February, grape vines
spare as crosses—
driving east across the valley, strict
rows of flowering almonds,
a blossom carpet
I first mistook for snow.
I first mistook Copperopolis for Angels Camp.
I thought Murphys was Dorrington.
When I was a child, I’d lie so still
I believed I could feel the earth
hurling me as it turned.
Up above the snowline,
ash flickers from a brush pile
burning at the shore—
the lake face frozen—
bare aspens stiff
against the sky.
I lie down on stone.
I lie down sideways
so the tree-line makes a black gash
between the ice and the sky—
White Fir. Blue ice. Dark imprint
of a child dragging a sled
across the lake.
The world when it slows enough for me to see it—
child on ice—
Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966
Anyone can tell it’s hopeless:
early July, jackhammer heat, Pittsburgh down two in the tenth—even the diehards
in the bleachers are heading for the exits. Why shouldn’t they?
It’s late, work starts early, it’s just another midsummer Sunday night game,
everyone dreading Monday morning, everyone dying of heat
in the grandstand’s packed rows. So most are standing to leave
when a runner gets to first. And then another.
And so a little hum starts up, and suddenly the pitcher
can’t find the strike zone. And the crowds edging to the exits
keep glancing back as a flutter like a wind
begins to rise: it's the crowd. It's the skin
on skin of clapping hands, it's whistles, it's the whine
of hinges as the kids in the nosebleeds
stand to see the batter slap a curveball to the gap in center.
A run scores, Bucs now down one. And the frenzy begins
when Roberto Clemente, muscle-car-arms, steps to the plate like a Moses
and sends a sinker a mile past left for the win.
I've heard the recording: mob scene, chaos, deep stampede, voices
like the roar of water falling into water. Think of it: fathers
unpocketing their Zippos, lighting last smokes, the kids
catcalling for Clemente to take another bow, only July but everyone
talking first place, Pennant race, World Series win, light
like benedictory oil all across the field. No one wants to go home.
And leaving through the gates, a young man in a banded trilby
stops to feel the heat of the assembled, the change in energy.
And seeing the packed trams—men piling up the steps,
skirted girls fleeced in streetlit gold—shrugs
and buys a pint of Flagstaff from the vendor at the exit
and begins the long walk back to his Allentown flat.
That man was my grandfather. He knows he won’t get home
till well past midnight. And he’ll tell this story to his son, my father,
who will pass it on to me, how he decided right then
to take tomorrow off work, take the paper to Roscoe’s
for coffee, for grape jam spread thick on black toast,
for the seat in the sunlight in a booth by the window
where he’ll sit all day and read about the win.
He’ll tell how going home that night over Hot Metal Walkway,
he looked up river to see the nighttime shine of the city’s hundred bridges—
Tenth Street’s Towers, the tied arch of Birmingham
loping the Monongahela, Liberty’s double-deck grillwork
lashing land to land like a rail tie, like a great animal spine
stretched across the water.
I like to think how the story must have swelled
in the coming months, as these stories do: a minor embellishment
when he tells it to the waitress (Clemente sent it 600 feet),
a little something more when he tells it to a neighbor
(the crowd was fifty thousand strong), the story tricked into myth
by the time it finds the welders at Jones and Laughlin—the odds now impossible,
the heat like a steel mill, how the heart of the ball
tore off its cover in its flight across the wall.
But here are the facts: two weeks from that night
he’ll meet my grandmother. By November they’ll be married.
Pittsburgh will slip to third
in the last week of the season
and lose out on the Pennant. Roberto Clemente will hit .317,
win the MVP, die young in December of ’72 in a plane crash off coastal Puerto Rico.
And over the years, the details of that night will not be so much lost
as evened out, bleached into other summers: somewhere
a heat wave, somewhere long beers on a sun-hot bumper,
summer the Jones and Laughlin Steel Co. moved to Southside;
summer the fog flanked the river till it was known
only by its sound.
So when it reaches me from my grandfather’s lips,
that July night in Forbes Field will have been whittled down
to its pinprick significance: no Gene Kelly glow, no nostalgia of firework light
from road flares cutting lanes through the post-game crowd,
just an old man’s memory of heat and bloc-lights, a ball game
in summer, deep shadows on chessboard grass,
thin now as the tremor in his hand
as he points across the water and tells it
as he remembers: it was midnight in July.
I was just a young man. And I walked home over the bridge.
Grady Chambers was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, and currently lives in Oakland, California. His poetry and nonfiction is forthcoming from or has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Ninth Letter, Barrow Street, Cimarron Review, Devil's Lake, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and received an MFA in Poetry from Syracuse University.