Sunday at the Park

by Jeff Burt

Sunday afternoon’s I sat in the backseat of my father’s car, books read and snacks crushed and Gameboy spent, waiting for the final hour my mother would come to the park and pick me up for the week. Sunday afternoon is the darkest afternoon in week. It’s the afternoon when kids go from divorced Dad to divorced Mom and back again, like being a pawn on a chessboard waiting for the bishop or queen sliding over to whisk you away.

I was not alone.

Three other cars took up their usual spots, three corners of the parking lot far from any other cars, and always the same three corners. The cream Mercedes parked in the shadows under the enormous maple. The Honda Civic parked in the sunshine on the southwest corner closest to the kiddie park. My Dad’s eternally dirty Ford Ranger occupied the northwest corner, closest to getting away, up the ramp and out of the park.

I felt sad for the two kids in the Mercedes who never had their window open, whose father slept and snored and were always the last to leave, their wiry hair pressed against the glass as if in hope it could cut a hole and they could evaporate into the night. They were Americans when I saw them playing in the park, rowdy, physical, mischievous, loud, but transformed into Iraqis when picked up by their Mom, instantly transitioned to quiet, respectful, introverted, and seemingly smaller in body size.

In the first parking spot on the left after coming into the lot, always sitting there before my father and I arrived, were Mr. Hemming and his son Jasper, a Ritalin stupefied creature.

I say creature because when he was on the pill, as we joked, being eleven, he was not only not himself, but also he was not anyone else, not that he was someone else, but that he was not someone. He slouched around, would open books at school and look at the pages but never what was on the pages, half-eat his lunch and didn’t seem to take pleasure even in the pizza from Domino’s, which was light years better than the old school pizza, which matched the taste of the paper plate it was served on, which Jasper proved once by eating the plate.

Although he needed some type of chemical restraint, when he found ways to escape taking the Ritalin, Jasper was truly the poster child for ADD. He could not stop moving, could not stop talking, and could not stop flitting around from thing to thing. He was annoying, pestering, loud-mouthed, but incredibly funny, and not in a good way if you were an adult. He had a penchant for smearing, chalking, spitting, leaving loogies and snotted fingerprints in unexpected places—a teacher’s black coat, the lectern in the multi-purpose room, Darcy Darling’s new tight red skirt, or on the gleaming silver side wall at the entrance to the cafeteria where 1200 kids passed by every day.

One day before Christmas, he asked me if I wanted to sign up for Little League, which I had played unsuccessfully for three years. “Danny, we’ll get on the same team,” he told me, “because I’ll say I have to play with you because you can keep me calmed down,” which was a lie, but it sounded like I could finally have fun playing something with Jasper.

I was a chronic project in Little League—tall for my age, seemingly athletic, could hit a ball a mile if I “ran into it,” could throw hard and everyone wanted me to pitch, but I had a warped delivery no coach could straighten out, and threw high often, and inside often, meaning I often hit opposing batters. I once hit three batters in one inning, which had mothers violently screaming to remove me from the game. I did not want to play any longer; my Dad could have cared less, but my Mom loved baseball, or at least meeting the other moms and talking for two hours in the bleachers or from a lawn chair.

When February came, Jasper and his mom made sure we were drafted to the same team. That’s when life changed. Jasper was responsible, according to his parents, for taking his medicine, and, of course, he would or would not depending on his whim of the moment. He had started to drink coffee, caffeinated coffee, large coffees with lots of sugar, and I at times watched him spin out of control like a planet that loses its orbit and slowly spins into the sun. And I followed, as if a moon trapped in his orbit, looking to crash. We went from sugar-laden coffees to weed that spring. When the grades went down the alphabet, and the marijuana hiding places went to the ceiling, the delinquencies mounted, and the contraband increased, my mom finally yanked me out of school and away from Jasper.

I recovered, but it was painful to be sitting in the same parking lot several spaces apart waiting for our moms to pick us up and not even talk with Jasper.

When I was twelve, my last year of Little League, I met Coach Lou. He made us do stupid things. The first day we had to smell the lime that made the foul lines, and Coach said when he died he wanted to be cremated and mixed with the lime when the lines were drawn around the batter’s box and when the first batter came up he wanted him to scratch out the line and mix it with dirt.

We had to lie with our backs on the wet grass and look up into the spring blue sky and imagine a white baseball floating in an arc across like a bird, and then falling into our glove, like a bird we didn’t want to die, catching it softly in our glove with the free hand coming over the bird to nestle it.

We were not all misfits. We had three studs on the team, two who could pitch, which meant we could be mediocre. The rest of us were losers. Jasper and I, back again as dreaded twin-headed monster, had played for a team that had two wins and twenty-two losses the previous year.

Mike and Snowman were pudgy and could barely run.

Derek could run but he could not hit.

Slim Tim was afraid of the ball at the plate and in the field.

But Coach Lou said that all of us were flawed, and always would be flawed, that he wanted to teach each of us one skill more than we had in our bag of tricks by the end of the year. For some it would hitting. For Mike and Snowman, it would be how to run.

When he took me aside for pitching, I expected the usual loop record: keep the ball down, throw a curve only once to a batter, keep the ball down, keep the ball down, keep the ball down.

But Coach Lou told me I had a unique delivery, one that hid the ball from the batter until it was out of my hand. Sneaky fast. Cool. So he let me throw the pitch high. I just had to throw it fast enough to strike people out. The first time I took the mound in the second game of the year, I expected to be pulled before the inning was over, having hit a kid, walked a couple, and worn out. But this time I heard his voice encouraging me with each pitch, and I struck out the side.

That year I got hit hard a few times, but Coach Lou always let me pitch. I came to enjoy going to the mound, kicking out the dirt in front of the rubber, looking up at the clear spring sky. I learned to love the smell of the rawhide.

Slim Tim learned to catch, and because he was fast, he became our starting centerfielder.

Mike and Snowman learned how to jog. They would never be able to run. And it didn’t matter if they trotted, because they learned how to hit, and because they were the two biggest guys in the league, they hit a few home runs and the fence for doubles quite a few times, or what might have been doubles, since jogging only got them to first base.

Derek never learned how to hit, but he became our backup catcher, and the team mascot, and the team leader in wicked loogies left on the dugout fence. He could a leave a loogie that was longer, stringier, and gooier than Jasper could do on his best day. His best loogie lasted until the following spring, petrified on the wire.

Jasper learned to be a good teammate with the foulest gym bag. At the end of the year, we discovered why it reeked—he had chocolate kisses in a side zipper that had melted many times over during the year. Then, it might have been a dog turd put in as a prank. It became hard to distinguish the smell of furnace blasted chocolate from dog poop.

Our three studs played like studs, and somehow on the last day of the season we won the championship. I don’t think we appreciated it. We weren’t really that kind of team. We had fun together, and I think we spent more time on the lime and the doves in our gloves than the final scores.

Coach Lou used to sit with me at the end of practices and games waiting for my father to pick me up. He knew from some others on the team that I smoked weed and that two of my friends had been kicked out of their homes. Sometimes I would tell him how much I hated my parents, and how much I hated my friends. He kept telling me that I needed to find a good spot inside myself first, not try to look for a good spot with other people.

I had a clue what he meant, but, really, I did not care. He was a Little League coach. He’d had a lucky year. He didn’t have any corner on my soul.

At the end of the year, he drew me aside to give me a book. “A book?” I gasped, ready to refuse it. “Why are you giving me a book?”

“I’m just doing what Ben Franklin taught me,” Coach said. “Ben Franklin had this grand notion that people would volunteer to do good things for a community. The first fire fighters were all volunteers. The first libraries were places people donated books and borrowed them so that more books were available to read. Free assembly. Like Little League. No one bent my arm to coach. I wanted to.

“That’s why I think you should read the book about Ben Franklin. You will never be free of the bitterness between your mother and father, never fully free of your father’s addiction. But you can find good people, do good things.”

He was my coach for one spring, and I hardly saw him after that. I started drinking at home when I was a freshman, and by my junior year had already stolen my mom’s car and been caught DUI. My mom put me in juvenile hall for thirty days to teach me a lesson, and on the first day in the hall I listened to the counselor explain his program in their little study room with chairs made for little boys, and saw in the bookcase “The Life of Ben Franklin” on the shelf. I opened the cover and read, “to Danny from Coach Lou.”

I must have read the book ten times in thirty days. I became a loner. I helped straighten up the counselor’s office every night, and ate dinner alone in the cafeteria. I requested chores to avoid mingling with my fellow inmates, which made my mom and the warden mute with either joy or incomprehension, and maybe both.

When I got out, I took the book with me. Yeah, I stole it.

On my first Sunday out of juvie hall, I went to the park. I left the book on a bench and ran, I ran my ass off, ran until it was dark, laughing, crying, until all those kids pent up in vehicles had been exchanged like unlaundered clothes parent to parent.