Amy hunches on the bleachers, at a slight remove from the regular moms with their pressed jeans, mascara carefully applied even at this hour. She sips her cold coffee, slowly because the bathroom — toilet hut, really — is a five-minute hike away, and at last week’s game an improvident supersized latte caused her to miss Jamie’s best catch of the day. She is still hearing about it.
Brendan typically runs interference between Amy and the social demands of the Little League. He is good at this: keeping Amy abreast of the score, the important plays, the incompetent calls, enabling her to make a decent showing at Jamie’s mandatory dinner table play-by-plays; and charming the parents of the other players with his astute, yet flattering, appraisals of their sons’ athletic prowess. He’s a regular guy, she sees them thinking, even if he is a poet.
He’s a regular guy because he’s a poet, she wants to correct them. If he were a longshoreman he wouldn’t bother with you; he’d be chasing after Louise Glück. Since childhood Brendan has fought against the perception of effeteness: the brainy loner, the National Merit Scholar in a school where pissing contests out the window of the boys’ bathroom were considered the height of academic achievement, and faggot bashing the school sport. Brendan was small, fine-boned, but he developed a strong right hook and an outstanding talent for self-aggrandizement, skills that have proven invaluable in his lifelong quest for personal and professional validation.
Which is why Amy is here alone today. She had thought the bar-brawl nights had run their course years ago. Those friends of their impulsive, impoverished (but exciting, comparatively, at least) youth who didn’t drink themselves to death or premature senility seemed to have settled comfortably enough into 12-step programs, academic positions, and home ownership. On rare nights out, they tended to monitor their carbs, their tabs, and their watches, careful not to miss the 8:50 train or the babysitter’s curfew. So when Brendan staggered in last night from what was supposed to be a sedate congratulatory dinner for his old friend Jim Fanelli, winner of this year’s Maddox Prize for Poetry — held at the Blue Donkey bar only for nostalgia’s sake — with a torn jacket and bloody nose, Amy panicked, assuming he’d been mugged. He disabused her by demanding, “So, do you think I’m washed up?”
“As a boxer?”
He laughed, wincing. “I’ll never get noticed, will I.”
“Brendan, what the hell are you talking about? You get nothing but notice.”
“Never the big one.”
“Did you take a swing at Fanelli?”
“The Recipient of the Maddox Prize dirty his ass on a Blue Donkey barstool? Give me a break.”
“He stood you up?”
“Me, Kravitz, and that asshole Kerrigan, who mentioned the lousy Voice review no less than twelve times. I took a swing at him.”
“Brendan, he’s half your age.”
“Et tu, Amy?”
Amy might be able to dredge up some sympathy if Brendan actually were washed up — if this dramatic despair bled from some awareness that the wellspring had finally run dry — but this is not the case. Brendan has embraced later-life parenthood in his work, has transformed mundane observations about Jamie’s development into rich and powerful meditations on Brendan’s own childhood and on the human condition. He is at the height of his power, and he knows it.
It’s fashion he’s griping about. The critics hailed him as “the poet of the people” when his first book exploded on the scene twenty-six years ago, though even then Amy wondered which “people” were expected to identify with Brendan’s idiosyncratic amalgam of erudition and street smarts. Hers was the minority voice, though; Brendan’s agent and editor, not to mention all the sweet-faced young poets who suddenly started accosting him in coffee shops and bars, predicted such a straight and stellar path it is no wonder that the rest of his career, which has included six well received books (along with two critical failures that still sold remarkably well in a discipline that is not noted for subsidizing its practitioners) and a tenured position at NYU, feels to him like an anticlimax.
He was hardly mollified even by the call from Fanelli this morning, explaining about Elaine’s broken ankle, the race to the emergency room last night. “It’s not a competitive sport,” she told him, aware that she was being unfair, that her real objection was to her prospective exile among these affable accountants and schoolteachers if Brendan didn’t snap out of it. “Why do you need to make everything a contest?”
“Better to be in the game,” he snapped, “than to spend your life on the sidelines criticizing the players.” Before she could come up with an adequate retort, he had pulled the covers back over his head.
“Five for six,” one of the dads clustered by home plate says now. “If they win this, they’re in the big one.” Amy finds the pull of the novel in her backpack almost irresistible, but Jamie will never forgive her if he glances over at a crucial moment and finds her immersed in her usual defense against isolation. He might even Fumble a Big Play — a disaster, in his lexicon, comparable to a surgeon losing concentration and severing a spinal cord.
A father plops down beside her. “That one’s yours, number eighteen, right?”
“He’s a terrific kid,” she agrees.
“Nice double play he just made,” the father says, slowly and distinctly.
“Your husband a player?”
The first time Jamie saw a baseball game on TV, at eleven months, he was transfixed. When Brendan flipped the channel, Jamie cried. Ball was one of his first words, and after he learned it, he applied it to every round image — the moon, the antique globe on Brendan’s desk, the dancing circle thrown by the flashlight onto a darkened wall. One day in the supermarket, he pointed to a row of tomatoes. Balls, he crowed. Bapballs. Appleballs. Amy related his accomplishment to Brendan that night, astonished at the conceptual ability of an eighteen-month-old, and Brendan, the runt, chosen last for everything, grinned. He’s going to be a slugger, he said.
“More of a fan,” Amy says now.
“So where’d the kid get that arm?”
“Not from me.”
“No other jocks in the family? That’s hard to believe.”
“My brother used to play.”
“College? I played in college myself.”
“Central. What about your brother?”
“Which kid is yours, I meant.”
“Twelve. Out in left field.”
“He’s got beautiful eyes.”
“So where’d your brother play?”
“It was a long time ago.”
“The minors. Just for a little while.”
“No kidding. Which team?”
“The Clippers? Back in the day, right? Before they shut it down?”
“The year they shut it down, actually.”
The man exhales. “That kid deserved everything he got, and then some. What a whiner.”
“That’s what Joey said.”
“Joey? Not Joe Flanagan.”
Amy nods, edges away.
“What’s he up to now?”
“He’s in sales.”
“That kid should have been shot.”
For months afterward, Amy would awake choking in the middle of the night from dreams of the boy’s head forced into the flushing toilet, the cigarette burns on his back — her own back, in the dream — to hear her parents arguing downstairs. They’re boys, Irene. Pack animals. Betrayed by one of their own. I don’t say what they did was right, the girl and all, but that boy, going to management, now, that wasn’t right, either. What happened to loyalty?
I know how you feel, Amy wrote the boy. He thinks he can do anything. He makes me touch his thing. If I tell he’ll poison my cat. But she didn’t mail the letter.
“Hey,” the man says now. He jumps up.
Amy looks out onto the field. Number twelve is chasing a rolling ball through the outfield. First one runner, then another rounds home plate. “It was gift-wrapped with his name on it,” the man says. “Jesus.”
The other team is on its feet, cheering. Jamie’s coach is in the field, yelling and gesticulating. She hears the word “idiot” and sees the boy fold into himself.
“Jesus,” his father says again.
“They’re twelve years old,” Amy says.
“He’ll never get it,” his father says. “Never. Hey, look at that catch! Shortstop’s wide awake, anyway.”
Jamie appears in front of her. “Got my water?”
She pulls the bottle from her backpack. “Be nice to that kid, okay? He feels terrible.”
“Mom, it was an easy play. The coach is right.”
“To make him cry?”
“He wasn’t even paying attention. I’ve gotta go, I’m up first.”
She knocks three times on his head and says, “Love you,” the last artifact of their ritual-ridden history that he will still allow. He ducks away, then turns back and returns the incantation before loping off to the bench, where the coach is giving last-minute instructions. She sees him take a practice swing and move toward the plate.
“Kid has a future,” the man says. She watches Jamie lower the bat, move toward the bench where number twelve slumps, alone, head in hands, his teammates scrunched away from him. She stiffens as he approaches the boy. Jamie extends his hand, knocks on the kid’s head, and says something, she can’t tell what. The boy gives him a lopsided smile that could be a grimace. She wishes she still knew her son, that he was as transparent to her as his baby skin, turning red with anger, pasty with fatigue, a barometer of his soul. He’s on digital now, and he keeps the readout to himself. She watches as he heads back to the plate.
She remembers the night Brendan came into Jamie’s room to find them both wailing, seven-month-old Jamie in outraged pain from an ear infection the antibiotics couldn’t seem to tame; Amy, exhausted, despairing, wondering what had possessed them to imagine they were equipped to care for a child. Brendan took Jamie from her, cradling him gently, and led Amy back to their bed, where he held them both until their sobs subsided and Jamie collapsed in shivering sleep on Brendan’s chest. “We can do this, Ames,” Brendan said. “We’re fucked up, but no more than everybody else. He’ll get the best of both of us and edit out the crap.”
“A future, yes. Yes, he does,” she says now.
There is a sharp crack. “Holy cow,” the man says. Amy looks up to see Jamie running, the ball sailing away, out of the diamond and into the world.