9-3 story

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

 

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

9.3 (Summer 2009)

 

short story

prae-202

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

The Old Man and the Boys of Summer

Peter Singleton

Saturday

7:25 a.m.:  Under way.  Didn’t sleep well last night, but never do before these razzias.  Can’t believe I used to hop off a trans-Atlantic flight of several hours and immediately start hiking through strange terrain.  The time I walked from Shannon Airport to Limerick with a pack on my back… was closer back then to Manus’s current age than my own, and was probably more like the adolescent he is now than the middle-aged dull gray thing I have become, An Sean Duine Liath.  And yet, I can’t see Manus debarking from a long flight all alone in ten years with a Greek Homer in his knapsack and no more security than a few traveler’s checks in his pocket.

I have dozed in the back seat for the better part of an hour.  Luckily for me, Jill vomits if she can’t drive.  Give me something medieval to read and a pillow, and I will accept the loathed back seat with the equanimity of an eremite saint retreating to his little cell.  We’re obviously not there yet.  The tractor-trailers overshadowing my window as we pass are still too few and far between, as are the exit signs (“Food”—six options: McDonald’s, Burger King, I-HOP, Long John Silver’s, etc., etc.… “Gas”—four options… one planet’s bowels, several multinational corporations, same old gas).  There are days when I detest my imprisonment in the thought habits of an intellectual.  What must it be like to rumble merrily along the straight silver ribbon, veering into drive-thrus from time to time to paw in a cheeseburger-and-shake.  Oh, happy many!  If I don’t catch myself, I may ooze down the slippery slope into the moist ordure of bleeding-heart, tree-hugging liberalism.  I think I will slide into another nap, instead.

8:50 a.m.:  What a God-awful place is Dallas!  Can I write that?  If I publish my notes later, the Chamber of Commerce may sue me.  The First Amendment may not protect me if I cannot prove that Dallas is God-awful.  But how much proof do you need?  Just sit up and look out the window.  It isn’t even there, as a cohesive locus.  The silver ribbons have become concrete Greek letters written to be read from the Space Shuttle—but tossed together rather than spread into a sensible word.  The exit signs have bred like neon rats, and the billboards advertise radio stations, topless bars, and help for depression in two very different languages.  You don’t even know what squalid borough of WW II-vintage shacks, plowed over by raised highways just after we took care of business in Vietnam, you are distilling toxic vapors upon at any given moment.  Hurst, Euless, Bedford… no, that’s on the other side.  Another tournament at another time.  Mesquite, Sunnyvale, Balch Springs… God, did they used to have vales and springs here before they lay the tarmac for fifty-thousand car dealerships?  Obama will change all that.  Only ten-thousand dealerships will survive, selling go-carts.  And the semis will paint little red go-carts on their doors every time they roll over one.  And the tarmac… well, it will still be there, sealing in the spring, sealed in by a rusty padlock on a rusty chain-link fence.  Not even the gangs will have any reason to come here.  Maybe a mesquite tree or two will grow through a crack in the asphalt.

God, I wish we’d get there!  How could I have forgotten my caffeine?  Isn’t he supposed to be there by… by when?  Ten?  Tin, sayeth Jill, my cowboy princess.  Maybe her real name’s Jell.

I’d better not print any of this.  What the hell, nobody will read it, anyway.

10:20 a.m.:  Settled into a deck chair with a Styrofoam cup of fabulously overpriced tea… I normally don’t drink at these tournaments.  Not anything.  I dehydrate myself so that I don’t have to visit the filthy, overpopulated loo more often than absolutely necessary.  But my headache would not accept compromises.  Besides, this place is a cut above most.  Latrines actually indoors—an air-conditioned space which they make inviting the sooner to lure you to the snack bar.  A little more overhead for a little more gate.  You gotta give something to get something… and what else is there to get in Dallas but money—with bullets or swine flu available à la carte in certain neighborhoods?

Not here, though.  Very upscale subdivisions along the road on our way in.  White-collar white people fleeing inner-city taxes.  They call this complex the Field of Dreams, or Big League Dreams, or… some kind of dreams.  Everything’s always a dream, with a price sticker and bar code on the bottom.  Supposedly, I now sit behind the backstop of a replica Fenway Park, facing the Green Monster in left field.  I recognize the green.  Passed Crosley Field and the Polo Grounds on the walk from the parking lot, all rumored to be perfect replicas laid out to scale… but I don’t think so.  The Polo Grounds was 440 to dead center.  No way this one is scaled to that horseshoe.

Still, the place is clean, the latrines air-conditioned.  The approach protected (temporarily) from gangbangers and developers by, of all things, reedy marshes.  But I’ll have to move my deck chair off the concrete and up the grassy knoll.  The section of fold-out chairs behind me is already heating up like a griddle.  They need some kind of canopy for the spectators.

I’ll tell Jill that I am folding my chair and migrating, Bedouin-fashion.  Or not.  She’s already in close colloquy with Brad’s mother, what’s-er-name.  Rapid-Fire Renee.  The cliquing of the parents at these affairs has something of the primal savanna about it.  Mr. Carmichael and the other fat old lions have eaten well, and finger their digital cameras while regurgitating the occasional bone along an aisle as far away from me as Fenway’s classic lay-out will permit.  Dr. Arnaud and his plump, socially challenged wife (once a cute nurse, conceivably, before dropping upon him like a leopard) have sequestered themselves in a niche where they are safely insulated from foul-breathed, infidel commoners, if not from the sun.  Once Dr. Kersegian shows up, they may make a quiet threesome.  Of course, our parents mostly comprise high-end taxpayers.  Even the lions’ den is composed of well-to-do bourgeois peddlers.  (Carmichael’s damn son is so big for his age that I know good and well his dad is part of some kind of HGH ring… and who knows what else they pass under the counter?  The Trasks have a little rancho out in marijuana country.)  I don’t know how anyone affords to keep a kid on one of these traveling teams who isn’t rich.  Then again, we travel farther than most.  I suppose the teams from the Dallas area manage to cut a lot of costs.  So we probably stick out.  Probably why the umpires always give us a hard time and the opponent parents look at us as though we were IRS denunciators.  Kill the rich pigs.

Jill and I stick out among the pigs—and Renee and her husband Garth.  We are the four representatives of the riff-raff: I being a teacher, the lowest of the low.  Can’t wait for my reward in heaven… but no, I forgot: the Arnauds have heaven all staked out, and my denomination doesn’t get in.  Over their dead body, or something like that.

I can see Manus warming up over the dugout roof.  Good-looking kid.  I never looked that good.  Thank God he’s not like me.  The coach is warming up Lance, so I guess Manus won’t be starting the first game.  Thank God for that one, too.  I know he loves to pitch, but I hate to watch him.  The side always lets him down—ground balls between the wickets, fly balls played like mortar shells—and then he gets so upset.  And there’s not a thing in the world that I can do for him.  Not a thing.  Being a teacher, I can’t do much of anything else for him, either—not compared to the advantages of his friends.  So it’s just as well that he’s lean and handsome, and full of joie de vivre.  Maybe some blonde heiress will decide she can’t live without him… even though her father-in-law will be a teacher.

11:25 a.m.:  Finally we have gotten started—only about half an hour late.  They claim to have a time limit on the games, and then every damn game runs over its limit.  We’re supposed to play at 1 this afternoon, as well.  Which means probably about 3.

Manus has already made a good play in short right field, catching the ball over his shoulder.  I told him he’d have to play all of second base and half of right field, too.  The Morales kid couldn’t catch his little butt with a butterfly net.  I’m pretty sure he needs glasses.

11:35 a.m.:  Manus’s first at bat.  He walked after fouling about ten pitches way off to the opposite field.  He’s way late on everything, though he has great reflexes.  Otherwise, he would have struck out three times over—but their pitcher isn’t exacting smoking it in.  It’s the way Coach Gilliland has them all swinging.  They all look like some hooded executioner from the days of Mary Queen of Scots whose back knee buckles just as he’s about to bring down the axe.  I tried to ask the coach politely one time why he has everybody swinging down on the ball.  There were two or three parts to the answer—some combination of, “I’m a genius,” “You’re an idiot,” and, “I don’t talk to parents about baseball.”  It is possible that these are all a single inclusive insight.

We didn’t score that inning—so we’re already down two-nothing.  Can’t fault Lance.  He’s throwing well—he should be, at his size.  How does a young teenager get that big without a little pharmacological supplementation?  But we’re simply pitiful in the field.  I keep remembering the old joke from the 80’s: “How is … [your worst fielder] like Michael Jackson?  They both wear one glove for no reason.”  We have a whole team of Michael Jacksons.

12:03 p.m.  We fall ever farther behind, like a ship taking water slowly.  Manus just popped one up the chute with a runner on third.  I think it’s six-one.

Dr. Cadaret has arrived late from surgery with a cell phone on her ear.  Her son Harley (secretly known at our dinner table as The Butcher, in reference to his fielding proclivities) has not played significantly worse than the rest of the team, but I can’t fill her in on what he did the first time at the plate.  I’m afraid I am one of those parents, too: “There’s my son, and then there’s everyone else’s.”

Emily was probably very pretty as a younger woman, maybe even beautiful.  I am not quite so firmly nestled into my coffin that it doesn’t flatter me a little for her to single me out among the four or five sub-groups to accost.  I doubt that my graying good looks and my romantic isolation with a copy of next year’s freshman reader, however, have anything to do with it: has to be my brain.  As a matter of fact, we have often teetered dangerously on the border of an interesting conversation.  It always ends up the same way.  If we talk about our sons’ curriculum, it’s, “I don’t want Harley going into medicine.  Everything will be socialized in two years.  Why put in all that work for so little money?”  If it’s the fate of the nation, “I’m putting more money into rental property.  I’ve got to find some kind of tax shelter before the government puts us out on the street.”  And a very nice street, it is: our house would fit in the Cadarets’ garage.

I wonder how much the other Dr. Cadaret’s urology practice had to do with his seductive powers over the fair Emily?  The guy never reads a book—Harley says he spends all his free time playing video games—and he’s as ugly as one of those old shoes that angry Muslims wave at TV cameras.  It was ever so, in the Land of Opportunity: the guy with the bank account gets the blonde chick.  Just like grad school: all the girls who liked to talk “ideas” practiced an open bed policy, and all the sweet young things one occasionally met at the apartment complex were keeping their inventory under lock and key for a doctor or attorney.  No permanent company for losers like me.  Jill, of course, is a saint… but even so, she must have expected a college professor to make more than I do.  A lot more.

The cell phone again.  Dr. House was never half so busy.  Frankly, I wish she’d just go sit by herself.  I don’t want to hear about her damn money—Pecunia, that royal princess in a romance about to be ravished by pirates (led by the baroque Irish renegade O’Bama).  It doesn’t pull at my heart strings.  Manus just made a really nice play to his left.  We escaped that inning giving up only one more run

12:31 p.m.:  Manus got a hit—a palpable hit!  A double to left-center!  Of course, he was late on it… but who cares?  He crossed up the defense and knocked in two runs!  My kid is better than their kids, these silver-lined shysters and quacks and drug-runners!

It’s funny how faithful that all is to how I actually feel.  It is a feeling of social one-upmanship, as if I were somehow avenging myself for a lifetime’s indignities upon a horde of wage slaves who have presumed to lord it over my spirit.  No, I don’t want Manus to be a teacher: I’m just like Dr. Cadaret (the pretty one), as far as that goes.  I don’t want my kid working his heart and soul out just to have to go begging for jobs and sucking up for promotions.  I’d rather see him smiling through the settling dust after he has taken second on a steal or reaching over a fence to rob a homerun.  I’d rather him race the wind and split the sunshine than teach grammar to bipedal manatees.  This culture’s professed interest in things of the mind is all a lie, a coarse lie evoked for PR when senators on the take deliver commencement addresses.  To haul in the money doing abortions and breast implants is one way, I suppose, of showing that you haven’t been gulled by the lie… but I’d rather see my kid smile.  Smile and have a few bucks in his pocket—forget the millions.  But smile, and be healthy, and do it for a living, in a world where everyone else has to suffocate his soul to pay the bills.

Don’t be like me, my son.  Just get a good pitch, don’t miss it, and then run like the wind.

1:00 p.m.:  We lost, of course.  I think the final tally was ten-four.  But I continue to bask in the glow of my boy’s hit, utterly unconcerned by the situation’s broader tragedy.  Old Carmichael (Jill calls him El Diablo) is having indigestion over some wildebeest he devoured too hastily.  It annoys him no end that his future Hall of Famer Lance did not win the game—that the porous defense behind him allowed runs in a steady diarrhoeic dribble.  He has come over between games (and, sure enough, we should already have started the second one) to grumble about taking his son off the team and creating his own team.  Money, of course, will be no object.  He’s simply worried that Prince Lancelot is being held back by all these club-footed hayseeds around him.  Wants Manus to be on the team—I think that’s what he said.  Or else it was a comment about the rising heat, maybe, filtered through that mouthful of breakfast oatmeal that he can never seem to swallow.

1:22 p.m.:  Second game finally begun.  Renee’s kid Brad on the hill.  I know I wrote that I’m always relieved when Manus doesn’t pitch, but it’s starting to bother me a bit that Gilliland has not put him in either game.  He doesn’t throw as hard as Carmichael’s hormone-fed Hercules, but he has better stuff—and he’s certainly better than Brad in every way.  Does the coach still have it in for me?  Is he taking it out on my kid?

Riding my high of enthusiasm for Manus’s ringing double (thanks to metal bats, it really did ring), I find that The Devil’s mumbles are luring me into his trap.  A new team with better players, and no Gilliland Lama interpreting heaven’s will…  But Carmichael had already mumbled about mutiny into Jill’s ear last week, and she dissected his motives with her typically infallible suspicion of human nature.  (What heads of state these cowboy princesses would make!)  She thinks that what he really wants to do is infuriate Gilliland with Manus for deserting the team, so that, when Manus gets to high school (by which time Gillie will be head coach, since Fargo is retiring soon), the boy will be utterly ignored as part of an old vendetta.  Meanwhile, Lance will never leave Gilliland’s good graces, since Carmichael is secretly paying him huge bucks to give his son lessons (all of which intel comes from Renee).  El Diablo is trying to set us up.  No one’s kid must be permitted to eclipse his own.

There’s the matter, too, of why Gilligan (another dinner-table sobriquet) hates my guts.  I always figured that it’s because I’m an intellectual, and men of his stripe consider that any male who ever reads a book—let alone writes one—is a pinko pederast who gets money from George Soros.  Just the way he talks to me, or talks across me… I can say, “Good morning,” and I’ll get back something like, “That’s really not that bad.”  Then I’m left to figure out exactly what is not that bad.  The morning?  Seems logical.  So I’ll say, “May rain later this afternoon.”  And then he’ll look at me as though I just flashed him, and I’ll find out later (or never—find out through blind inference) that “that” was some issue we had briefly discussed two weeks ago—Manus’s switch-hitting, for instance—and my comment about rain therefore taken as evidence that I just didn’t want to talk any more about the matter.  My response to being treated this way has probably leaked into my conduct, in return, which further poisons the well.  I have to admit that I think the guy’s a psycho.

Jill, however, proposes that I’m just imagining all this hatred-of-intellectuals thing.  She thinks Carmichael himself has been feeding the coach half-truths or complete lies about comments I have made.  The guy’s a real piece of work—both of them are.

So… no thank you, Diablo.  I will let my good angel Jill be my guide.  I already have enough problems with His Mystical and Most Supreme Coachship.  If you muddy the waters still further for my son, I shall kill you and Gilligan with the same metal bat, go to prison for life, write a liberal-leaning critique of Male America which shall net me interviews with Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper, and send my kid to Stanford with the proceeds.

2:15 p.m.:  This game is now almost an hour old.  Unbelievable.  Between my daydreaming several replays of Manus’s double and my trying to decipher the Machiavellian Carmichael, I’ve been paying very little attention to the action.  You’d think the boys would be exhausted after having just played a game in this sun, but the score in this one is actually pretty close.  Manus has drawn a walk and popped out to third again.  I’m really going to have to talk to him tonight about falling down on his back leg when he swings.  I know he’s just following Captain Gilligan’s directions… and Gilliland would say, “Well, he got a double!  You expect him to get a hit every time?”  But the approach defies physics and common sense—even I can see that.

I exhausted myself, too, shouting and screaming after The Big Hit.  In fact, I think it’s easier to play in these games than to watch them.  As a parent, you build up so much adrenaline… and there’s nowhere for it to go.  Wish I could get a bottle of Scotch at that snack bar.  I supplied myself with paper towels on a trip to the head, which I have kept moistened from my cup of melting ice and applied to my neck.  I’m in better shape than I was this morning, for all my griping.

Brad was pulled for the tall, lanky kid whose name utterly escapes me.  He’s very awkward, but if he can get the ball over the plate, it comes at such a slope that no one can elevate it.  Lance and Manus have made some good plays at short and second.

3:14 p.m.:  Victoire!  And what a glorious victory!  Behind all the way until the top of the fifth (we were the visiting team).  A strike-out, and then Manus beat out a dribbler up the middle which he will call a base hit, but which will be recorded as E-6 when he gets a little older.  No matter.  So he steals second, and the next kid walks.  Then up comes mighty Lance, all artificially grown 170 pounds of him.  He’s been sucking air all afternoon, frankly, with that highly photogenic and frame-worthy homerun cut of his.  (If the pitching were better, he would have hit three or four homers in the two games instead of fanning as many times: I recall Diablo saying something to me about how the kid just couldn’t slow his bat down enough to hit this weak pitching.)  Finally a bit of luck: he pulls one down the third-base line that skips over the bag and just keeps going.  Manus came home, then the other kid on a throwing error (except we don’t formally charge errors yet).  Lance eventually got home, too, on an infield out.

So the bottom of the fifth rolls around after we have already timed out.  Rules state that you have to finish any inning you start if the home team is behind, so… we keep playing, with a one-run lead now.  I look up from my sober stupor and find Manus (the kids call him “The Man”, if you can imagine) on the mound.  He gets everyone to swing at this dancing “cutter”, as he has dubbed it.  No solid contact—but with our infield, any contact at all is potentially lethal, and our lead is of the slimmest.  Mercifully, a bleeder rolls right back to the mound for the first put-out; then Manus takes a pop in front of the plate for the second; then the last hitter chases a high fastball for the third strike.

Big celebration.  This team hasn’t won very many.  A nice victory, and… my kid is better than yoouuur kid!  But the Devil actually grumbles something about how well Manus played on his way up the aisle.  The mothers are all chattering about where to eat this evening.  I just want to find the motel and take a dip in the pool.  Thank God, the author of all graces, they didn’t tie it!  We might have been here another hour, since you can’t stop on a tie.

Coach Gilliland seems civil.  Was that a smile?  Were those words of encouragement, of enthusiasm?  Maybe I should say, “That’s better than that was, anyway.”

5:10 p.m.:  I almost feel guilty.  Not that I will revise my estimate of this Mistake on the Plain… but as Satan tells his minions in the first book of Paradise Lost, you can make even Hell seem like home with a little fixing up.  Anyway, the effect is largely created by the pool’s water—and its silence: the happy fact, that is, that all the boys have finally (or for the moment) retreated to the Internet room beside the lobby.  And the smell of new plaster and paint helps somehow—for this is a very new motel.  All will soon be very worn.  But for now, the sensation of cleanness is irresistible.  And maybe even that of inhumanness—of safety from the human, the seething, excrement-slinging Yahoo forces which have created places like Dallas (and I’m not talking about Web-browsers, Coach Gilligan).

Or maybe, still more than cool water and silence and human-resistant purity, this peace is simply a matter of not being in the grind I have ground out for months.  Hence the guilt.  I feel so guilty about leaving for these tournaments when I have so much work to do… and then, amid all the sweltering heat and the smog and the headaches, I take pleasure by surprise.  Or it takes me.  And so I feel guilty about my previous guilt.  Just a rat on a treadmill, am I.  Force me at gunpoint into a freshly painted box along the interstate, and after a few hours, I kind of like it.  Especially if there’s a pool.

And to think that we flatter ourselves that we can prepare our children for “adult life”!  What a stupid existence, to hate what you do every day so much that being kidnapped would be a relief!

8:10 p.m.:  We may possibly be served something besides drinks and appetizers soon.  Wonderful idea to go to this celebrated steakhouse on a Saturday night and wait for four vacant tables that can be joined together!  I can feel the bonding just overpowering me.  I’m most certainly going to take this delightful napkin home with me.  Just wrote some notes for my article on Flann O’Brian all over it.  My neighbor, the one empty chair in the room, has loaned me a second to continue my scrawls.

At first I was going to drink water with lemon, like Jill.  But I just have to take on some caffeine, even if it keeps me up half the night.  I seldom get any sleep in motels, anyway—and I intend to slug down a sleeping pill.  What would we do without our drugs and pills, we master-pilots of the “adult world”?  Mrs. Hewlitt, whose big kindly oaf of a husband has largely bankrolled the team (though he’s less well endowed than many of the doctors, I’m sure), is belting down a margarita.  Good for her.  If I can’t have Chivas Regal on the rocks, the nectar of the victorious, I’ll go with iced tea.

Carmichael has cornered Coach Gilliland: the two are trading their vast amounts of knowledge about the game, I’ve no doubt.  Though, come to think of it, both of them greet my childhood reminiscences about Stan Musial and Johnny Callison with a contempt that, far from attempting to conceal, they run up the masthead.  “Those guys are dead!” they snort.  (Actually, I think Stan the Man yet lives.)  “We do things differently these days.  Those guys couldn’t play at Double A today.”  I pointed out to Gilligan once, when he was really starting to annoy me (“I don’t care what you’ve seen,” he said, “that all died with the dinosaurs!”), that nobody ever struck out 150 times a year in those days—not even free-swinging Johnny—and that RBI numbers are way down over the past 50 years from what they were before, steroids and muscle-building notwithstanding.  Figures, facts, black-and-white stats—they don’t lie, Gilligan!  But if he were to admit the importance of the past, of course, then he wouldn’t be able to know everything at his tender age.  He would have to bend a knee, and keep learning.  Just like literary studies.  The trashing and torching of the classics has radically shortened the reading list for new Ph.D. candidates.  Nice how that works.

Everybody’s a smart-ass these days, Stan.  Why do you bother to hang on to this world?

Mrs. Gilliland showed up at some point in the afternoon with her babe in arms.  She’s cute in a plump and simpering way.  About two-thirds her husband’s height, and always flashing a bland smile that gives her a bit of a double chin.  She seems to be riding around the suction of the Nurse Arnaud (Mrs. Dr. Arnaud) cum Mrs. Kersegian maelstrom, where talk is largely about prohibitively expensive shopping, from what I can tell.  (The Nurse is wearing her fourth outfit since my original sighting of her this morning.  Like Superman, she needs no more than a phone booth to be reborn.)  Jill has assured me—probably primed in this cynicism by Renee, for it isn’t entirely her style—that the simpering wife works the other side of the street while Mr. Baseball allows Carmichael to suck up to him.  Between the two of them, they will garner enough rich patronage to flesh out the American Dream.

Speaking of which… Dr. Cadaret (blonde, once-pretty Dr. Cadaret: The Shoe is on call for the rest of the weekend) is addressing more of her misobamia to me, having long ago ascertained that I am not a typical obamaniac academic.  No, I can’t stand people who work both sides of the street, including ones who keep ducking in and out of phone booths to assume different racial identities according to the waiting crowd’s temper.  But I can’t deny that it makes me smile to see how these people quiver and rage at the thought of having their profits cut in half by Big Brother.  I hope both sides roll into hell while they’re clawing and biting each other.

The boys are all gathered about two tables which, it turned out, we separated from the foursome.  Why should the triumphant cohorts want to share their wine with a bunch of gay old geezers?  Manus has apparently ordered a steak, of which he won’t eat the half.  Jill is already alerting me to remember to get a doggy-bag from the waiter, though the steamy repast has only just been laid upon the creaking oaken plank.  So where the hell’s my burger?

11:05 p.m.:  By the time we all chipped in to put a tip on the table, it was pushing ten.  Absolutely insane, staying out half the night after one long day and before another.  Mr. Hewlitt, having consulted his i-Phone, informed us just before we parted that we are scheduled to play at 8 a.m. sharp tomorrow!  Tell me that’s not special treatment for the out-of-towners.  We have farther to come than anyone, and we get stuck with the first game bright-and-early Sunday morning.

I don’t care—I’m going to sleep like a rock.  As tired as I’ve been all day… and a sleeping pill just to finish me off..

Manus wanted to stay up and watch Sports Center.  Had to yell at him through my descending daze.  I thought kids were supposed to need more sleep than adults.  Where do they get their energy?

Do we live just to bleed ourselves dry in sacrifice for our children?  Does it matter that we pass along the question unanswered to their generation—always to the next generation—having accepted that all suicidal sacrifice is morally self-justifying?

Sunday

6:45 a.m.:  First-mate Gilligan can be a right Captain Ahab when he sets his mind to it… but down in the lobby, scouting out his continental breakfast, he didn’t seem too insistent that everyone make it back to the park exactly at seven.  I therefore pull Manus aside in the room with his bat while Jill crams stuff into bags and takes them down to the car.  I’m going to do this or die.

“Stop swinging down on the ball!” I say.  “You got one real hit yesterday, and you’re better than that.  Stop folding over your back knee and slicing down!  You look like you’re trying to kill a cobra that you almost stepped on.”

No response—that’s positive.  These days, one interprets that as receptivity.  Phase Two.

“Let your bat slide off your back shoulder as you coil,” I continue, trying not to develop the snake metaphor.  It’s not even seven a.m.  “Pick your front foot up a little, just a little.  Gilliland probably won’t even see it.  It’ll help your hands to slide back off your shoulder, and it will also make your weight shift forward when your foot comes down.  Foot first, then hands.  Believe me!  I saw Musial play.”  (On TV.  When I was way too young to remember anything but my dad saying, “There’s Musial.”)

“But why is it so important to get my hands there?” he says.

This, too, is a very positive sign: the intelligent question.  Phase Three: follow with an intelligent answer.  At six-bloody-fifty in the flaming dawn.

“It’s basic geometry, Manus.  The plane of the ball’s flight is this way.  The more proximate you bring the plane of your swing to the plane of the ball’s flight,” (proximate is simply brilliant, under the circumstances), “the higher the probability that bat and ball will intersect.  Basic physics.  When the swing’s plane is tilted this severely,” (graphic demonstration with hands), “a single point of intersection is the only possible… the only possible point of intersection.  No reward for being early or late.  And you will also be putting severe backspin on the ball, which is… which is… God, we have to go.  Just… just practice hitting a few.  Lift your forward leg ever so slightly and let the bat slide back off your shoulder.”

“Hit what?”

“Shadow ball, my boy.  A reverend tradition among us poor folk.  Imagine that I’m pitching to you.  Key on my movements.  Yes, Jill, I’m aware of the time.  We just need two more minutes.  Yes, yes, go ahead and check out.”

7:55 a.m.:  Today’s venue: the pseudo-Crosley Field.  I have no idea who used to play at Crosley Field.  I’m guessing the Cincinnati Reds.  I ask around, but no one else seems to know, either… except Carmichael.  He asserts that it was the Pirates, without missing a beat.  A preemptive certainty.  And he’s completely wrong—the Pirates were Forbes Field.  I’m staying away from that guy today.

No chance of this game’s starting late, of course—it’s the first one of the day.  I couldn’t see whom the coach was warming up, but he’s already been busy making more enemies among us lowly proles.  Seems he got all over Brad for not running his pre-game windsprints full tilt… so Brad kicks it up a notch, throws up his breakfast, and stalks fuming over to mommy when the group retires to the dugout, demanding through the chain-link fence to be taken home.  Renee talked him out of it by promising him a new video game.  I suggested he drink a Gatorade forthwith.  They’re good on an upset tummy.

Feels funny playing doctor with my Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies while all these other M.D.’s sit around and scowl silently.  I’m almost certain that none of them even knows that I enjoy a formal title to the appellation “doctor”—even if my diploma might as well have come from a box of Crackerjack, for all the respect it commands on the open market.

Why are they here, I wonder—why are the pampered and privileged elite sitting among us to watch their sons and heirs be drubbed in a game at which few of them show any aptitude?  Because most of us send our kids to St. Francis—because Gilliland is clearly the crown prince for the varsity coaching job, and they feel that enrolling their kids on his traveling select team will secure a starting position later?  Why would you want your kid to start if he’s no good?  Or is the plan for him to become better—to win a college scholarship?  But they can all afford college tuition.  Do they have their sights set even higher—little Harley making 5 mil annually in the MLB?  Surely not.  Maybe Lance, after he’s been juiced until he stands seven-foot-two at the ripe age of 16… but not the others.  Then why?  This is, after all, a blue-collar pastime, signing bonuses and whopper contracts aside.  Is it just that the boys love to play?

8:05 a.m.:  Manus is pitching.  He only threw about twelve pitches last night, so… I’m glad I don’t eat bacon and sausages in the morning.  This is enough to make any decent, caring father puke.

But he did well in the top of the first, really well.  Set them down with eight pitches.  He seldom throws the ball past anyone—but nothing he throws goes straight.  They can’t square it on the bat.  What a devious kid!

8:15 a.m.:  Manus drove a double straight over the center-fielder’s head.  A clothesline, as we used to say… just like old Stan.

8:45 a.m.:  He’ll be coming up again soon.  His pitching makes me so nervous that I’ve almost forgotten to pay attention to the batting order.  As a dad, you strive to make your kid work hard, and then you stand back and watch him reap the rich harvest of honest labor.  Or something like that.  There’s nothing more frustrating, then, than watching your boy triumph over opposing players, hitter after hitter—and then harvest weeds for it when the fielders behind him boot the ball, throw to the wrong base, overthrow the base, lose pop-ups in their eyelashes, and otherwise act like little sissies.  How male of a thing is that to say?  Well, so be it.  I think men should be men—and I think boys should start showing some guts at some point.  Not football guts, God help us—not the berserker’s bellowing and chest-thumping, but mature focus.  Perception, then execution.  There’s the job before you: now do it.  Catch the damn ball.  Stop wetting your pants in apprehension and just do the job.  A boy has to learn to do that, or at some point when he stops being a boy, he doesn’t start being a man.  Maybe that’s hard, but that’s how it is.  Life doesn’t forgive errors.  Sometimes—usually—it doesn’t let you get away with a single small error.  When you just pile them up one on another, then you identify yourself as someone who deserves to fail.  A loser.  Like me.  A loser who couldn’t see way up the line that reading Homer in Greek wouldn’t get him work decoding terrorist exchanges for the CIA, or writing for a newspaper, or even teaching in a tenure-granting Classics department unless he were a favored minority with a parent in the state legislature… who couldn’t smell out in five years of sitting right in the dump bowl that Interdisciplinary Studies were not only a passing fancy, but a fake major for misfits and ne’er-do-wells incapable of deciding which single one of several useless majors to choose… who couldn’t even notice over all those squandered years that real estate was really cheap—that all he had to do was buy his own duplex and rent half of it, and by now he could have built his own school, launched his own publishing company.  God, just grow up!  Get in front of the ball and die a clean death, if it comes to that.  You don’t want to spend the rest of your life saying, “If only I had swung and missed instead of waiting for a better pitch… if only I had won the dignity of at least swinging…”

My God, he’s done it again!  He hit the crap out of the ball!  Another double, this one a little more to left-center.  Should have been a triple, but the little Scoggins kid (now, what does his father do?) was clogging up the bases.  Clog ’em Scoggins… a new one for the dinner table.  Way to go, kid!  God, I’ve yelled myself voiceless.  I’m so happy—I’m King of the World!  I taught my kid how to hit with five minutes of shadow ball and a toilet-paper résumé better than the Maestro has been able to do in a year!  I may be a loser, but my kid hit a rope to the fence, and all the doctors’ kids suck!  And The Loser taught him everything he knows!  What do you think of that, Gilligan?  What do you think of Stan Musial now?

9:04 a.m.:  We actually have a chance to win this.  After a few of those hand-grenade lobs to first from our middle infielders which Kent tends to lose because he sticks his glove right in front of his eyes, we settled down.  The kids realized that Manus was throwing strikes and getting a lot of weak grounders, and they got on their toes.  They woke up for once in their lives.  They’ve actually made a few good plays.  Brad made a diving stop a third and threw the runner out.  How’s that for self-surpassment?  They can do it if they’ll just… do it!

9:17 a.m.:  Manus might get one more at-bat.  Their pitcher got a little shaky after The Man hit that second long one to the fence, and they finally brought in a new one.  This reliever seems to throw harder, but he’s wild.  He’s all over the place.  If he walks Dirk Kersegian, the bases will be loaded, and Manus will be up again.  We’re already ahead six-five, but a little insurance… and then again, if we can just stretch this inning out—if we could somehow milk it for another twelve minutes, then the game would time out.

Okay, Dirk’s on.  The Man is up for his third crack at it, and never more on the line.  Bases loaded.  Whatever you do, kid, don’t swing at the first pitch.  This guy’s lost the strike zone—don’t do him any favors!

I’m not shouting this stuff: I want to, but I can’t.  My voice is gone, and Manus would tune me out, anyway.  But I’m shouting it in my mind.  It’s like being high on something.  I’m flopped belly-down on a hazy, motionless cloud.  My temples are pounding, but I’m not sweating.  Whatever will happen has already happened—it’s like a perpetual moment, a seamless long event.  I’m not seeing it about to happen, not anticipating it—I’m just happening with it.

At the same time… some silly little pagan in the back of my mind is praying to the God of the Arnauds, simpering away like Mrs. Gilliland: “God, if you will just… just give this sweet boy just one more hit… just one more hit, God!  I’ll just praise you and praise you!”  Is this game really worth an apostasy of such magnitude?

Well, yes… if it works.

 9:25 a.m.:  Manus went after the first pitch.  You could tell he would—you could see him brimming with confidence after hitting the crap out of two previous pitches, employing the old-school swing championed by Dad (who saw Stan Musial play).  Too much confidence.  Gets you every time.  He dribbled it back to the pitcher—who almost threw it away.  God, why couldn’t you let him throw it just an inch farther up the line?  Because you’re a complete phony, that’s why—because you’re that non-existent God of heretics like the Arnauds, and that dribbler decisively proves it.  What a loser!  What losers pray to a loser like that?

Two for three is good.  Really good.

How I’ve disgraced myself this weekend!  How childish!  And I can’t even hide it in my dark soul—my cracking voice will indict me every time I attempt to speak.

Still, a one-run lead is a lead.  Maybe he can set them down in order.  Three up and three down. babe!

9:37 a.m.:  That didn’t take long to screw up.  Two quick outs, then a throwing error, then a towering fly to left.  It could have ended the game—we could have beaten the top-seeded team in the tournament.  But it was not to be.  For under the lofty fly waited… Harley.  The Butcher.  And Harley had time to think—as he almost always does, because he’s a quick thinker and a good student (like certain other losers I’ve known).  You could read his thoughts all the way from the bleachers: they might as well have been broadcast over the loudspeaker.  “The last out of the game—and it’s coming at me!  Oh, no!  What if I screw up again!  I’ll have to screw up—I always screw up!  And then the guys will all hate me and make fun of me even more than they do now!  What if I just catch it?  Yeah, that’d work.  I could just catch it and be the hero.  But, no, I can’t catch it.  I can’t ever catch anything.  I’ve got to screw up.  I’ve just got to.”

And then, after he runs away from the ball at the last possible second, insistently denying it admittance into his glove, he holds his left shoulder.  Darn.  What a bad break.  Re-aggravated that old rotator cuff injury by lifting the glove too precipitately to eye-level.  Happens to the best of them.  And while he’s trying to sell all of Crosley Field on his career-threatening mishap, the damn ball is rolling past him to the fence.  He realizes at some point that it’s more important to retrieve the ball than make his bid for an Oscar, so off he goes.  He chases it down, he grabs it, and… now he’s supposed to throw it.  But where?  What is it that everyone’s shouting at him?  Three?  Three what?  Ah, hell, let Lance figure it out.  Lance always knows what to do with a baseball.  And so he shovels it to Lance, who’s the most surprised guy in the park… but soon recovers himself.  By now the runner is headed for home.  A good throw gets him easily.  Roll out that cannon, Lance—that HGH-stoked weapon of mass destruction.  He coils, he fires… and I end up almost taking it in the back of the head, because the bleeping ball hits off the facing of the air-conditioned snacks-and-johns retreat and bounces right down on me with a metallic ricochet.

Seven-six.

9:45 a.m.:  The time is officially up, but we have a final at-bat as the home team.  We go almost in order.  There is a two-out walk to the Morales kid, whose strategy of bending his knees and taking everything is actually quite bright.  Then Harley appears.  Swings at a pitch way over his head, takes a couple of balls, takes strike two, and… the ump rings him up.  Strike three.  The other team comes bouncing victoriously out of their dugout as he squints behind the plate, incredulous.  Let everyone see that, Harley—make it a real good squint for the bleachers.  Wasn’t your fault to be caught with the bat on your shoulder: just a terrible, terrible call from the umpire.

I feel for the kid.  I feel deeply for him.  I know him far too well.  I’m off to comfort my own boy, but who will comfort Harley for the kind of life he’s about to embark upon?  I’ll say a prayer to the real God for him.  As blonde, once-pretty Dr. Cadaret descends to supply him with further excuses besides the muscle cramp and the bad umpire, I reach absolute certainty that God will find him in some very dark pit ten years from now.

 10:00 a.m.:  On the road again.  Leaving Dallas (or entering its heap of bombed concrete gammas in order to leave them).  Manus was not hard to console.  His two solid smashes and his near-perfect game sabotaged by others’ errors will become the stuff of personal childhood lore.  (They are in the becoming already.  He keeps wanting me to describe his hits to him, and I paint as epic a picture as will coexist with a generous truth.)  All things considered, it was a nice weekend.  Very nice.  We escaped from our moldy little boondocks for a few hours, I got to float in a pool, I saw Lanny Carmichael finally reduced to mortified silence after his kid made an unequivocally bonehead play, and my impoverished but sage tutoring struck a blow for the dead-but-not-forgotten against the arrogant forces of progress.  My son, at least for the time being, thinks that I’m worth listening to.

And, since we didn’t win, we got to go home.  I can get a decent nap in my own bed this afternoon.  What more could any mortal possibly ask?    

 

Dr. Peter Singleton enjoys semi-retirement in the North Texas area, where he teaches and writes in various venues.  He has been a frequent contributor to Praesidium from the journal’s early days.