Hello. I am an Earth Ball, also known as a cage ball, a large inflatable ball most often seen in junior-high-school locker rooms. When it rains, I am brought into the center of the locker room, where students play with me. I live near Baltimore. Hello.
The end of this school year has been highly eventful. There has been lots of rain, which means lots of opportunity for me to be batted back and forth by eager young hands, and I have bonded strongly with the young men in the locker room. I have come to think of them as my boys and have even felt a kind of paternal pride when I have looked down to see them with their arms stretched upward. They are my sons, and I want them to reach for—and then reach—their goals.
And yet, there is a much larger ball being batted around these days—the presidency of the United States. I hope that this metaphor is not too much or too little. In the past months, the upcoming presidential contest has come into sharp focus. The young Democratic senator Barack Obama will face the old Republican senator John McCain, and the Democrats will attempt to do what has never been done: put a man in the White House who is not white. “I remember when they elected a Catholic president,” Fregosi said. He is an autographed baseball who carries the name of the man who signed him. Fregosi was in the major leagues back in the early ’60s. He was signed the day his namesake debuted, in September 1961—which was, he says, during the time of the Catholic president—and now he sits on his pedestal, mostly forgotten, and talks to me about the news, the weather, whatever. Most baseballs are jerks, asses even, but Fregosi is OK. He is my friend.
Fregosi is proud of my political knowledge. “Slunky,” he said—this is his nickname for me—"you know more than any Earth Ball I ever met." I am grateful for the compliment. Still, most of what I know about the subject, I know by contraries. I should explain. For the last three years, Coach Parker has exposed me to the views of a man named Sean Hannity, who has a nationally syndicated radio show and a nightly television show. Coach Parker does not often agree with Sean Hannity, but because he listens and watches, I listen and watch. And I learn: as a rule, when Sean Hannity insists that I should see a situation one way, I see it the other way. For example, Sean Hannity has recently started to call his show “the Stop the Radical Barack Obama Express,” and to convince his listeners that Senator Obama espouses dangerous views that will jeopardize the American way of life. He repeatedly mentions Obama’s associations with radicals and leftists and dangerous-seeming black people, as well as the fact that his wife, Michelle, seems to be ungrateful about the opportunities that America has given her. I have no doubt that Sean Hannity is distorting the record. He is a one-trick pony in that regard. In fact, this “yammering and hammering,” as Coach Parker likes to call it, has convinced me that Barack Obama is a fundamentally decent man who deserves a chance to be elected president. This is what I mean when I say that I learn by contraries. If Sean Hannity said that it was midnight, I would buy sunglasses. I did not make that up. Coach Parker did. I cannot wear sunglasses. I do not have ears.
Last week, I was listening to Sean Hannity malign Barack Obama when, suddenly, the locker-room ceiling sprung a leak. The liquid did not have a pleasant odor, and it quickly became far less pleasant. The situation was declared bacterial—it was water mixed with sewage—and Coach Parker ordered that all the equipment along the east wall of the locker room be moved into the girls’ locker room while workmen came to patch the leak. That meant me and it also meant Fregosi. “We’re going where?” he said. “Well, Slunky, you’re really in for a treat. I think for a few days you won’t be thinking about politics, if you know what I mean.”
I did not know what he meant. I had never been in a girls’ locker room. Upon our arrival, they put us in a corner where we could see both the offices of the coaches and the row of showers, and I noticed two things at once. First, the girls possess bodies that are quite different from boys’ bodies. This is the case among Earth Balls as well. Each female Earth Ball has a puckered inflation valve, while each male Earth Ball has a debossed logo at what would be, if it were a planet, its North Pole. Earth Balls are taught that sustained friction between valve and logo is what produces new Earth Balls. In actuality, we are made in factories, but some of us cling to the valve/logo story, which humanizes—or at least animalizes—us. I was thinking of puckered inflation valves when I observed the bodies in the girls’ locker room. At several points, they had curvatures and cushionings that only a ball can appreciate.
The girls showered. They toweled off. They dressed. Fregosi and I watched with fascination. At one point that first day, a young coach approached us. Her long dark hair was wet. She had large expressive eyes. “Holy moly,” Fregosi said. “I think she’s gonna pick me up.” She did not. She stood and looked at us like we were painted a color she had never seen before, and then she moved on. “Bum luck,” Fregosi said. “But wasn’t she something, Slunky?” She was. I longed to have her back so that I could look at her again. She had produced a feeling of well-being, which is sometimes in short supply in this world.
The second thing I noticed is that women watch different television programs than men. There is a show called The View. I had seen it once because Coach Ortega came into the boys’ locker room to see Coach Parker. They “rolled some dice,” as she liked to say, and while they did, she turned on the television so that they could not be heard. The guest that morning on The View was an actress who was coping with a recent divorce. “Life throws you curveballs,” she said.
One of the hosts laughed. “I had one of those once,” she said. The audience laughed, too. I was outraged. A curveball is not an object. It is a process, a means of propelling a baseball forward through space. A curveball cannot be owned, any more than a bounce or a carom. Fregosi agreed with me when I told him about it later. “That was a stupid thing for her to say, Slunky,” he said. I preferred soap operas or game shows to a show where such things were said. But when I arrived in the girls’ locker room I noticed that the coaches watched The View every day. In the middle of my first week there, after a few days of pop stars and celebrity chefs, Michelle Obama appeared on the show. She put in a respectable appearance. She discussed her husband’s qualifications, her patriotism, and even her admiration for Laura Bush.
That afternoon, Coach Parker came in to roll the dice with Coach Ortega. Even though her office was in a corner visible only to me, he turned on the radio to Sean Hannity’s show. “Camouflage,” he said. “You get your program in my office; I get my program in yours.”
“Ah,” Coach Ortega said. “Your program in mine.” Her voice had curvature and cushion. The two of them went on to her couch and for 10 minutes I saw the occasional arm and leg but heard only the voice of Sean Hannity. Sean Hannity began by outlining a series of Senator Obama’s recent misstatements. On one occasion, Senator Obama claimed that he had visited all 57 states. On another, he incorrectly named the Michigan town in which he was speaking. These seemed like innocuous errors, but Sean Hannity thought that they exposed a double standard; when John McCain had made similar mistakes, he said, he had been taken to task by the media. Sean Hannity hammered and yammered some more about the unequal treatment of the two candidates. “I find that amazing to me,” he said. I almost laughed out loud, until I remembered that I could not. I turned to see if Fregosi had heard Sean Hannity’s comment, but he was napping. He had spent all day looking at women and he was tired.
After replaying Senator Obama’s campaign-trail gaffes, Sean Hannity moved on to discuss Michelle Obama’s appearance on The View. In his opinion, her decision to discuss her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago and her love for America was the worst kind of political pandering. He believed that she was specifically trying to distract voters from the fact that she and her husband were planning to undermine the American way of life through their radical agenda. “This is Madison Avenue marketing,” Sean Hannity said.
This time, I had to wake up Fregosi. I did. “How naive does he think we are?” I said.
Fregosi clearly had better things to do—there was a tall blonde tying a towel around herself and stepping toward the shower—but he was a good friend. “More to the point, Slunky, how naive does he think we think he is?” he said. Fregosi said that Madison Avenue marketing, if that was what it was, was probably called for in an environment where Obama’s character was being assassinated at every turn. “Reviled if he’s spontaneous, treated with suspicion if he’s careful,” he said. “That’s a Catch-22, Slunky.” He reminded me that, a few days earlier, another host on the Fox News Channel had referred to the fist bump between Barack Obama and his wife as a “terrorist fist jab.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“Beautiful,” Fregosi said. I was confused until I turned to see that he wasn’t talking about politics anymore. The young coach with the long hair was headed our way. She stopped right in front of us and reached out. I cast my mind ahead a few seconds to feel her cool smooth hand on me. But her hand went past me and then withdrew, and I saw that Fregosi was nestled in her palm. He looked at me helplessly, powerfully, said “Slunky” in a voice I had never heard, and fell silent as the woman turned to leave. After a little while, Coach Parker and Coach Ortega emerged from Coach Ortega’s office. Coach Parker said something about wrapping up the leak repair in the boys’ locker room. The two of them left, too. The day ended. Night came on. It was dark, but the lights in the parking lot sent a faint glow through the window. I felt an ache near my debossed logo, a sad and sustained ache that reminded me that all of Sean Hannity’s shoddy thinking and hit-man mentality and sanctimony could be swept away by the simple tragic fact that a beautiful young woman had passed me over. I knew that soon enough I’d be back where I belonged, with my boys, but for a second I didn’t care. I found that amazing to me.