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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

Uniforms
By Robert Pope

The first time I played on an organized baseball team the year was 1959 and I had just turned thirteen. My family moved from place to place so much as I was growing up, I have to remember images, then where I was when they occurred, then add up the years. In one image, I am this boy in an apartment in Frankfurt, Germany, smacking my fist into the pocket of a glove that has grown dark with use and oiling. If I catch the ball in this pocket, my hand will seem not like a boy's hand in a glove with an enormous leather thumb, long leather fingers, and a wide band of webbing, but part of the glove. I am trying to find it and shape it to receive the ball every time. I am an outfielder, so the glove is a fielder's glove, though I admire the long first baseman's glove, which I have considered using in the field, and the round catcher's mitt.

My father sits at the dinner table, reading a newspaper and drinking a cup of coffee, somewhat amused or irritated by the intensity of the way I am working my glove. I set the ball into the pocket, close the glove over it, and tie it shut with a bootlace. I will try out for baseball this year, and I want to be ready. Although my father does not play catch with me and has never shown interest in baseball or my daily life, except to prevent me from doing what I want to do, an unconscious desire to talk with him about baseball wells up before I consider the consequences. I want to talk about positions, about batting, about my hope that I will make a team, and I am so caught up in this fever that I forget that he has always found a way to take from me whatever I have with just a few words.

In my mind, I try out opening gambits to find words that will run along some familiar connective in our relationship. I can't ask what he thinks about a particular player or team, or batting stances or statistics, because he pays no attention to the game. Occasionally, he offers a lengthy discourse on a topic related to something in which I am interested, and when he does, I listen closely to be able to ask a further question because I have a boy's need to talk with my father. It seems that even a pantomime of conversation will do until the real thing comes along, but it is difficult to frame a question that will bring on such a discourse and I am in no mood to feign interest. The most reliable aspect of our relationship lies in his authority over me, so I ask him, "Dad, is it all right if I try out for a baseball team this year?"

He takes the pipe out of his mouth and smooths his mustache with the pointing finger of the same hand. His dark hair is brushed back from his forehead with a deep wave. My sister's girlfriends tell her he is handsome. "Why do you ask that, son?"

His voice is deep and rolling, with just a little gravel to give it texture. I have heard him sing in church, and while his voice is not tuneful, it is impressive. He knows two poems by heart and issues them when we pass a graveyard or the ocean. One has the line, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee"; the other begins, "Break, break, break on thy cold gray stones oh sea." Both seem to have been made for his voice. I have also seen him bring a full-grown soldier to a dead stop and turn ashen with just this voice alone. At the time I am speaking of he was a major or a lieutenant colonel, though I am inclined to say the latter, and I had felt how his voice could bludgeon a boy like the back of his hand. I was always careful around my father, and perhaps I can say that this is one thing he taught me—to measure words and gestures, even when I wanted to scream, cry, or dance spastically through the house. I told him about the tryouts, told him where they would be held, the officers and enlisted men who would be doing the choosing and coaching, all of the details in which I took absolutely no interest.

He relit his pipe with an enormous flame from his lighter. Smoke billowed around his wide, mustached face. After a moment he waved his hand to clear it away and sucked at the stem of his pipe with consideration another minute before he finally told me, "I think not." I sat down in a chair and fixed my attention on tightening my glove. My face burned with shame and anger, but I tried to act like it was the effort of the work in which I was engaged that caused it.

"You need a strip of horsehide for that," he said.

For the life of me I could not think how to ask him to explain himself. What kind of man would suggest I needed a strip of horsehide after he had told me I could not try out for baseball? What would I need with horsehide, or a good pocket, if I were not using my glove? I considered the words that came to me and burned each one until nothing remained but embers of language, and then they just fell out: "Why not?"

"You're liable to get hit in the head with a baseball," he said. "Those baseballs are built to be solid, hard as a rock." My face flushed. Having never seen me play, failing to recognize that I was no longer a small child, he assumed I would bobble the ball or miss it entirely, perhaps not even notice it was coming my way until it careened into my skull and cracked it. Though he knew little about the game, he could explain exactly how a baseball was manufactured, and did, belaboring details I had learned by taking them apart. He had not the slightest awareness my eyes were throbbing, my heart pounding, or that I was literally seeing red.

"If you would like," he added, "you may play softball." As he compared the making of the baseball and the softball, I realized that my desire to talk with him had been not only foolish, but also dangerous. Fortunately, before I could say anything else, my mother came from the kitchen to ask me if I had any homework.

"Yes," I told her, "loads," and left him sitting by himself, believing matters had been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. I was a monster in my heart, snarling and ready to strike. I threw my bound glove on my bed and dropped on it myself, opening a book I could not read. The red of my own anger swam across the page, bulged like a balloon into every corner until I was inside it. How could he deny my right to try out for baseball? I had just wanted to talk to him. It was unfair to bar me from playing with boys my age. In many areas, I might have acquiesced, but in this I could not. I grew so hot, I swelled to twice my normal size.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2003 issue.

—EFQ

ROBERT POPE awaits each Cleveland Indians' season with trepidation, interest, and a little hope. He teaches at the University of Akron and has published a collection of stories, Private Acts, and a novel, Jack's Universe.

© 2003 Robert Pope

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