I met the juggling master, Brian, for my first lesson, in a park he’d named on the north side of town, an area I don’t know too well. When I asked over the phone how I would recognize him, he snorted. Sure enough, wind whipped hard through the bare branches and there he was on a concrete bench. Only guy around, Red Sox hat pulled low and pockets bulging. We nodded at each other and I handed over my envelope.
“Here,” Brian said, in that tone of think fast! He tossed me a ball. My right hand shot up and thunk, there it was. I probably grinned, not too shabby, eh?, and braced myself for a barrage more. Or the sudden appearance of a bowling pin.
“Come back tomorrow, same time,” Brian said. And turned to go, stuffing my money inside his grimy jacket.
“Wait, you mean—we’re done?”
“I’m done,” he called, over his shoulder. “But you…hold the ball until then.”
“Hold it how?”
Brian the juggling master, halfway across the park now, ignored me.
The bus driver sat impassively as I fumbled for the fare with my left hand, dropping my wallet in the process. I found a window seat and took the time to study my new acquisition: smaller than a baseball, cream-colored, slightly squishy. Damp now, with the sweat that was gathering under my palm. I considered switching hands. Would he remember? Ah, screw it. One day, holding a ball. Big deal.
Back home, problems presented themselves immediately. I was proud of myself for tugging off my jeans and changing into sweatpants right away, facilitating easy bathroom time. That first left-handed leak was a hoot. Coke bottle a twist-off, phone’s got speed-dial, it’s all good. But then: buttering toast—plate sprang to the floor. One-handed sweeping up of fragments—useless. Wrapping the Band-Aid on my cut thumb—a howling flop. All throughout, I gripped the ball, stubbing it around in an effort to make it work for me, but I could only jab at things, poke them.
So I killed several hours in front of the tube, dozing. Every once in a while, I’d hoist up my hand and glare at the ball. Give it a few squeezes. Where’s the love, man? What about the smooth ribbon of the throw, a solid catch, two guys and their metronome of back-and-forth?
“Brian,” I said aloud. “You bastard.”
Afternoon kiddie cartoons droned on, and dusk came.
And then, so did the ache.
It started in my forefinger, in the space between the two knuckles. A warm, steady throb. Insistent. I shook my hand, with the ball, several times. No change. I strolled around the apartment, kicking at piles of clothes, magazines. Opened the fridge and chewed on half a falafel sandwich. Burning now.
“Mind over matter,” I muttered fiercely to the ceiling. I stared at all the dark pinpricks of hair holes on the back of my hand—Jesus, how long had those been there?
Then my thumb got into the game, letting off white-hot flares of pain that sent me sucking my teeth. If I rotated the ball around a few times, shuffling it over and over, there’d be a tantalizing few seconds of relief—and like a chump, I fell for it, every time. But then the pain would come storming back, stronger and more specific, as if to punish me for even trying. Little bonfires in my joints, raging on and on, tempered only by eerie flickers of numbness. The edges of my fingernails grew translucent white just as the streetlights came on, and glowing blue TVs in all the windows.
I screened two phone calls onto the machine, and checked the late movie—some dumb chick flick. And I’d already seen it!
After loading up a coffee mug with scotch—three gnarled fingers worth, tee hee—I sucked on an ice cube and then rubbed it on the back of my hand. “Idiot,” I said to myself. “What the fuck?” I shouted at the ball, and my hand. Neither answered.
The pitchers of my youth showed up and taught me the stance, the wind-up. Catfish, Goose, and the Louisiana Lightning, all those guys jamming in my hallway, busting on me for letting Griffey steal second, and jawing at the ump. Giving Ron shit for that handlebar mustache, those sweet sideburns. They showed me knuckle down, low and slow, and a drill drive to the glove. Raaaawwhhhh went the crowd when I closed out the eighth inning. Raaawwwhhhh for Bucky Dent slapping me on the ass as we jogged to the dugout. Our bullpen stayed empty, all night long.
Midnight came. One. I was pacing alone now, long past booze, close to caving. So why didn’t I put down the goddamn ball? Afterward, I tried to sort this out, crediting myself first with all sorts of heroic aspirations, you know, gutting-it-out. Then I acknowledged what a numskull project it was at heart, really, holding a cream-colored spaldeen for over twenty-four hours, while the nerves in your hand writhed and froze and then conked out. I’d spin it either way—bad-ass or fool, Guinness Book material or borderline retarded—until I couldn’t tell the difference. And basically I came up with two reasons, the first being Well why the hell does anyone do anything and the other…nah. Forget it.
Deep into the early morning the ball became a planet and my hand the cloud of flesh polluting its waters, darkening the skies of one full hemisphere. Countries crushed under my palm, never to be seen again, as the lengthening menace of my fingers spread north over the pole and headed straight south, towards one tentacled thumb down under. Presidents and dictators declared emergencies, dithered on TV, ditched their wives. Runs on all the banks, strangers having sex: the usual apocalypse stuff. The topography of this handplanet, Ball, was riddled with craters, mountains, and moist valleys. Digits of desolation. I sent out waves of explorers to find fresh water sources, but they all returned, months later, in defeat. Reporting only saltwater sweat, and dried out leathery hills. What will become of us, cried the last race of Ball-dwellers. And what is that smell?
True, things had gotten kind of stank betwixt ball and palm. I sniffed and made a face. Sniffed, made a face; lying in bed now.
If I ever did sleep, it was just as dawn broke, the ball clutched to my chest—hand and wrist curled up, clawlike. I was terrified of letting go. In those last hours, my hand came alive and spoke, whispered really, telling me all I needed to know about some deep shit. Did you know that to hands “right” and “left” mean absolutely nothing? And that the distances between head and heart and heart and hand are equal? My hand went on and on, thanked me for a decent time so far, reminded me of a few things from the past. Asked for a few things in the future. Smirked, one whole night without beating off—wanna medal?
Brian was on the same bench, watching me cross the park. It had gotten even colder. I stood in front of him and he rose, slowly. Eyeing me. He took in my hand, and the ball, and the way I held both to my chest, and he nodded.
“Throw it to me.”
And I did. But first, I wept.