The Missing Fields
It is 1987. It is summer. I am 13 and in my father's Saab. It is a yuppie car and he is not a yuppie. We are traveling in the dark of the pre-dawn light. We are heading towards his work, towards his store. I am the helper for the week. A week of rest for my mother. A break from refereeing the fights between me and my brother and sister. I will work the counter at his auto parts store in Greenwich. I will drink too much free soda and my already questionable skin will gain new red marks. I am awkward and tall and thin. I am blue eyed and undone. I am shy and lost and all the things that 13-year-old boys are. I am cream soda and shorts with the socks pulled up. I am high-top sneakers and feathered hair. I look like my mother. That is what my father's business partner's wife will say that first morning in the shop. I look like my mother. I will always remember her saying that.
The radio plays as we drive along. It's an old station with old songs. The Boxer wails along. My father hums as Paul Simon sings. I look out the window at the fields in first light. The dew and the glisten and the slow ride unwinding. The Saab is meant for guys in Polo shirts and tennis rackets. It's meant for cocaine in the glove box and slicked back Wall Street hair. My father fails these images. He is old and gray. He is wrinkled and tired in a shirt with his name sewn into it. He is uncool and he is fine with that.
The goal for the week is to survive. I have to survive the housewives who need new wipers. I have to survive the fat guy buying Freon to fix his broken air conditioner. I have to survive the stop and start conversations with old men about the Mets and Yankees. I am just trying to survive. I am also hoping to make 100 dollars. The new glove, the first basemen's glove, costs 80 dollars over at Rankin Sporting Goods. Wally Joyner's signature in the palm. He's not Mattingly, but it's ok. It will do. I need this glove.
The week pushes on. The early rising shake from my father. The light push on my lower leg. He is a morning person. He is lively and full of coffee and hope. The days drag on. The shop is slow. Fewer and fewer people work on their own cars anymore. My father becomes the middle man, supplying dealerships and gas stations with parts from the manufacturer. There is little light or dance to any of it. It's the faces of the regulars. It's the slow climb towards lunch. Then it's sweeping up and hoping for a day baseball game on the radio by the cash register. The ride home is hot and slow. The cars line up on I-84. We are Matchbox cars going nowhere. This is the rat race. I am 13 and I recognize it.
I get the bank envelope on Saturday afternoon. I count the crisp twenty dollar bills. It's enough for the glove and then some. It's enough extra to buy tennis balls for our side-yard field, the great diamond at our home. I get the glove. I buy it and slap down my twenties on the counter. I bring it home and break it in. I oil it up and sleep on it. I wrap a ball in the palm, right over Wally Joyner's name, and I sleep on the uncomfortable lump for days. Soon, it's ready. It's ready for side-yard glory. It's ready for scoops in the dirt. It's ready for long stretches across our makeshift diamond. The gas pipe for first base, maroon and cracked from rain and winter. The bare spot for second base, some failed garden we tried and lost at. The rock pile for third. It will also serve as my brother's Army base when he tires of baseball. We are different boys.
We play for hours in that yard. My brother and the boy next door. His garage door creaks up every morning and we play the days away. We play as the sun fades, as hot dogs burn on the grill. We play as fireflies illuminate the dusk like flashes from a cap gun. We play until our chests burn from deep breaths. The long hot days in the sun. We drink water from the garden hose. We stop for dips in our pool after lunch. It is baseball and we are baseball. It is 1987 and nothing else matters. Not the clock on the wall. Not the stars in the sky.
I love to play on a team. I love the act of warming up. I love the spacing between two people having a catch. It's just far enough to get the arm going but still close enough to carry on a conversation. I love the uniforms and the coach's scoring book. I love taking the field. The cleats in the dirt and the white lines. It's a beautiful little world and the game feels like a dance. It feels like true rhythm. The soft chatter of encouragement. The sound of an aluminum bat being leaned against a chain-link fence. The ice cream trucks and parents in their lawn chairs.
I realize the following spring that I'm not going to be a professional baseball player. I realize it while ducking the snap of breaking curveballs. The kind that come at your head and then drop below your belt, as your knees flatten and wobble. I realize it as I ride the bench in our town's in-house league. I'm not fast enough and my bat isn't quick enough. My skills with the glove can't save me. They are only fading bits of glory, those perfect scoops and those long stretches to reach the throw. They aren't enough and I realize it. It will have to be something else. This isn't it.
There will be other things. There will be girls and part-time jobs. There will be Saturday nights at the movies and swimming in midnight pools. There will be laughter and crickets. There will be friends with nicknames and car crashes and proms. There will be fights and late night dances. There will be heartbreak and redemption. There will be roads that cross and patterns will emerge. There will be bars and alleys and floods and forgiveness.
The glove gets put away. It gets put up on a shelf in the garage. It won't get much use for years. Our house begins to change. The people come and go. My sister off to college then to Virginia to live. My brother joins the Navy. He goes to far away places and rarely looks back. Distance becomes the theme. My father eventually retires from the auto parts store. My mother fights cancer while handing out ice packs as an elementary school nurse.
The side-yard field grows over. The rounded-out dirt of home plate grows new grass. The embedded rock that is the pitcher's mound is glossed over in moss. My neighbor moves away and dies one day while lifting weights. His heart just gives out and there are few answers. I find myself in that side-yard from time to time. I take imaginary swings and I always connect, sending the ball high and far into the back neighbor's yard. I round the bases with my winter coat on. I am out of place. My youth is gone. My days are hectic and running. I don't have time for games.
Then it happens again. It happens in some stroke of luck. The game returns to me. My friends get a team together for the slow pitch softball league in town. We are hungry and in our early twenties. We were these once great players of the diamond and we return. We return like kings to the castle. I have the old glove again. I am at first base again. I am scooping and I am stretching. I am running.
We sit around after the games and we drink the afternoons away. The dusty air so heavy and hot and the beer so cold. The Sundays all fall together as one. My father comes to the games. He is our only fan. We ride out these spring and summer seasons. We play for years. The same routine. The faces come and go. Some guys get married and have kids. There are new commitments. It falls apart eventually. We leave this field behind. We gather only occasionally at someone's house. We gather to watch football and we laugh and tell old stories. The games and the sweet loves of our past. We let them in to crash and wander. It feels like a long slow drift.
My brother comes home for visits. He is a lieutenant in the Navy now. He has been to blazing deserts. He has seen terrible things and been asked to forget them. We play catch in the side-yard. He is the second baseman. I am the first baseman. I throw him impossible grounders and he dives to his left and right, then springs to his feet to fire the ball to me just in time to catch the imaginary runner. We are 13 and 11 again. We are young and daring and free.
Our mother is on the couch in the living room. She is dying slowly. At night, we wait for phone calls from doctors. Phone calls that never seem to say the right thing. We are losing this battle. We know how it will end. We hold it off. We hold it off as we play in the yard and call out players' names from the past. It is easier in the sun. My wife makes chicken for all of us. We drink wine and beer and tell old stories. This house will always be our house.
Finally, in the winter, she goes. She slips so softly towards the sun.
We are left with what remains of our existence together. We are left without the glue. We are pieces of a puzzle that don't fit right. We fumble through the plans. We drive her pink dress to the funeral home. What an odd thing for three grown men to be doing, driving a pink dress around town.
We leave her at the cemetery. We turn and walk away and the coldest January wind goes through all of us.
The house becomes a meeting place. It is our only island. We take turns coming and going. My father goes back and forth to Florida. My brother goes back to the Navy. My sister buys her own place but still feels anchored to the old house. Everything becomes trapped in time, the house and the yard and the fences. The furniture and the rugs and the stairs. The way the shadows fall in and out. The sweet smells of Christmas and the sound of raised voices when we were teenagers.
These walls protected us. They sheltered us. We are out in the world now. We have no base. No compass to guide us through storms and dust. We are old and distant.
I have my own house now. I have two daughters and a car that is safe for highway travel. I haven't had a drink in 393 days. I have a gas grill and a small yard. My oldest plays softball. She wants me to pitch to her in the backyard.
"Make bases, Daddy," she says. "Make bases like a field."
We are in the garage looking for things to use. "Here, use this old glove. It can be second base," she says.
"Ok, little girl," I say.
The oak tree stump is first base. My old glove is second. Her jacket is third. The sun is dying in our corner of the world. Where has time gone? How do I slow this down? I take the plastic ball. She takes her plastic bat. Round and around and around, we go.