|Hope Caldwell, being divorced and with those five
little kids, plus a good figure, has been an oddball at Our Lady of Blessed Redemption
from the start. She doesn't need any stories--about her wooden leg or anything else. Not
that the story is so bad, mind you. When she shows up at the playground to save us kids
from our dizzy boredom, we are relieved. She tells us the story, the details, gladly, any
time we want. Maybe she even adds stuff.
"Not long after
you-know-who split," she starts. It's a good story. She wants to tell it. It doesn't
take any math whiz to see she's younger than most of the other Redemption mothers and
though her face is set, permanent as starch, she is still a little bit pretty behind her
smoke. Good, hard pulls on long, white Kools. She sits Indian-style right on the asphalt,
a baby in her lap, at home plate of Blessed Redemption's kickball diamond. It's a still
spring evening, getting late. Father McNulty's ringing the six o'clock and I'm dribbling
the ball to the beat of the bells.
"At first I figured I'd just walk down to the Ten-Pin and back,
real quick. The kids were asleep," she begins again. "I don't know what made me
do it, except maybe that the screw's been giving me fits for a couple days so it didn't
feel right anyway, but outside the Ten-Pin door I reach down and unscrew the foot and turn
it backwards." She knocks twice on the ankle to show us which one. Like we don't
"So here I go, with my toe pointing behind me and the penny in
the slit of my loafer catching the street light, right in the door, like I do it every
day. The hard part was getting my balance, but once I stood up straight it was all right.
"It's a little late, there's no one special there--you know,
Tom Flannigan, Martin and John Brennan and John's wife, Marie, like they ever leave the
place. Everybody's already had a few so most everybody was buying each other rounds by
then. So, okay, I had me a couple but the fun part was in between the beers. I just walk
back and forth like everything was normal, you know, played a quarter's worth of Jim
Reeves, sashayed from the bar to the jukebox and back. I tipped sideways once, but I never
broke stride or looked around to see who was watching. Dick the bartender says hey how's
it going but no one else says a word. I could feel those drunk eyeballs everywhere
checking out my foot tucked around the bar stool legs. When I went to the bathroom people
stopped talking as I walked by." We kids are listening good now, though we know
"But the best part was when I left." Hope pulls on a beer
she brought along and bats the baby's paw away from the can at the same time. "On my
way out the door, I walk straight into a colored man on the sidewalk, which about knocks
us both flat and when he goes to pick up my wallet, he gets a load of my backward shoe and
he sways and has trouble standing up. God, his eyes were too much, falling out of their
sockets, his mouth hanging open. He forgets to pick up my billfold and so I have to lean
over and get it myself and when I stand upright, he's still there, swallowing, and staring
buggy-eyed down at my foot."
I can tell Hope's told and retold the story. I'm old enough to know
it's a good one and now, in places meant to be serious, I have a hard time. At High Mass,
reciting every scrap of Latin I know, a flashback, like a brilliant snapshot, can do it.
Pressing my knuckles to my teeth, choking back. Sometimes laughter escapes through my
fingers like steam hissing; sometimes it comes out like snorting, uncontained. The worst
time was Mr. O'Leary's funeral, held during Friday school Mass, all seven hundred of us
forced to go. A tall, egg-shaped man with a W.C. Fields nose who stocked Blessed
Redemption's cafeteria fridge with Strohs and patted our butts up under our skirts on
Sunday nights when we waitressed Bingo for tips. President of the Men's Club for five
years. A real pillar. Monsignor Sweeney standing at the pulpit, tears behind his goggle
glasses, telling everyone how much everyone would miss him. I gave a little snort and like
flames running up my chest I couldn't hold back.
We'd gotten to where we were begging Hope to the playground pretty
often. Mostly during lag times, between kickball seasons. It was easy. You could see her
front porch katty-corner from second base, the far side of a half-double, an ancient,
crumbling house. It looked like a whole lot of lives layered over other lives, and even
though I knew she'd cart along that rickety bow-legged toddler of hers and her walleyed
baby, a towhead with a dribbling rope of snot, I went and got her, was even glad that
evening, to get her. Hope kicked like a man and I was in the mood.
So she's there without too much trouble and I'm deep in center field
because Hope's hard flies come to me, no problem. One of the middle Andrews girls is at
the pitcher's mound holding up her seriousness with thick legs and a hard face. There are
eighteen Andrews kids, some of the oldest ones are married, with kids of their own. When I
spot one of those older Andrews at church, I think: what's it like to have kids older than
some of your brothers and sisters? Anyway, they're the largest litter at Redemption,
giving them more clout than they deserve. This middle Andrew--she's Gerry or Terry or
Mary--a whole bunch in the middle have irritating rhyming names--winds the ball back, its
leather nesting soft and snug on the inside of her arm. She hugs it for a second like a
baby, then rolls straight and fast against Hope, who's already deposited her kids at the
concrete base of a tetherball post. Hope leans forward in a runner's stance, both hands
against her flanks, her eyes keen and watching. Before the ball can sweep home plate, she
does three little steps forward and then flips her woody shank up. With a fierce
thhwwwaaaack! she slams the ball, sending the brown globe far past our heads and I think
we've finally got a good game going when the bigger baby, the toddler, starts screaming to
beat the band. He's been stuffing pebbles into the smaller baby's mouth and he's mad
'cause the kid's had enough. Hope gets a load of the commotion as she rounds third base,
she's not a bad runner either, and grabs his thick wrist, shaking the rocks free of his
"Go on without me," she yells to us over the din. The
kid's face is red and taut. She's got him sideways at her waist, his arms and head
dangling. It looks to me like the way he's slamming her back with his heels would hurt
like mad but Hope doesn't flinch. "Somebody keep an eye on the baby."
I lose interest quick with Hope out of the game; I'm there for her
hard line drives. Our sub-game, mine and Hope's. She can do a lot of things with that foot
of hers: step on her kids' fingers and not even know it, turn it backward, walk. But she
has a hard time kicking the ball too deep or too hard for me. When I hear her foot smack
brown leather, it's the sound, the connection, I trust. When it's good, I know it. I grit
my teeth and stand staunch and let the ball slam into me, knocking my breath to kingdom
come. I know that standing staunch is a virtue and so I bear it, then throw the ball back
to the Andrews pitcher like it's nothing, letting the red burning circle blaze beneath my
I go sit by the baby but don't pick him up and we both watch Hope
march to the far side of the playground. She picks one of four leather-strap swings, the
kind that make a "U" at the bottom, hanging from a brace. The red-onion-faced
kid is still kicking when she plops him in her lap and forces his clenched fingers around
the chains. His screech takes on a new pitch but Hope looks like she's done this before
and calmly pushes the ground away with her foot, the real one, making the swing sway.
She pushes, then pulls the thick swing chains backward and forward,
forward and back, and then she starts singing some song, something determined and
meaningless, louder than her kid's squall, forcing the rhythm. Each stanza rocks them
higher and higher until, like a two-headed pendulum, they are gliding. It's the kind of
thing, you don't know why you watch it, but you do. You can't help it. Hope's hair
flapping against her face, blinding her for a second, then spreading up and out like a
crown of thorns behind her head. Metal scraping and scratching from the swing's hinges
high above their heads.
When the ball takes a wild slam on the asphalt inches from mine and
the baby's feet, no one comes to get it and in a second I see why. The Andrews sisters are
busy giving Harriet a good bitching out. Harriet's a head taller than either of them but
that just makes her more shaky, caught up there between the hollering Andrews. Harriet
pitched a good inning near the end of last season and you can see the Gerry-Terry-Mary
Andrew doesn't want Harriet getting any ideas. She runs and grabs the ball, cocks it up
under her armpit, and then yells at Harriet to go to hell and no she can't pitch no matter
what she thinks. She says this with the conviction that comes from knowing there's
seventeen more where she came from. Because of Harriet's name, I'm pretty much on her
"YEEEAAAggghhhh!" It is a stunning screech. The baby and I
look up and away from the diamond, past the tops of the twisted chain-link fence, past
telephone wires, and beyond a lamp post because we think that's where the scream came
from, but there's nothing there. Just an evening sky, pastel clouds.
Then a blur interrupts my vision. A cream-colored blur. A wooden
half-leg, jet-propelled and hurtling, yet almost suspended, with a neatly-turned
bobby-sock and penny-loafer on the end. It is sailing, this turbo-limb, over third base,
toward a street light and I feel the baby's breath and mine suck in on the same beat, then
hang arrested and lingering in front of us. Yet, I can still think: it might fly past
Blessed Redemption's steeple, maybe Father McNulty will see it and so what if he did?
It is something to reckon with, that leg, and I am with it, that
governing force, seeing the kickball diamond from a sharp angle, for what it is: four
faded white lines and yellow painted-on bases. Not even real bases. Are there holes in
Blessed Redemption's roof? Probably. It's an old school with waxy wooden floors and
concrete stairwells. Those Andrews are all muscle and freckles. Freckles everywhere. Like
summer rain on a warm sidewalk, too many spots. There should be a law against that many
thin-skinned tomboys in one place.
It runs out of fuel, the leg, crashing, thudding across the street
and into a bush.
"Somebody get my damn leg!" Hope is straining to see where
her leg went but that is a joke, she can't possibly see it; it is behind a car on the
other side of the street. Her pants leg hangs empty in front of her and her kid, lopsided
and clinging to the swing, looks like he could start screaming again.
"One of you kids help me!" Hope yells. There's not much to
do but grab up the baby, his nose is running pretty heavy, the front of his shirt is damp
when I pick him up and I think maybe he's sick, and then Harriet and I walk around the
edge of the fence to find the leg. It is lodged straight up in a bush and it is something
to look at. Like it could walk away itself, it is so alive. Solid pale wood from the foot
to mid-shin where it hollows out. Metal hinges at the knee, two worn leather tongues and a
thick shoe string at the top. Creepy. I pick it up at the leather end--it feels like skin,
warm and supple. Harriet grabs the foot. The first-baseman Andrews walks up and takes the
middle. "Looks like Hope didn't have enough leg room," she says. I see her knees
are freckled too and imagine freckled teeth, a spotted spleen. Like three stooges in a
dumb plot we carry it back to Hope.
Now things get really crazy. Or at least, later, I see this as the
crazy part. I think Hope is laughing, it looked like she was smiling when we walked up and
handed her her leg, half her pants still empty and limp on the swing seat. It didn't take
us long at all, maybe a minute, to walk across the street and grab it, tote it back under
our arms. And then she slips it up her pants leg, quick-as-a-wink, slick. Casual even.
"It's not like I knew what was coming." Hope drops her
pants down around her knees and we girls circle around and shield her, sucking up Hope's
humiliation like much needed water. She is gripping and twisting and wrapping the strings
around her thigh so tight, I think they'll break. She works automatically, vengefully,
like she's lacing a work boot, tying double, then finally triple knots, at the top.
"Who could know? Just tell me that. Who in the hell could possibly know he'd go in
the middle of the night?" Her face is contorted, grief-stricken. Hard to watch. She
does not notice she has set the toddler in mud near her feet and the kid is so stunned, he
doesn't even think of yelling.
"What the hell am I suppose to do? I don't even know where he
is. Sometimes I walk around the house and just look for him, like he's off in another room
and I can't remember which one." Her face is a mess; she's looking at me but I look
away. I can tell she's not seeing a thing. Maybe she isn't.
We girls keep standing around the swing. We are waiting, or at least
I'm waiting, for something. I feel like I could wait all night if I had to. Six o'clock
Mass is letting out, people spilling around the back of the church like so many ants from
a hole. In a minute, I know, they will walk toward us, cut across the playground and head
home. They are old ladies mostly, a couple old men.
"Hope, it's time to go," one of the Andrews says, but Hope
is somewhere else. She is done. She sits bunched up, her pants down around her knees. The
swing has sunk low, the "U" stretched almost to the ground. I'm looking at
Hope's underpants, and then at her pearly flesh, spilling from the leather at the top of
her thigh, and I understand that I am tired. Not the kind of honest exhaustion that comes
from a full day and helps you sleep the hard sleep of a good woman, but spent. Weary in a
way that makes you want to peel off and shed your own skin, it is so much.
The street lights flicker on, changing the color of everything,
making the Andrews turn away. I watch them till they're almost off the playground. I can
tell they are having a pretty good time, giggling, snorting, trying to contain themselves
but not really trying at all. Who can blame them.
Not me. I set the baby next to the toddler and the mud and I leave
Hope, cross the street, climb the steps to my house. I said her name was Hope, but that's
a lie. Her name isn't really Hope. It isn't anything close to Hope. It is something else.
It's just that Hope is such a nice name, easy to think up. Even easier to say. It's too
much to ask me to tell you why I lied but once I lied I couldn't turn back and so I just
kept on telling the story. Of Hope.