The True Part: This wheelbarrow sits in the middle of a nearby farmyard. I pass it every time I drive or walk down our road. It’s been there for years, through at least the last two families who have lived there. I don’t know how it got there or why it stays there. But, it got me thinking …
He could tell you the exact moment when he knew his playing days were through.
It happened toward the end of a meaningless game on a humid Wednesday at the end of September. He was at bat, a 3-0 count, when Swelter Feeney’s fastball caromed off his wrist. Feeney hit batters all the time, so it didn’t surprise him. If he had jerked away a second sooner, maybe it wouldn’t have hit him square on the bones. But, he hadn’t, and it did. He knew right away it was bad. He knew right away things had changed.
He jogged to first and fought back a grimace. Bones were broken – at least one, probably more – in his wrist. He was sure of that. Teams didn’t have trainers back then and he didn’t need a doctor to tell him his hand would never be the same.
He bluffed his way through the rest of the game – a game they lost – hiding the fast-swelling hand from prying eyes. Didn’t say a word. He didn’t want to lose his job, the only job he ever wanted.
That night he ate nearly an entire bottle of aspirin and tied an old rag around the wrist to quiet the throbbing. He found a pair of old tin snips and, with his good hand, cut a circle out of a pie pan and pushed a thin piece of tin into his glove, loosening the leather laces and splitting part of the glove at the bottom so he could press his swollen hand behind the tin, which, he hoped, would soften the blow of ball into glove. It helped. But, only a little.
He had been in a late-season slump, and now with his grip weakened, he stopped hitting entirely. The manager finally benched him, you couldn’t blame him, but with the season nearly over, it didn’t matter much. He ate aspirin until his stomach burned. He didn’t tell a soul.
By spring, the wrist had knitted itself back together. But, it healed poorly and was now misshapen and unbending.
By then his manager knew, too. He was cut before the season even started.
He went home, found a patch of weedy land just outside of town, and bought his wife a Sears house on credit. Model 115, the smallest one they offered.
It came in a kit that he paid off, little by little, each month. And, when it was nearly paid off, he bought himself a Sears barn, the smallest one they offered and really more garage than barn, also on credit.
His wife grew the garden and gathered the eggs and they made ends meet when she sold what was left, while he did odd jobs in town and helped his wife by bringing fresh fertilizer and dirt to her garden and tending her apple trees, and toting jugs of water and tools around their yard in his wheelbarrow, which he called a “whee-uh-beara” dropping the L’s and letting it drift off at the end.
They had two daughters and those girls grew up and married and moved away.
And, that was how things were. His wife grew the garden and gathered the eggs. And, he brought fresh dirt and fertilizer to her garden and tended her apple trees. He was rarely seen outside without his wheelbarrow.
He talked about baseball rarely. He thought about it always, a joyless memory of a game he remembered loving once.
He would think about what could have been had he just jerked away as Swelter Feeney’s fastball rode in on him that day. It always came back to Swelter Feeney’s fastball and that one second.
He had been told once – or heard it or read it somewhere, he couldn’t remember how exactly he came by it – that an injury holds its trauma in the scar tissue.
When people were around, he would tuck his bad hand into his pocket, or tightly cross his arms across his chest so he could hide the misshapen wrist under his other arm.
At other times, with no one around, he would massage the wrist hard with his good hand – as though he were rubbing a genie’s lamp – hoping he could rub out the trauma. Hoping if he rubbed out the trauma he could remember once more the joy. The joy he felt in the game. The joy he hadn’t felt since.
Not since Swelter Feeney’s fastball rode in on him.
The years went by.
He walked from his barn to the garden, back and forth, pushing his wheelbarrow and moving fresh dirt and fertilizer to his wife’s garden and carrying away branches he trimmed from her trees.
His wrist had grown hard with arthritis. The hand hardly moved at all anymore. Still, he rubbed.
He was thinking of baseball, one day late in the summer, when he stumbled while pushing the wheelbarrow.
He sat down on the ground beside it to catch his breath and the latest dog settled down next to him. He rubbed the dog’s ears with his good hand.
As he sat there in the grass, he thought of his wife and the Sears house that she loved and the Sears barn that he loved and his perfect daughters, and the hound dogs that, year after year, joined him as he pushed the wheelbarrow from barn to garden to trees. So many dogs came and went. So many years.
And, then he thought of baseball. He remembered.
He remembered how the hot summer sun felt so good, so goddam good, against his face as he would stand on first base. How good it felt to pound his fist into his glove, yelling “come on, come on” to no one and everyone. How he loved that.
He didn’t think of Swelter Feeney at all.
She wouldn’t move the wheelbarrow. It reminded her of him so she left it there, right where he died. The old dog slept by the wheelbarrow for several nights afterward. But, the dog finally knew he wasn’t coming back and went back to sleeping on the porch.
Years later, the barn, that was really more garage than barn, fell in on itself after a heavy snow, and the house passed down to one of the daughters and she and her husband shored up the walls and patched up the leaks. But, the daughter left the wheelbarrow where her mother had left it. At that very spot.
In time, the daughter sold the house, to people who didn’t know the story of the now-rusted wheelbarrow or why it sat where it did in the yard. People who didn’t know anything of baseball or Swelter Feeney’s fastball.
But, for some reason, they left it there, too. Right where the daughter left it. Right where the wife left it. Right where it was when he remembered how good the hot summer sun felt against his face standing on first base.