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A Heartfelt Beating
“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
Sleepy eyes droop shut and the backseat melts into dream. We are in the car on the way to his baseball game and Charlie is toast. Done. Out like a light. The nervousness of that rises up in me like fast floodwater surging but I hit it with a bat made of sunshine and it fades back down. The possibilities that exist within the realm of all possibility when deciding if a 7-year-old ought to have a nap on the 40 minute ride to a ballgame, they’re just too many for me to deal with right now.
The afternoon has gone gold after so many rainy ones lately. The sun isn’t just shining, she is carpet-bombing everything with warmth and glow. This fresh idea then of me worrying about waking him up so he’s not tired when we get there/ I let it go.
What does it matter?
All my days spent worrying about the stuff I worry about and what does it really matter? Even if I carried my kid out there in the middle of the game and gently settled him down out there in the wide open space of green grass somewhere between center and right, I doubt it would even matter all that much at all.
Sure, people would stare and some would murmur. A “Karen” might holler at me “What do you think you’re doing?”, but, I mean, Jesus, what is anybody doing, you know? I mean, how much sunshine do we need to notice pinging off the hood of an old Honda and straight into your scraggly face and then into your jugular and sliding down into your chest cavity where there is a warehouse of cold, dark, forklifts zipping around with crates of your hang-ups balanced high on their shaky prongs/ lunchroom halogens like ships looming just out of reach/ always bobbing on the waves, the cool dark waves/ always watching other people on their breaks/ warming up their fried chicken and mashed potatoes/ warming up their vindaloo or whatever-the-spicy-fuck/ and you/ just standing there in the weird Amazon aisles of endlessness/ of endless searching for pointless spending opportunities/ even while you’re working your life away in that climate-controlled subterranean warehouse that you- by the way- actually fucking own because it’s in your goddamn chest cavity, remember?
So, like, what is anyone doing that is so vitally pertinent to the remains of the day?
I’ll tell you what they’re up to.
Hodgepodge, mishmash, omnishambles smoke-blowers, all of ‘em. You. Me. The whole lot.
This notion hits me square in the third eye as I wander down the highway, heading west, heading south, heading deeper into the county/ my county/ our place, down towards Port Matilda, a town I have heard of but have never been to, as the sun is shining as bright and promising as I have maybe ever seen her shine before. Unexpected as it is, unexpected as it was: I think about this evening. Me and Charlie alone in this dirty car. Heading to baseball in a small strange town. The mountains on our right falling away from the highway’s ribbon on a cliff like nothing I have ever seen before.
The sight takes my breath, the green blankets shook in the yard/ the waving ripples/ the slow settling of ancient land into Appalachian ridges: distant farms: tiny houses: narrow lanes down which country boys walk: maybe get in the car: heading towards baseball with a dad at the wheel: sunshine knocking him into some kind of alternative state for just a minute or so before he has to land back inside his body and decided, once and for all, if he needs to wake the kid in the back seat up or not.
If you sleep, you could be groggy later. Strike out on three easy pitches. Miss a grounder you could have had easy. Cry in the dugout just because you aren’t sure of any of this.
But oh, son/ he thinks.
What if you’ve just begun dreaming? Who am I to rip that slight smile off your tender face on a day like this?
Who am I to pull the car over/ lean back around/ put my trigger finger at the base of your smooth chin and trace a path ever so slowly, backing up the slight line of drool to your barely open lips, to your warm huff of breath coming and going/ sunlight on your hand/ maybe you hold it as a sword in your dream/ or a baseball bat/ who am I to let that spit of yours gather on my fingertip now/ the late afternoon early evening of it all pummeling our car/ thrashing down onto it like planets crashing in these spring fields of corn and soy and bird shit and heaved up dirt and dried raindrops that no one can see because they have slipped off to states beyond what is visible to you and me/ who am I to take your drool and wipe it down my cheeks/ slowly/ two parallel lines/ one for you one for me/ on this cheek/ and two parallel lines/ one for me one for you/ on this cheek/ like warpaint upon me/ while you move through green and open fields of your own/ a warrior, I hope/ or a wimp/ I don’t really care/ because, after all/ explain to me the honest-to-god goddamn difference at the end of the day/ like this end of the day/ right here/ that we have inherited/ in cars/ with young sluggers/ who sleep hard before battle.
In the morning before breakfast, I had slid some toaster-hot frozen waffles at Charlie and told him what I was thinking.
“So, when you get off the bus, I’ll be here today, okay? I’ll leave work early and I’ll be here waiting for you and we’ll just put your uniform on and then we’ll go up to the township building and I’ll throw you a bunch of buckets of balls and we’ll get you hitting again, okay?”
And even while I was saying it I was anticipating his reluctance, but it never came. He okay’d me. Said he understood, but I had no reason to buy it. He isn’t like I was when I was 7. He doesn’t live to be out there in the proverbial fresh air with a beat-up bat in his hands and a belly full of Goldfish crackers/ root beer burps popping in his throat as he squints at a pitcher/ any old pitcher/ just get ‘em over the plate, will ya’?!?!
The pitcher in this case being me. The pitcher in my case never being my dad. Not once. Not one pitch. Not one baseball flung my way. Not one. Ever. Oh well. I can do better. Let me do better, Charlie. Will ya’? Can I interest you in me and my ten billion buckets of balls, dude?
His eyeballs roll back in his head.
Maybe your kid is little Rod Carew. Little Derek Jeter. Little ______ (You can insert the name of a current favorite pro baseball player here if you want/ I don’t know any. Jesus. Right?) But maybe your kid is hot to tear through the front door off the school bus and straight out the back.
He grabs a glass of milk on his way through the kitchen. Maybe a couple vanilla wafers, a slice or two of bologna; on his way out the back door, out into the day shine and the green grass and the batting practice and the playing catch and the baseball laughter.
Not Charlie. Not really. He is in between on all of this. Maybe he loves the game. Or maybe he will, I tell myself. I just need to make sure he gets the chance to experience it like I did, right?
But I already know the answer. It’s his life, his world, his sleepy eyes on the evening train. I can’t force a game at him. Or a lifestyle. Or anything really and I don’t even want to. But I’m stunned when he looks at me sometimes and sighs when I tell him he has baseball tonight.
That sigh is the sound of me hurdling through space/ a spot of light/ of former human energy gone dead/ a sigh boy/ a sigh man.
But he does it. The bus comes and he comes through the front door all smelling like pencil sharpener and gummy worm and young sweaty palms and there I am standing where I’m usually not/ home when I’m usually not/ and he sees me and he remembers/ baseball/ and he smiles/ slightly/ genuinely, I make out/ but slightly as only he can smile.
It’s a 1950’s gangster movie grimace-y grin.
Ahhhhhright, Mack. You got me. YOU GOT ME, I SAYS! But this ain’t over. OH BOY I TELL YA, THIS AIN’T OVER BY A LONG SHOT, COPPER!
He goes upstairs to his room, comes back down in his uniform, all black and charcoal, his hat cocked a little/ so perfectly/ at an angle that defies all other possibilities of wearing a cap/ defies all cool as if he was some kind of sunbaked Georgia peanut farmer in a past life/ as if he was Ty Cobb’s dad or something weird like that/ and I stare at him/ at how precious and handsome and wholesome and indisputably American he is standing there in his ballplayer’s get-up… like some kind of strangely pure amalgam of Abe Lincoln and Johnny Cash.
He’s U.S. Grant in some Virginia parlor, chomping a cigar butt, looking out at the distant rising wisps of thick black smoke.
He’s Reggie Jackson standing there holding a bag of Crest and Right Guard in some midtown Woolworth’s surrounded by 300 screaming kids in catholic school uniforms.
He’s scared shitless on the rough seas, a half mile out from Normandy.
He’s walking through the Bedford Falls snowflakes in the streetlight glow.
He’s on that motel balcony in Memphis.
He’s Earnhardt into the wall.
He’s a kid eating ice cream on the other side of the wall.
He’s the wall.
He’s the car.
He’s the sound of it all.
And I can’t figure out if he’s doing all this because he genuinely wants to do it, or because he wants to make me proud. And I can’t figure out if that even matters at all anyway.
True stories, they get chisel’d at the same as anything. We set ourselves up on the day we are born with this foundation for truth and true experiences, but I think, at some point, if you want to really live this life halfway out of the daze that most folks are walking around in, well, then you have to say to yourself, “You know, there’s something off about all of this truth I have been told of, and promised, and convinced myself of.”
At some point, I figure, you have to realize that everything you know and believe is simply a result of your particular experiences in life up until this very second. Taught about God, probably believe in God. Taught to love the Yankees, probably root for the Yankees. Taught that the wrong side of the tracks is the wrong side of the tracks, you don’t go down there unless you absolutely have to… and even then, it’s under protest, because: it’s the wrong side/ the wrong place/ the wrong people/ the home of the wrong because that’s what they told me when I was young and eating my pie on the floor in front of the TV by the box fan blowing a trickle of breeze around the room like walking a worm on a leash, that’s what that was.
Me, now, I look out at the land, at those green hills on the clothesline, at this blue sky revelation and all this sudden spring sunshine in the middle of another slog of a week, looking forward to the baseball, looking forward to my boys out there, the whole time/ me wondering things inside myself/ asking them over the intercom booming out across my dark warehouse aisles:
Is any of this real? Do I have to believe that it is? How could anyone be so sure that there is meaning behind any of this? Or that history has some kind of legit future plan?
Who truly knows that all these little country church graveyards, that they’re whispering secrets when we bolt by?
Does anyone else feel like I feel? Like I know something bigger than most people and that the thing is this:
The root beer burps, the drool on their sleeping chins, the overpowering conviction that this is all there is and that this… THIS… is enough. That it was always enough. That the only promise worth hearing is the one that promises to throw a bucket of balls for you, for as long as humanly possible, if you want that, and maybe even if you don’t, until my breath is all but gone and I’m laying there trying to squeeze your hand, trying to tell you how wonderful this was for me/ with you.
And that it was all enough. And thanks so much, but I don’t need anything else.
At the game, we are the first to arrive for Charlie’s team, and the field is tucked down in this little town, Port Matilda. Wikipedia says that the town was named for the founder’s daughter, Matilda. No one on Wikipedia has any idea where the Port part came from. But damn, I like it.
I like a landlocked town called Port. It’s ballsy and classic and slightly eccentric.
Port Matilda sounds Dickensian. A port on the northern edge of Scotland maybe. Fog. Mist. Whiskey. Ships. A passage away. He never returned. In fact, he was never heard from again. All for Matilda. He went looking for his long lost Matilda.
This Port Matilda isn’t quite that, as far as my yammering on goes anyways. But it’s lovely, in the way of these small Pennsylvania country mountain places. The ball fields, there are two of them, jammed right next to one another. On the big kid field, the nicer one with the scoreboard and the concession stand right there behind the visitor’s dugout, there are big kids, 12 and 13 year olds maybe, warming up.
I woke Charlie up a few minutes before we pulled in here, as we slow rolled down the exit ramp off the highway heading towards Pittsburgh and Chicago and Los Angeles and Japan beyond that. The road to Japan. But we got off at Port Matilda. As we hit the red light at the end of the ramp, I leaned back and tapped Charlie with my Diet Coke bottle. It sloshes around in there and he wiggles a bit. Moans. I turn down the Bluetooth speaker/ be-bop/ car stereo dead now almost a year/ whatever.
He stirs a little. Opens his eyes. Alarmed. Where am I?
Hey, bud. Hi. You good? Yeah? Okay, good. Listen. We are almost to the ball field. Drink some of this soda. It’ll help wake you up.
You don’t have to offer Charlie soda twice. He takes two slugs, caps the bottle.
Dad, he says.
This is the town where Arle is from. I recognize it!
I chuckle. It’s not that town. It’s miles and miles away from her hometown. But, I see exactly what he’s saying. It looks a lot like it. The towering ridge looking down. The fire house on the corner. The OIP (Original Italian Pizza… there must be 500 of them, not a chain, all owned by different people, I will never understand and that’s okay). The gas station mini mart and the few short blocks of mostly older white houses that house almost all white people and the feeling is easy and slow and there are little side alleys and we end up in them following the GPS and some other cars, who have turned off the highway as well, and who are delivering young baseballers to the same place as us.
It’s not the same town, I tell Charlie, but he isn’t having it.
WHAAAAAAT?!! IT LOOKS EXACTLY THE SAME THOUGH!!!!
It makes me smile, makes me laugh.
As the caffeine hits his system and the lights come back on behind his beautiful blue eyes, I can sense that this youngest son of mine, he’ll be okay this evening. Maybe his batting slump will continue, but I don’t honestly give a shit. Six strikeouts in a row. Maybe nine? I stopped counting. The weather had been so bad lately, and with Mother’s Day and all, we couldn’t go out for the usual Sunday couple of hours when I throw buckets of balls for him and Henry. Still though, I am proud of him for even trying. He went with me off the bus today; just Charlie and Dad; we hardly ever get that kind of alone time together. And so it went: batting practice when I know he wanted to play Nintendo with the rest of the kids.
It wasn’t easy, mind you. Charlie’s eyes would dart away from me right when I was throwing a pitch. He chases high floaters with an arcing swing above his head like he’s down-scooping butterflies. He hurls his front leg towards third base when he swings, tearing that path of his bat towards some other ball game in some distant ballpark as opposed as the one happening all over him.
And he gets frustrated to the point of tears if he feels like he is letting me down.
Which, you see, is why we are here. I don’t want him to ever feel that way. And I don’t want me to make him feel that way. Which is possible, because I am an imperfect, squawking, bat of hot air if I don’t stop and think. I try and teach him things to remember at the plate and then he forgets them the very next pitch I throw him TWO SECONDS LATER!!! Which means: he really ain’t listening. Or: he really can’t comprehend all the things I’m saying.
I want to believe it’s the former. Desperately, I do. But I have to force myself to believe that it’s the other one. His little mind, it’s going full stop, man. Syntaxes exploding left and right, he tries to gather in everything we are all throwing at him every single day. School work. Rules. Life lessons. Say thank you. Wash your hands. Tie your shoes. Here’s how you do the dishes. Listen to me explain the universe to you, Bubba, and REMEMBER WHAT I TELL YOU.
How to hit a baseball, fluidly, like Willie Mays or Pete Rose? Pffff. Come on. Charlie wants to do a lot of things so he can feel the life rising up inside of him, the excitement of being alive painting the walls of his own cool dark warehouse with his own young fresh blood.
I have no real say in how that is about to come down.
I can only stand there with my big white bucket of balls, smiling like an idiot, waving at him through this beautiful blinding blizzard called right fucking now.
The game starts and it’s like all the games. The coaches pitch balls that only rarely hit the strike zone, but it’s not heir fault. The kids are Yodas, the coaches are Yetis. But that is also part of the knotty poetry at work here too, you see.
These grown men trying mightily to place a baseball into such cramped pockets of hittable-ness is a thing to behold. They pitch to their own kids, their own teams, so they most certainly want the kids to swing and make contact. And many do, over and over again. Charlie was hitting really well, honestly, until the last few games. Then something slid away from him and a slump got born. No one knows why these things occur, especially when the batter is 7 and slightly distracted by the slightest shadow of a bird. Ladies and Gents, please meet the daydreaming slugger with pancake syrup from breakfast still painted in the corners of his mouth.
Every stepping up to the plate at bat ultimately became a three swing strikeout, 1-2-3. And that kind of thing, man, it is crushing for a parent. Not because you want him to hit the baseball far and often, or because you are almost 50 and living vicariously through your super young child because you are no longer an athlete or on a team or competing or being watched by anyone anywhere to see if you can hit the ball yourself. At least it ought not be, friend.
Instead, it’s because of this other very natural sincerity that hides down in the filaments of our bones, a protective rush of Viking spirit that blows through your system at the very sight of your own flesh and blood child sulking back to the dugout, holding back tears, staring at the ground, bottom lip trembling.
It’s because that kind of thing is life unfolding in her rawest, most eloquent form and you are putty in her hands, Amigo.
FYI. For what it’s worth to ya.
Charlie got two hits, went 2 for 3. His team, they’re scrappers starring in a shit show of the highest magnitude: they lost. 12-2? 19-3? 8-7? I don’t know. No one cares. It really doesn’t matter. Either way, it was a heartfelt beating. I swear to you it was.
Looking down the road, neither me or Charlie will remember much, if any, of this baseball stuff from the other day. Not the stats or whatever, for sure. Not the hits in the game. Not the earnest dusty slides or the coaches hollering Keep going! All the errors- there are never any shortage of those- we have forgotten most of them already, of course. As we should. And by next week it will all fade; by summer, it will all be gone.
We will remember other things though, I suspect. I hope. Oh, I really hope we do remember that afternoon of ours. There was so much that day. I’m not lying to you.
You know that, right?
There’s so much.
Halfway through this game I’m talking about, a lone bald eagle appeared out of the west, flying low and slow down along the ridge line tumbling into the stream at the edge of the park, and right over the fields. Everyone stopped playing and watched, pointed at the sky. It was, and I risk any street cred here by saying this, I guess, but it was American as hell in all the cool old ways. It was as if Superman himself had floated over us, looked down on this smattering of crowd spread thin along the fences, at the young ballplayers with gum in their jaws and envy in their eyes, and nodded/ ever so slightly/ his vast and genuine patriotic approval before flying away disguised as a damn eagle.
I looked at Charlie over on the field. I looked at the melting dot in the sky. Other people seemed entertained by it, but I was like… what the fuck. Did that just happen?
Every single day in the here and now, and nothing else.
I gotta tell you: I’m glad you came here for this one. I really am. I needed this. So, uh. You got a little more left in you? Can I leave you with one last thing?
When the air is still and the breeze steps away/ when the child feels lost because they are unsure how to feel/ and when the deep cavernous fault lines of your own existence on this Earth begin to spread and rumble/ revealing to all at once/ the bottomless pits of how far you will go to soothe your baby’s troubled mind/ his hurting heart/ his tearing-up eyes/ no matter what has happened/ strike outs or murder/ you want/ no, you need/ to pull over and turn back around in the car/ take their tiny hand in yours/ and offer them/ without words/ with just a gesture/ what’s left of the lukewarm Diet Coke/ as you peer into those sleepy eyes/ a peer/ your peer/ so deep and kind and silent that it feels to them in that fleeting moment/ as if your effortless smile brushing up against their cheek on that cool and sunny afternoon in the springtime of a year lost to the onslaught of years now/ was/ in fact/ the moment when everything just clicked somehow/ somehow/ somehow.
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Carefully edited by Arle Bielanko
Photographs #1, 2 & 4 by Serge Bielanko / Photographs #3 & 5 by Arle Bielanko
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