Saturday, February 2, 2019

Someday We'll Figure It All Out -- First Chapter

So I have done a thing. 

I've published my fourth book, available now on Amazon! And hey, here's a description of it!

Mikey Moon is 10, with a lot of growing up to do. To do it, he'll have to follow the good examples set by Mom, younger brother, Sid, and best friend, Travis, while overcoming the bad influence of almost everyone else, including his other best friend, Hank. Along the way there will be adventures and misadventures, celebrations and tragedies, mysteries and mind-numbing boredom. In other words, childhood. Told by Mikey himself, in the way that only he can.

Hmmm. Doesn't appear you've clicked the link to go to Amazon and purchase it yet. All right, fine--here's the first chapter, too:

The Legend of Mr. Green, Nintendo in Heaven, and Wondering if Life Could Exist Without Baseball

WHEN OLD MAN GREEN DIED, there was a great deal of commotion around the neighborhood. Mostly, because everyone thought he was dead already.

He might as well have been. To us kids Mr. Green was a ghost, a phantom, the Halley’s Comet in human form. He lived right next door to us, always had, yet I had actually seen him only twice in all of my years. 

Once was when our wiffle ball went over the tall, wrought iron fence that stood between his backyard and ours at the beginning of the summer of 1991. What were we to do? My mom had always warned my brother, Sid, and I about Mr. Green. “There’s something not right about that man,” she would say. “Imagine never coming outside, ever! You boys stay away. I don’t ever want to catch you on his property.”

It was hard to argue with that. Even without her warning, one look at the house told you it was a place to avoid. With its drab, gray colors and cobwebbed windows, it would’ve made the Addams Family or Munsters feel at home, maybe, but no one else. Unlike most everything else Mom said I tried to listen, and did all I could to keep the balls on our side of the fence. Until, well, we didn’t.

All it took was one high fastball, thrown by me to my best friend and neighbor from five houses down, Hank. It was a good pitch, too, practically exploding out of my hand. My ears perked up as it whistled through the air, rushing through the holes that made a wiffle ball wiffle. But instead of dancing and darting three or four different directions on its way to the plate the way wiffle balls usually would, this one stayed straight: no movement, no deception, it was a bullet, honest and true, high heat, cheddar all the way, seeming to gain velocity the closer to the plate it got. There wasn’t a chance of anyone hitting that pitch, not even Hank. It was strike three, no doubt about it.

Or so I thought.

Although the pitch seemed to be on him before he knew it, Hank managed to swing, sort of upper-cutting at the ball sloppily, and I don’t know how but he got a piece of it. He couldn’t have done it 99 times out of 100 but luck was on his side, the way it always seemed to be. A foul ball meant my good pitch was spoiled and he would get another hack at the plate. It didn’t seem fair, because it wasn’t fair!

Good luck for him was our bad fortune, as that uppercut swing made the ball careen off the top of the bat and go straight up, shooting skyward like one of those water rockets we’d play with. It hung in the air like a balloon, tantalizingly, a small white sphere against a bright blue sky. I opened up my glove and took a few steps in; I thought I might have a play on it. Maybe I’d get an out after all! We needed it. Down by two runs, the bases were loaded with ghost runners and we only had one more turn at bat. This was do or die, the last hurrah, our final shot, the moment of truth. All I had to was make a play and we could come back and win this thing! 

I held my glove up and tried to judge where the ball would come down, carefully shuffling my feet so I could perch under it and wait. Then, just when I felt comfortable, a panic hit. The third out was again in jeopardy; a strong breeze was coming. I heard it first, then felt it on the back of my neck, a great gust whooshing down from the trees. No good. I fervently wished the ball would come down. I might have prayed; if I didn’t, I should have. I definitely begged of it, pleaded, cajoled. Come down, quick. Right here, into the pocket of my glove. I flapped the leather together. Come on, baby. But the ball kept rising, spinning, the rotation creating on the ball’s surface what I imagined was an evil grin looking down on me. 

Finally, the ball decided to listen and come back to earth. That was good! But oh no, the trajectory had changed. That was bad. The wind was driving it back, away from my glove, no, worse than that, it was pushing it away from our yard. I gasped. All hope was lost. I watched helplessly as the breeze sent the ball to no man’s land, the forbidden zone, the place of no return: Mr. Green’s backyard.

Dun dun dun.

For the most part, our neighborhood was our playground. We ran through every other yard like it was our own, just so long as we didn’t go there. It wasn’t only Mom warning us, either. It was a death trap, the neighbors cautioned. Whatever you do, don’t ever, ever, ever bother him. He doesn’t like kids, and he doesn’t like adults, either, not anyone and not anything.

We didn’t want to end up as part of the legend of Mr. Green. There were lots of stories. One time, Miss Tucker’s cat disappeared for a week. Where he went, nobody knew, except for Miss Tucker—she declared Mr. Green had him. What Mr. Green wanted with a cat, and for only a week, I never could figure out, but it seemed like the sort of thing he would do. 

When Nick, an older boy who had gone off to college, parked his truck in front of Mr. Green’s house one night, Nick came out to four flat tires in the morning. Everyone blamed Mr. Green. Blamed him, but didn’t do anything about it. Better not to disturb him, they said.

Another time I thought I heard a car backfire in the middle of the night. Wrong. It wasn’t a car at all, nope, the other kids said that was Mr. Green doing a little target practice. Practicing, just in case some kid decided he would try to invade his turf, a kid like me, or my brother, or anybody, really. If they were on his property, ignoring the No Trespassing signs he posted in three different places, they were fair game.

You can see real easy why we were so worried about our ball heading toward his property.

The four of us—Hank, Sid, our other friend, Timmy, who lived on the next block over, and me—watched the ball’s path silently, our jaws dropping in horror as it cleared the property line. We lost sight of it as it descended, disappearing behind a large sheet of plywood my dad had put up—before he left us—between two posts as a backstop (I could also use the board to bounce a tennis ball against, which is what he would tell me to do when I would ask him to play catch).

With a lump in our throats we rushed forward, craning our necks around the board to see. With any luck, the ball would be right behind the fence, where we could reach through and grab it, but that hope vanished as quickly as it appeared. Not only had the ball gone over, the darn thing was nearly halfway across the yard!

Old Man Green’s yard.

Our nightmares were made real. What were we going to do? Normally, that answer was easy: nothing. What could be done? It was a lost cause, best for all concerned to move on. 

Except these weren’t normal times. These times were desperate, for it was the only ball we had.

Sure, we had had others. Tennis balls, plastic balls, “rag” balls, which were like real baseballs only soft, even a racquetball once. We’d play with anything but hardballs and softballs, because hardballs and softballs could break windows, and there wasn’t enough room anywhere on our block to avoid those. Those balls were long gone, vanished down storm drains, mangled by neighbor’s dogs who had used them as toys, and, well, who knows where else? More than likely they had gone to that mysterious place where lost toys accumulated, piled up with my missing Roadblock G.I. Joe action figure, yo-yo, and kazoo that drove my mom nuts when I played it.

The situation was dire, our generally pale white skin somehow turning a shade lighter. It was true that we had balls go over the fence before, but only mere feet beyond the border, at a distance where we could extend through the iron bars and pull them back. Mr. Green wouldn’t shoot you for that, even he had his limits. This ball, however, was well beyond a little reach-and-grab. You’d have to be Stretch Armstrong to get it, sitting there atop a pile of grass clippings like a meatball on a spaghetti plate.

Despite the threat of death that lingered next door, our backyard made a good baseball field because there was no fence between us and our neighbors on the other side, who didn’t mind at all if we used their yard for an outfield. Put together, it was just about the perfect size, with a board for first base, an old tree stump for second, a cereal box for third (replaced frequently), a trash can lid for home, and the foul lines marked by a swing set and tree. How a ball had never gone that far over the fence before I couldn’t say, but fate had finally caught up. 

What a shame. It had served us so well until now.

I didn’t say anything to anybody. What could be said? I only stood there staring forlornly at the lonely ball while I went through our options. It didn’t take long; we had no options. As I said, it was our only ball.
That meant someone had to go get it, and that someone was me. Every life worth living had such moments; this was mine. Just like the ball, caution would be thrown to the wind. Death would be toyed with and grave danger laughed at. Such daring deeds must be done, because not playing baseball was not an option. Baseball was our life.

Sid must have read my face, something he specialized in, as he moved to stand in my way. He knew when I was determined to make something happen, and was all too aware of how stubborn I could be. He had seen it far too many times. Whatever signs he looked for, something in my eyes perhaps, I imagine they were all there. “Mikey, don’t,” he warned. 

Hank and Timmy, our friends and baseball opponents, added their words of warning to Sid’s, three voices that blended together into one harmonious sound like a Beach Boys’ song. 

“He’ll shoot you,” Hank warned. This meant something from him; he never visualized the worst happening. He was the type of guy that on the coldest day of the year would say something like “At least we don’t have to worry about the air conditioner going out.” And he’d mean it.

“He’ll either shoot you, or worse,” added Timmy. I was too afraid to ask what could be worse. Knowing Timmy, it meant I would be killed and then find out there was no Nintendo in heaven. 

“My dad said he shot a kid, once,” Hank said. “The cops let him go, because they said it was self-defense.”

I blinked. There was a ring of truth to the story. Heck, more than a ring, hadn’t I heard that gunshot? Hank’s story caught me off guard so badly that I didn’t think to ask why he hadn’t told us this before.

It didn’t matter. Sometimes, you had to risk it all. The Berlin Wall didn’t knock itself over, Zach Morris didn’t wait for Kelly Kapowski to ask him out, and pairs of Levis didn’t walk themselves to the Soviet Union. This fence may have signaled the end of friendly territory and the start of the Wild West, where you could be shot on sight, no questions asked, but why should I let a little thing like that stop me?

Sid saw I was unshaken and flexed his dramatic skills to the point where he was practically pleading. Even though he was younger, Mom often made him promise to keep me out of trouble, saying she’d take care of our baby brother, Jon, if Sid took care of me (she thought this funny; I thought not). Credit due, he always gave it his all. Too bad for him, and Mom, he would most always fail. Still, he wasn’t the giving up-type. “Don’t do it, Mikey. Please don’t! Promise that you won’t.”

I answered quickly, not wanting to muddle my head with a bunch of thoughts. At a time like that, thinking would only get me in trouble. “No,” I said. “I’ve got to do it. Unless any of you have any balls?” I meant balls as in the kind we could play baseball with, though I suppose I could have meant it the other way, too, the way Mom told me not to use. “Call them by their proper name, testicles,” she would tell us. (I never did, because what kind of stupid word was testicle?)

I had hoped that Hank might step up, as he most always was up to any challenge, but not then. He shook his head sadly, as did Timmy, which told me what I already knew. No balls.

“Why don’t you wait until dark? Then he won’t be able to see you,” offered Hank. As far as Hank’s plans went, this was the weakest I had ever heard. I hoped he wasn’t getting sick, coming up with something like that.

“Are you crazy?” Sid shot back. It was strong language from him. “He can probably see in the dark.” This was either helpful or extraordinarily not so; which one, I wasn’t sure. I supposed it was possible. It would explain why he was seen so seldom. I had once seen something on TV about people being allergic to the sun, but they hadn’t mentioned if they developed night vision to compensate. I bet they did. Maybe Mr. Green was like one of those people.

The three of them began to argue about the likelihood of someone being able to see in the dark, which seemed to be missing the point.

“It won’t be better at night,” I said. “It’ll be a thousand times worse, because I won’t be able to see. And I bet Sid is right that he comes out at night. He has to come out sometime.” My eyes grew big and my heart skipped as I had an epiphany—you know, one of those lightbulbs that appear over your head. “Maybe he’s a vampire.”

A hush came over them as they wondered why nobody else had considered this. A vampire. Yes, he could be. It would explain a lot, like how that cat had gone missing (vampires liked to experiment on animals, or maybe that was Dr. Frankenstein), or how Mrs. Rogers across the street just up and died one day. They said she had fallen in the bathtub, but I had fallen in the tub hundreds of times and I was still alive.

“Well, if he’s a vampire, that’s all right, because everyone knows they can’t come out during the day,” I said, talking tough mostly to convince myself. “I wouldn’t care if the whole house was filled with vampires, so long as it was daytime. This’ll be a piece of cake.”

Nobody bothered to argue. Instead, the three of them simultaneously looked up at the second floor of Mr. Green’s oversized house, their gaze directed at a lone rear window covered with thick curtains. The house towered over the rest of the neighborhood, practically a mansion, three stories tall, its archaic design a strange fit with the drab, square bungalows that surrounded it. It had been built by Mr. Green’s father, or grandfather, I misremember which, with great big columns on the front porch, scary lion statues on the stairs, and arched windows on the north side, the one opposite ours. Despite its peeling paint, sagging stairs, and derelict front porch, the rest of the block felt unworthy in comparison.

My brother and I would stare at the mansion in envy when we played on our swing set, wondering what nooks and crannies existed in a house such as that. Surely there were secret passages, trapdoors, ghosts, and maybe a dungeon for torturing people, too.

It didn’t matter. I was wasting time. There was more baseball to play.

“I’m going over,” I declared, shaking them out of their silence.

“Be careful,” Sid said, knowing that what I was intending to do was the opposite of being careful. I felt like Hooper in Jaws when he said “I got no spit” before being lowered into waters infested with a killer shark, protected only by a flimsy metal cage.

And just like Hooper, I soon felt my hands on a series of metal bars as I prepared to make my move. Examining the fence closely for the first time in my life, I soon found a foothold that I could leap onto and pull myself over. I took a deep breath and felt my legs begin to quiver, forcing me to reach for the fence to keep from falling.

I couldn’t turn back. No way would I ever again work up the courage. It had happened before. Once, I had decided to go off the high dive at the swimming pool. My friends had dared me, Hank mostly, and said I wouldn’t, which was all I needed to hear. I climbed the ladder with gusto, rung by rung, my friends getting smaller with each step. Reaching the top, I stepped onto the board. Wet concrete loomed below at the edge of the pool; if I fell there, I would go splat. I ignored it and walked down the board, which rocked lightly under my weight. I went to the edge, looking down at the bright blue pool water that sparkled in the sunlight. It was beckoning, seeming to say all you have to do is jump! Jump and prove you’re no chicken! It made no difference that my friends didn’t have the guts to even come this far; I had to go through with it or never live it down.

But the moment was lost, as was my nerve, vanished into a mist that smelled strongly of chlorine. The pool no longer beckoned, and nothing I could tell myself would make me jump. With other kids laughing and pointing, even kids I didn’t know, I made a long, slow, humiliating climb down the stairs.
This time I’d show ‘em. I pulled myself to the top of the ancient metal, ignoring all thoughts about the horrible fates certain to befall me, which worked well until I reached the top, where doubts crept up anew. Could I really do this? Did I even need to? Perhaps life could exist without baseball?

Maybe it could, but that was no life for me.

I took one last deep breath, pulled my other leg over, and dropped. Bracing myself with my hands as I landed, I found myself in a sprinter’s crouch. Perfect. I took off, the James Bond theme playing in my head as I visualized Mr. Green popping out from behind one of his many trees to aim a pair of pistols at me, Clint Eastwood-style. I zig-zagged across the yard, figuring it’d make me harder to shoot. Zig, zag, zig, zag until I reached the ball, grabbed it, then swung around and heaved it back over the fence as if it was a live grenade. I had done it! Mission: Impossible was indeed possible!

All that was left was home—easy enough. Then, as I began my escape, there was a clamor above: the sound of a window opening. Even with my brain screaming at me to leave this godforsaken yard behind, I froze. Run! Run, you idiot, run!

I couldn’t. I didn’t know it until then, but it was the moment I had been waiting for my whole life, like Cubs fans and the World Series. The chance of all chances, if only I could hang tough and control my fear the way that Yoda had told Luke Skywalker to. I would do it! Slowly, my eyes went up the house, searching for the source of the sound. When they found it, my heart nearly burst from my chest, like an alien from, well, Alien: a drape from behind a second-floor window was moving. Moving! Only one person could make that drape move: the mysterious man who had never been seen by my eyes and seldom seen by few others, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, except this wasn’t an episode of Unsolved Mysteries or ripped from the pages of one of the creepy books I checked out from the library. This was really happening.

What monstrosity would soon reveal itself? Would he resemble Sloth from The Goonies? The hunchback from Frankenstein? The Phantom of the Opera, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon? I couldn’t have turned away, not for all of the baseball cards and action figures in the world.

After what felt like forever, the window flung open, and there he was. After all these years, I found myself looking into the face of Mr. Green.

The Mr. Green.

I wanted to say “Hi,” or even better “Why, hello there Mr. Green, it sure is a nice day, isn’t it?” Except that was impossible, because my jaw was hanging open and my voice taken away at the sight of the man. Oh, to look at him, at his ghastly white, nausea-inducing skin, his scraggly beard, gray and patchy, like he had started shaving years ago and gave up halfway through, his hair that hung in curtains down to his shoulders, looking like it had been dipped in Crisco. His eyes were black, made darker when set against his skin, and his eyebrows jutted out from his face as if they were bird’s nests built on dead tree limbs.

When he spotted me, he shielded his eyes with his hand and squinted against the sun. He didn’t say anything, only stared. He wasn’t brandishing a firearm, didn’t have a spear he could skewer me with, wasn’t clutching a shiny butcher’s knife. The horrible deaths I had imagined for myself only moments ago seemed ridiculous now. As strange as he appeared, I could tell there wasn’t a vengeful bone in his body. What was wrong with him I could not say, but he did not mean me harm. I knew that, somehow. He only wanted to look at me, as curious about me as I was about him.

If only I had some Reese’s Pieces I might have been able to lure him out of his house the way Elliott had done to E.T.

Finally he smiled, a broad, genuine, honest-to-goodness smile, though one that revealed crooked and missing teeth. Something in that smile disturbed me. Maybe I had judged him wrong after all. I no longer felt safe and secure. If Frankenstein’s Monster or Jason had been standing there, it would’ve scared me less than that smile did.

Then he opened his mouth to speak. To my shock, out came the words, as easy as could be.

“Hello, there. Say, what are you doing back here?”

“Well, um, gee,” I stammered, stalling for time to concoct a plausible lie. It was no use. I could’ve had a lifetime and still come up empty. If Hank had made the trip, he could’ve spit something out, only he was on the wrong side of the fence, or the right one, I suppose—the safe side.

That left me to answer with the truth.

Having to tell the truth, for me, usually meant I was in big trouble. But without a lie, it was all I had. “Well, sir, that was our last ball,” I said. That explained everything, right?

“Is that so?” he said, rubbing his chin. “Well, we’ll have to see about that.” Then, as quickly as it had appeared, his ghostly frame vanished from the window.

I let out a sigh of relief. It was my chance to escape. Without another thought, I took off for the fence in search of sweet, sweet freedom. Reaching the iron bars, I pulled myself over, much faster than I had moments earlier. However, as I reached the summit, something white arced over my head. I felt my heart skip as I tracked the object, and nearly fell off the fence in shock. It was a ball. It sailed over my head and landed in our backyard, skipping across the grass until it landed at Sid’s feet. Another followed, then another, and another still, dozens of them, raining down until the backyard was practically covered. Regaining my senses, I jumped down, home, my feet safe in our green grass, and looked back at the window. The old man made eye contact with me, nodded, then reared back and threw one more. It was a good throw, right on the money; all I had to do was stick out my hand and hang on as the ball hit my palm.

Mr. Green saw me make the catch and winked. “There you go, boys! That oughta hold you over for a while.” He gave us the briefest of waves, nodded, then swiftly closed the window. Immediately, it looked the same as it always did, cold and abandoned, with only my backyard filled with baseballs as proof that we had ever seen him.

The four of us stared at each other, disbelieving and shaking our heads before breaking out in laughter, equal parts thrilled and disturbed by the encounter with our elusive neighbor.

“I can’t wait to tell everyone,” Hank declared. I could practically see the gears working in his head as he devised ways to spread the story to the neighborhood. He lived for moments just like this.

“I’m not even sure I know what we just saw,” I said, still shaking my head. “This is crazy.” I looked over the balls lying in the grass, dazed. It was crazy, far too much for me to process. The only thing that made sense was to get back to playing baseball. So we did, starting where we left off, only now I had an ace up my sleeve. When I wound up to throw another pitch, as it left my hand I pointed up at the window and pretended to see Mr. Green again.

Hank was stuck, torn between watching the pitch and looking back at the window. While trying to do both, he did neither. He swung but barely, a wobbly cut that wouldn’t have hit a beach ball, and when he looked back mid-swing he lost his balance and fell over. My plan had worked! Strike three! That meant it was our turn at bat.

Hank whined that it was a dirty trick, saying it wasn’t fair, that it violated the spirit and sanctity of the game, which sounded like some nonsense he had heard from a baseball announcer. Of course, that didn’t stop him from trying it on me when I took my turn at the plate. I was ready for it, though. For once, I outsmarted Hank. I stayed in the box, swung at a pitch that he grooved, and whacked a double over 
Timmy’s head in the outfield.

Afterwards, I stood on the second-base tree stump, cheering on Sid as he took his turn at bat. From there, I couldn’t help but take another peek at the window.

When I did, I saw the curtain move, ever so slightly. 

In case you missed it, here's a link to find it on Amazon. And another one. And another

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