Twenty-eight years ago:
I am a thin and gangly boy of twelve, sweating in the July sun. I tap the barrel of my baseball bat on the trashcan lid that serves as home plate and stare out past the garden, to the tall maples beyond. My father stands sixty feet, six inches in front of me. His right foot rests on an old brick to mark the spot.
He spits and smiles and asks if I’m ready.
We’ve been in the backyard for an hour, working on my swing. Head down, he says. Weight back. Elbow up. See the ball. The tennis balls come straight and at half-speed. I’ve sent a dozen over the maples, more into the sprouting corn and potatoes. Twice, I’ve swung late and peppered the neighbor’s shed.
But now supper’s ready and it’s time for the last pitch. Dad always saves up for that one, lets it fly as hard as he can manage. Smoke, he calls it. I don’t call it that. It’s too hard and too fast to be smoke. It hisses like a live thing.
Still, I say I’m ready.
He winds. A blur rockets from his hand. I close my eyes and wince, waiting for the whoosh of my bat meeting nothing but air. What comes instead is a soft plink!
I open my eyes to see the tennis ball flying in a high blue sky. It lands not fifty feet away and bounces twice on the thick grass, stopping just to my father’s left.
I raise my hands and whoop, overcome with a joy that forces an impromptu victory lap in the rough shape of a diamond—the pear tree for first base, the clothesline pole for second, and garage window for third—jumping because I did it, truly and finally did it. I hit the hardest, fastest pitch my dad could throw. I hit the smoke.
I land on the trashcan lid and look out at my father. He’s staring at the ball near his feet. Half of his face is frozen in what looks like pride. The other half holds a look I don’t understand but can feel, even at twelve. And suddenly I don’t feel like celebrating anymore. I feel instead a kind of shame.
Two weeks ago:
I am a grown and graying man of forty, sweating in the April sun. My son stands away from me and taps his bat on the Frisbee he calls home plate. We’ve been in the backyard for an hour, head down/weight back/elbow up/see the ball. He’s sent a dozen tennis balls out over the creek, more onto the roof of our house. Twice, he’s swung late and peppered the neighbor’s shed.
But now it’s time for the last pitch. Smoke, I call it—fast and hard, like a blur.
He’s never hit a last pitch, can’t even get the bat off his shoulder. But he says he’s ready and I wind and that blur rockets from my hand, and I don’t hear the whoosh of his bat. I hear a plink!
We look up to see the ball flying into the blue sky. It lands in the thick grass over behind me. I hear my son whooping, overcome with joy. He runs not in a diamond but in a fat circle. Part of me sees this and is proud. The other part sees that yellow ball lying in the green grass and knows that was my best, that was as hard as I could throw. That was my smoke. And by the time my son finishes his lap, I think he knows it, too. He’s still happy, oh yes. But there’s also a look in his eyes that doesn’t seem like happiness at all.
I tuck him in bed that night. Just before I leave his room, he calls me back to his bed.
“I’m sorry I hit your pitch,” he says.
I tell him there’s no need to be sorry, that he should be proud. I don’t know if he agrees. I understand. I was once him.
I’ve never asked dad how he felt that day twenty-eight years ago. Now I know. It’s a kind of pain you’re proud to feel, like showing off a nasty bruise. It’s a rite of passage we all must endure.
Every boy grows up. Every dad does, too. My son and I grew up together that evening two weeks ago. That was the moment we both realized that in some ways, I was becoming less and he was becoming more.
Billy Coffey is a part-time novelist and full-time father. He lives with his family in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His latest novel is "When Mockingbirds Sing" (Thomas Nelson 2013).