a novel by Michael J. Vaughn
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.
“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.”
“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?”
“‘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?”
“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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
David is almost grateful that tonight’s candidates are awful. He’s got enough on his mind. Mostly his eldest son, who has not left his room for days.
Candidate number one is a tough-looking redhead who comes from a blues background. She sings every song as if her old man is coming home to blow her head off, and the more she emotes the harder she sings. Putting all that pressure on her throat causes her tone to blat out, nicely illustrating the line between singing and shouting. He’d like to give her a good, hard slap for crimes against music, and feels fortunate that Isaiah is handling personnel duties.
“Thanks so much for coming out. You’ve really got a terrific voice. We’re going to take quite a while to come to a decision, so please be patient with us.”
“No problem!” she says. “I’m so sorry about your friend.”
“Thank you. That’s one reason we’re taking so long with this. We’re still in a bit of shock.”
He sends her out the door and returns to the garage, eyes to the heavens.
“You are so smooth. You sure you never went to law school?”
Isaiah grins. “That is so much preferable to ‘You sure you never played basketball?’”
“So you’d prefer to be stereotyped by race as opposed to height?”
“‘How’s the weather up there?’”
Candidate number two is even worse. David recalls a mention of classical training and choirs. Larry used to attribute his breath control to just such a background. But to show up with sheet music, and to reproduce each note with Mozartean precision? Well, yikes. He and Isaiah are dragging him through a metronomic rendition of “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” when a ruckus breaks out inside the house. It sounds like a pit bull on the attack.
David cuts out, leaving Isaiah with Luciano Pavarotten, and sails down the hall. He opens the door to find Pablo in his briefs, sparring with the TV screen as he sends a squad of zombies to horrible deaths.
“Die, you motherfuckers! Pieces of shit DIE! Fuck you and fuck you. Not so fucking bad now, are ya!?”
He spots his father at the door and freezes. David is stunned at the transformation, the scraggly patches of beard, the snarled fright-wig, dark circles under wild eyes.
David points at the screen. “Watch out! They’re right on top of you.”
Pablo pauses, confused, then turns to find a circle of flesh eaters bearing down.
“Get ‘em!” yells David. “Kill those motherfuckers!”
“Yahh!” Pablo guns them down in a shower of blood. “Die you assholes! Fucking DIE! Ahahahaha!”
David returns to the garage, feeling very fortunate that Elena’s not home.
“Hi. Sorry ‘bout that. So Isaiah, have we heard enough of a sample?”
It takes a moment for Isaiah to realize that David is initiating an escape sequence.
“I think I’ve heard enough.”
“Thanks so much for coming out,” says David. He punches the garage door opener. “You’ve got a fantastic voice. We’re going to take a while to…”
By the end of the spiel, he manages to walk Placido Dumbingo to the driveway. He grabs two beers from the fridge, and they toast their auditioner farewell as he circles the court.
“We are so fucked.”
“Come on,” says Isaiah. “That’s only, what? Seven singers?”
“Shit. Maybe we need to start cruising the karaoke bars.”
“I’m not entirely kidding. What was the ruckus about?”
David takes a deep drink and stares at his fake-book, which has flipped itself open to “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”
“I think that was… therapy.”
“You got a weird family, man.”
David lights the cigarette, and takes a puff, and releases it. It rises toward the green exit sign as a low-flying cirrus. Okay, he thinks. That’s pretty cool. Twenty feet beyond the sign, Isaiah plays “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” spilling out the chords like he’s not actually sure if he’s going to play it. Then he chunks a cluster of notes and kicks into an easy swing. The singer comes in a little phlegmy, but he coughs it out and swells the second line like a rubber band, playing with the finish on a delayed staccato.
This is the voice David’s been carrying around in his head. Weathered brass, rough but dead on pitch, an apostle to the song but willing to play around. He surrounds the final note with baby notes (exactly like Sarah Vaughan) before landing it with a nice warm vibrato for the sendoff.
David leans back and finds him in the same spot, camped between the last dune and a low balcony.
“Hey! You’ve got a great voice.”
Shadow Man freezes.
“It’s all right. I’m with the band.”
He answers in a mumble. “Sorry. I’ll get moving right away.”
He shuffles away, stumbling in the sand.
“No, hey! We need a singer, and…”
“Don’t want trouble.”
Once he hits the wooden path, he’s gone. David flashes on the feral cats behind the ice cream shop, the ones that have been shooed away a thousand times.
He takes another puff.
“Jesus, Isaiah. That room is so dead.”
Isaiah shoots a mini-bottle of tequila and coughs it down. “I never realized how much of our public persona was Larry. Tell you the truth, sometimes I thought he was pretty cheesy. But I guess people like that.”
“Maybe we need to work up a reparteé.”
Isaiah snorts. “Oh yeah. That’ll work.”
“How come I can lecture to students all day long, but I can’t think of a thing to say about ‘Mack the Knife’?”
“Because there, you’ve got tons of material, and you love talking about it. Here, it’s all about that bass. It’s easier for singers – they’re already out front. Don’t push it. No one likes a phony. But if you do feel a wry comment coming on, give it a shot.”
“You’ve put some thought into this.” David opens a vodka.
“Isn’t that four?”
“Tough week. Month. Year.”
“The usual Aberdeen-crackhead theory. No actual evidence. Smart criminals. No security cameras. Caught Pablo alone, right when he was sorting the night’s take. Poor kid. I don’t know if he’s going back. Got him hooked up with a therapist.”
Isaiah turns up his hands. “I’m Jewish. A physical freak. Divorced. A ‘working’ musician.”
“They should probably just put you in an institution.”
“Thanks to Parthenia, no. And I hate to add to your personal shitpile, but Ralph said we need to get a singer by next week or he’s going to look elsewhere.”
“Jesus.” David downs the vodka in a spiteful shot. “Yaknow, I keep running into this homeless dude. Hides out behind the hotel. He’s got a way with a song.”
“Oh yeah,” says Isaiah. “That’s what we need. Boxcar Willie.”
“Hey, it’s like softball. Better to throw a body out there than forfeit the game.”
“Oh it’s all good until he starts panhandling the customers. I’ll make a round of the town Dumpsters and see if I can sign him up.”
“Let’s play some music before I get more depressed.”
Isaiah smiles and hands him the Binaca.
“I was thinking we’d start with ‘Learnin’ the Blues.’”
Coach Hazlett was nice enough to make David a key for the weight room, and during school vacations he became a regular visitor. His cover story was the equipment – so much better than the free weights at home – but it also made an excellent escape from the rest of his life.
Such was the case over Christmas, when Elena’s evertalking mother had turned his home into a windstorm of blather. Here on the bench press, alone with his own breath and the steady chink of the weights, David could relax. Then the door opened: Abbey Sparling, black leggings and a Seahawks sweatshirt. Despite her innate radiance, she looked worn out. But this was no surprise; this was the first Christmas.
She came to his side and bent forward into a stretch.
“Hi. Doin’ okay?”
She breathed out. “Too much time. During school I had distractions.”
“Mike hook you up?”
“Yep. Should I feel privileged?”
“You, me and Señora Vitanza.”
“Wow! I feel so VIP. ‘Course, it’s hard to say no to a woman whose remaining limb is taking a beating.”
“Oh God! Isn’t it endless?”
“Hard enough with two hands.”
Abbey stopped her stretches and studied the jungle of rods and cables. “Wow. Where do I begin?”
“Let’s try the pull bar.”
He took her to the station. A cable ran from the weight stack to a pulley, dangling a bar with handles on either end.
“Really?” she said.
“Sure.” He set the weight stack at ten pounds, grabbed the center of the bar, slipping the cable between his ring and middle fingers, and pulled it to his chin.
“I learned this after my shoulder surgery. The trick is to go real light, with lots of reps, and don’t go heavier till you absolutely have to.”
Abbey took a wide stance, felt around for the proper grip on the bar and pulled entirely too hard. The ten-pound weight flew from the stack; when it dropped back it yanked the bar from her grip and sent it spinning. David stepped in to grab it and broke out laughing.
“Damn, woman! You’re stronger than I thought.”
He looked down to find her crying, and it was easy to guess why. Nothing in her life – not even this stupid, small thing – would ever go right again. He reached over to wipe away a tear, but his hand stayed there, and the sadness in her eyes was a gravity he could not resist. What followed was a storm of kissing, of breath and tongues and warmth. It ended five minutes later. Abbey knelt on the met, her sweatshirt gone, her hand on David’s crotch. When their eyes met, they realized they could go no further.
Abbey stood and touched his shoulder – then took back her hand, as if his skin were electric.
She picked up her sweatshirt, hurried to the door, and was gone. David stared at the door for thirty seconds. He set the stack to 50 and went back to work.
David pulls the bar behind his head, taps the metal to his shoulder and lets it back up. He feels the familiar weakness filling his arms, gives it one more rep and clicks the bar back to its holder. He finds Abbey walking his way in a yellow sundress festooned with asters.
“So now you don’t even wait till school’s out?”
“The little buggers better be out studying for their finals. I take it you’re not joining me?”
“Going outside. In the sunshine. Maniac.”
“You know, Washington was an amazing physical specimen. He once broke up a riot by holding two of the participants apart – by their throats.”
“So your personal fitness guru is the Father of Our Country.”
“Yes, well, I gotta do something. I’ve been deprived of softball.”
“Oh no! The Larry thing?”
“Yeah. We’re just not up for it.”
“Maybe it’s the fact that it happened right there on the field. That’s pretty traumatic.”
“You are quite perceptive. You should be a poet.”
“Says the father of the poet.”
She hands him a thin glossy book. The cover features a pale-skinned girl with a feathered mask and a lizard tattoo.
“Hey! Sharp. And creepy.”
“Paula, my genius photographer. Just a freshman. Well, I’m going to catch some rays. Happy lifting!”
She walks away and out the door. David’s left brain is urging him to finish this round of lifts. His right brain says, Screw it! Read the poems. He wipes his arms with a towel, sits on the leg-press and flips to pages 32 and 33, headlined Derek Falter: Two Poems.
I was born on a five-four-one
took my milk in twelve measures
in a house of funk
I am the son of a bass player,
my friends deep into the
ritual of eldermock when
Dad powers up,
thwacks the low string like a
Man! Your dad’s cool.
Youth of America!
Do not let this happen to you.
The first sign of parental-
musical interest should be
answered with a subtle
campaign of hints regarding the
accordion, the hammer dulcimer,
(which really does get a bad rap).
Otherwise, you will end up
trying to talk your way into a
front-porch kiss with a
girl more intent on the
walking blues coming from the
Cripes! that what I said
(Spoonful of cereal, sip of
The clarinet is a
vastly underrated instrument.
David chuckles. Pretty freakin’ funny. And “fast-change turnaround”? Who knew the kid was actually listening?
Mr. and Mrs. Caterpillar were married in the branches of a cedar in early spring.
“You know,” said Mantis (presiding). “Things will change.”
“I suspect they will,” said Mrs. C.
“But our love will transcend,” said Mr. C.
They took their honeymoon in the San Juans, and spun their cocoons in the bridal suite. Weeks later, Mr. C popped out as a swallowtail butterfly, with elegant wings of black and yellow.
He was admiring himself in the mirror when he heard a large crash. He found a small Orca flopping on their bed, clothed in dazzling lava-lamp patterns of black and white. The Orca bared its teeth, and from its mouth came the voice of his wife.
“Hi honey! How do I look?”
Oh God oh God, thinks David. He sets the stack to 100 and goes back to work.
He has sighted the torpedo making for the boat, but he has no idea what to do. He is angry at Derek, but for what? Being too keen an observer? Too masterful a writer? It’s his own damn fault – the kid was raised on the First Amendment. How could a Constitutional scholar introduce censorship into his own house? What he needed was a deeper understanding, and there was one obvious place to get it.
“Hi. What’s up?”
“It’s about this poem.”
“I hope I didn’t overexpose you on that. But I think most of the kids know you play bass, and it’s really a funny poem.”
“No. The other one.”
“Oh. The Caterpillars?”
“It’s about my wife.”
“Oh.” Silence. The flipping of pages. “Oh geez. Oh. I am so sorry. I get so much of this fairy-tale stuff. You would think an English teacher would be better at sniffing out an allegory.”
“It’s okay,” says David. “I mean, shit, you can’t tell a kid not to write about his own family. I’m just trying to figure out how to handle it.”
“Can you meet me tonight?”
“Is that a good idea?”
“Oh stop it, you moron. Just trust me on this. Meet me at McKenzie’s at eleven-thirty.”
McKenzie’s is a pretty standard neighborhood bar, but it affords certain advantages that attract some of the better karaoke singers. The low ceiling and modest surroundings provide a comfortable setting and excellent acoustics. The host, Captain Kirk, is good with a soundboard and not given to radio-DJ yakking – a rare combination. The singers perform in a cave-like room slightly separated from the main area and bathed in red light. This creates an impression that you’re watching the singers on a very large television, but the performers seem to find it reassuring, like an acoustic womb.
David crosses the parking lot, full of doubts. His late-night constitutionals have provided a certain window for covert operations, but in such a small town the slightest whiff of teacherly hanky-panky is bound to cover the peninsula like a fast-moving fog. He finds Abbey at a back table and gives her a hug before heading off for a beer. Mrs. Lorenson from the post office is giving a reasonable approximation of “Black Velvet.”
“Are you a participant?”
“I try.” She’s twirling a strand of hair, a teenage move that makes him nervous. “I sorta stick to the eighties – the music of my generation.”
“Good stuff. Any thoughts on my brilliant kid?”
She pulls out a copy of the anthology and opens it to Derek’s poems.
“First point. The Orca is a large mammal, but also a beautiful one. ‘…clothed in dazzling lava-lamp patterns of black and white.’ Best line in the poem. The swallowtail is also beautiful – with markings that mimic the Orca’s. The poet admires his parents, and understands the deep connections between them, but he also sees this troublesome gap threatening to break them up. He doesn’t need punishment; he needs reassurance.”
David takes a moment to gather this in. Captain Kirk introduces Johnny Q, who works in the produce section at Sav-Mor. He wiggles his way into “Heartbreak Hotel.”
“So why do I still feel like giving him a kick in the ass?”
“Because he has placed you in a precarious situation, and pushed you toward a round of truth-telling with your wife that you have been putting off. Because you feel guilty and superficial for even bringing it up.”
“Jesus! Slow down. All this insight is freakin’ me out.”
“Sorry. I call it my Inner Parthenia.”
She holds up her remaining hand. “Oh yeah. Not much need for psychotherapy here.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ll soon be a client myself. Hey, one other thing. Is this really a poem?”
“Good question. We got short-shorts, flash fiction, microfiction… Derek opted for prose poetry, which carries the elevated tone and compression of poetry without the usual stanzas and line breaks. Oh! I’m up.”
She sings “Allison” by Elvis Costello. Her voice is solid but pedestrian, marked by the usual amateur lack of breath support. She returns to the table looking sheepish.
“Oh God I hope I didn’t suck.”
“Beat hell out of most of our auditioners.”
She takes a sip from her whiskey sour. A large man gets up to sing “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”
“By the way,” she says. “I consider your son’s poems the best in the anthology. He is remarkably gifted, and he manages to entirely avoid the teenage love of abstractions.”
“Non-specific words – words that don’t deliver an image. ‘Sadness.’ ‘Abomination.’ ‘Loyalty.’ Notice the difference if I say ‘hydrangea,’ ‘pancake,’ ‘blaxploitation soundtrack.’”
“So I’ll have a starving poet to go with my agoraphobic pizza manager.”
“Maybe he’ll get a job as an English teacher.”
“Oh! Like there’s any future in that.”
She delivers a backhand to his biceps. He rubs it dramatically.
“Yow! Remind me not to give you any more weightlifting tips. One-armed monster.”
She smiles. “So refreshing to be openly abused for my handicap.”
“Oh! So now we’re using the H-word?”
“Can I drive a stick? No. That’s a handicap.” She looks to the red room. “Ah. You’re about to see the real reason I dragged you here.”
Captain Kirk introduces a singer named Billy, a bearded man dressed all in denim. Unlike the other singers, Billy uses the stand, loosening the midgrip before adjusting the height and pressing the mic into the clip. The KJ brings up the screen: “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” a Sinatra arrangement.
The song begins with one of those Tin Pan Alley preludes. The accompaniment is spare but Billy’s right on it, a rich, unforced baritone, handling the high skips with ease. He’s got that Sinatran quality of convincing you that he’s just a guy in a bar, telling a story. But then the strings kick in and he’s painting a banner of coffee-colored torment; the tone rises and ebbs like a wave, falling back to the conversation.
David is not entirely surprised to find that it’s the man behind the hotel – but here he’s unrestricted, amplified, and taking full advantage. He softshoes the minor intervals of the bridge, giving it the feel of a man perched in the clouds, contemplating his life. The strings well up and he’s back on the ground, a searing double forte, leaning away from the mic so he doesn’t blow out the speakers. He cuts the sound so drastically that it sends a shock through the room; he issues the final restatement at a groomed whisper, then opts for the kind of unresolved end-note that Mel Torme favored, spelling it out till it dissolves in the air. The quiet hangs thick, till it’s cut through with applause.
David finds Abbey grinning at him.
“You’re like a hawk studying a mouse.”
“He’s awesome. Does he need work?”
“Honey, I got nothin’. And that is so much more than nothin’.”
“Okay. Um, listen. I better go get him. He disappears pretty quickly. So I’ll see you at school.”
“Shouldn’t I meet him?”
“Look. I won’t B.S. you. Billy’s a little… okay, a lot weird. He doesn’t respond well to direct approaches.”
“Like a feral cat.”
“Exactly. And you probably won’t get him for a rehearsal, either. But he’s good, and you’re desperate.”
“Marriage made in heaven.”
Abbey grabs her purse and gives David a kiss on the cheek. “Bye, hon.” Then she looks around at the crowded bar. “Whoops!”
A man in a black cowboy hat gets up to sing “Walking in Memphis.” David takes it as a sign, downs his last swallow and starts for home. He sees his jacket in the window – black with a yellow collar. Like a swallowtail butterfly.
David is weary from the grind of marking final papers, and oppressed by the weather, which has returned to its winter grays. These are the days that he thinks of Larry – how cheated he feels, having to deal with a world that does not contain him and his reassuring wit. He decides to run by the ice cream shop, where Elena is closing.
“Hello, darling one.”
“Hi,” she says, and returns to her mopping.
“Pretty slow. No surprises.”
“Well. We can certainly count on things picking up.”
“Yes. That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Afraid of? In case you weren’t aware, dear one, we’re broke. We gotta pack this place all summer just to dig ourselves out.”
Elena’s mopping grows vigorous; her ample rear-end follows the back-and-forth, lending a waddling effect to her advance. She stabs her mop into the bucket and assumes a minuteman posture.
“I want to quit.”
A connoisseur of his wife’s tonal inflections, David realizes at once that she’s not joking.
“That’s ridiculous. Tourist season is a game of rushes, honey. It’s gotta be the both of us, or the lines back up and we lose customers. And right now, we can’t lose a dollar.”
“I don’t care! I need to get away from here.”
David recalls all the times he’s bragged to friends that he has the calmest, most rational wife in creation. Which is why he feels so puzzled. And annoyed.
“I’m sorry. Are we pretending that I’ve been off on some vacation? Because if you would like to teach a bunch of hormone-riddled townie bumpkins the finer points of Manifest Destiny, please! Be my guest.”
Elena jabs a finger into his chest.
“Son of a bitch! I know your plan. You’re going to get Derek into college, and then… and then you’re going to leave with the one-armed bimbo. Because nobody wants a fat wife!”
The last two words sink into her face as if someone else had said them. She melts into sobs and runs to the back room. David finds her hunched over the sink, quaking.
“You saw the poem? And someone saw me with Abbey?”
“Y-yes. It was…”
“It doesn’t matter. Abbey’s my friend. Do not ask me to give up another friend. But she’s also Derek’s teacher. I was trying to figure out what to do about the poem.”
Elena wipes her face and stands. “Have you ever had flying dreams, David? They’re the best dreams of all. But in my dreams I fly over mountains of ice cream, and sprinkles, marshmallow cream and hot fudge. Derek’s right; I’m a monster, and I’ve done it all to myself. I don’t want you to just make love to me, I want you to want to make love to me. But I am horribly weak. I know I’m asking too much, but please get me away from this shop!”
David hugs his wife next to the dishwashing machine and makes promises, not really certain if he can keep them.
His Friday is packed with action: a teachers’ meeting, final assembly, commencement on the big field. He nearly weeps at the appearance of the valedictorian, Ekaterina Djoravic. He shan’t see the likes of her paper on Adams’ Alien and Sedition Act again. She is off to Brown, and he harbors similar wishes for his second-born. Get the hell away from here, dude. Fly.
After chats with several parents, he’s off to the hotel, his car loaded with phantoms: small Peavey amplifier, high-quality Shur microphone, a boom stand with more adjustables than a telescope. Remnants of Larry.
Abbey’s list of requirements is precise and quirky. They are not to introduce Billy, or even to acknowledge his presence. They are to play their usual set, as if no singer is expected. Billy will sing when the moment feels right – unless the moment never arrives, in which case he won’t sing.
“Jesus,” says Isaiah. “The next time we negotiate with Ralph, let’s send Abbey. She’s nuts!”
David skips his usual pretend smoke-break, opting for some shuteye in a corner booth. Hoping for a few neutral minutes, he receives visions of hell, tomorrow’s debut as sole operator of Elena’s Ice Cream Shoppe. He is much relieved when Isaiah’s playing turns classical, a Chopin prelude that serves as a cue to his bassist.
The begin with the usual kicker, “The In Crowd” by Ramsey Lewis. David slips into the groove like he’s putting on an old jacket – just the release he’s been looking for. He spots a cardinal ascending the back steps, followed by a rust-colored beard, a purple corduroy jacket – lately seen on the shoulders of Abbey Sparling – and the usual denim underbase. David feels suddenly nervous, like a man on a blind date.
Perhaps homeless people are mythic fragments, temporal personalities that only coalesce once we figure out that they can spin straw into gold. Red Man, Shadow Man, Rumpelstiltskin, the man who played right field, who sang “’Round Midnight” on the Point Brown jetty. And now that David has gained the power to see him, he’s supposed to pretend that he doesn’t. Billy perches on a stool at the far end of the bar, listening intently – waiting, apparently, for the right moment.
In order to stick to their set list, Isaiah and David have taken the unprecedented step of making one. The entries are old friends, but they couldn’t resist front-loading it with catchy swing tunes, the better to hook a reluctant crooner. “All of Me” brings None of Billy. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” gets them nowhere. “Fly Me to the Moon” is a big fat zero (is the man made of stone?). David is beginning to question the sanity of the whole arrangement (and wondering, for that matter, wherefore art Abbey) when Isaiah teases the opening of “It Had to Be You.”
The cardinal stirs. He works his way along the bar, hedges across the dance floor and arrives at Larry’s comfy corner as Isaiah nears the end of the bridge. Billy slides onto the stool, waggles his shoulders under the purple jacket, then swings the boom stand till the microphone touches his lips.
The time of pretended ignoring is over. Isaiah kicks up an eight-bar intro. He has a way with these, setups played so perfectly that Larry used to call them “breakfast in bed.” He also has an excellent cue-face, which he deploys in cases where the singer has seemingly gone comatose. In this case, it’s a moot point. Shadow Man has closed his eyes, and answers the downbeat thusly:
Beautiful note – but that’s all, one note. Fortunately, Isaiah has dealt with screwy singers before (see Larry, post-divorce) and has a Plan B at the ready. He rolls into a two-measure vamp on the home chord; Red Man can hit the onramp any time he likes. Here’s the downbeat:
The process is beginning to resemble two guys trying to start an old car on a winter morning. Five times. It occurs to both players that the new singer might be fucking with them. On go-round number six he opens his shocking blue eyes and raises a hand to conduct. His fingers rise on beats six and seven, open wide on eight and close to a fist on one. The players cut, leaving the room stunningly quiet. Billy takes it in as if he is sniffing a fine cigar, then casually approaches the mic and pulls his tune from the stillness.
“It had to be you…”
Three hours later, Abbey’s in the corner booth, chewing on shrimp cocktail, sipping champagne. The Jorgensens, as always, are dancing. The rest of the crowd – an even split of celebrating parents and early tourists – are intent on the homeless dude behind the mic, who shows no sign that he will ever issue a bad note or square phrase. He now delivers the only spoken words of his performance.
Isaiah nods and proceeds to the introduction – eery, funereal, like the prelude to a Hitchcock film. Listening to the intensity of Billy’s reading, David decides that the performance on the jetty was coincidence. He wasn’t singing it for Larry; it obviously carries a personal meaning.
Their standard approach would be a vocal all the way through the song, a piano solo following the same chord changes as the vocal, then a return to the bridge for a vocal finish. For Billy, however, once is enough. He brings the final note to a ghostly rumble, then descends from the stool, wiping a hand across his eyes. He pauses before David and places a hand over his heart, taps two fingers to the side of Isaiah’s upright and departs across the dance floor. The patrons – who have remained late in remarkable numbers – begin an applause that grows and grows. The singer steps outside, gives a tug to the brim of his cap, and descends. Isaiah keeps playing until he can pull into the station, sending a smattering of notes into the Thelonius fog.
Post-loadup, David and Isaiah are enjoying their free beers when Abbey breezes in, wearing the purple jacket.
“Hang onto that,” says Isaiah. “Music history and all.”
She sits at their table and grins like a leprechaun.
“So you liked him?”
“Well duh!” says David. “If only for that ‘Mona Lisa.’”
“For knowing the lyrics to ‘Take Five,’” says Isaiah.
“That wild scat on ‘Too Close for Comfort.’”
“Can we keep him?” says Isaiah. “Can we, huh?”
Abbey breaks up. “Boys! Boys! Yes. Billy says he had a great time. In fact, he says you are two of the best he’s ever sung with, and he’s sorry for screwing with your heads. And as long as he can stick with his quirky requirements, he’d love to come back next week.”
“Awesome!” says David.
Abbey smiles. “And now you can give me his money.”
David laughs and hands her a fold of bills. “One-armed bandit.”
Isaiah’s eyes grow wide with consternation.
“Uh-oh,” says David. “We have freaked out the piano player.”
Abbey laughs. “It’s a bit! A running joke. How do you people say it? A schtick?”
Isaiah feigns offense and points a long finger.
It was the 4th of July, and the Falter family had lost its progeny to the major urban areas: Pablo and his fellow grads to a Seattle Mariners game, Derek to a comics convention in Portland. Once they recovered from the shock of a quiet house, Mom and Dad headed to the shore.
With its drive-on beach, Ocean Shores is known as the Daytona of the Northwest. Sometimes with comic results. Just the week before, a middle-aged couple had parked their RV at shoreline, repaired to the rear for some hanky-panky, and awakened a couple hours later to find themselves surrounded by water. They managed to swim ashore, but stood there helplessly as their Winnebago floated off toward Hawaii.
The beach that day was like a shopping mall parking lot on the day after Thanksgiving. The Falters had to cruise quite a distance before finding a decent spot. They sent Derek’s dragon kite into the blue, and tied off the handle to their side view mirror. David prepped their small barbecue for a batch of razor clams dug up by their neighbors, the Fontescues. Elena assembled a teepee of aged oak and set it ablaze for a beach fire. (David found himself stealing peeks at his beloved’s rear end, which despite some recent expansion was still the finest ass in town.) Soon they were seated in beach chairs, savoring their clams and Pinot Grigio as the sun made its final descent.
Their reverie was interrupted by the approach of one of Harvey’s whiny rental mopeds. The pilot turned out to be David’s favorite rookie English teacher.
“What ho, landlubbers!” She kept a firm grip on the handles, as if she feared that the mighty beast could bolt at any second.
“Abbey!” said David. He and Elena straggled from their chairs to offer a proper greeting. “Honey, this is Abbey Sparling, the brightest new star at North Beach High, and her husband Randy, the brightest new star at Boeing Aeronautics. This is my beauty queen wife, Elena.”
“The brightest new star at Elena’s Ice Cream Shoppe,” said Elena.
David gave Abbey a hug and proceeded directly to Randy, with whom he never seemed to have enough chances to talk. He thought of Randy as the kind of individual who could change his mind about the South (an opinion soured by his master’s thesis on the history of lynching). In character, he was like a human giraffe: tall, gangly, a touch awkward. He spoke in a soft Georgia drawl delivered with a quiet gentility.
“An aeronautics engineer on the back seat? Randy!”
Randy chuckled. “I think we know who the daredevil is in this marriage.”
“How’s the commute?”
“A killer. Thank God for my four-day work week. But take a look at what I’ve got on either end. For an aviation guy – what we like to call a ‘wing nut’ – working at Boeing is like living at the Playboy Mansion. ‘Check out the fuselage on that one. And that one. And that one.’ And then, once I get home, same thing.”
He used a hand to describe the curve of his wife’s figure. “Fuselage.”
“I’ve misjudged you, Randy. You’re a dirty old man.”
“Well. I hope to be, one day. If I could just get around that Hoquiam crawl.”
“Ouch! Been there. Whatcha need is one of those flying cars from The Jetsons.”
Randy smiled, showing a hint of early-onset crow’s feet around his baby blues. “Don’t think I haven’t thought of bringing that up at a design meeting.”
“Hey, you back there on the bitch seat,” said Abbey. “You ready for launch?”
Randy laughed. “You hear the way she talks to me?”
“I think she uses the same approach with her students.”
“It’s the cute ones who get away with that shit.”
“The cute ones with fuselage.”
Abbey turned around and spoke in her best Hollywood starlet-ese. “Just remember, honey, if the ride gets bumpy, whoever’s on the bitch seat gets to grab on to… well. whatever they need to grab on to.”
“Welp!” said Randy. “Gotta go.”
Abbey revved up her puny motor and they headed north, fading into the mist and twilight. Watch out for the crazies, thought David. But he didn’t say it, because everybody knew about the crazies.
If I had asked him one more question. If they had joined us for a glass of wine.
The Falters returned to their chairs and their Grigios. The sun was melting into the marine layer like a scoop of lemon chiffon ice cream.
Elena laughed. “You’re sweet on her.”
David smiled. “Why darlin’, if I wasn’t married to the most bonita muchacha en los Estados Unidos, and if Abbey wasn’t a co-worker, and if I didn’t like her husband so much, and if she didn’t have a husband… But as you can see, that’s already a pretty long list.”
Elena ran a finger up the back of his hair, which she knew drove him crazy.
“I’ll make you forget all about Abbey Sparling.”
David smiled. “I was kinda hopin’ you would.”
Just a second. Two seconds. A longer handshake. Give Abbey another hug. Change the timing. Trajectories.
David sat at his kitchen table, staring at a stack of pancakes that would never be eaten, across from a wife who had slipped into a stupor. At the center of the table the Aberdeen Daily World, peppered with awful, awful words. Teenage driver… alcohol level…witnesses…airlift…stable but serious…vehicular manslaughter.
Through a gap in the vertical blinds, David spotted a hummingbird, its chest radiating opaline waves of red and green. He hovered there for a second, two, three, and then, struck by one of those animal signals that humans will never understand, he vanished.
David crosses the street at the Texaco station. The station is a notable site. On July 4, 2000, a local kid, Chris Kinison, spent his holiday waving a Confederate flag and threatening minorities. One of his targets was Minh Hong, a Vietnamese kid from Seattle who was so terrified by Kinison’s taunts and throat-slashing gestures that he stole two paring knives from the Texaco convenience store. When Kinison attacked Minh’s twin brother, Minh jumped in to defend him and ended up stabbing Kinison to death. Minh was tried for manslaughter, but freed when a hung jury voted 11-1 for acquittal.
Ocean Shores is 90 percent white, but racism isn’t generally an issue. The bigger danger is boredom. Kinison’s friends claimed that the flag and the racial taunts were just a ruse for picking fights, and David wouldn’t be surprised if that were at least partly true. Still, his Darwinian side finds a morbid satisfaction in the result. It’s a nice switch from the usual scenario, in which perfectly good people are wiped from the earth while the assholes, like cockroaches, live on. The loss of Randy will stick in his craw for the rest of his life.
This is not a good frame of mind, he thinks, but he supposes he might be forgiven for feeling surly. Every recently graduated teen in Washington came to the store today, and each one brought friends and family. Being a history teacher, his mind strayed often to Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull and his high school graduates were pissed off by the long wait. And, of course, determined to take their sweet time once they reached the counter. A couple of them maintained cell-phone conversations all the way through the transaction. Too many screaming children, too many shouting parents, and no time to bus tables, which piled higher and higher with sticky refuse.
At closing time, he fell prey to a joke he used to tell at parties: “I’m self-employed, but my boss is a bastard.” With a dozen people still on line at eight o’clock, he kept serving – because he also kept the books, and he knew they needed every cent. Which is why he’s walking home at eleven, past the long, dark stretches of the golf course. Feeling bitter, feeling trapped.
When he gets home, he hears the chimey, harpy soundtrack for World of Warcraft and finds Derek at the keyboard, doing battle with a beastly red-haired mountain man. He pauses the action to spoon something from a bowl.
“Oh God. Is that ice cream?”
Derek laughs and swallows. “Sorry, Dad. Long day?”
“The longest. Thanks to you and your… literary genius.”
“Really? The poem? Is that why Mom’s been home all day?”
Derek shifts quickly to defense. “But you always said, you know, the First Amendment…”
“Yes, free speech. But speech has repercussions. Didn’t you think calling your mother a whale might hurt her feelings?”
“It’s an Orca, Dad.”
“Don’t get technical on me. Dammit!” The day is grating on him, bringing him to a boil. He waves a hand, as if he’s requesting a do-over. “Yes, I know about the Orca. The dazzling black-and-white Orca. I cared enough to get an interpretation from Ab… from Ms. Sparling. But right now I’m running the damn shop by myself and your mother is depressed and I have no idea what I’m gonna do about it so thank you very much for ‘keepin’ it real.’”
Derek jumps from his chair, knocking it over. He’s trying to be demonstrative but he’s not very good at it, wagging his hand like he’s dribbling a red-hot basketball.
“You think it’s easy being this smart? I can see all this stuff about to hit this family. I see Mom ballooning up, I see this… gap between you. And… And I’ve got all these friends with divorced parents, and every single one of them is totally fucked up. I don’t want to be like that, I’m weird enough already.”
Crying male teenagers are a puzzle. Let them cry? Hug them like they’re six? David tries something new. He straightens up the chair, asks Derek to sit down and kneels next to him.
“Listen. Son. The poem is brilliant. I’m shocked that some kid with my DNA can write something like that. It’s also dead-on, and I feel like a complete chickenshit for not telling your mother that she’s got a problem. If anything, for the sake of her health. But you have this habit of being right all the time, and as you have probably figured out, people find that to be irritating. Pick your spots, be gentle with us. You are surrounded by a world of fuckups.”
Derek produces a chuckle – a good sign. David continues.
“The other thing is, I think you underestimate how much I love your mother, and how much she loves me. That thing about ‘Til death do us part’? It might sound outlandish, but I actually meant that. And I’m not going to let a little blubber get in the way.”
“A lot of blubber.”
“Yes. Your mother’s an Orca. And what else do they call Orcas?”
“Yes. Sharp teeth. An appetite for seals and second-born children.”
Derek laughs; the tears have dried up. “Is there… Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Sure. Drop in tomorrow about five. Bus a few tables. Watch the register, so I can take a pee break.”
“What you really need is a professional.”
The voice is baritone. The speaker is a big-nosed blond kid who appears to have shaved and put on some clean clothes.
David smiles. “You are so hired.”
The trio chunks to a halt at the end of “Mack the Knife” and receives a fair-to-middling applause (the interminable overcast is not helping their attendance). Billy looks to his players for the next selection, and the bassist, the one who has a thing for Abbey, leans over to speak.
“Okay if we take a break?”
“You can join us if you like. We just hang out in the parking lot.”
“Nah, that’s okay. Fifteen?”
Billy watches the two of them leave through the restaurant, then he heads for the back stairs. He knows if he hangs out in the bar he’ll be inviting questions. And questions are the enemy.
Isaiah throws back a mini-bottle of whiskey. “You realize we’re taking a chance. He might not come back.”
David laughs and sips at his gin. “I wasn’t gonna make it without a break.”
“Being attacked by roving gangs of ice cream tweakers?”
“Not while Pablo’s on the job.”
“Pablo! Back from the dead.”
“That kid is amazing. He could probably run the place by himself. I’m only paying him minimum. He says he doesn’t care. Parthenia says it’s time to get back on the horse.”
“I told you. Parthenia is a wizard.”
“Yes. I’ve heard that about fifty-three times now. But my God, what did I ever do to deserve such a great kid?”
“Did you change his diapers?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
He holds his nose. “Yes.”
Isaiah cracks open another whiskey. “You ever walk Point Damon?”
“All the time. The ocean side.”
“Oh yeah. I was down there yesterday, way at the end, where the water sort of circles around the point.”
“I love that.”
“And I saw this sort of teepee made out of driftwood. Looked like one of those barricades from Les Miserables. And there was smoke coming out of it! So I walked over to check it out, and I swear there was a pot dangling over a fire – like something from Grimms’ Fairy Tales. It smelled like chicken curry soup. Delicious!”
“You tasted it?”
“The smell. What’m I, a hobo?”
“I was about to leave when I saw a flash of red. There was a small limb extending inward from the wall, and dangling from said limb was, get this: a scarlet Bavarian cap.”
David recalls the naked guy bathing in the harbor, and decides that this is not necessarily a detail to be shared.
“You suppose he lives out there?”
“God, I hope not. I wouldn’t be surprised if that spot pretty much disappears during big storms.”
David starts laughing. “Have you seen those sweatshirts at Sandbar Gifts? The front says In case of Tsunami…”
“And the back says Run Like Hell! Yep, when you live at twenty inches above sea level… ” Isaiah takes a last swallow and chucks his bottle into the truck-bed.
“Well,” says David. “The first thing we can do is go in there and get our beach bum a gig fee.”
He finishes his gin and chucks his bottle in the same spot. As he walks around the truck he sees that the bed now holds some fifty tiny bottles.
“My God, Isaiah. It’s like a leprechaun frat party back there.”
Billy’s looking for a good signoff. ’Round Midnight is too obvious. But it’s getting near one and and his giant piano player is giving him that look. He leans away from the mic and says, “‘Goodbye’?”
The giant thinks about it. “Gordon Jenkins?”
He wants to say how impressed he is – is there anything these guys don’t know? – but he fights the urge. Just being here is pushing his luck. But the singing is like heroin – Abbey was right – and the sinewy, smoky torment of something like “Goodbye” is freakin’ paradise. He savors the end of Isaiah’s back-alley intro, dangles on the downbeat for an eyeblink, and enters.
David is expecting another end-of-song sneakoff, and finds Isaiah, as usual, reading his mind. He ends the song along with Billy; David lets his final note buzz along for a while before damping the strings. He sees that their front man is not yet across the dance floor, so he leans over to the microphone and says, “Billy Redman, ladies and gentlemen!”
The late-nighters respond with a warm applause. Abbey adds a look of consternation. But not Billy, who tips his scarlet cap and heads for the exit. Abbey heads out after him.
She returns a few minutes later and directs a district-attorney stare at David.
“Sort of a… nickname.”
Isaiah draws up a stool. “He’s not upset, is he?”
Her expression softens. “No. In fact, he wants you to use it from now on.”
David takes a quaff from his lager. “You’re lucky I didn’t say Rumpelstiltskin.”
“Hey Rog,” says Isaiah. “A drink for Billy’s agent.”
“Vodka gimlet,” says Abbey.
When Isaiah goes for his wallet, Rog waves him off. “If you’re the one who brought us the singer, you get all the free drinks you want.”
Abbey smiles sweetly. “Thank you.”
“That guy is amazing,” says Roger. “Where’d you find him?”
Isaiah and David turn as one. “Yes,” says David. “Tell us, Abbey.”
Abbey laughs. “Flat tire. Quinault Casino. I have to admit, he scared me at first. But it’s pretty obvious how harmless he is. As he was doing the lug nuts, he was humming ‘Moon River,’ and I mentioned my karaoke bar. Imagine my shock when he actually showed up.”
“Are you aware,” says Isaiah, “that he’s living on Point Damon?”
“Well. Yes. He’s strangely attached to that place. It’s like he wants to be first off the continent when the shit goes down. But I outfitted my tool shed with an old sofa and a space heater, and have been much relieved to find signs of use. And I’m not telling you one thing more, because there are reasons that someone becomes homeless, and if you want to keep your new singer, those reasons need to remain private.”
“Hey,” says David. “I’m surprised you told us this much.”
Isaiah laughs. “Blabbermouth.”
Abbey sets her drink on the bar and delivers a smart punch to Isaiah’s shoulder.
David laughs. “Did I mention I’m Abbey’s weightlifting coach?”
Isaiah rubs the spot. “Yeah. Thanks.”
Roger looks up from his dishwashing. “Hey, Isaiah. Ralph says he’ll throw in an extra hundred if you can find a drummer for the Fourth. Maybe throw in a little rock ‘n’ roll for the dancers.”
“Jesus!” says Isaiah. “How many miracles are we supposed to pull off this month?”
Abbey snickers into her gimlet. “Okay. There’s one more thing I can tell you about Billy.”
David’s on his duneside ledge, watching the sun melt through the marine layer like lemon sorbet. Up in the lounge, Isaiah breaks out a stride rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee.” David is halfway through a clove cigarette and actually enjoying it. Word among the kids is that cloves are the purview of effete intellectuals. He can hang with that.
It’s an absolutely perfect Fourth of July. Hot, with a slight breeze and a spotless blue sky. Ice cream sales were through the roof, David and Derek scooping the good stuff while Pablo worked the crowd from his cash register. Pablo is still there, running down the chores on his closing list as he serves the late customers. David realizes that this will place Pablo in a too-familiar scenario – alone, late at night, counting large quantities of cash – but perhaps this will fit with Parthenia’s plan.
His wife is a phantom. She has taken her shame into the evenings: support groups, exercise classes, and the same nighttime constitutionals that once belonged to him. His move to the guest room was predicated on the difference in their sleeping schedules, but is, in fact, a way to banish the question of sex to a day when both of them feel more comfortable with Elena’s body. Perhaps Derek will write a poem about it.
It appears to be Billy, who has arrived by way of the beach. Perhaps he followed the sand all the way from Point Damon. But why would Billy be addressing him so directly?
“Got the drums okay?”
David smiles. “Courtesy of the North Beach music department. If this thing becomes popular, we have until September to assemble our own kit.”
“Right side, as you asked. I am betting that you do most of your brushwork on ride and snare, which leaves your diaphragm open for singing.”
Billy makes a smacking sound with his lips. “You are much too smart for a bass player.”
“Thank you. I think. Are you set for brushes and sticks? The ones I got are a little beat up.”
Billy pulls a leather pouch from his shoulder and reveals the contents: a pair each of retractable brushes, thin jazz sticks, padded mallets and half-volume “power sticks,” bundles of dowel rods wrapped in rings of tape.
Having extracted sixteen words from the man, David feels nervous – as if twenty will initiate some subatomic event. Ravel’s Bolero drifts from the room upstairs, followed by a burst of green fireworks from the beach.
“Whoops! There’s my call. We’re opening with Ramsey Lewis, if you’d like to join us.”
The rusty beard sprouts a smile. “’Tis a foolish drummer who would pass on ‘The In Crowd.’”
Twenty-seven words. And yet, life continues.
David’s guess about Billy’s drumming is dead-on. He uses the brushes to slap eighths on the ride, strikes the one and three on the snare, and places the rest of his focus on the singing. Once they venture into the solos, he throws in fills, crashes, off-beats. But even at minimum force, the drums add a great deal to the sound. Mostly, thinks David, they sound more like a jazz band. Slower tunes bring the crackling soup-stir of brushes on snare. “Fever” comes with its familiar jungle rolls. A stick on the rim supplies the cha-cha claves of “Girl from Ipanema.”
The big test is “Take Five.” With the bass and piano carrying the 5/4 pattern, the drummer’s job is a bit of a puzzle. Billy’s answer: whatever he wants. Using the power sticks, he variously matches the piano groove, strikes the downbeat alone, or sits back and sends out little rolls and crashes wherever he pleases. The surprise comes at the end of David’s bass solo, when Billy points the sticks at himself. The solo that follows is an expansion of the random approach: long fills and combinations tossed into the stew at a whim, as well as sudden suspenseful pauses.
After a long train of cymbal crashes, sealed by a roll on the snare, Billy takes a mischievous look around and nods them back to the start. Expecting lyrics, they get a scat, a replica of Paul Desmond’s famed sax line on syllables capped with b’s and d’s. They end with a chaotic rumble, inspiring a raucous response from what is now a packed lounge.
The time is right for a dance party, so David pulls out his surprise: a white Stratocaster, relic of an old blues band. Their strategy is to attack the new rock repertoire with rhythm guitar, while Isaiah fills in the bass part with his right hand. They’re praying that their singer got the set list from Abbey.
Billy switches to solid sticks and they roll through “Move It On Over,” “Hey Bartender,” “Boom Boom” and “Mustang Sally,” stretching each song with David’s chordal solos and Isaiah’s usual brilliance. When he’s not freaking out over his rusty rhythm skills and a repertoire that may not last the night, David looks out over a field of oscillating limbs and butts and begins to really enjoy himself. It’s a sensation he has almost forgotten.
The music doesn’t run out till 1:45, but their tireless tribe is demanding another song before the 2 o’clock closing. Billy utters the phrase “What’d I Say” and Isaiah is off on the intro. David feels majorly lost, but he reads the chords from Isaiah’s handiwork and sends out some funky shots. Billy makes up some new verses, and they keep going until their dancers begin to resemble marathoners at the end of the race. Billy plays a long fill that is clearly headed for an ending, and his cohorts follow him into a final resounding crash. He stands from the drums to confer with his bandmates.
“Isaiah – give me a long intro for ‘Georgia.’ I’ll make a few announcements while Davey gets his bass.”
David switches instruments as Isaiah draws out broad gospelly chords and Billy delivers a patter worthy of a pitchman.
“We want to thank you for making our Independence Day one big slice of Disneyland, and we invite you to drop back in any old Friday night, because we will be here. Please, if you will, produce a few hand-generated percussives for my brilliant piano man, Isaiah Silverstein!” Applause, applause. “And also for our master of all things with strings, David Falter!” Applause, applause. “I am your humble skin-beater and vocalist, Billy Redman, and I would like to sing this last song for Abbey.”
“Georgia On My Mind” was never Larry’s best. His natural style was so smooth that any attempt to sound like Ray Charles came out as a cartoon. Billy’s voice is just as rich and resonant as Larry’s, but he’s also able to produce a rough New Orleans edge, a little bit of Harry Connick, Jr. As David plays along, he’s guessing at a little South in Billy’s personal geography, and is amazed at the intensity of emotion he’s able to invest in these quiet lines, as if he is relating a series of tragic events from his own life. At the end of the bridge, it finally clicks in. He looks toward Abbey’s booth to find her staring straight ahead, her eyes streaming with tears.
Billy finishes the vocal, stands from the drums and gives his players a rolling hand gesture. Keep going. He walks to Abbey’s booth and extends a hand. She rises to dance with him in the aisle. Sprays of white and blue fireworks fill the windows. Abbey rests her head on Billy’s shoulder and keeps crying. Billy sways her slowly and strokes her hair. David recognizes the motion: it’s just the way he would console one of his boys, when they were little.
Abbey Sparling. Mrs. Abbey Sparling. Professor Sparling.
Abbey sat on a sofa in the women’s room, a refugee from her own reception, running her new name through her head like a starry-eyed teenager. Anyone in the university chapel would have predicted the bride as a party girl, the groom as a shellbound turtle. But Randy was upstairs, regaling the hoi polloi with amusing stories from their courtship, while Abbey was absolutely burnt out, praying that the women in the party had strong bladders. They had warned her about this – the blurring time warps of wedding day, the frustration of twenty-second conversations constantly interrupted by twenty-second conversations. None of which went anywhere. To a recent recipient of a Masters in Literature (with a thesis about Whitman’s influence on the development of American free-verse poetry), this was maddening! Uh-oh. Ten minutes. Better get back before they begin the annulment. She took a look at herself in the mirror – still shocked to find herself in a wedding dress – and set out for the hallway. Standing in the lobby was Billy, dressed in white tux and tails like an envoy from a Busby Berkeley musical. She raced his way; he lifted her into the air, as he had since she was a toddler. At the apex of her flight, she planted a kiss on his cheek, and he set her back down.
“I hope that isn’t too hard on your back yet, ‘cause it sure is fun.”
Billy unleashed his ringing, high-pitched laugh. “Just don’t gain any weight, or I’ll have to pass those duties on to your husband.”
“I’ll consider that an incentive. Oh, Billy. Thank you for the songs. I knew you would come up with something brilliant.”
“When the bride and groom hail from Chicago and Georgia, the choices are fairly obvious.”
“You made me cry, too. You jerk.”
“I hope to God you were cryin’ about Georgia.”
That sent them into a good laugh, followed by an awkward silence. Abbey could guess the cause. She and Randy were moving to Seattle, which meant she and Billy wouldn’t be seeing each other for a while. Maybe Thanksgiving. Maybe Christmas. Every other year. When Billy looked at her again, those intense blue eyes were misting over.
“Honey. You are, without a doubt, the most beautiful bride I have ever seen.”
Abbey wrapped her arms around his neck and held on for a long time.
“You think they know ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’?”
Billy snickered. “They want to stay in business, they better.”
She took his hand and they started up the broad staircase. She felt like an animated Disney princess.
“Oh!” said Billy. “I forgot to tell you my news. Frankie won the ticket lottery. I’m going to the playoffs!”
Abbey stopped and gave him an excited grin. “The Blues?”
“Game Six. I tell ya, honey. You gettin’ married and all – this is the year. I can feel it!”
Knowing the travails of Memphis baseball fans, Abbey thought it best to smile and say nothing.
David is reading Stephen Ambrose’s account of Lewis and Clark and is fascinated, as always, by the way the two had to bribe their way across the continent, ingratiating themselves with the Indians by giving them beads, tools, tobacco and whiskey. Today he walks the ocean side of Point Damon with his own offering: an ice-filled Zip-Lock bag holding two beers, tucked into his backpack. He learned this trick from Elena’s cousin Esteban, who works a vineyard in California.
The day is 50/50 clouds and sun, with a brisk wind and impressive waves that curl up like a fist and smack the sand. He keeps a weather eye; he has heard too many stories about “sneaker waves.” Lately, his life is nothing but sneaker waves, and that’s why he’s here. Perhaps this is endemic to those who forgo human contact and speak little, but David is convinced that Billy has some sort of answer for him.
The driftwood teepee is there, along with the customary plume of smoke. David keeps to the shore, taking in the carousel, which today is pulling along like an express train. There has got to be a way, thinks David, that an extreme sports athlete could take advantage of a circular current.
He makes a point of whistling “Take Five” as he approaches, to avoid causing an alarm. Billy is perched on a log next to the fire, reading a tattered book; he looks up as if he’s been expecting him.
“You didn’t bring your bass?”
Already feeling like a trespasser, David does not immediately recognize this as a joke. He recovers quickly.
“Couldn’t find a long-enough extension cord.”
Billy chuckles and sets down the book. “Pull up a crate.”
David squats on a red milk crate, sets down his pack and liberates the Zip-Lock. Billy’s eyes perk up.
“Are those what I think they are?”
“They are.” He undoes the seal and hands him a Tecate. Billy pops the top, takes a swallow and looks like he’s about to cry.
“Have I told you lately that I love you?”
“I sometimes talk in song titles. So. I imagine you have brought me a question.”
“I don’t give answers much, so naturally people ask me questions. Also, you’re a history teacher – and boy do I have a history. Not that I will tell you the least bit of it.”
“So I surmised. Tell you what. Give me some of that soup, and I will talk completely about myself.”
“You realize you’re taking your life into your hands. A homeless person does not have the best access to fresh ingredients.”
“But isn’t that why one makes a soup? To boil away the nasties?”
“Touché.” He fills a tin cup and hands it to David. The concoction is just as delicious as it smells, and coats his mouth with a spicy warmth.
“Now that could get you through an Ocean Shores winter.”
“Abbey found a ridiculously good deal on curry and gave me half a shitload. I may have to convert to Hindu. You know, I used to get some ingredients from your son.”
“One of the few who didn’t shoo me away. In fact, he began making me a special bag of leftover food and leaving it next to the back door. Sweet kid. Sorry about the holdup.”
David takes another swallow and lets it soak in. “That was a trauma.”
“You’ve had quite a summer. Losing your friend, Derek’s poem… Well. I apologize for knowing so much, but I’m sure you know where I’m getting my info.”
“She’s very fond of you. She says she couldn’t have made it without you.”
They fall silent. Billy adds a piece of kindling to the fire, then slaps his knees.
“So! What’s the question?”
“Well, you’ve got the first part – this continual shitslide beginning with Larry. But now I find that various superheroes – my eldest son, my new singer, Parthenia – have swooped in and spun it all into gold. So what’s my problem? I should be having one hell of a time!”
Billy cannot resist the obvious move of rubbing his beard. He drinks the last of his beer and lets out a contented sigh.
“Tell me two times, this month, when you were one hundred percent happy.”
“Okay. When the three of us were playing for that packed floor of dancers. And… last Sunday, when Pablo and I were up against a tremendous rush.”
“What do the two have in common?”
“Let’s see. Large crowds. A bit of fear. Um… focus. Full occupation.”
“Lack of thought?”
“No. Lots of thought.”
“But not worry-thought.”
“Being in the moment?”
Billy laughs. “I’m sorry. You’re right, of course. But God we have slaughtered that phrase, right along with words like ‘spirituality’ and ‘patriot.’ Absolutely devoid of meaning. However! Here’s the question: if full and focused occupation is the medicine that’s working for you, where do you think is another place that you could get some of that?”
David gives it a full effort but finds himself stumped.
“I got nothin’.”
Billy produces the small miracle of a grin and holds up two fingers.
“Two words. Soft. Ball.”
It just so happens that the signup deadline for the August/September league is two days later. Billy’s ulteriors could not be more obvious: having gotten his music back, he now wants his softball back. The wholly unexpected development is the interest of David’s sons. Pablo was headed for the junior varsity until he discovered girls and pizza (or, as he likes to put it, “tail and retail”). David has pegged him for left field, which would go a long way toward patching the hole in his father’s heart. Derek’s experience is limited to his career as a bookmaker, but David is not about to ask questions. Besides, he’s an excellent scorekeeper.
The men of the house are gathered at the kitchen table, wolfing down toaster waffles, when Elena enters, wrapped in a navy blue robe.
“You’ve all taken newspaper routes? How sweet!”
“We are baseball men!” Pablo barks. “We wake up early and grunt and sweat and knock the stuffing out of spherical objects. Arrgh!”
“The team’s back? Fantastic!”
“Billy’s idea,” says David.
Elena clucks her tongue. “My family is run by a homeless jazz singer.”
“He’s our mystery man,” says Derek. “Our Shoeless Joe Jackson.”
“And until recently,” adds Pablo, “he actually was shoeless.”
David stands and carries his dishes to the sink. “All right, comedians. Let’s roll.”
The two of them conduct an orange-juice chug, then grab their equipment bags and head for the garage.
Elena waits till the door clicks and says, “Derek?”
“I have no idea,” says David.
Elena gives him a kiss and pats him on the butt. He’s not sure, but she might be flirting.
“I’ll try to keep them from breaking any bones.”
“You just do that.”
He enters the garage with a head full of questions. It’s been a month; she has lost not an ounce. But she seems happy, so he is not about to mess with it. It’s just like Billy said: he needs to get to a place where his only job is to loft a ball toward home plate. He enters the truck to a familiar debate: Pablo asserts that any sudden improvement in a big-leaguer’s performance indicates steroid use, whereas Derek’s flair for jurisprudence demands concrete, proveable evidence.
Given that normal people work on Tuesday mornings, their practice roster is limited. The only regulars are Merzy, who works nighttime security at the casino, and Oscar, who cashed in on an early retirement at Microsoft. The situation has “batting practice” written all over it. Pablo goes first, conducting savage attacks on David’s pitches, all with the same result: long, soaring flies along the left-field line, half of them foul. Billy joins Merzy in center, while Derek runs himself ragged.
A few pitches later, Billy jogs toward the infield. The historian/detective notes the half-and-half of Billy’s outfit, brand-new Cardinals cap and jersey matched with worn cleats and grass-stained pants.
“Can you call time in a batting practice?”
“Like to have a word with your eldest,” says Billy, and proceeds to the batter’s box.
“Greetings, young Falter,” he says, and offers the trendy knuckle-bump. “I’d like to propose an idea, one which may save you a lot of trouble. In ancient days, I came to my first slow-pitch team with great ambition and a swing just like yours. Problem is, suddenly the ball is floating in like a free steak dinner and that baseball swing will only get you long, impressive outs to left. I hit .250 that season. I want you and those youthful legs to be on base much more often.
“So here’s the idea. I want you to wait for a pitch on the outside corner and drive it to right. This will force you to hold back for a split second longer, will keep your shoulders and hips from flying out, will keep your eyes focused on the ball, and will help you to hit line drives instead of fly balls. Tell you what: just try it out for today, for the rest of your at-bat, and see what you think.”
David watches the weather fronts drifting over Pablo’s face: initial annoyance (who is this guy?) followed by increasing levels of interest and acceptance. The capper is Billy’s final note: it’s perfectly optional.
Billy returns to right, David targets his pitches for the outside corner, and Pablo produces five garbage swings: a weak fly to Oscar at second, two pathetic grounders, a foul ball and one complete miss. But number six is a low drive down the line, and seven is a hard grounder up the middle. And so it continues, as Billy greets each success with cries of “Yes!” and “Awesome!”
David is paying equal attention to Derek, who was actually doing a pretty good job tracking Pablo’s deep drives. His style falls into a distinct type: a fielder who looks extremely shaky but who manages nonetheless to catch most everything hit his way. (One of these cases, in fact, was his late friend, whose early nickname was “Scary Larry.”)
With a bat, Derek is as raw as a plate of sushi. He’s got a solid approach – even stance, bat cocked over his shoulder – and he makes consistent contact, but the results are profoundly mediocre: weak rollers, pop-ups to the pitcher, foul balls. Still, he seems happy, so David keeps pitching. Oscar keeps gathering the refuse, and the outfielders stay in their spots, since crowding the infield would be insulting.
Days later, on his first attendance at the mini-bottle break, Billy is asked why he offered advice to Pablo but not Derek.
“A good coach sticks to adjustments. Derek has nothing to adjust; he hasn’t developed a batting style. Screwing with a swing this early in the process just ruins it. Hey, and don’t think he can’t become a good player. One of the best teammates I ever had started playing at age forty.”
And who was this forty-year-old? thinks David. And where did this team play? Writing the Billy Redman biography was going to be a long process.
David is a connoisseur of softball fundamentals, and finds watching Billy play to be extremely entertaining. In the second inning, he strokes a single to right center and runs to first, rounding the bag. When the outfielder bobbles the ball, he sprints for second. Even though he’s far ahead of the throw, he performs a pop-up slide, as smooth as icing on a cake. In a sport where most players would rather eat glass than slide, Billy does it because it’s the best way to stop.
The next batter walks; the batter after that hits a grounder to the pitcher. The pitcher throws to third, and Billy does something that David has never seen: he performs a takeout slide – nothing dirty, just hard and through the bag – to make sure the third baseman can’t throw to first for the double play.
He also notes the effect that Billy is having on Pablo. On a grounder through the infield, with no one else on base, Billy drops to a knee to field the ball. An inning later, Pablo does the same in left. On a base hit toward the line, Billy fields the ball and fires it to second, even though the runner shows no intention of going for the extra base. It’s what you might call a demonstration throw, and the message is clear: I’m going to do that all night, so don’t even try it. Pablo performs the same quick throw on his next four chances.
David’s team has found a sparkplug. Larry was a sparkplug, too, but a different kind: a talker, encouraging, prodding, slapping backs. Billy doesn’t talk much, but his play is so sharp it’s impossible to ignore. The balls come off of his bat low, hard and to the right; the results are so impressive that even the sloppiest of David’s batters are swinging for liners and grounders. David has to smile, recalling the uncountable times he has shouted the words “low and hard!” to little effect.
The new approach has his team keeping up with last season’s champs. Come the bottom of the seventh they’re tied up, one out with the bases loaded and Billy at the plate. He waits out a ball and a strike, then lifts a lazy fly to center. David tags at third and scores the winning run.
Naturally, the student is not about to let the teacher off the hook.
“Hey! What’s with that weak-ass fly ball?”
Billy laughs and gives Pablo a knuckle-bump. “Okay, tell me this: what’s the worst ball you could hit in that situation?”
Pablo gives it a thought. “Grounder to the pitcher, to home, to first. Double play.”
“Yes. And several other double-play combinations, all of which take place in the infield. So if you have a flyball swing in your arsenal – and I do – why not avoid the whole issue?”
“So what you’re also saying,” says Pablo, “is that my left-field flyball swing might actually come in handy.”
Billy stops and smiles. “Okay, you got me. From now on, three left-field bombs per batting practice.”
“That’s all I wanted to hear,” says Pablo.
The traditional early-August rainstorm has killed business at the hotel, leading Roger to let the musicians off early. They all stick around regardless, David and Isaiah at the bar, Billy and Abbey in their regular booth.
“How come you never played ball?” asks David. “You’d…”
“Make a great first baseman. No. I would make a huge target – a target that could more readily translate ancient Sufi texts than catch a thrown object. Besides, I wouldn’t want to imperil these golden fingers.”
“So how are the boys doing?”
“I think Derek gets the deal. He’s still got to work a little before I can put him in there. But he seems perfectly happy to hang out, and he keeps a beautiful scorebook. He’s also going to give us a weekly printout of our stats. Players love that shit.”
“Especially when they’re playing well.”
“Yep. As for Pablo – The Natural, as we call him – that’s a little trickier. He asked me why he was batting tenth, and I told him flat-out, politics. Some of these guys have been on the team five years, and they’re very comfortable in their spots. Batting my own son tenth is a good way to show respect for the veterans and simultaneously put those speedy legs right before the leadoff hitter.
“The scary thing is, that leaves me chasing my own son around the bases, and he is definitely pulling away.”
“Hey, most men your age are playing shuffleboard.”
“Thanks a lot.” He touches his longneck to Isaiah’s, a toast to all things good. “So. Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”
Isaiah grins. “I have begun to suspect that Billy’s ancestors were slaveholders, and that one o’ them Scarlett O’Haras had a taste for dark meat.”
“Shocking! Would explain a lot, though. He ain’t Satchmo, but he certainly captures it.”
A burst of sound rises from the back booth. Billy is painting the room with his high laugh, as Abbey covers her mouth, scandalized by some joke.
Isaiah smiles. “You have transformed that man.”
“And vice-versa. My sons worship him.”
“So what’s this thing with Abbey?”
“Ya got me. It’s not a May-December thing, but it’s not a just-friends thing. Something deeper.”
“Maybe he gave her a mission when she was tired of being the patient. Didn’t he show up right after the accident?”
“Yeah,” says David. “Maybe.”