"I’m scared," Robbie whispered to Harry.
Under the black metal park bench, his words lingered
in the cold air like ghosts. Feet crunched in the
nearby woods, wheels squeaked through the grass.
Robbie glimpsed leaves scraping and skipping along the
forest floor until they touched down in a shadowy
puddle. This park’s all too familiar, like Pennypack
but with greener grass. The sweet smell of the damp
grass that cushioned his knees wafted into his nose,
making him shiver. The footsteps were growing louder.
"What are we going to do Har—? "
Four legs were coming right toward their bench: two
white, two green. They were pushing a small gray
wheelchair through the grass, with several straps
clanking restlessly against its metal armrests. They
don’t seem too dangerous, Robbie tried to reassure
himself, though he knew they were.
Harry turned to Robbie and cocked his furry feline
head curiously. Robbie looked down at him, and put
his finger to his lips to make sure Harry would keep
quiet. Wet sandpaper suddenly rubbed against his
nose. He moved to touch it, but Harry bolted from
underneath the bench.
"Don’t!" Robbie shouted.
Robbie jolted up in bed just in time to see a dark
image darting from his room. Bleary-eyed, he
wondered how Harry, his cat, could have crept into his
dream. He wiped his eyes with the back of his
knuckles as he took a quick inventory to make sure
everything was still there: his posters of The
Beatles, Beach Boys, and Paul Simon that covered every
inch of white paint, and his cherry roll-top desk that
sat across from his matching dresser, staring at each
other liked he’d just walked in on their private
conversation. Still hanging in the corner was the
Mexican mariachi marionette Aunt Lynn brought back
from her trip to Cancun, which surrendered a red
plastic bottle of something in one hand and a silvery
gun in the other. A film of dust covered his sombrero
and black moustache.
Robbie wiped the drool from his chin and his nose
where Harry’d licked him with his rough tongue.
Across the hall, he heard the unmistakable creaking of
his parents' bed as they were briefly wrenched from
Mmeh-cheh-heh. His father cleared his throat in three
stunted coughs, and everything from the night before
came roaring back to Robbie, including his
stomachache. They had just gotten back from the Blair
Mill Inn, where everyone had been dancing late into
the evening at Josh’s Bar Mitzvah. Dad got so
emotional. Just so proud, Robbie thought at first.
But then Mom started crying hysterically. It happened
so fast. Everybody sat down around the teardrop glass
coffee table in the living room, Dad with his arm
around Mom as he took off his glasses. He said
nothing was going to change, that they’d still do
everything together as a family, but that the doctor
said he had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Wouldn’t be going
to Ireland in the summer though—that had changed—because
Dad had to start getting treatment.
Now Robbie laid back down and rubbed his feet together
under his sailboat comforter until they were comforted
from the lasting fright of his dream. Could Dad be
dying? Was cancer better without Hodgkins? The
thought made his posters start spinning in a dark
psychedelic whirl. Robbie looked over at his alarm
clock radio and tapped it a few times, until the last
red digit flickered back on. Still a couple of hours,
he thought, rolling over to press his aching side up
against his ripped Hey Jude poster. The wall, cold
from central air, numbed his stomach.
Mom had offered to buy him a new poster—it was ripped,
and besides, The Beatles were all staring off in
different directions—but this was a Chanukah present
from Pop Pop. He watched the oak branches sway out
his window, swordfighting with the power lines.
Contorting his body until his pillow was nuzzled under
his left arm, Robbie pressed his face down against the
cool, firm mattress. This was how sleep was best
recently—cushion-deprived with an arm draped over a
pillow like he was proud of it—ever since Mom said to
put Mousey away on the shelf in his closet. He could
only see the tips of the branches now, soporifically
swaying against a gang of gray clouds. Did they mean
rain? If only, if only. The tree branches
surrendered, blurring with the power lines, the
windowsill, and, at last, sleep.
Robbie stretched and turned over, pulling his blanket
over his head to block out the light. The clouds,
those little liars!
"Psssst! Wakey wakey."
Robbie knew who was standing there without opening his
eyes. He could hear the greh-reh-reh of juicy orange
pulp being squeezed through Mom’s juicer in the
kitchen. He could smell the bagels getting brown and
crunchy in the oven. It was Sunday morning, and that
meant only one thing: his Dad would transform into the
mighty Mr. Baseball.
Robbie opened his eyes to see his Dad standing there
in his dull yellow shirt with the words "Padres Coach"
in brown cursive across the front, tucked neatly into
his ridiculous white polyester stretch pants with the
royal blue stripes racing down the sides. Capped off
with that cheap yellow hat he refused to break the
bill of -- it made Robbie sick with embarrassment.
"Who goes with Fergus?" Dad beamed, his beard
stretched wide to accommodate his extra Sunday morning
baseball enthusiasm, revealing a few gray strays.
"Nobody," Robbie yawned grumpily.
Noise and breakfast smells spread upstairs as Robbie
pulled on his uniform, pausing to remember the games
when it had acquired its grass-stained mileage. In
the kitchen, his parents talked quietly about Josh
writing "thank you" notes. Dad was right; so far,
nothing had changed. The only room that was quiet was
Josh’s, whose door was shut in newfound manly
He was mad last night at the party, Robbie thought, as
he walked past to the bathroom, when Sandy Kallish was
dancing with me, his more handsome younger bro. Said
he didn’t care afterwards, but I bet he did. Robbie
brushed his teeth with a swishy-swish, thinking of
Josh dancing with Rebecca Ronsankowitz instead.
Robbie slid his sock drawer open and dug around for
his plastic triangular cup. He put it on and shifted
in his pants. It’s never...comfortable. Can never
stride properly towards home with this stupid thing.
It looks like Jason’s freaky hockey mask is eating my
nuts. Better leave it. Nuts to the rules. Ha!
What’re the chances a ball hits me in the balls? A
ball on balls instead of a base on balls!
"Free eats!" his father yelled, as Robbie descended
the stairs, two at a time.
With a reekyreekythump, the rickety railing and the
hardwood floor announced his arrival downstairs.
"You loose?" his dad asked.
Robbie nodded, not looking Dad in the face as he
reached for his cleats.
"Put ‘em on in the car. We don’t want you making more
dents on the parquet floor."
Robbie dropped the cleats on the cloud-colored carpet
instead, and sat down at the kitchen table. The
plastic-covered chair deflated. Its wooden legs
vibrated through his red-striped knee socks and right
up his spine as Mom pushed him in.
He wanted scrambled eggs with lox, what Mom and Josh
would be having. Instead, he got his game day meal:
Raisin Bran with milk and a sliced, nauseatingly mushy
banana that brought back the dull ache in his stomach.
No one else was eating yet. Mom had her back turned,
peppering a bowl of beaten eggs as she listened to
Charles Kuralt prattle on about some soldiers who’d
come home from the Gulf but were now getting sick with
some new syndrome.
"Who goes with Fergus?"
Who the hell is Fergus? Robbie wondered as he combed
the wooden floor with his big toes in search of cleat
marks. He finished his freshly squeezed juice, which
had turned tepid but still tasted like nectar, as
Harry leapt onto the windowsill. Just look at him
over there, taking a sunbath and having his morning
nap after a long night of haunting my dreams.
Grabbing his glove and hat, Robbie trotted down the
six carpeted steps to the garage, his cleats keeping
the rhythm as they swayed from his shoulder.
The door of the garage was already open, and Robbie
got into the Accord with a whenk. How the pinstriped
plush seats always felt refreshing after a night in
They coasted backwards down the driveway in neutral,
Dad still tying his cleats and not paying any
attention. He turned the key at the bottom of the
driveway, the ignition caught just before they had to
turn onto Laramie. Always does it, just before I’m
worried enough to say something, Robbie tormented.
But what could I say? Uh, Dad, did you know that you’re drifting in reverse
here or what?
That would probably get a Relax or, at least, a No
shit, Robbie. And look at Richard Liss across the
street there, hunched over that damn lawnmower in his
ironed white tee and cutoffs. Must be out there four
times a week at least. What did Josh call him the
other day? "Dick-Liss."
This one came out louder than Robbie’d intended, but
his Dad was too busy fumbling with his shoe flaps and
attending to the wheel at the same time.
Dick Liss was a poster boy for Northeast Philly. He
moved into his house nearly ten years before, when
Robbie was one, and never left, except to go down the
Shore once a year. Dick Liss’s house stood out on
Robbie’s block of identical duplexes because of all
the time he spent on his yard. Robbie’d caught a
glimpse of the inside once too, on Halloween, and
wasn’t remotely impressed. A lot of fake crystal
birds and ugly little statuettes, flying nervously
above a green carpet that looked like the astroturf
at Veterans Stadium. To top it off, he had the nerve
to give Robbie a pencil for Halloween. A lousy orange
He’d become Dick Liss after he yelled at Robbie and
Josh for playing in the street and their wiffle ball
dinged his precious vintage Buick. Dad also hated
him—God knows why—but that was good enough. Dick got
so much meaner after his wife died. She was the nice
one, always bringing tins of cookies over. Would our
home be invaded by crystal animals and astroturf?
Would Mom get meaner? No, nothing was going to
"It must be early," Robbie stretched his arms as they
turned onto Alburger Avenue, "even the houses are
yawning." His Dad thought for a couple of seconds
about this, and smiled as he noticed the uniform row
of duplexes open their garage-sized mouths in unison,
spitting out cars into the once quiet street. Robbie
caught his Dad’s thin grin and smiled to have a foot
back in the spotlight again; Josh had been such an
attention hog the past few weeks.
Feeling a little proud, he turned on 98.1, "W-O-G-L
F-M. We play your favorite oldies," that woman always
sang like she was a back up singer for The Supremes.
"Help me Rhonda, yeah." The Beach Boys, his favorite.
They always came on when Robbie was in the car.
"Because of my California blonde hair," Dad said.
"Sorry we’re not going to Ireland this year, Robbie,
I know you’re disappointed." Robbie had spent every
Sunday afternoon in the March offseason planning that
trip with Dad; he really got into it. Figuring out
how far you could drive in a day, what sites you could
pack in along the way. They were going to pet every
sheep and inspect every castle between Dublin and
Cork. They’d even planned to catch a rugby match.
"It’s okay," Robbie said, trying to decide if he was
more disappointed than his Dad. "It's more important
that you get medicine now."
They dipped down Alburger as Dad shifted into second.
Robbie could sort of see his school, blurred by the
trees as they whizzed past.
"How’s that arm feel?"
"Hurts a little at the bone." Robbie winced as he
masochistically touched the tip of his sore right
elbow the way he tenderly squeezed peaches in the bowl
on the kitchen counter to see if they were ripe.
"You won’t pitch back to back innings today...but I am
gonna start you."
He was going to say something, but Dad looked like he
was zoning out, with his furrowed forehead. His
skin’s as tan as mine, Robbie thought, he doesn’t look
Alburger became Welsh Road and his Dad shifted into
third, forgetting to hit the clutch and sending a
vibrating gehrrr right through Robbie’s cleats. It
sounded like an old man coughing. That stupid rule at
Max Meyer’s: can’t pitch two in a row. Wasn’t that
way at Bustleton Bengals, when he and Josh were on the
same team. That was the best year, Josh at first and
him at second. No one stopped Joey Kesselman when he
pitched two in a row, in the championship.
Robbie sat up when they cruised by Rita’s Water Ice
in the Krewstown Shopping Center and up the hill
toward the Boulevard. Would Dad stop for water ice on
the way home? If he played hard (or if they won)? He
would get a medium lemon, because he wasn’t allowed to
have cherry. Dad said that maraschino cherries
weren’t real. They were filled with food dye and were
bad for you. But did that even matter anymore? In
his parents' wedding album, Robbie'd even seen the
picture of his parents eating their fruit cup
appetizers; the cherry sat alone on the side of Dad’s
Waiting for the light at Roosevelt Boulevard, Robbie
ran his fingers over the name inside of his well-oiled
glove. Mike S-c-h-m-i-d-t. He traced the Rawlings R
that was stitched over the thumbhole: embroidered in
white and stranded in a circle of soft red. Got it
that last year on the Bengals. Dad said it would help
catch grounders, even though Robbie’s hand swam in it.
Wonder how you even spell "lymphoma?" This is the
worst intersection in the country, Mom said she heard
on Action News, because it has so many lanes. Sixteen
altogether, with those stupid grass islands in between
each group of three, and no lane to turn. Always keep
a ball in your glove. Was that true? A left onto
Conwell Street. Dad said so, because it gives it a
good shape. Around the bend of row homes, Field 5
came slowly into view. Robbie’s heart sank like a
busted balloon. The butterflies in his stomach were
back. This is the way he always felt before he
pitched a game, but this time the butterflies were
Whenk! Robbie shut the car door and tied his cleats,
carefully flipping out the Pony flaps across the
laces. Dad had Robbie’s red graphite bat slung over
his shoulder. That was Bull, the bat Robbie hit a
homerun with last Sunday. This is the spot where the
ball must’ve finally hit the ground, Robbie
reminisced, as they neared a gravelly patch next to
the parking lot gate. I’d never hit one before—Dad
said it was OK because pitchers aren’t supposed to be
big sluggers—but man it felt so good, what a whack!
And then I saw him coaching on the third baseline when
I rounded second, but he wasn’t smiling. He just
yelled, "Run Mary, run!"
Robbie and his Dad began to cut across right field
from the parking lot; the water on the outfield grass
was already making its presence felt in Robbie’s shoes
and socks. Things suddenly shifted inside of him, he felt it...
the mushy banana! That’s what put him over.
"I don’t feel too good."
Robbie turned to his dad, one hand clutching his
stomach sort of like when he recited the pledge of
allegiance in school. Josh said he didn’t want to, and
Mrs. Williams threw him out of the class. Made him
stand in the hall while the rest of the class did it
in the morning. Mom was so mad when she found out
it’d been going on for a whole week. She went to
speak to Mr. Romanelli and oh...
Prrfweehprrrrfweeeh. He let out a much-needed fart.
"Aw Robbeerrt! Why didn’t you go before we left the—"
sensing this was going nowhere, Dad added, "Go on up
and see if you can use the clubhouse."
Robbie walked slowly on the concrete path that cut
between Fields 5 and 6. Up the grassy hill. "Pass
it. Pass it. Foul. Foul. Foul!" Robbie passed the
sweaty men who religiously played basketball on Sunday
mornings. His face felt cool and sweaty, his arm
hairs stood up and did the wave. The pain came in
such intense flashes that he pinched his thigh through
his stretch pants to think about anything else.
Robbie clenched his butt and let out a couple more
wet farts as he walked along the y-shaped, tree-lined
path to the clubhouse. He was walking as quickly as
his painful cramps allowed.
Robbie pulled the door, incredulously. Locked! It’s
locked?! The rusty handle coated his palms a reddish
brown. How the fuck can it be locked?!? How the,
ooh...Maybe back over at 2, maybe Coach Brenner is
there umping. He could have the keys.
Click and clack along the path, his spikes hit the
concrete. The shadows from the trees, a cool breeze.
Pass pass! Click click. Foul, foul! Clack clack.
He tried not to think so much of the pain. She danced
with me last night and not Josh. It didn’t mean
a..a..…anything. Robbie pinched his leg even harder to
get through a tidal wave of pain. And Josh was so
mad. Her dress felt soft where I kept my hands on her
hips when we danced. Did she think I was cute? Maybe
not now but in a couple of years, maybe, like Aunt
Eleanor and Uncle Tom. And then we got home, and Mom
started crying and...hey, there’s Reid Linus going to
Robbie hobbled back toward Reid, a former college
baseball player who never turned pro and was now a
fat, scruffy little league coach. Holding an army
green equipment bag in one hand, Reid jangled a set of
keys in the other as he strutted down the path
whistling, what Robbie thought to be, the worst
rendition of Fogerty’s "Centerfield" he’d ever heard.
Didn’t matter, he was relieved. He would have run to
Reid and hugged him if he could have. We could go to
Ireland next year, Dad said it was possible. And
maybe Josh will let me come hang out with him after
school, and maybe she’ll be there. Sandy
The day after Josh’s Bar Mitzvah was turning out to be
the worst day of Robbie’s young life. It was the
first day of June, and the air on Max Meyer’s
playground was thick with the promises of summer.
Inside the dank clubhouse bathroom, Robbie held his
breath and held back tears. Lesions of rust peeked
through the chipped green paint. He wiped his pants
without gagging too much. With his other hand, he
wiped the cold sweat from his forehead. His left
shoulder pressed against the corroded metal door to
keep it closed, because the lock was broken. Between
his stench and the equally disgusted look he thought
Dad would make if he ever found out, Robbie reeled
with embarrassment. If anyone ever knew!
The worst was over, or was it? Was Dad really gonna
die? Robbie stumbled out of the clubhouse. He moved
his hand to rub his eyes and thought better of it.
Held it outstretched instead, like it was highly
explosive. The rusty sink had splittered, splattered,
and spluttered, but never did its job. Got to get
down to the field, he thought desperately. Oh, to be home
helping Josh write "Thank you’s," or rained out, this
morning under the covers. Or with Mom and Grandmom
shopping at the Willow Grove Mall. Or, fuck -- two
weeks and he’d be eleven, two years and it'd be his
turn on the bema. But he had just shit in his pants. He never
felt so far from manhood.
Robbie floated down the knoll, past parents wearing
sunglasses on blankets, and coolers overflowing with
flavor ice and juice boxes. No one could tell, or
they would’ve moved. No more shadows, the sun was
right over, casting only hot judgment. And then
Robbie saw him, standing tall between the batter’s
cage and the gray chain-linked fence that ran along
the third base line: Mr. Baseball, looking out into
deep right-center with his hand over the top of his
big round glasses to drown out the glare. He didn’t
look like someone who was dying from cancer.
On the other side, his team was warming up, bouncing
around in the sunlight like the atoms he was learning
about in Mr. Robinson’s science class. One ball made
its way in triangles around the infield, another
around the horn of the outfield. Strays and
latecomers warmed the bench, and there was a
noticeable absence on the mound. Was he serious? Was
he sick in the head? Or just sick?
"I can’t throw."
"Sure ya can." Mr. Baseball asked unconvinced.
"C’mon, get out there and get loose."
Just did that! Robbie thought, his stomach still
"I just can’t, seriously Dad." Robbie wished he’d
laid low in the foul bathroom all game.
"Vince!" his Dad turned back toward the field. "When
I’m doing this," he frantically waved an arm over his
head the way the Ocean City lifeguards call in strayed
swimmers, "it means move the hell in!" Robbie thought
his Dad looked like a fucking lunatic—the yellow bill
of his cheap cap perfectly parallel with the ball
field—and he knew he was interrupting Dad’s pre-game
show of repositioning players a few feet over based on
the first batter’s stance and whether the kid was a
righty or a lefty.
Robbie caught Vince flipping Dad the finger as he headed
for his new patch of grass in left. The kids all
hated him at the beginning of the game, and then loved
him when they won. Like a couple of years ago when he
moved Glenn Eckstut twenty feet over, just in time to
catch the line drive that won the championship.
Robbie’d thrown his glove up in the air before they
all jumped on each other, and then Dad took them all to
Custard’s Last Stand for ice cream.
Dad turned back to his son. "So, you gonna get loose,
Robbie wanted to pitch today, partly because of Vince
and everyone else who made fun of Dad when Dad
pretended not to notice, but mainly not to let Dad
down. He rubbed his stomach and thought things over,
forgetting which was the offensive hand for a moment.
"Just get out there to second," Dad said, erasing
Robbie’s name from his clipboard. Muttering a note of
disappointment to himself, which Robbie pretended not
to hear, Dad waved to Jason Weiss to move over from
second base to the pitcher’s mound.
Thank God for Jason, that scrub with a mullet. I
pitch harder, but who cares? Maybe I can get through
this at sleepy second. I have to, Robbie thought, as
he trotted toward the gap of dirt that Jason left
between first and second base.
The first batter for the Max Myer’s Phillies is such a
pipsqueak, Robbie thought, sizing him up as he stepped
to the plate. He looks like a ballet dancer with his
whopping maroon shirt tucked into his tight blue
sweatpants. They always bat the scrawny ones first.
Get ‘em on base early cause they’re the fastest,
that’s what Dad says. Robbie took a short practice
grounder from the first baseman and threw it back, as
his Dad howled to the right fielder from the other
side of the rusty batter’s cage.
The air was so still that Robbie could hear their
catcher, "Ducklips" Shapiro, ask the pipsqueak if he
believed in reincarnation. Ducklips always tried to
distract the batters because his lips were much bigger
than his baseball ability. Robbie moved two steps to
his left as he was told, opening up the gap between
him and second. So the pipsqueak was a lefty; Robbie
was a righty. That is, he pitched with his right
hand, ate with a fork in his right hand, and wrote
with his right hand too. Robbie looked at his hand as
he tossed the infield warm-up ball back toward the
dugout. It stunk now. He once asked Dad how you know
if you’re a righty or a lefty.
"That’s easy Robbie," Dad grunted through his toothy
grin, "it’s the hand you wipe your ass with."
If he only knew.
Robbie didn’t know this batter from school or
anything, but he sort of empathized with him because
Robbie batted lefty too. Strange, definitely, but Dad
said it would help him get out of the batter’s box
quicker. Used to make him run down the driveway at
home from the left side of that stupid yellow home
plate he painted for wiffle ball. It confused Robbie
that he had to be a lefty for that and nothing else,
just for a few head start steps to first.
He mimicked the ump, who crouched behind his black,
dust-covered foam board the way Robbie had behind the
trees next to the clubhouse. Knees bent, Robbie still
felt like shit, like when Dad sped over the short
bumps of Moredun Road on the way to Custard’s Last
Stand. But he had to play, he thought, had to after
last night. Maybe he could just get through the game
unnoticed at second base. Thank God he wasn’t
His dad was still motioning furiously for the left
fielders to move away from the line as a metallic
clenk fired the ball from the pipsqueak’s aluminum
bat. It roped along between the pitcher and the
Phillies’ dugout. Get down, get down. Don’t let it
by or between your legs. Was it the first pitch?
Didn’t matter; the sound of the ball hitting the bat
triggered a Pavlovian response. Get in front. "Don’t be a bullfighter," like Dad
An ashy flash skipped through the trimmed green grass
right toward him. Robbie bent his left knee towards
the ground. The dirt was damp and muddy. He extended
his glove in front and shut his eyes, praying for the
best. The ball became a white magnet. But just as
it crossed over from the grass to the mustard dirt, it
hopped, above his glove, with a blur of red stitching;
Robbie caught it, with his right eye.
Ugh! Robbie stumbled backward, clutching his eye with
his shitty smelling glove. The searing pain made him
stagger in small circles, but he didn’t fall. People
were yelling; kids were banging on the chain-link
Ugh! Where’d it go? Maybe I can still...He could
barely make out the pipsqueak dancing safely into
I’m going to have such a black and blue mark.
And then, from the darkness of the bleachers, came the
piercing cry of none other than Mrs. Fucking Ducklips
"Oh my Gawd, he’s bleeedinngg!"
That was all it took. Robbie’s last thought as he hit
the dirt and blacked out was of the smear of dirty
dark red in the web of his glove. Everything was dark
and hazy. Robbie could hear crunching in the grass
coming toward him. If only the pipsqueak had swung a
second later, if Jason had only pitched a little
harder, if only the groundskeeper hadn’t smoothed out
the pebbles on the dirt (or if it had rained like it
was supposed to), if only Dad hadn’t welled up after
Josh’s Bar Mitzvah, hadn’t sat them down in the living
room. The once comet-like ball lay lifeless in the
dirt nearby, as if nothing had happened.
©2004 by Zack Pelta-Heller