Losing Clemente

I wonder what my father thought of himself after he left, given the one rule he emphasized the most was never leaving a runner stranded on base. He’d seen it happen plenty. Norm was a catcher, and his knuckles were broken and rehealed—gnarled like giant washers around his fingers. His fingers were long, with wide tips. He never hit me with them, though he threatened to show me on a few occasions that he meant business with a quick swat to the dupa (the only Polish he ever taught me). But Dad? Norm?  Somehow, he could never make the punishment stick.

Perhaps that is the lot of the catcher—perpetual defense. Prepared for the slider.  In simpatico with the pitcher. Feeling out the batter’s weakness and communicating it to the mound with a single wink. In later years, my father’s shoulders stooped and his face grew long and hollow, resembling the mask he’d always worn. And when I was young, his hands were already old. His body, however, was massive. When he stood before me that October evening in 1971, it blocked out the sun.

“Okay, Bobby, there you go. Show me the fast ball again!” He tossed it underhand, and I almost tripped over a tree stump trying to grab it. I was ten and not too in synch with my own body yet.

My mother stood in the doorway of our apartment complex, arms folded across her chest.

“I think it’s time for dinner. But throw me one more,” my father said.

I slung it, hard, and Norm’s eyes locked with mine. I could tell by the way he put one hand on each shoulder as we walked inside that I’d thrown a good one.

Today, I’m not throwing a baseball. I’m in a dojang, and it smells like gym socks—hot as hell on the second floor. Never fails. The air conditioner putzes out on exam day with two hundred parents trapped like hostages on folding chairs. My ten-year-old daughter’s one of them. She’s getting her Deputy Black Belt today. Her lack of competitive fire frustrated me at first. The girl’s coordinated and fast, flexible as Gumby on that blue padding. Tae Kwon Do works for her. The only challenge is her against herself.

They’re done now and have brought in some fans to blow some funk over the crowd. I see a few of the black belts bring in tubs of water—the tiniest bit of steam wafting up from the sloshing liquid that fogs the Tupperware. “What’s that for?” my wife asks me. I only raise an eyebrow, shrug my shoulders, and pull the collar of my shirt up to wipe the sweat from my eyes. The fans aren’t helping.

That’s when the grandmaster, in his low rumble of a voice starts talking about the foot washing ceremony:

We wash our parents’ feet to show humility and service…from child to parent. We wash our father’s feet to show appreciation for the miles walked before us…time spent carrying us…over rocks and water…from infancy to manhood and womanhood.

Before I realize it, my wife is nudging me. The Master is calling my name.  Apparently, Klara, my little girl, has volunteered to demonstrate. She’s supposed to wash my feet, and I’m supposed to let everyone watch while she does it.

The water, lukewarm, barely covers my toes. Klara kneels in front of me and squeezes out the rag. The bubbles seep over my ankles and the front of my feet, and she looks up with the tiniest smile. I can’t figure out if she did this to embarrass me. The whole thing’s a little creepy. Then I look into her eyes, which haven’t left mine, and I know this isn’t a joke.

Her fingers are soft as she works some lotion between my toes. They’ve turned on some kind of music as the children finish up ceremony. I sort of recognize it—the soft harp and piano my wife plays around the house sometimes. I usually let it melt into the background. Now, with Klara smiling up at me, I let it soothe like the lotion on the calluses of my ankles.

The master is right. These feet have traveled a long fucking way.

Fifth grade. Long division. While my parents performed their effortless dance of washing and drying the dishes, I scrunched my forehead to keep all those numbers lined up, but they ran away from me—nine’s chasing sixes off the page. I rubbed my eyes and looked back up at them. My dad’s arm lightly circled my mother’s back as he scooted to the other side of the sink. That’s the way with catchers. Speaking without words. Her fingertips played with the bits of scruff on the back of his neck as she told me to get in the bath. After I was in my pajamas, we stood on the balcony to watch the sun go down over the city—its smoke a layer of gauze over pinks and reds.  

In the summer, when it was its hottest, I would spend the entire day just trying to stay dry. Our apartment was a two bedroom on the sixth floor, and we had three oscillating fans. My parents would let me take mine into my room where, after a shower, I’d lie on my back, buck naked, and let the wind lift each drop from my skin. But now, in October, relief had seeped under those rainbow clouds. Still, I was pulled away from the light show outside by the sound of an announcer calling game four. I whipped around to see my parents sitting on the couch, Dad’s arm around Mom’s right shoulder and her hand resting on his knee.  

“A series game—at night?” I plopped myself in front of the furniture.

“Move back a step, Bobby O,” my dad was laughing. “I know. They have lights now. And here comes Clemente.”

I always wondered how he felt when the announcer squawked his number. “And next at bat, number 22…Bobby Clemente!”  The ‘O’ in Bobby almost like an “ah” for the doctor. He was Roberto. I was Bobby, named for an uncle on my Scotch-Irish mother’s side. Clemente was Roberto, and he rarely gave interviews. When he did, my teachers would take his sentences transcribed verbatim from reporters poking fun and make us diagram them—correct them—placing our changes where they needed to be. We twisted his words to fit our rules. He was Roberto, but the announcer, our teachers, and our city made him Bobby. Bobby Clemente—number 22. Not that I minded playing with his words in English class. From my point of view, it was one of the more relevant things my teacher did that year.  

At lunch, Tony Pravotti reached over and grabbed the last two inches of my hoagie. It dripped with left-over sloppy Joe juice.  

“You gonna eat that?” It was always more of a statement than a question. To this day, in our house, the phrase to “Tony Pravotti” something means to finish someone else’s food. Tony was discussing the merits of watching the night game on a color TV—a luxury none of the rest of us in the neighborhood could afford. His dad was a plumber and, even though everyone’s bank account was hurting in 1971, no one wanted to be stepping in his own shit. So Mr. Pravotti always had work. And Tony had watched Game four in color.

“You should have seen it,” Tony yammered on, crumbs spilling from the sides of his mouth. “In color, the lights…Man they lit up them Pirates like they was a bunch of angels. Everything looks yellow and green—almost like the sky before a tornada.”  “Clemente hit safe again, right?” I took a sip of my milk.

“Oh yeah. Jesus, but that spic can throw!”

I winced and looked down at my tray. At that point, our other friend Jerry chimed in.

“He ain’t a spic. A spic’s a Mexican. He’s from Puerto Rico.”

“He speaks Spanish, don’t he?” Tony had left a glob of mustard smeared over the front of his shirt. With the ketchup already there from yesterday’s lunch, he looked like he’d been finger painting without a smock.

“If he speaks Spanish, he’s a Spic.”

That ended the conversation for a moment. Tony was right about one thing.  Clemente had an arm to beat the band. One game, when he’d been pissed off at an umpire’s call, he had gone over to the mound, picked it up, and chucked it over right field. Right over the God damned wall. I’m not sure why that game came to me right then. Except that Tony’s dismissal of Clemente—his use of names my mom would have washed my mouth out for—made me angry. I imagined Roberto’s anger making his arm magic and giving that ball superhuman trajectory as it went sailing over the wall.

My dad was watching Game 5 when I got home from school. He wasn’t usually home from the plant that early.  

“You get the note I left you in your lunchbox, chief?” He asked as I sat down next to him. He looked a little strange—displaced somehow. Then I noticed the empty bottle of Iron City sitting on the coffee table. He saw me glance up at him after spotting it. 

“Hey…Clemente just hit an RBI in the fifth! Just a little celebration. Did you get my note?” he asked again.

I had. Norm was always leaving notes for my mother and me. Hers had funny little faces and hearts—wishes for a good day—a request for tuna casserole for dinner followed by a slew of x’s and o’s.  

I usually found my notes in my Pirate’s lunch box. A good luck prayer for my math test—an almost perfect sketch of a 67 Mustang convertible with words written beneath it in all-cap block print.

“Someday.”

I wish I had saved those notes. At the time, I usually read them and shoved them quickly into my pocket before the other guys saw. My dad’s spelling, it wasn’t all that good. There was, however, nothing the man couldn’t draw. His note today had been an amazing likeness of Clemente himself copied, I’m sure, from my favorite card. How he had snuck in and grabbed it while I slept was beyond me. He was better than the tooth fairy. There Clemente was, drawn in pencil—bat in hand—chin slightly raised—his eyes flashing focus on that pitch.

“It’s great, Pop.” I snuggled against his massive chest, and we watched in silence as Pittsburgh won 3-0.

Saturdays were chore days in our house, but not before my pop-tart and episode of Superfriends. I had strict instructions to stay out of my parent’s room on Saturday mornings. That was, after all, their time for private “discussions.” Years later, the word catches in my throat when I use the same line (for the same reason) with Klara. That Saturday, though, all I had to do was vacuum the living room.  There was a donkey basketball game at church, and we couldn’t be late.

Tony and his dad were already setting up at Saint Norberts when we walked into the gym. As meaty as Tony was, his dad was just as scrawny. Tony’s mom was enormous, and her voice, whether it was yelling at Tony or the family cat, rang throughout the neighborhood. Mr. Pravotti was sallow and silent—cigarette perpetually hanging from the right side of his mouth.

He did accompany his son religiously to all of his hockey games (He was one of the few kids I knew with enough cash to play the sport.) and school fundraisers like this donkey basketball game. Tony was a shitty hockey player. I had no problem scoring on him in our pick-up games at the pond, and I was only mediocre. But club hockey had taught him how to fight.

The donkeys were fun, even if they stank. And seeing Tony try to keep his balance on top of one of the smaller ones was worth the price of admission. Afterwards, we munched on sandwiches and discussed our plans for Game 7.

“Looks like the O’s might pull it out at home today,” Mr. Pravotti said between puffs on his Camel. “It’ll go to Game 7. Tell ya guys what. Let’s grill some brats in the parking lot tomorrow and get confetti ready for the parade. Those guys deserve a hero’s welcome!” Everyone there hummed with enthusiasm over the idea. Norm seemed game to take me downtown, and I basked in their confidence that the Pirates would indeed take Game 7 the next day. Clemente wouldn’t let us down.  

Later, after the braying had stopped and our jack-ass team mascot had been loaded up and hauled back to the farm, Tony and I were taking shots while our fathers discussed the next day’s barbeque.

“Don’t worry about it, Norm. I’ll bring the brat. You grill. Didn’t Jeanne can some sauerkraut too? Bring that.” I stopped dribbling so the ping of rubber against hardwood wouldn’t impede my eavesdropping.

“Okay—this time—but I owe ya.” My father gave Mr. Pravotti a smile. Norm’s face, though not nearly as thin as our neighbors’, suddenly appeared sunken. And I saw something in that smile I’d never seen before. I didn’t like it.

“Your poor Paps.” Tony was beside me and smacked the top of the ball. I was caught off guard, and it pinged again against the floor. Then he had it in his hands.

“Too bad he lost his job.”

“What?” I looked at my friend, clinching my fists at my sides. “He did not lose his job. He works at the plant. His boss let them off early yesterday because he went to the game. He…” In the midst of my protest, I suddenly understood. Not that I’d ever give Tony the satisfaction of knowing he was right.

“You’re a liar!” I lunged at him, and the ball rolled under the bleachers while I pounded his face as hard as I could. Then he ducked a punch and came back—hard, and I tasted the salt of blood and tears as he got his licks in. Suddenly, I felt myself being lifted from the ground. Mr. Pravotti had his arm around Tony, whose back was to me. I could hear his whimper, and I saw from the shaking of his shoulders that I’d hurt him. His dad looked back at us over his shoulder.

“It’s okay, Norm. I understand. You take care of the boy. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Then Dad was shaking me—hard.

“What the hell got into you, Bobby? You kids were getting along just fine. Then you start wailing on him for no reason. What the…what do you have to say for yourself?”  I had nothing to say. I just kept thinking about Clemente throwing that ball clear over right field. Like Jesus in the temple. Everyone had a right to be mad—sometimes.  Neither of us said a word on the drive home.

The O’s did end up pulling out game 6. I went straight to the bathroom and got cleaned up. There was no point in even mentioning dinner. When I emerged, dressed in my pajamas, teeth brushed, my mother and father were sitting on the couch. They sat about three feet apart.

“Hey, Pop,” I said, silently wedging myself between them. He sat, hands under his chin and elbows on his knees—staring straight ahead.

“Yes, son.” His voice was so very small. He cleared his throat.

“Is it true, what Tony said.  Did you lose your job?” I heard my mother cough now, and I looked over to see her rub the corner of her eye with her index finger. Her eyes were swollen and red—mascara smudged on the lower lids.

“Yes, it’s true.” My father looked directly at me. “But look, Bobby. I don’t want you to worry. We’ll be fine. I can find something else.”

“But…” I wanted so badly to be reassured. “But you’re always saying …they’re always saying on the news how tough times are. What if you can’t? What if we have to move? What if…”

“Listen.” Norm put one hand on each shoulder now. “There isn’t any ‘can’t’ in my vocabulary. I won’t let there be. Go grab your rosary, son. Say a prayer. And know that we will pull this one out. Just like the Pirates will tomorrow, right?”

“Right.” I know I didn’t sound any more convinced than he did. But, for tonight, we’d both pretend as I turned to get up and noticed mom was no longer there. That night, Norm put me to bed by himself.

I couldn’t fall asleep. I held my Clemente card in one hand, rosary in the other, and looked out the window, listening to my mother and father’s muffled conversation.  Occasionally, the pitch rose, and I heard the sound of my mother’s crying. The rhythm of their whispers faded to white noise as I finally succumbed. My last waking thoughts were of Game Seven. How could everyone be so sure? Rob Moose had played gallantly as the relief pitcher. Clemente had even scored a homer in the third. But Moose choked in the sixth. Then the Orioles’ Frank Robinson barely beat Oliver’s throw to the plate for the winning run.

I thought of my parents, sitting apart on the couch, and knew that anything could happen. The O’s had come back in the tenth, after all. And Clemente would have to win Game 7 in Baltimore. I offered up a final prayer for him before I drifted off.

I woke up Sunday morning to the sound of our grill being dragged across the pavement. Jars of kraut were lined up on the kitchen counter, and Mom had also bought a few bags of Lays and a jar of Vlassics.  

“No mass this morning.” I could see they’d let me sleep in.

“But Ma, isn’t that a sin?” I smiled, reaching for a box of Cheerios next to the pickles.

“Maybe, but we can go to confession. Besides. Everyone knows Jesus is a Pirates fan.”

“Well, he hates the Yankees. That much is for sure.”

She smiled back at me and continued chopping peppers and onions while I poured milk on my cereal. I could see by the paleness of her face and her red rimmed eyes that no one had slept the night before.

We had set up tables and plastic chairs in the parking lot in front of our building.  We sat there and chewed on hoagies that bled onion and pepper juice onto paper plates.  The men drank beer. Tony and I even snuck a few sips when we volunteered to clean up the floaters.  

At the top of the fourth, Clemente did it. He drew first blood by hitting a two-out solo homer—not an easy feat off Cuellar. Clemente cracked that ball. I swear you could hear it through the radio, and everyone in the parking lot went nuts. The men all popped open another beer. Mom brought out lunch bags and sheets of construction paper.

“Okay, guys. Tear this up! The smaller the pieces, the better. Stuff it into these sacks. It’s for the boys’ ride through downtown.” We started ripping in unison. Even Tony’s nubby fingers flew, making the brown and red and green hiss as they tore. Some of the girls found scissors, which made us laugh. They just kept snipping and stuck out their tongues. Tony seemed to have forgotten the fight at the donkey basketball game as we ribbed the girls. Suzie, the little redhead who lived a floor above me and was the cutest of the bunch, got the worst of it. The radio crackled. Bob Prince called Jose Pazari’s double. Willie Stargell was in.  

Even with a ground out at the bottom of the eighth, it was over.

At the top of the ninth, we started filling paper bags with the confetti we had made. I never even considered the Orioles had another shot at it. And they didn’t. The inning was almost drowned out by the sound of twenty paper bags being opened and shaken out so their bottoms slapped the wind. Then we stuffed them with rainbow shreds and closed them up.

The size of the crowd in the parking lot swelled, shutting off the airway of our little street. Norm had parked his lime green Pontiac Le Mans by the entrance to the neighborhood. He’d had the least to drink. It was decided he was my ride downtown.

Amidst the sounds of victory whoops and slaps of congratulations, I glanced at my parents facing each other a good three feet apart. They were discussing, I supposed, the parade and my part in it. I watched them, my father taking her hands in his—his eyes as red rimmed as Mom’s had been that morning. I found myself confused and even a little angry at all the cheering around us. It wasn’t as if any of them had hit that homer in the sixth. That one belonged to Clemente and him alone. And despite the fact that others in the neighborhood knew about my father’s job, that chasm between my parents and the world wasn’t shared either. Not with another soul—even me.

We snaked through the sweaty bodies in the road, which only parted reluctantly when Norm flashed his headlights. About five blocks from the parade route, my father pulled the car over and said we’d have to get out there. We walked through an alley—silent—each holding one of the paper bags from earlier in the afternoon.

I stopped before he did—when I saw a ball of fire at the end of the street. My ears began to register sound again, and I realized the cheers had turned to screams. A figure ran in front of us—a blue/black shadow against the flame. My father grabbed my hand.

It was a car, overturned and set on fire. A rotted carcass of steel—casualty of the celebration. The fans running past us from all directions resembled specters in front of the dancing wall of orange and red. My lungs began to burn, and I felt my stomach lurch. I should have been hot, but I was too frightened. My fingers were melting ice smothered by my father’s fist.  

“The Mob is a beast,” the Gazette would print the next day. My father, as we stood there in the smoke, wasn’t nearly as poetic.

“Let’s go home,” he said, his voice tight and tired. “It’s not safe here.”

Today, my daughter’s exam is over, and we’re sitting at the Japanese steak house where she’s chosen to celebrate. My feet, still slippery from the lotion, slide across the insides of my loafers. Klara pulls her new belt tighter, snapping the stiff canvas with a smile.  

I watch the flames spew out of the onion volcano as the chef slings his knives and does his show. The glow illuminates Klara’s smile, and I think again about the ceremony I made fun of at first. When my baby girl was born, my father came to see her. It was the first time I’d seen him in twenty years. He left the spring after that World Series with the promise of finding work down south. He never came back. He sent money, but I imagine each passing month that turned into years made it harder for him to return. He spent the rest of his working life bouncing from city to city—contracting—cleaning up after hurricanes.

That visit—the one where he met his granddaughter—was also the last time we saw him. What I remember is how fascinated he was with those baby feet. He sat there, still a huge man. She fit in the space between his left forearm and elbow.  He sat there and pulled off her booties.

Norm sat there and tickled each toe, plucking them like strings on a guitar.

Now that baby has washed my feet. She’s spooning rice into her mouth with plastic chopsticks.

A memory from that last night of the Series hits me. Dad turned on the Pontiac’s radio as we made our way slowly downtown. We heard Clemente’s first words upon winning it all. They were in Spanish—quickly translated by the network.

“En el dia mas grande de mi vida—Para los neres la benedicion mia y que mis padres me echen la benedicion en Puerto Rico.”

On the biggest day of my life, I offer blessing to my sons and ask for my parents’ blessings in Puerto Rico.

Clemente would die in a plane crash a few months later trying to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua. My father wasn’t there the morning I came down for breakfast and heard the news. Clemente would never get the credit he deserved for what he did in the off-season. People only cared about winning championships. Still do.  

“Here’s to the black belt!” I hold up my beer to toast Klara.

“Deputy black, dad.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” She takes a sip of her coke after we’ve clinked our glasses.

“Minor technicality, sweetheart. I’m proud of you.”

The chef lights a trail of oil, sending a wall of flame between us.

Sally Toner is a high school English teacher who has lived and worked in the Washington, D.C. area for over 20 years.  Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Gargoyle MagazineWatershed Review, The Delmarva Review, and other publications.  Her first  chapbook, Anansi and Friends, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in the summer of 2019.  She lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband and two daughters.