by Thomas N. Mannella III

I’m uncertain when we put Papa’s knife to tree bark. Three boys and four initials. Puffy letters like clouds in the sky. I don’t know whose idea it was, this small vandalism of remembrance, but I know it was done out of confusion and love. We chose the maple for its branches. The tree was easy to climb and a familiar destination on our childhood meanderings through the village. The melding tree is a destination still. I visit it in thought and, on occasion, in person, to touch the scabbed bark from the days when all we did was play.

Months before we carved into the tree, Josh rigged a ladder to ease the approach to the high school athletic fields. Over the chain link fence, down the hill, and across the grass we raced to the cinder block wall of the swimming pool. On it was painted the outline of a soccer goal. Clay, Josh, Nicky and I kicked the ball against the wall for hours. One of us occasionally booted the ball onto the second-story pool roof. Although an impressive display of power for a fifth-grader, this achievement ended the game until a school custodian could retrieve it. The idea of getting the ball ourselves didn’t occur to us right away.

Like any neighborhood games, playing at the wall was sacred to me. There, I was with my friends. I never thought about my scar or my heart or being thought of as defective or weird or ugly. Playing was normal. Playing was fun.

We awakened one Saturday at the rising of the sun, filled our bellies with Cheerios and toast, Fruit Roll Ups and Little Debbie Cakes, whatever was closest and most easily swallowed. We exploded out our doors, shoelaces dangling, or we hopped one-footed as we pulled on permanently tied sneakers, down our driveways, bits of early light touching our cheeks, the crumblings of sleep stuck in corners of our eyes, bed-head feathers waving in the breeze, the anticipation so glorious that we sprinted through our neighborhood screaming at the top of our lungs at 7:00 A.M.

A few minutes after arriving at the wall, I blasted the ball onto the roof.

“Dang it!” Josh said.

He placed his hands on his hips and walked to the wall. A drainage pipe ran from roof to ground flush with the wall. Josh grasped it and tugged. It appeared secure. His fingertips bit around the pipe, knuckles scraping against the sandpapery blocks, and he shimmied twenty feet to the top. In one fluid motion he reached for the gutter and pulled himself onto the roof and disappeared. Moments later he smiled down on us, all bright eyes and white teeth. A sunny glow spread out behind him. I squinted. He disappeared and then, to our relief and excitement, the soccer ball sailed down to us.

We experienced a miracle a few nights later at Little League.

Josh’s dad, Mr. Ferraro, coached our team. He wore the same cap that we all did, the same blue T-shirt that was our uniform. His jeans had holes in the knees with strings of denim dangling and his white sneakers were grass-stained at the toes from mowing the ball fields. He directed us from the first-base coaching box.

“Play’s to first!” he shouted, cupping his large hands around his mouth. When we overthrew the extended mitt and the ball skidded into the weeds, he tucked his scorebook under his arm and clapped his hands, saying, “We’ll get it next time.” He was six-and-a-half feet tall and when he spoke to us he took a knee and looked us in the eyes.

“Time!” he called and gathered us at the mound after we squandered our lead and walked the bases loaded with one out. Caleb, our pitcher, pounded the ball into his glove. I removed my catcher’s mask. Bubble gum snapped and the team fidgeted.

“I need you all to listen,” Mr. Ferraro began. “This is important. Two old men had been best friends for years, and they both live to their early nineties, when one of them falls deathly ill. His friend comes to visit him on his deathbed, and they’re reminiscing about their long friendship, when the dying man’s friend asks, ‘Listen, when you die, do me a favor. I want to know if there’s baseball in heaven.’”

Mr. Ferraro knelt beside Josh and draped his arm around his son’s shoulders. He continued: “The dying man said, ‘We’ve been friends for years. This I’ll do for you.’ And then he dies. A couple days later, his surviving friend is sleeping when he hears his friend’s voice. The voice says, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there’s baseball in heaven.’”

Mr. Ferraro paused and glanced around.

“’What’s the bad news?’

“‘You’re pitching on Wednesday.’”

We busted up.

“Don’t worry—we’ve got last ups,” he said, ending our powwow. “Throw home first.”

“Play ball!” the ump shouted.

The next pitch passed me. I found the ball in a cloud of dirt and threw to Caleb, who covered home. He tagged out the runner trying to steal. Two outs. And, as was customary in our league, there was confusion on the base paths. Josh screamed for the ball and when he received it he dashed toward a bewildered runner between second and third and planted the tag. We cheered wildly, amazing ourselves with our swift-thinking, our mighty arms, and our destined victory.

There was joyful chaos in the dugout. We turned our caps inside-out for the rally, freshened our bubblegum, jumped, screamed, pounded the cinder block walls, nearly blew the roof off the joint. In our zealous riot, we tried our best to rip the protective chain link fence off the front of the dugout. Was somebody videotaping this for the news? Were major league scouts in the bleachers anticipating greatness? Did they have their radar guns ready to clock the incredible speeds of the pitches we were about to crush over the fence, one after another after another without mercy?

Our first batter swung at the first pitch, nudging a sleepy fly ball to the shortstop. Out number one. On the bench we focused on the yelling and cheering and protective-chain-link-fence-demolishing, on the parades and confetti that would soon be ours.

In an 0-2 hole, our second batter flailed at what should have been ball one. Two outs. Our cheering edged toward pleading but there was still one more chance and with that shred of hope we attached baseballs to the upturned bills of our inside-out hats with wads of Bazooka Joe and sustained the rally one more time.

Josh stepped into the batter’s box. The chalk lines were erased and, even though his feet were already buried in the ruts, he scraped his cleats back and forth, digging in. The other team disbanded from a mound meeting. There was a lull in our noise-making and through the cinder block walls I heard crickets chirp, keeping time among the clover and dandelions in the fading evening light.

We were not prepared for the coming events.

Their pitcher was rattled and after working the count to three balls and no strikes, we were back to shrieking, assuming that Josh would take the next pitch and with it a two-out walk, the winning run on base. This was not what happened.

“A walk’s as good as a hit,” Mr. Ferraro said, clapping.

But Josh swung at a ball at his shoelaces and lined a shot into right field. He was off. We screamed our vocal chords raw as he approached first base with no sign of slowing down. The right-fielder scooped the ball, fumbled it, scooped it again and threw to second. Josh was only halfway there when the ball hopped off the dirt toward the infielder’s mitt. Our words were so frantic they exploded from the dugout in multicolored capitalized jagged dialogue bubbles like in the original Batman and Robin television show: SLIDE! POW! GO BACK TO FIRST! CRACK! GO GOGO!

We were electric and Josh was, too. Sparks flew off the fence and arced from the clouds in the sky to the backstop to the soles of his shoes. He was a flash of lightning and a boom of thunder as he gained speed around second base. The infielder swiped at the air around our hero’s white-hot ankles, setting his glove on fire, melting his hand, and the searing light burned us blind like a spotlight of blazing mercury.

Halfway home, with no regard for the whereabouts of the baseball whatsoever, Josh continued to outrun the final out, his determination tangible, washing over us like a Gatorade shower, a moment the likes of which we had never experienced before or would again as the infielder overthrew the third baseman and it was really happening, he was in fact rounding third base, stomping home plate, continuing to run without slowing down until we were all together, a groping, squirming pile of euphoria in the dirt where the dugout used to be before it had disintegrated under the pressure of our decibels.

Things would be different the next week.

* * *

It was the sort of accident everyone should have seen coming, knowing the audaciousness that filled his veins. After Josh died the idea was to play the game to take our minds off of everything. We were only ten, eleven years old. We did not speak while warming up. Under the low gray clouds of a sticky June evening some of us hid our faces in our mitts. We chewed the leather strings mushy. Mosquitoes hummed near our ears and bit our necks, our scrawny biceps, the soft bare flesh behind our knees. We didn’t care. I hoped it would pour so we could quit and go home. It didn’t. I pulled the brim of my cap low over my red eyes.

Who knew the score? Were we losing by ten runs? Twenty? Wasn’t there a mercy rule? Josh had been scheduled to pitch. Thick smoke from the concession stand grill pushed down on me. I crouched behind the plate, caught ball four again, and another run was forced home.

“Time,” Mr. Ferraro said and we ambled out to the mound. Caleb’s face was streaked with tears. There was nothing to say. Mr. Ferraro towered above us and through glistening eyes searched the diamonds, the surrounding hills, the warm breezes passing through the branches of the maple trees beyond the splintering outfield fences. The breath of the wind was a magic we felt but could not understand. It was the calming gentleness of untainted boyhood. Then it was gone.

Josh’s death was an injury to us all. It cut me, and I didn’t know where to put that feeling, how to patch it up or hide it away. I could not fix it with Papa’s knife. It could not be controlled, only endured. Another scar.

Standing on the pitcher’s mound I thought about a photograph on our refrigerator. Josh, Clay, Nicky and I posed atop a pile of snow taller than a school bus. Snow-panted and scarved to our eyeballs, that day we made the most of it, wrestling each other off the top and launching snowballs at passersby.

“Hey!” I remembered Clay whispering, his cheeks burned red. “Get ready!”

Miranda, the most beautiful girl we had ever seen, was walking by. Josh told us how he kissed her, which we knew was true because he was bold in a way that none of the rest of us could ever be.

“FIRE!” Clay commanded, a moat of snot running over his upper lip and into his mouth. Snowballs disintegrated in midair from the force of explosion, raining shrapnel on our unsuspecting target, and others burst at her feet. Miranda stopped walking and turned to face us, smiling and waving a cotton-candy-colored mitten, her shiny black hair spilling from under her knit hat, delicious strands of liquorice. We threw wildly, off our heels, two-handed, without even looking, but our supply depleted rapidly. Josh rose and spread his feet for balance, clutching an ice ball.

“Hi guys,” Miranda said sweetly. “What are you doing up there?”

She was pure evil.

The snowy street flared in the sunlight and time warped into slow motion. All sounds were silenced. In one magnificent motion, because he loved us more than he loved Miranda—first kisses be damned—the ice ball rocketed from Josh’s hand and, as if we were underwater, made contact without a sound. Nobody cheered. Miranda crumpled to the ground like a sheet settling onto a mattress. She lay on the sidewalk and stiffened. I imagined the ice packing into the shape of her ear. I imagined broken bones. Blood. Death. Miranda’s mouth was open and she was crying without making a sound as we escaped into the network of tunnels we had burrowed into the snowdrifts, crawling all the way back to Josh’s fort where we waited for our mothers to find us.

Standing on the pitcher’s mound I wanted to return to that snowy day. I wanted to hide under the snow with Josh and Clay and Nicky while all the trouble blew by. I wanted to be together. Or, if not that day, then another winter day at the fort, when Josh stood outside the railing, one foot on the deck, the other on the roof of his neighbor’s garage, smiling at us, his hands in his snow pants pockets, saying, “Check this out.” He worked his way around the outside of the railing to the soccer field side of the fort, facing us, and shimmied backward so that he only touched the deck boards with the toes of his boots like a poolside diver. Without any other warning he crouched and then leapt backward, throwing himself into the sky. With an airy, reckless beauty, he seemed to ride an invisible current, an unseen stream of energy to which he gracefully submitted his body, arching away from us and floating like a cloud in the air above the distant high school bell tower before falling, falling, falling, the puff of his body popping a drift. He waved his arms and legs to make a snow angel, wings growing at his sides.

Standing on the mound I was angry at Josh because he died. This feeling slashed at my heart. Then I was angry at myself for being angry at him because I loved him so much. But there was nothing on which to focus my anger and confusion. There was only a moment a few evenings ago when phones rang at all our homes, Principal Flaherty calling at supper time. There’s been an accident at school. Soccer ball. The roof over the pool. Soccer ball. I’m so sorry to tell you. For some time after we were terrified whenever the phone rang.

Walking to school the next day we passed Josh’s house and looked through his backyard, at the fort, through the chain link fence and over the soccer fields to the cinder block pool wall, the outline of the goal, all in a flash, the pipe that ran up from the ground to the edge of the roof, to the top of the world and beyond, like a branch reaching for the light. How was the view from up there? What could you see now? We miss you, friend.

Standing on the mound, I had these thoughts and those of Josh running home.

* * *

More than a decade passed before I began teaching at our high school and bought the house across the street from where the Ferraros used to live. Old memories sifted up through my mind like stones in a field, warmed by the same sun rising over the same long hill.

Small towns like mine compress landmarks into single visions. In my classroom there were large windows and outside them, a short sprint to home plate away, was the pipe. Beyond that, over the pool roof and the soccer fields, was the chain link fence, the Ferraro’s old backyard, and beyond that a hill topped with a large white cross.

One day in the school hallway I passed an unlocked trophy case. I was alone. I slid open the glass door and reached inside. I hefted a few pieces. I read our names etched into a prized plaque. I set the trophy aside for a moment and unlocked the coaches’ office. Found a roll of medicine tape. A black Sharpie. With my steadiest hand I began to write. Then I tore the Band-Aid-sized length free and did my best to patch that trophy, sticking the missing name on the underside.

I left school in the fading autumn light. I walked down Academy Street, passing the village road that lead to our childhood homes, the soccer fields, toward the maple of our youth. I heard only my footsteps on the sidewalk and, in the distance, some kid kicking a ball off the wall. In some outlying place, I could see the smoke of the coming season plumed from a brush pile in the tangy vineyard air. Finally, I arrived at the melding tree. I drew my hand across the bark that had scabbed over our initials. A scar that would fade but never disappear. Puffy letters like clouds in the sky. I grabbed hold of a branch—nobody to give me a boost—and pulled myself off the ground, grabbed another, climbed higher and higher through the branches that reached out from the trunk like the veins and arteries of a circulatory system, climbing in the syrupy amber light, reaching upward until I could climb no higher. I settled into a seat in a crook of the limbs. I watched the sun dip behind the hills, thankful for the gentle breeze passing through the tree, through me, and all I wanted was to listen to the echo of that ball in the coming darkness, forever.

Thomas N. Mannella III earned a B.A. in writing from St. Lawrence University and a Masters from St. John Fisher College, both in New York. His writing has most recently appeared in the 2014 issues of Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, Jet Fuel Review, The Casserole, and South85 Journal, and is forthcoming in the 2015 issues of The Lindenwood Review and SLAB Literary Magazine. Currently, he teaches English and Environmental Literature in Naples, NY, where he lives with his wife and sons around the corner from the house he grew up in.