32 Blue . . .
In the backyard I say hike, drop two steps back, and wait with my elbow cocked and the youth football our father bought us for Hanukkah grazing my ear. In school I held a conch shell that echoed ocean sounds in its spiral corridor, and in the football I listen for another wave, no less elemental. It is the wave of my brother coming for me. Though I can’t see my brother, I know he has swept into a sprint. His arms, tight to his body, pump quick controlled uppercuts, while beneath his muscles fizz with the promise of Creatine, deadweights, all the desirous punishments he’ll deal himself once he’s old enough to join the Y. But now there is only our boxed-in yard with dog shit hardening in the corner. There is the nanosecond before J.B. plows through my back like he is saving me from a runaway train or is the train himself. Then sound muting from my ears, the relief of grass, and, if I don’t fumble the ball, a point for me.
* * *
What we called games consisted of condensed bursts of brutality in which one of us waited vulnerable for the other to come charging into him. Although our mother was a worrier, when our father moved out she got hold of floppy Play-It-Again shoulder pads and resigned to grant us our play. “Kill each other for all I care,” she said. “Just be safe doing it.” She hadn’t lost any of the hundred or so pounds she gained from bearing my brother, then me two years later. More and more frequently our father was going off on his “adventure vacations,” sky- or scuba diving for long weekends while our mother stayed in her room, having phone conversations that fell dead against her door.
It was a weekend morning during one of my brother’s Little League games when, uncannily, our father’s best friend, Steve Solo, materialized in a rage behind the dugout. “Stay away from her!” he sputtered, whipping a soda in my father’s face, and he walked off with my father shouting after him, “She came to me!” That night there was a very bad scene in our house. I’d thought I heard shouting before, but this was made of barbwire and hair, and it tore through the upstairs. My brother flew out the door, faked one step toward the yard, then bolted up the steep hill on Farwood Road. I stayed stuck to the couch, imagining a great black void that listens in on the ways people hurt each other. By the time I unfroze myself and ran into our parents’ bedroom, someone had bashed seven or eight half-moon cuts in the wall with the telephone receiver. My parents were gasping, facing each other with the bed between them. From then on, it seemed our mother needed her sons as close as the yard, triumphantly mud-caked. If my brother and I wanted to play Sack the Quarterback Game, or Charging Foul Game, or Kill the Catcher, I don’t think she could have stopped us anyway. We were boys, we were mutinous, and, really, we were in love. That is, I wanted to be just like J.B., and J.B. wanted to be just like himself.
Another game my brother invented, “610 WIP,” he named for the local sports radio station’s call numbers. In Havertown, PA, a psoriatic patch of cross-streets on the west border of Philadelphia, you were either Irish-Catholic or Italian, and you flew a flag on your stoop to prove which. A few black families had trickled in from across City Line in the mid-80s; what anybody thought of them stayed, for the most part, around kitchen tables and behind bedroom doors. Jews were a possibly made-up race from places as faraway as Lower Merion, three suburbs over. My first day of varsity hockey practice, an absurdly buff senior named Chris Moran, whom everyone for some reason called “Bobby G,” came into the locker room, threw his bag down, and demanded, “Who here’s a Jew?” My brother and I glanced wide-eyed at each other—and went right back to lacing our skates. But when football season came around, flags of national heritage were packed away in deference to the Eagles’ silver and green. Everyone we knew rode to school listening to Angelo Cataldi and the morning show guys heap stardust or manure on the Eagles’ organization, depending on whether they won or lost their last game. Sundays after a win, when the weather wasn’t below freezing, families brought radios and coolers of beer onto their front porches, so the WIP post-game show resounded up and down the fractured, concrete blocks.
During the two years I couldn’t sleep through the night, I’d feel my way to my mother’s room where she lay on top of the covers, like an iceberg, and hop onto the bed with her. But even lodged in her shadow, when sleep came it came guardedly, and after a few hours I’d shuffle back to my room, shamed at the thought of my mother waking next to me in the morning. As an alternative, I began sleeping on the trundle bed in J.B.’s room. Through the dark I’d whisper, “Hi, Jay, this is Russ calling from Norristown. First time caller, long time listener.” J.B. blended his natural voice with Cataldi’s inflections, injected some south Philly machismo.
“Yo, Russ. Great to have ya on the show. What’s on your mind, buddy?”
As with all games, those set in the stadium of the imagination depend on an adherence to particular rules. Needing to prolong the arm-length broadcast sent between my brother’s bed and mine, I intuited the rules of “610 WIP” and adhered to them with exquisite devotion. More than half my questions and comments centered on J.B or the teams he played for. Craig from Manayunk: “How will J.B. Barach moving to shortstop this year affect the Tigers?”
Brandon out of Roxborough: “Who do you think should play with Barach on the forward line of the power play unit?” Or, when I knew J.B. didn’t like someone, like Chad Stewart, a beluga of an eleven-year-old on his hockey team, Eric or Kevin or, once in a blue moon, a falsetto Sharon might say, “The Thunderbirds seem to be giving up a lot of goals on rebounds in the slot. What’s the deal with Stewart and the lazy D?”
When our talk wasn’t focused on J.B.’s teams it turned to the pros. We were nuts for the Flyers, especially in winter after the Eagles choked out of the playoffs, reminding the city how foolish it was to think they’d do anything else. The Broad Street Bullies’ hit first score later mentality lasted well into the 80’s, and current Flyers Rick Tocchet and Peter Zezel, who kamikazed into corners of the rink despite their mythically broken noses, their scraggly hair flying behind them, embodied our understanding of how hockey was meant to be played. J.B. memorized statistics and studied the nuanced skating, checking, and stick-handling styles of players around the league. He knew Philadelphia’s Ron Hextall was the only goalie in NHL history to rack up over a hundred penalty minutes in each of his first three seasons. He knew that Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh’s future hall-of-famer and Stanley Cup MVP, was a sissy at heart. Often during our 610 WIP game J.B. quizzed me on where obscure players went to college or played their Junior hockey, trivia at which I perpetually guessed wrong. Because J.B. sanctioned it, I joined him in hating defenseman Jiri Latal, though I couldn’t help feeling remorse when, after so many nights lamenting Latal’s giveaways, his reluctance to block slap shots that whistled on goal, the Flyers finally traded him away.
Only after we’d exhausted our discussions on professional sports and eulogized J.B.’s most recent goals and assists did I dare quaver out a question about my hockey team, the Mite A Haverford Hawks. “How do you think the Hawks look heading into February?” I’d ask. Unlike my brother, who scored from any and every unlikely angle on the ice—“a natural goal scorer,” our father called him— I’d scored only two goals in my life, both in the same game. I was a foot shorter than most kids my age, and the smallest jersey the team had dressed me as loosely as the blankets I lay buried in. But J.B., not for a second breaking character, would say how he thinks that younger Barach kid is something special on the ice. “He’s small,” he’d say, “but he’s tough, and I’ve never seen anyone get around him. If Barach keeps playing like he’s been playing, the Hawks have a shot this year.”
4, 3, 2,
Toes curled into my brother’s carpet, I tell myself I will not move. Downstairs my mother I will not move stops writing in her checkbook and watches I will not move the chandelier swing back and forth. For two hours this morning my brother mapped and Scotch taped a basketball key onto his floor. Now he pounds five steps to the foul line and leaps toward the hoop our father nailed to his wall. Our father the hammer, the house-builder. Our Father we mutter in locker rooms, kneeling with our helmets off. Red, rug-imprinted, J.B.’s kneecap angles toward my chest, but I will not move, or lean, or look away. Hallowed be Thy Name, the room tumbles with us in it.
* * *
At his team’s Christmas Pollyanna, my brother bartered three rolls of hockey tape for the deck of naked lady playing cards that he brought in the first place. The cards he stashed in his closet, alongside his three Penthouses, a Topps® complete set of 1986 baseball cards, an unsmoked cigar, and a Guns ‘N’ Roses Lies cassette. Even though I could flip to each of the Penthouse pictorials via muscle memory, and many nights, scurrying late to the dinner table, I worried my mother would catch airbrushed glints of thighs and breasts still reflecting in my eyes, the new batch of playing card women that I hoped to savor with more discipline unsettled me. They were leggy, hair sprayed, American Gladiator types snarling with sexual ardor that seemed uncomfortable to them at best. The 3 of diamonds was stuffed into a nightie that cinched up over her ass, and her glitzy makeup made me think about how sad her real face must have been underneath. The nine of clubs was a dominatrix with large plum-colored nipples glowering from powder-white breasts.
To my brother, however, these women spoke the order of the universe, and in his 12-year-old chicken scratch he did write it down. I’d pass by his room and catch him at his desk, davening between the open deck and one of the lists he composed in which he ranked commonplace entities—articles of clothing, dessert foods, U.S. states—according to a system encoded in the cards. How J.B. deciphered the messages I didn’t know; whatever lay hidden in the combinations of numbers, suits, and relative nudity was meant only for him to understand. But the lists proliferated. They found their way into J.B.’s jacket pockets, mixed in with his book reports and math homework. One afternoon when my brother and I were lost in the belly of a game we called Goal Line Stand, our mother bustled into the backyard, fluttering a list labeled “Colors” in her hand “What is this, Jonathan?” she said. “I want to know what this is!”
J.B. began bringing The Lucky Cards in his pocket wherever he went. They instructed him which lunch he should buy from the school cafeteria, which movie he should see at the new Marple Cineplex, which baseball cards he should solicit from his friends and which he could trade away. On a day when we were each allowed one item from Modell’s, my brother would have walked out in a rhinestone decorated New York Mets hat if not for our mother causing a scene about it in front of the staff.
At home, J.B. found ways to incorporate the cards into our sports games. Instead of competing against each other, we began simulating professional matches according to the Lucky Cards’ prophesies. J.B. devised a system in which, as he flipped them, the cards determined which teams we would make believe faced off in our yard. Other cards determined when and how the teams scored, and our running around bulldozing each other enacted it. In this way we were free to root for the same team, and we simulated entire seasons, winning and losing together.
But mostly we lost. Even in my brother’s fantasies, he valued real world probability, and he watched enough sports to know the good guys rarely won. A tradition of collapse and frustration for Philadelphia teams began after the Sixers’ 1983 NBA Championship, when my brother was 4 and I was 2. During the next two and half decades, the Phillies amassed enough defeats to claim rank as the only franchise in sports with over 10,000 losses since its debut. The Flyers gambled away four prospects to the Quebec Nordiques for Eric Lindros, a 6’5” 245 lb center, who despite battling through eight concussions in his career, never lived up to the management’s messianic expectations of him. Meanwhile, the Nordiques moved to Colorado, changed its name to the Avalanche, and won 2 Stanley Cups in 5 years. Perhaps most disturbingly, the Eagles squandered its savvy offense and hard-nosed defense when Rich Kotite took over as head coach in 1991. Kotite had been a valuable assistant coach, but the added pressure that encumbered his promotion led to a slew of miserable game-time decisions, including, in a key matchup, requesting that the Eagles kick off to start both the first and second halves. After such games, the media was as relentless as schoolyard bullies, and Kotite stammered preposterous excuses in response, citing a scoreboard that showed the wrong down or rain that had obscured the ink in his playbook. By the end of a press conference, he sometimes just stared like a stroke victim from behind the big tangle of microphones.
My brother and I watched SportsCenter anchors poke fun at our teams’ plight in the last part of the 20th Century. Lying on the den floor, our feet knocking in the air behind us, we saw reports that defamed Philadelphia fans as “boo-birds” and joked about the drunk tank implemented in the Eagles’ stadium. But if Sixers fans booed players for not sprinting out of the tunnel, and if Eagles fans unraveled banners that read “Kotite the Idiot,” or threw ice-balls at Santa Claus during a halftime show, we knew it was because when the Sixers or Eagles lost, the fans carried defeat around with them in their daily lives, at work, at school, and at home. Many Philadelphia fans felt that their spectatorship was as essential to the team as a player’s performance on the field. Even in its darkest days, the Eagles sold out almost every game. When my brother took it upon himself to telephone the season ticket accounting office, an agent told him less than .03% of Eagles season ticket holders relinquish their tickets each year, and that there were over 40 thousand accounts on the waiting list already. We would have to wait 2,300 years to own seats at the stadium, but just in case, J.B. asked the gentleman to please put down Jonathan and Michael Barach for the next two seats available.
Millipedes curl in cold, thin Cs on the rug. We don’t know how they get into the basementor why they want to since they’re always dead when we find them, but we wrist them aside with our hockey sticks. I’m wearing the foam goalie pads I’ve been wearing since 3:00 PM. To save time, I wore them during dinner, too. When the tennis ball J.B. shoots hits my face, he giggles, runs around passing the ball to himself off the walls, throws his body against the fake wood paneling that gives with his weight. After he rockets a slap shot above my right shoulder, he drops to one knee and cranks his arm back and forth in celebration. As with all his spectacular plays, my brother insists we see an instant replay. I move in slow motion as he reenacts his follow through, commentates on the spin of the ball, the twine snapping behind me. My brother flips a card, gives me a nod. I grab his jersey, yoke him to the ground. We push each other into the carpet until our faces burn.
* * *
Our mother framed the Havertown News feature article about J.B. and hung it in the upstairs hallway. The article begins:
This is the game the Fords must win. Unfortunately for them, Monsignor Bonner, who has beaten the Fords in the district Championship each of the last three seasons, holds a two goal lead with less than 11 minutes to play in regulation. Enter Barach.
It goes on to tell how J.B’s third period hat trick secured the Fords’ victory, how his peers voted him captain in his Junior year, and how he begins preparing for each game the night before by eating three plates of pasta and meditating on himself making good decisions with the puck. There is also a nice shot of him about to flatten a Bonner defenseman against the center ice boards. J.B. didn’t forget to mention me as a crucial alternate on the team. The article dutifully includes an addendum:
Barach’s younger brother, Michael, is also on the team. J.B. mentioned that one of his goals at practice is to sweat as much as his little brother.
Without our father’s alimony, my mother moved us into a townhouse with smaller rooms and no basement, but by then my brother and I had less time for our indoor games. J.B. had a cell phone with a zillion names in it, and he was perpetually walking out the front door with the phone up to his ear so no one could ask where he was going. At the Friday night school dances, J.B. would show up late, stinking with alcohol. I’d be standing with a bunch of guys whose older brothers my brother tormented, and who heard from their brothers that my brother was an asshole. As soon as J.B. spotted me, he’d scream “Mikey!” and run over to hug me until I couldn’t breathe. More than a few times he fell on his face before he could get there and rolled on the ground laughing. At the end of the night, when Boyz II Men or Jodeci played, he slow danced with Arwen Haring, the hottest girl in my grade, and my friends and I stole glimpses of Arwen burying her head in my brother’s neck.
Have you ever been to Philadelphia in November? The football my brother throws drops into my arms like a rainbow. Next to his eye, J.B. has a curved wound, speckled at the edges like the bottom of a beer bottle. I’m hungover, too, but the air is good on my face. When I breathe in, it moves through my body like water. It lets me keep running. I zigzag across the grass, faking left, button-hooking, Hail Marying. J.B. keeps sending high spirals. He doesn’t even have to try: I burst forward and the ball falls to me in stride. I dive in the leaves and leather hits my hands. My brother is in his white Nitanny Lions Jersey. My hands and lungs are burning. The Honda pulls into the driveway and our mother beeps the horn twice.