Winter Contest Runner Up in Nonfiction: Reaching First

One overcast Saturday morning, eight months after my father’s suicide, my seventh-grade baseball team spent an hour practicing drag bunts. Unlike most bunts, which are designed to move existing baserunners while sacrificing the batter, the purpose of a drag bunt is to earn a base hit. When drag bunting, batters should remain in their normal upright stance as long as possible, pretend they want to swing hard until the pitcher is about to release the ball. Good drag bunters are con artists. They convince infielders to position themselves for line drives, far from the plate and the danger of hard hits. After they have fooled the fielders, drag bunters try to make soft contact with the ball so that it bounces slowly toward the first or third base foul line. 

One of our assistant coaches fed balls into a whirring pitching machine while, one by one, each team member attempted to place drag bunts down the third base line. One by one, we failed. Our bunts rolled foul and popped straight up in the air. On my first attempt, I didn’t make contact at all. 

Leaning against the chain-link backstop, our head coach Norm, a frail and soft-spoken man, calmly watched the bunting circus and smoked a cigarette. When he finished, he tossed the cigarette at the bleachers beyond the fence and shuffled toward home plate. Norm was often stationary, so when he walked, we paid attention. He took a bat from our left fielder’s hands, then stepped into the box. Norm lifted the bat above his right shoulder and bent his knees. This was the only time I’d seen him look comfortable. He motioned for the assistant coach to feed a ball into the pitching machine. As the ball flew toward home, Norm whipped his body around into perfect bunting position. He dragged the ball down the third base line and took off toward first base. 

As he ran, his tattered white sneakers stirred dust. But when he stepped on first base, Norm’s demeanor reverted to that of an old and ailing man. Before he limped back to his spot on the fence, he said, “That’s how you do it.” For a minute, before resuming the exercise, the team stood in silence—unsure if what we’d witnessed was born of our imaginations or reality. 

*

The winter before I met Coach Norm, a local police officer took me to several minor-league hockey games. We sat in the front row, where I happily pounded on the glass wall and shouted mild insults at opposing players, “You suck!” “Go home!” Whenever I cheered or jeered, the officer, thick and mustached, leaned back in his seat, smiled with pressed lips, and stared at me, perhaps proud of himself for distracting me from trauma and pain. He must have remembered seeing my father hanging. That officer had responded to my mom’s 911 call the day my father died. He’d seen the body in the basement. I think he worried about my future. Surely, he’d known troubled boys who came from troubled fathers. 

That Christmas, the officer arranged for my two sisters and me to take part in a charity event at a local Target store, where the police department gave each participating child thirty dollars towards a toy. I was confused that the officer had considered me among the needy. In my father’s absence, my mother had returned to work as a high school math teacher, at first part-time, and struggled to pay the mortgage. But she had not discussed those financial troubles with me. Given the number of gifts I’d received that Christmas, I felt wealthy. It seemed every person I’d ever known had sent me a gift, perhaps out of love or pity, or maybe—as when people give practical presents to newlyweds, equip them for a life-change—it is customary to give gifts to newly fatherless children. Hundreds of wrapped boxes dwarfed the Evergreen tree in our living room, which sat directly above the basement rafters from which my father had hanged. 

My two sisters attended that charity event at Target, but I refused to participate. I explained to my mother that I’d already received enough presents; I didn’t need any more toys. Looking back, I suspect my refusal also stemmed from an unwillingness to accept my transformation into a fatherless boy. Or maybe, most of all, I did not want to share that police officer’s affection with my sisters. I craved undivided attention from men my father’s age, wanted to know that I was worth their time.

While my family roamed Target, I, home alone, imagined that police officer in the store, walking my six-year-old sister through pink aisles. She stopped, eyes wide and jaw dropped, in front of a ten-inch-tall, Labrador retriever doll. The dog came with a shovel and pooped plastic turds. The officer took that dog from the shelf, knelt to meet my sister’s bright blue eyes, then placed the toy into her hands.  

I regretted my decision to stay home and wished that officer was kneeling before me, not handing me a shitting dog, but packs of baseball cards. Maybe, I thought, if I’d accepted his charity, shared his time with my sisters, we might have sat cross-legged on the store’s floor and sorted baseball cards by team, as I’d done hundreds of times with my father. 

By February, the officer had stopped bringing me to hockey games. Maybe his schedule was too busy, or he decided I didn’t need his presence or direction any longer because I was a good kid or a lost cause. I wondered if he was frustrated that I’d not attended that Christmas toy event. In his absence, I was left wanting an adult, other than my mother, who might distract me from pain or point me toward joy, help me to heal. 

***

The summer after my father’s death, I joined Coach Norm’s traveling baseball team. Norm was one of the quietest men I knew and the only one who smoked. Sometimes after practices or games, he asked me to carry dusty canvas bags full of helmets and catcher’s gear to his car. I don’t remember the car’s make or model, but I know that its baby blue doors and sharp angles were remnants of a time before I was born, perhaps the early eighties. Decades of smoke had yellowed the car’s windows. I imagine a young boy sitting in the back seat could have used his fingers to carve a smiley face into the nicotine stains. But black garbage bags and wrinkled plaid shirts filled most of the car’s interior, so there was no room for children, which may not have mattered because Norm had no children.

When I lugged equipment for Norm, I always arrived at his car first. His steps were short and strained as if extra gravity pulled on his thin body. When he talked, his lips barely moved, and his voice cracked and wavered. When he demonstrated how to hold a spike curveball—the swollen knuckle on his right pointer finger pressed against a baseball’s seam—his hands shook. Norm never raised his voice in my presence. But once, when I accidentally plunked a batter with an errant changeup, he removed his hat in frustration; the top of his head was balding and speckled. Some of my teammates claimed that Norm was only fifty years old, about their parents’ age, while others were sure he was over sixty-five. To me, despite his often-stiff movements, Norm seemed apart from time, like one of those heavenly ghosts in Field of Dreams who only visit Earth to play baseball, then, after games, transform into an immaterial mist and return to some ethereal realm.

Before games, our team lined up in pairs along the outfield foul line. We played catch while the coaches discussed lineups and strategies in the dugout. Occasionally, as my team tossed the ball, players spread rumors about Coach Norm’s past, that he’d spent twenty years in jail for murder and his job at the local library was a front for drug trafficking. Those outrageous assertions fascinated me. Still, our starting second baseman’s claim that Norm had once been a coveted baseball prospect—wildly different from my uncoordinated father—tugged hardest on my imagination. It served as a necessary mystery, in which I might speculate apart from my painful reality.  

I envisioned Norm as a young man leading off from first base. He wore a pinstripe jersey and rolled his pants up to his knees. His wide ears cast shadows on his blue hat’s outer seam. He bounced on his toes and clapped at the pitcher, egging him to attempt a pickoff. And when the pitcher delivered the ball to the plate, Norm bolted for second base. Before his gait had slowed, perhaps because of arthritis or a fastball to the spine, Norm must have run with small, gritty steps—thin thighs willing his body over wet dirt. I pictured him sliding head-first through pebbles on an unkempt field, and wondered if such slides had produced those faint scars I’d seen on his elbow tips. Those injuries, I thought, were well-earned, even admirable—unlike my father’s neck bruise.

My father was buried in a graveyard adjacent to my team’s home field, one hundred yards beyond the fence. I’d never seen his headstone. Several times, my mom had invited me to join my sisters and her at the gravesite, where we might reminisce about my father’s life. But I always refused. I was angry at him for leaving so suddenly, for inflicting trauma on my family. He did not deserve my presence at his grave.

When I played center field, I feared one of the larger boys might swat a ball into the graveyard, then coach Norm would ask that I hop the fence, retrieve the ball. Maybe I’d find it next to my father’s name, be forced to confront his ghost.

***

I inherited an eight-by-ten inch, black-and-white photo of the last baseball team my father played for. He is twelve years old in the picture and sits with his team on wooden bleachers. The boys wear matching white cotton uniforms, the letter I on their chests. Each of them wears a different pair of shoes. My father sits front and center, holding a flag that reads, “INDIANAPOLIS.” He looks just like me: deep-set eyes, small nose, round cheeks, thick blonde hair spilling from his cap. He does not want to be there. He is not a talented athlete, but a boy the coach sticks in left field, where few hits travel. He always hits ninth in the lineup and receives pity cheers from the team when he does anything other than strike out. He collects stamps, not baseball cards.

After I’d developed an interest in baseball as a young child, my father—despite his poor coordination and past humiliation—played catch with me nearly every day. He struggled to keep the ball in his glove and rarely threw straight, but I enjoyed those unpredictable tosses. I’d pretend that I was Omar Vizquel, a Gold Glove-winning shortstop. I’d sprint and dive after my father’s throws, sometimes into shrubs. Often, after we played catch, my clothes were stained, and my knees and forearms scratched. 

My father’s effort during games of catch appeared especially kind against his usual behaviors. Most of the time, apart from baseball, I did not consider him safe. Occasionally he molested me in the upstairs bathroom. I do not remember many details from that abuse: a blonde Precious Moments angel next to the sink, a bottle of V05 shampoo, petroleum jelly, cold vinyl, my father’s gold wedding ring and deep-set blue eyes, his composure. He often masked his terrors with calmness but sometimes released his rage in small, powerful bursts; he punched through drywall and kicked through hollow-core doors. 

Throughout childhood, I occasionally woke to the sound of shattering glass or my dad yelling at my mom about sex, which I didn’t understand. Those nights, I moved my pillow and comforter into my closet—a small walk-in with a single door—where I sorted through shoeboxes full of baseball cards. The statistics on the backs of those cards transported me to an imaginative space, where my father’s voice was distant. I sometimes fell asleep with cards in my hands, then woke to my mom’s concerned knocks on the closet door.

***

The day before my father died, he asked if I’d play catch with him. Since we’d last played, I’d started sixth grade, grown three inches, and added ten miles per hour to my fastball. But he had not witnessed my increased velocity. For most of my childhood, he’d attended nearly all of my baseball games, had taken pictures of me as I pitched. Sometimes, after he’d developed those photos, we’d sit at the dining room table and try to match my form to that of Major Leaguers pictured on baseball cards. “Look,” he might say, “Both you and Pedro Martinez bring your left knees up to your chests mid-windup.”

 But in the last year of his life, he’d spent most of his time disheveled and depressed, lying in bed or on the living room couch, listening to Celtic music on his Walkman. However, on that early-November day, when he suddenly wanted to play, his posture was straight, and his blue eyes clear; he was clean and energetic. I was wary of that energy. A fleeting vigor often accompanies resignation. I think he wanted to play catch with me to construct a final and positive memory of himself in my mind. Perhaps he’d hoped I wouldn’t remember how he’d misused me.

I agreed to play catch with him, but with a football, not a baseball. We had not tossed a football together in years. Neither of us cared for the sport. I don’t know for sure why I suggested we play with a football. I think I’d sensed his determination to die and understood, perhaps unconsciously, that if we tossed a baseball that day, I’d forever link the sport to suicide. I needed to preserve some joyful memories of my father; I needed baseball detached from trauma. 

In my memory of our last catch, the November air is just above freezing. I can’t recall any of my father’s jackets and only one of his sweatshirts, which was maroon cotton, no logos. Here, he wears that sweatshirt and faded jeans. We play in the front yard because the back yard is littered with dog shit. My father is the quarterback. He draws simple receiver routes with his finger on the partially deflated football. I follow his instructions. I run forward five yards, then slant toward the sidewalk and catch his weak pass. Next, I run a ten-yard button hook. Just before I turn to catch the ball, it sails over my head, a tight spiral. I then ask my father to throw one deep. I sprint. He hurls the ball, and it wobbles in the air.

About the author

Daniel Rousseau’s work has appeared in Cimarron Review, Baseball Research Journal, The Briar Cliff Review, and Salon, and has been noted in Best American Essays 2018. He received an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches English in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Learn more at danielrousseau.com.

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