The back yard where I lived was bounded on three sides by trees.
To the west, an avocado tree rose as tall as the stucco apartment building next door. To the north, a towering Christmas tree pine with branches that swooped low so that you had to duck under the lowest limb. To the east, a walnut tree shading the fence to the next yard, its nuts in leathery cases that fell on our side.
To the south, our house, one story with a basement, which our parents had finished out for a bedroom for my brother and me.
Imagine now an eight-year old boy, who sees a stadium from the top of the back stairs. The trees frame an open area in the middle of the yard, creating a natural boundary for his major league fantasy. He takes the stairs one by one, an arm raised, descending into the field of play where a bat lies like the sword of a knight.
Imagine with the boy the roar of the crowd as he steps on to the soil from the fractured concrete that anchors the stairs. He picks up the bat; more roaring. He nods to the catcher and the umpire. He takes his stance. The pitcher pitches. And he knocks one way, way over the Christmas tree pine in dead center.
The boy takes the slow, dignified jog around the bases. He acknowledges the crowd with a tip of his imaginary cap. Then he returns to home plate.
The home run has been hit.
--Unless this was only the opening hitter of the opening inning. There are still 3 outs to be made in this inning, 3 outs to be made in the bottom of the inning, and 9 innings to be played on both sides. The sun is high in the sky. Of course this must go on.
The boy knows that it won't be fair to the teams involved-- whoever they are, because he hasn't decided yet-- if he himself determines what will happen to each batter. It is better not to show favoritism. So he casts around for a real ball to hit. Real balls cannot always be told where to go. There will be an element of chance in this game.
There is no ball in the back yard. These have been hard to come by lately. If you hit one on to a roof or into the thick pine canopy, it's as good as gone. And he and his brother have been playing a lot of ball lately.
He casts around and his eye rests on the green egg of a fallen walnut. He picks up the walnut, takes his stance with his bat on his shoulder, throws the walnut in the air, puts both hands on the bat, and swings.
The walnut bounces away. He retrieves it. This is called hitting on your own, he remembers his brother saying.
The boy huffs. It is not so easy to hit on your own.
Strike three. Batter is out.
For the next batter, the boy takes his time. He throws the walnut up once, doesn't like the flight of it, lets it fall. The next time, the walnut is farther out from his body than before. The bat flies around and strikes the walnut where the wood is unsplintered and thick.
Crack. Boom. Half a green casing flies straight up, and the rest of the nut rockets on a line to the back fence.
The crowd roars.
Now the boy looks for another walnut, finds it, and continues the game. A few batters later, a walnut flies way up into the canopy of the pine, clearing the bases for a grand slam home run.
The boy dances up and down and looks for more walnuts. He decides he will be Dave Kingman and see how many homers he can hit. When he runs out of walnuts on the ground, he climbs the fence and reaches for ones still in the branches.
Soon the supply of reachable walnuts is gone. The boy searches again. Here is a tree, here is a low tree that is not part of the stadium. It is taller than he, but not by much. Its leaves are long, greenish-bronze, floppy. It has fruit. The fruit is golden, with a little fuzzy black end. Each fruit is smaller than a walnut, and so more difficult to hit. But there are many of these fruits. Many, many. And he does not have to climb a fence to get them.
When the fruit hits the bat square, the golden skin ruptures and pale yellow pulp squirts out. The first fruit hits the ground three feet in front of the boy, smashed like Humpty Dumpty. He cannot use this one again.
The second fruit is not so ripe, and skitters along into the bed of needles made by the pine tree's shedding. Now the boy smells the sweet stickiness of the fruit along with the dry sweetness of the needles.
Now the third fruit. It is in the air, it is descending, the boy's hips and wrists work the bat through the hitting zone.
Crack. Splort. Zoom.
The pulp explodes, disappears, except for a piece that hits under the boy's eye. It is the pit, a dark brown node, that zooms over the back fence and lands out of sight, somewhere very many hundreds or even thousands of feet away.
This is the best ball of all.
Later he tells his brother that Dave Kingman hit many home runs that day.
"No he didn't," his brother says. "The Giants play tonight."
"I was Dave Kingman," insists the boy. "I was Dave Kingman."
Later he asks his mother what kind of tree is the one with the fabled home run fruit. "A kumquat," she tells him. This exotic word makes a fruit-shaped nest in his memory. To him, the tree in his back yard will always be a kumquat.
Decades later I tell my mother that the tree I plundered was not a kumquat. "I found out in 2003, when I went to a writer's conference," I told her. "I read a piece about my childhood, and I included the tree and how I hit on my own with the fruit. Did you know I did that?"
"No," said my mother, in a way as if to say I hope you didn't break anything.
"Someone who heard the piece said that it couldn't have been a kumquat, because kumquats are citrus fruits." I remember this, because it was a writer in my group who called me by cell phone on her way home from the conference. Writers are interested in details.
"If it isn't a kumquat, then what is it?"
"I tried to google it then, and the best I could come up with was a leechee."
"I don't know what it could have been."