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Another of the park's boundaries abutted the Brady property. Old Mrs. Brady and her middle-aged son shared a gray bungalow that squatted in a narrow yard filled with apple trees. Mrs. Brady died a few years after we moved to the neighborhood and Eddie, her son, who had been a recluse, was forced to emerge now and then for walks to Argento's grocery store. On such forays, Eddie would pick his way along the sidewalk, silent and mysterious behind the sunglasses he wore even on cloudy days, the slack flesh of his pale arms set off by the flaming oranges and reds and the swirling greens and blues of the loose print shirts he wore.
Our house was perched on a slight rise and flaunted its windows at the power hitters of the semipro hardball teams. Only the strongest sluggers were able to send one over the right centerfield "fence"—our hedges—but every so often someone would hit a ball that knocked white paint from the siding of the house. And almost every summer, some bush-league Mantle would take out one of our windows. Whenever this happened, I secretly exulted, but out of sympathy for my mother I shook my head and made disapproving noises.
The hardball league played only on Sundays. The softball games were my mother's daily nemesis. Each team had a few strapping factory hands for whom hitting a ball into our backyard was child's play. My mother fretted that one of those homers would cut down my younger brother and sister while they played in our yard. As a hostess, she cringed with embarrassment when softballs invaded family picnics, sending food and drink flying and aunts and uncles and cousins scurrying for cover.
Now and then my mother would fight back. She would hide the home run ball. As a rule she was good-natured; despite her hatred of the park she never refused a thirsty user's request for water. But whenever she hid a ball, she stiffened her back against the importuning players. The men would lean over our hedges and plead, "C'mon, lady."
She would shake her head.
The minute they said please, she would hand back the ball.
No doubt this ritual gave my mother some sense of control over an exasperating situation, but her real enemy—the park's dust—was invincible. The dust was almost as fine as the coal particles that ravaged the lungs of the local miners. It soiled her hanging laundry, besmirched her woodwork, poured from her childen's sneakers and left grimy bathtub rings. In the spring it turned to mud that fouled her carpeting.
Worst of all, in her mind, the dust tortured the high school football players who practiced in West Park. Tryouts for the Panthers began in mid-August. On the first day, the candidates would canter past our doorstep, spikes clattering on the pavement, helmets tucked under their arms, and swagger into the park in a crimson blaze of glory. Within minutes they were lost in the dust. I watched as their red uniforms turned sooty, and their contorted faces became filmed with black sweat. Choking and retching, they braved their way through punishing sets of push-ups and knee bends. My mother could hardly bear to watch them toiling under such conditions. Their blackened brows and cheeks and white eye sockets reminded her of the breaker boys employed by the mines in the days before child-labor laws. She cursed the coaches, the game of football and, of course, the dust.
From my midteens on, I spent little time in the park. It belonged to others. Sometimes, though, on spring nights, I would take a break from my homework and sneak a cigarette outside. Flat on my back in the chilly crabgrass. I would blow smoke rings skyward. If it was warm enough, cars would turn in and out of the lovers' lane across the way. Ahead of me, beyond the borders of the park, lay other worlds—cleaner, perhaps, and less ragged, but none, I was certain, any happier.