Pafko at the Wall

Craig Jones

The third and deciding game of the 1951 National League pennant between the Giants and the Dodgers was decided by a ninth inning walk-off home run by Bobby Thomson. The hit, dubbed “the shot heard ’round the world,” from a line by Ralph Waldo Emerson, was fictionalized by Don DeLillo in his novella called Pafko at the Wall (Pafko was the Dodger centerfielder who watched the ball go over his head into the left field seats).

The novella eventually led to the author’s monumental doorstop of a novel Underworld, but the shorter work only dealt with the events of October 3, 1951 at the Polo Grounds. In DeLillo’s account, a kid jumped the turnstile without paying and ended up getting the actual ball, later worth an incredible sum. The Giants went on to lose to the Yankees in the World Series (DiMaggio’s last, but the first for rookies Mantle and Mays), and the game stands out as one of baseball’s greatest moments.

I read Underworld years ago – but just recently ran into the short novella – and damn if these lines about the tail-end of summer didn’t stretch a big hammy hand out of the page and hit me upside the head.

“It is all part of the same thing, the feeling of some collapsible fact that’s folded up and put away, and the school gloom traces back for decades – the last laden day of summer vacation when the range of play tapers to a screwturn. This is the day he has never shaken off, the final Sunday before the first Monday of school. It carried some queer deep shadow out to the western edge of the afternoon.”

I mean I just read this as the first blush of red has actually appeared on a maple tree on the southbound side of the Maine Turnpike. Jesus, in mid-August. Fuck me. It’s like an infection, slowly spreading from tree to tree.

“The school gloom traces back for decades.” He says. “A screwturn.”

I’m thinking about these very lines when the waitress comes over with the coffee pot and says:

  • Start you off with some coffee?
  • Sure, I say, but half decaf, please. And there’s one more coming.

One more coming. I’m thinking, one more fall. One more back to school. I already had to deal with this coming here because traffic was so much thicker. Who the fuck invented back to school, anyway? I’m not even in school any more, and I feel the dread. DeLillo is spot on.

“This is the day he has never shaken off.”

  • Hey, man, I say as my friend arrives.

The server is back immediately and takes my friend’s coffee order. We both already know what we want; we’re what they call regulars. Her name is Kathy and we know her daughter also works here, when she’s not in school herself.

  • Two scrambled eggs, homefries crispy, and marble toast dry, I say. He gets a Swiss cheese omelet with onion and spinach, but opts for butter with his whole wheat.
  • So, how are you dealing with this? How was the traffic eastbound?
  • Not terrible yet, but thicker. I was late getting her to day care and that made it worse. Why? What’s up?
  • I dunno, it’s just the autumn bullshit. I mean, it’s like a mini death and it gets harder every goddamn year. I know you like DeLillo. I just read Pafko at the Wall, which he expanded into Underworld. Listen to this.

And I read the lines, which I have in my cell phone, enjoying the kindred pessimism and wanting to have it with me.

  • It’s true, isn’t it, I said. I mean, would we feel this if there were no back to school?
  • Well, what about the harvest and the shorter days and animals overeating and getting ready to go to ground? That’s all natural circadian stuff. Wouldn’t we feel this way anyway? I think “back to school” was all because of agrarian culture and needing children to be at home helping. And then it turned into this whole other thing, he said.
  • Point taken, but it’s like something has been chopped into our natural way of being. This is all artifice. It’s a retailer’s wet dream, just like Christmas. It turns the whole thing into a nightmare.

Kathy arrives with our plates and refills our coffee.

  • Can I get you two anything else?
  • No, we’re good.
  • I suppose this is just an example of how you can make meaning out of anything. I mean, shit happens and we make it mean something. What is this astronomically? It’s like 23o declination or something. A thing happens and we make it mean something, my friend said.
  • We can make it mean anything we want. Frannie Liebowitz said there’s no such thing as algebra in the real world.
  • That’s true. Henry Beston said in The Outermost House that winter is not just a negation of summer. It’s a season in its own right.
  • That’s all context, man, all context. I feel that “back to school” angst, too, by the way. Our property abuts an elementary school. Our back fence separates us from the play field. The kids walk by in the morning and the buses turn into the driveway and it’s a clusterfuck every weekday morning and afternoon. The kids are like a liquid pouring out of vehicles and flowing into the building.

We halve the check, each paying with a credit card.

  • You know the real tragedy of this season is that the skin goes away, I complained. Chicks start to get buttoned up again and it’s a long way until spring.
  • Well,  he said, we have a few days of glory, yet.

Driving home I’m thinking about Pafko again. The kid “feels a little bringdown working in his mind.” That’s it, I think, a little bringdown. Just a little bringdown, not the whole in-the-shitter bringdown, but enough to gnaw at me.

“He gets to his street and goes up the front steps and into the front of his building and he feels a little bringdown of fading light that he has felt a thousand times before.”

“Shit man. I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.”

Shit man. I don’t want to go to school tomorrow. All these years later, school still overlays this natural transition from summer to fall and makes it seem like the end of freedom, a little death.

The truth is that “back to school” is an artifice, and we can make it mean whatever we want. Right now the school behind our property looks just like one of those Charles Sheeler paintings at River Rouge. Industrial almost, but beautiful in the gathering dusk. It often reminds me of a great ship sitting in the harbor.

What does it mean? Anything I want it to.

1 thought on “Pafko at the Wall”

  1. Great job, Mr. Jones.

    I have the pleasure of living near Coogan’s Bluff, and occasionally, during a long run or bike ride, pay a visit to the location of what used to be home plate at the Polo Grounds. A sad plaque amidst an even sadder, lonely housing project built circa 1960 is all that remains. Ask a kid around there about the Polo Grounds and/or the NY Giants (or the Brooklyn Dodgers, for that matter) and they wouldn’t have a clue.

    Speaking of the Dodgers, when was the last name you had to “dodge” a trolley coming down the street at breakneck speed? Ask a couple of old Brooklynites and they will gladly regale you of the “good old days”.

    Fuhgeddibout it.

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