“I’m sorry,” Bruce said to me last week. He shook his head sorrowfully. “You are no longer permitted to enter this library without the puppy.”
So today, Squints packed him up and we were off.
“There’s the little guy.” Bruce came out from behind the checkout desk. The other librarians emerged from their posts. “Look at how big he’s gotten. Look at those ears! Those paws!” Bruce bent over and rubbed the back of Destructo’s neck.
Destructo responded by gnawing on Bruce’s index finger. His coworkers laughed. “Puppies chew, Bruce.”
It was as good a time as any: I held up the library book I’d been hiding behind my back. Destructo had pulled it from a shelf and bitten through several pages before tearing the cover off. “Apparently, he’s not a fan of Shakespeare.”
Squints wandered off with Destructo while I paid the bill. “Now, where did that puppy go?” Another librarian emerged from the back room. “I didn’t get to see him yet.”
She glanced at the torn book, at the money in my hand.
I gestured to the stacks. “He’s over there eating the cookbooks.”
* * *
Now, some of my friends say all this chewing business is my fault: Because I joke about Destructo’s tendency to eat everything in sight, indeed, because I’ve bestowed the pseudonym upon him, I’ve caused this behavior to happen. By giving that puppy the name Destructo, I’ve set up the expectation that he will be destructive. I should have named him something else, my friends say, something that would emphasize the qualities I wish to see in this dog: Loving, perhaps. Perfecto. Best of all No-Chew which sounds more like a sneeze than anything else, but…
Well, it’s too late now. I can’t change his name.
* * *
“I hope it rains,” Squints says, spreading a layer of mayonnaise on his turkey sandwich and taking a big bite.
I glance out at the cloudless sky. Birds volley their songs back and forth. A couple of bees buzz past. A long line of white blossoms arches gracefully along each spray of my bleeding heart. My purple iris is ready to burst into bloom.
“Why?” Why ruin a beautiful day?
“I don’t want to go to my game.”
Ah. The dreaded baseball game.
Squints moved up this year to kid-pitch: The big-leagues of Little League. The field has expanded. The distance between bases has lengthened. The lights are turned on for these games. They’re talking about the best way to get an electronic score board installed. Sponsors pay big bucks to hang advertisements along the outfield fence.
Not only has the field grown more impressive, so have the boys. They’ve grown taller and filled out. They have cool equipment, too: fancy Nike bags and black batting gloves and blue and red helmets with yellow wings painted along the sides. These boys are dedicated to baseball. They live for baseball. They fall asleep listening to the Phils on the radio, or beg their parents for just one more inning before going to bed. The subtleties of the game, the hundred different things a player needs to know to play at this level, are second nature to them.
“I hate it.” Squints pushes his sandwich away.
“I know.” I see it every time the coach puts him in the infield. I see it when a fly ball sails overhead and he steps aside to let a teammate rush in to make the play. I see it every time he approaches home plate, a brand-new bat slung over his shoulder, the weight of all those expectations firmly atop his tiny hunched shoulders.
At the first game, he struck out; the only boy not to get a hit. The second game ended the same way. In the third game, he faced a set of bad pitchers and was walked three times and suddenly he found a new strategy: Hope to be walked before striking out for lack of swinging.
“I’m the only boy not to have a hit.”
“Do you think he can see the ball?” My husband asked a few games back. It was, after all, nearly time for his semi-annual prescription change.
Again, the name thing: From birth, we’d called our son Mr. Magoo, after the big-headed, big-eared, bald cartoon character who, each week suffered hundreds of near misses due to his incredible nearsightedness.
Had we set him up for this?
By the end of the fourth game, Squints was so afraid to make a mistake he stopped trying. And when the team came back to win the game, and all his teammates rushed onto the field in celebration, he held himself back, lingering inside the dugout, fingers wrapped around the metal of the fence.
“I know what you’re going through,” I tell him.
* * *
My third grade teacher probably thought he was doing us a favor when he introduced us to the Chicken Fat Song. But every time Mr. Leester brought out that vinyl disk and set it spinning upon the turntable, I died inside. That record was six minutes and thirty seconds of sheer hell for anyone not athletically inclined. While a military voice urged us to “Go, you Chicken Fat,” we students had to demonstrate our prowess at the bicycle, sit-ups, push-ups, windmills, and arm circles. In the background, perpetually cheery women sang excitedly, so thrilled to be working out.
I took the words “Go, you Chicken Fat,” as a personal message, addressed solely to me by the mean man on the record. I was Chicken Fat. I wondered whether those little rolls of chub beneath my skin resembled the fat hiding oozing out from under the skin of the chicken my mother would soak in a sink full of cold salt water before frying it up for dinner.
I’d always hated gym. Now, with the addition of this warm-up, I despised it. I couldn’t keep up with the man’s voice, couldn’t understand what he was saying half the time. When the rest of the kids were doing their trunk twists, grinning as they turned this way and that, I mistakenly started doing my toe-touches. I couldn’t do a push-up to save my life, while Roy, the bugger, could do them one-handed. I couldn’t manage a sit-up without my legs flailing out violently. And when I did the pogo spring, I always started on the wrong leg. Marching in place wasn’t too bad, but then, just as I settled into a firm pattern, the man would switch us over to some combination of jump two clap two that took me completely off my stride. Yeah, I sweated and flailed and waved through that record every time Mr. Leester played it. I couldn’t wait for the ending, where the man, the man who’d so rudely called me Chicken Fat, would end it all with a curt Dismissed and I could pat back my hair a little and try to regain a little bit of my dignity while my fluttering chub settled back down around my middle.
I was a gym teacher’s worst nightmare: Forward rolls? Forget it. I’d get halfway through, then kind of flop to my side, like one of those wobbling Weebels. I earned my first-ever C on my report card in gym because I couldn’t manage a cartwheel. My version was kind of a modified round off, a round off with absolutely no energy behind it. I’d get my hands positioned on that grimy green mat and try and try and try to kick my legs up, but I’d flounce over and land on my butt every time.
But the worst gym situation by far, even worse than the Chicken Fat record, was the nine-week volleyball rotation I had in ninth grade. I swear, everyone in my class was a natural athlete. Balls would come flying—three at a time, it seemed!—over the net, bonk me in the face and land on the floor. Score one for the other team. It got so bad, the opposition knew that for a quick win, to just serve the ball directly to me.
Squints laughs when I tell him this story. But he still looks outside the window and sighs when he spots the cloudless sky.
“I’m just not good at sports, Mom,” he tells me as he put on his cleats. “I’m good at computers and drawing. I’m not signing up next year.”
“That’s fine,” I tell him.
“Good.” He throws his glove on the seat. “I hate baseball.”
We arrive at the game. One of the players is wearing a thick glue-on moustache that slips every time he throws the ball. Each team is short players, so that both sides borrow players from the other team to play outfield. I open up my chair, untangle Destructo from my legs and open my book.
A man approaches. He’s a big man; tall and muscular and deeply tanned. He carries a big drink and wears big work boots. His teeth are brilliantly white. He smells of machine oil and cologne. “Can I pet your dog?”
“I just put my dog down.”
Mastiff, I guess. Maybe Great Dane. “That’s too bad.”
“Yeah. Sixteen years old.”
“Yeah. Dog couldn’t see a thing. Deaf. Couldn’t walk, neither.” He grins. “But when another dog was next to him, man did he come to life! Had a tumor.” He indicates along Destructo’s stomach.
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah. “ The man stands and shakes his head. “Tiny ten pound dog…Sixteen years.” And he walks away.
Squints approaches the plate. I tense for the pitch.
“Woah.” Another man comes up. “That dog’s gonna’ get big.”
“My Shepherd? Got to a hundred sixty. A hundred sixty! You believe it?”
“That’s pretty big.” Squints takes a practice swing. Holds the bat over his shoulder. Waits for the pitch…
I sit back.
The man reaches a hand out. Destructo bites it. “Look at those paws. You’re gonna’ get big,” the man says, walking away. “Just you wait.”
Squints makes his first hit!
“Great hit,” a man in the stands says.
Yeah! Great hit.
From first base, Squints looks at me. Gives me the thumbs-up.
Before the game is over, Squints manages to get another hit and make a play at third. And when it’s all over and he’s walking off the field, he tells me, “I like baseball, Mom. A little.”
And Destructo chews at Squints’ baseball pants and Squints gives me a grin and I pick up my chubby self and together we head for home.
What’s in a name? Everything. All our expectations and hopes and dreams and a little bit of fun, too. But regardless of what we’ve named him, Destructo is going to chew on books and fingers and baseballs and shoes. And Squints is nearsighted because he inherited my vision. And I’m twenty pounds overweight, not because some mean man on some vinyl record called me Chicken Fat, but because I eat too much chicken and chocolate and potato chips.
A name isn’t a self-fulfilling prophesy.
But if it were?
I’d call myself Slim.
Labels: Baseball, Growing up, Perceptions, Raising Children, Service Animals