I was in the backyard with my son, Patrick, drop-kicking his favorite ball over and over again. Patrick had named the ball Big Red to distinguish it from his other ball, Small Red. Each time I kicked Big Red, he cheered, and before it even hit the ground, he shouted, ‘Kick it higher! Kick it higher!’
Our backyard was narrow and circumscribed by tall trees. The tallest of the trees was an inward-leaning pine, a Douglas fir that had been planted by our home’s former owner, Larry, when he first moved in with his family back in the winter of ’82. The tree had been his family’s Christmas tree that year, and after the holidays, he had planted it in the backyard to commemorate his first Christmas at the house. He told me this story about a month after we had moved in. He and his wife dropped by to introduce themselves and tell us where all the leaks were.
Larry claimed the tree was eighty feet tall, and I believed him. The tree looked every bit of eighty feet. I could estimate how high I kicked Big Red by how close it got to the top of Larry’s Pine. That’s what Patrick and I called it—Larry’s Pine. If I hit Big Red right in the sweet spot and popped it straight up, I could launch it fifty or sixty feet, but I rarely got it any higher than that.
After about ten minutes of kicking Big Red, I started to get tired, but I kept going because I saw Patrick was still enjoying it, and I knew I was giving my wife some desperately needed downtime. I also have to admit I was deriving some pleasure from the activity myself. It had been a rough Friday at work. My boss, Mr Baumgartner, had called me into his office to tell me my numbers were down. He said I better start working the phones harder if I expected to last at his company. I was working my ass off, but it was no use telling him that. He was one of those self-important sixty-something men with a neatly trimmed mustache, a class ring, and a country club membership, the sort of guy who loved the sound of his own voice and never asked for your opinion. Each time I walloped Big Red I pretended I was walloping his wide, white behind.
‘Kick it higher!’ Patrick yelped. ‘Kick it higher than Larry’s Pine!’
At first, I thought he was speaking hyperbolically. Then I thought, ‘He’s four. He doesn’t understand hyperbole. He actually wants me to kick it higher than Larry’s Pine. He actually thinks I can kick it higher than Larry’s Pine.’ That my son thought I was capable of such a feat wasn’t entirely shocking. I think a lot of little boys believe their dads are superhuman. I know I did. When I was four, I thought my dad—five foot six of him—was Herculean, a God among men capable of hurling cars across parking lots and wrestling wild bears into submission. It came as a crushing disappointment a couple years later when I saw that he couldn’t even move an armchair from the den to the living room without my mother’s help.
I didn’t want to disappoint my son like that—not yet anyway. I wanted to preserve his belief, at least for a little while longer, that I did possess extraordinary powers. There would be plenty of time later on for him to discover my limitations, to realize that I wasn’t a superhero but an ordinary guy who sold auto insurance and answered to a pompous old fart who probably had erectile dysfunction. So I decided right then and there that I was going to kick Big Red higher than Larry’s Pine. I knew I could do it, too. I just had to throw my whole body into the kick. I had to hit that damn ball with everything I had—all of my energy and anger and frustration. Mr Baumgartner, kiss your ass goodbye.
To psyche myself up, I pictured Baumgartner’s face, his cold black eyes and his saggy bulldog jowls. I imagined him chewing me out and smirking at me as he did it, relishing my misery, delighting in my humiliation. ‘Twenty-two new policies a month isn’t going to cut it here, Andy. I don’t know what kind of Podunk agency you used to work for, but here you have to hit your quotas or you’re out. If you don’t think you can do that, pack your bags now.’
The muscles in my arms and legs twitched. My heart revved. My cheeks filled with heat. I was ready for action, ready to whack Big Red into the stratosphere. I tossed the ball, reared back, and sliced up with my leg. There was a crisp smack, and Big Red blasted skyward. It went up, up, up. Forty feet, fifty feet, sixty feet, seventy feet. It was going so fast I thought it might just keep going, it might rise into the clouds and disappear like a helium balloon. But it stopped abruptly about ten feet above the top of Larry’s Pine. Patrick shrieked with joy. ‘You did it, Daddy! You did it!’
I felt a wash of relief, a great loosening of everything knotted inside of me. My problems—my depressing job, my nasty boss, and my unhappy wife—all of it seemed minor now. All that mattered was that I had just done the impossible. I had just punted a ball ninety feet in the air. My boy would always remember this. He would always remember how I hadn’t let him down.
Big Red didn’t drop straight down as it had on all my previous kicks. Instead, it took a funny turn to the right. There was no wind, so I can only explain the sudden turn as an act of God, a deliberate redirection from a divine hand. I had dared to exceed my human limitations, to achieve the unachievable, and now God was going to punish me for my presumptuousness, my arrogant overreach, by complicating matters. Big Red continued to veer, wobbled a little, and snagged in the branches of a maple about thirty-five feet up.
As soon as Patrick realized Big Red was stuck, he started bawling. His face went all blotchy, and tears cascaded down his cheeks.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, hugging him around the shoulders, steadying his shuddering body. ‘I’ll get it down.’
I searched the yard for some object to throw at the ball, something to dislodge it from its aerie in the maple branches. My gaze locked on a stick about the length and width of a ruler.
‘Here we go,’ I said, picking up the stick. ‘I’ll knock it down with this.’
Patrick’s sobbing subsided. He eyed the stick doubtfully.
I drew the stick back and boomeranged it at Big Red. It whammed a tree limb about a yard away from the ball and cracked in half. Patrick’s tantrum resumed at full intensity.
‘Wait a minute,’ I said. ‘Maybe a rock.’
I hustled over to the rock pile by the wheelbarrow, found a softball-sized chunk of limestone, and hustled back to the center of the yard.
‘This ought to do it,’ I said.
Patrick quieted down, folded his hands together, and directed his eyes up at Big Red. I wound up and pitched the rock. It hit the ball dead center but bounced off and thudded against the ground about ten feet from where Patrick and I were standing.
‘Damn,’ I said. ‘That thing is wedged in there.’
Patrick exploded again.
‘Settle down,’ I said. ‘I’ll climb up there and get it.’ I said it to shut him up. I said it out of desperation. I didn’t stop to consider whether or not I could do it. I didn’t examine the layout of the branches to determine if such a climb was even feasible. But I could tell by the way Patrick’s tears immediately ceased and his glistening eyes flickered with hope that I was locked in. I was going to have to climb the tree and get Big Red down.
Well, I thought, if I can kick the ball ninety feet in the air, I can certainly climb up thirty-five feet and yank it down from a tree. Hadn’t I just proved that anything was possible? I hadn’t climbed a tree since I was a kid, but I didn’t think it was beyond me. I was in decent shape. I wasn’t overweight. I could still bench two hundred pounds and jog a mile without huffing and puffing. There was no reason I couldn’t claw my way up there and get Big Red.
I walked to the base of the tree and stared up at the trunk. The first graspable branch that looked like it could support my weight was about eight feet up. I leapt and attempted to grab it but only got a finger on it. Undeterred, I took a dozen steps back, ran at the tree, and catapulted myself off the trunk. This time I got both hands around the branch. For a few seconds, I just hung there like a drugged monkey, amazed that I was really doing this. Then, pushing off the trunk with my feet, I pulled myself up. Patrick clapped and skipped around the base of the tree.
Straddling the branch, I glanced up to plan my next move. The rest of the branches were more closely spaced, so I didn’t think I’d have that hard a time getting to the ball. I just had to make sure I didn’t put my foot on a branch that couldn’t hold me. I reached for the next branch directly overhead and pulled myself to my feet. From there, climbing the tree was just like climbing a ladder. Up I went, one limb at a time, and in a couple minutes, I was eye-level with Big Red. I made a fist with my right hand and punched the ball free of the tree’s clutches. Big Red sailed to the earth, bounced twice, and rolled over to Patrick who picked it up and whirled it around ecstatically.
My mission accomplished, I began the descent. Holding the trunk with my left hand, I lowered a foot to the branch just below me. As I lowered my other foot, the tree’s bark came off in my hand, and I fell backward. It happened so fast I didn’t even have time to panic. I saw the tree spiraling above me. Branches thumped my back, leaves whipped my face, and then I was on the ground staring at the sky.
I couldn’t move at all, which scared me, but I couldn’t feel any pain either, which I supposed was a blessing. I wasn’t sure if I could talk, so I gave it a try. ‘Patrick,’ I said. ‘Patrick, come here.’ I was surprised by the calmness and steadiness of my voice. I didn’t sound like a gravely injured man. Perhaps I wasn’t gravely injured. Perhaps I was just in shock.
Patrick came into view, hovering over me with Big Red in his hands and a spooked look on his face. ‘Daddy, are you going to die?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Daddy’s not going to die. But I need you to run inside and get Mommy right now. Tell her Daddy’s hurt. Tell her to call 911.’
Patrick dropped Big Red and took off in the direction of the house. The ball came to rest against my ear. The moment I was able to move again, I promised myself, I was going to pop it.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)