Robert flipped a cigarette out the window and pressed the button for the glass to come back up, glancing ahead at the road while he waited for the cycle to finish. The electric window wasn't all that fast. I knew that once he finished with the slow window he'd swap hands and start changing the channels on the radio all the way down the band, finish that and then light himself up another Marlboro Light. Mama sat in the front seat beside him looking in the vanity mirror trying to get her hair to lay just right, smoothing it down over and over again. I wanted to tell her it looked okay, but she's got to where whenever I say something like that she thinks something exactly the opposite, so I just keep quiet and listen to whatever snatch of a song is playing before Robert's twitchy fingers change it again. It's always like this when I'm around these two. Even when we're going out somewhere to supposedly have some fun there's always something in the air. Any minute you feel like somebody's getting ready to just flip their top.
'It's going to be hot out there,' Robert said. 'I'm warning you both. Even when the sun goes down we're still going to be melting.'
He checked his shirt pocket for the security of the cigarettes there, then decided against having another one just yet. I sat in the back and looked at the way his hair got damp and slick and crept down the back of his neck. It wouldn't be long before he had him another cigarette. I knew that for sure. Robert wasn't much when it came to willpower. He was one nervous man.
'It's July,' Mama said. 'You have to expect it to be hot.'
'I just don't want everybody complaining about it, that's all.' Robert looked over at Mama but I knew he meant me. 'You folks are the ones who'd die if there wasn't such a thing as air conditioning.'
Robert first started going out with Mama back in April, about a month before school let out. One of the first things I remember about him is how he kept fiddling with the thermostat in the living room and telling Mama her electric bills were going to skyrocket if she didn't watch it, that it was way too early in the season to be running the air conditioner just yet.
'Open a window and let in some fresh air,' he told her, then he sat down and lit up another one of those foul-smelling cigarettes of his.
As we came down the hill and headed toward the baseball stadium I could see the parking lot was only about half full, but I knew there wasn't any way we were going to go in there. I'd gone places with Robert and Mama before and I'd learned Robert was cheap. We'd walk a mile or two before he'd shell out a dollar to get us any closer.
Sure enough, we went all the way up another hill and parked way out of sight of everybody else who was going to the game. We were so far away I wondered if we were going to the ball game or somewhere else I hadn't been told about. I knew better than to ask, though. I kept my mouth shut.
It took about eight tries at parking before Robert got his car fitted in just right by the curb. He had one of those little egg-shaped cars that hardly four people could fit into, so it wasn't like it was that hard to maneuver. Mama told him he was close enough, then tried to open the door while Robert was still going back and forth lining the car up. I thought for a minute there she was going to fall out and get herself run over, which made me laugh a little in a nervous sort of way.
'Good thing I've still got my seatbelt on,' Mama said, smiling at Robert.
We got out and stood on the sidewalk while Robert gathered tapes and packs of cigarettes and gas receipts up and locked them in the glove box. I held Mama's hand for a while as we walked down the hill, but after a few steps she let me go so I could skip along in the grass by myself. Robert had asked if I wanted to bring a friend with me, but I didn't have any friends as good as that. These days I mostly wanted to be by myself. These days I didn't want to be around anybody too much.
'You be careful, Sheila,' Mama said. 'Don't you go running out in front of any cars. They come over that hill flying along and they'll run over you just like that.'
'We going to eat when we get inside?' I asked. 'I'm starting to get really hungry.'
'We'll eat, but that doesn't mean a whole lot of junk. We'll try and see if they've got something the tiniest bit nutritious.'
'That might be hard,' Robert said. 'This is a ballpark we're going to, not a health food store.'
He lit up another cigarette and puffed on it like a scared kid in a high school restroom. I guess he knew once he got inside there were only a few places he could smoke. All the way down the hill I walked ahead and hummed a song I learned off the radio. I know a lot of songs now. I've got to where I shut my bedroom door and stay in there listening to the radio. Mama and Robert stay out in the den and watch television, so I'm left alone until he leaves. Usually I'm glad he's around. I'm glad for the privacy.
'Slow down, Sheila,' Mama said. 'We're not in a race.'
'I believe she thinks all the food's going to be bought up before we get there,' Robert laughed.
I was singing under my breath and trying not to look back. I didn't want to see if they were holding hands or anything like that. In a way I wanted them to, because I wanted Mama to be happy. Mama would be happy if she just had a whole family again. Probably I would be too. Be happy. But there's a part of me that doesn't want a new daddy. I've got used to the way things are. I'm not so sure I want them to change.
There weren't that many people at the game. Even though it was a Saturday night, attendance was sparse, probably because it was hot and muggy and people had better and more comfortable things to do besides sit in a stadium and roast. We still had to stand in a long line to get something to eat though. I wanted pizza and nachos but Mama said I had to choose just one and that would be all. I didn't say it right then, but I knew I'd want ice cream later, maybe popcorn too. It wouldn't be easy. Mama didn't have that much spending money to begin with, and Robert was already shelling out this one time. Once he opened his wallet once it was hard to get him to do it again.
We got our food and went walking down the grandstand looking for a seat. We had to sit in the bleachers because Robert wouldn't upgrade the free tickets somebody gave him so we could sit in chairs with backs on them. That would have cost him too much money.
'It's just as comfortable out in the bleachers,' he said. 'You can see everything just as good. You get a better feel of the game.'
I took a bite of pizza and didn't say anything.
'Well, we're just happy to get the chance to come,' Mama said, her eyes looking out to the field. 'This is something special for us.' She looked at me like I was supposed to pipe up and say something too, but I just kept eating pizza and walking past the third base seats with the backs on them.
It wasn't all that hot. The afternoon sun was still out, but it wasn't like it was going to melt you if you sat under it for a while. It wasn't anything like what Robert had said earlier. I could take it when the weather was warm. It didn't bother me a bit.
Robert told me the game lasted nine innings, which I thought he said nine endings, so I called them endings every time a team got out after that. Every time the players ran off the field to change places I announced how the game was ending again. People around us laughed and smiled, and I thought I was quite entertaining. After four or so of these endings I started getting hungry again. And restless.
Mama knows how I am when I get like this, so she decided then would be a good time for the two of us to go to the restroom. We left Robert behind and made our way back down the bleachers and out into the concourse where the souvenir stands and refreshment booths and the restrooms were. Even though there weren't that many people at the game there was still a big long line waiting to get into the ladies room, so Mama and I settled in for what looked to be a fairly long wait. Men never have to put up with such things, Mama told me.
'I want you to be sure and thank Robert for bringing us tonight,' Mama said. 'It's nice of him to want to take you somewhere to have fun when he really doesn't know you all that well. He told me he doesn't know very much about what little girls your age like but he sure wanted to try and find out.'
I looked at her for a minute, and in that late afternoon sunshine filtering in through the concrete openings in the roof I could see through her makeup and for the first time see how she was starting in to getting old, which was something I hadn't thought about until right then. 'Robert don't know a whole lot of anything about girls or anybody,' I said, 'but at least he's nice. He tries real hard to be nice.'
'That's true, honey. He does his best to always be kind. Not everybody's that way anymore.'
I nodded my head and thought about it for a minute. I thought about how Robert was nice and Mama's makeup wasn't totally doing its job anymore. She'd always seemed so pretty to me, above anything the world or time could throw at her. Even when Daddy walked out on us she'd never let it get to her, but now I could see how the door was unlocked and the shutters were open and the sunshine was flooding in. Maybe Mama was human after all, but you could have never told me that and have me hear until right then.
It took me about a week back then before I figured out my daddy was gone for good. Mama and him had been fighting off and on for as long as I could remember, so it wasn't an uncommon thing for him to be missing a day here or a day there. Sometimes he'd be gone for a week or more. Mostly it didn't matter whether he was home or gone off anyway, he never paid much attention to me know how. I halfway think he resented the fact I was even around. I think he'd have liked it better if he and Mama had been by themselves.
I finally had to ask Mama where Daddy was before I got a straight answer. I waited until we went to Kroger and were right in the middle of filling up our bascart before I brought the subject up.
'Your father isn't coming back this time, Sheila,' Mama had told me, real matter-of-factly. She set some peanut butter in the cart and turned to study my reaction. 'He's got himself a new girlfriend and he wants a divorce.' She shrugged like she was disgusted I'd had to ask her such a question right in the middle of our weekly shopping trip, like she'd been waiting all week to do this and now it was just ruined. 'How are we fixed on jelly?'
'We're okay.' I stared down at the stuff we had in the cart and thought about how we'd have to be careful now or we'd have too many leftovers. We wouldn't have to buy so much to eat anymore.
'Your father and I haven't been getting along in quite a while,' Mama explained. 'It doesn't have anything to do with you. It's us. We're just not going to live together anymore. You don't have to worry about it though. You'll be all right. You'll be staying with me.'
Even though I was still a little girl right then there was still a part of me that realized how this conversation me and Mama were having there in the middle of aisle eight in a Kroger store about divorce and custody was not only strange in content but strange too in the location we'd picked to have it in. I didn't have to be all grown up to know that families discussed such things as this behind closed doors in the privacy of their own home. It was actions and events like this that made me feel different and weirder than everybody else. It didn't make me feel bad that my parents were getting a divorce; what got to me was the funny roundabout way we went to getting around to talking about it.
After we got back to our seats at the ball game Robert decided he had to go to the restroom himself. When he came back he brought me a big old box of popcorn.
It wasn't too long after Robert gave me the popcorn that him and Mama started drinking beer and laughing and cutting up between themselves. I didn't really mind at all. I think Robert probably bought me that popcorn just to keep me quiet while him and Mama got intoxicated, but I wouldn't have said anything no matter what. I tried keeping my eyes trained on what was happening on the field even if I didn't understand the rules too good. Robert was telling us a lot of things the players were doing, scratching and spitting and yelling at the umpire and things like that, but he must have been acting silly on top of all that because Mama was laughing and all the people around us were joining in and having a big time too. About every twenty minutes or so this black man selling beer would come around and pour more beer out for just about everybody sitting there. He was real funny and yelled out things like 'Have no fear, I'm here with the beer' and 'Roses are red, violets are blue, here I am toting some ice cold brew.' He must have been making a lot of money off of everyone, because he wouldn't leave until he was completely sold out and had to go back under the stands and get more. I'd never seen Mama drink even anything before, so you can bet I watched her like a hawk the entire time all this was going on. I saw how she was smiling and throwing her head back and laughing and having more fun than I ever saw her have with Daddy. I wondered if I ought to worry about this, if I was going to be having me a new daddy anytime soon, but I told myself not to. There wasn't anything I could do about it anyway.
Daddy was gone about six months before I really missed him. Whatever legal proceedings had been going on during that time had been hidden from me, and when I saw Daddy once a week or however infrequently it was it was pretty much like normal. It was Thanksgiving before it finally occurred to me he was really gone for good this time. We went to my granny's for dinner, my mama's mama, and when my Uncle Jack and Aunt Margaret and my two cousins came over and sat at the long dining room table and we started having a prayer I looked at the seat where Daddy always sat and I felt like a part of us was missing and I was going to have to go through the rest of the day feeling incomplete. It wasn't like he'd ever really hung out with me or done anything much with me before, but it was just for the first eight Thanksgivings of my life he had been right there in his chair and now he wasn't. Everything was changing and I was starting in to seeing it.
'Here's some gravy for your dressing,' Mama said.
'I don't think I want any,' I said.
'Don't want any? Why, honey, you love dressing. You always said that's what you liked about Thanksgiving dinner the most.'
'I'm just not very hungry is all.'
'I sure hope you're not getting sick, baby doll.'
'No, ma'am, I don't think I am.'
I took me a small bite just to reassure her I was okay. I didn't want her to start forcing medicine down me when that wasn't the matter with me whatsoever. I didn't want to tell her I missed Daddy when that wasn't it either. I couldn't tell her what it was. It wasn't Daddy and it wasn't her. It wasn't anything I could name. It wasn't anything I could talk about without making everybody feel bad, like this was something they'd done to me when it was me who had done it and it was all in my mind. It wasn't anything I could see or touch or hear. It wasn't anything in the world.
It was getting late in the game, about the seventh ending or so, and the sun had set and twilight was about to go and they'd turned on the lights so everybody could see. Mama was on her third beer (I was counting) and Robert was about double that, and I was wondering when the time when everybody quit being happy and having a good time and started in being mean and yelling bad things at each other like I'd seen people do on television. Mama and Daddy never did that much drinking that I knew of, but there was a whole lot of yelling that went on and I was ready for that. But so far none of that stuff was happening. I was eating on a plastic helmet full of ice cream and I guessed I had nothing to worry about.
'I don't see how you can eat anything else, child,' Mama said. 'You've had so much food now you're probably going to pop.'
'I'm going to finish this and then I'm not having anything else. I'm scared of getting a stomach ache.'
'Don't eat all that if you don't want it. You will get sick.'
'But it's so good, Mama. I've never had ice cream that tastes this good.'
And it was the best ice cream I'd ever had. It was the best hot dog and the best pizza and the best popcorn too. I looked around and the wonderful strangers were smiling at me, like they were pleased with me. I was having a good time when I hadn't expected to. I wasn't having to try so hard and walk on eggshells and worry about things either. For the first time since I don't know when I didn't have to think so much. All I had to do was let everything happen.
While I was sitting there reveling in feeling normal, the batter at home plate hit a ball way up in the air, out of sight of the roof around the bleachers and up into the ever-darkening summer sky. I looked up and watched the ball go up and up and up, like it was traveling to the moon, like it was headed for the stars, like it had blasted off from earth and was never coming back again.
But it did come back down, and I heard everyone sigh with the greatest sense of expectancy, anticipation, like magic was headed our way.
'Watch your head, Sheila,' Mama said.
'Here it comes,' Robert yelled.
For a minute I believed they were both right, that that ball was going to come down right on top of my head. I thought I was going to be knocked unconscious in front of all those people. I could see myself awakening to a sea of concerned faces gathered around me, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, everyone looking on to see if I could be revived from the massive blow I'd just received. I would have this huge bump on my skull forever, and someone, if I lived, would nickname me Lumpy. Or even Lumpetta. My misfortune would become a source of humor to everyone around me.
I closed my eyes and waited for the horrible life-changing thing that was going to happen to me. I knew how my life was. I knew I couldn't do a thing to save myself or avoid this brush with fate. I simply had to sit and wait for it to happen.
Still, I couldn't help but peek at whatever horrible fate was headed my way. I had to examine the nature of the beast.
Robert reached his hand out and caught the ball before it had the chance to land. Probably the ball wouldn't have hit me anyway, but it would have been close enough to scare me to death. I watched it disappear in Robert's palm and bob up in his fingers as he held it out for me and Mama to see. I looked at the stitching sewed tight across the cowhide, thinking how harmless it looked now in Robert's hand, when only an instant ago it had been a projectile of death, a menace, something hard and vicious and mean. Now it lay peaceful and sleeping, a dormant memento of a nice time at the ballpark.
'Sign him up!' someone hollered.
'Nice catch, Mister,' a boy said.
Robert held the ball up and showed it to the crowd. Then he leaned over and handed it to me.
'Here's you a little souvenir, Sheila,' he said. 'You can have it.'
I held it in my hand. It was white and warm and solid in my fingers. I held on to it tight. I didn't want to let it go.
That night I lay in bed with the room all dark and the streetlight from the parking lot filtering in through the window.
'You try and go to sleep now,' Mama said. 'It's late.'
It was late. I didn't have to get up or anything the next morning because it was Saturday, but it was still so late I almost felt like I'd been up to something and was trying to get away with it. I was tired and sleepy, but it had been such a night I didn't want to close my eyes. I didn't want the evening to ever end.
I could hear Mama and Robert laughing in the living room. I wondered how long a person stayed drunk once they got in that state. If getting that way made every night so pleasant what could be the harm in it? But maybe Robert and Mama weren't really all that drunk. Maybe what it was that was making them so happy was they were in love, or falling in love, or were at the point where they were just about ready to do it. It wasn't like what I'd seen on TV though. It wasn't like they looked at each other and something went off in their heads and suddenly they couldn't live without each other ever again. This thing between Mama and Robert, up until tonight, wasn't even noticeable. It had only been tonight that the air started to feel charged with something electrical, something brought about by the heat of the night or cold beer or a baseball flying high in the heavens that brought down who knows what kind of alien space dust with it. Now as I lay in my bed and I heard the laughter from the living room and the cars going by outside, as I sensed the light from the street lamp coming through the curtains even with my eyes closed, I knew there was something going on and that things wouldn't be the same for me and Mama from now on.
I got out of bed and walked over to the little desk where I did my homework when school was in. It was dark over in the corner, but I could still see my baseball shining like it was full of sun and moon, stars and refractions from all sorts of heavenly bodies. I picked it up and felt its warmth and solidity coarse through me, surge through my veins like hot independent blood. If I was a boy, I thought, I could carry this ball around with me and no one would say a word. But I knew I couldn't. I was a girl. People would look and ask questions.
I wondered if I was going to be having a new daddy anytime soon. I hadn't ever got used to my old daddy yet. It took a lot of patience. He was here and then he wasn't. He was gone, back and forth, in and out. Would this new daddy be the same? He had started out okay this night, much better than the old one, but I was beginning to learn not to trust what happened once or twice too much. People weren't like baseballs or souvenirs from summer nights. They changed, and things changed, sometimes for the good, sometimes not.
I got back into bed and listened to see if there was any more laughing going on. It was quiet in the other room now, and I lay there a while wondering what was going on out there.
BIO: Ralph Bland lives and writes in Music City, USA, which is often the setting for his stories. A 1973 graduate of Belmont College, his first novel, Once In Love With Amy, appeared in 2002, followed by Where Or When (2005) and Past Perfect (2006). He is married and the father of a daughter and two dogs, and is currently at work on his fourth novel.