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I loved a drunk for twenty years, once. I loved the casual way he leaned on his bat and the easy way he laughed at himself, and the eager way he smiled at me with those eyes the color of Texas Bluebonnets. I loved him with the innocence you have when you are nineteen, when you know everything and nothing, when the hellos are intense, the goodbyes, desperate. And I loved him with the appreciation you have when you are seasoned, when the loving is deep and rich, and you believe thatis the reason God gave humans long lives. Later, and still, when the house fills with the smell of Christmas, I feel the warmth of his chest against mine, and the ache is always wild and sweet and almost more than I can bear.
Neal Ball. Shortstop. Number 11. Being a letterman, his name is in the paper every week, maybe because he reports sports. Probably because he is a natural-born athlete. Being an artist, my name is never in the paper, except for my illustrations, which everyone ignores unless I draw cartoons.
One day the baseball team wears navy blazers for the big game against the Catholics across town. Neal comes to journalism class overjoyed about getting his blue-and-white striped tie perfectly even on the ends. I do not know why that is important to him, but say, Congratulations.
That afternoon, even though everyone including the starting pitcher wears a tie, they are shutout 7-0. Neal goes 0 for 4 and two ground balls roll right between his legs and into left field.
The next day, I draw a cartoon and give it to Neal. I am afraid he will rip it to pieces but he laughs so hard he is almost in tears and goes around showing it to everyone, including the relief pitcher. In the cartoon, Neal lassos a line drive with his blue-and-white striped tie.
Neal says, "Mr. Avellone will love this, Ruthie."
So I show Mr. Avellone, who, on a good day, ignores me, and he says, "It's too controversial."
So I say. "White men with rope neckties in Mississippi are controversial."
He yells, "Get out and don't come back."
I gather my books, trying to smile, and everyone stares as I walk out the door.
Neal falls all over himself, apologizing and telling Mr. Avellone the cartoon was his idea, but Mr. Avellone gives me a C. For Controversial, Neal says.
At graduation, Neal writes in my yearbook, "You're different and that's good."
But it is natural for us to lose touch. We never ran in the same crowd, really.
So we go away to different colleges.
He to Boston. Me to Chicago.
One summer evening, I am just home from college, sitting on the front porch, the setting sun warm on my bare arms and here comes Neal, carrying a beer and a radio.
"The Tigers are playing the Red Sox," he says, like it has been two days instead of two years since we have seen each other.
"What's the score?" I ask without hesitation.
He grins like a nine-year-old boy holding Mickey Mantle's autograph, and says, "The Yankees have offered me a contract."
I know why that is important to him and say, Congratulations.
When I show him my illustrations for the college newspaper, he says half-teasing, "What would Mr. Avellone say?"
"Mr. Avellone died in May." I say, half-serious, "I think I killed him."
Neal looks at the empty street. "I'm watching Catfish Hunter pitch against Minnesota. Twenty-seven batters, twenty-seven outs. No runs, no hits, no one gets on base. May 8, 1968. The first perfect game in the American League in forty-six years. Then my sister calls and says `Mom is dead.'"
I do not know what to say, so I say nothing.
He looks at me, his eyes glistening, "I'm packing for the funeral and the coach comes to my room and slides twenty dollars in my jacket. He has tears in his eyes, Ruthie, and he puts his arm around my shoulder and says, `I know about winning the World Series, Neal. I don't know anything about losing your Mom when you are nineteen.'"
We rock on the wooden porch swing, the chains creaking like the wheels on a slow-moving freight train and the game on the radio sounding lonesome and far away. We sit there a long time, trying to understand a world where your Mom is not cheering for you anymore.
That night, I lay awake wondering why, after all this time, Neal has come around, and I am glad he is home.
I invite Neal for Sunday dinner and he wears his navy blazer and blueandwhite striped tie. I wear a yellow dress and a yellow ribbon in my hair. All summer, he appears for Sunday dinner and afterwards we sit on the front porch, playing poker and listening to the Tiger's game on the radio.
In September, we return to college.
In October, the Tigers steal the World Series from the Cardinals, four games to three.
On a frosty morning that could burst the tender buds of spring, I walk into McCoy's Farm Market looking for a summer job. Old man McCoy does not hire girls because a boy's attention tends to drift when a distraction walks by wearing a tight tee-shirt and he does not want to pay Workmen's Compensation for a farmhand who noses the tractor into a ditch. But I can lift a bag of seed and drive a truck, so he hires me and while Marvin Gaye sings about spending all his time just thinking about his baby, I pitch tons of manure and plant acres of corn.
June passes and Neal does not come home from Boston. I think the worst. I think he has been drafted. Every night I come home hot and tired. Every night the war comes home on the evening news. First the war, then the scores. I cannot bear to watch and I cannot bring myself to look away.
In August, Neal finally comes walking up the porch steps, carrying a fifth of Johnny Walker Red, and I say, "God. You're home."
Because I see tired in his eyes, I kiss him quick, on the cheek, and he kisses me slow and easy and forever and it seems natural and comfortable and I do not think about what I will do, or what he will do, and for that matter, I do not care.
Neal needs a job, so I ask Mr. McCoy if he needs an extra hand.
Without looking up from his newspaper, he says, "No."
But he is reading the box scores, from both leagues, so I say, "He's a ball player."
"The best shortstop I ever saw was Lou Boudreau of the Indians. Clean, smooth. A pleasure to watch."
Then, as if he is looking at an old photograph album, he says, "I pitched in the Carolina League before the war."
Then, as if he has snapped the album shut, he says, "Your shortstop can start tomorrow."
I ask, "What was your ERA?"
He winks at me and says like he is saluting the flag, "1.48."
On mornings as sticky as orange marmalade, we harvest acres of corn. In the evening, we watch baseball. Sometimes the Tigers. Sometimes sandlot. We do not know the players, but that is not important. It is the game. One night, we watch a Little League game. The air is hot and still. We sit in lawn chairs, away from the bleachers where parents criticize the coaches and harass the umpire. During a close double play, the fans shout and cheer, then become listless. Neal says, like a fly ball has dropped out of the sky and hit him on the head, "The kid playing shortstop, he might never play in the majors. But tonight, he's going home happy. And ten years from now, he'll remember this night and exactly how good he felt."
I touch my hand to his cheek, afraid he will pull away.
Shy and awkward, he says, "When I talk about baseball, sometimes I even bore myself. But when you listen, I feel like the pride of the Yankees."
The next day, we are mulching pine trees and I trip over his leg and there we are. Lying next to each other. Alone. Miles from nowhere. Neal puts his hand on my waist and kisses me fast and hard and eager and my hands move down his back, pulling him closer and his eyes, the color of Texas Bluebonnets, look at me like I am a hot new Corvette and I move towards him and with him, and we are smiling and laughing and our bodies are tanned and hard and sweating.
In September, we return to college and the Cubs lead the Mets by five games. I cheer for the Cubs, who have not won a pennant since 1945. Neal bets on the Mets, who lost 120 games in 1962. The Mets win their division and I wait for Neal to call. But he does not call, or write, even when the Mets win the World Series.
It is June. I am home, packing for my new job in Chicago. I hear a car horn and look out the window. Neal leans against a midnight blue Camaro, smiling like an endorsement for baseball and Chevrolet. I rush out the screen door and trip down the steps and Neal catches me in his arms and says, "I'm a Yankee, Ruth. Want to see where I work?"
I say, without hesitation, "Sure."
And we drive to New York.
There are moments when we connect, but for the first time, being together creates distress.
During dinner, Neal orders a double Johnny Walker Red, no ice. Twice. When I offer to drive, we have words and I walk away in tears. At Yankee Stadium, the power of the moment sweeps us away, and we practically do it on second base. The next night at Shea Stadium, we barely speak to each other.
I say, "Maybe we shouldn't do this."
Neal says, without hesitation, "Don't be that way, Ruth."
Later, he reaches for my hand and whispers, "Turning a double play, every day, is harder than throwing a winning touchdown on Sunday."
We kiss slow and easy and move together as we did on those hot August nights, but there is a distance, a sadness.
Last year, Neal set a league record, for the most errors committed by a shortstop in one season. This year, the Yankees trade him to the Indians.
"Cleveland! Christ. Why don't they just shoot me?"
I do not know what to say, so I say nothing.
He says, "It's the pressure, Ruth. The travel, the way ballplayers live."
For the first time, I say, "It's the booze, Neal. Being a drunk isn't something you get better at."
Neal does not call until June.
On July 19, he turns a triple play, unassisted, against the Red Sox and goes 3 for 4.
The next day, I wait on the edge of the bed at the Holiday Inn, listening for his knock at the door, afraid he will not appear. But he arrives, exactly on time, and with a shy half-smile says, "It's good to see you, Ruth. Damn good."
We wait for a table at LaScala's and Louie the owner whacks Neal on the back.
"Neal, my boy, what a play. You gonna be in the record books."
Kissing my hand, Louie asks, "And Mona Lisa? What are you doing with this dim-witted busher?"
I blush and Neal steps closer, touching by back lightly, privately. During dinner, we talk and laugh until our cheeks ache, and the warmth in those blue eyes melts my heart and I love him for the way I remember him.
Later, in the darkness, there is gentleness and touching and softness and the next morning, in the honey-light of dawn, when I touch his thigh with mine, Neal yanks the blankets away.
"Get dressed. I'll be late for batting practice."
I do not know what to say, so I say, "Maybe we shouldn't do this anymore."
He stops packing his duffle bag and tries to hide the husky strain in his voice.
"Don't be that way, Ruth. Not now. Not today."
He goes into the bathroom and I wait on the edge of the bed, listening to the sounds he makes when he throws up.
We settle into an agreement that does not require the same zipcode and allows us to pretend Neal is faithful and not a drunk. When I call his hotel, if a woman answers, I say, "May I speak with Eleanor Roosevelt?" Later, he swears the woman is a diversion in a tight tee-shirt. And I believe him. When we close every bar on Rush Street, I say, "I can't drink like this any more." Later, he swears he does not drink like this, any more.
And I believe him.
I believe him every time.
The bad news is, the Indians trade Neal for a young rookie from the Carolina League. The good news is, he is playing for the Red Sox. On the phone, Neal sings, "I'm gone from Cleveland and back where I belong."
I begin to cry.
His voice turns urgent. "What's wrong, Ruth? Is something wrong?"
"I've lost my job, Neal. For being conservative."
"Don't cry darlin'," he teases. "You'll find a better job."
I take a breath and whisper, "I feel like the `62 Mets."
"The Mets were oddballs but they weren't quitters. Remember who won the Series that year?"
I blow my nose and dry my tears.
"The Yankees, Ruth. Year after year. And everyone hated them. When they became smug and arrogant, they quit being heroes."
"The Yankees were heroes," I insist.
"To who? The bankers in three-piece suits?"
"The Mets were bush-league outcasts no other team wanted."
His voice turns sharp. "And they say ballplayers are the dumbest creatures on earth. The Mets gave the little guy a reason to get out of bed in the morning. They went from worst to first. You're the artist. Draw yourself a picture."
The tears start again and his voice softens and he says he fell in love with me during those Sunday dinners and he remembers the summer at McCoy's as the sweetest and I know this is the reason I still love him.
I am tired. Tired of fighting the congestion at O'Hare. Tired of living in noisy apartments with balconies. Tired of dealing with the aggravation of Rush Street. I wish for the time when I believed in God, instead of using God as a tether to this earth. So I buy a house with a front porch, on a street with trees and mothers pushing their babies in carriages. In Cleveland.
Neal can no longer turn the routine double-play and, eight times out of ten, his bat is quiet and he is one step late at first base. He is thirty-seven and believes that he is twenty-two. I want to believe that, too.
When the Red Sox release him, Neal walks home from Fenway and two men catch him from behind, and the next week I wait for him at the airport and even after all the years, I still feel my heart beating and when I see the fresh scar running down his cheek, I touch my fingers to his face, afraid he will pull away.
"It's nothing," he says and pulls away.
We sit on the front porch swing and I say, "Neal. This is Ruthie. Tell me. Please."
"It's a boring story, Ruth. They wanted my wallet and they had a knife and I got in the way and here I am."
I do not know what to say, so I say nothing.
He looks at me, and I see tired in his eyes. "After all these years, Ruthie, I still miss my Mom. Now. Especially now."
"She loved you first and she loved you best but I've loved you longest and I will love you last."
I am still tired. Tired of the predictable pleasure and pain. So I place my faith in baseball, where time does not exist and both sides play by the same rules. Where endurance, sometimes, determines who wins. Where dreams, sometimes, end with a single fastball, high and hard, and a line drive, up the middle.
On the Fourth of July, Neal plays for the Red Sox. Against the Yankees. In an Old Timer's Game. Neal competes as if his life depends on this game, as if he is at war. I cannot bear to watch and I cannot bring myself to look away.
Minutes before the third game of the World Series between the Giants and Athletics, I call Neal. When a woman answers, I hope it is a wrong number. I hope it is Eleanor Roosevelt.
"Is Neal there?" I ask.
"Neal," she says. "Some woman's on the phone."
I think, I am some woman.
"Neal," I say. "Are you babysitting?"
Across from Fenway Park, in his rent-controlled apartment with Oriental rugs and custom-made shutters and his photographs matted in silver frames, as he sits in his antique green leather club chair, holding a glass containing three fingers of Johnny Walker Red, no ice, Neal hears, "Maybe we shouldn't do this anymore."
Five miles from Cleveland Stadium, in my mortgaged three-bedroom colonial with Burlington carpeting and leaded glass windows and my illustrations matted in wooden frames, as I sit in my overstuffed corduroy rocker, holding my breath, I hear, nothing.
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