No one ever gets parenting a child exactly right. But expectant father Alan Wayne knows exactly what kind of a dad he doesn’t want to be. It takes a trip to the past and a somber farewell to point him in the right direction.
There was a time when Alan Wayne had believed in his father. A time when that man stood ten feet tall, and Alan, in his tiny frame and with even tinier abilities, couldn’t bestow enough respect or devotion to the one he called Daddy. The one who held his hand crossing the street. The one who showed him proper form for holding the bat. The one who’d taught Alan, at the ripe old age of seven, how to steal candy bars and steaming popcorn from the vendor’s stand.
How to cuss an umpire.
How to break in a new glove.
Alan shifted on the bleacher, three rows up and about four spots in, though since the stenciled numbers had long worn off the grooved metal, he could have been sitting in Mr. Turner’s spot as opposed to his father’s. Close enough for government work, Alan thought. His dad would disagree. Close was never good enough for Mr. Wayne.
Mr. Wayne. A good-hearted swing the man had given at fatherhood—at least early on.
Several swings, perhaps. Many more misses.
Alan was alone in the ballpark. In this neck of the county, people came and went as they pleased. A father/son impromptu practice until the tot tired of retrieving his own misses, and then the sun was in the boy’s eyes as it sank lower to the horizon. The balls were packed up and hauled away. They left an hour ago. A mother/daughter power-walking duo, armed with Nike runners and Adidas headbands, the gals walk/ran the crumbling asphalt track that the town had laid around the perimeter to keep the anti-baseball fans happy during the long days of games. The ladies left thirty minutes ago, the pre-teen complaining of sweat and humidity and swiping bugs the last few laps around.
Alan had watched from his spot, well his father’s, three rows up and approximately four seats in, as several sets of folks casually enjoyed the lonely field. He kept one tennis shoe on the ball bat, borrowed from the poorly secured equipment shed, and frequently checked the baseball-sized lump in the pocket of his baggy jeans. He didn’t want it to fall out and thud below the bleachers. The ball was, as far as Alan knew, the most fragile thing he possessed. At least for the moment.
He turned his glove over and over in his hand as he’d observed and waited. A Christmas gift. The last of its kind before Alan refused such gifts. He traced the laces that bound the leather into the shape of a mitt. The shape of a hand. He found the lace that, he believed, if memory served correctly, his father had used to teach him a lesson.
When little nine-year-old Alan had grown weary of breaking in the new gift. Of kneading lanolin and all manner of foul-smelling concoctions into the leather. Of pounding the old rubber mallet from Granddad’s toolbox and his own little fist until his knuckles were red as beets into the pocket to conform the glove to his hand.
When little nine-year-old Alan had voiced his weariness, and that baseball wasn’t his thing anymore, his father further broke in the glove, slamming the back of the Rawlings mitt, thick protruding laces and all, into Alan’s cheek. Alan ran his fingers through his beard. The scar was only a silver line the width of a baseball seam, but it had bled profusely down his cheek, chin, neck and onto the collar of his picture-day shirt when first earned. Alan covered it with a thick growth of brown whiskers as soon as age and hormones allowed.
His wife wanted him to shave. Says the scar is barely noticeable. Says the whiskers will prick their newborn when that time comes. And that time was coming much sooner than Alan would like to admit.
The beard wasn’t to conceal the scar from himself; he didn’t want a clean-shaven face to expose his past to strangers or co-workers. Besides, anyone who knows anything of reality-altering scars knows that the bearers see those thin or thick silvery snakes whether covered by beards, bangs, or blouses.
Scars left by ones once loved scream for attention and remembrance and…
He’d sat for quite some time, watching the people and the sun’s trek across the June evening, but it was time to move this along. Time to get back on the road. Alan stood and stretched, accidentally kicking the borrowed wooden ball bat off the metal footrest and under the bleachers. How many times had he done that as a kid? Sometimes on purpose to play around in the mud and sand underneath. Sometimes so he and his buddies could make fun of—and sometimes poke quite literal fun at—the rear ends of fans and parents and classmates seated above their heads.
As a kid, Alan thought the bats under the bleachers to be fun. As an adult, not so much. He rose and took the few strides to the edge and hopped off. The drop wasn’t as long as he remembered, and he jarred his knee slightly on the landing. He ducked his head and squat-walked under the seats to retrieve the bat.
The worst little Alan had to dodge was cigarette butts and already chewed Big League Chew. As he picked up his bat now, he spotted two condoms and a syringe.
He smashed the needle with the head of the bat. He left the condoms. If it had been any other day, he’d been appalled and saddened. But his heart was already at rock bottom with personal grief. There was no room to bemoan the state of the entire county.
Alan made sure the baseball was still in his pocket.
He sauntered to the first base line and stretched, bat handle tucked between his knees, glove in armpit. How many times had he lined up on this very spot with his teammates to do similar stretching before those monumental games? Halfway between home plate and first base. The field seemed bigger then.
Perhaps it was.
Amanda had wanted to be here with him for this. But he’d refused, and she’d stayed in New York. Eight months pregnant, she was better served, and his nerves more at ease, knowing she was near her doctors.
No, he wanted to be alone. He needed the time and the drive down to North Carolina to think and process. He needed the time to make final arrangements. This was personal. Trying to remember that time when he and his dad had connected. Trying to wash away—and missing miserably—the grit and grime of the past.
Amanda had never met Alan’s parents. By design. As soon as Alan had scrimped and saved enough from one odd job after another, he’d earned his GED and ditched the tiny Carolina town for the anonymity a large city brings. Surrounded by people, but unnoticed and unknown.
Where the scars each pedestrian or cab driver or Manhattan attorney carried were hidden under time and attire. And no one passing by knew.
No such luck in small towns. Beard or no, everyone around Alan knew his old man roughed him and his mother up. Mom couldn’t or wouldn’t leave the one she’d fallen in love with. Why or why not didn’t matter anymore. His mother passed shortly after Alan bolted. Maybe, in her own way, she’d swung the motherhood bat long and hard enough to keep Alan alive, then she just…
He shook off the intrusive memory and walked toward second base. The equipment shed—or shanty, as it were—barely held itself upright, casting a shadow over the far bleachers. Soon the shadows would be longer and lower and heavier. He was waiting for that. And to be sure he was alone. The pitiful structure had been all manner of colors over the years. The winning team was allowed a few gallons of paint— supplied by Mr. Wayne’s hardware store and pigmented to match the winners’ logo-ridden t-shirts. School bus yellow for the attorney’s office. Royal blue for the local pizza parlor. Deep purple many times when Alan had brought home the winning run for Wayne’s Tools.
A purple as deep as the bruises Mr. Wayne left on his star player if a tourney win wasn’t secured.
Alan thought back to the father and son who’d left the field a while ago. He wondered if that dad drug the child to a post-dinner batting practice. Tired and grumpy and longing for a night with siblings and mom in front of the television. Or had the conversation before they loaded up the duffle bag been of the please-daddy-please-can-we-go nature.
The great American sport should be that. Please, can we go? Please?
Not please don’t make me. Please.
Swings and misses.
Rounding second and heading to third, the tweak in Alan’s knee had begun to work itself out. He’d occasionally whisk the bat through the air, chest level, working the rotator cuff with one arm while clinging to the old glove with the other hand. The ball, snug in his pocket, had started to press just a little too hard on his thigh.
Don’t be sloppy Alan. Greatness isn’t achieved with a sloppy work ethic.
Alan could hear his dad barking at the team. Mostly barking at him. He should be grateful Alan was at least trying to honor the old man’s wishes. Giving it a good-hearted effort despite the years of strain and estrangement.
Rounding third. Heading home.
Alan used to know his stats, but he’d since worked to forget them. What good are those numbers now?
Now the only numbers that mattered are how many weeks until the due date. How many days left where he and Amanda are simply Amanda and Alan. Just the two of them.
How many minutes left before he holds his own child in his arms. Just the three of them.
The only numbers that really matter.
Standing on home plate, Alan dropped the mitt into the dirt. He wasn’t sure why he’d brought it. He didn’t need it. Perhaps force of habit. Ball. Bat. Glove. Perhaps nostalgia—as toxic and sour as it may be.
He leaned on the bat and breathed, taking in the edges of the field to the stands on either side. Home field seats. Visitor seats. An empty concrete pad where the vendors would wheel their concession carts. The paved running track. The shed. He was still alone. He’d been surprised to find the padlock to the shed unlatched—only serving to hold the wooden door closed against the frame, not serving to keep out vandals. Vandals like him, he guessed.
There was a tiny selection of bats, mostly child-sized. A few adult-sized. He’d chosen a wooden one for this task. He’d put it back and secure the door as best he could before he left. Before the sun disappeared below the outfield and the stars and fireflies clocked in for the night shift.
He stood straight and gave the wooden bat a proper swing, standing sideways over the plate. Right hand on top of left choking the neck with white knuckles. Legs apart. Knees bent.
Another swing and near inaudible whoosh through the humid evening.
When he was a kid the only bats the team used were aluminum, but Alan much preferred the sound of the ball leaving lumber. He’d gone to pro games with his dad enough to know what that satisfying snap sounded like. Snap more than a ping.
It sounded more natural.
He propped the bat against his thigh and dug out the ball. Spalding. Faded lettering. Official cork ball. Well, not cork any more.
Alan examined the stitching. Red. Waxed thread. One hundred and eight stitches.
Well, probably not one hundred and eight on this one.
Alan had taken such care to clip and unweave the double-strand of thread holding the panels together. He’d done this back in New York after visiting a pawn shop and securing the ball. A buck fifty ball out a of a bucket of dozens. He knew his glove would still be on the top shelf of his old closet, but he wanted the ball to be ready as soon as possible.
After picking up his father’s ashes from the funeral home, Alan had spent a considerable amount of time fashioning at least a portion of those ashes into a loose pouch. He stuffed the pouch inside the panels and began lacing the wax thread back through the holes. His hands had fumbled and his had palms sweat as he did this. As he thought about carrying out this wish for a man he wasn’t sure he liked, loved, or admired.
Not as little Alan had before the beatings began.
Amanda begged to come. For him not to do this alone. Or at all.
“Let me help. Let me be there.” She’d touched his beard, right over the scar. Whether she meant to or not, Alan wasn’t sure.
He’d placed his hands on either side of her protruding belly. He felt his little one move inside the woman he adored.
“No. It’s my turn to swing the bat. And I want to start my fatherhood off with a swing and a hit. Not a miss.” Alan needed to live with himself. A clear conscience to start this new chapter of their lives. Let the past be the past.
Be a better man than his father.
So he sewed the ashes inside. Brought the ball and glove to the park. Waited. Remembered.
And now he stood here. Ball in left hand.
Bat resting on his right shoulder.
He tossed the Spalding into the air a foot above his head and swung, missing. The ball toppled to his feet. His heart sank, thinking maybe there would be where his dad would lay. Trampled on tomorrow right off the bat. All in one spot over home plate.
He scooped up the ball and examined it. Nothing. The laces held. The ashes hadn’t slid out.
He tried again. Tossed the ball a little higher. A little further out.
He chided himself for not bringing practice balls.
Not good, Alan. Not good. His father’s voice.
He readied his sideways stance again. He tossed the ball several times into the air, each time catching it in his palm and leaving the bat resting on his shoulder.
One more toss. Grab the bat.
Authentic. Real. Natural pop of ball against wood.
The ball toppled and spun through the air, not as so many in his past had done, this one had a wobble to it. The laces gave up. And somewhere between the pitcher’s mound and five feet into center field, Alan laid his dad to rest amid dirt, gravel, grass, and a busted ball form on the field the pair had spent so much time on.
Love. Celebration. Fights. Devastation.
Swings and misses.
Alan gathered his mitt and returned the bat to the shed, propping it against the wall where he’d found it. He took his mitt and turned it over in his hands, feeling the laces and bumps. Popping his fist into the pocket. He propped it up with the bats and secured the shed door as best he could.
The sun’s top rim cast a few last lonely rays over the ball field, highlighting the third row up, four spots in, on the home team’s side.
Soon he’d be introduced to his newborn.
Soon he’d try his own hand at being a father.
And hopefully, when it mattered, Alan perhaps would make natural, authentic contact and knock one out of the park.
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Copyright © 2019 by B.A. Paul
This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.