Dad hit the brakes hard as we backed out of the driveway, nearly clipping the monumental Clinton/Gore ’92 billboard at the edge of our lawn. A few days ago, Mom had countered his Bush/Quayle sign with her own, staking it down in the yard while he was at work.
“That thing is a hazard,” Dad grumbled as we started up the street. Mom winked at me and smiled. It never ended with them.
Politics aside, today was all about having fun. Every Fourth of July since I could remember, we’d gone to the Independence Day roast over at Peaks Park. Pretty much the whole town gathered for the event, and that was what had me more than a little worried as we started up the road.
We arrived around three on what must have been the hottest day of summer yet. As we parked, the crowd cheered on the baseball game from the lawn chairs clumped together under the shade, as older folks sipped lemonade and watched the Pepsi vs. Coke little league battle from a distance. And I could’ve been mistaken, but my mom was looking like a relief pitcher the way she was loosening up her own arm as we stepped out of the car.
The park was decked out with patriotic flags and ribbons. Huge, drooping red, white, and blue buntings adorned the concession stands and food trucks, and Olympic Team USA signs were posted on the trees and fences. There were pony rides and kiddie games, and a delicious smell in the air as the smoke plumed from the grills as all the BBQ and burgers and hotdogs a town could eat sizzled to perfection. But the Peaks Park Independence Day Roast was best known for a tradition that went back as far as when my dad was a kid: The Dunk-the-Mayor booth.
The baseball tournament was already underway. Even from the parking lot I could tell it was Danny on the pitcher’s mound by the way he kicked at the dirt and adjusted his hat. Then he’d kind of stretch his neck and arch his back. For the past two summers I’d donned the Pepsi Pirates uniform to take my spot on the bench, so I knew the next pitch would be his curve.
Dad greeted a few guys from work with insults and grunts. I hung back with mom. Danny whipped a curve ball into the catcher’s mitt for strike. That’s about the time I noticed how most of the faces in the chairs were tuned in on us. “Mom, why is everyone staring at you?”
Mom rolled her shoulders. “Oh, no reason,” she said, her eyes spanning the grounds, locking in on the Mayor who was sitting with his constituents, in the bleachers, simultaneously cheering for both pitcher and batter. Mom mumbled to herself and then whipped around. “Where is that ticket booth?”
“Did you write another editorial?” I asked, just as the catcher’s mitt clapped once again. This time Danny’s pitch was called outside. “You did, didn’t you?”
“Maybe,” she said and then grabbed my arm. “Oh, there it is, come on.”
We threaded through the crowd towards the concessions trailer. “Was it about the meeting?”
“People have a right to know the truth, Marcus,” she said, jerking me along like I was a wagon full of water and she was headed for a fire.
“But why do we need tickets? You know I don’t have an arm,” I said, looking back at old Mayor Wainwright, dabbing his forehead, yukking it up with the townsfolk. Mom stepped forward to the small window. That’s when I heard a familiar voice.
“Yo, Marcus.” I turned around to find Cullen, straddling his rusty bike, an oversized Alice in Chains t-shirt hanging loosely to his usual cut offs.
“So, this is all very small town,” he said, looking around. But all I saw was my Dad, knifing towards us, his face redder than sunburn. Mom stuffed a string of tickets long enough to circle the Earth into her purse. Cullen set his bike against a tree and we scooted up closer to see what was going on.
Dad leaned towards Mom. “Ana, could I have a word with you?”
“Oh. Sure, honey,” she said, collecting her change from the smirking teenager who promptly flipped a Sold Out sign on the window. As my parents scurried off to the parking lot, I looked to Mayor Wainwright, still whooping it up with the old timers. Cullen nudged me on the arm.
“Dude, your mom let the mayor have it in the paper.”
“What?” I said, “I thought you didn’t follow the news?” I asked, looking around, wondering how in the world I hadn’t thought to check out the newspaper.
“Well, I do now.” He leaned closer. “She accused him of being a sell-out. Man, how rad is your Mom?”
I’d never spent much time pondering my mom’s radness, but my stomach was flipping and folding as the faces in the bleachers turned their attention to the parking lot, where my parents were engaged in a heated discussion behind the truck.
“This is not good.” I said, glancing around.
“Aw snap!” Cullen shook me as our jubilant mayor hobbled down the bleachers and grabbed a big beach towel, making a jolly show of his march to the Dunk the Mayor booth.
“Dude, I think…”
Cullen glanced at the Sold Out sign, then back to the parking lot. When he turned to me with a grin, there was nothing but trouble in his eyes. “I think your mom is going to drown the mayor.”
Sure enough, Mom and Dad made their way back to the festivities. Mom with a pleasant smile and Dad looking like he’d just gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson. The baseball game was called to an end, Pepsi upending their rivals 8-3. The two teams lined up in the infield for the “good game” hand smack and I realized how little I missed it. Meanwhile, the crowd headed towards the picnic area and the stage, where the world’s oldest bluegrass band was nodding off to sleep.
I tried not to think about whatever my mother was plotting and instead followed Cullen over to the nitrate stand. We ordered two dogs each, with the spicy hot chili, sure to do in my already problematic stomach. Sure enough, just as soon as that first mouthful hit my gut it was kind of like how it felt as my two worlds collided as we ran smack dab into Danny, still sweaty and in uniform, eyeing Cullen.
“So Marcus?” he said and before I could answer he said. “What’s up with your Mom? She’s not going to give it a rest?”
I looked to my chili dogs, sloppy and warm through the thin paper plate. Danny’s father, Coach Peebles, wasn’t far away, chatting with parents–no doubt all of them wondering when Mom would give it a rest and surrender her cause to save Squabble Creak, the future site of the Mega More store. For some reason I’d never realized how ridiculous Coach Pebbles looked in his Pepsi Sluggers uniform before that day.
Looking to Danny, his gaze bouncing from me to Cullen, all I could do was shrug. “I don’t know, man, she’s just—” Getting ready to drown the mayor, I almost said.
“She needs to realize that most people like stores,” Danny continued, which was weird because since when did he care so much?
“People like history, too.” Cullen said, between bites of his chilidog. And I’m not sure how he did it, but he even made that sound cool. Danny looked at Cullen like he was a space traveller. Then he turned back to me.
“Look, nobody cares about some Podunk road, or tiny cemetery that most people don’t even know exists.”
“We know. And the families of the deceased know.” Cullen said defiantly, before finishing his first hot dog and wiping his mouth.
The deceased? Wow. I took a breath. Danny looked at me, his face irritated. I motioned to Cullen. “Uh, this is Cullen, Cullen, this is Danny.”
Danny nodded without really acknowledging him. When he spoke again his voice was friendlier, even if what he said was not. “Look man, I gotta go. But I might as well tell you, nobody really wants your mom here.” He spun around and marched off, finding his Dad and his teammates. Mr. Peebles looked right at me and didn’t even wave or nod. Like I was some stranger.
“Pfft, don’t listen to that dude, he’s just like the rest of them.”
I didn’t know what to say. The rest of them? I was them. I’d gone to kindergarten and slept over at their houses. I’d known them most of my life. But the way Cullen said them, it made me think sides had been drawn—like at my house. Like the election. It seemed everybody knew where they stood but me.
But there was no time to dwell on it because Mayor Wainwright—who didn’t need much help looking like a doofus—took to the loudspeaker and started grandstanding, even as he was wearing oversized goggles and scuba gear. He announced to the crowd that he was taking his place in the dunk booth.
“I challenge all of you slack armed citizens to step up and give me your best shot!”
After being helped into the dunk seat—his wobbly cheeks sloshing around with the water in the tank—he positioned himself and called out to Carolyn Peters. “Now Carolyn, you might as well just set those three baseballs down and let someone with an arm have a shot.”
Carolyn chuckled, as did the rest of the well-intentioned citizens of our town who’d bought tickets to dunk the mayor. At three throws for a dollar, all proceeds went to the local chapter of the Human Society. Someone in the crowd said it had been a record-breaking haul this year.
I forgot about the second hotdog as I edged closer to the action. I knew I had to find Mom, as one after another, the old timers stepped up and lobbed baseballs that fell short of the booth. Taking turns, laughing and making light-hearted jokes about the mayor—who Mom said had run unopposed for the past three elections—they hurled soft lobs that didn’t even come close to the target.
“I sure wish someone could throw a strike, I’m getting awfully hot up here,” the Mayor joked, as floating baseballs missed far and wide, most coming up well short. Then, as the laughing gave way to an excited murmur and the crowd clamored about before parting for the next contestant, I found my mother, all five feet of her, marching right up to the throw line and fishing a handful of red tickets from her purse.
Oh boy. Cullen howled with laughter as we fought through to the ropes. The crowd tightened around us as she handed the volunteer a pile of tickets and steeled herself without taking her eyes off of her target. The Mayor’s goofy grin collapsed like a cheap tent in a storm. Mom took a worn baseball in her hand as she and Mr. Wainwright locked eyes like two duelers at dusk. The volunteer backed away, scrambling for cover.
Skipping the pleasantries, Mom cocked back like Roger Clemons and came down with a slider.
She missed by a mile, thunking a maple tree thirty feet to the left and nearly beaning Glenda Ferguson, one of the Jaycees who sat gorging on a funnel cake. Glenda screamed through a mouthful of bread as the ball fell to her feet like a bruised apple, rolling harmlessly under her bench.
The message was clear, Mom was headhunting. She cranked up and zipped the second ball, only this time she overcorrected, and it went right, nearly taking out the cotton candy machine. The crowd gasped. Someone called her a crazy broad. Dad, hiding out near the stage, went looking for the source.
Winding up a third time, Cullen stuck out his hand, stepping forward. “Hang on, hang on. Mrs. Hawthorne. Can I give it a shot?”
Mom dropped her arm, bending at the elbow. She glanced at the dunk booth and shrugged. “Sure, I’ve got seventy-eight more tickets.”
She stepped to the side. The crowd strained their necks to get a glimpse of the reliever. Mayor Wainwright sized up Cullen and gave the worried spectators a smile. Cullen looked well out of place in his skater clothes and besides, he appeared too small to do any real damage. Then he gripped the ball and smirked, spitting on the ground then wiping his mouth with his arm. He squinted at the target, dug in, and hurled a screaming fastball dead center.
The target snapped back. The chair squeaked as it dropped Mayor Wainwright like a bag of ready mix into the murky waters.
Another collective gasp from the crowd. Mom covered her face. Someone shrieked as the mayor flailed and splashed like an overboard sailor during a storm. We inched closer, as Old Wainwright surfaced, hunched over in the waist high water and wiping at his face. With a lopsided smile, he waved to the stunned onlookers. But all eyes were back on Cullen, who stood juggling another baseball in his hand.
“Well, that kid’s got quite an arm!” The mayor gurgled, wiping and spitting and catching his breath. He did have an arm. In all my time in the dugout, I’d never seen someone throw so hard.
“And he’s got, oh, say, over two-hundred pitches left,” Mom announced.
With assistance, the mayor made it back onto his seat, and for the next half hour all other attractions were abandoned. The donkeys took a nap. The horses were left to chew on straw in peace, whipping their tales at the occasional fly. The Tilt-A-Whirl sat quietly unattended and the concession stands were forgotten. Because everyone in the park was over at dunking booth where Cullen nailed the bull’s-eye over and over and over again.
Cullen pegged the lever so many times that it bent and dangled crookedly from its loosened bolt. Until two men in coveralls waved their hands in surrender and announced that the booth was out of order. Mayor Wainwright, thoroughly pickled and out of breath, was given a fresh towel as someone went looking for his bifocals.
“But we’ve still got nine throws left,” Mom said, standing beside Cullen with a hand on her hip.
“Well I’m sorry, miss, but this game is over,” one of the coveralls said, looking at my mom as though she were deranged. And that day, she kind of was.
Mayor Wainwright adjusted his glasses, dripping wet and shell shocked from the relentless drenching. Mom scrunched her nose as she turned to us. “Well, way to throw, Cullen.”
“Wow, I didn’t know you played baseball?” I said as we made our way through the crowd.
Cullen gave me a casual shrug, “I don’t.”
The crowd thinned, whispering and pointing to Mom and Cullen as they drifted back towards the other games and tents set up near the creek. That’s when Mr. Peebles wandered over, brushing past me to get to Cullen. “Hey son, couldn’t help but see you pitch over there, who you playing for?”
“Nobody,” he said, and I watched as Mr. Peebles’ eyes lit up at the prospect of finding an ace free agent.
“You don’t play?” he said, unable to hide his widening smile. “Well, pitching like that, we sure could use you this afternoon. I got a jersey in the car, and…”
Cullen, hardly sweating, looked bored at the thought. “Nah, thanks though.”
Mr. Peebles eyed him suspiciously, tugging at his goatee. “Okay, well if you change your mind, you’re more than welcome to play,” he said before turning to me, suddenly remembering I existed. “You too, Marcus, you can both play in the double header if you want.”
We laughed for a while about that, sitting with Mom at the picnic tables. Until Mayor Wainwright approached, slumped over with a beach towel draped across his shoulders. He looked like a refugee who’d been rescued from flood waters. Mom looked him up and down, nothing but warm satisfaction on her face.
The mayor nodded, his thinning hair still glistening in the sun.
“Mrs. Hawthorne,” he said with a shiver. “I just wanted to thank you for your support. The Humane Society people are thrilled with this year’s fundraising.”
Mom shot him a smile so bright I needed my solar eclipse shoe box to face it head on. “Mayor Wainwright, I assure you, the pleasure was entirely mine.”
“Yes, well. Thank you,” he said, then turning to Cullen and me. “And you, young man. That’s quite an arm you have.”
“Don’t forget, you owe her nine throws,” Cullen said. I stifled a laugh. Mr. Wainwright’s plastic smile melted a little as he jerked his head back to Mom.
“Why yes, of course. I’m sure we can work something out.”