Late Innings

Bob had let the phone ring twelve times. He was just about to hang up when the ringing stopped.

"Dad? Are you there?"

"Yeah. Yeah, how are you?" The old man sounded agitated. "I couldn't get this sliding glass door from the porch to open. The damn thing must be broken. I'll call the maintenance people before I get stuck out there."

"No, we don't need to bother them. I'll fix it the next time I'm over. So Dad, I got two Reds tickets from a client. You feel like going tonight?"

"Ah, that's pretty late. I'd better not."

"Come on. We can leave early if you get tired."

Bob knew full well that his father had never left a ball game early in sixty years.

"Yeah, O.K.. When are you going to pick me up?"

"I'll get you at five-thirty so we can grab some food and catch the end of batting practice."

The short ride to the ballpark was quiet. The old man got in these quiet moods pretty often lately, Bob thought. He wondered what his dad thought about, wondered what it felt like to get old. He was forty-four, but somehow he still thought of himself as about twenty-five. He wanted to ask his father how it felt, but he didn't want to sound stupid.

It had been over a week since Bob had gone by to visit his father. He wished that he could be there more often, but he also wished that there was someone other than him. It had been devastating when his older sister had died two years ago, in part because it left him alone to care for their father, a man who seemed to grow more frail each time he saw him.

Sometimes he still saw the man who had always been so tall and strong, carrying one kid on each shoulder. Bob thought of riding to the hardware store with his dad and pouring nails from the scoop into a brown paper bag. He thought of the Saturday mornings when he would put real shaving cream on his smooth face and scrape it off with his little plastic razor, stretching his mouth in imitation of the real thing. His father would always be the real thing, would always be what a grown up man should look like.

Other times, Bob wondered just who this cantankerous old man was. In the ten years since his mother had died, his dad had changed. Every week, summer after summer, his dad had mowed his own yard, then one summer he couldn't get through it in an afternoon. One winter, he started feeling afraid that he might slip and fall on the same icy steps that he had climbed over and over every day for as long as Bob could remember. He had paid neighborhood kids to do more and more odd jobs around his house, until, humbled, he gave up and moved into a small apartment. Bob pitied the old man and dreaded the day when it would happen to him.

"See if you can park close this time. I've been kind of tired today."

His dad's voice snapped Bob out of his daydream.

"I'm sorry, Dad. What?"

"I said park close. Are you losing your hearing in your old age, son?"

Bob laughed. "I'll see what I can do."

The walk to the seats was slow. They each got a beer and a foot-long on the way.

"These are good seats, aren't they, Dad?" Talking loud, for his dad to hear, always made Bob a little self conscious.

"Yep. When you were a kid, I used to take you out to old Crosley Field. There were bleachers out there in right." Bob's dad pointed two long fingers down the newer stadium's first base line. "That was the deepest part of the park back then. About three eighty-five, three ninety out there in right center. You probably don't remember that."

"Of course I do." Bob had been twenty-three when the old park was torn down.

"They had that big boy that hit so many home runs playing out there. What was his name? Used to strike out all the damn time."

"Wally Post."

"What was it?"

"Wally Post."

"Post. That's it. Old country boy. He died a few years back, didn't he?"

"Yeah, I think that's been eight or nine years."

Reminiscing with his father was a real pleasure. Just a few years before it had been an interminable pain in the ass.

"I'll tell you who they need to get back. Billy Myers. He works harder than any shortstop I've ever seen."

"I think he might be a little old to help them now."

His dad looked at him strangely then broke into a broad grin. "Yep, I guess so. He was a good one, though. Scrappy. Really got the team going. They won the pennant with him at short in '39 and '40, then they traded him to Chicago and finished third in '41."

"I wish I could have seen him play, Dad." Bob's voice was quiet and his father didn't hear.

The two men watched the seats fill as the grounds crew redid the chalk lines and watered down the infield dirt. The game was a pitcher's duel between a left-handed Reds rookie and a paunchy Giants veteran. The muggy June night and a normally light hitting Dominican second baseman got to the veteran in the bottom of the eighth. The old man watched it all, without ever taking off the Reds warm-up that had been a Christmas gift from his son several years before. Bob and his father jostled their way through the sweaty crowd and back to the car three blocks away. They both complained about the post game traffic. A long stream of taillights inched past the bars near the stadium.

"Bobby, I'm having trouble."

The weathered face was pale gray in the glow from the street. Red neon reflected in the right eye, which seemed more open than the left. The mouth was drawn to one side in a twisted expression of pain.

"What's the matter, Dad?"

The old man was silent, slumped in the car seat, supported by the seat belt. His son slammed the car into park and ran into a crowded barroom to get help.

Two minutes later, back in the front seat of the car, his father's head rested on Bob's shoulder. As he stroked the thin white hair, he watched the ambulance slowly making its way through a sea of unyielding traffic.

"Hang in there, Dad. The doctor's coming. It's going to be O.K." Hearing his own soft words calmed Bob. He hoped that his dad could hear them too.

It was after three in the morning when Bob got home from the hospital. He had left his father sleeping, out of immediate danger the doctor had told him. Rehabilitation could start in a few days, they said, but the process would be tedious and probably incomplete in a man 78 years old. At best, they told him, his father would have only slight lasting effects.

Bob stood in his darkened bedroom, leaning against the sill of the open window, frightened at the unknown demands of the future. His head was filled with an odd mixture of guilt and self-pity. Through the screen, he thought he smelled fresh cut grass. The distant siren and horn of a fire truck mingled with the crickets in the city summer night. He stood there a long time, looking out into the quiet street, knowing he couldn't sleep.

A drive might clear his head, he thought. The car had always made him tired, maybe he could still get a couple of hours sleep before he went back to the hospital.

Bob drove through the dark streets of Cincinnati with no destination in mind. Up and down the picturesque hills lined with the one hundred fifty year old row houses the German immigrants had built above the river. Through one silent middle class neighborhood after another, he drove with the window down, one arm resting on the door, hearing only the drone of the tires on dew wet pavement and the light clatter of a bad valve.

Imperceptibly the stores and houses became those of his childhood. He remembered the father of his youth laughingly dropping him around the corner from the movie theater when he was fourteen so the other kids wouldn't know he was riding with his dad. He drove past a supermarket. Didn't there used to be a drive-in burger joint there he thought, one where his family would go once a week, one where his sister stole his french fries? Bob pulled the car to a stop beside a shabby little ballfield. Old newspapers and crumpled cups blew slowly around the diamond in the moonlight.

His dad had been the biggest and strongest man in the world when Bob was eight. He had been so proud of him then, coaching the little league team, giving rides to the other boys whose dads were always too busy to come watch them play. The kids were there somewhere, all begging Bob's dad to hit a home run after practice. He would smile and knock an old dirty baseball far into the weeds past where the outfield ended, then laugh at the open mouthed kids and buy them all a soda.

All the memories had gone away after a while. Bob had gone off to college and then gotten married and divorced, his new life always replacing his old. Strange, he thought, that he couldn't recall much about his dad in the last twenty years or so. Stopping by the house for an occasional dinner, watching part of some game on TV, saying goodbye in the driveway. He wondered if that's how his own kids thought of him, the dad they saw once a week. He was sleepy now and he drove home.

Bob looked at the clock at seven-thirty not knowing if he had slept or not. He showered and went to the hospital. Inside the intensive care unit for the morning's visiting time, he felt his heartbeat quicken. His father was sleeping quietly. A plastic hose ran into his mouth. Clear liquid dripped into two IV bags and ran down tubes and through needles stuck into his arm, wires taped to his head and chest ran to monitors. Bob stood and looked at him, feeling clammy, then nauseous. Finally he walked to the bathroom down the hall and threw up.

When he returned for the afternoon visit, the doctor met him in the hall.

"Your father is awake now."

Bob tried to interpret the dispassionate concern on the doctor's face.

"The damage is more severe than I may have led you to believe last night. Indications are that your father may have previously suffered a thrombosis in the brain, a blood clot that causes irreparable damage to the area of the brain that was deprived of oxygen. Last night's stroke has intensified and added to those effects. He is very disoriented right now."

"Is it possible… will he get better?"

"Of course, I don't see why not. I just wanted to warn you that he may not recognize you just yet. Growing old means that it takes longer to recuperate. It's hard on everyone."

Some of the tubes had been removed, making his father seem like a person again, Bob thought. He wanted to cry at how worn out his father looked, but the old man's blinking eyes made him laugh instead.

The eyes looked up unevenly at Bob, not seeing. One side of the familiar face was drooping, a bit of saliva sat in the corner of the mouth.

"Where are the children?" The old man's voice was slurred and very slow.

"Dad, it's me, Bobby."

After a second, a tiny glint appeared in the good eye. One side of the mouth turned up gently at the corner.

"Bobby, are you ready to go, son?"

Bob smiled out loud.

"Go where, Dad?"

"To play some ball. We need to pick up the other boys."

Bob wiped his dad's face as he put his arms around him.

"I'm ready, Dad. I'm ready."