By late afternoon, Owen's parents were usually having their first cocktails. His mother gave hers some thought, looking upon it as a special treat, while his father served himself "a stiff one" in a more matter-of-fact way, his every movement expressing a conviction that he had a right to this stuff, no matter how disagreeable or lugubrious or romantic it might soon make him. He made a special point of not asking permission as he poured, with a workmanlike concentration on not spilling a drop. Owen's mother held her drink between the tips of her fingers; his father held his in his fist. Owen could see solemnity descend on his father's brow with the first sip, while his mother often looked apprehensive about the possible hysteria to come. Owen remembered a Saturday night when his father had air-paddled backward, collapsing into the kitchen trash can and terrifying the family boxer, Gertrude. Gertrude had bitten Owen's father the first time she saw him drunk and now viewed him with a detachment that was similar to Owen's.
In any event, the cocktails were Owen's cue to head for the baseball diamond that the three Kershaw boys and their father had built in the pasture across from their house, with the help of any neighborhood kids who'd wanted to pitch in—clearing brush, laying out the baselines and boundaries, forming the pitcher's mound, or driving in the posts for the backstop. Doug, the eldest Kershaw boy, was already an accomplished player, with a Marty Marion infielder's mitt and a pair of cleats. Terry, the middle son, was focussed on developing his paper route and would likely be a millionaire by thirty. Ben, the youngest and sweetest, was disabled and mentally handicapped, but he loved baseball above all things; he had a statistician's capacity for memorizing numbers and had learned to field a ball with one crippled hand and to make a respectable throw with the other. To Owen, Ben's attributes were nothing remarkable: he had his challenges; Ben had others.
It was rare to have full teams, and occasional lone outfielders started at center field and prepared to run. Eventually, Ben was moved off first base and into the outfield. With his short arms, he couldn't keep his foot on the bag and reach far enough for bad throws. Double plays came along only about three times a summer, and no one wanted to put them at risk. So long as Ben could identify with a renowned player who had played his position—in this case, Hoot Evers—he was happy to occupy it, and physically he did better with flies than with grounders.
Owen was happy with his George Kell spot at third base, and he didn't intend to relinquish it. He was a poor hitter—he was trying to graduate from choking the bat, though he was still not strong enough to hold it at the grip—but his ability to cover stinging grounders close to the foul line was considered compensation for his small production at the plate. He had learned to commit late to the ball's trajectory—grounders often changed angles, thanks to the field's irregularities—and he went fairly early when they chose up sides. Chuck Wood went late, despite being the most muscular boy there, as he always swung for the fence in wan hope of a home run and was widely considered a showboater. Ben was a polished bunter and could run like the wind, assuring his team of at least one man on base. He was picked early, sometimes first, but never got to be captain, because in the hand-over-hand-on-the-bat ritual for choosing sides, his hand wouldn't fit anywhere below the label. In the beginning, Mrs. Kershaw had stuck around to make sure that he was treated fairly, announcing, "If Ben doesn't play, nobody plays." But now he belonged, and she restricted her supervision to meeting him as he got off the school bus and casting an authoritarian glance through the other passengers' windows.