I only mean to drive through my hometown, a detour on my way to the convention being held in the city an hour’s drive away. Knowing I have plenty of time to make the trip and check into the hotel before the convention tomorrow is what seals my decision to turn off the interstate. I weave my way over the secondary roads, twisting and turning over the landscape, asphalt laid down over the dirt roads carved by horses and wagons in a time quickly passing from living memory.
I’m not old enough to remember that time. My memories are of stories my grandfather told me, the stories his grandfather told him. I’ve only known motor vehicles traveling these roads and rolling up on road work areas waiting to be waived through, only to be stopped a few miles further along. I’ve been lucky today, so far, knock on wood, if I had any at hand.
The closer I get to the town the larger the knot in my stomach grows, expanding, filling me till I choke. I swallow hard to push it down. So much of the trip has consisted of noticing what is new, wasn’t there before, and disappointment when things are gone. Things that marked the way back to home like breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs that have been gobbled up when I wasn’t looking. I know things will be different. Things changed during the time I lived there. It’s different when you absorb those changes as they happen, over days, weeks, months, sometimes years.
It’s a shock when something disappears quickly like the night Old Mr. Smith’s house burned. We walked the two blocks that separated Old Mr. Smith’s house from ours. House was fully engulfed in flames before the fire company arrived. Other neighbors gathered around, not much exciting happens in a small town so it gets a crowd when it does. The house, or what remained when the flames were extinguished, stood for almost a year before the land was bought by a young couple who tore down what remained, cleared the lot, and moved a double-wide trailer onto the lot just in time to welcome their first born.
I make a left and then a right to get on Main Street. I look for a parking spot in the first block. There is too much to take in. If I don’t stop, I’ll just zip through town, a town barely a mile beginning to end. I could stand to stretch my legs anyway. I pull up in front of a restaurant that occupies the first floor of a house one of my elementary teachers lived in. It’s a cozy restaurant. I don’t recognize anyone, no one recognizes me as I eat the lunch special, hot sausage sub and fries with a coffee. After paying and leaving a tip I turn left and stroll along the sidewalk.
I turn at the sign pointing the way to Beachwood Park, down the incline towards the creek nestled in its bed on the other side of the park. When the new elementary school was built by the high school the playground equipment from the two shuttered elementary schools was moved to the park. I don’t remember spending many days in this park. When we had a day out it was usually spent at the state park ten miles down the road. The only time we spent in the park was when the community had a barbeque fundraiser.
On the other side of the parking lot is the little league field. It looks the same. I take a seat on the bleachers along the third base line across from the home team dugout. A breeze sends leaves tumbling across home plate rushing to the outfield. Snapshots, snippets, images from memory play out in front of me. They slow down when I get to my last season with the Cardinals, the year we felt we could win. Not just win games or even manage a winning season but the year we could be the team that would represent our district at the section level and with a bit of luck make it to the state level of competition. We would be the first team from our town to represent our district at the section level, an achievement we missed out on the previous year losing to the Crows. Almost our entire team was back this year where the starting line-up for the crows had aged out.
I played center field. My best friend George played short stop. We lived to play ball for the Cardinals. We especially enjoyed our grudge matches with the other hometown team, the Blue Jays. Out of uniform we were all friends, more than willing to play pick-up games, but once the uniforms were on, the trash talk would come out preferably when no adult was around to hear it. Twelve-year-old boys can be creative with their trash talk.
We ended our regular season on a high, getting our teams first no hitter. We achieved our dream, representing our district at sectionals and made a deep run at making it to the state level, making it to the last elimination pair before being eliminated. We were welcomed home with an escort through town with the fire engines leading the way, townsfolk lined the sidewalks. The following weekend there was a barbeque held in the park for us, the first barbeque that wasn’t a fundraiser for a church or the fire company. That was the best summer of my life. A time when a dream came true. I was confident I knew how my life would turn out. Filled with the confidence only the young can experience before life starts throwing curveballs.
It was only a couple of weeks later, forty years this week, George and his dad were killed coming home from fishing. Some guy thought he could handle driving after he had a few. Thought he could handle the drive home from the bar like he had done countless times before. Thought he would be able to avoid being pulled over by a cop this time which would be a good thing since his license had been suspended for driving under the influence. Hit the car George was in head-on, didn’t even apply his brakes. George and his dad were killed on impact, or so I was told. That drunk was out of his car, sitting on the bank when the police arrived and spun a story about someone he met at the bar, someone he only met that day, being the one who was behind the wheel.
They put George in his Cardinals’ uniform for the funeral, his glove on his chest. Looked like he was sleeping. His dad looked like he was sleeping too. His mom was practically carried in by George’s uncles, his little sister following along, quiet, somehow smaller than I remembered her being last time I saw her a few days before the accident. The church was packed, standing room only. The Cardinals wore their uniforms to the funeral. Members of the Blue Jays wore red. I did my best to be strong, tough, be a man and hold back the tears I could feel in the back of my eyes. My dad sat beside me dignified like the church leader he was.
A month later we were back for my dad’s funeral. Dad died of a heart attack, dead before he hit the ground is what they told me. A blessing in a way considering he always wanted to go quickly, not linger like his parents had, slowly wasting away until their deaths came, came as a relief. No, he got the death he wanted even if it came as a shock to mom, me, and my big sister. I just sat through the funeral, felt like I was in a dream. It wasn’t real, couldn’t be real. I didn’t feel anything when I was told dad was dead. It was like I just shut down. I didn’t feel sad, angry, anything.
I know I didn’t make things easy on mom as she dealt with becoming a widow. I was too young. She was trying to figure out how she was going to finish raising me and my sister as a single parent. I withdrew into myself. I didn’t know how to process the loss of my dad and my best friend. My grades dropped. I stopped doing my chores. Nowadays, I may have been sent for some grief counseling, but we weren’t that enlightened.
Mom decided we would move in with her parents over Christmas break. I started a new school. Never played baseball again. Never played any team sport again. Found a group I could drink with and dabble in smoking a little wacky weed, mostly drinking what we could get our hands on. Kept hoping I would feel something, anything. Did that till I turned twenty-one. One night coming out of a bar with some buddies I declared I was ok to drive. Somehow that broke through, touched me, made me feel something for the first time in years. Made me feel like I had a chamber of lava roiling in my stomach just before it erupted, spewing its contents on the road. I acted like I couldn’t find my car keys, we walked back to campus. I bawled myself to sleep that night, never took another drink.
This is my first day back to this town. The town that helped raise me, form me, make me the man I am today. I no longer believe I know how life is going to turn out, too much experience living life to still believe in that. I’ve made new friends but none as close to me as George.
I stand up, wipe my eyes, and head back to my car.