He crushed the Whataburger bag and gripped it tightly in his right hand. Ridges of calluses ran the length of his index finger, connecting through the web around the inside of his palm to a gnarled thumb covered with a blackened, concave nail. He squinted at his son through the smoke from his cigarette.
“Your mom tells me you’re quite the ball player.”
“I almost made the All-Star team,” the boy smiled.
“Almost! What the hell good is almost?”
The boy’s smile fell as quickly as sand through the cracks of the building’s old wooden steps. ‘Almost’ was pretty good for a kid who had spent the past five years in Alaska, but he knew better than to bring that up. The fact was, there weren’t a lot of baseball diamonds in Point Barrow. Sometimes guys used to clear off the snow from the parking lot behind the piping depot and shoot baskets, but for eight months out of the year baseball wasn’t an option. The kids in Texas got to play year around.
“I’m not as good as some of these guys —”
“Horseshit,” his father said. “The only reason you’re not as good as those guys is you’re lazy.”
They were sitting on the back steps of the apartment his mom had rented after they returned from Point Barrow. It was an old building with two dilapidated railroad flats — one up, one down — covered with chipped asbestos shingles streaked with rust from the clothesline reels. The concrete yard dead-ended at a plank fence facing a massive K-Mart parking lot across the alley. The flats didn’t look long for the world, which is probably why they were were so cheap. Whether they would fall of their own accord or be scraped by bulldozers to clear the way for more Texas sprawl was an open question. The boy had heard his parents arguing about why she’d rented such a godawful place. He had worked his ass off for five years at forty below, his father shouted, and deserved a little luxury. Luxury, she laughed — what the hell did he know about luxury! But this time, their arguments didn’t end with curses and door slamming and his father disappearing for days. One night he had heard his father talking about “The Program,” and his desire to take the money he’d made in Alaska and invest it in a liquor store and buy a house.
“There’s always money in liquor,” he said. But he had one more job to do. Royal Dutch Shell had hand-picked a team of veterans to run some state-of-the-art platforms off the coast of Norway. When Mom complained, his dad shouted what the hell was he supposed to do — “I’ve got to go where the oil is and it ain’t in Texas any more.” It was the last big field. There wouldn’t be any more like this one, he said, and then he’d be home forever.
The heavy bruise of an impending Gulf storm settled over K-Mart. His father arced the Whataburger bag across the yard, where it disappeared into the battered trash can with a soft thud. “Let’s play some catch.” Jason leaped up and grabbed his glove and a hardball from the shelf on the porch just inside the door. “You don’t have a glove,” he said. Jack Thibodeaux smiled and held up his right hand, as tough and discolored as a slab of leather.
They slipped through a hole in the back fence and set up ninety feet apart in the nearly deserted K-Mart lot. Jason lobbed the ball softly at first, but the throws came back hard and unforgiving. They played without speaking, which was fine for the boy. When his father spoke to him it was usually a complaint or a command: You need a haircut. Pick up your clothes. Get ready for school. They rarely did anything together except eat or ride in cars across godforsaken landscapes — oil fields or expanses of tundra or prairies or swamps about to become oil fields. When his father worked, he worked. When he didn’t work, he slept or drank. But this was something different. There were no complaints, no instructions, no judgments — just the ball rocketing back and forth, and glimmers of surprised contentment passing between them when they caught each other’s eye.
The sound of the ball in the boy’s glove made a sharp retort — against his father’s hand a slap, like a rolled up newspaper. He couldn’t believe his father was playing without a glove; he had been a superb ball player in his day but decided to chase the certainty of Louisiana oil …Texas oil … Alaskan oil rather than the dream of playing professional ball. “Doesn’t it hurt?” His father shook his head. “Throw harder!” he shouted. But the harder Jason threw, the harder it came back. They were at a level he had never played before, back and forth, back and forth in a charged relentless rhythm that Jason could have kept up forever. And then it began to rain. And as it did in Galveston during summer, it began as a deluge and quickly worked its way to a torrent. Wind-driven sheets of water swept across the parking lot, accompanied by fusillades of thunder.
But the ball kept coming. Jason couldn’t believe it, he could barely see, water streamed over his eyes, his glove was soaked, his father was nothing but a slim shade ninety feet away in the downpour. He grinned, filled with a giddy and profound sense of connection with his father.
Then,“Jack! Jason!” his mom cried from the back porch, breaking the reverie. A jagged streak of lightning scarred the sky. The air crackled with a sound like sheet metal ripping apart.
“Lightning!” he shouted to his father. “We should go in!”
“Why, you got a metal plate in your head?”
His dad fired the ball through the rain and Jason speared it, laughing. He couldn’t remember feeling happier, playing his favorite sport and defying the gods back-to-back with his old man. It was like a dream, a promise fulfilled, some kind of payback for the fifteen years of wandering in the desert of his father’s life. Nothing had prepared him for this, just as nothing prepared him for what was to come.
Jack Thibodeaux walked a few steps closer to his son. “I’m going away tomorrow,” he shouted. This was another monumental change. Every other time, he just left. Jason was always the last to know where or why or for how long, just that he was gone. But now it was different. His father cared about him. He was going to do one last job and come home and do it right.
“Mom said you’re going to Norway!” he shouted back.
His father whizzed a fastball to him, low and away. It hit the pavement and skittered past, all the way to the base of the building. Jason chased it down and when he turned to throw it back, his father was gone.