The following is a short story originally published in Midwest Literary Magazine.
With autumn chasing hard, summer slipped away like the Red Sox’s lead over the Yankees in the American League East. Something else faded that summer-my mother and father’s marriage. She was fed up with his drinking and he couldn’t deal with her coldness anymore. Most nights she’d drift off to sleep with the sun still burning, while Dad would slouch in the E-Z chair, crack open a Pabst Blue Ribbon and stare at our fuzzy TV set. It was actually kind of peaceful; last night was the exception.
My mother’s shrieks seized the night and awakened me. “Tomorrow the papers come and I want you out of this house,” she yelled. My father responded loudly, “This is my house. It’s in my name and if anyone’s leaving, it’s you.”
I pulled back the sheets and snuck into my little sister Angela’s room, located closest to mine in the hallway. She was already sitting up in bed and motioned for me to come closer to her. “Please get on the bed Scott,” she whispered. I walked quietly across the hardwood floor, trying not to make any of the boards creak. I sat on the edge of Angela’s bed and whispered, “It’s OK, we’re used to this by now.”
Down the hall in the master bedroom, I heard Dad say, “Marie, we promised the kids we’d go to Cooperstown for the day. This summer’s been hard enough on them already.”
“Take them yourself,” Mom said. “I’m not riding anywhere with you.”
By six o’clock the next morning, Dad had the gray Impala loaded and ready for the road. Still groggy from having her sleep cycle disrupted, Angela bowed her head and rubbed her eyes as she strode toward the car. I, on the hand, could not contain my excitement. I hopped into the car and immediately began smacking my fist into my oiled Wilson infielder’s mitt. My father, who was now sitting behind the wheel, said, “Take it easy on that glove Scooter. You’re giving me a headache.”
I couldn’t believe we were actually making the pilgrimage to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I envisioned the hallowed halls, the souvenir shops with mint-conditioned cards and the specialty batting cages that fired curve balls, knuckle balls and sliders–along with a batting practice fastball. My father and I had planned the trip during a snowstorm one February night, I guess just to give us something to look forward to in the spring. Now something–or rather the absence of someone–threatened to sour my enthusiasm; the front passenger seat, usually reserved for my mother, was vacant as sheets of rain pelted the car. Dad clutched the steering wheel and stared out the windshield.
“Are we going Dad?” I asked.
“Hold on,” he said, gritting his teeth. “Your friggin’ mother makes everything difficult.” Dad pulled the keys out of the ignition, stepped out of the car and held his arms in front of his face, trying to block the rain as he hurried across the driveway, up the front steps and on the porch. He then went inside. “Here we go again,” I said. I looked over at my sister, waiting for her reaction. But she was sound asleep with her head propped against the backseat window.
A few minutes later, my father stormed outside and walked to our car, this time ignoring the rain. Once inside the vehicle, he whisked away the moisture sopping his gray-speckled hair and started the car. “It’s just gonna be us three,” he said.
“That’s fine with me,” I said. But a short time later, just as Dad checked his rearview mirror and started to put the Impala in reverse, I saw my mother emerge on the front porch. I yelled, “Wait Dad.”
Dad looked up, noticed my mother and put the car back in park. Mom was carrying an umbrella in her right hand and a brown paper sack in her left hand; the bag contained our Polaroid camera, which Dad had left behind on the kitchen table. She opened the umbrella while still on the porch and headed to the car with deliberate steps, letting us know she would not rush on our behalf.
“Well Scooter, I guess we won’t be alone after all,” Dad said. My mom finally reached the car, opened the door and slid into the seat without uttering a word to anyone. She then sat there and just stared ahead, apparently keeping her eyes focused on the intermittent movement of the windshield wipers.
Dad tried his best to alleviate the tension. “Everybody ready?” he asked. No one said anything, and so I chimed in, “Let’s go Dad.”
“All right then,” he said, and pulled the car out of the driveway. We drove along Stanwix Street and made a right turn onto Black River Boulevard. And so our mini day vacation was underway. By about 7:30 a.m. we exited the New York State Thruway and drove southbound on Route 28.
“Hey Scooter,” Dad said to me as he navigated the winding, hilly road, “that orchard on your right is where we’ll pick apples in October.”
Angela, who was now awake, piped up and asked, “Can I come too?”
“Sure honey, you can taste them to make sure they’re not rotten,” Dad said. Angela held her little belly as she laughed. My mother turned her head slightly and snuck a peek at Angela, but refused to add anything to the conversation.
By 10:30 the rain had stopped and a patchwork of surrounding farmland welcomed us to the outskirts of Cooperstown. About five minutes later we turned onto Main Street and entered the village founded by the father of “The Last of the Mohicans” author James Fenimore Cooper. We parked about two blocks away from the Hall of Fame and as we got out of the car, Dad said, “Let’s eat breakfast before we visit Ted, Mickey and Willie.
“Who?” Angela asked.
“Geez Angela,” I said. “Don’t you know anything? He meant Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.”
“Easy,” my dad said as we walked along the sidewalk. “She doesn’t know.” He put his arm around Angela and said, “They’re just famous ballplayers honey.”
“Oh, OK,” Angela said, smiling at us. My mother trailed a few feet behind us and we waited for her to catch up before we all went inside the Short Stop, one of Cooperstown’s most famous eateries. We snagged a booth and I gazed around the restaurant. Framed black-and-white pictures of old ballplayers adorned the greasy, yellowed walls. Dad and I ordered the Triple Play-two eggs, two pancakes and ham (or bacon). Angela ordered a chocolate malt and a cinnamon donut, while Mom sipped a cup of black coffee and puffed on a Salem. “You sure you don’t want anything Marie?” my dad asked when our food arrived. “If I wanted something, I’d order it,” Mom said.
And then practically everyone in the restaurant–with the exception of my mother and perhaps some Red Sox fans–let out cheers when one of the Short Stop’s waitresses, a college-aged woman named Rose, stood on a stool behind the counter and announced, “Good news everyone, in case you haven’t heard, the Yankees beat the California Angels four-to-three last night.”
“What do you think Scooter,” Dad said, “are they gonna catch the Sox?”
“I don’t know Dad, but at least they’re making it a race.”
We finished eating and Dad paid the bill. Then, on our way to the museum, we made a quick detour to one of the souvenir shops. With the money I had saved from helping Dad around the house that summer, I was planning to buy an official Yankees home pinstripe jersey, preferably with the number 44 on the back (Reggie Jackson’s number); however, I ended up with a 1977 Yankees World Series champion pennant, a Pete Rose Cincinnati Reds warm-up jersey and a paperback book about Yogi Berra. Dad bought Angela a Yankee hat that was about two sizes too big. It looked adorable on her and Dad and I both chuckled when she yanked it down over her ears.
“Oh well,” Dad said, “don’t worry honey, you’ll grow into it.” As we left the souvenir shop loaded with our packages, I realized that my mother had been sitting outside the entire time. Dad said he’d run the bags to the car so we wouldn’t have to carry them with us inside the Hall. Angela and I started walking with him, but he turned around and said, “No, wait with your mother guys.”
So we sat on a bench next to our mother, who pretended not to acknowledge us. Because it was a weekday, there were hardly any people on the sidewalk. I turned my head away from my mother and looked across the street at the small shops on the opposite side of the street. And then I heard Angela ask, “Mom, why aren’t you talking to anyone?” I whipped my head around and covered Angela’s mouth with my hand. “Forget it,” I whispered to her. My mother responded, “That’s right forget it. What difference does it make now?”
Just then Dad came back and said, “All right guys. Let’s go to the Hall of Fame.” The purpose of our expedition was then made complete when we paid the admission fees and entered the gates of the Hall. And maybe it was just the air conditioning revving at full blast, but a chill prickled my skin. It’s as if I could feel the ghosts of America’s pastime had been roused from their repose for our benefit alone and now their spirits oozed out of their neatly constructed memory vaults.
Our eyes shifted rapidly from one icon to another on the first floor of the museum. First the lifelike wooden statue of Babe Ruth caught our attention; then we were captivated by a Norman Rockwell painting-“Game Called Because of Rain” (also known as “The Three Umpires”). My eyes and brain felt overwhelmed by the thrilling visual stimuli. And even my mother was taken aback while roaming through the exhibition and gallery spaces on the second floor. “Scooter look,” she said to me, “those are the spikes of Ty Cobb.” I don’t know what surprised me more, seeing the lethal spikes of the “Georgia Peach,” or hearing my mother actually complete a sentence without anger in her voice.
And with each satisfying image-Ted Williams’ bat, Joe DiMaggio’s number 5 pinstripe uniform, Jackie Robinson’s cap and glove-the game’s glory sank deeper into my soul.
On our way out, we spotted a glass-encased statue of the late Pirates star Robert Clemente. We glanced at it briefly as we shuffled past it, but Mom stopped us because she wanted to get a closer look. To my mother, Clemente’s humanitarian work made him practically a saint, but I must admit I had never heard of him. That’s because my dad said he died in a plane crash in 1972, when I was only three years old. My mother pulled out the Polaroid camera and asked one of the museum staff to take a snapshot of the four of us in front of the Clemente statue. In the photo, she let my father hold her hand, but neither of them offered smiles; however, anyone looking at the image would have thought we were a relatively happy family. I knew better and in fact, it would be the last picture my parents ever took together.
Before piling into our car for the return trip to Oneida County, we strolled over to Doubleday Field. By now, the sun felt warm on my shoulders and a slight breeze swept across the dusty brown infield dirt.
The dugouts of Doubleday Field seemed just like the kind the Big Leaguers had-since you had to go down a few steps to reach the bench; there was also a real water fountain at one end, ready to quench your thirst. I took a seat on the bench inside the home dugout and stared out at the field. Angela and Dad were right next to me, while Mom remained standing along the chain-link fence on the other side of the gate.
“Wow Dad,” I said, “this is amazing.”
“I know Scooter,” Dad replied. He shook his head and added, “This is the real deal son.” He also told me some local American Legion teams played games in the ballpark during the summer months, and it definitely looked like it was used frequently. A lineup card was still taped to one of the side walls and sunflower seed shells and Gatorade cups littered the dugout floor. A sticky concoction of tobacco juice and bubble gum also gripped the rubber soles of my white high top Chuck Taylor sneakers.
A few minutes later, Dad, Angela and I ran out on the field. Dad more or less humored us by taking part in an imaginary baseball game, while Mom climbed a few steps leading to a row of green bleacher seats just above the home dugout on the first base side. She sat down, lit a cigarette and watched us make fools of ourselves. Angela straddled third base and hollered, “Mom you’re coach, flash me a sign.” For a couple of seconds, my mother remained motionless, like a wax statue, then took a puff of her Salem and tucked a few strands of her long black hair behind her right ear. And while it wasn’t a “steal” sign, it was good enough for us.
My father stood behind the plate in the catcher’s position and tossed me an imaginary pop fly to center field, where I was roaming. As I faked catching it, Angela took off from third to tag up, with her fat little legs motoring and the oversized hat flopping down over her ears once again. I threw the “air ball” to Dad, who swept the tag on Angela just as she slid into home. From my outfield spot, it had seemed like a close play and I wasn’t sure if Angela’s foot had touched home plate before Dad applied the tag. Silence befell Doubleday Field as neither my dad nor I wanted to make the call. We looked to Mom in the stands, and Angela yelled, “Mom, Mom, am I out or safe?” My mom flashed a less-than-enthusiastic safe sign, but a safe sign nonetheless. Angela leapt to her feet and raised her arms in the air. “Ha, I knew I was safe,” she screamed. Dad doubled over in laughter and scooped up Angela in his arms. And as I hustled into the infield, I noticed even Mom was laughing, although not as exuberantly as Dad.
My father looked up at my mother in the stands, nodded his head and smiled. It seemed like he wanted to hold on to the moment and to the fleeting image of this woman he loved, a woman, who, at this point in time, remained his wife. Of course that would change. My parents separated a week later and made the break official when they signed the divorce papers in early October.
But I still can’t help but believe baseball’s immortal heroes–Ruth, Clemente, Satchel Page and Lou Gehrig–looked down us that late summer day in 1978. They gave us a memory I would cherish forever, an experience shared by a family unit that, although unraveling, was still a family of four.