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by Brian Howlett

Make no mistake, there is no magic in the following story. If something extraordinary does happen, chalk it up to the material world. A shift in the earth’s axis perhaps, or a butterfly fluttering its wings a continent away. How can there be magic when there’s no belief in its possibility? Here in Willowdale, logic prevails. Streets surrender to a grid of perfect lines and right angles. Residential lots toe the line at 37.5 feet wide by 182 feet deep. Every sidewalk knows its place. Even the cemetery inspires no ghost stories. The youngest child cycles gleefully along its paths without so much as a sidelong glance at what might stir behind those tombstones.

There is no sense of a beneath or a beyond.

Blame the urban engineers generations back who were determined to carve order from the farmers’ fields, who made no allowance for the random features on the periphery of a neighborhood that can locate a childhood. No ditches or exposed sewer pipes to serve as a damp hideout on a summer day. No dead ends or forgotten stands of old trees to introduce a world of possibility in a developing mind, away from the doleful gaze of parents.  

This is a place of boys named Bill, Mark, Doug, and Bruce; monosyllables raining down in the schoolyards and playgrounds. And when the moms gather on their front porches over Sanka to gossip, no one admits to harboring a dream for that child playing in front of her.

Which certainly makes this no prison of the spirit. Rather, a life without wonder or expectation can be remarkably peaceful. Everyone looks at the future through the same muted lens, and the children can survive adolescence free of any dawning realization that you’re competing with your friends for some distant prize down the road.

So when the first of the Parkview Boys died at the age of nineteen, no one was given to question the odds against such an event. Pat Cooper, left field, had springs for legs and a rocket for an arm. It was the first baseball game of the fourth season playing pickup in Parkview Park, a perfectly rectangular swath of open grass with no infield or backstop to define it as an actual diamond. Pat had an especially good game that night, making three of the acrobatic catches that were his trademark.

He fell dead riding home on the beloved motorcycle that was already one-quarter paid off. An eyewitness said Pat simply collapsed, and the bike rode over him, skittering another two hundred feet before coming to a rest. No one thought to ask, at least aloud, how a nineteen-year-old heart could stop dead in its tracks. Not his parents, or his girlfriend Anne, whom he’d been dating since seventh grade. At the funeral, Willowdale’s children sat miserably in hand-me-down suits and dresses. The Parkview Boys gathered around egg salad sandwiches, eyes down. Carson wanted to ask why they had paprika and celery and tasted so good, but knew better.

Pat wanted to work for himself one day. His dad, an electrician too, worked for the school board and couldn’t understand why Pat would want to have his own business.

His parents were pushing hard to see him marry Anne. He had no intention of doing so, at least not yet, at such a young age, but he didn’t have the nerve, or the ‘stones’ as his dad would say, to tell them. And now he was gone. And no one he left behind, gathered in the community center, framed his loss in a bigger picture or challenged the meaning of a meaningless accident.

So when a massive elm tree grew in Pat’s spot in left field virtually overnight, none of the Parkview Boys questioned that either. Nor did any of the bony old men in undershirts and slippers who dragged their lawn chairs out to the sidewalk every Tuesday evening at 6:15 as warm-ups began and surrendered to the pleasure of watching without thinking. They were the bachelor uncles and grandfathers no one had time for; many of whom were living with their families because they couldn’t afford to be on their own. For them the Tuesday night game was something to behold, because the Parkview Boys could play. Willowdale may have been a soccer and hockey town – and football come junior high – and no one played organized baseball as kids, but something in the park brought out their best. Balls flew off bats. Leaping catches were routinely made in all corners of the field. Double plays were nimbly turned.

None of them ever looked back at the random way the games started in the first place. It was the summer they all turned fifteen. Harrison, Thomson, and—yeah—it must have been Manning, were idly tossing the ball along the eastern edge of the park on a Tuesday afternoon, near the swings, slides, and teeter-totters. Lee and Carson cycled by, and Lee whipped home to get a bat, a scarred wooden model his grandfather used when he was a boy. They started playing work-ups, with only three to cover the entire field, one to pitch and one to bat. Harrison made a stunning catch in center just when Wilson walked by. He hooted his approval and inserted himself into the batting order. Then Jackson. Soon they were nine. Then twelve, and too many for work-ups. They split into true teams of six a side, and over the course of the first three innings of the first game played in Parkview, twelve players became a perfect eighteen.

No one cared to remember how the teams were struck either. It just happened, without debate, like an invisible line had snaked around one group, moving them to the infield, and another line gathered the rest toward the bare spot that was crowned home plate. From the first pitch, however, there was never any suggestion that a player might be able to change sides.

That first game, the score was 28-27 for—well, the teams didn’t have names, so 28-27 for the winning team. They left without needing to make plans to meet up again next week, because somehow all of them just knew that they would. The following Tuesday the baseball was just as good. Hard line drives were chased down like foxes chasing rabbits. Even innocent pop-ups went higher than anyone had ever

seen before landing snugly in gloves. Runners trying to make it home were gunned down with missiles from the outfield, no relay required.

With Cooper’s passing, they were now nine players to eight. All of them showed up at the park the Tuesday after the funeral. The nine men at bat looked at the eight in the field. Mason, Cooper’s center fielder, cheated over to the vacant spot in left. Lewis, second base, who liked to play deep anyway, moved a bit deeper. As did third. And it was game on.

The elm tree got in the way of a couple of long balls, making what was foul fair with the right bounce. But the boys adjusted seamlessly. The batters started aiming for the big trunk to see if they could squeeze an extra base or two compliments of a ricochet. The fielders played the carom without complaint, turning the interference as a game within a game. By the end of the third inning, the elm had become part of the game’s conversation. “It’s coming down through the branches now! See it?” “Left! Left! No, sorry, go back, there you are!”

Baseball is the most social of sports. It’s a game of petty observation and unsolicited running commentary as much as it’s one of throwing and catching. Players choose their position, in fact, based more on their temperament and personality than physical abilities. Some players never stop talking, with second base and right field typically being the biggest offenders. Shortstops are too insecure to say much, knowing they’re just an error away from being crucified for talkativeness. Third base is the peacekeeper. The statesman. Center fielders are too impressed with their own athleticism to much bother with anyone else.

The boys agreed the elm tree made the game more interesting. Because it was down the line, well in from from the road, it remained a secret among them and the old men who watched them. When they went home that night, none of them mentioned it to their parents.

And while one interloping tree may escape notice for a week or two—even in Willowdale—two would be pushing it. Four weeks after Cooper died, on the first Tuesday of June, Jeff ‘no P’ Thomson, first base, went for a swim in Memorial Community pool after the game. He misjudged his backward jump off the top diving board, landed on his neck, and was dead before he hit the water.

‘No P’ was tall and brought down many an errant throw to first. Quick for his height, he could cover the infield gap all the way over to second. He was one of the smarter kids, and everyone always figured he’d be leaving them for university. But he might as well have been asking to go to China. His father, a postman, wanted nothing more than for Jeff to carry the bag too. It was such a good, sweet life. Union. Pension. Home by 3:00 every day to water the lawn and weed the garden beds. They argued about the future, as much as anyone here would. As a compromise his parents agreed to pay for one course of night school at community college after he applied to the Post Office.

The boys put their suits back on, not even laundered since Cooper’s funeral, and paid their respects over the same egg salad sandwiches. They didn’t taste as good this time, and for some reason Jeff’s mother refused to let any of the boys near her to express their sympathies.

Would they play ball the following Tuesday? What else would they possibly do? It was a wet, early summer evening when they showed up at Parkview, their mood matching the weather. They all spotted the weeping willow standing tall between first base and right field, just off the foul line. Nobody said anything and, ignoring it, they trudged out to their positions in silent warm-up. When the final player arrived, they smoothly transitioned to eight-on-eight. The game began, and as pop-ups got lost in the branches of the elm and now the willow, the mood lightened. The chatter and trash talk returned.

But the willow stood close to the road. It was Wilson’s mom who saw it that Tuesday night, driving by the park with, as it turns out, Mrs. Thomson, who hadn’t spoken to a soul since her son’s funeral. Mrs. Wilson got out of the car and walked over to the massive trunk as if the boys weren’t even there. (Come to think of it, this was the first time she had ever seen them play.) No P’s’ mom stayed in the car, as if frightened by the sight of the tree. Poor Mrs. Wilson had no explanation. She walked around the base of it. She looked up into the branches spilling to the ground all around her, like a scene from some enchanted forest in a children’s book. She took one of the narrow leaves between her fingers, rubbing it timidly. The city must have planted it without sending around a notice, but why they’d be planting fully-grown trees, she had no idea. But that was clearly what had happened. What else could it be? She left the park without even acknowledging the boys.

The next to die was Greg Spence. He was less than two months from leaving for Europe to backpack solo. No one had ever made such a trip or known anybody who did. Greg was working seven days a week landscaping to fund it. He cut himself on the shears, and the cut grew infected within hours. That night he was in the hospital, and the next morning the infection beat the antibiotics. Against all odds. His parents chose to have a small funeral, immediate family only. The Parkview Boys were not invited.

Summer was three months and three funerals deep. There were murmurs about the misfortune surrounding the boys. Logic dictated that it was simply a run of coincidence. Bad timing. No one challenged the order of things, even as the third full-grown tree, a maple, took its place in Parkview in full view in center field. It gave no pause to the game. That Tuesday, with Spence’s loss, it was now eight boys on seven, and they started the game without warm-ups. The balls caromed off branches like a pinball game, harder than before. Each player displayed more finely tuned reflexes and ever more harmonious teamwork. The catches were more acrobatic. The rundowns and relays more precisely timed. It was by far the best game any of them had played, and none of them wanted it to end. They didn’t notice the small crowds lining up along the sidewalks on either side of the park. Neighbors, friends, girlfriends, even a few of the dads showed up, all quietly enjoying the fierce display. It was like they were watching young men they didn’t know, as if a team of professionals had descended upon them.

Tied after the regulation nine, they played two extra innings into the dusk, with the game still tied 32-32. The spectators lined their cars along the sidewalk and turned their headlights onto the diamond. The innings marched on in perfect threes: 35-35; 38-38; 41-41. Finally, well past 11:00 pm, Mason hit one of his patented long balls and Stearns had to leave the park and run out onto the street to make the catch. A car suddenly came toward him. Everyone stopped. Stearns had to let the ball soar beyond him or he would have been struck, and the game was won and done. The crowd quietly broke up, and the boys gathered their gear, stripping the bases from the running paths they had worn deeply into the grass—another grid—and left the field to the darkness. None of them spoke about how well they had all played, yet each knew it would be a contest they would remember, play by frozen play, for years.

The following Tuesday the boys showed up earlier than normal, eager to start. But a city tree-cutting crew was out in center field, along with Mrs. Wilson. The large cherry-picker had trailed a deep gouge through the turf. One of the workers was rigging the base of the maple tree with lines. The boys were horrified to see another high up, in full harness, already clearing branches, prepping for the kill. Mrs. Wilson waved the boys away, telling them to go home, that they couldn’t possibly play baseball this night. And besides, weren’t they getting too old for this game anyway?

Manning, the biggest hitter, walked deliberately over to home plate, bat in hand. Mrs. Wilson watched as if she didn’t recognize him. The old men across the street leaned forward on their rickety lawn chairs. Carson picked up his glove and went to the mound. Jackson flipped him the ball and took his place at first. Another branch fell from the maple. The other boys slowly took their positions. Mrs. Wilson told them to stop. Just stop!

Carson turned his back to her and tossed a plump grapefruit of a pitch to Manning. He gave it everything, aiming high and strong. The ball soared into the maple. The worker at the bottom ran from underneath, cursing. The ball caromed off the upper branches, and the pruner, dangling aloft, had to dodge it before clambering angrily out of the tree. Mason and Lewis stood under the tree waiting, gloves at the ready, but the ball didn’t come down. They stared up into the darkness of the upper branches, no idea where it had gone.

Morris, then Lee, then Jackson followed Manning, killing the ball into the maple, then the elm, then the willow. None of the balls made it to the ground.  

The workers understood this wasn’t their fight—or their Willowdale—and quickly left. Mrs. Wilson stood fixed in center, unsure, alone. No one looked at her, not even her son, who had taken his turn at bat.

So they didn’t see the look on her face and a long-suppressed idea turning up her lip. It was the anxiety of someone who, after forty-seven years on this planet, for the first time in her life, sees that maybe there is another team in this life and a different game afoot.  

 

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