In 1956, my brother started playing rather brilliantly for the Rainiers in Seattle. It couldn’t have been at a better time, since my family was going downhill with our Dad hitting bottom with drinking. Nick was the hope of the family, this tawny beautiful kid with the big Adam’s apple. He was adopted, and we were never sure about his race. It was probably a blend of African American, Native American, and Chicano. He looked a little like Harry Belafonte, but lighter-skinned with a lantern jaw and straight hair. His appeal had been overpowering even before he had joined the Rainiers. He was the odd one and the jewel of the family.
He was just nineteen. Springtime, on the second floor of our house in the district of Ballard, I used to keep my door open at night, so that I could see him come back all dusty and white-uniformed from late practice. He had been a star athlete in Ballard High School, lettering in three sports, and sometimes I used to sneak across the hall when he wasn’t there, and touch his sleek jackets with the white stripes on the shoulders, even try them on. I was fifteen years old, surrounded by a glorious spectrum of pennants, and I could smell his mitts in the closet. Them I didn’t dare touch. Maybe I was hoping I could pick up some acumen through my skin.
One time, when, as kids, we were forced to share the same bedroom because of visiting relatives, Nick used to call across the dark and say, “Hey, Glen, I’m going to be Willy Mays? Who you going to be?”
“Stan Musial. If you had Stan Musial’s money, what would you buy?”
I didn’t know how to answer.
This would launch Nick into a list which, as Willie Mays, he would rattle off so completely, he’d tired out at last and say, “Oh, screw it, it’s not worth it being famous after all”—and then go off to sleep.
My mother ran a strict Temperance League home, and my father drank on the side. He ran a Magic and Puzzle store downtown. We prayed before meals and included the names of the family members (who were many), both near and far, who were falling down drunk. My mother spoke of her grandmother, being President of the Anti-Saloon League in early century St. Louis. They had come straight off an Illinois farm where my grandfather, who had died before I was born, had hid a bottle of whiskey in every corncrib he could find. In our house, there was a kind of piety even to the gauze curtains which covered our front windows. Our living room furniture seemed nailed into place, and Dad, ahead of his time, used to smoke out back, dropping his butts in a Hills Brothers coffee can filled with white sand and rusting. He had a collection of bottles in the tool shed. From time to time, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, would visit, and whenever she’d see something like my father and his friends drinking, smoking, and gambling in the basement, she’d point in that direction and say, “That’s sin!’ with the most delighted voice. My father and his friends were not the only target. Virtually everything on television was as well.
Every season, Dad would drive us south to Sick’s Seattle Stadium (it was actually called that!), and we would stare out at the luminous green, the floodlights seeming to me to be Eiffel Towers of brightness, showing us something much grander than many Parises below. But first, before that, we had the long stretches of mossy afternoon color in the waning evening, as the shadows from the pines and the bleachers made their slow advance and finally consumed the diamond.
After a round of Crackerjacks in the stand, along with wet Pepsi bottles, boxed popcorn and ice cream drumsticks, my father would seem to hear “Ice Cold Rainier” (the team was named for it) for the first time in his life, give himself a moment’s consideration, and then order one thoughtfully, as though he were a teenager about to take his first sip.
The vender, a toothless friendly man, with grand hands and square shoulders, got his number early in the season, and would be back, by the sixth inning, every twenty minutes. By the time Nick was sixteen, Nick had the good sense, at the end of every game, to load Dad into the back seat and drive us home. We’d walk him into our draped house with Mom waiting up in her blue terry cloth bathrobe, looking feeble and resigned. Always she made a bed for him on the davenport without a word, and then would go into their bedroom and shut the door. In the morning, she would serve us orange juice but would give Dad a huge glass of tomato juice laced with Worcester sauce. No one would refer to the night before, and certainly there would be no mention of alcohol. But we would replay the game from first inning to last.
In the summer of that year, my father could not walk down the block to the local grocery without stopping someone, even a stranger, and saying that Nick played outfield for the Rainiers. He would tell them that we had expected that he would be sent to San Francisco, but the luck of the draft was, Nick would be in Sick’s Seattle stadium tonight. I myself was getting enormous pull in the school because of my famous brother, and every time Nick would be mentioned in the Times or P-I, my friends would run up and ask if it was my Nick.
My real love that summer was gardening. Hard to believe, I guess, but I decided I would earn college money (in my family, it was never too soon to plan ahead), by weeding flowerbeds and mowing lawns. It was seen, I suppose, as rather bizarre, but I loved canvassing the neighborhood and asking people if they had any work to do. By the end of June, I was completely booked.
Meanwhile, Nick slammed two home runs toward the end of the season, and Dad had to do an overnight in the drunk tank twice in one week. The talk around the house now was all baseball, except that the mealtime prayers for family members acquired a certain fervor by my mother. Nick would always sit with his head stooped, his face cautious and wincing.
One Thursday afternoon in late August, I was busy clipping the purple butterfly bush of our neighbors down the block. They were gone on extended vacation to the East, and the whole place was mine. The sprinkler system was on full force and was causing their huge rose garden to shimmer. A new yellow hybrid tea called The Buccaneer was making his debut in the south of the yard and seemed like a golden Windjammer of petals ready to sail off. The hydroplane trials of Seafair were flying through my head, and the Aqua Follies of last weekend were playing themselves out as a second feature. Star-studded swimming stars were gliding from the towers, while my brother’s latest game, complete with home run, was finding another way to play itself out. All of this was a way of fencing out the fact that Dad had been gone two weeks, and I don’t think Mom knew where he was. He was supposedly on a business trip. But you don’t usually do extended sales trips for Magic and Puzzle stores.
She was, in fact, coming down the street now, framed by the mountain ash trees, fanning themselves under the heat and glowing orange with berries promising autumn. Meanwhile, however, it was very hot. For all her work at the neighborhood Penney’s, she had gotten a tan herself, and now didn’t look so nun-like, not so precise. She was smiling and holding the glasses tentatively–pink lemonade from the stand of the costumed children next to our house. These kids did it up fancy with a whole mural on the front ordered from Minute Maid. It showed a gallery of children drinking.
“I wanted to talk to you,” she said, handing me a glass. “Can we sit down?”
The umbrella stand was right in the way of the sprinklers. I turned that section off, drying the lawn chairs off with a rag I had used on the mower.
“Your father called from Portland,” she said. “He’s there.” She paused. “He’s with Nick.”
It was a game I had been thinking about—Rainiers Versus the Portland Beavers. Multnomah stadium.
“Is he staying with Nick?”
“No. But he dropped by the Travelodge where some of the men are staying.”
“Will he come home?”
She was ponderous. “I’m not sure.”
I sipped my lemonade, which was pretty wonderful. I thought of all the great things we ate at Sick’s Stadium. They ought to make lemonade one of them. I myself had no doubt Dad would be back again, and that he would be getting his rounds in the stands at the next home game–which would be Tuesday.
“Nick would like you to come down. You could stay with Aunt Nance.”
I loved Nick, but he never asked to see me.
“He thinks you’d really like the next games–and one’s a double-header.”
“But I have all these houses I’ve got to do,” I said. “I’d love to go, but I can’t.”
“I’ll do them,” she said. “Or I’ll get one of the neighborhood kids to do them. The lemonade kids next door. You’d only be gone for a few days. You can take the Greyhound.”
The idea she wouldn’t be coming was surprising.
“The kids will screw everything up. I actually want to stay here. Why don’t you go down? I could do Okay by myself.”
There was a long silence, filled by the sound of spraying. My hands were covered with grease, and very suddenly I felt like a man. Her glance through her ascetic glasses, from very hurt and tired-looking eyes, told me I should be figuring things out.
“I can’t go down there,” she said. “I’ve come to realize I only make things worse. It’s a hardship being right. Go with your father to the games. Keep him from buying beer, and above all, bring him home with you. In one piece.”
I wasn’t so sure about coming back with him that drunk in the Ford station wagon. That’s two hundred harrowing miles in a car that was tentative to begin with. But I said, “Well, if I work my ass–”
She looked at me.
“Yes, well, if I work my head off tomorrow, I guess I could leave by Saturday. That would be good for three games, including the double-header.”
A breeze came up and caught the yellow umbrella. “I know Nick would thank you,” she said.
Saturday morning, as I went downtown by city bus–to catch the Greyhound–Seattle was in its fantastic Seafair parade. White-helmeted soldiers dressed in tan were bringing a four-flag color guard straight south on Fifth Avenue, which I caught from my upper-story window. This was followed by the seahorse float of the Grand Marshal, who had a tight grey uniform and yellow cape. The sight seemed exactly right for me, for I felt myself on a mission. Everywhere–on the bus and lining the streets, people were featuring their Skipper’s Seafair pins–the miniature white nautical steering wheel. That morning, even my mother was wearing one.
The merriment sent the Greyhound off in a flutter, and Aunt Nance, ebullient and greatly tanned, met me at the Portland depot as though I were the brother of the Grand Marshal. She seemed a rejuvenated version of my mother, and had become the wild card of the family, Mom’s sister, a professional swimmer from California who lived in—“Sin!”—with a man named Lefty.
In the car, she kept patting me. “Imagine you,” she said, “with your now-famous brother. You must be his biggest fan.”
“I am,” I answered. “He’s all we ever talk about.”
“He’s always had that”–she looked over at me, through her dark glasses–“talent. He’s sported talent all his life.”
“I’ve wondered what it must feel like, sometimes,” I answered.
“Your mother says your father’s also here,” she added.
“Yes, but I don’t know where he’s staying,” I answered. “Do you?”
“No,” she said. “He’s dropped off the face of the planet.”
Nance lived across the street from Lambert Gardens in Peninsula Park in the north of Portland. It was the kind of spellbound Eden which would have not been possible in any era other than the Fifties. The droves of roses (and you could see them as we got out of the car) were layered in whites and pinks, and salmons and reds, punctuated by a pool with a statuesque diver perched on its lip. Flamingos were given free rein, and an open garden house, with twelve steps leading up, frequently housed concerts beneath the climber yellow Buccaneers. Although I didn’t see all of this as I stared across the street holding my bag, the scenes would later become my mainstay for the long weekend.
I went into the stucco house, and loved the coolness of the shadows. It had been a hot bus ride. I was given a room with a view of the park. Staring out and seeing the yellow and blue umbrella stands, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with Dad, if I did find him. Could I bring him here?
After dinner, Nance and Lefty drove me out to the Stadium. We sat behind the Rainier dugout, in a section, we discovered, of mostly Seattle fans. It was our understanding that Dad was supposed to show up. People were talking about how the Beavers had beat the Rainiers the night before, 5-2, and that Seattle was really in for it, if things kept going the way they were. Nance and Lefty didn’t seem to mind at all that we were in a kind of visitors’ stand. In fact, there was so much raw attention between them, they seemed as if they could have been at a fashion show (although neither of them was fashionable) and neither would have cared. Nance was in a yellow sun dress which accentuated her mottled tan, and Lefty was in his best Hawaiian shirt with the bare-bosomed hula girls. I couldn’t help but look closely. At eight p.m., it was still eight-five degrees.
For the first six innings, the whole game seemed to be run by two Rainiers named Devo and Kukowski. Kukowski hit a home run in the first and Devo one in the third. The bases were loaded both times. Portland put up a fight in the next few innings, with a man named Solly Drake doing a triple, which was brought home by a star and favorite Luis Lopez. By the eighth inning, Nick had scarcely any action in center field, and had struck out two other times at bat. For some reason, some asshole sitting close to home plate kept yelling our last name “Scarsdale,” with a heavy singsong on the two syllables every time he took a swing. Later it happened, when he ran out to take his position. The baffling thing was–Lopez on the home team got the same singsong as well.
“Dirty fuckers,” Lefty said, looking over in that direction. “They never stop. When I was on the Padres, the same thing happened.”
“You were on the Padres?”
Nance’s hand went over his shoulder, “Star catcher, honey.”
He felt her chin. “But much better off now, giving my life to swimmers and swimming. Those damn leagues will grind the life out of you. I worry about your brother this way, too.”
Nance put her arm around my shoulder, while the whole of Multnomah Stadium did a timeout by way of a dance. We were singing “Rock Around the Clock,” except using innings instead of hours. It seemed like everybody was standing up and swaying except us. There was no time to ask what “They never stop” meant.
Nance went on with his hand staying put. “Nick’s the best thing going for Glen’s family here,” she said to Lefty. My own name was rather startling, coming from a beautiful woman. “Don’t run that down, Left.”
Lefty was merry and compassionate looking out at us from five-o-clock shadow face. “Oh, Hon, I know that. I’m not trying to rain on his parade. I just mean, they chew you up and spit you out, soon as you get a little old or a little clumsy. Look at tonight. He’s not a hero anymore.”
The commotion was getting so big now, we had to stand up. The evening light was completely gone, and all the spotlights were on. It was a green theater, with all of us still sweating, and there was a kind of August crackle to the clear sky, with the score suddenly tied in the ninth at 8-8.
I sat there, as the Rainiers came running in, praying that Nick would go up and that Dad would not appear. Maybe, in fact, Dad was home by now, making up with Mother and signing another pledge (she kept a whole pad of them, pre-printed, in her stationary drawer) with a temperance league banner (a hand inverting a glass).
At that moment, however, in the middle of singing the last of modified Bill Haley, I looked closely at the mascot who was leading the dancing and discovered it was a human beer bottle–“Rainier”–with arms wobbling to the beat.
Turning my gaze toward the dugout, I saw that Nick, in fact, was getting ready to go up second. His wiry form glowed in his sparkling red-and-white uniform, as he swung his lucky bat. In fact, his skin glowed, too, in the heat, and it was just as I was noticing this that the “Scarsdale” catcall started up again, and I realized that what both he and Lopez had in common was their racial differentness. Lefty and I exchanged a glance, and it came to me that maybe both of us might just get up and go over to that little eighteen-year-old with the hayseed feedcap and clean his clock.
But nothing else could happen, because when all three of us looked again, my father, drunk as a wheelbarrow, was coming up behind the bastard and pushing him face forward into the Peanuts and Crackerjack man who was coming down the aisle. A couple of hulky truck driver types immediately jumped on Dad and pulled him off, while a policeman blew his whistle from down along the breezeway, and clearly the father of the heckler was holding what looked like a good-sized teenager back from leveling a man who was drunk and only slightly built.
Nick looked up and witnessed the whole thing, while Kukowski came up and hit a triple. Taking a second to see that Dad was in custody and presumed Okay, Nick stepped up to the plate, and with both teams as stilled as white figurines, took the pitch from a reliefer named Jim Harlow, and rocked the ball straight into the over-the-fence region affectionately known as the Meadows, and causing our small cadre to go into a chaos of happiness. We were all so jangled from these two things happening at once, we hardly knew what to do. That night, Nick won the game for us at 10-8.
There are several family stories about what happened afterwards. One is, Lefty, taking on the task of getting Dad sober, hauled him over to Lambert Gardens, just across the street from Nance’s and, under the cover of night, threw him into the swimming pool.
I never saw that happen. I do, however, remember Nance and Lefty walking him into the third bedroom, depositing him on the bed and shutting the door, with me not seeing him until late in the afternoon on Sunday. I remember feeling strange, because I was under orders from my mother to take care of him and see that he didn’t drink particularly at the games, and I had failed at both tasks. Sunday morning, I was looking so glum, Nance invited me to join her and Lefty for a swim at the Lambert pool. It was ten a.m., and already eighty degrees, and, she said, it was the most beautiful water you’ve ever seen. Besides, you could watch Lefty do all his trick dives. I asked if I just could rove the gardens a little before joining them. I had heard so much about the Lambert Roses (and Portland was the Rose City), I wanted to have a look close-up. Or did she think I should stay and wait until Dad hauled himself out of bed–see that he didn’t get into any more trouble?
“Forget that,” Lefty said. “He’s three sheets to the wind still, and won’t be awake until well past noon. After you were asleep, your brother was over here worried about the same thing. Didn’t make any difference. Besides, I’ve locked his door from the outside.”
Nance looked at me compassionately. “You’re the workhorse of the family, Hon.”
“No, Nick is.”
“No, you are. You deserve to have a few minutes off. Go see the roses.”
While they got their suits and towels together, and some extra gear for me, I took off across the street.
I remember a long strip of lawn in the park, crossed by the latticed, cooling morning shadows from the rose bushes. Stone urns, painted bright salmon, accentuated the tiered beds on the next terrace up. While the red and yellow choirs of hybrid-teas stood perfectly still, the sunburst golden locust trees fanned overhead, reminding me of that moment Mom had brought me the lemonade. I walked past all the yellow-and-blue striped umbrella stands to the bench near the gazebo, and there was a plaque, adapted from Kahlil Gibran, which read,
The philosopher’s soul
Dwells in his head,
The poet’s soul is in his heart;
The singer’s soul dwells in his throat . . .
But the soul of the man
Who lives among flowers
Walks hand in hand
With this, I just wanted to stay and sit among the flowers–indefinitely. But somehow nothing, not even Nick’s performance last night, could not blot out the body that was now in Nance’s third bedroom.
As I sat there, a white form came glowing towards me. Kahlil Gibran as an angel? He was dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans. It was Nick.
“What you are doing here?” I asked. “Don’t you have a double-header this afternoon?”
“I quit,” he said, sitting down next to me on the warm stone.
He leaned on his elbows and held his head. “None of it makes any sense,” he said. “There’s too much. I can’t do it.”
A certain panic began to try at my lungs. This was the third and last member of the family to say this.
“Can’t do it?” I asked. “You can do anything. What can’t you do?”
“Keep on playing. The Rainiers. I’m a walking beer bottle. That’s not right.”
“Nick,” I told him. “You’re thinking like Mom. Nobody believes like her anymore. There’s nothing wrong with being a walking beer bottle.”
“That’s the whole point,” he said. He sat there, his shoulders defeated. He was trying to get at something. I would have given anything for him to look otherwise. “That’s the whole point,” he repeated. “I don’t think like she does. She thinks she can stop it. I used to think I could stop it if I suited up every day and went out and scored a victory for the family. But not anymore, not after last night. While you were asleep, I ducked back here at Nance’s to look in on Dad. Did even last night’s game do anything? Nothing.”
“But what about how much you love baseball?”
“I do love it, but that’s not enough. And there’s the fact that I don’t have much of a future over and beyond a few Travelodges and write-ups in the paper. Anyway, I would have stayed these next few weeks, but I told them today I couldn’t play the first game because I had to drive you and Dad home. I offered to leave at the crack of dawn and be back in time for the second game, but they said nothing doing. Wait until Monday, they told me. But I need to look after the both of you, and Dad needs to get back home.”
“You are too young,” he said. “And so am I. Let’s go.” He stood up and momentarily took my hand, the way he used to when we’d go to the zoo together. Or even church.
“Where are we going?” I asked, also the way I used to.
“To get Dad up and then the hell out of here. Back to Seattle.”
The heat of the Gardens took us in. The Gibran quote made its way through my bloodstream, as one fragrance after another filled me, a gardener for life. From where we were now, we could see over a fence into the swimming pool, where Lefty, perched on the high dive, did a perfect belly flop into the water below. His huge form made the biggest splash I ever saw. And there Aunt Nance was, standing at the edge, as beautiful as a mermaid in a yellow Esther Williams suit, applauding him as though the Lambert Gardens housed the ’56 Olympics.
About Henry: Henry Alley is a Professor Emeritus of Literature in the Honors College at the University of Oregon. He has four novels, Through Glass (Iris Press, 1979), The Lattice (1986), Umbrella of Glass (Breitenbush Books, 1988), and Precincts of Light (Inkwater Press, 2010). His Leonardo and I was winner of the Gertrude Press 2006 Fiction Chapbook Award. His stories have been published over the past forty years in such journals as Seattle Review, Outerbridge, Virginia Quarterly Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Cobalt Review, and Harrington Gay Men’s Quarterly Fiction. He is also author of The Quest for Anonymity: the Novels of George Eliot (University of Delaware Press, 1997).
Favorite Team: Eugene Emeralds
Favorite Player: Yogi Berra (“We were overwhelming underdogs.”)