I was only twelve years old when the sky rearranged my face. But it’s not that simple. It never is.

* * *

It all happened during the last days in summer of ’63 and before the start of my thirteenth year on this planet. A week earlier, my father surprised us with keys to his supervisor’s cottage out in cow country. Our family spent three hours power-locked in the car together, sweating the last dead heat of the dog days. But it was worth it.

The cottage was a grand, white-washed columned castle with a porch swing and scuff-marked steps. I jumped out of the car and ran circles around the backyard for ten full minutes. I was so happy. I was like a kid on the fourth of July with a fistful of sparklers. We didn’t have lawns at our real home, just a Chaplin-moustache strip of mud-pus ragweed next to our split-level fourplex. This was an entire backdrop of sprinkler-head emerald green. This place was pure heaven.

The following day, my father, my brother, and I unloaded a pile of firewood that had been truck-dumped on the driveway – we were only here because our father sold us as grunt work in exchange for a free weekend. We stacked wood in the garage working assembly-line style, like sailors bailing out seawater with a bucket brigade. I still say ours was harder than theirs. But it was worth it. A day of unsweetened lemonade and splintered blisters. And memories to last a lifetime.

My brother and I, we’d never held a real job. We couldn’t work straight and sober, just bend, pick, hand, carry, drop, and repeat. We weren’t factory drones. Not yet. And we were going back to school in a week. Nothing to lose. So we started tomfooling around, practicing our shot-put with the quarter-cut logs, sword-fighting with extra-long pieces of bark, dropping the lumber early so it hit toes instead of concrete…the usual. And then our father threw us into the woodpile face first.

My father was a slow-burn man. He was aged gunpowder and my brother and I were stick matches. He looked sluggish, especially with that beer belly of bloat, but it was a hidden powder keg surrounded by sparks. Any moment, SNAP, and everyone was dead. He and Mom had some epic fights. When they clashed, the neighborhood rumbled as if street gangs were having a dance-off. Every so often, my brother and I needed a good bruise or a good bleed and we were good to go again. We got up, shared a look, dusted off, and went back to work. Back then, life was life and we lived it without over-thinking. Simpler times.

When we finally finished, it was twilight out, that magic time when the sunlight scatters itself across the night sky. Not quite dusk, not quite night, but bright enough without the artificial light. After all that time at the logging grind, we were a family of the famished. But all we could find in the freezer were unlabeled Ziplocs double-stuffed with unidentifiable ragged-cut red meat. Our father tested them for us with his foolproof method. "Smells OK to me." They pass. His ‘A’ grade was good enough for us, and at that point, we were too hungry to care. While my brother and I took separate showers –two bathrooms, such luxury – my father just threw all the mystery meat on the grill, added a bag of charcoal, two cans of lighter fluid, and smoked the flavor into the meat with a festive flambĂ©. Chow time.

After dinner, he gave us our presents – part ‘job-well-done,’ part apology for making us eat wood before we ate weird. We didn’t know which, he didn’t say a word. They were from his boss, not him. My father never gave us gifts. He didn’t believe in them. He would always remind us, “Once a year, Jesus Christ Almighty, taking the form of St. Nicholas, will bestow upon you a single present. If that ain’t good enough for you, leave now and don’t never come back.”

“Baseball gloves!”

I inhaled that dizzying smell of fresh leather, like new Italian sports car. To this day, not even most fragrant of fragrances can ease my sorrows like the scent of a mint-condition mitt. I spent all night with my extended cow-hide hand, rubbing mink oil on the inside until it shone like a turtle-waxed passenger door. And then, right before bed, I baked it in the microwave for six minutes, stuffed a stone-sized softball in the pocket, and kept it in the fridge overnight, sealed tight with rubber bands. Nobody ever said baseball was easy. Except maybe the Black Sox (minus Shoeless Joe and Buck Weaver).

The next morning, the first thing I saw was the sun. My room at home didn’t even have windows. All day, the sun hovered alone in the sky, pasty and yellowed amidst a stormy sea of clouds – true trouble brewing. And outdoors, the sunlight, a sickly overcast haze of pale, warmed only my skin, not my bones. The grass beneath our feet was half dead, a mix of golden bindweed and emerald crabgrass, dancing together in the tender early-afternoon wind. Blades of departed brown flew through the air like migrating geese, whispering through the wind as the wind whispered at me, its breath smelling only faintly of manure.

My father tapped the ground with his antique wooden bat, wearing no batting gloves over yesterday’s blisters, a true trooper of the game. My older brother punched his mitt next to me. My elder sibling’s once impossibly straight straw blond hair had recently morphed into flaxen curls, seemingly overnight, starting him off on his post-pubescent journey with a hirsute bang. Despite his obvious feigning interest in the sport, he felt the need to compete with me for our father’s dwindling affection. Sadly, his burning animosity towards competitions of kin remained constant, albeit thinly disguised as awkward playfulness.

“Hey shithead. Shithead! I’m calling you!”

That was my brother’s affectionate pet name for me. If I answered, I’d be admitting that there was actual shit inside my head. If I didn’t, he’ll punch me. No win. Still, it could’ve been worse. He used to call me ‘Little Shithead’ because I used to be really short. But then I hit a growth spurt. Now I’m just plain Shithead.

“You want something, fruit?”

* * *

Yup, he’s a real Georgia Peach, just like Ty Cobb. Let the wordplay begin.

“Yeah, urgent telegram! You suck! Stop! Quit! Stop!”

He spun and made a behind-the-back catch on a routine pop-up. And with a witty retort to boot. My big brother, ever the showman, always performed for the invisible cameras. He played the role of a passerby on a local news field report, straining his neck, waving his arms, doing everything short of streaker nudity to capture a primetime spot in this precious family moment. We had reams of silent movie footage, B-rolls, our co-op childhoods collected in 50’s-necktie-thin reels and segmented into frame-by-frame of pain. When I was two, he’d find a cardboard box from the neighborhood, trap me inside that heavy-duty paper-based tomb, and sit on top of it while my father unwittingly filmed us both with his garage-sale 8mm Silent-cine-camera. I wished those films had been made of nitrate so they could have burned with the rest of Hollywood’s era output.

My rival sibling was the ringmaster of his own circus, star of his own sitcom, a world-famous marionette except he was the one pulling his own strings.

‘Say kids, what time is it?’

‘It's Howdy (head full of) Doody Time!’

I remember thinking that I hadn’t been this close to my brother’s face since he starting monopolizing the bathroom and bolt-locking his bedroom. With his magnifying-glass white skin and his fair dustbowl curls, there was a time when he could disappear against a beige backdrop. But then his acne hit, cluster bombs of saucy meatballs bombarding his cheeks into a crimson mess of social destruction. White skin, red cheeks, frizzy hair; he looked like a homeless clown with a drinking problem.

As for my father, the best way I could describe him would be as a clam digger. That’s how he dressed, that’s how he acted, that’s what I thought he did for a living until I was eight. With his scratchy hobo beard, his beer binges, his violent temper, and his omnipresent knit fisherman’s cap (worn primarily by whalers and escaped convicts), he could have passed for a clam digger. Or a mid-century American novelist. Either/Or.

And at the same time, he looked like an ex-high school quarterback, right down to the sunken eyes, burgeoning waistline, and receding hairline. The latter two went inversely hand-in-hand, one grew as the other shrunk, all because beer grows the belly while it fades the forehead. His once shaggy mane – I knew it only from 4x6 wallet photos – had slowly receded rearward like a frightened cuddly porcupine. Violence was his only vice but only because he didn’t count alcohol as anything except ‘good, clean fun.’

My brother and I tried out our new mitts while our father slapped out grounders and fly balls. At one point, he smacked a towering line drive all the way back to where the wall would be if we’d had a wall – at that time, it was all empty lots. I ran backwards, stumbled over dirt mounts, tripped in a gofer hole, and came up with the ball wedged in my glove like Willie Mays. I held on to that ball, that’s how I was raised: always hang on no matter what.

After an hour of shagging flies, both of us were zombie corpses in red high-tops. My feet were iron weights, my arms were chimpanzee knuckle-draggers. Still, I could have played forever. This was my last chance of the summer, of the year, maybe of my life. We left the next day for the city, the week after that was back to school, and next year I’d be too old for fun. I saw my brother, hunched and puffed just like me. We shared a look. He felt the same.

My father, on the other hand, was already melting in the late afternoon sun, as glistening droplets of sweat dribbled from his thinning curly hair. But, like an aging Elvis, he still had enough in him for one final hit.

“Last one boys, then we go in. Shut up! No complaints...”

He waved us as far as we could go, he just kept swiping air, back, back, back, as he nipped sips from his afternoon flask. It was almost empty. I knew by the expression on his face.

“Way back, this one is going deep, boy. Babe Ruth at a whorehouse deep!”

He smirked skyward, his tobacco-encrusted teeth gleaming like rotten gold in the midday sun, and picked up the only ball we hadn’t lost - the free promotional softball from the McDonald’s down the street. I once told my pasty-skinned, clown-haired brother he should audition to play Ronald McDonald and he eloquently responded by busting open my lower lip. The softball was a yellow-and-red monstrosity the size of an anti-Semite rock with blue stitches hemming it together. One side had Ronald’s smiling face, the other said ‘One billion hamburgers served!’ The price was right.

He flipped the ball in the air with just enough spin to slow it down, switched hands to a batting stance, and walloped the ball in his sweet spot – high and away – right at us. The wooden bat let out a skull-fracturing CRACK! and sent the multicolored, round rocket soaring skywards, drifting through the air like a defective scud missile. I looked up to see that pure red-yellow pill nearly disappear into the wispy clouds guarding that star at the center of the Solar System.

I stared up into the dying sun, which had perked up at the end of the day and now sought to blind me forever. Its harsh rays penetrated everything in its path, including my retinas. I was sightless. And then, I saw it. The catch of a lifetime, that pellet of purity, falling towards me, a moon-shaped shooting star hurtling like a steroidal comet towards my father's favorite son – ME.

The ball began its descent. I held my glove high above my head, as wide open as it would go, an inviting launch pad for our outer space visitor. But suddenly, once again, I couldn’t see. Not the sun. It was my brother and his stiff, scratchy baseball glove batting at the air in front of my face, shielding my eyes, blinding me for what seemed like hours upon years. His shrill yelps managed to drown out the wary bellows of my father, who just watched and waited for the sky to punish us. I kept yelling for him to pull back but he was too stubborn. Finally, his hands snapped away and my first sight was that of battered, reddish-yellow stitched spacecraft hurtling towards me, in the form of a premium softball and Ronald McDonald’s smug goddamn face.

Time stutters.



And then the axels in earth’s axis started turning again.

Everything I saw was loopy, in super slow-motion, like newsreel footage run at one frame-a-second. My vision flared. I couldn’t see. I was Raging Bull with one glove instead of two, sputtering through the black-&-white flashbulbs.

‘You didn’t get me down! You can never get me down…’

I touched my nose and held my fingers in front of my eyes. Red. Blood. I tasted it. Confirmation. I bypassed my first thought – I can’t be bleeding – and went straight to my third – This is my blood. I’d been hit. I staggered backwards into the wall and sunk to my knees. I was deaf to the world. All I could hear was that sound, that soft crackling sound of a newborn baby bird worming its way through the thin eggshell crust – the sound of my soft pubescent nose batting cleanup against a split-fastball. I caught the ball with my face. That yoke all over my face, that was mine, I’m bleeding, I’m bleeding. I’d never bled before. I was a boy in the suburbs. What reason would I have had to bleed?

Static. A fist banged on top of an old TV. And BOOM, we had picture again, now with an astronaut-helmet fishbowl effect. Sound trickled back in too. Everyone screamed but me. Blood gushed like an entertainment reporter, my infernal nosebleed painting a little red devil goatee on my chin. I couldn’t see it, I could only feel it. I was drowning in my own blood, in late August, thirty miles away from the nearest lake. Drowning! My nasal passages pumped blood like a second heart. I dipped my hands into the crimson waterfall that streamed from my nostrils and parted the Red Sea in my palms. I screamed towards the house like a fire engine, wailing all the way to the door. The house was not on fire, it was not a true emergency. But it was to me. It would always be to me.

I slipped up the rusted garage steps, cursing the idiot who decided to call them ‘softballs.’  Mom was in the kitchen, her pink leopard-print bathrobe moistly clinging to her skin as unrolled her second mentholated pack of the day. She peeled back the cellophane with her tangerine-polished nails, flicked out a crisp new Virginia Slim, and effortlessly turned the paper into ash with a flick of her fingers. I stood there, my nose dripping like an Egyptian faucet – nine innings of plagues left to go – watching my mom suckle on that nicotine-filled nipplette. Her eyes flicked upwards. She coolly exhaled out of the corner of her mouth and that chemical cloud washed over me like cleansing acid rain.

“What happened, baby?”

My mom’s voice, like dewdrop honey spun in butterscotch cotton candy, silky to the edge of mellifluidity without the artificial sweetness of my schoolteachers with their stale coffee breath. No amount of chain-smoke could ravage her smoky vocals. She was like a nightingale in a coal mine. She had the kind of effortless melodiousness of a Disney princess. And more than that, she really cared about me. And she always would, I knew, until the end of time.

I didn’t answer her. So of course, Mom assumed the worst. She walked over and pressed one of their good hand towels to my nose until the monogrammed initials were obscured by blood. It felt so nice and soft. I absentmindedly hooked my pinkies in her silken belt circles, those perfect cigarette burns – ‘butt holes’ as they’re known – scorched into the silk by her own hand. I did that a lot when I was younger. Each cigarette hole represented a moment forever dry-iced in time and burned into her eye of memory. Just like right now.

“Dry your eyes…”

I didn’t want to cry. I was a man, not a girl. And with my eyes still wet with saltwater and swollen like goiters, Mom took me inside and cooked me a plate of spaghetti and meatballs with macaroni and cheese. It was my favorite in the entire world and the best food there ever was, is, could, would, and forever will be.

Weeks after, just like the infamous softball that made me the man I am today, I had a few stitches, some redness, but mostly just blue and yellow. The bones did not break because they weren’t fused yet. Just ugly bruises. All was swollen and swell. It just looked much worse than it actually was.

The first week of school was the best, walking around with a face full of broken blood vessels. As each new authority figure wondered which parent beat me to it, I flatly explained, ‘I walked…into a door,’ intentionally trying to sound as unconvincing as possible. It’s true what they say; it’s the small pleasures in life that help ease the pain.


Michael Saul, is a graduate from York University with an Honours BA in Professional Writing. His work is featured in previous and upcoming publications of The Satirist, Black Heart Literary, Hobo Pancakes, Metazen.ca, Modern Times Magazine, The View From Here Magazine, and many other prestigious publications too numerous to list here. When he’s not off exploring the world or writing about himself in the third person, he lives in Toronto, Canada.