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If Charlie Walker lived to see the World Series it would be a miracle, his body so ravaged by illness that it was hard for anyone, even his daughter, to look him in the eye for more than a few seconds. Only the boy was able to stare back, perhaps because he remembered his grandfather no other way. The trip to Cooperstown was Charlie’s idea, a fifteen-hour drive with his daughter and her husband and his grandson, Ben who at nine had memorized enough statistics and bits of trivia to keep the conversation going a nice long while.
Baseball and horses. These were their shared interests, the language they had adopted. Charlie had grown up with a horse—an old plow pulling nag—but he didn’t tell the boy that. He let him imagine stallions and steeds, the proud stepping Tennessee Walking Horses they had seen on a television show, the shaggy hooved Clydesdales that trotted around Busch Gardens. As for baseball, that had once been Charlie’s life and the boy begged for the same stories again and again. The time he drove in the winning run in the bottom of the eleventh, the time he caught a ball barehanded and got it to first in time to make the out. He avoided a lot of truths while talking about baseball as well, but his daughter, Ann, was all too willing to point out the facts: it was double A ball, a bunch of mill workers, bunch of Peter Pan types playing make believe.
Many of his teammates—after robbing the prettier town girls of their virginity—moved on, some to the minors, some to other small town teams that gleamed in the distance, beckoning their juvenile dreams of the majors and a life of heroic recognition. Most of the guys had already done their time in the service, and the women in these small towns were as taken with landing a soldier as they were a ball player. They were all caught up in the good of the country, caught up in what Ann and her husband now call “all that patriotic bullshit.” They say that in front of the kid, too—patriotic bullshit. They think it’s okay to burn flags to make a point but not books. They think it’s okay for the president to dally around in the oval office so long as he gets the work done. They think it’s fine for missionaries to deliver food and clean up shit holes but that they should never attempt to save souls. They have their own made-up religion, too high and mighty for what she was taught as a child.
“Why should someone else’s beliefs be forced on a person? Why is that a good thing?” Ann asked and for once he said that he agreed completely with what she was saying. He saw his opportunity to enter an old argument and though his heart dictated otherwise, he couldn’t help but jump in.
“Change is not always for the better. You are absolutely right about that, baby girl,” he said and watched her bristle with the childhood nickname. “Give some an inch and they’ll take a mile, take it right out the hands that fed ’em.” She stared back and shook her head. All conversations led to this same place, a chasm of their differences and disappointments. When Roslyn was still alive, they met each other with a superficial tolerance, but now even that was waning.
Roslyn was a good woman, no doubt about it; she went to church and kept a good house. She corrected Charlie’s English, but never in front of others and never in an unkind way. She dreamed of a better life, sometimes pointing out a house she liked or lingering over the perfumed pages of a catalog, and she had faith in God that some day it would happen. Life would be better; dreams would come true. She was still believing all that the day she died, there in a house not much bigger than the two bedroom they moved into when Ann was starting to school. Roslyn said they had to live in a certain part of town, the girl had to go to a certain school—it was a better school, she was a smart girl. They had to sacrifice for such. It was at this time when it hit him; his baseball dreams were completely extinguished. Life doled out ponies to some and manure to others. He was the human equivalent of that old farm horse, eyes blinded to everything but the row up ahead. Row after row after row. Without the dreams that had propelled him for years, he felt bitter, resentful even, toward any and all who had gotten there. It has only been in recent years with Ben, that he has allowed himself to once again love the sport that had occupied so much of his life.
For years he worked at one of the local textile mills—his days spent in a deafening thunder of machinery and particles of lint that he imagined settling in his lungs with every breath he drew. He believed that the dye chemicals and lint had more to do with his lungs failing than the Lucky Strikes in his pocket. Even then he lit up, as he sat in the backseat with the boy. Ben held his nose and Ann gave him a glare and cracked open her window. One puff—two—the rush of nicotine soothing him before he thumped the butt out the window and settled back into baseball mode with the boy. He’d watched the boy play. Had some potential. Nothing like he’d have if the parents would toughen up. All the parents at those games—bunch of pansies—nothing like when he was playing.
“You were a man,” his daughter said every time she caught him smirking. “He’s a boy.” She looked just like her mother did in those early years—round dark eyes focused and alert, like he was a book they were studying. Charlie couldn’t look back into the eyes of either of them for very long without feeling stupid. Roslyn could see straight through him or so he felt those times he played around a little. The other men did it—they drank—they fooled around on traveling games. Put on tight fitting plants and a baseball cap and it was like a magnet pulling the dames to the dugout. You could have a big wad of Red Man bulging from your face and spit a puddle right at their feet and they’d still say they’d be waiting over by the fence at the end of the game. The war had rendered a kind of desire in women that no man had ever seen. Women had figured out that their bodies were as good a way as any to land a man and if she could hook up her cart to somebody who had dreams of a major league city, and even an iota of a chance of getting there, she’d have that skirt up and the panties down in no time.
“Gramps? Hey,” the boy was thrusting a card into the old man’s hand. “Here’s my best card. Griffey Jr. A rookie.” The boy had those same eyes as his mother, eyes too big for the rest of him, and now he waited, hoping for anything the man might give him. He said, good for you, and closed his eyes, said he better rest up a bit before they got there. Sometimes the kid talked so goddamned much he thought his head would fall off. “Willie Mays is Barry Bonds’ godfather, did you know that? Barry Bonds lets his kid sit in the dugout, did you know that?”
Just a year ago, Charlie—still able to drive, no need for oxygen full time—drove the boy to Lexington for the day, just the two of them. The kid’s parents had taken him all the way to New York to see the sights, including Grant’s tomb, which they say is nasty and forgotten, pissed on and graffiti ridden, but they’d never taken him the hour ride down to the road to see Lee’s tomb. The boy knew nothing of the Civil War. He was more interested in Lee’s horse, Traveller, than anything else. He loved that Traveller had his own tomb—much better than being stuffed like Stonewall Jackson’s horse which they also went to see over at VMI. The boy cried about the big stuffed horse, god only knows why. The grandfather said, you want to cry over something, cry over poor Stonewall being shot by his own men.
“Why’d they shoot him?”
“How do they know it was an accident?”
“Because you don’t kill your own people.”
“Caesar’s did.” The boy turned to him then, just as serious as he could be. Caesar said ‘et tu?’ I saw it on the Simpson’s.” Then the kid talked nonstop for the rest of the day about Stonewall’s horse’s glassy eyes and how they scared him and how Julius Caesar had some mean friends and that Traveller died of tetanus. “I got a tetanus shot. Did you ever?” Did the old man know that Traveller was an Arabian? Did that mean he came all the way from Arabia? Was Aladdin from Arabia? Did he know that Robin Williams was the big blue genie in the movie? What was tetanus anyway and did he know that the first horse was teeny tiny like just twelve inches high. Wouldn’t that be cute? He’d give anything to have a little twelve-inch horse. It could live in the closet and sleep at the foot of the bed.
On the way home from Lexington, Charlie’s nerves shot by the boy’s constant questions, they stopped to see the Natural Bridge. “This is one of the seven natural wonders of the world,” the man said. He’d read the brochure before their trip in preparation for the moment. He had imagined standing hand in hand with the boy, overlooking the landscape he called home. He had stood in that very spot with Ann years before and for just a minute had allowed himself to remember her there, impish looking with those big eyes and a pixie haircut. They sang songs and laughed all the way home that day. She liked to imitate Minnie Pearl and did it often to make him laugh. “Howdeee!” Then she imitated some of his buddies by scratching her backside and spitting. She still hugged and kissed him then. Every day she waited in the front yard for him to get home from the mill; every summer weekend he took her swimming in the pond near their house. He took a deep breath and told Ben how George Washington surveyed the mammoth structure which stood twenty-three stories high. “George Washington carved his initials here.”
“Mom and Dad took me to Plymouth Rock,” Ben said. “You know where the Pilgrims went?” He waited for him to nod. “It was kind of small. Looked yucky like lots of people wrote their names there.”
“This is,” he paused as he had in front of his bathroom mirror that morning while practicing, “a true phenomenon, a natural wonder.”
“But what are the other six?” the boy asked, a question he has continued to ask along with did Stonewall have a family and did they sue the man who shot him and wonder why that little tiny horse didn’t stay little.
“Hey, this was your idea,” Ann said, and looked around to make sure nobody was listening. “Don’t ruin it for him the way you did every trip of my childhood.” He ignored her then and turned back to the pool, faked a big grin and clapped when Ben’s head surfaced from the water.
“Say the name of a player,” the boy gasped as he ran back to the diving board, his mother yelling to remind him of slick concrete and all the dangers that went with it. “I’ll do his stance.” The boy was already on the board, bouncing and bouncing. “Say Nomar. I can do my hands just like him. I’ve got some gloves at home. Say Nomar.”
“Nomar,” Charlie wheezed and fitted the oxygen up to his nose, deep breaths. He did this to make Ann feel guilty as much as anything, though the air did calm him. He relaxed into the breath, forced his eyes to stay open while the boy adjusted and readjusted his hands a million times in some obsessive mimicry. Charlie had thought years ago that this was what was wrong with him as a ballplayer, he didn’t have a million different tics and superstitions going for him. Maybe that was the sign of greatness. He looked around for the son-in-law who was the one who ought to be out here watching and calling names and faking enthusiasm, but his daughter had already reminded him a thousand times that Thomas didn’t have vacation time from work to do this little road trip. Thomas was doing Charlie a favor to see this wish come true. They wanted the boy to have good memories of his grandfather. “He doesn’t even remember Mom,” Ann had said a zillion times. “I sure wish she was here.” Whenever she said that, he felt a rock deep in his gut. What she was really saying was I’d trade any day of the week. I wish you were six feet under and decomposing with a bible and family photos on your chest instead of her.
Charlie couldn’t remember Rosyln’s face without having to go through that goddamned picture of her first. There she was, stretched out in her best dress—one she’d never even worn in life but had bought for this occasion, those big eyes closed forever, wrinkled hands folded over the bible she carried when they got married the weekend after his season ended. She was eighteen and he was twenty-five. She had never been with a man and that first night with her was a nightmare. “Don’t hurt me,” she whispered. It seemed that she whispered those words for the next forty years. And he did hurt her. He knew he hurt her but he didn’t know to what extent until Ann got all grown up and educated and offered up her smart theories time and time again.
“You ruined her life,” she said once at the height of an argument. “I don’t know what she ever saw in you.”
“I worked every goddamned day of my life,” he screamed back as she pushed Ben out the door so he wouldn’t hear. “I oversaw a line of lintheads for thirty years—six days a week—no retirement.”
“Don’t talk that way,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at the boy who was hovering close enough to soak it all up like a sponge. “All these years and you haven’t changed a bit.”
“Why should I? I was robbed.”
“For Mom.” She came toward him then and for a moment he was suddenly aware of his frailty, the inability to move quickly. His baby girl had the power to physically hurt him if she desired. “You could have changed for Mom. She deserved better. And for your grandson. Think about how you want to be remembered.” She paused, her face flushed a deep red and her hands shaking. “And, other men being given chances didn’t rob you or any of your redneck friends of anything.”
“You keep believing that,” he said. “Those were my chances. They were your chances.”
She left then, the screen door slamming shut as she pulled the boy down the driveway where Roslyn had planted all the flowers that now were in full bloom. He hated to see them there every spring, reminders of his loss, reminders of the things his wife loved, very few of them having anything to do with him. And he was robbed. All of baseball changed in those years. Good men who’d served their time forced out. He was right to fight back, right to defend what was his. So he wrote a few letters—pen gripped in his left hand to disguise the words. He wasn’t the only one doing it. Lots of men did it. They signed them the Rebels, the Dukes, the Traveling Men. They wrapped notes around rocks and threw them through bus windows—cheap dirty buses waiting to haul the coloreds to the field. Sometimes they drove down past the river to the bottoms where some of them lived in old tarpaper firetraps and threw the rocks through the windows of their houses.
“I wish you could just let it go,” Roslyn said often. “Sometimes I don’t recognize you.” She didn’t ask where he’d been those nights. She didn’t want to know. But he couldn’t let it go. Many nights, fueled by frustration and liquor, he stayed out late just to avoid the sadness and disappointment he felt when she looked at him. He wanted to tell her that he had lost every dream he’d ever had, right down to having a son, but what good would that do? And then the girl brought home the man she planned to marry and he still didn’t have a son. He didn’t know what he had, a lawyer they said a thousand times, but he wasn’t a son.
“You guess we’ll find your name anywhere?” Ben asked.
“We might,” Charlie said, only to get a quick glance from Ann.
“Honey, Grandpa played years and years ago on a really small team—not even the minors.”
She had perfected her cuts, the blade so sharp and piercing that she was in and out of his heart before he even had time to draw a breath.
“Yeah but we still might see something, right Grandpa?” Ben held onto his arm as they walked slowly to the main entrance. The boy had recently watched a movie about Roberto Clemente and could not shake the sadness of this death. He didn’t remember Roslyn’s death, Charlie had asked him. All the boy remembered about her was the clown she had sewn for him—an object that now was beyond recognition for all the times it had been washed and washed and washed. Probably in Ben’s mind, she looked like the clown, brown eyes dulled by the years, body pale and limp. But he knew all about Roberto and the Dominican Republic.
“Roberto was on the All Star team twelve times,” the boy said as they walked. “Batting average: .317.”
“And what’s Ruth’s homerun record?” Charlie stood looking around, everything to be known about baseball housed right here in this building. This was the promised land of ballplayers.
“714,” Ben said and pulled him forward to a miniature replica of Ebbets Field. “And Hank broke it in 1974. Hank hit 755.”
Charlie looked back to see if Ann was listening. This was the kind of detail she loved to hear. She was standing with Thomas in front of an exhibit of some of the earliest uniforms—wool britches and gloves not much thicker than the kind you used to handle firewood. It was clear that she was giving Charlie space to be alone with the boy. She knew, as he did, that this would definitely be the last outing. It might even be the last visit. Period. He had already surpassed the doctors’ estimated time of departure by a year and they still at this last check-up commented on the strength of his heart. Roslyn had left ahead of time; they gave her six months and she only lived two. I’d want to die, too, Ann had said. Now she looked up and stared back at him. He wished right then that he would never lose sight of her, that he could pull her close and whisper her name. That she would squeeze his hand and say, “Howdeee!” People were passing and crowding, bumping, shoving, taking pictures, so he held tight to the boy’s hand; they were shuffled along this way and that and then he lost sight of her in the mix of pennants and colors and lights, his breath quickening for no reason.
“C’mon,” Ben said. “They’ll catch up. If they don’t I’ll just report myself lost.”
Every team, every logo, every word the boy had committed to memory was repeated again and again. It was getting hot and Charlie needed to stop and slip off his jacket. He needed to breathe deep breaths, mop the perspiration from his forehead. He felt a sudden wave of panic, the thought that he might die, here, now, surrounded by a herd of strangers as they grazed on the game that had once made him want to live. He pulled the boy over to the nearest bench and convinced him to sit. Deep breath. “Let’s read the brochure,” he wheezed. “Let’s make a plan.”
This was all a mistake. The lights, the crowd, the heat of summer. Everything was pressing in on him. The sounds blending and buzzing.
“You played first base after you hurt your arm?” Ben was tugging on him, the voice barely audible. “Right Grandpa?” Charlie nodded and took deep breaths. Deep breaths. “Did you ever get thrown out of a game?” He nodded, then shook his head. He didn’t get thrown out. He threw someone out. He scared someone out. There was a whole group. Mad. Upset. Fueled by frustration. They were there first. They were robbed. “Who’d you like better, Mays or Mantle?” Charlie tried to look at the boy but everything was grainy and dark. “Are you okay?” Someone was there beside him, cool hand on his forehead urging him to lower his head and rest. Deep breaths, the plastic tubes pressed under his nose. “Grandpa?” Mantle/Mays, Mantle/Mays, why didn’t people ever get tired of that question. The boy asked it all the time like his answer might change with the weather. “Your grandpa likes Mantle of course,” Ann had once chimed in. Roslyn was still alive. She had begged him to make the day a good one, no arguments, no leaving to take a nap before lunch was over. “Mantle is white,” she mouthed to him over the boy’s head.
“Mays,” he said now, but the boy was gone. He looked for Ben’s hand in his own. Gone. Time had passed. Too much time had passed. Charlie was with Thomas in a waiting area, a cool cloth on his head, oxygen mask covering nose and mouth.
He pushed the mask away. “I’m okay,” he lied and
tried to sit up. Then he waited, making sure that he was sturdy enough.
“Where’s Ben? We’ve got a lot to see.”
They sat there, nothing to say. There was a screen off in the distance running Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” again and again. Thomas said it was driving him mad by now. “Besides,” he said, “you know Ben will tell you every single detail of everything he’s seen.” Thomas paused, patted Charlie’s shoulder. “He’s just like that girl you raised.”
“I’ll bet,” Charlie answered and looked up for the first time. The three of them standing there watching his every move. “Well, actually I know. I caught one barehanded, remember?”
“Out on first,” Ben said. Ann tried to get the boy to move away, to run once more through the hall with all the plaques but Charlie motioned that he should stay put. “I want to hear everything.”
Thomas had a wheelchair and though Charlie hated it and the way he felt every eye in the place was on him, he knew that there was no other choice. All the way to the car, Ben told his stories. The way Hank Aaron’s mom thought he’d been shot because a cannon was fired when he broke Ruth’s record. Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homerun to win the Giants the pennant. Don Larson’s perfect game in the World Series. “The saddest thing though, other than Roberto.” He leaned down close to Charlie and whispered like he was telling a ghost story. “Bad people said they’d kill Jackie Robinson if he played. They wrote mean letters. You wouldn’t believe the bad stuff they said.”
“But he played,” Ann said.
“And they didn’t kill him.” Ben’s breath was moist on Charlie’s cheek. “They signed it ‘The Travelers’ like the buried horse. They had real bad handwriting.”
“Now, what kind of man would stoop so low?” Ann said and certainly would have continued had Ben not interrupted.
“Mickey Mantle could bat leftie and right,” he continued, unfazed by the brief silence that had fallen. Sandy Koufax—threw left and batted right. Cy Young—511 wins. Catfish Hunter and his slider. Arm trouble like you, Grandpa. Dizzy Dean hurt his toe and that caused his arm to get hurt. Just like you. He hadn’t found Charlie’s name but he had seen the town Danville mentioned. The Danville Leafs, and now he was wondering if they were related to Larry Walker and if they were could they write him a letter and get his autograph, and had Charlie ever played second base? Charlie had things to say or add to all of these stories but Ben was way ahead of him. “Guess who has the same birthday as me?”
“Guess.” The boy trotted to keep up with the wheelchair and finally they were back to the car. “Just guess.”
“Nope. Ain’t over til it’s over. Guess again.”
“Honey just say it.” Even Ann was losing her patience by now. She stood back so Thomas could maneuver the wheelchair but Charlie was able to conjure the strength to pull himself up right and take the two steps forward to the car.
“Okay, okay. I have the same birthday as Rogers Hornsby. April 27.”
“Good, that’s good,” Charlie said, as much to the comfort of the car as to the boy’s announcement.
“I thought his name was Roger. But it’s Rogers like more than one. But the coolest thing,” the boy said as he bounded in on his side of the car, “was that they had a movie and it was like you were sitting in a game—it was all around you and they had a radar gun and I threw 35, that was my highest.”
“I wish we could go back tomorrow.”
“We’ll come back,” Ann said. “Maybe we’ll come again next summer.”
“We could come back when they induct people,” Ben said. “Okay, Grandpa? You might know some people.”
Ann ignored the boy’s words and said that if she and Thomas split the driving, they could probably make the trip without stopping for the night. Ben clamored for another night at a motel, but she remained firm in her decision.
“Do you mind?” She turned and faced him then, her eyes without a trace of emotion. “I just really want to get home.”
Charlie shrugged, adjusted his oxygen. Now that she was willing to look him in the eye, he couldn’t do it. She said that Ben would have no trouble sleeping on the way back and then he could stretch out in the backseat. He should say when he was hungry or needed to stop for a stretch. Otherwise, they would just keep moving.
“I don’t know,” Thomas said, his voice attempting softness. “Hard day, maybe...”
“I can do it. I’m okay,” Charlie said, forcing strength into his voice, forcing himself to sit up straighter in his seat. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. The boy was now lost in his little game, making sounds that mimicked those coming from the toy. Charlie leaned against the window and stared out, his hand cupped to his eyes to shield the glare of the late afternoon sun. What were the other six wonders? He saw fields and fences, trees and sky, miles and miles of rolling hills that would carry him home. Home to an empty house, loss and regret slowing his every step. Home to a whispered name.
“Oh, he’s a good traveler,” Ann said then. “He
always has been.”