Tahlequah, OK, has one Wal-Mart, one good regional supermarket, many of the major fast food chains, two operational video stores, and 16,000 residents. It’s where I live, home to the university where I work. For four years I’ve been made welcome. I’ve drunk moonshine, fished brown trout in private creeks, and danced two-step to red dirt country. I’ve had success here, but I will never call Tahlequah home. I am from Boston.
It takes ten minutes to walk from my house to The Branch, one of Tahlequah’s three bars if you don’t count Chile’s. It’s the yuppie bar, least frequented by students. I watch the Red Sox when they’re nationally televised, shaking the hands of the people who stop to say hello. I pull these folks into my orbit, making temporary fans of them. I listen to the Sox while walking home from school, while sitting at the desk in my study, looking out at late summer grasshoppers the size of my thumb clinging to the screen.
Last summer, like every summer, I returned to Fenway. In the right field deck with the lights glowing against the new Boston skyline, I told my nephew, a young fan grown up in a victorious city, which players he should be in The Show. I ate Fenway Franks with my sister, sitting in good seats on my brother-in-law’s dime.
Driving past the brownstones on Commonwealth Avenue after the game, she asked if I would stay in Oklahoma. I told her on a teacher’s salary in a vicious job market with few publications to my name, with a job in a small town that I was lucky to have, facing a cost of living that outstripped more accomplished Bostonians, I’d most likely never move home.
I inherited the Red Sox by birthright and peer pressure. I understood as a six year-old that Bill Buckner’s gaffe in the 1986 World Series would make a lot of people sad. I heard about Teddy Ballgame, Tony C., Yaz, icons as lofty and tragic as Greek gods. My mother presented me with a foul ball given to her at a game. I changed its origin story to a home run by Jim Rice. Anything to give the ball more meaning because, like baseball itself, it interested me only to a point and then turned routine. The arc of the Red Sox seasons followed routine: stumble, brief hope, stumble, ‘there’s always next year’.
It took leaving Boston for college to learn being a noble loser constituted an identity. Even as close as Providence Red Sox fans were a minority at school. Most of my friends who cared rooted for the Yankees. This was in the late 90’s, when Yankee dominance over baseball in general and the Red Sox in particular constituted an empire, Pax Jeter.
In my sophomore year Pedro Martinez, the man who taught me the artistry of athletes, defeated Roger Clemens, whose mother said Sox fans treated him “worse than Hitler” when he left Boston to seek championships. Pedro put 96 mph fastballs in the space of a postage stamp, threw changeups indistinguishable from those fastballs until they swerved dying to the corner of the plate, earning the Red Sox their only victory of the 1999 American League Championship Series. I unearthed a gift for talking shit to my Yankee fan friends, affecting the accent I also considered my birthright.
I learned that people loved an expat. They loved being able to summarize me by city. I was Boston. Challenge me on that.
I carried this nascent personality to Ireland, the country high on the tail of the Celtic Tiger. Frequently Dubs talked about shaking the yoke of perpetual failure. At Planet Murphy, a meat market four-on-the-floor club I summoned a courage absent stateside to tell a girl dancing in a furry coat with knob-braided pigtails she looked like Bjork. Later she told me she’d heard that line three times, but I was the best looking to say it. We went to house parties where I was the only American. Her friends mocked America. Far enough from home to see it whole, I became a patriot. Rap, abstract expressionism and baseball. She came to America’s defense, calling her friends sod-faced spud farmers. She introduced me to Tom Waits. I introduced her to the Red Sox.
Alison was a northside Dub. An Irish dancing champion, freckled, blonde, and ferocious. She carried a dancer’s grace with swinging shoulders, fighting off muggers who stabbed her clean through the wrist with a dirty needle. Too massive for provincial Ireland, she dreamed of New York. We declared our love during my last days in a hotel under the weight of room service Heinekens. After college, I came back to her.
When BBC Sport televised the World Series, the Red Sox absent, I tutored her. If you can understand this game, I said, you can understand me, understand America. I was arrogant and grandiose in the way twenty-two year olds and Bostonians often are. She said, “Murphy, you’re a rotten yankee but good looking.” I was a lot of things, I told her, but a Yankee wasn’t one of them.
We discussed construction jobs that paid under the table when my visa expired. Threatened with deportation, I balked. I left her crying in Dublin airport. I returned to Boston for the last time, back to my parents’ house. Again, Alison became a voice from somewhere else. I stayed at the bar, The People’s Republik, until last call playing darts against myself, talking politics with oxy addicts. I snuck into my room after parking my mother’s car crooked in the garage. My father bulldozed me with the hard sell of office experience, gifting me a job at his market research firm. He said, “Jesus, will you get a life?”
In the mornings I slept in a bathroom stall, waking in a panic to numb legs. During meetings I jabbed a pencil into my thigh to keep from nodding off. I cut passive verbs from proposals, failed to take initiative. At five o’clock, I rolled a joint in the same stall, stuffed my shirt in my backpack, and walked from Harvard Square to Fenway.
By Central Square the shame of my nepotism fell away. By the Harvard Bridge I discovered again my love for the city, the skyline stretching across the Charles River from the white spindles of the Zakim Bridge to the glowing beacon of the Citgo Sign. I smoked the joint across the bridge, pressed to the limit of my skin. Boston nurtured my inertia. Pride in your city if not pride in yourself. Pride in losing and then losing again. I scalped tickets for the bleachers, drank ballpark beer, and got loud.
In game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, Pedro against Clemens, my high school boys posted up at Boston Billiards a block from Fenway. We’d watched the Red Sox beat Oakland in the ALDS there. Sensitive to the vagaries of mojo, we returned throughout the Yankee-Red Sox series.
The Sox knocked Clemens out by the fourth. In the eighth, Grady Little, for reasons forever mysterious, left an exhausted Pedro in beyond too long. We steeled ourselves for tragedy. When Aaron Boone launched a home run against Tim Wakefield into the left field stands at Yankee Stadium, my friend Barber, an old-school Brahmin in his good sense and reserve, lay underneath a pool table and cried. We drank in the basement of my friend Solomon’s parents’ house and beat each other with whiffle ball bats.
It’s easy fallacy to find personal allegory in sports, but the Red Sox failure augmented my own. It’s not just the cold of Boston winters, but the cold combined with the gray, weeks of brief daylight under constant cloud until it becomes impossible to imagine things might change. I spent hundreds on calling cards, talking for hours on my high school bed to Alison across the Atlantic. I slept in the bathroom stall.
“Murphy,” she said, “I’m coming.”
Now I understand her bravery in launching from home with no return ticket. Then I only saw the grand gesture, an unbounded chance to live together. We got a place in Cambridge, spring heralding renewal, a palpable force in New England made manifest by hope. I still flailed at my unearned job, but Alison was with me. Boston barely contained the force of her. She embraced us, falling in love with bearded centerfielder Johnny Damon.
Into the summer, the Red Sox stagnated under the dominance of the Yankees. Rats took residence in the drop ceiling of our living room. Watching games on TV, we could hear them urinating, squealing in sprung traps above us. When dead rats in the traps brought hordes of flies, I swung at them with a whiffle bat, just missing Alison’s face. She screamed, “Murphy, you’re losing it.”
We collapsed into drunken viciousness, fights erupting, a catcher’s mitt to the face. She stayed at the bar well after her shift. I sat on our couch, watched porn, grew shapeless, and listened to her grind her teeth in sleep. She descended into a desperation more true and immediate than any I could claim. She was so far from home with so little to sustain her outside of me. And I was deserting her.
The night it ended, I left her crying on the couch of that apartment with the rats and the flies. I left her crying, gave up, and moved back home. She did not. Rather than return to Dublin beaten, Alison moved to New York.
The championship of 2004 has transformed the defeat of 2003, the last heartbreak for older generations, baptism by fire for the new generation. The story has a beautiful arc in hindsight, but going into the ALCS rematch against the Yankees, the possibility of redemption was weighted against the dread of fresh trauma. People questioned raising their children as Sox fans. In the embarrassing losses of the first three games, I saw a Calvinist affirmation of my own preordained failure. Drunk after Game 3, a 19-8 home embarrassment, autumn oppressive, the Red Sox again on the lip of elimination, I punched the window out of the entrance to my friends’ apartment building, the penance of a bloody fist.
In their apartment on the couch I occupied most weekends, I watched the Sox fight the old identity, the spectacular losers. Don’t let us win tonight, first baseman/mascot Kevin Millar said. Pedro’s going in Game 5. Curt Schilling, with an ankle swollen like a sausage, skin sewn behind the bone to take the place of his ruptured tendon sheath, took the ball in Game 6, screamed with pain into a towel during Sox at-bats, and held the Yankees down. In Game 7, with the resounding shot of Johnny Damon’s grand slam, hope erupted.
After the last out, we ran from the apartment building, joining thousands behind Fenway on Boylston. Dudes climbed light poles. Girls flashed their chests. Idiots threw bottles. It didn’t matter if the Cardinals were a fearsome World Series opponent. The city was a singularity of feeling.
The Sox won it all, their victory a comet strike across the strata of Red Sox fandom. The old terrain of futility wiped clean. Red Sox fans discovered history altered permanently for the better. It granted me release. I left my father’s company for Arkansas, for grad school, finding people who loved writing, who thought I could write. I discovered I could teach. In minor ways, I succeeded. Over the summers, I never failed to get to Fenway.
Around Fenway, the city changed. The Big Dig unearthed old brick buildings and paired them with new sightlines, parks, smoked glass. Some of my high school friends settled into true Bostonians, fluent in real estate and good bars. Others fell from Boston’s orbit. In Arkansas, accent affected to caricature, I styled myself an ambassador of Boston, but when I returned home the city belonged to those who remained.
The lyricism surrounding baseball is a tired thing, but like most cliché it springs from a place of truth. In the thick of Sox fans in the bowels of Fenway I listened to those genuine accents, marinated in the unapologetic northeastern surliness that the rest of the country rightfully criticizes us for while entirely missing the point. At times, it thaws. For me, it thaws walking up the ramp to the close horizon of Fenway’s grass nestled within the city. Places of worship are marked by a unity of faith, saturating the building with one meaning. In that way, Fenway is a temple. Those who come from far away make pilgrimages to get whole.
In Tahlequah I found a rare teaching job. Alone in an odd land, the tangible successes that eluded me in Boston grew into a low cairn. I had lucked into a small university with kids hungry to write. Perhaps they heard some truth when I said that writing is controlled failure. Perhaps they believed me when I told them to cling to success wherever it arose. Their successes dug me into the Oklahoma soil like a yankee weed.
New York proved the city big enough to contain Alison. She married a man who danced the Nutcracker, had a little boy. She made jokes about Oklahoma, more foreign to her than Slovakia. “Murphy,” she said, “Get out while you can.” Expats are made because either home failed them or they failed home. Like my family, she thought I could come back.
Through 2013, I watched the Red Sox in Ned’s, Tahlequah’s college bar, giving up The Branch because of bad mojo. The Sox overturned expectations again, going from their worst record in over forty years to the playoffs. I sat alone drinking Sam Adams, smoking nervous cigarettes, and talking baseball to whomever would listen. In the fall, few people cared. College football had started.
The bearded bassist of a local red dirt band called me “Tahlequah’s #1 Sox fan.” They all bought me rounds of Jameson when Koji Uehara struck out the final Cardinal, even the bartender who was a diehard Cardinals fan, who loved baseball the way I did. They smiled as I screamed on the phone with my nephew. I watched the Fenway fans celebrate their first home World Series clinching victory in nearly a century. In Tahlequah I was Boston, but in Boston I wasn’t missed. I celebrated alone in the bar and left to quiet streets. I didn’t cancel class the next day. That summer I returned to Fenway with my sister, my nephew, under the Boston sunset, pressed to my limit by home and the lack of it.