Authors: Sue Stauffacher
“Do we need to have another talk?” Sarah Kervick asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“No,” I said firmly, and settled back into my stance. As I watched the ball come toward me once again, I thought, Motion, friction, velocity, speed, acceleration. I didn't close my
eyes until the moment of impact. When I opened them, the ball was dribbling toward the pitcher's mound.
Both Sarah Kervick and my mother leapt into the air and cheered.
“You hit the ball, Franklin!” my mother screamed, running toward me and picking me up.
“Well, I think that's enough for one day,” I responded, trying to use all those good feelings to my advantage.
My mother finished swinging me around and dropped me, unceremoniously, onto the ground so she could consult her watch. “We still have a little time. Sarah, you want to give it a try?”
Sarah had retreated to the fence to gaze lovingly at her new jacket.
“I guess,” she said, as if she didn't care at all.
My mother held out both bats, offering Sarah her choice of wood or aluminum.
“What do you use?” she asked my mother.
“I guess I like wood better,” my mother said.
“All right, then.” Sarah took the wood bat and strolled back to the batter's box. I started to pry the helmet off my head.
“Keep it,” she said over her shoulder.
“You'll catch, Franklin?”
My mother tossed me the mitt like this was not a matter for lengthy discussion.
Talk about a roller coaster of emotion. I went from surviving a ball thrown toward me to having it thrown directly at me!
“Isn't there a mask for catchers?” I asked, “to protect the soft tissues of the face?”
“Just hold your mitt up, Franklin,” my mother said.
I was about to point out that if I protected my face with the mitt, I would not be able to see the ball. But then I was distracted by a new concern. What was the probability of contracting a fungal virus from sharing a mitt with Sarah Kervick? While I was trying to work out this possibility, the ball came zooming toward me.
I screamed and fell backward, crushing my shoulder in the hard-packed sand. Sarah stepped over me to retrieve the ball.
“You okay?” she asked, without much interest. On the way back, she reached out her hand. Without thinking, I took it and let her help me up.
“If you don't scream,” she said quietly, “I can probably hit it. Then you won't have to catch it.”
She said this almost nicely, as if she were trying to help me.
“But keep your head down. I swing low.”
So I crouched there, thinking of turtles and trying to retract my head into my shoulder blades.
What I saw then was a beautiful demonstration of motion, friction, velocity, speed, acceleration. For Sarah Kervick cracked that ball so hard it sailed over my mother's head, over second base, and into the outer outfield.
And for some reason, I thought again about Marvin Howerton's nose. And his chin. And believe it or not, I almost felt sorry for the guy.
I was not forced to dodge any more pitches that day. Head, shoulders, knees, or sweet spot, wherever my mother pitched the ball, Sarah met it with her bat and sent it flying. Tired of jogging all over creation, my mother finally sent me to the outfield, where a kid has at least a decent chance of avoiding the ball.
Sarah would simply smack the ball, then watch as my mother and I scrambled to keep up with it, leaning on her bat with one leg crossed over the other, a patient smile on her face. After a dozen or so hits, my mother jogged to the plate. Practice was over.
“Holy crow,” she said, bending down and putting her hand by Sarah's footprint. “Where'd you learn to hit like that?”
“I used to play some.”
My mother studied her hand, then went over to her duffel bag, pulled out her Cable Country receipt pad, and wrote a note along the bottom.
“Tomorrow, we'll see if you can run.”
I think we both knew the “you” she was referring to. I felt grateful to Sarah Kervick for taking the pressure off me.
We packed up the equipment and got into Mother's van. Sarah sat in front so she could give directions. I didn't pay much attention to where we were headed. I was busy reliving the afternoon and my own successes. Okay, they were minor
compared with Sarah Kervick's hit parade, but I had met one of my mother's wicked fastballs, hadn't I? I felt the need to communicate the importance of this moment to someone who could appreciate it. I began to calculate just how I could sneak in a toll-free call before dinner to Gloria when the van hit a pothole and we began bouncing down a rutted dirt road.
Every so often there'd be an opening in the trees and I would get a glimpse of metal or aluminum siding. We weren't in a trailer park exactly, more like a clump of woods where trailers had come to rest in no particular order.
“It's in here,” Sarah said, waving her hand. My mother turned into a clearing that held a small trailer supported on cement blocks.
“You sure you want to do this?” Sarah asked.
“Of course I'm sure—”
Suddenly, from both sides of the car, huge dogs came lunging at us, barking like the van was full of fresh meat and we were downwind. My mother slammed on the brakes just as they hit the van, rocking it with their enormous paws.
“I'll handle it,” Sarah said, unlocking the door. To my horror, she stepped out of the van, leaving the door open! The dogs left off mauling the van and lunged at her. For a moment, we lost her in a flurry of paws and dog hair.
“Mom,” I screamed. “Do something!”
“Pretzel! Zero!” I could still hear Sarah's voice over the sounds of gnashing teeth and frenzied barking. After several long seconds, she managed to get hold of the dogs by wrapping her bony arms around their necks and grabbing the metal-studded collars.
“Hey, it's me. C'mon, c'mon.”
They must have listened. I don't know how you can wrestle two dogs twice your size into a pen if they don't have any respect for you.
It was only when the immediate danger of being pulled out of the van and devoured by starving dogs was gone that I realized what a stew pot of germs, insects, and domestic accidents was the place that Sarah Kervick must call home. The tiny, rusted trailer seemed to rise up out of a whole bunch of rusty things, like automobile parts and skeletons of lawn mowers.
I hoped, for her sake, that Sarah Kervick had had her tetanus shot.
The screen door flapped open and smacked against the side of the trailer so that the whole place shook. A small, balding man stood at the door. He was wearing an open flannel shirt and a pair of dirty jeans and rubbing his eyes.
“What the … Sarah! What are you doin' to those dogs? I told you—” He stopped when he saw my mother approach. By this time she'd gotten out of the van and—I cringed—was holding out her hand to shake his.
“Who are you? Nothin' wrong with my cable, is there? Now, don't be disconnectin' me. I paid up at the Family Fare this morning after work …”
I cracked the window to hear better.
Sarah flew around the side of the van. “Dad, this is the lady I was tellin' you about. The one that gave me the hair stuff.”
Sarah Kervick's father—would that be Mr. Kervick?—swept his daughter aside, keeping his eyes on my mother. He was awake now, and I could tell he was suspicious of her. My
mother just stood there with her hand extended. Against all good reason, I wanted him to reach out and shake hands with her. She looked foolish offering for so long.
But little things like etiquette didn't seem to matter to Sarah's father.
“What'd you bring her here for?” he asked Sarah.
“She didn't bring me here. I asked to come,” my mother said calmly.
“We don't need no help, lady.”
“I'm not offering any.” My mother is a patient woman. She put her hand down and leaned up against the side of the van, waiting.
“She's givin' me a job, Dad …”
“With your permission.”
“Shut up,” he said, speaking to his daughter as if we weren't there. “I know about these people. They come round askin' questions. That's first. Then they pretend they want to help ya, but …” He looked at my mother again.
“Look, lady, we don't got lice. She goes to school. Why don't you get the hell off my property?”
“Dad, it's not like that …” Sarah tried again.
“Whadda you know about it?” he asked. And when he raised his hand to his head, Sarah ducked. Mr. Kervick scratched behind his ear. I sank back in my seat.
He stared hard, first at his daughter, then at the van with the Cable Country logo on the side and my mother's uniform with her name embroidered over the pocket.
“Who's he?” he asked, zeroing in on the backseat.
“That's Donuthead,” Sarah said. “I told you about him.”
The wind was playing with the screen door and it kept bumping into him. He took his fist and banged it aside. Sarah flinched again.
I tried to squeeze up my courage to tell him I preferred the word
but none came.
“Actually, he's just scared,” my mother said.
“Scared? Scared a what?”
He laughed at that. At least part of him did. The other part started to cough, a low, rumbling smoker's cough. Fishing in the pocket of his shirt, he sank down onto the cement block steps, gently pressing on the block at his feet to stay balanced.
My mother waited for him to stop coughing. We all waited as the unlit cigarette waved in the air and he pounded on his chest. When he finally got the space to breathe again, he lit up, straightening, wiping the tears from his eyes.
Exhaling smoke, he said, “They make some pair, don't they?”
“How's that?” my mother asked.
“He's afraid of every little thing and my Sarah, she's not afraid of nothin'.”
“He's not afraid of everything. That's not true,” Sarah said. She was moving all over the yard now, first tossing the dogs a stick the size of a two-by-four and letting them worry it between them, then perching on the step next to her father.
I thought her comment deserved follow-up, but apparently no one else did. Mr. Kervick gave my mother another long, hard
look. “If you
one of them social service people dressed up like the cable guy, then I gotta hand it to you,” he said.
“Everybody's afraid of something,” my mother said quietly.
“That so?” he said, inhaling so hard I was afraid the cigarette would shoot to the back of his mouth.
“Your daughter's afraid you're going to say no. She's afraid of that right now.”
I watched the look on Sarah's face as my mother said that. I watched her clench and unclench her fists. But all that energy had nowhere to go. You can't stick your fist into something like a feeling. There's just nothing there to hit.
“I'm talkin' about real fear, miss,” her father said, picking threads of tobacco off his tongue and rubbing them on his pants. “The kind that grabs your throat in the middle of the night.” He started to get up, casting his eyes left and right as if he were planning to show us what he meant.
“And you're afraid that she'll change so much you'll lose her.”
It was not the kind of comment to de-escalate tensions.
“You're dead wrong if you think that,” he said calmly, pushing off the step and straightening up as he walked over to face my mother. “You can't lose somethin' you don't have.”
A breeze lifted the tails of his shirt, and Sarah's father looked old then, with his gray-haired chest displayed for all the world to see.
“Only person Sarah belongs to is Sarah. Ain't that right, kid?” He grabbed her roughly by the shoulder and pulled her toward him. “She's crazy, this kid. Won't back down for nothin'.”
Sarah looked down at the ground, smiled, and kicked a clod of dirt.
“Give you an example. There's a pond back of this trailer park,” he said, letting go of Sarah's shoulder and jabbing his lit cigarette in the direction of the woods. “Just last fall, she fell through the ice. Coulda drown, but she's got this idea she's gonna be—”
“Dad! Look, can I work for the clothes or can't I? Franklin and his mom don't got all day.” Sarah waved her hand in front of him, trying to bring him back to the beginning of the conversation.
Her interruption seemed to confuse him. He blinked at her and threw his cigarette aside, continuing his story somewhere further along than when he'd left it.
“Coupla weeks later, that pond froze again and she was right back at it.”
“The clothes, Dad. Can I or can't I?” She was tugging on his sleeve now. “I'm gonna earn 'em fair and square.”
My mother pushed herself away from the side of the van and moved to the little space beside Mr. Kervick and his daughter. I could hear her keys jangle as she pulled them out of her pocket.
“When there's no ice, she's at it on that flat spot where I used to park my RV …” He looked fondly at the dusty spot in the dirt. Sarah had two bunches of his flannel shirt in her fists. She pulled down on them so that her father had to look at her.
He looked at her for a long time. Then he put his palm on her forehead and pushed back, but not hard. She let go, and he
walked over to the side of the van. My mother had already gotten in and started up. She rolled down the window.
“Now, you wouldn't be able to fix that little box there so I could get more channels, would ya?” I could smell his sour breath all the way in the backseat, and I marveled at the fact that my mother didn't make a face.
“Could I? Yes. Would I? No.”
He shook his head, laughing to himself and kicking my mother's tire.
“It's not true about me losin' her, you hear?” He pulled his daughter close, crushed her to him like they were the best of pals.
“No sir,” Sarah said, beaming up at him. She knew what he was going to say even before he said it. She was smiling because she knew he'd given in.
Mr. Kervick put his elbow in the van, leaned right over the open window, and said in a low voice to my mother, “Don't really matter what I say, 'cause that girl's gonna do what she's gonna do. Been that way since she was born.”
“But it matters to me,” my mother said. “And I'm