In the late springs it was always school and chores after, and when the grass was cut and the garden weeded, there would be time for an inning or two. Then May would give to June. I cannot fully convey just how special that time of year was to me growing up—those few weeks when the air would first warm and then the mountains blossom, and that long string of big, black X’s on the calendar I’d begun in September finally ended. Summer vacation. That’s when the season would really start. That’s when the lot would open.
There were five of us neighborhood kids, and we’d always get together once school was out. There was me and Greg and Chuck and Noel and Jonathan. Sometimes there was a sixth named Duane, but it wasn’t often he was allowed to play. Duane’s daddy was a preacher—not the holy roller kind but something close—and his momma always frowned on us neighborhood kids running around, shooting each other with pretend guns and playing cops and robbers. It was always better when Duane got to play. He was the only one willing to be the cop. It all turned out for the best, though. Duane, he never had much of an arm anyway.
That’s how we measured ourselves back then—by our arms. Not how big they were or how strong, but how far and how fast we could throw a ball. Because let me tell you—back in our old neighborhood, baseball was king and the lot was our castle.
It wasn’t much, that piece of land Maybe half an acre wide and that much long, with a row of big pines marking the left foul line and Mr. Pannill’s house marking the right. The road was our fence.
Come the first day of summer, we were at the lot every morning at 9:00 sharp. We’d play until the sun got too hot. Sometimes Greg’s mom would feed us, and it’d be peanut butter and banana sandwiches in the shade of those pines. Other times, we’d bike it down to the 7-11 and poll what money we had for the biggest Slurpee we could afford. One time Noel said he couldn’t share a straw with all of us, there were too many germs. Don’t you know we let him have it for being such a wuss. Then it’d be back to the lot for more of the same until the sun went down and our mommas started hollering.
The thing about childhood is that you don’t know how special it is until it’s over. All those memories you make will stay in your pocket for the rest of your life, and you’ll take them out from time to time just to handle them and remember. But I think we all understood that back then. I know I did. Even that young and even in the midst of those moment, I knew how special they’d become one day. How long-lasting.
I grew up in that lot. We all played on the Little League teams in town, but whatever we did on the big field didn’t matter. Our reputations—good or bad—were made between the pines and Mr. Pannil’s backyard, and we all knew it. I hit my first home run there, clear to the other side of the road. Broke my first bone in the outfield. I learned about divorce from listening to Noel talk about his parents, and I learned about sex from listening to Jonathan talk about his.
Things like that, they stay with you. They get tucked into your pocket and are never lost.
I learned this at the lot, too—nothing is ever permanent in this world. Even the good things go away eventually. We spent almost nine good summers on that lot and I remember each and every one of them, and I remember how it all began to slowly disappear. Noel moved away. So did Duane, though we never really missed him. The rest of us . . . well, I guess we all just grew up. We got cars and got older. Too old for the lot.
I’ve lost track of most of them now. That happens often in life too, and I think it’s one of the saddest things. There’s now a house where our lot used to be. It’s a nice ranch with a big front porch and flowers planted all the way down the sidewalk, but to me it’ll always be an ugly thing. To me, it will always be the thing that covered over my castle. But I drove down there tonight and just sat. It’s getting on in May and June is right around the corner—just the sort of evening when we’d get together for a few innings. I sat there with the window down and the breeze rustling through those old pines, and I swear I could hear the laughter of five young boys trying to figure out what it meant to be alive. I swear I would hear the ping of the bat. I swear I could hear someone say the next game’s tomorrow.