Over the course of my adulthood, I’ve run seven marathons. The last one was three years ago, just to show that I could do it–the same reason that I ran the first one. I won’t embarrass myself by bragging about my times. I will say that I beat then-governor Tim Pawlenty in the Twin Cities Marathon. I passed him on Summit Avenue, only realizing later who the jerk with body guards was talking on a cell phone. I haven’t run in two years. At forty-six, I’m at a point in my life where I feel like whatever cartilage I have left, I’m going to need to keep. I bike to work, and with all the steps on my route, that seems like enough.
I ran cross-country and track all through junior high and high school. I was never an outstanding talent, but I worked very hard, lettering in both sports my senior year. My ski jump accident came in the ninth grade when I got tripped up by another boy who became, coincidentally, a professional soccer player. We were doing two-hundreds and the coach didn’t have us running in lanes. I sprawled forward on the track, fracturing the radius and ulna of my right arm. As practice continued around me, I waited on my back for someone to transport me to the emergency room. I remember the girls peering down curiously at me from the outer lanes. The school opened the fence gates and I felt a bit embarrassed as my parents’ Chevy Chevette jostled across the grassy field. Where the hell was my ambulance?! They put the seat down and lifted me in through the hatch. It’s a curious sensation so see the jagged, white edges of your bones protruding from your body. Not much you can do about that. I winced at every bump in the road.
Once I was old enough to provide my own transportation, my parents stopped attending my meets. My father was an athletic man, able to bench press over two-hundred pounds and walk around the yard on his hands. He had a shoebox full of blue track ribbons in his closet from his younger days in Watertown, South Dakota. As a mere freshman, he placed third in the state wrestling competition. Not bothering to wear headgear, he suffered a cauliflower-ear injury in his final match, his own ski jump catastrophe. His chosen sports were ones of strength and speed. I never felt like he respected my feats of endurance. I would always be the skinny kid in his eyes.
To look at me now, you would never guess that in elementary school I was one of the smallest kids in the class. My birthday was at the end of summer, making me younger and less developed than nearly everyone else. We played touch football every day at recess. I remember a great deal of argument about the formation of teams. Instead of choosing captains and making it fair, all the best players would insist on being on the same side with all the runts like me on the other. Every game was a blow out with my side losing miserably. There were a lot of sore feelings about it.
The teams were as lopsided as ever, yet one day I found myself in a zone where I could do no wrong. I scored a touchdown on a short pass and then dodged several defenders to score another. Down fourteen points, the hot-shot kids became agitated and vowed to shut me down. Desperate to get back in the game, they advanced the ball to a first down indicated by the yellow paint of an otherwise never-used hopscotch pad. We played on asphalt under the shadow of the brick building. Just as they were about to score a touchdown, I knifed in front of the receiver and intercepted the ball. The opposing quarterback pulled his hair in frustration and chased me down at midfield.
“What’s got into you?” he asked in disbelief. “You’re on fire!”
It was true and I couldn’t explain why. It was like one of those Holiday Inn Express commercials. I became more confident with every play. My underdog teammates were jubilant as I wound up scoring six touchdowns. I walked back into the classroom feeling like I was king of the school.
At the next recess, the jock kids tried to draft me onto their team but I refused. I broke my glasses in the rematch–a seeming tragedy to a fourth-grader with working-class parents—and had to leave the game. Whatever magic that inhabited me that day departed. It was a thing of beauty, transient like any moment in time except in memory.
With Lake Hiawatha shimmering in the background, I watched from first base as my friend, Tom, lobbed the ball over to Miles at second. He managed to catch it in the Wilson glove I had bought him over the summer and chucked it to Stan on the pitcher’s mound. Stan, who wears hornrims and keeps his wiry gray hair in a ponytail, hurled the ball to me with some extra heat. The baseball stung my palm through my cheap glove–a used Cooper I picked up at a Play-It-Again Sports for six bucks. Stan flashed a malevolent smile, glaring at me under his bushy eyebrows. A former marathoner with a P.R. a full hour faster than mine, I always feel like he’s angry at me for being twenty years younger. I side-armed the ball to Lance at home plate. He grinned under his salt-and-pepper mustache as he inspected the ball, surprised it seemed at his own muscle memory.
These were my retired letter-carrier friends, and with Miles out there, we spanned three generations. I don’t see them enough and it felt good to be on the diamond with them, passing on the pastoral sport of baseball to my son. Tom whipped the ball over to me and I reached out to make the grab. There is something incredibly satisfying about the perfect weight of a baseball and the sound it makes as it sticks in the webbing of a glove. The sky was blue with a few thin cirrus clouds like that first dusting of snow you sweep off your deck with a broom. I glanced over to my son who seemed to feel it too. He had this look of beatitude on his face as he hopped in place, swiping the dirt occasionally with his glove. We threw the ball around a while longer and then took turns batting.
Stan pitched the ball to Lance who blasted some thundering line drives out to Tom in left-field. Lance is short yet brawny, with massive calves from twenty-eight years of mail delivery. I heard the bat crack and we all gathered to inspect the damage. He apologized profusely to Stan. It was a red souvenir bat from some minor league game he attended in Iowa fifteen years ago. Stan is someone who compulsively spouts statistics, recalling Twins moments from the Met Stadium era as if they were yesterday. Conversations between him and Tom are always too arcane for me to follow. Tom is a lanky guy, a bit jerky in his movements, with frizzles of black hair under a tweed flat cap. He served four years in the Army and got a master’s degree in philosophy before coming to work at the post office. They don’t make ‘em like these guys anymore.
We rotated and Lance, a father of three kids himself, pitched to my son. He offered gentle encouragement as the boy whiffed at the baseball. The aluminum bat is still a bit long for him and I keep meaning to buy him a new one. After a few attempts he started to make contact while Tom and Stan moved onto the infield to applaud his efforts.
“That’s a base hit for sure!” I shouted at a ball that managed to roll onto the turf.
I was pleased to see my friends interacting so readily with my son, energized it seemed by his spirit. The boy ground his shoe into the dirt as he awaited the next pitch, a fierce look of determination under the brim of the orange running hat that he had commandeered from me. Lance threw one slightly inside. When Miles took his cut, the ball ricocheted off the thin barrel of the bat and struck him in the face. He immediately started crying–big wailing tears with his mouth open and his chin sunk into his neck. I felt a bit displaced as Lance trotted over to comfort him.
Why does fun always have to end badly? So often I observe that our emotional lives are like some parabola of gravity, a pop fly destined to fall to the ground.
I hung back uncomfortably until the boy appealed to me with an entreating expression in his eyes that said, Dad, fix this! I went to him, placed my hand on the back of his neck and rubbed his back.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s take a break.”
I led him through the partition in the batter’s cage. He sat on the long bench and I handed him his water bottle. He had stopped crying at least, his breathing still a bit shuddered. It looked like he took it in the eyeball. I could actually discern the baseball’s stitching in an outline of broken capillaries on his puffy upper-lid.
“Can you see ok?” I asked. “Are you dizzy?” He shook his head no. “Well, I guess you don’t have a concussion. But try not to fall asleep just to be on the safe side. That wasn’t your fault,” I told him, getting more serious. “We might have to get you a helmet. You were doing good out there. I’m really proud of you for hanging with the guys. It really means a lot to me.” He nodded his head and I noticed a streak of snot over his lip. “Can you wipe your face with your shirt or something? You’re kind of a mess.” The way I said it made him laugh. “I kind of want to get back out there . . . but we can leave if you want to.”
He hesitated, so I offered him a lemon bar. There’s something about the maternal comfort of food that makes everything better. I found him a spot at a picnic table under the shade of a broad oak. Conscious of my son observing me, I stepped up to the plate and wobbled the head of his light bat like Ken Griffey Jr. as I awaited Lance’s pitch. I smacked a couple of grounders and then, gaining confidence, swung hard at the next one. I fouled the ball way back and it almost hit Miles in the head, thudding like an oversized acorn on the picnic table beside him. What are the fucking odds? But I was having too much fun to stop. On the next pitch, I heard the satisfying plunk of aluminum and watched the ball rocket skyward into left-field. Stan pirouetted like a tangled marionette while Tom remained immobile, contemplating Noam Chomsky perhaps. The ball dropped in the grass between them and they both looked at each other accusatorily. I hit another one just like it with the same result.
“Someone else want a turn?” I suggested as I approached Lance.
He grimaced and rubbed his arm. “I’m going to be sore as hell tomorrow.”
We ushered Stan to the plate. I ran for my glove and asked my son if he wanted to get back into the game. He brightened up and nodded.
“You want to bat or field?” I asked.
I felt a surge of pride as I watched him grab his glove and join the others who cheered and chanted his name.
I took the mound and Stan grinned nervously at me, an expression akin to fear. His stance was uncomfortably rigid. With his artificial hips, I worried that if I accidently lost one inside, he wouldn’t be able to get out of the way in time. It wasn’t like I did this very often, and he was a lefty, which was throwing me off. He missed badly at two pitches high over the plate. I wanted to give him something he could hit, but I knew that if I took too much off I’d give up some control. On a goof, I decided to take a page out of the Bull Durham playbook when “Nuke” LaLoosh pegs the mascot. I missed the plate by six feet, rattling the fence.
“Easy. Easy,” Stan repeated as he gestured downward with his hands.
Shielding my expression with my glove, I stole a glance back at Lance who was chuckling in right-field.
With the theatrics out of the way, Stan settled in at the plate and awaited the pitch with a hawk stare. I managed to get the ball down at last, and he knocked back a few. We threw the ball around half-heartedly for a bit before calling it quits and gathering behind home plate to say our goodbyes.
“Way to play out there,” Lance commended Miles. The boy grinned as the others congratulated him. I noticed the dark purple bruise over his left eye where the baseball had tagged him.
“He even got his first blackeye.” I bragged.
“Whoa, he does,” said Lance.
Stan leered down at him through his hornrims. “You come out with us again and we’ll blacken the other eye.”
There was some deep-throated laughing all around.
“What matters,” I said to my son inside the car, “is that you got hurt, but you got back out there. That’s what I’m proud of. You showed me some grit today. A lot of kids wouldn’t have done that.”
I watched him bask in my praise through the rearview mirror.
“That,” he said, rocking forward, “was fun.”
“We can do it again. Those guys really like you.” After I put the stick shift into gear and pulled away from the curb, I took one quick glance back. “It won’t be long before you’re riding up here with me.”
I’ve made this statement to him before, and it always makes me realize that this kid has become my best friend. That, and the fact he may be the one doing the driving before long, an eventuality I can’t quite wrap my mind around. I chauffeured him home to his mother so he could show her his shiner—a thing of beauty, angular in shape, like a bird’s wing torn from the sky.