Over the Wall
"If you have an opportunity to make things better,
and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this earth."
—Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1971
People say time heals all wounds. I used to think so. Now I know better.
Time won't heal anything.
Time is nothing but a stack of yesterdays. Nothing but a stack of full moons waiting for a new one. Or a stack of memories waiting for a better one.
I've always known there was a pull to the moon. Standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, my mom once told me that's what makes the tides roll in and out. But I never knew how much one or two memories could tug at your brain. Or that a single yesterday could pull down all of your tomorrows.
You see, back when I was four years old, my dad did something that shook our family like an earthquake. Like one side of the earth just took and shook loose from the other, shook down California, the mountains, the oak trees and boulders, and rattled every inch of that rickety old ranch house we lived in, too.
And it's pretty much been like that ever since.
I'll never forget the date. August 12, 1990.
I was in the side yard that dry, windy day, under a huge pepper tree. The Santa Ana breezes lifted the long, feathery branches that usually broomed the ground, lifted them like leafy banners that flickered and tickled my arms and face.
Mom and Dad were in the house. My six-year-old sister, Alyssa, was hiding next to a cracked, gray-granite boulder alongside the garage.
I took a step toward her, but she shooshed me away, shaking her head and putting a finger to her lips. So I froze.
Dad pushed open the front screen door, jangling his keys.
All set with his clipboard and map book to go check out a landscaping job, he crossed the wood plank porch and hopped into his work truck with its fat, old camper shell.
"Tyler's out here!" he shouted back at the house. "He's all by himself."
But, no, I wasn't. My big sister, Alyssa, who I called, Lissie, was right with me. Only now she'd crept up near the red rock wall along the concrete driveway. To hide from Dad. To play a trick on Dad.
Couldn't he hear her giggle? It was contagious. I put my hand over my mouth and I giggled, too.
When Mom looked out the front door, I watched her eyes find me, then search for Lissie.
But I was the only one on earth who knew where she was. I saw her crawl beneath the coyote brush that grew along the red rock wall. Right in front of me. Saw her waddling on all fours with her day lily sundress bottom stuck up in the air, like a pesky skunk sneaking up on a catfood dish.
Sneaking around the back of the truck to the camper shell door, Lissie raised up over the bumper, her hand reaching for the silver door handle.
Going to climb inside, I could see. Like we always did. To hide among the tools in the thick, black air of gasoline engines and motor oil and sacked-up grass clippings rotting into sweet mounds of mulch.
And I remember jumping up and down as she swung the camper door open—clamping my mouth so I wouldn't give away our joke on Dad.
The big truck's gearbox clanked, metal into metal. Before Lissie could step up, the truck started rolling backwards, down the concrete drive.
Lissie screamed as it knocked her over.
Knocked her over and kept on coming until I ran up yelling and banging on the door.
"Daddy, stop, stop! You runned over Lissie!"
Even going so slow, his tires screeched to a concrete skid. He bolted out of the cab and sprinted to the back of the truck.
Mom came running, too, and helped Dad drag Lissie out from under the bumper, and she was bawling, screaming through the blood of a busted lip. But she wasn't crushed. No wheels had rolled over her day lily dress. No sign of big damage anyplace.
No outward sign at least. By looking, you couldn't tell that a blood vessel had burst somewhere in her brain.
From then on, my memory gets foggy. I don't remember how or when exactly, but I know that night she died.
And I know that from then on our house grew dark and quiet.
Over the next few days a line of people came to our door. People came to tell my father that it wasn't his fault. That of course he'd been careful, that of course he'd thought Alyssa was safe and sound inside the house. That it was an honest mistake.
They let him know that they knew how he must feel. And they let him have his dark days, his dark thoughts, and his dark face.
No one bothered to say much to me, though. I was too young.
But, see, I not only lost my sister that day, I lost my father, too.
No, worse than that.
I had an empty shell of a father. This part-time, odd-jobbing, tree-trimming ghost of a father. A walking weed-whacker is what I had. And people said, over and over, "Just give him time." But weeks and months had turned into years, and all that time didn't change a thing.
At church, Mom had been telling people, "Now, you'll have to forgive Lyle. He's been a little preoccupied lately with getting his business back on track." Then she'd whisper through gentle lips, "Since the accident. He's trying, though. Bless his heart, he's trying."
Dad's business was mowing lawns. And he'd been trying now for nine years. Ever since that summer day back in 1990.
Meanwhile, Mom and I walked around on eggshells. Lived our lives on cracked eggshells. Talking neutral, talking easy, not doing anything that might upset Dad. Of course, Mom was better at that than me.
Me, I'd bust an eggshell every once in a while. Smash my boot down and shatter it all over everywhere sometimes. I'd slam out of the house, grab some rocks, and blast away at an old pile of broken statues and stuff leaning up against the tool shed wall.
I mean, Mom had her sad days, too. I knew she did. But at least she had her garden.
Grew big, green, jalepeno peppers, huge red tomatoes, and silky tasseled ears of white corn sweet as watermelon. She could bury herself in those vegetable beds for hours.
I'd pray that Mom would always have her garden.
And I'd pray that one day Dad would see what he was doing to us. How he was making us outsiders in our own home. That he'd see and he'd change. But it was like he was facing a big brick wall. And he couldn't see a thing.
In our house, Dad got all the sadness.
And we got all the grief.
And after nine years I was tired of it. Tired of watching him get all teary-eyed over some little girl in a hamburger commercial. Clamming up. Drifting off. I couldn't take it. I wanted my dad back.
Because, you see, there'd be other days when he seemed okay. Almost normal. Watching baseball games on TV. Talking to the hitters, telling them which pitch was coming.
There'd be days when Dad and I would walk outside with our baseball caps and gloves, past the rope clothesline and eucalyptus trees, and down into the black clay meadow. And we'd play catch over the yellow tops of the wild mustard plants.
He'd even rattle off old time baseball stories about guys like Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale. Roberto Clemente and Carl Yastrzemski.
I loved when he did that. Because I loved baseball.
And Dad did, too.
"Ol' Yaz," he'd tell me, "had the quickest hands I ever saw. Gibson and Drysdale were the meanest pitchers. Crowd the plate on them, and they'd knock you down. But Roberto—he had all the tools. Great hitter, great fielder. Man, he was fun to watch." Then after a moment, he'd softly add, "Too bad he died at the top of his game."
Once we'd warmed up, Dad would throw batting practice and have me guess which pitch was coming. Curve ball? Sinker? Fastball? Change?
"I'm mixing 'em up like ol' Bob Gibson," he'd say.
"And I'm hitting 'em out like Roberto Clemente," I'd shout back.
But that would only last for so long. After a while, one of my fly balls would go unchased. Dad would stare off, acting like he was watching where it landed. But he was seeing other stuff.
And pretty soon he'd wander up toward the tool shed, get out his wrenches, and work on his lawnmowers. Or head off downslope toward the empty horse corral, into the shadows of the eucalyptus trees, and sit and stare till the moon came up.
And everyone understood. Everyone knew it wasn't his fault.
But in school, I had learned about earthquakes. And I had learned about faults. And every earthquake has one. A fault, that is. Sometimes it runs right along the surface. Sometimes it's just too deep to see.
So when Aunt Chrissy and Uncle Phil called from New York City to invite me for the second year in a row to spend the summer hitting, chasing, and throwing baseballs on the old-fashioned, tree-bordered ball fields of Central Park, I didn't hesitate.
I took one look out the torn screen door, into the searing Mayday heat of the chaparral mountainside, past the goats and dogs fighting in the trash over empty cans of refried beans, past a long line of upside down lawnmower carcasses strewn across the oily front yard, and I said, "Yeah, I'll come."
See, baseball was my life. To me, baseball was dream-come-true territory, but it was set in a world you could count on. A world that was umpired, where everything was either fair or foul, ball or strike. It was a place where you couldn't just sit and stare and be an empty shell.
"Good for you, Tyler," said Uncle Phil, who had a loud, salesman way of talking. "But it's going to be a lot tougher this year. Older boys, you know. Thirteen and fourteen. Some tough city kids on those teams. And you'll be one of the youngest."
I nodded, even though I was on the phone. Then I said, "Yeah, that's all right."
I mean, I might've been just thirteen and I might've been small for my age, but I played baseball like I was going to battle. To me, nothing else was worth fighting for. Nothing else really mattered.
So bring it on, I felt like saying. Bring it on.
After all, how many of them city boys'd ever been through an earthquake?
(End of Chapter One)
Over the Wall is published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York.
© John H. Ritter, 2000 ISBN #0-399-23489-6.