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Marvin Freeman

November 16, 2016

marvin-freeman

The morning of our first protest march, Jack and Exley pretended to be big trucks pushing garbage around. The role of garbage was played by a big pile of baseball cards from the late 1980s and onward. I keep my childhood cards in a couple of boxes in the closet but let my boys do whatever they want with the ones that have come to me since then. They pummeled them for a while and then Jack wanted to pretend we were all Rescue Bots saving people from volcanoes.

“We have to clean this up first,” I said. This statement, which is on a constant loop from my mouth, can often make the ensuing passage of time unpleasant, conflictive, but for some reason this time Jack just said OK.

“I’ll bulldoze them over to you and Exley and you put them in.” This is what we did. Jack stopped at one point.

“Who’s this?” Jack asked. He held up the card you see here.

“Can you tell me?” I said.

Lately he’s been showing some signs that he’s ready to start reading. I don’t push him much with this kind of stuff because it seems to me childhood is already under siege by adults drilling their kids unceasingly, worried that the kids, no matter how young, are “falling behind,” and in this frantic worry passing along no love of learning at all but just frantic worry. The philosophy I try to adhere to is summed up best by the chant that climaxes The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training: Let Them Play. But still, we’re talking about my son being on the brink of humanity’s greatest skill. I can’t help myself sometimes.

“Look at the letters,” I said.

“Muh,” Jack began. “Muh aah . . .”

***

Later that day we took our homemade sign and met up with some other families at a park a few blocks north of our home. People stood around eating donuts for a while, the whole thing seeming more like a neighborhood parent meetup than a march, but more people kept arriving, and then eventually what could reasonably be called a small crowd started walking in a line out onto the sidewalk.

Exley, our two-year-old, rode with my wife in a carrier, and Jack, five, rode on my back in something called a toddler carrier. We figured it might be difficult to have a bulky stroller in a march, and we knew that neither boy would make it if we made them go on foot the whole way. And as it turned out the march was a long one, down Clark from Jarvis all the way to Morse and then over to Sheridan and back up to Jarvis and west again. I carried our sign: “THIS IS A SAFE PLACE FOR EVERYONE.” Other people had signs too. Some tried to get a chant going—“no space for hate”—but everyone was too self-conscious about it and maybe not used to being in marches. Everyone had spent the previous few days, since Tuesday night, stunned and scared. It was the first time I’d ever been in a march, and outside of baseball games, where I’d joined in on such things of massive import as “we need a hit” (or one time in a movie theater when I was ten and shouted “Let them play” over and over along with all the other kids in my town and, up on screen, Kelly and Ogilvie and the rest), I’d never chanted anything before. I felt like a fool but not as big a fool as I’d have felt like if I’d not done anything, and not as big as fool as I feel like for going so long without doing anything.

***

“Muh aah rrrvvv ell nnn,” Jack read.

Marvelin. He misread the capital I for an l. He kept going.

“Fff rrr ee eeee mmm aaahh nnn,” he said.

Marvelin Freeman.

For a second I said nothing. Marveling. That would be just about the exact right word for how I felt for a moment on the morning of our first protest march.

***

We walked through our neighborhood, maybe a hundred of us, more or less, everyone with kids along. Some cars passing by honked their horns in support. A police car stopped and asked us how far we planned to go and followed us to our stopping point. On Clark, where the sidewalk was narrow, I got the distinct impression that we—a bunch of white people, with a few exceptions—were inconveniencing the people we were trying to include in our benevolent collective gaze: a couple of stocky Hispanic guys walking north as we walked south, a Muslim woman pushing a stroller through us north as we walked south. I thought I detected bemusement on some black people we passed. I was very self-conscious about my sign at these junctures. The sign was intended to be an affirmation, a pledge. But what power do I have to back up that pledge?

The figure serving as a sickening inspiration for our march had been using the city we marched through, Chicago, all through his campaign as shorthand for the lack of safety everywhere, promising that he had the answer for this. He never provided specifics, but other aspects of his rhetorical bluster suggests that the answer will involve bias and brutality, a combination that never leads to any lasting safety. And yet his implications seemed keenly attractive to those who pulled the lever for him. The sign I carried was thin cardboard, maybe not as thin as the cardboard shown at the top of this page but not a whole lot thicker. What will it do against what seems to be coming our way?

***

“Marvin Freeman,” I said. “You said it! You read his name!”

“Marvin Freeman,” Jack said.

“You want to put it in your box?” I said.

“You were thinking what I was thinking,” he said.

Jack has his own box of cards now, with Dustin Pedroia and Big Papi on the top for easy access. I pulled the box down from the top of the bookcase and we put Marvin Freeman inside.

Today I borrowed his Marvin Freeman card for a while. I read the name on the front, and it occurred to me that the last name was taken on upon emancipation, an ancestor of the pitcher not wanting to carry the name with him of his oppressor. I turned the card over and discovered one of the greatest bits of back-of-the-card text I’d ever seen.

I can’t wait until Jack can read it all. It’s the kind of thing that I read when I was first starting to read, like when I read that Richie Hebner was a grave-digger in the offseason.

You learn when something pulls you forward. For me, with reading, the thing pulling me forward was the ability to decipher messages on thin little rectangles of cardboard just like this one.

“While attending Chicago Vocational High School, Marvin was employed by a violin bow-making company hand-shaping and finishing concert-quality violin bows.”

I want everyone to feel safe and free in a world of such marvels.

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Cubs Future Stars

November 8, 2016

cubs-future-starsWhat can last? Even stars blink out. Everybody knows this. But what about future stars? How do they come to be? I was wondering about this today, and so I learned that stars form in nebulas. I learned that nebulas are clouded spots on the cornea that make it hard to see. That’s one meaning anyway. Nebulas are also enormous galactic clouds of gas and dust. Either version of the word comes from a Latin root meaning mist, the same root of the word nebulous. The same root of everything. We never know. Geisel, Macko, Pagel? How could these names ever indicate that the future would lead to a third baseman stumbling and falling and smiling as he threw to first for an out to obliterate all old failings? We’re fans, all of us, which means we hope without knowing, love without seeing. Stars are born in the blooming regions of our blindness.

***

We got Wally a few months after we got our first cat, Marty. Wally was always Number Two. The number one cat, Marty, had shiny black fur and a gleam in his eye and charisma. He was smart, scheming, at times an out and out dick. Often he wanted nothing to do with you, but other times he reached out to you gently with his paw and purred, wanting attention, and he got it. If he was a baseball player he’d have been a Great, the kind of guy you remember unveiling in a pack of new cards. Marty even died spectacularly, suddenly plummeting from decent health into a terrifying series of increasingly violent seizures. Wally? Here’s Wally: Many times I’d be sitting on the couch and would look down in my lap and see that Wally had at some point arrived there and was purring in his ragged, drooly, number-two cat way. I was in the midst of petting him, but I didn’t remember starting.

“Wally, when’d you get here?” I’d ask him.

***

I have no memory of most of these baseball cards coming into my life. In a way it feels like they’ve always been with me, that I’ve always been touching them, looking at the faces on one side, the words on the other, or not even looking at them at all, just touching them, feeling the cardboard soften over the years. This sense of a beginingless beginning is strongest with the nobodies, like these Cubs Future Stars from 1980.

I’ve been holding this card in my hands a lot in the last few days.

***

Wally began losing weight a few months ago. We figured it was because his teeth, which were always terrible, had begun falling out, leaving him unable to vacuum up his usual daily mountain of dry food. His departure from a life of feline obesity seemed for the most part to revitalize him. He’d been an awkwardly fat cat for most of his life, unable to do the athletic things his more dashing brother Marty could do, but as he got thinner we started seeing him in places he’d never been before.

“Wally, when did you get up there?” we’d say, marveling at him up on the mantle.

***

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more beautifully mortal baseball game than the last contest of 2016. There were several physical errors by the Cubs fielders, who all season long had been among the best defensive units in baseball; there was an instance of over-managing by the highly respected Cubs leader that seemed as the game wore on to look more and more like it would be etched in baseball history as a tragic misstep; there was an All-Star pitcher, Jon Lester, stricken and helpless on the mound, unable to perform the first skill any little leaguer masters, namely making a short throw across the diamond to a teammate; and there were two previously unhittable relievers hollowed out by exhaustion and hittable and themselves abundantly in need of relief. Even the final out, immediately after which all the human frailty and failings of the game and of the preceding 108 years seemed to vaporize like dust in the face of a brilliant new star, was made by the gangly Cubs third baseman as he stumbled and fell, as if he’d slipped on a banana peel, one last echo of a century of doomed Cubs slapstick.

***

Recently the rate of weight loss increased. Wally kept nibbling at his wet food, but he just got thinner. A little over a week ago Wally became unable to jump up onto the counter, let alone the mantle. He stayed in the corner near his food, even though he wasn’t eating much, and he meowed at me whenever I was near. I kept giving him new food. I even started heating it up in the microwave because I’d heard somewhere that that might make food more appetizing to an old cat whose senses were weakening. He ate a little of each new offering and then stopped and crouched down again and looked out toward me unsteadily, as if his vision was starting to fail. Sometimes he lay all the way down for a while, and sometimes he got up and sat in a strangely contorted way, his thin legs splaying out to the side as they never had before.

***

The mortality of Game Seven crested for me somewhere in the middle, with David Ross splayed out awkwardly, near supine and momentarily immobile, as a wild pitch from his bedeviled battery mate, Lester, that had bounced off the catcher’s facemask careened far enough away for two runners to score, an occurrence so rare—it last happened in a World Series in 1911—as to border on the impossible. Ross went on to contribute mightily to the Cubs win by hitting a home run, but I still see him there reeling, tangled in his own splayed limbs, the game reeling away from his command.

***

People talk about baggage, about carrying around burdens, and it’s always a reference to the past, to the past’s ability to drag us down. But of course the past doesn’t exist. It’s gone. The future doesn’t exist either, but it might. The past has no might to it. So that ache you feel, that burden, whatever it is, it’s about facing the future, whether it’s the next day, the next few years, the next second. The day before Game Seven, I took the afternoon off from work and put Wally into a cat carrier and drove him up Clark Street to the only vet we could find that wasn’t booked up. A few miles south of me, people were massing in bars in Wrigleyville to watch Game Six, hoping there’d be a future for the team beyond that night. I got to the vet early and sat in the waiting room. As I waited, the future I was thinking about was just a few minutes up ahead of me. What would I be carrying back out into the street? I unzipped the top of the carrier and stuck my hand in and petted the top of Wally’s head. This was the only place to pet him. Everywhere else you were touching a skeleton. He was purring.

***

When I got home from work on Wednesday, the day of Game 7, my kids were out at a restaurant with their mom and grandma. The house was emptier than it had ever been. I felt it in my shins, which I’ve been conditioned to use as blockers when I open the front door. I heard it in my ears, which are conditioned to hear a friend demanding attention and food. I saw it in what I could no longer see anywhere. I sat down on the couch and turned on Game Seven and nothing gathered unnoticed on my lap.

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Rick Waits

October 27, 2016

rick-waits

California Sun

IV.

I once rode an elevator inside a mansion. I was a boy. I remembered this today when I got on the elevator at work. I’m not sure why. The elevator at my building is nothing like that elevator that I rode nearly forty years ago. I rode that elevator in a mansion in the fall, the days getting shorter and colder. I rode the elevator today in the fall, the days getting shorter and colder, and when I pushed the button for my floor my finger touched that other elevator button, the one in the elevator in the mansion.

It was in 1978, November. My grandparents had wrangled a deal to serve as housesitters from the fall through the winter for the Cape Cod residence of some Johnson or another in the Johnson & Johnson empire. I’m not sure why. My grandmother was a painter who specialized in seascapes, so my best guess is that she sold something to a Johnson and then became acquainted with her or him. Also, my grandfather was one of these gifted blabbers who befriended people wherever he went, so he might have had something to do with the whole deal too.

November 1978 was right around when I truly started waiting, waiting in the way that the fans of the two teams currently playing in the World Series know better than anyone. Just wait. The Red Sox had a few weeks earlier lost a one-game playoff that had somehow centralized any and all nameless hurt in my young life, all the gnawing loneliness and stomachache worry and throaty grief. I’m not sure why. Fandom is silly, meaningless, but what else are you going to use to pin things down?

Just a few weeks earlier, I’d had one last sunburst of hope, and it had come courtesy of Rick Waits. Say the words “Rick Waits” to graying Red Sox fans, and they’ll be visited by that noblest of feelings, gratitude, thinking of the Fenway scoreboard on October 1, 1978:

thanksrick

Waits’ victory allowed the Red Sox to tie the Yankees on the final day of the 1978 season. I’m not going to go into what happened the following day, which I’m sure has been covered once or twice by someone somewhere. I want to hang a little longer with that feeling of Rick Waits, that feeling of hope coming from his random if not divine intervention.

You can’t do any of this yourself. I’ve known that for a long time, but I’ve also leaned too heavily on the idea of external assistance. When I was kid I dreamed Carl Yastrzemski would show up at my house to solve all my problems, and for years throughout my twenties and thirties my go-to daydream was an only somewhat refined version of this, involving people of influence and agency literally pounding on my door to tell me that I was talented and needed and would from then on live a life of full-throated song (plus there’d be money, blow jobs, awards).

This is why I started telling this story a few days ago. To try to be rid of it. I actually don’t think it’s possible to ever be fully rid of any of the habitual narrations in your mind, but you’ll never get anywhere close to getting free of them if you keep them entirely inside. And for the last few years I kept the story inside that begins “I once had a meeting at Sony Pictures Studios.” In fact, even inside my own head, I didn’t allow that word “once” to be a part of the story, because that “once” casts it into the past, seals it up, makes it singular, once in a lifetime.

But getting rid of the story is not really the reason I started telling the story, or not the only reason. I also wanted it to be part of my story. Everything I’ve lived and touched and wanted and failed to get. It should all be a part of it. I once had that meeting! It was just like in the movies—there was a security booth with a guardrail at the entrance, and after I explained my reason for needing to be on the lot the security guard pushed a button, and the guardrail started, slowly, to rise.

I don’t think life is a form of rising. For example, I don’t think my cat is going to get better. He’s all bones now. He still likes to be petted though, still purrs when you rub your hand over his thinly-covered skeleton. He’s been my friend for a long time. You wait and you wait for some kind of life of unending sunshine, and at the end of all the waiting is nothing more and nothing less than the frail rumble of gratitude in your bones.

I don’t think I’ll ever again ride an elevator inside a mansion. But I once rode an elevator inside a mansion. I got in and pulled a rickety wicker gate closed, and then I pressed a button and started, slowly, to rise.

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Dave Roberts

October 21, 2016

dave-robertsCalifornia Sun

III.

I didn’t mean to mislead anyone who’s read this far. Just to be clear: My life didn’t change, or at least not in the way I’d believed it might as the golden rays streamed in that hotel window in San Diego. This all happened several years ago, this California sun visitation, this intimation of California sun immortality, and I’m still here with Dave Roberts in Chicago.

Is Dave Roberts in Chicago? That’s the implication of this well-handled card from my childhood, but of course the blotchy coloring is an indication that the white home uniform and Cubs cap are artificial coverings of reality. Dave Roberts, in reality, is elsewhere.

***

Am I in Chicago? Maybe I am now, now that my two boys are around, both of them, like Augie March, Chicago born. But they arrived some years after I started living here, and for a long time I felt like I was walking around in a doctored world, my real location obscured. What was that real location? I was from the east coast, but I’d worn out the grooves of a habit formed during my childhood in Vermont with a father in New York City. For years and years I boomeranged back and forth between the big city and the Green Mountains, leaving one place for the other for no real reason, or for loneliness, or because I was broke, or because one place had started to feel like a doctored world, or because the other place had started to feel like a doctored world.

And then came the California sun.

***

I don’t know why this Dave Roberts card got so beat up in my childhood. I wasn’t a Cubs fan, and he was no superstar, and the card itself wasn’t anything special, such as a rare action shot that I would have been attracted to. It’s one of those doctored cards, where some Topps functionary had to glob some paint around to account for the player’s recent move from one team to another. Maybe I was drawn for some reason to that, to the feeling of transience and unreality in these kinds of cards, which you never see anymore. Everything is slick and seamless now, and that world of journeymen caught in garish misshapen netherworlds is gone. That was my world, so maybe that’s why I handled this card so much. Or more likely there’s some other reason that I’ll never be able to reclaim from the past. Anyway I did this to cards quite a lot, held onto them until they lost something, that newness, that crisp, bright articulation of possibilities.

***

I held onto the California sun like it was the best card I’d ever gotten, like it was as capable as the greatest treasures of my childhood collecting of rocketing me out of my doctored world. People in the television business—people with sprawling IMDB pages, people with Emmys, people who knew people—wanted to do a show based on my book about growing up in the 1970s. There was an option! A contract! A stunning decision to hand me the reigns to take a crack at writing the pilot! Emails zinging from the far coast to set up teleconferences! Teleconferences!

Oh, sure, after these teleconferences I would always come away cringing about some of the things I’d said, things that struck me in retrospect as so dull-witted or misguided as to be intentionally set forth to telegraph to the successful TV people on the call that there was a laughably incompetent imposter in their midst.

“What I think I’ll really need to get the tone of the show right,” I heard myself saying at one point, “is to just, like, immerse myself in old episodes of H.R. Pufnstuf.”

Still, the teleconferences continued. What felt like an unstoppable momentum continued. The key player in the project, a very nice man who’d directed juggernaut television shows, even went out of his way to meet with me again in person in Chicago. I can’t remember if it was at that in-person meeting or during one of the teleconferences that he said what turned out to be the last words he’d say to me.

“Get ready, Josh,” he said, “because things are going to start happening fast.”

***

Things do happen fast. I’m talking about our time on the planet. For example, this Dave Roberts is dead. He was a boy, a teenager, probably a phenom, a promising rookie in the golden San Diego sunlight, an elite pitcher, at least for one season, when he finished sixth in the race for the Cy Young, then more of a journeyman, bouncing like all Dave Robertses eventually do from one team to the next. Soon enough he’d be out of the league, on to his life in the aftermath of baseball, and how long would that go on until one day, zip, the switch goes off, and he’s gone? Things happen fast, and your life will change. What are you living for? Here he is somewhere in the middle, not really anywhere, oblivious to the nowhere. Here he is smiling.

***

Long after the phone calls and emails petered out I kept holding onto the California sun like it was a baseball card I carried around in my pocket. Whatever I was doing, whatever suffering or disappointment or annoyance or gnawing ache that was upon me, and whatever I wasn’t doing, whatever hopes and dreams were still beyond me, I could fondle that secret card in my pocket and imagine that the call I was waiting for was still to come, that things would start happening fast, that there would be money, enough finally to cancel the unending worry about money, that with the money there’d be time, enough time to build a life of unending creativity, no more days given over to an employer, or, worse, days given over to scrambling and begging to get within the yoke of an employer. Most of all, no more days of thinking that I wasn’t amounting to much. That was part of it too, if I’m really being honest. I always fondled the illusion the most when I was feeling like a nowhere nobody. Just wait, I’d be saying. My life is about to change.

I do this to illusions quite a lot, hold onto them until they lose something, that newness, that crisp, bright articulation of possibilities.

Just wait, I keep saying.

The secret card of California sun in my pocket eventually verged on having no value at all, but still it didn’t disappear. Like a card it just kept softening, and I kept holding on.

Just wait.

To be continued.

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Ron Cey

October 20, 2016

ron-cey

California Sun

II.

While I was attempting to write something poetic about the California sun, my elderly cat here in Chicago made a strangulated sound nearby. I got up from my desk and discovered that he’d just taken a shit on the carpet, actually our new carpet, which we recently had installed at notable expense to replace the old one, which had incurred sewage damage from a broken ejector pump. I rushed to pick my cat up and move him to his litter box around the corner—why I did this I don’t know; the shit was already out of the cat, to coin a phrase—and he started puking. I cleaned up all his excretions as best I could, wondering what the hell we were going to do with this cat, this carpet, this unending series of costs and disappointments and defilements and declines, and then I sat back down here at my desk to try to write about the California sun again.

O California sun!

Is this the California sun reflecting off of Ron Cey’s helmet? Could be stadium lights, I guess, but what good are facts when you’re trying to channel your lifelong longing and dissatisfaction through a baseball card? Anyway I think of him in the context of the California sun (though he too eventually found himself in Chicago). I’m blinded by, bathed in, swept away by, and finally cast out of the California sun once every few years.

It all began with Ron Cey.

There he was one day, on This Week in Baseball, in April 1977, as freezing rain came down outside my window in Vermont. I was locked inside, my favorite thing, baseball, impossible, but there on the television was Ron Cey racking up a record-breaking barrage of home runs and RBI to lead the Dodgers to an astounding start, catapulting them to another apparent impossibility: dethroning the Big Red Machine. Pellets of ice drilled the windows of my house as Ron Cey blasted home runs and waddled around the bases and beamed as he reached and then stomped home plate and then disappeared into a roiling jumble of teammates also beaming with wide white smiles and crisp white uniforms. Ron Cey was somewhere else, somewhere better.

“Wally shit again?” my wife just said.

I got up from my desk again to tell her the story, to show her where the deed had been done. Now she is down on her hands and knees cleaning the areas more thoroughly than I did. Now I’m looking at this Ron Cey card and thinking of the California sun one late afternoon in San Diego, the day after my meeting at Sony Pictures Studios. My wife and I had driven south from Pasadena earlier in the day and were in the room of a nice hotel walking distance from the baseball stadium where we were going to see a Padres game later that day. What could be better? The California sun was streaming in through the windows. I got a call from an agent who’d talked to the other attendees of my meeting at Sony Pictures Studios. His usually ebullient manner was ratcheted up beyond ebullience. When the phone call was over I looked at my wife. To her I surely looked crazy, but it felt to me like the California sun was beaming out of me from within.

“Our life is going to change,” I said.

To be continued.

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Dave Hilton

October 18, 2016

dave-hiltonCalifornia Sun

I.

I once had a meeting at Sony Pictures Studios. I was out in California to do some readings and signings for Cardboard Gods. I drove over in a rental car from Pasadena, where my wife and I were staying, to Culver City. Afraid I was going to get lost and be late, I got to the studio very early and wandered around a little. I got a green tea at a Starbucks on the lot, or whatever it’s called, and peered around in vain for people I’d seen on television and got more nervous. I felt tired and nauseous and burned my tongue on the tea.

Dave Hilton never played for the Toronto Blue Jays. In fact, in 1977, the year this card appeared, he was in the organization of the Blue Jays’ 2016 ALCS opponent, the Cleveland Indians, though he never appeared in a major league game for the Indians either. The 1977 Blue Jays—the first edition of the team, with a roster built with expansion draftees and other even more marginal odds and ends, such as Dave Hilton, who was purchased, along with one of a small but baffling series of fellows in baseball history named Dave Roberts, from the Padres—were like this, a collection of phantoms and rumors, as if their main purpose was to illustrate the more mysterious properties of the word expansion. Hilton somehow carried some of this mystery with him beyond 1977 and beyond the Blue Jays and across the ocean to Japan, where he played a role in the launching of the literary career of Haruki Murakami, who once reflected in a New Yorker essay on this turning point in his life:

The crack of bat meeting ball echoed through the stadium. Hilton easily rounded first and pulled up to second. And it was at just that moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel. I still remember the wide-open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat. Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and, whatever it was, I accepted it.

Marukami went on, of course, to write a lot of great books, I guess. I’ve always meant to give them a whirl but haven’t gotten to it yet. Most of us have these things we mean to do. In the end, what’s it all going to mean? We’re passing through, registering in a soft wash of blue for a moment before disappearing without much left behind to mark that we were ever here.

On the Sony lot, when it was time, I rose and tossed my cup in a garbage bin and moved in the direction of a building that housed the office where my meeting was scheduled. It was the office of a person whose name appeared in shows I’d seen, one of those names that came right before the beginning of the story. Was I moving toward something? Was my name going to be one of those names? Was my story about to begin? The sun was shining, the California sun, and I was wondering if I’d later talk about this day as if it were a turning point, when the sky cracked open and I was grabbed by the collar and led into some permanent golden light.

To be continued.

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Dustin Pedroia

October 11, 2016

dustin-pedroia-2012Jack 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.

LASE
RSHO
W

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.

Why not?

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:

“Why not?”

“He’s brave.”

“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.

With questions.

Who knows the answer, or even if an answer will ever come?

“Everyone’s afraid of something,” I said.