The first time I ever got drunk was in the very same dugout I’d staggered back to in a mob of my teammates at the tail end of the happiest moment of my childhood. It was three years later, the first spring I’d spent without playing baseball–without eating, drinking, and breathing baseball, without wearing the green cap of my little league team to bed and waking up thinking about baseball–since I’d been old enough for little league. In fact, it was my first spring without baseball since even before I’d entered little league, baseball becoming the center of my life when we’d moved to Vermont in 1974 and my brother had started little league and we’d both started collecting cards such as this one of the apparently good-natured baseball temp worker Vic Harris.
After four years of little league I’d played Babe Ruth league for a year and a half. The first year I rode the bench and once in a while during blowouts batted against what suddenly seemed to be grown men throwing a hundred miles an hour when they weren’t terrifying me with curveballs that hurtled toward my head before dropping harmlessly over the plate. After a while I just started bailing out of the batter’s box as soon as the pitch was thrown, even if it ended up being a soft, fluttering changeup two feet outside, tossed by the chuckling Larry-Bird-mustached fifteen-year-old on the mound who was wasting a pitch solely to highlight my abject cowardice.
The second year wasn’t much better, my only decent day at the plate during the entire season coming against the co-ed team of a Central Vermont town so infested by aging hippies and their sexually ambiguous offspring that we couldn’t tell which soft-tossing longhairs were the boys and which were the girls. Our coach that year was a minister of some sort of small, vaguely cultish church that he’d founded after becoming ordained through the mail. He had also been my coach my last two years of little league (his son Steve was on both teams), but since little league the church had grown into an entity capable of having constant small, vaguely cultish crises that demanded the coach’s immediate attention. In his absence we were “led” by a loud, easily distracted member of his congregation who had a huge black mountain-man beard and wore a railroad engineer’s cap, overalls, and mud-caked shitkickers to our games. He seemed to know very little about baseball.
I guess one of the things I liked about playing organized baseball was that it was organized. In a world of 1970s-colored uncertainty and blurred borders–the nucleus of which was the three-year experiment in open marriage by my parents and the guy who basically became my second father, Tom, which gave way to a prolonged period where my dad no longer lived with us but was still for reasons unknown to me married to my mom–I suppose I found solace in the fact that games started at a certain time on certain days and lasted a certain amount of innings, barring rain, snow, darkness, or ties, and that everything that happened during the game was theoretically marked down in a scorecard to become part of the comfortingly concrete world of statistics. In my second year of Babe Ruth this illusion of organization disintegrated, practices either cancelled or sparsely attended, games featuring several guys on my team dressed in jeans or even corduroys instead of baseball uniform pants, the bearded guy not only not marking anything down in a scorecard but most often not even sitting on the bench as we came undone in a shambling tornado of errors and strikeouts, instead in the parking lot working on one problem or another with his ancient piece-of-shit truck, which always seemed in danger of coughing up its last lung and leaving us stranded at the site of awful, unrelenting away-game losses. I don’t remember quitting halfway through the season but somehow I did. I guess somewhere during that last spring of baseball I had purchased that nonrefundable entropic realization that in life it’s frighteningly easy to just not show up.
Anyway, one night during my first spring without baseball, I ended up drinking from a two-liter jug of rum-spiked coke with a couple of friends in the little league dugout where I’d spent my first and only moments as a Home Run King. The brief, inexplicable triumph of that day seemed farther away to me when I was fifteen than it does to me now. Shocked by the smallness of the field, and particularly by the closeness of the outfield fence, I ached with the knowledge that I could never go back, that I couldn’t somehow transport my fifteen-year-old body and fifteen-year-old brain, which were both proving useless in their current milieu, into the past to rule a simpler, easier twelve-year-old world.
The ache dissolved into the feelings of my very first drunk, which began to announce itself as a slow motion floatiness while I was running with my friends from the dugout toward an older kid’s truck in the parking lot. We ended up riding around shitfaced and laughing and talking about girls’ tits for the rest of the night in the covered back of the truck, the bumps in the road seeming to lift me up into the air like I was an astronaut in zero gravity. It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt.
Yesterday, after writing about the happiest day of my childhood, I went to work and spent most of the day verifying that the written script for the audio directions of an online educational test matched the actual audio directions word for word. I found a handful of discrepancies–a word missing here, a sentence repeated there–and noted them with a date and my initials in an Excel spreadsheet. When I got home I drank a couple beers and watched some TV. This morning on my way to doing the same thing all over again I noticed some text on the back of this Vic Harris card that reads, among other things, “Vic is most comfortable at second base.” As you can see by the “OF” (signifying “outfielder”) in the upper right-hand corner of the card, the San Francisco Giants did not seem to care about providing Vic Harris with his maximum comfort. If I had a baseball card I guess the front-of-card identifier would read “PR” (for proofreader) while the back-of-the-card text would report that “Josh is most comfortable droning on at great length about the past and then going on long aimless walks.” I doubt I would be able to muster the same good-natured albeit weary expression that Vic Harris is displaying. Having a job, for most of us anyway, means having your life split into two sides of a baseball card, hints of our deeper wishes on the back.
The first kid I knew who had a job was one of the friends I got drunk with that night at the little league dugout. He was a quiet, good-natured Vic Harris type, and for that and for another reason that I’ll get to in a second I’m going to call him Vic instead of his real name. Vic was not only the first kid I knew who had a job but also the first kid I knew who seemed to have his life split into a front side and back side, and the job seemed to have something to do with the split. He was a shy, soft-spoken, skinny kid who loved to draw and paint. I’d met him two years earlier while working on my one and only school play. I had a small role as Dr. Furbalow, a blowhard psychiatrist brought in by a family to talk to their daughter, who had been claiming to be friends with a Martian, and Vic had been cast as the sweet, wide-eyed, friendly Martian. Vic lived with his mother in a small apartment near the high school, his father nowhere around. He had a watch that he loved: when you pressed a button, it played “Hey Jude.” And he had a job at a small advertising company in town run by a man named Fred Hill. Years after it would have done Vic any good, Fred Hill was imprisoned on charges (if memory serves) of child molestation and chi
ld pornography. He got boys to have sex with one another and filmed it.
The night I discovered drunkenness, I asked Vic what he did at his job. The booze was making us spill all sorts of secrets all over the back of the truck, but to this question Vic grew even more reticent than he usually was.
“Oh, you know. I sweep up and stuff,” was all he would say.
We kept drinking and watching the road unspool behind us and floating up into the air with the bumps.