Trying to maintain

This story happened a while ago. I’ve changed names and other details.

Christopher Rodriguez tells me he’s just trying to maintain. He tends bar on the weekends, he says, but never gets many shifts and isn’t sure how long he’ll even have the job. I suspect he’s asking for advice, so I begin to venture it, but he waves me off. “I ain’t about all that. Just trying to maintain,” he says, a second time.

“I’m on that SSI,” he adds—Social Security Income. He’s trying to ensure that he doesn’t lose welfare benefits by making too much money. He thinks about job training programs sometimes, but the mere thought starts a mental tailspin, and he’s trying to maintain. He’s got a decent rhythm now, days and weeks of good behavior turning into months. How long can he keep this up?

Christopher and I both have sons on the same Little League baseball team. The team is practicing on a warm April night, and Christopher and I are standing in the dugout. We don’t know each other from Adam, and before now we’d never ventured past small talk. I’d been curious about him, though—he stood out from the rest of us suburban dads.

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Christopher is a good five or six inches shorter than I am, but built like a bull. If you saw him walking toward you on the sidewalk, your spine might stiffen. His resting face could be mistaken for a glower, sharpened by a dark, triangular beard. His left arm is covered in what you’d think is a sleeve tattoo until you give it a closer look—it is not planned art, but a congealed history of nights and weekends, plus, as I learned, a stint in prison.

Earlier in the season while trying to break the ice with Christopher and another tattooed dad, I asked them where they got their tattoos. “I’m in the market,” I said. “Looking for some good local talent.” (There has to be a cool way to inquire about local tattoo talent, but I do not know what it is.)

Christopher took me in for a couple beats, then: “Shit, man, no fucking clue,” he said, then added, “I’m not saying I got mine in the joint, but….” He laughed. I didn’t know what to say. We had stared for a moment just past each other’s shoulders.

But on this night, all of a sudden, we’re past the awkward stares and small talk. I had asked one question—”So, how are things going for you?”—and for some reason he’s really, really answering me.

I learn that Christopher is 32 and that he’s on a good run—he has been out of jail for a while, and he’s living clean. Things are balanced in his life at the moment, and while he knows he needs to make more money, get him and his son out of his parents’ house, he cannot not chance pushing too hard: he has to maintain.

Christopher is paying down a restitution—he owes the State of Texas $100 per month as a penalty for a crime he won’t disclose. That $100/month in restitution is his main financial priority, and when it is done a new door will open: “Then I can help coach.” He gestures toward the field where his son is playing.

“You mean you can help coach baseball?”

He’s been talking nonstop for five minutes, but this question brings him up short. Christopher looks down, fights back tears. I sneak a peek at the other parents.

“You can’t coach without a background check,” he says. His son plays football in the fall, and “I don’t know much about baseball, but man … football? I could play.” Christopher bounces on his heels a bit, anticipating. He claps his hands together. Once he can clear a background check, he won’t stand on the sidelines talking to parents like me.

He looks up at the sky for a moment, muttering to himself. His eyes brighten: “Oh shit, that’s right, I’ll be able to coach this next season!” Then his eyes fade: “No, wait. I still owe $1200.” He does the math again. “I guess it’ll be next fall.” He falls silent for a moment. “Twelve more months.” Sigh. “I can do that.”

We start talking about extended family, which Christopher just calls “family.” He doesn’t understand my situation—my wife and I live here with just our kids and no other family anywhere in Texas. The in-laws are in one city, siblings in a couple others. Christopher tells me he can’t relate to that. For Christopher, it’s all family. I say I envy him, and he laughs. He keeps talking about “Rodriguez” like it’s is a disease, or a drug. “You can’t get rid of the Rodriguez … They’ll always be Rodriguez.”

Christopher’s dad beat him with a belt all the time, he tells me. That’s the same dad he lives with now—I sometimes see him in the stands at the baseball games. I ask Christopher if he and his dad are okay now. He looks at me like he doesn’t understand what I’m asking. I put it bluntly: “Well, he beat you with a belt while you were growing up, and now you’re living with him—I mean, how is all that?”

Christopher stares at me for a moment. He changes the subject.

A little while later, Christopher tells me about the time he beat his ex-wife and she called the cops. He tells me this like he’s describing ordering a sandwich—it’s the most matter of fact thing in the world. When the cops came, he got away with a warning: “If you kill your wife, you’ll be going away for a long time,” they told him.

His ex-wife has 4 or 5 more kids from a couple different guys. Christopher says that all of them have been put into foster care system now. He’s not sure what she did to lose them all.

When he and his parents sought custody of Christopher’s boy, Christopher had to appear in court and answer a lot of questions about his life. He said it was hard to talk about himself in front of all those people—it was nothing like talking to me, right now. He’d never been so scared, he says. For the second time, he fights back tears.

All of the above, I get in one 30-minute conversation with Christopher while we watch our sons do defensive drills and shag balls.

The baseball season goes on. Our team is terrible—we eek out a couple wins midway through the season, but the squad is full of first-time players, and mostly we watch the other team score runs. Christopher and I stop small-talking, stop talking at all. He nods at me at practices and games; I nod back. He starts standing further apart, and then, with a few games left in the season, stops showing up. His son gets rides from Christopher’s dad.

I try to track him down. No one I know knows him or anyone he knows.