|Onward! Home | Contents | Authors||Wordrunner eChapbooks | April 2020 | echapbook.com|
“Mom, do you know whose this is?”
“No,” said Joan. “Where did you find it?”
“Down there buried in a box against the wall with my old soccer trophies and some of Lainie’s kiddie ceramics.”
Joan noticed dust on Andrea’s arm as she held out a small, purple velour, drawstring pouch. Seated on the family-room sofa, Joan took the thing reluctantly. She wanted her daughters to clean their stuff out of her basement without stirring up unnecessary muck or memories.
“You need to have that wall parged again,” Andrea commented, brushing herself off. “It’s crumbling.”
“Don’t get dirt on my carpet, please,” Joan snapped. “Step out back.”
Andrea responded by shaking all over like a golden retriever after a swim, and grinning. Joan’s distinguished career as a jurist hadn’t produced the least extra reverence from her daughters.
Opening the little bag, Joan drew out the baseball signed and dated by Jason Bermudez, the magic ball she hadn’t thought of in, what, 25 or 30 years?
“So,” Andrea pressed, “who belongs to that?”
“Oh … it’s mine. My autographed baseball. I forgot where it was.”
“You have an autographed ball? But you don’t care about sports.”
“I did when I was young, same as you.”
“Huh! O-kay. But who, then, is …” (Andrea craned her neck) “Jason Berman?”
“Bermudez. He was a big-time player, once upon a time.”
“Really?” Andrea’s voice was skeptical. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“You wouldn’t have.”
Joan returned the ball to the pouch, set it firmly on the end table and just as firmly changed the subject. “Will you be able to finish today?”
“I don’t know, there’s lots of boxes still. What’s your hurry?”
“I want everything ready when I have to leave this house.”
“That’s nuts, you won’t have to leave anytime soon, Mom. You shouldn’t think that way.”
Joan wedged her lower lip under the upper. It was a bit much to be told how to think. In response, Andrea also tried to look severe, her forehead crinkling.
Joan studied her daughter’s face. At 32, though slim and blonde like her mother, Andrea was starting to show her age. She worked 50 hours a week as a paralegal, her two boys were often difficult, and Joan could tell her marriage was far from perfect. On the other hand, Lainie, the younger sister, had a four-year-old, no spouse in the offing, a crummy apartment in a neighborhood half a step removed from a slum, and a lagging career as a ceramicist/sculptor specializing in found objects. Who said that grown daughters were a mother’s treasure? One good thing: fretting about them distracted Joan from her own situation.
After the exchange of mother-daughter frowns, Andrea offered the kind of semi-smile that implied she had made her point. “Back to the treasure hunt,” she joked, and returned to the basement.
Despite her comfortable modern furnishings, heavy on warm reds and browns and casually mismatched throw pillows, Joan hadn’t been able to relax all day. Now, staring sideways at the purple velour housing her one-time treasure, she felt flustered, short of breath. Of course she no longer believed in the ball’s magic, and it represented one more object to be disposed of. Still, its discovery got her blood and brain moving faster, before she clamped down and her mouth tightened again.
At this stage she was convinced they all lied to her. Her daughters, her friends and former colleagues, most of all her doctors. Joan had always possessed a remarkable ability to detect lies, like an extra nasal sense, and it was fine-tuned by two decades on the bench. A smidgen of bogus language smelled as rank to her as the bucket of stink bait her father had used for catfish. Many attorneys had maneuvered to avoid her courtroom because she treated their deceptions with the disgust they deserved.
Thus, when her cancer returned this May—on the same side, amazingly, where the original breast had been removed and reconstructed four years earlier—and specks of metastasis showed up elsewhere, the oncologist’s optimistic remarks and detailed treatment options couldn’t fool her. Oh, she would go along with the therapy all right. She would fight, she’d always been a fighter. Whatever it took, she was in for the whole game. But she wouldn’t harbor illusions about winning. Both her parents had succumbed to cancer in their early sixties, and one of her brothers, Charlie, had died young as well. Empirical data.
Most of the time, she was considerate enough not to act gloomy around others. In fact, when she broke the news to her daughters—at brunch in a crowded restaurant where they wouldn’t make a scene—she pretended faith in the doctor’s assurances. Lainie, the dark-haired artist with tattoos on both forearms above enormous bracelets, put on a fiercely zealous look, saying, “Mom, you’re gonna kick butt like you always do.” Andrea, the older one, spent several seconds flicking imaginary toast crumbs off her blouse before adding in a tone that strove for mature wisdom, “Your doctor’s really up on the latest treatments, Mom. I’m sure this’ll work out. And you know we’ll be with you every step of the way.”
“Mm-hmm,” Joan agreed, “I know.” She found her daughters’ words close to meaningless, but if faking confidence was good for them, she would do it.
That was one rule of the game, as Joan saw it, and in some ways it was the hardest part. During the new round of chemo begun in June, she’d accepted the hair loss, exhaustion, swollen feet and painful fingernails. Plus the so-called nausea, which was actually a sensation like her inner self was about to boil out. Plus the “chemo brain,” the mental dullness that made even an ordinary conversation difficult to follow. What was worse, in a way, was the constant encouragement from others, friends and family both—the cheery words that concealed their secret thoughts and hidden assumptions about her future. But she couldn’t shout at people to shut up and wipe off their insipid supportive grins; no, she had to play along. And if they did manage to believe some of what they said, well, that was a palliative she wouldn’t deny them. The last thing she wanted was to hurt these people who tried so hard to reassure her, especially Andrea and Lainie.
Luckily, this time around, Joan needn’t struggle to keep working through the treatment. Last year, at 57, on her 20th anniversary as a magistrate, nine of those years on the state appellate level, she’d called it quits. The one-time girl wonder, weary of the political infighting surrounding the courts, would stop judging others’ affairs and concentrate on her own. It was high time to start afresh and renew a spirit numbed by seeing the worst of people for so long. There were grandchildren to get to know better. There were trips to take—Egypt, Morocco, other exotic places to visit before she got too old. There was, perhaps, a memoir to write, in which she’d expose the sleaziness of the legal old-boy network and the corrupt smugness of the judicial system. She was still debating how to approach that project when the routine MRI brought its nasty surprise.
Now, with no profession to occupy her, she could focus on getting her affairs in order. From the bench she had issued that advice many times to white-collar offenders she was whisking off to prison: “You will surrender yourself to the sheriff’s office on September 27th to begin your sentence. I would strongly advise that you employ the intervening two weeks to put your affairs in order.” She herself had been given no specific date to surrender to death or decrepitude, and there was always the possibility that the event might be postponed for years, but this was no excuse for avoiding the task.
It helped that the house wasn’t large—a modest semidetached in an inner suburb—and the divorce five years ago had reduced the accumulation. The divorce had been sudden. In an almost accidental way, she had fallen into her first-ever extramarital affair—a spontaneous attraction at a state corrections conference, lubricated by three glasses of wine for a person who normally stopped at one. Within two weeks she realized she didn’t want to be the sort of wife who committed adultery, and it turned out that, with the children long grown and out on their own, Thad also welcomed an escape from a commitment made in their early twenties. It was labeled a friendly, no-fault divorce, and therefore got nastier than expected, which distressed Lainie and Andrea. Joan regretted the pain for her daughters, but the split did simplify her life. She got rid of not only Thad’s personal belongings but also, after the last big argument, any furniture she associated with him. The man from her fling was soon gone as well. At that point, with her mature good looks—wavy blond hair (the color still somewhat natural), long legs, taut butt—she knew she might please others but she need please no one but herself. Her life felt clean and honest again, as (in her old-fashioned view) a judge’s should be. Even her daughters noticed her new perkiness. She was able to enjoy this state briefly until her first bout with cancer.
When the disease returned, she saw there was more to clean up and clear out, and she began sorting through file cabinets and shelves. Old utility bills, plumber’s invoices, check records, and all but a few years of income tax returns went into the shredder and then the recycling bin. No one needed to see that crap. For some reason she had saved letters Thad wrote her early in their relationship—many of them love notes, she supposed. Without opening the envelopes she disposed of them, not by burning, which seemed too melodramatic, but by cramming them into the shredder with the utility bills. Seeing her past life sliced into tiny strips felt almost like an out-of-body experience. But after all, she would never read those letters again—what a useless pain to muse on long-dead romance!—and it disturbed her to think of Andrea and Lainie dealing with things like that when she was gone. Besides being an unfair chore to place on them, it’d amount to an invasion of her privacy, almost as if they stood behind her in the morning in the bathroom when she confronted her bare chest.
As part of the purge, she called the girls to come remove their leftover childhood clutter, without their own children to distract them. She made the order sound urgent. Who knew how soon she’d be moving to assisted care? Overall, what remained here should represent a tidy, successful life that could be summed up on her already existing Wikipedia page: “Following law school, Joan Sigismund clerked for Judge Albert P. Smoot, then of the United States District Court. After practicing privately with Goldman and Kelly, she was appointed to …”
Yet with her stamina ruined by the so-called therapy, the clearing-out process troubled her more than she wanted to admit. In fact, imagining her daughters bereaved—the two of them discussing who would take the worn Turkish kilim in the living room or the honorary plaques from the little study or the roll-top desk passed down from their great-grandmother—pushed Joan to the verge of tears. Whether she was mourning for them or for herself, she didn’t know, but she wasn’t used to crying and didn’t want to give in to such weakness.
When she looked back over the past few years—affair, divorce, cancer diagnosis, surgery, therapy, retirement, cancer again, more therapy—it seemed that her life had sped up so much she couldn’t catch her breath.
In this state, anything that required special attention or extra emotion, like the magic ball, upset her.
At age 13 Joan had fallen briefly in love with baseball, especially with her city’s major league team. In the months leading up to spring break, she begged so hard to visit the training camp in Florida that her parents obliged with a family vacation. With other kids she hovered near the railings before each preseason game, hoping for an autograph or even a nod. Her favorite player, surprisingly, was not the rookie heartthrob shortstop but a grizzled veteran slugger, Jason Bermudez, who had played for the team more than a decade. He sported a black droopy mustache, bulging biceps, a sizable belly and a swagger that he used to full effect every time he smashed a ball over the fence. After days of yearning and reaching out with her autograph book, she collected his signature and a warm smile besides. She nearly wet herself with excitement.
In late May that year she fell sick with bacterial meningitis, potentially fatal, and even after days in the hospital she was kept out of school to recuperate at home, pampered not only by her mother but by her 17-year-old brother Rob. When the excruciating headaches came on, Rob yelled at others to keep the noise down—not realizing that his scream hurt her head worse than Charlie’s squeaky clarinet. If she showed any hint of an appetite, Rob brought her treats from a bakery. He also helped by finishing an essay the school had agreed to accept as her completion of 8th grade. Soon she was calling him “Mommy Two,” to his mortification and their mother’s delight.
One weekend, a friend of Rob’s got tickets to a ballgame, and little brother Charlie, then eight, went along with the older boys. Her head was too sore for her to watch the game on TV that afternoon, but when the brothers got home, they rushed into her room that smelled of too long a time in bed.
“Sis, you won’t believe it, you won’t believe it!” they shouted, then muted their voices as she winced.
“He hit his 323rd,” Rob whispered.
“Your boy Jason. That makes him the team’s all-time leader in homers.”
“Really?” During her illness she hadn’t followed her hero’s exploits as closely as usual.
“And there’s more,” Rob said.
“Something really, really cool,” Charlie added.
“We were in the left-field stands when he hit it and there was, like, this crazy scramble and people shoving and wrestling each other and guess what?”
“Why were they shoving and wrestling?”
“To get the ball! But it squirted away and I was right there and I kicked it over to Charlie!”
The story became intricate and confusing: a security guard leading them to a team official who offered to trade them various goodies for the historic ball; their refusal because they wanted to take the souvenir to their sick sister; a trip down in an elevator to a passage that led to the locker room, etc., etc.—all this ending in a flourish when Charlie whipped a baseball from behind his back and dropped it in Joan’s lap. It was dated and signed by Jason Bermudez himself, with the same bold script as in her autograph book.
“He was really nice,” Rob explained. “He said this ball means more to you than to him, and you should get better soon because he wants to see you at a game this summer.”
Even at that age Joan was not a teary sort, but right then she cried over the kindness of her hero and the incredible sweetness of her brothers. For the rest of the day and well into the night, she traced each stitch of the ball with a tender fingertip and examined every zig in the signature. She had the sort of fantasies about a relationship with Jason Bermudez that only a 13-year-old girl can appreciate. She felt happier and more excited in her sickbed than she ever had while healthy.
The next morning, her headaches were gone. The flashes of fever and nausea disappeared. She was instantly well again, and she knew why.
Unfortunately, her Jason tore a hamstring soon after, and in the offseason he was traded, so she never saw him play again. The fascination with baseball faded. But the autographed ball brought its magic to other crises through her adolescence, helping her survive her first romantic breakup, her best friend’s sudden coldness, her first-ever “C” on an exam, her biggest fights with her parents. She would ease the ball out of the velour pouch her mother had bought for it, turn it round and round in her palms, run one index finger and then the other slowly along its seams, paying closest attention to the points where the two curves approached each other but never touched. After several minutes of this, she would kiss both ends of the flamboyant “J” in her hero’s signature. In every case, within a few days, the magic ball either made the problem go away or guided her to a solution.
In college, as a pre-law major, she had no room in her belief system for magic, but the ball remained a cherished part of her past. At some point in her marriage and child-rearing, though, it disappeared into storage.
After the long clean-out day with her daughters, Joan felt enervated, though she’d hardly lifted a finger herself except to make lunch. Less than 50 percent of the basement had been cleared into trash bags, recycling bins or her daughters’ cars, and the remainder weighed on her lungs.
Two days later she endured the next chemo treatment. As usual, a friend went with her, one of three female buddies who took turns accompanying her to therapy. She had never offered this role to her daughters: it seemed too sordid a task to impose on them—sitting with her in an antiseptic room while poison dripped into her veins—and in an odd way an affront to her dignity. Likewise, when the girls phoned during her day in bed afterward, she minimized her complaints and tried to shift the conversation to the grandchildren.
With this combination of emotional and physical downers, a week passed before Joan picked up the baseball again. When it emerged from its pouch, she thought it vibrated slightly, and automatically she fell into her old tracing-stitches routine. After a couple of minutes she broke off, confused, and laughed at herself. She plunked the ball down hard on a table, blaming the incident on her chemo brain. Impossible for this ball—this totally useless object—to cure what ailed her now.
In a hard mood, she decided, too, that whatever sentimental value the ball held for her would be lost on her children—they’d never heard of Jason Bermudez!—so she might as well get rid of it. It ought to have some worth on the baseball memorabilia market, she figured, and she checked websites for comparable items. Jason Bermudez had never made the Hall of Fame, and she learned that his franchise record had now been eclipsed. Still, one site offered an autographed ball used in the game in which he hit his 300th big-league home run, and it was going for hundreds of dollars. Not the actual ball he hit, not a record number—so by comparison her ball must be worth thousands. Since her years of public office had left her comfortable but with only a modest estate to pass on to her daughters, a few thousands were nothing to sneeze at.
Would she truly sell her childhood treasure? The next visit with her oncologist removed any doubt. It was six weeks now since the treatment had begun, and all her “numbers,” including the tumor markers, were “holding steady,” the doctor said with an upbeat voice. As usual she saw through the deception. Holding steady meant the cancer, so far, was proving immune to the poisons that had stolen her hair and turned her nails into throbbing hotspots. Her eyeballs might pop out and her arms and legs fall off before this fucking disease gave up.
In court, when confronted by inveterate liars, she had deployed a severe glare that made seasoned attorneys sweat under their three-piece suits. Now she directed the same look at the doctor’s wavy toupee, which was as obviously fake as his tone. Though she’d been his patient for years now, he grew nervous and began talking about medications for her side-effects. Her lips twitched as she smiled inwardly, convinced she was playing the game on her own terms.
At home she sent an edgy email to her daughters, reminding them of the remaining junk in the basement. Lainie called soon after. “Mom, you sound weirded out. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Everything,” she said, which pretty much summed it up. She then felt guilty for complaining, but also annoyed at Lainie’s almost-deliberate naiveté.
Crossword puzzles, reading, concerts of baroque music, visits to art galleries, lunch with her friends—her usual pastimes had grown wearisome for her body or too demanding for her blasted brain. Much as she loved them, her grandchildren also tired her, and writing her memoir was out of the question when she felt so lousy. The one activity that eased her was watering her garden—because the plants didn’t lie. The healthy ones thrived in the summer heat, the sick astilbe withered and died. Empirical facts.
One day in late July when her energy level was sufficient, she tied a dressy silk scarf around her bare dome and drove to a town near the interstate that boasted several sports collectibles shops. The easiest to find was a cluttered small store in an aging strip mall. Another customer was chatting with the owner, who was not the paunchy bald man she expected in such a place. Middle-aged, tall and brawny, with a full head of swept-back gray hair, a bristly gray beard and a huge eagle tattoo on his left arm, he looked like a refugee from a motorcycle gang.
When her turn came, she took the baseball from her purse, explained its provenance, asked for an estimate of its value. He glanced at her eyes, at her violet head scarf, at her bosom—what a jerk!—back to her eyes and took the ball with little comment. Moving over to a computer on the counter, he typed awhile.
“I’ve checked online myself,” she said. “I haven’t seen anything exactly comparable, not for Jason Bermudez.”
“I have,” he said. “He was popular here, and a lot of people still collect his stuff.”
From time to time as he studied the screen and clicked on this or that, he glanced over at her. She pretended to be interested in the John Smoltz rookie card marked $119.99 in the glass case.
At last the man nodded to himself, pushed himself up and brought the ball back to her, holding it between his thumb and middle finger as if it were slightly contaminated. He set it on the counter and cleared his throat. “The 323rd-homer ball,” he said, “came on the market first time around twenty years ago, probably ’cause Bermudez needed cash. They say he’s made some crummy business deals. It sold a couple times, and it’s now in a private collection in Ocean City, New Jersey.”
“What?” Joan mumbled, staring at the eagle’s fierce orange beak poking downward from the sleeve of his T-shirt. “What do you mean?”
“I mean what I said. The real one’s in Jersey. This one here’s a fake.”
She was stunned into silence.
He looked her up and down again, an unpleasant experience, and his expression softened. “Look, honey, this ball’s not even scuffed, anyone can see it was never used in a game. It’s not authenticated in any way. The signature looks genuine and the date’s in the same handwriting, so I’ll give you it’s a ball Bermudez signed on that day, which is the actual date he broke the record. He might’ve signed 20, 30 before the game, who knows? So it’s worth something, but not if you pretend it’s something it ain’t.”
Being called “honey” snapped her from her stupefaction, and she glared at his beard. “I know,” she said icily, “what my brothers told me.”
He shrugged. “I ain’t calling your brothers liars. Maybe somebody conned ’em. They were kids, right?”
Indignant, she jammed the ball in her purse and left the shop. “You want a quote on it?” he called after her. “I’ll give you a quote. Best prices in town.”
She drove straight home.
An angry week went by. The ball, which now carried an aura of corruption, hid behind rain hats on the top shelf of a closet.
She didn’t believe her brothers had been conned. In their long and elaborate story, they had never once let go of the souvenir except while Bermudez signed it. She also couldn’t suppose that her nose for falsehood had failed her. Charlie, her younger brother, had been such a poor liar that she could sense his evasiveness before he opened his mouth. He’d hold his hands a certain way, he’d give off a faint odor of anxiety.
Now, however, she couldn’t interrogate Charlie because he’d been dead for seven years. The one remaining witness was older brother Rob, who had recently taken early retirement from a managerial job with General Electric. He and his third wife lived on a small farm 72 miles away by car and complained about being isolated. Though she hesitated to confront him, her judicial spirit took hold: no way should he get away with a lie to an impressionable young girl!
Rob knew about her re-diagnosis, but they hadn’t spoken in a while. When she called to set a date to visit the farm, he asked, “Is anything wrong?” and she denied it, wondering if her lies were as transparent as everyone else’s. “How are you feeling?” he went on. “You’ll stay for dinner, right?”
On the morning of her visit, an August Sunday, the temperature headed toward the mid-90s. Although she’d liked her courtroom chilly, she hated air conditioning in a car, so she drove with the windows open and sweat tickling her arms, past fields of shaggy cornstalks rimmed with goldenrod and thistle. The colors of sky and hills and farmland seemed intense and diminished at the same time, as if they were burning down the same way she was. The air smelled of manure and mown hay.
Rob and Marie made a perfectly mismatched pair, he wide and round and slow-moving, she as small and flitty-chirpy as a finch. Self-conscious about her own appearance, Joan watched their reactions for pity or horror, but if they felt such emotions they hid them well.
“What a lovely scarf!” Marie hopped up to Joan for a hug. “Is it silk?”
“Boutique cancer chic,” Joan replied, a quip that made Rob grimace as he leaned in for his own embrace.
The lunch they served was excellent, watermelon gazpacho with crunchy bruschetta. After an hour of chat about children and grandchildren and neighbors and miscellaneous news, Marie excused herself for some brief errands while Joan and Rob walked to the pond hidden behind an old orchard. It was a secret shady place, overhung by willow and swamp chestnut oak, brimming with pickerel frogs, bluegills, dragonflies, crayfish. Since the little farm had been idle for a generation, the loudest noise came from cicadas buzzing in an oak.
They sat on a rock outcropping over the water. “I’ve tried to get your girls out here,” Rob said. “Their kids would love it. But they’re always too busy, it seems like.” Rob and Marie’s own children were scattered as far as Montreal and Tokyo and showed up only for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“They’re busy,” Joan agreed. “Distracted. By work, kids, what have you. I had to fight to get them to work on my basement.”
“Work on it?”
“Clear out their old belongings. I’m getting the place ready to sell in case this, you know”—a tiny gesture toward her head scarf—“gets the better of me.”
“I thought it was going well … the treatment. You said in your last email …”
“The doctor’s happy enough. That’s the main point of it, you know, keep the medical personnel satisfied.”
“Oh Joanie, come on. That is not the point.”
Quiet descended for a time. The cicadas ramped up and then faded.
“Listen,” Joan said, “I have a bone to pick with you.”
“You remember that baseball you and Charlie brought me when I had meningitis, the one signed by Jason Bermudez?”
“Yeah! It was a record homer, I forget the number. A blast!”
Quickly, in a neutral tone, she related the story of the ball’s retrieval from the basement and dismissal by the memorabilia dealer.
“That guy doesn’t know shit! What store was this? Hey, I’ll get it appraised for you, but why do you wanta sell it now? Don’t give me that crap about cleaning out the house.”
“He’s an expert. He checked online. Admit it, Rob, you guys concocted a fib. Were Mom and Dad in on it?”
“No! It was how I always told you.” He then repeated the story of the ball’s origin just the way she recalled it, with details about the dirt on Bermudez’s jersey, what he said to the brothers, how he got a pen from his locker to sign it.
From across the rock, she was casting her stern judicial eye and invoking her sixth sense for deception. Amazingly he passed the scrutiny. “I don’t believe you,” she said anyway.
He lifted his hands as if to say, “What else can I do?” A creature plopped in the water, a fish or frog.
Remembering Rob’s role as Mommy Two, she allowed herself to smile at him, skeptical and sad and fond. He reached over with one arm and hugged her shoulder.
“You know,” she said slowly, “for years I kind of thought the ball had magic in it. Because of the way my symptoms disappeared the next day. And some things that happened after.”
“After? Like what?”
“Well, ah … I guess I’ll tell you one. What the hell. I’ve never told this to anybody before, but it doesn’t matter now.” She hesitated before going on. “My senior year in high school, you were—oh, you were about to graduate from college. It must’ve been in early spring. I’d already been accepted to Princeton.”
“My brilliant sister,” he grinned.
“Your brilliant slave-to-her-books sister,” she clarified. “And I already knew I was pre-law, I had it mapped out.”
“My ambitious super-serious sister.”
“Right, that one. Well, that sister had a pregnancy scare. Worse than a scare, I was terrified. All those expectations—my own, sure, but Mom and Dad as well, my teachers, and here I was going to ruin them all. And I honestly didn’t know if I could go through with an abortion, it seemed so disgusting to me. So I pictured myself getting a job at a hamburger joint and raising my kid alone—kind of what Lainie’s doing now, except she’s an artist, which may be worse. The guy wasn’t anyone I saw myself staying with.” In fact the boy in question had been the younger brother of one of Rob’s best friends, but she wouldn’t afflict him with that information.
Rob was scanning the ground on the far side of the rock outcropping. He had become suddenly interested in finding pebbles and tossing them into the water.
“Then,” she went on, “I remembered my magic ball. I took it out and did my, you know, a kind of ritual I had with it. I even pulled up my shirt and rubbed it on my stomach. Up, down, across.”
A pebble splooshed.
“And the next day, the very next day, I got my period. Crisis over! Law school, here I come, and I knew everything would turn out fine. All because of the magic Jason Bermudez baseball. Of course I didn’t really think the ball had that power, but still …”
Rob was poised to lob another pebble, but his hand dropped to his lap and his embarrassment at her story vanished. He guffawed.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“What’re you doing,” he chortled, “taking our ball to a dealer? We gotta get on TV with this! An infomercial. Miracle cure for pregnancy! Meningitis too! Arthritis! Warts! Maybe we can sell pieces of it like holy relics!”
And she was laughing with him, letting go so much that she slid down the rock into a patch of mud.
When the giggles ended, Rob declared, with the pat-on-the-head tone of an older brother, “See, you shouldn’t doubt Jason’s power. That ball is magic. If nothing else, because it made you believe.”
“You’re right, Mommy Two. It’s magic if it makes me believe you. Claiming it was the home run ball, sheesh. Were you and Charlie even the ones he signed it for, or did you buy it from somebody else?”
“Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh,” he wagged an admonitory finger at her. “Have faith, little one.”
“You are so full of shit.”
Loosely arm in arm they walked back to the house, where Marie helped Joan clean the mud off her jeans.
The next weekend, her daughters returned for another day in the basement. This time, Joan requested they bring the grandchildren, and she set out toys, books, peanut-butter snacks and juice to keep the kids occupied.
At one point Joan and the three children sprawled on the carpet for a board game called The Magic Tooth Fairy, in which anyone who lost a tooth could have it transformed by the fairy into a gold coin. The youngest, Lainie’s four-year-old Sarah, sat on Grandma’s lap to play against Andrea’s two boys, eight and six.
In the midst of the game, Lainie came from the kitchen with a new roll of paper towels for the basement work. “Mom,” she demanded, “why’s that old baseball in the pouch wedged into your spice rack?”
“I can’t tolerate spices anymore, it’s more a catchall shelf.”
“But why’re you keeping the ball there? I couldn’t help noticing, it’s right at eye level.”
“Now that it’s been found, I like it where I can see it. I look at it every morning.”
This was only a partial truth. She’d been doing more with the ball than look—she’d begun to practice her ritual again, even to the point of kissing the tips of the “J.” Not that she expected any help with cancer, no more than she believed in the Tooth Fairy, but the routine gave her a boost. It called up an earlier, more promising version of herself.
Lainie pursed her lips. “Andrea thinks there’s some big story behind the thing.”
“So are you gonna tell us?”
“Not now,” Joan said, “it’s too complicated.”
“It’s your move,” one of the boys prodded.
Lainie arched her plucked brows as if she had some of the famous sixth sense, enough to penetrate her mother’s evasion, but then she nodded and headed for the basement stairs. “Anytime you don’t want it,” she called over her shoulder, “lemme know. I could use it in a sculpture. Even if nobody remembers who that Jason Benitez was. I’ve been working with this theme, y’know, found objects that were basically useless even before they got tossed. I mean, what better angle on Western culture, right? We collect all this junk—”
“Useless?” Joan muttered. “Who gets to decide—”
She broke off when Lainie disappeared.
After a moment she said to Sarah on her lap, “All right, it’s our turn, honey. Spin the pointer thingie.”
Then she added, “Come on, baby, let’s win this game.”
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