Mark Brazaitis is the author of three books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and a book of poems, The Other Language, winner of the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize. A former Peace Corps Volunteer, he directs the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University. His short stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The Sun, Witness, Notre Dame Review, Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and other literary journals
Congressman Stevens greeted my father and me at the door of his house in northwest Washington, D.C. He wore a dark suit with a red handkerchief—the kind magicians use—in its breast pocket. He was tall and I was short, even for a ten-year-old, and he crouched to look at me. As his radiant blue eyes held mine, I felt I was the only person who mattered to him. I would never like him, but from the beginning I saw how my father did.
Congressman Stevens stood and introduced me to his nephew Ralph, who was two years older than I. Ralph was as lean as a scarecrow, and with his gray eyes and mouse brown hair, he was as plain as Congressman Stevens was handsome. My father put a hand on my head and ruffled my curly hair. “Have fun,” he said before he and Congressman Stevens strolled off toward the wood-paneled dining room.
Ralph gave me a smile. “You like baseball, right?”
I nodded, and he motioned toward the back of the house. We passed a piano with photographs above the keyboard. They were of the congressman, a blonde-haired woman, and twin teenage girls.
Ralph noticed me staring. “My aunt and cousins,” he explained. “They’re in England or France this summer. My aunt doesn’t like my mom.” Ralph cupped his hand to my ear and whispered, “It’s because she’s so pretty. Look.” From the brown leather wallet in his pocket, Ralph pulled a black-and-white photograph. His mother was standing on a shore, the ocean crashing behind her, wind in her light hair. Her legs were crossed and her hands were on her hips. Ralph, I saw, had inherited her teardrop eyes.
The photograph, Ralph explained, was taken on Redondo Beach, near where they lived. Ralph said his mother moved to Los Angeles when she was eighteen to become an actress. “And I’m sure she would have been if I hadn’t come along to steal the show.” He smiled. “Fortunately, she says it’s a very, very good show.”
We walked out the back door and onto a long, wide lawn with three red maples at the end. A handful of tennis balls and a pair of baseball bats were scattered on the grass. Ralph explained the rules: whoever hit the most balls to the red maples on the fly won. “What team do you want to be?” he asked me. Of course I wanted to be the Indians. Before my father and I moved from Cleveland to Washington in May, we had been regulars at Municipal Stadium. Three years before, we had cheered on the Indians to the 1948 World Series championship. “I’m the home team,” Ralph said, and we began our game.
I was beating him by six runs when my father and Congressman Stevens appeared at the back door. The congressman had changed out of his suit into shorts and a t-shirt. “Adults against the young men?” he proposed, striding out onto the lawn and picking up a bat. My father, who was dressed in jeans, removed his short-sleeve, button-down shirt and followed the congressman into the yard. In his t-shirt, he looked as fit as a lifeguard. His hair was black and curly like mine.
Congressman Stevens hacked at the baseball with the abruptness and impatience of someone swatting at a fly. In contrast, my father blasted every pitch into the red maples. Because of him, they beat us easily.
My father and I stayed for dinner. Congressman Stevens employed a cook, and at the four-seat kitchen table, we ate roast beef and corn bread and what struck me at the time as an exotic vegetable, asparagus or artichoke. My father wasn’t a big talker, so the three of us listened as Congressman Stevens told stories about big-league players he knew.
After Ralph and I finished our meals, Congressman Stevens suggested we play a board game, a half dozen of which were stacked on a bookshelf in the living room. Sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor, Ralph and I played a few games of checkers and a game of chess. After putting the games back on the shelf, Ralph discovered a deck of cards. “Let’s play poker,” he said. “We’ll place bets.”
“I don’t have any money,” I said.
“We won’t bet with money.”
“What will we bet with?”
“The truth.” He explained: The person who won the hand could ask the person who lost the hand anything. “And no lying,” Ralph said.
I was familiar with basic poker, but Ralph had special rules, and I didn’t understand them all. One-eyed jacks were important, but I didn’t know how. I lost the first three hands, and Ralph asked me what I missed most about Cleveland (Indians’ baseball games, I said, although I missed my grandmother more), what I liked least about Washington (our apartment, which was small and was located below neighbors who fought all the time), and whether I had ever seen the Pacific Ocean (no).
In our next hands, we both had a pair of threes, but Ralph had an ace to my king. “It’s my question,” he said. A silence followed, although I had a feeling he knew what he wanted to ask. “What were you doing when you learned your mother was dead?”
So he knows, I thought. And although it was obvious how he knew—his uncle had told him—I was stunned into muteness. I still hadn’t spoken by the time my father and Congressman Stevens walked into the room. “Sorry to break up the poker party,” the congressman said.
Before my father and I stepped into the humid night and the waiting cab, Ralph whispered into my ear, “You’ll tell me next time, all right?” When I turned to him, I expected to see a cruel grin. But his lopsided smile suggested only curiosity. So I nodded.
. . .
My mother came from one of Cleveland’s oldest and wealthiest families. Her grandfather had been the city’s mayor at the turn of the century. My father grew up in a working class, Catholic neighborhood of East Cleveland, where people spoke more Lithuanian than English.
My parents met at the Westwood Country Club in Cleveland the summer my mother graduated from high school. My father was working as a caddie, and one day he spotted my mother sunbathing on an inner tube in the pool. He borrowed a swimming suit, sneaked past whoever was guarding the entrance against outsiders, and dove in.
When my mother and father married in the winter of the same year, my mother’s parents disowned her. I was born four-and-a-half months after their wedding. I never met my maternal grandparents.
. . .
One summer morning, when I was seven, my father and I were tossing a baseball in my grandmother’s backyard, the silence broken by the smack of the ball in our mitts. Suddenly, as if he had been waiting until we had thrown the ball exactly twenty times or thirty times, my father dropped his mitt and strode toward me, his eyes looking everywhere but my face. He stretched out an awkward arm and placed his hand on top of my Indians cap.
I knew he was about to tell me something about my mother. For the last few weeks, I had heard her shouting and crying at night in my parents’ downstairs bedroom, and the two times I tried to investigate, I encountered my father at the dining room table, staring blankly at himself in the mirror above the buffet. Both times, without a word, I turned back to my second-floor bedroom.
“Your mother died today,” he told me. I didn’t cry—my father hated my tears—but I felt my heart contract as if it had been scalded or stung. He said she had fallen off the balcony of a hotel downtown—an accident. But I discovered the truth when I overhead my father speaking with my uncle later the same day: My mother had jumped out of a window in her father’s office on the thirty-third floor of the Terminal Tower.
After my mother’s death, my father and I moved out of our small house on Euclid Avenue and into my grandmother’s house off 185th Street. My grandmother’s English was little better than my Lithuanian, but we communicated in other ways—through food, for instance, which she piled on my plate in small mountains. I never knew my grandfather, who died when my father was a child. Of his three siblings, my father liked only his younger brother, Peter. Joseph, my father’s older brother, had children, but I rarely saw them.
When, on New Year’s Day of 1951, my father told his mother he was moving to Washington, she protested loudly. Because the conversation was in Lithuanian, and because I was on the basement stairs behind a closed door, I had a difficult time understanding it. I thought I heard my grandmother say, “Leave him here with me.”
I loved my father, and if I needed proof that he loved me, it was that he’d brought me with him to Washington. At the same time, he resisted my becoming too close to him, as if someday he might, in fact, have to leave me behind.
. . .
The next time my father and I visited Congressman Stevens’s house, Ralph led me into the living room, where the deck of cards was waiting. Before we played, he repeated the question he had asked at the end of my last visit. As before, I didn’t perceive anything cruel in his inquiry. Rather, I sensed a tender interest, the interest of someone examining a friend’s scraped knee or bloody nose and asking, “How badly does it hurt?”
I hadn’t spoken about my mother in a long time. My father never mentioned her, and I never felt the license to do so. If it was painful to talk about her now, it was also exhilarating, as if in speaking about her, even about her death, I was with her again. I withheld from Ralph only the truth of how she had died.
Ralph won six straight hands, and each of his questions was about my mother. When, at last, I won a hand, I didn’t know what to ask him. I was used to keeping my questions to myself. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I managed.
Ralph sighed. “You can ask anything,” he said. “Anything. And because it’s the rule of the game, I have to answer with the truth.”
There was no one to stop us from talking about whatever we wanted when we weren’t playing Truth Poker, but I wondered if Ralph had been prohibited from asking about certain subjects and was using the game to circumvent the restriction. “Well?” he said.
But I couldn’t think of another question.
He sighed. “I won’t be a politician,” he said at last. “And I won’t be a star baseball player. But I’ll come to your games.” He smiled. “My mom said I should be a head-shrinker because I listen to all of her problems.”
“What’s a head-shrinker?”
“It’s a Hollywood word. It means…I don’t know…a doctor who makes your head feel better, I guess.”
“By shrinking it?”
A few minutes later, we walked outside. It was dusk, hot and humid, and even little exertions—swinging a bat, trotting after a ball—caused us to sweat. As the sky turned from blue-gray to black, my father and Congressman Stevens stepped onto the back lawn. “It’s late,” my father said. “Too late to go home. We’ve been invited to stay the night.”
The room where Ralph slept was decorated with framed black-and-white photographs of Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Browns players. I knew every one of the baseball players, and I told Ralph what each of them had batted, and how many games the pitchers had won and lost, the previous season. Congressman Stevens had set up a cot next to Ralph’s single bed, and as I climbed in, I caught Ralph tucking the photograph of his mother under his pillow. When he caught my gaze, he merely smiled.
A few minutes later, Congressman Stevens and my father stepped into the room. I was reminded of the difference in age between the two men. Even as a ten-year-old, I thought my father looked young, his hair thick and ink black, his face unlined. Usually, my father tucked me into bed, told me a story or a joke, and kissed me goodnight. Sometimes he stayed longer, often in silence, until I fell asleep. Now he only waved and shut the door.
In the dark room, Ralph said, “Let’s pretend we’re playing Truth Poker. What’s in your hand?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Imagine you’re holding cards. What do you have?”
“I have four aces,” he declared. I pictured him smiling. “What was the best day you ever spent in your whole life?”
I could have told him about sitting with my father in the bleachers at Municipal Stadium during the fifth game of the 1948 World Series. But instead I spoke about how on my sixth birthday, my mother allowed me to skip school and the two of us went to the zoo. We ate ice cream and cotton candy, and as we walked past cage after cage, my mother’s hand in mine, she told me a story about the magic day each of the animals would break free.
. . .
When my father and I lived in Cleveland, he would ride off in the morning with his brother Peter, a tool belt strapped around his waist, and return in the evening, smelling sometimes of sawdust and sweat. If it was summer, I would spend the entire day with my grandmother, throwing balls off the roof of her garage. On Sundays, she held my hand all the way to church, as if I might try to escape. (Perhaps she had reason to fear: My father had stopped attending.)
In Washington, I don’t remember a single time my father went to work, although there were a few occasions when he would leave me alone in the apartment for an hour or two. Once he was gone from lunch until dinner and came home to find me, exhausted with worry, sleeping on the kitchen floor.
When we were in the apartment together, he spent most of his time playing his phonograph—usually jazz and swing, but sometimes opera. The women’s haunted voices reminded me of the nights my mother cried. I read comics or sports books or played with my collection of baseball cards, doing quiet broadcasts of the games I imagined.
The next time my father and I were guests at Congressman Stevens’s house, Ralph and I ignored the new board games his uncle had bought us in favor of Truth Poker. In answer to another of my inconsequential questions—about becoming a soldier one day—Ralph told me his father had been killed in France during the war. “But I never knew him and he wasn’t married to my mother,” he said. “She has boyfriends. They give her earrings and stuff, and sometimes they even give her money. One is really old, maybe a hundred. Another wears an eye patch. My mom and I call him ‘Pirate.’”
We were stretched out on our stomachs on the living-room floor and I waited for Ralph to deal the cards. But he held the deck in his left fist, his fingers secure around it. “My mother says I shouldn’t ask about my father,” Ralph said. “There’s nothing to know, she says.” With his thumb, he rubbed the top card of the deck. “But I sometimes wonder. I can’t help it.” He flicked a card in front of my waiting hands. “Mom’s with one of her boyfriends now.”
“Mexico.” He looked off. “She goes away sometimes. Sometimes to work, sometimes to be with her boyfriends.”
He flicked another card at me. “It’s nice your dad takes you with him to his meetings.”
“His meetings?” I asked.
“With my uncle. He’s a manager or vice president of my uncle’s shipping business, right?”
“Right,” I said, as if I had merely forgotten.
Ralph won the next several hands. Even when his questions weren’t about my mother, I often invoked her, as if to make up for the years I hadn’t been permitted to speak her name. I felt an unfamiliar pleasure, and I couldn’t have said what was more responsible for it, my memories or Ralph’s friendship.
. . .
My father and I became regular visitors at the congressman’s house, and we usually ended up spending the night. If it wasn’t raining, Ralph and I would play baseball before retiring to the living room. We talked about piloting airplanes, joining the circus—Ralph said he wanted to be shot out of a cannon at least once in his life—and, my dream, to play shortstop for the Indians. We talked about teachers we liked and teachers we hated. Ralph mentioned a couple of his classmates with whom he’d gone to movies. He mentioned a neighbor girl with whom he’d built a fort in the woods behind the girl’s house. My only friends were the boys I had played baseball with after school on the asphalt parking lot at the end of my grandmother’s block. I knew little more about them than how far they could hit a baseball.
One night Ralph told me he had learned from his mother how to do a dance called the Dead Drop. He sprung from the living-room floor and motioned for me to do the same. His gray eyes were laughing as he said, “Pretend I’m a gangster and you’re my girl and we’re dancing in a dark, smoky nightclub.” A second later, Ralph placed his left hand in mine and wrapped his right arm around my back. He leaned into my chest. “Put your free hand on my shoulder,” he said. “Okay, good. Now imagine slow, slow music.”
He moved me in circles around the living room, and I felt competing feelings of embarrassment and happiness. “Now,” Ralph said, “imagine a shot. Bam!” Groaning, he fell into my arms, entrusting me with his weight, which I supported as best I could. Our faces were level, and it occurred to me he might kiss me. In anticipation, I blushed. But he said, “Now you realize your dress is covered with blood and you drop me like a sack of potatoes.” So I did, and he groaned as he fell to the floor, and we both laughed.
I looked up to see whether my father or Congressman Stevens might have been watching from a doorway, but we were alone. “Now I’m the girl,” Ralph said, and we resumed our game.
Later, long after we were supposed to have fallen asleep, Ralph and I talked about when we could see each other again after he left Washington the following week. Perhaps I could come alone or with my father to California, he said. Perhaps he and his mother could make a trip east over Thanksgiving or Christmas. Under the worst scenario, we would have to wait until the following summer.
. . .
It was the beginning of July, and my father arranged to have me spend a last night at Ralph’s house before Ralph returned to California. This time, I would be staying over by myself. On the afternoon of the sleepover, as my father stood in front of the bathroom mirror, brushing his hair (combs always stuck in his curls), I again asked him why he wasn’t coming.
“I have a date,” he said.
The idea of someone replacing my mother seemed both terrible and desirable. I didn’t want to betray my mother; at the same time, if I could have found someone like her, with her soft hands and comforting voice, I thought I might be happy. But even as I contemplated the benefits of having a stepmother, I wondered about the likelihood of acquiring one. “Do you like her?” I asked.
“Of course, I like her,” my father said. “I wouldn’t be going to dinner with her if I didn’t.” From his look, I could tell he expected me to ask no more questions.
It was a little after one when we arrived at Congressman Stevens’s house. The congressman and Ralph were finishing lunch, and they invited us to eat dessert. “It’s angel food cake from one of my constituents,” Congressman Stevens said. “Perks of the office.” It tasted insubstantial but sweet, like a cloud of sugar.
After we finished, Ralph led me outside so we could play baseball. The day was overcast and humid, and we didn’t play with enthusiasm. An hour later, my father stepped outside to say goodbye.
When we returned inside, Congressman Stevens was on the phone in the kitchen, and I could hear him from the living room, where Ralph and I sat on the carpet to play Truth Poker.
“So you liked Paris? Tell me.”
Ralph shuffled the cards.
“And London?” The congressman laughed. “I never found London appealing either.”
“Your play,” Ralph said. I threw down two cards and Ralph dealt me two back.
“I knew Italy wouldn’t disappoint you.”
Ralph threw down a single card, picked up one.
“Next time, we’ll all go—you, me, the girls, your mother. Or maybe we’ll leave your mother at home.” He chuckled. “I’ll make it a fact-finding mission—to discover the secrets of Italian cuisine.”
It was his wife to whom he was speaking, I guessed. There was a false cheerfulness to his tone, what he said seeming like lines he knew he should speak but didn’t feel. It was, I realized, the way my father had sometimes spoken to my mother.
“Certainly, darling. Certainly. Wait. Could you hold a minute?” There was a pause, and I heard a door close.
I wanted to ask Ralph whether his aunt ever cried during the middle of the night. But I doubted Ralph would know. Besides, my pair of jacks lost to his two queens. It was his question: “What would be the first thing you would say to your mother if she came back to life?”
My talks with Ralph had revived my mother in my mind, so it wasn’t hard to imagine her resurrected in body. With animation, I described the car ride she and I would set off on, our journey taking us past cities, over mountains, and across deserts, all the way to California. “We could go swimming on Re-Doughnut Beach,” I said.
Ralph laughed. “It’s Redondo Beach, But I like Re-Doughnut better.”
Later, in my cot, still excited by my imagined journey, I couldn’t sleep. I could hear Ralph’s soft but distinct breathing, more like moans than snores. I wanted a drink of milk, something my father often gave me when I was restless or woke up from bad dreams. As I stood up in the darkness, I heard a car door slam. Was the congressman going somewhere?
After I left Ralph’s room, I walked downstairs. I didn’t go to the kitchen but slipped into the living room and stood in front of the far window, which overlooked the front walk. As if I’d conjured him, there was my father, striding toward the house. I expected him to knock, and I was prepared to throw open the door with a smile.
Instead, my father opened the door, stepped inside, and turned toward the dining room. I began to follow him but stopped when the dining-room lights came on. I concealed myself behind an umbrella stand. I couldn’t see into the dining room, but I heard the congressman say, “Good evening, Dan. Beer?”
“You read my mind.”
I heard the pop of a bottle cap.
“Did my boy go to bed all right?” my father asked.
“Without a peep.” There was a pause. “Is all your sleight of hand necessary, Dan? He’s only ten.”
My father’s reply was a whisper. “I told you I think he’s beginning to understand what’s happening here. Ralph, too, I’m sure.”
“Fine, fine,” Congressman Stevens said. “One illusionist shouldn’t question another’s tricks.”
There was a long pause before the congressman said, “Celia called tonight. She’s back in the country—in our house in Shaker Heights, as a matter of fact. I told her I would join her in a few days, after Ralph leaves.”
“You told me she wouldn’t be home until Labor Day.”
“She said her mother was tired of traveling; so were the girls. They skipped Spain and Portugal.” After a moment, the congressman said, “I should spend a little time in my district anyway. In the summer, a first-term congressman can’t afford to cavort with anyone but his constituents. I was foolish to think we could have the summer all to ourselves.”
“You told me you would be divorced by now,” my father said.
“I told you I would be separated by now. And if Celia had stayed in Europe, we would be separated—by the Atlantic Ocean.” The congressman sighed. “We’ve had a nice time here, haven’t we, Dan? Like a little family? Like you wanted? Now reality intrudes.” He paused. “Celia and the girls will be living in Cleveland, and I’ll be living here. I’ll go back to Cleveland on most weekends, of course, and I’m sure they’ll visit me here a few times. But compared to what you and I have had to work around in the past, this is easy street.”
A silence followed. “I’ll need some money before you go,” my father said.
“Of course,” the congressman said softly. “We’ll take care of it soon. In the meantime, here’s a start.” I heard him digging in his pocket. I heard his fingers caress clean bills. “You might think about finding a part-time job, something to keep you out of trouble.”
“You and I had an arrangement when Michael and I moved here,” my father said.
“I haven’t forgotten.”
There was an extended silence, and I realized they had left the dining room. When I returned to Ralph’s bedroom, he was where I’d left him, but his eyes were open. “Bad dream?” he asked.
I considered telling him what I’d overheard downstairs. But when I opened my mouth, I found myself saying, “My mother didn’t fall by accident. She jumped.” I began to cry. Worried what he might think of me, I tried to stop.
Ralph left his bed and kneeled beside my cot, his face inches from mine. “I know it hurts,” he said. “I know it hurts because I used to think that whenever my mom left, she was never coming back. Sometimes I would sit on our doorstep and wait for a man dressed in black to show up with the bad news. Sometimes when she goes away now, I’m still afraid it’ll be the last time I’ll ever see her.”
I was lying on my stomach, and my left hand was hanging off the cot. He put both his hands around it. “Maybe that’s why I asked you all those questions about your mom,” he said.
There was a silence. “Because I wanted to know what it would be like.”
“Why did she do it?” I asked him. “Why did she…?” I couldn’t bring myself to say “kill herself.” The phrase seemed brutal, so unlike the mother I knew.
“My mom had this friend, she was an actress,” Ralph said. “She wasn’t given a part in a movie she wanted and a few days later, her boyfriend ran off with another girl. She was sad. So she drove off the side of a cliff. All the way into the ocean.”
I absorbed this story in silence. “But my mother had me. If she had me, and she was still sad….”
“My mom said it’s like a darkness. It fills your head so you can think only dark thoughts. It covers your eyes so you can see only the dark. You can’t think about anything good. You can’t see anything good. Your mom couldn’t see you. She couldn’t see your dad.”
“But my dad,” I said. “He…” I didn’t know what to say about him.
“Your dad will look after you until you’re a man. And then…” Ralph squeezed my hand before releasing it. “And then you’re going to be a famous baseball player.”
This was what I needed to cheer me up. My tears stopped, and believing what he had told me, and imagining the homeruns I would hit, I fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning, Ralph was back in his bed, his mouth open, faint sounds coming from it. I walked downstairs to find my father at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. He wasn’t wearing shoes. “I came early,” he said, looking out the window at the red maples in the backyard. He turned to me. “Did you have a good night?”
Half an hour later, as my father and I stood in the doorway to leave, Ralph and I shook hands like adults and said goodbye with the coolness of strangers. But before my father and I walked toward the idling cab, Ralph said, “Wait a minute.” He dashed off and returned with the pack of cards we had used to play Truth Poker. As he pressed it into my palms, he dipped his lips to my ear. “I cheated sometimes to win,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks,” I said, as much for the confession as for the cards.
. . .
Without Ralph, the summer dragged. During the day, my father and I would sometimes walk to the Mall. In the Museum of Natural History, I stared at dinosaur bones. My father recited off plaques how long ago the dinosaurs lived, but I couldn’t fathom such large numbers. I was ten years old. I would be eleven in October. Ralph was twelve and would be thirteen in May. My mother died when I was seven. These numbers were tangible.
Twice late at night, as I was in bed, I heard visitors come to our apartment door. Both visitors were men, both with voices deeper than my father’s. When the second man shouted something, my father tried to shush him. The man said, “I didn’t pay to be quiet.”
One Sunday, my father took me to a Senators’ game. We had seats in the bleachers, but having any seat in the ballpark would have thrilled me. We shared a box of Cracker Jack, and in the bottom of the seventh inning, Eddie Yost, the third baseman, hit a long drive our way. My father came within inches of catching the ball, but another curly-haired man, his neck and face roasted from the sun, had a glove and snagged it. I found myself crying inconsolable tears, as if we had been denied something precious. My father, embarrassed, escorted me out of the stadium.
I calmed down, and on our walk home, my father told me he would be going away for a few days and I would be staying with Bertilda and her family. Bertilda, a short, stocky woman with shining black skin and a birthmark like a heart under her left eye, lived with her husband and four young children in the apartment below ours.
“Where are you going?” I asked him, but I knew the answer. I’d seen his bus ticket.
“To see Congressman Stevens?”
He didn’t answer for a moment. “Congressman Stevens lives here now,” he said. “Uncle Peter is working on a project and needs my help.”
I knew he was lying, and I was sure, or almost sure, he knew I knew. But he and I said nothing more.
. . .
At Bertilda’s, I slept on the couch in the living room. Even at night, the house was noisy. Bertilda had a three-month-old baby, and her husband, who called me “Fastball,” must have worked late shifts because he would come home at dawn, fumbling at the lock and singing.
Upon his return from Cleveland, I noted my father’s pleasure, his uncharacteristic ebullience. “How was your work with Uncle Peter?” I asked him.
He looked puzzled before smiling again. “Successful,” he said. And without pausing, he added, “When are the Senators playing at home again? I’ll buy us box seats this time.”
. . .
We next visited Congressman Stevens’s house on a hot humid evening in the third week of August. I was supposed to have stayed with Bertilda, but her baby was sick. Congressman Stevens answered the door in a red silk bathrobe. When he crouched to greet me, I could smell his breath, and the smell—at once fiery and fruity—made me recoil. When I looked past Congressman Stevens to peer into the dark living room, he reminded me that Ralph was back home with his mother. “Oh,” I said, surprised to find my hopefulness so transparent.
Without Ralph, I soon became bored. All the games in Congressman Stevens’s living room required two players, and I couldn’t play “Truth Poker” against myself, although, hoping for Ralph’s return, I had brought the cards. My father and the congressman were in the kitchen, and I tiptoed out of the living room and into the sunroom. I was so close to the men I could hear the tinkle of ice in Congressman Stevens’ drink. I heard my father say, “You told me she would be staying in Cleveland.”
“She changed her mind.” Ice crashed against the side of the congressman’s glass. “We’ll make do. We have before. It’ll be fine—you’ll see.”
“What’s your plan—to meet up with me in hotel rooms between votes? I thought we had an understanding.”
Ashamed of my father’s emotion—he sounded like I did when I was about to cry—I retreated to the living room, where I set up the chess set and engaged the knights in jousting matches, angrily crashing them into each other. I hoped my father would come to tell me we were going home. But evening became night, and my father told me we would be staying.
As I lay in Ralph’s bed, I remembered him tucking the photograph of his mother under his pillow. He carried her picture like an icon, something to cherish and guard, and I fell asleep wondering what I could have done to save my mother. In my dream, I was at the zoo, and at the end of a long path, I spotted a tall, thin cage. Inside was my mother. She was wearing a white dress and her eyes were wet with tears. As I stepped up to the bars, she opened her mouth to tell me something, but I already knew what it was.
I sprung from Ralph’s bed and ran down the hall past five or six doors to the room where I knew I would find my father. There was a chain guard, which I didn’t notice until I’d broken it by hurling my body against the door. Congressman Stevens’s bedroom was as large as our apartment, and against the back wall was a king-sized bed. My father awoke immediately, disentangling himself from the congressman’s pale body. “What is it?” my father asked. “What’s wrong?”
“You killed her!” I shouted. “She thought you loved her but you never did! You wanted her money!” I followed this with other declarations, the strongest of which was, “I hate you and I hope you die!”
My father scrambled to put on his clothes, and soon we were riding home in a cab at a time of night or morning I wasn’t to see again for a decade or more. Neither of us said a word.
. . .
On the first of September, we moved back to Cleveland. My grandmother was living with her oldest son, so we stayed with my father’s sister and her husband. My uncle had emigrated from Lithuania before the war and spoke in an accent so thick I frequently had difficulty understanding him. In Lithuania, he had been a professional cellist. In Cleveland, he drove a bus. He and my aunt had no children.
Every evening, my father made a show of spreading the Help Wanted section of both the Press and the Plain Dealer in front of him and circling promising listings in red pen. Work was available—I twice heard my uncle offer to take him down to the Cleveland Transit System’s office—but my father said he had a particular job in mind.
I was sure my father never planned to find a job in Cleveland, sure he could no longer live with me because of what I had discovered and what I had said in the discovery’s aftermath. No one he knew in town—Father Urbanitis, his mother, even his brother Peter—would have offered him anything gentler than my condemnation.
When he told me he was leaving, I couldn’t find my voice to tell him it wasn’t what I wanted or needed. I was as tight-lipped and stoic as he had always expected me to be. We were standing in my aunt’s kitchen, adorned with sunflower wallpaper and overlooking the backyard, which my uncle had turned into a vegetable garden. “Your aunt and uncle will be good parents,” he said, his gaze leaving my face and settling somewhere out the window.
If I begged him to stay, I spoke my pleas not to him but (that night, at the foot of my bed) to God.
My father intended to go to California. “Hollywood,” my uncle said as we sat around the dinner table the evening after my father’s departure, eating ham. “Maybe he will find work in movies.” When my uncle chewed, his entire face moved in contortions of pleasure. We would eat ham—my uncle’s favorite meal—twice a week until I was seventeen and started my freshman year at Ohio State, courtesy of a baseball scholarship.
My father wrote me several times, although he was as taciturn on paper as he was in person. My letters to him were diary-like notations of what I had done the previous week. Whatever feelings I had about his absence I left off the page.
My father never reached California. Twenty-one months after leaving Cleveland, he was working on an oilrig off the coast of Louisiana, one of the first of its kind, when ninety-five-mile-per-hour winds blew him and two co-workers into the Gulf of Mexico. Their bodies were never found.
. . .
Over the years, I often thought about Ralph. Once, in high school, I even sat down to write him a letter, intending to send it to him care of Congressman Stevens. But I suspected the congressman wouldn’t be inclined to forward it. Later, I sometimes imagined Ralph surprising me by coming down from the stands after a game in one of the minor league baseball parks I visited as a player and in my mid-thirties as a radio announcer, and the two of us talking near the third base coach’s box as the grounds crew worked around us, smoothing the roughed up infield. Even as my life moved on—to major-league announcing and other distractions—I continued to imagine a reunion with Ralph, although at this point in my life he had become an abstraction. Or several abstractions: friendship, childhood, honesty.
My friends were baseball people: players, managers, and announcers who lived the game outside the ballpark as much as they did inside it. If our conversations didn’t revolve around baseball, they usually didn’t last long. Even the women I dated and the two I married I met because of baseball. They worked in teams’ public relations departments or were sisters or cousins of players or waited tables in restaurants frequented by baseball personnel. But if baseball afforded me the predictable variations of what happened on its diamonds, and if the friendships I made as a result of my involvement in the game had a comforting consistency, I sometimes felt unsettled, unsatisfied, unfulfilled. To this list, I might have added unknown. As far as my friends and lovers knew, my aunt and uncle were my parents and always had been. After my father’s death, they had adopted me, and their last name had become mine. I had buried the boy I’d been.
. . .
Congressman Stevens’s obituary appeared in the newspapers the week after my second divorce was made final, when I was fifty-eight years old. He had served ten terms in the House of Representatives before losing a close race for the U.S. Senate. In his last public years, he had served as the U.S. ambassador to Australia. He was survived by his wife, his twin daughters, and his four grandchildren. The obituary made no mention of his sister or nephew, but I didn’t need prompting to remember Ralph. And two weeks after his uncle’s death, I saw him.
I was in LaGuardia Airport, on my way back to Cleveland after broadcasting an Indians-Yankees game, and when I stopped at a newsstand, he was standing beside me, flipping through GQ or Esquire. He’d lost most of his hair, and the rest of it had turned silver, but his face was the same—unlined, boyish. He had the same bright gray eyes.
I had fifty-five minutes before my flight. But even as I felt an old, sweet anticipation, as if receiving an invitation to share my heart, I failed to say so much as his name. Perhaps I was scared he wouldn’t remember me. Perhaps I was scared of all I might have said to him and all I might have felt. Perhaps I was scared of having the boy I’d been called to testify against or for the man I’d become. Without a glance at me, he was gone, merging with the human traffic rushing down a wide concourse.
In the anonymity of the airport, I could have had what my mother, when I came to her with a scraped knee or a bleeding nose, used to call with a silliness intended to lighten my mood, a deep weep. But I remained dry-eyed out of habit, my father’s expectation of stoicism, as usual, fulfilled. I bought a couple of newspapers, found a seat at my gate, and waited to hear my row called.
But I wasn’t sitting more than a minute when I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned toward a familiar voice, deepened by the years but no less enthusiastic. “I was walking down to the water fountain when I could have sworn I was staring at a good friend from a lifetime ago. But I said to myself, ‘There’s no way he could be…Surely he can’t be….’” Ralph grinned at me like he’d just won another hand of Truth Poker. “Hell, but it is—it’s you.”