Whataburger is crowded with little boys in dusty baseball uniforms. The place is alive with laughing, happy voices, and cleats clicking on the floor.
They stand in line and pay with handfuls of sweaty cash.
When the herd gathers around tables, nobody is eating. Not yet. They are waiting for something.
One of the adults tells the boys to remove caps. Everyone bows heads.
“Dear Lord,” the man says. “Bless this food…”
All eyes close tight. All mouths clamp shut.
“And God,” he goes on. “Be with Brian and his family tomorrow, when they put his daddy to rest.”
One boy starts crying. The prayer stops.
The kid is becoming hysterical. A team-mother takes him outside. I can see them through a window. She lets him cry into her shirt.
Another boy follows outside. Then another. Soon, the team is huddled together on the sidewalk.
So I’m doing a lot of thinking about Brian. I’ve never met him, and I have no idea how his daddy met his end. But I know this kid.
In fact, I’ve lived with him all my life.
A little about him: he’s a first baseman. He likes cowboy movies, he wants to learn guitar one day.
He likes biscuits and gravy—but only the kind his mama makes. He likes old and rusty things. He likes anything Ford. He has imagination, and sometimes this lands him in trouble.
He fishes, but isn’t very good at it. He climbs trees, but scares when he gets too high.
I also know that on the day after his father’s funeral, the kid will sit in his father’s work truck and talk to a ghost.
The truck smells like his daddy. There will be receipts in the ashtray. A Styrofoam cup of sun-dried Coca-Cola. A pair of rubber boots behind the seat.
And years later, the kid will be able to close his eyes and remember the smell of that interior.
Anyway, the boy will grow up fast. His nose will get bigger. His legs will grow long. His face will develop a few lines. He will have back surgery. He won’t sleep as well as he used to.
One day, he will look in a mirror and not see the kid anymore. He will see someone identical to his daddy. The same red hair, same out-of-proportion lanky legs.
On that day, the kid will be an adult. Sort of.
In some ways, he’ll never grow up. He will still like the same music, he will still read cheap cowboy novels. He will still watch baseball and believe, squarely, that he has the athletic facility to replace a first-baseman on the Braves.
He will still be the kid who once cried in front of his teammates at a Dairy Queen until Daryl’s mother had to help him to the car.
Or a Whatabuger.
And he will still talk to a ghost. And sometimes, he’ll do this in public.
“Daddy,” the adult kid will say. “I know you’re busy, but if you could tell God to look after a kid who just lost his father, I’d be obliged.”
The child’s name is Brian. He’s a good boy. I know this.
Because he is me.