by Joan Leotta
On Friday nights in Pittsburgh’s stifling summers in the years before air-conditioning, we ate dinner at Aunt Mary’s house on Callowhill Street to give my working mom a break from cooking. Backyards on Callowhill were, and still are, fenced-off bits of land, sloping down, overlooking a world of garages and garbage cans. A cascade of cement steps loosely connect both places.
At these dinners, I always chose to sit next to my cousin Diane. Older than me by four years she was my idol and best friend – smart, beautiful; she knew everything. At least I thought so. She taught me how to blow bubbles with Double-Bubble gum, how to make doll clothing from scraps, and how to make a dolly wardrobe from an old shoe box.
The summer I turned nine Mom warned me this close relationship might change. “Diane is now a teenager, the four years of difference between you will seem very great.” Over summer my mother’s words seemed to be proving true.
After each dinner, as soon as we finished clearing the table, and washing and drying the dishes, instead of staying behind to play or do crafts with me, Diane ran out into the backyard, slamming the screen behind her. Six or seven of Diane’s neighborhood pals waited to begin an after-supper softball game. I stood or sat on the back stoop waiting to be invited to play. Diane usually shouted, “Just stay out of the way. Stay on the stoop. You’re too little to play.”
It was only the summer before when the girls came over and interrupted our craft time, I was welcomed into my cousin’s group as a mascot. They let me take a turn at bat, even pitch a ball or two. Now that they were living the horrors of braces, the delight of discovering perms, and giggling over boys, they ignored me. I was a pig-tailed, sticker-obsessed nine-year-old, firmly mired in the childhood they were leaving. So, I watched as the older girls demonstrated their athletic prowess, aching to be included.
One warm Friday night some of the girls were on vacation. The “team” needed an outfielder.
“Hey, Diane, how about your cousin?”
I stepped off of the stoop onto the grass. Diane walked over to me. She pointed to the far end of the yard. “Stand over there. Don’t let any balls go over the fence.”
I trotted out on the soft grass and squinted back toward my cousin, the pitcher, who heaved the ball toward batter.
I heard the crack of the bat as it met leather. I could barely see the ball in twilight’s shadows. That wicked sphere buzzed over my head, over the chain link boundary, and plunged to the alley below.
Diane shouted. “Go get it!”
I felt the glares of the girls as I unlocked the gate to descend into the world of the alley. Fifty-four cement steps down. Same up. My cousin was waiting by the gate to grab the ball and head back to the pitcher’s “mound.” I heard her sigh to her friends as she walked away from me, “She does hold up the game!”
Diane wound up her arm. Again, her ball was clipped by the opposing team and found its way into the sky. I backed up, my eyes searching that ever-dimming twilight sky. I jumped as high as I could, but once again, the ball flew over the fence.
Fifty-four steps down. Fifty-four steps up. Diane grabbed the ball again but this time also shook her finger in my face. She put her hand on the gate latch. “I know it’s getting dark, but pay closer attention. One more miss and we’ll lock the gate behind you when you go down for the ball. You’ll have to stay in the alley all night.” Playing softball with the big girls was not as much fun as I had hoped.
For the third time, the opposing batter connected with the ball and once again sailed toward me. However, I had not grown taller or more skilled, so the inevitable occurred. My cousin pointed at me. “Go down to the alley and get it.” There was just enough light for me to discern the disgust on all of their faces before I disappeared down into the alley.
It was hard to find the ball this time. Shadows from the houses joined to make the alley even darker than the yard above. Twilight was turning into deep night. After a few minutes, the moon appeared from behind the clouds and thanks to its light, I finally discovered the white leather softball nestled in a patch of weeds behind a neighbor’s garbage cans.
Ball clutched in one sweaty hand, pulling myself up using the iron pipe railing as a support, with the other, I began the long ascent. As I climbed, I counted the steps again. When I stood at the top, on that 54th step, the full moon illumined an empty yard. I was alone. My cousin and her friends were gone. I remembered my cousin’s threat. Despite the cool of the dark, I began to sweat. How long would I have to stay on the top step? The distance from gate to back door seemed too far to sustain a cry for help. I felt tears pushing their way up.
Moonlight gleamed on the gate latch. I touched it. Relief. My cousin and the moon had both been merciful. My cousin had indeed abandoned me, but she had not locked the gate.
I stepped back into the house. The grownups were enjoying coffee and conversation on the side porch. Diane was alone, watching television in the living room. Now that her friends were not around, she resumed her role as my best friend.
“Sit up here,” she said. I waited for her to say something about the game. She didn’t. Instead, she held out a bowl of popcorn to me. I remembered my mother saying, “Teens don’t want younger cousins or even sisters hanging around, especially in front of their other teenage friends. But don’t worry. Underneath it all, she still loves you. When you are both older you will be friends again.”
Diane patted the place next to her on the couch. We were both still young. It might be a long time before she would seek me out and think of me as a buddy again, but her gesture tonight, calling me to sit with her on the couch now that her friends were gone, it was a momentary return to the way we were and hopefully would be again. I climbed up on the couch, took a handful of popcorn, and together we watched a black and white monster devour New York.