Make Something: Back Story

Today’s make something assignment is unlike any thus far:

Make up a name and write a back story for a stranger you see today.

As a person who works from home, I don’t see strangers every day. But today I was in two places where strangers were about.

I had a business meeting at Panera and was so focused on my colleague and our discussion I barely noticed anyone else in the bustling restaurant. Well, except the beautiful woman in the next booth who wore a striking sheer blouse with cut-out shoulders—with her strong, lean arms showing through. Very pretty. She had dark skin and dark, shoulder-length hair. Her name might have been Dominique.

A back story? I don’t have one for her.

But this evening I watched my son play in his first-round baseball play-off game. His team won by slaughter rule … again (it’s been a good season). Anyway, the opposing team’s coach had an interesting look and a strong presence on the field. Definitely a character for whom I could conceive a back story. I took his picture, but I don’t feel right sharing a stranger’s photo without permission. So I’m going to have to describe, and you’re going to have to use that imagination of yours.

* * *

Stan Phillips is a year or two past 50. His royal blue baseball cap sits so deep on his forehead, it nearly joins with his black wayfarer sunglasses. His visible skin—nose, cheek bones, ears, neck, arms from elbows down, and legs from ankles to knees—are the reddish brown of a sportsman in mid-July. I suspect deep crows feet draw lines from his eyes to his temples. But those wayfarers are in the way, so I can’t say for sure.

His scruffly beard, mustache, and uncontrolled hair are carefree salt-and-pepper. He was dishwater blonde as a kid, then his hair got darker (and now grayer) with age. Under that cap, there are plenty of curls, but his hairline is sneaking upward. He compensates by leaving it all long enough to touch his collar. Besides, why spend time and money on a haircut when you can be on the lake or on the golf course or at the ballpark?

Stan is head coach of this high school park district ball team. But he doesn’t have a son on the field. He doesn’t have a son at all. Not since he lost Aaron.

Stan and his wife had a stillborn boy 18 years ago. Neither of them ever got over the loss. But as he learned to move on, she didn’t. She’s been living with her mother in Tacoma for that past 12 years. Never goes out. Sits on a porch swing in any weather, staring at the shrubbery. Hasn’t said a word since they left the hospital with their empty infant carrier and Eddie Bauer diaper bag, still with the tag on it.

Stan stopped visiting her a few years ago. He stays in touch with his mother-in-law. He’ll never divorce his wife or take interest in another woman. But he can’t fix, or face, her emptiness any more.

By day, Stan manages a data center. He’s a good boss to his small team of young IT guys, and senior management trusts him to keep their systems in a secure, steady environment. He’s well-liked but not climbing any corporate ladders. Managing a data center is good enough. He arrives on time and leaves on time.

When work is done, he swaps his polo, khakis, and loafers for a jersey, shorts, and baseball spikes, and he heads for the ballpark. Stan offers a coached practice to any players who want it, every evening after work. He takes the game seriously. He teaches boys to hit, run, and catch. But also to study a pitcher’s wind-up. To notice a batter’s stance. To feel for a ridge where infield dirt meets outfield grass, anticipating how the ball might stop, hop, or roll. To keep their heads in the game. But never, ever take the game too seriously.

These are the lessons he learned from his dad—a Cardinals fan so loyal he named his only son Stan Musial Phillips. Stan’s father passed seven weeks before his grandson was born still. If there was any blessing in the whole situation, it was that Pops didn’t have to face that loss. It would have stopped his weak heart for sure.

Photo Credit: (Warren M. Winterbottom/Associated Press)

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