I watched him learn to feel safe in his mother’s arms, to simply be, feeling part of her.
He took that safety for granted, slowly, surrounded by silence, forgetting her momentarily and watching things separate—snow piled on the windowsill, red pillow on the tan couch—before remembering her, remembering he was in her arms.
He learned that his body worked in conjunction with his mind—he was someone inside a body, did not simply live in the window of his mind—watching his fingers float before his face. Pulling on his toes, delighted. Knocking over a bottle, surprised.
His mother never forced her breast to his mouth, letting him find it, letting taste and sight and smell register as if he’d created these so that, in time, he’d come to trust that what he wanted would appear. And since this would always be so, he learned to hope.
He wanted to walk like we walked. He pulled himself up against the coffee table, balancing, then falling and trying again.
He swallowed a peach pit while we watched a baseball game. He ran around the room, gasping for air. Frantic, feeling outside myself, I lifted him up and laid him over the back of the couch, then repeatedly popped the small of his back with my palm until the seed shot out.
His mother slept with a colleague of mine, which was the result of something I’d learned from my father, that it’s easier to ignore a problem than confront it. I spent the years before his mother’s departure, and the years after, trying to teach him otherwise, hoping he’d learn from what I said and not what I did.
I taught Church History at the University of Michigan. When I saw the man who’d slept with my wife, I looked away.
He copied his mother’s laugh, which was like a radio dial searching for a station, coming out in short pieces before filling the room.
He emulated my distaste for Ohio State and my love for Michigan football and Tiger baseball. A decade later, in 1984, we would leap from the couch as the double-play combination of Allan Trammell and Lou Whitaker led them to the World Series.
His mother and I fought, her screaming, Please do something, anything while I turned away, words packed behind my teeth.
In the morning, I read box scores while she spread jelly on her toast like she was spackling a wall.
Months later, at the same table—the sun dropping behind the window—he learned we were getting a divorce. His mother and I were sleeping in separate rooms by then, our marriage a boxer’s arms in the last round. He stayed with me weekdays while his mother studied the law. Weekends, he visited her.
Her accusations resonated for months—I was a coward unworthy of her love, my passivity beyond forgiveness—as snow covered Ann Arbor. Only grace softened her words, covered me like a quilt, so I reminded myself of it, praying daily and reading the Bible.
He was four when his mother moved out, and I taught him to talk to God. She’d insisted that God never helped us any, but God was there and she was gone, so we knelt before the couch, his elbows on the cushion, and I taught him to be still, to let that stillness surround him, to imagine he was in the lap of God.
Unlike my colleagues, I never could stomach rejection letters. Papers on the Nicene Creed and Constantine were filed away. A book on Josh Gibson as the Christ figure of the Negro Baseball League went unfinished. The man who slept with my wife chaired a committee that did not offer me tenure.
I found a job in Austin. His mother moved to San Diego, perhaps hoping that her life, like the weather, might improve.
Come first grade he made new friends. I joined the Y. Swam back and forth across the pool and learned to play handball.
It was 1979, and women in Texas took offense to me—or any man—being a homeroom mother, and tried to hold meetings without me. I learned about these meetings from his teacher, Mrs. Paul. I’d show up as if I’d been informed, my suit and tie out of place amidst the quilted skirts and scarves around women’s necks.
Mrs. Paul was short and black. She braided green and purple beads into her hair. She taught my son to read and taught me how wrong I could be when, on the first day of school, I thought, I wish he had a white teacher. This thought tangled me in shame. No one wants to learn they’re racist, but more people should.
He learned to say I’d like when ordering food, because I find it rude when people say I want.
At Sunday School he memorized Bible verses: Psalm 23 and Mathew 6:33 and Mark 4:39. During the service, he chewed the bread and swallowed the wine, though it would be years before he understood these as body, as blood.
We went to the pound—puppies yelping for homes, climbing over each other along the fence, older dogs lying quiet on the floor—and he picked out a white puppy with black spots. The spots, I swear they were shaped like people. He named the puppy Trammell, after the Tigers shortstop. Trammell the shortstop hit 185 homeruns and won four gold gloves. Trammell the puppy devoured shoes, a stuffed rabbit, and Volume Two of John Calvin’s Institutes, which must’ve been predestined.
I learned that though your son promises to feed his dog every day, you’re the one who fills the bowl and walks the dog and picks up all the crap from the backyard.
Nights my son wasn’t home, Trammell, who grew to fifty pounds, would whine at my son’s door and sleep in his unmade bed. Pages turned slowly. The television moaned. My son stayed the night with friends, weekends with grandparents, and summers with his mother in San Diego.
He learned to lose in T-ball, but he never learned to like it, much less swallow it.
In fifth grade, he learned to play the clarinet because a girl named Anna played. He practiced every day, learned to read sheet music, running up and down the scales and songs. He learned heartache when Anna went out with Mike McCleskey. After that, he quit the clarinet.
I didn’t know Mike, but I learned how it felt to hate a child for hurting your own.
He got cut from the City basketball team, taller boys blocking his shot and rebounding over him. He hit the couch—face red, Trammel’s giant tongue lapping his tears—and said, I hate you for being short. In that moment, I hated me for that too.
With a pencil, I outlined my hand on a piece of plywood, then used an electric saw to cut a wooden glove. I stapled bands of elastic to the back so he could slip in his hand, then hit him grounders so he’d learn to field the ball with two hands, his free hand trapping the ball against the wooden glove, allowing for a quicker throw to first.
Things he learned not to do because they made me angry: spend his allowance when he owed money to a friend, cheat on tests, talk back, interrupt anyone, pout, lie, say you said, fail to say please or thank you, do anything outside the consideration of others.
I drilled a hole through a baseball and lassoed a rope through the hole. With him in a batting stance ten feet away, I swung the rope in circles, and he practiced shifting his weight and uncurling his hips, keeping his head still as he swung through the ball—all things I’d learned from my father, begrudgingly, as the man yelled. I did not yell. Though, when my son turned his head and missed the ball, again and again, I soon saw why my father had. When he followed my instruction, the ball shot away from me before the rope caught, the ball freezing in air, then falling to the ground, where I would pull it back and start again.
He learned the efficaciousness of repetition during a game when his hips uncurled and his arms extended and he roped a line drive into centerfield.
Despite his desire to be Allan Trammell, he didn’t have the arm to play shortstop, his throw often bouncing a foot before the base. When he was twelve, he moved to second.
I hoped he’d come to God on his own, so I didn’t make him go to church with me unless he wanted, delighted when he did, disillusioned when he didn’t.
He seldom swung at the first pitch, and, at the end of a game, he watched a 1-2 deuce fall across the plate with runners on second and third. So, he learned to choke up on the bat, to protect the plate with two strikes. It would be three years and thousands of pitches before he could identify a curveball as it left the pitcher’s hand.
Once he learned what cool was, and that parents weren’t, he distanced himself from me in any way he could: shuffling his feet like Steven Holloway, parting his hair on the left like Kevin Dysart, wearing Izods like every kid in school, and saying ya’ll like every kid in Texas. At least the majority of those kids said sir and ma’am, and he copied that, too.
Like most teenagers, he lied. Instinctively. About where he was going. About what he had done. About whom he had done it with and why and for how long.
A sophomore, playing varsity, he learned from older players about drinking beer and dipping Copenhagen and skipping class and doing all three at once.
Confronted, he’d shrug and leave the room. He dealt with problems the way I did.
He climbed out of his window at night and put pillows under the covers so Trammell wouldn’t cry. He rolled the car down the hill, away from the curb in front of our house, and, hours later, coasted it back into place. Then, one night, the space in front of our house was taken. He swore he hadn’t moved the car, and learned I wouldn’t swallow every lie, even those I wanted to.
Grounded, he threatened to move to San Diego. He climbed out the window again. I felt the devastation of my son choosing his friends over me, their values over mine.
He and his friends ritualized the hatred of their parents: betting horses at the track, drinking beer beneath the highway, getting stoned at school. Any occasion was suitable. None, by then, knew they were just poor imitations of the very adults they resented.
I learned not to start conversations with him—about Tiger box scores in the morning, about how he hit after practice, about girls ever. He sat like a stuffed animal, and talking to him made him talk to me less. So, I kept quiet and let him start, which broke my heart. He’d been my main conversationalist for ten years.
I dated, sure: a glass of wine with a new professor from Memphis, a walk down Sixth Street, a production of I’m not Rappaport—but it was like sewing an old patch to new clothes.
A junior, he learned that a freshman, Xavier, transferred three city buses home after practice, so my son began dropping him off at his house in a part of town I wasn’t thrilled about, though I was thrilled at the gesture—it meant he’d learned something from me after all.
We arrived early one Saturday to pick up Xavier for a scrimmage, and he climbed out of a basement window, just inches above the ground. Taller than both of us, his muscles naturally defined, Xavier approached the car with his head down, opened the door, and immediately began going over signs with my son—squeeze, hit and run, infield shift. After the scrimmage, Xavier admitted he lived alone.
I didn’t know if my son would learn what kindness really was unless I did something for Xavier. The next week, Xavier moved in with us.
My son learned what it was like to have a brother: to share a room, to lose his space, to argue about what was on TV, to argue about what was on the radio, to be jealous of Trammell’s affection, of my affection. To help someone with their homework, to help someone with their home.
He learned from me that it’s okay to be alone. I never remarried. I told him you were never alone with God, though this was hard for him, a thing to learn to feel and not to see.
He learned things from Xavier, too, things I never could have taught him: what it was like to have people stare at you walking into a restaurant, that not everyone’s treated the same, that the police will pull over a black kid on a nice bike. And I think he learned what it was like to have more, because he quit resenting me as much.
Xavier was fragile, any critical word a violent blow—about algebra, about his batting stance, about his turn doing dishes. I didn’t mean to say he needed fixing. I didn’t mean to say he needed help. Of course, these are the things he heard.
So, I learned to ask Xavier to do things differently, to tell him I was trying to get my son to be responsible, that any example Xavier could set would help. You can only pitch what you catch.
One night, late, I walked by the living room and saw my son kneeling in front of the couch, his stomach against the cushion. The light was off. A box of tissue sat on the windowsill. Branches brushed against the glass.
While other players seemed at the mercy of space, Xavier’s athletic ability—which was not learned, but inherent—swallowed space. He covered ground quickly and gracefully in the infield. From deep in the hole between second and third, his throws were frozen ropes across the diamond. He stole bases with ease. Balls leapt from his bat and over fences.
Xavier had never learned the world contained all he needed, because, for him, it never had. He charged ground balls while my son waited for them. He walked to the store when we were out of milk while my son waited for me to buy more. He obsessed about what college to attend and how this might be financed while my son assumed such things took care of themselves.
Xavier was benched when he let two groundballs roll between his legs, as he had a habit of fielding the ball with one hand. Driving home, he was indignant. He’d done nothing wrong. The coach was out to get him. My son said nothing, but retrieved the wooden glove and hit Xavier groundball after groundball, the ball sometimes bouncing off the glove, cracking it, until Xavier learned to trap the ball against the wood, to guide it in with his right hand as instinctively as he manipulated space.
They studied for the SAT. One held up a flashcard with a vocabulary word and dropped it, the other firing off the definition before the card could hit the ground. They penciled in ovals on consecutive Saturdays that fall. A sophomore, Xavier struggled with the math but scored high enough to be college eligible. He promised to beat my son’s score by senior year. My son told him, You better.
In winter, before the next season, I stood at home plate and hit them grounders, Xavier at short, my son at second. They fielded the grounders with bare hands, reaching out, the ball skipping across the dirt, bringing it toward them with both hands as if it were an egg, then tossing it to the other who would throw to an imaginary first baseman. Trammell, older and tired, lounged at third base, some of his black spots turned grey.
Walking home—the bat on my shoulder, Trammell trailing behind—their hands were dirty and bruised. During the season, together, they were a net in the middle of the infield where groundballs came to rest. They turned double plays quickly, perfectly, knowing, without looking, where the other was.
I learned how Xavier felt about us when, during a game, a player veered out of the baseline and took out my son with a high elbow and late slide. Before my son was up, Xavier tackled the player and punched him twice before the pitcher and third baseman pulled him off. And, though there was so much wrong with what he’d done, the one right thing choked me up, and I was glad everyone was watching the field.
Xavier was suspended for one game. When my son fielded a groundball and backhanded it to second without looking, the shortstop wasn’t there and the ball rolled into the outfield; it sat a moment, resting in the grass, until the centerfielder snatched it on the run, stutter-stepped, and threw home.
My son hit .334, stole fifteen bases, and could drop a bunt two feet from the plate. He accepted a partial scholarship to Hardin-Simmons, a Division III college in Abilene; when he told us, when he announced his departure at summer’s end, Xavier’s excitement was manic and misplaced. His voice cracked. He quickly left the room.
I empathized with Xavier. Proud and excited for my son, I was also terrified that I could no longer protect him. He no longer needed me. Soon, he’d be learning from smarter professors and better coaches and cooler kids—how could Xavier and I compete?
That night, I took to the couch we’d prayed on with a scotch and Pascal’s Pensées. Xavier wandered in. He picked up the remote. So, he said, tossing the remote in the air and catching it, when do I need to move out? He had yet to learn he was part of the family.
I bought my son a used Volkswagen Rabbit. He backed the car into the driveway, popped the hatchback, then, he and Xavier carried out my son’s life in boxes. The day was solemn, sunny. The beginnings of goodbyes struggled through humidity. A sprinkler circled the yard next door, darkening the sidewalk with each revolution.
They embraced, Xavier and my son, Xavier a head taller, my son’s fists clenched against Xavier’s back. They were brothers, now, they were one, and would have to learn again to become two. To live—together and apart.
Xavier and I watched the car pull from the driveway, a pair of dirty cleats pushed against the back window. Trammell, sitting at my feet, barked twice, then dropped to his stomach. My son drove down the street, hand out the window, waving the way I’d taught him, fingers splayed like points of light spilling from a Texas sun.