Joyland

The Midwest |

Ballpark Figure

by Rebecca Entel

My brother Dyl’s always keeping me on my toes by pretending he doesn’t love me anymore. “Foul ball?” are the first two words he barks at me when I come home at night. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I have to shake my head, no, and he charges off to his room in a huff. In the top of the eleventh inning of tonight’s game, I figure it’s not going to happen: a ball’s not going to sail with a gentle plop into one of the bags of peanuts I’m still trying to sell to the dwindling crowd. It’s late. Anyone left is the kind of diehard fan who’d dive over three rows to wrestle me for it. And the batters are frustrated, whacking angrily; any ball fouled off toward me would probably knock me out cold. It’d be fine with Dyl if his older sister came home with a black eye or a bandaged head, as long as she revealed the white gem of a baseball in her palm. Some nights I’m willing to flirt with the ball boys for a spare, but tonight I’m working the upper decks. It’s a long way down. Still, since Dyl’s twenty-first birthday three weeks ago, he’s been expecting things. After the game, when we’ve finally won by a run, I go down to the club section to find Rafe. Rafe got promoted, so he’s working the part of the lower decks where the fans can place orders with you and hopefully tip you, too. In that section you can get flavored pretzels – cinnamon raisin or asiago cheese. I lean back onto the ground, the shorts of my uniform splayed about me. I’m sure my mom would tell me to get up this minute, but I wait, looking up at Rafe. “My parents always told me never hit a girl,” he says. “You’re not hitting me. You’re stepping on me.” “It’s not going to work.” “Try it.” I’m getting impatient. It’s late, and the beer spilled on the cement floor is soaking into my back. “I can’t do it.” “Your mama’s a whore,” I say and bam, he brings his foot down on my inner thigh. “Please don’t cry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Rafe bends down to help me up. “That was a good one.” I finger my reddening skin. “It oughta last for a while.” “Whose are you gonna say it is?” “Well, your foot’s not so big. Vizquel, maybe.” “Your brother will really believe that Omar Vizquel stumbled all the way from shortstop into the stands and stepped on you by accident while he was trying to field a ball?” My thigh is starting to throb and darken. I can see the tread of the shoe taking shape on my skin. “Lay off, I’m giving you famous feet.” On my way home the bruise really starts to shine through, the paths of the sole like a signature stroked across my leg. My dad used to wake us up after late games to bare the cleat marks that’d been trampled into him: an unarmed cameraman up against a determined catcher who’s chasing a foul ball with thoughts of nothing but making the big play. He called them his autographs. When the game wasn’t televised, Dyl could pick out who’d been catching by reading my dad’s leg. (He could identify anyone’s shoe size. I wanted to brag about this skill to anyone who ever called him dumb.) The cleat marks were an extra-special treat. More often, Dad had red circles seared upon his skin by fugitive foul tips that came too quickly for successful ducking. Dyl checked the sore shadows each morning, disappointed as they began to fade from sight. “Next time bring home a real ball, Dad. They don’t go away so fast.” The collection of balls we did manage to bring Dyl would never go away; he’s glued them into a shoe box so they can’t roll out of his possession. In the six years since our dad died, Dyl’s checked the ball count each night and each morning, making sure he hasn’t lost anything else. When I drive up to the house, I’m wondering if he’ll still be awake to see my bruise, if Rafe’s inexperienced stomping is strong enough to last until morning. The front door is open and the driveway is alive with flashing lights. In the illuminated doorway I can see my mom in her bathrobe, her hair swinging in ropes about her head as she gestures dramatically. She’d make a horrible manager: breaking the subtle mystery of the signs, revealing everything to the other team. “Camille!” The officer coming down the driveway to meet me has been told my name. I know, despite the distracting throbbing of my leg, that something is wrong. As his hands fiddle with a stubby pencil, the cover of his notebook winks open, and I catch what’s already been written: Dylan Wilson. Age 21. Mentally retarded. Green shirt. Khaki pants. I’m surprised Dyl wasn’t wearing team colors on game day. The red and blue of the police lights seem to have come to make up for his lapse. Suddenly my mom is beside us, frantic. “You were late! I had to shower before I went to bed, officer. And you were late! I had to get in the shower before you got home, and now he’s wandered off.” “The game, Mom. The game went into extra innings.” I turn toward the officer, my palms floating in front of me. “I was at work.” “She took the car! You took the car, and I couldn’t even go out to look for him!” “I went to work,” I say again, not knowing what else to do but try to remember which streets Dyl knows the names of, which places we’re going to when he narrates driving directions from the back seat. What I can tell the officer so that he’ll write something down – anything. My memory pops on like a flashbulb: there was the time I’d let Dyl help me sell at one of the games. He’d called out “Peanuts! Popcorn!” with his voice as clear as I’d ever heard it, his saggy face stretched into place by a smile. Nobody had bought a thing. Maybe the news will come. Maybe they’ll let me show my leg on TV. Maybe Dyl will see it on a screen somewhere and make his way back to examine the curves of the bruise, to figure out which star out there has touched us. Or to expose me as a fraud. “That’s Rafe’s shoe! How ’bout a foul ball, Camille?” Slam of the bedroom door. It seems like the most satisfying sound in the world to me now, like the curtain falling over a stage whose story is over, the drama complete, we can all go back home to our regular lives. I follow my mom and the officer into the house. They sit at the kitchen table like a married couple, bills scattered in front of them. Mom peels back the noisy plastic of photo album pages, lifting out pictures, whimpering to the officer that she really is a good mother, that there’s no reason why her son has run away. I go into his room to check that all of his copies of Sports Illustrated are sorted by date. He likes things in order. The other day, when I needed something to read on the bus, I borrowed an old issue and later just replaced it on the top of his pile. That had made him mad enough to stomp around the peninsula of his bed until I apologized by squaring all the corners of the two-foot pile of magazines. “Camille!” Mom’s voice is wet and loose. I join them at the table, tracing the lines of pain across my thigh as I try to help fill the officer’s notebook. Once my mom’s fallen off into exhaustion on the couch, I decide I’ll go out scouting for him. How far could he have gone? I think of him crouching in the shrubbery across the street, collecting pebbles, never noticing the police lights back at our house. But the neighbors have already been interviewed and alerted, and I know mean Mrs. Pratt would come marching over here in a second if “that boy” were anywhere near her puffs of bushes. I end up on the front steps, afraid to stand still while he’s out there, getting farther and farther away. But I do stand still, afraid that if I leave, he’ll come back to a locked and dark house, and think we’ve left him. The police have promised they’ll be looking all night, buzzing around the city without ceasing until they find him. I sit down on the steps and smell the roasted scent of peanuts and sour tinge of beer rising out of my clothes. This isn’t like at work, when I can call out for any takers. My hands are empty. I have to wait. I sink onto the top step and at some point fall asleep against the wobbly railing, dreaming of the days before the new ballpark, when the Indians still played at Cleveland Stadium. The stadium was massive. The Indians were horrible. No one went to the games. Necklaces of empty seats striped the ballpark. Even the good seats right behind home plate would clear out long before the game was over. When Dad was working, we’d be able to climb down there to the vacancies, watching the game over his shoulder – seeing each play just as the camera did. It was a long journey from the five-dollar bleachers over to those box seats where you could plant your feet right up on the dugout. Sometimes it took an entire inning for the two of us to get over there, the lens of my dad’s camera like a beacon we followed to keep us on course. I went first, scaling railings, skipping steps, trying to keep Dyl from wandering off into other sections of the stadium. My favorite time to make the move was during the seventh inning stretch. Someone was setting our travels to music; people rose to their feet to root-root-root for the home team, for us. I always tried to study the positions my dad used to record the game. When he was on the road, I’d watch away games on TV and try to pick out which camera angles were his: what he wanted me to see, what he wanted me to watch for. My mom is standing over me when I wake up. She’s been eating sunflower seeds, as she always does when she’s agitated. Some of them cling to her hair. Several of them hang from the nubs of her terry cloth bathrobe. Her face is angry and swollen, and her eyes repeat every vile thing she’s ever told me happens to girls who are out of doors in the middle of the night. She pulls me into the house. “I thought you were gone, too,” she tells me. It’s still night, but I head to the kitchen to make some coffee and scrambled eggs for my mom. I know I won’t be missed this morning, one of three hundred econ students in the sea of a Cleveland State lecture hall. But I’ll have to get someone to cover lunch at the restaurant and my shift at tonight’s game. Hopefully my boss at the restaurant didn’t mean what she said the last time I canceled, when Mom and Dyl both had stomach flu, about not putting up with my “important schedule” anymore. (And the time before that, when my mom called me home in the middle of my shift because she couldn’t get Dyl to stop flooding the crackled blacktop of our driveway with the hose.) I try to remember whether or not he knows how to get to my restaurant. The swoosh of the espresso machine seems like something he would like to listen to. I give myself a split second to fantasize about the future, when I’m the owner of a restaurant, the one who decides where things go, and there’s a table by the front window that everyone who works for me knows is Dyl’s table. Mom sits down at the kitchen table and covers her face with her hands, some of the seeds silently falling from her. I put a cup of coffee in front of her; it’ll be there – something she needs, just waiting for her – when she removes her hands. I give the eggs one last flourish of the spatula and then dump them on a plate. “Are you hungry, Mom?” She looks up at me, the uncombed tufts of her hair pointing out in every direction, takes the plate, but doesn’t eat. The sun is coming up, suddenly flung into our kitchen. I think of taking a walk, as if he’d somehow be pulled back to me, my body a magnet. Maybe I should unwind my braids, allow my own hair to grow up and away from my head until it forms the shape of a torch, a light left on for Dyl to find. “You know your dad wanted to have more kids?” I shake my head while she takes a sip of coffee, her teeth yellow in the morning light. “After Dylan, I was too scared. I was so afraid to risk it.” She waits for me to nod in support. “And what if we needed money for special schools or something?” She rips open a sugar packet and spills it into her mug, flipping the wrapper around her finger, stray white grains dusting the table around her. Once we’d gone to check out a special school. I waited in the car with Dyl while Mom and Dad went inside. They were back much more quickly than I expected. Mom shook and cried the entire drive home. Come Monday, Dyl went back to our shared school, back to his classroom in the separate wing that swung away from the primary-colored cafeteria. When kids on our bus stole his baseball cap, I’d wished Dyl had gone to the other school, with a crowd to blend into. By the end of elementary school, I’d had to develop a mean right hook. “I should’ve birthed a whole search party’s worth of kids,” Mom says. “Remember what the cop said. The first eighteen hours are what’s important, right? That’s when they need to find him: the first eighteen hours. We still have time.” Mom stops moving and stares at me. “I thought he said twenty four! I thought we had twenty-four hours. Oh, my god!” She looks at the clock on the microwave and fidgets with the sash of her bathrobe. “I’m not sure,” I say. “I think you’re right. I don’t know.” Was it twelve? Eight? Before I know it, I’m being pushed out the door, car keys shoved into my hands. Mom’s voice is spilling out a list of possible places to look. “OK, OK,” I say. “I’ll go. I’ll find him.” I start off in the car, rolling slowly through the neighborhood, then heading over to the nearby shopping center we frequent. An empty corner of the lot seems the best place to park – maybe from afar, Dyl will spot the old blue car, recognize the one brown door. I decide to first check the stores where the owners or workers know us. But all the familiar faces, which crease with worry once my story’s out, have to say no, sorry, haven’t seen him, but leave your number in case we do. I end up covering all of the stores slowly, moving and stopping, moving and stopping. It’s like circling the bases one at a time, waiting for a hit. Dyl likes the game best when it’s slow and anxious like this, flooded with anticipation. That’s why home run balls are a waste to him, even game-winners hit by his favorite players. Homers are so stunningly won, so impossible to imagine yourself getting. He prefers the fouls, those mistakes everyone makes – the would-be homers that have veered off into meaninglessness. The victorious trot around the bases is no reward to him. Dyl loves stolen bases: sneaking by when the pitcher’s not watching closely enough. No skill needed but knowing how to move your feet. Right now, though, I could use a homer. At home, my mom’s had a flash of hope, and then a let down. The phone started ringing. It was the police. Someone had spotted a heavyset kid of Dyl’s description smoking in the parking lot by a mall not too far from us. Smoking? Mom felt all her suspicions had been confirmed: this was nothing but delayed teenage rebellion. But when they approached the boy in the green shirt and khaki pants, they found he was a waiter at a new theme restaurant, taking a smoking break. Inside were a crew of guys in the same green shirts and khaki pants. No Dyl. My mom’s not crazy about everyone shortening Dylan’s name to Dyl. She named him after Bob Dylan. “I figured: he’s got kind of a sleepy face, his voice is kinda slurry. And look where he ended up.” I’m named after my grandmother. “She was always the best,” Mom insists. “At singing me to sleep.” I’m thinking about this as I circle the house, counting how many meals I’ve skipped today (two, almost three), and wondering if Dyl has let the lunchtime he’s so strict about slip by him. It doesn’t take long to circle the square perimeter of our house, but I shuffle along slowly, looking for clues Dyl might have left to let us know what he was thinking. I’m still sure he has some reason. He’s teaching us a lesson, and he’ll show up any minute to make sure we learned it. “How many roads must a man walk down...” – just that line – keeps repeating in my head like a scratched record on the crappy stereo we’ve had my whole life till I think I may tear my hair out or punch something. I go to check on my mom. She’s sprawled spread-eagle on her bed. “Has anyone called?” she asks. “No. I know. I would’ve heard the phone. What time is it?” I don’t want to help her calculate the hours. I pull the edges of the blanket from underneath her and shove them around her bare feet. “I’m going to go call the police station,” I tell her. “They’ve probably been so busy following up more leads that they didn’t have time to call us.” I resist the urge to look at my watch, not really wanting to know. “What time is it?” she asks again, turning toward the digital clock on her night stand. “Camille! You have to go to work!” “Don’t worry, I’m staying here.” She sits up and tries to tuck my shirt into my shorts. I’m still in my uniform from last night. “No, Camille. You have to go to work. He might go there. Think about how much he loves it there.” Her right eyelid sags from exhaustion, the way it always does when she hasn’t slept enough. But she’s making perfect sense, so I promise her I’ll go. “And try to make lots of money tonight, sweetheart. When we have to hire some private eyes, the really good ones are going to be expensive.” I take a pill out of the bottle of tranquilizers Mom’s been renewing and keeping on the night stand for the past six years. I pick a seed from her cottony hair. She nods, looking at the ceiling. “It will take a lot of money. Put on some lipstick so people might tip you.” She takes both the seed and the pill from me and puts them between her lips, still nodding at nothing. “Wow. I don’t know what to say.” Rafe looks kind and stunned; I almost hate him for it. We’re waiting in line with the early crowd, inching to the turnstiles. I don’t remember such lines at the old stadium, which was a simple oval, wide open spaces all the way around. Now the open spaces are shunted off into small pockets at strange angles, which are always filled with Native American protestors that the crowd in line doesn’t have to pay attention to. Dad, cameraman, would hate how we’re all turned one way, not seeing around the corners. “Well, what are the percentages on these things?” Rafe asks. “I mean, they must be pretty good, right? It’s not like you hear on the news that people’s brothers are always walking away and never coming back.” “I have no idea what the percentages are. The police don’t give you statistics, I don’t think, unless they’re trying to argue with you.” Once we’re in, I keep spilling things as I try to tie my apron and strap my shelf of snacks around my neck. Rafe keeps picking them up and organizing. I prick my finger as I’m pinning on my “$1.50” button. “Well, maybe he is here. This is perfect: you can walk around the whole place and find him. He’ll probably just be sitting there, enjoying the game, wanting you to give him some free peanuts. And you can show him the bruise.” Rafe’s encouraging smile betrays a pride in his handiwork; the purple footprint is still glaringly readable. “Whatever,” I say, turning to face the ramp that will take me out of the tunneled guts of the concession areas and into the open air of the park. At the top of the ramp glows a square of light – silver strips of seats and the green flash of the field – so bright compared to where I am now it looks like a TV screen. I tread up the ramp, careful not to slip or spill. With each step I feel my peanuts and popcorn bump against my legs. As I emerge, the evening’s last sun beats against me almost as strongly as the bruise. I start at the top, stopping every few steps in my descent to call out for buyers. I try to remember to do what my manager’s always telling us is the key to success: make sure you look back where you’ve just come from for “late deciders.” Maybe Dyl is here. The red and blue of the Indians’ uniforms have spilled out into the stands, seeping across the fans’ chests. Thank goodness he’s wearing green. Red or blue would have made him invisible. I want to yell his name with all my might into the crowd. Instead I find myself screaming, “Peanuts! Popcorn! Peanuts! Popcorn!” louder than I’ve ever screamed them before, like I’ve got the kind of goods that could make a guy come running. As the scoreless middle innings sag, business picks up, and I have to go refill my stash by the start of the seventh. Reemerging into the now artificially-lit park just as the seventh inning stretch is beginning, I make my way down to the box seats, even though it’s not my section. Pieces of popcorn like yellowing molars fly out from me as I spin around, looking up for a green-chested fan who’s journeying down from the cheap seats toward the dugout, the center of the action. The cameramen behind home plate are kept behind glass now. The lights fill up the window till you can’t see them at all through the haze. There’s no one to tell me where to look. There’s no Dyl to be seen down here either, and the skeptical looks I get from the section regulars send me back to the upper decks by the time the crowd is chanting, “If they don’t win it’s a shame.” Usually, we each cover a pie slice of the stadium, but tonight I’ve circled the entire park, around and around like an unraveling sweater. My feet ache. My back feels strained by the task around my neck. The footprint on my thigh remains. I feel as frazzled as my mom in my day-old clothes, kernels and bits of shell hanging off me. The air smells like salt and beer, and my body’s probably blending in to it all. Still, my last hope remains: that by this time, Dyl must be very hungry for a snack. “Peanuts! Popcorn!” I scream. “Miss? We’ll take two peanuts.” A man with a boy wearing a little league uniform is waving three dollars in my face. I’m thankful he has exact change, feeling I can’t quite count right now. I shove the money into my apron and hand him two lumpy bags. “Be careful not to lose them,” I say, and the man looks back at me strangely as his son smashes shells between his palms. “Peanuts! Popcorn!” A year ago I passed up a promotion to beer because Dyl told me how much he liked the freedom of dropping peanut shells at his feet and crushing them up good. But, I want to tell him now – get right up in his face and explain to him – you can’t swig discarded shells on a day like this. Look at all the stupid things you do, I say to myself, my eyes still skipping around the jumble of the stadium, chasing after green. Dad used to bring us home cartoons about baseball, anything he could find. Dyl’s favorite was the one with the characters taking everything literally: stealing bases by yanking the bags out of the ground and circling the diamond with their prizes. I’m half expecting Dyl to surface on the field, fallen into the literal. Rip a base out of the ground, hug it to him like a pillow, and salute his fans with one arm in the air. Triumphant. (And if security tackles him before releasing him to my custody, it would serve him right.) By the bottom of the ninth, my soliciting screams are on autopilot, lungs fulfilling their duty while my mind and eyes wander through the crowd. At the instant I hear the crack of the bat, my calls are drowned out by the roar around me so that I can’t even hear myself. My mouth a wide open blank. I look to the field to see the source of excitement. The base coach is wildly waving a player around third. This guy represents the winning run that, at this moment, the fans want more than anything they’ve ever wanted before. They’re praying to god for it; they’re willing to give up anything for it. And I want so much to drop my box – scattering all the cash I’ve collected – to join in cheering for the idea that if you just follow the signals, if you just run fast enough, you’ll reach home safely. * * * * * Our eight-year-old Sam is up at bat, his arms floppy at the elbows. So far, he’s hitless on the little league season. But somehow the bat swings through in a straight line and the ball grounds toward second base. Sam makes it to first, and the kid on third makes it home. A boy with glasses, a younger brother who can’t sit still for a second, becomes Sam’s biggest fan, along with the coach and the other parents who’ve sat through every one of his strikeouts. The small boy, (who some of the parents think is a snitch and a kiss up), is dashing back and forth in front of the bleachers. “RBI! He hit an RBI!” He catches my eye and nods at me, smiling and pointing toward Sam, aloft on the first base bag. Rafe turns to me in the old, secret way, like when we’re in bed or driving in the car with the kid asleep in the back seat. “What are the odds of that?” he says, turning forward again and waving to Sam, whose eyes have grown bigger since realizing what he’s done, where he is now. I realize that in the several seconds since Sam’s big breakthrough, I haven’t remembered to look behind us: at the jungle gym where Dyl wanted to hang out during the game. Surrounded by the inviting mystery of an open field, and the singing woods beyond the edge of grass. I wasn’t worried about him just now, with my boy leading off for second. And that’s how it always happens. I twist around, pretending to stretch my back, but Dyl’s looking right at me and can see just what I’m doing. There’s quite a bit of distance between us, but I can see he’s got one foot in the playground’s woodchips and one foot over the border on the grass. Like a dare. I don’t know whether the woods call to him. I don’t know if he knows how they call to me: the urge to leave flaring up like an old injury. No one knows what I was doing the night Dyl came back: packing up. I was nothing but a movement in the darkness, tossing things in a suitcase while mom breathed noisily in sleep on the couch. I wasn’t thinking of anything but where I’d be – where I could end up being. Los Angeles, Montreal, Milan. The owner of a restaurant, the principal of a school, a director of something. When I heard the hushed scuffling outside, I was in the middle of picking popcorn kernels and sunflower seeds off my clothes and pooling them in a plastic bag. This was to be my celebratory confetti when someone tracked me down to tell me Dyl had been found. Called me in my tidy office, where things were always where I had put them, where everyone could always find me to bring me reports I’d ordered from them, where there was a voice on the other end of the intercom that tried to answer to me as best it could. Where no one empurpled my skin or kept me up x nights in a row. But I recognized the familiar scraping at the back door: Dyl twisting his key in the lock without taking its string from around his neck. His thick, soft hair rubbing up and down against the jamb as he worked, catlike. I left my suitcase open on the bed like a mouth waiting to speak and flung the door back. Dyl’s posture seemed unsurprised but he let the screen door clack closed between us. The night air smelled full and wild. There was a man with him, whom I could identify by his political T-shirt even in the nighttime light. He was one of the protestors I’d seen gathering outside the entrance on game days with megaphones and reasonable voices – voices that disappeared once you were inside the jangle and rumble of the stadium. He looked tired and seemed to recognize me. I flushed with embarrassment, remembering the Chief Wahoo caricature on my work shirt, but then stood up straight with the volt of self-righteousness that comes with living in a truly crappy house. Dyl’s face was inscrutable, blank and conspiring all at once, hazy through the screen. He was watching me, and I felt how my own face must have changed in the last hours: withdrawing, suspicious. Weary of bruising. Questions clogged my throat. The man put up his hand in a goodbye and walked away without a word. Dyl wasn’t three steps inside the house when I found my fingers around his neck, pushing a basket-weave pattern of bruises into his skin: we’d match. Mom was shrieking, suddenly over my shoulder – both holding me and throwing me away – and then the three of us collapsed in a heap on the floor, gulping air like a dying animal.