Every Fourth of July since I could remember, we’d gone to the Independence Day celebration at Peaks Park. It was the same stuff every year. Pony rides, kiddie games, baseball, music, and lots of food. Food by the truckload, enough barbecue and burgers and hot dogs to feed the whole town twice over. But even with all the food, the Peaks Park Independence Day Roast was probably 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, on easily the most scorching hot day of the summer, and Dad had finally found a parking place but we had to huff it a ways. Mom lead the way, and while I could’ve been mistaken, it looked an awful lot like Mom was loosening up her own arm. And I’d never heard her crack her knuckles before.
The crowd let go with a cheer. I picked up the pace and tried to keep up with Mom’s speed-walking. Even though I knew the good spots in the shade were taken, snapped up by the folks with lawn chairs, good and comfortable, slurping down free sodas as the annual Pepsi vs. Coke little league baseball game was underway.
As we neared, I saw Danny Peebles on the pitcher’s mound. 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 by the familiar way he kicked at the dirt and adjusted his hat and rolled his neck that the next pitch would be a curve ball.
Dad approached the guys from work with the usual insults and grunts. I hung back with mom. Sure enough, 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 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 lawn chairs where Mayor Wainwright was working the crowd and doing his jolly best to cheer for both pitcher and batter.
Mom stopped with the muttering and whipped around. “Now where is that ticket booth?”
“Did you write another editorial?” I wasn’t sure if it was the clap of the catcher’s mitt or her eyes snapping to me. She’d been flooding The Bugle with letters about the new Mega More store set to break ground this fall. She’d said how they were desecrating an old cemetery. Not only that, 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. I took a deep breath. “You did, didn’t you?”
“Maybe,” Mom said and 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 was saying, jerking me along like I was a wagon full of water and 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, chuckling, having a time 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 neighbor, straddling his rusty bike, an over-sized Ramones t-shirt hanging off his shoulders down to his usual cut offs. Cullen had just moved to East Ridge from Florida, I think, the details were sketchy.
I couldn’t help but smile. “Hey Cullen.”
“So, this is all very small town,” he said, taking a look around. Right then I saw 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 with a sly grin, 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 my stomach did some flips as every face in the bleachers had one eye on the parking lot, where Mom and Dad had gone to talk behind the truck.
“This is not good.” I said, glancing around.
“Aw snap!” Cullen shook me as the 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 an MMA fighter. The baseball game was called, Pepsi having upended 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 crossed the lawn and nodded at me, keeping one eye on Cullen. I remembered my manners. “Uh, hey Danny. This is Cullen, Cullen, this is Danny.”
Danny turned his nod to Cullen, then shook his head at me, “Look man, I gotta go. But I might as well tell you, nobody really wants your mom here.”
That was it. My former best friend spun off and found his Dad and teammates. Mr. Peebles, the guy who’d had me over for sleepovers and dinners, tossed a glance my way without even wave or nod. Like I was some stranger.
Cullen elbowed my ribs as 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 ladies from the crafts club took turns, making light-hearted jokes about the mayor—Mom had mentioned several times how he’d run unopposed the past three elections—before underhanding a soggy baseball 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. Suddenly, the crowd jostled and murmured in excitement, or panic, or something in between as it parted to give way to the next contestant. I saw my mother, all five feet of her, march up to the throw line while fishing a handful of red tickets from her purse. I nearly fell to the ground. Cullen howled with laughter.
The crowd swelled and tightened around Mom as she handed the volunteer a pile of tickets and steeled herself, never taking her eyes off 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. Necks craned to get a glimpse of the reliever. Mayor Wainwright sized up Cullen and then gave the worried spectators a smile. Cullen, in his baggy skater clothes, appeared too small to do any real damage.
Cullen gripped the ball and smirked something devilish. He snorted, spit, then wiped his mouth with his arm. He squinted at the target, dug in, and hurled a screaming fastball dead center.
The target snapped back. The chair squeaked as it gave, dropping Mayor Wainwright into the murky waters.
A collective gasp from the crowd. Mom covered her face. Someone actually screamed while 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.
They would talk about it for years. How Cullen pegged the lever so many times that it bent and dangled crookedly from its loosened bolt. Unil 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, she looked refreshed, like she’d just woken up from her favorite dream. Mayor Wainwright approached, slumped over with a beach towel draped across his shoulders. He was pale and shriveled and looked like a cruise ship tragedy, like someone who’d been rescued from chilly sea waters.
The sun found my mom’s face as she turned to look old Wainwright up and down, nothing but warm satisfaction on her face.
The mayor nodded, conceding something unsaid. His thinning hair 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. My eyes went wide.
Mr. Wainwright’s plastic smile melted. He jerked his head back to Mom. “Why yes, of course. I’m sure we can work something out.”