Gladstone Georgia, 1969 -1973
Generalizations of the ball, ideals of round, the rubber feeling very thin over the hollow, air filled core. Although when the ball hits you, it stings. It can sting. The surface of these balls, the rubber rind, is always a little pitted, pebbly you could call it. Kickball was the eminent ball of the playground for a few years, between third grade and sixth grade. There was, by the fifth grade, a little ritual. Somebody would find Grady, the janitor, to unlock the storeroom to get the kickballs. He selects the one key from a great clanking mass of them, which is attached by a chain to his belt, and now you are behind him, light on, no windows in this place, there’s the bats, the bases, the basketballs, and in that metal box are the kickballs. You look at Grady, the thick, tufted gray hair, eyebrows thick, the stiff walk in the perpetural work suit, you see extreme age, you have no eye for the damage and endurance of black skin, your measurements are all safely in white skin. When you are in highschool one evening Mom has news, you remember Grady, the janitor at Gladstone? Grady’s been caught trying to show a little girl pictures of naked women. God knows what is involved in such a complexly suggestive gesture, a whole trove of erotica discovered next to the tub of floor soap in his closet. But to wind back to you, who wound up to that moment with Mom strain to picture some surreptitious passage, something you didn’t understand at the time, a gesture, a smack of the lips, some personal current of perversion, no, well he’s simply gruff, in your memory, the eyebrows, the voice there they are, take em, with other things to do in it, go down talk to the women in the kitchen, with his broom, be fooling around about these balls all the time. Feeling was he didn’t even like you. You and Kevin and Mike. Part of the respect you had for him, as if he’d studied you all and made his judgment. You all need all the balls, and usually at least one would be soft. When they are soft you can crevice the surface in this way or that way, the folds will cause other folds to erupt, here’s a fold, here’s a dent, the sound is a sickly thump of your knuckles a little raw on the rubber, all of which is endlessly fascinating for about two minutes. Then somebody says Mr. Grady, can you fill this one up? Grady will attach the ball to a pump, he’s got a hand pump. Up and down on the handle of the thing, the ball ripens, rounding the way things eat in cartoons, the clever bird swallowed by the cat, the bunny by the wolf, Jonah by the whale. The bird, the bunny, Jonah, they stay the same inside, integrity intact, it is dark in there, hey, where’s a light, they light a match, the cat, the wolf, the whale, not the whale so much, although you hear that story and you can’t help but think, smoke comes out of their ears, or maybe the bird or the bunny has a stick of dynamite, KABLOOM and the eaten thing is out again, a jagged hole in the predator, the bunny with a characteristically pointed remark, the chase is on again, contained against container. Kabloom could happen with the balls, but long before it reached that point Grady would have stopped. He isn’t into straining himself, he says.
The balls, round and ready, now, are herded out of the storage closet, you all hold a bounty of balls in your arms and are kicking the others, get along, little doggie, and this is fun, it is roundup, you all are cowboys, kick, until out the door you go, and suddenly impish red balls are all over the playground. Boys and girls and teachers coalesce around them, the teachers that is who aren't smoking in the lounge, they switch on and off on a schedule of their own. Boys and girls, though: I write this, I veer, I am in another perspective with the touch of a word. Kids. You all were kids among yourselves, you were the people, big kids and little ones. It was important, too, what you were called - like among the boys, the word girl would come out with your lips puckered, as though you’d eaten something sour. It wasn’t a word to speak, it was a word to reject, it was a name. But self description, in the channel between grown up and kid, is coded with the words they would respond to, and frankly you don’t want them using your words.
The kickball teams sprawl, a hazy web, over an area of the field, once covered with gravel and now a mixture of gravel and gravel dust and sand and red clay, this fine spiculate powder, the red rubbed on sneakers, on hands, in your hair, that red stain running throughout your years at Gladstone as though a vengeful ghost not to be wholly dissolved by no matter what new ingredient’s added to powder or liquid. The pitcher, you all take turns as a pitcher, on the mound, although eventually you settle on Eddie Munch as the pitcher, who can wheel that ball down on you with curves and speed, pumping sound of the balls skittering over the ground. Leg out, shoe profiling to the kick and then the automatic shriek, if the ball’s good, usually it’s foul, and the race to first. In the outfield, meanwhile, they are sitting down, or wandering away, and the balls when the kicks a good thump you can hear pass rolling by like rocks through wet tissue paper. You run down a ball, the screaming gets distant, you catch up with it and for a moment you’ve escaped not only the game, but the school, that whole current of familiar sounds, the environment, your immediate concerns, you are an ant on your lonely out there. The clash of voices at your back is small, and then you wheel around, the ball prised up and trundle back, kick it, watch the distant movement around the diamond, the players come back to life, figures now gone to their positions, the score a sad thing but wait until your side is up, you run and come to rest at your old post.
The most active player is the catcher, who has to run after the wild pitch, the foul. There’s the ditch where the playground ends, the stickers and stand of pine, the backyards of houses the grass towards porches and onward the whole meander of Belle Vue subdivision. The ball’s momentum, though, is usually arrested by the bushes in the no man’s land, wade in through the stickers and scratch your legs, the thin cursive of thorn and twig the jotting on your legs almost constantly, a memo pad of remnant bushes, ditches, the collecting pools mandated by county regulation, the oddments of lots the Effberry’s hadn’t parceled out. You liked being catcher, though, better than the outfield, eventually it becomes a given, Eddie pitching, you catching. The anticipation when Eddie smoked one, to scoop it up from the ground where it scorched along, the complaints, Mrs. Crawl coming out there, Eddie if you can’t throw slower we’ll have to get another pitcher, and under her supervision a slow wobble meets Patty’s askew attempt at a forward punt and she’s off.
In the sixth grade the domination of kickball was broken, and mere anarchy, for an interval, in the form of superballs, basketballls, softballs, footballs, and even soccer balls was loosed upon the playground. In the seventh grade, the basketball had achieved, in your group, supreme power, and the kickball was forgotten, a thing for lower grades. Outside of the playground, you began to go for the tennis ball, you got a tennis racket for your birthday, Woody Davis goes he’ll show you how to play, all that spring at the Dekalb Junior college you had Woody, biked out there and the bikes resting against the high chain link fence that separates the courts from the rest of the campus, bat around the ball and come to some semblance of recognizable play, and as March turns into April more players begin to come out, kickball and its usufructs, that anachronistic kingdom slips away from you until wind up to now you look back through meshes when what comes back is unconnected, haggard streak illuminating briefly a stance, a blocking out of bodies, but not and never the real face, measures for the real proportions bounded by superlative and diminutive, lost those things altogether.
Superballs came out when you were four, they were the modern world, the space age reaching into balldom. Suddenly they appeared, this was in York, on your street, Dita’s friends coming out of their houses in the embers of the afternoon deposited by the bus, corner of Dewwater and Heidi’s Corner, gone to milk and crackers or a cookie, then out, Dads not home yet. You were home from kindergarten hours before, slamming these new, wild balls down hard on the asphalt with Robin, your next door neighbor, watching the balls ascending to amazing heights, pop flies, which you could catch and it was a real catch, like catching a baseball, you positioned down below, your hands cupped a cautionary glove, hopeful, the intersection not something you could be neglectful about, Dad slowly looping you a baseball or Dita tossing you a beachball, but positioning and running, a lesson in spin and speed, you stand there and miss it, the ball having become to quickly a speck and then a falling pupil to pass somehow the clumsy part of your hands no longer area enough to be anything more than a quick grab which fails to intersect the second bounce, okay, and with the loss of rubber impudence, zany control as though perverse cosmonauts were indeed in the capsule, running out of fuel though needing your arm pumping the slam down and now dribbling its reentry to you grabbing it. Roger, Houston, and out. As soon as Dita gets hers you want yours, which one Saturday you are able to point out to Mom there the balls are in a stiff plastic pocket and groovy colors not just black but a wave of gold and green, only fifty cents, so then, home from kindergarten, you and Kofax spend time up and down the street, practicing, Robin growing weary, returning to her yard to play pretend horse, but you couldn’t get these balls out of your mind.
It was after Alice Lee came to visit that the croquet craze really hit, and then it was you and Mark for a while, the little wire arches set up, goals knocked in, striped red and white and blue, where Dad would protest the lawn the grass I’ve worked hard on that spot going to have a bald spot under the maple and you would listen and go ahead the next afternoon, prudence calling the game before Dad came home’s all, or over to Mark’s yard although with the way Purse never mows it or weeds it the balls smooth courses have a tendency to be distracted into sudden losses of motion by nettle and uneven cupping among sparse blades of crab and St. Augustine grass. The balls are wooden, and like the poles there are stripes of color that band them, red and green and blue and purple, to tell one ball from another. Balls, in this game, aren’t neutral, exchanged among opposing players, but are territorial, possessed, yours, Mark’s, Dita’s, Alice Lee’s, or whoever’s playing, parts of yourself. Croquet has an oddly board game quality about it, a gentility, a Victorian etiquette of politely muted imperial energy, sideswiping masked by the mandated rush for territory, and partly it is just that, that the balls are your markers, bound and not unbound bits of energy, but it is also the woodenness of the ball, the gravid, grave way it travels, the click as it is hit off your mallet and the click as it hits another ball, the spin of the stripes pressing down the blades of grass under its roll.
Balls exist, like numbers, in different systems, and the two great systems are the bounce and the hit. It’s like the rational and the irrationals are for numbers. Different kinds of pleasure attach to the expectation of a bounce or a hit, an elastic contact, with just its hint of an energy free as a spark, or a hard contact, from throwing pebbles in a pond up to bullets shot from a gun. Hard contact, once shaped into a conventional ball - the bowling, billiard, or croquet ball, modify violence into aim, the arm back to hurl the clump of mud at the pine tree now grasping the croquet mallet and, with clean fingers, what was the joy of viscous matter, the swamp, the edge of the lake, come up to the lawn, affecting a silent sweep through the pennywire arch, on to the gauntlet before the goal stick. You played this game until you suddenly were exhausted by the very idea of it, and then the set’s put away, and the next time you play croquet you’re on acid in college, tripping on the Alice in Wonderland aspects of it.