Chapter 1

Chapter 1

 

“You need to switch your hands,” Peter Buckholt said as he motioned to his son.

“I’m tired of this,” Clark whined.

“We’ve only been out here five minutes, ten at the most,” Peter admonished. “Dinner hasn’t even finished cooking yet.”

“Fine,” Clark huffed as he switched his left hand below the right on the barrel of the bat.

“Now, move your hands down toward the handle.”

“But Dad . . .” Clark started as a gust of warm spring Oklahoma air blew the oversized Boston Red Sox baseball cap off his head. Clark threw the bat to the ground and took off after his hat, catching it right before it skirted into a large puddle left after last night’s thunderstorm in the gravel road by the Buckholts’ front yard.

Peter stood by a snowball bush in full bloom on the side of his white two story house. He had finished patching the roof and replacing the aluminum siding near the bush just hours before the storm pounded Buffalo with hail, rain and wind. Farmers at the Bison Cafe claimed it was more rain in one day than the panhandle had received back in Noah’s day. Somehow, perhaps divinely, the Buckholts’ house didn’t suffer any damage. No shingle was out of place, and none of the siding – not even the new portion – carried the pockmark scar left by a hailstorm.

Peter watched his son snatch up the Red Sox cap and amble back to the baseball bat he’d left behind. Peter laughed to himself at the scene: his six-year-old son cared more about the hat he’d received for Christmas from a distant relative in Massachusetts than he did about the game it represented.

“Okay, let’s try it again,” Peter said. “You know how to pick up the bat.”

Clark kicked the still-wet grass by the bat as he begrudgingly picked it up. He gripped his left hand below his right near the end of the bat and held it out like a scarecrow’s wooden arm.

“No, no, no. Not like that. You know how to hold it: bend your knees,” Peter instructed as Clark fell to his knees like a petitioner in a church pew. “Oh, good grief. Get up.”

Clark stood up off the ground and bent his knees slightly like his dad had shown him days before.

“That’s good. See? I knew you could do it. Now, let’s try to hit the ball.”

Peter picked up the baseball he’d carried out to the yard. Seldom used, the ball still wore its age noticeably at the stitchings. He had slipped the ball into his bag after his last weekend drilling with the Army reserves. Peter kept it on his desk at Buffalo High School where he taught, referring to it as his “prisoner of war,” but decided it would work to teach Clark the fundamentals of the game.

“Okay, now I’m just gonna toss the ball toward you, and you try to swing for me, okay?”

“Fine.”

Peter drew his arm back to toss the ball toward Clark. As his elbow passed behind his back, Clark swung. “Not yet, son. I haven’t even thrown the ball.”

“I was just practicin’.”

Peter lobbed the ball toward Clark with barely enough speed to carry it through the ten yards separating them. Clark pulled the bat back tight against his shoulder and brought it back around with enough velocity to send the bat and himself spiraling into the wet grass. The ball thudded into the ground beside Clark.

“Good try! Good try!” Peter shouted as he tried not to laugh. He’d barely noticed the Cadillac DeVille pull up beside them.

“Hey, Peter!” cried Mark Readnour, the high school principal who was known more for his daddy’s money than for his educational prowess.

“Mr. Readnour,” Peter said as he extended his arm to lift Clark off the ground. “What brings you by?”

“Just takin’ this beaut out for a spin. Got it from Anderson’s in Amarillo. Pretty nice, huh?”

“What color is that?” Clark asked, taken by the car’s appearance. Peter tried to stuff his son behind his back to avoid further questions.

“That there is aqua, young man. New for the ’68 model year. Pretty spiffy, huh?”

“It’s weird,” Clark tried to say as Peter put his hand over his son’s mouth.

“It’s quite the car, Mr. Readnour. Very nice.”

“Thank you, Petie,” Mr. Readnour answered, enthusiastically using a nickname that Peter hated. “Say, that lady from Tulsa County called again. Tracked you down at the school. Just figured I’d let you know.”

“Okay, thanks,” Peter said. “I’ll give her a call tomorrow morning.”

Clark squirmed out from his dad’s arm, and sat behind him, fixated on a purple wildflower that had pushed through Oklahoma’s red dirt.

“Alrighty, well, I better be heading back to the Missus. She hates cars,” Mr. Readnour said, revving the Cadillac’s engine so loudly it thundered like last night’s storms. “I love them!”

Peter watched Mr. Readnour rip down the street toward his home on Turner Street.

“Daddy, can we go in?” Clark asked, pulling his dad back to the task at hand. Peter looked at his watch: 5:30. The roast he put in the oven after school wouldn’t be ready for another hour. Peter hated feeding Clark so late, but between teaching math, history and now English to students ranging from seventh graders to seniors, he struggled to find enough time in the day for all of his chores. He also didn’t make enough money to keep turning the Bison Cafe into his family’s dining room.

“In a little bit,” Peter replied. “Let’s try again. Go pick up the bat.”

“Oh, horse hockey.”

“Excuse me?”

“I just don’t like this. The bat’s heavy. And I don’t want to play.”

“But your cap?”

“I hate this cap,” Clark said tossing his Red Sox cap to the ground.

“Clark Hollis Buckholt.”

Clark knew his father only used his full name to signal the most dire of circumstances.

“You will pick up the bat. You need to know how to play this game. Now, go. And not another word.”

Clark marched back to his spot in the yard and picked up the bat. He gripped it the way Peter had told him, clenching his teeth as he waited for Clark to toss the ball toward him.

“Good. Nice grip. Here we go.”

The ball drifted toward Clark like a butterfly fluttering across the sky. Clark closed his eyes, rared back and threw all of his 45 pounds into his swing. Clark swung so hard the bat escaped his grip and sailed out of his hands directly for his dad’s head. Peter ducked just as the bat buzzed the snowball bush sending the petals into the air like a blizzard of flakes. It slammed against the aluminum siding and created a half-inch divot before falling to the ground.

The ball dropped in front of Clark’s feet. He looked at Peter who was still flush against the ground with eyes like a full moon. “I’m sorry!” Clark yelled as he ran into the house, up the stairs and into his bedroom. Peter heard the bedroom door slam as he stood up and saw the fresh dent in his new siding. He looked at the petals still dancing in the breeze and chuckled to himself. “Guess my dream of raisin’ a major leaguer has ended in a snowball bush,” he muttered as he pulled the bat from behind the bush.

Peter washed the dirt off his hands and checked the roast. Clark had not yet emerged from hiding, so Peter climbed the stairs and paused before entering his son’s room. Through the oak door, he heard Clark praying, “Dear Jesus. I really didn’t mean it. I hate baseball. But I love my dad. I didn’t mean to hurt the house.”

Peter tapped softly on the door. “Son, can I come in?”

“Yes, sir.”

Peter opened the door slowly and saw Clark had changed into his pajamas and was still kneeling beside his bed.

“Why are you in your PJs?”

“I figured I wouldn’t be eating tonight. I’m really sorry, dad. I didn’t mean it.”

“Clark,” Peter started. “I know you didn’t mean it. I’m not mad. That might be the best dent I’ve ever seen. You know why?”

“Why?”

“You didn’t quit. You were ready to give up. God and I both know you don’t like baseball. But you tried. And that’s all I ask.”

“So I’m not in trouble?”

“No. Nobody can get mad at you if you try. Just promise me you’ll always try.”

“I will, I will,” Clark said as he rushed around his bed and hugged his dad’s leg.

“Now, get dressed. We’ve got to go to the Cafe again.”

“We do?”

“I forgot to turn the oven on, so we’ll have the roast tomorrow. After batting practice.”

“Daaaaadd!”