I thought my father was afraid of Mr. Zakowski.
Who wouldn't be? He was a big-boned, scowling man who leaned forward when he walked, as if he were about to lunge at you.
He lived alone in a house surrounded by a chain-link fence behind the vacant lot where we played baseball after school every day. We stacked our bicycles behind home plate for a makeshift backstop. But once or twice a game, Owen McNulty, a lefty, or Peewee Jensen, our only switch-hitter, would foul off a pitch that arced backward, landing inside Mr. Zakowski's yard.
In spite of the many times it happened, I don't recall a ball ever breaking glass or damaging the white storm door. But Mr. Zakowski never failed to emerge from his house, fuming with such anger that we all felt ashamed. Then he'd do his Groucho walk to where our roughed-up Spalding baseball had come to rest, pick it up, and then shake it toward us triumphantly, as he repaired back to his empty house.
He had lived there as long as we could remember. Neighbors thought his wife had gone home to her mother just a year after they were married, but no one was sure.
Nobody said anything when he stole a ball. Not even Joe Darling or Booger Jones, both with proud reputations for smarting off to the nuns and to Mr. Stump, the janitor, at St. Bernadette's Elementary. But something about Mr. Zakowski's sneer, and how he cursed us with words not even Booger would dare use, made him doubly formidable.
One night I told my father about Mr. Zakowski, after he had snatched our last baseball in the middle of only the third inning.
"The man probably doesn't want you trampling his lawn," he said. "Maybe move home plate farther out. Or play at the lot on Washtenaw."
I didn't pass along my father's advice, anticipating the conclusions that the guys might draw. Instead, I used up my last three allowances at Morrie Mages Sports on a new Spaulding.
On Saturday morning, Peewee, the first batter up, promptly fouled my savings into Mr. Zakowski's yard. It wasn't very high, but it had enough topspin to skip into the geraniums adjacent to the back door.
When nobody else moved, I ran to the fence, placed both hands on the top rail, and swung myself over, landing in the thick grass. So far so good. With no sign of Mr. Zakowski, I scampered to the geraniums, but the ball must have carried deeper into the foliage.
"Hurry up!" shouted Joe.
It wasn't until I got down on my hands and knees that I spied the ball against the house's foundation. Just as my fingertips touched leather and stitching, Mr. Zakowski jerked me backward by my ankles, hard enough that my face scraped the ground. The smell of wet black dirt filled my nostrils. And the coppery taste of blood.
It looked worse than it was. Nothing broken – just a bumped nose – but blood pours copiously from a 12-year-old's head. I could see the shock in my father's eyes.
What happened later was not exactly, as I recollect, a Clint Eastwood "make my day" story. My father marched me back to the "crime scene," where I waited at the now empty ball diamond. I watched him open the gate and approach Mr. Zakowski, already waiting in the yard.
A shortstop in high school, my father, now a tile salesman, was below-average height and "soft" around the middle. Mr. Zakowski glared down at him, his fists balled at his side.
I was thinking how I could still feel where he had grabbed me by the ankles, when I saw Mr. Zakowski's fists suddenly unclench. Then he stepped back, tilting his head as though to better ascertain my father's words. He appeared to take a deep breath. Miraculously, he shrank – or somehow became just less frightening.
"And we thought... I thought you were scared of him, Dad," I said later as we walked home.
He shook his head no. "I guess I am afraid of a couple of things: one being God, and another if something bad ever happens to any of you."
"But what did you say, Dad? He's so mean."
He looked at me with tenderness, and I remembered the dry blood on my face.
"I asked him his name, Son. His first name."
The next day, we found all of last season's baseballs in a wooden bushel basket set on home plate, my bright new one on top of the pile. Nor would any more be confiscated that summer. Even when Owen fouled one high into the gutter, "Leo" Zakowski climbed his ladder and tossed it back onto our field from his roof.
More had been said between my father and Leo, of course. But the idea that most people would love to be able to unclench their fists, if only somebody showed they cared – that's what stuck.
I have understood more about fathers since then, how their words and strength stay with us after they're gone. The tenderness, too, which I realized later, was for me and Mr. Zakowski. Leo, that is.