Hard Line Drives

Hope Caldwell, being divorced and with those five little kids, plus a good figure, has been an oddball at Our Lady of Blessed Redemption from the start. She doesn't need any stories--about her wooden leg or anything else. Not that the story is so bad, mind you. When she shows up at the playground to save us kids from our dizzy boredom, we are relieved. She tells us the story, the details, gladly, any time we want. Maybe she even adds stuff.

"Not long after you-know-who split," she starts. It's a good story. She wants to tell it. It doesn't take any math whiz to see she's younger than most of the other Redemption mothers and though her face is set, permanent as starch, she is still a little bit pretty behind her smoke. Good, hard pulls on long, white Kools. She sits Indian-style right on the asphalt, a baby in her lap, at home plate of Blessed Redemption's kickball diamond. It's a still spring evening, getting late. Father McNulty's ringing the six o'clock and I'm dribbling the ball to the beat of the bells.

"At first I figured I'd just walk down to the Ten-Pin and back, real quick. The kids were asleep," she begins again. "I don't know what made me do it, except maybe that the screw's been giving me fits for a couple days so it didn't feel right anyway, but outside the Ten-Pin door I reach down and unscrew the foot and turn it backwards." She knocks twice on the ankle to show us which one. Like we don't know.

"So here I go, with my toe pointing behind me and the penny in the slit of my loafer catching the street light, right in the door, like I do it every day. The hard part was getting my balance, but once I stood up straight it was all right.

"It's a little late, there's no one special there--you know, Tom Flannigan, Martin and John Brennan and John's wife, Marie, like they ever leave the place. Everybody's already had a few so most everybody was buying each other rounds by then. So, okay, I had me a couple but the fun part was in between the beers. I just walk back and forth like everything was normal, you know, played a quarter's worth of Jim Reeves, sashayed from the bar to the jukebox and back. I tipped sideways once, but I never broke stride or looked around to see who was watching. Dick the bartender says hey how's it going but no one else says a word. I could feel those drunk eyeballs everywhere checking out my foot tucked around the bar stool legs. When I went to the bathroom people stopped talking as I walked by." We kids are listening good now, though we know what's coming.

"But the best part was when I left." Hope pulls on a beer she brought along and bats the baby's paw away from the can at the same time. "On my way out the door, I walk straight into a colored man on the sidewalk, which about knocks us both flat and when he goes to pick up my wallet, he gets a load of my backward shoe and he sways and has trouble standing up. God, his eyes were too much, falling out of their sockets, his mouth hanging open. He forgets to pick up my billfold and so I have to lean over and get it myself and when I stand upright, he's still there, swallowing, and staring buggy-eyed down at my foot."

I can tell Hope's told and retold the story. I'm old enough to know it's a good one and now, in places meant to be serious, I have a hard time. At High Mass, reciting every scrap of Latin I know, a flashback, like a brilliant snapshot, can do it. Pressing my knuckles to my teeth, choking back. Sometimes laughter escapes through my fingers like steam hissing; sometimes it comes out like snorting, uncontained. The worst time was Mr. O'Leary's funeral, held during Friday school Mass, all seven hundred of us forced to go. A tall, egg-shaped man with a W.C. Fields nose who stocked Blessed Redemption's cafeteria fridge with Strohs and patted our butts up under our skirts on Sunday nights when we waitressed Bingo for tips. President of the Men's Club for five years. A real pillar. Monsignor Sweeney standing at the pulpit, tears behind his goggle glasses, telling everyone how much everyone would miss him. I gave a little snort and like flames running up my chest I couldn't hold back.

We'd gotten to where we were begging Hope to the playground pretty often. Mostly during lag times, between kickball seasons. It was easy. You could see her front porch katty-corner from second base, the far side of a half-double, an ancient, crumbling house. It looked like a whole lot of lives layered over other lives, and even though I knew she'd cart along that rickety bow-legged toddler of hers and her walleyed baby, a towhead with a dribbling rope of snot, I went and got her, was even glad that evening, to get her. Hope kicked like a man and I was in the mood.

So she's there without too much trouble and I'm deep in center field because Hope's hard flies come to me, no problem. One of the middle Andrews girls is at the pitcher's mound holding up her seriousness with thick legs and a hard face. There are eighteen Andrews kids, some of the oldest ones are married, with kids of their own. When I spot one of those older Andrews at church, I think: what's it like to have kids older than some of your brothers and sisters? Anyway, they're the largest litter at Redemption, giving them more clout than they deserve. This middle Andrew--she's Gerry or Terry or Mary--a whole bunch in the middle have irritating rhyming names--winds the ball back, its leather nesting soft and snug on the inside of her arm. She hugs it for a second like a baby, then rolls straight and fast against Hope, who's already deposited her kids at the concrete base of a tetherball post. Hope leans forward in a runner's stance, both hands against her flanks, her eyes keen and watching. Before the ball can sweep home plate, she does three little steps forward and then flips her woody shank up. With a fierce thhwwwaaaack! she slams the ball, sending the brown globe far past our heads and I think we've finally got a good game going when the bigger baby, the toddler, starts screaming to beat the band. He's been stuffing pebbles into the smaller baby's mouth and he's mad 'cause the kid's had enough. Hope gets a load of the commotion as she rounds third base, she's not a bad runner either, and grabs his thick wrist, shaking the rocks free of his iron grip.

"Go on without me," she yells to us over the din. The kid's face is red and taut. She's got him sideways at her waist, his arms and head dangling. It looks to me like the way he's slamming her back with his heels would hurt like mad but Hope doesn't flinch. "Somebody keep an eye on the baby."

I lose interest quick with Hope out of the game; I'm there for her hard line drives. Our sub-game, mine and Hope's. She can do a lot of things with that foot of hers: step on her kids' fingers and not even know it, turn it backward, walk. But she has a hard time kicking the ball too deep or too hard for me. When I hear her foot smack brown leather, it's the sound, the connection, I trust. When it's good, I know it. I grit my teeth and stand staunch and let the ball slam into me, knocking my breath to kingdom come. I know that standing staunch is a virtue and so I bear it, then throw the ball back to the Andrews pitcher like it's nothing, letting the red burning circle blaze beneath my shirt.

I go sit by the baby but don't pick him up and we both watch Hope march to the far side of the playground. She picks one of four leather-strap swings, the kind that make a "U" at the bottom, hanging from a brace. The red-onion-faced kid is still kicking when she plops him in her lap and forces his clenched fingers around the chains. His screech takes on a new pitch but Hope looks like she's done this before and calmly pushes the ground away with her foot, the real one, making the swing sway.

She pushes, then pulls the thick swing chains backward and forward, forward and back, and then she starts singing some song, something determined and meaningless, louder than her kid's squall, forcing the rhythm. Each stanza rocks them higher and higher until, like a two-headed pendulum, they are gliding. It's the kind of thing, you don't know why you watch it, but you do. You can't help it. Hope's hair flapping against her face, blinding her for a second, then spreading up and out like a crown of thorns behind her head. Metal scraping and scratching from the swing's hinges high above their heads.

When the ball takes a wild slam on the asphalt inches from mine and the baby's feet, no one comes to get it and in a second I see why. The Andrews sisters are busy giving Harriet a good bitching out. Harriet's a head taller than either of them but that just makes her more shaky, caught up there between the hollering Andrews. Harriet pitched a good inning near the end of last season and you can see the Gerry-Terry-Mary Andrew doesn't want Harriet getting any ideas. She runs and grabs the ball, cocks it up under her armpit, and then yells at Harriet to go to hell and no she can't pitch no matter what she thinks. She says this with the conviction that comes from knowing there's seventeen more where she came from. Because of Harriet's name, I'm pretty much on her side.

"YEEEAAAggghhhh!" It is a stunning screech. The baby and I look up and away from the diamond, past the tops of the twisted chain-link fence, past telephone wires, and beyond a lamp post because we think that's where the scream came from, but there's nothing there. Just an evening sky, pastel clouds.

Then a blur interrupts my vision. A cream-colored blur. A wooden half-leg, jet-propelled and hurtling, yet almost suspended, with a neatly-turned bobby-sock and penny-loafer on the end. It is sailing, this turbo-limb, over third base, toward a street light and I feel the baby's breath and mine suck in on the same beat, then hang arrested and lingering in front of us. Yet, I can still think: it might fly past Blessed Redemption's steeple, maybe Father McNulty will see it and so what if he did?

It is something to reckon with, that leg, and I am with it, that governing force, seeing the kickball diamond from a sharp angle, for what it is: four faded white lines and yellow painted-on bases. Not even real bases. Are there holes in Blessed Redemption's roof? Probably. It's an old school with waxy wooden floors and concrete stairwells. Those Andrews are all muscle and freckles. Freckles everywhere. Like summer rain on a warm sidewalk, too many spots. There should be a law against that many thin-skinned tomboys in one place.

It runs out of fuel, the leg, crashing, thudding across the street and into a bush.

"Somebody get my damn leg!" Hope is straining to see where her leg went but that is a joke, she can't possibly see it; it is behind a car on the other side of the street. Her pants leg hangs empty in front of her and her kid, lopsided and clinging to the swing, looks like he could start screaming again.

"One of you kids help me!" Hope yells. There's not much to do but grab up the baby, his nose is running pretty heavy, the front of his shirt is damp when I pick him up and I think maybe he's sick, and then Harriet and I walk around the edge of the fence to find the leg. It is lodged straight up in a bush and it is something to look at. Like it could walk away itself, it is so alive. Solid pale wood from the foot to mid-shin where it hollows out. Metal hinges at the knee, two worn leather tongues and a thick shoe string at the top. Creepy. I pick it up at the leather end--it feels like skin, warm and supple. Harriet grabs the foot. The first-baseman Andrews walks up and takes the middle. "Looks like Hope didn't have enough leg room," she says. I see her knees are freckled too and imagine freckled teeth, a spotted spleen. Like three stooges in a dumb plot we carry it back to Hope.

Now things get really crazy. Or at least, later, I see this as the crazy part. I think Hope is laughing, it looked like she was smiling when we walked up and handed her her leg, half her pants still empty and limp on the swing seat. It didn't take us long at all, maybe a minute, to walk across the street and grab it, tote it back under our arms. And then she slips it up her pants leg, quick-as-a-wink, slick. Casual even.

"It's not like I knew what was coming." Hope drops her pants down around her knees and we girls circle around and shield her, sucking up Hope's humiliation like much needed water. She is gripping and twisting and wrapping the strings around her thigh so tight, I think they'll break. She works automatically, vengefully, like she's lacing a work boot, tying double, then finally triple knots, at the top. "Who could know? Just tell me that. Who in the hell could possibly know he'd go in the middle of the night?" Her face is contorted, grief-stricken. Hard to watch. She does not notice she has set the toddler in mud near her feet and the kid is so stunned, he doesn't even think of yelling.

"What the hell am I suppose to do? I don't even know where he is. Sometimes I walk around the house and just look for him, like he's off in another room and I can't remember which one." Her face is a mess; she's looking at me but I look away. I can tell she's not seeing a thing. Maybe she isn't.

We girls keep standing around the swing. We are waiting, or at least I'm waiting, for something. I feel like I could wait all night if I had to. Six o'clock Mass is letting out, people spilling around the back of the church like so many ants from a hole. In a minute, I know, they will walk toward us, cut across the playground and head home. They are old ladies mostly, a couple old men.

"Hope, it's time to go," one of the Andrews says, but Hope is somewhere else. She is done. She sits bunched up, her pants down around her knees. The swing has sunk low, the "U" stretched almost to the ground. I'm looking at Hope's underpants, and then at her pearly flesh, spilling from the leather at the top of her thigh, and I understand that I am tired. Not the kind of honest exhaustion that comes from a full day and helps you sleep the hard sleep of a good woman, but spent. Weary in a way that makes you want to peel off and shed your own skin, it is so much.

The street lights flicker on, changing the color of everything, making the Andrews turn away. I watch them till they're almost off the playground. I can tell they are having a pretty good time, giggling, snorting, trying to contain themselves but not really trying at all. Who can blame them.

Not me. I set the baby next to the toddler and the mud and I leave Hope, cross the street, climb the steps to my house. I said her name was Hope, but that's a lie. Her name isn't really Hope. It isn't anything close to Hope. It is something else. It's just that Hope is such a nice name, easy to think up. Even easier to say. It's too much to ask me to tell you why I lied but once I lied I couldn't turn back and so I just kept on telling the story. Of Hope.

Cathie Beck