First Published as recipient of the 2008 University of Rochester Creative Excellence Award in Humanities
It was as if, not long after he was born, he realized that birth was the first ticket in his round trip journey to earth. His family, the one he was born into, was very religious of course. And so here, in between the scheduled activities, he has this tendency to enjoy a finally unfettered mind. This is what he is thinking right now: it could all have taken place within the embrace of a single day, or a lovely female shaped hourglass, for that matter.
“Mr. O’Flaherty?” She seems to have been calling his name for sometime. He imagines that she started to call while standing in the busy hallway, looking in through his always open door. Did his room have a door? He had never considered such a serious matter. He knows this one, Sally, could stand to lose a few pounds, economizes her effort whenever possible, hence the calling forth from the hallway just in case he would respond, prevent her having to approach his bedside. She is also a sweetheart, and that is what he often calls her. Sweetheart. Says that her smile brings him all the warmth of the sunny south.
He thinks she appreciates this, she tells him that he probably says this to all his women friends. Every so often he glimpses some cloudiness, assumes that she’s just tired, her having to do this work to support her brother’s son, the one that lives with her, gives her so much trouble. She told him one time that she was born in Boston, had never been further south than Maryland. He wonders how she feels taking care of old folks. His memories come swirling up out of some hidden place, he would say dark, but that is only because there is a heavy velvet curtain that obscures any light, if there is any.
This is one of the big questions of course, whether there is any light behind the curtains. It would be lovely to think that great insights come suddenly to mind so late in life. What comes out from behind the curtain just now is the image of Aunt Jemima on the cereal box, Aunt Jemima to the rescue. The last shall be first.
Somewhere he hears a cart being wheeled down one of the hallways, a sudden spike of laughter with no context, no understanding of the joke. A sound, a rattle, a passing by. What he focuses on is, what he focuses on relates to the cereal box, and he wonders whether Aunt Jemima was facing the viewer or was seen in profile from the side. What was the name of the product she helped to sell? He thinks it was cream of something, hot and breakfasty. She was so strong, so ready to serve up and give you her goodness. For this he wants to thank Molly. Did he say ‘Sally’? But when he looks up at the door frame, he sees only the door frame, and possibly the afterimage of someone whisking by, white nylon, whisking. He wonders how long had it been since she stopped by, and what was it that she wanted?
It was the sensation of running, mostly, the moment of being in sunshine, tearing back toward the right field fence. The question of how fast and far the softball was flying, the nearness of the fence he was racing toward and, most of all, the brilliant masses of bright yellow dandelions that fully carpeted this playing field. He turned just at the right moment and caught the ball, relieved and exulted. Or he lost the ball in the sun, couldn’t have been expected to out run this powerful hit, was instantly forgiven when it dropped with a thud skidding into the masses of yellow flowering weeds a full ten feet ahead of him.
They would understand, the family and friend watchers. He had to focus on retrieving the ball now, the ball rolling out to the fence.
“Can you just put up your foot, here, that’s right.” Metallic, rolling, racing carts.
He was an old white man and not from the south, he was playing the best he could, they would understand. They were family and friends, watching. In the south, you can start Spring training a hell of a lot earlier, gives you a big advantage. You can learn to spit, wiggle your hips, pull the ball cap down over your forehead in the late afternoon sun, put your hands on your knees, your gloved right hand softened as it rests on the right knee, ready and waiting in the outfield, old lefty, playing your position, you have been told you have a powerful arm, threw a strike home from the outfield fence one time, umpire later shook your hand, had never seen that happen before, caught the runner from third base by surprise.
“And now the other foot, please? Sir?”
He accommodates. The leg of a puppeteer, almost not his own. Hinges at a joint he can see but barely feel. But it satisfies them, and he is on the move again, and he recognizes that he is mistakenly looking for the umpire when he watches, as in a movie, the faces of the others in their wheelchairs all waiting at the doorway to their rooms, prepped and ready, watches them as they, or at least some of them, watch him pass by. A lot of them are looking down and away. Thrown a curve ball. A hanger, slider, change-up.
There is a disturbing cry sounding far off, muffled and then un-muted, open source, hushed again, now wailing, wailing. A very large woman is approaching, or rather he is approaching, four doors down, now three, now two. He watches her open her mouth and look directly at him, not unkindly, and by the time he has passed by and is looking again at more of the down and away faces, hears her voice receding behind, calling out “You are a sight for blind eyes, Mr. Harold,” and you can tell that she really wanted him to hear her. He thinks “big momma thornton”, hears the wailing voice, the blues, the losses.
He doesn’t, this time, think “how did we all end up here?” What he thinks is “so did I catch the ball?” and he has a bad feeling that he might have dropped it. He inhales the aroma of yesterday’s gravy, simmering in large shiny pots, not worse for wear, better in some ways on day two, as he continues to be pushed toward what he still calls the refectory.
It’s often a view of things high up that he notices first. There is a corner in the ceiling by the window that portrays three or four shades of grey coming in at different angles depending on the time of day, and his awakening eyes will often alight on this area of a few square feet. He has learned not to panic, meaning he has learned to remember that he won’t remember certain things very well, at least not at first. Eyes awake, the familiarity of that upper corner of the room, not knowing where this is, but the not knowing becoming familiar and even okay. He could write a book about tricks for managing your mental decline, if he could write a book. Boomers would love it, sell like hot cakes, if they had any money to buy.
“Dad?” says the loveliest of female voices, and he wonders how long this bride of his has been sitting here, waiting for him to come to.
“Honey!” he intones, hearing a rasp he had not intended, a needed clearing of the throat.
“How you doing?”
“I’m doing,” he answers, and he knows she is smiling, enjoying what used to be called one’s pluck. Don’t want to be down on your pluck, especially at a time like this.
“I brought you a little plant. It’s a bulb. Hyacinth, you know that very fragrant flower that you have a bunch of in the garden? It’s one of Jenny’s favorites too and she thought you would like it. I have to go get her from soccer practice in another hour.”
He wiggles a bit to move up on the pillow, gain some height, see her better. She comes over to him and puts one of her delicate but strong hands under his shoulders, pushes the pillow up forward with her other hand, giving him better purchase. Her hand is very warm, an aroma of eucalyptus oil, orange blossom wafts through the shared space, diminishes as she returns to the chair she has pulled forward.
“You smell good.”
“This place could use more of it, much more.”
“Oh,” she says in recognition, “you mean my hand lotion?”
“What could I get it for wholesale? I could make a killing here.”
She is smiling back at him. She is pumping recognition into him, if she stays long enough he might remember who Jenny is, he might be certain that this is his daughter Maureen, but he really doesn’t want to screw this up, make a mistake this time. Often this is the tack, stall for time, play it cagey like.
“My dad, ever the sales representative.”
“Salesman,” he corrects her firmly, “sales man.”
Maureen eyes her father a lingering moment, has the thought that she is not sure she would have wanted to work for him, even back in that different era. She remembers his certitude, his demands. She is surprised to remember, like almost forgotten but still smoldering ash, the shame when he forbid her to see Frank Slater, the decisions he wanted her to make. She takes a deep breath.
He finds brief intervals of pause to be a somewhat precarious thing, for better or worse. If he does not make an effort to keep himself focused on this daughter of his, she might vanish the next time he looks over at the chair she had pulled forward.
“Sales,” he says. Just that one word, and somehow this is supposed to be explanation enough. Doesn’t that say it all? Who has the energy anyway to speak all those unnecessary words.
She however, she who can leave this facility any time she likes, she who still drives a car and is merely here for a brief visit, who has the energy of the sun is waiting for him to explain. And she says, “You were the best in the game. Remember those trophies down in the basement? We used to play with them like they were a pirate’s treasure.”
“That’s about the size of it,” he says, and his eyes take on a filmy glaze.
She is very attentive to his presence, to his being able to be present when she stops in like this. She has learned to be observant of small gestures that might mean he is drifting off. Sometimes she feels like she is flying a kite when she is here, feeling the tension on the string as he plays it out, sometimes spooling him back in, on the days of high winds being afraid the string might not endure the tension, might just snap and she would helplessly watch him sail far, far away. Again.
This line of string feels a little too tight. When she starts to speak, her voice is just a bit too forced, both of them notice and she tones it down. “Your grand daughter has found her sport with soccer. Just loves it. They are going to play a team in Batavia next week.”
He is staring at her. For all the world this is likely to be one of those disconnects, maybe she should have stayed with sales, kept it continuous. It’s her own anxiety that makes her jump topics like that. Not just with her dad. Her husband is forever putting the paper down and asking her what the hell is she talking about, kids too.
“Soccer,” he says quite suddenly, forcefully. “Never had any use for it. Best for Europeans and South Americans. Run like crazy and it takes forever before someone finally scores. Too much waiting.”
She reaches up to touch her right cheek, feels her face smarting. She was hit by a ball once, probably dodge ball in gym.
“It just isn’t American, Mabel”.
“Yeah, I know.”
She lowers her shoulders, something she was taught in stress class. It works. She says, “So anyway, her father was just never into athletics as you well know, so she was telling me the other day that she thinks her interest in sports comes from her granddad. How about that, eh?”
Is this lovely young woman Canadian? “Whose father?”
“I’m talking about your granddaughter Jenny, Dad.”
He almost says “Thankyou,” but instead looks away from her for just an instant until something tells him, too late, not to do this. He is greatly relieved when he turns back and sees that she is still here, still watching him. It is then that he notices for the first time that she looks restless, maybe getting ready to go. He thinks she looks…’pensive’, and somewhere deep within his brain, a couple of cells and ganglion come together to form a smile, still able to recover and operate a word like that.
He says, “Do you remember that game when there was so much commotion, score went back and forth? God, it was a beautiful day, but players were falling all over the place, field must have been wet, though I don’t remember that it had rained.”
“Was this the game in Rochester?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you if it was Rochester. Might have been Geneva, or Palmyra.”
“I don’t think she’s played out there, so it was more likely Rochester.”
“Must have been in the Spring, the field was covered with dandelions. It was more yellow than green.”
She considers this. “I can’t imagine what field that was. Usually they start a little later in the year. They also keep the grass in wonderful shape. Well, you pay enough for it, taxes I suppose.”
“The ball went flying,” he says, “really deep…”, and he doesn’t finish whatever he was about to say.
This happens so often. She prompts, “Was Jenny playing?”
He looks at her for what feels like a very long moment. Finally he says, “Do you think you could help me with something?”
She wants to say: sure, dad, in whatever way I can. She says, warily, “why don’t you ask me the question. And we’ll see.”
“Yeah,” he says, satisfied that this is a reasonable counter offer. “So, I’m not sure if you were at the game, I think you were.”
“Okay, again, we’re talking what game here?” He is doing his best to recall, she can see that he is working on it.
“Well,” he starts, his voice taking on a slight drawl, something she has noticed of late whenever he is recalling a certain time and place. “I think it was before we had the kids, and I think it was the ballpark over by Geneva.” He gets sidetracked, “What was the name of that park? Redfish? Redman? We were playing against a company team, wasn’t Kodak, might have been a brewery.”
She sees him in his early 20’s, before her older sister was born, before they had ever purchased a foreign car, before they had moved out to the suburbs. The pictures she has are mostly black and white, the way she also feels about the days before her birth, seeing only the orderliness of life as it was periodically captured and developed in a dark room. The smiling faces gathered around porches, painfully grinning into the too bright sunlight.
“I remember feeling like my lungs were about to burst. I’m in the outfield, see, you know I always played right field.”
“Yes,” she assents.
“Damned if it isn’t the bottom of the inning, not a lot of game left to play, a hard fought one, back and forth all evening. You know the light was fading fast, didn’t have those big lights like you see today. So, I hear the crack of the bat first, and my heart just drops, somehow I know instantly that this one is meant for me, it’s coming out to my territory, this little piece of land that I am responsible for. All my team mates are looking, first at the ball, then at me, I can just feel it, it’s up to me, how this whole thing is going to turn out. It’s like everything that happened up till now no longer matters, of course it does because if they hadn’t tied the score two innings before we wouldn’t be in this pickle. But that’s all forgotten now, no longer matters. What matters is this ball arcing up and heading out toward me.”
She pulls her chair forward, reaches out and takes her father’s hand. His hand is moist, he is sweating. He is racing like the devil. She is watching him intently now. He races across a field of bright yellow dandelions. His gloved hand is outstretched. This is a critical moment in the game, and he really wants to catch this ball. Lying here in this bed on South Two, he has just about reached the point of contact, and you can see that he might nearly and perfectly reach the very spot toward which the ball is now falling from its grand lofty arch, in what might turn out to be the very final moment of this fabulous game. He is still running at break neck speed, he has never run this fast before, making all of his synchronized body parts play in harmony to reach the one critical place he has to reach in time.
She remembers now what his question will be, the question about whether he made the catch, whether anybody that day, on a playing field where team mates were falling left and right, whether anybody could have made such a catch. But he isn’t quite there yet, he is looking at her wide eyed, and only the ball is falling.