[In the interests of full disclosure, my wife, Silverbelle Sandy, was a longtime listener and big fan of It’s Only a Game. He’s also a college classmate, although we didn’t know each other personally. (from Wikipedia) William Littlefield (born July 1948) was the host of National Public Radio and WBUR‘s Only A Game program from its beginning in 1993 to July 2018, covering mainstream and offbeat United States and international sports. Littlefield joined NPR in 1984. SB SM]
Writes Bill: “In July, Black Rose Writing will publish my most recent novel, Mercy. The novel is made up of the interwoven and overlapping stories of a collection of people who have in common a suburban neighborhood. Some of the characters live there, a couple of them die there, and a handful of them commit felonies there.”
Chapter 1 of Mercy
Boy in the Yard
“What did you say?”
“What I could,” I said.
Henry put down his coffee and looked at me.
“How old is he?”
“Eleven,” I said.
“And how did he ask the question?”
“I don’t remember it exactly,” I said. “It was something like, ‘What happens when you die?’ or maybe it was, “What happens after you’re dead?’ I’m not sure.”
“Yikes,” Henry said. Then, “Jack, maybe we should have some more coffee.”
“So I told him that some people believe that after you’ve died, you’re judged, and that judgment determines where your spirit or your soul will spend eternity.”
“He’s eleven,” Henry said.
“I had to say something,” I said. “Or I thought I did. So I told him some people say you go to heaven, which they think is a place where you see the people you loved while you were alive.”
“He didn’t ask about the other people?”
“Of course he did. I told him the other people got punished for whatever they’d done wrong during their lives. Maybe they got to heaven later.”
“How did he take that?”
“He said, ‘Everything you’ve done wrong?’ So I told him it was maybe only the really important things.”
“That can’t have helped much at eleven. Taking an extra cookie, right?”
“Right,” I said. “Stupid.”
Henry shrugged. He is a friend.
“I also told him some people don’t believe you go anywhere at all after you die. He thought about that for a minute, and then he asked if they thought you just kind of went to sleep.”
“Okay,” Henry said.
“I told him I didn’t think it was like that, and then I said, ‘You know, there was a time before you were born. There was a time before your mother and I were born. Maybe it’s like that after you die. Like the time before you were born. It’s not like you’re asleep. It’s just like you’re not. Except that people remember you. Some people.”
“You covered a lot of ground,” Henry said. “I’ll give you that.”
Then he looked at his watch.
“I’ve got to go,” he said. “Ann’s taking me to meet her parents.”
But he didn’t get up, and after a moment, he shook his head and asked, “How’d he take that business? About people remembering you after you die?”
“He said, ‘Like Babe Ruth?’ And I said, ‘Sure. Or Walter Johnson.’”
“You remember Walter Johnson,” Henry said.
“I was thinking about a story I read somewhere,” I said. “It seems Walter Johnson was a good guy.”
“Ah,” Henry said. Still he didn’t get up. He is a friend.
“I suppose I could have said, ‘When you die, you go to heaven.’”
“No doubts,” Henry said.
“No judgment,” I said.
“You think that was maybe what confused him? The part about the judgment?”
“He didn’t say he was confused,” I said. “But he’s watched a lot of baseball, you know? Enough to have seen that sometimes, the better team loses.”
“Where is he now?”
I pointed out the window. The boy was in the middle of the long, narrow back yard with a baseball and a bat. He was tossing the ball into the air and hitting it, meanwhile narrating a game full of players only he could see. He was already wearing his uniform jersey, a St. Louis Cardinals knock-off, with the red bird perched on the yellow bat. The game wouldn’t happen for hours. I would drive him to the park and watch from the four-row wooden bleacher. On the way home, we’d talk about how he and his teammates had done, who’d played well, whether the umpire, a high school kid, had been any good.
Henry watched the boy for a while, and then he said, “What’s all the junk under the tree?”
“Tree house in progress,” I said.
“Not much progress,” Henry said. “But, hey, look at him out there, swinging the bat, announcing the homeruns. He looks happy.”
“I hope so,” I said.
Henry got up and nodded. “Looks like it,” he said. “And maybe that business about dead being like before you were born, that’s not bad. I’m gonna try to remember that, just in case.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Good luck with Ann’s parents. Take care of yourself.”
“You, too,” he said.
When I closed the door behind Henry, the boy heard the noise and looked up from his game. He waved. He was smiling.
Here’s what others have to say about Mercy:
Of Mercy, Jim Hirsch, the author of Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter, and Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, has written: “In clear prose and crisp dialogue, Bill Littlefield deftly explores the themes of life and death, love and betrayal, family and forgiveness. We should all have mercy in our hearts and Mercy on our bookshelves.”
Leigh Montville, the best-selling author of Tall Men, Short Shorts and Sting Like A Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. The United States of America, 1966-1971, writes: “All right, there’s this old mob boss named Arthur Baladino. And there are a couple of low-level mob guys named Gibby and Francis. And a young woman named Susu Evinrude, and maybe she has a gun in her purse and…hooked yet? Littlefield is a master at his craft.”
Amy Bass, the Emmy-award winning writer whose most recent book is One Goal, has written: “Bill Littlefield has long been one of America’s quintessential raconteurs. With Mercy, that reputation grows beyond the sports narratives that he has enchanted us with for so many years, and plunges into a most human story, one that asks us to have empathy and appreciation for those who travel with us, whether as family, as friends, or just people we pass on the street.”
Glenn Stout, author most recently of Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid and long the editor of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Sports Writing, has written: “Everyone has a story, and Bill Littlefield both knows how to listen to those stories and how to tell them with astonishing skill. I think all readers will recognize the neighborhood he has created in Mercy, finding in the commonplace the shared wisdom and simple compassion that unites us all. Mercy is a book I’m already looking forward to reading again.”
Gish Jen, best-selling author of The Resisters and various other celebrated novels and stories wrote: “Crackling with energy, and quick with life, MERCY hooks us from the start, and surprises us all the way. But its real surprise lies in its wisdom: this book has much to tell us about life, and what it’s really like. Written by a man who knows about a lot more than baseball, it is a wonder and a pleasure.”