In August during football practice the Boonville sun was brutal, unrelenting. It smacked you upside the head, bloodying your ear and fattening your lip. Its bold and thrusting knee turned your niblick to mash, and its sharp elbows hammered down in vicious anvil chops to your unprotected neck, leaving you stunned and gasping, dreaming of water and shade and a respite from the misery.
And then there was Deputy Squires with his whistle, barking commands to hit the hole faster, stack up the pulling guard, drive your body through the ball carrier, and then, after two or so hours of repetition and tackling and throwing and learning to keep depth and separation on pitches around the end, he would say the dreaded words, “Everybody on the goal line.”
Of course most high school football teams practice on real fields with real goal lines. At Anderson Valley High, the practice “field” in my day consisted of a rough patch of dirt on which broken glass lurked amidst gopher holes and clumps of grass. It was a pathetic, hazardous square of disastrous soil fit for the Bad News Bears, and after being stomped on by cleats what little grass there was disappeared, leaving an inch of dusty dirt to toil in and on and under. And in that dust, beneath the cruel and son-of-a-bitch sun, we’d do exactly what Deputy Squires told us: monkey rolls (three-man weaves only you jump and roll and then scramble to your feet); ball-busters, which are 100-yard sprints only when the whistle blows you dive headfirst onto the ground and jump up and start running again; and finally wind sprints, the sound of shoulder pads jiggling and mouths gasping for breath and feet pounding the broken ground and lifting small clouds of dust to mark our progress from line to line.
In late summer before school started, we’d practice sometimes twice a day, early in the morning and again in the afternoon. It was hell. It was hot. It was dusty, and I hated every second of it except for afterwards when sitting in front of the locker too tired to move, letting the stinking wet uniform cling to my tired bruised body. Yet when Friday night rolled around there was never a game we lost because we weren’t in shape, and there were several games played in searing autumn noonday heat when our opponents collapsed like cellophane circus tents. Sure, I hated practice, but winning two league championships in three years with guys like Jerry Tolman, Olie Erickson, Eric June and Larry Carr was fun. But that was a long time ago, and it would seem even more distant had I not been subject to another kind of torture last week.
Three Wednesdays ago dear friends called up to say they and their two little girls were coming to California for a work slash vacation, and they wondered if they could bivouac on my cramped floor, between the coffee table and the ridiculously large television that I bought last year during a spectacular bout of consumer overconfidence. At the anointed hour I fetched them at the airport, and it was wonderful to see them all, especially the two little ones, a 15-month old bundle of imperial decrees named Cecelia, and a mature three year old called Elizabeth. After one short night the parents flew off, one to give a lecture in Los Angeles, and the second to play a concert in Arizona. That left the kids alone with Amy and me, one child apiece. How difficult could it be?
Elizabeth, the older sister, appears a model citizen. She’s old enough to understand quid pro quo, as in, she behaves and doesn’t scream and cry, and I keep her overnight bag packed with videos, cupcakes, popsicles, and assorted toys and treasure. Whatever she demands, I oblige, happy to play the good cop until her parents return.
Cecelia, on the other hand, is younger, more stubborn, capricious even, and with a toddler’s attention span. She is more difficult because she cannot yet be bought off with materialistic bribes. She wants constant attention, and the funny thing about this baby is she acts like baby. I honestly expected more. Cecelia wants nothing in the world more than mommy, and if mommy isn’t around then daddy will do, but if daddy’s not present, well, this is what happened.
As the parents stole off into the night the kids slept soundly. I thumbed through the Guardian and contemplated my strategy, which I called “Sweet Tooth for Stalin.” I wanted nothing more than smooth sailing by any means necessary, and defined it as: no tantrums, no keeping Uncle Zack up at night, no dragging felt pens across Uncle Zack’s white walls, no matter how grimy they are. For their cooperation my charges would be rewarded richly and often.
I have already loaded up trinkets and beads for my natives: two Teletubbies tapes, two Madelines, a Barney, and Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. As well as popsicles, cupcakes, fruit juice, marshmallow candy in the shape of Easter bunnies, animal crackers, and a fondue set (you never know). When the opportunity arises I tell Elizabeth the plan: she can watch a movie before lunch, have lunch, be rewarded for a quiet industrious luncheon with a cupcake, watch another video before dinner, dine on macaroni and cheese with peas for dinner, have a popsicle for dessert, take a bath, and then watch another video. She agrees with one caveat: can she have a “juicy juice” with dinner? Of course, I beam.
Because I’ve never been left in charge of a parakeet, let alone a child, I camp out in the living room with the girls, who are asleep. By 10:30 we’re all in dreamland. This is easier than I thought. But exactly at midnight Cecelia pops out of her burrow of blankets, kicks me in the ribs, and screams for mommy. In the unlikely event of this type of landing, I was instructed to pick her up and walk her back to sleep. After five minutes of shouting goo-goo threats at me, she stops crying, but is wide awake. Ah, jet lag. For if there’s anything more sinister than dropping your infant off with “friends,” it’s dropping a jet-lagged baby off with friends. I make a mental note to send three puppies to the girls next Christmas, as payback.
Cecelia is talking, rubbing her eyes, making vaguely threatening motions at me. I begin to panic, for the Sharks are playing a critical Stanley Cup playoff game the next day and I need to feel my best going into the game. I mention this to Cecelia, who only scowls at me. She understands, but couldn’t care less. Didn’t Shakespeare warn me about this? Back-up plan two: I punch in 36 seconds on the microwave to warm the bottle, which hopefully will have the effect of four cognacs on the irate princess. The microwave beeps, and I open the door to see that I’ve heated up a loaf of sourdough rye, but the bottle is nowhere in sight. The bottle is found finally, behind a six-pack of root beer and a carton of left-over pad thai. Cecelia looks quizzical, as if to say, “Who left me with this moron?” The bottle is warmed and then disdained. Prospects for quick victory are bleak.
We walk around the apartment. She stares at me and blows her nose on my shoulder. Finally I get her back to bed. It’s 1:15 a.m. now, and she doesn’t mind being in bed, only when I get up she screams, at which point I lay back down with her. When it seems as though she’s sleeping, I get up again. She shrieks, I sit back down. This goes on for 45 minutes. Then 60 minutes. At 2:00 in the morning Cecelia jams her rather large head into my armpit; we’ve reached a détente of sorts: I won’t move, and she won’t scream. Sleep is impossible, and I fantasize about suing Cecelia’s parents.
Finally, at 5:45 the dawn creeps in. I open a wary eye to see Cecelia watching me. I’m exhausted. Cecelia begins to cry. I grab a Teletubbies tape and push it into the VCR. Cecelia brightens immediately, smiles even. I look over to see Elizabeth stirring. Wonderful Elizabeth, who’s slept through the entire night, rubs the sleep out of her eyes and says, “Is that a video?” Yes. She climbs out of bed and sits down beside her sister. I feel guilty using the small screen as my crutch. But not that guilty. I tiptoe out of the living room to get a glass of water. Cecelia screams the minute I pass into the hallway. I hurry back in and sit beside her. I’m tired, broken, resigned to never having my own life back. I wonder if I’ll be able to watch the Sharks while a strange little pseudo-baby creature with a television for a stomach makes baby talk and prances around a green meadow with several other strange baby-like creatures. For a wobbly moment I wish I was back at football practice, but screaming snapped me out of it.