When Thomas Martin Love was ten and three-quarters years old, his family moved to a place in the country. There was a big cornfield behind their house and because Thomas had seen Field of Dreams and he loved baseball he was hoping that maybe, just maybe, someone would make him a diamond. Thomas would sit on the stairs above the hallway desk where his father did bills or stand beside the doorway to the tiny back kitchen where his mother and Grannie prepared meals and whisper in his loudest whispering voice, “If you build it, he will come,” until one day Dad sat Thomas down on the couch in the front room, which was crowded with boxes of things from their old house and from Grannie and Papa’s place, and explained that, Yes, the field belonged to the Martin and Love families, but that the corn belonged to farmers that the previous owners had rented the field to and that they now rented the field to and that, besides, there were two whole acres for Dad and Thomas to play catch on anyway, more than enough space, right buddy?
Papa’s sport had been hockey. There was a school yearbook on the shelf just outside the door of the room where Papa’s special hospital-style bed was. Sometimes Thomas would take the yearbook into his room across the hall and sit on his bed flipping through, looking for pictures of Papa as a boy. The picture where Papa was smiling from the right side of the back row of “Award Winners!” was Thomas’s favourite. “Gordon Martin, Athlete of the Year: Hockey.” Thomas wished, though, that there was a picture of Papa playing.
Going to sleep, Thomas missed the noise of his old house where he’d slept above the kitchen and often drifted off listening to his parents cleaning up and talking to each other, their words muted and unrecognizable. Here, the machines in Papa’s room droned Thomas to sleep and hummed him awake in the morning.
One night, Papa woke shouting, “Free! Free! Let me free!”
The next afternoon, Thomas was sitting on the back porch when he heard Grannie and Mom talking about Papa. They couldn’t decide whether they were keeping him alive or keeping him comfortable. There was a noise like choking then a voice moaning. Thomas knew that it was Grannie. He heard a utensil drop. Shuffling. When Thomas looked through the window, Mom was hugging Grannie. Mom saw Thomas kneeling on the bench and looking in. She moved her lips like she was trying to smile, but the muscles at the corners of her mouth had other ideas. Then she winked and made a kissing mouth at Thomas before she turned and nuzzled Grannie’s neck.
Thomas slid off the bench and launched from the porch down onto the lawn. The grass was a bit longer than normal. Before leaving for work, Dad had promised Mom he’d cut it when he got home.
Thomas had been in the barn before. There was always dust dancing in the air as if to tease the old flat broom that leaned in one corner of the main floor. You had to watch where you stepped because some of the floorboards were split and opened onto the basement where the stalls were. There were no animals there now, just some old junk. Thomas remembered the big tube that looked like a jet’s fuselage, so he went down the wooden stairs, holding loosely to the thin, splintery banister. It was in the third stall he checked. He wanted to bring it up to the main floor of the barn, but it was made of thick cardboard and it was very heavy. After checking the floor for bugs and sharp things then sweeping it with his sneakers for insurance, Thomas got down on all fours. The tube had a thick tangle of spider webbing though the middle of it and its bottom was littered with empty potato bug exoskeletons. Besides, Thomas saw that it was only just wide enough for his shoulders. It wouldn’t make a very good rocket if he couldn’t move around inside it.
He climbed to the hayloft. It took a while to warm up to the game, but soon he was stomping around up there pretending it was the bridge of the Enterprise. He was shouting instructions to Spock and Sulu, Riker and Worf, Grannie and Papa and Mom and Dad and his friend Ingmar who lived down the street from his old house, when he heard the lawnmower start up. He went down the hayloft ladder thinking that it was Dad, but when he came out of the barn it was Mom there wearing Thomas’s Blue Jays hat and neon pink shorts. Grannie was sitting on the front porch and started waving at Thomas.
His eyes got teary and he half turned to go back to the barn, but he felt like there was a tractor beam holding him in Grannie’s line of vision then pulling him across the lawn towards her.
He sat down on the bench without smiling. Grannie wrapped her arm around him and gave him a squeeze. He tilted his head away from her. “Grannie’s okay now, Thomas.”
“Would you like to play catch?”
“Mum’s cutting the grass.”
“She’s finished by the house here.” Grannie stood up. “Where’s your glove?”
Thomas turned away from her.
“I think I know where it is,” Grannie said.
“It’s okay, I don’t want to play.”
“Is it still by the front door?”
Mom waved as she drove by. The sound of the lawn mower made Thomas feel sleepy.
“You’ll have to go easy on me,” Grannie said when she came back with a worn Dodger’s cap and two gloves, Thomas’s and Dad’s. “I haven’t played catch in years.”
Grannie was patient when Thomas threw wild. And she was good. Her throws popped satisfyingly into Thomas’s glove and before long he was smiling.
When Mom finished up, Grannie said she was tired. Mom took over for her. Grannie disappeared into the house and came back in a minute with three glasses of pink lemonade. Mom convinced Thomas to join her and Grannie on the porch.
“Have I ever told you about my ring?” Grannie held her hand out and twisted her engagement ring around until it sat the way she liked it. “Your Papa’s sister was engaged to a man. A boy seems more accurate, from where I’m sitting now.”
“Aunt Marge?” Mom asked.
“That’s right.” To Thomas, Grannie said, “your Mom’s Aunt Margaret. The boy’s name was Matthew, I think. Or maybe Mark. Isn’t that a shame? I can picture him, but I can’t remember which evangelist he was named for, except that it wasn’t Luke or John. Well, Margaret and this Matthew or Mark, they were quite the couple. You’d see them around town holding hands, laughing. Always seeming like they had some sort of private joke going. Not in some sort of mischievous way, just like you wanted to know what was so funny. Well, this Matthew or Mark—I think it was Mark—when England joined the Second World War and Canada joined right along with them, he was one of the first to sign up. Before he left for training, he asked for Marge’s hand and she said yes, of course.
“Your grandfather and I were already an item. He probably could have afforded a ring, but the war made everyone different about money. Or maybe it was that things like marriage seemed frivolous. He might just not have thought of it, knowing your father,” Grannie said, turning to Mom. “Anyway, one day Mark’s parents, they come up the door to your Papa’s house and ask to see Marge. They tell her that Mark’s been killed.”
“How?” Thomas asked.
“In the war,” Grannie said.
“I think he means, ‘In what way,’” Mom said.
“I don’t know,” Grannie said. “Isn’t that a shame?”
“That’s okay, Grannie,” Thomas said.
“Thank you, Thomas. The thing is, Marge gave Papa her engagement ring. It was some agreement she and Mark had, that if anything happened to Mark she should give the ring to Papa.”
“Then you married him,” Thomas said.
“Well, then he asked. I had to think about it, first.”
“For how long?” Mom asked.
“Not long. A day, I think. We hadn’t talked about it at all, not at any point.”
“But you said, Yes,” Thomas said.
“Of course. Or there would be no you.” Grannie squeezed him again. “And I’m glad there’s a you.”
“You must wonder what your journey would be like if you hadn’t said yes,” Mom said.
“What my life would have been like? I suppose. Doesn’t everybody?”
Thomas was eleven and a third when Papa died. The person who dressed his corpse and did the makeup, they did their best to turn the body Papa had become into someone that, with the lid of the casket open, resembled the man Papa had been a year earlier, the man in the photos that Mom and Grannie had given them to work from. Thomas couldn’t remember ever crying so hard as when they lowered the closed coffin into the ground.
Dad had built a little ice rink on a more or less flat part of their yard. Thomas started spending all of the time that he wasn’t at school on the rink. At night, the light from the porch wasn’t really strong enough to light the ice and was at such an angle that even the puck cast a long shadow. Dad ran an extension cord and put up a utility light with a tripod stand. Sometimes Dad would skate with Thomas and after a few circuits around the rink’s perimeter the two would pass a puck back and forth. Mom and Grannie would come out too. They were both very good on skates and with the puck. They laughed as they played.
One evening at dinner, Mom asked if they should have signed Thomas up for hockey that winter. He shook his head, No. “’Cause when I asked, you said you didn’t want to play, right?’” Thomas nodded, Yes.
Have you seen Field of Dreams? Mom had seen the movie and Dad had even read the book, Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. In Field of Dreams, a man builds a ball diamond in the middle of a cornfield because a voice tells him, “If you build it,” meaning the baseball diamond, “he will come.” So, when Shoeless Joe Jackson arrives, you think that’s the “he” the voice is talking about, but it isn’t. The father of the man who builds the diamond played minor league baseball and it is the man’s father who eventually comes, the man’s dead father is the “he” the voice is talking about.
Thomas knew that if he said something about Field of Dreams sitting there at the dinner table that he would start to cry. Then he started crying anyway and Mom got up and pulled her chair over next to him so she could put her arm around him and Dad and Grannie looked at him with sympathy and concern and love and Thomas felt like a little baby and wished he could disappear or could be beamed up to his room or back out on the ice rink where the tears would sting his freezing cheeks.
Toronto, December 2015
Story: Lee Sheppard