(from the upcoming publication, Small Stories from a Small Town)
As sure as the Christ child was about to be born, Shoeless Joe Jackson was dead.
It was the only thing on Pete Doyle’s mind. He felt an incomparable sadness as his three children wrapped strings of popcorn around the Christmas tree.
There was a part of him that hoped to deliver a eulogy at the ballplayer’s funeral that went on with little fanfare about twenty days ago. After all, he was the boy who called out to his hero, “It ain’t true, is it, Joe?” The newspapermen ran with the story. He was nameless and famous. At some point someone changed his actual words to a convenient, repeatable, and mythological phrase. “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” And thus Peter Doyle, the young boy who called out to Shoeless Joe Jackson outside the courthouse, became a tragic figure. His hope was lost. He was struck by the realistic truth of the world. We are all flawed. The supermen who can swing a bat and field a ball like no one before them and no one after—they were the most flawed of all. He would have shared these words of wisdom in his eulogy. What did I learn from Shoeless Joe Jackson? What did he teach me? You can’t believe a damn thing in this world anymore.
The obituaries informed him that Shoeless Joe spent the last years of his life running the business of a liquor store in Greenville, South Carolina. He dwelled in obscurity. He drank his stock on his living room couch and whispered to his wife about all the things that used to be. All the things that he used to be. She knew. She was married to him during the whole affair. She was married to him when the nameless boy called out to his hero, crawled home to his room, and wept.
Carolers were at the door. His youngest son, Robert, was greatly amused by their presence. One of them, a slender man who looked to be about twenty-five, sang horribly off-key. But he was having the time of his life. This was the best time of year. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing! Joy to the World! Deck the Halls! Pete waited for Just a Closer Walk with Thee. A tribute to Shoeless Joe Jackson. It didn’t come. Silent Night came. The off-key caroler handed Robert a candy cane. And they were gone.
“Incredible,” the youngest son said, unwrapping the plastic from the candy, and sticking it under his tongue as he walked back into the living room. He took two ornaments, a purple ball and a red one. He began to juggle.
“The HUAC is garbage,” his daughter Laura said to the other son. “McCarthy is garbage. It’s empty rhetoric. It’s disgusting. The great scourge of civilization. Communism! They ruined Charlie Chaplin.”
“Charlie Chaplin ruined himself,” Thomas replied. “Maybe he shouldn’t have become a communist.”
All across Lansford, the lights went up on the trees. Children danced around them. Pets fell asleep beneath them. When no one was looking, husbands and wives put their ears to wrapped presents. What could be inside? A token. A sign of how much he loves me. A sign of how much she loves me. Then they tore the paper open.
“They’ve ruined me,” Shoeless Joe took the hat from his head and placed it down upon the living room table.
“They’ve ruined me too,” Chaplin replied. The little tramp. He smiled. A different ‘they’ but the same ruin.
Robert continued to juggle. “Pop, you think I can juggle three at a time?”
“Don’t drop them,” Laura said. “They’ll break.”
“Have faith in your brother.” Robert began to whistle. One of the caroler’s Christmas tunes.
“What was it like?” Chaplin twirled his cane as he sat. A familiar move.
“What was what like?” Joe replied.
“Catching the fly ball. Hitting the home run. What was it like to win the World Series?”
“It’s tarnished,” Joe answered. “You know that. The whole country knows that.”
“Right,” said the Great Dictator. “But while it lasted?”
“It felt like I was on top of the world,” Shoeless Joe said to Charlie Chaplin. “I suppose it’s the same feeling as a movie premiere. When the audience stands to applaud you.”
“It’s not the applause that matters,” Chaplin said, biting his lip and letting the pain roll in slowly. “It’s the laughter.”
“You’re on my side, right Pop?” His daughter walked over to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. She kissed the top of his head. “McCarthy is vile.”
“McCarthy is vile,” Peter replied. It was far more complacency than anger.
“He always takes your side,” Thomas said. “Mother would have taken mine.”
“You don’t know that,” Laura replied.
“I do,” Thomas said. “You are father’s favorite and I was mother’s while she was still alive. She told me so once. It was my thirteenth birthday and nobody else was around. She told me that I was her favorite child.”
“That’s a horrible thing to say,” Laura replied. “Especially on Christmas.”
“Whose favorite was I?” Robert continued to juggle.
“No one’s,” Thomas said to his brother.
“Mother wouldn’t like you talking like this.” Laura raised her voice. “Especially on Christmas.”
“Jesus wouldn’t like it either,” Robert added. Then he dropped the red ornament to the ground. It shattered into a hundred pieces.
I’ve never spoken a eulogy before. Not even at my wife’s funeral. I left those words to my children. And they did a beautiful job talking about her beauty. And they were eloquent about her eloquence. But anyway I thank you for inviting me to speak today. My name is Peter Doyle, as you might not know. How do I know Joe? I was that boy. When he walked down those courthouse steps, I called out to him. I asked him if he really betrayed me. I asked him if he betrayed all of us. Some folks say that it can’t be proven one way or the other. But I know in my gut. As guilty as guilty can be.
I would be lying to say that there isn’t some lightening of a burden now. Some alleviation now that a man who hurt me so terribly can never do so again. But he could hit, couldn’t he? He had a cannon for an arm. He danced across the field. He amazed us before he crushed us. If we only remember those years… when he danced across the field…
Merry Christmas, friends. I hope the smell of the pines fills your house. I hope you all feast like kings. I hope only the best for you and yours. It’s not so cold out. But the stars shine early and long.
“Pops,” Laura said. “Pops, where is the broom?”
“In the hallway closet.”
“You drifted away from us. You weren’t listening.”
“No,” Pete Doyle said. “I’m here. It’s the only place I want to be. Hand me the string of popcorn. Your mother made us start this tradition. When Thomas was only six years old.”