My father and I stood in the field behind our house, a cigarette between his lips, playing catch. He wasn’t actually throwing it to me, but beyond my reach. Come on, he’d say, you can get it.
But he knew I couldn’t. That was the whole point. He threw it too far over my head, a foot or two to my right or left. Still, each time I ran after the ball, stretched for it, but there was no way. I’d pick it up and throw it back to him as three ibis walked along the tree line, pecking at the ground for something I couldn’t see.
I can’t remember exactly why we played catch that day. It’s not like we’d ever played many sports together. But this was the year I turned thirteen. The year before he died. The year I moved two hours away from him to Orlando with my mother and her new husband.
Maybe he’d brought me out here to humiliate me, to pick a fight with his kid, or with my mother through me, or maybe he did want me to run faster, shed some of the twenty pounds I’d gained since moving away. Perhaps he was trying to teach me some lesson he didn’t think my stepfather could.
Cut right, he said. I did and still the football was out of my reach. I couldn’t catch my breath, Florida summers are hell-hot and this was the middle of the day and I wanted nothing more than to be back in Orlando in our aboveground pool, sipping lemonade with Shelly, my new sixteen-year-old stepsister.
Once, when I reached down, a brown snake slithered by, no more than a foot from the ball. I’m done, I said.
You’re done when I say you’re done, he said.
We played for another hour, though it felt like twelve. I didn’t want him to see I was crying, so I wiped my eyes each time I bent down to pick up the ball.
Between throws, he’d ask questions: How’s your mother? What’s Dick (my stepfather’s name was Derek) like? That bigshot take you to Disney yet? And I’d mumble a response: fine, I don’t know, no.
Then he threw one closer. I touched it with the tip of my right middle finger, juggled the ball twice before it hit the dirt.
When I picked up the ball and turned back, he was walking toward the gate. Let’s play some more, I said. I knew what I was doing. He didn’t say anything, didn’t look back.
Come on, Dad, I said. Come on.
Finally, he stopped and turned. He had a fresh cigarette in his mouth, and while I couldn’t make out all the features of his face, I could see his beard had started to turn grey. I could see what we’d done to him, but I was just a kid. I held the ball between us and he hesitated for a second before taking what I offered.
Steve Cushman has published three novels and two poetry chapbooks. More info at www.stevecushman.net