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Stain You Red
Dad crouched, slack knees to his chest, in front of the barn wall with his mitt and told me to pitch him a few. He punched a fist into his glove, pointed two fingers down, then opened his hand, wiped the sign away, and pointed just one finger down. A fastball.
"Put her right here," he said.
He had set down a beer can in front of him, home plate, and positioned a wooden bat in Annie Jo's hands, the fading name, William Helget, burned on the barrel of it. He pointed at a spot in the grass where she should stand and told her not to move, not to swing, and to hold the bat high. It almost toppled her.
"Choke up," he said.
I wound into a pitch and released the ball to him with all the force my fifty-pound frame could gather. The ball slapped his glove.
He tossed it back in an easy way. I threw a few more. Strikes. Then a pitch missed, and flew up and outside the strike zone I'd mind -- outlined above the beer can, bending in on Annie Jo's body, but Dad caught it without compromising his stance, pulled it quick into the center of him.
"That's how you get the strikes called. The umps look to where the ball sits when they make the calls. It's the catcher's job to pull 'em in."
I know, too, Dad, Annie Jo said. I do, Dad, I know.
"You just hold that bat up, Annie-Goat. Nice and high so Colie doesn't hit your elbows. She's wild sometimes."
I threw again. Annie Jo swung and foul-tipped the ball back into a barn window.
"Goddamn it," Dad said. "I told you not to swing." He stood, cast down his glove and grabbed the bat from Annie Jo, who cowered beneath him. She was four.
He pointed at the window with the bat. "Do you know how many fucking flies are going to get in there? Do you? Put this shit away. Hurry up now. And quit your goddamned crying. I can't stand it. It goes right through me."
He lobbed the bat at her feet. She knew not to move.
"Colie, you pick up that glass there and dig in the wood pile. Find a piece of plywood to cover that window. Fuck. Goddamn it. Useless, completely useless."
He turned from us and headed for the barn.
Dad was thirty-one. He was tall and lean with Bohemian, colored dark with Sioux Indian from his mother Alvina's side -- a bunch of lost gypsies and buffalo eaters, he called them. His father, Leon Helget, was thick with German blood and passed on his tumbling speech and throaty voice to his seven sons, including Dad, who was just one up from the bottom, but bossy as an oldest child or an Indian chief. And that's the name Dad's brothers gave him -- Chief. Dad's long legs bowed at the knees from his years crouching behind home plate and against a cow's belly for the milking. He walked with his hands on his hips like he was operating those loose legs from there.
Dad said three major league teams scouted him his senior year of high school at Sleepy Eye St. Mary's. In 1972, two Boston Red Sox agents, sipping coffee and eating slices of schmeirkuchen, pushed a creased stack of papers across Grandma's kitchen table at Dad. He signed to a Triple A contract while Grandpa, who mostly spoke Low German, sat silent and crossed his arms tight against his overalls. Grandpa had a farm place and land ready for Dad, and he didn't see the sense of his son running all over God's creation when there were perfectly good ballparks around here. But Grandma had warned him to keep his mouth shut and told him that baseball was Dad's chance.
You're an old fool, Grandma said, and I don't like that goat language in this house. Goat-herders, that's where you come from.
Goddamn gypsy, Grandpa spat.
Dad signed the contract and prepared to leave the following winter for spring training. He said no to the Cincinnati Reds and the Minnesota Twins and proposed to his girlfriend, Marie, after she graduated from high school, and in their Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch wedding announcement it said, Marie Haala was Homecoming Queen at Sleepy Eye St. Mary's and William Helget catches for the Boston Red Sox organization, which is currently in spring training in Winter Haven, Florida. The couple will reside there.
Dad and Mom lived in Winter Haven while Dad practiced, played, and traveled with the team. Mom hated the heat and the cockroaches and the wives of the other players. A year into their marriage and Dad's baseball career, the doctors induced a labor and delivered Mom of a dead baby, which they whisked quickly away. Mom never thought to ask the sex of it, though Dad always said it was a son and his name would have been Nicholas because he liked the way "Nick" sounded over the loud speaker of a ball field. Nick Helget.
When she became pregnant with me, Mom insisted she be near her family in Minnesota. Grandpa Helget readied the farm place and Mom moved onto it and waited for Dad. She had me in March of 1976 and Dad made it to my birth but left the next day to go back to spring training. Grandma Helget said wives should be with their husbands, said the farm place could wait. She packed up Mom and me and drove us back to Florida, back to the heat and the cockroaches and the other player's wives and stayed with us until we were settled.
The Red Sox released Dad in 1977. They said he couldn't hit, though they liked that he was a switcher. They said his knees were bound to give soon. They patted him on the back and said he called good pitches, said they liked the way he signaled the outfielders, too. They liked how he knew which way the ball was going if the batter got a hold of it. Amazing. You've got good instinct for baseball, son. You should go home and coach your little girl's softball team when the time comes. You can turn in your uniform and keys at the field house. Here's your commemorative bat. Isn't that nice? It's got your name burned in it. Cost the outfit a buck or two. Keep the cap and send us your new address, why don't you. Keep in touch.
When each of their seven sons married, Grandpa and Grandma Helget gave the new couple a homestead with a house and outbuildings for livestock, grain, and machinery, eighty acres of tillable land for corn and soybeans, twenty cows, a bull, and a pick-up. After the Red Sox let Dad go, he came home to Minnesota to farm. Mom settled in. Dad woke in the dark mornings to the bellowing of cows playing chords in his ears. He knew the call of each one. Sometimes, Mom's noises from boiling water to heat the bottles for the five daughters that tagged after me roused Dad from his dreams of nick-of-time throw-outs at second and of blocking home plate from a barreling Pete Rose, who would never jar the ball loose from him the way he did from Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game. Put it in your nut cup if you have to, goddamn it, but don't let 'em get the ball loose, he'd say to Fosse in those sleepy imaginings. He told Mom about the dreams over breakfast after the milking, after he romanced them and the game in his mind for hours in the barn with the cows, while pitching straw and cleaning gutters and salving infected teats and grinding corn and throwing hay bales down from the loft and spraying for the flies that bred, maggoted, morphed, and seemed to emerge from the very air in the barn, and while moving from cow to cow pumping milk from the beasts that trapped him in that place with their never-ending needs. Feeding, cleaning, doctoring, milking. A woman's job, really, he'd say of it, and Mom would look at him, set down the fry pan or a drooling baby and say he had to stop drinking brandy because that's when the dreams came racing and forced him fidgety and violent in his sleep, unsatisfied. You've got to be satisfied with what you've got, William. Thank God for it.
On Sundays, Dad caught for Stark, an amateur baseball team that played in the middle of a field, where lost baseballs, walloped over center field by local boys, became fertilizer for the worming roots of corn and soybeans. The red stitches wore away and surrendered the cow-hide leather, cotton string, wool winding, rubber covers, and cork centers to the black soil. Mom and my sisters and I watched the game from the grandstands with the other wives and children. Mom swapped recipes for jello salads and hot dish. I kept book. Dad wanted all the statistics. Errors. Sacrifices. Stolen bases. Runs batted in. Number of pitches thrown per inning. All of it. He went through the book at night after the evening milking and punch numbers into a calculator and scratch stats and strategies on the backs of envelopes, on our homework, in the white space of newspapers. He relived the game. "It's ninety percent mental, Colie. The game. It's ninety percent mental and ten percent physical," he'd say.
I know, Dad, but you're writing on my homework.
Dad gripped the chain fence behind me and called instructions. My thighs and hamstrings blazed with the strain of squatting under the weight of my body, the mask, the chest protector, and the leg guards. I had been holding out my arm receiving pitches into my catcher's mitt for an hour and we were only in the fourth inning. The Sleepy Eye St. Mary's varsity softball team pulled me up from B-squad in ninth grade to catch for Julie Schulmacher, who was fast, but wild. She was all over the place and threw more pitches per batter than I had ever seen.
Once Coach pulled me up there to catch, Dad came to all our practices and games. The older girls would toss sunflower seeds at him and grab for his cap. Jessie Heiderschiet, our senior right fielder, asked Dad about his stops at Meyer's Bar in Sleepy Eye where her mom worked and told the team about the time she had to give him a ride home because he was too drunk on Five Star to drive. They shushed and half-smiled when I came in earshot, but I knew all of it already and had heard other stories besides. Coach finally asked him to stop coming to practice, said he was a distraction. But Dad still stood behind home plate for every game I caught and called me back after each inning for pointers.
"Pull 'em in, Colie. Some of those are close. If you'd get 'em into you quicker, the ump would give her some of those outside ones," he said.
Shit, Dad. She's everywhere. She's throwing like a million pitches an inning and I'm chasing all the fouls because she won't get off the mound. I'm tired and I'm on deck. I gotta get this stuff off.
"Well, pull it together. You look like hell back here, for Christ's sakes. It's a goddamned embarrassment."
I quit as catcher after that game even though it meant I went back to B-squad.
After I quit catching, Dad never came to another softball game. Not mine, or Annie Jo's, or Natty's, or Lila's, or Dakota's, or Mia's. Not one.