Every time I see Dan Laanala in what
passes for a mall in my home town, he recounts the exact same story
about how in Little League I hit a triple with a softball bat and the
opposing coach came up to me in the next inning and asked to inspect
my bat, which was significantly larger than the regulation bat because
it was designed for softball, not baseball, and then had my bat invalidated
for the rest of the game and season while my coach in the dugout began
to swear, fume, and turn red.
This happens every single time. I ran
into him two weeks ago at the Crafts-in-the-Mall extravaganza between
K-Mart and the Wooden Nickel arcade, and "Hey—do you remember
that time when..." He's like a clock. It's become an internal joke.
Now he's four rows in front of me on
the commuter flight from Houghton out to Marquette—there's only
14 rows or so in the whole plane, so he's not far away—and I can
see him moving his shaved head around, looking for people he knows.
If he sees me, he will certainly come back here, so I keep my head buried
in the Daily Mining Gazette during the 40-minute flight.
The plane jumps and scoots around cloud
formations and pockets of turbulence, or so the flight attendants call
them—though I have a hard time envisioning exactly what that means.
My body has no such problem: my esophagus seems to compress and then
drop back to full expansion with each pop-up and dive. I do not like
flying and avoid it as a rule. I have a small book in which I add this
rule. There are pages and pages of rules here. Most I no longer adhere
to. "Never never never double-fist fourteen beers on New Year's
Eve" is one. My body shakes briefly. "Avoid keying nice cars
while wearing sandals" is another which comes shortly after, and
which I still hold.
The funny thing about the softball bat
story is that my triple should have been a homer, but I was too fat
to get around the bases in time. My dad offered me a Snickers bar if
I were to hit a home run. I think we were probably losing, like usual,
and he—more than I—wanted to win. I remember his voice cannoning
out over the grey-dust infield with me at the plate, facing a tough
righty from Chassell, "hit a homer and I'll buy you a Snickers
bar on the way home!" He offered me rewards for doing things he
thought were good. He gave it to me anyhow.
The net pocket on the seat back in front
of me is relaxed. It looks like it's been pulled on for hours by kids,
and just hangs loose now, the elastic shot. I loop my fingers around
it, give it a tug. It's still spongy, slight.
This one time, me and my friend Rich
were bored and sleeping in my parents' basement, so we snuck out of
the house with a gallon of borrowed gasoline (I was the Quartermaster
for my Boy Scout Troop, which meant little responsibility and access
to handy supplies) and we headed out to Mill Hill, which is a road intersecting
a few others—it's not important which ones. So we first poured
gasoline all over the road and watched it run down and branch out into
little gas tributaries as it ran down the hill. Next we covered a stop
sign with the remaining stuff. Because of this, gasoline's smell has
imprinted itself in my nostrils and sense-memory from this night. I
always stop at gas stations, remember, and savor the scent until it
makes my vision swim. Then I leave. So we lit the road and the stop
sign on fire. Sitting back to enjoy the show—god we loved fire—a
cop car came trolling around the corner at the top of the hill so we
ditched and hid behind some trucks because we knew if we'd try to get
away, he'd hear us. However, Rich left his crutches—his right
leg was broken, in a cast—on the side of the road, and as we were
hiding, Rich balancing on one leg with his hand on my back, the cop's
searchlight scanned across them laying in the wet green May grass. I
was behind the trucks, conspicuous as hell with the gas can in my hand,
my other hand on a rust spot, and Rich's hand on my back. We were crazy—laughing
hard as hell but as quietly as we could. The cop put out the sign with
a fire extinguisher he had in the back of his car, sent the light around
a few more times, and just as we were positive he could hear the doubled
tempo of our hearts thumping over the crickets in the background, got
back in the car and drove off so fast he left a blur behind.
The searchlight passing over crutches
in the wet grass, and the smell of gasoline moving up from my nose come
back to me through the vent blowing medium-warm air above me in the
plane. I see Dan's head still swiveling and think maybe I should go
say howdy. It's been a couple weeks since I heard the story. It's one
of the only stories from my childhood which does not involve vandalism,
pain, or potentially serious legal repercussions. The softball bat is
still stuck in my mind. I saw the other coach a year ago at my dad's
funeral. He was wearing a very bad tie—poor taste, one of those
fish ties. I don't know what he was thinking. He had come to pay his
respects, but I wasn't in any shape to accept them. Dad died of a heart
attack while he was fixing chicken parmesan. It came at home when I
was away at school. It was quick for him. The chicken burned. The other
coach told me it could have been worse, that it could have been slow
like a stroke with him hanging on for a while before letting his life
go like a rope and dropping out into what's after: vacuum, free fall.
I had a hard time with that. The other coach never apologized to me.
I don't think he had it in him.