Play Ball

I remember seeing my father throw open the screen door and step onto the back porch. The top half of his tall, broad frame disappeared from view as he bent swiftly to the ground behind the bushes. I didn’t wait to hear the sound of his heavy boots as he took a few steps forward, letting the door slam behind him. He had closed his fist around a handful of stones outside the house and began pelting my brothers and me with them, chasing us out of the yard.

“Why don’t you go play at the Diamond, you little nitwits? Break that cellar window again and there will be hell to pay.”

Because Greg and Jim were a few years older they were much faster, and laughed as they outstripped Dad easily on 12- and 13-year-old legs. Ron and I lagged behind, and I can remember feeling the rocks catch my heels on their second bounce off the pavement. I heard my blood pumping in my ears, a deafening throb, as I followed Greg’s trail of dust down the road towards our field, clutching my glove with sweaty fingers.


* * *

The Diamond was our ball field. It sat on the edge of Woodvale Heights where I grew up. It was a great place to be a nine-year-old boy, since everyone had big Croatian and Slovak families, and good Catholic mothers who let you play ball after supper ’til sundown. Our family was nearly a team in its own right, but our oldest brother Al was 16 and had outgrown the Diamond, with its makeshift chicken wire and plywood backstop that could never really stop a determined baseball from rolling down the hill and into the jaggerbushes. So since Al was too old and Andy was too young, and the girls threw the ball like girls, that meant we only had a four-man team to play with.

First we tried Frankie Biss’s house, but apparently that dumb Polack had stolen his mother’s car last week and wrecked into a ditch. Mrs. Biss told us he was spending the rest of the summer down the hill in Conemaugh working to pay for a new bumper. And Bruce Griffin’s mother said he got caught chewing gum in church last week, so there was no point in even asking her to let Bruce play after that. Four men were not enough for a team. So we decided to play catch in the yard.

Now normally we would have been a little sneakier about setting up for ball outside the house. Mom used to come out and chase us with her broomstick if we were caught messing around too close to her garden. But the begonias had given up on us and seemingly, so had she. With six other kids to look after and a house to keep, we just hoped she wouldn’t mind if we played a harmless game of catch.

I set up with my back to the house as we took turns tossing the ball. Playing with my brothers always meant more fun for me, since I was the perennial catcher at the Diamond and caught hell when I let a ball get past me. But at home everyone was catcher and pitcher, and there were no jaggerbushes to dig through if I missed.

Jim had the strongest arm, and stood with his back to the road as we took turns fielding grounders and chasing wild hops around the yard. The ball rolled into the woods once or twice, and when it did the others usually sent me digging for it in the underbrush. They were the most impatient people in the world, so I had to hurriedly scour the area and always returned from the woods with dirt stains on my jeans and the ball in my hand.

Then I wound up and threw Greg my best zinger, hoping I at least made it sting in his glove a little. I’m sure it never did. Greg whipped the ball to Ron, who caught it in the tip of his glove. It hung there for a second or two before slipping from his mitt and tumbling to the ground, like a yo-yo suspended on a string that had been cut.

Ron grunted, begrudgingly scooping up the faded grass-stained sphere. It smelled of dirt and sweat, and felt like what I assumed the skin of the old ladies in church did. Ron, looking miserable, thumbed the seam and tossed it sidearm to me. The funny throw spiraled around me towards the house as our hearts collectively choked off the gasp in our throats. We watched as it caught a knoll at the base of the steps and ricocheted off the white siding of the house, coming to its final resting place on the ground halfway between me and Jim.

“Jesus, Ron, do you want to get us all in trouble over your temper tantrum?” Jim spat as he trudged over to pick up the ball. “Don’t be stupid.”

“It’s not my fault he didn’t catch it,” Ron whined, throwing his hands up in a no mea culpa and pointing at me.

“Just quit being stupid,” Jim demanded, throwing the ball wildly and causing Ron to make a clumsy diving catch. Pleased with the results, Jim stuffed a hand into his jean pocket and rolled back on his heels, watching as Ron got back to his feet and dusted off his now dirty pant legs.

It had to be hard for Ron to take all of Jim’s insults, especially since I was two years younger than him and had yet to suffer from Jim’s usual daily torture. I readied myself for a throw aimed at my face as Ron glared at me and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He didn’t bother rubbing his wet hands on his jeans before pulling the baseball from his glove. He wound up and thrust the ball forward, hard. I ducked out of the way as it whizzed past me, turning to watch the ball as it sped towards the house.

Mere seconds stretch on forever when you’re waiting and hoping for something to not happen. There was nothing I could do to stop the ball, even though it felt like the air had been sucked out of the atmosphere and I could count the threads on the seam as it spun deliberately on its path. I inhaled sharply as the ball descended and bounced off the rise in our otherwise level backyard. As if given new life, the ball sprang off the rise with such tremendous force that it appeared to launch itself through the bottom pane of the basement window. Why I waited until that moment to shut my eyes and brace myself I don’t know. There was a shattering of glass and a succeeding thud of the ball as it landed on our basement floor. We were screwed.

“We are so screwed,” Ron managed to sputter after what felt like hours of deafening silence. “What are we going to do?”

The first task was to find Mom. We decided to send Ron inside the house on parent patrol, seeing as it was his fault anyway and I sure as hell didn’t want to be the first thing Mom saw if she had heard us break the window. Jim, Greg, and I crouched outside near the crime scene, surveying the damage until Ron returned; he informed us that by some miracle of God Himself, Mom was vacuuming the girls’ room upstairs and was oblivious to our impending doom. Dad was due home in a little over an hour. Greg took charge in the hopes of saving our souls for disobeying and sparing our asses from, well, we preferred not to think of from what.

“Bill, go down to Gearhart Hardware and pick up a window pane. Jim and I have watched Dad fix these windows enough that we should be able to take care of everything. Ron. . .”

“Don’t do anything else that’s stupid,” Jim said, in a final jab at our brother.

From that moment on we stopped fighting. There was no point in arguing over whose fault it was anyway – we all knew if Dad asked that Ron would take the fall for it – but we had no extra time or nerves to spare by doing so. I made my way down the hill into Conemaugh and bee-lined to Gearhart’s for the pane. I guess Dad had been down there and complained about us enough that Mr. Gearhart knew what I was looking for right away. The glass cost me about a buck twenty, and after paying I burst from the hardware store without so much as a thank you for his help. I would remember later to demand repayment from Jim, Greg, and Ron in the form of candy money, but the adrenaline kept me focused on my task. I cradled the windowpane like an infant and clambered back up the hillside to our house.

Greg and Jim got to work right away affixing the glass inside the frame with putty. In the meantime Ron and I worked to hide the evidence inside by sweeping the broken glass from the cellar floor. It seemed like the glue had just dried when I heard a distinct sound in the distance – the sputtering, raspy sound of Dad’s car engine winding its way up the hill. Within seconds the rumbling noise grew louder and the car appeared at the end of the road. Rather than risk looking suspicious and scatter, we picked what we thought was the less conspicuous option: standing around in the yard, scuffing our shoes or picking dirt from under our fingernails.

The moment Dad killed the engine Jim and Greg greeted him with a hurried wave and rushed into the house like someone had lit their pants on fire. Ron made for the hose around the back of the house to rinse off his jeans. But I was stuck. So I did the only thing I could do; I grinned like an idiot and waved.

“Hi Dad!”

“‘Lo son, what’ve you been up to today?”

“Oh, you know. . .Nothing.”

What a great line. He’d certainly never heard that before. Dad was silent for a few moments, looking around the yard and our hillside much as a shepherd surveying his flock. His eyes never showed any sign of surprise or anger, and I thought maybe – just maybe – he hadn’t noticed. Then he looked down at me, his eyes twinkling with mirth as he reached up to ruffle my hair, and he said –

“Bill, I see you washed that cellar window today. Now tell me, why didn’t you wash the rest of them for your mother?”

Struck completely dumb, all I could do was look up at him and grin again. Like an idiot. Dad smiled back, nudged me toward the house with his hand, and followed me inside for dinner.


Kelly Cernetich is a senior political science and professional writing major at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. She spent her summer last year studying in Seville, Spain, on scholarship as part of the Vira I. Heinz program for Women in Global Leadership. Kelly is a member of Sigma Tau Delta and Pi Sigma Alpha, as well as a founding member of the UPJ Political Science club. In addition, she reports and copy edits for the weekly student newspaper The Advocate.