I'm Not Telling Anyone But You, The Rose & Thorn, January 2006

 

I dig my toe into the grass.  Behind, the line of eucalyptus trees fling their shadows onto the ground, a purple-black blanket ten feet from my heels, my imaginary backstop.  For five years I’ve caught for my kid brother, Joe.  He’s already pacing out there.  All fluster and shake, Joe’s the star of the family, and he looks it now, tossing his head like a lion, yellow shirt blinding in the sun. 

“Mike! Hurry up, you asshole.”

“Calm down, Joe.  You’ll never be a good pitcher if you don’t learn to be patient.”  

He rolls his eyes; he’s already a good pitcher, the best that Silverado High has ever seen.  Still, I make him wait a few seconds.  He’ll be gone the next two weeks, so I’m going to enjoy this while I can. 

I raise my mitt.  Joe draws his hands together, winds up, releases.  I know his every move, but like watching a river, I don’t get tired of it.  As usual, we start with loopy, casual throws.  Then the ball’s plunk into my mitt gets louder, quicker, and that sweet exhale of leather and dust comes, as comforting as my pillow at home.  Joe’s six-foot two frame -- usually loose and jiggly all over – tightens up when he pitches.  He’s poised, in control, almost unrecognizable.  I like seeing my brother this way; it doesn’t happen anywhere else.    

When I feel restless, I take the bus to Westwood Park, and climb the hills.  I never walk the same trail twice.  There’s nothing but the sound of my footsteps, the scent of wet dirt, the birds calling to one another.  I’d love to stay there forever.  Not get lost necessarily, just live apart from the hustle and chase in the outside world that doesn’t make much sense to me.  I’d take Joe, and every afternoon we’d play catch on one of those clearings at the top of the hills.  

The eucalyptus’ shadows lay their cool hands on my back.  I stand, and without a word, Joe and I walk a few feet forward so we’re both in the sun.    

“I’m going pro, Mike.  I’m going to play in the majors.”  He glances into the sky as if this idea has descended upon him from someplace else.  “I know it.” 

The green field stretches behind him, so huge and empty I feel dizzy for a second.  I raise my mitt, wanting to return to where we were before.  He pulls his body sideways, gathering himself, pitches again.  My palm already feels like someone’s struck a match against it.    

“Throw your slider,” I say.

It swerves into my mitt, hitting the outside corner just as it’s supposed to do.  Catching for Joe, I feel the ball has a life of its own.  As if his pitching has nothing to do with him, that it’s directed by some unseeable, magnificent force.  Like those hundred foot redwoods in the forest.  

“I’m going to be the best fucking pitcher at Allendale,” he says.  “You know that?”

I do, even if I try to tell myself otherwise.  He’s got to take three buses to Camp Allendale in Sacramento tomorrow -- unlike most of the kids whose families have cars.  But he’ll shake off any shame flinging unhittable pitches from the mound, shining for all to see.  They’ll want him on their team even if he has to buy used cleats, can’t afford a decent hair cut.

“Keep your mouth shut when you go.  I don’t want you getting your ass kicked.”

“I’ll be the best pitcher there.”  

His fast ball plunks into my glove.  Joe’s always pitched better when he’s put anger behind the ball.  Angry we have to mix our cereal with water some mornings, angry Mom keeps her eyes on the ground half the time.  The shadows creep close to my back again, cool fingers that tickle my neck.  This time I don’t move.  We can’t go back to where we were before.

“I’m going pro, Mike.  And I’m going to get the fuck out of this place.”

He’s so tall and thin that from my distance, he looks like a sapling, newly planted, leaning slightly.  Joe’s never talked about leaving us.  This is his goodbye; he may live at home for another year or two, but with his eye on the future, he’s already gone.  And that’s what I’ve been doing all this time -- practicing with him, attending his games, preparing his meals -- getting him ready to leave.  

Two years ago, after the earthquake, I took one of my long walks in Westwood.  As usual, the forest quivered with sparrows and bugs, the stellar jays shrieked into the sky.  But set within the wood, I saw two redwood trees, snapped in half and lying on top of each other like kindling. The sun fell onto them full force.  How had these two trees fallen while the rest of the forest remained untouched?   

 

I didn’t think Joe would leave so soon.  I thought I’d have another two years.  When he’d get a scholarship to college; when he’d go into the minors; when I felt ready.  

Joe’s mitt, tucked against his side, looks like an animal hugging his ribs, protected and safe.  “I’m going pro.  I’m not telling anyone but you.”

I nod.  Tomorrow, his bus will speed across the bridge into Sacramento, shining like a bullet, but traveling slower than one of his own pitches.  He’ll get to where he needs to go—by a force that moves the earth so that only two redwoods fall amidst a forest of standing trees, a force that spins the earth on its axis, and now draws me into the cool shadow of my future.