Every labor day, the Jorgensens—they own Jorgensens’ Ice Cream—set up a little ice cream stand right in their yard, which means you can spend the entire Labor Day picnic making yourself ice cream sundaes if that’s what you want to do, and for years when I wasn’t playing softball or chasing the Jorgensen kids or trying to keep up with my brothers, I’d sit myself at that little booth making one sundae after another until it was time to head home for evening milking, and then a couple miles into the drive I’d bring that whole sundae experience back up, right there on the side of whatever road we happened to make it to. Lately, though, I have a little more self-control. Now I only eat three or four, without marshmallows because I finally figured out that they shouldn’t really be part of the whole sundae thing, while I’m hanging out at the pig roast watching guys poke at the fire because apparently it’s a law that if you’re a guy you have to spend a bunch of time doing that. Then maybe I’ll grab one more between innings when I’m not pitching.
That’s the other great thing about the picnic: the softball game. Randy Jorgensen has a huge backyard he mows all year for this, and he borrows bases from Little League so it’s official and all. He even got an umpire’s getup at a garage sale somewhere, and a friend of his who owns a pig farm works every year as umpire after he’s got the pig going in the pit.
My mom used to pitch the game. She pitched all through college, and her team was pretty good from what she’s told me. Then one year she threw her back out, which isn’t that hard to believe considering she doesn’t get much exercise these days and, well, she weighs a whole lot more than she used to. She threw out her back so much that she couldn’t walk or anything, Dad had to drive her home in the back of the pickup as she lay there like a piece of plywood if plywood could holler to slow down, and she had to spend three weeks on the living room floor until she healed. Which isn’t such a swell thing to be doing when you’re supposed to be teaching sixth grade and it’s the first three weeks of school.
So she’s not allowed to pitch anymore. But at least she started exercising again—not for softball but just to lose some weight—which means puffing around the farm fields, swinging her arms in this way that makes me glad she’s not walking where anyone can see her. I guess she figures that an elementary school principal, which she is now since she moved up from teaching sixth grade, shouldn’t be quite so heavy.
The softball game is always kids against the grownups, from little tiny kids still in diapers to old farmers who get their grandkids to run because they don’t have any knees left. There’s always lots of arguing about where the teenagers should go. This year Randy Jorgensen made a big plea for Curtis, trying to get him on the grownup side on the grounds that he’s one of the tallest people there, which is true, but seeing as he’s only going into eighth grade he really does belong on the kids’ team.
After Mom hurt her back, Randy tried pitching but he took it way too seriously, and the next year Mom suggested me, and now I guess it’s just tradition. Which is nice because I don’t play school softball seeing as I run track, and this fall of course I was playing football, which is another whole story in and of itself, so this is how I get my softball fix. Plus I’m not too biased. Mom says I’m Switzerland, which I think she means as a compliment.
Besides, it’s not like competitive softball. You mostly just try to get the ball across the plate slow enough for whoever’s trying to hit it, and keep it dry from the guys who hit with a beer in their other hand. Some little kids hold the bat out like they’ve never held a bat before, which some of them haven’t, and I’ll toss the ball as gently as I can against the bat, which in this game counts as a hit, and the kid will be so surprised they’ll just stand there while everyone starts hollering, and their mom will have to take them by the hand to run around the bases, and in the meantime the catcher, who’s usually Randy’s wife, Cindy, will toss to first but just happen to overthrow, and so the kid will continue on to second just totally amazed, and the second baseman will fumble eight or nine times with a bunch of moaning, and the kid will make it to third, and sometimes if there are enough errors the kid will score a home run and walk around on a cloud for the rest of the afternoon.
With other folks, of course, I’m not so nice. Mom always takes a couple turns at bat even though sshe shouldn’t because of her back. All the younger kids in the outfield think this is hilarious, their principal standing there in her big floral shorts and her big pink T-shirt, looking a lot more like a beach ball than a batter. But the older kids know enough to back up. One year she hit the ball so hard it took twenty minutes to find it. I guess she needs to get her softball fix in too, and also needs to teach those kids a lesson or two about mouthing off.
Then there’s Curtis, who’s always a huge part of the game, and I’m not just talking about his playing. My little brother might not talk to grownups much, or to me, but with little kids he’s just amazing. I don’t know if it’s because they can tell, the way dogs can sometimes, that he’s safe and he’ll be really nice to them, which he will. Or maybe he’s just a lot more comfortable with kids than older folks, and they pick up on that. But wherever he goes where there are little kids, like this picnic, they just flock to him. As soon as Curtis and this girl he was hanging out with sat down on the edge of the softball field, a half- dozen little kids started climbing on him and giggling and asking him questions, and he settled into it like being a human playground was his calling in life. Whenever the littlest kids went up to bat, he’d run the bases with them if they wanted, and in the outfield he’d make sure they got to tag out their dads and uncles, who often tripped really dramatically right before the base so it’d be easier for the kids to get them.
And then when it was Curtis’s turn to hit, the kids got so excited they were just exploding. Curtis after all was a state MVP in Little League, which everyone in town knows including the dead people, and when he walked up to home plate, the kids started zipping like bugs around a porch light, and all the folks in the outfield went way back, knowing what was coming, and I switched from nice-girl-tossing-the-ball-against-the-bat to big-sister-you-can-eat-this-one mode.
I pitched a fast one and Curtis swished a strike, and the little kids went bonkers like this was the World Series or something, and then he smashed right through my second pitch and it was clear that all those folks in the outfield hadn’t gone back nearly far enough, and he ambled off toward first base because that ball was a couple hours from being found.
A bunch of little kids, though, took that ambling personally. They ran up and started tugging on his arms, and his legs even, shrieking at him to run, and then another bunch of kids, his defenders, decided that this first group shouldn’t be so bossy and so they started pulling Curtis the other way because I guess they decided that walking would make him happier. Until finally you couldn’t even really see Curtis, just a dozen little kids hollering and waving their arms and giggling hysterically, pulling him in every direction.
You know the expression “fall down laughing”? I actually did. I was laughing so hard, standing there on my little pitcher’s mound, that after a while my knees didn’t work and I had to lie down and try to breathe as I watched Curtis getting dragged around the bases. It was, hands down, the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.
Anyway, that’s a very long story that doesn’t have much to do with anything. But even now that memory makes me grin, Curtis and all those little kids wriggling together . . . It’s hard to believe, sitting here in the hospital writing this down, that I ever felt so happy. That once, not so long ago, my life actually seemed okay.