"You should just be called the Padres, not all that bullshit about credit unions," my dad said, as he drove me to the field on the opening day of the season when I was eleven years old.
"But the credit union pays for us to have a team," I said.
"Yeah, well, I pay for you to do everything, and you don't see me making you wear a shirt with my giant goddamned face on it."
"That would be a weird shirt," I said.
"Please. You wear all kinds of dopey shirts, and — what the fuck am I talking about right here? The shirt's not real, I'm just making a point. You got your gear?" he asked, pulling up to the field.
Saturdays were filled with a full lineup of games, all of which the league's players were required to attend, so my parents could drop me off bright and early and then do whatever they wanted all day until my game. The prospect of a morning to himself was very exciting for my dad.
"There's a lot of good teams this year, I think," I said, continuing our conversation as we arrived at the fields.
He reached over me and popped open my door.
"Fascinating. Now out of the car. Vamoose. Out! Out! Have fun and don't screw with anyone bigger than you. I'll be in the stands when your game starts," he said.
I put my hand up for a high five, and he used that hand to push me out of the car. Then his Oldsmobile screeched away up the street, like he was fleeing the scene of a double homicide.
When we weren't playing in a game, most of the Little Leaguers would keep busy playing tag in between the two fields or eating a spicy linguiça sausage made by the local Portuguese family that ran the snack shack above the field.
Every once in a while, someone would raise talk of venturing into the canyon that sat about fifty yards beyond the outfield fences. We were all scared of the canyon. It was packed with trees that grew so close together their branches became intertwined like a bundle of snakes. The canyon's ground was muddy, and it emitted an odor that registered somewhere between "maple syrup" and "rest-stop bath room." It was a group of cannibals short of being the perfect setting for an Indiana Jones film.
Every kid you ran into had a different theory about what lurked inside the canyon walls. "My brother found a pile of poo there that he said was too big to be dog poo or cat poo, but not big enough to be human poo. He said it's probably wolf poo," said my friend Steven as we waited for the game ahead of us to finish so we could take the field.
"Your brother's an idiot," said Michael, the chubby catcher on my team, who always wore his hat backward, so that the back of it came down right above his dark-green eyes. "A bunch of gays live in there. That's where they butt-fuck each other."
"What? Why wouldn't they do that at their house?" I asked.
"I don't know, I'm not a homo. But if you want to get butt-fucked, go into that canyon," he responded, inhaling a bite of sausage that would have killed a lesser twelve-year-old.
At that point in my life, the only two things that scared me were the movie Arachnophobia and that canyon. I tried to never get too close to it, for fear that something might reach out of the forest and pull me in. If I absolutely had to go near to chase an errant throw, my neck would stiffen and my breath would quicken as my body prepared to flee. I decided to run the theories about its inhabitants past my father to see if he had a scientific opinion on the matter.
"Why would gay people screw each other in a canyon filled with wolves?" my dad asked me as he drove us home after my game, my mom sitting beside him in the passenger seat.
"No, that's not what I said. One kid said there were wolves. It was a different kid who said the thing — "
"Hey, look at me, I'm screwing. My pants are off. Oh shit, there's an angry fucking wolf. Does that make any goddamn sense to you?"
"No. But that's not — "
"Plus," my dad interrupted again, "I don't even think wolves are indigenous to this area. Your school takes field trips. You ever heard them say shit to you about wolves? You gotta think about these things critically, son."
"No, I do. I didn't think that the wolves were — "
My mom turned to face me in the backseat. "Also, Justy, you know that homosexuals have sex just like heterosexuals do: in the privacy of their homes. Not in the woods."
"Although sometimes straight people do screw each other in the woods. Mostly when you're in high school, though," my dad added.
I decided to drop the conversation. But that week, on two consecutive nights, I had nightmares about the canyon. Each involved me finding something terrifying in a clearing at the center. In the first dream, I stumbled upon an aquarium that had a screaming Patrick Swayze trapped inside of it, begging me for help, but I was too scared to approach him. In the second, I was confronted by a large squid that had two or three sets of human legs. After that last dream I shot up out of bed, wide awake. I tried falling back to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes I pictured the canyon, then Swayze, then Squidman.
Hoping it would relax me, I tiptoed out of my bedroom to grab some water from the kitchen. I was still shaken from the dream, and the shapes of the shadows on the hallway wall looked ominous. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw something move, and I froze in place. It's just a shadow that looks like a person, I told myself. It's not a person.
"What in the hell are you doing?"
I shrieked like a frightened monkey and jumped back, crashing into the bookcase behind me. As my eyes adjusted I realized that the shadow was my dad, sitting in total darkness in the La-Z-Boy chair that faced the windows to our backyard.
"Jesus H. Christ. Calm down, son. What the hell is wrong with you?"
"I had a freaky dream," I said, trying to catch my breath. "What are you doing?"
"I'm sitting in the dark drinking a hot toddy. What the hell does it look like?"
"Why are you doing that right now? It's the middle of the night."
"Well, contrary to popular fucking belief, I enjoy a little time to myself, so I wake up early so I can have it. Clearly I'm going to have to start waking up earlier."
"Oh. Well, sorry. Didn't mean to bother you," I said, turning to head back to bed, glass of water forgotten.
"No apologies necessary," he said.
Maybe it was the bourbon in the hot toddy, or the serenity of the darkness all around him, but at that moment my dad seemed uncharacteristically at ease.
"Can I ask you a question?" I said, turning to face him again.
"If something's freaking you out, what do you do to not freak out about it?"
"Is this about that Arachnophobia movie, again? I told you, a spider that large couldn't sustain itself in an urban environment. The ecosystem is too delicate. Not fucking plausible."
"It's not about Arachnophobia. It's just — if something's freaking you out, how do you get it to not freak you out?"
He raised his mug of hot toddy to his lips and took a big slurp.
"Well, scientifically speaking, human beings fear the unknown. So, whatever's freaking you out, grab it by the balls and say hello," he said.
I had no idea what that meant, and even in the dimly lit living room he could tell.
"I'm saying, if something's scaring you out, don't run from it. Find out everything you can about it. Then it ain't the unknown anymore and it ain't scary." He paused. "Or I guess it could be a shitload scarier. Mostly the former, though."
As I padded down the hallway back to my room, I knew what had to be done: I had to enter the canyon. There was just no way I was going it alone.
by Justin Halpern, Grantland | Read more:
Photo: courtesy Justin Halpern