelly asphalt lot was depressing, especially in my condition. I drove around to his rusted-out tan-and-brown Cordoba, the vinyl roof fried off by the sun. By then Junior had the hood up. I popped mine, then let him hook us up while I chased aspirin with coffee from a thermos. I switched on the radio to see if I could catch some news. I think I stayed in the car for fear Junior would recognize me. Suddenly I noticed that there was a little raisin of a woman sitting behind the wheel of his car. She was staring at me. She had small, brown, nervous eyes like a squirrel. They were a car-starting team. He’d shout directions at her.
“Okay, crank her.” “Okay, shut her off.” “Okay, give her a try.” “Okay, stop pumpin’ her, lay off it.”
He was shouting through the crack that appears between the motor and the hood when the hood’s open. She huddled behind the wheel following directions.
Watching Junior was difficult for me. I remembered a bright-eyes eleven-year-old second baseman with big white teeth and light brown floppy hair spilling out from under his ball cap. I remembered his almost pony-like run and unending hubbah-hubbah chatter. The optimism of a child playing second base. I eyed him—this is what it had come to?
Finally he looked toward me and started giving me directions: “Okay, don’t rev her. Let her be. Needs to store it up a little minute.” I let it be. He enjoyed my obedience.
Then, too quickly, he said, “Okay, now rev her!” And then he said to the woman, “PUMP that son-of-a-bitch, Mama—that’s it. Okay, hit it!”
He had the distributor completely loosened and no air filter over the carb. When she would hit the starter to turn it over, he’d go halfway into the dying thing’s gaping mouth and wrench back and forth on the distributor like it was a whale’s wisdom tooth and he was the dentist. His feet were clear off the ground. He had a stub of a cigar all chewed and sweated on, which he would light between rounds.
He came over to my driver’s side window. “Ain’t gettin’ no good contact,” he said to me, “—yur battery’s one of them sidewinders, never can get no good contact. I’ll find somebody else, she’ll fire right up.”
Translated, this meant his car troubles were my fault.
“Get this goddamned thing goin’, I’ll take it to the junkyard, head back to Kentucky, get me another one. Got this one down there, cost me one-fifty. Put sixty thousand miles on her. Guy I play softball with—out at Cabot—he’s from Kentucky, told me about it. Lot of stolen cars down there, he says. Fast, he whirled and shouted into his own car. “Stop pumpin’ her so much, Mama, like I goddamned tol’ ya.”
“I wasn’t pumpin’ her!” the woman crackled back at him.
“What?” He hurried around to her window. “Wha’d’ya say?” She sank down in her seat like he was going to belt her. “You was pumpin’ her, honey. I know that much.”
Her face was real wrinkled, resembled the cracked vinyl of the Cordoba’s dashboard. She was dirty, desperate looking, bent down in that old seat like she was terrified, ashamed. For all I know I might have gone to school with her, too, but she was beyond recognition now.
He went back to the front of his car. “Okay, crank her up,” he says to her, and she tries to do just like he says, the motor making a terrible grinding noise. Never jump somebody when you’ve got a headache. It was clear to me his car would never start again.
“Goddamned starter’s the problem. Get this thing started, I’ll head over to the parts shop—there’s a parts shop around here somewhere—head over there and get me another starter. And some starter fluid. If she’s gonna start, she’ll start with starter fluid. NOW, Mama. HIT IT!! That’s it, PUMP the son of a bitch. Hold it, you’re floodin’ her. Damn. Flooded.”
He comes around to my window, bends down so our noses, or rather my nose and the end of his cigar, are eight inches apart. “That there’s my girl friend,” he says so she can’t hear. “She loves me—hard to figure, I know. You’d think my brother could buy me a car. I gave him a kidney and he ain’t rejected it yet. Doc says most of ‘em are rejected by now, but not mine. Never paid me nothin’, some brother.”
I got out of my running car and went up with him beside the front end. I watched him climb in and out of his motor.
“You did what?” I said. “You gave your brother a kidney?”
“Damn straight,” he says. He pulls up his dirty bowling shirt and there’s a scar. It starts just above the tip of his pelvis on the right, and heads northeast most of the way to the opposite shoulder. Half of an X, right up his body, pink and angry looking like my hernia scar, only two feet longer and crossing tender territory, the white and light-blue flabby sticking-out giant human frog abdomen. “Yeah, worked all his life and he never knew he had a bad heart, eighteen hours a day without givin’ it a thought.”
I was trying to remember Junior Guthrie’s brother. Couldn’t.
“Then they tell him his heart’s givin’ out and he gets all these bypasses, and then his kidney gives out ‘cause his heart gave out, and he gets a kidney from me, two hundred bucks a week on drugs to keep him from rejecting it—you know that new stuff they got? Well, my brother’s fadin’ fast after all this help he’s gettin’ from doctors, but they all own big houses and my the kidney’s cooking along independently like nothin’ ever happened, shit.”
Again he dives down into the motor, his feet kicking in the air. Over his shoulder, he yells above the grinding of the car, “Doc says if he dies they’ll get it back for me.”
His whole body is pivoting on his beer belly, which is pressed down over the fender into the area where the containers for windshield-wiper fluid and coolant used to be.
“Hit it, honey, that’s it,” he says to the woman, and wrenches the distributor for all it’s worth. And, incredibly, the car starts. He backs out so he’s standing up. “Yup, my brother’s in the garbage business and trucks is always breakin’ down. We got a couple of ‘em on their ass in the garage all the time, all spread out all over everywhere getting rebuilt. Don’t tell me about distributors, I tell ‘em, it’s just the timing’s off and the chain has to come around, and you gotta hit it just right. Good work, Mama,” he says.
I climb back in my car. He unhooks the cables and thanks me, latches down my hood with appreciated reverence for my car, and comes around to my window again.
“This is a fine automobile.” Big hand on the roof above my head, he’s bending down, squinting at me, smiling. He turns his head and spits a piece of his cigar. “I know you, right?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” I said. “You a Cub fan?”
“I see your cap—you gonna watch the Cubs this afternoon? First day of the season.”
“Nah. This here’s my brother’s hat. Forgot I’m wearing it. Whatever, anyway, the Cubs suck.” He laughed, looked over at K-Mart, then back to me. “You’re Carl Landen, am I right? Took me a while, because of the beard. Makes you look like a salesman. I’m Junior Guthrie, remember?”
“Junior,” I said. I went for a look of surprise, but who knows if it worked. “Good to see you.”
“Hey, honey, this here’s Carl Landen, guy I played ball with. His dad was that doctor that died, remember I told ya? Long time ago?” Smiling, he looked back at me. Then there was a little blank spot where neither of us could think of anything to say.
“Well,” I said finally, “you take care.”
“You knew it, didn’t you?” He was asking hopefully, as if trying in a friendly way to find out if he’d not changed so much after all.
As I backed out, I saw he had a ball glove in the back window of the car.
“I wasn’t sure, Junior. You know how that goes. You take care.”
* * *
The rest of the morning I toured the rentals, head hurting and kind of cranky except I was by myself so maybe also a little lonesome—I think I was lonesome for my boy. I wanted to talk baseball with him. He was at school, age eleven, sitting at a desk, bored and hungry.
I mooched three fingers worth of whiskey from the cleaning ladies at one of our places around noon. Under the sink I found a glass left by the last tenants and washed it with some cleaning ladies’ Spic and Span. They must have thought they had a pretty cool boss, to tip one with them out there on the job.
I planned this to be the house I hit around noon, because it was partially furnished, a few things from the previous tenants (their U-Haul must have been full) and the rest from inventory. It had a TV and the cable hadn’t been turned off yet so I could pick up WGN. There was a cot in the house, and a lamp—shiny black and shaped like the head of a horse, red lamp shade. I pulled the shades. Glass of whiskey. I was in business.
The headache hadn’t given out with the first hit of aspirin, so after I belted down the cleaning ladies’ whiskey and they were gone, I stretched out on the cot, the TV droning with a soap opera. I think I still had the headache, but I couldn’t feel it.
Lying out on that cot in our rental, I started thinking about my dad and baseball and Skidmore and all those kids I knew like Junior and Cliff who grew up, and all the things I learned. Now my own son was learning the same stuff.
* * *
From the upstairs window, the back bedroom, at my childhood home across town (my mom still lives there), I remember looking down into the yard one night. There wasn’t a moon; the light from the stars lit the yard only a little. Near the doghouse, on a long chain, was my springer spaniel, Tad. He was lying down, but his head was up, on guard. He was looking deep into the black shade of the lilacs. His chain would clink in the dark. He was guarding his very best pal, my father, who was stretched out on the picnic table nearby, watching the stars.
From my lighted room, through the window screen and down into the dark, I could barely see him. He didn’t move. I was listening to the Cardinal game on the radio—Harry Caray, Jack Buck, Joe Garagiola. Vinegar Bend Mizell was on the mound, high kicking lefty. Infield of Stan Musial, Don Blasingame, Alvin Dark, Eddie Kasko. Outfield, Wally Moon in left, maybe Curt Flood in center but for some reason I never can exactly remember, Joe Cunningham for sure in right. Behind the plate, Hal Smith. They were playing the Pirates, 1957. This was when I was eleven.
“Who’s winning?” Dad asked me. He could see me clearly.
“Cards. Cunningham stole home again.”
“Great.” His voice was barely audible.
His father had died that winter. He’d missed a last chance to see him alive in the previous fall. Dad had gone out on a quick trip to hunt pheasants and had neglected swinging through the old Nebraska hometown to see his folks. He was having a hard time with it.
“What’re you doing?”
“Looking at the stars. You start to see the dimensions after a while. Come here.”
I went out and sat next to him on the table. He pointed out a dim formation overhead that, if you looked away from it just a bit, you could see was really a kite-shaped cluster of seven stars.
“Pleiades,” he said. “Look real close and you can tell some of them are farther away than others. You can catch the depth of it. Go get the binoculars.”
I got them but we didn’t use them long. We just sat there talking. I knew what was on his mind.
“What was it Grandpa said, in the hospital?” I asked him.
He sighed. “He said, ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.’ Then he took a real deep breath and died.”
He was quiet a minute or so. “He was a good guy,” he said. “The bishop, out in Lincoln, he says they’re going to name Grandpa a Knight of St. Benedict. It’s a pretty big deal. The Pope has to do it.”
“You think Grandpa’s looking down on us right now?”
He was staring into the sky, breathing quietly. It wasn’t a question to answer, really, but just to think about. In those days the rural Illinois night sparkled deep and black.
Finally my dad muttered, “I wouldn’t know.”
* * *
That summer I saw my first professional baseball game, in the old Busch Stadium on Grand Avenue in St. Louis. My father, his good friend and partner Bob Swift, and I stayed in a nearby hotel called the Fairgrounds, and drove across town to the zoo that Sunday morning.
On the way, we went to mass in the St. Louis Cathedral, unfinished in a hundred years of work, scaffolding high in the vaulted ceiling where the man who made the mosaics labored day after day, the altar candles far below. As we drove around the city, I sat in the back seat, and up front Dad and Bob talked about patients, or investments, or other things that were too convoluted for me to pay attention to. So I sat quietly, staring out the window, absorbing the warm, sunny streets of St. Louis.
We ate lunch near the stadium, in a bar, sitting toward the back. Right now I can summon the smell of beer and primitive air conditioning, see the reflection of the front windows and the gleam of traffic off the dark linoleum, taste the ham sandwich eaten too fast, the anticipation of the ball park in less than an hour. I was going to get to actually see Stan Musial.
But when we came through the gates of old Sportsman’s Park, when we came up the walkway to find our seats, we popped into a strange, finished, green world like I’d never seen before, never even imagined. Every angle was planned, every hue was coordinated—baseball was urbane and civilized, not like the pasture-type game, dry and weedy and rough, that we played at home. The afternoon air was heating up. People who behaved randomly and at odds outside acted in concert at the ball park, standing together and cheering and laughing when Cards manager Freddie Hutchinson kicked the dirt or someone stumbled rounding first. The crowd had a rousing, a great, comforting, somehow knowing, collective voice.
Bob Swift had interned at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, and knew all there was to know about the Cardinals and their ball park. Hand on my shoulder, he pointed out, against the back screen, Harry Caray, in slicked-back hair and black-and-white checked pants, conducting the dugout show for radio, interviewing Larry Jackson, last night’s winning pitcher. The big batting cage loomed over the plate, and the venerable old catcher Walker Cooper, wad of tobacco in his jowl, stood at the side of it cracking line drives to the outfielders.
At home, I pictured the ballplayers as kids. At the ball park, I was startled by the dark shadow of beard on the face of Blasingame, “the Blazer” as he was called. He was littler than I thought. Moon’s eyebrows were astonishing, Kasko wore glasses, Cunningham was bald. They were all men. Musial was the age of my own father.
The first time I saw him at the plate, his unusual stance (often described on the radio) absorbed my attention. Perhaps I had pictured Babe Ruth or a drawing I had of Casey at the Bat, or the action photo I had of Ted Williams hitting the long ball with a big looping effortless stroke. In reality, Musial’s stance seemed soft, relaxed, almost like dance. The front foot was pointed forward, toward the pitcher, the rear foot back toward the catcher. The front knee bent inward, graceful, the bat was held too high and way too far back. The head was out over the plate and tilted a little. For me, at eleven, the batter’s stance told a lot—it was the posture one assumed for battle, the very definition of ready. Musial’s stance communicated artistry, individuality, himself. By then he was getting to be a grand old man of baseball, his late thirties. During the game, when he blasted a home run, the crack of the bat communicated immediately that the park would never hold it. The enormous swelling roar of the crowd conveyed respect. The ball bounced on the roof of the right field stands, at the base of the light tower. The scoreboard Budweiser eagle flapped its wings and a little red Cardinal made of neon darted around the stadium. The stroke itself had been a quick, level, easy movement, not a wild-ass swing like you’d get from Kaline, Mantle, Frank Robinson or the vicious Y-chromosome rip of Roberto Clemente who was also on the field that day. Not the tight, big-armed body turn of Yogi Berra. Somewhere along the base path Musial broke the cadence of a sprint and settled into the relaxed stride of the home-run hitter in his parade lap, the crowd standing, pleased, respectful, happy, wow.
“Wow, he tagged that one!” Bob Swift shouted as he took his seat again.
I noticed baseball was different without the interpretation of Harry Caray on the radio. You had to really watch. The game was happening at some distance away. On that day, we were far down the left-field line, almost to the outfield wall, nearly a block away from home plate. The crack of the bat arrived a moment after the swing, the ball already lofting high across the background of the white-, blue-, red-shirted crowd in the upper deck across the way. Or on grounders the third baseman might already have reacted to his right, the ball skipping into his glove, as the sound of the hit finally made it to us.
Vernon Law was on the mound for the Pirates that day. A tall straight man, kind of thin. Even sitting as far from the plate as we were, you could still hear the pop of his fastball in the catcher’s glove.
Once a ball came right down the left field line. Wally Moon fielded it on one bounce, then pegged it to second. I watched the movement. Rookie of the year three years before, who replaced the retired and venerable Enos Slaughter, he reached back and, in a thrilling overhand motion like the hammer of a pistol, laid the ball on the flat plane of green air. All I could compare the geometry and motion to was pool, the green carpet of perfectly groomed grass like a pool table, flat, the smooth, straight flight of the ball as though it were coasting not across the hot afternoon air but green felt, flat marble. Low and fast—the ball skipped like a bullet on the infield dirt, Blasingame taking it on the short hop right at the bag. The runner was safe, but the throw was big league.
My dad got up from the seat next to me in the third inning, asking if Bob or I wanted something, saying he’d be right back. Bob Swift stayed with me, one empty seat away. He’d lean over and fill me in on things—like the enormous black man selling beer, sweating in the Sunday heat, his voice full and shouting, for fifteen years an institution at Sportsmans’ Park.
I couldn’t get enough. I stared through the binoculars at the players and the crowd. My dad’s absence bothered me a little, but not terribly—sometimes I’d say something to him, forgetting he was gone. I stared until the heavy steel on my nose and against my eyes began to hurt, but I kept staring. The binoculars were powerful, and because I’d used them on the planets I could focus them as sharply as they could be focused. The creamy white, scarlet, blue, and yellow of those old Cardinal uniforms was dazzling against the green of the grass under brilliant sun.
As long as I live I’ll remember one strange thing that happened at that game. Using the binoculars, I followed a foul ball up and back into the crowd. The fans scrambled and laughed and spilled their Coke, and one old lady laughed at her friends, and the guy who got the ball turned and waved at Harry in the radio booth, knowing Harry would observe on the radio, “Nice catch by a fan down along the first base line!”
But suddenly, as I panned the crowd, something caught me, and I panned back to find it. There in my vision, though it took me a moment to realize it, was my own dad. Far away from me, he was standing in the shade of the concourse, leaning against a steel pillar, a beer in hand, watching the game alone from shadows.
* * *
I remember my father very well in those times, at my ballgames. He stood out by the railroad maple down beyond third base—the very field where my own son plays now. The Illinois Central had put out a plaque, inlaid in a sort of gravestone, commemorating the planting of the maple on Arbor Day 1905, and my father would invariably be sitting on this stone during the games, if he could be there at all. A few times he had the old 8-mm Brownie with him and would level it at me. I remember how I felt then, but I’ve recently seen the films again and the impression is inescapable. I was a lot littler than I thought I was. I’m glad I didn’t see them immediately after they were shot, or I would have finally had to admit there was no hope for me and baseball.
As I’ve said, I was playing short in those days. Later, in college, I played third. They don’t now, and really never did, expect a shortstop to be a hitter. I console my own son with this to no avail. There was only one thing a shortstop need be able to do, and that was cover the ground. His area in the big leagues is one hundred feet of real estate from behind second base all the way to the third base foul line (to back up third), and in addition he must be able to drop into shallow left for pop-ups and range into foul territory behind third, about where the IC maple was at our old Pony League diamond, to rein in foul balls the third baseman has no angle on. The shortstop makes this play somewhat facing the infield, somewhat set to throw. When the shortstop fields grounders to his right, he must glove the ball backhanded; then he must be able to plant his back foot and throw overhand to first, putting a vertical spin on the ball or else the throw will sail. When he fields to his left, behind second, he must turn back into himself, tricky footwork, then throw sidearm, quick and snappy like a second baseman, or with a long whipping action if he is throwing from farther out. In turning the double play, he must choose which side of the bag to work as he pivots, according to how the runner coming into second decides to try to take him out, and also according to how the ball arrives from the second baseman or the first baseman, whoever initiates the play.
In those Pony League days, just as in the days of American Legion, Skidmore played first because his father played first, and his father, Leonard Skidmore, was our coach. My father was a local doctor, and he played shortstop as a boy. He and Leonard Skidmore were good friends. Now my boy plays shortstop. So there you are. The infield has continuity through the ages.
* * *
Another memory: I’m standing across the street from the Catholic church, on the vast lawn of the Douglas County courthouse. Father O’Daniel is pacing his front sidewalk, reading his breviary. I sit against the old silver maple under which an earlier generation of kids in the neighborhood had fashioned a makeshift home plate. Unlike the IC maple, this tree was tall and old and many times broken by lightning meant for the steeple it sheltered. It was a workhorse, a government tree. Its limbs were white with the shit of starlings and pigeons. A bored ballplayer years before had chiseled “Honus Wagner was here” into the trunk. Later someone in a generation with less time and less art had lightly and artlessly knifed “Honus Wagner sucks”—the wood and bark of the old thing took it all in and displayed it.
“How’s sixth grade?” Father O’Daniel shouts over to me after a while. “It’s going okay?”
He’s the one I confess self-abuse to every Saturday afternoon. No telling what all those other people are confessing to him, who stand silently with me in the confession line along the back wall of the church. There was a show on Ford Theatre one night of a priest who had had a murder confessed to him, then couldn’t help the police because of the confidentiality code of the confessional.
Father O’Daniel had been in a car accident several months before, hurrying back to town to do a wedding after playing golf too long, and for what seemed like an endless number of spring Sundays he said mass on crutches, the altar boys, mostly eighth graders, helping him to the pulpit where he stormed after the parishioners to get them to contribute more, more for the new Catholic school he dreamed of.
I served mass on weekdays that summer. I walked to his house on those early mornings, and together we’d walk across to the church, not saying much, and in the sacristy dress for the celebration. He muttered to himself in Latin, kissed the stole before putting it on. The wood floor creaked. I rinsed and filled the cruets with water and wine. Then he rang a little bell, and we walked onto the altar, me first. Two little ladies and a farmer, the morning’s congregation, rose to their feet. And the tone-deaf lady who provided the music let it rip from the balcony.
Now, on the front sidewalk, he paced too quickly, trying to heal the leg and say his office at the same time. Two birds, one stone. Like Jackie Gleason, a little traveling music. Sometimes he turned and went down the narrow white sidewalk between the church and the rectory. He’d been the local parish priest for thirty years.
“Want me to pop you a few?” he said just when I was afraid he wasn’t in the mood.
“Yes, Father. If you have time.”
He came across Van Allen Street, book in hand. “Did you bring the 33?”
“Yes, Father. The 30’s cracked anyway.” Father O’Daniel liked my Larry Doby 30 inch, but he liked my Duke Snider 33 even more.
He put his breviary on the courthouse pedestal, above a bronze frieze of a scene from the Civil War, Columbia leading the wounded Union soldiers to safety. He was raised in Ireland and didn’t play baseball as a boy. But he was a talented golfer and therefore could hit rain-making fly balls. I remember how the ball became a tiny speck against the blue sky, and the thrilling speed it would gather in its fall, and the occasional tricks of the warm and humid wind. Major league infield pop-ups.
Father O’Daniel raved and raved at how I could range under those flies and haul them in. The courthouse lawn was dotted with trees, several smaller ones, of course the Honus Wagner silver maple, and one very tall cottonwood. I learned to catch a fly ball even when it nicked a few leaves, or thocked off a solid limb and went a strange direction. I would chase it, dive for it. The ground was soft loam, sweet-smelling. The satisfaction of catching the ball before it hit the ground has stayed with me my whole life. Sometimes my boy will let one drop right in front of him. He does it to drive me crazy, but still I don’t see how he can stand it.
Actually, though I never told Father O’Daniel, the 33 was too big for me. I bought it at Western Auto one afternoon, for him to use.
“How’s your mom?”
“Great,” I said.
“How’s your dad?” he asked me. He was my dad and mom’s friend. He probably knew them better than I did. I often wonder.
“I don’t know how he is,” I said. “I don’t see him much.”
* * *
The pain I had in my arm in my baseball years was a dull ache, inside and just above the elbow. It wasn’t the slack disconnected feeling when the rotator cuff goes. That’s the shoulder, the beginning-of-the-end pain the veteran ballplayer dreads. This arm pain I had came, I’m sure, from the action of throwing a hardball, which God did not design an arm, and particularly an elbow, to do. It especially hurt on those cold blue evenings of spring when the team was out there getting ready for the season but the season hadn’t begun yet because it was too cold to play baseball. Many nights I couldn’t sleep because of my arm, and I worried that it was the beginning-of-the-end pain and kept it a secret so no one would know. Baseball was everything to me then.
I was playing with other pains, too. Pony League was the first level of youth baseball in which steel spikes were worn, and at shortstop you’d get spiked covering second on double-plays. I had been stitched in one knee for what seemed like the better part of that particular summer. I’d chased a fly ball down the third-base line, chased it beyond foul territory out onto the access road—there was no fence then—I could not let this ball fall to the ground—and ran full speed head-on into two girls who were riding by on their bikes. We all went down in a heap, and the ball landed among us. Thus, it was an inane but somehow heroic wound, and after putting the stitches in, my dad went on with work and summer, apparently forgetting they were there. Every move I made that summer, it seemed, tore the stitches.
In those days, too, we had the usual strawberries on our butts and legs from sliding on the hard sandy base paths. The worst place to slide in back-country (that is, not professional) baseball was home, because invariably the dirt had eroded from around the plate, which had dried out and gotten brittle and extracted its pound of flesh as you sliced over it in your desperate desire to score. Invariably the dirt of the back-country baseball infield was either gritty and sandy or like cracked concrete, bad bad bad for sliding.
Another common wound was a swollen mouth, from bad bounces. If the infielder was getting swollen ears instead, he got benched. He wasn’t watching the ball. I tell my son, watch the ball.
* * *
In one of those baseball summers, I came to understand my father was an alcoholic, and so, back then, there was also an oppressive pain of the spirit that seemed to invade everything. The films he took of me playing ball tended to hop a little sometimes, and the focus was often dubious. Many young men, I know now, will recall the same experience—miserable and humiliating. Your father would stand beneath the IC maple down by third, and he would embarrass you with distracting, weak, complaining taunts, some of which would bring laughter from the other parents in the crowd. The time came when I dreaded him showing up.
In my sophomore year in high school, after six years of handling all this the best I could, the culminating thing of my childhood happened. He had come to one of my games, as usual not falling-down drunk but well on his way—flushed and belligerent and loud. That night I got home before he did after the game. I waited for him in the garage. I sat around, on the lawnmower, on a pile of drying logs, in a swing in the backyard, eventually on the back bumper of Mom’s car. Waiting. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I’d decided I wasn’t going to take any more of this shit from him.
Finally, just at dusk, his car headlights swept up the driveway. Instinctively, I retreated. I jumped for a crossbeam and swung up into the dark upper reaches of the garage where we stored scrap lumber and extra shingles.
He pulled in right under me. I noticed, watching him from above as he climbed out of the car, how alone and tired he seemed. He pulled a box from the back seat and hid it carefully under logs at the back of the garage. Then he straightened himself, straightened his shirt, and shuffled in his leather soles out into the evening light and across the gravel to the house.
It was a cache of Old Fitzgerald that he’d hidden. I got my .22 from the basement and I set the box on the hood of his car and, with ten loud shots at very close range, I reduced it to sweet-smelling glassy rubble and put a couple of rounds through the windshield for good measure.
On the stairs in the house later that night, he caught me going down, him coming up. He’d slipped out there for a nightcap and made the discovery. “Watch yourself, Junior,” he said to me. He had a hold of my shirt. “I’m not perfect. I never said I was.” He didn’t seem like my father as he said this. I looked right in his eyes and got a terrible feeling. He was giving me a warning from the underworld, one bad boy to another.
* * *
Memory: The sun is going down. Irv, an older man, holds an old 34-inch Nelly Fox thick-handled bat, the handle wrapped with friction tape. Irv is wearing bib overalls, black workboots he scuttles through the dust in. I’m sitting on the bleachers, ball glove next to me. Home from college, 1966. Irv shouts at his boy, who is out in left waiting for the ball. “Keep it low,” he says. “Just ‘cause the guy hits you a high one doesn’t mean you throw a damned pop-fly back in.” He spits. He gestures low. “Think of it,” he says. “Shortest distance between two things.”
Now he lifts the bat to his shoulder. It has gotten four shades of darkness darker since the lowness lecture began. He smacks a hard line drive, left center. The boy comes across, takes it on the bounce, and fires it to the plate—you hear him grunt. He’s six or seven years younger than me, maybe a freshman in high school. The ball hisses as it flies, skips once and slams against the green boards of the backstop behind the plate.
“Hell of a throw, son.” Irv smiles, the bat down again at his side, staring out toward the outfield. “That was a great throw.”
I applaud. I want into the action. Like all people in this town, when Irv looks at me it’s with the searching-through-time look—can he find a face in my face that’s a face he knows?
“Wanna shag a few?” he says.
“I’ll take the cut-off,” I tell him, and his son backs up to the fence as I trot out to shortstop. Left fielders need to hit the cut-off man.
Now, after a number of years away, I’m standing on the Pony League field I played on, about eighty yards from the Little League field where I learned. A thousand evenings like this come to mind. I remember this diamond when it had no grass, was solid dirt, and the wind would always kick it up into your eyes. And I remember, with a lot of pain, the railroad maple where Dad would stand to watch my ballgames, and the commemorative stone beneath its now embracing shade.
From there he’d point the old Brownie movie camera at me. In our home movies, blanching out with age, the leaves of this old tree when it was years younger wave in the foreground. “Gives it depth,” the photographer would tell us from the dark on projection night.
There had been old white outhouses on the far end of the park, and I remember sitting in there on a one-holer looking at the splayed obstetrical graffiti and not knowing what I was looking at or if the drawing was for some reason upside down. The word fuck was frequently carved with pocketknives in the pine of the outhouses. Successive paint-jobs had miserably failed to cover over generations and tides of fuck going back who knew how far. I looked around from my position to see if the outhouses were still out there. They weren’t.
“You’re Landen’s boy,” Irv says to me, points at me with the bat. He found my face. “Aren’t ya?”
“We were real sorry,” he says. He cracks a line drive to his son, down the left-field line.
I move over to the line and out, until I’m between third and Irv’s son and have both hands in the air for the cut-off. The boy sends the ball way over my head, all the way to the plate. Before it gets there, his dad is yelling. “What are you doing? Everybody’s running! You can’t throw people out from there! Hit the shortstop! Hit him! His dad brought you into this world!”
That kid, Irv’s son, later married a girl named Missy Stowe.
* * *
In college, 1966, two years after my father was killed in a car wreck, Skidmore and I had a major falling-out. It was simple why. At a party which I did not attend, he’d quietly passed along to those who were attending that my father had had, in earlier days, an affair with some woman in town. I never knew the source of this rumor, but always suspected Skidmore’s dad was somehow at the root of it.
The next morning I was in bed when my mom yelled that I had a phone call.
“Hi, it’s me.” It was a girl named Kitty whom I’d sometimes dated.
“Last night,” she said, “your pal Skidmore said something I think you ought to know about. He said your dad had an affair a few years ago, with the lady Mrs. Stowe, at the hospital.”
I sat there. Something like that had never occurred to me. In fact, it took me a laughable ten seconds to imagine what Kitty meant by the word “affair.” Then my initial reaction was that this was another vicious thing Skidmore dreamed up to say, being mean in a lot of ways. But then I realized something about him—that his meanness was rarely in outright lies, more often in brutally administering the truth.
“He said there might even have been a child,” Kitty said.
I knew Mrs. Stowe’s youngest daughter, who was then about nine. By subtraction, we came to the summer of 1957. I recalled seeing him through the binoculars, standing alone in the shadows, my first trip to old Busch Stadium.
* * *
I could tell you a great story about Leonard Skidmore, my old coach. He was a first baseman way back when, but when the war came, World War II, and he was drafted, he went to Europe and you might think in the middle of war he forgot baseball. It happened that he was in the Battle of the Bulge, and so was Warren Spahn. In the evenings Leonard would scout out a catcher’s mitt and let Spahnie throw him a few. Spahn was already well known, famous even. His return from his duty fighting the war was anxiously awaited by Johnny Sain and the Boston Braves. To hear him tell it, Leonard had to get a slab of ham from the mess officer to put inside the mitt, to take out a little of the big league sting. Anyway, there they were, my friend Skidmore’s dad and Warren Spahn, playing catch at the Battle of the Bulge.
* * *
Cliff Webb, who provided me with my Opening Day hangover, was three years older than me, and it turned out that he had mostly played catcher later on. He had always seemed easy-going, but now, in middle age, he had very oily skin and nervous, worried eyes. He’d sat down next to me at the bar (I’d been there a while), recognized me past the beard in just a few seconds, and, even though we hadn’t seen each other in twenty years, a minute didn’t pass before he embarked on a long joke about tits and the Pope.
I had heard that he had a reputation for being tough on wives—in fact, had been in jail for beating up one of them. Which was a lot like his father, who’d been in jail for something right during the time Cliff and I’d been playing ball together. I assumed the scars on his face were where his women raked him as they were going down for the count.
“I remember your dad,” he said to me. “Yelling at you to hit behind the runner. Hell, at the time I didn’t even know what he meant. He’d yell, ‘Okay, touch any base, touch any base!’” Cliff was laughing. “There we were, twelve or whatever. Your dad, he must have known a lot about baseball.”
“The game got inside him early. Like us.” I told Cliff that one night, after going to a game between the Cardinals and the Giants, how Dad and I had wandered into the coffee shop at the hotel (it was where the Giants were staying) and Dad ended up sitting at the counter talking baseball with Harvey Kuenn. “Remember Harvey?”
“Managed the Brewers in ’82, right? Against St. Louis in fact, and the Cardinals won.”
“Yikes, Cliffy! That’s good!” Cliff knew his baseball. “Back then though, Harvey was playing third for the Giants. ’62. Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis. By that time they were even letting Willie McCovey swim in the hotel pool.”
Cliff looked toward the mirror behind the bar. “Well, he was something, your dad. I’ll bet everyone on our team remembers how he yelled for you.”
“At me, more like it.” I laughed but a couple of memories hit me that weren’t so funny.
“Whatever happened to that asshole Skidmore?”
I always wonder how people weather time in other people’s minds.
“Lives in Nebraska, I think. Somewhere out there. He’s an attorney.”
“Oh boy, that’s about what I’d expect. He go to Vietnam, do you know?”
I could see stuff well up in Cliff. He needed to talk about Vietnam, so we did, getting plowed on beer which he was buying for us by the pitcher. I was turned on my stool and had a good view of the whole bar. In fact, I was deep in eye games with a woman sitting at a corner table way off behind Cliff. She was my age, maybe younger, but hard—maybe older, who could tell in the dark?
He was talking about Vietnam, but now he sold for State Farm and a lot of that kind of language invaded his speech and bored me. After he told me about the war, he briefly skirted his marriages, then hit upon the topic of an old fishing rod he loved. Once in a while I’d glance over his right shoulder at the woman in the corner. She seemed shy in a way, looking down. But then she’d be looking my way the next time I looked hers. A couple of times we held the gaze a moment before one or the other of us looked away. He was repeating himself—I’d missed something in the conversation. He seemed to reach for my arm to regain my attention: “Hey, you ever play softball?”
“Pretty good shape. Ought to.”
The woman in the corner, her hair was dark brown, held back with a ribbon and flower.
“Wish I did,” I said.
Vietnam found its way back into the conversation. Cliff had been a marine and had a very rough time. Fifteen years had passed, and it still wasn’t settled inside of him. It wouldn’t have been settled in me either. He said he’d like to go back. He said it was where he knew himself best. I was thinking it was where he left himself.
The woman in the corner half smiled at me once. She seemed to be alone, although in a little town like this it was in bad taste for a woman to show up at a bar alone.
Cliff was talking about Hill 881, and how he’d watched from a hilltop as NVA tanks ran over a number of little villages on the way to the siege of Khe San. Once the woman seemed almost to toast me with her beer—she raised it, nodded my way. Suddenly Cliff lost the sort of flat drone and raised his voice. “Hey. Now look. You gonna listen to me or you gonna play games with her?” I looked at him. I was disoriented, because I’d just been deep in a little game with her. He was looking right at me, his eyes watering. There was a question on the floor. He swiveled on his bar stool, looked at her, then back at me. “Really. Forget it. I’m supposed to meet some people anyway.” He polished off the last of his beer and was getting up to leave.
“Sorry, Cliff, I really am.”
“Yeah, well, it’s fucking annoying.”
He’d gotten my apology but he was angry and seemed to want more. “I hate talkin’ to somebody, their eyes climbing the wall.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“I mean, you gonna talk to me, or you gonna watch her,” he said, his face red in its many creases.
“Well, since you ask, Cliff,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder, “I’m gonna do both.” I poured us more beer from the pitcher. “I’m not perfect. I never said I was.”
The woman in the bar, she wasn’t Missy Stowe, who is probably my half sister. The town isn’t that small.
* * *
I know the people in this town too well. I really ought to move away. When I go to my boy’s ballgames, I frankly can’t stand to watch the game from the bleachers, among old classmates who now work at the post office and the plant, among Dad’s old patients who will take the time to tell me about an ailment or ask me something I don’t know the answer to about how things have turned out since he died. And I don’t know what his last words were—car wrecks can kill you without last words. I don’t know if he’s up there looking down. I don’t know what to say to people, so I dodge them the way Dad did. I take the video camera and find that great shade down beyond third base under the IC maple, where the angle on the infield is good for picture-taking and a fellow can have a drink if he needs one.
Photo credit: gfairchild / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)