The Care Unit Softball Team
Before we could head over to the park to take infield,
gloving the ball on the short hop and flipping to second
to turn two, and before we each took turns in the cage
with our beat-up foam-insulated helmets muting the world,
we’d sit in a circle of folding chairs to drink lukewarm coffee
under fluorescent lights as smoke drifted around the room
with nowhere to go. Al-Anon. Alateen. Alcoholics Anonymous.
Crop dusters sprayed sulfur over the vineyards beyond the hospital,
with contrails of pesticide fading away as if whispering secrets
into the earth. I read once that grapes were treated with sulfur
in Persia, 2,000 years ago, that gladiators applied it to their wounds.
And I told no one this, but I was beginning to believe that this life
depends on the study of pain, and the management of pain.
The meetings repeated themselves week after week, one month
to another, with someone clearing their throat before reciting
their name aloud, another crying as the rest of us stared
into our empty hands, or into the empty hands of those
seated around us. Their voices gone flat with the telling.
The rest of us floating in ovals of coffee, framed
by Styrofoam. When it was my turn, I didn’t tell the story
of the drive to baseball practice, that summer years before,
near dusk, two six-packs in, his eyelids too heavy
as he tried to focus on the rolling hills of Madera County,
twenty minutes from town, a landscape of dead grass
as far as the eye could see. How quietly tragic it was.
And I didn’t share how he implored me to sing,
the windows down and the July heat pouring over us,
his hands gripping the wheel, his head tipping over
as if everything that had happened in his life now
gathered at the front of his mind, the weight of it
too much to lift up anymore, his hair turned silver
decades too soon, and how I sang that day
with my horrible broken little voice, a 12-year-old
who was afraid to speak, a boy who stammered
with words jumbled in his mouth, but still, I sang
as loud as I could, there in my baseball uniform singing
the only words I remembered from my favorite song—
Slip sliding away, Slip sliding away
You know the nearer destination more
You’re slip sliding away
And if this were simply a poem, I might end it there—
in that hollow of the road where the sorrow is, even now,
the two of us driving with my sad little voice trailing
from the open window and vanishing in the summer air.
But this is the real world, and as much as he thought
baseball a useless sport, lacking anything that might
stir the intellect, he loved me, even if he didn’t understand me,
and I think that’s part of the reason he quit drinking, why
he seemed to wake up to himself after more than a decade
of spinning himself into that void we all carry within.
In the next few years, he taught himself Flamenco
and earned his black belt and took up skydiving and
learned how to type and became fluent in Spanish
and he studied Vietnamese and French and Thai
and Swahili and Arabic and Khmer and Russian
and, my god, that blurry haze in his eyes was gone,
and he was sober and he was himself for the rest of his days.