In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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At home in Montgomery, Wanda’s azaleas are in full bloom, the whole front of the house covered in a profusion of lavender, pink, and fuchsia blossoms. Up here on Cape Cod, it is April and still there is frost on the windowpanes. Wanda’s daughter-in-law tries to fool everyone into believing it’s spring with the forsythia. Yesterday she took some of the long, slender branches whose buds were closed tight to the cold and put them in a tall, elegant vase. Overnight the inside warmth forced open the delicate, yellow petals. “See, fresh flowers from the yard; it must be spring,” Laurel said before she left for the city this morning. Wanda’s daughter-in-law is such a positive person.
Wanda is missing her azaleas at their peak because of her son Pete’s twentieth high-school reunion. Wanda is going to take care of Timmy, her grandson, so Pete and Laurel can go off for a much-deserved vacation. It was all Wanda’s idea, and she’s happy to do it, only she misses her garden this time of year and worries that the yard man might water mid-day when the sun’s too hot. If Timmy were normal, he could have just come to Montgomery, or maybe they could have gone to Disney World together like her friends do with their grandchildren.
Through the kitchen window Wanda watches her son and grandson in the back yard. Pete is trying to teach Timmy to play baseball. Timmy is a mongoloid. “We don’t use that term, Mom,” Pete always reminds her. Down’s syndrome child, that’s the way these days of saying somebody is a mongoloid. Same difference, as far as Wanda can tell.
Timmy is her only grandchild. Laurel can’t have any more children and Wanda’s own daughter, Kate, is “too busy for all that nonsense.” Those are her words exactly. She hasn’t given up on Kate yet. Everyone in Wanda’s bridge club back home agrees that the only thing in this world that isn’t overrated is having grandchildren. Regular grandchildren.
Timmy giggles when Pete exaggerates his wind-up for the pitch. The kitchen window is framed by blue- and white-checked curtains, and Wanda can’t help but think what a really perfect picture this would be if Timmy were normal. A man and his boy, playing ball, like something Norman Rockwell would draw, except the boys in Mr. Rockwell’s pictures never have flat heads and tiny ears and noses.
She watches Pete throw a slow, easy ball. Timmy swings and misses. “Strike one,” Pete calls out. Through the curtained window she sees how his breath forms a little cloud. Pete tries again, throws the ball even slower, but Timmy cannot connect. The third ball the same thing happens. Pete bellows, umpire style, “Youuuuuuu’re OUT!” Timmy screws up his round face and Pete goes to him, rubs his back, and tells him something Wanda can’t hear.
She turns away from the window. She can’t help it, but it pains her to see Pete wasting his time like this. His son will never play baseball. Oh, maybe in those Special Olympics, but not real baseball. Not Little League like Pete did. At Timmy’s age Pete already had promise.
Wanda used to be so grateful for baseball. With Pete’s daddy Jeb making a career out of the Air Force after Korea, there was all that moving. Baseball made it easy for Pete. Kids and coaches welcomed him to a new school soon as they saw him pitch. Pete was always popular, got elected to anything he ever ran for, and made fine grades. His senior year in a school he’d only been in for two years, he was selected “Most Likely to Succeed.” Wanda had friends in Montgomery whose children were raised there, went through all twelve grades in the same place, and weren’t picked so much as “Most Courteous.”
Pete always made them proud. He went to college on a baseball scholarship but had the good sense to know he had to study something else, too. Journalism and sports went together perfectly. After Jeb retired — a full colonel — and they moved back to Montgomery, he’d think nothing of getting in the car and driving up to Boston just to see Pete on the local news. Jeb would sit and grin like a monkey all through Pete’s sportscast. He died before the network job came along, but Wanda used to say she was sure that if there was television in heaven, Jeb watched ABC at seven.
Of course that was before Timmy. Pete gave up that perfectly wonderful job on account of all the traveling, moved his little family out to Cape Cod, and became County Recreation Director in a place most people didn’t see fit to live except in the summer. It never seemed a bit fair to Wanda. Laurel didn’t have to give up law, just cut back some, but Pete lost everything. Like most young people, they never asked his mother’s opinion, just up and did it. “If you ask me,” she told her daughter, “Pete should keep that ABC television job and hire somebody to take care of that child.” Kate, who has the manners of a mule, said, “No one’s asking you, Ma.” Wanda hates it when Kate calls her “Ma,” like they were some kind of country folk.
Sweet as Laurel is, Wanda can’t really discuss it with her. Wanda wouldn’t for the world hurt Laurel’s feelings, but in her day if a couple had a child like Timmy, it wouldn’t be the man who would give up a perfectly wonderful career to help take care of him. Just for example, wouldn’t it be so much nicer if Pete were covering spring training for ABC this weekend, instead of throwing baseballs for a child who will never be able to hit them? They are still at it. Pete pitches, Timmy misses. Three times in a row, then Pete hollers, “Youuuuuuu’re OUT!” Wanda worries that it might not even be good for the boy, but you can’t tell Pete anything. He won’t give up, always was stubborn.
Like the time he built that raft over Christmas vacation. They lived in Orlando, back before Disney World. It was unusually cold; still Pete insisted he was going to take himself on a raft ride like Tom Sawyer, or Huckleberry Finn, one of those boys. Wanda and Jeb couldn’t help but laugh when poor little Pete got on his raft on Boggy Bayou, and the whole thing sunk. He was nine, maybe ten, not that much older than Timmy is now, but he went straight to the library — Wanda had to beg his wet clothes off him — and he got a book on boats and started all over again, said he’d have it done before spring break. Jeb’s transfer to Abilene, Texas, to head up a squadron, came through early, and Pete had to rush to finish the new raft. He knew he couldn’t take it with him — there were no bayous in west Texas — still, up until moving day he was out in the garage slapping together old pieces of wood. He dragged the whole family to the shore of the bayou for the “launch.” It was a hot and muggy Florida day. Wanda figured it wouldn’t be so bad if Pete got wet this time. But he had no plans of getting wet, wouldn’t even wear a bathing suit. He made her bring the Kodak and take pictures of the whole thing. Maybe that’s why the memory is so clear, Wanda thinks.
Pete in his blue jeans in ninety-degree weather, standing on the edge of the water, his raft on the beach. Another shot of him struggling to push it into the bayou, his mouth forming the clear round “o” of the “No!” he shouted when Jeb asked if he wanted some help. And victory. That brief moment caught on film to give the impression of forever. Pete standing on his raft, floating down Boggy Bayou, smiling, so sure of himself. They were all too busy with the rescue to be taking pictures when that ski boat zoomed past and swamped little Pete, but the proof of his success is still in the family album.
Wanda keeps all her photos in albums, except the big framed eight-by-tens. Jeb in his uniform, Kate at one of her graduations, Pete and Laurel at their wedding, and Timmy, of course. Those are the only ones she has out, and they’re not really “out” because they’re in her bedroom. You can hardly put down a coffee cup on the tables in the living rooms and dens of her friends’ homes, they’re so crowded with pictures of children and grandchildren. Kate is absolutely wrong about her being ashamed of Timmy. She simply doesn’t go for that cluttered look. Wanda knows that Pete will be showing Timmy’s picture at the reunion. She wonders if he realizes that Timmy resembles other children like himself more than he looks like anyone in the family.
She is trying to learn her way around Laurel’s kitchen. “My kitchen, too, Mom,” Pete keeps reminding her. Last night he made lasagna to prove it, enough to freeze so she and Timmy could have it again. Timmy’s favorite, it’ll make him feel good to have something his daddy cooked. Jeb never so much as learned to fry an egg, but Wanda was an old-fashioned wife who thought that part of her job was to fix meals for her family. Not like young women today. She checks to see if Laurel has enough milk before she goes to the store. She wants to get all her shopping done before Pete leaves so she and Timmy won’t have to go out. This is the first time she’s stayed alone with him. Timmy is a sweet boy, and probably no trouble, but Wanda thinks it best if they don’t have to make any unnecessary trips.
Wanda imagines that Pete’s classmates will be impressed with him. He is a fine-looking man, a lot like Jeb, and his wife is still a beauty. The job he has now isn’t much, but he doesn’t have to dwell on that. Knowing Pete, he’ll talk about giving up the ABC job, which will be the only way of letting some folks know he ever had it. And Timmy, of course Pete will talk about Timmy. But at least the child won’t be there with them. Wanda is pleased with herself about that. Not that Pete and Laurel shouldn’t be real proud of what they’ve been able to do with Timmy. It’s just that they need a break, and besides, they don’t realize how hard it is for other people to be around a mongoloid. Wanda told Pete that it was high time she had a little time with her only grandchild, but really Pete needs the rest; he’s losing perspective.
He’s got Timmy pitching now, if you could call it that. The poor child is standing on that raggedy yellow bathmat they insist on calling the pitcher’s mound and basically just dropping the ball. Pete did better when he was two. The ball doesn’t come within a mile of Pete, still he swings and Timmy yells, “Strike!” Wanda is no longer watching, but after a minute or two she hears Timmy’s shrill voice call, “Youuuuuuu’re OUT!” She supposes pretending can’t hurt, but her heart goes out to her son who is deprived of knowing the small success of teaching his son to hit and pitch. They’ve been at it for more than an hour, and not once has the bat touched the ball.
Surely if Laurel were home she would stop this nonsense. Wanda puts on a smile. A burst of damp, chill air enters the kitchen when she opens the back door. “Isn’t it about time you baseball players come inside? I’ll make y’all some hot chocolate,” she calls from the doorway, hugging her sweater to her.
Pete is back on the bathmat and Timmy is clutching the bat. “Come on out here, Mom, you’ve got to see what Timmy’s learned,” her son says. “It’s cold,” she answers. It’s pointless, she wants to say. But now Pete has it in his head that she’s got to be a part of this charade, so he coaxes her into putting on her coat and joining them. “You be catcher, Mom.” “You be catcher, Wamom,” Timmy parrots. He won’t call her Grandma or Granny or Nana, like her friends’ grandchildren call them. “Wamom” is his own creation. It makes Wanda think of wigwams. She’ll work on that this week while Pete and Laurel are gone.
Before they can start, Timmy wants them all to do “high fives.” As best Wanda can remember, Pete didn’t do high fives until he went to college and played ball with colored boys. Now, of course, every issue of Sports Illustrated has pictures of sweating athletes slapping palms in victory. Wanda’s kept up the subscription she started when Pete was in junior high, when she read the magazine cover to cover so they’d have something to talk about.
Timmy and Pete slap palms. Timmy giggles. “High five, Wamom,” he says and presents his palm to her. His hand is cold and soft. Pete holds up his hand and smiles. “Watch this now, Mom,” he says as their palms touch briefly, quick like his goodnight kisses used to be. Pete takes his place back on the mound; Wanda stands behind Timmy. Were they living in Oklahoma or Georgia when she and Jeb first played catcher and pitcher to Pete’s big league batter? She can’t remember.
Timmy spits on his hands, then rubs them on his jeans. He pauses; it seems there’s something else he should do, but he can’t remember. Pete leans to the ground and rubs dirt onto his palms. Timmy brightens, copies Pete’s motion, then turns to Wanda as he grabs the bat tight in his little fists. “Good grip, Wamom,” he says and she smiles politely at him.
Pete throws the first ball. Timmy misses it. “Strike one,” Pete says and holds up one finger. Timmy frowns, puts more dirt on his hands and spits, just missing Wanda’s shoe. Pete pitches again; Timmy swings and misses. Wanda thinks it is almost cruel of Pete to call, “Strike two.” Timmy rubs his hands together, turns his hat around and glares at his father. Pete tosses a slow, gentle lob, Timmy swings, misses, and Pete shouts, “Youuuuuuu’re OUT!”
Wanda feels just awful for Timmy. She wants to hug him or say something to comfort him, but before she can move, Timmy and Pete have exchanged places. She is catching for Pete again, but there is no joy in this practice. They can stay in this back yard until Christmas, but Timmy will never be the ballplayer his father was. Pete needs to give this up. It’s a mother’s job to help her children accept what they cannot change. She takes a breath. “Pete,” she begins, but he hushes her. “Come on, Mom, watch this.”
She watches Timmy throw a ball that falls to the ground before reaching Pete. Pete swings. Timmy shouts, “Strike one!” The next ball rolls toward Pete’s old blue Nova in the driveway. Still Pete swings at it as Wanda retrieves the ball. Timmy calls, “Strike two!” That ball wasn’t anywhere near him, yet Pete wants to pretend he and his son are having a regular game of back yard baseball. The stubborn child has grown into a stubborn man. There is nothing regular about this game, Wanda wants to shout. Give it up!
Timmy’s third pitch bounces across the lawn. Pete swings at the air. “Strike three, youuuuuuuuu’re OUT!” Timmy hollers, then repeats it as he runs toward Pete. Wanda watches as her son and grandson share the special camaraderie of victors in sport — bear hugs, high fives, pats on the back. Pete looks up and grins at her puzzled expression. “OK, Sport, tell Wamom what a strike is.”
Timmy twirls his body in a full circle with his arms extended in front of him, holding an imaginary bat. Slowly, he recovers his balance and, grinning, tells Wanda, “Strike means you missed the ball. You missed it!” Pete is nodding. “Now show Wamom how many strikes put you out,” he says. Concentrating on his right hand, Timmy carefully folds his thumb over his little finger and holds up three short, stubby fingers. “Three!” he exclaims as he thrusts his hand up into Wanda’s face. “Three strikes and youuuuuuuuuuuu’re OUT!” His whole body is a smile.
Pete is kneeling, hugging Timmy. He looks up at Wanda. “He learned that today, Mom. He didn’t know it before, and he learned it. Isn’t that something?”
Pete’s face is so full of hope, so sure he can make this raft float. Wanda pictures him at the reunion, telling Buster Johnson, who caught for him when he pitched his no-hit All Star game, “Hey, Buster, I taught my kid that three strikes means you’re out. Isn’t that something?”
What’s Buster going to think of Pete then? Buster’s mother never even drove him to games; she was an alcoholic or something. Wanda was always carting carloads full of Busters to movies and skating rinks and parties, doing whatever it took to be sure Pete fit in. With every move, she hung the pictures on the wall the first day in a new house, so the kids would feel at home. She was a Den Mother so Pete could be in Cub Scouts, a Room Mother so he’d be someone special to the teacher. She taught him all about doing right so he didn’t make any mistakes and get the wrong girl pregnant and get himself stuck.
She did everything she could to make his life turn out successful, but she cannot save him from this failure. “Timmy’s not going to be another Mickey Mantle, son,” is the truth she has to say.
Pete’s eyes flash a challenge at her. She’s sorry, but the truth’s the truth. “You don’t get it, do you, Mom?” He practically slaps her with his words. Even Timmy can tell he’s being ugly; he tugs at his father to go inside. “You go on in without us, Timmy,” Pete says. One thing she’ll say about Timmy. He obeys, no back talk like most kids his age. He goes right in like Pete tells him.
Wanda is sorry if she has hurt Pete’s feelings, but it’s not healthy for him to keep pretending about the boy. “Sit down, Mom,” Pete says, more command than invitation. The concrete stoop looks cold. “I’m hard pressed to see why we have to have a conversation outdoors,” Wanda says, still standing. “Because I don’t want him to hear us talking about this failure,” Pete answers, and with a sigh hunches over, holding his face in his hands. Wanda remembers how hard he always took defeat. After a loss he’d stay in the dugout, everyone else gone, and she’d find him sitting just like he is now. Her heart cries for him. She sits beside him, the cold of the concrete penetrating to her bones, but she won’t complain. “I’m so sorry, son,” she says and rubs her hand up and down his back. “I’m so very sorry about Timmy.”
Pete turns to face her. His expression is puzzled. “Timmy?” he says with a question, as if for a moment he has forgotten who the child is. Wanda takes his hands in hers. His are warmer. “Pete, you know your father and I were always so proud of you, all your accomplishments. But Timmy can’t be the kind of son you were to us. That has to be a terrible disappointment for you.”
Before Wanda can go on, Pete pulls his hands away from hers, makes fists that he pounds on his knees. He is crying, the first tears of his Wanda has seen since he was four or five. She’s not sure how to comfort him. What if a neighbor or someone should come by just now? “Dammit, Mom! Dammit, dammit, dammit! What’s wrong with you?” He hurls the words at her, mixes them with sobs.
Wanda gasps, the sudden cold air stinging her lungs. “Me? Whatever are you talking about?” Wrong with her? She’s come all this way, gave up the height of azalea season to be with his child, and Pete wants to know what’s wrong with her? Somewhere along the line she failed to teach him manners, that’s what’s wrong.
Pete wipes his eyes on his jacket sleeve. His voice sounds rusty. “What you fail to see, Mom, is what a great success your grandson is.” Wanda knows that anything she says Pete’s going to take all wrong, so she keeps quiet. Neither of them move; only the wordless clouds formed by their breathing appear and then dissolve.