I’m driving my son, Michael, down to this fundraiser at the Canton Public Library so he can get his ball glove signed by Willie Jackson, the All-Star outfielder for the Cleveland Indians. He’ll never know that I tossed around the idea of just giving him a model rocket for his birthday instead. Last time I saw Willie Jackson, we played together on the Little League Red Sox, and things didn’t end too well. But here we are gliding along I-77 South. The pale dome of the McKinley Monument crouches before the skyline of a few hotels, bank buildings, the Stark County Courthouse, church steeples, a radio tower and factory smokestacks in the distance. Things haven’t changed here a whole lot since the ‘60s. Maybe less pollution since the factories closed.
“This will be great.” My son slaps the ball into his glove then reaches over to the radio.
“Yep,” I say, though I wish we were going someplace else. When Michael was about 5, I came home and found my wife making out with some strange guy on our couch. I don’t know what bothers me more: the fact that since she followed her lover to California, she hasn’t even sent Michael a card or that I’d chosen someone like her to make a home with. But since his mother and I divorced, I learned that as a single parent, you just can’t avoid talks with teachers about improving homework or reprimands from coaches about being on time for practice or driving downtown to meet someone you’d rather not see. It’s times like these I wish my father had shown a little more effort teaching me how to deal with things.
Michael turns the volume up on WINW’s 1987 Top 40 Countdown. “I wish you’d take me to an Indian’s game.”
I just nod. I hate the sport, because I was forced to play. But he loves it. I suspect he chalks up my apprehension to the idea that I don’t like baseball. But he doesn’t know why. I never told my son about Willie Jackson and me. It should’ve been easy enough to forget; after all I’d been only 12, a year older than Michael will be later this month. I’d boxed up those memories good, along with my old glove, cleats, comic books, and Civil War relics, and packed them all away in the garage. Still, I can’t get Willie’s bloodied face out of my mind.
Michael whistles to the radio with the feeling of a kid who’s getting what he wants. In my side mirror, the pale dome of McKinley’s monument ascends just above the surrounding trees from the park below.
My dad whistled and then puffed his soggy Dutch Masters cigar as he took me to practice. He drove down our street in the ‘66 Oldsmobile Toronado — the new car he bought when he was appointed to the mayor’s cabinet as safety commissioner of Canton. The car retained a slight plastic new car smell underneath the musky odors of cigars, sweat, and Old Spice. I liked the car because its sleek fins and hidden headlights made it look like a sporty spaceship.
Earlier that summer, on our vacation to Gettysburg, I pretended the car was fitted with laser beams and force fields. My mom smiled while reclining with a paperback in the backseat, but Dad had scolded me for messing with the knobs on the dashboard.
“I bet you could show Tom a few things,” my father said.
“He’s better than me.” I countered. Tom, my new friend, was playing for the first time in the Canton Little League. He’d just moved up from Texas. His father worked at the school district bus garage as a mechanic. My father was a politician.
Dad winked at me, and I knew that meant he was going to start one of his “beginning of baseball season” lectures.
“Choke up on the bat and stand your ground. No squatting,” he said, steering with two fingers and smoking the cigar with his free hand.
I nodded. Driveways, lawns, and side streets passed while I traced the path I’d taken the year before through alleys and backyards when I’d walked home from practice with Willie Jackson.
“And when you step up to the plate, look the pitcher in the eye. Then take a couple of quick swings.”
I listened halfheartedly. I was looking forward to seeing my friends, but I’d have been just as happy hanging out in my driveway, playing with matchbox cars, army soldiers, and sketchpads. I even preferred drawing sketches of The Avengers, Metal Men, or Gunsmoke Western, rather than follow the RBI or home run records of Rocky Colavito and Luis Tiant the way my father and Tom did. Being labeled the “creative” one by my mom didn’t console me. All that meant was I’d rather use my Louisville Slugger to imitate John Wayne charging the beachhead in The Longest Day than honor the sacred purpose it held for my dad.
“Don’t forget always keep your eye on the ball,” my father said.
I knew he meant for both batting and fielding. He hadn’t yet put me through the drills in the backyard. I would have to catch every grounder, line drive, and fly ball he threw at me, or else we would start over. My father had told me that even though he’d only signed on with the Phillies after the war for a season, he knew he’d need routine and discipline to become great. One night, we stayed out after the sun had long set, and he kept throwing harder balls. He only stopped the routine whenever he needed me to run into the house and get him another Blatz or to turn on the floodlights. I pretended to be sick the next time he asked me to practice. He made me practice with him anyway. To spite him, I kept missing the ball. He just smirked, sipped beer, and kept throwing the baseball.
Dad drove along Harrisburg Avenue, next to the railroad on the way to the park. I imagined we could blast off above the ballpark, the tracks, and the small ranch homes, to a place where it was somehow open and blue. As usual, though, only gray skies prevailed.
That ballpark was oddly placed. The city planners seemed to have suddenly remembered this small patch of grass that neither the railroads nor the steel factories wanted. So they decided to herd recreation into the green and muddy space. The square field, crammed between its gravel parking lot and the train tracks that ran alongside a narrow strip of woods, held four baseball diamonds. In the hazy distance, the rusty gates of Republic Steel rose before the ballplayers like a metal dragon whose sulfuric breath I, and all Canton residents, had long learned to ignore.
I got out from the car, shut the door, and looked back inside.
Dad leaned forward, his face divided by a curve of light coming through the windshield, and said, “Hey, Petey, can you get a ride home with Tom’s dad? I’ve got a meeting to get to.”
I nodded but wondered what kind of meeting he needed to go to on a Saturday. I learned a long time later that he’d squandered his savings on cards, parlays, and visits to the Thistledown Horse Racing Track near Cleveland.
I joined in, but dreaded, the batting, pitching, and catching drills to see who would play which positions. As usual, I ended up in the outfielder’s group, but this year with Tom and Willie. I was glad to have Willie on our team again because no one in the whole league could run faster or hit harder than him. We stood in a circle, and tossed to one another. I bragged about my family’s trip to Gettysburg and the Civil War-era Spencer .52 caliber bullet I’d brought with me to show Tom later.
“What’s so great about Gettysburg?” Tom shouted, and he lobbed a fly ball to me. “My dad and I seen Fantastic Voyage and El Dorado. You should’ve came.”
I recognized the hint of envy in my friend’s voice, and I felt sorry that I’d mentioned the vacation at all because I knew neither of them would be going anywhere that summer. I became self-conscious about my new cleats, for Tom had on the one pair he’d use for practice and games, and Willie wore gym shoes. One of them should’ve been wearing these new baseball shoes. I tossed the ball to Willie and asked, “So, Willie. You do anything this summer?”
Willie kicked the dirt, looked up, and caught the ball. He looked at me and said, “Working at my uncle’s garage.” He fired a line drive over to me, and I winced as the ball slapped hard against my palm.
I tossed a high fly ball in the air between Tom and Willie. I followed the ball’s rising arc, imagining it was spinning out a web from my palm like it would from Spider-Man. I hoped Tom would get to the ball first, but Willie easily outran him.
“Hey,” Tom said. “That was mine.”
Willie looked at me, then back at Tom. He shrugged his shoulders, and flipped the ball to me. “Tough luck.”
We continued our warm-ups, trying to see who could go the longest without dropping one. As we played, I looked at them and realized that I’d known Willie longer but had already spent more time with Tom. My father had hired Willie’s dad and other black cops, he said publicly, because the city needed a more representative police force. But my father would make fun of blacks driving in big cars — as if they all were cheating welfare.
I never told Willie, or anyone, about that. Not that I’d had the chance. We’d walked home from practice only once the year before. Even though we both liked art class on the odd rainy day when the nuns offered it, we hadn’t become good friends.
The coach called us in. He made up two sides and began the team’s first practice game. In right field, I missed a line drive that bounced wildly just before reaching me, and when I caught the only fly ball that came to me, Tom took off his glove, and clapped.
I liked Tom’s antics. He’d been allowed to spend the night at my house several times, and though we had different ideas about what was fun, I went along with my friend’s suggestions. Our hide-and-seek play brought us from the dark alley behind the Lawson’s store, where we choked on a Lucky Strike he’d taken from his dad’s pack, to the sad grounds of the old Presbyterian cemetery, where we reenacted Boris Karloff films with the Miller twins, who acted out the helpless female victims. The last time he stayed over at my house, our fathers, looking strangely identical in Bermuda shorts, sat around the TV drinking Blatz in frosted mugs. Tom’s father had even invited me to go with them the next time they returned to Texas for a visit.
The coach blew the break whistle, and everyone jogged up to the water fountain. Tom, Willie, and I were last in line.
“That was some hitting, Willie,” I said.
“That’s nothing,” Willie said. “I’m gonna hit a grand slam next week.”
At the water fountain we took turns drinking. Last year we all got wet because we’d sprayed each other at the water fountain. Now the coach patrolled the area.
A few boys chanted “Willie” as he took a drink.
The coach pulled off his red cap with his left hand and rubbed his oily hair back with his right hand. He spoke in a tone of approval that I knew I’d never get. “Jackson, keep hitting like that, and we’ll make the play-offs.”
Willie paraded his glove around like a trophy.
Tom whispered to me, “Look at that show-off.”
My gut tightened. “Don’t say that.”
“Why? He ain’t your friend.”
I didn’t know how to answer that because, in a way, Tom was right. I’d never spent any time with Willie outside of school or baseball. I suppose that had to do with how my father kept our home separate from his public duties. He never suggested that I invite Willie over to our house. Still, something felt wrong about what Tom said. So, I had to do something to show him that he shouldn’t act that way.
I held the .52 caliber bullet in my hand and arranged it between my fingers so it pointed out. I moved it toward Tom and tapped him on the chest. “Bam. You’re dead.”
“What’s that?” Tom asked.
I opened my hand and let it roll in my palm. “The Civil War bullet I got at Gettysburg.”
“Huh. Looks like a pebble is all.” Tom rolled his eyes and half-smiled in a way that told me he was scheming. “Watch this.” He picked up a few gray stones from the gravel lot and walked back toward the field. He pointed to the backstop where two crows perched on the thick silver frame bar. Tom aimed and flung a stone. It arched just over the head of a crow. The bird cawed and then flew up into an oak tree.
“Let me try,” I said. My stone missed the other birds and hit the metal bar, causing a ring that echoed like a ricochet in a Western film.
“You couldn’t hit a barn,” Tom said, and he took aim, and threw at the oak tree.
Willie joined us and said, “Pete, you wanna walk home later?”
Before I could answer, Tom held out his palm of stones and said, “Hey there, Willie Mays. Let me see ya hit one of them crows.”
“I don’t wanna.”
I grabbed one of the rocks and threw it at the crow in the oak. The crow cawed and Willie shook his head. Tom snickered. I kicked the dirt, averting my glance from his.
“Watch this,” Tom said and grabbed Willie’s hand to put a rock in it. “Throw it, you sissy.”
Willie pulled his arm away and stepped back but looked Tom in the face. “Man, don’t touch me. I said no.”
“You afraid to hit a little ole bird, Willie Mays?”
“Name’s Jackson, you punk. And leave them birds alone. They didn’t do nothing to you.”
“Who you calling punk?” Tom yelled, just as the coach blew the whistle for practice to resume.
My teammates and I suffered in the humid grass, missing line drives and fly balls. The coach shook his head. His remedy was to make us “work it out” by running laps at the end of practice. As we ran, I thought about Willie’s question. Then I turned to Tom, jogging alongside him, and said, “Hey, Tom, I think I’ll walk with Willie today.”
Tom shrugged and said, “Suit yourself.” Then he sped up.
We headed down the path, lined with a row of hedges and withering lilac bushes that abutted the gravel embankment to the railroad tracks. Dust clung to the grass, the backstops, and our clothes. My throat burned for refreshment.
The others were gone by the time Tom, Willie, and I jogged around to the fountain. Someone, probably the coach, had propped up my Louisville Slugger against the backstop. Tom reached the fountain first and yelled, “I’m king of the water fountain!” Then he sprayed water toward us. I ran into the spray as if I were five years younger. The water felt cool on my gritty face.
Willie said, “Man, I jus’ wanna drink.”
Tom hogged the water fountain, then stepped away to let me have a drink. The water tasted cool and metallic, but I felt relief.
“Hurry up, man,” Willie said, tapping me.
“What for?” Tom said. “This fountain’s for us white kids.”
For a moment I heard nothing but the sound of the water gurgling beneath the pipes and bricks. I thought that at any second Tom would reach out to shake Willie’s hand or say he’d been joking. But he didn’t. I backed away and stared at Willie.
Tom stepped between the fountain and Willie. “Ain’t that right, Pete?” he asked over his shoulder.
I didn’t answer, but I laughed a nervous laugh. My heart beat fast. My gut twisted. Why didn’t Tom understand that people up here didn’t talk in public like that? Didn’t he watch the news?
Willie planted himself in front of Tom and said, “What’d you say?”
“I said you ain’t allowed to drink here.”
“That so?” Willie said, never taking his eyes off Tom. A plane growled across the reddened sky. The crows behind the backstop cawed.
Willie looked calm. He turned away, took a step, then spun and punched Tom in the face.
Tom’s nose bled quickly, and he swung at Willie, and missed.
Willie hit him again.
Tom lunged, and they wrestled and grunted in the grass and dirt.
I felt my insides spinning, but when I closed my eyes for it to stop, I felt as if the ground spun around, like the feeling I’d get when trying to stand still just after getting off the Twirl O Wheel at Meyers Lake.
Tom freed himself and ran to the backstop. He picked up my bat.
Willie charged him.
But Tom made a half-swing and brought it down on Willie’s face, just above his right eye. The wood thumped against Willie’s head.
I cringed. Blood trickled down, and Willie struggled to hold Tom back while wiping the blood from his eye.
I wanted all at once to do something brave or stupid, but I just watched.
Tom kicked him in the balls. He brought the bat down across Willie’s back.
Tom stood over him.
Willie shot a glance at me for help. A red trail curled into his eye socket, but he didn’t close his eyes. The blood gathered there, and dripped like a long tear down his cheek.
My shoes seemed stuck in tar.
Willie used his right hand to cover his bloody eye while he blocked the bat with his left. I heard gravel crunching and looked up to see Tom’s dad pulling up in their Dodge Charger.
Mr. Schauer, in his work overalls, ran over and said, “What’s going on here?” He lifted Tom off of Willie and wrestled the bat from his son’s hands.
Willie got up. He stumbled against the backstop and the metal fencing rang out like snapping telephone wires.
Tom wiped blood from his face with his sleeve. “He started it.” I recognized tremors of pain and fear in my friend’s voice.
“Bull,” Willie said. He used the bottom of his T-shirt to wipe blood from his eye.
Mr. Schauer pointed the bat at Tom and shook his head. “What the hell makes you think about a bat, huh?” For a second every muscle in his body struggled under some invisible pressure … as if he wanted to hit Tom. “Didn’t I teach you?” He flipped the bat onto the grass away from the three of us. Then he turned to me and said, “Why didn’t you step in?”
I wanted to walk home and never come back. My gut knotted up. Tom must have been hurt, but I couldn’t believe he’d actually used a bat on Willie. I’d never seen him so crazy. I looked at Willie on the ground, his back against the backstop, but he just turned his head away. I felt as if I’d swallowed my own heart whole; then, in quiet embarrassment, I said, “Tom said only whites could use the fountain, but that’s not true.”
“Come on, Tom,” Mr. Schauer said.
I looked down at my cleats until I heard their engine start. They drove over the gravel and up to Harrisburg Avenue. My chest went from hollow to heavy as I fought back tears. I left my bat on the grass where Mr. Schauer had tossed it. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I walked toward the fountain.
Willie stood, picked up his glove, and walked away.
I said, “Don’t you want a drink?”
“Nah,” he said.
I caught up with him. “You fought like Cassius Clay,” I said patting him on the shoulder.
Willie increased his pace, and I kept up with him.
“Willie, I’m sorry. I wanted to be on your side.”
Willie spun around quickly, facing me. “It’s Ali, Muhammad Ali, man. And I don’t need you to do nothing.” He turned to go, stopped, and looked back at me. “Walk your ownself home.”
Willie walked away on the gravel lot towards Harrisburg Avenue. Traffic snarled, and a gritty veil of exhaust fumes hovered over the vehicles. My whole body felt small and cold like the bullet I touched in the dark of my pocket. I wondered where my father was and hated him for making me play baseball.
Eventually, a policeman drove up, just on regular patrol, and, knowing whose son I was, gave me a ride home.
I faked sick the rest of the week. I didn’t show up for picture day. After missing a couple of games, I turned in my uniform. One Sunday morning, in our den, reading over the sports pages strewn across his lap, my father shook his head and said, “Quitting is no way to handle it.” That was all he ever said. It was strange because, after I quit baseball, I think he quit on me.
We stand at the entrance of the Canton Public Library in a line that stretches along the left wall of the meeting room. I know this because I can see the ghostly movements of Little Leaguers and their fathers reflected in the glass of the room’s open doors. They look as if they’ve come from all over the county. We propel along with the crowd and enter the room. The air is stagnant with leather and permanent ink pens, the sweat and excitement of young boys waiting to meet sports heroes. A large banner for the fundraiser stretches across the back wall. The famous athletes, stationed behind long rectangular tables near the back wall, reach across and shake hands with eager fans.
“There’s Willie Jackson. Cool,” Michael says, pointing to the table just ahead. “This is great, Dad.”
I recognize him at once. He is dressed in his Indians uniform, and his cap is tilted a little to the right. He looks like the Willie I knew, but larger, stronger. I don’t know if he’ll recognize me, or if I want him to. I can wait and see. I don’t have to tell Michael about what happened. But what if Willie remembers? What if he says something about it? How will I tell Michael? I start to feel closed in. I look around and notice the two red exit signs. Our place in line advances to the table. I could tell Willie about how Tom ended up dropping out of high school and getting busted for selling drugs. Maybe he’d feel some kind of sweet revenge. More than likely, however, he won’t even remember me. My stomach begins to spin a little like it did that day when we were younger and meaner. But I don’t close my eyes. I fasten them on his face where I imagine the tiniest of scars above his right eye.
He looks directly at Michael and says, “What’s your name, son?”
“Michael, Michael Flanagan.”
The athlete looks at me.
“Hey. I’m Pete. Pete Flanagan.”
A smile breaks on Willie’s face. He reaches out his hand and we shake. “Pete, man. How you doing? It’s been a long time.” He glances at my son.
Michael stares wide-eyed at the athlete then back at me. “Dad, you know Mr. Jackson?”
“Well, we were just kids, you know, Michael. I’ll tell you about it sometime.” I feel like a real idiot. Of course it was going to come out. I should have prepared Michael. I feel a strange distance opening up between us. I wonder how my father, the politician, would have handled this situation. I guess I’m doing no better.
“Well, I’ll tell you. Your dad and me played Little League back when we were your age. Your dad was a pretty good ballplayer, too.” He signs the glove, hands it back to Michael, and looks up at me, his large brown eyes searching mine for a more vivid memory. “It was the Yank — I mean the Red Sox.”
“That’s right.” I stop before saying more. One minute I’m coming here for my son, next minute I’m 12 years old myself. I don’t know what to call him or how to say anything that I might have come here to say. I’m trying to find words about Tom, about that day, about how I felt stuck in tar. Then I hear him clear his throat.
He glances over my shoulder, and I feel the impatient sighs of young boys and their fathers waiting for their turn.
“So what are you doing now?”
“I teach high school American history.”
“Well, that’s great,” he says and nods. He picks up a miniature souvenir bat with the Cleveland Indians logo and several autographs embossed on it. In his face I see a flicker of the old show-off. He swings, and then, releases the small bat in his right hand. It spins through the space between us.
I feel a small gust of air. I flinch involuntarily. I didn’t expect he’d fling the bat so close to my face. I notice his eyes, looking at me with the twinkle half gone. I detect a sense of disappointment in his smile. I should have done more with my life, they seem to say.
He catches the bat with his left hand and offers it to Michael.
“Thanks, Mr. Jackson.” Michael shakes Willie’s hand.
“My pleasure. Your dad gonna bring you up to one of our games?”
Michael looks up at me, and I realize I’ve let go of the phony smile I’d carried up to the table. I feel a swelling in my heart. I want to say something to Willie. I want to tell him I’m sorry now. That I should have done something. Maybe if I had, my life since then wouldn’t have been so sadly messed up.
Michael pulls on my sleeve. I bend down and he whispers, “Ask him for tickets, Dad.”
I know that Willie can hear him. I also know that I can’t stand facing him for another moment without saying something. I take a deep breath and face Willie. “Listen, I know this isn’t the best time, you know, to talk about those days. But I want to say …”
Willie raises his hands, palms facing me. “Don’t,” he says in his old defiant tone. Then, like that day at the water fountain, he turns away from me. He reaches for the next glove, but before he signs it, he looks back at me. My heart lifts with the hope that he might yet hear me out. He smiles wryly and says, “So, Pete, you ever get home?”
I flinch involuntarily at his remark. I realize that I’d hoped he’d say, “Forget it, we were just kids,” but he didn’t. I can’t think of anything else to say amid the noise of kids and their parents. I put my hand on Michael’s shoulder. “I did.” We finish the rounds of the other athletes, and all the while, I’m feeling like I’ve forgotten something. I look back and notice Willie spinning a bat and catching it for another fan.
On the ride home, Michael sits next to me cradling the small bat in his glove like a bird in its nest. He is all smiles and daydreams. We pull into the drive, and I turn to him. “Listen, Michael,” I say to him. “If you really want to go to an Indian’s game, we’ll go.”
“Yeah!” He lifts his glove, opens the door, and when he is halfway out, he turns around. “Can I hear more about you and Willie Jackson?”
We lean against the Taurus enjoying the sun. I tell Michael about that day. Not everything but enough so he understands the gist of it; the fight, the senseless reason for it, the outcome, and my freezing up.
For a few minutes he just kicks at the stones in the driveway. He shakes his head slightly. “Where was your dad?”
“I guess he was busy or something. But just so you know, Michael, you don’t have to stand by if something bad is happening. You can do something to stop it.”
His eyes tear. I can tell what’s coming next. My heart already feels the brunt of his anger and sadness.
“So why didn’t you stop her?”
I feel the thousand injuries that I have endured over the years since she cheated me and left, and I realize they’re nothing compared to the emptiness he has felt from a mother gone out of his life for no good reason. I can’t tell him why because I don’t know why she cheated. Only that she did have to go.
“Sometimes you can stand and do nothing, and bad will come from it. Sometimes you do all you can, and still it turns bad. But at least if you tried, then that’s what makes a difference.”
He leans into me like he’d do when he was younger, when it seemed we were both alone in our home without her. I hold him.
“What did Mr. Jackson mean about you getting home?”
“I guess he was asking if my life turned out okay.” I tighten my grip. “And it has, Michael. With you it has.”
He cries a little. Funny how one thing that bothers you will end up stirring up other things? I wonder if my father had done this, maybe shared with me a reason for his gambling, or anything, that maybe we’d have been closer. At least, right now, I feel at home knowing that Michael and I share this moment. One less regret. One less emptiness.