Rounding the Bases: A Short Story

Here’s another previously published short story. I decided I would try to post one each Sunday for a number of weeks. Last week, it was Slices. This week, the story is entitled “Rounding the Bases,” and it was published in 2010 by Midwest Literary Magazine.

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“Rounding the Bases”

August 1978

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, “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 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.

National Baseball Hall of Fame logo.

“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.

From inside the car, I couldn’t see my parents arguing, but I could hear their muffled voices rising. It sounded like they were in their upstairs bedroom. 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,” my 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 out of the driveway, 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?” 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 here.”

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.

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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 unruly 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.

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Night at the Ballpark

Here I am, back to the blog. It’s been so long. I apologize for the absence, but I’ve been preoccupied with work, family, and side creative endeavors (which I will keep private to prevent jinxing the results). And now summer has ended, and a new semester is unfolding on the campus of Syracuse University.

NBT Bank Stadium. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I have one note worth sharing. My family and I attended a Syracuse Mets game for the first time this August. My father used to take me to Syracuse Chiefs games at the old MacArthur Stadium, and I was impressed with the confines of NBT Bank Stadium, the ease of parking, the friendliness of the stadium workers, and the blue and orange color scheme in keeping with the New York Mets affiliation.

Mr. Met image on a stairwell at NBT Bank Stadium. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

My wife Pam and I debated taking our autistic son Colin to the ballpark, but in the end, we decided exposing him to the experience of a live baseball game on a perfect summer night was worth the risk of potential outbursts. We feel it’s worth trying new things with him, even though we endure stress, frustration, and humiliation when he acts out. Our hope is he grows more comfortable in public settings.

Colin sitting in the stands on the first-base line. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And on this night, he fared well. He ate French fries, popcorn, and mini brownie muffins (brought from home). He paid no attention to the action on the field, and when the crowd roared, he unleashed high-pitch screams, drawing the attention of other fans. We left in about the fourth inning with the Buffalo Bisons leading the Mets by several runs. But we considered the evening a minor victory and felt encouraged to attend another game in the future.

Pam and Colin outside NBT Bank Stadium. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

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Father’s Day Poems

For Father’s Day, I thought I would post some pieces honoring my father, the late Francis DiClemente Sr., and my stepfather, the late William Ruane.

The first poem is a fictitious, but the father character was inspired by my dad.

Father’s Day Forgotten

Daddy and Christi parted ways at a bus depot
In the early morning hours.
No big scene, just a kiss on the cheek,
Then she turned around and was gone for good—
Hopping aboard the Trailways bus headed westbound for Chicago.
And she never looked back.

Daddy went home to his beer bottle and sofa seat,
And he drew the living room curtains on the rest of the world,
Letting those four eggshell walls close in and swallow him up,
Wasting away in three empty rooms and a bath.

And the memories can’t replace his lost daughter and wife.
So he tries not to remember his mistakes
Or how he drove them away.
Instead he recalls Halloween pumpkins glowing on the front porch,
Training wheels moving along the uneven sidewalk,
Little hands reaching for bigger ones in the park,
And serving Saltine crackers and milk
To chase away the goblins that haunted
Dreams in the middle of the night.

Now Christi has a life of her own,
And she lets the answering machine catch
Daddy’s Sunday afternoon phone call.
She never picks up and rarely calls back.
So Daddy returns to the green couch
Pockmarked with cigarette burns.
He closes his eyes, opens the door to his memory vault
And watches the pictures play in slow-motion.
He rewinds again and again without noticing the film has faded
And the little girl has stepped out of the frame.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Open Heart

My father was born
with a hole in his heart,
and although repaired,
nothing in his life
ever filled it up.
The defect remained,
despite the surgeon’s work—
a void, a place I could never touch.

The Galliano Club

From street-level sunlight to cavernous darkness,
then down a few steps and you enter The Galliano Club.
Cigar smoke wafts in the air above a cramped poker table.
Scoopy, Fat Pat and Jules are stationed there,
along with Dominic, who monitors the game,
pacing with fingers clasped behind his back.

A pool of red wine spilled on the glossy cherry wood bar,
matches the hue of blood splattered on the bathroom wall.
A cracked crucifix and an Italian flag hang above,
as luck is coaxed into the club with a roll of dice
and a sign of the cross.

Pepperoni and provolone are piled high for Tony’s boys,
who man the five phone lines
and scrawl point spreads on yellow legal pads.
Bocce balls collide as profanity whirls about . . .
and in between tosses, players brag about
cooking calamari (pronounced “calamad”).

Each Sunday during football season, after St. John’s noon Mass,
my father strolls across East Dominick Street and places his bets,
catapulting his hopes on the shoulder pads of
Bears, Bills, Packers and Giants.
His teams never cover and he’s grown accustomed to losing . . .
as everything in Rome, New York, exacts a toll,
paid in working class weariness and three feet of snow.

But once inside The Galliano, he feels right at home,
recalling his heritage, playing cards with his friends.
And here he’s no longer alone,
as all have stories of chronic defeat.
Blown parlays, slashed pensions and wives sleeping around,
constitute the cries of small-town men
who have long given up on their out-of-reach dreams.

For now, they savor the moment—
a winning over/under ticket, a sip of Sambuca
and Sunday afternoons shared in a place all their own.

Dad, side angle. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Death Mask

Assume the death mask,
put on your final face
like those insolent characters
in that Twilight Zone episode—you know the one,
with their cruel faces contorted and fixed there for all time’s sake.

My father wore his death mask.
He kept it on even though I arrived after his passing
on that soft, warm August evening.
I’ll never forget the way he looked,
with his mouth agape, eyes vacant, cheeks sunken,
body withered and shriveled,
curled up in the fetal position on his soiled deathbed
in my grandmother’s sweltering death house.

I allowed myself to look at him for just a moment.
I then turned around and left him alone in his small bedroom.
I did this for my benefit, since I wanted to remember him
as a father and a man and not as a corpse in a locked-up state.
This is because the death mask grips its lonely victim
and sucks out the life and extinguishes the person.

I shuffled into the living room,
rejoining the Hospice nurse and the neighbors who came
across the street to comfort my grandmother and express remorse.
And Grandma, still acting as host despite the occasion and the heat,
asked me to make a pot of coffee for her guests.
The neighbors sat on the old, out-of-style couches and chairs
in my grandmother’s ranch home.
They conversed in hushed tones and sipped coffee
while we waited for the workers from the funeral parlor
to drive up to the house and wheel away my father.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf in my sister’s suburban Ohio house.

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I never called Bill “Dad,” but I considered him a second father instead of a stepfather. He played an instrumental role in my adult formation. Here are two works about him.

Weekend in Albany

Night—diminished faith now fights for restoration,
aided by rosary beads pressed between the gnarled fingers
of the retired Sisters of the Academy of Holy Names.
And silent petitions are mouthed
in an air-conditioned hospital chapel,
as Sister Carmella—my Aunt Theresa—
storms the gates of heaven for healing intervention,
sending out special pleas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Inside the surgical Intensive Care Unit,
fluorescent lights reveal my stepfather Bill’s post-op image.
The sight of his figure catches me unprepared—
glassy eyes, belly stained with iodine,
an incision running down the sternum,
and a ventilator forcing air into his smoker’s lungs.
Mom stays close to his bed,
afraid to look away or leave the room.
Her small body trembles and
displays the effects of chemotherapy’s wrath,
evident in hollow cheeks
and in the absence of her black hair.

Unbearable heat conquers the Capital District,
and Mom finally crumbles when our used Chevy Blazer
hisses and groans and stalls along New Scotland Avenue.
She sits down on the roadside curb, dejected.
Her tears cannot be held in any longer . . . they gush forth
as she holds a cigarette and sips a lukewarm cup of coffee.
Almost in slow motion,
a few drops fall toward her Styrofoam cup.
I reach out to catch them,
but they slip through my outstretched fingers.

And after two days in Albany, my sister and I
must leave our mother to return home to Toledo.
On the flight back, in a plane high above
the patchwork of northwest Ohio’s farms and fields,
streaks of pink and lavender compose the sunset’s palette.
And I realize all I can do is pray;
I’m left to trust faith in this family crisis.
I ask God to hasten Bill’s recovery,
while giving Mom the strength to abide.

I lean against the window as the plane touches down in Toledo.
I close my eyes and consider if my prayers
are just wishes directed toward the clouds.
No matter, I tell myself, pray despite a lack of trust.
And so I do. I focus my thoughts on my stepfather
breathing without a ventilator and being moved out of the ICU.

Bill getting a haircut from George, a barber in Rome, New York. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

This essay was published in Star 82 Review several years ago.

Man in the Chair

It is late in the afternoon on a fall or winter day, and I am visiting my mother and stepfather at their home in Rome, New York. They are sitting in their family room watching TV; if I had to guess, I’d say the show is Judge Judy, Criminal Minds or NCIS.

My stepfather, Bill, who owns his own contracting business, is reclining in his favorite chair, wearing a work-stained hoodie and sipping a cup of coffee. I walk into the room and sidle up to him. I put my hand on the bald crown of his head, which has a fringe of brownish-gray hair on the sides, and I feel the warmth emanating from his skull. Often when I do this, Bill will say, “God, your hand is freezing.” But he does not say anything, and I leave my hand on top of his head and take a glance at the television screen while darkness gathers outside the windows.

A sick realization makes me shudder. I pull my hand away because I recognize in the moment that the head of this man I love could, in a matter of seconds, be crushed with a baseball bat or cracked open with an ax blade. Blood could splatter against the walls, and he would slump over in the chair, inert.

And I think this not because I am homicidal or possess a desire to kill my stepfather. Quite the opposite. Fear sets in because I realize the man sitting in the chair, with a beating heart, functioning brain and sense of humor, could be gone in an instant. He could be animated in one moment and his breath snuffed out in the next.

Most likely my stepfather will not be killed by a blow to the head or a tree crashing through the house. A heart attack, stroke or cancer will probably get him in the end. And while I already know this, I pause and allow this knowledge to sink in, so I will appreciate him better.

A year or two after this dark afternoon, my mother would lose her battle with cancer. And her death would remind me that we do not live life all at once. It’s not one big project we need to complete by a deadline or a trip to Europe you have planned for years.

Instead, we experience life in small doses, tiny beads of time on a string. And it helps to recognize them, to acknowledge you are present and alive even in the most mundane circumstances—while you are talking with co-workers in the parking lot before heading home for the day, running errands, doing laundry, baking a chocolate cake, tossing a football with friends, reading to your kids at bedtime. These are subplots that drive our stories forward. They are not exciting. They are not memorable. But they are part of our existence, and we must value them before they and we are gone.

So, after I pull my hand away from Bill’s head, I decide to sit on the couch next to my mother. She hates when people talk during a program because it distracts her, so I look at the screen even though I am not interested in the show, and I do not say a word. But during a commercial break, she mutes the sound with the remote control, and Bill and I converse about something. And I can’t remember the topic we discussed, and it doesn’t really matter.

What I remember is three family members spending an evening together.

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When Positive is Negative

I thought the large-scale photo of Bruce Springsteen hanging in front of me was a good omen when I stepped in a “spit stall” in the Carrier Dome on Friday to conduct my PCR saliva test.

Photo of Bruce Springsteen from a past concert in the Carrier Dome (likely 1985).

Images of rock legends like Bono, Phil Collins, and Mick Jagger—action photos from past concerts—hang on the walls in the concourses in the Dome. So being a huge Springsteen fan, I thought the Boss would bring me some good luck, resulting in a negative COVID-19 result.

For the saliva test, one of the workers gives you a plastic tube marked with a black Sharpie line—the point you need to reach with your spittle for the test to be accurate. I’ve taken the test about a half-dozen times now, and I have developed a routine for generating the copious amount of saliva required.

I rock on the balls of my feet, pretending I am former Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson getting settled in the batter’s box, and then I spit between my teeth as Reggie used to do after fouling back a pitch. And if I’m really having trouble with dry mouth, I imagine I am sucking on a lemon with the seeds squirting into mouth, or else eating a huge, juicy piece of watermelon at a Fourth of July picnic.

Reggie Jackson batting at Yankee Stadium. Photo by Jim Accordino via Wikipedia.

But forgive my banal digression. The important news: unfortunately, I received a university email yesterday informing me that I had tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, I have started my isolation according to the guidelines set forth by the Onondaga County Health Department. I may need a longer isolation period because I am considered immunocompromised.

My son Colin had tested positive earlier in the week, and although I had stayed masked around him, our proximity in a one-bedroom apartment made avoidance of infection nearly impossible. As of this blog entry, my wife Pamela remains negative.

On Friday I had felt a little weakness in my legs. Occasional fatigue and muscle weakness are not uncommon for me, since I have hypopituitarism, rheumatoid arthritis, and hyponatremia (low sodium). But I thought I should get tested to rule out COVID.

So far, my symptoms are mild—slight headache, weak legs, and mild nasal and chest congestion. I’m taking Tylenol and have doubled my dosage of hydrocortisone, since my adrenal glands don’t produce the steroid hormone. But with my underlying conditions, I need to be hyper vigilant about any changes in my health, with the most alarming being shortness of breath and elevated heart rate, according to my primary care doctor.

The reality of testing positive has wiped away the lingering fear of the unknown we have all lived with each day since this pandemic began. My questions about avoiding COVID and about the severity of its impact are meaningless. The invasion succeeded; the likely variant of Omicron now squirms inside my body. But now I can deal with the actual manifestation of coronavirus, instead of worrying about the “what-if” scenarios.

I can say one other thing about COVID. It certainly prioritizes your existence, what you value most in your life. I think for most people it’s personal health and the health and safety of family. That sometimes gets lost amid the daily pressures of work.

And there is one benefit of testing positive—now I don’t need to avoid kissing and hugging Colin.

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Remembering Bill

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. The holidays were very sad, as my stepfather, William Ruane, passed away on Christmas Day at Upstate University Hospital. He had broken his femur and then had a stroke after surgery. I’m still processing the loss.

I never called Bill “Dad,” but I considered him a second father instead of a stepfather. He played an instrumental role in my adult formation. I could write a lot more about this, but I don’t think I’d find the right words now to express how much Bill meant to me.

So I thought I’d repost an essay from 2013 that was published in Star 82 Review. I remember Bill posing for some pictures while sitting at the kitchen table, and I think this essay captures a little of his spirit.

Bill smoking. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Man in the Chair

It is late in the afternoon on a fall or winter day, and I am visiting my mother and stepfather at their home in Rome, New York. They are sitting in their family room watching TV; if I had to guess, I’d say the show is Judge Judy, Criminal Minds or NCIS.

My stepfather Bill, who owns his own contracting business, is reclining in his favorite chair, wearing a work-stained hoodie and sipping a cup of coffee. I walk into the room and sidle up to him. I put my hand on the bald crown of his head, which has a fringe of brownish-gray hair on the sides, and I feel the warmth emanating from his skull. Often when I do this, Bill will say, “God, your hand is freezing.” But he does not say anything, and I leave my hand on top of his head and take a glance at the television screen while darkness gathers outside the windows.

A sick realization makes me shudder. I pull my hand away because I recognize in the moment that the head of this man I love could, in a matter of seconds, be crushed with a baseball bat or cracked open with an ax blade. Blood could splatter against the walls, and he would slump over in the chair, inert.

And I think this not because I am homicidal or possess a desire to kill my stepfather. Quite the opposite. Fear sets in because I realize the man sitting in the chair, with a beating heart, functioning brain and sense of humor, could be gone in an instant. He could be animated in one moment and his breath snuffed out in the next.

Bill getting a haircut from George, a barber in Rome, New York. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Most likely my stepfather will not be killed by a blow to the head or a tree crashing through the house. A heart attack, stroke or cancer will probably get him in the end. And while I already know this, I pause and allow this knowledge to sink in, so I will appreciate him better.

A year or two after this dark afternoon, my mother would lose her battle with cancer. And her death would remind me that we do not live life all at once. It’s not one big project we need to complete by a deadline or a trip to Europe you have planned for years.

Instead, we experience life in small doses, tiny beads of time on a string. And it helps to recognize them, to acknowledge you are present and alive even in the most mundane circumstances—while you are talking with co-workers in the parking lot before heading home for the day, running errands, doing laundry, baking a chocolate cake, tossing a football with friends, reading to your kids at bedtime. These are subplots that drive our stories forward. They are not exciting. They are not memorable. But they are part of our existence, and we must value them before they and we are gone.

So, after I pull my hand away from Bill’s head, I decide to sit on the couch next to my mother. She hates when people talk during a program because it distracts her, so I look at the screen even though I am not interested in the show, and I do not say a word. But during a commercial break, she mutes the sound with the remote control, and Bill and I converse about something. And I can’t remember the topic we discussed, and it doesn’t really matter.

What I remember is three family members spending an evening together.

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Glimpses of Existence: A Short Film

Glimpses of Existence, an experimental/documentary short film in the form of video collage, premieres tonight at an online film screening presented by NewFilmmakers New York.

Using poetry and scenes captured with an iPhone—both before and during the pandemic—the film attempts to find meaning in the mundane moments of our lives, seeking the extraordinary amid the ordinary.

Noir Smoke. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

The central focus of the film is my son, Colin, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Despite his condition, Colin finds joy in everyday activities, and through his eyes we recognize the importance of treasuring the tiny segments of life we are granted—minutes, seconds, hours—while being reminded about the transitory nature of existence.

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Thirteen Years Gone

Today marks the thirteenth anniversary of my father’s death. He passed away from lung cancer at age 64 on Aug. 6, 2007. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed since he left this world. Since then, my sister, Lisa, had a second child, a daughter named Elizabeth. I married in 2013 and my wife, Pamela, gave birth to our son, Colin, in 2016. Francis Sr. would have enjoyed getting to know his other grandchildren, as he did with my sister’s son, Paul, who was born in 2003.

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Now that I’m almost 51, I realize how young my father was when he died. And while he still had a lot of life left in him, he was also lucky to even make it into adulthood.

I’ve blogged about my father in the past, and here are some highlights from his life.

He had been born with a hole in his heart, a ventricular septal defect. On June 12, 1959, when my dad was sixteen years old, pioneering cardiac surgeon C. Walton Lillehei performed open-heart surgery on him at the University of Minnesota Hospital, successfully repairing the defect. The heart problem interrupted Dad’s high school years and he faced a long recovery; but he rebounded after the surgery, lifting weights to add strength and put on muscle.

Renowned heart surgeon C. Walton Lillehei. Photo credit: University of Minnesota.

He graduated high school from St. Aloysius Academy in Rome, New York, went to work at the city’s Sears Roebuck store and eventually grew to a height of about five-feet-five inches tall.

And Dad was proud to have been among the first batch of patients to survive open-heart surgery in the U.S. Whenever he told the story to someone, he would lift up his shirt and show off the long scar snaking down the middle of his chest.

As a kid, I loved visiting him at the Sears store after school, as we would descend a flight of stairs into a warehouse in the basement—filled with washers and dryers, lawnmowers, rolls of carpet and other merchandise. We would go into the break room, and he would buy me a soda from the glass vending machine—usually Nehi grape, root beer or Dr. Pepper—and then pour a cup of coffee for himself. We’d sit and talk at a little round table covered with the latest edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch or the Rome Daily Sentinel newspaper.

From my father I learned about the importance of hard work and about trying to be a decent person. I often observed him saying “hello” to people, holding doors for them and offering help when needed—whether that meant giving someone a car battery jump or pushing cars stuck in the snow. And people would seek him out at the Sears store because he would find a way to give them deals to on washers, dryers, stoves and refrigerators.

When he was diagnosed with cancer, the doctor told him he could try chemotherapy, but it would only give him a slim chance of living slightly longer. He decided against the treatment, noting, “What’s the point?” And so in February of 2007, he accepted his fate, knowing he had only about six to nine months left to live.

As the months passed in the spring and early summer of 2007, he became weaker and weaker as the cancer ate away at his body.

Dad, side angle. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

He had always eschewed desserts and when offered them, would say, “No. I hate sweets.” But as his time on earth waned, he went all out when it came to food—eating Klondike bars, Little Debbie snacks, Hostess cupcakes and other junk food. His philosophy was “Why not?”

I recall one of our last conversations while we sat in the living room of my grandmother’s small ranch house in north Rome. Sunlight poured through a large bay window, past the partially opened silk curtains. Outside I could see a clear sky and trees burgeoning with leaves—a bright, saturated landscape of blue and green.

I sat in a corner of the room and he sat in a forest-green recliner covered with worn upholstery.

“What’s the name of the angel of death?” he asked me.

I was surprised by the question, and I said, “I think he’s just called the angel of death.”

“No, he has another name,” he said.

And after a few seconds it came to me. “The Grim Reaper.”

“That’s right, that’s it,” he said.

“Why do you want to know?” I asked. “Did you see him in a dream or something?”

“No, but I want to know his name when he comes.”

During this time period, I remember listening to the second movement of Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, which is such a hypnotic piece of music that I often play it continuously on the “repeat” cycle.

My mother died at age 66 (also from lung cancer). Both of my parents had been smokers—which I am not—but in doing the math and being immunocompromised in the era of COVID-19, I feel like I am racing against my own impending expiration date. This gives me an added sense of urgency to create art and finish the projects I had started prior to the pandemic.

Yet in recalling my father’s life and his death, I focus on the merit of being a kind person and living a life of quiet decency and dignity. He passed these values to me and I try to carry them forward.

I wrote a few poems about my father since he died in 2007. And here are four of them, which all appear in my collection Dreaming of Lemon Trees: Selected Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2019).

Open Heart

My father was born
with a hole in his heart,
and although repaired,
nothing in his life
ever filled it up.
The defect remained,
despite the surgeon’s work—
a void, a place I could never touch.

The Galliano Club

From street-level sunlight to cavernous darkness,
then down a few steps and you enter The Galliano Club.
Cigar smoke wafts in the air above a cramped poker table.
Scoopy, Fat Pat and Jules are stationed there,
along with Dominic, who monitors the game,
pacing with fingers clasped behind his back.

A pool of red wine spilled on the glossy cherry wood bar,
matches the hue of blood splattered on the bathroom wall.
A cracked crucifix and an Italian flag hang above,
as luck is coaxed into the club with a roll of dice
and a sign of the cross.

Pepperoni and provolone are piled high for Tony’s boys,
who man the five phone lines
and scrawl point spreads on yellow legal pads.
Bocce balls collide as profanity whirls about …
and in between tosses, players brag about
cooking calamari (pronounced “calamad”).

Each Sunday during football season, after St. John’s noon Mass,
my father strolls across East Dominick Street and places his bets,
catapulting his hopes on the shoulder pads of
Bears, Bills, Packers and Giants.
His teams never cover and he’s grown accustomed to losing …
as everything in Rome, New York, exacts a toll,
paid in working class weariness and three feet of snow.

But once inside The Galliano, he feels right at home,
recalling his heritage, playing cards with his friends.
And here he’s no longer alone,
as all have stories of chronic defeat.
Blown parlays, slashed pensions and wives sleeping around,
constitute the cries of small-town men
who have long given up on their out-of-reach dreams.

For now, they savor the moment—
a winning over/under ticket, a sip of Sambuca
and Sunday afternoons shared in a place all their own.

Death Mask

Assume the death mask,
put on your final face
like those insolent characters
in that Twilight Zone episode—you know the one,
with their cruel faces contorted and fixed there for all time’s sake.

My father wore his death mask.
He kept it on even though I arrived after his passing
on that soft, warm August evening.
I’ll never forget the way he looked,
with his mouth agape, eyes vacant, cheeks sunken,
body withered and shriveled,
curled up in the fetal position on his soiled deathbed
in my grandmother’s sweltering death house.

I allowed myself to look at him for just a moment.
I then turned around and left him alone in his small bedroom.
I did this for my benefit, since I wanted to remember him
as a father and a man and not as a corpse in a locked-up state.
This is because the death mask grips its lonely victim
and sucks out the life and extinguishes the person.

I shuffled into the living room,
rejoining the Hospice nurse and the neighbors who came
across the street to comfort my grandmother and express remorse.
And Grandma, still acting as host despite the occasion and the heat,
asked me to make a pot of coffee for her guests.
The neighbors sat on the old, out-of-style couches and chairs
in my grandmother’s ranch home.
They conversed in hushed tones and sipped coffee
while we waited for the workers from the funeral parlor
to drive up to the house and wheel away my father.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf in my sister’s suburban Ohio house.

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Backyard Forest

Since the warm weather has come to upstate New York, I wanted to share a poem that seems fitting for a season of humid nights, swaying trees and buzzing insects.

Photo by Luke Palmer

Enchanted Forest

When I was a young boy,
I dreamed of a forest for a backyard.
I wanted to open the sliding glass door
on the bottom floor of our raised ranch home
and step outside, entering a tract of land
with acres and acres of evergreen and deciduous trees.
No neatly trimmed lawn, no tool shed,
no swimming pool or garden with basil and tomato plants.

I longed for a secret place I could run to and get lost in,
the green canopy shimmering above me
as my feet struck a rocky path
leading deep into the woods.
A place where I could be still and quiet
and make friends with forest companions.

I created this place in my mind so the cacophony
of screeching woodland birds and hissing insects
would muffle the sound of my parents
screaming on the other side of the drywall.
That’s what I wished for at night,
while closing my eyes and trying not to hear
the yelling coming from the next room.

And when I couldn’t fall asleep, I’d pull myself up,
part the navy blue, sailboat-adorned curtains
and look outside my bedroom window,
where, to my dismay, I would see nothing
but a plot of green grass in our backyard.

Photo by Lum3n.

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Laughing While Peeing

Laughing While Peeing

While taking the last leak
before going to sleep,
I can’t help but laugh
when my four-year-old son Colin
switches off the bedroom light
and slams the bedroom door behind me.

Here in this small, one-bedroom apartment,
with our three-person family
locked in coronavirus quarantine,
laughter cannot be kept away.
It bubbles to the surface despite
the seriousness of the moment.

My toddler son doesn’t know
the world faces an existential crisis,
doesn’t understand that a pandemic
grips humanity in peril, upheaving our lives.
He’s just a boy who sees the door and thinks,
“Hey, let me slam this and see what Daddy says.”

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