MARTIN DUCKED AS his baseball glove hit the wall. He kept his gaze on the spot where it landed.
"Martin, sometimes I swear you try to make me look like a fool," his father said in that too-calm voice that gave Martin the creeps. "You trying to make me a laughingstock?"
Martin tried to force down the lump in his throat. A tune started in his head.
"You gonna answer me? Look at me when I'm talking to you." Ed Pittman picked up the glove and put it on. "I was embarrassed to call you my son. You let every pitch sail right past you. Missed every ball at the plate, missed every ball in the outfield. Like I never showed you nothing." Heslammed his fist into the glove. "There was T. J. Owens barely making an error, and he don't even have a daddy."
Martin stayed put and stayed quiet. Silence made his father mad, but answers made him madder. Martin let the tune grow and tried not to hum out loud.
"You ever practice?" His father slammed his fist into the glove again. "You ever once work this leather like it was meant?" He threw it back at Martin's feet. "Feels like the day I bought it. This sorry glove's got more dust from your closet than dirt from the ball field. I'da given my back teeth for a decent glove and a daddy who'd teach me the game." Mr. Pittman paced back and forth across the trailer floor. "T.J. and the others are out in the field every free minute. Where's my son? Listening to music with a loony woman old enough to be his mamma."
Martin scratched at the dried mud on the knees of his baseball uniform. He tried to let the tune in his head drown out his father's words.
" ... like some damn sissy-britches out there ..."
Martin made up words to his tune. "I ain't listening to you," he sang.
" ... all your time with that fat fruitcake Wylene ..."
"I don't hear you," Martin hummed.
" ... think I don't know about that damn music ..."
Martin's tune stopped when his baseball glove landed in his lap with a thud.
"I got no problem just up and leaving this place, so don't go getting too damn cozy, you hear?" his father said.
Martin traced patterns in the cracked Formica countertopwith the tip of his finger, starting and stopping in time to the tune that filled his head. What was his daddy talking about? Why had he moved from baseball to Wylene? Was his daddy mad at him or Wylene or just everyone in general?
"Go away," Martin sang in his head and traced with his finger. "Go away. Go away. Go away."
The screen door slammed. The car started with a roar. Gravel spewed. The tires squealed when the car turned onto the highway. Martin listened to the car race farther and farther away and fade into silence. He had forgotten his mother was in the room until she stirred slightly on the couch. She looked like a dog that had just been beat for the pure meanness of it. He knew it was his fault--and he felt guilty.
"I'm sorry, Mamma" was all he could think of to say.
She looked at Martin with sad dog eyes. "Ain't nothing to be sorry for."
"I guess I just ain't never going to be any good at baseball."
Doris Pittman came over to where Martin was sitting on the barstool. She pulled his head down to her chest and stroked his hair. She smelled like talcum powder. He listened to her heart beating in time with his own, then he sat up and kissed her on the cheek. The corners of her mouth turned up into a tiny smile, and Martin felt better. Most of the time, it seemed to Martin that all the bad days of her life showed on her face, so lined and drawn. Her lips puckered up and twitched at the corners, like they were justbusting to let loose with something. Sometimes Martin thought she was living a secret life somewhere in her head. He worried that maybe that secret life didn't include him.
Once he had found a wrinkled photograph in the bottom of her sewing basket. Eight children were lined up like stairsteps in front of a church. The one on the end, the smallest one, was his mother. Martin recognized her tilted-up chin and her skinny bowlegs. She clutched a Bible with both white-gloved hands and squinted at the camera from under long, straggly bangs. Martin had been fascinated by that picture and for the longest time couldn't figure out why. Then one day it came to him. That little girl's face had a peaceful smile the likes of which he had never seen on his mother.
"I'll go get the paper," he said, heading for the door. He'd have to go to the Six Mile Cafe to get the Piedmont Times. That was a couple of miles there and back. But that was okay with him. He had a couple of miles' worth of thinking to do.
The breeze felt good on his face as he headed toward the main road. His cowlick stuck straight up on top of his head and waved in the breeze like a banner as he walked. When he heard the chinga-chinga of a bicycle bell behind him, he turned to see Terry Lynn Scoggins riding toward him. The handlebars of her bike wobbled as she struggled to keep her balance on the dirt and gravel road. Finally she tipped, then jumped right up and brushed the dirt off her already skinned-up knees.
"Where you going?" she asked.
"Into town to get the paper. Where you going?" Martin picked her bike up and held it steady for her.
"I ain't allowed to go nowhere." She climbed on her bike and wobbled off.
When Martin passed under the big sign that arched over the entrance to the trailer park, he walked backwards for a ways, looking up at it. WELCOME TO PARADISE, it read. Only one problem with that sign. It was facing the wrong direction. Seemed like most of the time Paradise was on the outside of that trailer park. He turned around and headed toward town.
With each step that led him farther away from Paradise, Martin felt lighter. His long, skinny legs took big, bouncy steps. Pretty soon he was practically floating with the freedom of it. Sometimes when Martin walked he was so lost in a tune he could step right over a dead possum without skipping a beat. But today he took the time to admire the splashes of pink-and-white dogwood along the road, gaze at the blue, cloudless sky, and enjoy the smell of new-mown grass. Before he realized it, he was thinking. Thinking about what a puzzle people were most of the time. Thinking about how come his father was so mad all the time. How come Wylene was so sad all the time. Martin was beginning to think he'd never figure people out. About the only thing Martin knew for sure right now was that a couple of miles' worth of thinking didn't bring a couple of miles' worth of answers.