Reads: 242

FIDELITY by Ernest DeSchoening

“Ed?” Army worms were best, the boy decided. He nudged this one here with a not too-clean finger. “Ehh---ed?” Two syllables this time. Not a good sign. But the boy ignored the voice anyway. Yes, army worms were best. Why was that? Fuzzy-friendly like caterpillars, sure. Soft blues and grays in regular winding patterns. But then add to this the delicate horror of their hanging like that from a strand of web. Just like the spiders the boy so loathed (and, yes, secretly feared.) “Edward!” Like the whipcrack report of dad’s .22 rifle. Locked away in the cedar chest now, that rifle, till---till---till forever maybe. The name’s wearer sighed. “What?” No need to ask. But ask anyway. Draw it out. Make her work for it. “You know what.” The boy’s older sister now stood framed in her small house’s back doorway. Imposing in the way only a five-foot tall little shrike of a woman can be. “Little League tryouts. It’s time.” “Do I have to?” Go ahead. Plow that barren furrow one more time. “Dad would have wanted it like this.” The boy sighed again. He often had to do that, talking to his sister. “Dad would have wanted it.”, she repeated. More firmly this time. In life Joe Vansker had not been an easy man to live with. In death, he was proving even more difficult. That thanks largely to this daughter of his who----while he yet lived----had disliked him as truly and as heartily as anyone. “I told you!” The boy tried, he really tried, not to whine. “I don’t like baseball.” This, as they both knew, was not strictly true. For while football was the boy’s first love, baseball was a solid if not too close second. What he could not abide, as again they both knew, was the spectre of adult supervision that Little League brought in its train. Adult supervision: that mentoring succubus that sooner rather than late fastens itself onto the life-vein of whatever kids find fun to do. The boy was proud, too, of that word: succubus. So vivid, so obscene-sounding exact. It had struck a chord and thrilled something deep down inside him when he had heard it that one time on “Kolchak: the Night Stalker.” But there was that in his sister’s face this moment that warned him off using the word just now. Too bad. “Succubus” was to words what army worms were to insects. “Ed.” Firm tone, lips pressed “Life isn’t about what we like. I have been trying hard to impress that on you ever since I had to take you in.” “Not ‘take in.’ ‘Take from.’ Take me from Mom! And you never had to neither.” “Edward Vansker! It was the only way to hold the family together!” Which might have made sense by his sister’s child welfare worker logic---for such was her job as well as her passion. But it made none at all by the boy’s twelve-year old male’s reckoning, which tends far more to the tangible and immediate than to the statistically-projectable. “Mom is fine and you know it!” “Ed! Mom is fifty-three years old. She is a heavy smoker---especially since Dad. Besides, she might have a hereditary brain aneurysm like Aunt Sue. Those can’t be detected you know, so we have to be prudent here.” All of which points the boy’s sister---an emotional sucker-puncher---had used with telling effect on her just-widowed mother late last autumn. Used to wring custody of her younger sibling from the then-distraught and never-too-functional older woman. “Besides Mom, it’s only a half-hour away.”, she had kept consolurging. Ed---then as now---ruefully reflected that a “half-hour” is one thing to a woman with a car, like his sister. It is quite another to a woman without, like his mother. Or, for that matter, to a boy with only a bike like himself. Without a car or with only a bike, and with Greyhound bus service recently discontinued to all High Line communities like his mom’s Chester and his now-Shelby. Did you even hear me, Ed? Aunt Sue was only fifty-five when she died. Mom might be like that.” After their father’s death, the hand of mortality lay heavy on the boy’s sister’s thinking. “Or she might live to be eighty-eight, like Grandma! Eighty-eight and still going.” In fact, no one quite knew Grandma’s exact age. In the old country, birthdays had only hazily been kept count of. And her U.S. citizenship papers, her marriage license in her husband’s native Czech, and her own baptismal certificate in her own Slovak all bore different dates of birth. Dates which put her now age at eighty-eight, eighty-six, or eighty-four. The boy, aiming to bolster his case, opted for the highest figure. “Ed! You’re deliberately wasting time! Tryouts start in fifteen minutes. You have to leave right now. Remember: this would make Dad proud.” With her father safely dead and buried, Mary Vansker was finding it easy to play the dutiful daughter. Whatever she wished or whimmed could conveniently be shifted onto the shoulders of her departed sire’s shade. At thirty-three, Mary was of a type once considered attractive. Though probably not much later than the dissolution of the S.S. Women’s Auxiliary, her precociously read brother privately thought. Mary was also a frustrated jock. There was no other word for it and it mattered two scoops less than nothing that she was a girl. Woman. Female, anyway. A “girl” who could sling a football a fair sight further than either of her NFL-junkie ex-husbands. And this despite her mere five feet, one-hundred and fifteen pounds. A frustrated jock, yeah. For in the Seventies Montana of her youth, girls did not play high-school football. A frustrated jock and, be it added, a frustrated mother. Or, more properly, a non-mother. A childless woman with all the frenetic energy that a stifled life---even and especially a vicarious one---stores up. Energy all the more powerful now that it had found a likely outlet. That outlet, of course, the scarce-willing semiconductor afforded by her younger brother and ward. The initial jolt---shock---had come just last autumn while yet their father lived. For shock is what it had been, one perfectly in keeping with the sister’s live-wire energy and high-tension talking. The boy fancied that, did his sister spear in a dark room, you would see blue sparks flashing from her mouth. Like when you brushed a cat. The shock had come in mid-November while their father lay in the big hospital down in Great Falls. A good deal further than the “half-hour” now separating the boy form his mother, his home. His father lay in hospital, laid-low during what was to prove the twelve-day interval between his first and second heart attacks. The only two he was fated to have, though no one knew this yet. At that time, in that confused daze of days, the shock had come when the boy’s sister had taken it into her head of a sudden that he the boy MUST go out for his junior-high school basketball team. Basketball: the sport he loathed above all others. But hoops had been the heart of his sister’s non-pleading pleas. “It’ll help dad get well!”, Mary had insisted and kept on insisting, increasingly adamant. “But dad says basketball is for sissies!” Which was only the truth. Joe Vansker had often said just that. “Edward! Listen to me: tryouts for the Comet Coyotes are tonight and tonight only. Dad knows you can be a star athlete. It’s high time you showed him. And,” she added with an agate eye, “it’s even higher time that you started thinking of people besides yourself.” “I showed him plenty already at football!” Which, once more, was but the plain truth. Despite his diffident manner---the kindest word for what was, in fact, painful shyness---and his only average size, the boy was the small town’s standout ball-carrier and its most feared tackler in all the sandlot games. This not only in Seventh Grade pick-up games, but even against the much larger and faster Eight Graders. The controlled aggression of football gave glory-gaining vent to what was rather darker in the boy’s makeup and upbringing. “But that’s not REAL. Ed. It’s just…just kid stuff!” Real, by Mary Vansker’s ontology, seemed to call for uniforms, designated facilities and venues, as well as adult interference and oversight. Her attitude had much in it of the devout Catholic’s sneering disdain for the Methodists’ saltine cracker and Welch’s grape juice take on the Lord’s Supper. Packaging was more than the product. A point lost on twelve-year old boys, with their casual pragmaticism. Even those from a nominally Catholic family like the Vanskers. “It doesn’t matter. I can’t try out anyway. I forgot my gym stuff and the school’s locked up now.” He did not---and needed not---add that his forgetfulness, like most youthful memory lapses, had been premeditated with malice aforethought. Premeditated in the secure and happy knowledge that Mr. Anders, the school’s janitor and boilerman, lived fully twenty-three miles outside town. Mr. Anders who, as the boy knew, had the only complete set of keys to the school. Keys on the big heavy ring that went home with him every night. Like it had a good three hours ago, this night. “Ed, Mom is with Dad at the hospital. I already called her and told her to be sure and tell him that you were trying out. ARE trying out. We’ll just have to---have to---” The boy heard a word that sounded like “improvise.” He couldn’t be sure, and his sister was already rummaging in Mom’s big old cedar chest. For it was to the cedar chest that outgrown or disfavored clothes were consigned. Clothes as well as family heirlooms---a 1941 newspaper, “Japs Bomb Pearl Harbor!”---and just plain interesting junk---the broken watch of long-dead Grandpa Velber, the plaited-horsehair necktie an unmentionable uncle had made during his stint in State Prison (offense also unspecified). Fifteen minutes later, a desperate and nearly distraught Edward Joseph Vansker was thrust outside into the already chilly late October evening air. In a brown paper shopping-cum-gym bag: an old washer-gray T-shirt of his dad’s, a torn pair of worn-smooth soled tennis shoes (hauled from the dust-bunny warren under his bed) and the piece de resistence (one that he HAD resisted might and manful main) a too-tight pair of his sister’s old cutoffs from her high school days. The ones with the peace sign embroidered over the left buttock, the pink heart stitched over the right buttock. And a fair amount of both buttocks being visible, did anyone trouble to squeeze into the garment. The boy had tried on the cutoffs under protest. Protest worthy of a novice nun kidnapped and sold into harem slavery at some East of Suez flesh market. Buttocks aside (actually, outside) he had found that he could in nowise run normally in the cutoffs. To crouch down, say, preparatory to taking a jump shot or in a tip-off, was clearly out of the question. The short shorts would split right up the ass like a tomato under a meat cleaver. “Now go make Dad proud!” And with that, the door had slammed shut behind him. Some difficult decisions are, in fact, quite easy. The boy did not even have to make a conscious choice. He had simply spent the next hour and a half walking up and down Chester’s deserted and dusty streets, being careful to go nowhere near the school with its accusing gym where tryouts were taking place. Then, when his shoe-leather had judged that the time for tryouts was credibly past, his steps had turned themselves homeward. Stepping inside, he had had it in mind to tell a perhaps believable tale of how Mr. Donnersbach, the school principal and junior-high coach, had told him his dribbling was “maladroit”, his shot selection “imbecilic.” Sister Mary had been an early pupil of Mr. Donnersbach and she knew well his penchant for those words and their polysyllabic kindred. The boy felt that such detail lent his tale a touch of veracity. In the event, he need not have bothered. His sister had the evening’s sole saga worth recounting, brief though it was. Earlier that night, their father had died.

Now walking up the unseasonably warm May street in Shelby, the boy saw Lardroll Lewis waiting for him. All five-foot three, 180 pounds of him. A hundred-eighty, and not an ounce of it muscle, Lardroll Lewis was a living piece of sculpted Jell-o. He lived three doors up the street from the boy and was his best buddy. Had been ever since the boy moved in with his sister back the first week of December. Actually, neither the boy nor Lewis much liked each other. But then they did not have to and no one expected them to. They were buddies. And by the age-old (and older) code of man and boy, a buddy need not be a friend. Neither saw anything odd or amiss in this. And neither would till exposed to the emotion-suffused warm bath of woman’s companionship (and wheedling influence.) That, or the inflated claims made by great novelists and professors of literature in the name of true love and undying friendship. (Novelists and professors being creatures with so little direct experience of either. And, far far worse, male humans who have never had a buddy.) So for Lewis and the boy being buddies sufficed. For now and, it seemed, for every scrape the future was likely to bring. “Took you long enough.”, Lardroll huffed, pounding a porky trotter into the old-fashioned first baseman’s mitt that had been his father’s. That that glove still saw service, was less testimony to father’s sentiment and family sports lineage than to the fact that Brad Loveitch, Lardroll’s dad, was a “good” Catholic. Which meant, mainly, siring a kid or five more than he could well look after. In Lewis’ family, anything worth using was worth using up. Worth wearing, worth wearing out. “I couldn’t find my bat.”, the boy lied. “I was sure you’d chickened out.”, Lardroll prodded. It wasn’t often that this fat lad and dense enjoyed an edge. He was going to make the most of this one. The boy’s aversion to organized sport and adult supervision was already become byword among his peers. Lardroll was dithering on. “Rocky Strottner told me you’re scared to play hardball. Afraid to get beaned.” Which taunt that nothing in it of the truth, as anyone who had ever seen the boy play any sport could attest---including Lewis. Such, however, is the nature of boys’ taunts that they gain in sting as they diminish in truth. The boy ignored Lewis. This of the tryout was going to be bad enough. Maybe silence would throw Lewis off onto another topic. It did. “And Snout Keller says you don’t want to play Little League at all. Says you’d rather sit home and watch that Pam Paulsen that lives ‘crost the street from your sister. He says you watch her from your bedroom window with binoculars. Like the other day, when she started sunbathing and undid her top an---“ This time, the boy ventured a swing at Lardroll, his reddening face a confession duly signed and notarized. For these jibes were almost exactly the truth. But then, Pam Paulsen---to whom the boy was too shy even and ever to speak (as were Rocky Strottner, Snout Keller, and most other boys in her Seventh Grade class)---was one of those precocious twelve-year olds that wring head-turns and lingering stares from much older men. (As, for instance, married and fiftyish Mr. Donnersbach whose appraising eye was an ongoing source of mirth among his awakening male charges.) Now, as always, the mere mention of her name was enough to bring a roaring red rushing to the boy’s ears. “Lewis! Just shut up! You and everyone! I said I’d play this shit sport baseball, so I’ll play this shit sport baseball!” More epithets followed. (The late Joe Vansker had taught his son copiously, if not exactly well.) Torrent enough to shiver, then shrivel Lardroll Lewis whose pious mother was even more deadset against all forms of cursing than she was averse to using the most rudimentary forms of birth control. “OK, OK. Jeeze, I was just kidding.” But by now the boy was striding on ahead, and Lardroll’s hammy thighs had to churn to catch up, quivering for all the world like pillars of molded Jell-o. “Hey! Wait up!” The boy relented, waited. Friendship may fracture over a word, a woman, a late-paid loan. Buddydom is wrought of sterner stuff. Less strong perhaps, but certainly more resilient. In five minutes, the rift was repaired, the rent mended. All this without a direct word about it being spoken. Banality’s balm working an unctuous healing well beyond the storied powers of repentance and forgiveness. Which was well, for in ten minutes more they were arrived at the city park’s dirt baseball diamond. There swelled there a small sea of boys, the team’s three adult coaches sailing their midst like tall ships. The tryout was beginning.

“Higher Ed. Higher!” He felt awkward, his arms too short. Like some maladroit monkey hanging by his thumbs from a too-high branch. Certainly not like a batter at the plate. “Higher Ed!” Lon Knoble’s voice, the boy’s next door neighbor. An ex-high school star for the Class AA Havre Blue Ponies a couple of decades back. Had even played part of one season at strong safety for Northern Montana College in the same city. He was now the Shelby Little League’s head coach, presiding bishop over at the Latter Day Saints and the town’s all-around nice guy. At this moment, however, the boy hated Lon Knoble and nothing cordial about it. A boy’s bat-swing---like an older man’s tastes in cars, whiskey, or women---is just something sacrosanct. Not to be questioned, much less “corrected.” Save, as the boy was discovering, by such privileged pests as coaches (precursor to an entire train of such to follow including wives, bosses, IRS auditors, ex-wives’ attorneys and others too dread and, as yet, too dimly foreseen to mention.) So, all this afternoon, Lon Knoble had been riding the boy about this, his bat swing. Riding in the very worst way: avuncular, helpful, and---horror with nothing delicate in it---“concerned.” The boy’s bat was never quite far enough back, and ever held just a trifle too low. “Back ‘n higher, Ed.”, Lon kept on saying. “Back ‘n higher.” Like right now. “Back ‘n higher, Ed.” Did Lon Knoble know---or even care---that he sounded for all the world like some sports-minded parrot? Back ‘n higher. Awwk! Back n’ higher. Yeah. Polly wants a bat-bashing. So the boy gritted his teeth. He swung and missed. He missed the next pitch too. And the one after that. He started for the dugout, slouch-shouldered. En route, he glanced Lon Knoble’s way helplessly. “It’s no good!” “Get back in there, Ed. I think you came close that last swing. Two more tries.” A smirking Rocky Strottner silently made way for the boy back into the batter’s box. Well, and what did everyone expect? When they kept making you bring this dang bat around all the way from back behind the beyondest barn an--- WHACK! “You didn’t miss that one! No siree!” Not hardly, no. The bail sailed up and off, and kept on sailing till it cleared the distant centerfield fence by a good five feet. Even better, gone was Rocky Strottner’s smirk and he seemed to have developed a sudden interest in his own shoe laces. Lon Knoble was up behind the boy now, slapping his back.. “No, Ed. You didn’t miss that one. Now, listen…” And in spite of himself, the boy listened. Or maybe he listened because some piece of himself really did want to. That unsuspected part felt strange and he sensed that his heeding it would later---and always?----feel a little shameful.

There was no need to ask one of the coaches. Or even to look at the hand-scrawled list just posted. The team could only afford the twenty uniforms. And that twenty were already slung conspicuous-casual over peacock-proud bursting breasts. One such was the boy’s. The guys who hadn’t gotten one. You could still see a few sets of slumping shoulders, slouching backs making their slow way homewards. A voice droned on at the boy’s ear. Lon Knoble’s, naturally. Or maybe not quite naturally. Still it droned. “Now, don’t you bring that bat straight down. Don’t chop at the ball. The bat’s not an axe. You’ll ground out every time. What you want to do, Ed is to bring that bat around in a big ol’ sweeping circle. A full round-house swing. Like those five, six times you really clobbered the ball---remember? Those five, six times you really clobbered the ball. We’ll make a slugger out of you…” The boy’s attention zeroed in on the voice and he swelled with pride even as he half-despised himself for his attention and blushed at his own shameful satisfaction. He remembered a word. Two words, actually. From an old pamphlet of his mom’s dad. Grandpa Velber had been a coal miner. A coal miner and a staunch member of some group called the I.W.W., which had printed the pamphlet. Last summer, the boy had found the pamphlet “The General Strike” in the old cedar chest, put there by his mom following her father’s death from black lung in his early fifties. A document the boy found difficult to follow, for all that its words were direct and forthright and simple. Such is the effect of time, that erodes the urgency of yesterday’s injustices, the cogency of their perceived rectifications. The boy had, however, divined the meaning of some of its curiously archaic vocabulary. Words like “stooge” and “co-opted.” It was this twain that came back to him now. Somehow they seemed to fit…no, not his “situation.” The words fit just exactly him, the boy. With what he only half-hoped was not open rudeness, the boy at last extricated himself from the intrusive embrace of his new coach’s rhetoric. He could still catch up. He had to catch up. Catch up to Lardroll Lewis. True, the latter---unburdened by one of the just distributed uniforms---had a big head start and lived quite close by. But it was not like Lardroll Lewis to ever walk anywhere fast. And certainly not this day. Not for nothing did the old Greeks sculpt their Nike (the boy said it “Naik”, with long “a” and silent “e”) not for nothing did those Hellenes carve their victory goddess with winged feet. Defeat, on the other hand, ever shuffles along earthbound, in boots lead-soled. Like Lardr---like Lewis, just plain Lewis, up ahead. But when he caught up to his buddy…then what? Words there were none, could be none. Sure, buddies stayed buddies regardless. That went without thinking, much less saying. But then what? And why did he have to go and think that bit just now? That bit about staying buddies regardless? A picture rose up in the boy’s memory. From one of those Watchtower magazines his mom let the Witnesses drop off. Let them drop off less out of awakening faith than as an easy expedient for avoiding having to talk to them. “Heaven knows, it’s a lot less trouble than letting one in the door, then trying to get her back out.”, she’d sigh. In that etching, the boy recalled seraphim bearing aloft a resplendent throne high in the middle foreground. On it no earthly figure, only a vast outpouring of powerful light, as if the sun itself were seated there. To its right, a happy flock of sheep gamboling their way into a lush and sunny sward of meadow. To its left, a herd of terror-stricken goats were being driven and prodded their unwilling way, eyes rolling, tongues lolling. Their destination, a rocky landscape with a vast fissure, belching black smoke. An oily miasma under a wicked and lightning-rent sky. Smoke roiling up from…below. The boy recalled a word learned he knew not where. That word was Abyss. So yeah. Over there. On the left of that picture. That was about how far off Lewis was by now. Even though the boy had closed to within less than fifty yards---as yardsticks measure---that picture in his mind calculated the real distance between them far more exactly. A chasm yawned. One not to be crossed. The boy felt his third, “Wait up!” dying strangled, ere it was birthed from his throat. Buddies were buddies, sure. But teammates are teammates even more surely. This of on the team or off the team…no, some gulfs are not to be bridged. The boy felt wretched guilty for no sin he could name. The guilt that comes over you when you look into the innocent accusing eyes of the dying pup another driver has just run over. That was what he would read in Lewis’ eyes now, did he dare. Only he dared not draw nearer. The boy did not follow the street back to his sister’s house. His new teammates would surely take that way, as would the suddenly unbearable-affable Lon Knoble. Lon’s own sons had---or maybe still were---turning out badly. One was said to be in a Navy brig down in San Diego, the other no one quite knew where these three years now. Not since he had up and run away at age sixteen. This hard on the heels of his father and stepmother’s sudden and fervent espousal of the Latter Day Saints’ creed. The boy wondered if Lon now stood poised to become---what had his sister called it? His “father figure?” No. His social worker sister would never employ so direct and descriptive a locution. She had said “father surrogate.” And that word simply sounded nasty. It conjured up images of postures supine and sweaty on heaps of musty, damp gym towels in dim locker rooms. Ointments, unctions, and intrusions. So no. “Father figure” was bad enough, thank you. He would stay off the street. Follow the brushy path than ran alongside the Marias River. Go hom---go back to his sister’s house that way. Because, in the dimmed glow of this success, he could not face any of them just now. Not Lon Knoble, not his teammates. And most surely not Lewis.

There was no phone at the baseball diamond, but by the time the boy arrived back at the house, his sister had already heard. Hell’s hounds knew how. “Edward! I---Dad---am,is…would be so, so proud! They’re saying that Lon Knoble thinks you’re a natural! And to think---you almost didn’t even try out! Why, Ed you’ll be a, THE star. That’s what we’re going to make you. The star!” The boy, Edward, did not like the sound of that. “We.” It sounded a whole lot like how the new bat swing Lon Knoble insisted on felt: unnatural, forced. It didn’t matter how well either worked. Edward almost envied Lewis. Lewis there on his quiet St. Helena’s of coach’s rejection and buddy’s betrayal. Almost..

Submitted: April 14, 2018

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