Jim Meirose


               The new baseball bounced into the Indian grass and the boys couldn’t find it. So they gave up. It bounced there in late fall and lay under the deep snow all winter until spring came. The snow all gone, the ball lay in the grass until midsummer baking in the sun. Its thick cowhide cover and stout red stitching protected it. At last a day arrived when things would change.
               A boy came by in mid-August and spotted the ball as he walked the path from his uncle’s house to Washington Avenue, and he stopped and picked it up. It was white as brand new, for a brand new ball indeed it had been, the day of the first foul ball and its bounce into the tall grass. The brand name and other things written on the ball meant nothing to the boy. It was just a baseball, and it looked brand new. He proceeded along the path onto Washington Avenue and lightly tossed the ball from one hand to the other, and once in a while he bounced it on the concrete and it came right up back into his hand; this was a live one. It was almost as much a living thing as he was, and almost as much of a new thing as he had been the day that he was born. How proud his Father had been at the plant when he told the men there he had had a boy—to have a boy was special. Father looked forward to the coming years when the boy would grow and they would play ball and fish and when the boy was old enough, the Father would teach him to hunt. He would bring the boy into the plant to show him off as soon as he was old enough, and the boy would politely sit in a plastic chair next to the rotary press the Father ran eight hours a day, and he would go in the locker room with his dad at break time and sit by his dad, and he would make his Father proud. Never mind that the next day Mr. Pritchard, the boss, would tell the Father it wasn’t proper to bring a seven year old boy into the plant—there were problems of insurance liability he would have to worry about, and of course the Father, being very proper, understood this and said he would never do it again—but it was just done this once because he was so very proud of his boy, his pride and joy who would carry his name forward. The Father’s last name would be carried by the boy into the future as he grew, and as Father and Mother passed away, and beyond to when, prayed Father, the boy would have a son of his own to carry the name yet farther. Every day, in the plant, he sang the praises of his boy and his boy’s picture hung up on the frame of the rotary press Father operated the same way the boy’s picture hung in the living room of their two story frame house where Mother spent her days in torment unspoken of, but real, nonetheless.
               On this day Mother stood at the kitchen window, tapping the glass nervously, as was most often the case sunk deep down into herself. Mother had never gotten over the haunting memory of the excruciating pain of childbirth, and deep inside she resented the Father and the boy for having inflicted this on her and leaving it as a deep sore scar in her memory that time would not dim. She was a fine enough Mother to the boy and wife to the Father and outwardly showed no sign of this scar, but each day, while she was alone and Father was at work and the boy was at school or with his friends in the summer, she sat in the kitchen, flowered teacup in her hand, reliving that stark hard moment of pain that came at the moment of the boy’s birth. She looked around the yellow room and everything was clean and neat and washed and shined and polished, and the floor was bright, and the whole house was spotless because she was constantly cleaning and straightening and tidying things up. This activity caused the scar inside her to stop hurting as much, and Father was proud of his hardworking wife and was proud when his friends would come over to watch a game or play cards because the house was all just so perfect—and so was his wife, and it showed. But inside she hated the Father and the boy for having put her through such pain that they would never have to feel, and she sat in the kitchen brooding alone through the icy winter days and sultry summer afternoons, and she would bite her lip bloody as the memory of the pain came and went and went on stabbing, stabbing, stabbing her—there.
               The boy walked down Washington bouncing the baseball until he came to main and made a right at the Hess station with the big green sign and headed for the main street bridge that spanned the river that ran through the town, the river that all the old locals called the brook. Reaching the bridge he bounced the ball higher and it took a wild bounce and went over the railing of the bridge and bounced along and splashed straight into the river. He rushed to the edge and the ball bobbed out in the water where it was waist deep—he knew from having fished off the bridge with Father how deep the water was—and the ball drifted slowly toward the edge of the dam crossing the river and would be soon gone if he didn’t act; so he took out his wallet and put it on the grass and went in the water and waded out to where it was chest-deep to get his ball, and came back out dripping. Luckily it was midsummer and the sun beating down took the chill off of him, and it was a windless day so though he was drenched, it was a warm drenched, and he got his wallet and walked along dripping, baseball in one hand and wallet in the other. The few people walking along the bridge stared at him with smiles on their faces—the things that boys will get themselves into in the middle of the summer when they are thirteen. He knew he didn’t dare go home now until the sun had dried him—and it being morning, he would not be expected home until dinner, because his Mother would know he was at the Creighton’s house, and would be fed lunch there, in the home of his best friend. Bruce Creighton was the same kind of best friend that the boy’s Father had had when he was thirteen, and he had grown up with his best friend and they went to work in the same plant together and one day, Father went to his best friend’s workstation and laid down his wrench.
               You have to come with me to McEwan’s after work, said Father.
               Oh? said the best friend. For what. I don’t smoke any more—
               Father waved a hand.
               No—I need to buy some cigars to pass out—you know, the kind that say it’s a boy on them—I want you to help me pick them out you know cigars better than I do—you used to smoke them—you’d know what’s good to get that everybody would like.
               The best friend threw his weight over on one leg and laid a hand on his bench.
               Chances are they’ll only have one kind that are stamped with it’s a boy, he said. You don’t need me to come down there with you. McEwan can tell you what you need to get.
               Well, said Father—I guess that’s true—you know what, Freddie?
               Father beamed.
               It’s great having a son, he said. It’s just great.
               Well—girls are good too. I’ve got three.
               I know, I’m sure they’re great too—but there’s something about knowing the family name is going to be passed on that makes having a son kind of special. Do you know what I mean.
               I do—if that kind of thing is important to you.
               Father picked up his wrench.
               What do you mean—I would think it would be important to every man.
               Oh—don’t get me wrong—it would be special—but, like I said, I’m happy with my girls. My brother John has a boy. He can carry on the family name for us both.
               Well—I suppose.
               Not being able to comprehend this, Father went back to his press and worked out the rest of his shift, and called Mother and told her he would be about a half-hour late because he was stopping to get cigars.
               The kind that say It’s a Boy, you know—that kind. The special kind, he said into the phone. She said she’d hold dinner. He hung up the pay phone smiling. He was proud of the woman who had given him his boy. She was a joy to talk to. Always so reasonable. After work he stopped at McEwan’s and went in the shop and was transported by the mixed smells of hundreds of different tobaccos. The shelves held hundreds of multicolored cans and cartons and boxes. He went up to the counter.
               Steve, he said to Mr. McEwan. How you doing?
               Fine. Business is good.
               I need some cigars.
               What kind.
               The kind that say It’s a Boy on them.
               Oh sure, how many boxes you want—and congratulations, by the way.
               For what?
               For having a baby boy—
               Oh, God, of course—thanks, Steve.
               Steve put a box of cigars on the counter and opened it and it said it’s a boy in blue along the wrapping of each cigar and also each cigar had a blue band. The cigars were beautiful. Father wouldn’t imagine what they would look like with pink lettering and a pink band—and he couldn’t imagine what it would be like to hand that kind out. He bought a box and thanked Steve McEwan and went out to his car to go home. There was his precious wife, and his precious son, and they had dinner and the evening together—and the next day he took the box of cigars to work and walked along the banks of rotary presses handing out cigars and stopping to chat a minute or two at each workstation. As he stood at Rich William’s machine chatting Mr. Pritchard came up in his white shirt and short black tie.
               So men—what’s so interesting that it’s causing Ron here to make the rounds of all the workstations? What you got there Ron? What’s that box?
               Oh—cigars—look, he said, holding one out to Mr. Pritchard. It’s a boy! Isn’t it great!
               Oh yes, said the boss, taking the cigar—but I also think it would be great if you went back to your press and took a shot at making quota today—
               Oh, my press is running, Mr. Pritchard—straight stock run today.
               Well—you better get back to it anyway. You need to stay close in case it jams.
               Father closed the box of cigars and headed back up the line toward his press, and Mr. Pritchard walked away and smelled the cigar with a slight smile. Being a man, he understood. He understood all the things every man understands about having a son—but he also didn’t understand all the same things Father didn’t understand about Mother, back at home, in the living room now, cleaning wildly trying to keep that scar from flaring up inside—and as she often did when cleaning, she thought that only death would deliver her from the memory of the pain and she thought that once it was over, whatever unpleasant part there was of experiencing it, death could not be so bad. In death there was nothingness. In death there were no scars to burn and flare up and jab and cut her inside. And she let herself think it—it was a private thought, so she had a right to it—she let herself think this is all because of that boy, and his Father, they did this to me, if I were unmarried and a virgin I would not have had to go through all this travail and have these gut wrenching memories—sometimes it was like being punched in the stomach by a red hot razor sharp fist—and when that happened, she would think it.
               If only that boy had never been born. If only that boy never was.
               And when that thought came up, automatically as it did, she would immediately be hit with a burst of guilt at having thought such a thing—and she would clean harder, her eyes streaming with tears—she would dust harder, she would sweep and polish harder, until the guilt would begin to fade away. Work—hard work. God made it for a reason. She knew what that reason was. It was to escape into, to disappear into, to have your feelings washed away.
               The Boy continued to the end of the bridge and then decided that he would sit in the sun a while on the concrete platforms holding the great wheel that when turned would raise the gate in the end of the dam—or at least many many years ago, it would have. But now it was just one solid mass of rusted metal; the wheel and the screw and the gears and the shafts and the gate below looked solidly embedded in the dam, it would not move ever again, and he imagined if there ever was a time when some burly barechested mustached ruddy workman would turn the wheel and let the water flow freely from above the dam to below that dam—and why would they ever want to do such a thing. The boy put his hand on the rusted wheel and the burly man went away and the sun beat down on him hard, to where he was merely damp, not soaked anymore, and it felt good to sit here. He and Father had sat here fishing many a long summer evening, the boy had caught his first trout here, a real fish not the crappy trash fish and sunnies and bullheads and eels you could catch here all summer—and what was better yet about the trout was that his Father had not been here with him fishing that time, he’d caught it and reeled it in and strung it up on his own, and few days later he ate what he caught. In the lowering twilight Father had cleaned the fish—how the scales had flown shimmering in the soft light, how the tomcats had enjoyed the head, how smoothly the entrails had flowed out when father made the long straight cut. It was delicious, as delicious as the sun come down onto his face and onto his damp back—he knew his Father had been the first one to see that back years ago in the delivery room and the Father stood behind the Mother lying there in agony and could only think how wonderful, how glorious, I now have a son—where it just came from, he did not think of—his wife’s travails, he did not think of—he just watched as the baby was lifted by the heels and held up and the doctor said It’s a Big Baby Boy! And the word boy filled the Father from top to bottom and he went over to where they had taken the baby to a small table to the side and they suctioned out his mouth and nose and the baby at last began to cry—and they wrapped the baby while it was crying and took it toward the                Mother, but he stopped them.
               Here, he said—here. Let me hold him.
               And he stood there holding the baby to him proud of having been the first one to see him and the first one to hold him and the first one to clearly hear him—the cries tore into his ears, but with a sweetness and freshness he’d never experienced—and he stood there until at last the nurse said I think that Mommy would like to see her baby, and the nurse took the baby from him. He followed the nurse over to where the Mother lay and saw them lay the baby in the Mother’s arms and all he saw was the baby as the Mother’s torn parts bled inside and underneath and she needed to be comforted, to hear some loving caring words but—the boy, the boy—there was nothing but the boy, for the Father.
               My boy.
               She never forgot him standing there like that smiling over his new son, and he never said a word to her until later when she was back in the hospital room, and the baby wasn’t there the baby was in the nursery and he leaned down and kissed her on the forehead and asked her if she was all right. He was not beaming the way he had been when the baby was there, all he did was say flatly Are you all right?
               I suppose so, she said—it was hard work, I never had such—
               But we have this beautiful boy now just like I always wanted. That’s what counts. We’ve got a boy.
               We’ve got a boy.
               Sometimes now years later when she was cleaning she would hear this echo in her mind.
               We’ve got a boy—
               We’ve got a boy—
               And then the pain comes and surges up over the words all red and pink and slimy and foul, and she dusts harder or scrubs harder or cooks more intensely, whichever she was doing when this memory assailed her. When she was calm, she asked herself—can I forgive him, and can I forgive the boy for having given me such pain and of having been so thoughtless and maybe, just maybe, if she thought they cared an ounce about how bad the birth had been for her and what she had gone through for them both, then maybe she could open up, and tell them how she felt, and forgive them. She longed to forgive them; she wanted it not to be the kind of forgiveness where words need to be spoken, but the unspoken kind, the spiritual kind, the holy kind. But she could not forgive unless she thought they knew she had something to forgive them for—and she did not see either of them knowing this. So time went on. The sun beat on the boy until he felt his back was all dry. He rose from sitting on the edge of the platform and came down onto the old railroad tracks that ran there but were never used any more; the Michelin plant that the train had serviced was gone a long time ago, torn down, forgotten. Once across the tracks he went up past the bank to the Walgreen’s drug store and meant to buy himself a pretzel. He had money in his pocket—and he still had the baseball, but the wild bounce that had sent it into the brook had taught him a lesson—he didn’t bounce it, just held it, and he went into Walgreen’s and went to the counter and asked the ancient heavily made up cashier for a small bag of pretzels from the rack stood up behind her. She sold him the pretzels and he turned and left and stood a moment in front of the Walgreen’s opening the bag while holding the baseball under his arm—and he remembered how he always waited here for the school bus when it wasn’t summer and school was in session but it was very different now that summer was here, he felt so free! He walked along eating the pretzels and realized all of a sudden that he was only slightly damp now—not wet and slimy as he had been when he was preparing to leave his Mother’s womb, and he was unseen but causing waves of pain to radiate all through Mother and Father was there thinking as the doctors worked Lord God please let it be a boy, lord god just let me have a son and I’ll do anything for you, and as he thought these thoughts he held Mother’s hand but it was no more to him than a piece of meat would have been as he was wishing for the boy so hard that was all there was. Dear Lord, dear lord—let the boy come. Let him come—and he looked over the Mother, unaware of her, watching the doctors and nurses at the bottom ready to ease the baby out once it came; and Mother had been in so much pain, that when it comes up in her memories she wondered if Father or the boy would ever experience such pain themselves—it seemed only right that they should. That would be another way that they could earn her forgiveness—if even just for a moment to experience the pain of being torn in half as she had. Yes, it seemed right they should both experience such pain—but how could that come to pass? She stood wringing the dust cloth in her hands and gazed out the window down the street of houses they lived on, and she wondered—there were husbands, and wives, and sons and daughters in those houses—were any of them suffering the way that she was? Had any of them been treated the way that she had? She couldn’t believe it could be possible that any of them could be going through what she was—and then she looked down from the window as the memory of the pain came in her gut and forced her to sit in the kitchen table, and she winced, and she held on, and the great cramp subsided—and there were times when she thought she should go see a doctor for this condition, for the way all this pain flared up in her every day since the day the baby had been born, and what could that doctor do for her? As she had many times before, she resolved to do so—and the thought lessened the pain and made her think that call to the doctor could be tomorrow—yes, tomorrow, there was so much cleaning and the silver needed polishing and a dinner had to be made for her husband and boy, these were the things a Mother should be about, not calling the doctor for some silly pains. So once again, it didn’t happen. Things would be the same—she forced this thought from her mind and quickly began to polish the silver after getting it down off the top of the deep brown hutch. This would keep her busy enough—this would keep the pain away for a while. This was better than any doctor. She was proud of being able to take care of herself. And after all doctors had only given her pain.
               The boy reached the corner of Wilson, the street he lived on, and tried to decide whether to go home for lunch today instead of going and sponging off Mrs. Creighton but then he realized his shoes were still soaked and Mother would see this and Mother would probably not be happy; plus his jeans were wetter than his shirt—no, he was nowhere near dry yet—and plus—today is the day dad will be coming home at noon, because he had a dental appointment. Dad would be madder than Mom about the wet shoes. The boy stood at the corner, tossing the ball from one hand to the other, trying to make a decision like Father had tried to make, to decide what time to go home from the hospital that night when the boy was born. He could have stayed there all night comforting the Mother, but there was work the next day—and he had to be ready to tell the men at the plant that it was a boy.
               He went down the line of rotary presses telling each man Guess what? It’s a boy.
               Oh that’s great—
               I know—hey Sammy—it’s a boy—
               Greaat, great—how’s the wife holding up?
               It’s a boy!
               How’s the wife?
               It’s a boy.
               It’s a boy.
               Father was in the grip of a fever that burned inside him—the whole world had to know!
               The whole world had to know.
               But that was thirteen years ago—and that fever had probably lessened inside Father, the way such fevers tend to do—and now here thirteen years later Mother stood in the kitchen holding a steak knife, fondling it actually, wondering about different kinds of pain. There was the pain of childbirth, as she had had—well it would not be possible for her boy and husband to ever experience that—but what about the pain of being impaled on a knife like this? Could that pain cleanse them of the sins they had committed against her? She touched the point of the knife with her finger. No. That would be the wrong kind of pain. She picked up a fork and jabbed it at her palm hard enough to leave indentations—but no. This was not the pain they needed. She could never inflict the pain on them that they needed. Then, her stomach fell into a hollow. She sank into a chair. There is no way she can make them know what her pain was like or to experience it. She would never be able to forgive them. She put her face down into her arms folded on the table and she began to cry.
               Father drove slowly toward home and his dentists appointment and thought as he often did of the lucky man he was. Great son. Loving wife. Good job. Great car. Plus, he had gotten all this himself—no one had handed any of it to him. He had asked his future wife out that day long ago in school—he had planted the seed in her that led to the great son. He had gone to night school and learned this great printing trade. It had gotten him the car and the house and everything else. He crossed the main street bridge.
               She cried bitterly.
               The son bounced the baseball once—first bounce since it had gone in the brook—and decided to pass by his street and head to Creighton’s, knowing that he didn’t have to be home yet anyway and his pants and shirt and shoes would fully dry during a pick-up game of baseball with the Creighton brothers and some other boys. They were always game. He stepped out quickly past Wilson toward Creighton’s and began bouncing the ball again. What a great ball. And just as he disappeared over the rise in the road toward Creighton’s, here came his Father, up from town and turning onto Wilson. Slowly he drove down Wilson not dreaming the state his wife was in. He pulled into the driveway, pulled up to a stop. He got out and reached the grey back steps, and he paused. Once more he was reminded by the sight of them that they needed tightening—the treads were loose and the sides and someday someone was going to break their neck. He bit his lip and shook his head, went up the steps and in the back door.
               Hello dear, she said, standing arrow straight by the table of silverware.
               Hello, he said, going over and giving her a peck on the cheek.
               God, he said, moving to the table, touching the silver—you’ve got it gleaming—you are amazing.
               She nodded, knowing he would never know what drove her to it.
               Hating him.
               He put his arm around his wife.
               How does she keep this house so perfect—what a wife, what a wife—
               —and what a boy.
               Where’s our son, he asked her.
               Oh—probably at Creightons. Those Creighton boys are his best friends.
               It’s good there are other boys around. It’s good for him—
               That’s true.
               Boys are great!
               At Creighton’s, the brand new old baseball was thrown, hit, slammed into the fence, bounced, bobbled, rolled, and caught, and became scarred and dirty, as was its intended lot; but magically none of this was accompanied by pain. The redstitched cowhide baseball was at last happy to be used for its intended purpose.

Jim Meirose's work has appeared in Otoliths multiple times and also in numerous other magazines and journals, including Collier's Magazine, the Fiddlehead, Witness, Alaska Quarterly review, and Xavier Review, and has been nominated for several awards. Two collections of his short work have been published and his novels, "Claire","Monkey", and "Freddie Mason's Wake" are available from Amazon.
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