(Best read with a Guatemala “Casi Cielo” (“Almost Heaven”) and a maple oat nut scone.)
Uncle Frank was pissed.
He slammed the gearbox of the ’41 Pontiac coup and it lunged forward across Winton Avenue. Richard and Craig grabbed the back of the front seats and the hand loops next to the doors to hang on. I fell back into the front seat, my feet flying off the floor boards.
Richard and Craig. I always said the names together—Richard n’ Craig—like it was one word. My cousins’ names were more an idea than just people’s names. We all had been raised together more like brothers and sisters than cousins. But, our homes were named after who we played with. I called it Richard n’ Craig’s. My sister called the same place Kristine’s.
Early that day I left home to walk around the block to their house. My mother admonished, “Be home by dinner.” Now I wondered if I’d be late. Didn’t make much difference. There’d be hell to pay today.
Craig saw them first. His arm shot past my head like a spear, finger sharply pointing. “There they are!” The punks had upturned a wooden baseball backstop. The one with the mouth was bouncing on it trying to break it.
“Son of a bitch,” Uncle Frank hissed. I could feel Richard n’ Craig exchange glances. The grownups tried to watch their language around us. I stared straight ahead. I pulled on the strap on the glove box trying to follow Craig’s point. Uncle Frank turned the car down an unpaved court, dust flying behind us like smoke. Until last year this had been Mr. Galvin’s farm. I missed the farm and Mr. Galvin’s huge mare draft horse. Across the vacant lots we could see the punks. They saw us and started running. But they were running toward the pickle factory on the far side of Winton School. That was dumb. They couldn’t get out of the play field that way. As if they heard my thoughts, they turned mid-field and headed toward the construction site at the far end of the field.
We piled out of the car. Craig squeezed by me and ran. I almost fell out of the car and brought up the rear. They were all bigger than me. My heart murmur was making me wheeze. No one noticed. They would only notice if I started to turn blue. They wouldn’t notice that today—not after what happened.
The day started out with great promise. I decided to walk all the way around the block rather than cut through Uncle George’s field. He wouldn’t mind if I cut through, but I liked to walk around and see the Victorian homes. Richard n’ Craig were coming down the block with their baseball and bat—we didn’t have gloves. Usually we would meet at their house and start with the “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know. What do you want to do?” routine. I liked it when we got together.
“Oh, no,” I thought, “not baseball.” They used me as a go-for. Craig pitched; Richard batted. The ball always went where I wasn’t. I ran it down. I got to it over two football fields from the diamond. It had rolled to a stop. Football. Why couldn’t we play football?
“Don’t walk it in! Throw it!” I threw it. It landed and stopped. I could see their shoulders slump and heads tilt as if to say, “So, throw it again.” I ran to it. Threw it. It stopped. I threw it three times before my throw made it to Craig. I hated baseball.
Later when I made the varsity team in high school I knew where my arm came from. I still didn’t like it, just got good at it.
Then I heard him. The two punks came from a hole under the fence. Obviously, they hadn’t seen “Westside Story”. Neither had we—too much singing and kissing. “Tonight, tonight”…yish. But the guys at school showed us how to vault over fences like the gang did in the movie. I liked it because I didn’t get all dusty crawling through the hole. Craig liked it because, as he said, “It’s like we’re flying over the fence.” We were big on anything to do with airplanes.
The punk was jabbering something, but I couldn’t make it out. Richard let the bat slump; then picked it up ready for Craig’s pitch. That was our cue to ignore the punk. By rights, that was my job. I was the oldest son of the oldest son, of the oldest son for as long as anyone could remember. That meant someday I’d be the patron. But Richard was my older cousin, Craig’s oldest brother—the oldest. He took that very seriously. He said we ignore—we ignore.
And, I would have if the punk hadn’t started jabbering at me. I knew it was foul. But, what does “fucking bastard” mean? My dad was a carpenter. He’d ask me to get the bastard file for him. The punk was calling me a “fucking file”?
So, I told him. After I said it Richard shot me a glance. Uh, oh. Here we go. I told the punk, “Same to you.” He got pissed. His invectives edged up several notches. I knew he was trying to insult me. I really wanted to tell him that to insult me he would have to use words I understood. But the code stopped me. I was supposed to understand cursing. The punk bellowed. I said, “Same to you.” He bellowed some more. Richard hit the pitch and my fielding talents were requested. By the time the ball rolled to Craig, the punks had disappeared into the school building. Then Richard shocked me.
“Your turn to bat.” Me? The sun was still high in the sky. Craig hadn’t batted yet. Richard was heading for the outfield—not too deep. I began to walk. “Run,” Craig said. I trotted like I had seen Willy Mays do at the Giants game.
The bat came almost to my chest. It weighed a ton. “Oh, this is going to be good,” I thought. Craig slow pitched to me. I swung and caused a typhoon to blow. The ball wasn’t damaged when it hit the backstop behind me. I threw it back to Craig.
“Wait for a good pitch,” he said.
I took a stance like Richard had.
“Choke up,” Craig told me. My hands slid up the bat. If I swung too hard, the end of the bat would stick me in the chest. Craig pitched.
Recently I had started making clicking noises with my tongue like the crack of the bat when Willy Mays hit a long ball. I clucked. I swung. I hit the ball! Craig watched as the ball labored past him into the outfield. Everything past Craig was the outfield. Richard was charging the ball.
“Run!” Craig yelled at me as we raced for first base.
“Safe!” I yelled stomping where the first base bag would be if it were there.
“Good hit,” Richard feigned. He had been sickly, too. He understood how important it was to tell me.
I don’t remember why. Richard was back at bat. Craig was still pitching. I was on first base. The hand felt like a claw on my shoulder. It spun me around. I never saw the fist. It clocked me on the side of the eye and the world seemed very gray. I staggered back but didn’t fall.
“Good one,” the second punk said. I could hear him, but couldn’t see him. Funny how a small piece of dust in one eye makes you blind in both. The punk was telling me I was a fucking something.
What does that mean? What does it mean to be a fucking something? My eye started to throb.
Suddenly Richard was standing next to me. He was yelling at the punk to pick on someone who’s facing him. I took it that Richard felt the blow was a foul because I didn’t see it coming. And, if I had seen it coming? Then what? My eye was really throbbing. Craig started toward us. The second punk grabbed the first and said, “There’s three of them. Let’s get out of here.” He counted me! My vision cleared. I was staring at both of them—what a menacing glare.
The punks shrank away. Richard came over to me and looked at my eye. “We’re done for today.” I knew it was my fault. We couldn’t fly over the fence. I squeezed through the gap between the gates. It took a month to walk home. Craig carried the ball and bat. Richard gripped my arm all the way. I was in trouble.
Uncle Frank was pissed.
When he saw my eye, I saw his lips purse and his hand plant on his hips. Someone was about to die. I prayed it wouldn’t be me.
After he cooled off in the field and the punks had escaped, he ordered us back to the car. I turned to look back and saw him packing up the backstop. I wondered if I’d ever get that strong. We knew the punks would be back. Sure enough, the backstop lay smashed a few days later.
“Come on. We’ll take you home,” Uncle Frank said. His tone was almost defeated. I realized that he felt that he let someone hurt his nephew.
My mom stood in the doorway with that “Oh, boy” look on her face. They sat me down in the kitchen. She put a paper towel filled with ice on my eye. The throbbing stopped. I hadn’t seen myself yet. Everyone kept looking at me. Richard recounted the story. There was no campfire. No warriors dancing and howling. No stories of killing buffalo. Just a fool holding a cold dripping paper towel against his eye. The melting ice ran down my arm and dripped off my elbow. Well, there’d be hell to pay when my father got home. Everyone went home. My sister came out of her room. She saw my eye and both of hers welled with tears. I thought maybe I’d go to bed after dinner—and not look in any mirrors.
My dad’s truck drove up. I heard the door slam, his boots clunk on the concrete, the back door open.
“Look at your son,” my mom told him. “Your son”—I was going to die.
He looked at me and said something in Portuguese. I wondered if it meant “fuck”. His callused hand turned my chin back and forth. I wanted to say, “You should have seen the other guy.” But I hadn’t seen the other guy either.
“Needs more ice,” he said. My mother mumbled the story to him.
My sister stared across the table at me as my mother ladled more food than I could eat in a week on to my plate. Just eating dinner was going to be long tonight. For once, I didn’t say anything all dinner long.
I stood next to my dad as he read his newspaper. “Takes two to fight,” he whispered.
“What did you do during the war?” I asked.
“I built airplanes in San Diego.”
“Were they bombers?”
“No. Patrol planes. They didn’t hurt anyone.”
“Did you ever get in a fight?”
He looked at me. I can’t remember if he said anything. He made room for me on his lap.
“Can I read your paper?” I struggled through the Portuguese. “Did grandpa fight in a war?”
“No, rapas (boy). We don’t fight wars.”
“Uncle Frank did.”
“Yah. Get some more ice.”
I wouldn’t be dying tonight.