The following is an excerpt from the opening of a new novel to be called Brown Ball. I started writing it January25, 2012 and is now finished in draft form. Read and enjoy. It’s not the woods cops, but it is about life — in the form of baseball — for a to-be 13-year-old in the summer of 1956 in San Antonio Texas.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;/Into a thousand parts divide on man,/And make imaginary puissance;/Think when we talk of horses, that you see them/Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;/For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,/Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,/Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply./Admit me Chorus to this history;/Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,/Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
Wm Shakespeare, Henry V
If much of life is ambiguous, baseball isn’t. But the soul of life, and the soul of baseball, share common fuel called stories. Sometimes baseball is life, but life is never baseball, and neither life nor America’s pastime end in ties. In life and in baseball it’s how you handle curveballs that often determines your success. All stories and all lives involve curveballs of some kind, including how a story is built and how it is told.
Some, if not all English-Speaking Critics would no doubt argue it’s not classy to start a tale with once upon a time, but dammit this story is a baseball story with all its genes packed deep in the family of Once Upon A Time. And, if it’s not what the Frogs over Paree-way might call literature (like we care what the hell the Frogs think?) so fricking be it. We are telling this story and we elect to kick off the telling as we choose, as a tale, not a sleep- inducing academic biography. Historians and writers know that hanging dates on stuff is intended to make readers feel comfortable. Pitchers hang curveballs on batters to make them feel uncomfortable. Most humans fear curveballs, and need to know where and when stories take place in order to take the dream into their own heads. But giving names to places, and providing minute-by minute times won’t make a thing real. Such devices only just help reader to orient, by giving them some concrete facts to fix in their heads, like guideposts.
Our story isn’t real but it damn well might be, and what is reality? Is reality the same thing we think we see, or is reality separate and independent of what we think we see? While this seems a simple question, the answer is not as easy to glom on to, which ome wiseacre wrote early in this new century, a long six decades after our story took place.
Or is reality nothing more than a kaleidoscope of infinite possibilities? Like we need that to confuse us even more? Old Bob Hicok, a frollicking 20th century tool-shop poet once wrote, “Tests show within seconds, recall’s fiction that we create more than remember.” Okay, then. Thanks Bob. Here’s storyteller reality: There isn’t any reality except what the storyteller chooses, be it present or past, and unless we’re telling it to you, it’s not reality at all. It just is. Or was. Or might be, which is all part and parcel of one thing and none of it is the least-bit shipshape, nor intended to be. This is one of those stories we hope will take you into a world where your heart can pump and your head spin happily.
If you ask us, fiction and nonfiction, given the shimmery wet shadow of reality, means whatever you want them to mean and thus I figure to start this tale off with “Once upon a time,” which I’m about to do, despite the learned frowns of erudite coastal clowns who think they dictate the rules and taste for stories. They don’t. Readers do. Don’t believe me? Look at that old boy the late Jim Harrison. Most of the whole damn reading world was gaga over him, admired him to the point of making him a treasure, but this own native land? The critical clowns here paid the man hardly a glance. Readers, meanwhile, did, as they always do, pay damn good attention. And readers and listeners are all that counts in yarn-spinning business. This said, Dear Reader, let us commence.
Once upon a time there was a boy, and this boy was precociously worldly smart in a lot of ways and he’d always heard the term dirt-poor bandied about, had even seen some of it first-hand and for real over in war-torn Italy, not to mention in yeasty Casablanca, but that had been over there and then, and this was here and now, in America the Homeland of Plenty, which got him to thinking there might be a whole lot about this country casually tossed around as reality when a great part of it is make-believe at best. But, to be fair and balanced in my telling, this boy, like most boys of twelve going on thirteen, well he was, when it came to a lot of important aspects of his life, as dumb as a moose doot.
Let us be more precise. Our boy was tall for his age, wiry, driven to ask a lot of questions. How was it some Nazi war criminals got prosecuted, but the Japanese mostly got left alone? This struck him a peculiar and in ways he couldn’t pinpoint, somewhat evil. And why had the newspapers hidden the fact that FDR had been a cripple in a chair? Or why were women were called the weaker sex. That certainly wasn’t true in his home.
What if there’s no Hell after death and that this thing we call life is actually Hell? Sure couldn’t ask the priest a question like that. The Church taught that questions alone were grounds for excommunication, so even if you were twelve going on thirteen, you weren’t going to ask the wrong question to the wrong person at the wrong time and risk having your soul consigned to some sort of eternal Leavenworth. And if God made everything, why the heck did he design a cat with nine lives and only one body?
Thinker, brooder, that was our boy, living to some extent in his personal ether. Physically, he was neither handsome in appearance nor homely. He had the piercing, dark-green eyes of his father, and the same daggering gaze when he got focused, eyes that in an instant would go from alive and welcoming to chiseled in stone.
He was also a doodler at all times and though he was criticized for not listening or paying attention, his marks in school showed no such deficiency. Some took the doodling as an indication of the boy’s lack of attention, but the boy claimed it helped him focus. Worst of all, such a deviation from apparently not paying attention might be read as disrespect, the worst of the mortal sins for a boy growing up as a brat in a military family, a difficult style of life, which was never easy for children and tended to leave a lot of wounded in its wake. Kids either thrived under such stress, spreading their wings and soaring, or they folded their wings and crashed. There seemed to be little middle ground. Identifying who would fly or crash was impossible to predict and by the time the result was there, it was permanent and too late to correct. Every kid growing up in the military life was going to pay a price. All that was in doubt was how much.
Most parents had no idea of this cost, and tended to think the lifestyle was beneficial to their offspring. After all, they liked “seeing the world.” Why wouldn’t their kids?
Ardie Hunter had seen grand paintings in gold gilt frames purporting to be God when his family lived in Florence, and damn if his Mississippi Grandpa Atley didn’t look like he’d been the model for the artist. It was bad enough being a lone Yankee deep in Rebel territory, but to be hosted by, cooked for, and bossed around by the likeness of God? Truthis , it wore on that boy’s nerves from the start and forced him to cope by imagining himself as a fighter pilot, shot down over enemy Korean territory after a valiant dogfight against overwhelming odds, compelled to eject from his North American F-84 Sabre jet and, once on unknown ground, to escape and evade, living off his wits as best he could manage in a strange land (without brainwashing and torture of course). The Civil War had ended nine decades back, yet that boy couldn’t help notice that there were people down here, for whatever reason, who didn’t seem to accept history-book fact as reality. Whatever this place was, it wasn’t home and personal fantasy was a proven escape mechanism, as it always had been for him.
So once upon a time, and never-you-mind geography, grand-scale history and such, this whole thing with his Southern kin was as perplexing as it was confusing. Barest naked facts: His Mississippi mother had married his New York State (not the city- never that) father and the couple and family had spent very little time below the Mason Dixon Line for reasons never adequately explained, this in a family where discussion was as common as palm tree-lined boulevards in Poughkeepsie.
One day the sky took dark and growly and winds began to hoot like hungry banshees, and Grandpa Atley Ardghal Gilead grabbed young Ardie Hunter from the cook shack and yowled with a heretofore unheard urgency, “Get on down in the shelter, Sonny!”
The boy balked. Until this moment he’d been told repeatedly that going down in the storm shelter would be to risk sudden death. “Stay the hell out of that cellar cause it collects poisonous serpents of unruly temperaments,” Atley drawled repeatedly. As an Air Force officer’s son, the one thing the boy knew was how to follow orders from those higher up in the chain of command. Remembering this, the boy got to the threshold and could go no farther or further. Snakes or orders. How the hell do you make the decision when both choices stink equally?
Atley unlatched the double wooden doors on the storm shelter, flinging them open to reveal an ominous black void, and growled, “Get yore skinny butt on down in there.”
“Snakes!” the boy countered.
“Ain’t no snakes down there, leastways not no more,” Atley said softly.
The boy descended cautiously, his legs rubbery, his heart racing, thunder throbbing ponderously over their heads, rabid dog winds growling and drooling, snapping as the door slammed down with a gunshot- ponderous bang, and his grandfather threw the bolt to hold the it in place.
“You afeared of dark?” Atley asked right off.
“How come there ain’t snakes here now?”
“What you think we been eatin’ on since yore mama Leakey’s magic fried chicken run out?”
The boy felt like he would be sick but at that exact moment there was a roar overhead so loud it sucked all thought and intentions out of his head. He cowered in the darkness and felt his grandfather’s hand on his lower back, and stood there on wobbly legs, panting like a dry-mouth hound until the cacophony passed and silence took on weight. The old man’s hand, it should be noted was somewhat famous down that way, it having been measured as 10 inches across from finger knuckle to finger knuckle and never mind the thumb which put the fist right around a foot across, and for a lot of folks a damn fearsome looking thing.
Grandpa Atley said, “I believe that thing up there done passed on over us, Ardie.”
Ardie? The boy was stunned. This was the first time ever his grandfather had used his given name. Before this it had been “you-boy-kid-sonny-bub.” Atley had picked a helluva time to get grandfatherly and the boy was in a quandary about how he was supposed to react. Ardie Hunter was nine at the time and it was early summer and Mama Leakey had loaded his six-year-old snot-nose brother and him on a Greyhound in Alexandria and the three of them had ridden all night and all the next day into what his mother called Deep-Dialed-Dixie. They stayed on the bus until they finally reached Cottonmouth, a mirage of a dirt crossroad.
He learned eventually that they were five miles south of Mize, on the upper edge of an untamed and elliptical region called Sullivan’s Hollow, Mississippi, a legendary place not on printed maps, but deeply etched in the minds of all who lived nearby, or had to pass through,which most did quickly as they could manage.
Mama Leakey handed him over to a giant white-haired old man standing barefoot in the pink dust, got back on the bus with the snot-nose and left him, her firstborn, with a grandfather he’d not seen since early babyhood and of course had no memories of, good or bad. Mama Leakey, meanwhile, took Ardie’s younger brother and hightailed it by bus on to her high-strung sister Higgy over to Hattiesburg.
Whenever Ardie asked Mama Leakey about her family she’d touch his lips softly and coo, “Now you just hush, honey.”
She’d rarely talked about her father or her family, yet here she had dumped him with the man like he was some kind of stray dog, explaining nothing. Hell, that woman didn’t even make a try at an informal introduction, just pressed the boy’s hand in Atley’s giant’s mitt, climbed back on the bus, and was gone, leaving him to reality: Marooned in Cottonmouth, the entire transaction odd at best, and having been dumped, he eventually learned that the previously unspoken and secret plan was for him to remain ten days. At first blush, the prospects sure did not look promising, nosiree. The old man, who was tall as a lot of small trees went barefoot, his huge feet covered with a layer of soft red dust that made it look like he grew right up out of the ground the way the local flora had.
The boy, Ardie, was feeling pretty down that day. Here was clearly a turning point, a time of change for him and he couldn’t help think, even at nine years old that baseball was the only consistent system or rules he knew or trusted. Wherever the game got played in the world, the rules were the same and none of this the slightest bit of help to a kid trying to roll with life’s new knocks, grow up, and facing a situation he’d never imagined for himself. Baseball, it struck him, provided paths to follow, base to base, until you reached home, or didn’t. Life on the other hand gave only ambiguity, or worse, insipid platitudes and worthless directions from mouth-breathing adults. Eat all your food. The kids in Africa are starving. What the hell did his eating everything have to do with some African kids eating nothing? You didn’t find this kind of stupid direction in the game of baseball.