by Denise Cloutier
Standing in the dark parking lot with his feet planted shoulder-width apart and knees bent, Kevin braced for the jarring pain he knew would shoot through his hands, up his arms, and into his shoulders, then tightened his grip and swung the metal bat as if reaching for a bad pitch, low and outside. His father, who had coached him in tee-ball a decade earlier and attended every ball game he’d played in since, would not have been proud of that swing, but that didn’t matter anymore. His aim was good, and although the noise from the impact was partly muffled by the towel wrapped around the end of the Subaru’s tailpipe, there was no disguising the distinctive sound of metal crunching along the car’s chassis as the exhaust pipe was driven into the catalytic converter. He shook his right hand, swollen and stinging from the vibration of the bat, peeled the towel off the tailpipe, and walked away from the car without looking back.
Kevin didn’t know who owned the Subaru and he didn’t care. He’d picked it at random, just as he had the three other cars earlier in the evening. The damage wasn’t obvious, and no one would realize the harm done until after they started their engines. Once the cars were running, they would notice the motors were louder, and once they were driving, they might hear a pipe dragging on asphalt. Even if brackets held the broken pipes up and off the road, Kevin knew that the cars would all need their exhaust systems repaired before they could be driven more than a few miles.
It was after eleven o’clock when Kevin got home. His mother was asleep in the living room, curled up on the couch, blue light from the television dancing on her face as the weatherman delivered his forecast. A Saran-wrapped plate of chicken, carrots and potatoes had been left on the kitchen counter for him, and an empty wine bottle next to the plate explained why his mother hadn’t stirred when he came in. Kevin scraped the cold food into the trash and put the dirty plate in the dishwasher. He went into the living room, turned off the television and spread an afghan over his mother. She mumbled what might have been a thank-you as she snuggled into a tighter ball under the weight of the crocheted throw, but she didn’t fully wake up. He kissed her forehead and walked to his bedroom in the dark.
The next day at school seemed like any other day, and that was exactly what was bothering him. He arrived late – more his mother’s fault than his since he’d had to wait in the car while she finished getting ready — and his first period English teacher, Ms. Lahey, didn’t even interrupt the class discussion when handing him his detention slip. This wasn’t the first time he’d been tardy and Ms. Lahey had closed his window for any special treatment several weeks ago. When he moved on to second period history, Kevin took his usual seat toward the back, among the texters, the jocks, and others more interested in life outside the classroom. The teacher, Mr. Baird, ignored Kevin as much as Kevin ignored Mr. Baird, and Kevin found his eyes traveling to the hanging map of the United States, wondering when he’d ever see the Grand Canyon now that the long-planned family vacation had been canceled. In Algebra 2, he struggled on an exam, partly because he hadn’t studied, but also because he was having trouble writing with his swollen right hand. He gripped the pencil more tightly and welcomed the pain. It was the only part of his day that was different, and it was real.
At lunch in the cafeteria, he sat back and watched his friends talking and eating, goofing around and laughing as if nothing had changed, their lives untouched by tragedy. The routine banter at the table felt like a nightmare unfolding before him, everything slightly blurred and muted, distant, as if he was behind some sort of barrier that had sprung up between him and the rest of the world. It seemed as though everyone else kept moving while he stood apart, still stuck in that moment six months earlier, when the doctor told Kevin and his mother that there was nothing that could be done for his dad.
It hadn’t always been like this. In the days immediately after his father’s fatal heart attack, the entire town had stopped to pay their respects. The services had been well-attended and many people continued to offer support for Kevin and his mother in the weeks that followed. Marty, the owner of the garage where Kevin’s father had worked, paid for the funeral services. The guys at the shop had come around to help with outdoor chores, raking the yard in the fall and plowing the driveway when the snow fell. Friends of Kevin’s mother and mothers of Kevin’s friends brought fully cooked meals and groceries to the house well into winter, sometimes sitting with Kevin’s mother at the kitchen table for hours. But several months had passed and the help had slowed and then stopped as people returned to the same lives they had lived before Kevin’s father died, leaving Kevin and his mother to figure out this new existence on their own.
With the arrival of spring, Kevin was back on the baseball diamond after school, but it no longer felt like a second home to him. Every practice challenged his limits, both physically and emotionally, and yesterday’s practice pushed him further than ever. The first game of the season was a week away, and Coach was driving them hard in their drills, as if a baseball game mattered. Kevin played poorly, committing infield errors, his throws wild and out of control, his hand feeling lost in his glove. He struck out every time at bat, his attention not on the ball but on memories of his father coaching him in the batter’s box. No one realized how much Kevin was dreading the upcoming game, the first game his father wouldn’t be attending. And no one noticed when he took a bat at the end of practice.
Later that night, when Kevin swung the bat into a tailpipe for the first time, he’d been flooded with an unexpected sense of relief, a release of some pent-up energy he hadn’t been aware he’d been holding in. When he moved on to the second car, he expected the sensations to be less intense, less thrilling, but he was wrong. Car after car after car, the intensity never diminished, and Kevin had to consciously resist the pull of those emotions in order to stop swinging once the damage was sufficient.
Kevin cut his last class of the day and asked a teammate to tell the coach that he’d hurt his hand and wouldn’t be at practice. He knew that skipping today’s practice would take him out of the starting line-up for next week’s game, but Kevin wasn’t sure he wanted to play anyway. He left the school grounds, walking through fields and along the old railroad tracks, following the same path he used to take so often the year before, when he was a freshman, and he would go to the garage in time for his father’s afternoon break. His dad would bring him into the back office and they’d have a soda with Marty while Kevin told them about his day at school, and the older men shared stories of their own school days, years ago. Those fifteen-minute visits had helped Kevin with the transition to the large, regional high school, but once baseball started at the end of his freshman winter, he found that practice and friends kept him too busy to stop by the garage anymore.
Kevin was thinking about those visits as he wandered along the familiar path. He arrived at the garage at about three o’clock, but he didn’t go inside. He stood across the street, looking at his reflection in the big front window, wishing he could see his father behind the glass. He was standing there, stuck once again, when the door of the shop opened and Marty stepped out with two root beers in his hands. He crossed the street and handed one of the sodas to Kevin, then nodded toward a bench where they could sit. Marty unscrewed the bottle top and took a long drink of soda. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he covered his mouth as he belched, and then wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“What a day,” Marty said.
“Thanks for the soda,” Kevin said.
“You’re welcome.” Marty stared at Kevin. “It’s been a while since you showed your face here.”
“Yeah.” Kevin said. “About a year, I think.”
“Shouldn’t you be at practice?”
Kevin rubbed his left thumb into his right palm. “I hurt my hand,” he said.
“I see,” said Marty. “What brings you out this way?”
“Just taking the long way home. I got time to kill.”
“Wish I could say the same,” Marty said. “What a day,” he said again.
“What makes you say that?” Kevin tried to make his voice sound normal.
“Would you believe,” Marty shook his head as he spoke. “I got four cars in today. Four, all with the same, crazy problem. Four cars with broken exhaust pipes. It’s almost as if—”
Marty stopped shaking his head, his entire body momentarily frozen, his eyes fixed on Kevin’s hands.
“As if what?” Kevin asked, still rubbing his palm.
“Nothing,” Marty said, and closed his eyes. He sighed as he settled his weight against the back of the bench and wiped his hands, wet with the condensation from the bottles, on his pants. They sat for a bit without talking before Marty took another swig of soda and said, “With all this work today, I sure do miss your dad.”
Without looking at Marty, Kevin nodded his head and smiled. “I bet you do,” he said.
“Yeah, the new guy we hired can’t hold a candle to your dad. Your father could cut and weld pipes like nobody else. He was the best exhaust and muffler man in the business. He’d have each of these cars out in less than two hours a piece and, now, I don’t know if we’ll be done with them by the end of the week. Yes sir, I sure do miss him.”
Kevin was still smiling.
Marty cleared his throat. “You know, Kevin, I miss your dad’s skill on these busy days, I do, but it’s really the quiet days when I miss him the most.”
Kevin shot a quick glance at Marty, but Marty wasn’t looking at him, his eyes focused more on remembering than seeing.
“On quiet days,” Marty continued, “he and I would have time to talk, to tell some jokes or have a soda, like we’re doing now.” Marty sighed, shaking his head again. “It makes no sense, Kevin, what happened to your dad.”
Kevin was no longer rubbing his palm. “You still think about him? Even on ordinary days?”
“I sure do, Kevin. I don’t need days like this to remind me that I miss him.”
The two of them sat on the bench, not talking, not touching, not looking at one another. They sat, each sensing the silent presence of the other, the understanding that comes when loss is shared, and the hint of hope that accompanies a warm breeze on a spring afternoon.
After the sodas were finished, Kevin stood to go. “Thanks, Marty,” he said. “For the soda.”
“My pleasure. Feel free to stop by again, maybe after practice next time.”
“Okay, I’ll do that.” Kevin started to walk away.
“I hope your hand’s going to be all right,” Marty called after him.
Kevin turned back to look at Marty. “I’ll be okay,” he said, and starting jogging back toward school.