At this low moment, my son Jeff connected with the first decent hit of the afternoon. It was a neat grounder, running parallel with the surf instead of toward it, and coming straight down the beach at me. With a murmured prayer of thanks for not having to dash once again into the Gulf of Mexico, I dipped down to scoop up the ball, and missed.
Nonplussed is a word that is usually best left in the dictionary. On this occasion, however, I think I am justified in risking it. Nonplussed certainly described with peculiar accuracy the way I felt when, before I could turn to retrieve the ball my butterfingers had just allowed to scoot between my legs, I saw the ball come hurtling back across my head, toward Jeff at bat. He caught it neatly. I turned to see what had happened behind me, and saw a tall, husky, good-looking man all bundled up in a blue sweater, a cashmere muffler, and a floppy linen fishing hat.
"Hi," he said cheerfully.
"Hi," I said uncomfortably. I felt a little silly about missing that ball. If he had not come up behind me and retrieved it, I would have had an undignified gallop down the beach in its wake.
"Crumby day," he said as he continued his walk and passed me on his way up the beach.
"Yeah," I said.
At this moment my son Jeff, obviously drunk with success, swung and connected again. The ball came down the beach in a hard line, perhaps four feet from the sand, straight toward me. Before it reached me, however, the man in the blue sweater casually shoved out one hand and caught the ball with a loud, satisfying smack. All six boys sent up an involuntary cheer. The man looked back across his shoulder at me.
"Sorry," he said apologetically, as though what he had done was inadvertent, due to no effort or desire on his part.
"That's all right," I said.
But it wasn't. It was all wrong. His two small feats had shifted the center of gravity of the relationships on that beach. I could see that the boys themselves were unaware of it. And it was obvious that the stranger in the blue sweater didn't know what had happened. But I knew, and I didn't like it.