The Atlas Show
Atlas dressed for selling -- wingtips, slacks, dress shirt, his collar undone and tie loose around his neck. His short hair was combed back, still drying from the morning shower, and the cowl of skin connecting his jaw to shoulders glowed pink with a fresh coat of Aqua Velva. His body was squeezed in new clothes, already damaging the expensive reinforced seams. It wasn't enough to say he stretched everything out. His wardrobe constricted around him, popped buttons and exploded threads, because the man inside, my father, couldn't be contained.
"Coach going to bat you clean up?" he asked me, spooning Creatine supplement into half-glasses of water, stirring. The drink Atlas pushed across the Formica was like white sand. "Season starts next week," he said. "If he wants to win, better get his stars aligned."
I strained the mixture through my lips, watching Atlas gulp his own. He visited gyms, schools,
the million-dollar homes of ex-athletes with nothing better to spend their fortunes on than the tension weights
he sold, a dream job for an old lifter like him. I wondered if they didn'tsee themselves in Atlas, or what they
were afraid of turning into. He'd been an alternate on the seventy-two Olympic team, missing glory, as he told it,
"by one crummy ounce," and the chiseled muscle I'd seen in pictures had turned to heavy, dimpled flesh.
It turned him into a clown, a jolly Santa Claus at Christmas, and he once put on a diaper as Baby New Year,
the swaddling fastened with a huge novelty pin. Atlas was too happy to oblige. He believed he had a way
with people and I guess he did, but it came from the energy boiling under his skin that, once heated, didn't
He patted down his pockets, chest hips butt, for his wallet and keys, but he stopped with his hand on the doorknob. "Just how is practice?" he said.
"Fine," I said. "Warm."
"You're working on?"
"Fundamentals. Like always. But I guess that's college sports, huh?"
"Got that right," he said, going out the door. "It's just you've been quiet about it."
I pulled on a hoodie sweatshirt over my head, all part of this show I put on. I was still living at home,
acting out a plan that had blown up in my face: play for Clatsop Community College until I got a pro contract
or a university scholarship. I'd once believed that the scouts and recruiters were lining up for miles. Now I brought in my bat bag every evening, let it sit by the door and lie for me, kept up this training regiment for nothing. I hadn't set foot on campus in three weeks. Atlas already had tickets to the first game, but I had no guts to tell him straight that I'd been kicked off the team.
"Bring Coach home for dinner," he said through the closing door. "Let Atlas work some magic for you." He gave me the smile that, according to him, had sold ice to Eskimos.
His car was still fuming in the driveway, and when I stepped out and waved, his features looked
like a blob through the dewy windows. I hoofed it down the sloped bike lane, the squat taverns and
offices so familiar I didn't see them anymore. The air broke good and crisp on my bare face,
while underneath my clothes I worked up a lather, a steadily bumping heart rate. Coming off the last plateau, the view of the river opened up.
Seeing the Columbia every day was the only good thing about living at home.
The water seemed
a solid pane of glass, white in the sun, breaking into smaller pieces the closer I got. I turned onto the gravel
streets skirting the bluffs, the big houses with broad, uncovered windows looking down on the Marinas.
Atlas had sworn to me all his life that when he made that perfect sale, he'd make one of these mansions ours. I'd
been returning the boast since I first picked up a baseball bat, that I'd see him retired with his feet up in a La-Z-Boy,
his view of the opposite shore picture perfect.
As usual, Columbia View Park was deserted, and most of the boat stalls below empty, but I paused a minute,
checked around me before jumping the low chicken wire fence and scrambling down the path I'd worn to the water's
edge. I'd hidden the box of ragged baseballs, along with a bat and rubber tee, in a thrush of wild blackberries. I guesstimated the distance from my imaginary home plate to the opposite bank was about the same to the outfield wall of a major league park. I set up the tee, took out my bat, worked at controlling my breath. Ahead of me,
the river seemed to be waiting in anticipation, barely licking at the rocks. The cigar raft of logs
the mill was building rolled to and fro against the cradling stakes. Washington State's hills weren't
touched by mist, not a cloud overhead, and snowy Mount Saint Helens swelled into the blue.
I brought the bat to my shoulder. Fundamentals. Eye on the ball, weight behind me, hips before hands.
Muscle memory took over. Every coach I'd ever had said my body remembered everything. I started my
swing easy, peppering liners back to where a pitcher would be,
and watched them get swallowed by the river. I opened up and the ball arced high and splashed down
half way across. I wouldn't let myself hurry, rip a cold muscle. This was my future --
all I had left of it, anyway. I aimed the next splashdown for the same place, kept my focus on reps.
I put another ball in the pike, my whole body singing. Hands high, elbow out. My swing cracked,
and I knew its distance before I was in my follow-through -- the ball sailed over the water and
came down on the other side, a homerun ball to another state. The stuff of legend. I imagined myself trotting around the bases, the pitcher squatting there on the mound, destroyed.
But, of course, I stood there alone. This was not path to glory. It wasn't even baseball. Except that it
felt good, that humming in my hands, every muscle sure of itself.
The night of Clatsop CC's first game, Atlas paced the hallways so hard I thought the carpet would ignite.
It usually meant a big sale was on the horizon, tens of thousands of dollars on the line, one of those he
bragged would change our futures, but tonight was about me. He leaned his massive shoulder
into my room's doorframe, measuring his breath like he was about to
clean-and-jerk the world record. He said, "Don't you need to be somewhere?" I studied his face, his
jaw tight enough teeth were ready to start popping. I pulled my workout hoodie on
over my shirt.
"Someone from the college should have contacted you," I said, lacing my shoes. "That's weird,"
I said. "Weird no one contacted you."
"What's this about?"
"I ought to show you something," I said.
We had to park a block away from the river's edge and walk to the park. A senior citizen band was bopping
calmly in the gazebo, every inch of the grass covered with a blanket, a dancing child, someone's picnic dinner.
Atlas didn't say anything. he'd always been an optimist, my father, patient when it came to seeing the brightest in things, and in the car I'd felt him bucking up. "Good idea, Junior. Getting me out of the house. I haven't been to one of these in years." He flashed a smile, but it was crooked, a defect in his face.
Atlas ordered a dozen hotdogs from a vendor's stand and put the greasy box between us. He squeezed
mustard and mayonnaise out of finger packs and downed them in three bites. "Eat up," he said. "Don't
let me make a pig of myself."
"I've got to watch my diet," I said. Really, the sound of him binging wrung my stomach like a rag.
We sat on the curb and listened to the music through the last song. Twilight was coming on
and he looked blue in it, staring out at the stretch of water and the forested ridge beyond. I knew my
chance, but I couldn't explain what happened, why. He'd shown me pictures of the Greek Atlas all my life,
the head pushed down under his burden of a planet -- selflessness and perseverance, my father said,
the most any man could manage. I'd lost both along the way.
People stepped around us, but Atlas didn't move. He watched the musicians case their instruments as intently as he'd watched them play. "What is it," he said at last. "A girl? Is coach hassling you?"
"I've had a lot on my mind," I said.
"Coach will find you a spot."
"No he won't," I said.
"Why won't he? What's that mean?" I stared at the lights coming on around us, the houseboat windows
in the Marina, the scattered dots running up the hills on the other side of the water. I couldn't have shown him
if I wanted. Not in the dark. Atlas wagged his head between his shoulders and I saw the top of his head, the
scalp through greasy curls. "Other men have had to pick themselves up," he said. "There's
no shame in it, Junior."
He struggled to his feet and offered me his hand, looking down on me from that velvety sky.
I think it was worse, him coming to his own conclusions, looking like he'd taken a cannonball to the gut. "Don't
look at me like that," I said. "It's not what you think."
"Atlas is just fine, but Little Atlas -- we're still finding out how fine he is."
"I've got a tryout," I said, I don't know why. "With the Mariners." His hands dropped to his sides, jaw unhinged. "A scout came to practice to see me. The guy couldn't wait for a game. Coach really hated it, said I was a distraction."
I ran my finger across my throat like a knife. "Who needs them?" I said.
His head started to bob.
"There are no sure things," I said.
"Only sure people," he finished. "Good Christ, the big leagues. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want you to hang your head if I didn't get it."
Inside his thick body, he was trembling -- I heard it in his voice, his breath. "No way," he said.
"Not if another good thing ever happened to you. You're my son through and through," he said. "What day?"
"I've got the address," I said, getting to my feet.
"At the stadium?" I didn't say anything, but he rolled back on his heels. "Think of that," he said.
"A tryout in the stadium. They're not giving those things away, you know. That's a rare gem indeed.
Will the manager be there? The big league staff?"
"You know who else they did this for? Ken Griffey, Jr. Know who else? No one. Just a pair of juniors," he said. "I'll take the day off work, drive you up there."
"You don't have to," I said.
"A father has to."
He cupped my shoulder as if he handled something rare and rich. "You know why I taught you to call me Atlas?"
"Everyone calls you that."
"But do you know why you do? Because I didn't want you thinking there was a wall between us. If you don't know your Dad, the human being, you don't know yourself." He gave my cheek a gentle cuffing. "You hear me?"
"Loud and clear," I said.
"But you're my son. I'm your old man. No denying it. That's what I'll be shouting from the top of the world. I'm the proud papa of the next Atlas."
Atlas polished up his old wingtips and bought a wide silk tie that flashed like aluminum in certain angles,
got his best suit dry-cleaned for the occasion. I must have caught some sleep before the big day, but
I wasn't sure how. Maybe I was so much the fool's boy, I started looking forward to what wasn't coming.
We saw the stadium's light towers from I-5 rising among squat metal warehouses. We curled through
the empty streets, following signs, and we heard freight cars shunting together with hollow bangs. Atlas
circled around the stadium. Smash boards were across all the entrances, and after coming back to
where we started, he pulled to the curb. He looked at me cockeyed. "They're expecting you," he said.
I pulled at a thread on my bat bag. I'd straddled it between my legs the whole drive, drumming
on it nervously.
"We're going inside. Slide over behind the wheel." He walked to the gate, shook it once
or twice, then lifted it over his head in a smooth snatch. He wagged his head at me to drive the
car through, then let the board down behind and got in the passenger seat, wiping his hands together.
"A little trespassing," he said. "Nothing major for the team's future star, right?"
Without any cars to break up the space, the lot stretched forever. I could have cut across the
lines, but switchbacked though the lanes. Atlas said, "You dancing ballet all of a sudden? Drive right up.
This is where you belong, isn't it." I stopped with the bumper a few feet from the main entrance.
Atlas stepped out, looked around, lost. "Well, superstar," he said to me, ducking his head down.
"I guess we knock."
I might as well have been knocking to enter a stone for all the noise I made. Atlas motioned me aside, put his body close to the doors, pounded them with all his strength, fists and palms, shouting to open up, let us in.
"Maybe I had it wrong," I said.
He waited a moment, staring at me, then steeled his jaw, braced his knees, and threw his
shoulder at the door. His face turned red and his knees looked about to buckle on the rebound, but he
threw his body for me again and again until his lunging no longer shook the doors. He rested there
with his shoulder flat on the metal, wilting. "You've got to do your tryout," he said.
"Tell me why, Junior."
I curled my hands, cracked them open. "It's impossible."
He nodded, dusted his palms together, opened the car. The engine was running before I had myself inside, the car cutting across stalls before I was settled. I thought we were blazing home, already worried about the silent hours ahead of us, but at the end of the lot he stopped. His breath rasped in and out and I thought I could feel the vibration of his heart shaking the car. Arms sagging off the wheel, sleeves hanging down as if they were empty, he turned down a road that ran along the lip of the Sound, passing the throats of industrial piers and numbered warehouses. Semi-trucks came up to our bumper, whipped by us the other direction. The road pulled away from the water and he nosed into a driveway, turned around, drove back the other direction. His stare wandered over the Sound and he forced it back to the street, only to slide again over the ripples.
"The Mariner's offices are downtown somewhere," he said.
"You been there?" I said.
"I called on them once. They didn't buy what I was selling then, but we could try it."
I folded my hands in my lap. "They wouldn't know who I was."
"You could let Atlas work some magic for you."
I just shook my head no, and he went on driving up and down the same street, losing himself in water muddy and gray, nothing to say between us.
The room was on the fourth floor, crowded with two double beds and a dresser nailed to the floor, a table
and chairs no one would want to steal. He had sworn he was too tired to make the drive home, but wouldn't
give me the wheel, either. Atlas emptied his pockets, keys and change, slipped out of his shoes and
jacket and slacks, unbuttoned his shirt cuffs and loosened his tie so it hung down his chest like a cut noose.
He stretched out on the bed and clicked on the television, but I knew from his face he wasn't really watching.
We didn't even have a change of clothes.
"Are you hungry?" I said.
"I could eat."
I gathered the loose coins. I'd seen a vending machine down the hall and anything would do, anything to loosen this lockjaw silence.
"Take my jacket," he said. "It gets cold up here when the sun goes down."
I put it on. My arms felt like straw inside the sleeves, the shoulder seams coming down my arms
so far I felt half my actual size. I fed the change into the machine, hoping nobody would walk past me
in that bitch get-up. Chili dogs with cheese and a bag of Corn Nuts filled my pockets before my money
ran out. I warmed up the dogs in the microwave back in our room. "Not exactly gourmet," I said.
"Food is food," he said.
"I ought to tell you, I didn't mean for us to wind up here," I said. His wide hand rose between us. "Let me say this."
"I already know how it will sound."
"You don't know," I said.
He raised his empty hot dog wrapper like he was toasting me. "Other dreams will come along," he said. "Other chances."
"I'm glad you're happy," I said.
"No one's laughing at you, Junior."
"I'm going to show you something," I said, pulling out my bat, stuffing baseballs into the coat pockets and then taking a handful more. Atlas was on his feet. "I'll go find us some drinks," he said, palms toward me. "Calm down and I'll go scrounge up something good."
I threw back the balcony curtain. Our reflections were all over the glass,
and with him standing far behind me we were almost the same size. I unlatched the slider
and stepped out onto the little cage. The city lights burned below me, except for one dark hollow
that I judged to be the waters of the Sound. "Watch," I said. I threw a ball in the air but my swing was timid.
It dropped down and bounced back toward me.
"Come inside," he said. "You're going to hurt something."
The next ball was already in the air, and my swing caught on the plastic patio furniture.
"Fucking crummy shit," I said, flipping the chairs over the railing.
"We're going to end up paying for that," he said from inside. His voice sounded smaller, farther away from me than it had ever been.
I worked my feet up against the rail until the toes of my shoes were hanging over the edge. I tossed up a ball, rolled my hands onto the bat, pulled back my arms and let fly, the miracle swing. The ball shot into the night and I knew I had nailed it, that my father would finally see there was more to me than what he'd passed down.
But my back swing hit the slider. Shatter, that was the exact sound it made, and the falling glass petered out like a rainstorm. Atlas was framed by it, staring at me, the wind moving the tails of his shirt. His legs in the boxer shorts looked bowed, stitched together with black hair, and his knees, swollen, like fat knuckles. The points of glass still hanging in the frame all pointed to him, to his wide, shallow face. His head began to wag back and forth at the glass stars on the ground between us.
"Back home I'd blast homers across the river," I said. "Into Washington."
His eyes lifted to where the ball had disappeared in the dark. Atlas stepped over the mess and stood with me on the balcony. His forearms flattened on the rail and he leaned out, squinting at the black. "I believe you," he said. "That ball would have made the water. All the way to Japan."
Looking out with him, I thought I could almost see it going down with a fiery tail, entering the Sound with a hiss.
Atlas stepped back into the room, took his pants from the back of the chair and pulled them on.
He tucked in his shirt, tightened his tie. He wagged his thick fingers for the jacket I still wore,
and he buttoned it over his gut. "I'm going to go confess," he said, "see about the damage."
He opened the door a crack, stopped, and said without looking at me, "What's next for you?" I shivered in the
cold wind, dead quiet. "I might talk to my boss," he said. "There's always room for good guys willing to learn."
He glanced at me sideways, once, and that was that. I didn't so much as shrug. He passed
through the door with his back to me, and it latched shut behind.
I would sell my textbooks for fractions of what I paid to help with the cost of the glass,
and then find I couldn't stop purging, so I would get rid of my bats and gloves and baseballs. I rode to work
with Atlas until I'd saved up enough for an apartment, then we'd get coffee, trade customer stories,
share the same buddies, and I got to know how other people saw him. Once I started to tell a couple
of the guys about my time in the river league, and Atlas blasted into the office with a big sale electrifying his smile.
He stopped in the threshold, locked his legs, took hold of the lentil and pushed -- his knees buckled and
real strain glowed in his scarlet cheeks and gritted teeth, his arms bulging and trembling. His eyes
popped open when he almost dropped the room, and I grabbed my seat in a rush of imbalanced fear,
but Atlas struggled back to the balls of his feet, flexed his hands on the frame, and jerked his body
straight. He held that pose, that hero's grin, letting us believe we'd all been saved, and then gently
put us all down. They gathered around him, slapping his back and shaking hands, congratulating him,
for what they had no idea -- for another Atlas Show, for making us laugh.
For the first time, I'm thankful this hulk is my father. Without him, I'd still be making myself a fool, flicking at the water with a stick. Now I stand on my own feet. When he comes to me, his face red with exertion, swollen, I shake his enormous hand. "Good one," I tell him. "I thought I was a goner."
©2008 by John Walker