by Daniel Picker
The early spring sun shone brightly outside the kitchen windows as our mom stood over the griddle on the stove in the kitchen, making us French Toast, my favorite. She then turned toward the frig and pulled the carton of juice out and poured orange juice for my little brother and me. I sat at the kitchen table and sipped my juice; my younger brother sat sullenly across from me, hiding behind a box of Rice Krispies. Using a spatula, mom slid two slices of French Toast on our plates.
“Eat up; we don’t have a lot of time; we have to walk downtown,” she insisted.
“I know,” I retorted. “Today is the morning for Little League sign – ups at the Town Hall.”
Dad registered me the previous year that first spring, and filled in an old family nickname for me no one even used and even I had not heard before he told me, “Your great Uncle says a relative played professionally for the old Philadelphia Athletics; they called him Yaller.”
In fact, I had never heard it until he mentioned it to me the previous year. My brother and I silently realized that normally dad would have taken care of this task, but he had moved out of our house at the end of last winter.
“Hurry up and finish,” mom said. “Drink your juice!”
The juice tasted bitter, but the French Toast was delicious, golden brown, warm off the center griddle on the turquoise stove. The butter I slathered over my last piece melted quickly and I dumped a teaspoon scoop of Confectioner’s Sugar on my last piece, and chomped with appreciation.
As we walked out the front door together and down the front steps to the walk we could hear the birds singing as they flitted about the side hedges on either side of us. The forsythia had just begun to bloom a bright yellow. The spring sun shone brightly, but a still cool March wind blew. We turned left and walked up our sloping, curving hill, then crossed our street at the top of the hill and stepped up the side curb and walked over the worn old bricks of the avenue below the canopy of giant sycamore and maple trees. Tulip Poplar Avenue was empty of walkers except for us; my little brother and I were thankful mom didn’t work on Saturdays. In the spring, creamy off white and pale orange blossoms lay scattered on the grass to the side of the worn brick sidewalk. I never understood why the trees were called “Tulip Poplars”; the trees and their blossoms seemed so unlike the tulip flowers I knew. With her working in the city so much my brother and I had become accustomed to a new – found independence walking together to school in the morning on weekdays.
The crossing guard was not at her traditional corner to help us cross the street on Saturday.
Soon we reached the street where we would usually turn right for school and if we walked together with mom, she would walk straight to the train station, but this morning we all turned right and walked past the curving, crescent bank of the many – paned windows of the kindergarten classroom of the elementary school where all of my siblings had begun school. We had just walked straight past the old Administration building, the oldest school building in town; the newer red brick elementary school stood beside it, and the even newer middle school building stood beside that. Instead of turning in and walking up the center front steps as mom would on “Back – to School Night” – one of my least favorite events – we kept walking straight past the school.
I was thankful mom didn’t insist we turn left and walk alongside the side of the school toward the highway, or Main Street, but instead we walked along on this avenue toward Horse Chestnut Street where we turned left and walked three long blocks past a friend’s old semi – dilapidated Victorian, and then a row of brick row homes with short steep steps on our right. The street was so shaded it felt cold nearly as we walked past the narrow, side driveway back toward the old A&P Market, mom’s favorite grocery store.
But soon we were back in the sun, and just a half block from Haydon Avenue and another half block from the large Town Hall. I was thankful mom left me to swing my arms free at my sides when we reached the traffic light of busy Haydon Avenue as she reached for and held my little brother’s left hand. The small Apothecary Shop stood near the opposite corner. I recalled that they fielded one of the worst T – Shirt teams last year, only eclipsed by the absolute ineptitude of “Losers Dodge” which was actually named Winner’s Dodge. We as kids understood the ironic joke.
We crossed the busy street and soon reached the front of Town Hall; mom informed us, “It’s a poor replica of The White House” which is modeled after an estate in Ireland where your great Uncle was born.
It certainly wasn’t white, but its dimensions were similar, but it had a deep grey stone façade, and the appropriate tall, rectangular – paned windows. The scraggly lawn seemed dank and bare. Once within the dull sheen of those old brass doors we noticed the marble with lines and veins on either side of us, and soon at the end of the hall, as we prepared to ascend the tall stairs with the curving wrought – iron banister with its brass handrail; in the stairwell we noticed more grey, black – veined marble and the diamond square black and white marble floor at our feet. A big window shone to our right at the top of the stairs, and the many – paned rectangular French Doors were open wide to a brightly – lit room with several big rectangular tables arranged before us. As I was afraid to voice earlier, mom stood as the only woman in the room.
We walked up to a long brown table and a town father asked us to fill out two forms and mom paid the fees for both of us.
“Tryouts for Majors are next Saturday for the older boy, and the rookie will meet at the T – Shirt Field the same morning,” he uttered matter – of – factly with a smile.
As we turned to leave by walking to our right, both my little brother and I looked up at the old man who was probably in late middle age, but seemed old to us, and then we looked down as mom said, “Thank you.” Then she turned and looked down at both of us and said very quietly with a slight yet nearly triumphant smile, “You boys are all set.”
We smiled slightly back up to her with thankfulness in our eyes and both quietly said, “Thanks mom.”
But my brother and I felt deep within that this seemed a duty for dad. But nevertheless, I was all set for my second spring season.
As we walked back toward the open doors we noticed a man standing behind a square table right past those open wood and glass doors. A big tall window with a half – moon pie window cut in triangular slices gleamed behind him and over his balding head with white hair on the sides and a few streaks combed over the center.
“Are the boys registered?” he asked.
“Yes they are!” mom said to the gentleman.
“Well these are for the boys,” and he took two white paperback copies of Baseball: The First 100 Years from several short stacks of books on the table and handed one to each of us. “They’re a gift from RCA,” he said.
With those gifts we all three smiled; my little brother and I said “Thanks,” and we began walking down the marble stairs to the diamond black and white checkered marble floor below.
Mom said, “That’s a Palladian window,” pointing up above the man’s bald head. Then she reminded, “Hold the handrail.” It stood with a dull brass gleam at our shoulders.
Last year I played with an ancient dark brown leather mitt with fat fingers and a nearly useless fat thumb of another era. But a week earlier mom had arranged one of my older sister’s boyfriend to drive us with her in his parent’s car to the local sporting goods store in the next town, several miles west on Haydon Avenue.
I had told her, “Ferdie, Ralph’s younger brother in school said, “Get a HUTCH Little League glove, they fit best.”
The ones in the store had a rectangular red and white cloth label sewn over the wide leather wrist strap with the letters H U T C H on the label. I tried one glove on while standing in the aisle, then another, and could feel how good it felt and fit well as I thumped my fist into the pocket, and pressed my hand against the tops of the leather fingers. It felt a great improvement over the family relic found in the dusty depths of the cellar flower box on the landing with my oldest sister’s old softball mitt.
Later that morning, out in front of the house, under a grey sky, across the two rectangles of our front lawn and the center walk my little brother threw me a baseball in a catch just as we had last spring. I had on my deep crimson wool Little League cap from my first – year team. That cap, seemed one of the best things about Little League, and I recalled the morning the coach gave us each a new T – shirt, also deep crimson and a cap, our uniform, that Saturday morning before our first game. But this morning as I caught the ball I loved the sensation and sound of leather in leather and the wonderful heft of the ball even more than when using the old mitt. I tossed the ball back to my little brother. He had a new glove too. What could be better than having a catch?
One game last year in Little League I had made a great catch in right field which surprised everyone, especially the coach, and I enjoyed the unexpected good fortune. But now the second season, the second spring arrived.. I would have to try out first for the Majors, and if I were not chosen, then the Minors; I knew from talking with other Little Leaguers in school, “If you don’t make Majors your first year, you might never make it,” Ferdie said at lunch in school.
Try outs were next Saturday at the Major League Field. I thought about it all week when not in school. That week I learned I also had a Library Research Project for fourth grade. My dad, though not around much anymore had moved out last winter, still might help. He would call our house after school. I heard the big black table phone ring in the master bedroom by the door across the hall. I picked up the heavy black receiver from the rotary phone cradle on the third ring.
“Hi son; it’s your dad. How are you?”
“How was school?”
“OK; I have a Research Report to write for Social Studies.”
“Do you have a subject?” he asked.
I stood looking back across what was mom’s bedroom now; the headboard over her bed was partially detached and leaning against the wall. I felt tired standing by the phone, but the cord wouldn’t reach over to the near corner of the big double bed where I might sit down. The bedspread was smooth with a cream ornate print.
“My topic is Molly Pitcher, a hero of the Revolutionary War.”
“She would be a ‘heroine’,” dad said; “A female hero is a heroine.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well that’s my topic.”
“I think when I was a kid, there was a playground named after her?” His voice trailed off for a moment, then he continued, “Well I could pick you up and take you to the Library on Saturday,” he offered.
“I’m supposed to ride bikes with Eddie to the Little League Fields that morning; I have tryouts for Majors and Eddie’s supposed to report to the T – shirt Field for his team assignment.”
“Well, I have work on Saturday morning for this new real estate firm; I have to show a couple a house; anyhow, I think it might rain that day.”
“What time are tryouts supposed to end?” he asked.
“I think by noon; the information sheet said ‘9 – 12pm’, I think.”
“You think? You mean you don’t know?”
“No, I’m sure that is right,” I responded.
“Well OK; I’ll pick you up at the house at 12:30 pm.”
I knew that with dad that meant about 2 or 3 PM even; he was always late, except to work.
The morning of Tryouts Eddie and I rode our bikes up our hill, down Tulip Poplar, then turned past the school, and past friends’ houses, then down the hill to cross Elysian Street. We locked our bikes to a tree in the sun since the wooden bike rack behind the Stand was full. The sun shone brightly. Kids stood out in the outfield tossing baseballs back and forth. A man standing by a table on the edge of the field, just outside the open gate asked us, “Are you hear for Tryouts? What are your names?”
I told him, “My little brother Eddie is here for T – shirts; this is his first year; my second.”
“What’s your last name?” he asked brusquely.
“Billy,” I said.
“Oh, he said. “Is you father or mother here?”
“No,” I said.
He slid his finger down the long white page; “Oh, Billy, you head out to right field; your brother needs to report to the T – shirt Field for his team assignment; does he know where it is?”
“I’ll point him there, thanks.”
I showed Eddie that path toward the T – shirt Field where I played last year; I pointed it out from where I stood by the back fence of right field on the Majors Field.
“I see it,” he said.
“Meet me back here when you’re finished,” I said.
He smiled and walked past, trotting and eager to join the other kids he saw below. I looked back toward the Major’s dugouts and saw serious fathers hobnobbing with their sons; it seemed coaches’ sons were the first selected, then the coaches’ friends’ sons. One coach did have his eye out for new talent as he walked toward right field from near first base.
The grass here in the infield seemed cut lower than it was in right field in my old field; it seemed a perfect green carpet about two – three inches high, lush and thick, not matted down. The sun shone in clear blue sky above us; no rain after all I thought. I threw the ball back to Conor who I knew from fourth grade; he lived about three blocks away. The coach called to him and said, “Grab a bat and a helmet and take a few swings by the backstop.”
Conor smiled and scampered in. I soon saw him facing Major League pitching. A tall boy hummed pitches in toward him. Conor fouled one off, and nicked another, and it rang against the chain link fence behind him. The gravel dust behind him was a fine dull pale blonde. It seemed Conor took about seven swings and hit the ball hard through the infield twice. His last swing he connected; we all heard an impressive whack of the bat, and I watched as the ball sailed out over right center field near where I stood. Another kid ran in front of me and caught it.
“OK, that’s great, a good hit and a good catch,” Coach yelled.
He didn’t ask me to even pick up a bat. He then called us all over toward the first base side; “OK boys hustle on in.”
Conor picked up his glove from the grass where he had left it near where earlier I was having a catch with another kid, and the three of us all scampered in toward the coach.
“You two are to report to Molly Pitcher Field next Saturday at 9 AM sharp for Minor League Tryouts.”
Conor had been cut from the herd based on his hitting and we had been dropped from The Majors to trying out for The Minors.
We all knew we had not made the Majors this year, and we might not next year. Conor had made it, it seemed, but he would have to prove himself in the field, but his hitting impressed the coach.
We all looked up toward the coach in the glare and then back to each other; the warm morning had turned cooler and the sky grew grey. Mist was starting to spit and I heard another coach call in the distance, “Bring it in to the dugouts boys.”
Boys rushed in, some picking up bats from the gravel. I looked at Ralph and he looked at me, and he said, “We have to head down to the T – shirt Field to find our little brothers.”
He was right, we did. “I’ll see you next Saturday for Minors,” he said.
“We better run down there; it may start to rain soon.”
“I think it hold off for a while,” I said.
We both scampered down the pale path behind the Major Field toward the lower fields; we could see kids gathered around the Minor League Field dugouts below us; we both knew that that field would be better than another year of T – shirts; we knew the Minor League players wore real uniforms of baggy grey flannel just like those the players wore in the big leagues with the team names stitched across them, names like Moore Plumbing or Haydon National Bank; not as illustrious as the Major League teams we had memorized: Rotary, Y’s Men, Kiwanis, Fire Co., Lions, and American Legion, “The Majors” we called them.
But we also knew The Minors were a step up from T – shirts and most T – shirt teams were much better than “Losers Dodge” Conor said, and we both laughed as we padded down the path toward the other field where we saw our brothers gathered, some still having a catch, tossing a ball back and forth under the grey – white sky with Cooper Creek running darkly beyond and below the outfield fence and the brush beyond it.
We all walked down the hill toward the T – Shirt field; the tall trees waved behind the backstop and the trail was tan dusty gravel at our feet below our sneakers. None of us wore cleats, but some of the kids in the Majors did; they called them “spikes.” We joined our little brothers and walked back up past the Minor League Field, then up the railroad ties and steps to the Majors’ Field; we found our bikes; my brother and I unlocked ours, and proceeded to ride first up the sidewalk, then down the hill across the bottom of Elysian Street.
“Let’s head this way,” Conor insisted.
And we followed him up Elysian hill toward downtown, then cut across the new supermarket parking lot, then across the street, and across the old A&P parking lot; then we rode behind the Middle School and Lincoln School. Neither Ed nor I would have thought of riding this route from where we started, but it was a good way to travel. Ralph pedaled far behind Conor, and Ed and I were in the middle.
Before he turned down his street about four blocks from our school Ralph shouted, “See you next week for Minors!”
Eddie and I kept pedaling. “Do you think dad will be home?” I asked Ed.
“I doubt it,” he said, “It’s not even 1 o’clock I would guess.”
But to our surprise we saw his green truck, a Scout parked out front. “It’s 1 o’clock boys; I’m early.”
“Hi Dad,” we both said almost in unison. “Neither my friend nor I made the Majors,” I said.
“Well that’s ok; you are still growing. Now put your bikes back in the garage; don’t just lean them against the outside of the doors.”
“OK, then we are going to put our gloves inside the house, OK, Dad?”
“OK, hurry up; the Library closes at 5 today, and it’s sometimes crowded on Saturdays.”
Ed and I walked up the driveway, then across the front lawn, then up the front steps and inside; dad didn’t come in. He was trying to straighten out boxes and blankets and tools scattered behind and over the second seat, and move brochures and papers from the passenger – side seat.
When I came back outside I informed dad, “Eddie’s not feeling so well; mom said he could lie down.”
“OK; do you have your folder for your school project?”
“I’ll go get it.”
“Grab your light blue spring jacket I gave you! We may have a cloudburst, and keep your cap on!”
I reached just inside the dining room and grabbed the folder from the marble top chest. My jacket hung draped over a maple chair beside the dining room table. The dull purple folder held my Assignment Sheet for Research Project #1, the first of fourth grade. Dad asked me to read the assignment to him as I stood beside the truck door.
“‘Research a person who played a significant role in American history’” the Assignment Sheet says, Dad,” I read.
“OK, let’s get going. You sit in front.”
I reached up to open the front passenger side door. Then I stepped up with my left foot and plunked down on the grey vinyl seat.
“Pull the door shut firmly, but don’t slam it,” dad commanded.
I did as he did the same on his side; we both could see the clouded sky before us, then we heard a loud cloudburst, and the dark grey sky grew even darker, then rain poured down in grey – white sheets as dad started the engine.
“Reach up to the grey box above your side of the front window. See the little silver button? Push it in; that turns your windshield wiper on.”
I followed his order. This International Harvester Scout was unique, and dad’s pride; he used it to plow snow in the winter. I had never seen another truck like it. There were three shifts, one above knee height, one a little shorter, and one shorter still.
“Now I’m going to teach you how to shift her into gear,” dad said. “Put your hand on top of my right hand on top of the knob of the big shifter; I have the clutch in. Now feel the movements: down to the right is first, then back to neutral in the middle, then up to the right is second, then back to neutral, then up to the left is third, then back to the middle, then down to the left is fourth; see it’s an H, just like ‘I H’ here for International Harvester; that’s all you have to know.”
“That’s something; neat.”
“Now you try; put us in first gear and we will be on our way.”
I pulled the tallest lever down and away from me, down toward the side of dad’s right leg, but also a little toward me.
“That’s right; you’ve got it.”
I felt the truck roll forward smoothly as dad let out the clutch and gave the vehicle some gas. He drove us on our way, then as we picked up speed, dad brusquely pushed the shifter up into second right on top of my hand, then he turned up the adjacent hill and we drove up to the stop sign near Tulip Poplar Avenue.
“OK, we are off to the Library son. So how are school and Little League going?”
“Both are OK; I’m not sure I will make Minors even, after seeing how good the players are who didn’t make Majors.”
“Well, all you can do is try. You’re short for your age, but just try your best.”
We bounced along the street; few cars were out; the rain poured a river of water down our flat windshield; runnels of rain puddled a bit at the bottom corner of my side of the windshield; a few drops made it in at the bottom of the side window.
“The rubber edging is worn; I have to try to replace it.”
“It’s OK, dad; I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s raining really hard.”
We parked alongside the Library; there were old meters there but dad knew we didn’t need to pay on weekends. We headed down the side steps to the Children’s Floor. Dad pulled on the white door and held it open after he stepped in; we were both out of the rain; both of us were wearing just light spring jackets zipped up; I had my Little League cap from my first year; the crimson wool got wet fast; dad had an old blue cap on from when he served in the Navy on a Destroyer.
Dad said, “Let’s look up Molly Pitcher in the card catalog over there.”
We walked over to a big square wooden case with about thirty small square drawers.
“We should look under ‘Pitcher’ I think,” I said.
“But ‘I think’ you’re correct this time. Pull out that long drawer; it’s the right height for you.”
I slid the drawer about halfway out. We could see to our right the blue – haired librarian busy with a mom and two short little girls who stood on a step stool to reach over the counter while pushing their large picture books toward the librarian.
“That’s Miss Dizzy Curtis; she’s not a real librarian like your mom; she’s the mayor’s aunt; She’s just the town gossip.”
“Here’s two books on ‘Molly Pitcher’ dad; see the cards?”
Dad leaned over the top of my cap.
“Yes, very good; what section?”
“It’s says ‘Bio B & P’” I said.
“Well slide that back in and let’s find that section among the shelves.”
We both walked a bit to our right and turned around, then crossed the tiled floor.
“Your mother read her poetry in the Community Room over there,” dad said.
We walked over toward the hall that led to the upstairs; the wooden shelves on the other side were tall and packed with books. I could see in the first few shelves each book had a still distinct, yet partially faded “B” on a small square sticker near the base of the spine. We stood side – by – side before a tall shelf, the second one in from the alcove hallway that led around another room full of books before the stairs that went upstairs. I could hear the rain pouring down against the small rectangular windows that stood high up near the ceiling and just above the tallest bookcases. My dad stood beside me.
“Here they are dad; the books on Molly Pitcher; ‘Revolutionary Heroine’ it says.”
“You found them son; choose just one; that other one is for real little kids; you’re a big boy now.”
“Let’s go upstairs to check this out; that woman is most unpleasant; besides, we will be closer to the vehicle from the front entrance.”
We walked one in front of the other into the alcove and up the narrow stairs; I followed dad.
After checking out the book at the main desk under the center hall dome above the rotunda dad remarked: “The building is designed after Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home; I took you there when you were still in a stroller hoping to imbue you with the spirit of Jefferson.”
The lady at the desk slid the book in a bag; “It’s really coming down out there.”
“That it is,” dad said. “We don’t have an umbrella, but it is just a short walk.”
Outside the front door we stood below the porch; the sidewalk and slate walk now stained a deep tan and dark grey from the rain. Some clear puddles formed down the steps on the other walk.
Once we were back in the truck dad started the engine; it made a mild guttural roar, which sounded like dad did when he cleared his throat in the early morning.
“Let’s go; I’ll get you home in no time; I have to meet another client this afternoon. If I had not been laid off by Burnham and Bass engineers and architects, I would not be selling real estate.”
We bounced down the avenue under the dark trees; the cold damp air crept in between the windows; although most of the trees had begun to bud none had fully leafed out yet this spring; the dark afternoon sky and heavy rain made the day feel closer to cold autumn. We were both quiet block after block after we crossed the highway from downtown.
“How’s your mother?” dad asked.
“She seems OK most of the time; she seems very sad after dinner sometimes.”
I didn’t know what to say next, so I just sat there quietly with the rain pouring down over the rectangular panes, and the tall dark poplars with their arms reaching up and over from both sides of the street like old forlorn grandparents.
About the Author:
Daniel Picker is the author of a book of poems, “Steep Stony Road” which was published by Viral Cat Press of San Francisco in 2012. Daniel’s poems have appeared in The Dudley Review at Harvard where Daniel was awarded The Dudley Review Poetry Prize in 2010, and Plough: A Journal of Faith, Society, and Spirituality, Sequoia: The Stanford Literary Magazine, Elysian Fields Quarterly: The National Baseball Journal, RUNE: MIT, Vermont Literary Review, Soundings East, Folio, Art Calendar Magazine of Maryland, Dial Tone: Stanford’s Journal of the Arts, Ireland of the Welcomes Magazine, and many more. Daniel’s reviews, articles, essays, and short prose works have appeared in Harvard Review, The Sewanee Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Middlebury Magazine, The Oxonian Review of the University of Oxford, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Poetry(Chicago), Harvard Magazine, and many more. Recently, Daniel’s fictional short stories have appeared in The Abington Review, The Kelsey Review, The 67th Street Scribe, and The Adelaide Literary Magazine.