By Katherine Hoffman
In 1983, the last spring of my mother’s father’s life had arrived. I dashed home from school, my legs spinning like the pinwheels my grandmother bought in the clearance bin at K-mart. My “snowbird” grandparents had arrived earlier in Michigan than expected. The car engine was popping, indicating they had not been there for long. I grasped at my left shoulder. My arm was less sore than two days ago when I pitched a doubleheader. My father, who had once tried out for the New York Yankees and was told to try out again if he grew 4 inches, rubbed rubbing alcohol over it to ease the pain. Can’t believe we lost one of them because Pam Marko dropped an easy fly ball. I was to pitch two more games tomorrow.
The Florida oranges my grandmother brought in were considerably better than the care packages of cheap nylons and antiquated bile-coloured 70’s hand-me-downs from my much older cousins. I remember leafing through the many photo albums my grandmother produced of each of them with masking tape labelled: Beth, Gene, Linda, Jon. Strangers who shared my DNA.
My mother sat at the kitchen table guarded, deflated and smiled obligatorily for the photograph my grandmother took. Grandma Roop was always taking photos.
“My father was a fall down drunk.” my mother sneered on more than one occasion.
We called him Bubba. When we stayed with my grandparents on the weekend, he told my grandmother meekly, “I am going to go downtown for a while,” meaning the Down the Hatch Bar. We all knew it.
Bubba asked for a bear hug while I peeled an orange. He smelled of cigarettes and aftershave. The red letters W-I-N-S-T-O-N were visible in his breast pocket of the ever-present beige shirt.
“Want a Budweiser, Don?” My father asked him.
“I’d like to watch Katherine pitch.” my grandfather said earnestly before I even put my books upstairs in my room. Nobody called me “Katherine.”
The adults were looking at each other, searching. He began wheezing, and his handkerchief had faded spots of pink on it, like the plastic flamingos in their front yard. As he stretched his back, I could see the most worn hole on his belt was not the notch he was using now.
As my father, grandfather, and I retreated to the backyard, the sun was bright, but a chill in the air caused me to cross my goose flesh arms. I noticed my grandmother did not follow us out with her camera, although it was armed and resting on the kitchen table. She sat closer to my mother, who was hugging herself. As we passed the driveway, the smell of the budding lilac bush was a sweet and welcome change from the salty and unforgettable odour of old snow and exhaust. The retreating snow was now confined to cotton balls hugging the base of the house. My father squats down his 5’ 8” frame, his legs strong despite his 53 years, ready to receive my pitches.
I began to warm up, and my grandfather stood with his hands on his hips near my father…..
My father was a fall-down drunk. I had to take my mother to the hospital once.
The grass had some dew, and a breeze parted my hair despite Aqua Net’s best effort. I began to gradually throw harder until the softball whooshed from my hips. I was throwing mostly strikes with my usual fastballs and curveballs. The harder I pitched, the harder my father returned the ball to me. It popped in my glove, and a whiff of leather came. As the sun began to level, my arm stiffened up. As I wiped my acne-riddled temple of sweat, I announced, “Whew, well, I think I’m done here.” I placed my glove under my armpit and walked back. I paused and waited for the men. I could hear them talking and nodding when they glanced at me. My grandfather hiked up his pants and proceeded towards the direction of the house.
I had to take my mother to the hospital once. My brother had to walk me down the aisle.
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My father cupped his hands and said, “Ok, Kath, I want you to throw your changeup now. You know, like we’ve been working on in the gym?” The wind was picking up as my grandfather shielded his eyes and retraced his steps cautiously.
“Dad, I have to pitch tomorrow,” I said. I could see my breath now. “Doesn’t matter. Changeups are just like warming up,” he said blithely, “or, I guess in this case, winding down.” “Come on, Bubba wants to see this,” he whined in an almost childlike tone, and my grandfather just shrugged. The changeup was not in my arsenal because I knew only one gear. Hard and fast. It seemed impossible, Houdiniesque, as if to say, “ok, I am going to make it look like I’m throwing hard and fast but am really not. Ta-Da!”
Most of my pitches were now veering out of the strike zone. One went over my father’s glove, and I could see the back of his head shake as he retrieved it from the Wagner’s lawn. The ball was now wet from the dew. My father’s throws back became wilder. One errant return throw caused me to bend my knee to the ground to stop it like any decent fielder would. I longed to be the fielder that I once was. Upon rising, I had stained my Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans.
“Goddamnit!” I said, fingering the stain like a wounded insect.
Did he hit my mother too?….. Or worse?
My father looked stunned and stammered for a bit. He lowered his voice like the way he did when a neighbourhood man came into our garage and asked his permission to borrow a tool. “Christ, Kath. It’s just a stain. It can be washed out. Come on, now.” he said, punching his glove. I then spiked my glove to the ground and sat on the damp grass with my hands on my knees, and looked towards the sky. It looked hazy, a lethargic yellow.
My grandfather slowly lumbered towards me and held up his palm to my father, like in the old photo my grandmother took of him pretending to direct traffic in front of a Model-T; He had been smirking with wavy hair like a Greek God.
I’m going downtown for a while. I pictured him waddling into the bar.
“Aw, Kath, you did just fine. Just fine, gal. Yes, sir.” he said breathlessly. I looked at the slivers of grass on the toes of his shoe.
“See, the way you are throwing now, you don’t need no changeup.” He then whispered, “that will come when it’s ready to. But only if you want it.” This lowered my gaze.
He bent over and picked up my glove with some effort. I stood, and he took out a Zippo lighter which read “Local 1292” from his pocket, concentrating on lighting his cigarette from a pendulum flame.
“Besides, things could be worse.” Smoke emerged from his nostrils like factory pipes. “Your grandmother could be out here taking pictures,” he said. I laughed. He then handed me my glove. “Thanks, Bubba,” I said meekly. “You bet,” he replied.
I noticed a fresh deep scar above his head. The funeral director could not cover it up completely when he died that summer, once softball season was over and the grass turned brown.
Katherine Hoffman is originally from Michigan and is a recipient of a Detroit Free Press writing award. She has lived in Oregon for the past 24 years.