My papa wasn't much, understand. He didn't have the gift in him what makes people feel for each other. He couldn't understand why some people felt bad for others. "No one ever felt sorry for me and I'm just fine," he liked to say. He sure did extend that philosophy to me and my sister in kind.
He had something akin to pride for my sister, mind, because she had his gift for athletics. He'd gotten into the Minors after high school but it never went much further than that. He liked to blame that one on me, since I'm the elder. Mama got knocked up when she was seventeen and he was rounding twenty-one. Something of note I've learned is that kids get blamed for a lot of things that aren't their fault, and the main one is being born.
Papa took me to baseball games my whole childhood and made me pay attention to the outfielders, which is where he spent a lot of time when he was in the Minors, I guess. "You took me away from this, Kid. You get to take my place." And oh my, he was serious. Every night after work we were in the backyard, pitching back and forth, losing balls in the shadows under the street light.
I was dismal at baseball, which I am not ashamed to admit, no sir. Coach knew it, I knew it, and near everyone at my high school knew it. Papa got his wish in that I spent a lot of time in the outfield, but that was really more to keep the other players safe from my pitching.
I never heard Papa yelling during my games, but I am told that much of it was inappropriate for a family-friendly venue. Me, all I felt was a strange mix of fear of disappointing him and pleasure that he came at all. Everyone knew by then how much he wanted me to be good. You could tell how bad I was doing by how drunk he got during a game. Driving home afterwards was always something of an adventure.
My last game, I asked Coach to let me bat. My wild tosses from the outfield only ever made it halfway to the diamond, so I couldn't be any worse with a bat in my hand. He okayed it because in high school sometimes people put your feelings ahead of your abilities, which wasn't common in my life up to that point. So I got up to bat and I positioned my feet a few inches from the plate and I stuck out my hip and I gripped the bat like I'd seen my teammates do a thousand times. I remember not hearing the crowd. Just crickets and the gritty sound of dust under my feet and my breath too loud. I looked up at the pitcher and he grinned at me like he knew me-like we were two friends who were sharing a joke, and he knew everything to say just right in order to make me laugh.
He threw the ball straight as an arrow. And a bit soft, honestly, which I only really understood later. And I swung from the shoulder like it wasn't even mine and the way the ball smacked against the wood sent vibrations all the way up my arms into my teeth. The ball didn't make it that far, mind, but I didn't know that. I was still dealing with the sensation of aiming for something and hitting it, the way it felt like a target in the middle of your chest had been bulls-eyed.
People cheering came to me pretty quickly after that. Someone in left field dropped the ball trying to throw it to first. I tossed the bat and ran like anything. The other team came at me pretty slow but I still only made it to second base and I was tagged out later trying to get to third, but what did I care? Everything up to that point had been a miracle. It felt like both teams and everyone in the stands was on my side.
When we got back into the car, my papa gave me a smack that bloodied my nose. "Our family isn't a damned charity case," was all he said. He wouldn't look at me the rest of the drive home.
(Long pause. Considering)
That was twenty years ago. Sometimes that feeling comes to me again, the injustice of it all, so quick on the heels of my only victory to that point. There's nothing to do really with all that impotency and rage, so when I feel that way I just hug my children, I hug them.