Jack was holding his bat in one hand and looking toward one of the corners of our carpeted basement. I stood a few feet away, ready to start lobbing him underhand pitches. Jack usually can’t wait to start rocketing line drives all over the room.
“Laser Show!” he says sometimes as the line drives are flying. Jack has his own little shoebox full of cards now. This 2012 card of the original Laser Show is the first card Jack wanted as his own, the beginning of his collection.
It turns out Dustin Pedroia was on his mind yesterday as he gazed into the corner. I could tell a question was forming. Jack asks a lot of questions. He asks about animals, planets, food, numbers, himself, me, his mother, his brother, injuries, death, measurements, baseball, the meaning of words, the meaning of the world. He asks, nearly as constantly as he breathes, why.
Why? Why not? Why? Why not?
I never know, not really.
I looked down at the foam Boston Red Sox softball in my hands. The ball had some chunks taken out of it, courtesy of Jack’s younger brother, Exley. Jack turned to me.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Is Dustin Pedroia afraid of spiders?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. Lately I’d been wondering about all of Jack’s questions and my inability to answer them. I needed to start reaching beyond my limited knowledge somehow. “Maybe we can write him a letter and ask him.”
Later that day, Jack asked, “What does Dustin Pedroia like better? Dustin? Pedroia? Or Laser Show?”
I took my best guess on that one, and Jack started pressing the tip of a red magic marker to a piece of paper. He writes big letters and when he runs out of space on a line he just goes to the next line.
This was all that was going to fit on this page. I’d suggested Jack write “Dear Laser Show,” but Jack, already averse to sentiment except in relation to his mother, told me he wasn’t going to write “Dear.” On the other side he drew a baseball player. He started drawing baseball players a while ago, at no one’s prompting. One day I came home from work and he gave a picture to me. He’d never given me a picture before. He’d given my wife all sorts of pictures of hearts and rainbows and the like.
“That’s Mookie Betts,” Jack said that day. It made me want to cry.
“This one looks more like an alien,” he said now. There wasn’t much room left on the page, certainly not enough for more of Jack’s big letters, so I asked Jack to dictate to me the question we were asking. I wrote it down to the right of the alien:
Are you afraid of spiders?
Jack then drew a tarantula at the alien’s feet as I Googled Dustin Pedroia’s address. I came up with something in Arizona. When I was a kid, I’d written to Carl Yastrzemski in care of the Red Sox and had never heard back, so I figured it was worth trying a different approach and wrote the Arizona address on an envelope. Jack put on the stamp.
It had occurred to me not long after Jack asked it that his question had an ironic twist to it, in that Dustin Pedroia was later that night facing elimination at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, a franchise that began in 1901, two years after the disbandment of the city’s previous major league team, the Cleveland Spiders, who were also sometimes known as the Indians because of the presence on the team of a member of the Penobscot tribe, Louis Sockalexis.
This was all happening on Columbus Day, of course, so I had the day off. Jack didn’t ask why I had the day off, as he sometimes does on holidays, but when he does someday I will tell him what I know about Columbus, most of my knowledge coming from the Bugs Bunny offering “Hare We Go.” I’ll probably also tell him that not everybody is such a big fan of Columbus or of there being a day to celebrate him.
Well, I’ll say, there were other people living here first before Columbus came from across the ocean, and he said the following of them (and acted upon this sentiment, in both word and deed symbolically if not actually setting in motion the annihilation of the native inhabitants of this continent):
“With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
What does subjugate mean?
I’ll tell him what subjugate means, which will prompt more questions, and on and on we’ll go, eventually, the whole bloody mess of his world slowly, clumsily rising into view. How does anyone ever even get out of bed? Forget spiders: human history is made up of one long unbroken log of horrific subjugation. Jack already has some inclination of this, thanks to the U-Boat on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Every few days he asks why “the mean guy from the U-Boat” (we go with this construction without clarifying things for him because neither my wife nor I want to hear the name Hitler spilling out of Jack’s mouth on a daily basis) tried to take over everything, and how he forced people to do what he wanted, and if we’re glad he’s dead.
But Jack didn’t ask about any of this yesterday. It turns out he had a fever. The night before, tossing and turning with a sore throat, he had a nightmare about “No Noggin,” a figure from a Curious George Halloween cartoon.
“No Noggin was tearing me to pieces,” Jack said as we were sitting on the couch. It was nighttime, after he’s usually asleep, but he’d dropped into a nap earlier in the day because of the fever, so he was wide awake now. I had an earbud in my ear, listening to the Red Sox game as they tried to stave off elimination at the hands of the Indians.
I’d started following baseball when I was just a little older than Jack and not that long after I began having night terrors. Nothing has ever been scarier to me than those night terrors, which are beyond nightmares. When Jack is frightened in the middle of the night I want to protect him from crossing over from seeing scary images inside his head to seeing the whole real world looking infinitely wrong, which is how it was for me with the night terrors. For me, baseball was something to hold onto in the face of that terrifying chaos.
“Mommy and Daddy are here for you,” I said. “Also, No Noggin isn’t real.”
Neither of these statements had any impact. They felt flimsy coming out of my mouth. What can you do to help someone who is scared? Well, there’s always baseball.
“Dustin Pedroia is coming up,” I told Jack.
I took the earbuds out of my phone and we listened together to his ninth-inning at-bat. If he made an out, the season would be over. He battled his way on base with a walk, which pushed the tying run to second base. Jack has asked enough questions about baseball to know that this is a good thing. The inning and the season and Big Papi’s career ended shortly thereafter. I turned off the radio and recapped these events. Jack had more questions.
“Why is he called ‘Big Papi’?”
“Papi is Spanish for Daddy,” I said.
“Why is he Daddy?” Jack asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, hesitating because any answer would seem like I was glorifying the idea of a father. What is a daddy anyway? There’s no end to these questions.
“Well, he’s there for the whole team. He’s someone they could count on.” Just like when I got the Mookie Betts magic marker portrait, I felt like I was going to cry. As for Jack, he was in fine spirits, despite the fever. Dustin Pedroia had done something good!
“Dustin Pedroia scored a walk, right?” he asked. I nodded. Jack raised his arms and cheered.
Jack’s letter to his favorite player, with its scrawled lettering and oblong alien portraiture and tarantula and single, ominous-sounding question, is now on its way to what may or may not be Dustin Pedroia’s address. I can’t imagine the letter getting a reply. I told Jack I never heard back from Carl Yastrzemski. What exactly was I trying to say?
Son, you will be disappointed by life.
“But if he doesn’t write back we won’t know if he’s afraid of spiders,” Jack said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Do you think he’s afraid of spiders?”
“No,” Jack said. I then took a turn with one of his favorites:
“I’m brave,” my spider-fearing wife pointed out from across the room.
“Yeah, Mommy’s brave,” I agreed. Watching someone give birth to a child gives you some perspective on the concept of bravery. At some point earlier in the day Jack had asked who the first person to ever see him was. I was the first person to see him. Maybe a doctor or nurse spotted some wet protrusion of his head before I did, but I was the first to see him completely, with joy and terror, with love.
Who knows the answer, or even if an answer will ever come?
“Everyone’s afraid of something,” I said.