Joey and Willie were the best of best friends. Whatever Joey did, Willie did. Usually they played hide-and-seek, but Joey wanted to use his new Wiffle ball and bat. Joey ran outside wearing his plastic Roman soldier’s helmet – he didn’t have a baseball helmet – and two thick lines of his mom’s black Halloween lipstick under his eyes.
“Willie, let’s play.” Joey raised his arms displaying his bat and ball. He took off his helmet and tossed it and the bat by the bush – which was home – and walked to the “mound.”
“You may want to put that on in case I come high and hard.” Joey winked. He held the ball at his waist before a high kick wind-up like Steve Carlton, only right-handed. He hurled the ball over the plate. Joey jerked his head up toward the sky and turned looking over his neighbor’s house. He then hung his head.
“There’s no way you took Steve Carlton deep! Let’s see how you handle Mike Schmidt.” Joey marched to home plate, picked up the bat and threw the ball stuck in the bush toward the mound. It rolled just a few feet in front of where he stood. “Give me your best stuff, Willie.”
Joey whirled bat and stared back at the mound. He waved the bat once at the mound. Twice. And a third time. Right before he stepped into the swing, a voice came from the back door of Joey’s house.
“Joey! Time to come in.”
Joey whipped his head around and dropped the bat. “DAD!”
“Sorry, Willie. My dad’s home. I’ll come get you later.” He knocked his helmet off as he bolted up the hill. He ran up every other step of the deck and leaped into his dad’s arms. He squeezed the breath out of him. Joey’s head buried into his father’s chest. His dad coughed and laughed. Joey beamed.
“We going to Montreal, Dad?” Joey looked up with wide and excited eyes.
“No, Bub. I didn’t qualify.”
Joey’s eyes relaxed. “Ah, man.” Joey’s voice displayed disappointment. “I really wanted to go to another country.”
“I know, son. World traveler. Unfortunately I had a pole break. But we’ll try again in four years.” Joey’s dad, though, knew it was unlikely he’d qualify. Thirty-eight would be too old for the 1980 Olympics. “What were you doing outside?
Joey’s eyes beamed with new excitement. “Willie and me were playin’ ball. Can you believe he took Steve Carlton deep?”
“What? No!” Joey and his dad hardly ever missed a Philadelphia Phillies game. They were among the many that cheered on the beloved Phillies in 1975 when they had their first winning season in nearly a decade. They were hopeful they would win the Eastern Conference and possibly make it to the World Series with the likes of Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Jim Kaat and Tug McGraw. He mussed Joey’s hair. “Carlton’ll get him next time. But now it’s time for dinner, champ.”
Joey’s mother was sitting at the kitchen table. She braced her head on a hand. She just hung up the phone that lay on the table. She called for her husband.
“So, Nancy, what did the doc say about Joey still ‘playing’ with Willie?” he asked.
Nancy traced the rotary dial with a finger. “They want to either give him more medicine or take him to a specialist.” She exhaled deeply. “I’m so worried, Dan.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. Her eyes turned a brighter shade of red.
“Why can’t we just handle this? Just take him to Willie’s grave and tell him he’s dead. Then just hold him tight.”
“You know why, Dan. The doctor said it may scar him even deeper.”
“It’s been a year and nothing has helped. I’m just…”
“Frustrated,” Nancy said finishing his thought.
Dan massaged his temples. “Yeah.”
“I’m frustrated, too,” Nancy said softly. She stood up and wrapped her arms around him.
. . .
The smell of fried chicken with a hint of green beans filled the house.
“Hmmm. That smells good, honey.” Dan hugged Nancy from behind and kissed her neck as she stirred the green beans. Whenever Dan returned from a meet, Nancy always fixed his favorite meal. It was also Joey’s favorite, too. And she felt Joey needed it since he had another episode of playing with Willie.
“I swear, if Joey doesn’t show any signs of improvement I’m taking him to see Willie’s grave.” Nancy could only muster a “but honey.” She was almost to the point of agreeing with that treatment.
They remained silent for only a few moments until the stomping of socked feet broke it. The 9-year-old slid on the hardwood dining room floor toward the dinner table. He nearly toppled his chair. He inhaled as he sat down.
“Mmmm. My favorite, mom.”
“Mine too, buddy,” Dan said. Carefully holding the bowl of mashed potatoes away, he cradled Joey’s head and kissed it. He walked behind him to his seat next to him at the circular table. He placed the potatoes near the center of the table. Nancy, with chicken and green beans on a giant tray, sat the food down and took her seat opposite Dan. They each held one of Joey’s hands and said grace.
Joey’s eyes were still excited as he held up his plate. Dan served him a heaping pile of potatoes, two spoonsful of green beans and two chicken legs. He rubbed his hands together after placing his plate down. But soon, the excitement on Joey’s face faded into a somber stare at his plate. “Mom, Dad,” he looked up, “can I tell you something?”
They hastily looked at Joey, then at each other. Their mouths slightly gaped. Then they fixed their sights back on Joey.
“Yeah,” Dan said hesitantly, reaching for Joey’s hand. “Anything, champ. Anything at all.”
“I really…” Joey paused. His eyes moistened, a tear dripped onto his right cheek. “I really miss Willie.”