This is the World.

byWilliam S. Penn

(also forthcoming in The Meaning of Literature, from Houghton Mifflin, 2003)

In Dreams Begins Reality

My first wife was mad. Or so my sister said. "She was crazy as a loon, Albert," she'd say. She never said it while we were happily married, but waited until things had fallen apart. I think of the times we visited my sister and I came out of the shower in the morning to find my wife hunched on the edge of the makeshift bed in her hot-pink flannels, eating her breakfast with the door closed, and I wish my sister had said something earlier. But when I remember the look on my wife's face as she explained why she was eating in the bedroom instead of with my sister and her husband, I am unconvinced. She didn't sound like a mad woman.

"They either sit there reading and ignoring me," she said. "Or she berates him for keeping her awake all night with his snoring. It makes me uncomfortable."

"That's just the way she is," I'd say.

The second wife, my sister said, was dull as brass. "She's a very nice person, Albert. But what do you have in common?"

Again she waited until I was alone, nightly trying to find a way to make the kingsize bed seem less like the Wallowa Valley. It was comforting to know I hadn't made a mistake. That's what sisters were for, I figured, like codeine. And I was grateful.

My sister never met the hat-trick wife. She was a hinter. You know the type, the woman who warns you a hundred times a day in small unnoticeable ways that something is wrong. She hints so much that your only recourse is to mistake her meaning. When she came home and said, What did I want for dinner, Pork? Or just the fat? I pretended she was being humorous.

When she asked the same question about lamb--"You want some lamb? Or you just want me to slice off the fat and heat it up in the micro?"--I took her seriously and weighed my choices.

"Lamb would be fine," I said, at last. "Thank you very much. Dear." She was dressed in a gregarious sheath of red. "Nice dress," I said.

"I'm going out later," she replied.

Sometimes, I'd try to participate in the hinting, make it fun. Like when we went to her sister's to look at wedding pictures and generally gush and glow over her sister's actually getting married. There was a picture of the rear of me, my feet and head lopped off by the view finder.

"Is it the same on a tug? Is port left and starboard right?" the wife asked her sister as they looked at the picture. Her sister squirmed. So as not to embarrass her, I joined in.

"That's not a tugboat," I said grinning.

The wife gave me a piercing look.

"More like Moby Dick with a tie."

The wife didn't laugh.

"Put cameras and GOODYEAR on it and run it up in the air and it'll shoot the Superbowl," I said.

The wife shot me a look that felt like the searing flames of hatred.

We divorced. "Three's the charm," I said, and decided that I was through with women. A hat trick's enough by anyone's measure. I have made an effort to remain friends with her, mostly for the sake of our love's by-product, Alicia, who is six.

She's still a hinter. Talking with her on the phone just now, I was regaling her with my theory that the President we see giving a prepared speech is really the brilliant artistry of an automatist, the careful modulations of the recorded voice the secret of Dolby. "That's why the real man seems so stupid at press conferences. It's not just that he is virtually incapable of a solitary logical thought. It's the contrast between art and life that really brings it home."

"Still as much fun as always," the ex-wife hinted.

"That a question or a statement?" I asked. "How's my little girl, anyway?"

"She's right here. Want to speak to her? Alicia," I could hear the ex-wife say, "come listen to your father. Yes, now.

"Hello, father," Alicia said.

"Hi precious. How's my little pumpkin?"

"Father!" Alicia complained. She doesn't like these affectionate nicknames. Thinks she's outgrown them. I try not to use them but I can't help myself. As with a full half of what I say, the words just slip out when I'm not looking.

"When are you going to come up for a visit?" I asked.

"Don't know. It's so far."

"Maybe that's true, honey bunch. But I'd be happy to come down and get you, if your mother is afraid of the subway." Alicia lives with her mother in the East Village. I live at the far reaches of the Upper West Side. "Or I'll send you cab fare."

"Maybe after the Bahamas. Richard's taking mommy and me to the Bahamas next month."

"I know," I said.

"Richard bought me a new bathing suit just for the trip. It's red. He's gonna teach me to scuba dive."

"That Richard sounds like quite a guy. By the way, do you know what the letters in scuba stand for?"

"Do I have to?" Alicia sighed.

"No. No, Richard will probably tell you anyway. Self contained underwater breathing apparatus people are like that. They like you to know the rituals and symbols of their sport. They're like sailors. Like dieters or people into meditation...."

"Father," Alicia interrupted. "What's a wonk?"

"Why sweetcakes? Where'd you hear that word?"


"Yeah?" I wasn't sure I liked Richard teaching my babydoll such language. Where did it lead?

"Yeah. He says you're a real...."

"So. Albert," the ex-wife's voice said after a scuffle over the receiver. "We've got to run along. 'The Bottom Line' is playing 'Trump's Trumps' this afternoon."

"What in the world is the bottom line?"

"Richard's softball team," the ex-wife said. "Talk to you later. Maybe you should get out and join a softball team. Be good for you. And you could supply the team with chatter."

I can take a hint. "If I do, will you come back to me? Would you love me again?"

"I'll make Alicia send you a postcard from the Bahamas," she said. She hung up.

Normally I keep Sundays to myself, reserving time to browse through the Times and time to think up letters to the editor of the Book Review section. These letters range from chilling attacks on the entire section to letters with specific focus. I never send these letters, at least in part because I never write them. I think them. Taking the time to write them would waste precious Sunday minutes.

After shaming the book review editor, I stroll down to Zabar's and buy fresh bagels, the cut over to Columbus and up to stop by the deli to pick up chopped Nova lox, then home again to eat them both with cream cheese, while I decide what to do with the rest of the day. Most Sundays, this deciding takes me into late afternoon, at which point I allow myself to look through the television section and start thinking about having a drink before dinner. With mixed emotions, I decide this Sunday to get out and get some exercise. By the boat pond in the park, radio-controlled sailboats compete for attention with radio-controlled roller skaters. In a vee of grass among the trees, the pitched laughter of twelve Asians playing volleyball sounds like the delicate and oddly beautiful plink of Eastern music. A girl on the frontier of womanhood and leaning to tart buys ice cream from a vendor's cart, her red nylon stretch pants drawing L's--from lust and longing to leers and leaving. Her pants are so revealing that she almost achieves the nun-like innocence of the over-clothed. The feeling of her as I walk away stays with me like the sunrise over Makrialos.

I sit on a bench and watch sides being chosen for a pick-up softball game, imaginatively penning another letter to the Times. A woman comes over and asks me if I want to play. Her name is Gail. Even with her dirty blond hair held back by a head band you can tell Gail has what can only be called big hair.

"No. Thank you."

"We can use another player," she says.

"You've got a backstop," I say. She just looks perplexed. "Well, what the heck. Okay." I figured I'd play catcher.

Gail borrows a glove for me from the other team and assigns me third base, a position I want about as much as another divorce. I'm no better at third base than I am at marriage or poker, preferring low risk bets like catcher to the high stakes of double plays and charging grounders.

Gail takes shortstop. In all my years of watching softball, this hasn't happened often, but Gail looks as though she can handle the job. Indeed, Gail seems eager, ready, willing and able to field grounders, pop-ups, lines drives, as well as to egg on those of us less eager or able. As the first baseman lobs grounders at us and warms us up she moves with grace and not a little strength. Her chatter as the game begins sounds like any shortstop's chatter. Except for the pitch of her voice and the fact that despite her big hair Gail is pretty, she could be Phil Rizzuto. Pee Wee Reese. The girl in red comes over and stands there, tongue licking about the rim of her ice cream cone, watching. She suddenly takes me back to days when little boys played softball and little girls looked appealingly on from the sidelines, careful not to show too much calf between their bobby socks and the hems of their full skirts.

Days of an uneasy detente when our mothers apprenticed us to the world of action by telling us to stop moping around the house and go out and kill off a tribe or two of Indians. (Moping was for girls and when mother's friends heard that I liked books more than ball, they coughed.) Days of a recurring boyhood dream: at third base, a huge white softball bouncing ten feet in front of me and beginning to spin. With the instinct of Brooks Robinson, I understood that the second bounce would send the ball kicking over my head, so I charged it and knocked it down heroically. Feeling the little girls smile from the sidelines I concentrated on keeping my wits about me. I picked up the ball and looked toward first. "I'm making a play," I thought, and realizing that I was making a play, I threw the ball hard at the first baseman.

The ball orbited over first base, returned to earth a good forty feet beyond, and rolled white and solitary for a decade. Long enough for the short stop to stroll over and force himself to say, "It's all right. We'll get the next batter." Long enough for the sidelined girls to giggle and twitter and point, and for me to hate their twittering. I'd awaken, swearing off softball, swearing that I would show those girls, that I'd never let this happen again.

But it did. It happened again, again and again over thirty odd years. Crouching there beside Gail, I see how I'm a sucker for games. How if there was one to be played, I played it.

I come to life like the stone guest in Don Giovanni as a hard-hit grounder--mine--skips to my left. Gail slides deep into the hole behind me, knocks the ball down and, despite the thrill of making the play, decides against throwing to first. The men on the opposing team's bench smile secretly. Chagrined, I look away and see the girl in nylon red pants poke the last of her ice cream cone through her lips and smirk.

"Sorry," I mutter to Gail. "Daydreaming."

"S'okay," Gail says. "We'll get the next batter." She smiles and slaps me on the rear end, coach-like, and for a moment I feel deep down an awakening of the simple innocence of my boyish heart. I believe we will get the next batter, Gail and I, if only I can pay attention. I crouch, eye on the next batter and ready for the pitch, determined not to let Gail down, marveling at the way things change. Had little girls giggled and twittered not at me but because they were denied the chance to make the same errors? I was grateful for the way some of them had grown up, giving up limp-wristed dainty flings, learning to throw from the shoulder.

I was grateful for Gail and I was amused by the antics of the men on the other team, celebrating their victory with lots of expensive tasting beer. "If only I'd caught that pop-up," I said.

"What the hell," Gail said. "It's only a game. See you next week?"

"Maybe," I said.

"Maybe we'll try you at catcher."

"Sure. Whatever. Even backstop." Gail didn't get it and I let it go. We said goodbye.

Heading past the boat pond out of the park, the roller skaters had been replaced by a bunch of boys bouncing like popcorn to the dulcet strains of their rap music on a ghetto blaster. "Ghetto blasting their way right out of the power structure," I think. "Right out of time." I think about the girl in red pants. She, too, seems out of time, like an illusion from the past which has become a present anachronism. Maybe she would grow up like Gail. Then again, maybe she wouldn't.

"Anything's possible," I think, and then I say it, out loud, making a pretzel vendor wonder if I am speaking to him or, like so many in this city, simply speaking to anyone who might be listening. For the first time in years, I know what to do with the rest of my Sunday. Go downtown and buy Alicia a softball glove. Maybe some sweat pants. Some loose blue sweat pants.

From This is the World, Michigan State University Press
© 2000 William S. Penn

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