The grass is trimmed like my father obsesses over. It’s green as Heineken bottles, as my mother’s eyes when shining with tears, and the white lines that frame it up and down stand out like Claire’s porcelain skin at Ricky’s son’s baptism. The chalk of those lines flies up a bit when the hulking players climb out of the dugout, up the steps and into the sight of all the kids seeing their television heroes for the first time. I remember my father saying how it was to see Sinatra at Ebbets Field one September as a kid, how his spine tightened up and forced a gasp off his chapped lips that felt like his last and first breath all at the same time. How his pupils dilated and danced wildly in the blue-green pools of his irises. Those kids have that now, seeing sluggers and speedsters warm up right before their eyes. It’s something to envy.
The sky is spotless and impossibly blue. Bright as hydrangea blossoms in full bloom, like the ones my mother obsessed over while she went through chemo. She said the flowers didn’t have to die just because she was, that that was a waste and she needed to teach her boys how to properly trim them so she could pass content and in peace. My father couldn’t pay attention during these lessons, instead he dove into her eyes again and again with his own, desperately trying to remember each loving look of hers, in between blinks, looks that shouted that she was still the girl he stole away from her date on senior prom night and never returned. She was still the girl, and he was always in tears after she cut the flower stalks.
My brother is one of the kids all giddy and breathless. He pants just below my left shoulder and marvels at the seats his father has gotten him for his birthday, six rows back from the home dugout, he can see the spit fly as the players take a wad of sunflower seeds from an industrial-sized bag. He’s not thinking about mom right now, or his dog that’s at the vet or even the kid at school who punches him in the stomach every Tuesday and calls him a faggot, but only about the players and how they walk and smile. I had thought that we had all long ago lost that romanticism with baseball, but not my brother. He still loves it like the kids who sat up listening to their radios when the Dodgers tripped around the west coast, flashlights and potato chip bags hidden under cocoons of sheets and comforters, gasping as Robinson scampered around second and headed for third. He’s from another era, my brother. It’s something to envy.
My father stands silently next to me, a whole head above mine, watching the field but not really anything in particular. He says to me once or twice that I can have a few dollars to go buy some souvenirs, or he encourages me to escort my brother down the aisle for some autographs, but mostly he stays quiet, breathing softly, one hand on my shoulder and the other in his pocket. His lips are slightly pursed and the air goes in and out with a slight whistling sound. He always tried to teach me how to whistle but I could never get it, and here he is doing it subconsciously and in perfect tune. I laugh at the talent and how useless and yet admirable it is. My father smirks knowingly and whistles louder and I elbow him in the ribs until his breath is knocked out and he stops. I take my brother down for autographs, looking back to see my father take a swig of his beer.
It was autumn when I first went to the stadium, and it was cold and blustery and our seats were high up. My mother was bundled until almost beyond all recognition, and if it weren’t a night game she’d have big black glasses over her eyes so she would be completely unknowable at all. But it was night and her green eyes shone through the jackets and scarves she had layered over herself, and by the sixth my brother was asleep on her cushioned left arm. We won it in the bottom of the ninth.
We had driven home that night drenched in conversation. My brother, just five at the time, talked about some television show to no one in particular, while my mother and father discussed the rising cost of going to games in this industrial age.
“When I was a kid, all it took was a pair of good legs and some friends and you could get into any game for free,” my father said, and he told us for the hundredth time how he and his childhood best friend Robby saw forty-one Yankees games one year without paying a cent.
“We were legends,” he mused, “even the security guards came to respect us.”
I watched as he took a puff of his cigarette before flicking it out into the highway air. Claire was waiting at home for us because she never liked baseball much. I thought about her and how different she was from us for most of the way home. Mom would die in a year.
Somewhere out in center there is some kid who wishes he was me right now, so close to Jeter’s hand, handing him a sharpie and listening to him joke breathlessly and promise to hit a home run to every kid who pushes a baseball into his hand. I feel badly about that because this encounter is not particularly meaningful. Just me and a millionaire, like every day in the city. My brother waits until he’s the last one in line, but Jeter looks like he’s ready to leave.
“I gotta go, kid,” he says quickly, and begins to turn his shoulders.
“Please Derek,” I say, not quite thinking, “He’s a big fan.”
Jeter signs his ball and walks away, picking up a bat and slinging it over his shoulder like a caveman with a club, but with a bit more grace.
“Thanks, Jacob,” my brother murmurs as he stares at his ball and the shining ink emblazoned across the sweet spot.
“No problem, little brother,” I rumble back, as we push our way back to our father and our seats.
By the third I begin to grow weary, and I switch seats with my brother so that he and dad can talk about the game. I wonder about my sister and where she is, out in the city somewhere sleeping off a hangover, with a guy or two draped over her body. The sky has washed out a bit, the blue is not as strong, and I imagine that it means that she has awoken finally on this Sunday afternoon, and her summer sky eyes have stolen away the blue from above us. Some guy is drowning in those right about now, and in the giggle she gives after a kiss. How many times I’ve been a witness to that in our old West Side apartment I don’t know. It still lives in the walls there, even if she hasn’t been back in years.
The speaker system in the stadium fails for a moment. The ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe’ fades out and an eerie screech is played across the waves of stupidly dancing audience members. Mother died to that sound, to the whine of the EKG and the screech of the medical carts being pushed around bleached hallways. The decibel level is different, of course, but its essence is the same. My sister grabbed the bed when the line went flat in order to keep herself from falling. Already we were losing her too, my mother knew that, and she tried with all she had to keep her. But mom was all my sister could depend on, or so she thought. Dad was shallow and I was too young and our younger brother was even younger, so Claire just packed up her things that night and was gone without a word the next morning, seventeen and into the city. I remember how she stubbed her foot against the kitchen counter in the morning, cursed loudly and hissed a bit, waking me from where I had passed out in front of the television after watching it all night. Not knowing what to make of her, all bundled up and laden with her things, I watched in silence as she stole off into the still dark day. It’s been six years now, and I’m seventeen. My father does everything but strap me to the bed each night for fear of losing me too.
In the seventh a girl that looks like my sister shows up on the scoreboard, smiling and laughing at her magnified visage bobbing above the heads of all those sweaty drunks out in the bleachers. My brother points it out first, says, “it’s Claire,” before going quiet and turning back to the game. My father is drunk. He has been ordering two beers each time the man comes by to offer them, each at seven bucks a pop, and he gazes hazy eyed at the screen without recollection coming over his face. It can’t be her, then, I reason to myself. My father would know his girl even if he were blind. I’ve come across him so many times these last few weeks, with her birthday rapidly approaching, sitting upright in the kitchen with an open bottle by his hand and tears staining his shirt. He’s not crying for mom, he’s over that, in the way that a good husband can be. He’s never gotten over his girl, though, and how wrong and lost she was, and how she left without a word and never gives a return address on her letters. Even those are sporadic. A birthday card for me, a mazel tov on our cousin’s bar mitzvah. We don’t live in the city anymore, though, and we’ve heard less. Perhaps she was writing as much to the home where she grew up and where her mother lived as to us, the boys in her life.
The girl on the Jumbotron kisses a man sitting next to her on the cheek, as I stare into her massive face hoping for something to click and for realization to pan over me. I imagine the television commentators remarking at how pretty she is, and how the stadium cameramen always finds the best ones amongst the crowd. Her white teeth flash across the diamond, whiter than the chalk and the clouds rolling in from the east, a casual smile that says she’s at ease, even with all these eyes on her. Not my sister, who was so uneasy and quiet and shy. I cannot imagine that she would react this way to her face magnified above the field as though about to give a speech, so that each tiny blemish can be seen. Convinced, I take my eyes away, but not my thoughts. We are in the city, where she still lives, I am sure. Where we used to live together. For the first time in a long time I feel lonely at the thought of having only a brother and a father when I should have more. I look at the two children sitting in front of me, eating cotton candy and sandwiched by their parents. It’s something to envy.
The top half ends, and a roar comes billowing through the sky as jets fly over our heads. Our ears pop and my brother clasps his hands tightly over his own, afraid the drums will burst from the noise. I look at my father, stupefied in his seat next to me, and know I will be the one driving home. The Yankees trail three to two.
“Wasn’t that something, boys?” My father slurs. He’s stopped drinking and is entirely still, save for the mechanical cracking of his knuckles. A child’s nervous habit, that. My father is growing younger as his body weakens. We both nod without making eye contact.
The eighth is a scoreless, quick thing. Both teams bring in specialist relievers and both offenses go down without a fight. My brother is restless. It’s been a clean, crisp game and has moved quickly, and his team is on the short end. He fidgets and looks down at the cracked peanut shells at his feet all through the top of the ninth as the Angels load the bases on walks but come up empty. No screams, no shouts, no rooting at all. He hasn’t spoken since pointing out the girl on the video screen. He was five when she left home. How could he remember?
The silence is broken by my father’s screams. He shouts my brother’s name, Michael, and the word comes through the air like a cannonball. No grace and without a care who’s struck. A bat comes twirling like a detached helicopter blade in our direction, in my brother’s specifically, and before we can do much of anything it smacks the back of his head that he has been holding in his palms. Blood comes in an instant. First slow from a long, slender crack along the base of his closely cropped hair, but then steadily, like river water running over rocks, purifying itself. The hot red blood stains his white jersey in clumps that look like rose petals, the ones my father dropped before my mother’s hospital bed on their anniversary. The ones he dropped before her hospital bed the day she died.
The children I had been watching scream. The entire stadium has gone silent and I see my face, ghostly white and stunned, blown up on the big screen. Cut away from me, I wish silently. It does, as it shows medical staff rushing from all corners. The Yankees trainer has climbed over the dugout and is pushing through the crowd. People are on their cell phones calling for ambulances, as if that could ever help.
Two men lift my brother up and carry him away. My father is delirious and someone has to press him into his seat and tell him what is happening. Your son is going to the hospital, they say. You can come in the ambulance, they grant his pleading eyes.
It’s not the same ambulance that my brother’s riding in. My father and I sit across from each other, him cracking his knuckles and staring blankly at the cabinet above my head, and me with my head down, thinking about how it’s all symmetry. Mom dies when Claire is seventeen. Michael when I am. We’re all crumbling before we’re even legal.
It is, of course, the same hospital where my mother died. But it’s changed some, and we aren’t going to the cancer wing. The emergency room is chaos realized: patients stream in with knives in their sides, bullet wounds up and down their arms, broken arms and broken legs and broken noses. My brother is already in surgery, a nurse tells us.
My father goes to the bathroom to vomit. He’s lucid enough now to see the symmetry too, and it disgusts him. He’s cursing in between heaves, and it takes all of my strength not to act the same. A doctor comes and tells me what the story is. A shard of the bat has cut deep into his flesh, to the bone almost. He’s lost a great deal of blood. He’s gonna die is what I imagine hearing.
When my mother went she went in peace. She was awake and held our hands, my sister and I, while my father held Michael’s hand and silently wept in the corner. We were listening to her tell the fairy tale she told us all when we were younger, of a girl and her brothers and the day before she was to be married. The today after today, she called that date. She always lived in the present. There was no tomorrow. The boys had gone out to get flowers for the wedding, but the field from which they picked them was awash in sunlight, and the stems were too hot to touch. So they had to stoop down to ground level, dirtying their white linen shirts as they did, and blew soft, sweet breaths on the stems until they were cool enough to pluck. The girl was afraid, though, and ran into the woods behind them that day before her wedding day. When she came back, she had words to tell them, wild ones like mustang and gossamer and petrichor and other forbidden knowledge gleaned after a foray into the unexplored woods. Running back like Eve with an apple in her teeth, the boys knew she wouldn’t be married that next today. It was never clear why. My mother seemed to want to tell us the reason there, with her last breaths, but my father silenced her, in between sobs, gasping, “you’re not going anywhere,” and that the story would remain a mystery. My sister cried at his innocence. A father who was a child, even then. Even now.
My father returns from the bathroom looking disheveled. A nurse repeats to him what has already been said to me. “How is the surgery going?” he asks desperately.
“We don’t know yet,” she responds.
The Yankees win on a Jeter homer in the ninth, a doctor calls down the hall to an orderly. My brother is dying.
Time passes in a slow drip, like that from an IV. All I can see is the back of my brother’s head, and that gash, and the blood, and my face on the big screen. My cheeks have gone numb and I have to focus to make myself breathe. Just let us go home, I begin to think.
A doctor comes to where I sit with my father. There’s an odd glow on his face. “It’s a miracle,” he proclaims, “it’s one of the finest surgeries I’ve ever performed.” I don’t understand. I say nothing, and neither does my father. Is it real, what we are living now? I’m not certain.
“You should go in and see him, tell him the Bombers pulled it out,” he encourages.
I rise to walk in. My father remains seated, crying softly in his hands. A nurse asserts, “only family” to me as I approach, and I purse my lips to claim status as Michael’s big brother.
“He’s my brother,” another voice gasps from behind me. Claire is there, her summer sky eyes coated red from crying. She is the girl from the video screen. She looks at me and continues to cry easy tears, as though she’s kept them bottled for the last six years.
“Let’s go see little brother, Jake,” she says, and guides me by the hand. She pulls me into his white-washed room. My brother is sitting up, his head shaved and wrapped in white bandages.
“The Yankees won,” I say first. My brother gives no reaction. Claire ambles into view.
“I saw you on the Jumbotron,” Michael says then, at the sight of her, his voice heavy like curdled milk.
“So did I,” my sister says. I laugh and then choke it down. This isn’t real, I am certain now. Claire pulls me and two chairs to the bedside. Her hair falls softly to her shoulders. I can feel a wedding band around her ring finger that presses into my palm. Her perfume rests delicately just around my nostrils. Her soft red lips part as she murmurs words I never thought I’d hear again.
“We were picking flowers before the wedding,” she begins, her breathing audibly rushed, adrenaline pumping.
And all I’m thinking:
Mom is back.