Mother always says my Uncle Alfie spoils me rotten because "he don’t have any kids of his own to spoil." She is probably right about the spoiling. One Christmas when I was, I think, seven he gave me a whole cowboy suit, with a white hat, two guns I could put real-looking plastic bullets in, holsters with tassels, a vest, funny imitation-leather things I snapped on my wrists, and chaps to wear on my legs. The chaps chafed, but I played with the rest of the stuff until I lost the bullets, got too big for the vest, and broke one of the wrist-snap things. By then I was too grown up to play cowboys anymore anyway. I was a baseball player.
For my tenth birthday Uncle Alfie gave me a ten dollar bill.
"That’s too much, Alfie," Mother said. She wasn’t smiling when she said it either. Mother believes in giving socks and underwear.
"That’s only a dollar for each year," Uncle Alfie explained. Then he asked me what I was going to buy with it.
I couldn’t imagine anything in the world that could be worth as much as a real ten dollar bill except ANOTHER ten dollar bill so I said I’d have to think about it.
And that’s all I did the rest of my birthday -- thought about that ten dollar bill folded carefully in my overalls pocket. When I checked for maybe the millionth time to see that it was still there and safe, Mother told me to stop touching myself because "it looks a scene."
Just before Uncle Alfie left to go home to Aunt Lil and "get the fight started," he looked at me very sternly and said, "You know what you ought to do with that ten dollars?"
I shook my head.
"You should" -- and then he smiled his big, wrinkly smile -- "buy exactly what you want to buy. Think about what’s most important to you."
Baseball was the most important thing, of course. But I didn’t really need anything. I already had a George Stirnweiss glove. My friend Chuckie had a Nick Etten bat. For a while, I thought maybe I might buy an Ethan Allen Baseball Game like my friend Billy has. But then I thought some more because Billy and I are the only ones who play it and Billy already has one.
When we finished supper, we listened to Inner Sanctum on the radio. Just after the creaky door and the host welcoming us, Mother suddenly said, "You could put it in the bank."
"I said, you could put it in the bank. Your ten dollars."
All I knew for sure about banks was that, if you put money into them, you couldn’t go to Murphy’s or Kresge’s or Key’s Drugstore and buy something with the money you didn’t have anymore.
"Well ...," I argued.
"Or you could buy a war bond. That would help your father." My father was beating the Germans at the time. The twin appeal to my patriotism and my duty as a son was nearly overwhelming -- and, I’m sure, calculated to be. But I bought stamps every week and pasted them in my book. I figured I was already a couple of B-17’s ahead.
"Why isn’t Uncle Alfie in the war?" I segued.
"He was, but his ship was torpedoed."
"Won’t they let him back in?"
"He was injured. His leg."
Uncle Alfie limped, but it had never occurred to me that there was a reason for it.
"My father won’t get hurt," I said.
After a second or two, Mother said, "We’re missing the program."
That night I went to bed and I put the ten dollars under my pillow so Mother couldn’t sneak in and wash my overalls with the ten dollar bill still in them. Mother is always doing things like that, which is how I lost my pet caterpillar. Then I stayed awake for hours checking that no one stole it from under my pillow and wondering how I ought to spend it.
I wanted to make a good choice because being ten is right on the verge of being a bigkid. Bigkids are the ones who when we ordinary kids are playing baseball in the schoolyard and the score is close, like 34-28, come over and take the bat away from me and say "Pitch it in here" and hit our ball over the schoolyard fence into Mickey’s Yard and then laugh and go away to do bigkid stuff while we chase the ball. Sometimes they even hit it over Mickey’s Yard into the yard of The-Lady-Who’ll-Call-the- Police and we have to run in and get the ball and get out before she can. All us ordinary kids hate bigkids and can’t wait to be bigkids ourselves.
Making an ordinary kid choice, like buying Key’s Drugstore out of comic books or getting enough candy bars to get sick, was all right when I was nine. But now, as an almost bigkid, I wanted to make a bigkid choice. Only I didn’t know exactly what bigkids did when they weren’t hitting our ball over the fence into the yard of The-Lady-Who’ll-Call-the-Police.
In the morning I put my ten dollar bill back in my overalls pocket and walked down to Mickey’s house. Mickey had been ten for weeks and weeks, but he’s all little and skinny and freckles and trying to be funny. I don’t think Mickey will ever be a bigkid. So I didn’t tell him about my ten dollar bill because he’d just say candy or comic books. When he asked why I kept touching myself, I told him I had poison ivy.
Mickey had a brand new wizard baseball. I don’t remember what they were really called, but we always call them wizards. A wizard ball looks like a real baseball and even acts like a real baseball until you hit it a couple of times. Then it gets all mushy and lopsided like a dumpling and goes THAP! when you hit it. When the cover gets torn, something like sawdust comes out.
So we went over to the schoolyard to wait for Chuckie to bring his bat. Wizard balls are perfect for the school yard because after they get lopsided bigkids can’t hit them even into Mickey’s Yard. Best of all, a wizard only costs a quarter.
The school yard is paved with bricks and always tears up our baseballs. Still, it is the best for baseball because of the fence, even though none of us ordinary kids had ever hit one better than a bounce in front. The fence was our target. I don’t know if we ever said it exactly, but hitting one over the fence was a bigkids thing.
When we got there, I asked Mickey if he’d called Chuckie.
No. Did you?"
I shook my head no. "What if he doesn’t bring his bat?" I was thinking how I could surprise everybody and say ‘Don’t worry. I can BUY a bat for us.’ Then I remembered that Murphy’s was six blocks away and Chuckie only lived two blocks away. It would probably be easier for him to go home and get his bat.
"Chuckie always brings his bat," Mickey said.
"Yeah, I forgot."
"Or he can go home and get it."
"He only lives two blocks away."
"Did you forget that?"
Chuckie was always punching Mickey. Ross did it a lot, too. So did Billy. I only did it once or twice when he really deserved it. Bigkids punched Mickey for no reason at all.
"What do you want to do until they come?" I asked. You want to practice running the bases?"
Another good thing about the school yard is the bricks are shiny-smooth so you can slide into the bases. Except third base where a couple of bricks are missing. Chuckie always slides into bases even when he doesn’t mean to. Lucky for him he almost never gets to third base.
Mickey slides into bases better than anybody. He is a good fielder too, but he doesn’t bat very well because a lot of times he likes to hold the bat by the barrel and hit the ball with the handle. That’s one of the main things Chuckie will hit him for. Chuckie arrived with his bat and Billy and Ross. We had to send Ross over to get Jimmy the Fat Kid, so we could have full teams of three on a side. We sent Ross so we didn’t have to hear him yell when we chose up sides and he got picked after Jimmy the Fat Kid. Then Billy and I tossed the bat to see who’d get Mickey.
Billy and I are the best hitters, but Billy is better than me because he runs so fast. Whenever he doesn’t strike out or pop up to the pitcher, he hits a home run. None of us could catch him. One day he hit 59 homers and then went home because he had to go to the dentist. Later, when I learned what 60 home runs meant, I wondered if he knew how close he’d come to immortality.
Billy won the bat toss which meant my team got to hit first.
While we waited for Ross and Jimmy the Fat kid, I thought about telling Billy and Chuckie about my ten dollar bill. Billy was almost a bigkid too, and Chuckie was big enough to be one, except he was just big and was always falling over his own feet. Chuckie could fall down from combing his hair.
But then Ross came back with Jimmy and I knew they’d just say candy.
Especially Jimmy the Fat Kid.
"You’re up, Ross. I chose you first."
Mickey started to say something, but Chuckie punched him in the arm.
After Ross struck out, Chuckie hit a grounder to centerfield, but he fell down at home plate and Mickey threw the ball in to Billy who was pitching and playing first base.
Before I went up to hit, I made sure my ten dollar bill was still snugged down safe in my overalls pocket. Mickey yelled from the outfield that I’d better not get poison ivy on Chuckie’s bat.
We always play slow-pitch in the schoolyard because hitting is a lot more fun than striking out. A good game might end up 68-56. But Billy and I always throw just a little faster to each other. This time he threw very fast.
The pitch came in low, about knee-high. I swung as hard as I could. And hit it square! Even though it was a wizard ball, it wasn’t lopsided yet. It went CRACK! and I felt good all the way down to my ankles. [Author’s note: I think it was the best feeling I ever had until I was seventeen and went to the drive-in with Chuckie’s sister.]
I stood at home plate and watched it go. For a second, I was afraid it’d clip the corner of the school, but it slipped past, just starting to fall, and disappeared into the girders of the fire escape that jutted into left field.
Mickey ran over, ready to play the ball off the girders, but when I saw him jump up in the air with his back to me, I knew it had cleared the fire escape and gone over the fence. I acted real casual, like I’d done it a million times, as I trotted around the bases with my first bigkid home run, but inside I hopped and skipped all the way.
After I stepped on the home plate brick, I looked out and saw Mickey just sitting down in the outfield.
"Go get the ball," I yelled.
"I’m not getting it," he yelled back.
"You have to go get it."
"No, I don’t."
"You BETTER go get it!"
"Go get it yourself."
Then I knew the ball must have gone all the way into the yard of The-Lady-Who’ll-Call-the-Police. Mickey would never go into her yard even if Chuckie hit him.
"If I go," I said, "I’ll keep the ball."
Mickey shrugged. It was only a wizard, by now probably lopsided.
My need to see the whole distance of my home run -- my first bigkid, over-the-fence home run -- was greater than my fear of The-Lady-Who’ll-Call-the-Police.
"All right for you," I said. "And I’m keeping it!"
I climbed over the school yard fence into Mickey’s Yard, and after a long look at the house of The-Lady-Who’ll-Call-the- Police, I climbed over her fence. But I couldn’t find the ball. I looked behind her umbrella tree and under all her hollyhocks, but I still couldn’t find it.
Then I heard someone say, "Up here, little boy."
I looked over the NEXT fence and saw an old woman -- even older than Mother. She wasn’t The-Lady-Who’ll-Call-the-Police, but she looked like A-Lady-Who’ll-Call-Down-the-Wrath-of-God. For a second I even thought there were streaks of lightning shooting out of her head. But what I really saw was her standing in her kitchen staring at me past light reflecting off the shards of broken glass in what used to be her kitchen window. She was holding a very lopsided wizard ball.
When I got home, Mother asked what I bought with my ten dollar bill. I told her about my three-yards-over, bigkid home run and the lopsided wizard.
Mothers are funny. She got more excited when I told her I’d bought a ten-dollar window.