The doctors said my father Frank suffered from “nervous complications.” He’d close both his eyes and then open them, over and over and over, some sort of twitch. There was nothing the doctors could do for him.
Dad never pocketed a nine ball on the break, but he tried. He bought a mini pool table for our basement. We played all the time. I liked the way you had to hit the balls in order, 1-9, every shot filled with so much possibility, all those balls banging and with a little luck, that nine ball might fall in the pocket for a victory.
My dad kept his boiler room/janitor job his entire adult life, 35 years and then he retired at 53, and no, he was no Cal Ripken in terms of consecutive work day streaks, but he did his overtime. He also stayed married to my mom too and in all honesty, I don’t remember them ever fighting. They weren’t always holding hands or kissing in public and didn’t have couch cushions that said “happiness is marrying your best friend.” They had their private lives like over the road truckers being away from their husband or wife for long stretches and those marriages lasting and so did my parent’s marriage.
I had read about single men dying young and experts saying it was because they ate a lot of macaroni and cheese and tuna fish and tended to drink booze. And I had some friends who grew up with single mothers and they told me about trips to the soup kitchen and food pantries and a slew of messed-up boyfriends to help their mother pay the rent. Not my my mom. She didn’t have to work double shifts and she always had pocket change to buy me baseball cards which jumpstarted my obsession – to complete every year’s Topps set. I’ll never forget missing one card from 1980. I didn’t know the player’s name, just his number – 623. I had every other card and then one day I got it. It had taken me an entire spring and summer and all my paper route money to get that card and I don’t think I’ve ever felt better than when I got that number 623 Gorman Thomas.
Mom and dad took an interest in my life too. We went to the zoo every year on Thanksgiving and we always ate dinner together on Monday nights and then watched a football or baseball game. Our getting along so well and them getting along so well made it shocking when they both overdosed on valium and beer. I was 19 and still living at home. I was the one who found them. There were police investigations about a possible homicide/suicide, but it was pretty obvious from the scene that it was a double suicide – two empty bottles of valium, one on my dad’s chest, the other under my mom’s chair and beer cans all over the floor, some standing up, a few flat on their side and a couple dented and mushed. I remember staring at those cans and thinking how they resembled land mines and how fragile life was and how fleeting happiness could be.
I had never worn a straight jacket, but I think how I felt that day was what it would be like if I was wearing one. I couldn’t move and could barely breathe. I had no brothers and sisters and all my other relatives lived out of town and I wasn’t close to any of them anyway so I just packed a small bag and attached a tent and sleeping bag to it and bought a bus ticket to go west. I picked San Diego as my destination but I had a ticket that allowed me to stop and stay in whatever city I wanted. I had three weeks until I had to get to San Diego or be stranded in whatever town I happened to be in and I had no intention of making it all the way to San Diego. I liked the idea of being set free in who knows where strange town and having to stay there, to start over, and deal with all the newness. I had like 100 dollars plus the bus ticket and anything would be better than our house and all those cops and journalists asking questions.
I always sat in the back of the bus, right above the motor. That sound provoked me. I went in and out of crying spells and anger tantrums. More than once, the drivers of the different buses threatened to kick me off, but I told them what had happened and he or she would put me in the front seat, reserved for the elderly or handicapped and we’d talk and that had me loving America more than I ever had in my life. I don’t remember what we talked about, but it was nothing profound. It was just good to talk to someone. I stopped in various towns. Spent one night in a motel for 20 bucks. It had a TV. The three weeks passed fast and then, there I was in this town whose name I had never heard before. It was warm and hilly there. Not too many green trees, but other kinds of trees. I’m sure they had names and classifications, but I didn’t need those. The shelter they offered was more than enough. I slept in those hills, under those trees and never really thought about coyotes or mountain lions or getting eaten to death. I didn’t care. I just wanted to stay outside and listen to the weird sounds of insects and birds and look around at all the stars so that’s exactly what I did and I pretended that I was a member of some Native American tribe that believed my mom had become the moon and my dad one of the birds that strangely stayed in the branches of the tree I had made my temporary home.
I eventually grew tired of that tree and the moon and wandered into town. There were a lot of dirt roads and an abandoned gas station. I found the main street. There was more than one traffic light and a lot of small houses, some of which were shacks with aluminum siding. They looked like mini hangars, the ones that house airplanes. I still didn’t know the name of the town. I found a nice space under a storefront awning. “Keep clean and there be no problem,” was written on a piece of cardboard and stuck against the window. I liked the communication so when I had to go the bathroom that night, I made sure to piss in a plastic bottle and the next morning I found a sewer and emptied it. Made a nice sound as it hit the water way down below. I still had 50 bucks and the soup kitchen served three meals a day, weekends too.
I eventually found out the name of the town. It was Marshville. It said so on the post office front door. I had no letters to send, but I had a lot of energy that day. I started seeing things – rolled up pieces of newspaper, fallen branches, tumbleweed and beer cans and I liked all the broken promises in everything like a branch no longer connected to its source and a beer can already drunk and a used condom already used. . I wasn’t much of a drinker back then…..but beer was the last thing my parents drank and I wanted to feel what they felt, not the desperation, but the elation and then like destiny or something I stumbled on an abandoned stroller and knew exactly what to do – go to a booze store and buy beer, lots of it, a 12 pack, hide it in the stroller with the curtain pulled down over the opening. No one would know I had beer on board. They’d think I was a good father. I still had 40 bucks. I walked and drank for a long time. It was like sleep walking and then when the beer ran out, I woke up.
I hid the stroller in some bushes and then kind of suddenly……suddenly because my head had been down, there it was – Hawthorne Stadium. That’s what it said on the red brick wall in fat black letters. I wondered what a Hawthorne was? Some sort of bird? Underneath the name was a bat and a ball. I tiptoed towards the back. I don’t know why I tiptoed. It was fun. I slipped under a chain. I loved exploring the innards of a baseball stadium. I once slept inside Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and thought about touring the country and sleeping in each MLB stadium, trespassing, loitering, always at home. I loved the top of the first when the players, when the defenders shot out of the dugout like bottle rockets, each with its own destination on the diamond or grass.
And so there I was, under the chain and inside. I walked and a fence was open. It was the home run fence. I looked at the warning track and outfield grass and off in the distance, the brown dirt. I was in the outfield bleachers. I looked to the right of the bleachers. There was a building. It was the other part of the stadium. I walked under the stadium seats and knew this was a great place to sleep. And if I was nine ball lucky, I could get to know an old beer vendor and he could get me beer and we could drink together and hopefully he wouldn’t get fired and we’d become buddies all summer. It was dark under the seats and I liked it. I heard some metal scraping the cement floor. I followed the sound and came to a door marked clubhouse. I entered. There were two people standing beside lockers. The light was on.
“Game today?” I asked, half scared of getting busted and half sincerely curious.
“What the hell are you doing in here?” asked one of the men. They were both wearing a uniform. “This is the clubhouse. It’s for the players. Get outta here before I call the cops!”
“I just have a few questions, mostly about the stadium,” I said with a surprising lilt in my voice, surprising because it felt like confidence which I usually didn’t have.
“What kind of questions,” asked the same man who had threatened to call the cops.”
And so I started talking about houses and castles and churches and bridges and all the things man had built, from teepees to skyscrapers to baseball stadiums. And what d’ya know, the other guy in a uniform walked to a fridge, removed three beers and offered me one.
I was already drunk, but the beer didn’t hurt any, the generosity in the giving loosened my tongue even more.
“Dugouts too,” I said. “I’ve never slept in one but the Indians used to have dugout canoes, probably still do somewhere.”
“Ambrosia is pitching tonight,” said the man who gave me the beer. “it wasn’t my idea. It was his.”
He pointed at the other man.
“That’s the pitching coach,” he continued, “or that’s what they call him anyway.”
“And this bozo is our charity case,” said the pitching coach. “He hits fungos to the outfielders. The organization doesn’t have the heart to let him walk.”
“Hey, I’ve been here longer than you Wetchy!” snapped back the fungo man.
“I’m Andy Wetchenman. They call me Wetchy. I’m the pitching coach and the fungo man, we just call him Fungo.”
“Did you ever see the players not have fun with me?” asked fungo man. “How could they not have fun with me? I hit them balls to the wall and over the wall and in between, those perfect fungo blasts that inspire over the wall catches. I betchya those catches they make raise up their morale.”
I popped the top of my Pabst.