Midnight at Stoner Park. The grounds are quiet, shadowy, and the dirt of the softball field crumbles beneath my feet. I hold an invisible bat at home plate, and step into the batter’s box. I think about people cheering for me. The standard grand slam in the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the world series comes to mind. I decide to jog the bases, sprinting by the time third base comes, rounding for home like Griffey in the ’95 slide. My lungs gasp. My back hurts from a recent snowboarding injury. Am I old?
A piano plays in the back of my head because all good memories require music. Then Justin and Ryan are there, and the park becomes my childhood street with summer melting us in honey youth.
Our makeshift field is perfect. A dog chewed frisbee for first base. Cindy’s old softball glove at second. A Giant’s baseball hat I will gladly step on in rounding third leads to a duck taped rendition of home plate, freshly pressed silver, the meticulous edges crafted by Justin and his meticulous demeanor.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are on the radio and we laugh when the part about a push-up bra comes up. The ice cream man comes and goes without us throwing a fart bomb in his truck like we always say we will. It is June, and summer is here, and July and August are forever away, and school might as well be that lost baseball in Brian and Ellen’s backyard.
Our friendship is strong and high school and college and hundreds of miles have not separated us. Right now we live in a world as big as our neighborhood, our street, our cul-de-sac at the end with rooftops for fences.
.44 magnum. My teammate.
I pissed myself playing little league baseball. I Picasso’d dirt across my crotch to hide the stain. Playing in the Majors did that to me. While my friends were playing one league down in AAA, I was playing with a kid nicknamed after a gun. When he left, I inherited his shoes but never walked in them the way I was supposed to, never hit home runs or swaggered or sauntered like him. His knees never shook like mine in the box. His crotch was never rimmed by an embarrassing circlet of gold. He wore number 44 with pride and I wore mine like the ball boy.
“You own the plate,” my dad used to say. I can see him in his white work undershirt and jeans, my dad through and through, hair parted down the middle in a way I could never pull off, pinching my shoulder in affection the way he does. “Remember that, son.”
Quitting the Rockies was an easy decision to make given my pissing tendencies and general fear of playing in the league. It was easy to walk away on it all and resume street baseball and summer. I gave the plate back to baseball but kept my dads words for after college, many years later, when the fear of kids nicknamed after guns evolved into the fear of men wielding them. When the confusion of a world held at gunpoint came quicker and bruised deeper than any baseball thrown in little league, and the plate was enormous, and I carried a giant strike zone.
My dad came with my mom to repair the pieces of my broken life. We met in a Santa Barbara hotel near State St. I cried, and my mom cried, but my dad was there like he was supposed to be, like I needed him to be, silently strong, no hint of doubt or fear in his eyes, owning the plate in his own way.
Like the time when my mom broke her back, and the fire trucks and ambulances were flashing a more terrible light than any highway patrolman pulling you over ever could. All the people around my mom in the garage. Paramedics. Firemen. My neighbor Ron with a worried look in his eye, me never forgetting the way he said on the phone “your mom is hurt real bad” and that I needed to come home fast. I pushed my way through, stepped over the fallen ladder on the ground and looked down at my mom and saw the confusion in her eyes. The fear took me. The fear a child has when he first notices a dent in his parent’s untouchable armor. I looked at my dad and he was looking at my mom, smiling with tears glistening in his eyes, and I could not take it so I ran out and the grass of the front lawn met my knees, then hands, then face. And I wished the Gordons were there, Jim specifically, because my mom needed my dad with all the strange faces looking down at her and I needed Jim’s arms to cry into, like I was six years old all over again. And I didn’t understand why my dad was smiling at my mom until the day I hugged him in that Santa Barbara hotel after having been zip tied and held at gunpoint.
Like my mom on the ground with a broken back looking up at all the frowns, I needed the smile from my dad, the reassuring smile that everything will be okay because his tears would have salted the wound more and made the realization that my life had been in jeopardy all too clear.
The park, and unlit lights, and now 1am silence comes back as the memories of childhood and young adulthood fade. Ironic the park lights are off, because I have had a lightbulb moment, and feel radiant.
As I cross home plate, I bend down and wipe the dust off of the surface then stand on it in some Olympic pose. I think of everything that has taken me to this point. How I took life’s mishaps and doubled off the wall with them. And I think about my dad’s words, you own the plate, and swing my invisible bat in the dark. This home run trot is picturesque, filled with my dad’s voice, and white undershirt, and blue jeans.
And the plate is mine for this moment.
And I own it.
And my pants are free of piss.