ETHAN SAID, “I hate baseball.”
He said it as he followed his father out of the house, in his uniform and spikes.
“I hate it,” he said again, knowing it was cruel. His father was a great lover of baseball.
But Mr. Feld didn’t say anything in reply. He just locked the door, tried the knob, and then put his arm around Ethan’s shoulders. They walked down the muddy path to the driveway and got into Mr. Feld’s Saab station wagon. The car’s name was Skidbladnir, but usually they just called her Skid. She was oranger than anything else within a five-hundred-mile radius of Clam Island, including traffic cones, U-Haul trailers, and a fair number of actual oranges. She was so old that, as she went along, she made squeaking and rattling noises that sounded more like the sounds of a horse buggy than of an automobile. Her gauges and knobs were all labelled in Swedish, which was not a language that either Mr. Feld or Ethan, or for that matter anyone in Ethan’s family going back twenty generations on both sides, could speak. They rolled, squeaking and rattling, down from the little pink house where they lived, atop a small barren hill at the centre of the island, and headed west, towards Summerland.
“I made three errors in the last game,” Ethan reminded his father, as they drove to pick up Jennifer T. Rideout, the Roosters’ first baseman, who had called to say that she needed a ride. Ethan figured that his father was probably not going to let him out of playing in today’s game against the Shopway Angels; but you never knew. Ethan felt that he could make a pretty good case for his staying home, and Mr. Feld was always willing to listen to a good argument, backed up with sound evidence. “Danny Desjardins said that I directly caused four runs to score.”
“Plenty of good ballplayers have made three errors in a game,” Mr. Feld said, turning onto the Clam Island Highway, which ran from one end of the island to the other, and was not, as far as Ethan was concerned, a highway at all. It was an ordinary two-lane road, lumpy and devoid of cars like every other road on the lumpy, empty little island. “It happens all the time.”
Mr. Feld was a large, stout man with a short but unruly beard like tangled black wool. He was both a recent widower and a designer of lighter-than-air dirigibles, neither a class of person known for paying a lot of attention to clothes. Mr. Feld never wore anything in the summer but a clean T-shirt and a ragged pair of patched blue jeans. In the wintertime he added a heavy sweater, and that was it. But on game days, like today, he proudly wore a Ruth’s Fluff ’n’ Fold Roosters T-shirt, size XXL, that he had bought from Ethan’s coach, Mr. Perry Olafssen. None of the other Rooster fathers wore shirts that matched their sons’.
“I hate it that they even count errors,” Ethan said, pressing on with his case. To show his father just how disgusted he was by the whole idea of counting errors, he threw his mitt against the dashboard of the car. It kicked up a cloud of infield dust. Ethan coughed energetically, hoping to suggest that the very atoms of dirt on which he would be standing when they got to Ian “Jock” MacDougal Regional Ball Field were noxious to him. “What kind of game is that? No other sport do they do that, Dad. There’s no other sport where they put the errors on the freaking scoreboard for everybody to look at. They don’t even have errors in other sports. They have fouls. They have penalties. Those are things that players could get on purpose, you know. But in baseball they keep track of how many accidents you have.”
Mr. Feld smiled. Unlike Ethan, he was not a talkative fellow. But he always seemed to enjoy listening to his son rant and rave about one thing or another. His wife, the late Dr. Feld, had been prone to the same kind of verbal explosions. Mr. Feld didn’t know that Ethan was only ever talkative around him.
“Ethan,” Mr. Feld said, shaking his head in sorrow. He reached over to put a hand on Ethan’s shoulder. Skid lurched wildly to the left, springs squealing, creaking like a buckboard in an old western movie. Her noticeable colour and Mr. Feld’s distracted style of driving had, in the short time that the Feld men had been living on Clam Island, made the car a well-known local road hazard. “Errors… Well, they are a part of life, Ethan,” he tried to explain. “Fouls and penalties, generally speaking, are not. That’s why baseball is more like life than other games. Sometimes I feel like that’s all I do in life, keep track of my errors.”
“But, Dad, you’re a grown-up,” Ethan reminded him. “A kid’s life isn’t supposed to be that way. Dad—look out!”
Ethan slammed his hands against the dashboard, as if that would stop the car. There was a small animal, no bigger than a cat, in the westbound lane of Clam Island Highway – they were headed right at it. In another instant they would mash it under their wheels. But the animal just seemed to be standing there, an alert little creature, rusty as a pile of leaves, sharp-eared, peering directly at Ethan with its big, round, staring black eyes.
“Stop!” Ethan yelled.
Mr. Feld hit the brakes, and the tires burped against the blacktop. The car shuddered, and then the engine stalled and died. Their seat belts were made of some kind of thick Swedish webbing material that could probably stop bullets, and the buckles were like a couple of iron padlocks. So the Felds were all right. But Ethan’s mitt flew out of his lap and banged into the glove compartment door. A huge cloud of dust from the mitt filled the car. Maps of Seattle, Colorado Springs, Philadelphia, and a very old one of G?teborg, Sweden, came tumbling out of the glove compartment, along with a Band-Aid can filled with quarters, and a Rodrigo Buend?a baseball card.
“What is it? What was it?” said Mr. Feld, looking wildly around. He wiped the inside of the windshield with his forearm and peered out. There was nothing in the road at all now, and nothing moving in the trees on either side. Ethan had never seen anything emptier than the Clam Island Highway at that moment. The silence in the car, broken only by the chiming of Mr. Feld’s key ring against the ignition, was like the sound of that emptiness. “Ethan, what did you see?”
“A fox,” Ethan said, though even as he said it he felt that he somehow had it wrong. The animal’s head and snout had been like a fox’s, and there had been the fat red brush of a tail, but somehow the, well, the posture of the animal hadn’t been—vulpine, was the word. Not foxlike. The thing had seemed to be standing, hunched over, on its hind legs, like a monkey, with its front paws scraping the ground.” I think it was a fox. Actually, come to think of it, it might have been a lemur.”
“A lemur,” Mr. Feld said. He restarted the car, rubbing at his shoulder where the seat belt had dug in. Ethan’s shoulder was feeling a little sore, too.” On Clam Island.”
“Uh-huh. Or, no, actually I think it was a bushbaby.”
“Uh-huh. They live in Africa and feed on insects. They peel the bark from trees to find the tasty and nutritious gum underneath.” Ethan had recently seen an entire programme devoted to bushbabies, on the Fauna Channel. “Maybe it escaped from a zoo. Maybe someone on the island keeps bushbabies.”
“Could be,” said Mr. Feld.” But it was probably a fox.”
They rode past the V.F.W. hall, and the obelisk-shaped monument to the Clam Island pioneers. They drove alongside the cemetery where the ancestors and loved ones of almost everyone now living on Clam Island, except for Ethan and his father, were buried. Ethan’s mother was buried in a cemetery in Colorado Springs, a thousand miles away. Ethan thought of that nearly every time they went past the Clam Island cemetery. He suspected that his father did, too. They always fell silent along this stretch of road.
“I really think it was a bushbaby,” Ethan said at last.
“Ethan Feld, if you say the word ‘bushbaby’ one more time…”
“Dad, I’m sorry, I know you’re mad at me, but I…” Ethan took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds. “I don’t think I want to play baseball anymore.”
Mr. Feld didn’t say anything at first. He just drove, watching the side of the road for the turn-off to the Rideout place.
Then he said, “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
As Ethan had heard many times, the first scientific experiment that Mr. Feld had ever performed in his whole life, back when he was eight years old, in Philadelphia, PA, was to see if he could turn himself into a left-handed pitcher. He had read that a kid who could throw left-handed had a better chance of making it to the big leagues. He hung an old tyre from a tree in his grandmother’s backyard and every day for a whole summer tried to throw a baseball through the tyre a hundred times with his left arm. Then, when he could throw it straight and hard, he taught himself to throw a knuckleball, a slow pitch that travels without spinning, and makes its way towards the hitter like a butterfly over a bed of flowers, fluttering. It was not a very good knuckleball, though, and when he tried to throw it in real games, the other boys jumped all over it. Yet its crazy motion interested him, and Mr. Feld had begun to wonder about the shapes of things, and about the way air went over and around something that was round and moving very fast. In the end he had given up baseball for aerodynamics. But he had never forgotten, to this day, the way it felt to stand on the top of that small, neat hill of brown dirt, in the middle of a green field, holding on to a little piece of something that could fly.
“Ethan?” said Mr. Feld. Now he sounded a little annoyed.” If you don’t want to play anymore, then that’s all right with me. Forget it. I understand. Nobody likes to lose every time.”
The Ruth’s Fluff ’n’ Fold Roosters had, as a matter of fact, lost all of their first seven games that season. In the opinion of most of the Roosters, and of their coach, Mr. Perry Olafssen, the presence of Ethan Feld on the team went a long way to explaining their troubles on the field. It was agreed by nearly everyone who watched him take the field that Ethan Feld was the least gifted ballplayer that Clam Island had ever seen. It was hard to decide, really, why this should be so. Ethan was a boy of average height, a little stocky, you might have said, but healthy and alert. He was not a terrible klutz, and he could run pretty well, if something worth running from, such as a bee, was after him. Yet every time he put on his uniform and stepped out onto the dusty grey dirt of Jock MacDougal Field, something seemed to go dreadfully wrong.
“But I’m afraid, son,” Mr. Feld continued, “you can’t just not show up for today’s game. The team is counting on you.”
“Mr. Olafssen is counting on you.”
“Counting on me to make three errors.”
They had reached the ramshackle assortment of roadside mailboxes that marked the entrance to the Rideout place. Ethan sensed that he was running out of time. Once Jennifer T. Rideout was in the car, there would be no hope of escape from today’s game. Jennifer T. didn’t have a whole lot of patience in general for listening to Ethan’s arguments, however good they might be, or how solid his evidence. She just thought what she thought, and got on with it. But this was especially true when it came to baseball. Ethan was going to have to work fast.
“Baseball is a stupid game,” he said, going for broke. “It’s so dull.”
“No, Ethan,” his father said sadly, “it really, really isn’t.”
“I find it quite boring.”
“Nothing is boring, son—” his father began.
“I know, I know,” Ethan said. “ ‘Nothing is boring except to people who aren’t really paying attention.’ ” This was something he had heard from his father many, many times. It was his father’s motto. His mother’s motto had been, “People could learn a lot from llamas.” His mother was a veterinarian. When the Felds lived in Colorado Springs, she had specialised in caring for the vigilant, fierce, and intelligent guard llamas that Rocky Mountain sheep-herders use to protect their flocks from dogs and coyotes.
“That’s right,” his father said, nodding in agreement with his own familiar wisdom. He turned into the long, ruined gravel track that led to the tumbledown houses in the woods where all the Rideouts lived. “You have to pay attention, in life and in baseball.”
“But nothing happens. It’s so slow.”
“Well, that’s true,” his father said.” Everything used to be slow. Now almost nothing is. But are we any happier, son?”
Ethan did not know how to answer this. When his father was at the controls of one of his big, slow sky-whales, sailing nowhere in particular at a top speed of thirty-five miles per hour, the smile never left his face. If he ever managed to sell the idea of the Zeppelina, the affordable family airship,* it would be on the basis of that smile.
Mr. Feld pulled into a wash of gravel-streaked mud in front of the house where Jennifer T. lived with her twin brothers Darrin and Dirk, her grandmother Billy Ann, her two great aunts, and her uncle Mo. Everybody in the house was either very old or very young. Jennifer T.’s father did not seem to live anywhere at all – he just showed up, from time to time – and her mother had gone to Alaska to work for a summer, not long after the twins were born, and never come back. Ethan wasn’t too sure who was living in any of the three other houses scattered like dice in the green clearing. But they were all Rideouts, too. There had been Rideouts on Clam Island for a very long time. They claimed to be descended from the original Indian inhabitants of the island, though in school Ethan had learned that when the first white settlers arrived on Clam Island, in 1872, there was no one living there at all, Indian or otherwise. When Mrs. Clutch, the social studies teacher, had informed them of this, Jennifer T. got so angry that she bit a pencil in half. Ethan had been very impressed by that. He was also impressed by Jennifer T.’s great-uncle Mo. Mo Rideout was the oldest man Ethan had ever seen. He was a full-blooded Salishan Indian, who, Jennifer T. said, had played in the Negro Leagues, and for three seasons with the Seattle Rainiers in the old Pacific Coast League, long, long ago.
Mr. Feld didn’t need to honk; Jennifer T. was waiting for them on the sagging porch. She picked up her huge equipment bag and came down the porch steps, taking them two at a time. She could never seem to get away fast enough from her house. There had been times in Ethan’s life – when his mother was dying inside it, for example – when Ethan had felt the same way about his own house.
As usual, Jennifer T.’s uniform was spotless. Her knit trousers, her jersey, her sanitary socks, were always somehow whiter than anybody else’s. (Jennifer T., as Mr. Feld never tired of reminding Ethan, did all of her own washing.) She had tied her long blue-black hair in a ponytail that was pulled through the gap at the back of her ball cap, where you snapped the plastic strap.
She threw her bag onto the backseat and then climbed in beside it. She carried into the car the lingering stink of her grandmother’s cigarettes and a strong odour of bubble gum – she chewed the shredded kind that pretended to be chewing tobacco in a pouch.
“Hello, Jennifer T.,” Mr. Feld said. “Buckle up and let me tell you what my son has been attempting to convince me to let him do.”
This was the moment that Ethan had been dreading.
“I saw a bushbaby,” he said quickly. “An African bushbaby, at first I thought it was a fox, but it walked like a monkey, and I—”
“Ethan says he wants to quit the team,” said Mr. Feld.
Jennifer T. snapped her gum a few times. She unzipped the ragged old equipment bag, patched with duct tape and stained by decades of grass and Gatorade. She took out her first-baseman’s mitt, which she kept carefully oiled with a mysterious substance called neet’s foot oil and wrapped in an Ace bandage, with a tennis ball tucked in the pocket to maintain its shape. The glove was much older than she was and had been printed with the signature of someone named Keith Hernandez. Jennifer T. unwound the bandage tenderly, filling the car with a pungent, farmyard kind of smell.
“I don’t think so, Feld,” she said. She gave her gum another loud snap. “Not going to happen.”
And that was the end of the discussion.
CLAM ISLAND WAS a small, green, damp corner of the world. It was known, if at all, mostly for three things. First was its clams. Second was the collapse, in 1943, of the giant Clam Narrows Bridge. You might have seen an old film of that spectacular disaster, on TV: the long steel bridge-deck flapping and whipping around like a gigantic loose shoelace just before it falls to pieces and splashes into the chilly waters of Puget Sound. The Clam Islanders had never really taken to the bridge that connected them to the mainland, and they were not sorry to see it go. They went back to riding the Clam Island Ferry, which they greatly preferred. You could not get a cup of coffee or clam chowder, or hear all about your neighbour’s sick cousin or chicken, on the Clam Narrows Bridge. From time to time, there would be talk of rebuilding the span, but a lot of people seemed to feel that maybe there just ought not to be a bridge connecting Clam Island to the mainland. Islands have always been strange and magical places; crossing the water to reach them ought to be, even in a small way, an adventure.
The last thing that Clam Island was known for, along with its excellent clams (if you liked clams) and its falling-down bridge, was its rain. Even in a part of the world where the people were accustomed to drizzles and downpours, Clam Island was considered uncommonly damp. It was said that at least once a day, on Clam Island, in winter or summer, it rained for at least twenty minutes. People said this about Clam Island on Orcas Island, and on San Juan Island, and down in Tacoma and Seattle. But the people of Clam Island knew that this saying was not entirely true. They knew – it was one of the first things they learned as children about their home – that at the westernmost tip of the island, in the summertime, it never rained. Not even for a minute and a half. A tiny, freak weather system ensured that this zone of the island, perhaps a square mile in all, knew a June, July, and August that were perfectly dry and sunshiny.
Clam Island, seen on a map, looked like a boar that was running west. It had a big snout – called the West End – tipped with a single long jagged tusk. Most of the locals called this westernmost spit where it never rained in the summer the Boar Tooth, or the West Tooth, or just the Tooth; to others it was always known as Summerland. The Tooth was where the island’s young people went to while away their long vacations, where the club picnics, league barbecues, and summer weddings were put on, and, above all, it was where the islanders went to play baseball.
They had been playing there since shortly after the arrival of the Clam Island pioneers in 1872. At the back of Hurley’s Hardware, in town, there was a photograph of a bunch of tough-looking loggers and fishermen, in old-time flannels and moustaches, posing with their bats in the shade of a spreading madrona tree. The picture was captioned CLAM ISLAND NINE, SUMMERLAND, 1883.
For a long time – so long that men were born, grew up, and died in the arms of the game – baseball flourished on Clam Island. There were a dozen different leagues, made up of players of all ages, both male and female. Times had been better on Clam Island in those days. People were once more partial to eating raw shellfish than they are now. An ordinary American working man, not so long ago, thought nothing of tossing back three or four dozen salty, slippery bivalves at lunch. The Clam Boom and the universal love of baseball had gone hand in hand for many years. Now the clam beds had been mostly spoiled by plankton blooms and pollution, and as for the young people of Clam Island, even though some of them could hit, run, and catch the ball, the sad truth was that none of them really cared for baseball very much. Many preferred basketball, and others preferred riding dirt bicycles, and some just liked to watch sports on television. By the time of the season I want to tell you about, the Clam Island Mustang League was home to just four teams. There were the Shopway Angels, the Dick Helsing Realty Reds, the Bigfoot Tavern Bigfoots – and the Roosters, who had, as has already been mentioned, lost all of their first seven games. In the grand scheme of the universe, losing the first seven games of the season is nothing too grave, but to the Roosters it felt awful. Ethan was not the only one who had contemplated quitting the team.