By Michelle Collins Anderson
Michelle Collins Anderson grew up on a registered Angus cattle farm outside of West Plains, Missouri — a place and a way of life that has shaped her writing. She has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and an MFA from Warren Wilson College. Her stories have appeared in Nimrod International Journal, Midwestern Gothic, bosque, Literal Latté, The Lascaux Review, Pooled Ink and Literary Mama. Michelle lives in Liberty, Missouri, with her husband and three children. She is currently seeking representation/publication for her first novel, The Flower Sisters, based on the West Plains dance hall explosion of 1928.
Jenna and her brother Boo belted out “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer” in the back seat of the Pontiac station wagon on the way to the Murphy family’s first-ever Cardinal baseball game. Boo — not quite three and unable to count backwards — screamed the chorus at the top of his lungs: Take one down, pass it around! At ninety-one bottles, their dad barked from the driver’s seat: “Put a lid on it, Pork Chop.”
Jenna almost said, “Put a bottle cap on it,” but she could see her dad was already mad about something. His brown eyes were almost black as he glanced from the rearview mirror to her mother, whom he called “Doodle” because she was such a scatterbrain. In Jenna’s family, there were lots of nicknames. Jenna was “Pork Chop,” even though she didn’t like pork chops at all, or even bacon. Her dad made “Pork Chop” sound sweet, but Jenna had the feeling he was making fun of her for something she couldn’t help: she had always been plain and a little pudgy. Meanwhile, her brother “Boo-Boo” or “Boo” (was it possible to have a nickname for a nickname?) had been a “mistake,” according to her dad, although her mother shushed him when he said that. Even the station wagon — a long yellow banana of a car flanked by dark wooden paneling — was dubbed the “Big Bruiser.” Her father was just “Dad” to Jenna and Boo and “Joe” to her mother. But then, Jenna knew he couldn’t be expected to give a nickname to himself. She was only eight, but she knew that wasn’t how things worked.
“Did you see how they looked at me?” Her father’s eyes were fixed on her mother instead of the road. “That idiot brother-in-law of yours, all tight-lipped at lunch. Mr. Know-It-All. And did you hear your sister? ‘There’s the couch for you, Joe.’ Jesus Christ, what did you tell them?”
Jenna’s mother swiped beneath the bottom rims of her sunglasses with her fingers. She looked glamorous and mysterious with her sunglasses on. Usually she wore them on top of her head, where she often forgot she had them on at all.
“Just ignore it, okay? But,” she added, as if she couldn’t stop herself, “what was I supposed to tell them? That everything was hunky-dory?”
“You called me, remember?” Jenna’s dad glowered a long few seconds before turning his eyes back to the road.
Her mom looked out the window, her long pale neck ending in dark, short hair with little curls, like commas, in front of her ears. She wore a sleeveless white blouse and a denim wraparound skirt because she didn’t have anything red to wear to the game.
“Do I look pretty to you?” she had asked Jenna, posing in the floor length mirror at Aunt Mena and Uncle Ted’s before they left for the game. Jenna said yes, but her mother kept pulling at her blouse and skirt. She leaned in close to the mirror and traced her mouth with bright red lipstick. Then she smacked her lips open and closed like a fish.
“There,” she said, snapping the tube closed.
They had planned to stay at Jenna’s aunt and uncle’s after the game tonight because it was cheaper than a motel. Aunt Mena was her mom’s sister who lived just outside St. Louis, hours away from the Murphys’ little Ozarks town. Jenna’s mom thought it would be nice to visit before the game and spend the night afterwards. Do something “touristy” together on Saturday.
But that was before the big fight.
One night three weeks ago, Jenna was dreaming that she had inched her way down the dark basement stairs and found herself squinting in the sun on an African savannah. A pride of hungry lions stared back at her. She froze, unable to move or scream. One lion shook his mane and opened his mouth, but instead of a roar, her father’s voice came out in a terrible yell. Then Jenna came fully awake and padded on bare feet to her parents’ room. She tried the doorknob but it wouldn’t open. The shouting stopped and she heard her mother sobbing. Her dad opened the door angrily, as if expecting someone else.
“Go back to bed, Pork Chop.”
“I had a bad dream.” Jenna hugged her middle. Her mother was lying on the bed, facing away from the door, her back shuddering with each gulping breath. “Mama?”
“Your mom’s fine. Go back to bed.”
“I’m obviously not fine, Joe.” Her mother rolled over and looked at Jenna with wet, puffy eyes. “Tell her what’s wrong with me.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Doodle.”
“No. Go ahead. I want to hear you say it.” Jenna’s mom sat up slowly, drawing her knees into her chest and reaching for a cigarette. Her hand shook and she knocked over a clutch of empty beer cans on the dresser.
“What the hell’s with you?”
“That’s right, tell her.” She looked at Joe and put the cigarette to her lips. “Tell her how you don’t love me anymore.”
Joe gave an exasperated sigh and hefted Jenna to the middle of the bed. Her nightgown bunched up around her thighs, and the bright light from the single ceiling fixture hurt Jenna’s eyes. It felt like she was in trouble, except she couldn’t remember doing anything wrong.
Her dad exhaled loudly. “Okay. Here’s the deal. You know your mom and I love you. And Boo. Right?” He seemed to be waiting for Jenna to respond, but her brain felt fuzzy and she couldn’t figure out what he wanted her to say.
“Anyway. We’ve decided it’s best if your mom and I aren’t married anymore.”
“Ha!” But her mother’s laugh wasn’t really a laugh. “Best for you and what’s-her-name.”
“Doodle, goddamn it. Don’t. We said we’d make it nice. For the kids.”
“I didn’t agree to anything. To any of this.” Jenna’s mother’s hands fluttered around her face like frantic white birds. “Remember that, Jenna. This is all your father.”
Jenna looked from one angry face to the other. Her stomach hurt.
“Can I have some Chips Ahoy?” she asked, though the pain didn’t feel like a hungry hurt.
Joe snorted. “That’s my girl,” he said. He swooped her off the bed and boosted her onto his shoulders, where she leaned precariously until he grasped her shins and righted her.
“C’mon, Pork Chop. Let’s go get some cookies.”
Over the next few days, there had been more loud, tearful arguments. One had to do with furniture: Jenna’s mom did not want their bed anymore. She took it apart and dragged all the pieces out into the front yard like they were having a yard sale. Then, two days later, she pulled it all back inside, though she hadn’t yet put the bed back together. She slept on the mattress on the floor, while Joe stayed on the couch.
The other fight was about money. Jenna got the idea that she and Boo were expensive, and that Joe didn’t want to pay for them. Or pay enough. That one ended with Joe slamming the front door and driving off for a few hours. The next day Jenna had followed him around the house solemnly as he packed his clothes, shoes, shaving kit and radio into a black trash bag, its slick black surface distended with lumps and sharp edges.
“For Christ’s sake, Pork Chop,” he said, twisting the top of the bag in a half-effort to keep it closed. “You look like your best friend just died.”
“How will I listen to the Cardinals without the radio?”
Joe squatted down to look her in the eyes. He reached one hand toward her cheek and pinched it, giving the chub of flesh a little shake. “It will be okay.”
So things had gotten quieter at home. Jenna noticed it at the beauty shop where her mom worked, too. Her mom did hair on Friday afternoons and evenings and all day Saturday, so Jenna and Boo had to hang around until Joe got off work. They listened as her mom raged about Joe to the women who took turns in her chair, nodding their wet heads set in foils or giant pink curlers.
But after a while, Jenna began hearing something different in the beauty shop women’s voices; a tone slightly needly under their words, like a splinter you can’t see. Like they were more interested in Joe than her mom. Her mom must have heard it, too, because one night she told Jenna that it might be okay for Joe to come back.
“If he’s really sorry,” she said. “Because I do still love him. He may be an asshole, but he’s my asshole.”
Jenna didn’t think that sounded like love, but she did want her dad back. So when her mom called Joe to suggest they take the trip to St. Louis after all, she was thrilled her dad said yes. He had already bought the four tickets and asked off from the garage where he worked, he said. And Jenna’s mom had made the plans with her sister months ago.
“It’s a chance to start over,” Jenna overheard her mom say, as she pulled the dome of a dryer down over a customer’s steel gray hair wrapped in purple plastic rollers.
“You two have to be really, really good,” Jenna’s mom said before Joe had picked them up for the drive to St. Louis. “No fighting or crying. No begging for stuff. Or peeing or pooping your pants,” she added, with a sharp look at Boo.
Jenna felt hopeful inside, like she had swallowed a shiny bubble, floaty and beautiful.
The Big Bruiser was on Highway 40 now, and Jenna could see the Gateway Arch in the July haze, a silver rainbow with the tiniest of rectangular windows at the top. In an instant, the arch disappeared as the highway ducked beneath another, throwing the station wagon into shadow as they closed in on downtown. Joe braked as the traffic thickened and pulled the car sharply into the exit lane. Jenna’s mother stiffened.
“I wish you’d watch where you’re going,” she said, gripping the door.
“See me getting into any accidents?” Joe sped up on purpose, braking at the last second at the bottom of the ramp. Boo rolled to the floor with a thump and started crying.
“Joe!” Jenna’s mother reached through the gap in the front seats, feeling around for Boo behind her. “You’re okay, baby.”
Boo climbed back onto his seat, still blubbering. He had just started wearing “big boy pants.” Jenna was glad because poopy diapers smelled awful. But now they spent lots of time in bathrooms. Between her mother making Boo pee every hour and him loving the novelty of different restrooms, Jenna was pottied out.
Jenna saw a brown sign to Busch Stadium and then they were on a street lined with buildings so tall she had to tilt her head all the way back to see the tops.
“There’s a parking lot.” Jenna’s mother pointed to a large hand-painted sign propped outside an asphalt lot. Her dad shook his head.
“I’m not paying ten bucks for parking,” he said.
“But we’ve got the kids, water . . .” Her mother sighed. “Please. Let’s not hike ten miles.”
He kept driving until they came to a lot that was empty except for a broken-down car. Joe slammed his door closed and threw open the back of the station wagon; the rest of the family stretched and yawned. Jenna felt relieved to be out of the car. But she could not see Busch Stadium anywhere. Jenna knew they would all have to carry something, except Boo, who would himself be carried on their father’s shoulders. She felt a stab of envy.
Her mother gripped a large straw purse and had the mint green diaper bag slung over one shoulder — with wipes and extra briefs — “just in case.” She held Boo’s hand as he stood blinking in the smoldering sunlight. The asphalt felt warm and sticky beneath Jenna’s thin sandals, as if it had been liquid earlier in the afternoon. It wasn’t that much cooler now. Jenna was glad she had on her sleeveless red top, the one that stretched over her sticky-out tummy with the matching polyester shorts that were just the slightest bit tight.
Joe unscrewed the lid from the dark green gallon jug and poured out an inch of water, careful not to spill the ice cubes floating on top.
“What are you doing?” Jenna’s mother asked. “It’s almost game time.”
Joe reached into a Styrofoam cooler, grabbing an awkward fistful of beer cans. He dropped three into the depths of the jug, tightened the cap and handed the whole thing to Jenna.
“Come on. You’re kidding, right?” Her mother was pleading half-heartedly, like she was already resigned to letting Joe have his way. “You’re making your daughter sneak in your beer?”
“You don’t seem to mind drinking it.” He reached for the diaper bag and shoved two more cans beneath the clothes. Her mother’s face clouded over, like she was making a hard decision. Finally, she lifted Boo under the armpits and placed him on Joe’s shoulders.
“You kids ready to have some fun?”
It was a long walk. Jenna’s mom and dad and Boo were out in front, while Jenna trudged behind, trying to match the slosh of the ice in the jug with the slap, slap of her sandals on the sidewalk. She thought what a nice picture the three of them made, her little brother a mix of her mother’s dark hair and her dad’s curls. She noticed her mother wind a finger through one of Joe’s belt loops. Joe didn’t look at her, but he didn’t shake her off, either.
The hard plastic handle began to wear a blister on Jenna’s hand. She tried to distract herself by thinking about the cotton candy her dad had promised her. Jenna had decided on pink.
“Ball!” Boo was pointing a finger at the ballpark stadium, which had just become visible as the Murphys crossed another street. They joined the crowds of people streaming toward the ballpark like salmon, their red t-shirted bellies and ball caps bouncing as they walked.
“That’s right, Boo-Boo. Ball.” Jenna’s dad seemed happier, and her mom paused to let Jenna catch up. She took the water jug.
“Let me carry it for a while,” she said, patting Jenna on the head while she smiled up at Joe. Jenna’s sweating scalp had soaked her thin blond hair and her shorts were riding up. She tugged the stretchy material out of the crack of her bottom.
Jenna had seen Busch Stadium plenty of times on TV. From the aerial shots, it looked like a bundt pan or a hubcap, with scallops cut out of the top edge that showed the sky. But up close, it seemed more like a giant alien spaceship had landed in downtown St. Louis.
Her mom handed back the water right before they reached the ticket takers. Jenna pushed her way through the greasy metal bar of the turnstile. A man with a badge asked to see her mother’s purse. He didn’t touch the diaper bag. No one asked to see Jenna’s water, either. Her dad smirked as he took the jug from her. Then he was walking faster up the cement ramp, a lightness in his gait, even with the added weight of the water and Boo still on his shoulders, grabbing Joe’s thick blond hair in his fist like a saddlehorn.
Jenna scrambled to keep up. They went up and up and around and around in the breezeless heat, past impatient people lined up for last-minute snacks, past the beer booths and the t-shirt vendors. Jenna smelled buttered popcorn and stale beer; she heard the hiss of brats on a grill. Joe stopped to buy a scorecard, and Jenna spied a cotton candy booth where a stooped old man sat twirling a paper cone in a giant bowl. His apron was smeared with blue and pink. The man caught Jenna’s eye and winked. She pulled at her dad’s shirt, but he was already moving.
Their seats were near the top of the upper deck overlooking third base. It was so high that the baseball field looked pretend, the size of a postcard. Jenna felt dizzy. Her dad set Boo down, and he scrambled into their row, folding down a seat. There was no one around them. Two rows farther up, an old man without any teeth sat eating popcorn. He nodded at Joe and gave Jenna’s mom a smile that was mostly wet popcorn.
“We paid all that money for this?” Her mother surveyed the stadium through her large black sunglasses. Jenna could see herself in them, round and rumpled.
“C’mon. We’re worth it.”
Jenna’s mom seemed to consider this. “I would have thought we were worth a little more.”
“Sit down and have a cold one, why don’t you? Pork Chop, hand me a beer.” Jenna could tell her dad wasn’t going to let her mom ruin his good mood. He plopped down beside Boo, while her mother pushed past Jenna to take the seat beside Joe, frowning.
Jenna sat next to her mom, the backs of her thighs sticking to the seat. She unscrewed the cap of the jug and fished around until she found a can, the icy water sending shooting pains up her arm. She reached across her mother’s lap to place the beer in Joe’s outstretched hand.
The Star Spangled Banner started up, sounding tinnier this far away than it did on the radio. Joe stood, hand slapped over his heart. Jenna got up, too, but Boo and her mother just stayed put. The sun was setting, giving the arch a rosy pink glow above the stadium.
Jenna’s mom sniffled quietly. “This is stupid.”
“Just try to have a good time. For the kids, for Christ’s sake.”
“But what about me? What about us?” Jenna’s mom’s voice wavered. “If I had known this was all I would be missing, I would’ve let you have my ticket. God.”
She sank back into her seat, but the air had gone out of her, like an old birthday balloon. She started to cry. “But then you would have taken her.”
“I’m here with you now, aren’t I?”
“Don’t call me that.”
Jenna’s mom watched Joe with wet, hopeful eyes and seemed to be waiting for him to say something more. But he just took another long gulp of Bud and wiped his mouth on his t-shirt. Then he unfolded the scorecard and started filling in the lineups with the stunted, eraserless pencil that came with it. Boo climbed over him, reaching for his mother.
“Goddamn it, Boo. You’re wrinkling my program.”
“Be still,” Jenna’s mother warned Boo without much enthusiasm. She tried to force him to sit on her lap, but he arched against her. She let him slide out of her grasp. Boo, surprised to be free, stood unsteadily for a moment before starting toward the steep cement stairs.
“Can we get something to eat?” Jenna’s mom asked.
“Already?” Joe grouched. “I told you I didn’t bring a lot of cash. Christ! A leadoff double. Motherfu–.”
He stuck the scorecard between his seat and one leg as he dug into the pocket of his jeans for a crumpled twenty. Joe tossed the bill toward Jenna’s mom without even looking at her, like she was a waitress. Jenna’s mom acted like she didn’t notice. “What would you like, babe?” she asked. Jenna snapped her head around; she hadn’t heard her mom call Joe that for weeks.
“I guess I’ll have a Coke if you’re going.”
“Perfect. I’ll take Boo.” Her mother was already up three stairs when Jenna remembered.
“Can I have my cotton candy, Dad?” Jenna wasn’t hungry yet, but she was worried they might run out of money. “Mama?”
Her mother stopped without turning around and sighed. “What color?”
Jenna considered going along. She didn’t trust her mother to remember the right color, even after being told. But she didn’t want to miss the game. Or being with her dad.
The Cardinals were playing the L.A. Dodgers, and Jenna knew a few of their players: Ron Cey, Bill Russell, and Steve Garvey. But she knew all the Cardinals by heart, and their stats, too. She had spent almost every evening of her summers sitting next to her dad on the couch, or outside on the porch swing, listening to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon do the play-by-play on the radio while her dad drank beer and offered his own commentary. He was unquestionably loyal to the Cardinals, but his affection for any one player was fickle and moody. He had a short memory when someone hit a rough patch. Jenna would argue to keep the faith in a reliever or hitter, but her dad would say “Yeah, but what has he done for me lately, Pork Chop?” He would pat her shoulder and call her his “devil’s advocate,” which sounded scary but important.
Jenna liked all the Cardinals, but if asked her favorite, she always said Lou Brock. He was a great leadoff hitter and could steal like crazy. He was humble, too, with a shy smile that made him seem as surprised as anybody when he put one over on the catcher or pitcher.
Secretly, though, Ted Simmons was her true favorite, but it felt naughty to like him. He wore No. 23 and had longish black hair and a bad temper. She read his lips on TV after he struck out; he was not “rated G” was how her mom put it. He knew lots of the same swear words as her dad, actually. She liked that he batted “clean up.” You could rely on Ted Simmons — “Simba,” her Dad called him — for an RBI when there were men on base. He could homer, too.
Jenna wished they had binoculars. She couldn’t make out the players’ faces like on TV. Her dad had finished his second beer and cracked open another after moving the lukewarm cans from the diaper bag to the water jug. “Come here, Pork Chop. Let me show you something.”
Jenna moved into her mom’s vacated seat while her dad smoothed out the scorecard with his hand, careful not to smudge the pencil marks. She saw the tiny baseball diamonds in every space. He showed her how to mark the double, carefully tracing the path from home to first to second. A ground out was next, which he said was written 4-3, because the second baseman was considered player four and he threw the ground ball to the first baseman, player three. The man at second had advanced to third on the play. Then a fielder’s choice — FC on the scorecard — got the runner out at home. Jenna paid close attention: one on at first, two outs. The Dodger’s catcher was up now. Then a wild pitch: WP. The runner scampered to second.
Her father grew agitated. Jenna held her breath. The crack of the bat on the ball startled her, the eerie way it sounded so long after the batter appeared to make contact.
“Holy shit! You can kiss that one goodbye.” Joe put both hands over his eyes before collecting himself. “Well, Pork Chop. We’re in one ‘mell of a hess,’ as my daddy used to say.”
He rolled up one leg of his jeans, revealing a bulging tube sock, and removed a flask from the elastic band.
“Where’s your mom with my Coke? Unbelievable.” He paused. “Porks, listen. This thing with me and your mom. You know you can count on me, right?”
But Jenna’s eyes were fixed on the game. She didn’t like it when her dad drank anything besides beer. It made him selfish, like a bratty kid. She didn’t think she could answer his question anyway. Jenna did not know if she could count on him; she thought probably not. Already she missed crawling into bed between her parents, feeling safe surrounded by their warm, yeasty smells. She usually only did it after a nightmare or if there was lightning. But knowing she couldn’t wedge herself into their double bed if she wanted to made her sad. She had a feeling there were other things she would miss, too; things she hadn’t even thought of yet.
“Mama loves you,” she blurted out. At first, she thought Joe didn’t hear her, but when she stole a look at him, he was waiting for her to go on.
“Did she say that?” He seemed surprised and pleased, leaning back and letting his knees fall open. “Ha. Interesting. What else?”
“C’mon, Pork Chop. You can tell me.” He grinned his charming lop-sided smile. Jenna’s thoughts churned; she wanted desperately to retrieve something that would make him happy.
“She said that you were her asshole.”
Her dad’s eyebrows shot up. “That sounds about right,” he said grimly, narrowing his eyes and swigging straight out of the flask.
Jenna face flushed and she felt a familiar aching in her throat that always preceded tears. She had said the wrong thing or hadn’t said it right. The words didn’t sound the same as when her mother had said them.
The Dodgers got another man on with a single to right, and he promptly stole second. She recognized Steve Garvey as he came to the plate and singled neatly to centerfield, sending the runner home.
Joe took another drink, scribbling furiously in the scorecard. “Jesus. Three to nothing!”
A ground out finished off the Dodgers and Jenna’s mom was back, easing into their row with Boo on one hip and a cardboard tray with a brat and giant pretzel in her other hand. Boo had a Cardinals hat on top of his curls.
“What the hell?” Joe nodded at the cap. But his attention was back to the field as Lou Brock hit a lead-off single.
Jenna’s mom shrugged. “Isn’t he cute?” She took the brat and passed the pretzel to Jenna. “I thought you could share with Boo.”
Jenna’s throat tightened. She didn’t like pretzels.
“Where’s my cotton candy?” she asked in a small voice, although she knew the answer.
“Oh, Jenna. I knew I forgot something. Boo had to pee and when we got out of the bathroom, he saw the hats and then I got the food and . . .” Her mother made a dismissive gesture, as if to say “what can you do?”
Jenna blinked a couple of times and widened her eyes, trying to keep them from spilling over. Joe would yell at her and Boo for crying, even if it was over something they couldn’t help, like a skinned knee.
“There he goes!” Her dad leaped up, nearly knocking the pretzel out of the box, waving his arm around like the third-base coach. There was no touching Lou. Safe. SB: Stolen base.
“Did you see that?” Joe wobbled slightly as he reached back to push down his seat. “Wait. What’s going on, Porks?”
“The stupid cotton candy,” her mom said. “I can’t remember everything.”
“How about anything? Like my goddamn Coke?”
Jenna’s mom looked surprised. Then her jaw tightened. “Get your own goddamn Coke.”
“I believe I goddamn will.” Joe put his arm awkwardly around Jenna. “Don’t cry. Jesus. I’ll get your cotton candy in a while, okay?”
But Joe kept his eyes on the game, as if he wished he were on the field, not here where she was at all.
“How about that, Pork Chop? The Cardinals just scored.”
The Cardinals tied it up in the fifth. An error by the Dodger third baseman had set up a two-run homer. Ted Simmons hadn’t had much of a night so far, though. A ground out and a pop fly. Then he had hit into a double play. But Jenna felt the Cards might pull it out. It was a new ballgame now, her dad told her.
In the meantime, Joe had emptied his flask and all the contraband beers were gone.
“What’s the matter?” Jenna’s mom had finally asked, after the argument about the Coke and the inning of silence that followed. “This can’t be about a stupid soda.”
“What do you think is wrong, Doodle?” He didn’t look at her.
“I don’t know.”
“I guess I’m just being an asshole then. Your asshole,” he laughed a little too loudly, his mouth wide open, loose and wet. “But not for long.”
Jenna’s mom looked confused for a few seconds. Then she coolly remade her face and turned her gaze to Jenna, who squirmed. Her mom’s face grew hard.
“Well, praise the fucking lord,” she said, moving abruptly to the aisle seat. Boo was on her lap, then off; up the stairs and down. He crouched and made a pile of popcorn kernels and trash he found beneath the seats, his hands and face streaked with dirt. Jenna’s mother didn’t notice. She smoked cigarette after cigarette, perking up only to flirt with the greasy-haired beer man. She slowly crossed her long smooth legs as he poured a foamy Busch into a plastic cup.
“You want some of that?” Joe asked the beer man, nodding at Jenna’s mom. “Go ahead. Help yourself.”
“Screw you, Joe,” her mother said. Jenna thought the beer man looked embarrassed.
“I’d like some,” the toothless old man piped up. Joe ignored him.
“Let’s go, Pork Chop.” Her dad started to get up but couldn’t on the first try. Then he unfolded himself from his seat and started down the aisle, Jenna trailing behind. “Excuse me,” he said to her mom when they reached the end of the row, as though she were just some stranger.
“Take Boo. I’ve about had it with him. With this whole thing.” Her mother pulled her knees to one side as they squeezed past without touching her.
“C’mon, Boo-Boo.” He scooped the boy up and put him under his arm like a log. They reached the concourse and Joe set Boo on his feet, which were somehow missing their sandals.
“Potty!” Boo announced, grabbing his pants and holding himself.
“What?” Joe turned in a slow circle. He seemed dazed by the lights and the crowd that moved fluidly past them like a river closing around a sand bar. “Seriously, Boo?” He sighed. “Number one or number two?”
Boo’s brow furrowed in concentration as he held up a starfish hand and carefully folded the pinky beneath his thumb. “Free.”
“Free? What the hell is he saying, Pork Chop?”
Jenna was losing patience. Didn’t her dad know anything?
“Three,” Jenna said. Her father stared open-mouthed, uncomprehending, as if Jenna was speaking another language. “Number three. He needs to do both. Number one and number two.”
“Jesus Christ. Okay.” He grabbed Boo’s hand. “Which way?”
Jenna pointed out the sign for the men’s room where the concourse curved and seemed to disappear. Her dad squinted and shook his head.
“Alrighty then,” he said, and started for the restroom. He turned back to look at Jenna, who hadn’t moved. “I guess you better wait here.”
She watched them shuffle off hand-in-hand, her father leaning slightly to one side because he couldn’t stand straight or Boo was so short, she wasn’t sure which. They vanished into a doorway and Jenna turned her attention to the hustle-bustle of the concourse. She smelled hamburgers and her stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten since lunch, except for choking down a bite of pretzel. She wished her father had given her money. Boo would be forever in the bathroom with all he had to do in there. Maybe she could find the cotton candy and then lead her dad there when he finally got out with Boo.
Jenna looked around. She didn’t think they had come in the way her dad had just gone. She remembered walking by the women’s bathroom, which was the opposite way. Jenna walked slowly, trying to memorize where she was, where they had climbed the steps to reach the concourse. There was the popcorn vendor’s red-and-gold cart. The beer stand. The hot dog man.
She rounded another bend and nearly ran into a giant cardinal holding a bat. Jenna had never seen such a big stuffed animal and wondered if it was someone in costume. But the bird — with its Cardinal hat and jersey — had freaky fake eyes instead of eyeholes and didn’t flinch when she touched its beak. Behind the bird, the small souvenir store practically exploded with Cardinal shirts, pennants, baseballs and gloves. There were rows of hats like the one Boo got, too. But the baby cardinals by the entrance were what drew her in.
A fake tree stump held an oversized nest made from sticks and paper mâché that was filled with plush red, black-masked birds. A stylish woman and a girl with smooth blond hair in a red bow stood at the display. The girl pointed at first one, then another of the birds, her mother patiently lifting out each one in turn. Jenna edged up to the nest and reached for a bird, too.
She had never felt anything so soft. Jenna stroked the bird’s red fur with the tip of one of her chewed nails, delighted at the line she made, a velvety path that could be easily smoothed away and retraced. The bird had a tiny white St. Louis Cardinal’s t-shirt and fit perfectly in the palm of her hand. The eyes were not fake or crazy, but knowing. As if the bird understood her.
“I want this one, Mommy,” the girl finally said. “And I want a megaphone, too.”
Jenna waited for the mother to get angry with the girl for being so greedy. But to her amazement, the woman laughed. She reached for her daughter’s hand and headed to the register. Jenna had forgotten about paying. The sticker on the cardinal’s shirt said “$9.99.”
Even if she asked her dad for the bird instead of cotton candy, it was too much.
She was just about to place the cardinal back in the nest when she saw the sign by the ball caps: $14.99. Jenna felt an odd twinge and her face began to burn. Before she could think, she had stretched up her shirt and tucked the cardinal inside the sweaty waistband of her shorts.
“Isn’t that just the cutest little thing ever?”
Jenna eyes widened in alarm, but the lady behind the register was talking to the mother and daughter, placing their bird in a small, white-handled sack. Jenna turned her lumpy front away from the register. She could see the giant Cardinal outside the store. She took a breath and made her way outside, counting her steps to distract herself from thinking about getting caught. One, two, three. . . would someone tell her parents? Four, five, six… would she go to jail?
Out on the concourse once more, Jenna released her breath, her heart pounding beneath her shirt. She moved quickly away from the souvenir store. She reached into her waistband and drew out the cardinal, damp and disheveled. Jenna couldn’t believe he was hers, the giddy, sparkly feeling inside her overcoming the sick knowledge that she had stolen him.
Jenna rounded another bend and there it was: the cotton candy. She recognized the old man with the colorfully stained apron and shyly made her way up to the machine. He was hanging pillows of cotton candy in plastic bags on the silver poles attached to the cart.
“Ah, I see you are back.” The man had a thick gray-black mustache that turned down around his mouth, making him look sad even when he smiled. “I think you forget about me, eh? I see you like the cotton candy, too.” He patted the sizable stomach beneath his tight apron.
Jenna colored and nodded, stretching her shirt down self-consciously. The crowd inside the stadium cheered, and she wondered vaguely what she might have missed. And who was keeping the scorecard? Maybe she should find her dad and Boo.
“I show you how to make the cotton candy. You like pink. Am I right?”
The man laughed a throaty chuckle as he reached for a carton the size of a half-gallon of milk. He pulled a worn, three-legged stool toward the machine and sat. Then he poured a stream of neon pink sugar into the bowl and slid a paper cone off a nearby stack.
Jenna was mesmerized. Fuzzy puffs began to build around the bowl’s perimeter before breaking off and blowing across the bottom like hot pink tumbleweeds. The man edged the cone around the bowl, twisting it so the wafting sugar attached in even tufts.
“Can I try?” she whispered, almost afraid to break the spell of the magical machine. The old man laughed, his mustache wiggling, and handed her a cone. Jenna reached for it, shifting the cardinal from her right hand to her left.
“Like this.” The man stood close behind her and guided her sweaty hand with his. The sugar began to stick to the cone as they twisted it around, until it looked like a clown wig. It was perfect, a warm pink nest of spun sugar.
“There you are!” Jenna jumped at her mother’s voice. She was marching toward them, a security guard on her heel, Joe with a hangdog look and Boo on his hip a few steps further behind. Jenna had never seen her mother so angry, her beautiful face red and contorted.
“What are you doing?” Jenna’s mom was beside her and the cotton candy man, her breath coming out in hard puffs. She clutched Jenna’s closest arm, her fingers encircling the plump bicep. Jenna panicked and dropped both the cotton candy and the stuffed bird into the bowl.
Jenna’s mother released her hold on Jenna, leaving a white bloodless handprint. Off balance, Jenna fell on her bottom, her polyester shorts clinging to the rough surface of the concrete floor, tearing a series of tiny runs in the seat. Her chest felt as if she’d swallowed a baseball. Then she was pulled off the ground and into the strong arms of the security guard.
“Are you okay?” His eyes were very blue. “Your parents were pretty worried.”
Jenna nodded her head. But his kindness unloosened the hard lump in her chest and tears began to leak out of the corners of her eyes. “I . . . dropped my bird.”
The cardinal sat ensnared in a web of pink sugar. The guard put Jenna down gently and reached into the machine, retrieving the bird with his thumb and forefinger.
“Where did you get that?” Jenna’s mom looked suspicious. “You don’t have any money.” Then she looked daggers at the cotton candy man. “You sicko.”
The security guard knelt down by Jenna. “Is this your bird, Jenna? Did you buy it?” His tone of voice suggested that he already knew the answer to the question.
“Did he give it to you?” Jenna’s mom was in the cotton candy man’s face, poking him in the chest with her index finger. “Is that how you lure kids in? Toys? Candy?”
The man held out his pink-and-blue-stained hands in confusion.
“Settle down, ma’am.” The guard had stepped between Jenna’s mom and the cotton candy man. A small, curious crowd had begun to form, sensing trouble or entertainment or both.
“Settle down? He had his hands and God knows what else on her and I . . .”
“Jenna?” The security guard’s eyes were trying to hold hers and he had a slight frown. She scanned all the faces — the guard, her mom, the cotton candy man — all turned toward her, all wanting different answers. But she wasn’t going to talk. She would just go to jail.
“It’s hers. I bought it for her.” Joe took a half step forward out of the crowd. Jenna had almost forgotten about him. He gave her a nod, as if they were on the same team.
“What?” This incensed Jenna’s mom even further. “Oh, I get it. If I spend money, it’s a stupid waste. If you spend it, you’re Father of the Year.”
“Doodle, listen.” Joe tried to edge his way into the circle, Boo wide-eyed by his side. “This man found her, took care of her, for Christ’s sake. We should be thanking him.”
“What the hell do you know? You fucking lost her in the first place.” She pleaded her case with the crowd. “He took her brother to the bathroom, left her outside and forgot her.”
“All right. Everyone take a breath,” the security guard said. “Let’s be grownups.”
Jenna’s mom seemed subdued by his reprimand, crossing her arms over her chest and shifting her weight from one manicured, sandaled foot to the other. “I can’t believe this,” she muttered.
The crowd broke up. The show was over. Joe just shrugged. For his part, Boo was holding up one finger, pee running down his bare legs unchecked and soaking into Joe’s jeans. Joe didn’t even notice.
“I’m just going to take down some information before you all leave.” The security guard pushed his hat further back onto his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “But you need to keep a better eye on your kiddos. This is the big city, you know?”
As soon as they were out of sight of the guard, Jenna’s mom yanked her arm until Jenna thought it would pop from its socket. She was too surprised to cry.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” her mother bent down and whispered thickly. “Disappear and don’t tell anyone where you’re going. Just like your dad.”
Back at their seats, her father shrank back into his seat, unable or unwilling to look at the rest of them. Jenna saw the trampled, beer-stained scorecard beneath his feet. She paused at the end of the row with her sticky red bird, unsure what to do next. Her mother stood stiffly beside her, holding a soggy, sleeping Boo against her chest. Organ music swelled from the stands below and the crowd answered back: Da-da-da-da-ta-da… Charge!
Her mom and Boo were leaving. She had called Aunt Mena from a pay phone on their way back to the seats and she would be arriving outside any minute. Jenna could either come along or stay. “I don’t really give a damn,” her mother said.
Jenna looked down at the ruined bird, its red plush gummy with sugar that had blackened from the grime on her hands. She looked at her disheveled, pee-stained father, who — over the course of the evening — had become everything he hated in everyone else: Ordinary. A forgetter. A mistake.
“Pork Chop? We’re going to extra innings.”
Jenna could not have told anyone why. But in that hot, sticky moment in July, 1978, with the stadium lights buzzing and her mother’s foot tapping impatiently, she decided to stay. Maybe it was the way the little cardinal looked at her with its reproachful eyes (she would end up cramming the bird in the crack of the folded, empty seat beside her and leaving it). But later — much later — Jenna will think that perhaps her decision had more to do with the hopefulness of those extra innings, when the score was tied and anything was possible. A whole new ballgame. Of course, she could not have known how it would turn out: the Dodgers taking a one-run lead in the top of the fifteenth and the Cardinals with a chance to win it with one on, two out, and Ted Simmons swaggering to the plate.
What Jenna will remember is standing beside her dad. And how the remaining crowd — the diehards, those who had stayed on as the clock inched toward midnight — stood, too, clapping and cheering Simba on, going wild as he brought back his bat and swung like a king. How there was the sharp crack of the bat and the collective intake of breath as the ball went up, up, up until Jenna lost it in the lights. Then after what felt like minutes or hours or days, the center fielder’s glove closed with an efficient snap and the long, grueling game was finally over.