Firsts By Ross Perlin

Firsts

by Ross Perlin

 

In the end, it just happened. I loped around the diamond, circling my dad, pounding each bag so the dust leaked out. He stood there on the mound, smiling and silent, the hours of batting practice  still heavy in his throwing arm. In a moment I would scramble over the chain-link fence, look both ways, and dart across Miankoma Lane, searching for seams in the grass. The next day I’d tell my friends at the Sunday game; they’d taunt me to do it again. But now I was rounding third, years of hot pursuit evaporating into the altered air. It was a kids’ field now, and my eyes adjusted.

 

For years, almost every Sunday morning from April through October, we played our innings on the Amagansett School baseball field, a deadly serious pickup game. The mothers held court in the stands, cradling juices and coffees and muffins from the Farmers’ Market—“Gossip Lane” to us. The fathers were out in the field: umping, catching, pitching (despite the recurring call Kid pitchers!, we didn’t throw enough strikes). We were friends from school, friends of friends, kids from the neighborhood—no idea where we’ve all scattered to now. Our batting stances, how teams were chosen, bumps and bruises, balls lost, legendary catches, unforgivable errors: I can’t remember the details, the peculiar lore of the Sunday games. We said things like That’s one for the highlight film and Hey batta, hey batta, hey batta. Burgers and shakes at Estia afterwards, if the grown-ups concurred in their cryptic post-game deliberations. Kids, we could afford to think of one thing at a time. Then the world came slowly back into focus, the thrill of morning gave way to the long thrum of Sunday afternoon, loading the car to go back.

 

In the city there was no carrying. Only in the country could I stay asleep long enough, the backseat all to myself along a placid L.I.E., on a dark and empty 27. Asked to draw pictures of the country, I sketched topless telephone polls ranged along an endless two-lane road. It was the unexplained miracle of arrival: the groggy coming into consciousness at the house with red shutters, easing with a crunch along the final feet of gravel. Lifted by unseen arms into a room full of seashells, laid in a bundle on the bed. My parents were different beings then, gentle gods of the Amagansett night. Their breathing grew calmer after Manorville, the heat lost its bite in the ocean air. The special climate of the country set in.

 

In 1988, after years of renting, my parents bought a house in the Amagansett lanes. Only later did I grasp the embarrassment of talking about second homes and “country houses”, in a world where so many people lack a first place to call home. You learn to talk around it, to paraphrase and make vague, to be silent. I wish I didn’t have to—we spent fifty days a year there, at most a hundred, but they were the days that mattered. Like everyone else, we made our lives intermittently, in fits and starts, sometimes touching the hem of heaven in a single day, sometimes drifting through featureless months. The house was our alternate universe; we played at small-town life in two-day chunks. My parents, I think, have never been happier.

 

How many firsts were there? The training wheels came off on Gansett Lane. I can still pick out the anonymous spot where I mastered shoelaces. First brushes with nature—walking the Noyack trails, waiting out a hurricane through endless rounds of Monopoly, sailing over Quail Hill in a billow of ice and snow. First jobs: picking out weeds from a neighbor’s brick walkway; herding five-year-olds at Pathfinder Day Camp; cub reporter for The East Hampton Star, editing the police blotter, biking to zoning board meetings, taking classifieds in the front office. Headlong and moonstruck, undiscovered all summer, we took out coded classifieds for each other, broadsheet Valentines for two news junkies, my girlfriend and I.

 

A few years later, on the other side of the country, I learned that my parents had sold the house. That singular summer, age 17, was the closest I ever came to knowing the East End—not the playground, but the place itself. Its townscapes and colonial churches, more New England than New York. Its forgotten histories, from the polyglot whalers of Sag Harbor to the Nazi Saboteurs of Operation Pastorius, who dragged themselves ashore at the Atlantic Avenue Beach. I listened for the vanishing inflections of the old Bonackers: yes yes bub, the finest kind, he’s from away. How many worlds had I missed, how many substrates were there? Not only the rum-runners and the baymen, the coon hunting and the clamming, but the potato farms where Carl Yazstremski grew up, the road where Jackson Pollock died at the wheel.

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