My Mother and Mayor Wainwright
Every Fourth of July since I could remember we’d always gone to the Independence Day celebration at Peaks Park. Pretty much the whole town did, and that's what had me jittery as a june bug as we started up the road.
The park had been cleaned up for the big event. The grass was trimmed and patriotic ribbons clung to the trees. Giant, drooping buntings wrapped the concession stands and food trucks like frosting on a cake. They’d even tacked up some USA signs along the fences. Pony rides were circling and the kiddie games were cranking, while there looked to be enough BBQ and burgers and hot dogs to feed the whole town twice over. But The Peaks Park Independence Day Roast was best known for a tradition that went back as far as when my dad was a kid: The Dunk-the-Mayor booth.
It was around three and easily the most scorching hot day of the summer so far. The festive crowd cheered and jeered from the lawn chairs clumped together under the shade, as older folks sipped lemonade and watched the Pepsi vs. Coke little league baseball game from a distance. And I could’ve been mistaken, but it looked an awful lot like Mom was loosening up her own arm as we stepped out of the car.
Getting closer, I could tell it was Danny Peebles on the pitcher’s mound, by the familiar way he kicked at the dirt and adjusted his hat. Then he’d kind of stretch his neck and arch his back. For the past two summers I’d put on the Pepsi Pirates manager’s uniform and taken my spot on the bench, so I knew the next pitch would be his curve.
Dad greeted a few guys from work with insults and grunts. I hung back with mom. Danny whipped a curve ball into the catcher’s mitt for strike. That’s about the time I noticed that the faces in the chairs were all tuned in on us.
“Mom, why is everyone staring at you?”
Mom rolled her shoulders. “Oh, no reason,” she said, her eyes spanning the grounds, stopping at the Mayor. Old Wainwright was settled comfortably in the bleachers with some good old baseball fans, simultaneously cheering for both pitcher and batter. Mom mumbled to herself and then whipped around. “Now where is that ticket booth?”
“Did you write another editorial?” I asked, just as the catcher’s mitt clapped once again. Mom had been flooding The Bugle with letters about the new Mega More store set to break ground this fall. Mom was upset because she said they were desecrating an old cemetery. She’d even gone before city council--David-vs-Goliath style--only to get shot down 4-1 in favor of the store that our beloved mayor promised would bring jobs and tax dollars to our town.
Danny’s pitch was called outside. “You did, didn’t you?”
“Maybe,” she said and then grabbed my arm. “Oh, there it is, come on.”
We threaded through the crowd towards the concessions trailer. “Was it about the meeting?”
“People have a right to know the truth, you know,” she said, jerking me along like I was a wagon full of water. She was headed for the fire.
“But why do we need tickets? You know I don’t have an arm,” I said, looking back at old Mayor Wainwright, dabbing his forehead and laughing with the townsfolk. Mom stepped forward to the small window. That’s when I heard a familiar voice.
“Yo, Marcus.” I turned around to find Cullen, my new neighbour and friend, straddling his rusty bike, an oversized The Ramones t-shirt hanging loosely to his usual cut offs. Cullen had just moved to East Ridge from Florida, I think. The details were sketchy but one thing was for sure, with Cullen, there was never a dull moment.
“So, this is all very small town,” he said, taking a look around. But all I saw was my Dad, knifing towards us, his face redder than sunburn. Mom stuffed a string of tickets long enough to circle the Earth into her purse. Cullen set his bike against a tree and we scooted up closer to see what was going on.
Dad leaned towards Mom. “Ana, could I have a word with you?”
“Sure, honey,” she said, taking her change from the smirking teenager who flipped a Sold Out sign to the window. They scurried off to the parking lot, and I looked over to Mayor Wainwright, still whooping it up with the old timers. Cullen nudged me on the arm.
“Dude, your mom let the mayor have it in the paper.”
“What?” I said, “I thought you didn’t follow the news?” I asked, looking around, wondering how in the world I hadn’t thought to check out the newspaper.
“Well I do now,” he said leaning closer. “She accused him of being a sellout. Man, how rad is your Mom?”
I’d never spent much time pondering my mom’s radness, but I felt my stomach flip and fold as all the faces in the bleachers had one eye on the parking lot, where my parents engaged in a heated discussion” behind the truck.
“This is not good.” I said, glancing around.
“Aw snap!” Cullen shook me as our jubilant mayor hobbled down the bleachers and grabbed a big beach towel, making a jolly show of his march to the Dunk the Mayor booth.
“Dude, I think…”
Cullen took another look over at the concession stand and then back to the parking lot. When he turned to me he grinned with nothing but trouble in his eyes. “I think your mom is going to drown the mayor.”
Mom and Dad returned to the festivities. Mom with a pleasant smile and Dad looking like he’d just gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson. The baseball game was called to an end. Pepsi upending their rivals 8-3. The two teams lined up in the infield for the “good game” hand smack. Meanwhile, the crowd headed towards the picnic area and the stage, where the world’s oldest bluegrass band was nodding off to sleep. Danny came over and said hi to me, eyeing Cullen.
“Uh, this is Cullen, Cullen, this is Danny.”
Danny nodded in Cullen’s direction, but it was clear he had a message to deliver.
“Look man, I gotta go. But I might as well tell you, nobody really wants your mom here.” With that, my former best friend spun around and marched off, finding his Dad and his teammates. Mr. Peebles, who’d had me over for sleepovers and dinners, tossed a glance my way without even wave or nod. Like I was some stranger.
Just then, Mayor Wainwright—who didn’t need much help looking like a doofus—took to the loud speaker wearing goggles and scuba gear and announced that he was taking his place in the dunk booth.
“I challenge all of you slack armed citizens to step up and give me your best shot!”
After being helped into the dunk seat—his wobbly cheeks sloshing around like the water in the tank—he positioned himself and called out to Carolyn Peters that she may as well just “set those three baseballs down and let someone with an arm have a shot.” Carolyn chuckled, as did the rest of the well-intentioned citizens of our town who’d bought tickets to dunk the mayor. At three throws for a dollar, all proceeds went to the local chapter of the Human Society. I heard someone in the crowd say that a record breaking haul had come in this year.
I forgot about a hotdog and edged closer to the action. I needed to find Mom. Through the bodies, I saw another old timer step up and lob a baseball that fell ten feet short of the booth. Some more women took turns, laughing and making light hearted jokes about the mayor—who Mom said had run unopposed for the past three elections—then tossed out more lobs that didn’t even come close to the target.
“I sure wish someone could throw a strike, I’m getting awfully hot up here,” the Mayor joked, as floating baseballs missed far and wide, most coming up well short. Then the crowd murmured in excitement, or panic, or something in between. They parted to give way to the next contestant, my mother, all five feet of her, marching right up to the throw line and fishing a handful of red tickets from her purse. I nearly fell to the ground. Cullen howled with laughter.
The crowd tightened closer around us as Mom handed the volunteer a pile of tickets and steeled herself without taking her eyes off of her target. The Mayor’s goofy grin collapsed like a cheap tent in a storm. Mom took a worn baseball in her hand as she and Mr. Wainwright locked eyes, like two duelers at dusk. The volunteer backed away and went scrambling for cover.
Skipping the pleasantries, Mom cocked back like Roger Clemons and came down with a slider.
She missed by a mile, instead thunking the maple tree and nearly beaning Glenda Ferguson, one of the Jaycees who sat gorging on a funnel cake. Glenda screamed through a mouthful of bread as the ball fell to her feet like a bruised apple, rolling harmlessly under her bench.
The message was clear, Mom was headhunting. She cranked up and zipped the second ball, only this time she overcorrected and it went left, nearly taking out the cotton candy machine. The crowd gasped again and someone yelled something about a crazy broad. Dad, hiding out near the stage, went looking for the source.
Winding up a third time, Cullen put out his hand, stepping forward. “Hang on, hang on. Mrs. Hawthorne. Can I give it a try?”
Mom dropped her arm, bending at the elbow. She glanced at the dunk booth and shrugged. “Sure, I’ve got 78 more tickets.”
She stepped to the side. The crowd strained their necks to get a glimpse of the reliever. Mayor Wainwright sized up Cullen and then gave the worried spectators a smile. Cullen looked well out of place in his skater clothes and appeared too small to do any real damage. He gripped the ball and smirked, spitting on the ground and then wiping his mouth with his arm. He squinted at the target, dug in, and then hurled a screaming fastball dead center.
The target snapped back. The chair squeaked as it fell, dropping Mayor Wainwright into the murky waters.
A collective gasp from the crowd. Mom covered her face. Someone actually screamed as the mayor flailed and splashed like an overboard sailor during a storm. We inched closer, where Old Wainwright surfaced, stood in the waist high water and wiped at his face, then waved to the stunned onlookers. But all eyes were back on Cullen, who stood grinning with another ball ready to go in his hand.
“Well, that kid’s got quite an arm!” The mayor gurgled, wiping and spitting and catching his breath. He did have an arm. In all my years as manager I’d never seen someone throw that hard.
“And he’s got, oh, say, over 200 pitches left,” Mom announced.
The Mayor was helped back onto his seat, and for the next half hour all other attractions were abandoned. The donkeys took a nap. The horses were left to chew on straw in peace, whipping their tales at the occasional fly. The Tilt-A-Whirl sat quietly unattended and the concession stands were forgotten. Because everyone in the park was over at dunking booth where Cullen nailed the bull’s-eye over and over and over again.
Cullen pegged the lever so many times that it bent and dangled crookedly from its loosened bolt. Finally two men in coveralls waved their hands in surrender and announced that the booth was out of order. Mayor Wainwright, thoroughly pickled and out of breath was given a fresh towel as someone searched for his glasses.
“But we’ve still got 9 throws left,” Mom said, standing beside Cullen with a hand on her hip.
“Well I’m sorry, Lady, but this game is over,” one of the coveralls said, looking at my mom as though she were deranged. And that day, she kind of was.
Mayor Wainwright adjusted his glasses, dripping wet and shell shocked from the relentless drenching. Mom scrunched her nose. Then she turned to us. “Well, way to throw, Cullen.”
“Wow, I didn’t know you played baseball?” I said as we made our way through the crowd.
Cullen gave me a casual shrug, “I don’t.”
The crowd thinned, whispering and pointing to Mom and Cullen as they drifted back towards the other games and tents set up near the creek. That’s when Mr. Peebles wandered over, brushing past me to get to Cullen. “Hey son, couldn’t help but see you pitch over there, who you playing for?”
“Nobody,” he said, and I watched as Mr. Peebles’ eyes lit up at the prospect of finding an ace free agent.
“You don’t play?” he said, unable to hide his widening smile. “Well, we could use another pitcher this afternoon. I got a jersey in the car, and…”
Cullen, hardly sweating, looked bored at the thought. “Nah, thanks though.”
We found Mom at the picnic tables. Mayor Wainwright approached, slumped over with a beach towel draped across his shoulders. He looked like a refugee who’d been rescued from flood waters. Mom looked him up and down, nothing but warm satisfaction on her face.
The mayor nodded, his thinning hair still glistening in the sun.
“Mrs. Hawthorne,” he said with a shiver. “I just wanted to thank you for your support. The Humane Society people are thrilled with this year’s fundraising.”
Mom shot him a smile so bright that I needed my solar eclipse shoe box to face it head on. “Mayor Wainwright, I assure you, the pleasure was entirely mine.”
“Yes, well. Thank you,” he said, then turning to Cullen and me. “And you young man. That’s quite an arm you have.”
“Don’t forget, you owe her nine throws,” Cullen said and I felt my eyes go wide. Mr. Wainwright’s plastic smile melted a little. Then he jerked his head back to Mom.
“Why yes, of course. I’m sure we can work something out.”