The aluminum bat leaned against the garage wall, next to a rake and a hoe and four bicycles with flat tires and rusty chains.…
I didn’t think it over, just grabbed the thing by its handle and kept walking, out the back door and down the driveway, cutting onto the sidewalk, all the while possessed by a harsh internal music. Tonight’s was midtempo and repetitive, a minor key blaring silently and in time with each footfall. Just about anywhere, anytime, there’d be a song in mind, and I never tired of moving notes, shifting the rhythms, sliding one chord into the next. I’d do this at work, at family dinners, while listening to my girlfriend Lauren on the phone—no one suspected the storm of guitars happening in my thoughts. As a kid sitting in church pews I’d written my earliest songs, reinventing the solemn melodies of the Catholic mass as dramatic rock epics of mayhem and destruction. They’d always sounded best in the low ranges, and the one I was hearing tonight was no exception. I saw the bass tones waving out to drench whatever was before me: houses and parked cars, the roadside mailboxes lining the street. Twelve-something a.m. The kind of boiler-hot Michigan night we got once or so a year.
After a couple blocks, as if surrendering to the trance, I veered curbward and cocked my elbow and swung the bat just hard enough to ruin a postbox, the hatch of which fell open as the sound of crumpling aluminum snapped through the streets. I stood there feeling it—metal-on-metal impact jolting through my arms. The streets led in every direction. I had no idea how far I intended to go.
This was August of 1996.
I was eighteen and things had been looking up since I’d started my first band a year earlier, a mean-sounding three-piece I believed had the stuff to take us around the country, maybe farther. My hair was buzzed to the scalp. With each step, my steel-toed shoes clapped the sidewalk. I’d left the house shirtless, thinking the darkness might cool things down, but I was sweating before I’d turned out of the driveway. Though I considered myself a shade too pale, a few pounds too skinny, just then I was unashamed. No one was around to see.
My pace doubled as I scanned the street, keeping an eye out for the headlights of my sister Caitlin’s Ford Escort. Six hours earlier, our dad had made off with her beloved two-door, driving straight from the parking lot of Brighton Center for Recovery to who the hell knew where.
The moon, probably. Over the rainbow.
I turned onto Ridgewood Drive, a central road that wound through the neighborhood—subdivision, they called it around there. Friday night, yet the streets were so still, so quiet, my footsteps echoed off garage doors. It wasn’t hard to imagine the place deserted, the homes vacated, jutting nails where pictures once hung, wall-to-wall carpet imprinted by the legs of long-gone furniture. My friends back in Dearborn called my new hood a McMansion village. The kind of place glimpsed from any midwestern freeway, a sprawl of prefabricated colonies just outside whatever major city you’re approaching. Facade towns of vinyl siding and numbskull architecture not meant to survive too far into the future. Other than certain windows lit from inside, every house looked the same to me, especially up top where their rooftops met the sky.
The bat was feeling lighter by the second.
I gave it a shake, passed it from one hand to the other. And then the song inside changed, a tonal variation corresponding to the moment, quiet at first, like someone faded the volume knob only to begin inching it slowly toward mind-searing decibels.
Back at our house, Mom and Caitlin had gone to bed nervous, mounting the stairs as though, before they reached the top, they might hear the Escort pulling into the driveway. Still, like any other night, they’d yanked their blond hair into ponytails and scrubbed the day from their faces. If I knew them at all, there’d be some prayers going on. They hadn’t said much, other than “I don’t believe this.” They hadn’t quite learned to speak the words “crack cocaine,” and neither had I. To say it was to acknowledge the arrival of an alien terror, something not meant for people like us, decent, true-blooded Catholics.
All of us but me, anyway.
Though I’d long ago coerced my mom into naming our black-bearded terrier Ozzy, Mr. Osbourne himself had once seemed the devil incarnate. As a kid I’d stashed his albums in the cleverest places, knowing even then the grief it would cause my sweet mother to find her twelve-year-old son’s copy of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
its jacket decorated by a demon-inclusive orgy presided over by the number 666. Now Ozzy was seven, and heavy metal was old news, a studded-leather cartoon. I was on to Black Flag, and Mom was facing a truer menace.
We’d landed in Ridgewood Hills two years earlier by means of my dad muscling up the ranks of Ford Motor and saving stock options along the way. We'd gone from used Pintos to Taurus station wagons, bargain-brand everything to the usual supplies you find at the mall. Dad said we’d moved because Detroit was a lost cause—a maniac on Greenfield Avenue had flashed a knife at my mom just before our place went on the market. Truly, the motive had been to widen the distance between him and the drug netherworld. Mom hoped a move twenty minutes west would do the trick, to this town whose name I rarely spoke.
The sidewalks had no crabgrass. The cars were new, tucked into garages. Sodded lawns and rock gardens, motion-sensor lights tripping on when the wind blew. The lie I told most often was that I still lived in Dearborn, the city I’d been raised in, fifteen minutes from the Ambassador Bridge and flanked by Detroit to the north and east. There my family had known simple days. Dearborn had giant parks and record stores and doughnut shops, backstreets on which my friends and I biked from one neighborhood to the next, down to the Rouge Steel plant where blue flames rose toward the sky. They called Detroit the Motor City, but Dearborn was where the Ford Rangers were made from iron ore shipped by the boatload up the Rouge River.
I knew jack about cars, but I’d been ashamed to leave, had driven back each morning to finish high school in the land of Ford. In a matter of five hours, my alarm was set to wake me for my latest job as a groundskeeper at a golf course set on the concrete banks of the Rouge—a toxic passage rumored about Dearborn to turn your tongue black if you drank from it. My parents made the same commute: Dad to Ford Motor and Mom to Dearborn’s public schools, working as a speech therapist. Caitlin had switched districts without a gripe, reporting so little about her enormous new school and her ability to disappear there. I had two years on her, but my sister’s book smarts and extra-credit volunteer work made it so that she’d be graduating a half year behind me. She fixed lattes at a coffee shop in the new town, earning more than I did, once you counted her tips. Had she known what I was up to tonight, she’d have followed me out in her nightie, whispering commands in her small voice. She’d be tugging at the bat with that scared, angry look she reserved only for me, or my father.
I took a swing, chopping in rhythm with my tune in the making, certain it would dissolve before I’d ever pluck it on my guitar. In the distance, a sprinkler system began clacking away, giving me a beat to work with—the rat-tat
of it. Caitlin and I had learned about our dad’s problem three weeks earlier, the very day he left for Brighton Treatment Center. One night he’s chiding me for having slacked on college in order keep my band going; the next, he’s a confessed addict. Twenty-one days in detox was supposed to do the trick, and I’d honestly thought it would, had not believed we were in a major situation until he hijacked Caitlin’s Escort and shot to hell the chances of anything ever being the same.
An aluminum bat and rows of postboxes stretching for miles.
As his son, I had the urge to respond dramatically, though I had little in mind beyond walking and swiping at the air. To conjure something that might scare him straight if the headlights of my sister’s car came rushing down the street. I’d step into the glare.
And what then?
The music inside me was on the fade out, another song lost to the ether.
As if it might propel me forward, I tried to picture my father dragging from a crack pipe but summoned instead the guy I’d known: An early-rising warhorse of a man. A wearer of creaseless suits who was also gifted with locker-room charisma and expertise with a hammer. I knew his firm handshake, his soft spot for underdogs, beautiful-loser types who had no chance of winning but just might snap their necks trying. His eyes were faintly blue, revealing so little of his mood, whatever shape it might take at any given moment. He was an earnest hugger and world-class jokester one minute; seconds later, my use of the saltshaker might send him into a fury. Whenever he rattled the pages of the Detroit Free Press
and called my name, I could never guess what was coming, but until earlier that day I’d more or less believed every word he’d told me.
Now imagine the pipe inserted between his lips, the flame lifting toward the poison. . . .
I cut the bat hard, following through with the swing. And this was true, what Dad said about certain muscle memories, that they always come right back to you: riding a bike, swinging for the fence. I hadn’t held a bat in years. Pulling it close, I saw my best friend’s name scrawled in black marker across the aluminum barrel: will. Damn thing had found its way into our boxes during the move, an artifact of something distant and other: summer-morning baseball games, the weedy diamonds at Ford Woods Park. Will and I kicking the dirt, wadding chaw into our gums.
I planted my feet to give another mailbox a half-assed smack, lost heart before the swing. Ridgewood Hills was the last subdivision before miles of farmland to the west, and in the distance the cars traveling the highway sounded oceanic. Pressed against my cheek, the bat was cool metal. will: faded black ink scrawled wild style over the barrel’s sweet spot. The bat belonged to a time when jotting your name on your belongings was running the risk of wussiness, but Will had his reasons for personalizing the thirty-two-inch Easton. It had gone missing early one season, and he’d stood there scowling beneath the brim of his mesh-and-foam hat, thwacking his glove against his thigh. Will had a stutter. Back then, it was at its worst when he was anxious or pissed or girls were around.
“Fucking bat” was all he’d managed as the park cleared.
“Don’t worry,” I’d said. “We’ll find it.”
Tall, dapper, brown-mopped Will was the closest thing I had to a brother. We’d long ago developed a shared-thought channel inaccessible to others. Even with me, though, he’d maneuver around words that gave him trouble, skirting questions and situations, which may or may not have rewired his brain to interpret reality from slanted angles. “How’s life out there in Candyland?” he liked to say of my new residence. “About ready to do a little burn job one night after everyone has said their prayers? Are you ready for gasoline?” We didn’t talk about life. The truth was in the pauses after a joke, then the hiss of our laughter. He’d been five years old when I met him. Like many friends in the old neighborhood, he’d acknowledged my dad as a force to behold—the stout, agile mentor who’d tossed the ball with us, who’d made a show of pressing me above his head with a strength their fathers did not possess.
A car motored down a nearby stretch. I pulled the bat to my thigh until the stillness returned. I’d been walking ten, fifteen minutes. No sense arose to indicate my dad was out there anywhere, but piece by piece the fable of Will’s Easton was coming back to me. Strange as it seems, I never once think of that August night without reliving the tale of my best friend’s bat. How, the game after it vanished, I’d been on the mound, chucking fastballs. Dad had spent a thousand nights coaching me through the windup, the snap of the elbow, and I could pitch the ball straight up the middle—hard as I could, straight as I could. A few innings in, a portly marmot-faced kid named Moe had stepped to the plate, his team groaning Moe, Moe
as he wielded the bat. From the mound, I’d seen it: the silver Easton, gleaming and new. I waved Will over from third.
“There’s the rat,” he said, chaw in his teeth.
“I’m gonna put a curse on him,” I said.
We’d been—what—eleven, twelve years old? Already bored with ball games, coming into our own as a duo forged in blood oaths, the heaviest metal, the ghastliest horror flicks. Pentagrams and electric guitars, phantasms that defied Sunday mornings in church. Cassettes my dad had smashed. Thrillers that gave Caitlin the heebie-jeebies.
Will shuffled back to third, and I wound up to chuck one straight at Moe’s breastplate. A fastball. By some miracle of instinct he fumbled away from the pitch, cursing and tossing Will’s bat to the dirt. From the outfield someone let loose a war cry that silenced the earth, until Moe’s coach said, “Shake it off.”
Only at a distance of years can I admit I was a kid of pulled punches. A daredevil prankster—stealthy yet without true guts. I’d feared just about everything and was angry about being afraid, all of which changed me into a tyrant if ever a viable, deserving victim presented itself. I held steady as Moe pulled his helmet tight, returning to the plate. And a feeling came over me like my limbs were senseless and my teeth had grown giant. The windup, the pitch. Moe ducking as the ball streaked over his head, saying, “What the goddamn shit?” How coyly I’d given my pitching arm the noodle shake. And, yes, I’d felt for Moe, baffled and squinting. I’d thought about giving him one straight up the middle, but I needed Will to know I’d see it through.
A curse was a curse.
I wound and pitched again. A sinker that jerked him into a spastic dance.
“You hit me, and I stick this bat up your ass.” It sounded almost complimentary, the way Moe had turned his head as he said it.
“It’s not your bat,” I said.
That’s when Moe knew what it was about.
A few blocks ahead on Ridgewood Drive, a large wooden sign graced the subdivision’s entrance. Gold letters painted on stained-green wood: ridgewood hills . . .
Hills that had been dozed and sodded and assigned street addresses.
I got the idea to batter that sign into splinters, jagged shards of green wood my dad might view as he made his way home, once his drug run finally ended.
How many swings to tear it down?
Will would see the green scars on his Easton when I returned it after all these years. He’d tell the story of Moe and the curse, how there’d been one last pitch, right into Moe’s buttocks. After the game, Moe shook our hands, saying, “Swear, I just found it. I didn’t know.”
I’d crunched Moe’s palm respectfully, no hard feelings.
And like that, the curse was lifted.
Excerpted from Songs Only You Know by Sean Madigan Hoen. Copyright © 2013 by Sean Madigan Hoen. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.