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He likes the feel of it, the snap of the mitt as the ball embeds itself in it. Occasionally he tosses the ball high in the air, a shallow fly to short, but it fails to deliver the same pop. Better to stay where he is, sitting on the front step, smacking the ball over and over and over again into his glove. His mind is blissfully empty, the rhythmic thwap a hypnotic medium, suspending time in a soft cocoon.
It’s the rustling of bicycle chains, the pealing of laughter, that pulls Leo from his trance. There’s a group of them, six or seven, whooping in delight as they pedal past him. Another gathering of the neighbourhood kids, heading to the fields behind Martin School to play kickball or capture-the-flag or hide-and-seek. Just the thought of it makes him miss his brother. He grips the ball, throws it into his glove.
A car drives by. A motorcycle. A truck slows to a crawl as it pulls into the driveway across the street. Cortos’ Market, it reads. From Our Door to Yours. He’s never seen it before, never seen any vehicles there. He pays attention. A man comes out of the house, greets the driver, takes the groceries back inside. Appears to be in a rush. Doesn’t see the boy across the street watching him.
Ball in glove. Thwap.
A week passes. The Cortos’ Market truck turns into the driveway across the street. He wonders what it would be like to have a visitor, even if it’s only once a week, even if it’s just a delivery man. The routine hasn’t changed: his neighbour comes out, takes the groceries, hurries back inside the house.
The truck exits the driveway, leaving in its wake a bluish-black plume of smoke as it heads up Summit Street toward its next customer. The exhaust has barely dissipated when a group of kids ride by with Wiffle balls and bats, racing by without so much as a glance in his direction. Today, of all days. He looks down at his glove, squeezes the ball inside.
His parents are home from work, locked away in their bedroom. Their routine the past few years, ever since cancer claimed Ben, as his counsellor at school likes to put it. Will they come out to make dinner? He hates himself for thinking this. Of course there will be dinner; when have they ever let him go hungry? The real question concerns dessert. Will there be a cake or cupcakes, candles, and singing? A further wave of self-contempt. Dinner should be enough.
He remains on the step for another fifteen minutes, then walks inside and makes his way to the kitchen. Empty, a box of Ronzoni ziti unopened on the counter. He feels a longing, knows it transcends hunger. The bowls are on the top shelf, so he brings a chair over to the cupboard. Grabs two, takes two spoons out of the drawer. Is generous with the ice cream, three scoops per bowl, and is about to leave when he stops. He places the bowls on the counter and opens the pantry. What he’s looking for is at eye level, in a Tupperware container between the tissues and the peanuts. Mom’s “famous” brownies, the most common obstacle to his parents’ repeated promise of a health kick. Just one more in a long line of empty promises.
He places a brownie carefully in each bowl, then returns to the pantry to make sure the Tupperware lid is closed tight, that the air is out. A minute later he crosses the street and rings the doorbell, carefully balancing the bowls as he does so.
The shade pulls back first, then the door opens. He’s of an indiscriminate age, older than the boy’s parents, younger than his grandparents. He appears neither surprised nor bothered to see him. “Where’s your glove?”
The boy lights up. The man has watched him, has seen him. “It’s at home.” He hands him a bowl. “This is for you.”
The man looks past him for a second, scanning the street. “Why don’t you come in?” It’s dark inside the house. The air is rich, fragrant. It smells like Espositos’, the Italian bakery on Hamline. “So what’s this for?”
“I figured you might be lonely.”
“No one visits you and you never leave.”
The man says nothing, just nods, and in that silence a million truths are expressed.
“And it’s my birthday.”
“It is? Today?”
The boy nods.
“Well happy birthday…”
The man holds out his hand, looking at him, looking through him, it feels, as the boy’s hand finds his. “Happy birthday, Leo.”
How long has it been since he’s heard these words? Tears threaten his eyes, and he has to look away.
“What’s your name?” the boy asks a minute later.
A beat. “Paul. Paul Lavery.”
They sit on a sofa and begin working on their bowls. A TV the size of a car hangs from the wall opposite them. “So what did you get for your birthday?” Paul asks.
“Nothing.” Leo finishes his brownie in one bite, takes his time chewing, grateful for the quiet it offers.
Paul places his bowl on the coffee table in front of them and stands up. “I don’t know about you, but I think we could use a couple sodas to wash down that dessert.” A minute later he returns with two root beers. He hands one to Leo. It has an envelope wrapped around it, secured by a rubber band.
“What’s this?” the boy asks.
He opens the envelope, stares first at the hundred-dollar bill, then at Paul.
“It’s for your birthday.” Paul smiles. “You didn’t think I forgot, did you?”
Leo sits on the front step, shuffling the ball in and out of his glove. His mother pauses in the driveway, waves to him while she waits for the garage door to open. He waves back, listens as the door closes again and the garage and the house and her loss swallow her up. Maybe it’s seeing her, maybe it’s not, but the itch is stronger now and he can’t wait any longer. He goes inside and climbs the stairs to his bedroom, pulls the box of cannoli out from under his bed. He’d waited until this afternoon, when he was home alone after school, as if it mattered, to walk downtown to Espositos’. Twelve dollars. He’d used his own money, cash he’d earned from shovelling driveways and walking Mrs. Parker’s dog after she had her hip replaced. He didn’t want to use the gift from Paul. That he wants to keep forever.
He rings Paul’s doorbell and waits. Once again the curtain pulls back before the door opens. “Leo.” A quick glance, left and right. “Come in.”
Leo hands him the box.
“Let me guess,” Paul says, lifting the top and eyeing the pastries inside. “It’s your birthday again.”
The boy smiles, holds up his glove. “I remembered this time. Want to have a catch?”
Paul hesitates. “Okay. But out back.”
The backyard is fenced in, creating a secluded haven. Leo looks around, expecting a dog that isn’t there. “I was going to bring my dad’s glove, but he’s a lefty.”
Paul catches the ball barehanded, tosses it back. “Just as well.”
“What do you mean?”
This time Paul throws a pop fly in the air, and even at ten years of age Leo understands it’s to buy himself a second or two. “Probably best not to tell them about me.”
“I was wondering when you’d be back,” Paul says.
Warmth fills Leo’s chest as he hurries into the house. He’s been thinking about me. He wants to ask Paul if he has children, but there’s so much wrapped up in that question that scares him. Before the thought trails off into the air unspoken, Paul’s back is to him and he’s walking away. “There’s something I want to show you,” he announces over his shoulder. “It just arrived.”
A minute later he returns with an unopened box. He slices the tape with a pocket knife and pulls back the flaps. First a baseball glove, big, dark leather. Then a pair of Boston Red Sox hats, navy blue with a red B. He hands one to Leo. “This is for you.”
“Let me guess,” the boy says, a slight catch to his voice despite his smile. “It’s my birthday again.”
Two days later, it’s Friday. Teachers drone on; the clock torments him from one class to the next. He left his glove and ball, his new Sox cap, on top of his made bed before leaving for school. An easy grab when he drops off his backpack.
The kids in the front of the bus see it first. The driver slows to a stop a few doors from his house, the street barricaded by police cars parked at haphazard angles. His throat goes dry. He jumps out of his seat and asks the driver to let him out here. She does, then backs the bus up and eventually turns down Winchester Avenue. Leo stands in his front yard, transfixed by the scene across the street. Watches for what feels like several minutes, confused, frightened. Please, God, no. Eventually the door opens and Paul is led outside, his hands cuffed behind his back. His eyes are vacant. Not Leo’s; his are stinging as tears pour violently down his cheeks. He doesn’t hesitate. He runs over before the police can stop him and hugs his friend, neither of them saying a word.
Everything is surreal, unsteady, like he’s walking atop a waterbed. He drags himself out of his room at nine the next morning after a sleepless night. His parents are sitting at the table drinking coffee and reading the paper. “Hey, Leo, grab a seat and get a load of this.” Like they’re a family that does this sort of thing on a Saturday morning. The words float just out of reach; he can make out only snippets. Anthony Dinofrio. Extortion. Flight risk.
Everything is surreal.
He needs to use Paul’s money after all. He climbs in the taxi, gives the driver the address.
“What’s out there?”
The question catches him off guard; he doesn’t know how to answer. My friend.
It’s not a far trip, and before he knows it they’re pulling into the driveway. He’s never been here before, and the sight of it overwhelms him. Brick walls and barbed wire. Towers surveilling the grounds. Scary. He pays the driver, waits for his change, climbs out. The guard hesitates a split second before ushering him in. Leo’s good at reading people, a skill born from experience, from years spent on the periphery. He pegs the guard easily enough. Pity.
In through a double set of doors, the second refusing to open until the first closes. Cameras mounted in the corners watching him. He eventually reaches a receptionist’s desk, where a heavyset woman sits behind a sliding glass window. She does a double take, mirroring the guard’s expression. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see” – he’s been rehearsing the name all week, but it still sounds strange coming off his tongue – “Anthony Dinofrio.”
“And you are?”
She removes her glasses, exhales a deep breath. “Only adults are allowed to visit.”
“Please,” he begs.
“I’m sorry, kid,” she says, not unkindly, “but rules are rules.”
He turns away, doesn’t want her to see.
“If you give me your name, I can tell him you came.”
He lies in bed, unable to sleep. The day has finally arrived, and armed with that truth, time slows to a halt. He eventually gets up and throws on his cap. He lays everything – the envelope, his glove (no ball), the sign he’s made – on the bed before tiptoeing to the kitchen for a silent breakfast. He’s memorized the T map (red line to Park Street, green line to Kenmore) and the schedule, knows exactly when he needs to leave the house.
He can’t possibly wait that long.
Summit Street is empty at this hour. He wears his glove on his left hand, carries the sign in his right. He holds it backwards, the side with the writing facing his body. It’s not that he’s embarrassed by it or ashamed of it; it’s just that it’s private, something personal between him and Paul. The envelope sits safely in his front pocket, but he stops every few minutes to make sure. If his dad were here he could hold the tickets for him. Not an option; Leo couldn’t risk asking him, couldn’t risk the disappointment. He reaches the T stop, buys a token, waits by the platform with his fellow passengers. When the train arrives it’s empty, and he finds a single seat. Reads his sign. Checks the envelope.
By the time they reach Park Street, the car is full and he’s grateful to be getting off. Most everyone else disembarks as well, and he follows a sea of humanity up the stairs and over to the green line. Even though he’s early, a wave of panic – will he make it on time? – washes over him, but multiple trains come in succession and he’s able to get on the second one. It’s packed with passengers, many wearing Sox hats and shirts. An older woman sits by herself and he shimmies into the seat next to her. He avoids eye contact, stares across the aisle at a poster for a local MBA program.
“Leo? Is that you?”
He looks at the woman next to him. Swallows around the lump in his throat. One of the third-grade teachers at his school, the one he wished he’d had last year. “Hi, Mrs. Lewis.”
“Are you alone?”
A single bead of sweat trails down his side.
“Do your parents know you’re here?”
The lie would be harmless enough, would bring the conversation to a merciful end, but he can’t get himself to tell it.
She fishes through her pocketbook. “Leo, can I have your mom or dad’s number? I need to talk to one of them.”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Lewis. Honestly.”
“I would feel much better if I could talk to your mom or dad.”
Kenmore, next stop.
Leo stands up, looks her in the eye. “It was nice to see you, Mrs. Lewis. I’m sorry if I caused you any trouble.”
It takes a while for the passengers to disembark, but eventually he’s outside, two feet on the ground, breathing fresh air. The crowd is carried up the street as if on an escalator, and Leo experiences a sense of belonging that sends a chill down his spine. He wipes his eyes with his sleeves and then looks up. Up ahead, above the throng of people and the buildings lining the street, Fenway Park rises into view. A thrumming in his chest, a tingling in his fingertips, he hears everything with piercing clarity. A car horn honking in the distance. A kid next to him snapping his fingers. A cacophony of voices competing to be heard above the brouhaha. Tickets anyone? And: Get your programs here. And: Soxhatsshirtssweatshirts. Someone yells Paul’s name and he freezes. Two guys are smiling at him; they each raise a beer in salute and yell, “Go Sox,” as they walk by. Leo looks down, realizes his sign is facing out. He smiles and waves, but the two men are gone. He turns his sign back around before continuing on his way.
When he reaches the gate, he hands a ticket to the attendant. He then pushes his way through the turnstile and follows the signs to his section. An usher guides him to his seat, and with each step they descend, it becomes a little more real. Closer and closer to the field, until they stop at the second row. “You got a great seat, kid. Enjoy the game.”
He puts his glove on the empty seat next to him and takes in the scene. The Green Monster. Pesky’s Pole. The red seat in the right field bleachers, where the longest home run in Fenway’s history landed. Players are coming in from the outfield, their stretching and jogging and pregame rituals coming to a close. The grass is so green, is cut so perfectly into crisscrossing squares. He wonders how long it takes to mow the entire field, who the lucky guy is that gets to do that.
He leans his sign against the front of the adjacent seat. He then opens the envelope to put his ticket back in. The piece of paper inside is folded in thirds, and Leo pulls it out and unfolds it, smoothing it on his lap. By now he can recite the note from memory, but he doesn’t care. He reads it one more time.
As you already know, my name is not Paul Lavery. I’m sorry I lied to you about that, but I felt like I had no choice. I swear it’s the only lie I told you; everything else was true. I loved your visits, I loved playing catch, I love brownies and ice cream and cannoli. The truth is, I liked being Paul Lavery better than I ever liked being Anthony Dinofrio. Even if only for a short time, you made Paul a better person.
They told me you came to visit me here. I can’t tell you how much that means to me, how much I wish I could have seen you. It got me thinking, and I came up with an idea. The tickets are for this Saturday’s game. The seats are right behind home plate, second row. The game’s on TV, and I plan on watching the entire thing. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I could come up with. I can’t wait to see you Saturday.
A roar erupts from the crowd as the Red Sox take the field to warm up. Leo returns the letter to the envelope and places it back in his pocket. Directly in front of him, the catcher crouches into his stance and readies himself. Leo closes his eyes, listens for the thwap of his mitt. Eventually he opens his eyes again. When he does, a cameraman walks past him, panning the crowd. Leo reaches for his sign, makes sure it’s facing the right way, and holds it up.
Thomas Carlson is a psychologist in private practice in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife and three children. He is currently working on his first novel.