Apology to Henry Aaron

Steven Church

Henry Aaron, when you smacked homerun number 715 into the lights, fans dropped to the evergreen field and ran after you. I know you've seen the film footage that I've seen, pictures that promised a moment of pure joy. The roar of the crowd. The drop of jaws. The drop of drinks and hot dogs. This one white fan—his wild hair flying and toothy smile. The first one there. He jumps from his seat. Legs pumping, he gallops for the infield. You trot around the bases, waving to the crowd. You've just knocked the Babe from his throne. You don't even see him coming. And he's just this loose-limbed image of happiness—or at least that's what I thought, that's what I believed.

He must have seen the homerun before it even left your bat, right in mid-swing. The swipe of the stick, the path of the ball—and he knew Ruth's record was gone. I imagine he'd been following your record march, chalking up dingers on his wall at home, maybe scratching them into the back of his bedroom door. He could be nineteen years old, still living in his widowed mother's basement. For a ticket to the game, maybe he traded his most prized possession—a miniature bicycle built for him by his Chinese neighbor. Maybe he loved this bicycle with its tiny rubber-band tires, spokes made from copper wire, and a frame bent from a clothes hanger. Maybe this man and his neighbor watched you Saturdays on television. He taught her words like strike, ball, bullpen, fastball, slider. She taught him the secret of silence, the trick to dancing with houseflies. His mother paid her for piano lessons. But the teacher sat beside him on the bench while he practiced. Her hand on his leg, her finger reading the inseam of his jeans, she whispered the play-by-play from your baseball games. She whispered words she had memorized from game-day recordings he slipped into her mailbox after dark. Aaron steps up to the plate. The two-two pitch. He swings. And, oh baby, it's outta here. She made miniature toys she could have sold to emperors. She built a tiny bicycle for two. She told stories with her hands.

But now... she would never forgive this foolish man who skipped his lesson, left her arms, pushed his way up to the wall, and waited for the hard crack of ball to bat. What about the bicycle between them? There's nothing musical about his leaving. But for him it was always about you, Henry Aaron. He would have given anything for this moment, even a bicycle token. Maybe like me as a child, this white boy dreamed only of black heroes. Maybe he, too, read only biographies of black athletes. His mother probably didn't understand why it was so important. She never knew a thing of Babe Ruth, the white giant. She sat at home, reluctantly tuning her radio to the game. And maybe all of this would make a difference if it were true.

Whatever the reason, whatever he left behind, this man was there to see your swing, Henry. He had a jump on the ball and ran hard to catch you between second and third base. You just trotted around the diamond, waving to the crowd, not gloating about it. That wasn't your way. And then he burst into the picture and slapped you hard on the shoulder. You turned at the last second. And I like to imagine that he called you "Mr. Aaron." I wish he'd said something beautiful—something to fit the image given me by the television cameras. I don't know what he was thinking. But I do know now what you thought. I've heard your words recently, Mr. Aaron.

What should have been your proudest moment had already been soiled by repeated phone calls to your home, threats whispered into the receiver. And I believed that this young man, stupid with joy, his limbs all loose in the rush of pride, just wanted to share your triumph—as if he was saying for all of us, you are the greatest. But you, Henry Aaron—just for a split second—you believed that he had come to kill you, put a bullet in your head right there on the field in front of teammates and the world. I heard your words some twenty years later, saw this moment through different eyes. I realized again the false promises of television. And I apologize for this fan—for his grin, his gait, his slap. I apologize for his dreams, his color, and my belief. I apologize to his imaginary Chinese lover. I apologize because it sounds like lies. I apologize for writing. But there's something about your memory I just can't shake.


A Letter to the Bionic Man

Steven Church

Steve Austin, who stitched your orange jumpsuit with patches? As a boy I wanted some, too—those embroidered badges of courage and health. I wanted to hear the whisper of doctors: We can rebuild him. We have the technology. Dad used to say my knees were baseballs bulging out. And I've seen you powder a baseball with your fist, crush it down to dust until the leather sloughs off like blistered skin. I bet you could've done the same to me.

I've witnessed your recovery from a rolling, flaming wreck—your airplane ripped up on the tarmac and that muffled TV voice, he's breaking up, he's breaking up. They plumbed your astronaut limbs with steel, wired your veins, gave you circuits for nerves. We can make him better, stronger, faster. I needed robotic bones, too. In Mrs. Ricket's class, a virus grabbed my legs, shot pain through my shins. I crumpled in front of the classroom sink. My face broke out with fever blisters, my sinuses clogged with infection. Doctor Pete gave me antibiotics, but I was confused because I thought he gave me antibionics and I knew I didn't want these. But you, Steve Austin, you never suffered from fever dreams like me. You never boiled at one-hundred-and-five, went limp in your mother's arms. You leap over chain link fences and oncoming traffic. You pulse with a beeping sound—like the electronic drum of a heart. Your bionic eye never misses danger on the horizon.

Steve Austin, I know you make love to a bionic woman who owns a bionic German Shepherd. I've seen the two of you together in the park. She crushes tennis balls with her fist, jumps fences, and pulses just for you. With her one robotic ear, she hears clearly the whispered plots of criminals, the stealthy approach of enemies, oncoming trains—all with bionic drum and cochlea. Maybe the two of you live together in a bionic suburbia. And at night, when robotic Bigfoot has returned to the hills, when the prime-time criminals are sleeping, the two of you sit by a fire oiling your parts. Maybe you talk about the curse of super-senses, the problem with bionic R.E.M. Can your parts keep up with your brain? Can they pulse fast enough? I imagine you must wear an eyepatch to sleep—the thin skin of your eyelid nearly transparent to your robotic pupil. And I'm sorry for your insomnia. I'm sorry for the pain of bone screws.

But at least your bionic mate is there by your side, stitching patches to your suit. She shares your pain and discomfort. She, too, must compensate for technology. Maybe she packs her ear with foam at night, switches it off somehow. I hate to think what she hears—neighbors brushing their teeth, the dilation of your bionic eye, the spawn of mosquitoes in the creek out back. They pop like corn in the night. And maybe she hears me, too, with my baseball knees, my sickened head full of fevers. Because I am still there on the swing-set you built for show. I pump my hips on the rocker-swing until the squeaking brings you to the window. The two of you stand there—you with your eyepatch and she with her ear full of cotton. You might wrap your arm around her shoulder, kiss her wet cheek. You might whisper soft words in her normal ear—because I look very much like the bionic baby you'll never have.