Trenton, New Jersey
I remember the first time I laughed in America. It was right after I whipped a fastball at Big White Bastard’s face.
Every boy in the inner city Trenton YMCA baseball program was allowed to pitch at least one inning before the season was over. The fourth inning of our sixth game was my turn. It came after three innings of Big White Bastard’s hollering “gook” at me, the little Vietnamese kid in the outfield. Every time I touched the ball, out came various versions of gook jokes plus the occasional, slightly off-target comment about “Chinks.” The other idiots in his dugout cackled each time he did it. No one on my team gave a damn.
Big White Bastard was happy to have an audience. As I warmed up for my one inning to pitch, he used his hands to stretch his round eyes until they were squinty, and then he snorted his way through an observation that a gook could use dental floss as a blindfold. This earned him some belly laughs from the workmen who stopped on their walks home from factory jobs to watch the game from behind the chain-link fence. Their empty gunmetal gray lunchboxes wavered in their hands as they laughed at me and my slanty eyes.
So I used my very first pitch to try to knock Big White Bastard’s block off. It happened in slow motion for me. I scraped my Chuck Taylor Converse knockoffs on the pitcher’s mound as he approached the plate, feeling the sandy little pebbles roll under the thin rubber soles. When he got there, he flexed his heavy arms, tossed his unkempt hair off of his sunburned face and scowled at me. I planted my feet, crunching the pebbles into the yellowish dirt.
Then, blazing a target with my eyes right at his peeling, freckled nose, I squeezed the ball until my fingers were white and flung my arm just as hard as I could.
My scrawny arm couldn’t fire out much of a fastball and my aim wasn’t perfect, but Big White Bastard was thick and slow, and I hit him squarely on the temple. It made a sound like my grandmother used to make when thumping melons at the market in Da Nang. The crowd around the game went abruptly silent as they took in that sound of my ball hitting his head. Then I thought of my grandmother thumping Big White Bastard’s head and deciding whether it was worth buying, and my laughter roared out into that silence.
It was my first laugh in 22 months in America.
Big White Bastard was big for a 12-year-old and furiously red in the face when he charged the mound. I was 10, thin as a reed, and didn’t have a friend on my team.
I streaked to the gap in the chain link fence and flew down the sidewalk behind the row of workmen, trying not to stumble on the broken concrete heaving from the old roots of street trees. Big White Bastard was cursing and chasing and might have caught me if Foxy Robertson hadn’t stepped in my path right then.
“Whoa, young man,” Foxy said to me, catching me by the arms and letting my momentum swing him until his back was to the hard-braking Big White Bastard. Foxy’s enormous hands swallowed half of my forearms.
“Whoa,” he repeated. “I saw that pitch. That was all wrong.”
Foxy gave a dismissive look over his shoulder at Big White Bastard huffing behind him, unwilling to go around this tall, broad-shouldered black man to get at me. Then Foxy turned back to me.
“That was all wrong. You can’t throw a ball right with just your arm like that.”
“A pitcher needs good hands.”
University of North Carolina Medical Center
“Mr. Robertson played baseball in the Negro American League in the 1940s,” Dr. Jones said as she led her group of medical students doing their obligatory two-week rotation in neurosurgery.
Dr. Jones was a pretty, petite woman. She kept her fine black hair cut in a long bob to make her roundish face appear more oval. The gap in her lab coat allowed a glimpse of a lilac blouse topped by a stylish Y-style necklace with an understated gold cross at the end. Her shoes made a quiet clicking sound under her light weight as her characteristic quick stride carried her down the hospital’s high-gloss polished floors.
She arrived at the foot of the bed of an unconscious, elderly African-American man. The chart identified him as Mr. Foxy Robertson, aged 80, of Durham.
Dr. Jones continued. “He was a pitcher. Three seasons for the Memphis Red Sox. One season for the Detroit Stars.”
One of the medical students asked, “How do you know that? Didn’t you just perform surgery on him last night? I thought he was unconscious when he got to the hospital.”
“I always make it my business to know about my patients,” Dr. Jones answered. “But yes, I did an emergency endovascular coiling last night.”
At the nursing home yesterday, Mr. Robertson had complained of a fierce headache before pitching forward unconscious over his dinner. It took the nursing home staff a disgraceful amount of time to decide to call 911 and Mr. Robertson’s emergency family contact. Dr. Jones had elbowed the ER doctor out of the way as she burst uninvited into the emergency department moments after the ambulance arrived. She immediately suspected that a ruptured aneurysm was bleeding into his brain.
“You did endovascular coiling?” another medical student asked. “Dr. Ricks said that surgical clipping is usually the best way to stop the bleeding.”
William Ricks was Dr. Jones’s boss, the chair of the neurosurgery department.
“With surgical clipping, the neurosurgeon has to remove a section of the skull. I made the call to go with endovascular coiling. It is far less invasive. You need very careful hands, but if you can thread the catheter to the aneurysm, you can push a soft platinum wire through and stop the bleeding.
“If you are quick, it can be much less dangerous. The chances of saving the patient and avoiding permanent brain damage are better.
“But you need good hands.”
I hadn’t noticed Foxy before the day he saved me from Big White Bastard, but I soon learned his story. He was in his 50s and worked as a forklift driver in an appliance warehouse a few blocks from where my father and I shared a dark basement apartment. His wife had passed away, and his children were grown and gone. He walked past the ball field every day on his way to home to Chambers Street, where he lived a quiet life on the first floor of a three-story row house. But for four glorious years in the 1940s, Foxy had been a pitcher in the Negro leagues.
Most evenings he’d find me at the ball field. If there wasn’t a game going on, he’d put down his lunchbox and teach me to pitch. Together we’d squint into the setting summer sun through the rusting chain-link backstop, a 6-foot-3 black man with a North Carolina accent and a 4-foot tall Vietnamese kid grudgingly talking broken English.
“Pitchin’ is all about hands,” he’d say, holding out his huge hands, his dark blue uniform shirt rolled up to the elbows. “If you ain’t got the right grip, ain’t nothing gonna work right for you.”
He showed me the four-seam fastball and how to hold the ball softly, like an egg, with my fingertips. He was patient with me, and we practiced until I could zip the ball so that even he didn’t want to catch it barehanded anymore.
After working on that for a couple of weeks, he picked up my pitching arm by the wrist, peered at my hand and said, “You need to know the three-finger changeup.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Good for a young pitcher with small hands.” And he centered my ring, middle and index fingers on top of the baseball and told me to hold the baseball deep in the palm of my hand for good friction. Then, like he always did after he explained something to me, he would make me repeat it back in English.
Foxy was good to me that summer. I occasionally would show up with a black eye or a fat lip, and though he would give them a knowing look, he never asked me what had happened. He would just ask if I was ok, and I would say yes, and he’d quietly say, “Praise the Lord for that,” like he always did when he heard good news. Then we’d be back to baseball.
“Keep checking Mr. Robertson for any signs of vasospasm. Don’t forget,” Dr. Jones said as she leaned forward at the nurses’ station. “And the moment he has a fever, you page me.”
The nurses were surprised at Dr. Jones’s clipped tone. Dr. Jones was always kind and eager to teach. Today, though, she was all business. She had already reminded them twice to call her right away if he showed signs of consciousness, so she could assess immediately whether he had suffered permanent damage before she was able to stop the bleeding in his brain.
During the superheated days of August, when Foxy was at work and my father was drunk on the Salvation Army couch at home, I had no one to practice with. So one day Foxy put some rags at the bottom of an old peach basket, tacked the basket on a sheet of plywood, then tilted the plywood against the back of his three-story. He stepped out the regulation Little League distance of 46 feet, which brought him three steps into the weedy parking lot of the boarded-up store next door. He marked that spot with a duct-taped X and handed me five old baseballs he had collected over time.
For hours at a time in the scorching midday heat, I would steal away from my father’s apartment to stand on that X, zipping balls at the peach basket as the blacktop broiled my feet through the cleats Foxy had bought me. I even stood there throwing balls some nights when I didn’t want to go home and Foxy had a meeting at the church where he was a deacon.
One day Foxy didn’t see me at the park after work, and when he got home he found me there, throwing balls into the peach basket. My lip had been torn open that morning by a fist. I was throwing hard and angry, making the balls rebound out of the basket and bounce on the blacktop.
Gently cupping my chin, he turned my face up to his, looking at the dark crustiness of my dried blood. He nodded for a moment, then wordlessly walked into the house.
A few minutes later, he reappeared with a tube of aloe in his hands. He squeezed a pea-sized dollop on the broad tip of his middle finger and softly spread the soothing ointment on my lip.
After he finished, I asked him why he had done that. He answered only with a gentle pat on my cheek and a small smile before a sober reflection clouded his face.
“We got to go see your daddy. Now.”
Dr. Jones examined Foxy with sharp precision. He should have been awake by now. She couldn’t know anything that mattered— speech, right-side movement, eyesight— until he regained consciousness.
She finished her exam with a sigh and sank down into the chair next to his bed, staring for a few moments at the cream and blue pattern of the floor between her feet. Then, raising her eyes back to his side, she rested her hands on his huge right hand, a hand that had fired pitches at catchers’ mitts in segregated towns over half a century ago. The knuckle of his index finger nearly filled her palm. Sharecropper’s hands, he had called them. She gently turned his hand until it faced up, gazing for a few moments at the weathered palm crisscrossed by dark, deep-set lines.
Dr. Jones flicked off the fluorescent overheads. After a few quiet moments, she began silently massaging the small muscles of his hand by the dim green light of the cardiac monitor. Sometime later, she stopped and sat in silence, listening to him breathe.
Then, with a nod and a soft inhale of breath, she sandwiched his hand between her two small hands, bowed her head, and whispered a prayer.
Foxy strode directly to my father’s apartment as I struggled to keep up. I didn’t know he knew where we lived.
When I reluctantly let him in, my father was finishing his daily bottle of cheap vodka before leaving for the night-shift production line making rolls of newsprint for The Trentonian. Even drunk, his eyes grew wide with outrage that I had brought this large stranger into our apartment. I hurried over to him to explain, but he sent me sprawling with a hard backslap to the mouth, drawing fresh blood from my lip. I curled into a protective ball as he drew back with his fist to punch me, but Foxy suddenly loomed between us and caught my father’s fist in his hand.
“That part of your life is over now,” he told my father. “I didn’t have to see it with my own eyes. I already knew. I just came here to tell you. A man can’t treat a child like that, no how.”
He looked down at me for a moment, then continued, “‘Specially a girl child.”
Dr. Ricks looked in on Dr. Jones, her slim back to him as she sat with her elderly patient, not quite able to make out what she was whispering. After a moment he silently stepped back and walked over to the charge nurse’s station.
“She been there all night?”
“Mr. Robertson shown any signs of waking up?”
“That’s not good.”
Not long after that day in the apartment, my father landed in jail for punching a city cop after he tried to issue a citation to my father for being drunk in public. Foxy had already taken me in by then, but we both knew that eventually Trenton social services would come looking for me with a group home in mind.
As we waited at the Trenton train station for the train heading to Durham, I told Foxy my story.
I was an 8 year old Vietnamese girl when my older sister overheard my father telling my mother that he had bribed a communist government official and bought us places on a good boat that held 80 passengers. Our mother was worried about stories she had heard of pirates from Thailand preying on fleeing Vietnamese, but my father told her not to worry, he had plenty of cash for more bribes. My father had been a successful businessman before the fall of Saigon, and he had the confidence of a man with foresight to hide away money before North Vietnam had sent the Americans packing. We would be fine, he said.
Our ship headed straight for the closest international shipping lane about 150 miles off the Vietnamese coast. The adults said we would be picked up by a passing freighter and taken to Hong Kong and from there to England or maybe even the United States.
That night, the Thai pirates showed up.
The screams of women and girls being hauled off pierced the quiet of that warm night on the South China Sea. The Vietnamese men who offered bribes were simply beaten and robbed of their money. Unarmed, they could do nothing but howl for their wives and daughters.
In the commotion, my father dragged me by my arm and raced downstairs into the hold of the ship. He kicked open another family’s chest and found a boy’s clothes, then used a seaman’s pocket knife to desperately hack at my long hair.
I can still smell the lean, cruel Thai man who grabbed fistfuls of the boy’s shirt on my body and lifted me until the stink of his breath smothered my face. He scrutinized me for a long moment before dropping me to the rough planks of our boat and stalking off. As I scrambled back to my father’s arms, I could see in my father’s face the abject humiliation of a man who had won his bet, a bet that a long shot at saving his younger daughter was better than a suicidal fight for his wife and older daughter.
That night was the last night I saw my mother and sister. It was the last night my father was sober. And the next day was the first day of the 22 long months that I was a boy.
Foxy hugged me for a long time when I was finished.
“God, I remember it all. I remember getting to Durham, us two. We lived with Foxy’s mama on the farm for a few months. He gave her money to buy girl clothes for me. We stayed with her until Foxy saved enough to get us a decent apartment in a good school district.
“He made me work on my English. He never teased me about my accent and grammar. He laughed when I teased him about his.
“I remember him leaving me home each Sunday morning. I remember the day I finally asked him to take me with him. After we came home that first day, I asked why he never made me go to church before. He said, ‘Jesus said to be a fisher of men, but he told us to use nets to guide the fish to the boat. He didn’t tell us to hook you in the belly and yank y’all in the boat.’
“I remember a year later his hands coming down through the water of the river behind our church to pull me up as I was baptized.
“He took me on a train back to New Jersey once, when my father died. He bought the burial plot and the flowers I laid on his grave.
“He cried when I left for college. He cried when I graduated medical school. He cried the day he walked me down the aisle, as I completed my journey from Nguyen Thi Anh to Anh Robertson to Anh Jones. I cried when I brought him to the nursing home.
“I remember it all, God. Please don’t let him die. Please let him be ok. Please let me have done enough so that he’s still Foxy, even if only just for another year or two. He did so much for me. Please let me have saved him.
“I love him so much. Please, God. Please.”
Not quite done but not knowing how to finish, Dr. Jones paused her whispered prayer and listened to the quiet of the darkened hospital room, her head still bowed. Still holding his hand between her two, she softly kissed it and wept.
“Whoa, young lady,” Foxy said, his voice filled with quiet strength as his big right hand came alive between her two and his kind eyes rested on her. “Whoa. Don’t you be worrying ‘bout me now.”
Dr. Jones burst into sobs of relief, and he pulled up her two hands until their foreheads touched, he kissing her hands and she kissing his.
When her throat relaxed just enough for her to talk, she looked into his kind eyes and asked in a hoarse whisper, “How long were you listening to me?”
“Long enough to know you done real good. Don’t you be worrying ‘bout me now. You done real good.”
He smiled at her.
“You got good hands.”
When he's not penning fiction, which is most of the time, Davidson works as a lawyer in Charlottesville.Read more on: hook short story contest