Dad liked vodka best

So I stole his baseball glove that had supernatural powers.

By Lynda Barry

Published June 16, 2000 7:02PM (EDT)

ick's Seattle Stadium is long gone, I know. Gone the way of the dodo bird. But when I was nine and it was still standing all big and pretty on Rainier Avenue, painted pale yellow and strung with flapping flags, it was a sunflower center to my ratty universe. My house was a close point on one of its radiating spirals, and I was an unnoticeable bug on that point. A bug on the front porch at night, listening to the echoey stadium announcer, the national anthem, the crack of the bat, and the crowd roaring. An insignificant bug wearing an old first baseman's glove that had supernatural powers.

Before I got that glove, I was a ring-eyed weenie-armed kid with Indian corn teeth. A fruit fly easily menaced by the hard-core juveniles in my neighborhood, all the Future Convicts of America who played cold-blooded baseball on an old field up the street from my house. Kids got pushed around and beat up there all the time, including me and my brother, who were once saved by a van full of hippies who saw us about to get our asses kicked and jumped out yelling, "Peace! Peace! Peace!"

I was always scared when I went up to that field, but what was I going to do? During the summer, glue sniffing and baseball were usually the only things going on. Until I got that glove, my main role in those games was to be one of the squirts who went after the ball that went over the fence and into the street and rolled down three blocks' worth of steep hills and into the garbage ravine to where the freaky man hid in the bushes in order to jump out and show people his dinger.

The only choices for the squirts like me were either get the ball or get beat up. Either get the ball or go home to a slow death by horrible-reception TV. Or buzz alone on the dead streets like a fly caught in an old mayonnaise jar with no air holes in the lid.

But after I got the supernatural glove, everything changed. Suddenly I could catch. I mean really catch. I became the little kick-ass Queen of the Styley Snag. I could stop anything with that glove. The juvies shouted, "Dag, girl!" and the Future Convicts of America finally let me play. Chasing the ball was for the other squirts.

My dad found the glove in the fifty-nine-cent pile of skagged-out sports equipment at the Goodwill, a huge, dingy secondhand store with the choking smell of too many strangers' fumes coming off the used clothes. No one from my neighborhood ever wanted to be seen in that store. The most commonly yelled rank on my block was, "Your momma shoplifts panties from the Goodwill!" We were all ashamed of having to go there.

Except for my dad. He never felt a speck of shame about doing things that would make any natural man hang his head, unless, of course, the natural man had just polished off a nasty lukewarm pint of Mad Dog and low-passed the empty across the front seat to his jumpy ring-eyed daughter so she could drop it out of the rolled-down window exactly the way he taught her: casually, inconspicuously, after a 360-degree check for cops.

For eliminating feelings of shame and the other pesky side effects of having a conscience, Dad liked vodka best. But when the cash flow got a kink, the price was always right with Mad Dog.

My father wasn't a mean drunk and he wasn't a nice drunk. He wasn't an anything kind of drunk except if you tried to talk to him. Then he was a wave-you-away-like-a-fly drunk, and if you kept trying to talk to him, he was a quick-ditch-you-when-you-weren't-looking kind of drunk. I never wanted him to ditch me. Ever. It's awful how much a nine-year-old kid can love her father.

He fished out the first baseman's glove because it was the last accessory he needed for sitting in the bleachers at Sick's Stadium. He had the cooler and the flask. He had the little transistor radio with the creepy-colored earplug. All he needed was the mitt that would make the miraculous catch that would make the entire stadium stand up and scream from his greatness.

I followed him to a lot of Rainiers games at Sick's Stadium. He went not because he loved baseball, or even really liked it. The stadium was the nearest and cheapest place to sit and have something pleasant to look at during his nine-phase vodka oblivion. By the fourth inning, he did more staring at the game than watching it. He stared like a chicken mesmerized by a tin pinwheel. Every once in a while, he'd suddenly jump up and start yelling with the crowd and I'd observe his dental work. Old Navy fillings, two gold crowns, a partial.

Observing was one of the main things I did when I was with him. That, and narrowing my eyes like I was seeing something no one else was aware of. Something that signaled trouble. A Nazi in the Goodyear blimp overhead. An evil scientist umpire injecting nitroglycerin into the baseball. A red pointed tail hanging out of the pants of the shortstop.

I narrowed my eyes and observed the situation with vigilance and silence, like I was formulating a plan, something I learned from Robert Mitchum, an actor who never talked much but always looked like he could kick your ass. He was someone people thought was worthless until he suddenly sprang into action and did some incredible save that blew the people's minds, just like I wanted to blow my father's mind so bad.

Back then, I didn't know that blowing my father's mind was impossible. He had gotten there first and had blown it away himself, leaving just enough to be able to pour straight, sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" way too loud during the seventh inning stretch, and then drive home after I found the car. I wasn't very freaked by drunk driving at the time because he told me that he was very good at it. Besides, I was Robert Mitchum. I was sure I would live to the end of the movie.

When I grew up, I came very close to marrying a guy who was insane about baseball. He had a dad a lot like mine, a dad who watched baseball games pie-eyed and also claimed to be a great drunk driver. Not only that, he was a great drunk pilot too. He could fly his kids in a Piper Cub while tits-up blasted on Scotch with no problem. He flew them over their house, he dipped a boozy wing over the crowded ballpark, he was just the greatest, he was just the most incredible, even though he cheated on his wife just like my dad. He was, absolutely, one incredibly cool guy. A legendary guy. The only difference between that dad and my dad was that dad had raised a kid who apparently still believed all that horseshit.

These are only a few of the reasons that thinking about baseball sometimes gives me stomach cramps, even though I truly believe that it's a genuinely beautiful, infinitely absorbing game. I can tell that from the way people talk about it. They talk about baseball like I used to talk about my father. They tell me about the incredibleness of being a kid in Yankee Stadium and actually seeing Yogi Berra, the master of accidental Zen, who gave insanely cool advice like "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

But I also heard from the anti-Zen master, the anti-Yogi, my father, who said things like "There is never any problem that is too big for you to run away from." I wish I were joking. That was the centerpiece of his fatherly advice, the golden nugget he laid on me in the bleachers during a night game. And then, a little while later, he showed the whole family how it was done.

I had never used a decent glove before the supernatural one came into my life. I had a couple of tan-colored vinyl Value-Mart ones that seemed to actually eject baseballs on contact.
For a while I had a trashed old Rawlings I found in the garbage ravine; it was gourd-hard and cracking and way too big. I didn't know what a difference the right glove could make. I just thought I sucked. When I first started to snag balls and then super-snag balls with the glove my dad found, I was convinced it was magic. It's the reason I stole it from him.

In a way, I figured he kind of owed it to me. He was never above conning me out of the cash I managed to save. He got it out of me every time. He never straight-out asked for it. Instead he would just sit down suddenly and start talking to me. He'd ask me questions about my life, how school was going, acting like talking to each other was something we did all the time.

It was during one of these conversations that he realized I had learned to read and he seemed very blown away by this, even though I was in my last month of fourth grade and carried a book everywhere I went. I think if someone had held a fully loaded machine gun to my father's head and said, "Tell me how old your daughter is or I will shoot," there would have been a tremendous brain splatter on the nearest wall.

But when he talked to me, when he actually made eye contact with me, I was in heaven. It was what I lived for. So what if it cost me whatever money I had hidden inside the pen-marked body of my worst bald-headed baby doll. I'd twist her head off in a second for him, for the rare sight of his eyes actually looking into mine, like those extremely rare flowers that will only bloom for fifteen seconds during the busted last days of any pay period.

In a way, my father was kind of like a jukebox. I handed over the money and he started telling me his troubles, his boss was going apeshit on him, my mom was going apeshit on him, he was so broke he couldn't even buy himself a candy bar, but at least he had one good thing, at least he could always talk to me, because in his opinion, I understood him.

Then, boom, the song was over and he'd split.

It would have been an amazing thing to hear him for free just once. I never did. Maybe that's why I took his glove.

None of what he did prevented me from living most of my life with the unshakable belief that he was the incredible guy he said he was, even during the years I didn't know where he was. I believed in him while I wrote to every address I could think of, trying to find him. I even believed in him after I finally got a letter back, basically saying that he'd really love to see me but he couldn't risk getting busted over the child support payments.

I believed in him the way I believed the supernatural glove was the only reason I ever made any of those great catches. That it had nothing to do with me. And that I was lucky to have a dad who brought a glove like that into my life.

I know now I was lucky to be in Sick's Stadium when the beautiful Seattle Rainiers played, lucky to have seen them blast some night game meteors over the fence, some shining burning meteors that sailed out of the park and flashed a little starlight into the dark ratty universe on the other side of the wall.

And I know I was lucky to have grown up so near the stadium, close enough to hear the games from my front porch at night where I sat slamming a shoplifted baseball into the supernatural glove, watching idiot bugs bash themselves over and over into the streetlight. And I promised God I would trade the glove back. I begged Him. If He made my dad come home again, I'd trade back the glove, I'd trade back everything, every single thing I had.

Most of all, I now know I was lucky that, just like a lot of fathers, God wasn't listening to me at all.

I don't remember what happened to that glove. Maybe my brother got it. Maybe my brother felt the same huge power rush of making the unbelievable save. And maybe he also felt the same weird shock the day he realized it wasn't even that good of a glove.

The last time I went to Sick's Stadium, the Seattle Rainiers existed only in beat-up black-and-white photographs and I was a jumpy fourteen-year-old mescaline freak in a flowered halter top, hip-hugger cutoffs, and carefully messed-up moccasins. I was tripping down the hill to see Jimi Hendrix play Sick's Stadium in the time before they both passed on to another reality. It was ugly the way they both went down. Just as ugly as the way baseball in Seattle went down for some jive-ass major league deals that died right there on the vine, leaving nothing except for flat empty nights of dead silence on my front porch.

It was a con I was totally familiar with. You're happily running through the sprinkler in your backyard and your dad shouts, "Hey, kid! That's nothing! You want to see water? I'll take you to see water!" And you put on your bathing suit, jump in the car, and he drives you to a painting of a swimming pool. When you get back home, the sprinkler is gone and so is your yard.

I never got to see Hendrix that day because I got busted for shoplifting at the Pay 'n' Save across the street where I stopped in to pick up some tripped-out sunglasses to wear at the concert.
I got collared by a fat bald store detective in the convincing camouflage of a very ugly red shirt. I could not believe he caught me because I knew I was a great shoplifter, an incredible one, especially when I was blasted on chocolate mesc.

You could say the supernatural glove began my life of crime because it was the first thing I ever stole. And in a lot of ways, it was the best thing I ever stole, because it was the only concrete object I ever got from my father. Well, that and the half-empty pack of Misty brand cigarettes he laid on me Christmas morning a few years ago, which was the last time I ever saw him. I had tracked him down in the Midwest and I white-knuckled a rental car over a lot of ice-covered roads in order to have The Talk. And I was not going to chicken out -- I'd been waiting thirty years.

He collects baseball cards now. For investment purposes only. They were spread out all over his living room floor and he kept fussing with them while I tried to talk to him over the turned-up Leslie Nielsen video he'd jammed in as soon as I arrived. He kept picking through the piles of Topps cards while I tried to get him to make eye contact with me, asking him to tell me how he could have just walked out like that, never called, never wrote, never once looked back. He waved the whole thing away by repeating one single line: "Well, kid, that's what drinking will do to ya."

He told me he's a changed man now that he's on the wagon and that he's made peace with his past. And then he said this sentence: "The only thing that still bothers me about what happened is, I still feel bad about leaving your brother."

I just sat there. Leslie Nielsen stood on a table, shot a gun at someone, and his pants fell down. My father held up a baseball card and said, "Hey! This one's worth three hundred bucks." He was blasted on Valium and some off-brand diet cola, his new conscience eliminator, although I have a feeling there isn't a hell of a lot left there to eliminate. But I do understand the nuisance of having a conscience, which was the only thing that kept me from reaching over and bashing him with a really heavy frying pan sitting on the stove so invitingly while we were saying good-bye. Of course, instead, I hugged him.

I regret not using that frying pan to this day.

As I was going, I asked him for a cigarette, and he held out his hand to me and said, "Here. Take the whole pack. Now don't say I never gave you anything." Oh, I won't.

I wonder how long it took him to figure out where that three-hundred-dollar baseball card went. I don't even know who was on it. I should have looked before I rolled down the window and dropped it out, casually, inconspicuously, just like he taught me.

Lynda Barry

Artist, novelist and playwright Lynda Barry's latest book is "Blabber Blabber Blabber: Volume 1 of Everything"

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Baseball Fatherhood