Ever since Mom’s passing, whenever I find myself missing her, I walk my memory back to being nine years old and standing in our kitchen.
I was sad as hell.
The way you get when you’re nine and you have no one to play with on a school’s out, full summer sun, Mullen Street morning. The kind that, when you’re a kid, is just too good to let go to waste.
No Danny. No Jeff. No Jerry. No Amy. No Billy.
Not a single soul to pass ball with.
If you were nine in our neighborhood, this was a crime against humanity.
Standing in the kitchen, I made no secret of my discontent, moping around in all my misery.
Mom finally asked what was wrong, and I told her. She ran down the full roster of my friends. I shot down each one with a “Not home … not answering the phone … car’s not there ….”
Moved by equal parts not wanting to see me sad and finding me annoying AF, she disappeared into the dining room, opened the closet, and reappeared wearing a ball cap and holding Dad’s baseball glove.
“I’ll pass with you.”
This was not a solution to my problem.
For starters, she looked absurd.
This is the lamest idea ever, I remember thinking. I’d never seen Mom throw anything other than fits at my Dad.
That’s all right, I said.
“Come on, let’s go,” she persisted, popping the ball from her right hand into her gloved left.
No, really, I deflected.
This went on for a good couple minutes.
In recorded history, though, no one ever won a test of will against Maggie Riddell.
So I ended up grabbing my glove and, still in full mope, begrudgingly followed her out to the street in front of our house.
As we spaced ourselves just a few feet apart, I remember thinking: this is going to be awful.
And it was.
She lobbed one that bounced in front of me and came to rest harmlessly at my feet. I tried to aim at her glove so she wouldn’t have to move to try and catch it.
She ended up having to chase the ball down the street anyway.
She was atrocious. Couldn’t throw or catch to save her life.
But she got the biggest kick out of the whole thing.
When I was about to toss one to her, she’d screw her cap on, pound her fist in Dad’s glove, bend her knees, and say something baseball-ish, like, “Put ‘er in there.” The fact that she had herself giggling by the time my throw was on its way didn’t help her fielding percentage.
Never one to take herself too seriously, she was totally in her element in spite of her incompetency.
She’d attempt a pitcher’s windup and laugh like hell when the ball sailed opposite of her aim.
We soon settled on throwing easy grounders to each other, and eventually lost ourselves in trying to make it as easy for the other as possible.
I have no idea how long we were out there.
Probably wasn’t more than 10 or 15 minutes.
The only thing I remember is that, by the end, I wasn’t sad anymore.
It was the first and only time we ever threw ball.
Maybe because she was so awful. Maybe because we never needed to again. Maybe because having no one to play with was a blessed rarity in our neighborhood.
Or maybe because once was enough.
Because on rare occasions, I still find myself sad as hell. The way you get when you’re 50 and know the person you wish you could call isn’t home anymore.
So I walk my memory back to the old kitchen. Watch her disappear into the dining room, and reappear in her ball cap, looking ridiculous.
And I follow her, still in full mope, out to the street in front of our house.
I see her wind-up. Pound Dad’s glove. How she laughed.
And we lose ourselves in trying to make it as easy on the other as possible.
This year called for less desperate measures, leaving Karry and Emma to tag team this, their 12th edition of the annual amalgam of yelling, hair, make-up, costumes, and teenage angst.
Preparations began weeks in advance. Came home one day to find Emma outside in the driveway with a pair of tap shoes and a can of neon pink spray paint.
“Don’t ask,” was all she said.
My Karry radar began ringing in my head.
Me: You’re taking precautions, yes?
She: I’m not making a mess if that’s what you’re asking.
Emma has convinced herself that she rarely, if ever, makes messes.
Her conviction is strong. She’d probably pass a lie detector.
In truth — and I say this lovingly — she’s a disaster.
Not nearly as much of a disaster as I am. Not even in the same disaster zip code.
But, back to the driveway ….
Many a time have I run afoul of Karry’s ‘exacting standards’ by unintentionally besmirching the driveway with various … effluvium (oil, grill drippings, etc.)
When I went out the following morning to fetch the paper, I saw neon pink paint stains where the driveway meets the edge of the grass.
I gave Emma a heads up.
To give her at least a head start on packing her bags, grabbing a couple cans of tuna and hiding out in the woods for a couple days until I can screw up bad enough to put Karry’s scent back on my trail.
Told her it was fine and that we’d pressure wash it away during spring cleaning in a couple weeks.
“It’s not OK. Mom’s going to kill me.”
I assured her such was not the case and that it was fine.
Sometimes it’s acceptable to lie to your children.
However, I took preemptive measures. Texted Karry at work. “There’s some paint in the driveway from Emma spray-painting. I told her it was no big deal and that you wouldn’t get mad. So don’t freak out on her.”
In short, I used up my small stores of investment capitol.
“Thanks for letting me know.”
DEFCON Level 1 – restored.
Preparations continued throughout the following weeks. Costumes steamed. Arranged. Racks assembled. Additional provisions procured. Multiple coats of spray paint added to the shoes and driveway, etc.
The long runway left me ample time to fashion my personal escape plan for The Saturday.
They didn’t have to leave until 1:15 p.m.
Since I don’t sleep much, sleeping in until 1:16 p.m. was not an option.
In the morning, Emma and I went for a drive. She has her permit and we’ve been using the weekends to log her requisite hours behind the wheel. Weeks into this, I give very few instructions. We chart our destination. She pulls us onto Main Street and drives out of town.
She: Am I going the right way? Me: I have no idea where you’re going.
We then take a meandering route to 136, cutting through the Wal-Mart plaza. She peels off and starts to make a right, pausing at a merge point.
She: What do I do here?
Me: Well, there’s no yield sign or anything, so it’s a little ambiguous. As long as there aren’t any yo-hums making a left turn in front of you, you can go.
My favorite part of being Emma’s passenger is that, with her hands at 10 and 2, she gets chatty (i.e. she can’t disappear into her ear buds, or her phone). I asked her about Karry’s mood heading into Picture Day.
Emma reported Situation Normal.
The conversation then turned to the many complexities that make our family’s matriarch a revered badass.
Me: There’s no B.S. about your Mom whatsoever. She has clear expectations, and clearly communicates those expectations. She doesn’t have to yell. She doesn’t waste words. That gives her a natural gravity. People look to her for guidance and direction.
Emma: Mom is not an ambiguous stop sign in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
In our 30 years together, I’m not sure Karry’s essence has ever been more exquisitely distilled.
We’re home from our drive around 11. I knock on Peter’s door.
He was in the midst of perfectly executing his Dance Picture Day strategy: sleeping until 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
Me: Get up. Get dressed. We gotta go.
Me: Gotta renew your license. Get your picture taken.
He: (miscellaneous unintelligible grunting)
Around 11:25 he’s staggering to the dining rom where I’ve summoned him.
Me: Sign here and here. Your car?
He: Nah. You drive.
Made sure he had the registration form, his W-2, his social security card, and his passport.
Translation: Karry assembled everything.
He gets in the passenger side and I follow the exact route we took four years ago when he first got his license. I pull us into the nearly empty lot.
Me: You have your license?
Me: What do you mean, you don’t have your license.
He: It’s in my car.
Me: You are renewing your license. Why would you not bring your license?
He: I’m going to try anyway.
Me: Let me know how that works out.
He: You aren’t coming in?
He: Why are you even here?
Me: (waiting for him to connect the obvious dots) Because your mom and Emma are getting ready for dance pictures. We’re going to lunch after this. If we eat like Vikings they should be gone by the time we return.
He’s back five minutes later.
He: I need my license.
I responded with the Head Shake/Exhale combo perfected over the 18 years we were officially responsible for my oldest’s day-to-day survival, during which variations of this exact scene played out hundreds of times.
Now that he’s 20, I allowed myself a small smile that some things are forever.
We retraced our steps, he retrieved his license, turned in the requisite forms, got his photo taken, returned to the car, picked our lunch spot, found a reasonably empty parking lot, grabbed a booth, and nourished ourselves over March Madness conversations.
Sitting across a table sharing baskets of Cheddar Bay Biscuits with Peter affords the same rare and precious elastic conversational space as Emma’s hands on 10 and 2. He gets chatty.
He mentioned that one of his favorite high school teachers recently left teaching for a job in his field of study. He was that special kind of teacher who lit fires in their students. Peter not only loved his classes, but respected him so much he sought his counsel when he was considering colleges and courses of study.
He said he reached out to his old teacher when he heard the news he’d left the school. Peter told me his teacher had written him back … and handed his phone across the table for me to read.
In his note, Peter recounted the time he’d asked the teacher for a letter of recommendation for a college application.
And his favorite teacher, the one he looked up to so much, the one whose classes he sought out … told him No.
I never knew this.
In his note, Peter recounted how crushed he was that his favorite teacher refused him.
But he was writing to thank him for doing that. How it made him realize he needed to work harder. He wrote to let him know that he’s been applying himself in college and was doing well in his second semester of his sophomore year. He wrote to tell him that he made the Dean’s List last semester.
The teacher wrote back to thank Peter. Confessed to him that him saying no was one of the two or three toughest decisions he’d ever made as a teacher. But he knew that if he had just written the letter, Peter would likely have kept himself in cruise control. He genuinely thanked Peter for his note, and for lifting a burden that he still carried.
By the end, I was trying not to weep in my Cheddar Bay Biscuits.
We finished our main courses in a leisurely trot, and I had him back home by 2, more than enough time for him to get ready for his 2:30 shift.
But as we pulled into the driveway, something was wrong.
Very, very wrong.
Karry’s car was still there.
An issue with The Shoes. The ones that Emma and Karry have been spray painting for a couple weeks now.
Evidently, after the multiple coats of neon, the holes for the laces were painted shut. They’d spent the last hour trying in vain to lace the shoes. And the harder they tried to muscle it, the more the paint cracked and chipped.
Also known as EFFBOMBCON.
To paint the neon pink picture driveway here, mother and daughter an hour late dealing with chipped paint and un-laceble shoes is like that scene in the original Avengers where Black Widow is trying to keep Bruce Banner from hulking out while Loki is simultaneously stealing the Tesseract.
This only ends one way.
Hulk’s gonna Hulk.
Except in this instance, there are two Hulks.
I made the obligatory, sacrificial offer to help, which I knew could have just as easily been received as Flame Thrower Target Practice.
“No,” they both said in a huff.
So I grabbed the nearest parachute.
Went to retrieve the grocery order.
Grocery order = seamless. Remembering to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy so as to extend my trip by a few extra moments = seamless.
Pulled back into the driveway.
I equated my odds at surviving a second re-entry to running back into a burning building to retrieve my favorite box of matches.
Carrying in the groceries, I enacted security protocol Eggshell Swaddling Baby Blanket Minefield Tiptoe Alpha.
They were working in the laundry room, which is where the downstairs fridge is. Before entering I listened for any rustling around the corner before stealthily darting in, ninja-style. I gingerly placed the ½ gallon of 2% on its shelf and two-handed the silent closing of the fridge like I was diffusing a bomb on countdown.
I was safely upstairs when I heard the car doors slam and Karry pull out of the driveway with an impatient engine rev.
I sympathy stress ate the two Cheddar Bays Peter intended for later.
I’ve spent exactly one day in London in my life. It’s been a couple decades now. I was part of a group at my company attending a conference in Amsterdam (a story for another time). We had to connect through London so ended up taking a day there before continuing on. I believe it was a Saturday. We spent the entire afternoon walking the city, and at some point happened upon an outside street fair.
I only remember two things from that afternoon.
One, an older man playing violin in the square. His hair long, gray and wild, his beard shaggy. Wore a white, long sleeved buttoned shirt, open at the chest and a little grimy, deep burgandy pants that billowed and made his long legs seem longer. He played with passion, his eyes wide when they weren’t closed in communion with his instrument. I took him for a regular, if uninvited, character of the grounds. He was both oblivious and superior to the townspeople and tourists milling about. He danced as he played, in essence commandeering the entire square as his performance space. I was bewitched by his power and presence. He said not a word, yet the square was his.
The only other thing I recall from the street fair was a vendor standing behind a few really long tables of used books. Being a provincial kid from Uniontown on my first trip abroad, I remember being drawn to something familiar in this otherwise exotic place. While my colleagues explored elsewhere, I lost myself rooting through the tables. After a bit, my eye caught something by Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t recognize the title. It looked to be some sort of television screenplay. I immediately thought of my friend, Bill, who was absolutely mad for all things Kurt. I forked over a couple pounds, put the treasure in my coat pocket, and went to find my colleagues.
When I got home, I wrapped up the book and sent it to Bill, along with a note of how I’d happened upon it.
A week or so later, he wrote me back. Evidently, he’d heard of the screenplay, but it had long been out of circulation. It was the one piece of Vonnegut he’d never been able to track down. He was absolutely over the moon and profuse in his gratitude.
Reading his thank you note was just the best feeling. To this day, I count it among the best gifts I’ve ever given, everything about it pure serendipity.
I was reminded of this decades-old exchange recently while watching Booksellers, a documentary streaming on Amazon Prime.
It’s a love letter to the characters still perpetuating the antiquarian bookseller trade in New York City, and the city’s shrinking ice floe of independent booksellers. The rare book profession is a relic of a pre-Internet time. One of the booksellers in the documentary mentions that in the 1950s, there were 368 bookstores in New York. At the time of the interview (a couple years ago), the number had shrunk to 79. The story touches hearts (or at least, mine) as it spotlights a motley collection of mostly irrational – though some quite rational – romantics.
Treasure hunters, they are.
As are their customers.
Though independent, they exist in a gritted-teeth relationship with the beast most responsible for the demise of their kind — the Internet. For all the Internet has done to efficiently and expediently connect rare book sellers with their buyers (the irony that I only discovered the documentary from an in-box recommendation from the friendly robots at Amazon Prime is not lost on me), it has, in the process, mostly extinguished the terribly inefficient and gloriously analog process of the treasure hunt.
The act of finding things you are not even looking for.
The investment of time for an uncertain and unexpected return.
Of rooting through stacks, boxes, losing yourself amongst shelves. Of being quite content with long odds. Of perfecting a fisherman’s patience. Of defining treasure on your terms, like a forgotten out-of-print screenplay on a London table, or an obscure 1961 album by the Belmonts, which my friend Doug unearthed during a recent pilgrimage to George’s Song Shop in Johnstown. My heart sings like the Belmonts when Doug tells me of his regular foragings and finds.
Yet I must confess to having long ago been easily and cheaply seduced by Amazon convenience. It shames me to say it, but, on occasion, I’ve actually snapped pictures of book covers in bookshops to potentially Amazon later. Not that this absolves me in any way, but I do it in part to curb my otherwise uncurb-able impulse-buying instincts whenever I find myself around book stacks. (I have a book problem.)
But it’s hard to watch Booksellers and not be moved.
Just as it’s impossible to listen to my friend Doug and not be stirred – whether in casual conversation or sitting in his congregation from 6-to midnight every Sunday night on WANB radio, where he’s been sharing treasure from his lovingly curated stacks of Rock and Roll for 27 years and counting.
But it’s taken a sweet bit of good-old-fashioned serendipity to inspire me to truly turn a page.
Out of the blue I received a package in the mail from my good friend, Jeff.
Accompanying it, this note:
But THE BEST part? On the back ….
At that, I felt what my friend Bill must’ve felt 20+ years ago holding that Vonnegut screenplay in his hands. The true gift as much in the thought that inspired it as between its pages.
I hope that Jeff is feeling at least a measure of what I felt when Bill received his treasure. And I hope that feeling stays with him as long as mine has.
I’ve been blessed to be on both sides of those feelings. To stumble upon something that makes you think of someone else. And to let the other person know.
The lesson? Never miss a chance to let someone know you’re thinking about them. Your timing will never not be perfect.
Driving home a few weeks ago from the grocery store I swung past the small college campus here in town. The remnants of winter’s last snow had finally melted, and the grassy hill in front of Old Main was a sight for my sore eyes.
In the middle of the lawn I spied an older man in a jacket and ballcap. Slowing down, I noticed he was waving a metal detector back and forth. He moved methodically in small steps, listening for small possibility in that sea of sprawling, soggy green. Involuntarily I was smiling thinking of the summers growing up when all the neighborhood Moms (mine included) procured metal detectors and conducted routine scavenging expeditions all over the neighborhood. And how we kids couldn’t wait to see what treasure they unearthed with their trusty trowels. By objective measure, their hauls were as paltry as you might expect. But, to us, a resurrected wheat penny was a gold bar.
I’ve seen him a couple times lately, most recently lonely strolling across the lawn of the high school.
I tipped my ballcap towards his oblivious, head-bowed meditation. To his investment of time for an uncertain return. To optimism and expectation. To the search for things you are not even looking for.
A few days ago I was writing a note to accompany a book I was returning to a good friend. Doing so made me think of a favorite read that he and his daughter might appreciate. Made my first penitent purchase from White Whale. I ordered it online, but am going to pick it up in the store.
So I can spend a few moments rooting through the stacks.
Still that provincial kid from Uniontown on his first trip abroad, drawn to something familiar and comforting in this otherwise exotic place.
“And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Elliot
Around St. Patrick’s Day, someone at work mentioned that the odds of finding a four-leaf clover are something like 1 in 10,000. I have no idea if that’s accurate. I just know two things.
1.) I don’t think I’ve ever found one in my life.
2.) My mother-in-law Betty found them all the time.
Before every one of Karry’s nephew’s baseball games, Betty would arrive at the ball field early and, pluck a four-leaf clover from the grass and give it to Justin before warm-ups. He tucked ‘em in the inside ring of his ballcap. By the end of the season, his cap was lined with four-leaf-clovers like Stargell Stars. Though I never asked him, I bet he felt invincible taking the field.
That story encapsulates everything you need to know about Betty Fordyce. She made everyone she met feel lucky for knowing her.
Our hearts broke when she passed from colon cancer in 2006.
When I went for my annual physical this year, my family doctor informed me it was time for a colonoscopy. Wasn’t psyched about the prospect, but I thought of Betty when I scheduled it. Since her Mom’s passing, Karry’s been begrudgingly vigilant with her screenings since she’s deemed higher risk.
March was Colorectal Cancer Awareness month. As the CCA reminds, about 150,000 will be diagnosed this year with this highly preventable disease. In 2018 a large study found that “colonoscopy was associated with a 61% reduction in colorectal mortality.”
Those are much better odds than finding a four-leaf clover. And, statistically speaking, much better protection, too.
Many of my friends have either turned or are approaching a big, round birthday milestone this year. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to get your screening. FWIW, the wake-up music is spectacular.
They say you always remember your first time. Just in case, I figured I’d capture a few things for, you know, posterity ….
Karry kicked into planning mode. She’d been through the prep a couple times before. She stocked me up with lime Jell-o, chicken broth, Italian Ice (lemon), apple juice, lemon-lime Gatorade. Made sure I knew my schedule. Made sure I’d heard from the surgery center.
It seems a crime to me that poems don’t get written about the un-asked for Grace of such small and selfless gestures. It’s the true stuff.
She was so genuinely compassionate.
My daughter, on the other hand ….
The day before, Emma texts Karry and me that she did really well on her PJAS entry. I assume this is a good thing. Evidently not, as it means she has to now do more work on it for the next round, which she was hoping to avoid.
I attempt consolation, figuring Shakespeare might offer some ennobling perspective.
Me: Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
She: Eat your Jell-O, Diarrhea Don.
Ah, my delicate flower.
Since the screening was the result of my odometer turning over, I reached out to my peer group for some expectation management.
My friend Don texts back: Ah, it’s not so bad. You get to drop a pound or two and get in a nice nap. Also, this is one of those occasions where I’d rather be the receiver than the giver.
This is why Don was elected class president our senior year.
Karry gave me a heads up that the stuff they make you drink is awful. Fortunately, I was able to leverage one of my two legitimate super powers. I can close off my nose to keep from smelling or tasting anything. When the kids were young this came in wicked handy. Changing diapers? No problem. Someone puke? Projectile vomit? Lemme at it.
So, when the moment came to ingest the prep, I chugged it like a cheap beer in the TKE house basement, slammed the plastic cup on the counter and yelled, “Bam!” … causing Karry to run to the kitchen to make sure I hadn’t accidently injured myself.
Again, poems should be written about such sweetness.
Oh, my second super power? I have a really loud clap. Like, piercing, ear-splittingly annoying to anyone in a 100-yard radius.
I’ve yet to find any redeemable value for it.
Speaking of the stuff they make you drink, it came in two 6 oz. bottles labeled, “Bowel Prep.”
I think they should partner with Trader Joe’s on the packaging.
Something like this:
Lucy Schtules’ Colon Tickler.
I’ve already written like 10 taglines.
By 3:30 a.m. the second dose of Lucy’s magic elixir was working serious overtime. I was a good 15 minutes into the ‘completely-sh*tting-my-brains-out’ phase of the prep when I ran out of things to read in the bathroom. Desperate, I finally took notice of the brand name of the baby wipes that Karry had bought me special for the occasion.
Without question, this is the funniest f*cking thing I’ve ever encountered at 3:30 in the morning.
Out of mercy I won’t bore you with my 10 taglines for “Lucy Schtules’ Colon Tickler.”
Just the top three.
3.) “I’ll give yer bowels what fer.”
2.) “Evacuate your premises.”
1.) “Goochie goochie goo.“
Day of, they take me back, I slip into my Uniform, and then wait for an hour as the doctor’s running, um, behind.
In pre-op, it’s a bunch of open-air beds separated only by pull curtains, so there’s some visual privacy but zero audio privacy. Therefore, I’m part of every patient’s conversation being checked in. In addition to colonoscopies, they evidently do other procedures that I want to know as little about as possible.
Nurse: So, Mary, have you had a hysterectomy? You’re not having periods anymore are you?
Mary: I’ve not had a hysterectomy, just my tubes tied. But I’m pre-menopausal, so my periods are mild.
Me: (in my head) LaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLa!
The anesthesiologist lets me know they’ll be starting the sedative and tells me to pick out a good dream. Next thing I know I wake up in exactly the same position I passed out in, but in a different room. Within 15 seconds, I’m stirring. My tongue inspects the inside of my mouth and finds a desert.
Nurse Liz comes over, and asks me if I’d like something to drink. She runs down the choices.
Me: Oooh, Pepsi.
I’m a Coke person, but Pepsi holds a special place in my heart at moments of great thirst. Always takes me back to elementary school basketball Saturday mornings at the Junior High, after which, Dad would whisk us to the Dairy Mart on Dixon Boulevard, where I’d pluck a tall 16-oz ice-cold returnable bottle from the cooler, and use the bottle opener that was fixed to the checkout counter to crack it open. For my money, ain’t nothing better than Pepsi on a thirst.
As I sipped, I take note of the music playing in post-op. It’s The Cars. “Who’s gonna drive you home ….?”
Followed by, “Hungry Like the Wolf.”
In my post-anesthesia haze, I think to myself, “Man, I’d like to pay my respects to the DJ here ….”
A different nurse comes over and reviews the procedure’s outcome with me. I’m still a little foggy, but the general gist is that I have an ‘-osis,’ not an ‘-itis,’ which is the lesser of two evils, I gather. Though I have some ‘outpockets,’ that will need to be eyeballed moving forward.
Once I qualify that it’s nothing serious, ‘Outpockets,’ strikes me as the funniest thing I’ve heard since “Li’l Journey.”
Liz comes over to check on me.
Me (slightly euphoric from the anesthesia): Liz, did you curate a Wake Up playlist for me?
Nurse Liz: Um, what?
Me: Liz, can I ask you a question?
Nurse Liz: (unsuccessfully hiding a wince) Yes?
Me: So, I assume, the anesthesia, it’s pretty potent stuff, yes?
Nurse Liz: Yeah. Why?
Me: I don’t sleep well at all. The anesthesia … was wonderful.
Nurse Liz: It’s the stuff that killed Michael Jackson.
Me: No way!
Nurse Liz: Yeah. Propofol. His doctor left him alone, and his heart stopped.
Me: (processing foggily) So, it’s so potent you can only take it only so often?
Nurse Liz: Michael Jackson was taking it every night.
Me: (piecing the plan together in my head) No sh*t? So, what you’re saying is … if I had a gajillion dollars, I could hire my own anesthesiologist … but to your good point, the vetting process would be key to make sure my doc wasn’t a ham-and-egger….
Nurse Liz: (speeding up my discharge, ripping out my IV [ouch!]) You can put your pants on now.
As I get dressed I begin weighing the pros and cons of putting the kids’ college savings towards hiring a personal anesthesiologist.
Me: (by the time I’m dressed, the anesthesia has pretty much worn off, and I become aware that my window with Nurse Liz is closing) Liz, so, aside from my “outpockets,” … I essentially have the colon of a 50-year-old man?
Nurse Liz: You have a rock star colon.
That’s maybe the nicest thing any medical professional has ever said to me.
He just brought it home one day after work and presented it to me. No set up. Not born of a previous request or conversation.
Reggie Jackson model, waffle-pocket Rawlings. The Finest In the Field.
Said he’d bought it from an acquaintance. Some guy he knew from the store. Paid $25 for it, used. I remember him feeling shrewd about the deal.
It was huge. The finger holes were like catacombs. My 10-year-old digits barely reached.
And, oh, it was really used. The traditional method of breaking in a glove is to place a baseball in the pocket and tightly tie the glove closed with string so that you preserve a sweet spot for the ball. The Glove must’ve been given a Swedish Massage and then placed, empty, under the tire of a dump truck. Its pocket folded over its fingers like pages in a book. Its leather soft and pliant. It was so broken in I could clap with it. What padding it had was massaged into sweet surrender (presumably by the Swedes). But given that my fingers barely filled 25% of its real estate, padding wasn’t really relevant to the equation.
Dad’s timing was impeccable. The summer after sixth grade our township was admitted into the recreational baseball league across town, and all the neighborhood dads couldn’t resist signing us up.
Not to over-romanticize, but it was the 10-year-old-boy equivalent of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Up until then kids in the neighborhood had spent summers on the asphalt of Areford playground — just kids, no adults (and therefore – blissfully – no coaches). Self-procured rubber-coated baseballs, shared bats, slow-pitch. Every afternoon. Every day of the week. If we were short players, we’d improvise – opposite field automatic outs, pitcher’s hand, ghost runners, all-time catchers (mostly reserved for little brothers). The biggest argument always over which of the two teams got to be the Pirates, the other usually picking the Reds (who were great) or the Mets (who were awful, but whose lineup we’d memorized courtesy of WWOR Channel 12). We’d play all afternoon either until dinner time, or — as was more often the case — we’d run out of baseballs. Balls usually met one of two fates – either they carried over or rolled under the barbed-wire fence of the football field in deep right, or, if they were the cheap, $.99 K-Mart specials, they were beaten into unplayable, lopsided submission.
However, in the summer of 1981 we traded all that for grass fields, uniforms, coaches, organized practices and pitchers who tried to get you out themselves, and helmets, for when their attempts missed high and tight. My friend Andy and I got drafted by the Angels (sponsored by Parks Moving and Storage). After a couple of practices, I remember the head coach instructing his son, one of the stars on the team, to show me the basics of playing first base: how to reach for a throw while keeping a foot on the bag, where to stand with a runner on first and when no one’s on base, and how to hop into position once the pitcher goes into his windup.
Pretty sure I earned the audition for one reason only: The Glove.
I was a scrawny 10-year-old, which made my Rawlings seem even bigger. When I stood straight The Glove comically hung below my knee, almost to my calf. But it shortened my learning curve at first base, compensating for my lack of stature by extending my reach for errant tosses by several inches. And it swallowed – absolutely swallowed – the invariable short hops from third or deep in the hole from short.
I fell in love with scoops. Secretly hoped throws would bounce in front of me so I could stretch and rescue them from the dirt. My favorite moment was between innings, throwing grounders to the infielders while the pitcher warmed up. I especially liked when Bobby Madison played shortstop. He’d throw big looping curve balls back to me, and I loved tracing their glorious arcs into short hops that I’d sweep up in a plume of infield dirt.
In full disclosure, fielding was pretty much my only appreciable skill. I had a rag arm, and owing to my stature, zero pop at the plate. Without The Glove, I was pretty much Bruce Wayne.
The Glove, though? A veritable vacuum cleaner. I held on to everything.
At Hutchison Park, first base was close to a set of bleachers where all the dads would sit. They got a kick out of the skinny kid with the big glove. I remember one of them yelling, “Hold on to your cigarettes, or that glove’ll suck ‘em right outta your hand.”
Ah, the days when bleacher dads sat and smoked under summer suns, watching their sons re-enact the Greek Tragedies of their own youths.
My Dad’s investment in my Little League career didn’t end with forking over $25.
Unquestionably, my best times with The Glove were shared with him, after work during the week. We’d drive up to the junior high so he could arch fly balls over my head, and far to my right and left for me to chase down. I’d catch my breath from the last one and yell for another. “Make me run, Dad.” He had this knack for perfectly timing and aiming his launches to allow me just enough time in full sprint to snatch ’em from the air or just before they’d hit the ground. I can still hear his voice pitching up into an exuberant, “HeyyyyyYYY!” when I’d pluck one from my shoetops or snow-cone one destined for beyond.
He got as much joy as I did from what The Glove held on to.
We’d always outlast the sun – “Last one….” — and then celebrate with ice-cold, glass-bottled Pepsis in the darkened Dairy Mart parking lot off Dixon Boulevard.
As far as Little League went, the Angels were a pretty decent team. We had two bona fide stars — Doug and Mike — who took turns pitching and playing shortstop, and a bunch of really solid players. Our head coach was fair and a pretty nice man. If I remember correctly, we finished in first place during the regular season. We beat the only undefeated team — the hated Red Sox — in dramatic fashion when the coach’s son launched a game-winning homer into the pond behind the outfield in the last inning. That set up a rematch between our two teams in the playoffs for the league championship.
The Red Sox were like the Yankees of Little League. They were stacked, and they took things very seriously I remember. My 10-year-old-self recalls their coaches yelling a lot, and their players mostly sneering (except for my friend Jerry, who, like me was a stature-challenged Areford asphalt alum), where I remember a lot more smiles and laughs coming from our dugout. In retrospect, I’m sure the Red Sox had as much fun as we did, but that’s how 10-year-olds see the world.
Anyway, I distinctly remember an added gravitas to our pre-championship practices. We knew who the Red Sox were going to pitch – their ace. He was that kid from central casting who was literally a head taller than the rest of us, and whose early-maturing frame could launch puberty-grade home runs. On the mound, he fired fastballs that popped like thunder when they hit the catcher’s mitt, missing often enough to put the foot in the bucket of, and fear of God into, lower-in-the order hitters like me.
As a result, our coaches came with their middle-age velocity during batting practice. Discussed where and how to play in the field when certain Red Sox came to the plate. Went over the signs again and again. I was told to keep an eye out for the bunt sign, since (a.) it was assumed that base runners would be precious, (b.) I was left-handed, and (c.) otherwise unlikely to do much damage against The Puberty Express. The coaches even discussed some situational strategy with some of us, me included.
The game itself played out as expected, tight and low-scoring. We were tied going into the top of the seventh and last inning. The Red Sox managed to get a guy on third with the potential go-ahead run and only one out.
As fate would have it, the kid from central casting strode to the plate.
Our coach called time out and huddled the infield at the mound. He made a defensive switch.
He ordered me to centerfield.
This was one of the situational strategies that came up during our pre-game practices. I was ready for this moment. I had The Glove. I’d logged countless hours under fading suns chasing balls in every direction and rescuing them before they found the ground.
Our star pitcher went into his windup. Central Casting swung with all his might and made good contact.
A roar swelled up from the Red Sox fans as the ball rocketed into the sky….
For literally decades after that, Dad would delight in bringing up the story, with David and Goliath relish, of Central Casting launching that ball — Central Casting, the team who thought they were so great, who treated Little League with such Major League fervor – and me tracking it down and silencing the Red Sox faithful in a heartbeat. The Glove — the best $25 he ever spent in his life – coming through when it mattered the most.
He got that part right.
I held onto the ball.
But, in truth, I held onto it a couple heartbeats too long.
In the ensuing micro-moment, I registered the right-to-left soundtrack swell of the Red Sox faithful going silent and the Angels’ smoking Greek Chorus section erupting in euphoria when The Glove swallowed the ball in its waffle pocket. I’d never been responsible for a cheering crowd like that before, and it promptly filled my 10-year-old heart full. For a moment I basked in it … just long enough for the opportunistic Red Sox third base coach to send his runner home. When I finally broke from my reverie and launched the ball with my rag arm to the plate, it was too late. The runner scored standing up with the go-ahead run.
We failed to score in the bottom of the inning and ended up losing the game and thus, the league championship.
The winning run scored because I held on to the ball too long.
In his re-tellings over the years, Dad never remembered how the story actually ended.
I cringed every time he brought it up.
Never had the heart to correct him.
What you find has an awful lot to do with what you’re looking for.
That was my Dad, though. Without fail he always looked for the best part of the story. He raised his son to do the same.
I just wish it hadn’t taken me all these years to realize that I had it all wrong.
Me holding on to the ball was how the game ended. How the season ended.
Not the story.
The best part of the story is a Dad who remembered that I caught the ball.
In the end, he got as much joy from what The Glove held on to as I did.
Springing forward always makes me think of Sad Sam Jones, who pitched in the major leagues from 1914-1935.
In Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times,” Sam tells of how he never threw over to first base to chase back a runner. He once went five years without even attempting a pickoff move. “I once heard Eddie Plank say, ‘There are only so many pitches in this old arm, and I don’t believe in wasting them throwing to first base.’”
That’s how I feel about the clock in my car, the one clock I have dominion over. I never turn it forward and back. Although I don’t have the extension of my major league career to think about, I dedicate the occasional stray thought to the preservation of one of my few useful services to my family: I’m really good at opening jars. “Dad?” Karry will call from the kitchen. “Help.”
Given that the vast majority of my contributions to the house fall under a loose category I like to call, “Intangibles,” I’m mindful of getting the most from my meager talents. This is why I never complained all those years we went without a dishwasher. Any excuse to stand next to Karry.
So, for going on 25 years, I’ve saved myself two turns a year (fifty jars if you’re keepin’ score). My car clock’s in permanent Spring Forward Mode, so it’ll now be accurate for the next six months. For the rest of the year, it’s always an hour earlier than my car says it is. During the winter, every time I turn the ignition I experience a small satisfaction realizing it’s not that late. Always makes me feel a little ahead of the game. Though it mostly has the opposite effect on my passengers, each of whom tends to experience an ‘Oh sh*t, what time is it?’ momentary freak-out.
Like most of my idiosyncrasies, it drives my family nuts. But I like having an excuse to think about Sam Jones when I think about spring. I’d like to think that Sam would appreciate that, too.
Karry catches the rising sun spotlighting the frost on the trees, says I’d appreciate, implying more than her, she hates all of winter … but as the sun continues to rise, she thaws, and is broken by its beauty, how the backlit frost glows, how the trees just glisten, like the sun has cast the morning in moonlight, and for an unspoiled moment we just stand awed in our old kitchen and stare at an older sun we’ve never seen before kissing the backs of the bare trees good morning.
In my imagination, this is where we are tonight ….
Walking into Potter’s, glancing left and finding enough open, old, red stools at the bar to accommodate us (whoever’s available, whoever wants to come), their acquisition by our keisters a confirmation, the most formal, capital “A” Arrival I can think of right now, the granting of official permission to leave everything else outside for Here … Now … the simple This.
In my imagination Robert, the forever bartender, towel over his shoulder, who spent contented decades pouring and washing, fills our glasses full of Pabst — all that our thirst has required here since 21.
Yes, we make a point to clink each other’s glasses. There may be toasts, but everything that has ever needed said is whispered in full measure by just our being together.
There is no clock on the wall.
If we’re lucky an old regular may shuffle in on cue to check the daily number off the TV, letting us know it’s seven. In the right company, in the right place, such a sun dial is sufficient.
We don’t bother with the menu, remembering it like we recall the Gettysburg Address Mr. Landman made us memorize in 8th grade history.
Everyone orders their regulars … there may be a cheeseburger, maybe wings, maybe a Greek Western, maybe a Double Giant Whammy Doodle.
For me, it’s a Poor Boy (what Potter’s calls their grilled ham and cheese topped with lettuce and mayo) without tomato on a hoagie roll. Unostentatious and perfect, the sandwich and the setting. Small salad (with beets, because, you know, Uniontown) tossed in their homemade Italian whose taste is worth any indigestion later, and their legendary fries sprinkled with seasoned salt, to share.
But the nourishment I come for is not on the menu.
It’s to hear everyone’s laughter again. Bill throwing his head back in full cackle. Tom’s revving up and going silent in high gear. Matt’s high-pitched giggle. Homer, ready with his quick squirrel chuckle. Andy’s shoulders heaving when he gets going. Chris, fighting through his laugh to throw more logs on the fire. Wolfie just shaking his head.
We go a little quieter when the food comes, order seconds of Pabsts, and are in no great hurry once the bill comes, carrying on the conversation we started here as teenagers.