The aluminum bat leaned against the garage wall, next to a rake and a hoe and four bicycles with flat tires and rusty chains…
I didn’t think much about it, just grabbed it by the handle and kept walking, out the backdoor, down the driveway, cutting onto the sidewalk, all the while tinkering with an internal melody. Just about anywhere, anytime, there’d be a song in mind, and I never tired of moving notes around, shifting the rhythms, sliding one chord beneath the next. I’d do this at work, at family dinners, while listening to my girlfriend, Leslie, on the phone. As a kid sitting in church pews, I’d written hundreds of songs, so many of them about the devil and his zany plans for mankind. They usually sounded best in the low ranges–– D, D minor–– and the one I was playing with tonight was no exception. I imagined the bass tones waving out to drench whatever was before me: houses and parked cars, the roadside mailboxes lining the street. It was a hot Michigan night, the kind we got once a year or so.
After I’d made it a couple blocks, I cocked my elbow and swung just hard enough to crumple an aluminum post box, the hatch of which fell open, revealing not so much as an envelope inside.
It was August of 1996. I was eighteen years old, and things had been looking up since I’d started my first band a year earlier, a mean-sounding three-piece I believed had the stuff to take me around the country, maybe farther. My hair was buzzed to the scalp, and with each step, my steel-toed shoes conked the sidewalk. I’d left the house shirtless; I thought the darkness might cool things down, but my armpits had begun sweating by the time I’d turned out of the driveway. Though I considered myself a shade too pale, a few pounds too skinny, just then I was unashamed. No one was around to see.
I scanned the street, keeping an eye out for the headlights of my sister Caitlin’s Ford Escort. Earlier that day, our dad had driven her beloved two-door straight from the parking lot of Brighton Treatment Center to who-the-hell knew where.
To the moon, for Christ’s sake. Over the rainbow.
Another block, and I turned onto Ridgewood Drive, a central road that wound through the neighborhood––subdivision, they called it around there. The surroundings were still new to me. Friday night, yet the streets were so quiet the sound of my footsteps echoed off garage doors. It wasn’t hard to imagine the neighborhood deserted, the homes vacated, jutting nails where pictures had once hung, carpet spilling through empty rooms, indented by the legs of long-gone furniture. My friends back in Dearborn called my new hood a “vinyl village.” You’ve seen places like this from any American highway, just outside whatever city you’re about to pass though. A facade of vinyl siding, numbskull architecture not meant to survive too far into the future. Other than windows lit from inside here and there, the houses looked the same, especially up top, where the rooftops met the sky.
The bat felt lighter by the minute. I gave it a shake, passed it from one hand to the other.
Back at our place, Mom and Caitlin had gone to bed, nervously mounting the stairs as if, before they reached the top, the back door might squeak open. If I knew them at all, there’d be some prayers going on. Still, like any other night, they’d yanked their blond hair into ponytails and scrubbed the day from their faces. Neither had said much other than, “I don’t believe this.” They hadn’t quite learned to say aloud the words “crack cocaine,” and neither had I. To pronounce the word was to acknowledge that some kind of alien terror had arrived, something not meant for people like us, true-blooded, faithful Catholics.
All of us but me, anyway.
Though I’d long ago duped my mother into naming our black-bearded terrier Ozzy, Mr. Osbourne himself had seemed the devil incarnate, and I’d hid his albums in the cleverest places. It was the only evil I’d ever imagined lurking our home.
My family had landed in Ridgewood Hills two years prior by means of my dad muscling up from the lower ranks of Ford Motor and saving stock options along the way. We'd gone from used Pintos to Taurus station wagons, bargain-brand everything to the usual supplies you find at the mall. Dad said we’d moved because Detroit was a lost cause–– a maniac on Greenfield Avenue had flashed a knife at my mom just before our place went on the market. Only now did I realize we’d moved to get Dad away from the drugs. My parents had hoped a move twenty minutes west would do the trick, to a town whose name I rarely spoke.
The sidewalks had no crabgrass. The cars were new, tucked into garages. Sodded lawns and rock gardens, motion-sensor lights tripping on when the wind blew. The lie I told most often was that I still lived in Dearborn, the city I’d been raised in, fifteen minutes from the Ambassador Bridge and a stone’s throw from Detroit’s border. Dearborn had record stores and donut shops, backstreets on which my friends and I used to bike from one neighborhood to the next, all the way to the Rouge Steel plant where blue flames rose toward the sky. They called Detroit the Motor City, but Dearborn was where the cars were made.
I knew jack about cars, but I’d been ashamed to leave Dearborn, had driven back each morning to finish high school in the land of Ford. That summer, I’d taken work as a groundskeeper at a golf course on Dearborn’s Rouge River–– a toxic passage that was said to turn your tongue black if you drank from it. My parents made the same commute: Dad to Ford Motor and Mom to Dearborn’s public schools, working as a speech therapist. Caitlin had switched districts without a gripe. I had two years on her, but my sister’s book smarts and extra-credit volunteer work made it so that she’d graduated the same year as me. She fixed lattés at a coffee shop in the new town, earning more than I did, once you counted her tips.
Had she known what I was up to tonight, she’d have been hovering in her nightie, guarding the sidewalk, tugging at the bat with that angry look she reserved only for me or my father.
I took a swing, chopping in rhythm with my tune-in-the-making. The melody was sure to dissolve before I’d pluck it on my guitar. In the distance, a sprinkler system began clacking away, giving me a beat to work with–– the rat-tat of it. I’d learned about my dad’s problem three weeks earlier, the day he left for Brighton Treatment Center. The night before that, he’d chided me for having skipped on college in order keep at it with my band. The next time I saw him, he was a confessed addict. Twenty-one days in detox was supposed to do the trick, and I honestly and truly had thought it would, had not believed we were in a major situation until a mere four hours ago, when he hijacked Caitlin’s Escort and shot to hell the chances of anything ever being the same.
A baseball bat and rows of post boxes stretching for miles. As his son, I figured I should respond dramatically, yet I hadn’t anything in mind beyond walking and swiping at thin air. To conjure something that might give him a spook if the headlights of my sister’s car came rushing down the street. I’d step into the glare, let him make what he would of it.
And what then?
The music inside me was on the fade out, another song lost to the ether.
I couldn’t yet picture my father dragging from a crack pipe. I knew him as a wearer of pressed suits, an ex-athlete and an expert with a hammer. He had a firm handshake yet a soft spot for underdogs, beautiful-loser types who were never gonna win but just might break their necks trying. His eyes were faintly blue and revealed very little of his mood, whatever it might be at any given moment. He was a world-class jokester one minute; the next, my use of the saltshaker might send him into a fit. If he were to rattle the pages of the Detroit Free Press and call my name, I was never sure what was coming. But until earlier that day, I’d more or less believed every word he’d told me.
I cut the bat, following through with the swing. And this was true, what my dad said about certain muscle memories, that they always come right back to you: riding a bike, swinging for the fence. I hadn’t held a bat in years. I pulled it close to see my best friend’s name scrawled in black marker across the aluminum barrel: WILL. Damn thing had found its way into our boxes during the move, an artifact of something distant and other: summer morning baseball games, weedy diamonds in Dearborn. Will and I kicking the dirt, wadding chaw into our gums.
Planting my feet, I gave another mailbox a half-assed smack. Ridgewood Hills was the last subdivision before miles of farmland to the north. In the distance, the cars crossing the highway sounded oceanic. Pressed against my cheek, the bat was cool metal. WILL: faded black ink scrawled wild-style over the barrel’s sweet spot. The bat came from a time when jotting your name on your belongings was running the risk of wussiness, but Will had his reasons for personalizing the thirty-two-inch Easton. The bat had gone missing early one season, and he’d been inconsolably bent, thwacking his glove against his thigh. Will was a stutterer. Back then, it was at its worst when he was anxious or upset or girls were around.
“Fricken bat,” was all he’d managed as the park cleared.
“Don’t worry,” I’d said. “We’ll find it.”
Tall, dapper, brown-mopped Will was the closest thing I had to a brother. He’d been five years old when I met him, already a poet, maneuvering around tricky words that might cause him to tic. He spoke lyrically, in rhyme. Like many friends in the old neighborhood, he’d known my dad as a force to behold–– the man who’d tossed the ball with us, who’d made a show of pressing me above his head with a strength that their fathers did not possess. I’d be sure to tell Will about the busted mailboxes, and whatever else was about to happen.
A car motored down a nearby stretch. I pulled the bat to my thigh until the silence returned. The fable of Will’s Easton was coming back me. Strange as it seems, I never once think of that August night without recalling the tale of my best friend’s bat. How, the game after it vanished, I’d been on the mound, chucking fastballs. Dad had spent a thousand nights coaching me through the wind-up, the snap of the elbow, and I could throw the ball straight up the middle–– hard as I could, straight as I could. A few innings in, a stout, marmot-faced kid named Moe had stepped to the plate, his team groaning, Moe, Moe, as he wielded the bat. From the mound, I’d seen it glimmer: the silver Easton, gleaming and new. I’d waved Will over from third.
“Sure as shit,” he’d said, a pinch of chaw in his teeth. “That’s it.”
“I’m gonna put a curse on him,” I said.
We’d been—what—twelve, thirteen years old? Already bored with ballgames, coming into our own as a duo drawn to blood oaths, the heaviest metal, the ghastliest horror flicks. Pentagrams and electric guitars, phantasms that defied Sunday mornings in church. Cassettes my dad had smashed. Thrillers that gave Caitlin the heebie-jeebies.
Will shuffled back to third, and I wound up to bean Moe in the breastplate, at which he yelped and tossed the bat to the dirt. From the outfield someone let loose a war cry that silenced the earth, until Moe’s coach said, “Shake it off.”
Only at a distance of years can I admit I was a kid of pulled punches. A daredevil prankster–– stealthy, yet without true guts. I’d feared just about everything, and was angry about being afraid. But I held steady as Moe pulled his helmet tight, returning to the plate, and a feeling came over me like my limbs were senseless and my teeth had grown giant. The wind-up, the pitch. Moe ducked as the ball streaked over his head, saying, “What the goddamn hell?” How coyly I’d given my pitching arm the noodle-shake. And, yes, I’d felt for Moe, baffled and squinting. I’d thought about giving him one straight up the middle, but I needed Will to know I’d see it through.
A curse was a curse.
I wound, and pitched again. A sinker that caught him in the ankle.
“You hit me again and I stick this bat up your ass.” It sounded almost complimentary, the way Moe had turned his head as he said it.
“It’s not your bat,” I said.
That’s when Moe knew what it was about.
A few blocks ahead on Ridgewood Drive, large identical wooden signs graced the subdivision’s entrance. A kind of advertisement for life there: gold letters painted on stained-green wood: Ridgewood Hills. No goddamn hills to be found nowhere, that much was certain. I got the idea to batter those signs into splinters, imagining a morning jogger running in place, wondering who on earth could put them back together. My dad, he might see the damage, whenever his drug-run finally ended.
It would make a fine tale to tell, another dipshit yarn Will and I would spin forever. At least once a year, for as long as I’d know him, Will told the story of Moe and the curse, how there’d been one last pitch, right into Moe’s buttocks. After the game, Moe shook our hands, saying, “Swear, I just found it. I didn’t know.”
I’d crunched Moe’s palm respectfully, no hard feelings.
Like that, the curse had been lifted.
Just before the subdivision entryway, I came to a three-way corner where Ridgewood Drive met with a final side street in the shape of a T. A streetlamp glowed. That close to the neighborhood’s edge, you could sense the unlit countryside sprawling all the way to Ann Arbor. You’d have thought I was in the wilds, the way that darkness felt like some great mind above, whispering things I couldn’t understand. Thirty or so feet ahead, a pair of headlights dilated at the entrance, beaming up the street. I thought it might be him.
I began crossing the intersection as the lights came rushing. The engine whined at an anxious frequency, pushing too hard for that time of night, on that kind of street. But whether or not the car decided to turn, the right of way was mine. I drew the bat close and slowed my stride.
As the vehicle steered wide to turn up the cross street, twin rays swept the pavement, and I saw what was what: a cherry-red minivan, tires grinding, accelerating on the turn, its chrome grille charging straight for my bony ass. I walked defiantly–– a step or two more–– waiting for the sound of squealing brakes. Until my body rebelled, lunging headfirst the instant the headlights flooded entirely over me.
The bat left my hand as I tucked into the dive. There was the sound of aluminum clanging and tires grinding. My spine rolled over the pavement, and then I was back on my feet, running to keep balance. The minivan sputtered on without apology, though I’ll never be sure how true this memory is, whether I’d really come that close to being run down or wanted that moment to become something it was not.
All the screaming I’d been doing with my band had leathered my vocal chords, giving me the dubious ability to summon bestial howls at the cue of a snare drum. My voice echoed through the streets:
“Watch where you’re fucking going!”
The van’s tires screeched. Its rear end fishtailed. Reverse lights flared as the vehicle revved backwards, giving me time to snatch the bat from a dewey patch of grass. The van braked hard, lurching before going still. What I heard most was the snapping of my pulse in my ears, as the driver’s-side window peeled down mechanically, revealing a man a few years younger than my dad. Crew cut, curly up top. Red T-shirt. From the look in his eyes, it appeared there’d been a tough day at the office, the factory, the eighteenth hole. He was quite possibly drunk.
“Stay outta my goddamn street,” he said.
I cocked the bat, to make certain he saw it, yet the man merely smiled as though there was a secret between us. He didn’t look the tough-dad type. My old man could have taken him. But he had one of those normal-Joe faces that at a telltale moment will reveal its ulterior sicko–– and there it was.
I’d gone out in search of trouble I didn’t believe I’d find; now it had been delivered. Even then, standing there, I knew what it would mean to back down. Or, I thought I knew: that I didn’t have the guts to face my old man, or anything else. I counted one-two repeatedly, something I’d done before lighting dumpsters afire or skateboarding down the shingles of Will’s roof. One-two, one-two. Sooner or later, three usually came, and I’d be mindless, tossing the match or rocketing toward the crash.
“Screw you, man.”
“Little prick,” he said.
The minivan’s interior lights snapped on as he opened the door. One leg stepped to the pavement while the other remained bent, rooted inside the van. An arm extended. He had something to show me: A handgun. Not pointed at my heart. Not ordering my hands to the air or anything of the sort, but harmlessly dangling from his fingertips as if it were a piece of evidence he’d plucked from a lover’s underwear drawer. His wrist was limp as the gun hung black against the background of his red shirt. If he’d turned it on me, there’s a chance I’d have stood like that until he fired one through me.
Gripping the bat, I flashed him my wildest eyes, channeling Manson—any number of killers I’d seen pictures of. And that’s how I gave up. Glaring was as brave as I could be.
“Now,” he said, face half-lit by the interior bulbs, “stay outta the fucking street.” He yanked shut the door and peeled out, squealing the tires.
The minivan ascended the slightest incline in the road, toward an unknown area of the neighborhood. If only Will had been with me, seeing it through to some different end: The bat confiscated as evidence, while I was cuffed and hauled off to the clink, or scraped from the pavement. A lawsuit. A funeral. Proof, I guess, for my father: this is what your crack is doing to us.
Instead–– here was another story I’d never tell honestly.
Sprinting after the van’s taillights, I scrambled through unfamiliar front yards that all seemed the same. A few blocks up, I found the minivan parked in the driveway of a house just like ours, the walkway to the front porch lined with shin-high halogen path lamps. Crouched behind a shrub across the street, I raised my head to watch the lamps sequentially go dark and come aglow again as a figure passed each one.
“Ay!” I yelled, turning to hightail it home. “I know where you live.”
Mom was pacing the hallway when I slipped through the backdoor. Ozzy grazed her legs, his nails clacking on the floorboards. All the rooms were dark. I made for the front window to scan the street for headlights. Bits of asphalt were cratered into my back, and I felt the burn of a skinned elbow. My face was damp.
“Are you waiting for him?” Mom said.
The blue robe she’d worn for years was tied at her waist. As a child, I’d nestled in its dangling sleeves when she’d read novels or watched Dallas. Her blond hair was pulled taut; her huge eyes looked wet against her freckled skin. If she’d so much as smoked a joint in the ’70s, if she’d ever cursed or knowingly wounded a living thing, I did not know it then. Her kindness was of a magnitude that made it difficult to sense her need for my own—and perhaps she’d never needed it until that moment. Friends in the old neighborhood had said she looked like an owl, a pretty owl-woman. Tired though she was, everything lovely was still there in her face.
“Just go on upstairs,” I said.
We were eerily close, she and I. It had been years since I’d told her much about my life, yet in her presence I’d feel our moods altering each other without a word. We alone shared this, apart from my sister and father.
“What’s with the bat?” she said.
The Easton was turned down at my side, my palm balanced on the butt of the handle. Any other night she’d have pleaded with me to return the bat to where it belonged. She’d have asked questions that tricked me into admitting the right thing to do. But just then, she might have been hoping Dad would sulk through the back door, and, if he appeared, she might not have said a word. I imagined the scene: in her bedroom upstairs, Caitlin would pretend to be asleep, listening carefully as I demolished the kitchen table and gave him the scare to end all. Mom would close her eyes, praying that enough would be enough.
“I’m gonna wait for him,” I said.
“Get some sleep,” Mom said. “Letting this control us won’t do any good.”
Outside the windows, the street was empty. The gunman must have been peeling off his shirt, sliding into the sheets next to his sleeping wife. Down the hallway, his kids dreamed openmouthed in the air-conditioned twilight. As I lay awake that night, in a bed my father had built by hand, I wondered if the man kept the firearm by his bedside and if it had even been loaded. He might relive the scene the next day, as his minivan rolled through that same quiet intersection. He’d remember why he carried a pistol. Staring to the ceiling, waiting for sleep, he might figure he’d done the right thing.
Through the open window of my bedroom, the highway was a slow, white noise. Caitlin lay a room away––resting soundly, I hoped. She was always the one I worried most about, tucked away as she often was, just out of reach.
There was still a chance Dad would come home to spend the night on the couch. Tomorrow morning, we’d piece everything together. I reached for the box fan on my windowsill, turning it on High, and then the music came back to me, deep chords ringing slow and clean. Will’s Easton lay beside me on the mattress, and already I knew what I’d tell him about the man and the showdown and how, when he’d ask me to repeat the story again and again, I’d describe the flash of the gun.