Uncle Joe fumbles with two cigarettes — one unlit, the other sputtering out — while turning off of Hunting Park Avenue. His long, thin, tobacco-stained fingers conjure a connection. He steers with palms and elbows and inhales before his lips even touch the paper. Ignition.
“The torch has been passed,” he says, punctuating with a phlegm-burdened cough.
Smoke continues billowing out of the window after just a sliver of indecision. He crushes the used butt in the overflowing ashtray, leans back, and exhales as we roll onto Roosevelt Boulevard on this summer evening.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
I’m trying to buckle the seatbelt, but the strap jams.
“Oh, that doesn’t work,” Uncle Joe says. “Those things do more harm then good, you know. Car catches fire, people can’t get out.”
Ah, the 1970s. We accept that life involves risk; that, in fact, a life without risk isn’t worth much. Uncle Joe smokes Camels to the nub and drinks black instant coffee all day long. They are among his staples, along with beer, whiskey, and lottery tickets. And speaking of lottery tickets, this year, I decide, will be my lucky year. I am thirteen.
My parents come from big Irish families. I have a lot of aunts and uncles, not to mention cousins who eat huge chunks of adult time. Uncle Joe Magner is a bachelor and a big part of my life. Dad works these crazy-ass hours at the post office, and Uncle Joe cheers at my little league games and, let me tell you, I disappoint because I am a total pussy at the plate.
“Swing, Francis! Swing!” he begs.
Not me. I either walk or strike out. On really bad days I get beaned. When Uncle Joe drives me home we talk about my fielding. I pounce on any ball I can reach, and I cover almost all the ground between the right side of second and the third base line. I chase would-be hits down like a greyhound snags rabbits. I dive and fire from a lying position with my rocket-launcher arm. The best fielder on the team, and I will be the best fielder on every team I’ll ever play for.
That’s not enough. Even now, when baseball geeks examine every iota — when someone somewhere is probably counting the number of times a player dumps in a day — the interest and money and adulation still skews toward offense. People might know fielding percentages, but they pay to see homeruns.
“What do you want to be?” Uncle Joe asks one night, after I’d struck out looking three times. He’s become versed at nudging the conversation away from the game, but I’m on to him.
“Baseball,” I say.
I expect what I’d get from Dad or any sensible adult. No, really, what do you want to be? The odds of the best player my age in Philadelphia making the major leagues are astronomical. I’m not the best player on my block and if it weren’t for my glove, I’d ride the bench. Then the sensible adult would talk to me about being a tradesman: plumber, electrician, steamfitter, carpenter. How you can make a living, raise a family. Maybe some mention of college.
Uncle Joe says: “I would have said football at your age. Believe it? Skinny me? I was a wide receiver in college, and I did play pro for one year. Fastest man in the league, and I could jump.”
“The Depression. The Yellow Jackets folded and dropped out of the NFL. Came back as the Eagles the next year.”
Well, this is new.
“You didn’t try out for the Eagles?”
“Didn’t stay in shape. Had to work. I was the only one working at home for a while. Time goes on, Francis. I am sixty-two. I remember when I was two.”
His bony shoulders droop a bit.
“You OK, Unc?”
“Me? Don’t worry. I plan on hanging around for another thirty years.”
We stop at a light, and he fingers one of the beads on the rosary that hangs from the rearview.
“Of course, when you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans.”
Uncle Joe goes to daily Mass, blesses himself in Horn & Hardarts, and often pauses to pray with his eyes closed. He never married. Mom says he’d come close, but an Italian girl had broken him.
“You can’t trust them Eye-talians,” Dad says.
Uncle Joe quotes Shakespeare, Thomas Aquinas (“Drink to the point of hilarity”), and G.K. Chesterton. He read all of Dickens. Twice. He could have been a college professor or Congressman or a public intellectual. Life might have swept him to great heights, if he’d only caught the right currents. As it is, he drifts from company to company downtown as an office worker. He’s never happy in any job more than five minutes. Mom tells me that before I was born he worked as an insurance agent for a while and made good money. It was the closest he got to a breakthrough, but then he opened his own agency right before a recession..
I repeat: “I want to play baseball.”
“Well, you’ll do it if you want it bad enough.” Which is exactly what you’d tell a deluded teen.
What neither of us count on, what neither of us can even conceive on this little trip from the fields at Hunting Park to the Olney section of Philadelphia, is that I will meet the challenge. I make myself a hitter. I make myself a player. I make myself a star.
Uncle Joe lives in a crumbling apartment building directly across the street from a playground so small the city cleanup crews overlook it. Broken swings, sliding boards, and seesaws slump like new-age art. Graffiti marks places that you can’t even see, let alone read. The little baseball field craters like the surface of the moon, and tufts of weed sprout here and there like weasels blinking in the sun.
The batting cage rots, flecks of rust sprinkle the caked mud. But it is still standing. And I’d read about Mike Schmidt hitting off a batting tee.
I’m thinking about that cage when Uncle Joe drops me off. The traffic on nearby Roosevelt Boulevard resounds through the dusk like distant applause. The sun throws orange light against the row-home windows as birds start to chatter.
Uncle Joe leans over as I stand on the sidewalk.
“There are a lot of things you can be, Francis, remember that.”
“Baseball,” I insist.
“Then swing, damn it! Swing!” he says, and takes off.
I think: “Enough of being afraid of a fucking pitched ball.”
The next morning, I set up a tee and begin popping a bucket of baseballs against the cage next to Uncle Joe’s apartment. I’d been collecting them for years — scuffed, bruised, and tattered remains of wars in the Babe Ruth leagues.
Schmidt’s idea is that since the most important part of hitting is the point where the bat meets the ball, then that’s the spot a hitter should focus on. You don’t need someone pitching to you, or a pitching machine. His body will get the bat there in time; it’s the connection that matters.
I am too dumb to realize that what works for the greatest third baseman in history might not work for a scrawny sandlot player. My body will not, necessarily, get the bat to the ball on time. Uncle Joe loves the attitude though. Morning after morning, I wipe the sweat from my eyes with the back of my calloused hands and look up to the ghostly image at his window. The ghost windmills a wave, and I salute.
Once, I look at a few windows down and spot another figure watching. Strange what you see in an instant; or what you imagine you see. He doesn’t exude Uncle Joe’s nervous energy. He’s self-possessed, and I feel his brooding approval.
“That’s old Zap,” Uncle Joe says.
After my workouts, I go to his apartment for iced-tea. Picture a bachelor pad and it wouldn’t look anything like it. No stereo system or giant TV screens or anything else that would mark what we today would call a man-cave. It is a monk’s cave. Rosaries and prayer books lay among old newspapers and magazines.
“Zap is hard to understand. Thick accent. But a good man,” Uncle Joe says. “Russian Orthodox. Fought the Nazis and dodged the commies. Escaped the two beasts of the century.”
Uncle Joe is no stranger to these struggles. He’d fought in the Battle of the Bulge, got half his stomach blown away. Today we’d say post-traumatic stress disorder. Back then they called it battle fatigue, if they called it anything. That entire World War II generation — Dad and my uncles — they do not talk about the war, because the ones who’d seen action want to forget. A lot of self-medication goes on: alcohol for the elders, pot and heroin for the Vietnam vets. Not all of them, or probably even most of them. But a lot of them.
Uncle Joe and Mr. Zap — real name Vladimir Zaporov — get together about twice a month. Uncle Joe, his Jack Daniels and Schmidt’s; Mr. Zap, his Smirnoff’s and Colt 45. They talk about God and get lit. If they’d met more often they’d be priests, or dead.
Mr. Zap keeps up with Uncle Joe cigarette-smoking-wise, too. On days they “consult,” alcohol-sweetened vapor crowds the apartment, but they don’t open a window. It’s the only recycling they believe in. Mr. Zap is Oliver Hardy to Uncle Joe’s Stan Laurel. He wears stained, discolored sweaters, even on the hottest days, and his belly strains the buttons, which are never aligned anyway. A flannel Jeff stops at his bushy brows, giving him an excuse to not make eye contact. Mr. Zap wants to blend, but those blues of his pierce everything in a way that only eyes that have watched a thousand snowstorms could.
Sometimes, when I am at the tee, I see Mr. Zap on the street wedging into an old Ford Falcon. Though he doesn’t look in my direction, I know that he’s watching. Is he some kind of perv?
“He loves your discipline,” Uncle Joe explains, looking a bit dumbfounded himself. “You are really working hard, Francis.”
“I see Mr. Zap going to work sometimes.”
“Janitor for the schools. Makes better money then me. Don’t underestimate him, Francis. Mr. Zap was a coach in the Soviet Union. Trained weightlifters for the Olympics. He defected. They can’t keep their people in. Anyone with any sense wants to leave. Everybody dreams of America. Of course, now…”
“Mr. Zap loves his freedom and loves what America used to stand for. But, he agrees that freedom today tilts toward evil.”
“Too many evil people.”
“How do you know they’re evil, Unc?”
“I just do.”
“Francis, evil people are people who love evil. They embrace it.”
It’s the first time he says this to me. It makes no sense.
“Sounds like an interesting guy,” I say.
“He has his quirks, but don’t we all?”
Just another neighborhood character.
Each July, Uncle Joe rents a place in Sea Isle for a couple of weeks. It’s something that someone of limited means could never pull off in the decades ahead, and it must have been hard for him even back then, but he manages. He invites his siblings and their families — the extended Magner clan —and what I recall most about these excursions is boredom. My cousins are older and don’t have time for me. I burn easily. I don’t like sand, and it skeeves me to walk into the ocean and step on crunchy, sharp things that might sting. Those greenhead flies, bastards, do sting, or bite — amounts to the same. They’re mean mothers, and the only way to escape them is to wade into the surf, and that water is fucking cold. And why is it everyone wants to hear the Beach Boys? They suck.
This summer, though, I escape. I have a newspaper route and I don’t try to get someone to cover for me. Me and one of my older brothers, who I hardly ever see, have the house to ourselves. But just because an adult (allegedly) is home, I still have to convince my parents. What seals the deal is that Uncle Joe wants me to check on his apartment every few days to collect his mail and let would-be robbers know someone’s looking out. No problem, because I am still going there every morning to hit off the tee. I also promise to let my brother know my movements.
“If he’s listening, you won’t tell; and if you’re telling, he won’t listen,” Dad says, but I stay home anyway.
Mornings, I am up early, and do my route while it’s still dark. I come home, cook bacon, eggs and toast and head over to Uncle Joe’s while a just-you-wait sun simmers on the horizon.
I swing that bat hundreds of times until my legs wobble, my shoulders ache and the callouses on my hands bleed. Ball on tee. Swing. Ball on tee. Swing. Feel the connection, feel the way it’s supposed to be. At first, about ten percent of the hits are line drives. I keep at it.
“Pop! Pop! Pop!”
It pays off in the last game of that year. For once I do as Uncle Joe has been imploring me to do and swing. I get my first hit. Not of the season. My first hit ever. Ever! The zone engulfs me. We’re not complete strangers, for it’s descended upon me before, but only in the field. The Earth stops revolving, I can sense the magnetic rolls of the underworld in my feet. Time steps out. The pitcher reaches back, slings. I don’t flinch. The ball floats. I can see the rotation. I track the path as I load my swing then shoot my arms around. I don’t see the bat strike the ball, but I know it’s coming.
Up the middle so hard the pitcher ducks. It shoots beyond second and almost skids past the charging center fielder. All bullet, no arc. The dream-state evaporates.
“Run!” my coach screams.
I’d forgotten. When I reach first base, my teammates gasp and then they roar.
I think, “Hello first base.” I’ve never seen the diamond from this angle. I wish Uncle Joe was here.
The coach slides me five. Big smile. I am dead serious. Don’t want to show up the pitcher, who’s still shaking his head.
“Take a little lead,” the coach says. “Just a little lead, Dash. Come on, more than just a step. You’re going to use that great speed and steal second.”
I am not going anywhere.
“Come on, Dash. You should have stolen home by now.”
I barely move until the next kid gets a hit and I tear around the bases to third. Suddenly, my speed is a weapon for more than chasing down balls at shortstop. On a sharp groundball to second, I score the go-ahead run, belly-flopping under the tag like Pete Rose.
I get two more hits that game.
“What have you been eating this week, Dash?” the coach teases. “Too bad we don’t play again.”
Baseball season is over. In the next weeks, humidity cradles the region, but kids talk about the Eagles. Tryouts for youth and high school football are about a month off. Friends invite me to throw the pigskin around, but I head over to Uncle Joe’s with my bat and bucket of balls.
I’ll be starting high school in September, and I know that with my speed I could play freshman football. What had Uncle Joe called it? A scatback? I could be one of those. Football is the glamour sport.
“No one gives a shit about high school baseball,” my brother confirms. “You want the chicks to notice you? Be like me, Fran. Play the manly game.”
Ball on tee. Swing. Ball on tee. Swing. As I wipe the sweat from my eyes with my forearm, the sound of a car door opening groans through the morning heat. I look over. Mr. Zap extracts himself from his Falcon, lumbers in my direction. I tense.
“Uncle Joe is down the shore,” I announce as he leans against the batting cage.
“This sport I no understand,” he says, pushing a brown-tooth smile my way. The shadow from his Jeff shuts out his eyes.
Ball on tee. Swing. A nubber drops and rolls a bit, not even reaching the cage.
“Uncle Joe says you were in the Olympics.”
“Bronze,” he leans over, spits. “1956. Then I coach. Gold. Gold. Gold.”
“Must have been something,” I say, as I start to gather my things.
“I interrupt you,” he says.
“Yes. You usually stay,” he checks his watch, “one more hour. Don’t go. I will leave. I above all people know importance of training. Importance of concentration.”
“It’s OK,” I say. I can’t help thinking that he sounds like Boris Badenov from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.
“Your uncle tells me to look out for you. Advise you.”
“Uncle Joe said that?”
Is this some sort of perv play? But Uncle Joe would know a perv if he saw one. I am not worried. Mr. Zap doesn’t move too well and, after all, I have the bat.
“He a good man. We ponder the great questions.”
“Great questions like: Is God timeless or eternal?”
Now there’s a real conversation-stopper.
“He sees you mean it,” Mr. Zap says.
“You want to play professional this … game.” He motions toward the chewed up diamond with his slab of a hand. “I help you become pro.”
I put the ball on the tee, swing. Line shot that sticks in the cage.
“I know,” I say. “Practice makes perfect.”
He tilts over a bit, seems to clutch his heart.
But he’s OK. He rumbles around his chest area and comes out with a big-ass pill bottle. Looks like a lopsided softball. He holds it up, between his thumb and index finger.
“The answer,” he says.
“That’s all right, Mr. Zap. Thanks, though.”
He laughs, the sound rolling around his chest like a bowling ball.
“I help my friend Joe by helping his nephew.”
Ball on tee. Swing. Another crusher.
“What is it?”
“You no get this from any doctor. No one prescribe this.”
Well, that makes me feel a whole lot better.
“I’m good,” I say.
“You very good. You make yourself very good. You have the discipline. The passion. I train enough young people to know. Hundreds of them. Yes, good. Very good, even. But this….” He shakes the bottle. It sounds like a maraca. “This make you great. These are pills. Before, you get this only from injection.”
“I hate needles.”
He laughs again, but he isn’t done.
“You lift weights. You keep training. You will see. I leave it here.” He bends, exhales, places the bottle on the ground. “Once a day take. You finish this one, come back. If you don’t take, no problem. I ask one favor.”
“No tell you uncle.”
“I tell him I make you a champ. I don’t tell him how. You have the passion already. You no need me for that. I see you run. You have speed. A gift from God almighty Himself. This,” he points to the bottle at his feet, “this is what I can offer.”
I take it. I don’t want to leave it there for some little kid to find. I have no intention of even opening it. I go home, and I’m about ready to toss it but I decide no, Uncle Joe might need to be told.
The moment I take my first steroid detours me into places I would never have gone otherwise. It is pivotal, profound. I sure as hell wish I could remember it. I recall the steps leading toward it, a little. There is the long conversation with a big brother about starting my new life at what is billed as the largest Catholic high school in the country. There is the realization that baseball tryouts are held in the fall, and that there is no freshman team. It’s nearly impossible for a freshman to make JV, and the coach doesn’t really value speed. He likes homeruns.
“Try out for track, squirt. That’s your game.”
“Track’s not a game.”
I alter my regime. I lift weights down in the garage, and eat shakes that bulk me up. I do sprints. I put the tee aside and head to the batting cages in Burholme Park. One of my buddies works there and I hit ninety-five-mile-an-hour fastballs each morning before it opens. Guy in the neighborhood pitched for Southern Cal, and wants a tryout with the bigs. He’s recovering from elbow surgery. On Saturday mornings, he throws me junk: curves, sliders, screwballs, knuckleballs, even spitballs. I do not bail and, soon, I am not fooled.
Mr. Zap and I work a system. I deliver leftovers to Uncle Joe and snatch the package outside Mr. Zap’s door when leaving. I wonder who supplies him, but I don’t ask. I know what we’re doing isn’t quite legal but, I figure, it’s not quite illegal, either. Hey, guys pop vitamins all the time. Is it my fault that these pills happen to work? And, anyway, this is the 1970s and people are swallowing all sorts of things that they probably shouldn’t.
And they do work, those pills. I get bigger, stronger, and even faster in just a month. I feel like the Hulk. School starts and I make the team during October tryouts. Not JV; varsity. I crush balls; guys stop and watch while I’m taking batting practice. I am the first freshman to make varsity in twelve years. A writer for the Philadelphia Bulletin notes that I do it all: running speed, arm strength, hitting for average, hitting for power, and fielding. The football team sucks, so for four years I am the big man on campus. As I stroll down the hallways shouts of, “Yo, Bash! Yo, Bash!” follow me, for that is my nickname now.
Girls call me. I experience my first threesome as a sophomore, all of us pretending that we won’t remember a thing. But I do remember and brag about it on Monday. Mention it in lunch line and by the time I get my dried tundra burger and wimpy fries, the entire cafeteria knows and teammates give me a standing O. One of the girls transfers to public school. The other quits cheerleading, kind of wilts throughout senior year. That’s her tough shit. I love it all: the drinking, the reefer, the deference shown to me by the faculty. I am voted class president. Everybody notes that success hasn’t gone to my head even while I think: “I am God.”
I don’t totally fool my parents, of course; arrogance will out. I keep my distance. What, really, do they have to complain about? Other parents envy them. My older brothers — maybe they’d try to humble me, but they’re moving out, starting their lives and, besides, I intimidate them, too. I get scholarship offers, but the Mets dangle a $20,000 signing bonus. That’s more than Dad makes in a year.
I see Uncle Joe all through high school, of course, and make it a point not to see Mr. Zap. Uncle Joe ages, his cough lingers longer, and he’s retired now. He spends a lot of his day watching TV and reading newspapers. He’s been hospitalized a few times with emphysema, heart palpitations, prostate cancer.
“You name it,” Mom says.
Not that it changes his lifestyle. Uncle Joe looks at me through the fog of smoke and medication.
“You said you were going to do it and you’re doing it, Francis.”
“You taught me.”
“What did I teach you?”
But I hear Mr. Zap’s door open and close, and say that I’m double-parked and need to go. Uncle Joe’s jabbering on about God’s will, but who has time?
Here I pause. Here’s my defense. I am young, dumb, and full of cum. I’m not quite a complete asshole. I do charity: Operation Santa Claus, homeless shelter shit. I don’t consider myself a bad person, just a jock doing jock things. I even sort of fall in love a couple of times, get a little vulnerable, but I lose interest fast. Hey, man. Temptation lives. Then there’s a situation in senior year when Candy O’Connell tells me she’s pregnant.
The rainfall is probably not as hard as it sounds, because we face off underneath the aluminum stands on the football field. It’s like we’re talking inside a bongo drum. I glance over to the school, wavering in the downpour like a ghost. It’s already the past. I don’t want to be here.
Candy’s blubbering and sobbing and, really, making me sick. How can some chick be so hot sometimes and then, now, shit, look at her. Running makeup, dripping snot. The model features no longer symmetrical, one side of her face sags, while the other bloats. That body hidden in an extra-large hoody and even those legs look as if they’re sprouting varicose veins.
I’m thinking, “Bitch is aging in dog years.”
“Do you hear me? Pregnant!”
“So?” I say.
I shift my weight like I’m about to steal second. I’ve got stuff to do. The head scout for the Mets had just visited a few nights before. I’d signed the contracts. My parents took pictures. The newspapers called. I am heading for great things.
“It’s yours,” she says. “You said you loved me.”
“You said you loved me!”
Maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t. (I probably did.)
“There are things you can do,” I say.
She stops shaking for a moment, deadeyes me through her stringy bangs. Wind picks up, sweeps rain across the field and under the stands. It tugs on my trousers like a kitten.
“I am not going to kill it,” she says.
“You can’t kill something that’s not alive.”
Her face screws up as if she’s constipated and she growls. She swings at me, punches at me, her little hands bouncing off my body like spitballs off armor. I hold her arms laughing. That’s pretty rank of me, I know, but I can’t help it. Over-the-top emotion always plays like comedy to me.
“You told me you had protection,” I say.
“You told me!” she screams. And I’m happy for the rain, for the privacy it gives us. “You are not going to get away with this, asshole!”
But I do.
A buddy calls me the next night.
“Did you hear?”
Candy’s parents had found her hanging from a tree in Pennypack Park.
“She loved to party,” my friend says.
“Maybe too much. She couldn’t handle it.”
If I hadn’t been distracted by the Mets I probably would have told friends that I’d fucked Candice O’Connell. I got the first call from the scout about six weeks before on the very night we’d done it. But did she tell anyone? Had anyone seen us? I sweat for a few days, but she left no note. The coroner had to have discovered she’d been pregnant, but no word leaks out. The cops respect the family’s wishes, I guess. The school plans a memorial service. Even though the church considers suicide one of the gravest sins, practical hearts prevail and say that God takes emotional and mental fragility into consideration. I am asked to say a few words.
“I hardly even know her,” I protest.
I’m class president. I have to speak. I call in sick that day.
Yes, I feel bad. Horrible, even. Guilty as hell. For a few touchy days I think about telling someone, anyone, that maybe it had been my fault. I keep replaying that scene under the stands. I keep thinking of that one hook-up, after a keg party. We’d left at different times, met on the fifty-yard line. (I had a key to the field.) Did it right there.
Afterward, we sat on the stands and talked about the future. We cuddled.
“I am not going to be your girlfriend,” she laughed.
“You don’t know how persistent I can be.”
Then came Easter break and she didn’t return to school. I didn’t see her for another couple of weeks. She had the flu, I heard. We talked a few times on the phone, but I was already losing interest. Our moment had passed and maybe I did lead her on a little, but these things were organic. If the beginning had played out maybe I would have settled down with Candy, I don’t know. She had a reputation but, then, so did I. Maybe, maybe, maybe….
I thought, “She’s dead because of you, bro.”
I was this close to talking, to destroying everything, when one of my friends took me aside and — I kid you not — cried. He’d been with her, too. She’d broken it off about a couple of weeks before Candy and I had hooked up. He’d been calling her, threatening to pass around some Polaroids he’d taken. I was absolved.
I visit Uncle Joe for the last time. He’s barely eating. He’s gray, almost a ghost already. He lives on that ragged couch, sleeps there. He’s afraid to go to bed.
“I don’t have long, Francis.”
“What are you talking about, Unc? You’ll bury all of us.”
“What drugs are you taking?”
“I’m just optimistic. High on life.”
I am so relieved to be free of guilt about Candy, feeling blessed that no one suspects. But that’s not what Uncle Joe refers to.
“You pick up something outside Mr. Zap’s apartment. Twice, I saw you.”
Spying on me? I don’t like this.
“Did you ask him?” I say.
“I’m asking you. He and I don’t talk anymore. I thought he was a good man. He isn’t.”
“Something underhanded about him.”
“How do you say that?”
“Francis, sometimes you just know these things.”
Uncle Joe’s breathing is shallow, and one bony leg peaks out from under the blanket like a stick that’s been bleached in the sun. I think about him being wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He’s a casualty of war, even thirty-five years on.
I shrug. I say, “Mr. Zap gives me something that helps me….”
“Perform, Unc. Do better. Reach for glory. I don’t want to end up….”
“An old dying man living alone?”
“Didn’t say that.”
“You’ve changed, Francis, and I don’t know if I like it. There is evil in the world. Evil inside everyone.”
I get up. Head toward the door.
“Evil people are people who love evil.”
“The world’s complicated, Uncle Joe.”
A couple of days later, he dies. I know this even before my parents get the call. It’s one of the few times in my life where a sixth sense kicks in. I dream of Uncle Joe dying and at first I am at his deathbed, then I become Uncle Joe. I’m crying about everything I will miss in life: the Phillies, that first beer on a hot summer day, my rosary, reading, Dickens, Chesterton, a shot of Jack Daniels, the Latin Mass. It’s about midnight and I call my friend, tell him to get the cage ready at Burholme Park.
“Fucking kidding me?”
“How does two hundred dollars sound?”
He can’t turn on the brights so visibility would be low even if it weren’t raining, and it’s coming down steady. One of the wettest Junes on record. The first few I let thump against the tarp. I hear the mechanical arm rise, the spring snap, the ball swoosh by. Then I swing.
I don’t even know how I connect. It’s like I’m tracking the ball with radar, like I’m a bat or something. I know Uncle Joe is dead. I think of the things he talked about.
“Is God eternal or timeless?”
I miss one. I adjust the radar.
“Bash, how can you even see that fucking thing?” my friend asks. He’s shivering on the bench behind me.
I can see everything. I will play in the Mets farm system for two years, and then I will break my leg in a motorcycle accident and get my knee replaced. That will be the end of Bash Magner. I will come back to the neighborhood, piss my money away on drinking and gambling. I will wind up living with my parents again. I will take stock, finally. I will work a shit job and enroll in night school. I like philosophy. I read Sartre, Comte, Hume, Camus, Hayek.
Evil people are people who love evil.
I smile at that. Poor Uncle Joe. That must be one of the stupidest things I ever heard. Leaves so much out. Does evil exist? Are there evil people, or just carbon-based units infected by varying intensities of neurosis, psychosis, and halitosis? And if good and evil exist, aren’t they on a continuum? Good and evil, or just good days and bad days?
I meet the girl who will become my wife in college. She is an angel who calms me. I tell the Candy story and she dismisses it, saying simply that that wasn’t me. Not really. We have a couple of kids, move to the burbs. I land a job in my field, become one of the lucky folks who find meaning in their work. It’s like I win the lottery. When we’re a family on Friday nights, sitting back watching some Disney movie — me with a beer and my wife with her wine — I actually say it aloud: “I am so happy.”
One night, I hear from one of my brothers who’s now a history professor on sabbatical, sifting through the declassified archives of the fallen Soviet Union.
“Remember that old Russian kook that Uncle Joe drank with? Well, get this. Turns out he was a sleeper agent.”
“He was into all kinds of stuff. He made sure that the neighborhoods always had supplies of drugs. Wanted the West to decay. He even got steroids into circulation.”
“Good old Mr. Zap?”
“Think of all the lives he destroyed.”
“But why?” I say.
“Remember what Uncle Joe used to say?”
Many nights I can’t sleep. I think of simple words with simple meanings: words like “sin” and “faith.” I chased fame and fortune and God kept them from me and that — that —might have been grace, another simple word. I can sense it in my own children, this immersion in the world that overlooks evidence of things not seen. I pray. I read and I ponder the great ideas, just as Uncle Joe did. And sometimes, in the gloom, I see Candy O’Connell’s imploring eyes and I shudder. In the silence of the night, my sleeping wife places her hand upon my heart. St. Augustine says, “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”
Oh, and by the way, God is timeless, not eternal. It’s all present tense to Him.
I hit one more and the rain now comes on as if the sky’s collapsing onto Burholme Park.My friend says: “That’s enough, Bash.”