Authors: Sue Stauffacher
“I can get my pack of cards and we can act out a scene from the book, if you want, Sarah. Maybe the part where Alice meets the Cheshire Cat, or where Alice has tea with the Mad Hatter. Afterwards … on the front steps.”
Later, I reflected that while I probably saved Mr. Nillson from an untimely heart attack—Hello! Those wires were not grounded—it was a small consolation for the conversation I missed at my house.
kitchen, calmly sipping iced tea and nibbling Oreo cookies, my mother listened to Sarah's problems. I bet it took about a second for her to decide to put
on the line so that Sarah Kervick could have “a chance at bein' regular.”
Yes, as I was trying to save yet another hapless neighbor from a tragic domestic accident, Sarah was telling my mother that she needed a job so she could buy clothes that made her
look more like the other girls—though why that would be her aim, I can't imagine.
Did my mother have any ideas, she wondered.
Oh, yes, indeed she did.
Finally, my mother had found someone desperate enough to recruit into her evil plan of putting me on the Pelican View Baseball Team.
“I bet she doesn't know a thing about baseball,” I said when she told me about how she'd hired Sarah to help us with practices.
“Doesn't matter,” my mother shot back. “I can't pitch and catch at the same time.”
“What about Bernie? Let him be catcher.”
“Very funny. We already tried that, remember? He set up his plastic animals at home plate and I almost gave him a concussion.”
Three fleeting days later, I stood on home plate, looking over the vast expanse of desert that was the Paul I. Phillips Recreation League infield. Official practice had not yet begun for the season, so the chalk lines were barely visible and the area around home plate was rutted from dirt bike tires. Sarah sat in the bleachers, her arms folded out of habit or cold, but definitely not stubbornness. Not this time, anyway. Wasn't she getting what she wanted?
Overnight, my mother had transformed into a baseball coach. She leapt from her van, went around to the back, and pulled out a huge duffel bag with what looked like a dead body flopping around inside. Dumping the contents on the field, she motioned Sarah over.
“Here's your first installment,” she said, producing a padded green nylon jacket with about seventeen pockets and as many zippers. I was all set to issue a standard safety warning about the dangers of loose ties and zippers when boarding the school bus when the look on Sarah's face kept my thoughts from connecting to my mouth. It was the sort of look I imagine Cinderella having when her fairy godmother conjures up the amazing gown for the ball.
Pulling off her ratty, unraveling sweater, Sarah dropped it in the dirt by the batter's box. Gingerly, she slid one arm into the jacket sleeve. Halfway through the procedure, she bit her lip and looked down at the ground.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, and I could tell she was close to tears, so I limped away to distribute the bases. My mother busied herself unpacking the rest of the bag.
“This is for you, Franklin,” she said, holding up the traditional batter's helmet with the protective disk that dipped down over the exposed ear.
Standard issue safety equipment could hardly be considered a generous gift under the circumstances, but I tried to look grateful.
My mother and I had had a long talk the evening before.
“Look, Franklin,” she said. “I just want to do something normal for once. Just a normal mother and son kind of thing. No crash dummies, no fatality statistics, just … I don't know … typical.”
In my mind, I searched crazily for a sport or activity that was completely safe, that we could both enjoy without fear. And to my horror, I discovered there wasn't one. Everything
that flashed through my mind—street fairs, bowling, nature center hikes—sent up red flags of danger.
There must be something, I reasoned. Finally, it came.
“As long as it is combined with a sensible exercise program and done in the comfort of your home, I would say that reading is a perfectly safe hobby for us to share.”
My mother looked disgusted. “You're wrong,” she said finally. “Reading can be very dangerous. Authors can get people very worked up with their writing. Reading has caused revolutions, Franklin.
“Even FDR didn't trust reading. Don't you remember his annual address of 1944? He had the flu, so he insisted that the radio program be broadcast from his bed in the White House rather than have people read about the speech in the newspaper?”
“I'm not sure he was actually in bed …”
“Don't try to distract me with details, young man. The fact is, reading is one of the most dangerous things around.”
“I wasn't talking about
kind of dangerous,” I argued. “I was talking about the getting-hit-by-a-line-drive kind of dangerous. Physical dangerous.”
“What difference does it make? A guy could die of a broken heart after reading a Dear John letter. A story in the newspaper could cause a riot.”
She was just being stubborn, and she was old enough to know it.
“Fine. I give. Uncle. Reading is more dangerous than stock car driving.”
“I'm just trying to make a point, Franklin. Anything is
dangerous if you look at it a certain way. Just getting up in the morning is dangerous.”
“Exactly!” I said. “We're in total agreement.”
But I knew we weren't. And my mother knew we weren't, so I had to keep returning to the subject and mulling it over.
Was it possible that I, Franklin Delano Donuthead, could be overreacting to the dangers of childhood, as my mother was suggesting? Why wasn't my mother overjoyed to have a son who took such diligent care of himself? Was there something I was missing here? Was something greater expected of me? Was the maternal pleasure of watching a son field a hard grounder down the third base line more important than taking precautions to ensure that same son survive to adulthood?
When I agreed to her plan, I have to admit that my mother looked happier with me than she had in a long time. And happiness, according to Gloria Nelots, is a major boost to longevity.
“Okay, kids,” my mother said now, leaning on two bats, one wooden, one aluminum. “Here are the ground rules. We've got three weeks before baseball season officially starts. Our goal is to get Franklin enough skills so that he feels comfortable signing up. We'll practice every day after school for one hour, except Thursday, when I work late.”
Sarah's hand shot up. “Me and Donuthead, I mean, Franklin, can practice on our own on Thursday. You okay with that?” she said to me in her own agree-or-I'll-rearrange-your-body-parts kind of way.
I attempted to give my mother a see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with look, but she would not make eye contact.
“Great,” she said. “That's great. And, Sarah, I'm going to have to talk to your parents about this.”
Before Sarah could disguise her reaction as anger, a troubled look crossed her face. Then she sat right down on the cold ground and hugged her knees.
“I can't be keeping you after school and sending you home with clothes without their permission, dear,” my mother said, kneeling beside Sarah and resting one hand on her bony knee.
“Him, it's just him. My dad,” Sarah said quietly. She was shaking her head and dragging her finger through the wet sand near her feet. When she finally did look at my mother, it was like Sarah was trying to decide if she was poisonous or not.
“Okay,” she said finally. “Whatever.”
“All right, then.” My mother slapped Sarah's knee and sprang up. “Let's play ball. We'll start with batting practice.” She tossed the catcher's mitt to Sarah. “I'll pitch. Franklin, which do you prefer? Aluminum or wood?”
I opened my mouth to explain that either instrument, when applied with the proper force, could prove deadly. But as I watched my mother dance out to the pitcher's mound, I didn't have the heart to say it. I set the batting helmet on my head. It tilted to one side, exposing my left earlobe.
“I may have to have this fitted correctly before we begin,” I announced. My mother jogged back to home plate and slapped the top of my head. While this did help with placement, it seemed unnecessarily cruel. Now my ears were ringing.
“Sarah,” she called out, “you stand here, behind Franklin. Okay, now squat down and put the mitt between your legs.”
“Hey, my new jacket could get dirty,” Sarah complained, stopping at a bend.
My mother sighed. “That's one of the dangers of baseball. You might get dirty.”
Sarah stood up, pulled off her jacket, and hung it on the chain-link fence. Then she returned to squat in the dirt behind me, pushing her flimsy dress down between her knees.
“That's right,” my mother said, “but bring the mitt higher. Gives me a target to aim for.”
For a moment, she looked at us the way you do pictures in the art museum that you can't quite figure out. Then she dropped her glove and walked back over to me.
“Now, Franklin, we've been over this before, but just for review …,” she began.
How many times my mother had tried to get me in this position I could not tell you. I make every effort to block out painful experiences. In fact, I think I can trace the onset of my post-traumatic stress disorder to the first time she pitched me a softball.
“This is the strike zone,” she said, touching my shoulders and my knees. “When the ball is thrown between these two points, a good ump will call a strike. That means you should swing at it, because if you don't, they're going to hold it against you.”
“Why do they call it a strike if it means you
hit the ball? In the dictionary,
means ‘to hit, with a hand, tool, or weapon.' ”
“Quit stallin'. We're gonna play ball whether you recite the dictionary or not. I don't plan to be in this position all day,” I heard Sarah's voice behind me.
“Okay now, Franklin,” my mother said, trying to recover her earlier enthusiasm. “You know the drill. Feet shoulder-width apart, bend your knees … no, that's a slight forward bend.” She twisted me like a pretzel.
“Wouldn't common sense dictate that I lean away from the strike zone, rather than into it?”
Huge sigh. “Franklin, imagine you want to hit the ball as opposed to avoiding it. Imagine that you want to get that offending ball as far away from you as possible.”
“There's an easy solution to that,” I said, taking a step back.
“No, dear,” she said, firmly propelling me forward. She walked backward to the pitcher's mound, just to make sure I stayed.
“Don't balance the bat on your shoulder, cock your elbow in the direction of the pitcher, watch the ball …”
Her words crackled around me like static electricity as I entered into an advanced state of panic.
“Try to remember what FDR said, Franklin.” My mother pulled the implement of destruction out of the duffel bag and stepped onto the pitcher's mound. “The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.”
I thought I detected a slight tremor in the ground below me. She threw the ball directly at me and I jumped away, dropping the bat. In the distance, I heard a thud as the missile found its mark in Sarah Kervick's palm.
“Are you all right?” I shouted, craning my neck to see her. My mother started toward us, but Sarah tossed back the ball and held up her finger, as if to say,
Just give me a minute here.
“I have an idea.” She stood up and stepped around me.
Keeping her back to my mother, she said, “Look here. If you don't learn to play ball, I don't get any clothes. If I don't get any clothes, I walk around lookin' like this. If I walk around lookin' like this just because you don't learn to play ball, then we have a problem. Because then I'm gonna be very angry. And there is nothing this ball can do to you that my fist can't do better and harder and more times….”
“There seems to be a pattern here,” I said, impressed with Sarah Kervick's abilities at deductive reasoning. “Where you threaten me so that I do what you say. You never actually hurt me, though, do you?”
“There's a reason for that, too. As a rule, I don't hit cripples. But just remember what I did to Marvin Howerton. Twice. 'Cause that's what happens when I get angry. And I do get angry, Franklin. Even cripples make me angry.”
I was strangely touched that she recognized that I am, indeed, a handicapped person. I glanced over her shoulder at my mother, who was rubbing the ball up and down her jeans, waiting patiently.
“I think you need a new strategy for communicating,” I said. “If you want to be regular, like you keep saying, then you should learn to persuade people without threatening them.”
Sarah Kervick sighed heavily and scuffed her dirty old tennis shoe in the sand. She did want to be regular, I could tell.
“Should I say please?” she asked through gritted teeth. “Is that what you're sayin'? Because if you will step up there and try to hit the ball if I say please, then I'll say it.”
“Please would help.”
“Okay, then. Please.”
I stepped away from her and approached home plate. I got into the batter's stance. My mother had one of those looks that you see at the end of movies, when you know the baby's going to live. I tried to remind myself that, statistically speaking, my chances for surviving this practice were excellent, and that my chances would increase if I could focus on the movement of the ball.
I willed myself to lean forward and concentrate. Really this was very simple if I just broke it down into a physics problem. This was all about velocity. My bat would repel this sphere at high velocity.
My mother wound up. Despite my mental preparations, I froze in position as the ball sailed past, dangerously close to my nose. But I didn't step back or drop the bat, which was, I believe, a minor victory worth celebrating.
Sarah tossed the ball back to my mother. We repeated this exercise several times. Everyone seemed to understand that a person with my delicate constitution required a great deal of warming up.
In between watching the ball sail past my nose, I swung the bat for practice. It occurred to me that if I kept this up for a long period of time, the muscles in my left arm might lengthen, while the muscles in my right arm could foreshorten, thereby increasing the difference in the lengths of my arms.