I was only eight when Pearl Harbor was bombed. It was so long ago—back when I had fountains of cranberry-red hair tamed into ragged half-ponytails. Back when I had yellow dresses with hems that danced around my legs, displaying scraped knees; I never did girly stuff. No, I broke the sugar bowls at tea parties and tore the silken gowns of dolls. Besides, my idol was no woman. It was Sammy. He was my brother, eight years older than I, and I worshiped him. I always tried to tag along with him and his gigantic friends—he always tried to avoid this by taking giant steps, scaling treetops, running races, playing ball. So I lengthened my strides and walked like him, confident, big, I-mean-business strides. I took a deep breath and gripped the rough limbs of the oak out front, pulling myself into a palace of emerald leaves and sun-dappled branches. I practiced running by the steaming bog and bony cattails over the golden hilltop behind the baseball field, teaching my legs to move and letting the air roar in my ears like a jet plane, feeling at first as if I were going to topple over, then speeding up and finding I had wings. And in the folds of spangled night, I trudged to the baseball diamond with my brother’s too-big mitt and my brother’s too-heavy bat, and tossed baseballs into the air, watching their vague outline fall where I wanted, then slamming them out of sight.
One day, Sammy discovered a gold mine of baseballs bordering the outfield and asked his friends in puzzlement about where they had come from. Nearby, following them as usual, I chirped up. I announced my secret rehearsals, then showed him what I could do. I walked next to Sammy with great, joyous steps. I climbed up the maples, the bays, the twining cypress, the keeling willow. I raced his friends and beat them all. And I showed what a ballplayer I was. “You guys are lucky,” Sammy snorted to his friends. “You guys don’t have a bratty, tomboy little sister that’s one hundred percent bad news.” But I could see in his eyes that he was proud of me.
Probably the thing I’ll remember most about that time was how we played. It was fantastic. We started after our homework was done. School was tough for me—I understood all the subjects, but went around doing them in unusual ways. In poetry I wrote without uppercase letters or punctuation; in math I added up numbers by making faces out of the digits first. My teachers didn’t understand, and as a girl who didn’t act the way girls were supposed to, I had no friends to help me parry their unconcealed disapproval. But I had Sammy. And every day, without fail, we would hastily do our work, then get bats and gloves and join his buddies, split into teams, and get dirty. We’d play until the darkness of purple dusk fell, until Mom trudged up the hill, battling the wind as it billowed out her skirts and ruffled up her auburn hair. And when her call rang round the dugout, Sammy would wave good-bye to his friends and drag his feet back home, holding my slender white fingers in his big, warm hand. I still believe today that if it wasn’t for Hitler, Sammy Corboy could have become a professional ballplayer.
We found out about Pearl Harbor when listening to “The Green Hornet” after dinner. Sammy and I were wedged together into the same faded, pink armchair, listening attentively to the radio. Then there was a rush of static, and our program was interrupted. “We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. This morning, Japanese planes attacked the American military base in Pearl Harbor . . .” We stared at the radio as if it was going to explode in our faces. The distant war was creeping into our home like a tiger closing in on prey.
* * *
Sammy and his friends wanted to fight. They talked of the Japanese and Germans as if they were a cup of something nasty that had spilled and simply had to be wiped up. No need for soap or sponges—just a rag would do. They seemed to think they could just go overseas, kick butt, and be back in time for dinner. One of Sammy’s best friends, a tall boy named Rolando, was two years older and signed up immediately. I watched him leave, happy, determined. He never came back. My music teacher, Mr. Phelps, went abroad as well, abandoning the class to a series of frazzled volunteers. I never saw him again, either, but it never really registered in my eight-year-old mind how grim the situation was and that he was really dead. I guess I thought he had gone away somewhere and, like Rolando, would come back sometime or other. Death is just a word when you’re young.
Everything was changing. I grew out of my oxfords the summer following the bombing, and Mom replaced them with some old saddle shoes she found at the “Shoe Exchange” that were much too big and stuffed the toe with newspaper. We collected bacon grease off the griddle in tin cans, and when the cans were full gave them to the fat butcher three blocks away. I was told they were somehow used in the manufacturing of bombs. Gold stars stared from windows everywhere, and adults were tense, stretched thin, looking older, on the verge of breaking. Everything in my world was a roller coaster—except baseball. The sport insisted on keeping the same rules, the diamond still waiting patiently for me every day after school, its popularity never faltering. Hordes of kids would crowd round the makeshift bleachers and watch all the high-schoolers and me play on weekends. The kids my age jeered at me, but it was clear they were just jealous. They’d had baseball training actually, you know, Little League and such; I’d never been allowed on a real team because I was a girl. And yet I was playing with kids nearly twice my age. Then, in 1942, something happened that brought that stalking tiger right inside my very heart.
Sammy was drafted.
The day he went to catch his train he was in a smart, khaki uniform, a pallid look on his face. Mom cried as she spoke. Dad didn’t trust himself enough to speak much and only said that he was very proud. We all were. I had squeezed Sammy’s warm, strong hand tightly during the ride to the train station, and when he tried to get on one of the cars, I didn’t let go. I wouldn’t let him leave. “Jenna,” he said cheerfully. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back!”
I noticed that he hadn’t said when, and this made me even more frightened. “Stay,” I whispered, voice nearly inaudible. “Please, Sammy, you’re the only friend I’ve ever had, you’ve gotta . . .
It was then that he reached into his leather bag and revealed the baseball. It was neon white with newness, and the stitching wasn’t red like it was supposed to be but orange, bright, undaunted orange. He squatted down and peered deep into me with his dark eyes. “Play ball with this one while I’m gone,” he said. “A baseball with orange stitching is special, you know. Gets you friends. Makes you feel better. Work on your pitch, OK?”
I buried myself in the safety of his arms, my nose pressed in the fabric of his uniform, the starched smell pooling into my nostrils. Then I took that baseball from his strong, steady hands, and waved good-bye.
* * *
Fifth grade came and went. I made some friends over that summer by throwing my trusty baseball over fences as an excuse to go to kids’ houses. By sixth grade Sammy and his pals had been replaced, and the baseball was worn and unraveling. Despite its age, I never considered tossing it into the trash—the older I became, the more I feared for Sammy’s safety, and the more comfort it gave me.
Sammy’s letters started out long and funny, but as time progressed they became more cryptic, leaner, like the words were choking themselves. Soon he stopped writing us altogether. I refused to accept the fact that he might be dead and wrote to him every day about my new friend Shirley, about how well I was doing in school, the way I missed him, the way the baseball helped me. Then, toward the end of sixth grade, we got the best news we’d ever had—the war in Europe was over and Sammy was coming home.
Mom, Dad and I waited at the train station. I wondered what I would look like to him now—last time he’d seen me I’d been just a stubborn little girl, not a tall, mature preteen. I hid the baseball behind my back, running my hands over the roughened cowhide. A sea of khaki poured from the cars as the train let off plumes of steam. The uniforms were spotless—hadn’t they fought at all? I thought. “Look!” cried Mom. I followed her finger, and in the thick of the crowd with his eyes on his boots, there he was. Sammy.
It’s hard to describe something so painful, even fifty-eight years later. I didn’t recognize him at first—I didn’t quite know what he was anymore. He was technically, I suppose, still a boy, still good ol’ Sammy Corboy, now twenty. But he wasn’t really anything, enough of something to not be nothing, but not enough of something there, something gone. He was not alive, nor was he dead. No, he had one foot on each side of the line. He did not live—he did not want to live—he only trudged, on and on and on forever, everything hazy and faraway. Ghost, yes, now I know that’s what he was; a ghost of a child, of innocence, of laughter, of a ballplayer, a flitting shadow that heard and saw but took no mind, numb to the earth, eyes still cast to the terrors of the past. His memories were like knives, stabbing like an excruciating scene in a film played then rewound and played again. They were of dying, they were of trying (and failing). They were of losing, they were of winning (though that was really losing, too). They were of blood-flecked grass and the charred pages of orphaned picture books. They were of guilt and pain, mounds of it bagged in sacks wrongly labeled glory which he had carried home like an ox. And they were what had reduced Sammy to a ghost.
But I didn’t know what he’d seen, then. No one had told me. All I knew was that something was wrong as he caught sight of Mom, Dad, and me, then averted his eyes to the tile floor of the platform and walked slowly toward us. My breath caught in my chest; wasn’t he excited to see me after two entire years? He had to be.
“SAMMY!!” Mom screamed, face red and scrunched, thrusting herself around his neck. He said nothing, patting her emotionlessly on her shoulders. She didn’t seem to notice.
Dad hugged him next. “Welcome home, son,” he muttered gruffly. “We missed you.”
It was my turn. I ran a finger down the stitches of the baseball and took a deep breath. “Hey Sammy,” I said, grinning broadly. “I’ve got somethin’ . . .” I stopped. My smile faded. His eyes were flat. They were heavy, their brown depths infected with melancholy. This was not the brother that had given me the baseball two years before. Hesitantly, I let myself get wrapped in his arms and was instantly alarmed. They were no longer the safe arms that had hugged me the day he left, hands no longer warm and strong. They were open, too open, vulnerable, exposing, almost. He was no longer the protecting brother I had known. He was too far gone to protect me.
“So Sammy,” Mom said, wiping her eyes. “What would you like for dinner? Chicken? Lasagna? Anything you want I’ll make . . .”
Sammy didn’t say anything.
* * *
Days passed, and Sammy did not speak. He sat by the window, staring out of it, the sunshine gleaming off his wistful face. In the middle of the night he would wake up screaming. He was breaking, a glass ornament thrust from the branch of a Christmas tree and splintered on the floor. At meals, Mom and Dad would try to probe him, push him into speaking. “So Sammy,” Mom would say. “I hear George’s in town. How about you go play baseball with him?” Sammy batted at his eggs with his fork, concentrating on the yellow globs smeared on the plate. Mom would try again. “You like George, why don’t you go somewhere with him? Or how about you get back together with Susie Wong? There’s a good movie out, and she’s still single . . .” she giggled giddily. In the old days, Sammy would blush furiously and start protesting indignantly that he and Susie were just friends. But now Sammy didn’t pink at all. He wiped his mouth perfunctorily with his napkin, got up from the table, and left.
“Son,” Dad cried, getting up with a panicked look on his blanched face. “Son, we didn’t say you could be excused.” Sammy didn’t even turn around as he walked through the doorway and toward the stairs. “I’m speaking to you, son. Sammy!” Dad ran after him. Mom began to weep again. I felt my throat tighten, but forced the tears and anguish into a little jar deep inside of me. I would bottle up my feelings, keep control of myself, of something. I’d keep it all inside.
In a small town, news travels quickly. I learned this the hard way three days after Sammy came home. While Mrs. Petterson was handing out math tests, she approached me and whispered concernedly, “Jenna dear, how’re you holding up?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, tucking a strand of red hair behind an ear.
“With your brother . . .”
I blinked hard, swallowed, and smiled sweetly, stuffing more inside that little jar. “I’m fine, Mrs. Petterson. Sammy’s doing better—he started up some small talk at the breakfast table today, you know.”
Mrs. Petterson beamed warmly. “Good,” she said. I couldn’t concentrate on my math test.
“Do you want to sleep over tomorrow?” Shirley asked me softly at recess.
As we’d had a sleepover the two nights before as well, I could tell she was inviting me to give me time away from the troubles at home. “It’s OK,” I said. “Sammy and I are planning to do some stuff.”
Things kept getting worse. Mrs. Petterson was trying to be helpful, I knew, but she only made things worse. She would pull me aside and ask about my brother in hushed tones, but sixth-graders have ears trained to pick up the slightest pin drop—everyone heard. I always beamed painfully and said, “Thank you, Sammy and I talked together yesterday.”
I could hear parents whisper to their children as I walked by, “Go play with poor Jenna Corboy, love, she’s so lonely, and her brother’s so addle-brained now, poor thing.” Once, I couldn’t take it anymore. In the middle of a movie some kid I knew hated me had invited me to out of pity, I ran out. I sprinted all the way to the bog, the place that I had learned to run so long ago. I waded into the murky water, then collapsed, sitting right in the swamp and biting my lip, trembling all over. Tears were beating at the dam that held them in my eyes so ferociously I thought that surely it would break. My little jar was nearly overflowing, but I nonetheless pushed my sobs inside. I’d hold it all.
* * *
That night, as I heard Sammy tossing and turning and moaning and shrieking in his bed, I rolled the baseball over in my hands. I’d been afraid to show it to him at the train station. He wasn’t my brother anymore—he was vacant, wandering mist, something haunted. He was so crazy now—would he hurt it? It was mine! What had happened where he’d fought? I wondered. Was that what had driven him to this? Having him this weak was like having a rug being pulled out from under me, a foundation shattered. I had leaned on him so much when I was little. Maybe it’s his turn to lean on me, I thought. Maybe he just needs someone who understands to help him. But what do I understand? Chemistry, I listed to myself. Hemingway. Fractions. Baseball. Baseball . . .
* * *
There he was.
Sitting in the same faded, pink armchair in the same dark living room in which he’d sat when we’d learned of Pearl Harbor four years before. He was staring into the distance with a pained look on his face. I approached him cautiously. “Sammy?”
He looked up so suddenly with such a fierce glare in his eyes that I took a step backwards. Then, shaking, I handed him the baseball. “Here,” I said. He took it and examined it. “A baseball with orange stitching is special, you know,” I remarked, repeating what he had once said to me, voice quivering. “Gets you friends. Makes you feel better . . .”
I watched Sammy toss the baseball from one hand to the other and held my breath. My gut was squirming as I prayed that maybe, just maybe, that browned cowhide and unraveling orange string would get him to speak. He stared at it, rubbing his rough thumbs in methodical circles on the worn skin, letting the dirt rub off the ball and onto his fingers. He was thinking. About baseball at dusk with Rolando and his other friends; about dividing into teams and getting dirty; about Mom battling the breeze as she trudged up the hill to call him home for dinner, dress flapping as purple dusk blanketed; about old times. Old times. Before the war, before he went to Germany, before he transformed from boy to ghost of innocence and laughter and ballplayer, weighted down by nightmares he’d had with his eyes wide open.
He tossed the ball up and caught it again, then turned to me. “So Jenna,” he began, voice lower than I remembered it, “did you work on your pitch while I was gone like I told you to?”
And I burst out crying.