The slushy streets sounded hollow as my boots clicked on the pavement, as if the subterranean world below Bridgeport was a cracked eggshell just waiting to collapse into itself. I imagined the bones of workers clubbed to death in labor disputes by company goons a half-century before my father was born, rotting down there, shovels and picks in mummified hands awaiting a battle long ended. Dead buildings of gray brick and grime stood sentinel along wide, deserted streets. They called this time of year “Spring.”
I felt both sweaty and chilled in my dark blue fleece as the remnants of a sun dissolved behind black cherry clouds. My dad once worked in one of these vacant buildings where cold metal machinery claimed fingers, hands and even the occasional arm in its vast unforgiving maw. Guys got bandaged up and went back to work the next day. The blood of men in their thousands greased the wheels of industrial America. My dad called it “going to work.”
My friend James lived up on Washington Ave. about a mile or so from my house, but a frayed ribbon of Bridgeport mile was a showcase of all that had once been, and now only the scattered, battered remains were apparent. A vast industrial cemetery graveyard that I called home. It started to drizzle.
I had hoped James and I could play some catch. I’d even brought along an extra glove in my denim duffle bag I’d inherited from a gnarled aunt whose favorite pastime was collecting stamped envelopes from places others had been, of which she could only imagine the worst calamities befalling her if she’d ever set foot outside her two-room apartment, triple locks on her front door. I couldn’t say I blamed her.
James didn’t answer the door at first; he never did. Apparently allergic to the light even in a refracted nightmare of a town like ours, asthmatic James finally cracked the door open, stretched and yawned in his undershorts and without a word, allowed me to enter his darkened sanctuary. He coughed as he pointed to a pile of papers on a desk on the edge of a shallow kitchen. It was a story he and I’d been working on, but it wasn’t coming together. Like our story, he and I would soon go our separate ways, connected only by the fiction that friendship lasted forever.
“So, what did you think?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.
James sighed a lot. (Only my dad sighed more often.) There were levels to his sighs. Small sigh meant things were typically O.K., but never would be great. Medium sigh, shorter in duration but more intense, meant he had actually given the subject some thought and predictably wasn’t impressed. Long sighs followed by a trip to the refrigerator for a glass of milk indicated categorical failure on your part from which there might be no return.
What followed was a long sigh, followed by a trip to the bathroom. That was a new one, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I knew it couldn’t be good.
Good times with James only happened more or less by accident now. A friendship formed between a pair of fourteen-year old loners in a Catholic high school populated by medieval nuns, creepy lay-teachers and sadistic jocks was a friendship defined under duress in the trench-warfare of adolescence. Now that we’d been freed from the petty tyranny of our education, our bond had begun to dissipate, though neither of us had the guts to completely face up to it. Getting on each other’s nerves was about all we had left.
When he emerged from the bathroom several minutes later, dressed in blue jeans and a Pink Floyd tee-shirt, I chose not to ask for specific feedback on my portion of the story. It would be a hopeless and depressing waste of time. So I pulled the glove out of my duffle bag and tossed it over to James. He briefly examined it without surprise or excitement.
“Where the hell’d you get a left-handers mitt?” he asked, because I was right-handed.
“Babe Ruth’s fucking grave. What the hell difference does it make?”
Without a word and to my everlasting astonishment, James led the way outdoors to the mostly empty parking lot around the back of his apartment building. Only a lone, ’76 Nova stood in the way of the spot where we last played nearly a year ago. Luckily, it had its parking brake off, and with the driver’s side window smashed in, it wasn’t too difficult to manipulate the abandoned vehicle out of our way, if you were careful about the broken glass.
I started off with a split-fingered fastball, the way Bruce Sutter used to do it. That pissed James off ’cause he wasn’t expecting it, so he fired a two-seamer back at me which nearly ripped the webbing of the glove I’d had since sixth-grade (and still have today.) I smiled, which I think was the first time either of us had smiled that day.
“Asshole!” I called out to him, the echo reverberating off the silent brick buildings.
I threw him my best change-up, which never fooled anyone I ever threw it to.
“That all you got?” he shot back, a faint hint of a smile nearly creasing his lips. “No wonder you never got laid in high school.”
“With those Amazons?” Christ, even the nuns looked better.
“Donna would’ve let you at least touch her.” He was getting comfortable now, his arm angle the familiar three-quarters I remembered from the high school ball-field.
“Yeah, with your dick,” I called back. A pretty standard, unoriginal response expected by both parties in a conversation such as this.
“Got one for you,” he warned. But I knew what was coming. A tight curveball, small but perceptible break to it, creased the March breeze and smacked into my tan George A. Reach Co. mitt. It felt like home. Not the one I actually lived in, but the place I imagined must be just around the corner from the park, where kids played in actual sunshine on real grass. Home.
A middle-aged black man came down and sat on a stoop just watching us for several minutes, followed by a pair of young, twin sisters with pink barrettes in their hair. James and I had nothing more to say to each other, but I like to think the sound of baseball — the final game of catch we ever played — yet reverberates off silent walls in a crumbling, forgotten part of town accessible only through faulty, imperfect memory.