Every couple years or so, in her efforts to "free up space" in the garage, my mother attempts to pry loose a number of childhood keepsakes from my nostalgic grasp. Two such items are subject to the most critical review. One is a three-foot tower of San Francisco Chronicle Sporting Greens, a vestige of my middle school obsession with all things sports-related. The second is "the fort," a lumpy ceramic slab, roughly the size of a standard large pizza, outfitted with various tent-like structures and potato-shaped mounds. I have recently released my hold on the sports sections. But I have refused--and will always refuse--to budge on the fort. This, not because it is an especially attractive object, but rather because of what it has come to represent--as I shall now explain.
A seven-year-old, like many of my second-grade peers, I wanted nothing more than to someday play for a major league baseball team. In pursuit of my dream, I had joined the local Little League and, after a year of bottom-rung instructional play, had been promoted to the minors. They usually stuck me in the outfield--left field, to be precise--because I wasn't much with the glove, but I was pretty good with the bat, usually making contact and reaching base.
I also tried to play at school. Tried, I say, because my efforts to join the lunchtime baseball games were rarely successful. At the ring of the lunch bell, the boys, and a few girls, ran out to the cement diamond and lined up in an abutting ditch, hoping to get picked by the team captains. The selection went quickly and with painful predictability--first the older, more talented or popular kids, then the younger ones, and then down to the dregs, usually a couple girls and myself. In most cases--confoundingly, brutally--the team captains would take the girls over me, and I'd remain alone, sitting in the ditch with the trash and the ants, watching the other kids play my beloved sport.
It quickly became clear that, for reasons inaccessible to me, no one wanted me on his team. Again, I had no idea why this was the case. It wasn't as if the team captains knew I was a bad player. As mentioned, I wasn't half-bad; in fact, I was better than many of the kids out there, and, furthermore, I'd never even gotten a chance to prove myself. I thought maybe it had to do with my blazing red Afro, a bull's eye target for mockery and abuse. Or perhaps there was just some offensive quality about me, something that I couldn't detect, but others could. In any case, I spent the first few months of second grade sitting in the cement ditch or wandering over the schoolyard.
Then one lunch period, as I steeled up for another round of humiliation, I got an idea.
"Hey," I tapped an older boy on the shoulder. "If you let me play--," I pointed to a tribe of ants marching over an orange peel, "I'll eat an ant."
"You will?" the boy's face lit up.
"If you let me play."
"Hey!" The boy shouted to the others. "This kid says he'll eat an ant if we let him play."
In a moment, a crowd gathered around me, faces ablaze with anticipation.
"You'll actually eat an ant?"
"We have to see you eat it!"
"You have to hold out your tongue and let us see the ant crawling around on it!"
"You have to swallow it, too!"
"Just so long as you let me play."
"I'll take him if he eats it!" One of the team captains volunteered.
"Okay, then go on. Eat one!"
I reached down, let an ant crawl onto my finger, then stuck out my tongue and licked the ant off. The crowd exploded in moans and howls.
"Show us the ant crawling on your tongue!"
I stuck out my tongue and let them see it, prompting a new outburst of gasps and groans.
"What does it taste like?"
I focused on the peppery, slightly acidic taste: "Peanut butter."
A third round of shouts and laughter rang out over the schoolyard. Then the team captain thrust out his arm.
I ran out my standard position, happy, finally, to be part of the game, whatever the cost.
This became the daily routine. Before each game, the crowd would assemble, and I'd perform the ritual, picking up one ant, or maybe two, licking them off my finger, sticking out my tongue, chewing, swallowing, saying, "It tastes like peanut butter," and then running out to left field. It didn't matter how well I actually performed in the game. At that point I had achieved the status of a freak and the other kids wanted their show. And I gave it to them. Every day. Indeed, I was resigned to the idea that I'd have to repeat this act for the rest of the school year. Anything to play.
But then something happened.
Halfway through second-grade, a new boy named Jamie Baktiar entered our class. Charismatic, strong, and dazzlingly athletic, Jamie quickly became a dominant force on the playground, always a first or second pick. He and I never spoke or came in contact, as if his world of glory and adoration and mine of shame and ridicule were fated never to intersect. But one afternoon during ceramics class our teacher paired us up to work together on a project. I ducked my head and waited for Jamie to protest or to demand a different partner. But he didn't ask for a different partner; he didn't even seem disappointed at having me for a partner; in fact, he even seemed happy about it.
"Whaddaya wanna make?" he asked.
"What do you wanna make?"
"How 'bout a fort?" Jamie suggested.
We got a slab of clay, rolled it flat, and began configuring tents and hiding places for our soldiers. We worked mostly in silence, our four hands stretched out over the whitish clay platform. Every once in a while I'd look up, astonished that Jamie hadn't shown any sign at all of resentment, convinced that some gravity-defying miracle was taking place, and waiting for the other "shoe" to drop.
Then, as ceramics hour was almost up, it dropped.
"Why do you eat ants?" Jamie asked.
My heart sank.
"It's the only way they let me play baseball."
"I don't know."
"Well," Jamie said, "Today, you come out with me. You won't have to eat ants. I'll tell them that if they don't let you play, then I won't play."
The lunch bell rang.
"C'mon," Jamie said. "Let's go."
We wrapped up the fort, grabbed our lunchboxes and ran out to the schoolyard. When we arrived at the baseball diamond the crowd quickly assembled around me, squawking like a murder of crows.
"He has to eat three today!"
"He has to eat four!"
"He says they taste like peanut butter!"
"Go on!" A boy pointed to a thread of black ants. "Eat one!"
"He's not eating any ants!" Jamie roared, stepping forward. He stood fierce and brazen as a young lion and stared down the crowd. "Jon gets to play without eating ants. If you don't let him play then I won't play, either!"
Thirty slack-jawed faces stared on in amazement. It seemed the entire playground, the nearby trees, the surrounding horse-dotted hills and the blue sky with its pitched sun, had all frozen in an astonished standstill.
"But he likes to eat ants!" a boy's voice pealed out. "He says they taste like peanut butter! Don't you? Don't you like to eat them?"
"Well, he's not eating them!" Jamie declared. "And he gets to play. And that's that!"
Jamie glanced at me and I felt my heart erupt with rapture. This was not a mere child, a regular boy: this was a genuine hero, a one-of-a-kind super-boy, a marvel.
Jamie and I became good friends, sitting together in class and running out to the cement diamond every lunch. Sometimes after school we'd go to his Muir Beach house, jump on his trampoline or race through the grassy hills with toy machetes. And every week, during clay class, we worked on the fort, decking it out with new fortifications and ramparts. As the school year drew to a close, Jamie and I painted the structure in camouflage shades of brown and green and yellow. Then one day the fort came out of the kiln and we gazed down at our masterpiece with wonder.
"So who gets it?" Jamie asked.
I looked up blankly. The matter of who would get the fort had never even occurred to me. It just seemed natural and inevitable that Jamie would keep it.
"Let's toss a coin," Jamie said, taking a quarter from his pocket.
"Heads or tails?"
Jamie flipped the quarter, caught it, slapped it on the table and lifted his hand.
It was heads.
I was prepared for Jamie to insist that he still get the fort, or to suggest a "two out of three." But he did neither.
"It's yours," he said.
"You won the coin toss."
And that was that.
Summer came, and with it, my family's yearly trip to Lake Tahoe and then sleep-away camp. I didn't visit Jamie once during those months, but he always hovered in the outfield of my thoughts, and I so looked forward to seeing him on the first day of school. When that day came, I hoped to find Jamie in my third grade class, but he wasn't there. Nor could I find him outside at lunchtime. I looked into the other third grade classes but couldn't find him there, either.
"Maybe he's just sick, or not home from vacation," my mother suggested.
I remained hopeful, seeking him out each day, but discovering, with deepening dread, that he was nowhere to be found.
Finally one afternoon I asked my mother to call Jamie's house. She found his number and dialed. She held the phone to her ear and listened for a moment, nodding with a strange expression.
"Here," she said, holding the receiver out to me. "It's Jamie's mother."
I set the receiver to my ear.
"Hi Jon." Jamie's mother's voice was muffled and distant-sounding and sad. "I'm sorry, but I don't know if Jamie will be coming to school this year."
"Because Jamie's father has kidnapped him and his sister and taken them to Iran."
"When will he be back?" I asked, not understanding.
"I don't know."
"In a few weeks?"
"I don't know."
"In a month?"
"I don't know."
"I don't know! I don't know!" Jamie's mother's voice became shrill and then collapsed into sobs. "I don't know if it will be in a few weeks or in a few months or…or…or if he'll ever be back!"
I handed the phone back to my mother. I looked into her face, and then, even though I still didn't quite understand what was going on--after all, how could a parent kidnap his own child?--my legs gave out and I dropped straight to the floor.
I never saw Jamie again. But whenever I return to my childhood home--even as a 40-year-old--I step into the garage and take out the fort, now chipped in places and coated with dust, to remember Jamie Baktiar and that incredible day on the baseball diamond.
And it is good to have such a thing to remember.
BIO: Jon Rosen is the author of The Misfits (Bloomsbury, 2004). His work has also appeared or is forthcoming in PANK and FRiGG. He is a PhD candidate in philosophy at UMass Amherst and he sort of maintains a blog here: songsforinsomniacs.blogspot.com.