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"Iroquois Avenue Stickball" - Bob Comenole

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All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy;
for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves;
we must die to one life before we can enter another.

- Anatole France

            We meet in the middle of the street, jumbled, forming a little constellation of PF Flyers and cut-off shorts.  Between the eleven of us—impish apostles of the dead end and no traitors among us—we scoop out of our pockets the crumbs of summer and pitch together sixty-four cents; Bobby Comenole collects the coins in his hand:  64₵, a penny for every inch of our average height.  In 1969, in our neighborhood, that is a tidy feat.

                “We don’t have enough!”

                Every pocket is flapped out.  No one is holding out, and we try holding back our defeat.  Garry Abare looks down and toes a bit of gravel.  Jimmy Perito, with a patient anxiety, draws his mouth tight and inhales slowly through the small fissures he makes with his lips.  Greg McKinney leans on his bat.

                “It’s not enough.”

                There goes the game.  No ball, no game.  And without the game, we lose the day and, for that matter, the summer.  It is like that with us.  We are an enterprising gang and disappointment, especially during summer vacation, hits us like a hard wind, as when falling asleep before the climax of “The Great Escape,” or missing an eclipse.  It’s all lost time.

                “What happened to the ball?”

                “We lost it last time.”

                “Doesn’t anyone else have a ball?”

                Each boy looks around, all silent.

                Richard Wiest nudges his friend:  “Donny, don’t you have a ball?”

                Donny Warner, the one most likely to have a good ball, shakes his head.  Warner looks at his friend:  “Connawanna?”

                “Wish I did.”

                Greg McKinney looks at his brother, Gary:  “Boozer, you got a ball, don’t you?”

                “Nope.”

                Boozer carries his brother’s look forward, first to Bob Kratzat, then to Steve Delaney:  they both frown.

                “Naw, man.”

                “What about you, Munk?”
                “Uhn-ah.”

                “A nickel’s all we need.”

                “Somebody’s gotta have a nickel home!”

                “Let’s search.”

                A handful of kids peel down the street, to their homes, which, for most of us, are no more than a thirty second spring.  The rest, already knowing futility, break out of what was becoming, however unconsciously, a nearly perfect circle.  Some make a game of gravity and balance, tilting their heads forward to see how far they can lean with planted feet before falling over; others bump shoulders, shadow box and snap gum.  Some make their way to a lawn, and sit.  There, they snatch little wads of grass and throw them at each other, leisurely, each in turn.  “Where’s Karen, Marty?”

                “I dunno.  Probably with Robin.”

                “Warner’ll find money.”

                “Yeah, Warner will bring some back.”

                “Yeah.  We’ll get a game going.”

                Four boys return empty-handed and grim.  One comes back with an Indian head stuck to his palm.  Which is appropriate, since we live on a street called Iroquois, the last street in the city, at its southernmost tip—and, as far as we are concerned, the edge of the universe.  It is a dead end.  And juts out like a small peninsula into meadows and a safe and buoyant nothingness, attached to the city as it is, but separate as man from woman.  At the other end of Iroquois Avenue is the heaviest trafficked street in the city, Washington Street, which takes travelers like an arrow straight to Syracuse.  But Washington Street cannot be seen from where we stand.  And we only hear it late at night.  A block further is the city’s high school.  Beyond that is the junior high and a strip plaza filled, at the moment, with eighty seven automobiles.  Yet we live in grand isolation:  at our tip, we have fields and woods.  Occasionally, a cow or two from a distant pasture will find its way to our neighborhood.

                Because he is a fiend on a bicycle, the fastest among us, Marty Toper is elected to bike up to the plaza and buy a new ball.  We pick teams as he streaks away:  hand over hand and up the bat.

                Inside Bockman’s 5 & 10, Marty eyes the candy counter, trimmed as neatly as a museum exhibit and tempting:  a miniature six-pack carton of juice-filled wax bottles; a row of bubblegum cigars, mauve and yellow, each with Cuban looking wrappers; and a quiver of pixie sticks, sugar filled straws barber-poled with red, yellow and purple.  He walks past the counter, pausing, though, where a shelf of Matchbox cars are stacked.  He goes to the far aisle, where every item—from rubber lizards to yo-yos—rests in its own Plexiglas cube; he picks out a smooth blue rubber ball.  He counts out the 69 cents—the three cent tax forgiven by a clerk twinkling with cheer—and remounts his bike, the ball stuffed into his back pocket.

                We watch the bend at the far end of the street, near the Kratzats, and in the moments before Marty comes into view, rounding that bend, a small promise appears, preceding both rider and our relief.

                We have our game.

                On these summer days time spreads out like molasses gimping downhill.  We play.  Inning after inning, perhaps into the dozens, keeping score religiously, but religious enough to keep it close.  We vaguely mark the movement of the street:  a parent or two rolls down the street, home for lunch; we watch an hour later as they depart.  The noon air-raid siren wails, highlighting for us just how much remains of our day; and we celebrate the peculiar way time stretches in summer, as if the afternoon had become an absent-minded spectator sitting cross-legged on our hill, abandoning whatever plans it had.

                The sun climbs and we sweat.

                We tug on our collars, sending small drafts of cool air down our shirts.

                Marty tosses out the ball, and it goes round player to player, like a drink from a common bottle, each inspecting it as if to authenticate the day.  As we begin the game, the ball is unblemished, bald and full of surface tension.

                “OK, who’s up first?”

                In the ‘field,’ the opposition spreads out.  Our diamond is actually the last sweep of asphalt at the dead end, the final thirty yards of Iroquois Avenue.  Home plate, which was never marked, rests under the canister bulb of the overhanging streetlight.  Each of us steps up to the plate with an instinctual understanding of where Home is, and plot the batter’s box according to our individual sense of geometry.

                “You’ve got to supply your own catcher,” shouts Randy Smith, “you have more guys than us.”

                Infielder Steve Delaney bounces between his position and the 3rd base curb, stepping onto it, pushing off, stepping on again, pushing off, back and forth; Bob Kratzat is parked, expectant, on the sewer cover that is second base.  Garry Abare steps up to take the first pitch.

                Mysticism, so said Leon Stein, is ‘sentimentality taken seriously.’  And so it is.  Stein, composer of Then Shall the Dust Return, once penned a work arranged around the poems of Chaim Bialik; he called it Songs of the Night.  Bialik, well-known for “Summer is Dying,” expired on July 4th, 1934, the same day Satchel Paige pitched two wins in two different cities.  In Pittsburgh he threw a no hitter against the Homestead Grays, then drove 475 miles to Chicago, where he shut-out the American Giants.  The game lasted 12 innings.  He had a good ball.

                Begin, then, with the ball.  Our ball.  The rubber ball.  An object whose surface cannot be smoothed by petting or by prayer.  After the first pitch it begins to go to seed.  Especially when it is ripped inning by inning across the rough roadway of our street.  It quickly deteriorates.  The skin of the smooth ball turns gritty and the palm feels this, knows it.  Ultimately it will be unusable.  And the ball, dissolved like a lozenge, will become nothing more than a sweet remembrance.

                Then we’ll scuttle for another 69 cents…if we can.  But while it is among us, tossed and batted, there is no depreciation of our ball.  Its worth is inversely proportionate to its condition:  the more it deteriorates the more it takes on value.  There’s less of it.  But still a game.  All the while wearing itself out, like a pencil ground down to the jot of one last mark:  some half-ended punctuation, or a note of a sonata interrupted.

                There is an entire taxonomy of sounds associated with our ball.  Even the evolution of its condition could be easily traced.  Like the ages of man, the ball went through several distinct stages:  there was the new ball, but that did not last long.  There was the era of the slightly scuffed ball; this left us untroubled:  time was on our hands.  There was the period of the aging ball:  which gave us a presentiment of things to come, but only briefly:  time was still ours to keep.  Then there was the age of the chewed ball, where dread—or perhaps even fear—first entered our lives.  And, finally, the era in which we would have almost preferred to abandon the game than play on with the ball so disfigured:  the point when the sphere began to lose little chunks of itself, like small pieces of bread torn by hand.  An unforgiving hand.  The ball, showing its age and a certain forgetfulness for straight flight, would crook and corkscrew and produce in us an assortment of mild dissatisfactions.  Its bounce was gone.  Its potential had been used up.  Between batters, in the moment when you could cradle the ball in your own hand, you might roll it there, finding despondence in every crater.  And with both hope and dread you poked into a cavity, inspecting it for deeper clefts.  It always made you queasy, as if you were poking into someone’s soft palate.

                Such a ball restrained our game.  Very few home runs were hit with the ball in this shape.  And of course we lived for the Home Run.  The game was mostly about home runs, pushing your name up the HR list we kept on loose-leaf paper, tacked to the telephone pole.  When the ball was new and dense, it was a hitter’s delight.  When it was overripe and scraggly, it was harder to launch past the home run line, which was where the mowed grass at the street’s end turned to meadow, what we called the tall grass.  The game as we knew it was already gone.  At that point the appeals for a new ball began.  And even at that age, we’d already developed an advanced capacity for nostalgia, pining for the week before, when the ball sounded whole, healthy.

                Anyone coming late to a game in progress could always tell the condition of the ball by the sound they heard as they approached, even from as far away as Sayers.  When the ball was new it was clean and soundless in flight; and when it was new, it made a convincing Bupp when hit.  A hard bupp, a consoling bupp, and the ball sailed away westward, toward the record books.  When it was worn in but still fresh the ball made a pleasant almost soundless whisper, like a glider.  The fraying began along its single seam.  Aging, it began to sound like a propeller blade being feathered.  Then, as it became more and more scuffed and blistered, it hissed.  When it began to wear out, its pitch and timbre changed.  And we all recognized this change.  When the ball had lost parts of itself, it simply buzzed.  It buzzed and the silhouette of its malformation could be seen against the salmon sky.

                Baseball games usually end on their own terms, with the last batter in the last inning.  Ours never did.  When the score was lopsided and we grew restless we’d shout ‘three more innings!’ And the game would end with the last batter in that final inning, usually the 15th or 20th.  Possibly the 35th.

                Yet again, this rarely happened.  It may have never happened at all.  Our games went on and on.  We hated to leave that field.  If the score were too uneven, we might swap players to balance out the competition.  Sometimes our games ended when the teams were whittled down by curfew, plucked away one at a time by parents calling us home:  calling and calling again until the summons was inescapable.  Three or four players were left standing, sons of an indulgent mother or father, and they would reluctantly give up the game.  Without their comrades, a full outfield, this leniency—which would other times be celebrated—counted for nothing.

                Usually games were called on account of darkness.  The sun would sink.  We’d play on.  We’d play on through the twilight, through the descending dark, through post-darkness, squeezing every bit of available light into our diamond.  Sharpening our eyes.  But by then our eyes were no good.  We played by sound alone.  The sound of the ball.  While the batter stood under the street light, and we could easily see his cut at the ball and thus the general direction of the hit, the ball itself, once batted, vanished, disappeared.  It was there, but we could only hear it.  And with our ears we reckoned its path, stabbing at where we thought the ball might be.  It would whizz by or it would strike, in a startling and fortuitous thump, our glove, or at least some part of our glove.  It was this instinctual method that sustained us through a few more innings until our frustration overcame our joy.  We were also afraid of losing another ball.

                Occasionally a game would end prematurely, in full daylight, long before curfew.  These were the saddest days.  When the ball would be lost in the fields.  Sometimes a home run, sometimes a foul ball.  Mostly a foul ball.  White Legs would slice a fastball from Waldo and the ball would loop behind first base into the field of milkweed and wild grasses.  They were not tall, perhaps knee-high.  And the ball was not hit so hard that its path was blurred; we all saw it enter the field.  From experience, though, we all knew not to take our eye off the spot where the ball went into the tall grass.  The two closest fielders ran to retrieve it, and very soon it would become apparent that the ball was not where they thought.  Another pair of us would join in the search, and then it would become evident to everyone that the ball was not soon to be found.  A collective groan went up, silently, and on the far horizon, for those who might have looked, there appeared a small teetering gloom.  After a few minutes both teams were combing the field, the entire gang of us.  Here is where mysteries begin.

                The ball was hit only a few yards into the fields.  It certainly was resting within yards of where we now stood.  Each player had his particular way of searching:  some took one step, then rotated in a perfect  circle, slapping at the sedge.  Another drove the bat into a spot and then crushed down the grass, paddling forward this way in a long, straight line.   Still others went on their knees and patted.  Some did not interact with the rush-like meadow, but stared into it, zen-like, separating weed from ground and ground from ball, which they imagined would appear in stark relief.  There were as many ways to search for the ball as there were kids.  A row of linguists, settled in lawn chairs atop one of the ridges beyond left field, would have coined a slew of verbs describing our individual techniques.  We never lost patience looking for the ball, knowing it was our sole source of enjoyment.  We looked, I suppose, like a team of forensic scientists at the scene of some misdeed.

                When these practices failed, and after having thoroughly scoured a target area, we come to a club consensus:  the ball must have somehow gone deeper, bounced below our sight, or scattered in some cosmic and inexplicable way—and thus be in an altogether different location.  Perhaps dozens of feet away.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  No one could explain it, but when balls were found at great distances away from where everyone had agreed they would be, we simply rejoiced at the find and left behind the mystery.

                In any case, each in his turn would offer a small discourse to those who were staking out new search areas.  We judged of the speed of the ball, exchanged…argued over…calculations.  We gauged the bounce, the English, the trajectory…we traded theories.  Listening, debating, rebutting.  To any onlooker we must have seemed like a group of wandering seminarians trying out our motley sermons on one another, lost under the sun, trying to pinpoint the sacred ball.

                All the time, while looking for a lost ball, we would sneak peeks over our shoulders, noting how quickly the sun was going down, every passing moment a heartache in waiting.  We searched.

                Today’s game goes on:  but we will lose this ball, too.  And our game will be cut off, abruptly, without resolution, without resources:  without the coins for another ball…. Without hope.

                Since leaving that neighborhood forty years ago, I have often wondered:  is there a ball out there yet?  Undiscovered.  Tangled in the low weeds, absorbed by the earth?  A remnant of the irrefutable truth that we once ran across this ground, hit a few home runs, chattered endlessly, and rounded the sewer cover and made for home.

                In those years I have dreamed, too, dreamed of looking for, and sometimes finding, the ball that ended any given game.  It is a dream of economics.  A dream of camaraderie.  Of mysticism.