Monday, November 14, 2011

Billy Saddle: The Story so Far

When he sees it in his dreams – the ball bounding toward him like some round promise of destiny – Billy realizes that he cannot move his arms, because Frankie Minor has wrapped him in an ill-timed embrace. The ball flies past, so close that he can see the stitching. Billy’s anger is animal and quick, until he looks behind them and sees the ball bouncing into the right-field corner. The dream fades as McCarthy rounds third.

When he sees it in his dreams, the ball arcing toward the spruce forest like a Satanic missile, David realizes that he has superpowers. He takes a deep breath and blows the ball far into the woods, where it will do no further harm. Where it will not inspire his best friend to launch a Willie Maysian sprint away from the infield, and to end up in a crumpled heap at the left-field fence, his heart collapsing on itself like a termite-riddled shack.

They gather on the end of the jetty at Point Brown. David cannot recall the significance of this spot, but the will was clear. The trek was perilous – a half mile into the ocean along a narrow strand of rocks – but the late May weather is a miracle of sun and calm.
            David sets his sportcoat on a rock and offers the brief tribute he’s been running through his mind all morning. A man of music, and nature, and laughter. The kindest man I have ever known. He tells Larry’s favorite joke – the one that ends “tank tankity tank” – and is relieved when everybody laughs. And he tries, in his creaky bass-player’s voice, to sing a few measures of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” because that was Larry’s favorite song. He’s surprised to find that he’s not crying. He turns, opens the lid and sends the ashes into the ocean.
            When they return to the beach, Elena’s eyes are too dark and moist for him to fathom. Pablo and Derek are annoyed, but they’re teenage boys, it’s their job. He’s happy enough when they take turns slapping him on the shoulder.
            “I hear you were wonderful,” says Elena. “You’re such a good friend.” She hugs him, but he pulls back.
            “Dios mio!” (This is their little joke, the Anglo husband with his Spanish eruptions.) “I left mi jacqueta on the jetty.”
            “Silly gringo. You’d better get it – it’s your favorite.”
            “Okay. Ten minutes, tops.”
            “Don’t hurt yourself.”
            Derek and Pablo do their best not to groan.
            David runs the jetty, the same game that he played with his boys when they were small. Find a flat surface, stick it, look for the next. Elena couldn’t come to the scattering because she’s too fat. He hates to think these things. David slows his pace. He’s tired; he’s near the end. He hears singing.
            He sees a scarlet hunting cap, in the Bavarian style. A short black feather rises from the band like the flag on a mailbox. The cap looks like it’s gone through hell, and so does its owner, a human fencepost dressed all in denim. His wiry hair and beard are the color of rust, his skin like a sunbaked saddle. He aims a crooked, avian nose toward the landing point of Larry’s ashes and sings “‘Round Midnight” in a sandpaper baritone.
            David was wrong. This was Larry’s favorite song. And he knows why he didn’t sing it, because he can feel it taking him apart, brick by brick.

Point Damon is a living illustration in The Way of Things. The seaward shore, harassed by waves and wind, offers a rock-strewn but solid footing of wet sand. The harbor side, lapped by gentle waves, presents a layer of sand and soil the consistency of sponge cake. Each step sinks two inches, turning a mile hike into five miles of work.

            In the parlance of Ocean Shores, today is a good day: overcast with light rain and a wind that will not actually knock you over. David walks the seaward side, one gray crescent after another, and runs through his mental list.
            Larry. He never realized how close they were. He never knew the frequency of their daily interactions. What does he do with the trio? The softball team? Will every deep fly, every performance of “Witchcraft” be an insult to his memory?
            Elena. His wife is grotesquely fat. But this is the same woman he married, the woman he loved with a passion that threatened to swallow him whole. The woman who gave him two gorgeous boys. He cringes at the sight of her, at the very thought of sex, and he hates himself.
            Money. This was the plan: they would open an ice cream shop. At the end of the school year, he would go from teaching to dishing up sundaes. Summer sales were good, but not enough to justify a year-round overhead. They needed to find something to attract the locals during the off-season, or they needed to get the hell out. Besides, he suspected his wife was embezzling the stock.
            Thankfully, he’s interrupted by The Carousel. At the end of the point, the water from the ocean swings to the left, running along the shore in a semicircular stream. David could watch it for hours. But today he smells chicken. And curry. Rosemary, parsley. He has heard that grief can distort the senses, but he didn’t expect such a specific list of ingredients.
            He turns toward the smell and finds a wigwam built of driftwood. Some of the pieces are twelve feet high. A trail of smoke rises from the center. As he nears the spot, he finds an opening, and rough shapes: a log, a plank holding plates and glasses, one book. A large pot hanging from a length of copper pipe.
            He hears whistling: “Take Five.” Around the bend of the harbor shore stands a naked man, covered in soap. David beelines back to the ocean. For the first time this week, he’s hungry.

David has taken up smoking. Not because he likes it; because he needs something to do. Isaiah has begun his solo dinner hour. David sets his bass on a stand next to the dance floor. He descends the long flight of steps next to the hotel and settles on a low wall near the dunes. The night is crystalline cold, stars flocking over the beach in record numbers. An elderly couple walks the wooden path over the sand, bundled up like ice skaters. David pulls a mint-green box from his windbreaker. He’s had it for two weeks, and still has five cigarettes. He pulls one out and stares at it. He hears singing.
            No. It’s Isaiah, playing “Cottontail” at an easy swing. The man’s a genius. Just keeping up with him makes his brain hurt. People say David’s basswork sounds great, but it’s hard to enjoy yourself when you’re a swimmer lost at sea, fighting a rip tide of chord changes. Weird. It sounds like Isaiah’s playing one of those Ella Fitzgerald scat lines. How the hell do you get that from a piano?
            He hears a finger-snap, and spies a shadow at the back of the hotel, hiding between a dune and a patio. David closes his eyes and listens to the voice, deedling an arc of nonsense syllables over the top of the melody. He makes it sound easy; it isn’t. Larry was the best singer he’s ever known, and scatting totally threw him. If he lights the cigarette, Shadow Man will disappear, so David listens for a while, pockets the mint-green box and heads upstairs for a soda.
            Ralph won’t let his musicians drink until they’re done playing. David can’t really blame him; he’s known a lot of musicians. But it’s hard to play cold sober, especially tonight. At break time, they head for Isaiah’s truck and break out the miniature liquor bottles. David resists the temptation to raise a toast to fallen comrades, and takes his Jack Daniel’s at a shot.
            “Ah! Much better.”
            “Always,” says Isaiah.
            Isaiah is seven feet tall. A seven-foot Jew with a Barry White voice and one of those chin-spike tufts that the Beats called a goatee.
            David once said, “You ever consider the fact that you could snap me like a twig?”
            Isaiah unleashed his monstrous smile. “You know how hard it is to find a good bassist?”
            No talk now. They take turns sighing, watching their breath rise into the streetlights.
            “Tourist season,” says Isaiah.
            “I know.”
            “Need a singer.”
            “Yep. And Ocean Shores is just crawling with Bennetts and Sinatras.”
            “I keep playing the old intros,” says Isaiah. “And I look over to give the cue…”
            “Yeah. Tell you what. I’ll take out an ad. We’ll do some auditions. Frankly, I need the money.”
            “Ice cream?”
            “Because the tourists of Washington State deserve the same chance at obesity as my wife. Oh God. I’m sorry.”
            Isaiah cleans out a Captain Morgan. “Nonsense! This parking lot is our confessional. You say whatever you need to.”
            “Thank you, Father Silverstein.”
            “Here. Take the sacrament.”
            He hands David a bottle of Binaca. David takes a blast and hands it back. They make for the hotel.
            “What do you wanna play?”
            “Something happy.”
            “‘Girl from Ipanema.’”
            “That’s not happy! She doesn’t even see the poor guy.”
            “Yeah,” says Isaiah. “But she’s tall and tan and young and lovely.”

David stares at home plate, a Milky Way of scars and scratches. The umpire finishes his sweeping and stands up. “Real sorry about this – recent events and all – but I gotta start the clock, David. Y’got five minutes to come up with that eighth man.”
            “I understand. Just wish I knew where Georgie was.”
            David wanders down the line. His players are warming up, heads on a swivel, looking for a savior. He peers into the spruce forest beyond the bleachers and catches a flash of red.
            “Hey! Guy in the cap!”
            The man slows to a halt and looks in David’s direction. Still wearing denim, still with the Bavarian hat.
            “We need another guy or we have to forfeit.”
            The man squints and blinks. “I don’t know…”
            “You don’t have to do a thing. If you just stand out there, you’ve already saved us.”
            The man studies his boot-tops, then stares into the outfield. He licks his lips and scratches an ear.
            “Right field okay?”
            “Right field’s perfect. Hey! Anybody got an extra glove?”
            Oscar offers a beat-up Rawlings. They go with the standard eight-man defense, leaving second base open and trusting David to pitch for the inside corner. Naturally, his first attempt drifts over the plate, and the batter lifts a lazy fly to right. Merzy’s fast, but there’s now way he’s going to get there. Their new recruit is frozen, gazing skyward as if he’s just spotted an interesting bird. David realizes he doesn’t even know the guy’s name, so he’s left to watch in a silent panic.
            The man flips his hand into the air. The ball lands with a smack. He takes it out and studies it, looking for secret messages, then chucks it to the second baseman who isn’t there. It rolls to David’s feet. Merzy jogs by and slaps the man on the back. He flinches.
            After the third out, the man walks directly across the foul line and sits on a tree stump. Oscar comes over to confer with David.
            “You see the way he threw up his glove like that?”
            “Yeah,” says David. “He’s a player.”
            “Shall I invite him to join us in the dugout?”
            “Nah. Probably won’t bat till next inning.”
            “O ye of little faith.”
            “Well if you bozos would line up a few hits…”
            The following inning, someone laces a ball down the right field line, and the legend of Red Man grows. He races to the line, plants a foot and spins, hurling a one-hopper to second. The batter rounds first and stays there, shaking his head. At the end of the inning, Red Man strolls to the rack and picks out a bat.
            “You’re up third,” says David.
            His eyes are bullets of steel blue.
            “I guess you’ve played this game before.”
            He wraps his fingers around the handle and flexes his wrists.
            “Tell you the truth, I can’t remember.”
            The first two batters manage to wind up on second and third. Red Man stands in, leans his bat against his shoulder and watches four pitches go by, two strikes, two balls. David is tempted to call time and remind him that it’s okay to take a swing, but decides that it really doesn’t matter. The next pitch is about to drift by for strike three when Red Man punches at it, slapping a grounder into right. Both runners score. He stands on first, arms folded, as if nothing could be more natural.
            They lose the game – ten-on-eight being a pretty hefty advantage – but they do manage to fight off the ten-run mercy rule. With condolences added to the mix, the pitching-mound handshakes take longer than usual. When David returns to the bench, he finds Oscar’s old glove dangling from the bat rack. Red Man is nowhere in sight.

David’s children are a joke of the universe. Elena’s father Pablo died during her first pregnancy, so their eldest automatically took his name. Naturally, the genetic blender kicked out a gringito with blond hair, blue eyes and a windstorm of freckles. This crook-nosed Ichabod Crane charmed his way to an insane level of high-school popularity, and now, at 19, maintained his dominion over the local youth as night manager of Laney’s Pizza. He rarely left the premises.
            The naming of number two fell to David, who chose to honor his still-living Uncle Derek. This time, the blender delivered jet-black hair, coal-black eyes and skin the color of pancakes. Now 16, he resembles a young Desi Arnaz, minus the skills with music and women. He is, in fact, the biggest geek David has ever known – but he glories in his geek-ness, which is somehow very cool.
            David loops his softball bag over his shoulder and closes his car door, unleashing all the stars in the galaxy. He sends his thanks to the tall pines that block out the lights of town. And there’s Gemini. He and Larry were so much alike that they called each other Castor and Pollux. In the sky, he could never remember which was which.
            He stows his bag in the hall closet and reports to the computer room, where Derek is pursuing his parallel life in the World of Warcraft. His avatar, a blond viking with green gecko-skin, is doing equestrian battle with a gold-plated triceratops. He wins, as expected, stomping the poor critter into a copper-puddle extinction.
            “Yes!” he exults, and spins in his chair. “Hi Dad. How’d you do?”
            “How much?”
            “Eight runs.”
            “I don’t…”
            “You beat the spread.”
            “You’re making book on slow-pitch softball?”
            “Sure. I had you as eleven-point ‘dogs. And Toby Monamer, that almighty oaf, now owes yours truly a cool deuce.”
            “Two bucks. We keep it pretty light.”
            “But it’s still gambling.”
            Derek tents his fingers like a district attorney and speaks in a booming baritone. “Miss Thompson, please read back the testimony from… sometime last month.” He places a pair of reading glasses on the tip of his nose and responds in a Lily Tomlin nasal. “Derek’s father: ‘Son, the best way to stay out of trouble is to find creative ways to stay busy.’”
            David grins. “You are such a geek.”
            “Damn straight. And if you really are going to raise me in the bustling cultural paradise of Open Sores, what’s a little gaming if it keeps me away from the crackheads?”
            “You know, one of these days…” David raises a rhetorical finger, “I’d sure like to win an argument with you.”
            Derek flashes a Cuban bandleader smile. “I’ll toss you a bone once in a while. Ya got my numbers?”
            He hands him the scorebook. “Stat monster.”
            “You beat the spread with eight men? Who the heck is Red Man?”
            “We had to Shanghai a civilian. Didn’t even catch his name.”
            “Not to tweak your old-school sensibilities, Dad, but today we call them Native Americans.”
            “Gotcha. Get to sleep sometime.”
            “I will. Love ya!.”
            “Love ya back.”
            David heads down the hallway, already working on his next-day limp. He pauses at the bedroom door and is relieved when he hears Elena snoring.

            “When Lincoln and Douglas debated in Charleston, Illinois, Lincoln said the following: ‘There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as… there must be a position of superior and inferior… I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
            He spots a hand mid-class. Ah yes, Kevin Konker.
            “Isn’t this just another case of a bunch of liberal academics trying to rewrite history?”
            From the tone of his questions, Kevin had long ago given himself away as a fan of conservative radio, where grand conspiracies could be constructed from whole cloth whenever the host ran out of actual arguments. David always found it best to begin with a compliment, the better to knock his opponent off-balance.
            “That’s an excellent question, Kevin. In fact, ne of the biggest mistakes made my academics is to judge historical figures by modern moral standards. Imagine if Lincoln ran for President in 2012 and made this same statement. Holy crap!”
            His low-level obscenity gets a laugh, which in a final-period class, on a sunny day, is a major victory.
            “However, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were widely attended and recorded, so I assure you, that is what the man said. Lincoln saw the abolition of slavery as an unattainable goal, so he kept his focus on stopping the spread of slavery. And he occasionally talked like a racist. If he had tried for more – if he had become an outright abolitionist – he would not have become President, and we would not be talking about him right now.
            “Now. I want you to understand something else. All your lives, we have sold you an image of Abraham Lincoln as a great and saintly figure. This is because your minds were not yet capable of grasping the jarring complexities that make up the true Lincoln. In the end, I hope that you will see him as I do: not that giant dull face on Mount Rushmore but a flawed and vigorous human being, an absolutely brilliant politician and legal thinker, and an amazing leader of men. But I leave that decision to you.”
            He checks the clock and finds he has only ten seconds.
            “Chapter 16 for Monday. One week till finals. Hang in there!”
            He nails the last word at the bell, then steps away from the door lest he be trampled. In Ocean Shores, spring fever is an actual and perilous affliction. The salmon swimming upstream is Abigail Sparling, a gathering of strawberry blonde curls, freckled cheekbones and hazel eyes that bend light like Einsteinian opals.
            “David, I love you.”
            “Hold that thought.” He catches Kevin by the shoulder. Kevin turns with a blank look, that expressionless expression used by teenagers the world ‘round.
            “Mister Konker. Keep those questions coming. Makes for a lively classroom.”
            “Oh. Sure. Thanks.”
            And he’s gone with the rest. David makes certain to close and lock the door before he returns to Abbey, who is perched provocatively on his desk.
            “Now I love you even more. First I loved you for that fucking brilliant analysis of Lincoln. Now I love you for taking that Limbaugh-loving punk – he who claims that it ain’t poetry unless it rhymes, ahrr! – and planting that devious little seed of skepticism. You are a beautiful, beautiful man, and I want to have your children.”
            “Thanks. But could you please stop the gushing before one of my children passes by?”
            She twirls a strand of hair around a pinkie. “Sorry. I’m a poet.”
            “No shit. Any other reason for your visit, Ms. Sparling?”
            She hands him a flyer. “The annual literary anthology. Tell your students. Perhaps buy a dozen copies for your family.”
            “Well, I don’t know about…”
            “Because your son’s in it.”
            “Two poems. Excellent poems.”
            “I had no idea.”
            “Derek’s mind is almost as interesting as his old man’s.” She hops off his desk and makes for the door. David’s always had a weakness for women who wear jackets with blue jeans. She turns at the door.
            “Listen. I understand the wife thing, the professional thing. That… other thing. But I am well acquainted with tragedy. If you want to talk sometime, I’m sure you’ll find a way to let me know.”
            Abbey opens the door with her left arm – because it’s the only one she’s got – and slips into the hallway. He listens to the tock of her cowboy boots until they fade into the hum of the ventilation, and wonders if his son is in love with her, too.

He pulls into the Beach Mall to find young people on mopeds, running loops around the parking lot. This is both the plus and minus of Harvey’s Bike-Rent. Plus: it brings in traffic. Minus: stupid, reckless traffic. A teenage couple is headed right for him, legs and arms all over the place. They wobble past his fender in a burst of Doppler giggling and turn for the beach. It’s Derek’s friend, Toby Monamer. With a girl.
            “Hi handsome.”
            Elena slides a bowl into the sink. She may or may not have been eating from it.
            “Hola, guapa.” (?)
            He leans over the counter for a kiss and comes back with Exhibit B. Strawberry.
            “How’s the biz?” he asks.
            “Sunshine! Got a nice little after-school rush.”
            “I’ve been slipping subliminal messages into my lectures. Benjamin Franklin got the French to send Lafayette largely by plying his wife with pistachio ice cream.”
            Elena releases her bright, rounded laugh. Her laugh is as tasty as her lips. And she laughs at his jokes.
            “One more week, I’ll be back there with you, honey. You okay for closing?”
            “I’m fine. Could you pick up a pizza?”
            “I know just the place.”
            She draws up a simple smile. There’s something else about her that he has never figured out, until now. Her eyebrows are perfect: dark and sharp, curving inward at an angle that makes her seem ceaselessly witty and sexy. All these years, he has been in thrall to something he has not actually seen.
            “Looking at my beautiful wife.”
            The smile grows. With whiter skin she’d be blushing.
            “You make me feel like a teenager.”
            “Just stay off the mopeds.”
            “Gringo loco.”
            He exits to a warm breeze. A twelve-year-old grinds past on a skateboard.

He drives all of one block to Laney’s Pizza, but he pauses at the entryway. Pablo is hands-on, dancing among register, oven and counter, touching up the rough edges, nudging his workers this way and that. Pizza management is not civil engineering, or graphic design, or teaching, but look how good he is.
            David makes his entrance to the usual greeting.
            “It’s my old man! How ya doin’, Pops?”
            Pablo offers a sloppy grin and four knuckles. David delivers the fist-bump and follows with the finger-pistol salute.
            “Hey!” says Pablo. “New school/old school. Coolest father in town, man. Gets it from hanging out with teenagers all day. Am I right, Cube?”
            The Asian kid with the white Mohawk thumps his chest and flips a peace sign. “Word!”
            “I’m here strictly on business,” says David. “Your mother would like a large combo with anchovies.”
            Pablo makes the Yuk Face, his rubbery features sucking toward the center.
            “What is up with that?”
            “It’s Ocean Shores, son. Ocean. People here like seafood.”
            “I’m gonna be sorely disappointed tonight when I raid the fridge and find fish all over the pizza.”
            David moves toward Cube at the cash register. Pablo waves him off.
            “Yer money’s no good here, old man.”
            “You’re sure.”
            “Hey, I’ve earned some freebies. Just don’t tell my cheapass friends. Now go play. I’ll come getcha.”
            David wonders why he never feels like the father anymore. It’s a long downhill road, one that began with Pablo’s first command, at the age of five: “Not that jacket, Dad! Nobody likes that jacket.”
            David heads for the arcade and finds The Sopranos in working order. Who wouldn’t love a pinball machine with its own stripper pole? He cherishes this tiny island of time created by the cooking of pizza. It’s mindless, it’s fun, and – thanks to the thousand wasted afternoons of his youth – he’s good at it. The last thought before he slips into the noise and blink is this: I have got to find a singer.

            God knows how he got so many sharks in the family, but Derek’s into the anchovies, too. Unfortunately, the little buggers have decided to pursue a second life, swimming laps around David’s stomach. An hour into the struggle, he gives up on the idea of sleep and rises to the edge of the bed. Elena moans and shifts; the mounds of her flab settle into place like cooling lava. He cannot imagine how he will ever again venture into these territories, but he knows that someday he must try.
            This is not a positive track. He wanders to the laundry room, finds an extra pair of jeans and heads outside. It’s one o’clock. Pablo’s not home yet.
            Out of sheer habit, he walks into town. Past the ice cream shop, his personal albatross, toward the hotel, his primary irritation. He takes a left toward Laney’s.
            Pablo’s pickup is out front. The front door is wide open, the lights are on. The anchovies in David’s stomach have gathered in a tight pack. He stops in the entryway and listens. Nothing. He steps inside, light on his feet, the way he feels after he releases a pitch. The place is unnervingly perfect, like a museum of a pizza parlor. He hears the faraway roll of the breakers.
            A small sound from the back. He steps into the hallway past the arcade.
            The response sounds like the mewling of a cat, somewhere inside the walls, but then it gains consonants.
            He finds a doorknob around the corner, takes a breath and turns it. It’s a tiny, dark room, smelling of ammonia and vomit. The light slides across to reveal a figure huddled next to the wall, his head buried in his knees. David crouches next to him; he’s breathing in short, gasping intakes, like an engine about to stall.
            “Pablo, it’s okay. It’s Dad.”
            He manages to get an arm under his knees, another around his shoulders, and carries him to a bench. Pablo smells of urine; he’s shaking uncontrollably. David holds him on his lap and tries to remember all the old tricks: smoothing the hair, gentle rocking, the whispered chant of “It’s all right, it’s all right.”
            Pablo looks up, his pale blue eyes bigger than ever. “They had guns, Dad. I thought… I thought they were gonna…”
            He buries his head in his father’s chest and shivers, the adrenaline working its way out.
            “It’s all right,” says David. He pulls his cell phone from his jacket.

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