Jan 102010

 by Eric Jones 

We had a lot of bad names we called each other when we were boys, but one was rarely used because it meant someone was so vile he didn’t even belong in society. The seldom-spoken name was reserved for that kind of low-life villain who would give you a gift and then take it back, and I suppose it was the meanest insult you could say to someone because it meant he was both poor and dishonest. We may have been poor in my old neighborhood, compared to most, but honesty was taken so seriously that no one ever locked a door or worried about leaving mowers or bikes out in the yard overnight. So when someone was called this name, you knew he was the most despicable sort of creature imaginable. Not even the worst curse words we knew could get two boys fighting as quickly or as fiercely as that one muttered phrase – Indian giver!

But fighting wasn’t our major concern back then. Baseball was. All the boys in the neighborhood would play baseball in the vacant lot next to my house. We spent one summer clearing off all the rocks and sand spurs and lining out a crude diamond, picking out places where the crab grass was thickest and softest so we could slide into third base and home, which we marked by outlining a square in the dirt with a stick. On Sundays, the lot was used for parking by the Methodist church, which owned the property, but the rest of the time it was our field, despite frequent complaints by the Methodist men’s group which met Tuesday evenings or the UMW which met on Thursday afternoons. No stray dogs ever crossed our field without getting pelted with pebbles and chased away, and girls who knew to expect the same sort of treatment passed quickly on the sidewalk on the other side of the street, sticking out their tongues as they went by.

Of the fifteen or so boys who gathered at that vacant lot for the big games, only about half had gloves. My brother, who was tall, skinny and athletic, had a Willie Mays Autograph, the best available at the town’s only hardware store. He was usually captain of one of the teams, or the first one picked if someone else were captain. I was short, plump and slow, and I was often the last one picked, although I had a good swing and got as many hits as anyone else on the field. My brother pitched, so he needed a glove, and got the Willie Mays Autograph for his birthday. I was stuck out in right field, unless a southpaw was batting, and then I was switched to left field so a boy with a glove and better speed could back up the first baseman.

My parents didn’t think I needed a glove, as I was stuck way out there in right field, so they bought me a Louisville Slugger for my tenth birthday. But a bat was a shared thing, something you couldn’t really call your own. Everybody used it, and you couldn’t write your name on it like a glove, though I tried. Marty, one of the other boys who was always captain, had two older brothers and some cousins who were drafted into service in Vietnam, and he would bring all the extra gloves he could round up from this aunts’ houses. But since I was always the last one picked for a team, I still didn’t get one of the spare gloves. The black boys who came to play late Saturday afternoons when they weren’t working in the cotton fields outside of town didn’t have gloves either, but most of them caught better with their bare hands than the rest of us did with new or broken-in Spaldings and MacGregors.

Our teams had regulars and come-and-go players, but we felt the losses most when our best hitters couldn’t play for some reason – normally because they were grounded for skipping out to the field before chores were done. The biggest loss happened in the summer of 1971, when Marty had to go to special school in Charlotte. He was sixteen and still in the eighth grade, the only boy on the baseball field who had the beginnings of a black mustache. He was put on the bus and sent to stay with his grandparents, who lived close to the school where he would be taking his summer classes. The older boys missed Marty’s size and power on the field. I missed him because he always picked me to be on his team. That would end if the special school helped Marty get into high school where he could play on the varsity team, so every night I would pray for him not to learn anything.

But Marty’s absence turned out to benefit me after all, because the day I went by his house to get the spare gloves, his mother told me I could use Marty’s glove until he returned at the end of the summer.

“Take good care of it now, Jack,” Mrs. Williams said, looking older and more tired than most of the mothers in our neighborhood. “Sometimes Marty acts like that glove is the only thing he’s got.”

I couldn’t believe it – a glove of my own whenever we played! It was going to be the best summer ever, I told Marty’s mother, and I swore to her on scout’s honor that I would take care of that glove like a prize.

We were lucky, though, that another player showed up to fill in for Marty. Right after Marty left, a new boy appeared in our neighborhood. No one ever saw his mother or father, but the family moved into a run-down house that had been vacant for a long time. The windows were covered with thick plastic sheeting that you couldn’t see through. Most of the dull green paint was chipped away, and some of the boards were rotten or missing from the house, which stood crookedly on a sloping, sandy lot badly gullied by heavy rains. It was the only yard in the neighborhood where no grass grew. The new family didn’t have a car in the bare yard, but we never saw anyone except the boy come or go.

He was different from any boy we’d ever seen. He always wore a long-sleeved white shirt, buttoned up to the collar and sleeves rolled all the way down, just like for church, even on the hottest day. The shirt was always clean when he came out in the morning, no matter how dirty he had gotten the day before, and his white skin never tanned like the rest of us. He wore dark dress pants and Sunday shoes every day, unlike everybody else who wore cutoff jeans and sneakers all summer long.

Except for his one outfit, this pale boy and his invisible family had absolutely nothing that showed. They must have been poorer even than the black boys who walked all the way to town to play baseball in the vacant lot next to my house just because they had no equipment of their own.

But strangest of all, the new boy didn’t speak – ever. He showed up at the baseball field one day, and when we asked him his name, he just smiled and looked down at the ground.

“If he cain’t talk, he cain’t play,” said Steve, a scrawny seventh-grader who got in more fights than baseball games because he was always running his mouth and saying stupid things no one wanted to hear. “We done got rid of one retard, and we don’t need another one.”

“He don’t have to be able to talk to play,” said Little Bit, the biggest black boy, and Steve shut up for once. Steve got in his fights with white boys, mostly those a year or two younger than he was, but he rarely said anything that got him in trouble with black boys unless he yelled out something from far enough away that he could run home safely before being caught.

We needed all the players we could get to make two full teams anyway, so we told the silent boy to come over while the teams were being chosen. Probably because he didn’t say anything, he was picked last, after me, which was a pleasant change. But he was never picked last again, because his first time at bat, and nearly every time after that, he hit the ball right out of the lot! The first three times he came to bat he hit home runs, running in other players who got singles or doubles at best. And he was fast, too, catching the runners ahead of him and crossing home plate just a few steps behind them. He got put in center field or in left field, depending on who was batting, and though he didn’t have a glove, he never dropped a two-handed catch or missed a grounder that rocketed between the shortstop and the second baseman.

Later, when we got used to having the silent boy around, we got hit by the biggest surprise of the summer. My brother said one day that he didn’t have time to play baseball with us kids anymore since he would be going into high school. Lately, Billy had been spending a lot of time with Annette, the girl whose daddy owned the peanut farm and whose face looked like a sock monkey’s, which is what we called her. I was sorry to see my brother leave the baseball field, because he was a good pitcher, even though he never picked me to be on his team. But since he wasn’t going to play anymore that summer, I got to use his Willie Mays glove, after he warned me that he would kill me if I messed it up. I also had to oil it once a week. That was fair enough, because now I was really in for some great baseball.

I had taken good care of Marty’s glove, smoothing out the cracked leather with neat’s-foot oil, but it was still another five weeks away before he would come home, so instead of taking it back to Marty’s mother, I decided to let the boy who couldn’t talk use it for the rest of the summer. He was usually on my team – with Marty and Billy out of the picture, I got to be captain sometimes, and I would always pick him first because he hit more homers than anybody else and could cover the whole outfield just like the Say Hey Kid, even though he didn’t say hey, or anything else for that matter. I wanted him on my team because I wanted my team to win all the time, and I knew that a winning team had to be well outfitted.

When I gave the silent boy Marty’s glove before a big Saturday game against Little Bit’s team, I told him it belonged to someone else and that we would have to return it by the end of the summer, but that he could use it till then and even keep it at his house when we weren’t playing. As I was telling him this, he kept his eyes fixed on the glove, and when I handed it over, his face beamed and he squealed the only sound I ever heard him make.

We played some major league ball that summer. We named our field the Second Home of the Atlanta Braves, and after games we would lie in the shade on the grassy hill between my house and the vacant lot and talk about Hank Aaron as he passed Willie Mays’ home run record and headed toward Babe Ruth’s impossible 714. Near the end of the summer, Billy even came back to pitch, with Sock Monkey sitting up on the hill watching us play. And finally, we heard that Marty was coming home.

A warm breeze flapped the heavy plastic that covered the windows of the faded green house when I went to get Marty’s glove. The boy, whose name we never learned, was in the yard, in the same neat clothes he wore every day, burning pieces of cardboard in a rusted oil drum. When he saw me, he smiled and pointed in the direction of the baseball field, but I shook my head – the church’s back-to-school bazaar was taking up the lot for the day.

“Marty’s coming back tomorrow,” I said. “I need to take him his glove.”

His smile dropped. He looked down in the oil drum and just stood there beside the burning trash without moving for a long time, the flames from the barrel flickering between us and the smoke blowing toward me, making it hard to see. When he finally turned away, I thought I could see that his cheeks were wet, but he made no sound. I didn’t know why he should be so sad, if he was. But I decided that when he came back out, I would tell him that Marty would probably let him use one of his cousin’s gloves again next summer. That should cheer him up, or at least take his mind off whatever seemed to be bothering him.

I waited for a long time, until I thought he wasn’t going to come back out. Then I got worried, since I had promised Marty’s mother I would take good care of the glove. I couldn’t tell her or Marty that I had lost it, or somehow couldn’t get it back, so I started for the plastic-covered screened door just before it cracked open and the glove came flying out. A harsh, raspy woman’s voice yelled out just as the glove stuck me on the chest and landed in the dirt.

“Injun giver! You oughtn’t to give somethin’ to somebody, say it’s theirn, and then take it back, like it’s nothin’ to ‘em! Now get the hell outta here and don’t ever come back!”

I stood there for a moment after the flimsy door slapped shut. In my neighborhood, adults rarely yelled at kids publicly, and they never cursed at them. But all I could think of as I looked down past my shaking legs at the glove lying in the dirt was how mad Marty would be when he got home. To a baseball player, nothing is worse on a hot summer day than sticking your sweaty hand into a glove that has even a few grains of sharp, gritty sand in the fingers.

The boy never came out of the house again, and soon after school started, the family moved away without much notice, and the faded green house on the gullied, sandy lot stood empty once more.

Our baseball field was paved over the next spring. By then, Billy had made starting pitcher on junior varsity and Marty was the power hitter on the varsity team, and our Saturday games dwindled down to only a few faithful players, not enough for two teams. Still, once the paving was completed, the Methodist minister insisted on erecting two basketball goals and marking out a full court on one side of the smooth, new parking lot – a fitting thank you, he said, for the younger boys who had once cleared the rocky field and were now forced to go in search of another. It was a nice court, all right, but none of the boys in our neighborhood wanted to play basketball.