Brindi Joy

Play ball

I counted out the nickels and dimes into the bus driver’s palm. The same nickels and dimes I’d squirreled away in the coffee can until I saved enough for me, Junior and Adam to ride the bus to Seattle for a baseball game. Mariners vs. Dodgers. Junior insisted on caretaking our tickets and when the bus dropped us off, Junior flashed the tickets at the Kingdome’s ticket keeper who waved us on with half a glance. “It’s like a pilgrimage,” I said to my boys as we passed through the gate and we were all of a sudden inside the Kingdome with bodies that bumped and shouted and pulled and laughed and balanced Cokes and Cracker Jacks and hot dogs with sauerkraut and mustard. I was glad I’d packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Cut on the diagonal. Nothing but the best for my two little men.

“Hey batter, batter. Play ball!” Junior and Adam chanted and launched into the crowd before I’d even had time to absorb the new surroundings. “Boys!” I called, stumbling after them and we were all three taken up into the tide of bodies and carried along the tunnel-like space that circled inside the stadium. At least I could see above those heads when I stood on tiptoe but what were Junior and Adam thinking as legs and stomachs and butts of all shapes and descriptions pressed them and carried them along? “C’mon, boys,” I yelled, following behind, “keep together with me!” All the while I kept one arm clutched around my paper bag of PB&J, near squashing them to death, and the other arm out and trying to grab hold of my boys who clung to each other and not to me. It reminded me of the time Hunt took me to the ocean and the undertow dragged me helpless beneath a wave, my eyes wide and watching the green churn draw me out to sea. But unlike that time, I didn’t have Hunt’s powerful arm to reach in and pluck us out.

Don’t let me lose them. Please, please don’t let me lose them.

I’ve always believed in miracles. It was a miracle when, after all those bodies and ours squeezed into a stairwell that smelled of days old piss and popcorn, we found ourselves together in sudden light with the baseball field gleaming bottle green below and at our seats in the third row of the upper deck—three red seats amidst the ballpark’s tens of thousands filling with housewives and office workers, janitors and truck drivers, yuppies and teachers, children towed behind and they were all hunkering down as comfortably as possible for the next few hours.

I need space.

I collapsed into the molded plastic and staked my claim on that one square foot.

“Hey batter, batter! Play ball!” Junior and Adam chanted again, this time with their heads bent to each other so they were near cheek to cheek, thumbing through their stack of baseball cards worn soft and pulpy.

I relaxed my grip on the bag of sandwiches and tucked it under the seat. Dried pop made the concrete sticky.

“Three strikes and you’re out!” Junior said.

“Keep your eyes on the ball!” Adam answered.

“Foul ball!”

“Home run!”

I listened to them. Waited until my breath and heart went back to normal and said, “Knock, knock.” I’d been saving up a joke as jealously as I’d been saving up coins to take my boys to the game. I turned, looked to them. “Heya, knock, knock Junior and Adam.”

Junior pulled the brim of his baseball hat down over his eyes. It wasn’t one of those pricy hats with the Seattle Mariners logo across the front. It was a secondhand one from the thrift store. Solid navy for Junior and yellow for Adam. At least they were Mariners colors.

“You’re supposed to answer, ‘who’s there?’” I said, already chuckling at the punch line. Doug. Chuckle. Doug-out is where the baseball players sit! “Knock, knock.”

“Nobody’s home,” they answered as if they’d been practicing.

Life’s a game with winners and losers.

“Hot dogs! Get your hot dogs!” a vendor hawked, stalking the steps with his box of hot dogs and passing a few down the rows. I turned away from my boys who smacked their lips and panted like wolves and I thought about what our neighbor Patti said when she saw us off at the bus stop. What she said after she promised to keep one eye to our house and if Hunt happened home that day of all days she’d tell him we’d bussed to the Kingdome but, not to worry, we’d be back in time for supper. “That is, Nadine,” Patti said to me, pulling on one of her looks so I knew she was about to warn me against some sin or other, “if those boys of yours have an appetite for supper at all and don’t stuff themselves sick with hotdogs.”

I reached under the seat, let my fingers find the brown paper bag. Wrinkled and creased but still there.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are invited to stand…” a man’s voice announced over the loud speakers, amplified and booming and sounding a lot like God. The stadium rustled, stood, right hands and hats clasped over hearts. As I pushed up out of my seat I caught my breath with a sudden premonition that something wonderful was about to happen. I had the same feeling when my boys were born because I’d been waiting and praying for them for so long. Never mind how starting in the second trimester I felt like I was going to give birth by ripping in two because of the way those two battled inside me, my belly contorting to their kicks and punches. But once they came into this world, Junior first and Adam second with a broken arm, those two were so happy with each other it was almost like they didn’t need me at all.

“Cotton candy! Get your cotton—“and the vendor broke off as a solitary figure walked onto the field.

Ballpark sounds and ballpark smells forgotten and all eyes turned to a child in a white dress that looked whiter than white against the AstroTurf. Passing through the players who had stationed themselves on the field with hands over hearts, she looked very small from my distance. But I saw her as if in great detail. I watched white patent shoes as they took step after step across the infield, into the baseball diamond and up onto the pitcher’s mound where, in a short while, the pitcher would throw the game’s first ball toward home plate. I watched as she reached for the microphone and I noted the fine smocking on her dress. The satin ribbon in her hair. The dark lashes rimming dark eyes that seemed to acknowledge me.

“Oh!” I said. But to myself. I didn’t trouble Junior and Adam. They didn’t like girls.

She began to sing.

And it was the most beautiful singing I’ve heard my entire life. Oh.

My eyes turned Heavenward, almost seeing beyond the Kingdome’s domed roof that kept out Seattle’s constant rains. Since I was a kid I only troubled God for one thing—kids of my own. But in that moment this other inclination hit me.

Give me a voice to sing like that.

An angel. She sang like an angel or like armies of hallelujahing angels. Her song didn’t start with a timid whisper. No, not this girl’s. That tiny body filled her lungs full with that one song, those perfect words coming to life through music. Oh say! can you see…?

I felt my face changing. I smiled like I’d smiled at Hunt when he pulled me out of the ocean and I believed all the promises of the future would come true. I smiled like I’d smiled at Junior and Adam when the nurse brought them to me after they were washed and bundled and hungry, one in each arm and Hunt named Junior and I named Adam. I smiled at this girl who could have been my own child. And what if she had been? She would have taught me to sing like her and to fill the cracks of my life with singing.

A voice. A voice.

I started to sing too. With all my heart traveling up to my voice box and passing through my lips and into the air. All the hope in the world was mine and it was wrapped up like a present in that one small child. And I sang to her. It was like the finest dream where my voice grew wings.

Singing dreams are better than flying dreams.

Dear Lord, from now on I’ll only ever trouble you for this one thing.

And I sang and sang and turned and looked behind and all around the grandstand at the faces of people who waved hand lettered signs and foam fingers and flags. They were all singing too. The whole stadium full. All our voices one voice.

I wondered what Hunt would think of that.

A hand tugged at my shirt. Once. Quickly. An economical tug.

I sang toward my boys. They were staring at me, the same look coming from two people. They hadn’t taken their hats off in respect. Had I told them they needed to?

“Mo-om,” Junior whined. He grimaced and all of a sudden I heard my voice for what it was.

A mighty, toneless croak. I frowned.

Adam picked his nose. I imagined my boys out in the front yard, throwing and catching and batting the baseball, and me at the kitchen window sidelines, “Thatta boys!” and “Whoopsie daisy.” They ran, dove, leapt harder and higher for the ball, miming a greatness they’d never achieve.

“Lady, you want a hot dog?” The vendor looked right at me after the song’s last note chimed somewhere in the roof tiles. After the girl had disappeared back through the sidelines and the players began to form up in some kind of order and some settled down in the dugout. Hey batter, batter. After I’d listened to the weight of forty thousand bodies sigh back into forty thousand seats, plastic creaking. Play ball. After someone squealed. Did I want a hot dog? I thought about those squashed PB&Js beneath my seat. And Patti. How boys need good solid food for growing. Three strikes and you’re out. My coin purse jingled with enough money for three hot dogs.

Or the bus fare home.

Brindi Joy is a graduate of the Hagley Writers’ Institute and took home the Year 2 Margaret Mahy Award for Best Portfolio in 2013. Her fiction and non-fiction has been published nationally and internationally. She lives in Christchurch.