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Original Issue

The Year My Cousin Played the Rightfielder

Not right field, mind you—we weren't even in the ball park but just outside of it—and the game was not so much baseball as a weird kind of midsummer night torture test

In recent years I have come to an accommodation with sophistication. I was not surprised when I saw an issue of a well-known magazine which included a photograph of royalty and royalty followers sunning themselves, topless, on a yacht near Costa Esmeraldas. I have brochures from Gstaad, where I know the ski set will be occupied with après ski Scrabble throughout the month of January; and from Aspen, where I know plumbing contractors will commune with modern jazz during the long, sweetened days of the summertime. I know about Ischia and Puerto Vallarta, Antibes and Biarritz. I am, in short, eminently aware of the world and its possibilities for diversion, and yet I am continually astonished at realizing that one of the things, apparently, that no one does any more is travel to East Texas.

There was a time some years ago when I was under the impression that the only vacation trip in the world was a journey to East Texas. I was living in West Texas, a separation of worlds distinct to residents of the state, if not to anyone else. West Texas was an abstract, all flatness, colors repeated on colors, invisible life and meaning, structures straight-lined and geometric, man-made, the Texas you expect when you hear the word. East Texas was an old-fashioned pastoral landscape, cows in the meadow, sheep in the corn, cotton in the fields, water in the streams and the smells of humid earth and wood-burning stoves.

My father and his father were West Texans, resident for almost as long as the land had had an authorized existence. My mother, however, was from East Texas, wooed and won to the West years ago during a casual trip to see a wandering brother. It was to visit the remnants of her original family that we began the series of summertime visits.

My uncle and aunt and my cousins lived on a farm—everybody in East Texas lived on a farm so far as I knew—at first in an unpainted sharecropper's house on land owned by a doctor, later in a white-painted house on their own land. A visit to them meant drawing water from the well by squeaky pail and rope, racing the rain from the fields to the back porch, digging up potatoes—all items of fascination to a young West Texan at the time.

Contrary to contemporary accounts, soul food was never the exclusive province nor even the invention of the blacks. Poor whites in East Texas had black-eyed peas and corn bread at nearly every meal, and rarely was one concluded by my aunt without a couple of fried mince meat pies, hot and literally dripping with the seepage of the crust. I must have consumed several hundred pounds of those mincemeat pies, right up until the day someone casually explained to me how they loosened the flesh of the hog's head to obtain the mincemeat. That went a long way toward explaining the occasional bristles I had bitten into, and it makes even the ersatz mincemeat I sometimes encounter in restaurants a trifle too strong to digest.

From summer to summer, since these visits were spaced precisely a year apart, it would be possible to plot a chart or some visual aid illustrating the years of our growing up, though in certain respects all of those summers had qualities of sameness about them. The first year we were in East Texas I walked to the country school with my cousin where some older boys coaxed us into a fight for the one undebatable reason: 'To see which one can whip." I won the fight by tripping my cousin from behind and slamming his ear on the corner of a wooden border around a flower bed. In another year my youngest brother was lost in the woods and found by a Texas Agricultural and Mechanical Experimental Station man named Mr. Bean. We watched the hogs devour a muddy pond full of desperately wiggling water moccasins; swam naked in the classical version of the swimming hole; helped still another cousin deliver ice to the backwoods farm where chickens clucked in the same kitchens with some breathtaking girls. We listened to country music on the radio, and we spent a great deal of one visit sitting in a car, shaded by a huge tree, looking at a nudist magazine—airbrushed—and considering the very nearly incredible possibilities if we could only get near some girls for a couple of hours. What we did when we finally did get near some was play basketball, something my cousin did extremely veil and something I did extremely poorly.

During one of these later years, the significant one in this particular chronicle, we also began to live baseball, more or less at the insistence of my cousin. Entirely at the insistence of my cousin, to be precise. He had discovered the sport and considered it far too important to just play around with like a game. Every morning, for hours, we shagged fly balls in the stubble of an almost-cleared field which unfortunately sloped downward and made each fall a challenge to a permanently pock-marked face. During the heat of the early afternoon we lay, along with the hounds, on a pallet on the front porch and listened to the radio broadcast of a major league game. Mentally retreaded by the excited announcer, we then employed the remainder of the daylight playing catch, positioning ourselves in shady islands around the huge lawn.

It was only a matter of time until my cousin realized the baseball day could be extended to almost midnight by catching a ride into Jacksonville—the nearest large town—on the nights the Jacksonville nine of some East Texas professional league (possibly it was The East Texas League) was playing a game. The Jacksonville park seemed fairly decrepit, the bleachers and the fences a perfect match for the unpainted sharecroppers' cabins except for the advertising signs, some of the signs worth $5 or a chicken dinner if a batter could hit them on the right spot. My cousin and I did not have funds for a ticket, but by climbing a tree on the third-base side of the park it was a simple matter to see into the game, except on the nights when we were late and the tree was already full of barefoot Jacksonville kids.

After a couple of innings my cousin would leave the tree and I would follow him out around the parked cars and into the heavily-wooded area behind right field. There was some stray illumination from the arc lights, and not far away, naturally, a grandstand full of people. For all practical purposes, however, we were in a forested wilderness, the sort of wilderness that inspires certain men and women to lie down in front of loggers' trucks to preserve it. Crickets and frogs made their darktime noises, the grass was thick and damp and high and I was uneasy, the way desert people are always uneasy when they are in the woods after dark.

The right-field fence was very nearly a picket fence, the gaps between the boards not quite wide enough to allow a baseball to escape, but easily wide enough for us to enjoy a clear view of the rightfielder, Jacksonville's star home-run hitter and my cousin's hero.

We would lie in the grass and look at his back; read his number, which was my cousin's favorite number; watch him kick at the grass with his hands on his hips—a posture we adopted for every activity from retrieving the mail to confronting arch enemies—and suddenly dart away at the sound of bat and ball action beyond our vision.

That is...we would do these things for an inning or two until my cousin would begin his plea.

He started slowly with the earnest request of the typical young fan demanding attention from his idol.

"Hoss, hey Hoss," he would say. "Throw me a ball."

Hoss, of course, did not reply, and my cousin would certainly have been ashamed of him, a God, if he had replied to so casual a hailing. But he would persist.

"Hoss. Throw me a ball. Come on Hoss. Over here. I'll get it."

Hoss would still not look around as my cousin, tortured, plunged deeper into the sad soliloquy. I cannot adequately transcribe the emotions that floated in the sound of his voice. I was there at his elbow, and I knew there was not a word of honesty, not a centimeter of sincerity in any sentence he spoke, yet I was always spellbound at the melancholy inflection, the neat sob of punctuation he summoned from who knows what reservoir of injustice as he talked to the Great Rightfielder.

"Please Hoss," he would say, his already country voice affecting a hayseed drawl from some obscure hollow. "Please throw me a ball. Hoss, I've got to have a ball. You don't need it. I've got to have it. Come on, Hoss. Please, please, please. Throw me a ball, Hoss. Please. I've just got to have it."

By this time the frogs and crickets were quiet in their own sort of amazement at the performance and Hoss was turning his head to talk to my cousin. He must have been a relatively decent fellow because he did not display any anger. "I can't do it kid," he'd say. "I can't do it."

"Please, Hoss. An old ball. Any old ball. Just throw it over the fence. I've got to have a baseball. Come on, Hoss, I need it. You can get me one. Please Hoss, an old dirty one. Please."

Soon Hoss was edging up toward first base, and we could only imagine his enraged manager coming out of the dugout to chase him back into position while the startled crowd buzzed with concern for their addled star.

Inning after inning, game after game, my cousin egged Hoss for a baseball.

"Oh, God. I've got to have a baseball. Please, God, let me have just one baseball. Hoss, you've got to throw me one. I need it. Please, please, please. Somebody please let me have a baseball. Oh God, why can't I have a baseball like other kids. Please, God."

Occasionally, when my cousin would tire of lying on his stomach, he would turn over on his back, chew on a piece of grass and continue the monologue as though he were reading the lines off the stars.

Thanks to Hoss' saintly character we were never disturbed. The rightfielder was obviously shaken but too proud or too nice to rat on a couple of kids, and so, gradually eroding a place in the grass, we lay there plaguing him during each home stand. Hoss' batting average fell off, possibly because the pitchers were catching on to his lumbering swing but even more likely because of the conscience that whispered to him in right field—the conscience being my cousin. You ask why my cousin tormented his chosen hero, and I reply that I do not know. But I do know that he did. Oscar Wilde had a reason for this in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and perhaps that is the explanation.

And then, on an otherwise undistinguished night, it happened. My cousin, his voice slobbering in tears, had barely opened his mouth when Hoss suddenly ripped a baseball from his hip pocket and tossed it over the fence. The ball dropped with a thump the way a coconut would do if it fell from a tree into rain-mellowed earth. The ball lay there in front of our eyes, brilliantly white, brand-new, GOOD LUCK and HOSS etched in black, bold letters that completely obscured the league president's signature. We could not have been more astonished if Hoss had thrown a water moccasin over the fence or leaped the eight-foot barrier himself.

Stunned, unbelieving, we looked at the baseball for a long time. Then we looked at each other for a long time. Finally my cousin spoke again.

"Hoss," he whined pitifully. "Hey, Hoss. I got to have a ball for my cousin."