Death of a Cubs Fan
There is a cardboard box at my feet crammed with my inheritance. At the bottom are the immigration papers, the first ones from Canada and the last ones from New York. Then the first-edition Zane Greys. Then one of my mother's old jewelry boxes stuffed with my father's little tokens, like his wedding ring, and the yarmulke that Baba sewed in Odessa. And finally the rifle, leaning against one corner of the box, its firing pin long removed. My father's rifle: the walnut stock and black-metal barrel still look like a piece of my childhood bed frame.
All day I dragged the box from room to room of my parents' house. Now it lies at my feet like a loyal dog.
We're sitting in the living room. My mother is beside me on the couch. My cousins, also in their forties now, straddle dining room chairs carried in from the other room. The rabbi sits on a velvet-upholstered ottoman in the middle with his legs crossed at his knees. There is a notebook on his lap. He is gathering information for the eulogy while my cousins take turns one-upping each other with bad jokes.
The rabbi has a face like open arms, practiced in sad smiles. He wears a sweater a size too small. His corduroys recede halfway up his shins but his white socks are pulled up higher. He nods at the jokes, takes notes and finally says, "And you, Mrs. Mayor. I'm sure you have all the good stories."
My mother was born for this. She's the perfect mourner. She matches the rabbi's crossed legs and stacks her hands on her knees as she speaks. She says a lot of sweet things about my father that would have sounded forced when he was alive. Her arranged marriage is adapted to a romantic comedy. Her husband's crude humor is repackaged as wit. Now he was thoughtful, not moody, and stoic rather than stiff.
Half listening I open the jewelry box again. Under the yarmulke and ring is a baseball card. It is an Ernie Banks rookie card: a floating black-and-white batting stance beside Ernie's boyish smile in color. My father's favorite card: still in mint condition, still in the same clear, protective case. All day I've been taking the card out, examining it, and placing it back in the box. At the bottom Ernie signed his name, spelling out "Ernest," and I notice how similar his signature is to my own.
There is no way to know if my father kept this card intentionally. Everything else red-and-blue is gone, exorcized from my parents' home. The living room walls are bare. I knew this already but was surprised when I first arrived. The empty wall space is striking. The rabbi probably thinks they are bare only today, but they have been bare for five years. Even the rifle was taken down with the Cubs memorabilia. Maybe the Ernie Banks rookie card was stashed away in an attic at the time, long forgotten and saved from my father's spring cleaning.
My mother never knows when enough is enough. She strays from her assignment. She recites her husband's stories. They are stories my cousins and I can recite by memory, too. We only restrain ourselves from groaning because the rabbi is here and he keeps nodding and smiling sadly. She is telling the one about my father enlisting:
"There was a recruitment fair in Lincoln Park. Avi walked up to the army first. He said he wanted to sign up. They said great, come in, we'll get you checked out, fill out your paperwork. But after the medical they said he had an irregular heartbeat and he couldn't enlist. So Avi walked up to the navy, said he wanted to sign up. They said great, come in, we'll get you checked, and get your paperwork pushed through. But when they checked, they said he had an irregular heartbeat and he couldn't enlist. So Avi walked up to the air force, said he wanted to sign up. They said great, come in, we'll get you checked, but again they said Avi had an irregular heartbeat, so he couldn't enlist.
"Then Avi walked up to the paratroopers. He told them he wanted to sign up. They asked him, has anyone done your physical? And Avi said, yeah, so far three times. So they said great, come in, let's get your paperwork done. And that's how Avi got to fight in the war."
The rabbi laughs his courtesy laugh. The cousins chuckle politely. I am reading the back of the Ernie Banks rookie card for the nth time today so I don't notice when the rabbi turns to me. "And the son," he says, "Do you have something to add about your father?"
I hesitate. My cousins are looking at me warily.
"Maybe just one thing," the rabbi adds, "something you would like said tomorrow."
The room waits for me to respond. I haven't spoken for so long my voice is louder than I expect. "You guys look nervous," I say. "Are you worried I'm going to spill one of the little secrets? That I'll say something about him denouncing the Cubs? Maybe I'll tell the nice rabbi that Avram Mayor was an atheist?"
My cousins shake their heads and crow their don't-be-sillies. "Of course he believed," they tell the rabbi. "Of course he attended weekly."
The rabbi's performance doesn't falter. He nods. He closes his notebook and says, "Of course, whether or not that's true doesn't matter this week. It only matters that he was a good husband," he says looking at my mother, "and a good father," looking at me.
I have a reply to that, too, but I feel my mother's hand on my forearm. "I think you've said your one thing," she whispers.
Sixteen years ago I said all I ever needed to say in a long letter, neatly handwritten. It was the morning after my wedding, before the honeymoon. Our luggage was already packed, waiting by the door of my L.A. apartment. I found the Ernie Banks rookie card in my closet and mailed it back to my father. We never spoke again.
But here I am, in Chicago, on the day before my father's funeral. "One less regret," my wife had insisted.
When the rabbi leaves, my cousins surround me. They are balding at the same corners of the forehead, each at a different rate. They take turns slapping my shoulder. They say, "I didn't think you'd come, Ernie."
I say, "It's Ernest."
"Yeah. I'm only staying until Thursday."
Then they scold me for telling the rabbi that my dad didn't believe in God. I tell them they're hypocrites: we're a bunch of Jewish atheists. "Every day but the last day," they joke, and we're laughing when they leave.
In the evening I drag the cardboard box back into the living room. It's eleven o'clock. My mother is out there, still smelling like a department store, letting the news scream past her. I find the remote and lower the volume. "Heck of a day, Mom."
"Don't tell me you're tired already, California boy."
My mother wears a matching top and bottom made of blankets. White diamonds on plush purple. Her wrists seem ready to snap at the weight of the cuffs.
"I can take it if you can," I say.
I sit down on the couch cushion next to her and place the box at my feet. Some of the items in the box rattle. The rifle falls toward the television so that light gleams where the chrysanthemum seal used to be. Now it is a thousand white scratches in dark metal.
We watch the news and I eat leftover thin crust. A two-minute sports update debates the Cubs' chances in the playoffs and it's impossible not to think about my father. My mother must be feeling the same way because she says, "Wouldn't that be something, if this was the year?" Afterwards she reaches for the remote and turns the television off. She leans forward and points to the barrel of the rifle, her wrinkled forefinger barely an inch from touching it. "You know the story behind that thing?"
I search her face for the confident wisdom I will never not expect of her. My eyes must show worry because she winks at me, amused. "Not funny," I say.
"Let me tell it again."
"I really don't need..."
"I haven't had a chance to tell it today."
My mother never gets the rifle story right. She's heard it too many times, is too bored with the truth. And I know as she's telling it this time that she's emphasizing the trauma intentionally, as if this time it would excuse my father certain choices made afterwards.
What really happened remains a mystery, but my cousins and I have a best guess at the truth, a lifetime of recognizing patterns in the different versions told by Avram Mayor. This is my interpretation:
The Philippines. My father and his squad cornered some Japanese. Maybe a couple. Maybe a dozen. The Japanese, unable to run, turned kamikaze and charged the ridge where my father waited, into the American fire. My father's rifle jammed. (At this point in the story my mother inevitably cracks a joke that Avi Mayor never properly cleaned anything.)
One of the Japanese, firing wildly toward the ridge, sent a bullet through my father's chin, into his bicep, before someone else shot the charging soldier down. In seconds my father was covered in blood. Chin wounds, he joked once, the bloodiest of them all. His squad members took one look at him and their eyes gave away their conclusions. "We'll come back for you," they stuttered, leaving him bleeding and alone and trying to stop the bleeding with his hands.
Then my father waited in enemy territory. He clutched his jammed gun and peered over the ridge. Mere feet away lay the man who shot him. The empty eyes stared back at my father. They waited together. Sometimes the wait is ten minutes, sometimes an hour. Once my father claimed it was half the day, assuming he was dying, waiting to die and wondering why it was taking so long.
The story always ends the same way. Finally my father got the courage to crawl forward on his stomach, in his own blood, to retrieve the rifle that shot him. When his unit returned they couldn't believe he was still alive.
My mother finishes with an impression of her husband. She mimes holding a rifle with her frail arms and says, "It got me right here," in her lowest possible voice, drawing a line through her chin, into her right bicep. She pulls up her plush purple sleeve and points to a scar that isn't there. "After that, it was my gun for the rest of the war."
Then my mother stands up, kisses me on the forehead and we say our goodnights.
As I'm lying there waiting for sleep, I text my wife, "The rifle is mine now."
"What are you going to do with it?" she responds.
In the back of the funeral home my cousins have a portable television running on D batteries. My mother and I, wearing black ribbons on one shoulder, are making our procession to our seats in the front row. We can hear the snowy static as soon as we enter the room. We recognize the familiar cadence of play-by-play.
Leave it to my father to die during a Cubs playoff series, and leave it to my family to be willing to compromise.
The rabbi is leaning against the podium with his chin resting on his hands looking powerless about the situation. Half the room is pointing one ear toward the last row. I'm about to walk back there but there's a long look from my mother toward the back of the room and the static ends.
One of the relatives I don't remember leans forward and says, "Ernie Mayor how the heck are you, where's the missus?" but my mother gets him with her eyes, too.
A few more people clear their throats. One more aunt exclaims at a nephew's handsome haircut. Then there is a comfortable quiet, comfortable because in this room the last decade never happened. My father never got sick. He never gave up on the Cubs. And it's okay that his nephews watch game two of the NLDS in the back row of his funeral. It's okay because nobody told the rabbi any recent stories. Every memory predated the postmark of my final letter.
"Today we are gathered to celebrate the life of Avram Mayor," begins the rabbi, "loving husband of Sue Mayor, and loving father of Ernest Mayor." When he mentions our names he makes eye contact with us. Behind him is the bare, unstained coffin.
The rabbi continues: "And of course we can't forget his other son, Ryne Sandberg. At least, he wasn't afraid to claim that on game days, was he? How many times do you think he said: with a name like Sandberg he had to be Jewish." And we all laugh politely.
My father made the announcement at Passover, after Harry Caray's first stroke: "When Harry goes, if they haven't won by then, I'm done."
Nobody believed him. The Cubs were Avram Mayor's life. Every morning it was sports radio. Every afternoon he put on a Cubs hat and walked down to the deli, looking for other people with Cubs hats, fishing for conversation. When Harry Caray joined the broadcast booth it was instant romance. He liked the way Harry talked about the old neighborhood and the way he called his partner Steve Stone a "nice-looking Jewish boy."
My father's announcement came shortly after we stopped talking, so the news found me secondhand. My cousins called me right after the Seder. They thought my father's promise was hilarious. I found it typical: a tantrum, because his son wrote him a harsh letter, nothing more.
Then Harry Caray died. February 18, 1998. And Avram Mayor took all his Cubs junk off the walls, put it in a box and left it on Waveland Avenue.
According to my mother, he was very businesslike about the whole thing. He read the news in the morning papers and calmly took it all down—the pennant flags, the panorama of Wrigley, the tacky "Mayor of Rush Street" poster with the "Holy Cow" speech bubbles—found every last item of red-and-blue in the cellar, threw it all in an oversized box, drove it to Wrigleyville, and left it there on the curb.
Turns out we both had a real knack for ending relationships.
My cousins watched it happen. They followed him, to see if he'd go through with it. They said the first person to pass by the stuff on Waveland was a woman walking her golden. She stopped to peek inside the box, nodded and kept walking. For a day it became a touching memorial to Harry. Other fans added their red-and-blue junk to the pile. But the next morning it was gone, gobbled up by street vendors, resold back to the north side hopefuls.
Harry dying was the end of the old neighborhoods, my father's Chicago. The Caray grandson moved into the broadcast booth and the yuppies won the north side of town. My father never looked back. Avram Mayor was reborn into a life without Cubs baseball. According to my mother, when she told him the good guys were going to finish first in the Central this year, he smiled through the tubes and said, "Yeah, right."
For us it started in 1970. The last time I saw my father he was sitting in his living room with the television off. A lone Cubs pennant hung on the wall beside the rifle. "I need to talk to you, Ernie," he said, and I could tell immediately it was one of those times the gee-whiz jokester made way for the war veteran. "You're turning eighteen soon. Your mother and I are giving you the choice. Either you have a job by then or you get yourself enlisted."
I told him I'd sooner move to Canada.
Instead I moved to Los Angeles. I lived on friends' couches for a year before I wrote back with an address. In response I got a curt letter wishing me good luck, with an Ernie Banks rookie card enclosed. Ernie Banks the rookie that was older than he could have been, older because he had to delay his career, because of his service to the army during the Korean War.
But after a couple years we started talking again. Occasionally my mother would pass the phone to him: a brief hello here and there. One Christmas I sent him a Cubs Spring Training shirt from Catalina Island which, according to my mother, he wore all the time. He walked down to the deli and boasted about his son the telecubbie out in L.A.
The last time I spoke to my father was September 1984. He called out of the blue. He wanted to talk about the Cubs playoff chances. I couldn't care less about baseball, probably because my father couldn't care more, but I sat there and talked about Ryne's hot bat and ended up late to work. "Every time we play the Braves I think about you. You're like Skip in the other booth," he said, "Different but still blood." And for the first time I considered visiting Chicago.
Then the wedding. Keiko and I didn't think twice about it. The day before, only my mother showed up, pretending nothing was wrong, trying to act extra joyous for the occasion. "Is Dad okay?" I asked. "What happened?" And when my mother hesitated to say anything in front of my Japanese-American fiancé I knew what it was.
You never suspect your father is racist if he never talks about it, especially a father that named you after the first black Cub.
The rabbi is almost finished. He's gone back to levity. "Avi Mayor had a saying. You're born naked, you die in a suit. You can't lose." The audience, well aware of my father's favorite joke, laughs anyway. Then the rabbi improvises, "Unless you're the Cubs," and everyone shuts up. Finally it feels like a real funeral: solemn, a consideration of wasted life.
Awkwardly the rabbi tries to pass it off. "Does anyone else want to say anything?"
In jest I raise my hand. My mother pulls it back down and there are a few nervous chuckles in the audience. "Let's play two," I call out, quoting Ernie Banks, because I'm not so different than my family when it comes to grief. There are a few more chuckles and a guffaw from the back I recognize as one of my cousins.
When the service ends there is an uncomfortable shuffle out of the rows of chairs. Different pairs of shoes make footsteps at different octaves. The rabbi walks over to us in the front row and shakes our hands with both of his. He holds eye contact too long to stress his sincerity.
Meanwhile my cousins, who are also the pall bearers, turn the volume back up on the portable TV. People begin to crowd at the back of the room again. The lilt of the play-by-play suggests something exciting is happening in the game. Someone cheers, "Come on, baby, for Avi." And the rabbi walks back there, no match for Cubs baseball.
"I'm going to go box their ears," my mother says. "Keep your dad company."
I watch her march down the aisle. Then I turn to the front, to the emptiest part of the room, where the casket waits alone. I step onto the elevated stage and stand before it. I put my hand on the casket and try to imagine my father inside, but it has been too long since I have seen him. It is easier to imagine the casket empty. It looks too fresh off the assembly line. I graze the unfinished wood with my fingertips. The surface is newly sanded. In the last two days I've heard maybe a hundred stories about Avram Mayor. I've added none of my own. But now I am reminded of one more story, a story that I want to tell:
I was young, under ten, sitting beside my father on the couch. We were watching the Cubs. This was before my mother let her husband hang sports memorabilia on her walls, back when paintings of flowers covered the living room. My father sat with the rifle on his lap. He was sanding the stock, trying to get rid of a nick that had been there since the war. There was a double-play during the game and my father pumped his fist from the couch and yelled "Bingo to Bango to Bilko" at the screen victoriously. The phrase was a favorite of mine in childhood.
After a couple innings the sanded surface of the gun became an airborne powder. My father did not know the Japanese used poison Sumac for lacquer. The dust settled on us and we both broke out into rashes on our arms. Avram Mayor panicked and called for his wife and for the rest of the game, we sat there on the couch while my mother applied lotion to our irritated skin, shaking her head and smiling. My father said nothing for the rest of the game, visibly embarrassed, and I felt more comfortable with him than ever before.
I open the casket.
The lid opens without sound. The inside is bare except for the body. At the center of the casket is Avram Mayor, a small figure in a big pinstriped suit. He looks like he is standing up even though he is horizontal. He has a mustache, a thin mustache like an old movie star, groomed more thoughtfully today than any day of his life. He doesn't look asleep. He looks aware even with his eyes closed. But he has nothing left to say. My father is done striking up conversations with strangers in Cubs hats. He is done telling stories.
Behind me I hear the rabbi. "Mr. Mayor, excuse me," he says, "let's close that, shall we?" His voice cracks as he rushes up to the stage.
I keep looking at my father.
The rabbi walks up beside me and puts one hand on the casket's lid. I feel him pushing against my grip. "We really should close this now," he says, and this time his voice carries a hint of pious steel.
"Take it easy, rabbi. I told you we're atheists."
With my other hand I reach into my suit jacket and retrieve the Ernie Banks rookie card. Then I lean into the casket and slip the card into Avram Mayor's breast pocket. I feel like a father slipping cash to his son when the mother isn't looking. I jiggle the card into his pocket until it is out of sight. He looks no different than before, but now he seems whole again. My father never did find a god to replace the Cubbies.