Michiel Considine '13
You sit cross-legged on a cooler of Heinekens and listen to your uncle talk ball. You are wearing black thong sandals that dangle and show off pink nails, and a boxy grey dress that hides everything else. Your father is there. He is poking fun at your uncle, calling him a chubby chaser because his new girlfriend, Maureen, has cellulite poking out of her one-piece. All eyes turn to Maureen, who smiles from the lip of the pool. She dips into the water, surfaces, then dips again. She climbs out of the pool and you realize she does have cellulite, messy craters rippling up and down her thighs and it makes you like her less.
Your uncle is grilling bratwursts and dogs. He ignores your father and watches the boys play Wiffleball on his lawn. In a huddled mess they shout and taunt and call each other names. One or two take cuts like Wade Boggs and show real promise. Games end in tantrums and brawls. The boys run to their mothers or hide out in station wagons, locking the doors behind them.
Your uncle recalls his time with the Huskers. His runs-batted-in.
Your father remarks on his .220 batting average.
“D1 is D1,” your uncle says.
Your father finds this funny, and pinches your uncle’s thighs, reminding him he never had the legs for anything outside of Lincoln. It was home run or bust, a moonshot to the bleachers or the walk back to the clubhouse.
Your uncle lets out an unconvincing laugh and puts down his spatula. He scowls at your father. “Pure gold,” he says. “My brother the comedian.” Your uncle lowers his head and barrels into your father’s midsection and the boys begin to tussle. An aunt from Iowa City, coworkers from the electric company, and the boys in the field, all gather onto the porch to watch the two have at it.
Your father is thick and Armenian and your uncle is thicker. Big bellies peak out of too-tight golf shirts; furry, pasty, ass cheeks appear over the sagging denim waistband of their shorts. They were farm boys who tossed hay bales into silo lofts since before they could remember and it turned them into broad-shouldered, roly-poly adults. Your uncle had used his build to knock baseballs a country mile, out beyond the interstate, into the outer rim of the solar system. Your father, however, used up all his machismo on impregnating your mother his senior year of high school. At graduation, he collected his diploma, moved the red-white tassel to the left side of his cap, and took a construction job as soon as he stepped off stage. In that moment, he became his father, the man he never intended to be.
They are older now, but incapable of forgetting. Their past remains displayed, polished trophies they bring up when anyone will listen. And all of this appears as they fight. Both men close their eyes and go red in the face. They grapple and claw, all tangled arms and headlocks, shadowboxing their former selves into oblivion. They slap at each other’s shoulders, bump patio furniture, knock the dogs and bratwursts from the cutting board, and try locking their fingers into the other’s belt loops. Anything to gain an edge.
Your uncle grunts into your father’s kidneys. “You’re a goddamn nobody.”
“Piece of shit,” your father says. “Where’s Sheila, huh?”
This party was supposed to be your uncle’s reintroduction after the divorce. This was your uncle proving he was all right with how things went down. This was his way of saying he didn’t need Sheila one bit. She was better off with the dental hygienist and anyway, he’s got Maureen now. He wanted to prove he was done locking himself in rooms. He wanted to prove he could be a father and a man again. It was supposed to be a blast.
After another moment, your uncle gains the upper hand. He squats low and lifts your father up over the porch railing and tosses him onto the azaleas below. Your father comes down like a bag of fertilizer.
Panting, your uncle turns to his family and friends and looks as if he is about to cry. He storms off through the mass of people and locks himself in his bedroom, refuses to show his face again.
Your father, for his part, has blown out his back. Your family drags him into the living room and takes turns giving him shit, tossing packets of frozen waffles onto or around his spot on the couch. They scold him for instigating the whole ordeal. “On a day like today,” they say. “The first holiday without Sheila.” “Stubborn boys, pig-headed imbeciles.” “See how rough this has been on him?” “See the trashy girls he is bringing home?”
Your relatives turn to Maureen and say, “No offense, Maureen,” and Maureen waves.
You go and find your cousin Becky who, hours earlier, told you that you carry weight well—some girls can’t but you do. She is hiding out in her bedroom, video- chatting with boys. She is not excited to see you. You tell her what happened and she is embarrassed for you all.
“Your dad locked himself in his room,” you say.
“Oh God,” Becky says. “Again?”
Later, to prove there is no bad blood, Maureen guides your uncle to the banister to see his brother off. Guests stand between, five deep, to ward off trouble.
Your father is doped up on codeine and too far gone now to make a fuss. You hold him by one arm while the aunt from Iowa City takes the other. But your uncle is still hurt. He leans against the railing, ruddy and cheated, and loses it. He shouts at your fleeing bodies, “At least I made it that far, Sam. I wasn’t a goddamn nobody.”
Your uncle starts crying and you have no idea why. This is about baseball? After all your uncle has been through, it’s his time with the Cornhuskers that bothers him most. You don’t get it. You don’t like baseball. You are done trying to figure this family out.
You drag your father out to the car and lay him down in the backseat. He starts laughing uncontrollably. “I just thought of a good one,” he says, and through the slacken state of his medicated body, you can hardly understand a word he says.
You cook your father simple meals he eats on the living room couch where he is holed up for long hours, brooding and recovering. You mix pain relievers in with the gravy broth and he chases this mixture with cold beer. “That little shit,” he says about his brother. “How am I the bad guy?”
You’ve gotten a dozen calls this week from annoyed relatives. The phone is out of your father’s reach, so while you’re at school he has to listen to the opinions of many loved ones berating him on his tactful critique of Maureen. “Grow up,” the messages say. “You haven’t had it easy, Sam, but neither has he. Show a little sympathy.” “You’re supposed to be family.” “Asshole.” This last one was from your uncle. He doesn’t leave his name, but the weeping gives it away. Even Maureen calls one evening and hopes this can all be water under the bridge.
“Maureen seems nice,” you say.
Your father says, “It is what it is.” Then he puffs out his cheeks to signify that though Maureen may be nice, she is still a whale.
Your father is upset for many reasons: for being manhandled by his younger brother; for burning the comp time he hoped to spend on a golf tournament; and, in a greater sense, for being responsible for a daughter he understands little about, for regretting a life he never planned.
You don’t want to tell your father he is being an ass, that “growing up” might be just what he needs. It was childish to poke fun at Maureen like that, to bring up the college days—the nerve that never heals—so near to the divorce. Your father’s choices make you wonder about your own character, character you’ve inherited, in part, from this man on the couch, this bloated crab turned belly-up on the sofa, gyrating his appendages up and down, forever reaching for the unreachable television remote.
“Maybe it was too soon for that kind of joking around,” you say.
Your father scoffs and downs his beer. “Because why? Because of his loss? That’s not loss. Anything he ever lost he had coming. He earned it.”
You threw shot put in junior high and made a name for yourself at the Under-14 level. In the springtime your father was known to duck out of work early, leave the half-dug swimming pools on hold until the next day, so he could ride out to your meets and watch you throw.
“Wheelers win at any cost!” he would say, lining up at the fence with the other churlish fathers in Lincoln East Middle School apparel. He repeated this phrase over and over: after meets, on car rides home, during meals with your mother present.
You were going places. You did this well. Your coaches praised you for your brawn, for your ability to hurl steel objects into oblivion without any of the priss that other girls your age were beginning to show. “She’s built like a Cornhusker through and through,” they would tell you, meaning it as a compliment, you are sure. But as you thought about it, as you pictured yourself the mirror of this pot-bellied farm boy in wide overalls, an ear of corn stuffed in your denim, you began to wonder what was so desirable about that.
That last year you rode the red diesel bus into Omaha and competed in States. You took home a third-place ribbon and a sportsmanship award, presented to you at the Rotary Club commencement dinner back in Lincoln. Your father couldn’t have been prouder. When they called you to the stage, he stood on his chair, balanced himself with one boot on the table, his heel in the lasagna, and began to chant, “Wheelers win at any cost!”
“Please, Samuel,” your mother had said. She was patient with him always, never raising her voice, never reacting with vengeance or spite when your father carried out his boyish antics. He had always been that way, your mother explained, him and your uncle both. They just need to rile themselves up, blow off steam, before you can have a decent conversation with them. They’re good people, she told you. Just give them time. Your mother was flawless in this approach. She assuaged their brutish edge simply by keeping a hand on every shoulder, presenting a calm façade to curtail these shenanigans from boiling over into blood feuds.
She stood beside your father as he shouted, hand resting on his lower back, guiding him gently back to his seat so the ceremony could proceed.
This was the last true image you had of your mother, the moment that resonated with you well beyond the lights of the stage.
Becky has left home. She is unable to handle her father’s midlife crisis and she comes to sleep on your floor. You are her last resort, she tells you. She didn’t want it to be this way.
“Cara’s mom has a stick up her ass,” she explains. “She’s a total bitch about curfews.” Becky makes an open palm gesture to your general being—your body, your roof, your floor—as if to say, so here we are.
“Does your dad know?”
“That asshole?” Becky says. “He locked himself in the hall closet this time. Don’t you get how fucked up that is? We never even had a lock on the door, he had to go out and buy one. Besides, the house is starting to smell. I think the food from the party is going bad. I can’t handle that freak anymore. Can I come in?”
You are unable to say no. You have been raised to be a good host and you accept Becky graciously. Turning people out is not one of your strong suits. You are incapable of being rude. Your mother wouldn’t allow it. That is not a virtue we wish to perpetuate in the world, she would say. You keep your mother alive in this way, by stretching every bit of her wisdom over any grievance you might face, though it keeps getting harder not to jumble the anecdotes, to mismatch the images, to clutter the sense of her belonging to you, until you find yourself worshipping a different ghost entirely, another mother, another life instead.
You wash the spare linens and stock the pantry with what you think Becky might like. You offer her your bed, but she accepts the floor. “I don’t want to be a bother,” she says. “I’ll stay out of your hair.”
You tell her it’s no bother. Family is never a bother. Your mother taught you that as well.
In a naïve way you are excited having Becky as your guest. You feel thirteen again, like you should reattach the paisley skirt to the lower half of your mattress, sit Indian-style with a bowl of popcorn between your knees, and maneuver your hands around a Ouija board by flashlight.
Instead, Becky spends the night video-chatting with a boyfriend and sucking up bandwidth. You understand that people change, that lives split and there is no return. But you don’t understand why this has to be okay, why it isn’t worth grieving over. Becky doesn’t know you anymore, and you want to understand why.
You doodle in a notebook and watch her. She is making googly eyes at the boy on the computer screen and the boy responds by sweeping his dashing bangs away from his eyeballs. You wonder how it’s done, how Becky handles being seen. At school, you are called The Futon by boys with messy hair who cackle at this putdown. And though this title might suggest an obvious presence, you are invisible in every other way. You are furniture. Nothing more. These are the same boys who feel swampy, guttural urges for your cousin. They hump lockers and each other. They pop up on Becky’s computer screen while Becky sits on your floor, and they conjure up great laughs from Becky.
Past midnight, headlights sweep across the blinds. Some boy in his father’s car lays on the horn and Becky rises from her slumber. You pray she invites you along. Instead, she tells you not to wait up. She leaves the house and you hear the door slam, the vehicle thrown into reverse. You sense the energy of something happening beyond you, out there, in the world. Silence resumes and you are left to wonder.
You fall asleep in this reverie and Becky returns before dawn.
Breakfast in bed. You explain to Becky that Saturdays are pancake days, and you bring her a plate from the kitchen. She is unkempt at this hour, her hair ratty, her face greasy; she is less put together than you, and this makes you feel warm for a moment. If only the world existed at this hour, on this day. If only.
You have already explained to your father about Becky staying over. He shrugged at the notion and didn’t seem to care. Your father can walk now. He has taken to self-medicating with Heinekens in front of the kitchen sink late into the nights where, when strong enough, he reenacts the fight with his brother. The results always veer from reality. It is your father delivering lightning jabs to your uncle’s kidneys. It is your father standing over him triumphantly. It is your father calling your uncle a nobody.
Becky eats pancakes in big globs like your father, shoving them down, covered in syrup. Once again, she appears undesirable. She looks like every Wheeler family picnic, your father and your uncle at opposite ends of the table, dipping ears of corn in sleeves of butter and then chomping through the ears one by one, mowing through them all to a timer. Who will come out on top? What great meaning will this bring?
“You’re so maternal,” Becky says with her mouth full. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t look at these goons and see anything more than just that—goons.”
You ask, “How’s your dad?”
Becky takes another big bite. “Out of his mind,” she says. “It’s been, what, six months since the divorce? He needs to get over it. He’s not young anymore, so what? He’s not supposed to be. He’s supposed to be a dad. Blah-blah.”
“He seems in rough shape.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Do you hear from your mom?”
“Gag me,” Becky says. “She’s worse than he is. She’ll talk to me when the honeymoon’s over.”
“What do you think of Maureen?”
Becky puffs out her cheeks and lets you know what she thinks of Maureen.
That spring, your senior spring, you join Track and throw shot put. You’ve resolved to improve, to enact some meaningful change, to reestablish your life with some order.
The first week is unbearable. You blush uncontrollably. You are embarrassed by the oafish size of your body. Other girls giggle and sprint and succeed without effort. You push yourself in warm ups. You jog at a distance behind Becky and the blonde girls. By the final turn you are crying and wheezing and feel your body—a body that is so big otherwise—being unable to take in the oxygen you so desperately need. Your body has failed you, again. You pull up cramped in the far lane. You dry heave into the fence post again and again. Your face has gone hot and you feel so ashamed.
During meets you are corralled onto a dusty bowl where you are familiar with the task of hurling metal spheres into the stratosphere until they come crashing down in dry dirt. Your fellow putters and javelin-eers and discus-ians all grunt and heave and compete for pride. From this spot in the dirt, you watch Becky and the wood nymphs run sprints and prance over obstacles. They impress boys with the length and color of their legs.
Your uncle is often there, loopy and distant, perched behind the goalposts, watching with binoculars. He cheers for you both. You see his tiny arms from beyond the fence pumping up and down, up and down. Your father comes when he can, when the disc in his back no longer flares up. He stands across the football field, behind the goalpost opposite your uncle, his own binoculars, his own unique gyration to set him apart, glowering at his brother and stomping his feet.
In the evenings you smear Vaseline on your ankles, elbows, and thighs. You ice your heels and take long baths. Your father catches you in the act of soothing your swollen feet one night, and he is amazed by your body’s transformation. He sees the Wheeler trait for muscle mass building up in your thighs, bulging and filling out beneath your gym shorts. Yet he also sees the subtle grace of your mother calming a wound, nursing over whatever ailment could pester body and soul. The feelings are unusual and conflicting for him. He is unable to encapsulate the combination of the two: Himself and your mother, himself and your Uncle. Instead, he compliments you on the size of your legs: how wide and muscular they’ve become—how much like a Wheeler, how vital and strong. All you hear is your father’s battle cry, his mantra, his chanting tone of conquest, his “Wheeler’s win at any cost!” Every word pushes you further from Becky’s grace, further from the woman you hope to become. You hear this all and storm off, aghast.
Your father, for the life of him, cannot understand the hurt this causes.
You leave your father’s house carrying DVDs of classic Westerns in which actors tumble over railings into murky troughs or are shot in the sternum and blown back through saloon doors. They belong to your uncle, and you are returning them as an offering for peace.
Your father has done little to suggest he has an opinion either way towards what you are about to do. You asked him where the DVDs were kept and he pointed to the spot on the rack. He walked away with a neutral expression and that was that.
Your uncle’s house has gone to the dogs. Neighboring animals have taken up territorial disputes across the walkway. Patches of fur clump and catch on the brown grass. As you approach, two coon cats mark adjacent trees, hunch low and growl, and then flee at the sight of your looming presence.
You knock twice at the screen door, announce yourself, and then enter the living room. The blinds are pulled and even in daylight the room is dark and neglected.
You call to your uncle and hear no reply. Throughout the rooms you feel an absence, neglect, a liveliness long forgotten, leaking like pinpricked gas lines seeping out of the drywall. You wonder where Maureen is. Has she flown the coop too? The cabinets are open and empty, microwavable plates are stacked in the sink. A pile of door locks, padlocks, duct tape and nails sits open on the counter in a plastic bag. A few of the packages have been torn apart, their contents spilling onto the floor, screws and latches flung in opposite directions.
This is not the home you remember. This is not the place you came to play when you were young. You and Becky were stubby kids with unkempt hair who tromped through this house in muddy flats and dresses, carrying wild onions gathered from the yard to be thrown into pots and boiled into mystical potions in holes in the yard. But now you are different. Becky has grown into a symmetrical woman with angled cheekbones that complement her soft mouth. She has the rapid metabolism of a second cousin twice removed whom you’ve only met once at a graduation, years ago. This is a far-flung branch of the family tree, a limb that has never dropped seed onto your shrubby alcove. What luck. What unbelievable luck. But now Becky’s house is abandoned and you can no longer remember the way your mother walked. You slouch now, like your father. You have his metabolism. You carry his weight wherever you go.
Your uncle has disappeared. You are sure of it. And your father will stew in his bitterness until he dies. Until he finds some travesty worse than death to overwhelm him, to feel sorry about, to hold up to the world and justify his anger, his rotten disposition. And your mother, for her part, will still be dead. Nothing will be fixed. And does anybody care about Maureen?
You sit at the table and begin to weep—heavy sobs that blur your vision as you clutch your face in your palms. For once you’d like to be heard. For once you’d like to be visible. To have your feelings recognized and consoled.
But no one arrives. You hold yourself as best you can and cry until you don’t.
Beyond the kitchen, a faint plunking sound comes from the yard, ringing like frogs in heat. It is a steady pop you can’t quite place. You lift yourself from the table and walk out onto the porch.
Your uncle is in the backyard. He is shirtless, glowing in the hot sun, a wooden bat in one hand and a crab apple in the other. He is portly and barrel-chested, with double bands of back hair traveling like wide suspenders across his shoulders and down past his lower back. This is your father’s body. This is, in some regards, yours as well. An array of empty Heinekens lie half buried in the muddy grass. He takes the crab apple, tosses it in front of him and with one fluent stroke, he connects. The apple explodes and pulpy bits fly off into the field beyond the house, likely to be scavenged by badgers and wild stags after dark. Your uncle does this again and again, dropping his shoulder, pivoting his feet, his entire body anchored by the mass of his belly. Each time he swings, the contact is solid. The sound reverberates farther and farther into the field, rippling, carrying on.
You call to your uncle from the porch and he turns to you, distracted, startled at the sound of your voice. He is unable to place you at first. “Ginny, sweetie,” he calls at last. “That you?”
You walk into the yard to meet your uncle. He is dazed and panting, his chest blotchy from the beer and the exertion.
“These belong to you,” you say, handing him the DVDs.
He holds them timidly. His fingers are sweaty and dirt-stained. “I guess they do,” he says doubtfully. “Your dad decided it was about time he paid the late fees, eh?”
“Do you miss Becky?”
Your uncle looks confused, like he hasn’t noticed she left. “She’s a smart girl,” he says. “She’s got a lot to look forward to.” Your uncle puts down the DVDs and goes back to knocking around the crab apples. He bites down on his tongue when he swings; the veins in his temples bulge and quiver. He follows through each apple decisively, whipping his body around it, putting his weight behind it. The apples shatter and fall into the grass.
Your uncle wipes the sweat from his forehead and says, “I did this well. I couldn’t do much, but this I figured out.” He stares out into the field. “Now I turn my hips and the sockets just pop. You hear that?” he says, making the motion. “That’s called getting old, Gin. Don’t ever get old.”
Your uncle holds the bat by the thick end and hands it to you. “Have a cut,” he says. He steps in behind you and shows you how to hold it. “Line up the knuckles,” he says. “That’ll give it pop.”
You bend your knees and rest the heavy bat on your shoulder. Your uncle picks up a handful of apples and stands a few feet away. “We’ll go easy,” he says, then starts tossing them to you underhand. You swing as hard as you can. The first few slip by you and plop in the grass. “Knock ‘em out the park,” your uncle says. “Don’t be scared of it.”
After a couple dozen it starts to click. You start knocking apples around the yard, splitting dandelion heads from the stalk, tearing up the lawn, even hitting a few bloopers past the fence into the field. You start making sauce.
“That’a girl,” your uncle says. He winds up and starts throwing overhand. He tells you he’s bringing the heat. You feel the energy inside you. You feel the release. Every time you make contact you hear the thunk of the apple leaving the bat.
“You do this for long enough,” your uncle says, “and you’ll know where the ball’s going before you even look. You’ll know by the sound. That’s magic, Ginny. How many things in the world exist where you hear something for an instant and know what’s going to happen next?” Your uncle is smiling. It looks strange on him. He’s been too tired for too long and looks like he might never get it right.
“More,” you say. Your uncle winds up, tosses one in, and you give it a good wallop. The apple turns to mush. A thousand bits spray onto you and your uncle. You wipe apple flesh from your shirt, out of your eyes and hair.
Your uncle holds his belly and starts to laugh. “That’s one thing the Wheeler family’s got going for them, something comes our way, we sure know how to make a mess of it.”