You know that 'Wanna have a catch?' moment at the end of "Field of Dreams"? Mine was in a mall parking lot circa 1982.
I'm not sure exactly why I wrote this out, but I think it was something in me that needed to come out. I didn't quite get it as polished as I would've liked, but today was the right day to post it.
"We're going into town."
The boy just stood there. Blinking, confused.
"LET'S GO, kiddo!"
The boy jerked into motion. His father had snapped at him, which meant it could be one of those days. But he had also called him "kiddo", which was a name usually reserved for friendly conversation. Too early to tell yet how this would go.
Moments earlier he had heard the unmistakable growl of the big Mustang engine barreling up the hill. His stomach tightening at the sound. Wondering silently, "Is he in a good mood today?"
It was usually like that after school. Wondering if his father was home and if so, would it be a good or a bad afternoon? The boy would hop off the bus and walk up the long hill. A handful of school friends making the climb, each one peeling off to their house before the boy reached his at the top. That last bit of the trek, where he walked alone, was always the worst and the best. The worst not because it was the steepest part, but because of that ominous feeling. The best because of Ernie.
Their horse corral was below the house on a big slope that ran out all the way to the road. Ernie usually hung out at the top near the house, but every day when he saw the boy walking up the road he would unleash an enormous whinny. The boy would yell back, "ERNIE BUDDY!" and Ernie would storm down the slope at full gallop to greet him at the bottom corner. The boy would crawl through the fence and they would walk up to the house together. But not before Ernie got a good scratching behind the ears. Ernie, in a lot of ways was more dog than horse.
On this day the boy had found the driveway empty. For reasons he did not yet understand, the empty driveway usually brought a tiny sense of relief. His father was not a bad man and he loved him. But he could be harsh.
"LET'S GO, kiddo!"
Dad was home now and they were heading to the mall in town for something or other. The primary reason for going would be long forgotten later, but the secondary result would definitely be remembered.
They had parked at the south entrance, which happened to have a Kay Bee Toy Store right by the doors. As they headed to the exit, the boy mustered up the nerve to ask if they could go in to just "look" at the toys for a bit and his father said yes. Now, if the boy had been with his grandmother that afternoon, he would have been walking out of that store with a toy. Grandma was a pushover. Even his mother could be persuaded without too much begging to buy an action figure or slot car from time to time. But his Dad? His Dad was a tough nut to crack.
Near the register was a basket filled with a colorful assortment of Nerf balls. The boy picked up a bright blue and yellow football and raised an eyebrow toward his father. "Hey Dad, check it out. Rams colors." This was a fib. In his mind, the boy knew this was a blue and gold Charger football all the way. But if he could pass it off as one for his Dad's beloved Rams it just might get to come home with him.
The Rams used to be the boy's favorite team too. Like father, like son. That was until his older step-brother (who visited every summer) told him about Dan Fouts and the Chargers. He wanted to be like his Dad, but whenever his step-brother and step-sister visited it was something special for the boy who was an only child. His step-brother was a good football player and the boy always wanted to impress him, so he switched allegiances to the Chargers easily. The boy never told his father (until much later) that the Rams had actually slipped down to his 3rd favorite (behind the Chargers and the Dolphins) out of an irrational fear of disappointing him. And as afternoon turned to evening at Kay Bee Toys, the Rams were a major factor in his sales pitch.
"Yeah. Let's get it."
Score! Thank you, Vince Ferragamo.
It was dark by the time they exited the mall. The lights of the parking lot casting a yellow glow on everything. The boy had carried the football out with no bag and as they hit the parking lot his Dad said, "Lemme see that thing."
The boy flipped it over to his father.
"Straight down this row and cut left at the blue Camaro."
The boy instantly became Kellen Winslow and ran the finest route ever seen in a mall parking lot. The throw was true and found his hands with a perfect "POP!" from the plastic shrink-wrap still encasing the ball.
The boy headed toward their car, figuring the fun was over. But now his Dad was on a dead run two rows over waving his hand as if he was alone in the secondary on third and long. Dan Fouts took a quick three-step drop and laced one through the night sky. It bounced off the hood of a Monte Carlo and wobbled under the car next to it. Cringing, the boy just knew the fun was over now and feared he would be yelled at for hitting a car. But to his surprise, he could make out his Dad's smiling eyes across the rows of cars and they both began to laugh.
They played catch under the lights for maybe another ten minutes, but it felt much longer to the boy. Sweating, laughing and zipping the most perfect spirals under the bright lights. And save for the invisible defensemen on their field of play, it seemed like there was nobody else in the world for those ten minutes.
On the drive home, the boy could not stop smiling. The headlights from the oncoming traffic revealing the silly grin on his face as he stared out the passenger window. This had been one of the good days. One of the best, really.
Over thirty years later, the man can still see that blue and gold football spinning through the night air. The man has children of his own. Children that he will always play catch with because of that Nerf football. His father is gone, but the man still thinks of him often. For years, the thoughts were frequently negative and unproductive. Thoughts of reconciliation that was close, but not quite there. But through the man's pain, through his confusion, through his resentment, through divorce, through cancer, through death, a random trip to the mall after school can still burrow its way through. It can make those negative things hurt so much less. And it will continue to bring a silly grin to the boy's face for the rest of his life.