The boy slides his catcher’s mitt across the table, toward his dad. “You keep it. I don’t want it anymore.”
“You’ll want it next year.” In a single unobtrusive glance, the man sees everything that’s important to see about his son: tears dried on smooth, ten-year-old cheeks; red eyes and hair matted with sweat; a dusty uniform torn at the elbow.
“They won’t let me play. I let the winning run score.”
“He was out. You held the ball long enough.”
“Ump called him safe.” The cheeseburger in front of him vanishes as he talks. “That makes him safe.”
“Ump needs glasses.”
“We’re losers. I’m a loser.”
“Getting to the finals doesn’t mean anything?”
“They all hate me.”
“No, they don’t.” The man bites into his turkey burger, and catsup spills onto the paper lining of his flimsy plastic tray.
The boy cups his chin with both hands, elbows placed firmly on the table. Eyes move intently in an otherwise vacant face – then a sudden jolt of his body sends the saltshaker flying. “Out!” the boy yells, still trying to make it true.
The man calmly sets the saltshaker on its base again. “You tagged three other guys out at the plate. That’s not good enough?”
“I’m the catcher. That’s my job.”
As the man finishes his sandwich, catsup squirts out the side again. “And my job, son, is to make sure this is the worst thing that ever happens to you.”
The boy’s eyes reveal no understanding but becomes attentive, searching for clues in the wrinkled forehead, the day-old beard, and the lips that have kissed him a thousand times. He probes beyond the skin to the inside of the only man who has tucked him into bed; helped him cook macaroni and cheese over the hot coals of a weekend campfire; rushed him to the hospital when he fell and broke his arm; called the school when the teacher gave too much homework; scolded him for teasing his little brother and forgave him immediately with a big hug.
Then it comes to the boy, what his father is trying to say. His face softens slightly, and the hint of a smile forms.
“Hey, Dad, when are you going to learn to eat without spilling catsup all over the place?” Snickers become laughter. Laughter becomes hysteria. The boy tries to drink through his straw, but the soda goes down the wrong pipe. He spits it up.
“Hey, Robbie, when are you going to learn to use a straw without spraying your drink all over the place?”
As the laughter subsides, they wipe their eyes and blow their noses into napkins. The boy glances around the room and, seeing no one, reaches a hand across the table, palm up. His father takes it.
“You know, Dad, you’re a pretty cool Dad.”
“You know, Robbie, you’re a pretty cool son.”
Approaching their car in the parking lot, the son puts his arm around his father’s waist and grabs a belt loop with his hand. He carries the catcher’s mitt in the other.
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