A few days ago I caught a glimpse of him while passing a mirror in the men’s department. I stopped and stepped into the mirrored alcove to study him more closely: He was every bit of forty. He had crinkles in the corners of his eyes. He moved when I moved and he seemed to be wearing my clothes. I touched my finger to the dusty mirror and slowly traced a deep furrow across his brow, as if to smooth it away.
It was me. To the best of my recollection, I had always been about twenty-four or five. I didn’t remember any crinkles. Still, there it was in the mirror. Some old guy had taken over for the kid who used to run my life.
In the few days since this epiphany in the department store, two other events happened: I had my fortieth birthday and I fractured my hand in a pick-up basketball game. The birthday, spent alone, gave me a lot of material to reflect on and a lot of time for reflection; The fracture put me in possession of enough opiates to render me introspective long enough to write this essay.
What has happened to me since the last time I took stock? Days of self-examination have produced these observations: I have more money than I used to have and fewer friends. I have had some slight abatement in the maelstrom of hormones that have churned through my bloodstream for the last quarter century, consistently making me do stupid things. Although it is still within my power to make an occasional fool of myself over a woman, fewer of them seem to be making fools of themselves over me. The ones who do seem to have crinkles in the corners of their eyes too.
As I lay on the gurney being wheeled into the operating room to have my shattered hand screwed and wired back together I was very nearly in tears. It was not the pain. It was that I had casually commented upon viewing the X-rays of my mangled hand, “That about wraps it up for basketball.” I had a couple of hours to think about what that meant while they were rounding up a surgical team and preparing the room.
All my life sport has been very important to me; contact sports especially. It is very much a part of my sense of self that I am a man who is not afraid to bang his body against others of his kind, usually for the sake of a totally arbitrary and useless goal.
For the very first time I understood Bob Feller.
Bob Feller was a Hall-of-Fame fastball pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Although he is generally regarded as being before my time, as a small boy I often saw him pitch. This was because he pitched long past his own time. I remember hearing a lot of people wonder aloud why he hung around so many years after his fastball had retired. The last magazine cover on which he ever appeared had this caption beneath his picture: “Bob Feller, The Immortal Hanger-on”. The article inside told this story about him:
When Bob was born, his father had tied the baby’s right arm to the side of his crib to make sure that Bob grew up to do all the ordinary things in life with his left hand. When Bob was old enough, his father revealed to him the truth: that he had been created for only one purpose: to take a baseball in his right hand and throw it faster than any man had ever done before.
I understand now what it must have meant to him to feel the day upon him when he could no longer fulfill his purpose. There is an enormous difference between Feller’s abilities and mine, but it is a difference of degree, not of kind. A poor athlete feels the loss as keenly as a great one.’ I too had come to the end of a road that I had set out on a long time ago: a tow-headed baby toddling across the backyard after a red and white striped ball. I had chased, kicked, carried, hit, thrown and dribbled a lot of balls down that road since.
Now it appears to be ending. In this last year I have broken my nose twice and sprained my ankle severely three times. Now the doctors have had to put me back together with screws and wires. It only makes sense that I give up contact sports before I really get it. It is the advice I would give to anyone in my situation, but it is hard advice to take.
To feel the diminution of my powers and abilities is a sobering thing. Despite what is said about the ridiculously early ages at which a man reaches the peak of his physical, mental and sexual prowess, I know that I have been getting stronger, smarter and more virile since the day I was born. Now I have to come to terms with the realization that these things are going to gradually slip away from me. I am not likely to be a doddering old fool this time next year, but still it comes on.
There are other changes besides the inevitable physical degeneration that I turned my attention to: Standing in front of the mirror in the Men’s department, I noticed that this stranger who inhabited my body was carrying a couple of packages. They contained a lavender silk tie and a pair of Topsiders. He was going to take them out and throw them in the passenger seat of his BMW and drive off.
The last time I looked, I was a young hippie climbing off a freight train in the chilly dawn on NW Front Ave. I didn’t have a use for any item of apparel that might be worn by a lawyer on his day off. I had just finished a tough three days hopping freights west on my way to Alaska. The train I had caught out of Laurel, Montana had only one empty boxcar. The rest were loaded with munitions to be fired at a little yellow people in Southeast Asia. I knew a lot of things for a young man. For instance, I knew that the civilized world was being run by criminals and lunatics. I had decided to give up on it. I was planning to walk into the Alaskan interior to become a grizzled old hermit.
I know a lot less now than I did twenty years ago, possibly because I don’t read newspapers very much anymore. An occasional quick glance at the headlines tells me that the world is still being run mostly by criminals and lunatics. I say mostly because I have mellowed. I am willing to concede that there are a substantial number of fools who have their hands in it too. I see that the munitions these days are directed at little brown people much closer to home; that a senile cowboy actor has his palsied finger on the doomsday button; that a plague of unimaginable horror is racing unchecked over the surface of the globe while our best minds grapple with the intricacies of positioning nuclear warheads in space.
But who am I to judge? I wear designer clothes. The ruling ambition of my life is to get into the pants of the twenty year old girl who cuts my hair. Everyone is their own kind of fool.
I never made it to Alaska. I fell in love and got a job and settled down in Portland. The being in love didn’t last and the job didn’t last, but the settling down did. There were other loves and other jobs, then the years begin to dissolve into a blur of brief affairs and deals and mutual understandings like a carousel that just kept speeding up. Last week it stopped abruptly, leaving me standing in front of a mirror in the Men’s Department at Nordstrom’s wondering how I’d gotten there.