It lay there like a father who had worked a double-shift, not dead, but not ready to resume its upright role any time soon. When the graying locust fell from lightning, I learned that the directions and pulls of the earth operated independently of my location. The tree was on a hill behind our house; it was broken by electric teeth, nosed over by a dogged western wind, and even though the center of my drama was that it could have smashed our house, it didn’t. It was also a bridge between our yard and the Wallaces’, waiting for us to make something new of it. It became a pirate ship we rocked — when there were lots of us to rock it — its accidental entropy the only ocean I would know until I was 19. It was “taken away,” the way, a few years before, the cat had been “put to sleep.” Generations of sapling and young adult locusts struggled up and down our hill, while next door’s yard became a forest, something I understood as having to do with the son’s involvement in drugs.
You do not know
where in earth they go
they’re coming back,
but when they’re here
the world is
the air is full
I am running down the hill beside the Maronite church, having given myself ultimatums: soldiers are after me, robbers are after me; I’m a saint and some pagans are after me, ready to make me a martyr. Could I endure being burned at the stake? The flames are just words, and I learned to read with such ease that no one can remember my learning. I am running home to dinner, but it has to be more. And although I’m not the naked girl running from my own napalmed skin, we share that puzzling grin below our navels, the grin that, more and more, makes me wonder: am I really weaker than my brothers? I am running faster than a person ever ran, am running right into a bullet with my forehead. The impact sends its echoes through my skull, and I stop running near the bottom of the hill. No blood. I look around for enemies — my plastic-soled feet throbbing from repeated slaps on the macadam – and see it, on the ground, the bullet, near my foot, still singing a thin bass to the collision. It’s winged and near-transparent, more in shock than I am. When I right it, it can’t fly away, this tight-wound reel of programmed flight I interrupted. The wings seem manmade, high-tech, and its body’s a transistor.
He was a man who couldn’t take joy
They were tiddlywinks spinning into vaultless skies,
unmanned power saws,
brakeless cars. And he had many children.
There is nothing to Google if I wanted to prove my genetics of baseball. If I click on my mother in person, she’ll tell me my father pitched semi-pro ball while he was stationed with the Air Force in Kansas City. She’ll tell me he might have gone on to the pros. That it stopped somewhere. He’s dead, so I can’t ask him to show me the chalk lines, the choices, the place where he dropped the ball. With my own equipment, I fill in: heavy drinking, bad temper, low tolerance for frustration. Too much for a gangly right arm to overcome.
I worked hard not to throw like a girl; I could throw far or near with a measure of precision. My shoulders were loose, which can help with expression, extension, finesse — in the way that a pitch is a sentence or song, with beginning and middle and end, yes; but also with rise, stride, some reticence, then the acceptance of landing for better or worse. The times he played catch with me were so rare they were edged with self-consciousness. My brothers, each in turn, approached baseball and got Dad’s attention for a time, which was not necessarily a good thing. Those few occasions when he was in the stands at Little League games, he yelled at the coaches, the umpires, the kids (with a special sort of yelling reserved for his own kid). He never came to my softball games, though I did pitch. I had a spinner, and I took the act of pitching very seriously. When I was on the mound, there was a force-field around me of atoms charged both with my hope and my failure.
A good arm. I’d have liked him to tell me I had one.
He laughed so hard he cried
telling my mother about
the boys’ invention. They tied
fishing line around the locusts
and were flying them like tiny
buzzing kites. I saw
teardrops in his eyes.
If he could’ve, he would’ve
shaken off his shell and torn
down the alley shouting,
Let me try!
When I go walking with my mom, we look into so many yards, both of us with a longing we don’t have to mention. So many yards know what trees are and how they blend into the overall picture of yards. There are some full of lip-blossomed maples my mother thinks are Japanese. In our house full of boys and men, books are what I have in common with my mother. Books are lady things.
A triple play is a scribble, the seismograph needle
correcting itself in tight little harsh little angles.
Here are the possible triple-play combinations:
shortstop to third base to second to first, or
more commonly, third snags and steps on his base
before zinging it over to first, who backhands it
to second. Triple plays are more likely when
bases are loaded and runners start running
as soon as it looks like the ball will break through.
I imagine a catcher-to-first-base can happen if,
on a strike-out, ball’s dropped, batter runs,
catcher grabs it and steps on home plate, then
whales it to first, where the runner to second is
just getting going and the runner to first’s almost
foot-to-the-pad. I keep score in a notebook
decorated with clippings and lists of statistics.
There’s a pool of grease in the middle of the garage.
A cool rising up from the floor. My bike is broken.
My sleeves are rolled up. I’m a 12 year-old tough guy,
a girl standing here, my hands in my back pockets,
trying to think of a way to repair it. My companion,
my transistor radio, is tuned into the Pirates game;
my emotions are parced into innings, at-bats.
I know every catch in the play-by-play voices;
I count RBIs, ERAs, home runs, errors. Upstairs,
my father’s watching the same game on TV.
I step outside to spit on an elephant ear.
There are tools on the floor, and I think that,
by spitting, I’ll know how to use them.
My bike needs fixed, but I won’t ask for help.
My mother has a book about yoga she looks at,
another book pressing it open to plates
as she sits on the living room floor
and maneuvers her limbs to match those
of the thin blond-haired girl in the photos.
The book teaches her, and she teaches me.
We make animal shapes with our bodies.
I try it again and again, and cry
because my body fails to hear the brain’s
commands. Inert and facedown,
I try it again and again — full locust —
join my hands below my pelvis, push them
down like a lever. Still, my lower body
doesn’t rise, which means I cannot fly.
It is a trick my mother has shown me, a way to help me do the locust until my abdominal muscles grow stronger: clasp hands into a single fist and bury them under my torso to form a kind of lever. This puts the fist right under my pubic bone, which makes me feel ashamed.
If you touch the cartilage of my right ear, you can feel the dent where the rusty
fence snagged me. We were using it for a backstop in the baseball field we built on the dump. The boys insist that this was all their project, but this dent proves I was there as well, dragging the powdered orange metal through the vines. We made dugouts, too.
I had a pack of stolen cigarettes I kept in one. Sometimes, I’d step out of the house and go down there for a smoke. It never tasted very good, but added height and maybe balls to my macho solitude. The pack lasted a long time. I hid it underneath the boys’ contraband Playboys full of women who looked like another species altogether. It had ripped a chunk out of my ear, the fencing, and later, when I learned of Van Gogh, I thought, I know what you mean.
The way he laughed: my father, at my brothers’ wild invention with the locusts!
Like he had never seen them before and was thrilled to discover that they were his.
Another book my mother shared with me: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. This writer lived in China, and she won a Nobel Prize.
“This child of ours is a pretty little maid, even now. Tell me, were the pretty slaves beaten also?”
And she answered indifferently, as though it were nothing to her this way or that,
“Aye, beaten or carried to a man’s bed, as the whim was, and not to one man’s only but to any that might desire her that night, and the young lords bickered and bartered with each other for this slave or that and said, ‘Then if you tonight, I tomorrow,’ and when they were all alike wearied of a slave the men servants bickered and bartered for what the young lords left, and this was before a slave was out of childhood — if she were pretty.”
This book really messed with my head.
Face-down and lying on your fist; the king is calling,
you must go and please the king. Very young
and dying on your fist. Tears in your eyes.
Where did you learn about the ways
the kings commanded?
What is all this shuddering about?
is what you put down for a strikeout. One time,
some fans draped a banner at the stadium
consisting of three Ks. It gave me chills when I first saw it,
but all it meant was they were rooting for the pitcher
to retire a whole inning’s worth of batters.
I heard Dutch Ryan up the street tell Mrs. Miller,
“I wouldn’t cross the street to watch those niggers
play.” The day Roberto died, I looked up
at the picture window of his house and tried to burn
my eyes through the smugly drawn drapes.
Later that day, I traced in pencil my old poster of Clemente,
his perfect nose, the sleek column of his arrogant neck,
smoothing out the wrinkles in the glossy —
my father’d torn it down and crumpled it, saying
I shouldn’t have men like that
on my bedroom wall.
Let us suppose that God’s voice is psychologically equivalent to the father’s, an assumption that is warranted through a thousand experiences. Thus at the core of the basic situation would be the fact that the prohibition of feminine experiencing is connected with her feelings for her father; and that this prohibition, projected to the father, pushes her into a masculine role. The complete breakdown would therefore not arise because she loves an enemy of the country, but because she loves at all . . . . (Karen Horney, Feminine Psychology)
In another fantasy, the kings are strewn throughout the stadium,
indistinguishable from the queens and princes, thousands of
them, paying fans, and the mound you ground against your fist is
now a mound of packed ground. Homing, you lift up one leg,
pull your arm back and hurl the white light toward the open leather fist.
The catcher is a locust crouching there inside the chain link foliage
of Sunday afternoon. Day of the Lord. American Pie. Delivery.
My mother showed me a variation of half-locust:
lift the one extended leg and rest its thigh on the sole
of the foot of the other, bent to be a sawhorse
or step-ladder. Even now, she’s the one who says,
You’re making it harder than it needs to be.
You’re some kind of nympho, he said, thorax raised above me,
words of love shed at the doorway with the pieces of our clothing,
a blaze of bourbon lighting up the cluttered space between.
I asked him if he meant eternal teenager, for if he did,
I could admit to it. The grass was always greener,
and my hind legs tried to match the height of every greener blade.
The difference between a nit and a nymph
is greater than the difference between
a nymph and an adult. The song of the locusts
rises up the shafts of the trees surrounding you.
The song that is like the concession to hay
the grass makes, like the hum in your throat
when you know that you love having this
in your mouth, (though you know that this
isn’t real power — in spite of the tears in his eyes
at the end —
At which point the poem wants to turn back to nature and explain, or run away from itself and its subject. Of course, they drill deep holes into the ground. Of course, the hatchlings go in there, and many years go by. No doubt they are like violins submerged in water.
Summer, when it’s under siege.
Printed with permission from Ellen McGrath Smith, copyrighted by Ellen McGrath Smith @ 2012. This piece originally appeared in Issue No. 13 of the Los Angeles Review.