About Ernie Banks
Neal was the oldest and he and his father worshipped the Cubs. Neal had baseball cards he kept in a shoebox, but the Ernie Banks he kept pressed between the pages of his catechism. If his brothers begged enough, hed take it out and show it to them. They waited for the day, the really good day, they could ask their father to take them to Chicago for a game.
In the evenings they watched Mutual of Omahas Wild Kingdom and National Geographic and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. They had a full set of Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedias their father had bought from a door-to-door salesman. They owned a Bible kept always in a box in the parents closet. They turned the thin, gilt-edged pages with just-washed hands. They loved the pictures and, most of all, loved the Pietas. They loved the grown, dead Jesus draped over Mother Marys lap, his pierced ribs, his crown of thorns, the purple lids of his eyes.
They played church and Neal was the priest. He stuffed Wonder Bread into their mouths and said, The Body of Christ, and they gagged and washed it down with grape Kool-Aid from Dixie Cups for the blood.
Summers they heard train whistles and the factory whistles and the rustle and squeak of corn growing in the fields outside of town. They heard tornado sirens, blaring from all directions, thrumming inside their brown chests and they stood out on the front porch and scanned the yellow sky for funnel clouds. They heard police sirens and ambulance sirens and made the sign of the cross. If the sirens were close, they ran to see where they stopped.
Once they watched Mrs. Ernst rolled out of her house on a stretcher, her face dark and shriveled like the shrunken heads on National Geographic. They drew pictures of her and wrote, What, me worry? underneath and tacked them to their walls. Their mother tore down the pictures and when their father came home he called them little bastards and Neal got the belt. They ran and hid under the porch and pressed their fists over their ears.
Every day at three-thirty they heard the Deere whistle and got lost quick because their father would round the corner of Leland Street and he didnt want to see them until suppertime. Hed sit at the kitchen table with their mother and drink Hamms and tell stories and they would hear their mother laughing.
Sometimes he missed supper altogether and their mother sent them to bed early. Theyd wake up later to the sound of him coming through the back door, the scratch of a chair across the kitchen floor, their mothers sharp voice.
They held their breath. They closed their eyes, then opened them wide. They curled their toes. They rocked themselves. They shoved each other. They pressed their fists to their ears. Their stomachs hurt. They bit the tips of their fingers. They listened hard. They never cried.
And Neal would reach across the bed they shared and touch their backs. His voice in the dark, like the skirr of cicadas, talking about Ernie Banks and Wrigley Field and the Cubs until they fell back to sleep.