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The Hot Dog Man
I’m only writing this because I don’t know what else to do. I havn’t kept any kind of journal since William passed away, and with Billy off at school now, it gets so lonely around the house. Billy has only been off to college for three weeks, but is seems like a year already. William would have been so proud of him. William was Billy’s father; he died when Billy was only nine. It was from a cancer when he was only 36 years old, it all happened so fast.
William loved baseball. He used to take Billy out every day, throw the ball to him, and try to teach him how to hit, and all that. That’s the reason he would have been so proud! Billy went to school on a full baseball scholarship. He was all state, or something like that, and all the best colleges were sending people over to try to get him to go to their school. He chose Arizona, because that’s where William was from.
William had bought tickets to a Cubs game the day they went on sale in February and he was going to take Billy to his first ballgame on Billy’s birthday May 16. He passed away two weeks later.
For the next three months, Billy grew very quiet and withdrawn. He would cry a lot when he didn’t think I was watching; I’m his mother; I’m always watching. I tried taking him to counseling, but he only sat there and stared off into space, giving an occasional nod when a question was asked directly to him. I would spend time with him, watching the television shows he used to like, to try to get him to show an interest. Nothing worked. His grades in school were falling, and he would never want to go out and play with his friends anymore.
A counselor at his school called me in and we discussed Billy. He understood that the loss of his father had hit him very hard and suggested that I just give him space for a time, so he can deal with his loss in his own way. I have to admit, I was a bit taken aback by this advice at first. I mean, William was my husband; I missed him too! Worrying about Billy those last few months, I really hadn’t had time enough to grieve for him myself. Then I thought about what I was thinking and started to blush. I could feel it, I don’t know if the counselor even noticed, but all of the sudden I was embarrassed. I couldn’t believe what a selfish thought had crossed my mind.
Eventually the counselor got around to asking about William. What was his relationship with Billy like? Did they do things together…and stuff like that. When I told him about how William loved baseball, and how he and Billy used to play together all the time, I remembered about those tickets William had purchased in February, they were sitting in an envelope under our picture on his dresser. I still hadn’t the courage to change things around in the house. I guess in a way I was mourning too, in a sense. I couldn’t let go of him either. The counselor thought it might be a good idea to bring Billy to that game; after all, his father would have wanted him to go. So we decided there, that for Billy’s tenth birthday we would use the tickets his father had bought him and go to his first baseball game.
I was never a big baseball fan, but before Billy was born, my girlfriends and I used to like to go to the ballpark occasionally. We liked Wrigley Field; it was a beautiful park, once you got to your seat. In fact, in 1989 they actually had a decent team! Everyone thought the Cubs were going to the World Series that year. I had a real crush on Ryan Sandburg, and we would go to the games dressed in our Cubbie blue, paint our faces with little C’s, or Cubbie bears. But they blew it. The next year I met William, we got married a year after that, and the following year, Billy was born.
When I told Billy about the tickets, he seemed rather subdued. It was as if he wanted to be happy, wanted to smile, and show that he still has emotion left in his little body, but something wouldn’t let it out. It was as if there was a shield built up inside of him. It was as if Billy had built that shield to repress anything that might hurt him. It might have kept the hurtful things out, but unknowingly, at the same time was also keeping out anything that might be helpful. I put the tickets down on his dresser top and told him, “It’s your birthday, if you want to go, we’ll go, if not, that’s okay too.” I kissed him turned off the lights, went to my bedroom, and cried.
The next morning when I woke up Billy was sitting in the kitchen in his pajamas eating a bowl of cereal. I kissed him on his head and wished him a happy birthday, then asked if he would like anything more to eat. He played with his spoon, sinking it below the milk line and sneaking it up on the unsuspecting flakes above, like a submarine, and said, “If you really want to go to the game, it starts at 1:20.” It was an overcast day, and as I looked out my kitchen window, I noticed that it had rained earlier. But, to be honest, I was so happy to see him take an interest in something that I just said immediately, “Well, we better get dressed and out to the ballpark.” Billy brought his bowl to the sink, rinsed it out, and went to get dressed.
I thought for a moment that there was some kind of a breakthrough. I thought that… just maybe, there was some kind of magic that actually occurs, in men and boys, when a baseball game is involved. I thought that maybe the idea of a ballgame had made him think of all the good times he and William shared when he was alive. I thought, maybe, Billy had let down his shield and was finally over this dreadful stage he was going through. When Billy came back, dressed and ready to go to the game, I saw I was mistaken. He wore the same sad face, he had the same dejected walk, and he had that same sense of helplessness about him that he had been carrying around for the past three months. Only now, it was even sadder. He had on the faded Cubs cap that he used to wear when he played catch with his father, and he was carrying his father’s baseball glove. He said, “I guess you’re supposed to bring these…I always see kids in the stands with them on. It’s Dad’s glove, I thought he would want it to go to the game with us.”
It took me a while to get dressed; I really had no idea what to wear. It had been so long since I had been to a baseball game. And I had never to one with my son, alone. I decided that I would just go casual, baggy jeans and a sensible blouse; it was raining earlier. So, Billy and I got in the car and headed down Irving Park Road, into the city for his very first Cubs game.
It was only when we got near the ballpark that I realized I would still had to pay to park the car. When we lived in the city, we would always just take the “El,”and the ballpark would be right there. Long story short, it cost fifteen dollars for the closest place I could find. Now I was worried if I had enough cash for food and pops, and maybe a souvenir for Billy. The sky was getting darker, and what had seemed like a great idea at the time, was now beginning to scare me. I wished I had called one of my friends to come along. But, it was Billy’s birthday, and I wanted it to be a special day for him and I alone. He held my hand tightly as we walked to the ballpark from the lot where we parked the car. I saw myself, ten years earlier in the faces of crowds of girls that we passed. For some reason, I felt ashamed; as now, I was the one grasping Billy’s hand and pulled him as we walked until he cried, “Ma…slow down.”
It was a relief to get to the gate. The circus that surrounded the ballpark was too much for me to handle at the time; I was beginning to feel the way Billy had been acting for the past few months…lost. When the man asked for our tickets, I fumbled with my purse at first, and then pulled out the envelope I had taken off the dresser. When I opened the envelope, you would not believe the shock I felt to find three tickets, and two one hundred dollar bills. William! I thought he had just wanted to take Billy to the game, but he had tickets for us all. That’s so much like him…God…I miss him so.
I composed myself rather quickly, and handed the man just two of the tickets. I thought that the empty seat next to me would act as a nice cushion against any…well…I’ve been to ballgames before.
We got to our seats right before the Star Spangled Banner was sung. We were on the first base side, nearer to the outfield. But we were in the first row of reserved grandstand, right behind the box seats. Once we sat down, Billy just went into his trance again. He stared into the field as if it were empty. As if the players, the grass, the outfield wall, had all vanished, and the only thing out there was whatever Billy’s shield would let him see in his little head. It was still overcast, and the grey sky made the ivy on the outfield walls, which were not yet in full bloom, look more like funeral bunting. The first couple of innings had past, and we were losing already. I had begun, again, to wonder if this was such a good idea.
It was the fourth inning now, and the Cubs were losing by three runs, the skies were lightening, but Billy’s spirit wasn’t. I was thinking about leaving, when I remembered the money in the envelope. I decided then, not until Billy has a hotdog at the ballgame.
I remembered my first ballgame; it was under much better circumstances than this. I remember how I loved that simple little hotdog, and all the people around you eating them. It was a ritualistic thing. One cannot go to the ballpark, and not have a hotdog. I resigned myself just then, to take Billy down to the concession stand, get him a hotdog, and if he wanted to, then, leave.
I asked Billy if he was hungry. He replied, “Not really.” So I told him that you cannot go to a ballgame with out having a hotdog…it’s a tradition. In his sad, disconcerted little voice said. “Okay mom, if it’s tradition.”
When I was just about to grab his hand to go down to the stand, I heard a yell, “Hotdogs, Red-hot’s, Wiee-nerr-rrs!” The drawn out emphasis on the last word made me feel uncomfortable. I’ve been to a few ballgames, and the hotdog guy would always walk by and yell, “Hotdogs!” and that was it. At most, they would slap the lid on top of their metal box to make an annoying racket, but never had I heard, “Hotdogs, Red-hot’s, Wiee-nerr-rrs” yelled at me before in a ballpark. There was something crude about it, which to me, at the time just didn’t seem right.
I looked around, and I saw the hotdog man finishing a transaction. He had an unusual walk about him. One would figure that carrying a heavy metal box filled with hotdogs would strain an individual’s back in the sense that either they might lean forwards, or backwards from the way they carried the weight. This individual walked with a waddle, side to side, like a duck! He went on with his chant, but no one else seemed to disapprove. They were, in fact, imitating his call, yelling, “Wieee-nerrs, over here!” He would joke and laugh with his customer, for a short while, then be off, down the aisle to the next voice calling out for him. I motioned for him to come over towards our seats and save us the walk to the stand.
When he finally got over to us, as he was stopped in the aisle a few times en-route, he seemed to be rather normal, I guessed that this was merely his hotdog sales pitch, one that would distinguish him from the other vendors to his regular customers.
As he rest his box down on the stoop, which was at my feet, as we were in the first row of the section, he took his hat off to wipe his brow. I could see there that this man had an odd look about him, there was some kind of peculiarity in his smile. His hair was a little long, and he had a bit of an unkempt beard, but overall, this fellow seemed okay, strange smile and all, contrary to my first impression from hearing his, what I figured to be, trademark call.
He looked at Billy at first. Then at me, then at Billy again, then Billy’s baseball glove, and said, “Hey, that’s an A-2000, you play semi-pro ball or somthin’?” Billy looked at the glove, and then up at the hotdog man, and in a sheepish voice said, “No, this was my dad’s.” The hotdog man noticed that Billy said, “was,” as he said to Billy, “Well your dad must have been one heck of a guy…he sure knew his gloves. Boy, I always wanted an A-2000.” He looked up at me, smiled, than looked at Billy again, and asked, “A couple of dogs?” Billy looked at me with a confused look and the hotdog man’s eyes followed. I hesitated at first, unsure of Billy’s take on what was happening, and then said, “Two hotdogs please.”
To this day, I have no idea why this exchange seemed so strange. And I have no idea what possessed me to blurt out that it was Billy’s birthday, and that this was his first ballgame, but I did. And I had no idea of what was to follow. I can only describe it, in my mind, as supernatural.
The hotdog guy looked at Billy with the most peculiar look. His eyes lit up, his lip curled, and an impish smile formed on the sides of his cheeks. He asked Billy, “Is this true?” Billy confirmed that what I had said was true, and the hotdog man said, “Well then… how can we be losing?”
The hotdog man turned towards the field and yelled, in that same distinguishable voice, “Hey…It’s Billy’s birthday…this is first Cub game…what are you guys doin’?” The people in the box seats in front of us turned around. The hotdog looked at them and said, “Did you all know about this?” A few of the box seat customers where laughing when he turned to me and asked how old Billy was today. I don’t know why, everything all happened so fast, but I answered, “Ten.” The hotdog man turned to the box seat people and said in a louder voice, “Billy is ten years old today, and it’s his first Cubs game…are we gonna lose...on Billy’s birthday? It all became so comical after that, the right fielder noticed the commotion in the stands after the people started yelling Billy, Billy, Billy!, and started scratching his head. The hotdog man seeing this yelled out “Sammy, Its Billy’s tenth birthday and this is his first Cubs game, we need a win.” The crowd was still chanting Billy, Billy, Billy! When the hotdog man started working on the crowd sitting behind us. He said, “You know what’s going on, Let me hear ya…A one, A two…” and then he went into song, “...Happy birthday to you…” The song went on, and through it all, Billy’s shield broke. And for the first time in three months he smiled, he smiled a genuine happy ten-year olds smile, and seeing this, I cried.
I don’t even remember paying the hotdog man. It was like a dream. One minute I was ready to leave the ballpark. The next minute…the sky had cleared, the ivy on the outfield walls was green, and the sky was blue, Billy had people coming up to him for the rest of the game, calling him by name…as if they had known him all his life. His newfound friends were giving him pennants, puppets, and any other souvenir available. He had ice cream, popcorn, peanuts, and every other food imaginable at a ball game given to him as a birthday present, from complete strangers. Billy laughed, his laugh was his father’s laugh, and it made me laugh too. Just to see him happy once more was enough, but a couple of innings later, the hotdog man came back and gave Billy a baseball. He said, “Here Billy, Sammy hit a foul ball that some guy in the stands over there caught…”, he waved his arm, motioning over to the stands over by home plate, “…he said to give it to Billy for his birthday.” The ball was autographed.
The Cubs had come back from a three-run deficit to win the game. After the last out, as people were leaving, many of them went out of their way, seemingly, to stop by and say goodbye to Billy. There were high fives, happy birthdays, and rekindled chants of, “Billy, Billy, Billy!” Billy talked most of the way home. He talked about the game, he talked about the presents, and he talked about the ball the hotdog man had given him with his favorite players autograph on it. I don’t know how he did it, but the autograph was real. Finally Billy said, “Ya know ma, I really wish dad could’ve been here, but still…it kinda seemed like he was.” He looked out the window after that, played with his ball for a while, and then fell asleep.
We went to a few more games together that year, and in the years to follow. We never saw that same hotdog man again. Billy played little league that summer, and over the next few years became quite the ballplayer, and…well, the rest is history. Here I am sitting around the house, feeling lonely, writing this, but feeing better now. Maybe this writing thing works. It sure gives me an idea, it’s still September, and it is early enough in the day, I think I know what will cheer me up…I don’t care how bad of a season they’re having.