I discovered that my father wasn’t perfect when a baseball dropped out of the sky and slammed into the windshield of his 1970 Chevy Caprice. Moments later, he was dragged away in handcuffs.
“Tell your mother to call Uncle Leo,” he yelled to me as the sergeant covered the crown of my father’s head with a beefy hand, gently pushing his crimson and puffy face into the backseat of the squad car.
The blazing emergency lights circled and bounced off the greasy windowpanes of the homes, which faced a dusty city baseball field circled by a crunchy yellow mat of grass. The alley, to my father’s dismay, was the unofficial left field, where home runs pelted houses like hail. Hitting one out of the park caused children in the league to quake in their striped team shirts advertising Joey’s Tavern or Pete’s Garage across their backs.
The police radios squawked like crows fighting over carrion as unfamiliar voices told anyone listening that the “suspect was in custody,” and that the victim was “stabilized and ready to transport.”
Women wearing formless house dresses, men dressed in uniforms with their first name in script on their shirt pocket, and children sporting hand-me-down play clothes gathered on the uneven, cracked sidewalk. The evening news about rising fuel prices, hamburger contamination, and plant layoffs paled in comparison with the action outside.
I stood silently, as if I were waiting in line at the library, as the squad car drove away, and my father turned to me through the back window. His fury pursed his lips and sent me running inside to my mother.
“Mom,” I said in my best seven-year-old adult voice. “Dad wants you to call Uncle Leo.”
“Tell him to make the call himself,” she said, furiously sprinkling pepper into the cavity of a chicken. “And while you’re at it, tell him to find out what’s going on outside.”
“He already knows.”
When my mother, Uncle Leo, and I found my father at the precinct, he was poised on a chair next to a gray metal desk that looked like a Navy destroyer. The desk was cluttered with wire baskets overflowing with papers; nubby, bitten pencils; and crumpled coffee cups. My father’s head was in his hands, his elbows dug into his knees, and his feet splayed apart from the weight of his despair. Dried blood streaked across the knuckles of his right hand.
“Stephen,” my mother said, sighing deeply. “What have you done?”
My father’s head must have had the heft of a ball of iron because he refused to lift it up.
“Ma’am,” said a police officer, clipboard in hand. “Bail’s $500. I have some papers for you to sign.”
“But I don’t have $500,” she said, as he led her to another desk, with Uncle Leo at her heels.
I had spent all my years being proud of my dad. I thought he was invincible. He called me Ref, which is short for referee. I saw him as a prize-winning pugilist wearing blue silk shorts that flapped in the breeze as he danced around opponents, seeking their weakness and knocking them to the ground on my behalf.
“I’ll never let anyone hurt you, Ref,” he always told me, especially when I was afraid of whatever lurked around the corner, underneath the car, or in the toes of my fuzzy bedroom slippers.
Each night, I would curl up on my twin bed in my pajamas spotted with dancing teacups, and he would sit on a child-size stool next to me, reading stories by the pink glow of my bedside lamp. His black, wavy hair would fall onto his forehead, in spite of the gobs of hair cream he combed onto it, as he read tales of seafaring adventures and jungle jamborees, giving each character and animal a distinct voice while waving his arms about as if conducting a fictional orchestra.
It was those same arms that were attached to lethal fists, for my dad had a right hook that couldn’t be beat. This I knew from watching him one-two punch Uncle Leo in our scrap of a backyard on sultry summer nights. He would strip down to his waist and jump around the yard, punching at fireflies, while waiting for Uncle Leo to slip into his gloves. I could stay and watch as long as I did my job, which was to tie the gloves around their wrists to prepare them for battle.
My father’s arms and back glistened in the blue moonlight as he pranced around in the humid air while a chorus of katydids sang a serenade. The soft thud of glove hitting flesh was seductive enough to keep me engaged in the bout. Uncle Leo taunted him into a good, but fair, fight. Uncle Leo was really my father’s brother, but since I called him that, my father did, too. They would box until their jabs became sloppy. I unlaced their gloves as they rehashed their fight while sitting on the back stoop and drinking beer from sweaty bottles that left damp rings on the concrete steps.
“You’d have gone down if it wasn’t so dark out tonight,” Uncle Leo said, smelling of stale beer and sticky sweat.
“Dark out? Why it’s almost a full moon. I had you just where I wanted you. You know it,” said my father, wiping his lips with the back of his bony hand. He had the look of a lightweight but the power of a heavyweight.
I sat in the yard, plucking strands of grass and breathing in their scent of a summer that I knew would end all too fast and be exchanged for heavy books and teachers in floral printed dresses and molded shoes that squeaked on the tile floors.
“Why you pulling up the lawn?” said Uncle Leo. “What’d you want to do that for?”
“Leave her alone. You let me worry about that lawn.”
My father watered the grass into a succulent outdoor mattress, even in times of dry spells and actual droughts. “It ain’t a home for kids without soft grass to fall on,” he would say to smirking neighbors with itchy fingers waiting to call the town hall secretary and report his shameful usage of water. I’m sure that he would have cried on the meager patch of grass for my sake.
Even to this day, some thirty years later, images from those carefree nights trickle and then pour from my memory like a welcome summer rain when I smell the aroma of freshly mowed grass, especially when the night begins to take on a dewy texture.
One thing I witnessed occasionally, and lovingly attributed to the necessary characteristics of a brave boxer, was my father’s ability to get riled, which was a barometer of his passion.
Our home was my father’s mother’s home, and the place where he spent his boyhood stretching his limbs by jabbing with his brother and protecting his mother as the eldest boy in a fatherless home. When my father told his mother that his wife was pregnant with me, she gave him the keys and moved into a senior apartment complex.
He loved the house but hated the ballpark.
The city council — bestowing a present to the community — razed an abandoned ribbon mill and put in the ballpark three years previously. That was when the problems started. The ballpark was barely regulation size. Opening day began the summer-long baseball hail shower on the porch roofs and cars in left field.
He attended city council meetings. He wrote letters. He talked to coaches.
“Please don’t encourage the kids to hit home runs. That’s all I’m asking,” I had overheard him plead to the coach the summer before I learned that he wasn’t perfect.
“What? That’s preposterous. The whole idea is to win,” said the coach, spitting brown liquid onto a garbage barrel.
“Why can’t you put up a high fence at least?” said my father, tapping his hand on his thigh.
“Too much money.”
The crack of the bat — as if to punctuate the comment — sent a ball with red stitches sailing onto the roof of a porch two houses from ours. The hollow thud was followed by a few baby bounces, a smack on the gutter, a drop to ground, and a roll into a chain-link fence glove.
My father’s face became overheated as he dashed towards the kid running around the bases. The boy stomped on home plate and turned with glee to his teammates, but all he saw was my father, looking like a steam engine, chugging his way. The boy ran into the dugout as other parents caught my father and returned him to the alley.
I often wonder what my father would have done if he caught the boy. I never would have expected him to harm the home-run hero, but I do think the terror-struck boy might have given up baseball.
My father had his reasons for these mini matches. He worked hard in a blouse mill keeping the cutting and sewing machines in running order. His overtime allowed him to buy a used car — which was as old as I was — to take us out of the city for Sunday drives in the mountains, strawberry picking among the neat rows behind Keller’s farm roadside stand, and picnics by the lazy river. He washed the car, changed the oil every 3,000 miles, and tinkered under the hood as I played hopscotch on the adjacent sidewalk.
In the precinct, I stared at my father’s weighted-down figure in the chair. It was as if his tarnished prize belt was simply too heavy to bear one more bad decision in the ring.
Across the room, my mother and Uncle Leo spoke with the captain when the coach, sporting a bandage on his cheek, bulldozed his way through the swinging door near the hallway. The trio talked and then looked at my father, and then talked again. After several rounds, my mother’s face, plastered with apologies and a diluted smile, seemed to melt. Uncle Leo shook the coach’s hand and patted his shoulder.
My mother’s face regained its ill-humor as she headed over to my father. “I cannot believe you punched him. Over a broken windshield yet. What were you thinking?” she said to my hunched father.
Uncle Leo said, “Anne, you know how he gets.”
“Could’ve had to spend the night in jail. Is that what you want? All this over a car,” she said, leaning into my father’s ear. Uncle Leo pulled her away from my father as if she were an angry fan outside a locker room.
“Count our blessings that the coach dropped the charges. We just need to keep him away from the field when there’s a game,” Uncle Leo said. He glanced at me and said in a whisper, “We can talk about this at home.”
My dad tucked me in without a story that night. Dangling out my open window, I could listen to his conversation with Uncle Leo, who was sitting on the back stoop.
“Anne’s right. You shouldn’t be doing things like that over a car. You’ve got to think of your family.”
“I am,” said my father, whose voice floated in the night air and tickled my ear.
“You can always get another windshield. If that guy didn’t drop the charges, you’d be sitting in a cell right now.”
The voices became silent, and the air thickened and stuck in my ear. I saw my father stand up and pace in the yard. The moonlight transformed his slick, black hair into a metallic helmet, glistening in the glory of the night.
“All over a car,” muttered Uncle Leo, slapping his palm on his thigh. “Can’t you find something else to do to with your energy?”
“What if it hadn’t been a car?” said my father, who stopped his pacing. His frame stood bigger than life, in spite of my window balcony view from above. I believed he could have reached up and touched the moon.
“What do you mean?”
“What if it had been my Ref?”
Helen Yanulus is a life-long resident of Pennsylvania, hailing from the coal-region of Luzerne County, and now living in the Poconos. She is an adjunct English professor at Northampton Community College, Monroe Campus, and former newspaper features editor and writer. Her fiction has been published in the Lehigh Valley Literary Review. Follow her on Twitter: @PoconoHYanulus.