Half a Boy and Half a Man Tales of Oysterback

HELEN CHAPPELL

May 27, 1992|By HELEN CHAPPELL

OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — Oysterback, Maryland.-- There's nothing lonelier than a deserted bar on a Monday night when it's just you and the TV. Have you noticed that ''Designing Women'' isn't funny since Charlene and Suzanne left? I have. Maybe that's why I am sitting here, looking out the window, watching Michael Ruarke play air ball.

Watching that kid standing out there in the darkness all alone, I know he isn't just hanging out on the Blue Crab softball field, pretending to pitch. There's probably not a fan alive who hasn't played air ball; in your imagination, you're out there in the stadium, it's the top of the ninth, you've walked one and struck two out, the fans are going wild, the team is counting on you, and you're a legend in your own mind. When you're 18, that magic still works, even for a kid like Michael. Especially for a kid like Michael.

I have a strict rule for myself: Never feed the strays. I, Desiree Grinch, proprietor of the Blue Crab Tavern, have problems getting attached to living things that die or leave. Nonetheless, I go in the kitchen and cut two big slices of my black walnut chess pie and put them on a paper plate. Well, it would just go to waste, wouldn't it? I also have a problem following my own rules.

I guess if I was anyone else, Michael would stop in mid-pitch and pretend he is doing something else. But when he sees me coming across the field, he sort of grins his lopsided grin, really putting his whole body into slamming that air ball over the plate. I could almost see it arching in a neat curve over the plate, hear the bat swish through empty air.

''Hey, Desiree,'' he says, hitching his West Hundred High School Baseball jacket up around his shoulders, stuffing his mitt inside for safekeeping, ''Way cool, pie!'' He takes the paper plate from me and just launches into that food.

When you're 18, 6-foot-2 and weigh 195, I guess you're always hungry. Maybe it's the moving; kids are always bopping, as if there's some kind of internal music that only they can hear, some rhythm that forces them to sway and jitter all the time. Sometimes I hear that music myself, on a spring night with a full moon and the town just a string of lights along the river, summer spreading out in front of me like a promise.

''Your mom got one of her boyfriends over to the house again?'' I ask. I could say more, a whole lot more, but I don't.

Me, I think people should have to have a license to have kids.

''Yeah,'' Michael says around bites. For him, it's business as usual; when he sees the boyfriend's truck going down the road, he knows he can go home. ''This is real good pie, Desiree.''

''I guess you think so, the way you inhaled it. Did you get your homework done?''

''Did it in study hall. You shoulda seen me at practice today, Desiree. Coach says he's got a friend who's a scout for the college. Wants me to talk to him about a scholarship.''

He folds up the paper plate and pushes it into his pocket, then does a sort of turn, those big stupid sneakers they all wear dragging in the dust. Finally he grins at me, that lopsided grin, and I know he's really excited and trying to hide it, like maybe something this great will be taken away from him. It wouldn't be the first time.

''Michael, that's great! See, I told you, you could do it, if you just keep that pitch smooth, from the shoulder. I am so proud of you, kid.'' And dammit, I am. Still half a boy and half a man, Michael's turned out as a decent human being; he's never taken on that hard, mean edge some kids like him have.

''Desiree, it came to me that I could have anything, even those stars up there, if I wanted 'em bad enough.'' He pitched to the sky. If he'd had a ball, it would have gone to the moon right then.

''Yes, you can,'' I say. ''You can have anything you want, if you're willing to work for it.'' Then I have to laugh, to hear myself handing out advice on how to lead a life. ''I guess I sound like someone's mother,'' I mumble.

''You don't seem anything like a mother to me,'' Michael says, and puts his arm around my shoulders so that I have to look up at him, reading his face, so serious it could break your heart.

Never feed the strays.

Helen Chappell writes from Easton.

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