For The Love of It
I guess in my heart -- in that place that nags you not to eat the last cookie, or buy that too-expensive dress, or get tied up with a guy with a smile like sun on snow -- in my heart, I knew he had to leave.
Because as strong as I knew what was in my heart, I knew what was in his; yeah, me, a little, but way more than that was the crack of the bat that sent the ball clear over the back wall and the smell of the grass after a diving catch. Actually, I guess a better picture would be that I had a good solid hold on the center of his heart -- I was the hard core of the ball -- but wound all around that was the twine and the hide of the magic of the game itself. So if he were to look into his heart to see what the truth was it wasn't that I didn't' exist at all there, it was just that what he hit first was his love of the game. Only if he undid the stitching and peeled back the top layers would he find his love of me. But more often than not things moved much too fast for him to have time for that.
When I first met Cal he was in a Triple A club walking that fence between the Minors and the Majors, the breath that would push him over -- the wind left in the wake of a screaming home-run fly -- only half a season away.
It was in Anytown U.S.A. in Any-year in history, specifics don't matter because every boy's dream is the same everywhere and so are men and women. I wasn't a fan of the game, not that I hated it either, I just didn't feel much about it one way or the other. Can't say the same about Cal, though.
I had just come out of the store with a pack of cigarettes and a quart of ice cream, all set for a quiet summer evening at home listening to the cricket opera and watching the firefly light show. I'm not sure who wasn't looking where they were going, me or him, although I suspect it was me seeing as the purchase I'd just made was meant to nurse a lingering broken heart, and on top of that my hair kept falling in my face from the humidity, but whatever the case he and I pretty much walked square into each other sending my ice cream careening all over the sidewalk, and the cigarette I'd been about to light into the gutter.
"Oh, great." It pissed me off, even if it was my fault which I'm not certain it was, entirely. Frankly, I now chalk the whole thing up to fate. I believe in stuff like that.
"I was looking forward to that ice cream too." I picked up the sticky container and threw it in a nearby trash can, pushing past Cal without looking at him.
"Hey!" he called to my back, "wait a second." Only then did I stop and turn back toward him, something I would not usually do. Fate.
"What?" I turned my best fed up, pissed off, I-just-wanna-go-home look at him. But he pulled me up short by throwing me a grin that transformed him into a cross between an Irish Setter and a movie star with a sprinkling of a wide-eyed, pie-faced boy of twelve. "Don't I even get a chance to apologize?"
"So you apologized. Now I'm going home without my ice cream." Again I turned to go, but he ran up and around me until he was standing in my way.
"C'mon -- " the smile flashed again snagging the streetlight like a spider catches a fly. "Don't you even want to know who I am?"
"The right question is, do I care?" And I pushed passed him again on my way home, not knowing he was the next Minor Leaguer who'd get bumped up to the Big Time; knowing, only, that he was a guy and right now all of them were asses. I even got a good six to ten steps before I heard him again, quieter this time, and even a little defeated.
"I really am sorry."
I stopped. My back still to him, knowing I had been harsh. But I was nursing a broken heart after all.
"Does this mean I could maybe start over?" he asked my back.
I thought about that, and about his Irish Setter eyes and fire-and-ice smile and against my better judgment I turned around slowly, lighting a cigarette as I stood beneath the streetlight. He ran to where I was, his right hand extended.
"Hi. I'm Cal."
"Hi. Sissy." I shook his hand. It was cool considering the heat of the evening.
"Nice to meet you, Sissy. And -- I truly am sorry about your ice cream."
"That's okay, I…that's okay."
Something happened then, I'm not sure what, like the air got a little heavier, or thinner, or the sky moved closer, or gravity let go a minute. But whatever it was, it made both Cal and I stand awkwardly silent in the middle of the street like we were thirteen-years-old watching the smoke of my cigarette curl up over our heads. Now granted, neither one of us was all that far away from that tender age, but we were far enough away that we should have been able to find something to fill the heated quiet that threatened to bury us.
"Hey, Sissy, " he let go that miraculous grin, "ever been to a ball game?"
As I said before, I never thought much about this strange boyhood obsession of baseball, but I had thought a lot about men, women, and love. So when Cal told me he played, and played well -- actually he said he could hit anything pitched at him -- and seemed truly excited at the prospect of impressing me, how could I turn him down?
Yeah. Maybe I was just a sucker.
But I must admit there was something about sitting along the first base line, the sun full and warm, and having Cal interrupt his warm-up and horseplay before the game with a flash of smile and wink in my direction.
When the game began, the stadium nearly full, and the smells rich and complete, I found I was actually fascinated by the ritual of it all. Rituals as sacred and important to the ballplayer as the sacraments are to the priest. The dusting off of home plate, digging in a stance, the one-two-three swings before the pitch. Every player seemed to have his set ritual each time, from adjusting his cap, beating his glove or spitting in the dirt. And as unnecessary or trivial as it seemed to be to me, I could feel -- in that cathedral of a stadium -- that everything meant something to them.
And Cal -- in him I witnessed a moving transformation from just another guy who likes the game of baseball, to a true believer of the religion. As he stood at the plate, waiting for that pitch with his initials on it, I saw prayer, faith, power and the undeniable love for that tense anticipation of the moment he made contact -- which he did -- sending the ball up into the ethereal blue to be lost forever in the heavens. Then, in that inimitable grin I saw where dreams came true. Dreams born a long, long time ago in a boy who wore cowboy pajamas and played rag-tag ball in a sandy lot on a makeshift diamond in torn pants with scuffed knees and a runny nose wiped on his sleeve. With one resounding -- crack! -- I saw that dream come true in his eyes. And what is more, it was a dream that could come true over and over again -- crack! crack! -- it could come true bigger and better -- CRACK -- again and again and again -- crack. crack! CRACK!!
I went to a lot of games that season, getting tan in my permanent seat on that baseline, getting winks and contagious smiles from the field. And Cal spent a lot of nights buying me ice cream and finally fixing that broken heart of mine.
Yeah, I went to a lot of games, including the one that finally clinched his move to the Majors. I was the one to see him whooping and hollering as he twirled me around the room when he got the call.
And I was the one who hugged him and kissed him goodbye through full and happy/sad tears as he got on the bus. 'Cause I knew he had to go.
He was in the game of baseball for the pure and total love of it.
And I was in it with him for the same exact reason.
I may not know much about baseball, but I know about love, and in Cal they were both wound around one another so tight it looked like they were the same thing.
I don't know, maybe for him they were.
I guess that's why it didn't crush me to watch him go. How can you hate someone so full of love?
Even if it isn't all for you.
(dedicated to WP Kinsella, who taught me to see the wonder and magic in everything -- even baseball. Wherever you are now, I still have the letter you sent to me after I wrote you. That, alone, is magic.)