Bang. Bang. Bang. Strike three. You're dead. I practice these lines because the world is a dangerous place. I lie in bed at night with my yellow-daisy sheets up to my nose, and Dad comes in my bedroom to snap shut my window. He is like one of those monks from "Robin Hood," moving slow, his toes cracking as he walks from one room to the next. He does not explain why he locks everything up, but I have figured it out: the world is packed full of criminals, and it is the job of my father, Special Agent Joe Conlon, to keep them out of our house.
I pull my sheets closer, fall asleep thinking about the smell of criminals in the trunk of my father's car.
* * *
On Saturday morning, Dad stands just outside the doorway, with his hands in his pockets, waiting for me to look up from my book and notice him.
"It's 'The Clue in the Crumbling Wall,'" I say. "Nancy Drew is just about to crack the case." I can barely read all the words, but Dad must be proud that I am holding such a book, so advanced for my age.
"Uh-huh," he says, rocking back and forth. "I am asking you and the others if you'd like to go up to the St. Bede field in fifteen minutes and play ball." Dad never asks us ahead of time. It is always a surprise, one that doesn't happen all that often. It's like it has to boil up inside him, and then his invitation comes like a dandelion that I wish upon, its feathers blowing through the air, whooshing farther away in the wind.
Before we play baseball, we kids–Michael and me and Julie and John–rush to complete our weekend chores. Julie and I make our beds, then we grab Windex and swipe the dining room, living room, and family room windows. I'm older–seven years old–so I reach for the high spots. We compete to see who can squeak the loudest. Mom dusts the furniture after she's finished typing up all the news for the St. Bede Catholic Church bulletin. Michael mows the lawn because he's the oldest. Dad vacuums the new pool in our backyard and then inspects the lawnmowing effort. His hands make fists in his pockets. He shakes his head no to Michael's job.
"Can I be in charge of collecting the baseball mitts?" I ask Dad before anyone else gets the chance. I ask this every time. He pulls his head back as if an idea has landed in the thin air between us.
"Come with me."
I follow him into the house, down the hallway lined with framed pictures of our New York relations. We are the only ones who live far away in California, just us four kids, Dad, and Mom. I follow as Dad turns into his bedroom and walks straight over to his ash-blond dresser, which is a foot taller than the curls on my head.
In the top left drawer, Dad stores his white, folded handkerchief, ChapStick, brown comb, and the little black pens that say "U.S. Government." In the middle drawer, he stashes car keys and the blue-and-black-covered booklets that say "Savings." In the top right drawer, Dad stores his badge and FBI gun. I have never seen him stash the gun there, but I can tell it's in that drawer. When I walk past his dresser, slow, with crouched fingers like Nancy Drew, I feel that haunting gun stare at me. I keep the perfect distance, three feet away. I know if I get too close, the gun will go "bang" and Dad will discover that I spy on him.
He takes his keys from the dresser and thumbs through them as if they are dollar bills, then hands me the specific one for the trunk of the FBI car. The special key is as silver as the fish Mom cooks Friday nights. He looks at his watch like I have exactly two minutes to complete the mission. "Go ahead and get the mitts in the trunk–and come right back."
"Can I wear your mitt?"
"Just get the mitts."
I hold the key up to my chest, skip out into the hot and dusty sun, past the red-rose bushes that Mom says always bloom too late in summer. I climb through thick, tangling, ankle-high ivy until I reach the trunk of Dad's black FBI car. The silver key fits, twists perfectly, just like the last time. It makes a popping noise as I turn it, like the loud snap of bubble gum. The trunk lifts higher than my arms can reach, so I let it sail up like a kite into the air.
Heat rises from inside the trunk, spreading the smell all around me. I look down and see the mitts: Dad's black and oily one stitched with white shoelaces, Michael's with his handwriting that says "Mickey Mantle" in its meat, mine with its fresh leather, and two shrimpy junior mitts for Julie and John. The mitts are scattered among the golden bullet shells, hundreds of them, everywhere in the trunk, swimming in the creases of the leather gloves. I close my eyes and breathe deeper. The bullet shells smell like the clothes gangsters wear. Mitts and golden bullet shells and gangster smells lying in Dad's trunk, on their bellies, their sides, on their backs.
"Bang. Bang. Bang."
The shiniest bullet shell stares at me. I pick it up and blow on it like it could be a whistle, making a whirring sound, then I hold it right up to my nostrils and breathe deep. Its smell is serious–a blue smell, like the cannons exploding in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, where Father Jack takes us when he visits from New York. Father Jack isn't like Dad at all, even though they're brothers, and I remember how my uncle put his hands over my ears when the Pirates' gunfire scared me so bad. His hands landed like butterflies, and the cannon pounding got softer, but the smell of blue smoke kept coming.
I reach up for the trunk, high on my tiptoes, muscles twitching in my legs, and slam it shut. I take Dad's mitt, throw it as high as I can, and catch it right at my belly. I love the smell of Dad's mitt the best. Inside my throat, I yell "yahoo," then run back to the house and find Dad where I left him, standing next to the ash-blond dresser, his palm open, waiting for the safe return of the silver key.
* * *
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