B R O T H E R S
ON OPENING DAY, YOU REMEMBER THE GIFTS THAT EVEN TIME CANNOT TAKE AWAY.
|+ BY ANDRE DUBUS +|
In the winter of 1974, I met my agent, Philip Spitzer, and his brother Michel. I had liked Philip for months when he was only a voice on the phone. I had sent him a collection of stories in the summer of 1973, and he wanted to try to sell it. Till then I had not had encouragement from anyone in New York about a book of stories, without a novel. After that I talked too often on the phone with Philip. He was friendly and patient, but I had no discipline then, and I phoned at least every week to ask if a publisher had taken my book. Of course if a publisher had taken it, Philip would have called me. But I can be suddenly and powerfully filled with a hope that feels like certainty: an editor has just called Philip, now is the time, it is happening now -- something like that. In winter he called to tell me he was going to visit his brother in Exeter, N.H., and they would like to see me on their way north of the airport at Boston.
Philip is a sensitive man; calling me about having a drink together probably gave him some difficulty: He would know that, when I heard his voice, I would expect him to say he had sold my book. That happened later, in spring. I lived alone in a two-room apartment. Up three flights of stairs Philip and Michel climbed one night. I had very little furniture, and one or two of us sat on the bed. Philip and Michel are witty, athletic, good-hearted men who like to tell jokes and stories. That evening we became friends. It is a deep friendship, though we rarely see each other. I feel like a brother to them: A few summers ago, I went to the wedding of Michel's son, and either Philip or Michel pushed me up a sloping lawn to pose with the Spitzers for the family photograph; Michel's son said, "You're an honorary Spitzer."
In April, after meeting that winter, we went to the Boston Red Sox Opening Day at Fenway Park. I was a teacher then; I taught five afternoons a week, and had never been to Opening Day. But that year and for the next 10 years, till I retired, early and burned-out -- I canceled my classes, and went to the game with Philip and Michel and my friend Jim Valhouli, a teacher of literature who 21 winters later broke through ice while skating on the Exeter River and drowned. Yet there we were, the four of us, in our 30s, laughing in Michel's car, on a holiday not only from work but from Time and what we perceived as our daily lives, and from what would become of us. That is what a baseball game gives. When Sandy Koufax retired from the Dodgers he said that baseball was not reality; it entertained people and allowed them to escape for a few hours.
At a baseball game in Fenway Park, I feel like a boy, watching grown men on a playing field, and watching grown men and women in their seats in boxes and the grandstand, and faceless bodies across the field in the bleachers; watching them watch, cheer, eat, talk, drink; watching them go up and down the steps, for food, drinks, or the restrooms. The sound of the crowd is steady, the calls of roaming vendors rising higher, as the cries of certain people do: those who yell at umpires, players, managers and those who call to the players, Good eye; you can do it, as if they -- we, I do it -- had been infielders years ago, when the voices of infielders were part of the game, calling to the pitcher, Come babe, come boy, we used to say in spirited voices, our bodies poised, our weight on our toes, our gloves ready. During ballgames at Fenway Park, strangers talk to each other about the game; people cheer when one catches a foul ball; vendors standing on steps hear an order from someone sitting in the middle of the row; the buyer hands money to someone in the next seat, who passes it on; the paper and coins move from hand to hand to the vendor who places in these hands popcorn, hot dogs, peanuts, beer, soft drinks. Sometimes at Mass I think of Fenway Park, for at Mass there is the same feeling of good will: People are there because they want to be, and I feel among friends who share a passion.
For me, baseball is real in a deeper way than much of what I do. I do not begin a baseball season hoping the Red Sox win a pennant and the World Series. I enjoy each game. Next day I wait with excitement for the game on television that night or afternoon. Then I watch what happens and what does not happen in a moment. I rarely concentrate on a moment of anything but writing and exercise and receiving Communion. Yet watching a game I do. A batter steps out of the box, looks to his left at the third-base coach; the coach moves his hands, touches his arm, his chest, his face, his cap; the batter steps to the plate; the catcher's right fingers signal to the pitcher; the pitcher shakes his head; a runner on second creeps away from the base, glancing at the shortstop and second baseman; the catcher signals again, the pitcher nods, brings up his hands, kicks, throws. I watch the ball, and the batter. The ball is moving 93 miles per hour, but there is time for me to focus on it, maybe hold my breath, enough time so that it feels like waiting; then I am amazed: the batter not only hits the ball, but times his swing so well that he pulls it, a line drive right of the third baseman who somehow has time to dive for it, but he does not touch it; he is lying on the ground, the ball hits the grass a hundred feet behind him, as the left fielder sprints toward it, to stop it before it bounces and rolls to the fence.
The reality I am watching is moments of grace and skill, gifts received by men who do not turn away from them, but work with them for the few years they are granted. One spring the batter will not be able to hit a fast ball, the pitcher will not be able to throw one; the gifts are gone, as if they existed independent of men, staying with one for a time, then moving on to another, a boy in the womb, and when he is in elementary school you can already see that he has it.
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