A Lesson Too Late Learned
by Russell Bittner

     Photo by Russell Bittner

If only I’d learned years earlier what this man clearly knew, I wouldn’t now be standing here at my window – looking out over a ball field with nothing but a letter in my hand.

As the echo of their voices reaches me at this same window, my eyes drop down to the type on the page before me – a page that arrived only hours ago in a plain, government-issue, manila envelope.

I want to tear it to shreds.  I want to set a match to it and then stomp on the ashes.  At the same time, I want to crawl inside the envelope and confront its pages’ scribe, to ask – no, to beg – his forgiveness and a second chance.  But there won’t be a second chance.  This letter is the last letter, the last word, the last time I will ever see his name in print.  There will be no gravestone to mark his remains, and no name upon that gravestone.  This, because there are no remains to mark.

I don’t know this; yet some deep intuition and a fundamental distrust of all things government-issue tells me that it is so.

Meanwhile, and from a distance, I watch this other father and son play together.  They’re simply throwing a ball – back and forth.  Each time the boy catches it, the father whispers a soundless – yet encouraging – “Good!”  As if in imitation, the boy also whispers a soundless – yet encouraging – “Good!” each time the father catches the boy’s toss.  Quite often, the father has to jump or dive to catch the boy’s toss.  He makes it look effortless each time.  The boy’s “Good!” is consequently more an affirmation of his own throwing than a recognition of his father’s catch.

The father, I realize, understands all of this.  He knows, to begin with, that a game of catch with his son – with any boy, really – is something nature would have made allowances for when a pair of male chimpanzees first traded trees for open fields.  He knows that a game of catch far transcends two gloves, a ball, and clear, open space between a lone thrower and a lone receiver.  He knows there is something like a golden, invisible thread that attaches itself to each throw, and that, like a spider’s web, each throw slowly, over time and with repetition, becomes part of a weave between two isolated players – or, in this case, between a father and his son.  He knows also that a web of many invisible, golden threads, once woven, is the thing that will resist and repel, in the years to come, every pair of shears, every downpour, every firestorm that anyone and anything might set between them.

Finally, he knows and understands how badly this son wants and needs his father’s approval – how badly every son wants and needs a father’s approval.

But this father knows something more – something few men know, or at least acknowledge, and of which even I, until this moment, have been ignorant.  He knows that he wants and needs the boy’s quiet approval.

“Great catch, Pop!”  This time, I hear the three simple words quite clearly – an acknowledgment, at one level, of the father’s accomplishment; at another level, the son’s acknowledgment of his own accomplishment in throwing the ball in the general direction of its intended receiver.

The boy feels good about his accomplishment, make no mistake about it.  He also likes being able to compliment a father who, in turn, feels as quietly proud of his son’s ability to pay a compliment – to him, or to any other – as he does of the boy’s slow mastery of the art of the catch.  But the father’s greatest happiness, if also the most secret, derives from his son’s acknowledgment of him – the receiver of this awkward throw – and of his ability.  It suggests that the son is proud of the father.  And this pride is one on which the father feasts.

Where, then – I ask myself – did I go wrong?  I, after all, had considered myself to be one of the knowledgeable ones.  From the outset, from the instant my own son had taken breath outside his mother’s womb, I’d been his first fan, his greatest advocate.  I’d consciously set out to break the old, twisted, gnarled, sticky threads of estrangement – of throwing balls and gloves and insults at one another, rather than to one another – through that long, turbulent season of adolescence.  I’d decided at the moment of his birth:  my boy and I would not simply pick up the same old baggage that had once been tossed to me, and then climb aboard that same old train.  No, we were going to lay down some new track; venture out across uncharted territory; conquer, together, a new continent of understanding.

So where did I go wrong?

I look out again and watch this father sail the ball back to his son.  He throws it in a gentle arc.  The boy springs to attention; puts his glove up; follows the ball’s downward trajectory.  His eye-hand coordination is not yet fully developed.  He misses.

His face contorts as he looks at his father for forgiveness – if not outright denial – of his failure.  The father looks back with an apologetic smile.

“Sorry, son.  Bad throw.”

It had been a perfect throw.

“That’s okay, Pop.  Better luck next time.  I know you can do it.”

The boy knows better, as does the father.  Moreover, both know the other knows.  The father, up till now, has thrown a thousand such balls to his son, most of which the boy has missed.  In the beginning, the son didn’t really understand that he was supposed to catch the ball.  He didn’t understand the art of playing catch.  Over time, he’d begun to grasp it – as he would one day understand the same art as metaphor:  that all of life could, in some measure, be reduced to tossing a ball back and forth.  Either you knew how to throw and how to catch, or you didn’t.  Those who did passed on and up each time to other, higher playing-fields.  Those who didn’t eventually disappeared from this first field, then from the park, then simply settled back into a quiet and unassuming groove somewhere to accomplish the one thing nature had intended and allowed them to accomplish:  to start a new thread.  And then to hope that their one and only real accomplishment in life might one day learn to play catch; make his or her own way up in the world; achieve more than a one-paragraph obituary.

I now look again at the letter – at the stilted, loveless, government-issue words as they salute and then collapse upon the page – and wonder where I went wrong.  And then I know as I look back out on this father and on his son.

The two of them, today, have found an empty, puddle-pocked diamond.  The puddles don’t really matter, as neither of them will be running bases.  The boy pitches to his batter-father.  The first pitch goes wildly high and wide.  The second actually hits the father in the head.  He immediately falls to the ground and clutches his head as if it, and he, were in death’s grasp.  In tears, the boy – I can distinctly hear his wail – runs to the father.  The man reaches up and pulls his son down directly on top of him.  They lie there together – at once delirious and oblivious – like two lovers.

I can still hear no words between them.  What I hear, instead, is their laughter.  On a cool autumn day, it glides over puddles left behind by the previous night’s rain, splits the air and jumps from the tip of one tall tree to another until there are no more tall trees to jump to or from, then thumbs a ride on the wind.  In riding past my window, some of their euphoria drops down within easy earshot.

The boy goes back out to the pitcher’s mound.  He winds up – an exaggerated windup, such as he might have constructed in his own young boy’s mind from having spent hundreds of hours studying real pitchers on a television screen.  (He is, after all, still learning, still imitating, still assimilating.)  He throws.  It is the best pitch he’s ever thrown.  It comes down clean, direct, precisely at the father’s shoulder-level.

The father sees it coming exactly as his son has thrown it.  With an adult’s strength and eye-hand coordination, he steadies his gaze, flexes his arm and stomach muscles, grips the bat with all the strength of a master, and swings.

The sound of the connection is solid – like the sound of cold, sharp-edged steel hitting hard trunk in Vermont woods in late January.  The father’s bat meets the ball and sends it sailing – up, up, up, still up.  The boy slowly turns and follows its trajectory into the sky.

The ball seems to have found its own golden thread. 

It finally lands – as all balls must.  I see the boy turn back around to look quietly, proudly, at his father.

“Nice hit, Pop,” he says, loudly enough for me to hear.  Three words.  But behind those three simple words hang invisible golden threads of admiration –  and an unconscious acknowledgment that he, the son, is heir to the same genes that will, one day, hit a ball so far, so high.  A ball that will find and define its own, invisible golden thread, and which he, in turn, will pass along to his own son.

The father smiles.  It’s not a boastful or smug smile.  It’s a simple smile of gratitude.

The son is proud of the father, and the father allows himself, without shame, to quietly feast on that pride.

That is the lesson this father had learned, and that I, in time, had not.  Our invisible, golden thread was broken.  There would be no further thread between my son and me, just as there would be no further thread between my son and his son.  The thread of us was finished.

Russell lives in Brooklyn, New York. His poems have been published on paper by: The American Dissident; The Blind Man’s Rainbow; The Lyric; The Barbaric Yawp; the International Journal of Erotica; and Wicked Hollow. An additional poem with appear in the International Journal of Erotica in the summer of 2005. On-line, his poetry can be found at: Quintessence-encouraging great writing; ken*again; Spillway Review; Erotica-readers; Edifice Wrecked; Ink-mag; Girls With Insurance; Thieves Jargon; Fireweed and Salome Magazine. An dditional poem will appear in June at Opium Magazine; in June, July, August, Sept. and Dec. at ALong Story Short; and in Sept. at Southern Hum. His prose can be found at: Satin Slippers; Ink-mag; GirlsWithInsurance; SkiveMagazine; Quintessence, encouraging great writing; Underground voices; Dead Mule; Pindeldyboz; Mannequin Envy; and the uncom.mon Yankee pot roast.org. Additional prose pieces will appear on paper in the Edgar Literary Magazine in April of 2005, and in The International Journal of Erotica in the summer. A third story will appear on the ‘Net at Southern Hum.com in September. Russell completed his first novel, 'Trompe-l’oeil,' in September of 2004. A second is underway.. Contact Russell.