Fall 2017 (Volume 21, Issue I)
My daughter clatters down the carpeted stairs, too fast, too loud. Her arms out, she skips the last step to alight on the uneven planks of our dining room. She stumbles, teeters on her heels. She’s worried about tonight’s band performance at St. Mary’s cathedral, schoolmates’ reaction to her outfit. With fingers splayed, she sinks towards the floor and then moves back and forth on the balls of her feet, crouching like a runner preparing to steal second.
I want to tell Grace to go ahead, to run with abandon, to fly like a sparrow that knows its destination and not worry about the consequences, but I know better about consequences, her temperament, mine, and as she rights herself, I’m the one who feels off-balance; unable to speak, I catch a whiff of freshly-mown grass though the open window and return to my childhood, summer nights defined by Red Rover, freeze-tag, frisbees.
The infield for our nightly kickball game was the only treeless yard on the block, though its owners, our next-door neighbors, had no kids young or old enough to play. Home plate was the corner of our lot where yard met house, where hostas brokered the border between grass, bush, the splash of green on white spreading like a rash. We barreled down the sloping driveway to first base and then along the sidewalk to the Russells’ drive; third was a stand of forsythia bushes that pushed forth only leaves, and our house, home. Our paths were invisible, but the right angle from second to home was etched on the Bundys’ lawn like lines on a treasure map leading to an empty X. The thwack of ball on Keds and Converses ended only when streetlights became suns. We moved, breathless, with sureness, certainty, sweat.
On this night though, I am once again sidelined, penned to the porch, relegated to sitting with my youngest siblings. Bathed for bed, they suck on popsicles, orange stains growing into the over-exaggerated smiles of clowns. They wear shorty pajamas, too small, mismatched, covered in polka dots, Calamine. This is more circus finery. I am next to, slightly behind my mother, her hair still black, who watches the game from her patio chair, sinks into its ribbing. The dog, its tight apricot curls, pants under this aluminum throne, leash wrapped around my mother’s hand. I want to watch the game, but don’t want to be seen by my friends. I squat, balance on my toes, peer over the bushes so flat, so even it looks as if my father uses a level when he trims them.
Danny releases the ball. It spins toward my brother and bounces once before it sinks below my sightline. I never see Steve connect, a pop up to the pitcher’s mound. “Out,” Mom snaps, ump, arbitrator, league president. She is always right, rules with wooden spoons, soap—over All, Dawn, Tide, Joy.
Third out, the teams switch, and Steve zigzags to left field. He crouches, moves side to side on his toes. I do the same, my feet all pins and needles. Randy tenses for the pitch. I want to stand up, lean closer to the action, but I don’t need to advertise to my friends that I’ve received a one-game suspension. They know, I know they know, but still to advertise it… so I just mentally cheer for Angela, the only girl our age on the block, and shut my eyes. I count to ten, look to her success, and lean into the whitewashed door, hair catching on the screen. I stare above, study the bronze eagle, wings outstretched, screwed above the door’s frame, into mortar.
“You,” Mom says, pointing at me with her nail file. I have been caught swearing. Washed with Lux, I burn inside and out. The wax of soap clings to the back of my tongue; bile climbs the throat, retreats, returns. She intones the warning that is mine and mine only: “You are the oldest. You have a duty.” Her voice is calm, lacks anger, but I know better than to roll my eyes. Instead I follow the grackle that bisects the heat hovering over the asphalt outfield. The bird homes towards its nest.
In my more generous moods, when I remember this night, these moments, I freeze the bird midair—the ball hangs, haloed, like a host dipped in altar wine—and I know my mother was trying to say, you can be better; you aren’t there yet, but will be. Perhaps she was really punishing her flaws. What I heard, though, was you’re wrong, off, less; you are not enough. And so, for a while anyway, I learned to keep quiet, to swear under my breath, to divorce outer from inner and pretend to accept, get along, play the role. Duty, however, was just another four-letter word. Like Mom’s Goddammits, Jesus Christs, and that holy trinity of shit-shit-shit, duty carried heat like an infected bug bite, bleeding at the edges.
My sister will believe this story even if she doesn’t recall it. My mother probably won’t remember it and then will worry, at least momentarily. My father will support my mother. My brothers could be split, on opposite teams, the kickball still hanging above, between them; they could, depending on the day, both be eager to catch it, both racing to get there first.
Today though, I let that maroon ball of my childhood clear the yellow hood of a neighbor boy’s rusting Torino forever parked in our street, stalled. And when this red sphere slices through the air, I return to the present, to see Grace standing tall, straightening her glasses, smoothing her dress—covered in ragged circles of maroon, pink, white, midnight blue and bought at Target with money she’s saved. The hem hits her knee, hovers over boots with horizontal buckles that ladder up her legs. She asks how she looks.
“Beautiful,” I say. She rolls her eyes and won’t smile, but she blushes. For once, she believes me.
I know though that this moment, this comment, is probably not the truth Grace will recall. Instead, this conversation, her childhood, will arc like a four-square ball bouncing out of bounds, or a red-winged blackbird passing her vision, his epaulets a flash of yellow-orange light. Because I remember the way I do, and my siblings the way that they do, I worry about what she will choose to remember, as if what we remember is chosen. And since she is an only child, who will challenge her version of events? I worry her focus will only be on fear, judgment, failings, those she attaches to her herself, classmates, me. I worry she will remember crows, their blue-black caws speaking with my voice—start acting your age; stop acting your age; stop worrying about what others think, did you just say what I think you said? These birds, I fear, will bleat constant queries about homework, chores, musical scales. You know better, they will say. You have a duty. There are, they will squawk, consequences.
However, if I’m lucky, some days these crows will be silenced, and balls will hover between baselines and boundaries like airy notes rising from her flute. In those moments, on those days, I pray that I will have been enough for her. That most of her memories will glow like maroon spheres of light, red balloons rising. That most of her memories will burn with the sureness of a fast pitch accurately delivered, turn like the shift from a sharp to a flat, rise with the joy of a red-tailed hawk at dusk wheeling on summer currents before homing back to its nest.