At the center of this baseball tale is a nine-year-old boy. My view from 40 is that he’s got a pretty sweet little life. He’s independent, self-sufficient, and rather impatient for someone who’s nine. Each morning he wakes up with a cup of Earl Grey tea, then bikes off to school because he doesn’t like waiting for a ride, and often—with two working parents—there’s no one at home to give him one. Parents are an unreliable means of transportation, and everyone knows it’s a race to his third grade classroom. “I have to beat the bus, Mom,” he says over his shoulder as he coasts down the driveway and into a forest of dangers I can conjure up with very little imagination. He needs to be early because, by the transitive property of third grade math, early = first, first = win, ∴ early = win. Suck it, bus riders.
This need of his goes back nine years. Henry was so eager to enter this world that he was very nearly born in the hospital waiting room. And I was so unprepared for his arrival that he came home from the hospital without a name. For nine months, I was sure he’d be the girl I’d name Phoebe, after my grandmother. I’d put her in Mini-Boden dresses and read her Grimm fairy tales from my childhood edition with the Arthur Rackham illustrations, and on Saturdays we’d go to the ballet or the paint-your-own-pottery place. I should have peeked during the ultrasound. Instead of a beauty, we got the beast. For five days after his birth—until the Social Security office got wise to our stalling—we penciled and scratched through lists of names for this nameless baby boy. We finally settled on three—he has an extra middle name to make up for our indecisiveness and to commemorate his thundering insistence on getting life going already. His second middle name is Bear.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve tried to catch up with Henry, to ask him about baseball and life and being nine. It’s been a bit like grasping at the shirttails of a kid running an indoor parkour course while singing operatic versions of pop songs. When he isn’t doing lateral jumps over the coffee table or shimmying up a door frame, he’s tossing a baseball, always too close to an antique lamp, to something still unbroken.
ME: Can I interview you?
HENRY: [hijacks the interview after one question] Are you writing a book?
HENRY: Will I be famous?
ME: I’m not using your real name.
HENRY: Can I pick a new name?
HENRY: I want to be William Turner.
ME: Why William Turner?
WILLIAM TURNER: Those are the names of two of my best friends. The smartest kid and the best athlete in my grade.
ME: So, what’s your prediction for your baseball team this season?
WILLIAM TURNER: We’re gonna play 80 games and I think we’ll win 30 and lose 50.
ME: Why do you think you’ll have a losing season?
WILLIAM TURNER: Well, it’s ten away from being equal.
The unassailable logic of third grade math again.
Beginning last September, Henry went to drama club every Tuesday after school. An Atlanta musical theater group ran the club, and they met in the elementary school auditorium for an hour and a half each week with a director, a choreographer, and a musical director, all graduates of a local college’s theater program. For five months, the kids worked with these dedicated (or desperate for work) twenty-somethings to put on a “Jr.” Broadway production, an hour-long version that preserves most of the big musical numbers and mercifully shortens the script. In February, the kids performed the show for a sold-out crowd of 500 at a restored velvet and gilt 1930s Deco theater on our town square. This year the musical was Beauty and the Beast, Jr. Henry played Maurice, Belle’s father, and a singing teacup. By his count, he had 47 lines and three dance numbers to learn.
This is the first year that Henry has done drama club. On sign-up day, I pretended that it didn’t matter much to me whether he did it or not (“I’ll sign you up if you want me to.”), and he pretended that he didn’t much want to do it (“Whatever. I’ll do it if you want me to.”). We both knew that he wanted to do it. He loves to sing, and I have this theory, not based on any empirical research but on some rule of parenting that I made up when—twice now—a doctor in a delivery room handed me a boy child: boys are supposed to have an art and a sport. The arts have always mattered more to me, been more present in my own life. I feel their absence in my boys’ lives. I watch my sister with her three girls who dance and draw and color and craft and read classic books with spunky girl heroines; then I turn back for a look at my own boys’ lives: a blur of bodies in motion, a flurry of pixelated creatures on screens, and a pile of well-thumbed Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Henry’s life tilts heavily toward sport, so I guess I want him to know the other side, to love what’s made with the mind as well as the muscles. Whatever. I just don’t want him to grow up to be a meathead.
ME: Tell me about being in Beauty and the Beast.
HENRY: You have to memorize songs and lines and dance moves.
ME: I heard you were crying a little backstage before the play.
HENRY: Don’t write that.
ME: Okay. How do you want me to ask it? I heard you were really nervous.
HENRY: It makes you start to think if you forget your lines or mess up on something.
ME: What did you learn from being nervous?
HENRY: When you’re talking you’re not looking at the crowd. You’re looking at the person you’re talking to and it makes you forget about the audience.
ME: Is being up on stage like being a pitcher?
HENRY: Exactly, but in front of less people.
ME: When you pitched on Saturday [after the play] were you less nervous?
HENRY: Yes. I wasn’t exactly thinking about it.
Maybe it’s just me or some sort of confirmation bias about my art and sport theory, but ever since Beauty and the Beast, Henry’s pitching has gotten better. It’s like he stopped worrying about hitting a kid with the ball, stopped thinking too much about the people watching or being at the very center of the game. These days, he steps out on the mound with excessive amounts of nonchalance. He pitches smoothly from the wind-up; his pick-off move is downright scary. His body moves naturally through a pitcher’s choreography. He’s learned the dance moves.
ME: When you pitch do you worry about the people watching the game?
HENRY: Sort of. If there’s another team that we’re about to be facing, if I do a bad job, the other team might think I’m a bad pitcher. But I’m not.
ME: What do you think about when you’re up on the mound?
HENRY: Where to throw it. The speed. High or low.
ME: Can you control where it goes?
ME: Do you ever look at the batter and think about him?
HENRY: Yeah, if he’s a big kid that looks like he can hit it, I try to throw it faster.
ME: What’s it like to get a full count when you’re pitching?
HENRY: That’s when you really try to control it.
ME: What does it feel like when a kid gets a hit off you?
HENRY: I try to think about what I did wrong and where I should have thrown it.
ME: What’s the first thought that goes through your head?
HENRY: Shoot. More precisely, [spells] s-h-i-t.
Did I mention the kid is a connoisseur of cuss words? I’m sure this is a failure of parenting on my part. I try not to model their proper use for him, but, like most kids, he gets a thrill from the forbidden (and, like a lot of things around here, the no-swearing rule is only sporadically enforced). I’m pretty sure he practices cussing when he thinks no one is around. That’s what his older brother tells me anyway.
ME: Do you want to be a pitcher?
HENRY: Because I can get lots of money.
ME: You’re nine.
HENRY: Because I can pitch in front of crowds and other people can see me pitch. I’ll get known.
ME: Why do you want to be known?
HENRY: Because that will make me popular.
ME: With whom?
HENRY: I don’t like explaining my thinking. I like answering multiple choice and that’s all. Mrs. Smith [his third grade teacher] makes me explain my thinking all the time.
ME: Do you like your new uniform?
HENRY: H-E-Double L yes. Don’t write that.
ME: Does having a nice uniform matter to you?
HENRY: It doesn’t matter to me if it’s cheap or expensive, as long as it looks good.
ME: Do the brands matter?
HENRY: No, not as long as it’s sturdy and could last for a while, and after the season is over I could wear it to school. I’m not a big fan of cotton uniforms.
ME: Do you think baseball at your age is too serious?
HENRY: Some coaches take it too seriously. I play for fun. And to win.
ME: What do coaches who take it too seriously do?
HENRY: If you balk, for example, they’ll yell at you. Like why did you do that? Especially in a tournament game. Sometimes if we’re winning by a decent amount of runs, like seven, they’ll be chill. If you balk, they’ll be like, don’t make that mistake again. If we’re losing by at least five runs, they’ll get seriouser, more serious. They’ll tell you the odds. We have to win. We’ll be out of the tournament.
ME: Do you like traveling to different parks?
HENRY: It’s fun. It’s always fun to explore them between games. Some of them have creeks and things to climb on.
ME: Do you ever wish you didn’t play baseball?
ME: What are you thinking when you step up to the plate to bat?
HENRY: How fast the pitcher is throwing it. Where he throws it.
ME: Do you ever think, this kid can’t throw strikes, I’m going to walk?
HENRY: No, I’m almost always ready to hit it.
ME: What’s it like when you’re batting and you get a full count?
HENRY: You have a 50-50 chance of a walk or a strike out.
And… I believe we just hit the limits of third grade math.
ME: Actually, it’s a 33% chance of a walk, an out, or a hit.
HENRY: Whatever. I just think, oh crap. It’s a full count.
ME: What does it feel like when you strike out?
HENRY: I’m not answering that. Don’t ask me that.
ME: What do you think when get a hit?
HENRY: Yes! Bolt to first.
ME: What do you want your walk-up song to be this year?
HENRY: “Another One Bites the Dust.”
ME: Where did you hear that song?
HENRY: It’s Queen. Everybody knows Queen, Mom. I expect even five-year-olds to know “Another One Bites the Dust.”
ME: Humm… as a batter, you don’t want to bite the dust.
HENRY: Alright. Fine. “Iron Man.” Black Sabbath.
ME: What are some things you worry about?
HENRY: Getting robbed. At night.
ME: Do you have a plan?
HENRY: Punch the person in the face and then run. Pretty much.
ME: What makes you happy?
HENRY: Video games. Family.
ME: I mean really.
HENRY: Junk food. Soda. Computer time. Big chairs that feel good when you sit in them. Profit. Nerf guns. Chicken nuggets at Houston’s. Diet Dr. Pepper. Salt and Vinegar potato chips. Ant Venom videos on YouTube.
ME: What do you think you’ll be doing in 10 years?
ME: Where would you drive?
HENRY: To Dave and Buster’s.
ME: What do you think you’ll be doing in 15 years? You’ll be 24.
HENRY: Being married.
ME: To whom? Virginia?
HENRY: Shut up, Mom!
ME: What’s your favorite song right now?
HENRY: “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore. It has a lot of bad words in it.
I was sort of hoping he’d say Justin Bieber, “Beauty and a Beat.” I could have found some way to wrap this all up. Too much to ask of a nine year old, I guess.
HENRY: I like that song, but I hate Nicki Minaj. Her rapping sucks.